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Contemplating the Spencer Finch installation at the RISD museum

There is a long history in the modernist tradition of assuming the beautiful must be a lie and that ugliness must be evidence of truth. One can understand the origin of this idea in a reaction against ossified academic standards, and simultaneously a revulsion against the hypocrisy of society. The modern world has seen more systematic moral dishonesty than any previous age, from Victorian moralism to political propaganda of all sorts and the manipulations of contemporary commercial culture.

But it is nonetheless a fallacy, like the mistaken assumption that cynicism is more likely to be correct than good faith. We have to reflect that if optimism can sometimes be stupidity, pessimism can often be cowardice. Hope and aspiration, even idealism, can be powerful forces for understanding the world; beauty, when real and not illusory, can be the deepest manifestation of the real. Truth, above all, is profoundly complex, and is never found in the self-indulgence of nihilism.

–Christopher Allen, from a review of artist Berlinde de Bruyckere

This quote came to me by way of one of my most treasured “we met online” friends, Miriam Louisa Simons. A woman of many parts, she is, among other identities, an artist, writer, mystic, visionary, teacher and friend now living in Australia.

She has aggregated an effulgence of insights and advocacy for nondual awareness. Explore that world at any of these Simons-created wisdom depots:

the awakened eye

the awakened eye blog

wonderingmind studio

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At an outdoor temporary pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture are fellow architects Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Eric Owen Moss and Greg Lynn, where Moss is director. (Rafael Sampaio Rocha / September 26, 2010)

I have had Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship (Yael Reisner and Fleur Watson) on my desk for weeks now but have not been able to give it my full attention just yet. The distractions have not been minimal, from four weddings in five weeks—these have been those full immersion, all weekend long destination nuptials—to a full allocation of my reading quotient spent finishing Franzen’s Freedom (And a worthy distraction it was. A few previous posts about the book can be read here and here.)

But Reisner (married to architect Peter Cook) is keeping the topic in the ideasphere. A recent panel discussion staged in Los Angeles featured Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn.

From a review of the evening written by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times:

In the end, if the panelists didn’t exactly embrace the topic at hand — and if the uneven discussion that resulted was, itself, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a surprise. The group of architects Reisner asked to take part, representative of the larger group she features in the book, have always eyed beauty with wariness, if not outright hostility. There were times during the panel when it seemed the huge, standing-room-only crowd had gathered to listen to a bunch of Hatfields discuss the McCoys.

Gehry, after all, found his early breakthroughs in the 1980s by mining the less-than-gorgeous urban landscape of Los Angeles, incorporating chain link and corrugated metal into off-kilter, deceptively ad-hoc buildings. Mayne’s most powerful work is similarly interested in subverting and breaking apart conventional ideas about symmetry and prettiness. Moss once told me that the worst insult one L.A. architect could give another, when he was starting out three decades ago, was to call his or her work “beautiful.” Something closer to ugliness or toughness was the goal, or at least architecture unconventional enough to reliably rattle bourgeois sensibilities.

That attitude still holds sway, despite the fact that the architecture world — not to mention the world at large — has changed radically since the emergence of Mayne, Moss, Gehry and other members of the L.A. School in the 1970s and ’80s. Nearly two decades after the art world went through a difficult but cathartic debate on beauty, architects — or at least these architects — continue to find the subject remarkably nervous-making.

Hawthorne goes on to get a few digs in about what was probably a bit of an awkward gathering. He reports that Moss held his head in his hands for most the discussion and then offered his view that he didn’t think talking about beauty was “useful” any more. Gehry is reported to have advised not to consider outside judgments regarding which buildings qualify as beautiful or which architects were important. “You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps. And if you keep doing that, maybe you find your own sort of Zen self. And that’s probably a great place to be as human beings.” Mayne is quoted as saying that issues of globalization, the Internet and instantly changing fashions have made it was impossible to determine a single standard for beauty. “Whose beauty are we talking about?” he asked.

A new generation of artists ARE interested in beauty, and Hawthorne points to the recently opened Architecture Biennale in Venice. Curated by Kazuyo Sejima, beauty is brought back, front and center. the exhibit features unabashedly beautiful projects by Madrid’s Andres Jaque, the Indian firm Studio Mumbai and the young Tokyo architect Junya Ishigami, among others.

I particularly liked Hawthorne’s closing point:

The panel wrapped up before the group had a chance to explore in any depth what ought to have been the focus from the start: Why certain architects continue to see pursuing, confronting or embracing beauty as something to be embarrassed or even ashamed about, or something that diminishes the seriousness of their work, all these years after that notion emerged. When I spoke with Gehry by phone this week, though, he offered a pretty good explanation.

“When you go directly after beauty, it’s like you’re competing with God,” he told me. “If you go after other things, you’re only competing with Borromini and Bernini. That’s still tough, but it’s not impossible.”

Another book that sounds like it is right in my sweet spot: Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship, by Yael Reisner. Ah, beauty… It continues to be an issue of dispute in every contemporary métier—visual art, music, literature. This topic continues to engage, divide, provoke, perplex.

I know a bit about the constituencies on this topic within fine arts, but I appreciated finding an article by Jay Merrick in The Independent that drew the architectural battle lines. Given my current interest in the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, I was not surprised to see his name show up in Merrick’s lay of the land:

The troubled relationship between architecture and beauty is being re-exposed at just the right moment. For at least a decade, the life has been squeezed out of potentially fine architecture by developers or clients who talk the enlightened talk, but walk the value-engineered walk. But are buildings like Will Alsop’s the Public in West Bromwich beautiful or ugly? Is there anything about the architecture of Thom Mayne or Hernan Alonso Diaz that even triggers the idea of beauty? And what about Wolf Prix’s extraordinary BMW Welt building – is it a nightmare, or pure heaven?

Let’s set the scene. In the blue corner, the visionary American architect, Lebbeus Woods, who says that aesthetics is rarely discussed in schools of architecture because “it’s still a legacy of the Jewish-Protestant ethic. You can take Calvinism as an extreme example, but generally all Protestant religions are very anti-visual and very anti-aesthetic”. Hence, Modernism’s purified, quasi-socialist Detroit production-line mantra, form-is-function. “Before Modernism,” adds Woods, “architects were just decorators.”

In the red corner, one of architecture’s most important historian-philosophers, Juhani Pallasmaa. He deplores current architectural cravings for “novelty based on a shallow understanding of artistic phenomena”, and delivers a crisp left uppercut to doubters by quoting the poet Joseph Brodsky: “The purpose of evolution is beauty.”

And somewhere in the middle – let’s call it the royal purple corner, though not necessarily By Appointment – are architects such as the classicist Francis Terry, who started a recent essay in The Architects’ Journal with this miserablist sentence: “Given all the terrible things about life, it is sometimes easy to hate the world.” How about: “Given all the beautiful things about life, it’s very easy to love the world”?

What a palaver. Faced with the threat of beauty, architects tend to default to particular design trenches, or utter that duplicitously exclusive word, taste. Rather than looking through cracks in their avoidance of beauty as a creative motive or perception, architects Polyfilla them with blurring obstructions; they’re shadow-boxing in a Plato’s Cave where beauty can never quite be experienced as real. Just as super-articulate philosophers are often regarded with suspicion by colleagues embalmed in infinite chains of hair-splitting, so too do most architects prefer the safety of a bunker of clichés rather than risk exposure to the languages of cultural exploration.

More on this once I’ve actually read the book (which is on its way from the UK where it costs half as much as it does in the US for some reason…)


Brooklyn Workshop Gallery: Paintings by Deborah Barlow and sculpture by Rina Peleg

Beautiful imperfection: real beauty is rooted in reality. Give up the pursuit of perfection—visual perfection can be cold and unforgiving. Things yield their value at different rates. Enjoy things that aren’t obviously beautiful, or even a little clumsy, if they engage the senses in other ways.

So says Ilse Crawford, designer and creative director who launched British Elle Decoration 20 years ago. “Engaging the senses” is more than just employing the see/touch/taste/feel/ear array of experiences. There are variations within the visual that continue to astound me as I paint, all these years later.

And yes, it is a recurring theme. I have referenced the extraordinary book, The Eyes of the Skin by architect Juhani Pallasmaa in an earlier post, but have yet to write in more detail about how powerfully this book has deepened my understanding and awareness of these issues. It is such a great title and such a great concept. That discussion is coming, I promise.

In the meantime, I loved what artist and critic Susana Jacobson wrote about my work in the show currently on exhibit at the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery. I was flattered by her words of course but also so enchanted by her suggestion of the all-seeing body, its pores employed with their own kind of seeing:

Deborah Barlow’s newest paintings are sensually generous offerings of luminous color. Like wet light tossed up and caught in acts of implication, they conjure the multiple sensations experienced when our physical boundaries are dissolved. Merging with places where nature and culture intersect, Barlow converts her powers of observation to the experience of vision as a whole body sensation, as though her pores could see.

And some good news—the show has been extended through August. Heading that way now to do a few days of gallery talks and events.

You can read another review of the show by David St. Lascaux at Interrupting Infinity.


Japanese calligraphy, beautiful in its inexplicable mystery (From the LACMA collection)

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Beauty is not a concept. …Beauty harmonizes consciousness from top to bottom. It is as organically vital as digestion. Beauty is, or ought to be, no big deal, though the lack of it is. Without regular events of beauty, we live estranged from existence, including our own.

—Peter Schjeldahl

Yesterday I had an engaging and thoughtful conversation with art impresario/gallery directory/arts and community advocate/photographer Martine Bisagni. Ever the visionary, Martine’s latest project is the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery and associated Brooklyn Workshop Gallery Foundation. More about that undertaking will be forthcoming here.

Our conversation was far ranging but of course (it seems to be my inevitable proclivity) we touched down on beauty. I’ve written about this particular portion of the art terrain many times on this blog (do a search on beauty for a long list of posts). This quote from the New Yorker‘s Schjeldahl seems like a good addition.

national-trust-debate-on-001
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Kate Moss modelling for Topshop were cited as contrasting ideals of beauty in a debate on whether or Britain has become indifferent to beauty. Photograph: Corbis/AFP

Beauty. A topic that never goes away. I’ve written about it many times on this blog, quoting from some of my favorite books in the subject. Like the other big tent concepts of Truth, Reality and God, it just keeps roping us in, generation after generation.

The latest riff on this tune is a witty piece by British art/cultural critic Stephen Bayley. I’ve posted it on Slow Painting but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to rant a bit here. While Bayley’s piece is full of that famous British irony and playful cynicism, he does touch on how the shift to a more values-based approach to life is in keeping with the turbulent “revolution” (my word–is it too soon to apply that term to what is happening right now?) we are witnessing. I’m watching and you’re watching as cultural preconceptions and attitudes fractalize and morph into completely unexpected forms. As the title to the aptly-named book Uncontrollable Beauty implies, the Big B will not be held hostage and will not go away, hard as many have tried to shut it out. Its tenacity is, well, downright inspiring.

I’ve been a big fan of Tara Donovan for several years, and I am very excited to see her new show at the ICA in Boston this week. I bought the catalog for the show in anticipation, and it is excellent–authored by Nicholas Baume, Jen Mergel and Lawrence Weschler (LW is a particular personal favorite.) The images captured in the book knock me out.

I’ve posted Sebastian Smee’s review from the Boston Globe on Slow Painting if you want to read the entire piece. Here is an excerpt from his review that touches on one of my ongoing aesthetic themes—the role of beauty and how it is played out in contemporary visual language.

More excerpts from the book will be forthcoming.

Of course, it’s nice to encounter almost any proposition about beauty these days – even one as potentially ironic as Donovan’s. Until a few years ago, beauty’s repression in contemporary art was almost absolute. No one talked about it, hardly anyone peddled in it. If they did, they did it furtively, guiltily, always making out that other things – more “important” things – were on their mind.

Beauty has enjoyed a bit of a comeback in recent years. But there has been something willed and strained about the revival. Most recent discussions of beauty are about as appealing as a laborious explanation of a bad joke.

Donovan’s unabashedly beautiful work is a step or two forward from all this. It is not only beautiful, it is relaxed about being so, leaving her scope to admit all kinds of subtleties and ironies into her fantastically simple, if labor-intensive, forms.

Maybe you are like me. Maybe you too get easily seduced by the pace and pitch of another culture. Whenever I return from being and breathing with fellow humans who don’t speak my language and are refreshingly free of the troubles that plague anyone who lives in this country right now, reentry is a slow drying out. Of course I missed my beloveds, both friends and family, but what a much needed break from an invasive, oversaturated, misaligned cultural context that feels oppressive to me. It feels like the jackhammer out your bedroom window, the one that starts at 6am and doesn’t let up all day. The one that no one asked if you minded.

I spent the last week with my daughter Kellin in Florence. She is working on her masters in art history and is currently the most single minded person of my acquaintance. Her life has been streamlined free of the time-draining distractions that certainly eat up hours of my days, like feeling obligated to read the New York Times, to answer every email and to know the standings in both baseball leagues. Climbing into her canopied life was like coming face to face with the underside of a mushroom–an intricate, fragrant, fragile complexity. It is no wonder that she hopes to spend many more years living there.


Kellin portraying Mary in a Mannerist style

Her passions are infectious, and her latest is Mannerist art. So in addition to my usual pilgrimages to see everything by Giotto and Simone Martini in both Sienna and Florence, I was given a thorough list of where to find the Pontormos, the Rossos, the Bronzinos and the Del Sartos. I’m an easy convert, but I am convinced she could win anyone over to the pleasures of these amazing artists.

We’ll be back in December when she presents the results of her research. That is just six months away, but it is a point in the future to measure my own success at simplifying, singleminding, purifying my intentions.


Via Neri, Kellin’s street


Intrepid observer, in the Pantheon


Rome on a Saturday

What a relief to spend the last few days in a country that doesn’t have a president named Bush. The cheery Cumbrian men who stopped in to repair a leak in the ceiling listened with patience while we complained about how difficult it is to be an American abroad, and then pointed out that the UK is far from trouble free. “Grass always looks greener on the other side, don’t it?”

Fair enough, but this grass feels so good to me right now. Eckhart Tolle talks about creating space around the emotions and thoughts that cause suffering. Just be an observer of them, the watcher. That, he says, is how you can quiet the mind’s incessant chatterings.

The same could be said for the larger zone of the collective consciousness. I am far enough away from my life to see it with a watcher’s eye. And in this place where the land is an open armed welcome and the frequency gentle, I have an excellent perch.

And then of course there is the sacred presence of the ancient evidence, the menhirs and standing stones and stone circles that jewel this landscape with an energy of connection and sanctuary. I feel I am being held tenderly by these 4000 year old structures, sharing an unspoken wisdom from witnessing the passage of time and thousands of human generations.

So for now, I am in a soft surrender. While my eyes and hands are still waiting for the electric current to return me to the studio and to my work, I have no master plan to pursue. The cosmic grid has so many access points, I know I’ll stumble onto one that suits me—in a field, in a meadow, on a fells, by the stream, in the hedge. I’m ready.

Like an old friend who drops in and ends up staying a few days, Seamus Heaney has been on my mind ever since I read those few lines I posted yesterday.

Here’s a short poem by him that delights, enchants, creates longing (the good kind.)

Song

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

–Seamus Heaney