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One of the most beguiling things I found while in India was palm leaf “books,” made from thin strips of dried palm leaves and threaded together to fold up accordion-style. Copies of this ancient tradition have been made into tourist souvenirs, but the early versions that we saw in museum collections are stunning. We also watched as monastery monks leafed through their own palm leaf texts while chanting.

Usually dealing with topics of a spiritual nature, these miniature commemorations pack a lot of power in the painstaking detail of the images as well as their compact and concentrated form.


Palm leaf books at Spituk Monastery in Ladakh

So it was with delight that I read Holland Cotter’s New York Times review of a small new show at the Met, “Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Such practical features — size, resilience, portability — help explain why a similar form of palm-leaf art, the illustrated book, was popular in India between the 10th and 13th centuries. And they suggest why such books and their illustrations have survived into the present, while painting in more perishable media has not.

Even these books, though, are rarities. Of the huge numbers that must have once existed, only a fraction remain…Just under three inches high, it’s packed with detail. Each figure is dressed, as if for a hot summer day, in beaded see-through attire. The disciple, her skin a mango gold, smiles up at her savior while he makes a coy gesture with his hands as if playing a game of shadow puppets for her amusement.

All the palm-leaf manuscripts we know of are religious books, transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras. A few sutras were favorites, and by far the most frequently copied one was “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita,” or “Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses.”

Said to have been written — or spoken — by the Buddha himself, it was more likely compiled over centuries. Like many texts generated by an ardently proselytizing faith, it simultaneously had its head in the clouds and was down to earth.

On the one hand, the sutra defines wisdom as a transcendent consciousness, a state of ego-erasure so profound that the reality of emptiness as the ultimate fact of life becomes clear. To reach this understanding was the goal of monastic practice. It was to gain Buddha-level knowledge, which was the knowledge you needed to gain before you could do the one thing worth doing, which was to help others in need.

Balanced against this high-minded goal was another. “Perfection of Wisdom” also implied that a smart devotee might use the sutra as a kind of existential survival kit, a magical talisman. With its help you could ward off illness, accidents and other material harm. And you could acquire things: money, a spouse, an extra cow, healthy children, and lots of them.

So palm-leaf manuscripts, like most art, had multiple uses. They circulated spiritual information. They functioned as protective charms. They served as religious offerings, gifts from which karmic returns were expected. And they became objects of worship.

Prajnaparamita was not only a form of wisdom, but also a female deity who had roots in ancient goddess worship and was identified with the Buddha’s mother. The sutra itself explains that if the Buddha is kind enough to give you a book like this, you should “revere, adore and worship it with flowers, incense, unguents, parasols, banners, bells, flags and rows of lamps all around.”

A sheet from the palm-leaf book “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita” (“Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses”), includes a tiny painting of a female disciple playing a game with a bodhisattva, a being who embodies perfect wisdom and love. The religious books, which originated in northeastern India, are transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras.


Light and Forms, by John Walker (courtesy of Nielsen Gallery)

One of Boston’s best galleries, the Nielsen Gallery on Newbury Street, recently featured a retrospective of the work of Boston painter John Walker. Born in England and now director of the graduate school of painting at Boston University, Walker is a major force field in the painting space of New England.

I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time. But this show had paintings on display that were so overwhelming I could barely keep myself upright. Every once in a while that happens, coming upon work so powerful and exquisite that it physically hurts to look at it and be with it. This intense somatic reaction sometimes knocks me out of my equilibrium for days.

Walker is a painter’s painter. His strokes are wet and lush, earthy and sensuous. Color and image are bold, risky, wild. They pulsate. His hand has mastered invitationality, the irresistible “climb in here” energy.

Boston Globe art critic Cate McQuaid began her review of the show with these words:

There’s something Shakespearean about John Walker’s paintings. His forms create a restless, driving poetry.

His paint reads as an essential force of life. Big canvases squirm with hurt and wrestle with pride. Their brooding expressionism shimmers between abstraction and representation.

Yes, yes, and more.

How refreshing to find an art “feel good” counter story in the New York Times, especially one that offers pre-coverage of the ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, “I can’t wait to hate it” Whitney Biennial. This piece made me feel hope, like someone opened a window in a stale, stuffy room with tired furniture and too many people talking loud.

The values in this article mirror many of my own. And since this point of view typically doesn’t get much air time, I am savoring this rare expression of authenticity and stand alone integrity. It also draws a sharp contrast to Terry Teachout’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about artists who lose their gifts when they get caught up in self-importance. (An excerpt of Teachout’s piece can be read on Slow Painting.)

I’d like to think that this point of view is the bellwether for a new and more meaningful set of art signifiers.

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Fritz Haeg (courtesy of New York Times)

Fritz Haeg is not the best-known artist in the Whitney Biennial, opening next month. He has not had a breakout solo show at the Zach Feuer Gallery. He is not being wooed by Larry Gagosian. His prices at auction are nonexistent.

“I don’t even sell work,” he said with a laugh.

But in an art world growing jaded with such signifiers, Mr. Haeg, an architect by training and a landscaper by nature, may end up the surprise star of the Whitney show. Among the “homes” he designed for 12 “clients” are a beaver lodge and pond for the sculpture court, an eagle’s nest over the entry and other cribs around the museum for a mud turtle, mason bees, a flying squirrel, a bobcat and other critters that once lived on the Upper East Side.

Given that Madison Avenue is one of the world’s fanciest shopping streets, you would think Mr. Haeg is casting stones. In 2005, for his first nature-ruption series, “Edible Estates,” he replanted front lawns in places from Salina, Kan., to London, with vegetable gardens.

But his work is more than simple eco-commentary. From his Los Angeles home (a vintage geodesic dome), Mr. Haeg has carved out an intriguing niche within modern architecture, performance art and eco-activism.

This is clear even with his new “Animal Estates,” as the Whitney installation is called. The beaver lodge, for one, will be stained black. “It’s going to look as if Marcel Breuer had designed a beaver lodge,” he said.

Mr. Haeg grew up northwest of Minneapolis, near St. John’s University, with its buildings that, like the Whitney, Breuer designed in the 1960s. St. John’s, a Roman Catholic university run by Benedictine monks, made an impact on the young Mr. Haeg, whose father graduated from the school. “The Abbey Church there is burned into my subconscious,” he said.

Today, even as Mr. Haeg is putting his beloved geodome on the market and deaccessioning unnecessary objects, there is one thing he is hanging onto. That is a teapot made in the late 1990s by Richard Bresnahan, who since 1980 has run the St. John’s pottery program, working only with local materials, from clays and glazes to wood for the kiln.

“It’s one of the only things I’m keeping,” he said. He bought the pot, a traditional Japanese double-gourd shape, a few years ago on a return visit with his father to the campus. “The first time I visited Bresnahan’s studio, I was blown away,” he said. “This is a part of the art world that’s really been marginalized: handcrafts and the stories of how things are made. I don’t think many artists think about where their materials come from.”

The teapot meshes not only with his ideals equating art’s ends and means, but with his retro ’60s aesthetic, a blend of pop-kitsch and eco-sincere. “It reminds me of my geodesic dome a bit, the way it’s this sphere up on three feet,” he said. “And the glaze — it’s very hippie, like it’s still forming itself. And there’s a nice conversation between the light, handmade cane handle and this big orb that’s solid and made of clay.”

And despite the exalted pedigree of the piece, he uses it all the time. “I drink a lot of tea,” he said.

Though Mr. Haeg calls himself a lapsed Catholic, the teapot reminds him of his admiration for the integrated way of life observed by the Benedictines at St. John’s: praying, teaching, farming, hiring high-modern architects.

“They really believe that everything matters,” he said. “There’s something so simple and primitive in the best possible way of what the life at St. John’s is and what the clay pot represents. It’s sort of a reminder that design isn’t just about physical acquisitiveness. It can be a means to a more fulfilled life.”

If it doesn’t make you embrace the Benedictine creed, it at least makes you think about switching to tea.

David Colman
New York Times

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I found a passage from a poem by Seamus Heaney, quite by chance. It stopped me in my tracks:

”The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.”

Just coming out of a long period of living life beneath the surface of things, those words cut through to the bone. So I went in search of the poem in its entirety. In the process of looking, I found an article about Heaney in the New York Times, written by Francis X. Clines in 1983. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and this article was full of such insightful gems that I can’t help but share a few.

Heaney is wary of the puff power of words and of the poet’s surface calling, which he senses as especially threatening in America, to offer tidy comforts. At times suspicious of the beauty of his own verse, Heaney, these days, can watch the laurels come. He fights to keep things basic, to re-mind himself of the simple wisdom of Finn MacCool, Ireland’s mythic national hero, that the best music in the world is the music of what happens. In his ”Elegy,” dedicated to Lowell, Heaney reminded himself, ”The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.”

**
He opens his own poetry notebook to remind himself again of the warning of the late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: ”What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”

”That’s a wonderfully resonant idea,” Heaney says, talking with some of the awe of the postulant himself. ”If I could make poetry that could touch into that kind of thing, that is what I would like to do.”

**
As a poet, Heaney holds with the lesson laid down by Yeats: ”If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has that same root.”

In his conversation and classes, Heaney particularly cherishes and quotes Wordsworth and Yeats, and prizes their habit of composing aloud. ”Poetry as a revelation of the self to the self,” is one thing he finds in Wordsworth. In Yeats, he says, it’s the relation between the process and the finished poem: ”From the beginning things had to be well made, the soul had to be compelled to study, the images had to be masterful.”

He seems to find advice everywhere, agreeing with Robert Graves’s ”Dance on Words” – ”To make them move/you should start from lightning.” And with Whitman: ”Make the works. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all. Make full blooded, rich, natural works.” From his earliest layman-reader’s enthusiasm with Gerard Manley Hopkins, through Lowell’s critical blessing, then friendship, extended during the American poet’s visits to Ireland, Heaney seems to relish whatever place he holds, promising or small, in the poetic tradition. He hardly pleases everyone. Some critics sensed an early failing – ”a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and the psychological sources of his fear,” as one put it. But others feel Heaney’s later sonnet writings deal well with this. The critic Donald Hall wrote in The Nation of a range of Heaney themes and attributes – love, violence, desire, memory, intelligence -but then he added: ”For all the qualities I list, the most important is song.”

**
Heaney wants to be purged of poets’ tricks and perhaps for that reason he is willing to try to let a layman know how a poem is made. ”Of course, the reward of finishing the thing is pre-eminent still, perhaps,” he explains. ”But it’s much challenged by the actual pleasure of feeling something under your hand and growing.”

Heaney is a poet mindful of what he calls the ”amphibious” nature of Yeats. ”He lived the amphibious inner and outer life so well,” says Heaney. He smiles and summarizes the trick of the poet as if it were in mechanics, not magic: ”Being in two places at once is, of course, the only way.”

The statement is less casual than it seems, for Heaney’s poetry is marked by the amphibious, by the narrative lyric rooted in the outer life of place but nourished from his inner life. What he feels was his first real poem, ”Digging,” may still be, 19 years after its composition, the best introduction to Heaney’s voice.

**
”The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary,” Heaney says. ”You are saying to people, ‘Everything’s all right.’ And, in fact, one of the things America exposes you to quite radically is people’s hunger to be comforted. And it’s very moving, and it’s authentic, but somehow you get co-opted into a language of comfort that is quite bogus.”

For his opening classes at Harvard, Heaney usually prescribes selections from East European poets, stark verse that is hardly the language of bogus comfort, but is ”antipoetry, a kind of wiresculpture poetry,” in which he finds that ”the density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Francis X. Clines
New York Times

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Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, was reviewed by Leah Hager Cohen in the New York Times on Sunday. (I have an excerpt from this excellent review on my filter blog, Slow Painting, if you didn’t catch it.) Hartigan’s book is the catalog for the show that just closed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and was previously at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts (and which I wrote about on this blog last summer.) This is the first volume about Cornell that captures some of the magic that happens in the presence of a real life, breathing Cornell. Hartigan keeps a respectful distance from Cornell’s quirky, complex internal life and avoids the proclivity to psychoanalyze, a tendency in hagiography I find particularly irritating.

Hartigan’s closing paragraph is a strong statement of Cornell’s unique approach to art:

During a lifetime that coincided with an emphasis on change for the sake of change, theory and art as ends unto themselves, and upheavals in technology, science, and international relations, Cornell deliberately chose to make art as a life-affirming act of communication and educational outreach. In describing his purpose as “making people ‘at home’ with things generally considered aesthetic,” he sought beauty, wonder, spirituality, and humanity as the outcomes of his invitation to journey with him into diverse arenas. First and foremost, Cornell–navigator of the imagination–was idealistic, radical and contemporary in embracing the prospect of endless transformation while honoring the thread of history and the revolutionary strength of objects.

I saw my first installation by Ghanain-born sculptor El Anatsui at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I came back from that trip and posted about that exquisite object–part textile, part tactile sculpture, made of bottle caps and wire. Since then he was featured at the Venice Biennale and is now getting well deserved attention everywhere. For New Yorkers, good news: The Metropolitan Museum has purchased a gorgeous piece, “Between Earth and Heaven,” which will be featured in a show later this year. (To see a short video of the piece being installed, go to this New York Sun link.)

Here are a few images from a show at London-based October Gallery.

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Nukae?

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Nane

Innovation. It is the subject of IBM ads that air during football games as well as a constant issue for anyone who is a maker of poems, paintings, music, theatre.

A recent article in the New York Times captured some of the occupational hazards encountered by those who have to deal daily with what does not yet exist. Although the article is primarily geared for innovation issues within a corporate setting, it raises relevant concerns for the soloist as well.

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

This so-called curse of knowledge…means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path…

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems…”

Here is Rabe’s advice for how to find zero-gravity thinkers:

“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

That’s what the poets in my life are–my very own zero-gravity thinkers. They work in a related area but not in my specific field. They force me to look at the world differently.

Now the question I have is this: Can a visual artist do the same for them?

Style and substance may represent a class system. The imagination is a democracy.

–From The Triggering Town by poet and teacher Richard Hugo

I love this book. Opening it up to a random page before heading to the studio is to find a heartwarming wink, an approving nod, a much-needed nugget. It is at times like these, when undercurrents are relentless and unpredictable, that koan-like guidance can steady the vessel. And often the steadying of the vessel is as simple as lifting the hand off the rudder and being willing to just drift.

Here are a few more:

Once you have a certain amount of accumulated technique, you can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally yours will stay with you and will come forth mysteriously when needed.

It’s flattering to be told you are better than someone else, but victories like that do not endure. What endures are your feelings about your work.

Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost…It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.

This is Rosanna Warren, part 2…

An interview with Warren was published in the Kenyon Review. She shares some deeply considered thoughts on a number of topics including the structure of poetry, writing about the visual arts, absorbing traditions, apprehension of the real.

Here are a few salient excerpts:

In a way, I have a deeply old-fashioned view that the artist in any art needs to absorb the traditions of that art and absorb them intensely. How you do it is your own business. My sense of it is that you draw from nature and that you draw from the works of the past. And that as a writer you imitate and translate from as many languages as you can so you absorb the expressive possibilities of our literatures in English, which is so various and hybrid. And only through this immersion does one enlarge the possibilities of how we can refashion inherited forms. For me, there’s no interesting art that doesn’t have a potent formal sense and also a powerful disruptive sense. I look for that in art—I look for some ratio of resistance between powerful form and powerful disruption.

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Indeed, I think there’s a great misunderstanding (well, even to go back even twenty-five years in this country) between so-called open forms (and the ideological claims being made for them, even politically, which seems to be an amazingly crude way of thinking) and the traditional metrical forms. Free verse itself is now a tradition of over a hundred years old. My coordinates are a little French so I would date it to July or August of 1886, which was when the magazine La Vogue in Paris published one of the first translations of Whitman in French and (these were an incredible set of issues) Rimbaud’s first free-verse poems which came out of the prose poetry in Illuminations. Of course, Rimbaud had long since gone off to Africa and he didn’t know they were being published. So we see the double-barreled assault on the French alexandrine line in 1886 with Whitman and Rimbaud. By now that’s well over a century ago. So my sense of form is any organic set of constraints, of structural constraints that the poem sets up for itself, which should engender a powerful form of resistance, internal resistance. A poem that doesn’t have these two elements, I find, lacks life.

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In a way I suppose it’s just an intensification of what art is, because art is a fiction. We make shapes from whatever private motivations we have, but what is happening is a kind of alchemy where whatever raw material we bring to the fictions we make—whether they’re prose or poetic fictions—we bring the raw material of our psyches, our lives, our experiences and they’re transmuted by the alembic shape of whatever form we put on the page.

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From my very early childhood, I remember at the age of three holding pencils and trying to make shapes, trying to translate onto the page what I was seeing. Drawing and then painting are meditational exercises to work at the strangeness of the world. And that’s why I was always a figurative painter, because I could stare for hours (maybe it’s a little autistic) at tree bark, or the pattern branches make against the sky, or at the shape of an orange on a table—and look at the weirdness of anything. If you look at it hard it turns revelatory in its estrangement from what we expect it to look like. That’s a nonverbal training or positioning toward reality, and poetry, in my experience, is an exhilarating, at times heartbreaking, attempt to translate into the verbal realm those distinctly nonverbal experiences or apprehensions of the real. I guess the way I’m speaking sounds a little bit like Giacometti; that’s the way Giacometti drew, by looking at the real until it dissolved. He was thinking a lot about Cézanne, and I think about Cézanne probably every day of my life. It is a discipline of looking for the revelation in the strangeness of the truth.

A few words on solitude, discipline and the nature of being interrupted, by Mary Oliver:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone
rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits.
Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought
which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without
interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until
it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily
have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, to
scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from
another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that
whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing into
the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone
the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday
is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only
to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

It is this internal force–this intimate interrupter–whose tracks I would
follow. The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place,
its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that?
But that the self can interrupt the self–and does–is a dark and more
curious matter.

–From Blue Pastures

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Mary Oliver, poet