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The pleasures of the minimal. Just the bare thing. Raw, open, essential. Unvarnished.

Here are two minimal recent moments. One was indoors, at Carroll and Sons Gallery in Boston, and the other was the outdoors, in Utah.

Damien Hoar De Galvan’s show, I Wish I had Something to Say, is like a cool drink in your hand on a hot day. I was delighted, engaged and energized by the back room at Carroll and Sons transformed by this motley collection of his small works. The wit and tone is perfectly pitched—neither self conscious nor manipulative, but thoughtfully playful with a quiet strength. The tension between the visual and the languaged that exists in work of this kind is a very fine line, and it is tricky to navigate. Going off track results in pandering on the one side or falling into the arcane on the other.

Clearly DHDG is an artist drinking from the same stream as Richard Tuttle*, Bill Walton** and one recently exposed facet of my friend George Wingate***, three artists whose work never grows tiresome. But DHDG is, as each of these three, engaging in this form in his own way. Through July 30.

A wall of simple images on paper—unframed and immediate

My second minimalist moment: The desert landscape in Utah. It is elemental to me—the light, the sky, the landscape. In a recent review in Art News of my show in Santa Fe earlier this year, the reviewer put it this way:

Deborah Barlow lives and works near Boston, but is so starkly, deliberately, ocularly a creature of the West—where she spent her youth and formative years—that one risks confounding the senses even before peeling back the first layer of brusque sensuality that clings to the surface of her paintings.

The desert is inside, that I know.

Great Salt Lake, from the southern end of the lake

The view near Saltair

Wheat fields near Lehi

Another Lehi view

Double rainbow! I never see these in the East

The light after a storm: Soft and yet acidic


Other minimalists:

*I have written a number of posts about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

Scale it Up, Scale it Down
Tuttle Therapy
Go Broad, or Go Deep

**Bill Walton‘s posthumous show in Philadelphia is reviewed here.

***George Wingate‘s installation from earlier this year is reviewed here.


Circular fields of green on the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, watered by pivot irrigation (Photo: Corbis)

Landsat image of Southern Nebraska

Field in Wadi-el-Watan, Egypt, imaged by a SPOT satellite. The circular pattern shows where a centre-pivot irrigation system has been used to water crops. Source : Spot Image

Midwest from the air

Midwest from the air

Midwest via Landsat

Revisiting the Spiral Jetty in yesterday’s post has me thinking about land marking, especially during a snow storm as extensive as the one that blanketed all of New England today.

Less subtle than the Nasca Lines of Peru, center-fed irrigation creates its own kind of earth mark making. These circles are a common site when you travel over the Midwest on a cross country flight.

These images also bring to mind a few contemporary grid-based artists and many of the Australian aboriginal painters. They also suggest many of the works by artists who use repetition to create patterns to an almost obsessive extent—Tara Donovan, Mark Bradford, Leonardo Drew to name a few.

Spiral Jetty (Photo: Greg Lindquist)

Greg Lindquist, a Brooklyn based artist, made a winter’s pilgrimage to the Spiral Jetty on January 2, Robert Smithson’s birthday. His photos and “trip report” can be read on Hyperallergic.

As readers of this blog already know, this is a frequent pilgrimage spot for me. Lindquist’s photos of the Jetty in the snow, with the angled winter light on that extreme and remote landscape, offer up a different face to that iconic earthwork.

A few earlier posts about the Jetty on Slow Muse:

Remote Futures, Remote Pasts
Jars in Tennessee, Jetties in Utah
Erin Hogan: Melding Gravitas with Whimsy
Schooled by Sand
Getting to Into
Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming
Preservation Update
Spiral Jetty Site at Risk

A visual/verbal commentary on a few days in New York City, where spring has come and spread its gorgeousness everywhere.

First on the list: The High Line, my favorite urban touchstone for seasonal drift. Two views looking south from 20th street—two months ago and this weekend:

Comparing urban flora and fauna in February and then again in April

And of course keeping it all in perspective—here’s what we have to look forward to in the next iteration:

The High Line in the summer of 2009

A few more visual remembrances:

Sand mandala painter in Union Square


My favorite spring tree, the Redbud, whose fecundity has blossoms that explode everywhere. This tree is so wildly expressive it almost makes me blush.


Draftmanship kept alive, at the Met Museum. He doesn’t move from that seat for hours.


A delightfully elemental and sensually lipped wooden bagel (donut for some). This is not its real name, just so you know. By Ross Rudel on exhibit at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea


The best quixotic wall message I’ve seen in some time: Is its intended reading Better History? Bitter History? Better Future? Bitter Future? I think the message is: e) all of the above.

A traditionalist and enchanting version of earthworks: Rice paddy art. Created by planting different varieties of rice, images appear over time.

Examples of this technique first appeared in the early 1990’s, originally conceived as a local revitalization project. But the approach took on a life of its own and within a few years, computers were being used to plot out the planting. These extremely complex images are made from just four types of rice.

Thank you Stephanie Hobart for sending these images my way.

A few more views of other field images:

Taking a closer look:

I continue to be caught up and compelled by the ongoing saga of the Spiral Jetty. It is a touchstone for so many compelling personal themes: the unique power that is an art pilgrimage site (Bilbao, the Ajanta Caves, Uluru in Australia–there are many art/sacred sites that also move me deeply); the geographic connection I feel to the land in Utah and my family’s multi-generational heritage there; the large scale power of Smithson’s construction to frame and define that exquisite desert expanse (not unlike Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee*); the ongoing organic evolution of the structure as the years leave their marks, like the coat of crystallized salt, on the jetty stones. Just to name a few.

Here is a recent update:

The Great Salt Lake continues to shrink. Today its official measurement dipped slightly to an elevation of exactly 4,194 feet. The last time it was lower was way back in the 1960s.

The lake was at precisely this same level four years ago; then and today, the lowest since record lows in the ‘60s. But this year it’s a real surprise because we had a relatively wet winter.

The Great Salt Lake is now surrounded by hundreds of square miles of dried mud and salt.

The $25-million-a-year brine shrimp industry is scrambling to find usable harbors. They dredged this one at a cost of $200,000. Brine Shrimp Industry spokesman Don Leonard says, “It was a big surprise to us. I mean Lake Powell went up 30 feet, right? But the Great Salt Lake’s going down.”

Robert Smithson’s world-famous artwork the Spiral Jetty is now hundreds of yards from the lake it was sculpted in. It still inspires artists. We encountered a man in a suit of mirrors, San Francisco based Austrian Gustav Troger, at the heart of the Spiral Jetty standing on salt instead of water.

A decent winter snowfall was blunted by a hot, dry summer. Eric Millis, with the Utah Division of Water Resources, says, “With all that combined, yeah the lake has just continued to drop.”

Lee Sporleder opens the gates at a remote, aging facility on the west side of the lake, a pump house built in the 1980s when the lake was flooding. The $65-million state pumps ran less than two years.

The lake is now a dozen miles away across a vast expanse of salt, but the pumps get monthly maintenance in case they’re ever needed again.

It would be a long way off, but we’ve got a big investment here, and there’s no sense letting it go to waste,” says Sporleder, with the Department of Water Resources.

But you know what they say in Utah. If you don’t like the weather, wait, ah, a few years maybe, and it’ll change. Pretty good odds, eventually the lake will make a comeback.

In the ‘60s it was 2 ½ feet lower than today. In the ‘80s it went up 20 feet. Leonard says, “Well the long-term worry is that as the population of the Wasatch Front grows that the people will drink more and more water, use more and more water, and less and less will get to the lake.”

State experts disagree. Millis says, “The impacts of additional water development to meet the growing population’s needs will have a minimal impact on the lake. We’re calculating on the order of less than a half a foot.”

The brine shrimpers worry the saltier water may hurt the shrimp. Duck hunters are afraid the ducks will fly away.

For the rest of us, it’s a drama of nature, a lake that defies efforts to control it, whether it goes too high or too low.

John Hollenhorst

*Wallace Stevens’ infamous short poem, “Anecdote of The Jar”:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Erin Hogan

A few weeks ago I posted a review of a new book on Slow Painting, Spiral Jetta by Erin Hogan. And now that I’ve finished reading the book I can recommend it without reservation to anyone who has interest in contemporary art, particularly land art, and who would enjoy a thoughtful adventure served up in a particularly sassy fashion.

Hogan’s writing style is a lively combination of the self-effacing humor of a David Sedaris with the thoughtful insights of a Suzi Gablik. Having made the pilgrimage to most of the land art sites that Hogan visits in her book, I loved retracing my steps with her. My regular readers know how passionately I love Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, so of course I loved every description of the treacherous dirt roads, the primal sense of pilgrimage, the difficulty of traveling in unmarked territory where getting lost and never being heard of again feels very real at times. Her gift of self-deprecating humor keeps the entire art road trip narrative engaging, and her sharp mind makes the journey meaningful to the reader who is traveling with her vicariously.

Here are a few passages that stood out for me:

I walked into the spiral and back out of it. I lay down in the center of it. I crisscrossed its rings, I crouched down and tasted the salt. I looked around, still overwhelmed by the work’s nonmonumentality. I tried to experience it physically, without processing it through any art-historical filter. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t separate my encounter with Spiral Jetty from the reading and thinking I had done about art of this era, by now deeply entrenched in my reptile brain. Trying to consider this object in isolation, to bypass art history, was like trying to knock an irritating song out of my head. I only managed to turn up the volume. It was with this force that the views of critics and historians crowded into my consciousness.

Like anything good and complex, Spiral Jetty can be thought of in many different ways. As lame as it sounds, those “ways” came down to two for me: space and time. Not small topics, I realize. But Spiral Jetty beautifully and subtly distills its experience into those fundamental categories…

Being at Spiral Jetty engendered in me a sense of articulated space, one that wasn’t alienating because it was marked by mountains, edges, colors, which together staved off the disorientation I associate with open, ungridded space, like being on a sailboat at sea…the space is elemental and understandable, only a little overwhelming, and deeply inspiring.

And this:

Smithson’s essay on the Spiral Jetty reads like a stoner’s manifesto, all over the map and deeply profound: he hits Brancusi’s sketcch of James as a “spiral ear”; he talks about lattices, a sense of scale that “resonates in the eye and the ear at the same time,” a “reinforcement and prolongation of spirals that reverberates up and down space and time.” Taking a breath, he concludes, “So it is that one ceases to consider art in terms of an object.”

And I finally knew what he meant. There is something in Spiral Jetty that gives it the internal coherence, the completeness, the self-containment and instantaneity, that makes art. It is a physical quality of a supremely constructed entity, with complex internal relationships that harmonize into a glorious whole.

And how’s this for just about the best blurb ever on the back of a book?

Across the marvelously unexpected little road saga, the stud muffin cowboys of late twentieth-century American art at long last meet their sly gamine match. Pretty much doing for land art what Geoff Dyer did for D. H. Lawrnece, Ms. Hogan, an urban fish decidedly out of water, flopping about in the high desert parch, makes for marvelously endearing company. At at times harrowingly (albeit comically) unreliable navigator (who doesn’t bring a compass along on solo treks across such vast empty expanses?), Hogan nevertheless manages to deploy an expertly modulated prose, tracking the heaviest of subjects with the lightest of touches, melding gravitas with whimsy (vodka and tonic), in a narrative that in the end, like the art is surveys, manages to be about what it is to be an individual alone—pinprick-contingent, achingly vulnerable, gobsmacked enthralled—in the face of all that is.

–Lawrence Weschler*

Hogan’s is a fresh and welcomed new voice.

*I’ve referenced Weschler’s work in earlier blog postings here. Search on his name here if you’d like to read more by him.

It has been three full days since I saw Guy Maddin’s “documentary,” My Winnipeg, and the ambience still hasn’t left my consciousness. It is quixotic and visually arresting, preposterously absurd and yet quite tender, both epic and lyric at the same time. I was enchanted.

My Winnipeg, by Guy Maddin

And as the critic Peter Scarlet wrote about the film,

My Winnipeg offers little in the way of proof that anything described in the film actually happened in Winnipeg, or happened to Guy Maddin in Winnipeg, or happened anywhere for that matter. In fact, viewing the film may make you pause to wonder whether Winnipeg actually exists, or Guy Maddin actually exists, or you actually exist.

To further mystify this disorienting and yet hauntingly beautiful portrait of his hometown, Maddin’s voiceover references an Indian belief that Winnipeg’s confluence of rivers—the ones that freeze over every winter and can be seen with the human eye—are paired with invisible mythic rivers that run beneath the surface of the earth. Maddin melds and blends images of these river systems, both mythic and topographic, with the delta of his mother’s lap. River, lap, river, lap. (He is a frequent user of repetition of language and image to incant and to make the dream-like even more so.)

Snowy River

Maddin’s mythic mashup of River and Source was still ambient in my mind when I came across photographs of the newly “discovered” Snowy River, a massive underground formation inside Fort Stanton Cave in New Mexico. It is a cave passage and geological structure unlike anything anyone has seen before and may be the largest cave formation in the world. (An excerpted article about Snowy River is posted on Slow Painting. For more photos, go to New Mexico BLM.)

Wow. This is so compelling, both visually and metaphorically. I can’t stop thinking and feeling this.

So it was inevitable that these images—Maddin’s mythic rivers and the cave river of calcite crystals—have been conflated and comingled with recent reading from Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, by Belden C. Lane:

One’s symbolic participation in a place of mythic significance is never totally available to scrutiny…in the most basic sense, myth that is understood is no longer myth. That which we analyze with thorough objectivity—turning into psychology, history, or social geography—has ceased to exercise any formative power upon us. “When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way,” says Joseph Campbell, “the life goes out of it…The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky.”


Lawrence Durrell argues that “the important determinant of any culture is after all—the spirit of place.” But what are the avenues of access to such a phenomenon? Is this entirely a mystical-poetic insight, or does it find parallels in our common human experience of recognizing the enduring texture of the familiar—discerning there more than we had first expected to find? Perhaps the process of “making strange” that to which one has become habitually accustomed—viewing it in a different perspective so as to enter it anew—can be seen in the most important manner by which meaning is continually renewed in any community. This is as true of place as it is of any other mythic conception.

Lane references Victor Shklovsky, a Russian literary critic, who used the word ostranenie (the idea of “making strange” a given concept) to argue that “the goal of the poet is always that of occasioning an utterly novel view of the world.”

Whether Maddin’s unwieldy vision of Winnipeg or the inexplicable river of calcite in Fort Stanton Cave, “making strange” creates a narrative that cannot be parsed or scrutinized with traditional tools. And as a result, there’s energy and life in these entities, whether in film or crystal. Lots of it.

Summer arrives on Saturday, so say the calendar keepers. (Although the idea of a season having an official “opening day” seems rather absurd, doesn’t it?) I’m not waiting, I’m ready to celebrate the sensuousness of this warm swing through the solar system NOW.

This stanza is from another beguiling Fleur Adcock poem called Prelude, and the image is from my trip to Tasmania last year. Both bring me into a radiant celebration of the body, the earth, the comingling of life. Roll into it.

Is it the long dry grass that is so erotic,
waving about us with hair-fine fronds of straw,
with feathery flourishes of seed, inviting us
to cling together, fall, roll into it
blind and gasping, smothered by stalks and hair,
pollen and each other’s tongues on our hot faces?
Then imagine if the summer rain were to come,
heavy drops hissing through the warm air,
a sluice on our wet bodies, plastering us
with strands of delicious grass; a hum in our ears.

A few views of the Lake District, where color and stillness speak

Ask Me

Sometime when the river runs ice, ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt — ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

–William Stafford

This is a time when words coming from me seem less than complete. During more fluid times, I have been able to find many ways to speak what feels real, to sidle up to the warm body that is my own version of Truth. Stafford, in his signature laconic voice that is both immense and tiny at the same time, captures more of this morning’s energy than my circling about trying to name what may not be nameable, trying to create order where perhaps none is meant to be. Tolle advises that not knowing is not confusion. Confusion is when you think you should know and you don’t. On this summer morning, what the river knows is enough for me.