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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.


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.

Here’s a midwinter diversion for you. From Slow Muse friend and frequent commenter, Elatia Harris:

3 Quarks Daily is known as one of the blogosphere’s more cerebral haunts, and it occurred to me that habitues of 3QDistan might know a great deal about being broken-hearted by a poem, a song, a building, or most of all an idea. People are okay, too — but are they less interesting and compelling? I’m asking you. I was inspired in this challenge by the Museum of Broken Relationships, a traveling repository of love’s artifacts now in Skopje, Macedonia. The MBR received lots of media attention last fall, but passed us by on 3QD — I hope to remedy that. For some visual inspiration to take the challenge, here’s the link.

3 Quarks Daily

I am compelled by the idea that the enormous cultural thrust usually associated with romantic love has its equivalencies in other domains. I can openly confess to thinking of something other than another person when I hear a love song. For me the object is more typically a particular landscape or the longing for that altered state that happens in a creative fervor. Or of course the total body ecstasy of being with a painting or a building that lands right at the center of me. Maybe true for you as well? (Send your votes to Elatia at elatiaharris AT gmail DOT com.)

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

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Brookline Massachusetts, December 14th

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View from my front door

Yesterday was the first snowstorm of this winter season. I love the quality of the light, the way the sound of a city changes, the disruption of life, the patterns of tires and feet, the way a neighborhood becomes unfamiliar and redefined, how everything is conjoined in a commonality.

Snowstorms remind me why I felt comfortable leaving my childhood home in California to spend my adult life on the East Coast. Snow is a powerful reminder of our wee human role in the grand scope of things. Nature speaks, and the only sensible response is to go inside and relish the simple gifts of a roof and warmth. It also alludes to one of my favorite themes in mythology, that small things can change everything. In the Sumerian story of Queen Inanna, she is saved from her imprisonment in hell by fingernail clippings. Because they are small and insignificant, they can get past the gates of Hell unnoticed and return her to her earthly throne. Once again, a billion tiny flakes of frozen water can stop the flow of life for millions of people. To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Will Owen of Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, humility is a very complex virtue.

There are two poems I love on days like this. The Stevens poem is probably the most famous short poem (and only one sentence) in the English language. Even memorized, I marvel at its complexity. The poem by Strand is simple but profound. Enjoy.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

Snowfall

Watching snow cover the ground, cover itself,
cover everything that is not you, you see
it is the downward drift of light
upon the sound of air sweeping away the air,
it is the fall of moments into moments, the burial
of sleep, the down of winter, the negative of night.

–Mark Strand

I’m off to New York for a few days. Before I go, I will share some thoughts about simplicity and transcendence. I am probably being drawn to this viewpoint as a way to counteract the commencement of a holiday season that often feels more garish and overstated than heartwarming.

“Translation,” wrote Kakuzo Okakura…”can at best be only the reverse side of the brocade–all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design.” Few examples illustrate this better than the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics imperfection, crudescence, an aged and weathered look. Although wabi sabi may embody these qualities, these characteristic are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it. As long as one focuses on the physical, one is doomed to see only the back side of the brocade, while its real beauty remains hidden. In order to see its true essence, one must look beyond the apparent, one must look within.

The term wabi sabi is derived from two characters shared by Japanese and Chinese. Wabi originally means “despondence” and sabi means “loneliness.” These are words for feelings, not for the physical appearance of objects. The term embodies a refined aesthetic sensibility…

[Consider] the haiku by the eighteenth-century Japanese poet Yasano Buson:

From a mountain temple
the sound of a bell struck fumblingly
vanishes in the mist

This poem conveys a deep personal aesthetic consciousness, a bittersweet mix of loneliness and serenity, a sense of dejection buoyed by freedom from material hindrance. This is what wabi sabi feels like. And one can only experience it by turning the focus from outer appearance to look within. No wonder the Japanese struggle to explain wabi sabi; they try to tell how it feels, not just how it looks…

One only needs to look at Walker Evans’ photographs of the interior of an Alabama farmhouse, or Andre Kertesz’s images of shadows cast by empty chairs, or the central courtyard in Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu to recognize a similar aesthetic awareness. These artist speak to the audience through mutual understanding of their private emotions. Such a connection cannot be faked. A common fallacy is to believe an artist can artificially create a resonance with the audience with certain visual cues. Unless the work is a genuine expression of the artist’s feeling, the effect will appear hollow to the perceptive eye.

Wabi sabi is not a style defined by superficial appearance. It is an aesthetic ideal, a quiet and sensitive state of mind, attainable by learning to see the invisible, paring away what is unnecessary, and knowing where to stop.

Tim Wong and Akiko Hirano

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Mexico, 2007

I caught the last day of Tuttle’s show at Sperone Westwater in New York last weekend. SW on West 13th Street is an open, multi-roomed white space. It could be daunting for someone whose works are often delicate and small. But Tuttle fills the galleries to the brim with intimately-sized wall pieces whose only similarity is their armature of crudely cut plywood.

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Richard Tuttle installation at Sperone Westwater

The show knocked my frequency up ten notches. How can you not feel hopeful about the world when you see what Tuttle can do with throw away-sized pieces of paper, chunks of wood, a piece of string here, a wire there? Simple, everyday objects are rendered enchanted, one after another.

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Tuttle’s creativity has been inspiring me since his first Whitney show in the mid 1970’s. That show raised a ruckus. Here is Marcia Tucker’s account of that event:

In 1975, at the Whitney Museum in New York, I organized a show of the work of Richard Tuttle, an artist whose unconventionally humble materials (string, wire, pencil, nails, rope, cloth) and deliberately offhand placement of work appealed to me. Viewers came to the museum expecting to see traditional artistic skills and materials employed in the making of the sculpture, and to enjoy them in an appropriately formal setting, with explanatory wall labels and a substantive catalog of the artist’s past work. When they were disappointed in their expectations, visitors tried to rip the pieces off the walls. Critics and journalists complained vociferously about everything from the installation (which was changed three times during the exhibition, using many of the same pieces), to the publication of the catalog after the show closed (in order to include site-specific photographs as well the critical response), to the work itself. One reviewer griped that “seeing Tuttle’s work makes you scrutinize the teensy- weensy hairline cracks in the wall,” clearly not what he had come to expect or to value. Another made constant reference to “the Emperor’s new clothes,” and called for my dismissal (which, in fact, occurred in the aftermath of the controversy.)

Things have changed this then. His recent retrospective (once again at the Whitney and even more spectacularly at the San Francisco Museum of Art) was a huge success, winning Tuttle kudos for a genius career of art making.

One of the things I have always loved about Tuttle is that he keeps it fresh. Repeats almost never happen under his hand. He finds a brilliant constructed moment, acknowledges it, and then moves on to yet another simple but provocative juxtaposition of forms. Unlike some artists whose OCD tendencies drive them to work just one idea down to threadbare, Tuttle is always in flow to the next surprise of shapes, colors and composition.

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I’m back from Mexico, but I can still feel the intense white light that burnishes the back of your eyes after just a few hours in that unabashed sunlight. Baja California Sur is a glorious combination of two large arc themes, operatic in a visual sort of way. On one hand you are never far from the minimalist landscape of the desert, a terrain iconic for stripping it down to the bare essentials, for survival and stamina, for the perennial seeking for spiritual insight and a higher knowing. And on the other hand, there is that ring of dazzling color, both the Pacific and Sea of Cortez, that moves through all the shades of blue, green, turquoise, and back again. The contrast is relentlessly beguiling.

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Light on adobe walls, on the cool green shades of the agaves, on the textured palms and cacti, on long stretches of sandy beaches–light that intoxicates my cocktail of (mostly) Northern European genes, genes passed on to me from generations of ancestors who never lived their lives anywhere this lush, this guilelessly sunny, this far removed from an Ingmar Bergmanian ambient angst.

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Sea lions at Los Islotes

Perhaps a yearly swim with the unabashed sea lions on the islands of Espiritu Santo–alongside a few other human celebrants–is all I need to manage a truce between the large arc themes of my interior life (although the private dialectics are never as cleanly defined as the desert/ocean duality I just spent a week edging between.)

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Mona, Kellin and Clayton, three of my favorite sea lion swimming humans

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Carol Vogel’s written and video reports (New York Times) on Sigmar Polke’s preparations for the upcoming Biennale have me longing, deeply longing, to see this new body of work, “The Axis of Time.” (One painting from that series is posted on Slow Painting.) Vogel visited him in his Cologne atelier and feasted on a studio overflowing with books, images, objects, materials–some of them edgy and toxic–that continue to inspire and inform Polke’s amazing body of art. His work is wide ranging, even more so than Richter’s. Not only is he a master of mystically beautiful surfaces and juxtaposed imagery, he uses pointilistic dotting like a leitmotif throughout his work. I have lost my breath several times in front of a Polke. He is a modern day alchemist to be sure.

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Vogel’s reporting included some wonderful comments by Polke about his materials and the effects he is striving for. Here is an excerpt:

Mr. Polke returned to painting in earnest in the 1980s, exploring new materials and pigments so voraciously that his studio became an alchemist’s playground. He began experimenting with toxic substances, he said, because store-bought pigments often lacked the brilliant hues that he craved. He has used everything from arsenic and jade to azurite, turquoise, malachite, cinnabar and beeswax. He even extracted mucus from a snail and subjected it to light and oxygen to produce a vivid purple, in much the way the ancient Mycenaeans, Greeks and Romans created dye for their rulers’ robes.

In “Lump of Gold” (1982), he smeared arsenic directly on the canvas. Implicit was the notion that physical materials are as potent as the image itself. “He likes the idea that paintings can provide more than visual stimulation,” Mr. VeneKlasen said. “Large amounts of arsenic can kill, while small portions can heal.”

“Alabaster has its own mystical history, people can understand it, but tourmaline is more sophisticated, glowing,” he said, pointing to a tourmaline sample, with its prismatic crystals. “It forms nice patterns, it’s not as ordinary. This is all about the idea of the most holy things.”

Recently he has focused on how light changes the texture and colors of the canvases. “Light is a metaphoric thing,” taking on diverse emotional meanings, he explained over cups of tea in his living area. “There is green light and red light. Then there is black light, which is mostly danger.”

“I am trying to create another light, one that comes from reflection,” he said of the glow that emanates from the layers on his canvases. “Like celestial light, it gives the indication of new, supernatural things.” Some of the works will resemble golden landscapes, and another a sunrise. Their dusky texture is intended to induce a sort of drowsiness in the viewer.

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What a wonderful pondering on the other dimensions of light! And his description of creating another light source–one that comes from reflection and from the layers of the painting–is as close a description as I can get to on what I am working through in my work as well.

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Many of you know that in addition to writing this blog, I maintain another blog called Slow Painting that filters through websites, publications and blogs for compelling excerpts. Slow Painting is a customized assemblage of art-related news, ideas and concepts as defined by my sensibilities.

Every so often a Slow Painting find is so provocative that it migrates over into this more personal space as well. Two recent postings on Slow Painting have filled my attention this week, one of them being the work of photographer Lynn Davis.

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In a review of Davis’ current show, the photographer is quoted as saying:

What I’m looking for are sites that evoke a feeling of inner peacefulness, some quality of contemplation. I don’t always get it, and I don’t always translate it, but I certainly know when the feeling comes over me, and that’s what keeps me going.

As a affirmation of her success in achieving that goal, her work is being featured at the Rubin Museum of Art, a museum dedicated to promoting the art and culture of the Himalayas. Even though her work does not fit in with that directive per se, the museum staff could see how closely aligned her aesthetic goals are with the spirit and intention of the museum.

I have been a fan of Davis’ photographs for many years. Her images, particularly those experienced full scale, capture the essence of embodiment–that ineffable sense that all things are part of a living, breathing cohesiveness that we give many names to but is in fact one immense entity. Touching into that is the highest achievement I can imagine for someone working in the visual realm.

For those of you near New York, her work can be seen at the Rubin Museum through July 16. A catalog will be available in August.