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Temple site at Mahabalipuram, India

Many of us have been discussing James Gleick’s recent piece in the New York Times, Books and Other Fetish Objects which addresses the digitization projects that will move historical documents into the cloud, available anywhere and by anyone. Gleick is a bit impatient with the sentimental attachment that some have for “the thing itself.” For him, it is content that matters as exemplified by this anecdote:

In a Sotheby’s auction three years ago, Magna Carta fetched a record $21 million. To be exact, the venerable item was a copy of Magna Carta, made 82 years after the first version was written and sealed at Runnymede. Why is this tattered parchment valuable? Magical thinking. It is a talisman. The precious item is a trick of the eye. The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed.

And this contemplation on what happens when we move beyond the thing itself:

It’s a mistake to deprecate digital images just because they are suddenly everywhere, reproduced so effortlessly. We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.

I am not in your camp, Gleick. It seems that there are two tracks here—content, and the thing itself. Call me a fetishist, a misaligned magical thinker. But my experience is that these objects take on a power of their own and have a unique relationship with us. (That evocativeness—the power of things—is the subject of the documentary Mana: Beyond Belief which I wrote about here.) We feel a sense of that power with touch or just being physically present, and that experience cannot be captured in words, photographs or 3D renderings. A high resolution image of one of my paintings will never be the same as the artifact itself.

I keep coming back to how it felt at the ancient temples in Southern India, pilgrimage sites for so many years. Whether those places were built on sacred ground or just acquired their power from the millions of pilgrims who came and gave their energy over time, these places have an aura that is tangible, physically experienced and unforgettable. Digitizing content is one thing, the experiential is another. Oft quoted but still useful is Wallace Stevens’ stanza from Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackbird:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

I’m for the both/and.


Looking south from Cordova NM

The view from Carson NM

I’m back from five days in New Mexico. Born in the desert and more at home in that landscape than anywhere else, I have been in a deep need for that stark horizontality, for the vistas that read both minimally and maximally, for the understated tonality that invites your eye to detect the slightest variations in color and light.

Zane Bennett Gallery, Santa Fe NM

It was also my first visit to my new gallery, Zane Bennett. Located in a recently renovated two-storey adobe building near SITE Santa Fe, the gallery now fills a space that used to house a brothel (or so says one old timer who only grinned when I asked him how he knew that to be the case). Everyone on the staff is knowledgeable, professional and engaging. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this venture.

Ojo Caliente in 2009

Lots of high points on this trip. Like returning to one of my favorite spots, the natural hot springs at Ojo Caliente. Twenty years ago it was a funky, rustic hideaway located off the road between Santa Fe and Taos, but it always succeeded in bringing me in touch with an earthy, inchoate energy. “Hot eye” is a good name since it suggests an earth opening that is moist, porous and wise. Sacred to the Native Americans long before any white folks were looking for a place to soak, the pools at Ojo have waters that are rich in iron, lithium, soda and arsenic.

It has been nine years since my last visit, and the sleepy roadside spa and strip motel is no more. After changing hands a number of times, Ojo is now owned by a Japanese family. New buildings and a definite Asian aesthetic have replaced the tents and tarps. And it works. We had a memorable day at the new Ojo with good friends and local residents Anne and Paxton Robey.

A wall of Castillos at Paula’s studio in Cordova

Castillo installations on the facade of the new History Museum in Santa Fe

Another memorable leg of this journey: Reconnecting with friend of sculptor Paula Castillo. Sharing a gallery space with her husband Terry, Paula lives in Cordova, a small town on the High Road between Chimayo and Taos. Her sculpture is complex and yet utterly beautiful. It interweaves the heavy with the airy, the masculine with the feminine. Physically tiny, Paula builds massive metal pieces that never lose their sense of the hand. It is almost as if she is stitching and quilting in metal. She was commissioned recently to create pieces for the facade of the new History Museum in Santa Fe. To describe these as site-appropriate is selling them short. They are site-maximal, site-magical. In other words, just plain stunning.

The sanctuary at Chimayo NM in the winter light

Emergency Kit

When I find myself among a laughing tribe,
I know they hide something from me;
I conjure up a laughter box whose button I press
to outlaugh them all. As long as they hear their music,
they leave me free; I don’t want to surrender all I have.
I am a moving stump in the forest of men
and if I stray into a towering company, those
more than a kilometre from the undergrowth,
I release stilts from my soles; I don’t want to be
looked down upon by the very top ones.
I collapse the long legs when I step into where
giants are the required offerings of the gods of the race.
I have a lifesaver installed in my body
just in case I am knocked into some deep river;
unless I come out alive, I will be declared evil—
who ever wants his adversary to have the last word on him?
So when a hunter stalks me to fill his bag,
I call on my snake from nowhere to bite him.
Folks, let’s drink ourselves to death in the party
as long as we wear sponges in the tongue;
let’s stay awake in our unending dream so that nobody
will take us for gone and cheat us out of our lives.

–Tanure Ojaide

Another poem discovered in England, Emergency Kit is written by a Nigerian poet and scholar. Like Fleur Adcock’s A Surprise in the Peninsula, I have read this over and over again. While Adcock’s poem plummets down my deep inner path to mystery and metaphor, this one heads straight to my center of rugged, bare bones resourcefulness, where survival is core.

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.

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.

Luc Tuymans’ paintings have an atmosphere all their own. They stand out whenever I have seen them on display, with that signatory diluted palette and the painterly, brushstroked surface. His content is usually identifiable and yet the paintings have a mystery to them that makes them feel more aligned to non-representational work. Although much younger than Gerhard Richter, the giant of German contemporary painting, Tuymans shares similarities with Richter (another artist whose work I adore) in the way he uses photographs as source material, the cropping of images and the highlightly of subject matter that is often, on the surface, rather mundane.

Tuymans has achieved that rarefied success in the international art world that is reserved for a select few. I have seen his work on display in museums and galleries everywhere–Europe, Asia, Australia, the United States. So it is rather interesting that he agreed to conduct a version of the “Joshua Bell playing in the subway” experiment in his home town of Antwerp. (A description and link to the video are posted on Slow Painting.)

While the design of the “experiment” that anonymousizes great art or music in public spaces can be criticized, the issue of art and context is still relevant. And the visibility of these stagings with the likes of a Joshua Bell and a Luc Tuymans may shift what we as mere pedestrians on a city street expect. I’d like to think that more people have been opened up to the possibility of seeing and hearing a moment of greatness outside the context of a concert hall or gallery.

My work has a close relationship to landscape, but it is not a direct one. People often talk about a certain place and say something like, “It is so beautiful, you really can’t capture it in a photograph.” What is it that can’t be captured by a representational process like photography? What exists beyond the ocularcentric view? Some people look “on” or look “at” an object or landscape, but I am trying to look “into.” It’s like getting into the landscape and then viewing it from within.

Coupled with this line of thought is my ongoing curiosity about how the body plays out in the various manifestations of creative exploration. I’ve been haunted for days by the image from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Unbeliever”, by way of Bunyan, of sleeping on top of a mast (see my posting below from April 30th). This image plays out on so many levels–conscious, creative, sexual, spiritual.

One of the books that addresses some of these same concerns is Earth-Mapping by Edward S. Casey. (He has written several other books–Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, and Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps–all of which I would like to explore as well.) I’m not even half way through Earth Mapping, but his themes are so in line with many of the ideas that have been threading in and out of my consciousness and my work lately.

Casey writes about leading earth artists like Robert Smithson (who created the Spiral Jetty, a personal favorite) as well as how the earth and landscape play an elemental role in the work of abstract artists like Richard Diebenkorn, Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning. He also addresses the concept of the body and its primal role in that landscape/abstraction connection.

I’ll write more about this topic as I continue my careful progress through the pages of Casey’s book. In the meantime, here is an excerpt that gives a taste of his point of view:

The lived body is at stake throughout. It is the means of being in touch with the earth, whether the actual earth of an actual scene, the imaginary earth of non-representational landscape, or the virtual earth explored by the viewer’s phantom body. The lived body is what affords a “feel” for a given landscape, telling us how it is to be there, how it is to know one’s way around in it. Such a body is at once the organ and the vehicle of the painted or constructed map, the source of “knowing one’s way about,” thus of knowing how we can be said to be acquainted with a certain landscape. This landscape need not be our own; nor need it be the land east of Aix or the fields around St. Remy. As re-presented to us as viewers, the painted or drawn or sculpted map of the landscape allows—invites, indeed sometimes demands—our lived body to enter into intimate accord with the configurations of its smooth space. In this way, we come to know this landscape from within the terms of its own re-presentation. Knowing it by means of this re-incarnate knowing is the root of all subsequent representational knowing; it is the way by which we realize our kinship with the landscape itself. Thanks to the re-presentation—the presentation again of this landscape—we sense just how intimately linked we are with and in this re-implaced earth-world, how much our very “thrownness” is attuned, in mood, with the flesh of the world that we come to know in our own flesh as the world’s flesh.

Silence and solitude, as great teachers have always advised, open us up to new layers of consciousness. This week the layer I have been in features a cast of animals, each bringing its own meaning and significance.

A few days ago I opened the door of my studio and was overwhelmed by the smell of skunk. Being trespassed upon without warning can feel like its own small violation, but I felt more respect than discomfort. For a four legged, not necessarily at home in the industrial landscape that is South Boston, to find its way into my studio… Well that’s just plain heroic.

The next day at dusk my husband David and I sat on an isolated bench in the sanctuary near my home. As soon as the light faded, three or four raccoons appeared. We stayed and watched their self-absorbed scavenging beneath the bushes along the pond’s edge. Our presence there was effortlessly disregarded. We were, after all, the interlopers into their ‘hood who could be overlooked as long as we sat still.

This week I read through my dream journal, and it was full of images of animals–sometimes with starring roles and sometimes just lurking under foot. But as I reconnected with these dream sequences, the power of these animal presences brought me deeper into four legged respect.

I am acutely aware these days of how much we shove down, choose to ignore, refuse to see or feel. Being pragmatic, committed to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, requires a specialized version of selective neglect. Meanwhile so much is going on, in us as well as around us, that we simply chose not to pay attention to. I need and want more receptivity, more sensitivity, not less.

The legendary symbolism of skunks and raccoons, Native American and otherwise, brought another layer of meaning to my encounters this week. This account rang true for me:

Of course a chunk of animal symbolism of the skunk deals with the pungent odor of its spray let off when it’s threatened.

Just think what a remarkable defense mechanism: Nonviolent, passive, effective. The skunk sends a message to would-be predators: “Nothing personal, just back off and nobody gets hurt.”

This unique method of self-protection and the way a skunk handles its predators is symbolic of:
· Defense
· Prudence
· Protection
· Confidence
· Awareness
· Pacification
· Effectiveness
· Good judgement

We would all do well to take this animal symbolism from the skunk: Do no harm. Indeed, as a totem animal, the skunk asks us to defend ourselves effectively, without causing further conflict.

Interestingly, the skunk would prefer to be even less assertive. You see, it takes over a week to reproduce its stinky juices after using them (their glands are only good for about 4 sprays). Ergo, the skunk is 100% sure it must spray before doing so as this defense tool is a commodity in the wild – not to be wasted on false alarms.

In recognizing this, we see the skunk is the ultimate pacifist, and by adopting its peace-loving ways we may obtain the carefree lifestyle this creature enjoys.

Carefree indeed, the skunk has very few predators because most of the animal kingdom recognize its tell-tale markings and know from wildlife scuttlebutt the skunk is not to be fooled with. As such, the skunk goes about its business with aplomb, and has an innocent quality that few wild creatures have the luxury of exhibiting.

Other animal symbolism of the skunk include:
· Introspection
· Innocence
· Assurance
· Patience
· Silence
· Peace

Those with the skunk as their animal totem are naturally buoyant. They go through life with a calm assurance, and exude a peaceful energy that is extremely attractive to others.

Call upon the spirit of the skunk when you need quality judgment in a situation – particularly if you’re in a stressful state, or someone is pushing your buttons. The skunk will ease you out of the situation with deft and diplomacy.

The skunk can also help calm jangled nerves, and help to center ourselves into a quiet, peaceful state.

Claims to portentious meaning are not quite as generous for the raccoon as they are for the skunk. A number of traditions refer to the symbolism of disguise, to misleading appearances and the masking of truth. On a more positive note, reference is also made to the raccoon’s legendary ability to thrive in a variety of environments and situations.

I feel schooled by the four leggeds, and grateful for it.

One of the reasons I get rather depressed by the current fad for documentary
style fiction, is its insistence on the explanatory above the symbolic. Good
writing goes beyond its subject matter. Language is more than meaning. The
things that we have read that we remember seem to move with us through our
lives as we get older. Their symbolic value increases. This book, that poem,
become repositories for our own changing memories, and retain the power to
activate a response in us, long after the moment.

Jeanette Winterson

Thank you Sally Reed for sending this my way.

Here is a comment made on yesterday’s post that is too good not to share. Thank you Elatia Harris for this entertaining variation on “accusatory white”:

I had a friend in San Francisco who was committed to this look, but not in white. Her palette was taupe to Rymanesque ecru, this being around 1980, when very pale neutrals were elbowing “gallery white.” Designers then reasoned that absolute white was an effect you could get with paint rather than taste and money, and was therefore too achievable-looking. My friend had the thinking but not the money, so her palazzo of pale neutrals, a converted industrial space, was a project that took many years to complete. For several of those years, she stood up to watch television, because the furniture she needed for living was always just a bridge too far. I particularly recall in the early stages, when there was nothing but sheet-rock and paint, one entered an environment that was a complexity of beiges — an outlaw word, that. It’s easy to conceive of a beige surround that’s boring, but this was somehow edgy, and so thought out it could never be the usual beige that results from capitulation. I dropped in for a look with a printmaker, who told my friend, “I get it. Your house is the color of rich people’s clothing.” Leaving, the printmaker said, “It’s very dry-clean only.”