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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 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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Ferrofluid with permanent magnets underneath
(Image courtesy of Felice Frankel)

Here are two provocative examples of morphing developments in photography, especially in the age of digital (and signficantly, nearly cost free and unlimited) options.

The first features Felice Frankel, author of Envisioning Science. Frankel has come a long way in bringing meangingful visual imaging into the lab and classroom. While her images are accurate and not manipulated, they are more powerful because she has made conscious compositional and color decisions.

From an article about Frankel in the New York Times:

With her help, scientists have turned dull images of things like yeast in a dish or the surface of a CD into photographs so striking that they appear often on covers of scientific journals and magazines. According to George M. Whitesides, a Harvard chemist and her longtime collaborator, “She has transformed the visual face of science…”

“We started talking about how one represented science on the blackboard,” [Whitesides] recalled, “and at some point she made the remark that she thought we did it badly and I said, ‘Well, you show us how to do it better,’ and we were off and running…”

Since then, Dr. Whitesides said, “her impact on scientific communication has been very large, in the way science talks to science and science talks to the world outside science.”

One of Frankel’s most famous images of a ferrofluid (see above) was enhanced when she placed a yellow post it note beneath the slide. It didn’t change the science, but it made the image much more dramatic and visually memorable. It was made into a poster and has become a ubiquitous scientific image.

Frankel is cautious about claims that her work makes her an artist as well as a scientist. More from the Times article:

When people call Felice Frankel an artist, she winces.

In the first place, the photographs she makes don’t sell. She knows this, she says, because after she received a Guggenheim grant in 1995, she started taking her work to galleries. “Nobody wanted to bother looking,” she said.

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

Phenomena like magnetism or the behavior of water molecules or how colonies of bacteria grow — phenomena of nature. “So I don’t call it art,” Ms. Frankel said. “When it’s art, it’s more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image.”

But Whitesides and other scientists may not agree. “She has a wonderful sense of design and color. It is hard to say she is not an artist,”Whitesides said.

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The surface of a CD is compared to a player piano roll
(Image courtesy of Felice Frankel)

The other phenom is finding out that what I have always done with a camera, even before the advent of digital technology, has a name. Miksang is a Tibetan word that means “good eye.” It comes from the dharma art teachings of the late meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, specifically his teachings on the nature of perception.

From Robert Genn’s newsletter:

The art of Miksang was begun as a meditational tool by Shambhala Buddhists, but it has implications for painters and other creative people. The idea is to find joy and awareness by attending to the minor and seemingly insignificant–the colours, patterns and textures that exist in the close-up world…Shambhalas think widespread use might lead to more compassionate and enlightened societies.

What value does Miksang have for creative folks? Obviously, Miksang makes for pause, reflection and quiet centering. By increasing awareness, one builds a feeling of wonder and kinship with the overlooked. But its real value is in seeing design and the subtlety of colour. To the discriminating eye
the macro world is a minor symphony. Looking through a viewfinder and making decisions hone the ability to find the larger compositions. It’s all about the acquired skills of looking and seeing. Buddhist or not, this art can be performed at any time and any place.

There are over 3,000 images tagged as Miksang on Flickr. I probably have three times that many images of my own in the photo boxes in my closet and as digital files on my computer.

Like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who is surprised to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life, I have no problem with Miksang as the name for a never ending fascination with the play of light on a wall, with a suggestion of cosmic dust in beach sand, or the universe of color in the bark of a tree.

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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.

I have often used the phrase, “somewhere between what is hidden and what is seen” as a way to describe what pulls me in and inspires. So I was enchanted when a young Irish student visiting a show of my work in West County Cork turned to me and said, “I think I know what your art is about. You are painting the backside of everything.”

The following excerpt is from a course taught by Robert Tilley at the Aquinas Academy in Sydney, and also speaks to that backside view of things:

It would be foolish to think that one could capture beauty, distill a thing down, hive off its incidentals, until one were left with its pure essence; its beautiful quiddity.

Beauty is something more in the order of an orientation; an orientation away to that which is other to the thing itself. Contrary to what both alchemists and modern cosmetic manufacturers hope for, one cannot capture the essence of beauty into a pragmatic, empirical, product. Rather, in a sense, beauty is captured–if that’s the right word–in tangents, deflections, hints, intimations, whispers, and often in the most unlikely places, at the borders of things. We might say that this is because, tangents and so forth are themselves signs of deferral and thus, at times, transcendence.

It is art that when well done best captures this feel for the tangential.

(Thank you to my friend Alma Denton for sending Tilley’s writings to me.)

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My work is non-objective like that of the Abstract Expressionists. But I want people, when they look at my painting, to have the same feelings they experience when they look at landscape, so I never protest when they say my work is like landscape. But it’s really about the feeling of beauty and freedom that you experience in landscape.

Agnes Martin

Bill Viola, artist extraordinare and seeker, was asked to select objects from the Asia Society’s collection a few years ago for a show called The Creative Eye. Here he responds to the 17th century Gandavyuha Manuscript from Nepal:
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If you engage in travel you will arrive.
-Ibn Arabi (1165-1240)

When the need to know becomes stronger than the need to be, when our immediate surroundings cannot fulfill our desire to see beneath the world of appearances, when the comforts of home become oppressive and counter-productive, we have no choice but to engage in travel.

The book tells the story of a young man named Sudhana who is compelled by the very source of Wisdom to set out on a path that takes him through a series of encounters with various teachers and spiritual guides, eventually leading to enlightenment….In the end, none of his teachers have the ultimate answer for him, forcing Sudhana to continually move on and reminding us that incomplete efforts and even failures are priceless elements in an accumulated whole, and that living with a sound question is more important than possessing a temporary answer. The path is always more valuable than the destination.

Painting by Dorothy Napangardi
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Tree trunks, Alice Springs
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Painting by Johnny Warangkula
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Todd River bed, Gum tree, Alice Springs
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Painting by Kathleen Petyarre
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Simpson Desert, Northern Territory
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It needs to be remembered that Central and Western Desert art works, and the narratives in which they are embedded, comprise high levels of information about the environment, site-specific ‘deep ecology’, interactions between species, as well as offering templates for human intereactions, and ethical and moral guidance. The art work itself acts as a kind of visual shorthand representing these Dreaming narratives, which encrypt Indigenous social memory, or what could be described as ‘cultural DNA.’ Focussing exclusively on the abstract, formal qualities of such art works is ultimately eurocentric, because such interpretations are premised on the suppression or even erasure of this considerable substratum of cultural meaning. This potentially leads to permanent cultural loss on the part of the Indigneous custodians of these narratives.

Christine Nicolls, from Dancing Up Country