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Capturing some of the layered installation by Spencer Finch at the RISD Museum

These two quotes have been helpful to me over the last few weeks. I leave them here for you while I head to Seattle for a week. Perhaps they will open something up in your view of things as well.


Simplifying our lives does not mean sinking into idleness,
but on the contrary, getting rid of the most subtle aspect
of laziness: the one which makes us take on thousands of
less important activities.

–Matthieu Ricard


We have heard all the clichés about 2012 and the Aquarian Age and the Shift. We may believe a lot of it or some of it or maybe we just hope some of it is true. It doesn’t matter how much of it each of us believe, we can still use it. From now through June the energy, the vibration of change, is as powerful as it has ever been in our journey through time and space. So in belief or in make believe, either way will work, take these simple steps and the rest of 2012 and 2013 will bring you benefits you only could have dreamed about.

It is not hard. It is simple. There is nothing to lose. Might as well try it.

Prioritize quiet mind. That’s all. Prioritize quiet mind.

Stop the mental noise several times a day. Long periods of up to an hour are excellent. If not long periods then short periods are excellent. But have a plan. Ten minutes of just looking at flowers. Five minutes of cloud watching. Ten minutes of sitting with your eyes closed watching your breath. Six minutes petting the cat or dog. Read something spiritual that truly inspires you to think about your own divinity. During these times never, ever, think about what needs fixing or your “to do” list. If you have trouble keeping the “monkey mind” at bay, keep a mantra handy. Interrupt the monkey mind by repeating a phrase such as “God is love” or “I love cool water”. Give yourself permission to believe that quiet mind is a mind which heals everything.

Other than a general sense of well being, you may not notice a change in your life right away. However, after the gestation period of a few weeks or months you will gain what you have been looking for. A healed mind heals a world.

–Paxton Robey

Two from Sean Scully:

The power of a painting has to come from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s not just an image; it’s an image with a body, and that body has to contain its spirit. A painting, really, is made by its reason for being there. What’s behind it decides everything. It’s not just a question of attrractiveness or correctness; it can’t be fixed afterwards or by additions. How it starts will define how it ends. So it’s the weight of the intention that defines everything.

My paintings talk of relationships. How bodies come together. How they touch. How they separate. How they live together, in harmony and disharmony. The character of bodies changes constantly through my work. According to color. The opacity and transparency of how the surface is made. This gives it its character and its nature. Its edge defines its relationship to its neighbor and how it exists in context. My paintings want to tell stories that are an abstracted equivalent of how the world of human relationships is made and unmade. How it is possible to evolve as a human being, in this.

Close up view of a painting by Yayoi Kusama on view in Chelsea. This is a gentle reminder for me of the rhythm of the hand moving, the ritual of a mark being made

A preoccupying theme for me lately has been the compelling (and at times, compulsive) nature of art making as well as the spiritual (and yes, mystical) sense of one’s daily effort being a “chop wood, carry water” undertaking. From Adam Davidson‘s admonitions in yesterday’s post to the wisdom offered up by Tom Nozkowski (see below for a list of links to those posts), I have been in an ongoing engagement with these thoughts.

Other artists are also compelled by these issues, and a very good source for insights about an art worker’s daily life is my friend Lynette Haggard‘s blog. Over the last few years Lynette has published interviews with a wide variety of artists. And while her format is standardized, each interview reveals the very personal way in which each artist finds—and holds—her or his place.

This morning I reread a piece Lynette wrote about San Francisco-based artist Howard Hersh (who is also a friend.) This passage felt like worthy wisdom for my day:

Hersh considers it critical to his creative practice that he spends time in his studio daily. Whether or not he picks up a brush to paint, or a pan to pour—he spends time there, living with his work and the process of making his art. Following his passion, this time spent in the studio contributes to a lifestyle of total immersion. This habit supports Hersh’s ability to have strong vision and awareness as he works.

My experience has been similar. Something happens when you show up regularly. It isn’t about number of brush strokes achieved or works completed. It is about priming. And that priming is happening on several levels.

That commitment to showing up is part of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien‘s Four Fold Way, a set of simple standards that apply to working in the studio as well as living one’s life:

1. Show up.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.
3. Speak your truth without blame or judgment.
4. Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome.

This is in keeping with the Zen koan I have quoted many times:
What do you do to achieve enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water.
What do you do after you achieve enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water.

Links to recent posts that include worthwhile insights into art making of Tom Nozkowski:

Nozkowski: Working from a Feeling
Letter to a Young Artist
Energizing the Space

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled 7-95, 1997, oil on linen on panel, 16×20”. (Image courtesy of Max Protetch Gallery)

My two major sage sources over the last few months have been Philip Guston and Thomas Nozkowski. Both artists are recognized for being extremely intelligent and cerebral; yet the power of their work is visceral and immediate. For me it is both retinal and it is somatic: My eye is in completely, as is my body.

For what I do and the way I work, Guston and Nozkowski are the best at articulating what easily falls into the inchoate and ill-defined. And even after repeated reading, their insights feel authentic and fresh. Given the self-conscious preenings that are so ubiquitous, I believe it is wise to hold on fast when you find something that sidesteps all the claptrap and digs right into the soil beneath your toes.

From an interview by John Yau with Nozkowski published in the Brooklyn Rail in 2010:

Rail: It interests me that these paintings go through a lot of changes, and that a lot of work goes into them, but you don’t want to show that.

Nozkowski: Well, I come from a working class background and I know too much about work to think that there is anything inherently good about it. I no longer have to prove to my parents that I’m doing real, honest work. I don’t think it’s essential to show the signs of work, to demonstrate the effort involved in making something. I mean, making something physically is not the most interesting part of making art. A letterpress book isn’t smarter than a Xeroxed one. Oil painting always shows its history anyway. You can’t ever erase something; you can’t get rid of it. It will affect everything that’s put on top of it, whether you’ve peeled most of the paint away or rubbed it down into a fine veil of color.

Rail: I feel like it’s part of what happened, but you don’t fetishize process.

Nozkowski: That’s definitely true. However, if you look at the surfaces of my paintings, you’ll see that the “signs of work” aren’t only shown by the facture. More often you can see that in the color. Oil paint is translucent, often transparent, and seldom completely opaque. You mix it, beat it, and layer it. It is never pure and—a commonplace—it is always seen in context, changed and charged by its size, position, and relationships with other colors. It is slippery stuff, the most elusive part of painting. I like it best in excess, when it feels like it is about to go out of control. I don’t want to create the idea that I have some singular idea of specific colors from the start of a painting. These come out of the process, trying to correct things and make it all add up. You know, you put something down and it’s not right, you do the next thing and you try again to fix it. I’ve talked about how I like painting best when it turns a little homely, turns away from the grandiose and opts for simple desire. To really want to possess something and to be willing to do anything to get it will take you pretty far. That’s the reason so much outsider painting looks so great.

Some great phrases in this conversation: not fetishizing the process, liking it best in excess and when it feels like it is about to go out of control, when it turns a little homely, when it turns away from grandiose and opts for simple desire. My kind of language and my kind of experience.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (7-72), 1995, Oil on linen on panel, 40.6 x 50.8 cm, Max Protecht Collection, © Thomas Nozkowski / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.

Some people have moderation built in, like a personality module fully loaded from birth. Those are the lucky souls who can sit in front of a bowl of chocolate covered raisins and just take one. I’m not that person. I have a proclivity for excess. Curiosities, ideas, themes come in, take over all the airwaves and monopolize my thinking for any given period of time.

This post is more about my newfound fascination with the works and the words of Thomas Nozkowski (which began with yesterday’s post.) The more I read the more sure I am he is talking to me, for me, with me, in me.

This excerpt is from artonpaper’s Letters to a Young Artist. Nozkowksi starts off with his signature self-effacing grace:

Isn’t the voice of geezerdom, with its war stories and self-regard, the last thing a young artist wants to hear? Who can stand one more story about My First Loft in SoHo, you know, the one that rented for $100 a month? Or how about The Day I Met Duchamp, How I Stretch My Canvases, The Beautiful Blonde on the Train to Paris? Isn’t it high time the old folks shuffled off and room was made for the new ideas and language of the young? What can I possibly say that might be of interest to a cool kid like you? My generation, well, we are just in your way — and we know it, too. The reality, as usual, is all mixed up. It is good to be reminded of the commonalities of our experience, that we have brothers and sisters — even parents and children — and that we are not alone; still, it’s a bore to be buttonholed by some garrulous old uncle who really just wants to brag about his own successes.

But Nozkowski is no garrulous old uncle. His simple wisdom is straight up and right on:

For myself I prefer careers that last thirty years to those that last thirty months, but there is no reason to believe there is always more integrity to one pattern than the other. Let’s face it, it’s not like this is something that is under our control. Not really. Much of the time, if an artist is any good, she is developing a way of understanding the spirit and the stuff of the world that is bound to go beyond the way just about everyone else sees and thinks about it, at least for a while. We are not ignored for malicious reasons, alas. Recognition, when it comes, sometimes can seem like a misunderstanding. The real life of the artist is solitary.

The central fact of artists’ lives — the part that non-artists never seem to quite understand — is the loneliness of the studio. Before our runs are over we will have spent more time –thousands upon thousands of hours — alone, just staring at these things we make. This part of our experience must be factored in to every idea about artists’ lives if you want to understand them. More artists stop working because of this loneliness than for any other reason.

If there is one essential survival skill that you must learn, it is how to sustain yourself and your work over the years. There is really only one way to do this, and that is by loving what you do, being fascinated by your work, and by being obsessed with making art. You will get in trouble if you need the approval of others to keep your work moving forward. After all these years, the one essential element in my practice, the one thing I am sure of is that I need to be interested in and happy about what I am doing in the studio.

Fragment of “Gareska”, part of a recent painting series

Most of us know that feeling of rubberbanding: the rapidity with which you can move from loving what you are doing to finding it completely unacceptable. The writer Anne Lamott (who has written in depth about writing itself in books like Bird by Bird) advises her Twitter followers to write badly, and to do it every day. This recent tweet is typical of her advice: “The writer’s life is a decison to write badly, study greatness, find out about life. It’s a difficult blessing, hard for all of us.”

Yes to that. So here’s a few reminders about how much we don’t understand. Which, when you are questioning what it is you do understand, can bring some sense of solace.

What we overlook is that underneath the ground of our beliefs, opinions, and concepts is a boundless sea of uncertainty. The concepts we cling to are like tiny boats tossed about in the middle of the vast ocean. We stand on our beliefs and ideas thinking they’re solid, but in fact, they (and we) are on shifting seas.

Steve Hagen

I always work out of uncertainty but when a painting’s finished it becomes a fixed idea, apparently a final statement. In time though, uncertainty returns… your thought process goes on.

Georg Baselitz

An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.

Djuna Barnes

When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others.

Bertrand Russell

From the tomb of Hafiz at Shiraz, Iran

Gurus and teachers. Having one is a given in most spiritual paths, common in many cultures and certain professions. But because I was never a good candidate for the disciple path (according to my mother, my resistance to authority was well developed at three years old), I never did the artist/mentor thing. It is probably the core reason why I have never wanted to teach and have kept my distance from any established spiritual tradition. What has worked so well for many just isn’t a fit for me.

But my library is full of advice, wisdom and insights from extraordinary minds. A book is the perfect delivery mechanism for those of us with power over issues: It neutralizes what would set us off in the flesh, and makes it easy for us to pick and choose at our own pace, on our own terms.

There are many artists in the Boston area who studied with Philip Guston while he was at Boston University. I have had extensive conversations about Guston the Teacher with Bruce Herman, chair of the Art Department at Gordon College, and more recently with David Goldman who teaches at North Shore Community College. When I hear their stories I am grateful that my exposure to Guston has been limited to his work and his writing. I am very sure I would not have fared well interacting with him directly. He was difficult. He was dogmatic. But he was also a gifted artist.

The book of his collected writings, lectures and conversations edited by Clark Coolidge is full of his koan-like art wisdom. I keep it close at hand and use it daily. This is my own version of the Persian tradition of consulting the Oracle of Shiraz, Hafiz, a popular method of divination that consists of thinking of a question and then randomly opening up Hafiz’ book of poetry. The answer is believed to be there on the page.

I am not looking for divination so much as I am in search of an operating frame for my day in the studio. The Guston book delivers again and again.

Here’s a Gustonism from the catalog for a 1958 show at the Whitney called Nature in Abstraction:

I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.

I think the only pressing question in painting is: When are you through? For my own part it is when I know I’ve “come out the other side.” This occasional and sudden awareness is the truest image for me. The clocklike path of this recognition suppresses a sense of victory: it is an ironic encounter and more of a mirror than a picture.

Philip Guston the teacher

Alexander Trauner, Street scene in Paris, 1930 (Photo: Trauner Estate)

The Surrealists were fascinated by chance, by the spontaneous event that might unlock the unconscious. They wandered the streets and let those chance encounters play out. André Breton‘s novel Nadja is based on just such a random encounter, and the character Nadja quickly comes to mean much more than a beautiful woman met by accident on a Parisian street.

The “inspiration by wandering around” approach advocated by the Surrealists has its own version online. The 21st century method is less aerobic but highly convenient: It is that five minute wait in line at FedEx that can also be a quick access portal to timely and compelling articles, blogs and websites. If you’ve done just a bit of vetting on your social media feed, you can sidestep a lot of the silly and stupid and get right to the relevant. And sometimes the timeliness of what you find is uncanny.

Here’s a fresh example. At a recent social gathering I ended up sitting next to another artist, someone whose work has achieved commercial success. My usual response is that any time an artist can make money (with the possible exception of Thomas Kinkade, R.I.P.), that’s reason to celebrate.

But I was unprepared for the arrogance and smug self-satisfaction, the self-promotional advertisement that came at me like a fire hose for most of the evening.

This encounter disturbed me on several levels. She’s borish at best but more at stake for me is a fundamental belief that art requires both confidence and humility. One without the other and it doesn’t work. It has been a long time since I ran into someone who had such an absence of the latter.

But here’s where that Surreal serendipitousness comes in. That night I came across the perfect blog post to put my discomfort with the evening aside. Ann Michael is a writer and a poet. Her blog post, Passion, art, doubt was just what I needed at that moment.

She starts with a quote from Henry James: “We work in the dark––we do what we can––we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Azar Nafisi cites this James quote in Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her memoir-based ruminations on James, she identifies deeply with James’ ambiguity, a trait in James’ fiction that her Iranian students find complex and difficult. She spends a couple of pages examining the problematic aspects of James’ work that frustrate and puzzle her students even as the same aspects appeal to her. She likes the doubt.

This quote, with its passionate appeal to the task of art, and its uncertainty, likewise resonates for me. My encounters with the ambiguity inherent in art stem from a set of experiences very different from Nafisi’s, and from James’. But our passions are similar in intensity, although I would probably tone down James’ phrase “the madness of art.”

It strikes me, now, that doubt is one of our tasks; for it is through uncertainty, curiosity, mild skepticism, and a willingness to weather the problems and puzzles of ambiguity that we keep alive our passion for the task of art, to make new, to express, to challenge, and to celebrate.

Our doubt as passion, our doubt as a task. I embrace it as an essential ingredient in staying open, in courting a wild and unexpected relationship with the uncertainty that is art making. Thank you Anne, and thank you so many others whose wisdom has shown up just in time.

Cawdra 1, from a new series

Maureen Dowd, the waspishly wicked op ed writer at the New York Times, has periodic moments of reverie between her excoriating defamations of politicians. In a column that appeared in December, she touched on a theme that has been a steady leitmotif of this blog: silence.

As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.

There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”

“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”

Schlossberg said that, for a long time, art provided the boundary for silence, “but now art, in some cases, is so distracting and intense and faceted, it’s hard to step into a moment. Especially when you’re always carrying a microcamera and a screen all the time, both recording and playing back constantly rather than allowing moments of composition and stillness when your brain can go into a reverie.”

Focusing on the newly released “silent” film The Artist, Dowd addresses the power—and risk—of using silence in an artistic statement. The film’s director, Michel Hazanavicius, participated in an early screening of the film by teenagers. Afterwards they approached him and thank him for letting them “hear the silence.” “I compare it to the zero in mathematics,” said Hazanavicius. “People think it’s nothing, but actually it’s not. It can be very powerful.”

Thanks to my friend and artist Tim Rice (who I met through Slow Muse) for flagging this article.

View of the Great Salt Lake near Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

I was introduced to the writer Barry Lopez after reading his thoughtful introduction to John Fowles‘ timeless book, The Tree (more about that here.) One of the essays included in the collection, About This Life, describes a trip Lopez took to the remote landscape of Antarctica. Titled Informed by Indifference, this essay could have been written about a number of landscapes I have known and that have moved me deeply.

Antarctica retained Earth’s primitive link, however tenuous, with space, with the void that stretched out to Jupiter and Uranus. At the seabird rookeries of the Canadian Arctic or on the grasslands of the Serengeti, you can feel the vitality of the original creation; in the dry valleys you sense sharply what came before. The Archeozoic is like fresh spoor here.

I took several long walks in the Wright and adjacent Taylor Valleys. I did not feel insignificant on these journeys, dwarfed or shrugged off by the land, but superfluous. It is a difficult landscape to enter, to develop a rapport with. It is not inimical or hostile, but indifferent, utterly remote, even as you stand in it. The light itself is aloof.

The dry valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. The air is so clear the eye can fasten effortlessly on the details, on the sharp break of shadow creases, in distant mountains, making binoculars curiously redundant. The hues of yellow and brown, the tints of orange and red that elevate the sedimentary rocks above the igneous layers of granite, take the starkness out of the land but do not alter its line, which is bold, balanced, serene. Classic.

The stillness that permeates these valleys is visual as well as acoustical. On foot, traversing a landscape that is immense but simple, your point of view, looking right and left at the mountain walls or up the valley, changes only very slowly. I had sought this stillness; but unlike the stillness I’d found in similarly austere and deserted regions of the Earth—on the tundra of Ellesmere Island, in the Namib Desert—this stillness had an edge to it. I felt no security with the Earth here, no convincing epiphany of belief in the prevailing goodwill of human beings, which always seems in the offing in these irenic places. However the Earth consoles us in the troubling matter of civilization’s acquisitiveness, its brutal disregard, this was not the landscape for it.

I know the detached disregard Lopez describes, and its impact on me is solemn and stilling. And yet I am drawn back to those landscapes repeatedly, the ones where I am an interloper who wants a glimpse into forces and scenarios so much larger than myself and my human world. Coming up against the harsh reality of our smallishness feels like a dose of the take no prisoners treatment my grandfather used to dish out. There was no monkey business with him. And there is no monkey business with a landscape that is stripped, naked and ready for whatever shows up.

Lopez ends his essay with these words:

Whatever one might impute to this landscape, of beauty or horror, seemed hardly to take hold; my entreaties for conversation met almost always with monumental indifference. I have never felt so strongly that unsettling aloofness of the adult that a small child knows, and fears. It is hard to locate the reassurance of affection in these circumstances. And yet this land informs, some would say teaches, for all its indifference. I can easily imagine some anchorite here, meditating in his room of stone, or pausing before a seal shipwrecked in this polar desert.

Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want not to forget.

If you returned it would be to pay your respects, for not being welcome.

Wild parts of Utah are like that for me. I’m headed that way tonight for 5 days. We are going out for the memorial for my mother-in-law who passed away at 89. But hopefully I’ll also get a chance to taste some of that not being welcome as well. It is the best way to a reality reset.