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Shoji Hamada

How easy it is to slip into busy. Busy, and disconnected from the core of things. This morning I found a needed course correction courtesy of Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting:

Cognitive scientists tell us that it takes time for the conscious mind to extract latent patterns within a diversity of superficially different experiences. In our idle moments, in the gaps between our activities our minds are busy connecting the threads of our experiences. Idelness can allow epistemic openings, where apparently separate notions mingle and recombine in surprising ways. If these gaps are plugged up by more data, creative synthesis is blocked.

Robinson goes on to reference the master potter Shoji Hamada whose work and life is the subject of Bernard Leach‘s Hamada, Potter. In speaking about his work, Hamada said it did not come from “my mind, it came but from my whole body; it emerged out of my middle, my lower abdomen. I have such a good feeling about having done this pot…This work does not come out of my thought; rather I simply permit the movement that my hands have learned over many years. In fact, in the work forged by my body during sixty years, there is an unconscious revelation. I sense that my work has become more comfortable…I now hope that, rather than made things, born things will increase in my work.”

Robinson continues this line of thought:

The Japanese believe that your hara, their term for the core of your being, lives about two inches above and one inch in from your navel. The attentive mind is not circumscribed in the compass of our skulls, it is close to our belly button.

Creativity is in the body. Those were the first words spoken to me by my dancer friend Joe Gifford, now 92, the first time he came to my studio many years ago. No better mantra for every day, in the studio or out.

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All the world as seen through the lens of a crystalline polythene grid of air pockets

“Of course one always has the same theme. Everyone has her theme. She should move around in that theme.”

So claims Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. Similarly, artist Lucian Freud was reported to have said, “Everything is autobiographical, everything is a portrait, even if it’s only a chair.”

One last example, and a memorable one: Willem de Kooning, suffering from dementia at the end of his life, continued to paint in that de Kooning signatory style. Brain dysfunction be damned, his work was coming up from somewhere deeper. Or different.

Be like me. See the world through my eyes. It is an elemental aspect of an artist’s consciousness. And the edge between objective and subjective is often an invisible boundary. Can we ever see it, that line where our own proclivities end?

After all, there is a long list of behavorial biases that can alter our ability to see/understand/perceive/comprehend with clarity. Here’s just a few from Psy-Fi’s much longer list:

Ambiguity Aversion: we don’t mind risk but we hate uncertainty
Babe Ruth Effect: winning big but rarely beats winning often and small
Bias Blind Spot: we agree that everyone else is biased, but not ourselves
Confirmation Bias: we interpret evidence to support our prior beliefs and, if all else fails, we ignore evidence that contradicts it
Familiarity Effect: being familiar with something makes you favour it
Fundamental Attribution Error: we attribute success to our own skill and failure to everyone else’s lack of it
Galatea Effect: some people succeed simply because they think they should
Hindsight Bias: we’re unable to stop ourselves thinking we predicted events, even though we’re woefully bad at predicting the future
Inter-group Bias: we evaluate people within our own group more favorably than those outside of it
Introspection Illusion: we value information gleaned from introspection more than we value our actions
Sharpshooter Effect: beware experts painting targets around bullet holes
Survivorship Bias: this is an error that comes from focusing only on the examples that survive some particular situation
Titanic Effect: if it can’t sink you don’t need lifeboats
Tragedy of the Commons: we overuse common resources because it not in any individual’s interests to conserve them

During the last few months I have been tunneling deeply through a massive project. An intensity of focus has been needed to get it done, but it comes at a cost. During times like these, my ability to parse the world in general becomes impaired.

I’ve been in that place before. When I had my first child, the world outside my home ceased to exist. If you didn’t wear a diaper and weren’t sleeping in the crib in the room next door, you just didn’t get any air time. I am grateful for the remembrance—and reassurance—that normalcy does return. Eventually.


Close up of Nagala that, from a certain angle, feels more planetary than painting

I’ve been in a particular kind of intimacy with my latest body of work (such a wonderful phrase to describe a variety of artifacts that feel connected…) Yes, you bring them into existence. You labor over every inch of their surface. You lovingly coax them along. Then something happens. They begin to talk back. They take on a life of their own. And then, if you are lucky, they find a place to live somewhere else.

I’ve been packing up an upcoming show for weeks now, lots of large paintings heading west. My intimacy with each piece has expanded into a full familiarity with their backsides, their potential unwieldiness, the scope of their girth, the width and length and weight of each one.

It has been a period with a different kind of focus, but a kind of focusing nonetheless. Being present even in this effort has its own rewards albeit harder won.

From Sarah Robinson’s highly companionable small book, Nesting*:

If we can be still long enough, details of the world reveal themselves of their own accord. Steven Holl counsels, “To open ourselves to perception, we must transcend the mundane urgency of ‘things to do.’ We must try to access the inner life which reveals the luminous intensity of the world. Only through solitude can we begin to penetrate the secret world around us. An awareness of one’s unique existence in space is essential in developing a consciousness of perception.” Rather than forcing our experience into a prefixed Platonic ideal or the totality of a planner’s prescription, contextual information is simply allowed to emerge. This is deep listening, the source of both poetic making and responsible action…

Through listening and observing, appropriate form emerges from the unique variables of the situation. Local insight yields diverse outcomes. This is perhaps why much of what indigenous cultures produce bears the signature of their landscape. Being situated is to be at the site, the unique unrepeatable place that is context.

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*More about Nesting here.


The pleasures of making marks

In writing Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin?, John Berger has fashioned a book that is a hybrid cobbling of many facets of the his persona—memoirist, philosopher, art historian, artist, political essayist, cultural critic. Berger has a long history as a writer and a well recognized voice, so creating a category-busting book like this one is in some ways a perk that comes with his success. This is Berger doing his “the world according to me,” and the result is a quirky and very personal patchwork of stories.

In many ways Berger’s approach is more blog-like than it is book-like. The reader is invited to roam through Berger’s life and insights without the artifice of a recognizable template or format. Some parts are better than others, but there is much to recommend this unexpected blending of Bergerian insights and ideas.

(Note: Another very successful example of this wide angle viewing is Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting which I wrote about here.)

The fundamental armature of Bento’s Sketchbook is the writings of Spinoza. The Bento of the title, Spinoza spent most of his life—when he wasn’t working as a lens grinder—contesting Descartes’ mind/body duality. And sketching. And in spite of his refusal to publish his works during his lifetime, Spinoza’s writings survived (and ended up playing an influential role in bringing about the Enlightenment.) His sketchbook(s) however did not.

Berger steps in as if to offer himself as a proxy for Bento’s lost visualizations by assembling sketches from his everyday life. In the words of Colin McCabe: “What [Berger] is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza’s attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world.”

In an interview with Berger in the Paris Review, he described his own intentions for this book:

I never really thought of myself as an art critic. I mean, I wrote a lot about art, particularly visual art, but my approach was—how to put it? The primary thing wasn’t to say whether a work was good or bad; it was rather to look and try to discover the stories within it. There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with. In some very small and personal way, that’s what I wanted to address with this book.

Spinoza gets embedded in the warp and woof of Berger’s personal encounters and stories. In an unexpected turn, those 17th century passages offer up a more optimistic view than Berger’s harsher personal sense of a world gone wrong, one that is neither fair nor hopeful.

But from time to time Berger steps away from the world’s troubles and contemplates the simple act of drawing. It is at those moments that he is at his most expansive.

When I’m drawing—and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning—I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digestion or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated, but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning.

Thanks to the recent work of neurobiologists like Antonio Demasio, it’s now known that the messages which pass from cell to cell in a living body do so in the forms of charts and maps. They are spatial arrangements. They have a geometry.

It is through these ‘maps’ that the body communicates with the brain and the brain with the body. And these messages constitute the basis of the mind, which is the creature of both body and brain, as you believed and foresaw. In the act of drawing there’s perhaps an obscure memory of such map-reading.

As Damasio put it: ‘The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images generated by the brain’s map-making abilities.’

Drawing is anyway an exercise in orientation and as such may be compared with other processes of orientation which take place in nature.

When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…

Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisibile to its incalculable destination.

The freeform (non)format of Bento’s Sketchbook is appealing on many levels. But may I confess to a wandering eye? While reading Berger’s book I kept fantasizing about how much I would love to see a version of this from some of my most thoughtful artist friends. Berger is first and foremost a writer, and his drawings are uneven at best. A more gifted hand could shift the balance to equal parts words and images. Hey there Altoon Sultan, George Wingate, Miriam Louisa Simons, Sally Reed, Tim Rice, Rachael Eastman, Riki Moss, Holly Downing, Elizabeth Mead, Luke Storms, Holly Friesen, Walt Pascoe, Pam Farrell, Paula Overbay, Nancy Natale, Lynette Haggard, Tamar Zinn, Filiz Soyak, Ramah Commanday, Amani Ansari—something to consider?

I just returned from a week in the Outer Banks with my three sisters. Beautiful and remote, that slim slice of land felt even more so with whole sections of the road washed out from Hurricane Sandy and only traversable via 4 wheel drive. Later in the week the road was closed down altogether due to wind and high tides. The only way back was a slow ferry to an out of the way corner of (very) rural North Carolina.

But being there was what matters most. Those grayed over skies and a frisked up surf presaging yet another storm this weekend were a perfect backdrop for my deep dive into the delectably oversized Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 – 2007. Now back home after my OBX sojourn, nearly every page is marked up and annotated. What a feast. If Gerhard Richter‘s work speaks to you, this book is for you.

Here are just a few passages that I opened to at random:

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One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.

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Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.

***
Uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.

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Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.

I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures—even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they lie and somehow just take shape.

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It seems to me that the invention of the readymade was the invention of reality. It was the crucial discovery that what counts is reality, not any world-view whatever. Since then, painting has never represented reality; it has been reality (creating itself.)

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Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude—I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone.

***
The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality.

***
Question: You do abstract and realistic paintings at the same time. Isn’t that a great contradiction?

The means you use to organize it are the same: the same structure, the same contrasts…But there is a difference in what I call the climate. For example, the landscape are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive. I look for these differences of climate.

***
I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colors fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.

***
It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia.

And when the mind is immersed so deeply, everything is seen through that Richterian lens. Beach, sand, water—all elements that speak a similar language.


William Stout Books, San Francisco

San Francisco’s William Stout Architectural Books is located on the periphery of North Beach, just a few blocks from the better known City Lights. Both bookshops are labyrinthine and lushly overstuffed. But Stout and me, we have a mystical connection. I never leave that narrow two storied jewel box without some treasure under my arm. And the latest find is my all time best: Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind, by Sarah Robinson.

This small book is an exquisite set of essays that goes well beyond the domain of architecture. Her world view blends philosophy, poetry, biology and wisdom to offer a concise and clearly written meditation on how to think about who we are as humans in this grand adventure. My library has a shelf full of books that explore these complex themes of art making and human consciousness (Gaston Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Edward Hall, E. V. Walter among many others), and Robinson references many of them in her notes. But none of those writers offer up what she has achieved: A human sized, perfectly tuned invitation into the world of these ideas. Malcolm Gladwell refers to “amplitude” as the gastronome’s measure of how flavors come together in such exquisite compliance that the recipe cannot be improved. Robinson’s book is high amplitude in written form.

And as an object itself, the book is also a feast. Small in format, the book includes images that sit well positioned amid the beautifully laid out printed words. (Like other William Stout Publishers books, Nesting has been designed with great attention to detail.)

The introduction was written by Juhani Pallasmaa, an architect and theorist I have written about many times on Slow Muse (and the author of one of my favorite books, Eyes of the Skin.) Robinson’s chapter headings say something about the range of her purveiw: Of Havens, The Mind of the Skin, Practically Unconscious, Dark Matters, Love is Paying Attention, Belonging, To Dwell in Possibility. Each of these chapters could fill several posts, full of provocative insights and the fresh comingling of ideas.

And how timely. To read this book about the nature of place and how we are with our world is particularly apropos at a time when all of us are freshly aware of the devastation of homes and communities caught in Sandy’s force field.

That’s a worthy place to start. Here are a few passages that speak to those complex circumstances:

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Our environment mirrors what we have come to believe about our relations and ourselves: that all are re-place-able, the palpable echo of Cartesian solopcism. The natural environment, local culture, and social patterns, once dominant factors shaping the character of a place, are now only marginal determinants…Dislocated from the tissue of community, people are routinely forced to start tabula rasa, a norm all the more insidious because it is equated with freedom.

***
Places [in the past] were not commodities, they were dense contexts of communally-lived history as well as a source of one’s personal identity.

***
Our feelings about a particular place may be personal, but the feelings grow out of collective experiences that do not occur elsewhere. They are specific to and belong to the place. People and place participate in one another’s sustenance, and places perish along with the disappearance of people who cherish them. We dwell in places in a paradgim of mutual influences.

***
Perhaps we can understand place as a basin of attraction, a matrix that evokes and sustains our imagination. E. V. Walter writes:

“Towns may die for all sorts of reasons, but expressive vitality depends on how a place engages the imagination. A place is dead if the physique dos not support the work of the imagination, if the mind cannot engage with the experience located there, or if the local energy fails to evoke ideas, images or feelings…’Where do I belong?’ is a question addressed to the imagination. To inhabit a place physically but to remain unaware of what it means, or how it feels, is a deprivation more profund that deafness at a concert or blindess at an art gallery. Humans in this condition belong nowhere.”

More, much more, to come.


Sarah Robinson

More information about Sarah Robinson’s architectural practice here.

Happiness studies (Is that a legitimate category of research now? I think yes) have produced results that often surprise me and feel counterintuitive. One well known study from a few years ago found that happiness is not just the product of a proactive program of self help books and positive thinking. It also is impacted by the collective. The phenomenon of happiness spreads through social networks like an emotional contagion. As one researcher put it, “How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all…And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood.” (An earlier post, Catching Some Happy, addresses some of the findings of that study.)

This phenomenon has naturally led to thoughts about what else might be operating in that emotional contagion model. What other emotions (or memes) are spilling over invisibly into our lives? Given the highly bipartisan state of our nation, it doesn’t seem to apply to political beliefs and our interpretive spin on reality. But what about the sought after qualities—bravery, inventiveness, resourcefulness, creativity, moxie–that are, like happiness, held in high esteem by everyone regardless of political affiliation?

I am operating in the zone of imaginative conjecture here but only because I am frequently inspired—deeply—when someone I know steps up and out of the quotidian and does something extraordinary.

I had just that experience this week when I received a copy of David B. Marshall‘s newly published book, The Lost Work of Wasps. Marshall became one of my favorite online connections when I discovered one of his blogs several years ago. He is a writer, artist and a teacher, and his posts on his most recent site Signals to Attend are full bodied, exquisitely wrought and always thoughtful. What I didn’t foresee was how transformed his jeweled insights—which I have been experiencing in serial form over time—are by taking up residence in book form.

Using the template first used by Yoshida Kenko, a 14th century Buddhist monk who assembled a collection of his brief essays into a book called Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idelness), Marshall has found a container for his wide angle mind and eye. By combining words with his own drawings—he calls them “doodles”—The Lost Work of Wasps can be read in a linear fashion or in random access, Hafiz style. (In the Persian tradition, personal questions are answered by randomly opening the Oracle of Shiraz’s book of poems to find the answer.)

The idea of borrowing Kenko’s format may sound like a bit of cleverness, but it is neither manipulative nor misused. It is actually a perfect fit for the way Marshall’s mind moves from one concept to another. And having his thinking flow in my hand feels very different than scrolling down through his posts online. Blogs have their own footprint. So does a book.

I know this is obvious but I keep being surprised when I am reminded once again of how forms affect content. It’s like the experience of trying to move a small artwork into a large format and finding that it just won’t translate. Lyric isn’t epic, intimate isn’t high drama, and a book feels and reads differently than a blog.

And what a boost all of us get from Marshall’s bravery and vision. The spillover of creative resonance is like getting order for free in chaos theory. Thanks David, and congratulations.


Marsha Cottrell, A Black Powder Rains Down Gently On My Sleepless Night (detail), 2012; iron oxide on mulberry paper; Courtesy the artist; © Marsha Cottrell

If you are contemplating a trip to San Francisco in the next year, do it before June 2013. That’s when the entire SFMOMA will close down til early 2016 for construction of a significant expansion. As the second largest contemporary art museum in the United States, SFMOMA will be tripling its endowment and adding 78,000 square feet of additional indoor gallery and public space (SFMOMA currently has 59,500 square feet of galleries and a 15,000 square foot Rooftop Garden added in 2010.) Unlike MOMA’s alternative space at PS 1, SFMOMA hasn’t announced anything specific for that 3 year hiatus.

In addition to the Cindy Sherman show which ends on October 8, SFMOMA had a number of other memorable exhibits. My favorite was Field Conditions. Here is the description of the show:

Can there be architecture without buildings? What if a wall or a floor went on forever? What happens when people move through a room? From immersive installations to intricate drawings, the works in Field Conditions pose provocative questions about the construction, experience, and representation of space. This exhibition assembles an array of projects by both noted architects and contemporary artists — including Stan Allen, Tauba Auerbach, Sol LeWitt, Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Lebbeus Woods, and others — that redefine the relationships between invisible and visible, field and boundary, finite and infinite. Field Conditions invites us to imagine beyond the frame.

Marsha Cottrell‘s stellar drawings (pictured above) were included in the exhibit and unforgettably masterful.

In the permanent galleries I was pleased to see a number of Bruce Connor works on display. (I am a big fan and have written about him in several posts here including Authentic Tomfoolery) and Moving in the Landscape as One of its Details.) I was also delighted to see a rich and dense Petah Coyne sculpture, a wall of Joseph Cornell boxes and some timeless Ray Johnson collages from the 60’s and 70’s that look completely contemporary. (He is so underappreciated.)

In an effort to support the local art scene, one gallery is devoted to San Francisco’s Mission School, part of the “lowbrow” art movement that took its cues from street culture (and highlighted in the excellent documentary, Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Art Culture, directed by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard.) Several San Francisco Mission School artists have become well known such as Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen.


Marsha Cottrell, Hypothetical Place 2, 2002; inkjet print on paper; 35 x 47 in. (88.9 x 119.38 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Marsha Cottrell


Petah Coyne


Bruce Connor


Wall of Joseph Cornell boxes


Ray Johnson

And a bonus shot: Louis Vuitton’s windows facing Union Square sporting an homage to Yayoi Kusama‘s brilliant show at the Tate Modern in London and most recently at the Whitney Museum…


Kusama display at Louis Vuitton

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Read the FAQ about SFMOMA’s expansion here.


Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground. With slight modifications and changes, his original design is still the lingua franca of transporation mapping.

Our minds create maps of every place we go. Apparently all animals do this, not just us. And those cognitive maps are not necessarily accurate or drawn to scale. Like the iconic map of the London Tube designed in 1933 by an electrical draughtsman named Harry Beck, the best maps make a complex system comprehensible by eliminating information that isn’t essential and simplifying the schemata to mostly straight lines. Beck’s map is conceptual, not accurate, but it is the most famous and most emulated transportation map in the world.

There are emotional maps too. These are more complex charts than a transit system schemata or a topographic map of the terrain. For one thing they include the additional coordinate of time. The past is constantly linking and looping back into our present, and our memories of how things used to be are constantly being stretched taut by how those places change. The map of a life is layered, dense and highly specialized. Some friends share a layer or two, but this complex of overlays and connections ends up being a map only comprehensible to one person.

Visiting California is the inevitable return to the deep foundational grid of my personal map as well, the one formed by a childhood in the Bay Area and college years in Santa Cruz. As richly engaging as present tense California is, it is still for me just a glass floor atop the isometrics of the deep past.

I spent time with some extraordinary art and artists while I was there—Holly Downing, Ramah Commanday, Tim Rice, Jorg Schmeisser, Theodora Varnay Jones, Laura Corallo-Titus, Marsha Cottrell, Howard Hersh, Kathy Greenwald, Shelby Graham, Norman Locks. Landscapes that continue to take your breath away. Exquisite food. And of course the wedding of dear pals Sally and Meehan. I’m in a kind of sensory overload so it may take a few days for all the cognitive systems to fire up again.


Sunrise from Marin County


Kevin Simmers and Holly Downing in her studio in Sebastopol


Holly’s current show at Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at Cowell College, UCSC


Oversized platter by Ramah Commanday in St. Helena


Ramah’s “Every Day a Pinched Pot” project from 2011 (these are from February)


Richard Carter’s pottery studio and Japanese kilns in Pope Valley


Tomatillos and grapes from Ramah’s garden


Tim Rice in his North Berkeley studio


The view of Marin County from Tim’s old studio in Hercules


Sunset through the fog in San Francisco


Printmaker extraordinaire Jorg Schmeisser who passed away in June


Theodora Varnay Jones at Don Soker Gallery


Howard Hersh in his studio in the Shipyard in San Francisco


New encaustic work by Howard


The Shipyard


Thriving hydrangeas at Mission Ranch


Norman Locks and Monica Grant in the UCSC printmaking facility


Drawing studio with northern exposure, UCSC (we had nothing like this back in the day!)


Carmel River where it meets the sea


Sheep meadow in Carmel


Meehan and Sally, post ceremony


Carmel River Beach looking towards Point Lobos


Najeev 1, from a new painting series

I found an extraordinary essay by Steve Baker titled “To go about noisily: clutter, writing and design.” I’ve been mulling over the issues he raises for several weeks and I am still formulating my thoughts on this topic. Clutter: It’s a much more complex topic than those hoarder reality shows would suggest. When I come to some clarity, I will write more about Baker’s essay.

But an epigraph from Schopenhauer that Baker uses at the beginning of his piece caught my attention: “The surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment.”

Really? My first response was, that’s not about me since I don’t pick up a book every time I have a free moment (but how about every other?) In all seriousness, my thinking life is best described as hybrid vigor: I am happiest when there are other points of view to consider. I like an idea landscape richly textured, and the origin of the flora and fauna doesn’t matter to me at all. The Schopenhauer approach is too stark and monastic to appeal to my pluralist (or as some would say, excessive) tendencies.

And what’s more, the best ideas stand up well over time, and they can still feed you when you come back to them later. A good example is this quote by W. S. Piero from his book of essays on modern art, Out of Eden. I first posted it on Slow Muse in 2007. When I ran across it quite by accident this morning I wanted to share it here again.

Why are the jets and emulsive tracks of paints in Pollock’s Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 so compelling? It’s not only because he was creating a greater plasticity of space and laying out dozens of contested fields of formal activity where disintegrating patterns pitch against imminent, struggling stabilities. There’s something one can’t reduce satisfactorily to formal terms. In 1964 the Romanian-born Eliade, who was a great admirer of his countryman Brancusi, spoke of “nonfigurative painters who abolish representational forms and surfaces, penetrate to the inside of matter, and try to reveal the ultimate structures of substance.” In order to talk about Pollock, and Rothko for that matter, in other than purely formalist vocabularies (and to avoid the useless argument that both were representationalists masquerading as abstractionists), we have to…talk about the sacred and the mundane. Eliade also says that non-representational art corresponds to the “demythologization” in religion advocated by Rudolph Bultmann. As Christianity may dissolve the images and symbols of its traditional narratives to confront once again the freshness of religious experience in our secular, materialistic time, certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation. Moreover, he says, today’s artist “sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.’ The time of the epiphany has not yet arrived, or does the world truly have no face?” I think Pollock and Rothko worked to paint that facelessness. For Rothko it was toned with a magisterial, voluminous solemnity. For Pollock the tone was one of self-devouring conflict.