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Highlights from a much needed getaway to New York:

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Charlie Hass (Photo, Narrative Magazine)

Watching Charlie Haas carry off the best book reading event ever with his performance (I don’t use that word lightly) from his new novel, The Enthusiast. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who needs their spirits enthused. (Learn more about the book here.) If he is scheduled in a venue near you—like Los Angeles on the 18th of June—don’t miss it.

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Chapter/Chapel, by Bill T. Jones and company (The Phoenix)

Catching Bill T. Jones’ last performance of Chapter/Chapel at Harlem Stage. Telling the story of several violent murders, this piece by Jones asks an essential question with this multimedia piece: “How can this event suggest the uneasy distance our mediatized era helps create between the passive observers we are and the disturbing, sometimes incomprehensible ‘news items’ we encounter every day?” A deeply intense, haunting, memorable work, Chapter/Chapel gave friend and singer extraordinaire Alicia Hall Moran a remarkable venue for her gifts. (Here’s the review of Chapter/Chapel’s premiere in the New York Times.)

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Francis Bacon, Crucifiction

Not a highlight per se but worthy of a few words was seeing the Francis Bacon show at the Met. Bacon. He’s been a problematic presence in my life as an artist for as long as I can remember. As an art student I could see a mastery in his work, but it was not a mastery that instructed, inspired or enlightened my own intentions. He wasn’t speaking to me, and my “yes but” acknowledgment of his contribution hasn’t changed in all those years since I first began this journey.

I went to see this exhibit more from a sense of obligation than aesthetic connectedness. Bacon’s influence on 20th century art is de facto although the shadow he cast darkened the fields in a completely different part of the art making vineyard from where I have been laboring. Sometimes art is a snake charming of the dark, and sometimes it is a plea for transcendence. Bacon is the prince of the former.

My friend Andria said, Bacon is painting what’s there, but it’s the “what’s there” that the rest of us won’t allow ourselves to see. Bleak that is that deep can be dismissed as easily as the ambient bliss seen by another set of eyes. Bacon’s conflation of Michelangelo and Muybridge, his perennial view of flesh as pusillanimous vulnerability, his obsession with certain forms—the geometric artifice of his work, the shade pulls, the mouths that devour, the human/animal confluence—all bring his dark vision to a powerful, dissonant, full orchestra chord.

Some of the pieces in the show had a toned down rage that made it a bit easier for me to sit with what is painterly in his work. His portraits, of himself, his lovers and even William Blake, have moments for me that are not accompanied by the scream of pain I feel when I look at most of his larger canvases.

But having seen his work for years, I may have been somewhat inoculated over time. My partner David has not had as much exposure to the work, and I watched as he looked intensely at each painting, trying to understand the context and intent. He seemed to be able to detach himself from the dark content and did not flag in his exploration, but the next morning he had a very different sense of the imagery. He said he woke up haunted by the pernicious humanoid forms that sport nothing but a hungry mouth, reminding him of every dark impulse he has ever had. It was hard to shed those images once lodged, and the rest of the day that sense of dark creaturehood was with him.

Those particularly frightening Baconian forms are described wonderfully by Gilles Deleuze: Bacon’s scream is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth. Not surprising that Bacon has mastered how to seed the unconscious with time lapse hauntings, those images that come back when you are most vulnerable and least expect them.

(To read a variety of reviews of the Bacon show, I’ve posted several on Slow Painting.)

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Bacon self portrait

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The best part of a getaway weekend to my old ‘hood in Manhattan however was reconnecting with friends, some of them with me for more years than I can count–Mimi Kramer, Mike and Peggy Porder, Paul and Lynda Gunther, Andria Klarer, Melissa and Annabelle Heckler, Jason and Alicia Hall Moran, Kathryn Kimball. There’s nothing like some serious high contrast to make the darks dark and lights light.

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I’m on my way to New York City for a weekend full of the best kind of distractions—a book reading of The Enthusiast by college chum Charlie Haas (a very funny and endearing book that both my partner David and I loved, something that doesn’t happen often), tea at Lady Mendl’s in Gramercy Park, the Francis Bacon show at the Met, a Bill T. Jones/Jason Moran performance in Harlem and spending time with lots of old friends from back in the day. Full circling, to be sure.

And in that spirit, here’s yet another great passage from Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes the World:

One of Picasso’s favorite assignments for a young artist was to have him or her try to draw a perfect circle. It can’t be done; everyone draws a circle with some particular distortion, and that distorted circle is “your” circle, an insight into “your” style. “Try to make the circle as best you can. And since nobody before you has made a perfect circle, you can be sure that your circle will be completely your own. Only then will you have a chance to be original.” The deviations from the idea give an insight into the style, and thus, Picasso says, “from errors one gets to know the personality.”

This, then, is the sense in which an artist both works with accidents yet creates work in which “there are no accidents.” “Accidents, try to change them—it’s impossible. The accident reveals man.” With Picasso as with Jung and Freud, accidents point to the concealed portion of the man or woman to whom they happened.

Ancient or modern, then, one continuing line of thought holds that accidents break the surface of our lives to reveal hidden purpose or design. The carefully interwoven structures of thought and social practice provide stability and structure, but they bring a kind of blindness and supidity, too. Gifts of Hermes tear little holes in those fabrics to offer us brief intelligence in other realms.

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Portrait of Francis Bacon

I have posted two separate reviews on Slow Painting of the Francis Bacon show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, one by Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, and one by Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe. Both touch on Bacon’s deeply troubled personal life, in particular his experience of love as destructive and painful. Ah the Hazards of Love (thank you, Decembrists, I do love your latest.)

Nothing new about that point of view of course, but it is played out with serious drama and self-destructive extravagance in Bacon’s life as well as his art. Beauty and love are palliatives for most of us, but they weren’t cover enough for Bacon.

I’ve also been thinking about why Bacon, a major art influence in the 20th century, was never a major player in my coming of age as an artist, especially given Saltz’s claim:

Like DalĂ­ and Munch, Bacon is an artist we love when young. Tantalized by the urgency, angst, weirdness, blood, sex, and bodies, we think, That’s me! That’s how I feel!

When I was young, I admired Bacon’s muscular viscerality, the fierceness of his painterliness. But it was never the soul match I felt with the influence of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning, Brice Marden.

Part of this was a result of my proclivities towards non-representation. But part of it was also vibrational. A longing for the dark side has a very different frequency and amplitude than the propensity for the numinous. Underneath all proclivities and responses to life however is a substratum of fear and suffering. It can be engaged with or it can be ignored, but it is there nonetheless.

Thanks to Whiskey River (you come through for me again and again!) I found this provocative and relevant quote from Taoist author Deng Ming-Dao:

There is an underbelly of terror to all life. It is suffering, it is hurt. Deep within all of us are intense fears that have left few of us whole. Life’s terrors haunt us, attack us, leave ugly cuts. To buffer ourselves, we dwell on beauty, we collect things, we fall in love, we desperately try to make something lasting in our lives. We take beauty as the only worthwhile thing in this existence, but it cannot veil cursing, violence, randomness, and injustice.

That is why spiritual progress is slow: not because no one will tell us the secrets, but because we ourselves must overcome sentiment and fear before we can grasp it.

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