Bulldoggity

angle1
Up close and personal on a painting, seen from an angled view

Bulldog behavior, getting a hold of something and holding on especially if you’re not sure exactly what it is—worrying it, wiggling it, maybe throwing it up in the air and chasing it, not letting it get away but not pinning it down either.

–Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press

Not everyone goes about art making with that spirit of bulldoggedness that Kathan Brown describes. I have several artist friends—whose work I love—who approach their work with a premeditated clarity and exacting precision, very unlike this way of working. And because my proclivity is increasingly towards “e) all of the above” on so many issues having to do with art and art making, I wouldn’t necessarily hold Brown’s words as guidance in art making. It’s just one way of working in a world with millions of options.

But there is no question that the worrying, wiggling, air tossing and chasing is familiar terrain for me. And it isn’t about feeling angst or self doubt. It is more about holding on with tenacity coupled with a relentless playfulness. I rely on both.

Playful bulldoggedness? Perhaps that’s one way to think about the tension in that concept. But there is also the issue of having the good sense to know when to back off. To know how, and when, to stop.

To that point, Brown references the work and process of Julie Mehretu (who has done several print series with her at Crown Point Press):

Julie Mehretu, in a lecture…spoke of “the thing that I’m chasing” rather wistfully, almost as an aside. The next day in the etching studio she said of the print later titled Unclosed, “If I put too much more in it, it will become definitive. I want it to allude, suggest.”

We often walk a boundary that is unseen until the minute we cross over and go too far. “Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship,” Lori Ellison wrote, a remarkable artist who passed away a few weeks ago and left a huge community of us grieving her loss. Lori wrote eloquently and frequently about humility and the need to be in the not knowing. My sense of being bulldoggity is just that: Not being sure, but holding on all the same.

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Brooklyn Show

Marae 2
Marae 2, 16 x 16″, mixed media on wood panel

I am having a show of recent paintings at Brooklyn Workshop Gallery in Carroll Gardens during September and October.

Curator Martine Bisagni has titled the show, “The Light Within,” choosing works where light appears to be emerging from within the painting rather than sourced externally. Martine curated my last show at BWG in 2010, and I have great appreciation for her careful eye. Also on display—new ceramics by artist and friend Amani Ansari.

Three gallery events are scheduled so I will be in and around Brooklyn a lot in September and October. If none of these times works for you, please contact me so we can find another time to convene. I hope to see you during the show run.

DEBORAH BARLOW
Recent Paintings

With new ceramics by Amani Ansari

September 3 – October 11, 2015

Brooklyn Workshop Gallery
393 Hoyt Street
Brooklyn NY
718 797 9428
(F or G Train to Carroll Street)

EVENTS
Thursday, September 17
Preview: 3-5pm
Opening: 6-10pm

Saturday, September 26
Artist meet and greet: Noon to 5pm

Sunday, October 11
Closing celebration: Noon to 6pm

card

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Skeepa
Skeepa, from a new series

The New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella recently reviewed Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright by Sara Solovitch.

Stagefright. Being a visual artist comes with plenty of baggage, but this isn’t one that is on my list of potential afflictions. Meanwhile this is a disabling condition that affects a surprisingly large number of famous performers including Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbra Streisand and Vladimir Horowitz. Described as “self-poisoning by adrenaline,” a feeling similar to a “snail having its shell ripped off,” stagefright doesn’t happen in my painting studio, working alone, without an audience.

And yet Acocella’s article has resonance for those of us who are not performing artists:

Sometimes, when performers speak of stagefright, one senses that they do not actually wish it gone—that, for them, it is almost a badge of honor, or, at least, proof that they’re serious about their work. As musicians, especially, will tell you, what they are doing up there is not meeting an agreed upon goal but, rather, creating something new. Horowitz insisted that the notes in the score did not tell you what the music was. The music was behind the notes, he said, and the performance was your search for it: “I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back.”

There’s poetry in Horowitz’s description. It also is reminiscent of a comment made at an exhibition of my paintings in Ireland some years ago by a young student. After spending a long time looking closely at my work, he came over to me and said, “I think I know what your work is about. You are painting the backside of everything.” That line—the back side of everything—has remained one of my favorite descriptors.

Creating something new IS daunting. Seen in that light, a performer struggling with making that happen in real time on a stage does share something with the solitary artist, alone in a studio, working to achieve a similar goal. Sometimes that very effort can result in a disabling self-consciousness, relentless struggle and/or a proclivity to self-sabotage. While those Romantic era notions don’t serve the process all that well (my practical-minded opinion), they are still real feelings and obstacles that need navigating.

Which takes me back to Acocella’s review:

The idea is that the performing artist is a sort of Prometheus: in order to bring us the fire, he has to agree to have his liver eaten. “A divine ailment, a sacred madness”: that’s what Charles Rosen called stagefright. He said that its physical manifestations were the same as those described in medieval medical treatises as the symptoms of the disease of being in love. Many performing artists would be embarrassed to go that far. “People tell you that you have to be nervous to do well,” Emmanuel Ax says. “I don’t believe that.”

I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back, Horowitz said. As different as painting is from performing a Schubert concerto, I know that feeling that Horowitz describes. Perhaps you too have been in that place where you feel yourself move in and then through a form, a gesture, an intention. And that experience resonates with Horowitz’s image, like looking down or back into what that thing is. I love when those moments happen. It is transcendence, whether in a studio or on a stage.

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WIP1
Detail from a work in process: Learning how to know my own terrain

Terry Theise‘s book, Reading Between the Wines (first introduced here), offers so many redolent parallels between winemaking and painting. And during a season when the land is in full expression, the analogies are particularly timely and apt.

Consider this response from one of Theise’s vintners/partners when asked what she likes best about her work:

For me, the best part is getting to know the vineyards, because you can’t rush it. You really have to spend time in them to see what makes then tick.

That’s what painting feels like: You can’t rush it. You have to give it time, and you have to let every piece find its own voicing. Artist as caretaker.

Another of Theise’s wine grower friends, Helmut Dönnhoff, has a similar story:

He’d obtained a parcel in a great site called Dellchen, and after about four years the quality of the wine took a big stride forward. I noticed it and remarked upon it, and he agreed; the new vintage had jumped ahead of all its predecessors. I asked, “Is it because the vines are older?”

“No—although they are,” he replied. “I’m not sure there is a reason, except that I’m getting to know the vineyard better. We’re more at home with each other.” I can just see my concrete-minded, linear-intellect friends groaning and rolling their eyes. What’s all this mysticism? What, indeed. Dönnhoff is about the most matter-of-fact guy I know, but he talks about this aspect of a vintner’s life quite explicitly: “I hope my wines convey a story,” he says. “Otherwise they’re just things, bottles of wine, good wine certainly, but I want them to tell the story of a man in his landscape.”

That’s such a simple line: Tell the story of a man(woman) in his(her) landscape. But I know what that means for me.

I often divide artwork into those that have a life force and those that feel cold and lifeless. (Brice Marden has referred to large paintings that “stiffen up, go dead, feel mechanical.”) It’s that quality of “story”—which for non-narrative artists and musicians might be more accurately described as the power of presence—that makes for art that is memorable and meaningful. (Bill Irwin refers to this quality as phenomenal presence.)

Theise continues this line of thinking in terms most of us can understand:

Anyone who has ever tended a garden experiences the same thing. You get to know your garden, and it responds to you. How can it do otherwise? It might respond with vigorous growth if you’re a skillful grower, or it might respond with weeds and blight if you’re careless or inattentive—but respond it must. Is it such a stretch to imagine that it responds in some way to the love you show it? If you like being in your garden, if you observe it with interest, curiosity, appreciation, should we really insist that it cannot respond? Why would we rather believe that?

And to take the art making/wine growing analogy for one more lap, here’s a great rule of thumb for all art makers:

Willi Bründlmayer, one of the great Austrian vintners, said, “I try to get each vintage into a spirit close to This is my first vintage or This is my last vintage, in order to draw as much joy and affection for the grapes as possible. Chase away all routine and find the singularity of each vintage and of each grape.”

I love this book.

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Mosel, the German valley most associated with Riesling wines (Photo: Friedrich Petersdorff)

I’ve been laboring to write about (mostly) art making and creativity on this blog for almost 10 years. One of the overarching themes has been the search for language that comes in close, authentically, to the experiences I have when I am in the studio.

Artists talking about making art are uneven at best although sometimes a Philip Guston or a Tom Nozkowski hits a sweet spot. So my most reliable source has been the prose of poets. The best soundtracks to narrate my personal creative journey have come from poets like Jane Hirschfield, William Stafford, Fanny Howe, W. S. Piero, Robert Hass, Christian Wiman, Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Donald Hall, among others. Poetry and painting, the parallels are many. And the wordsmithing by poets about poetry is a remarkably useful overlay that maps onto the terrain of the visual arts very well. It’s like a cartographic graft.

But who knew that another exquisitely well matched overlay existed, and in the world of wine of all things?

It isn’t all writing about wine of course. More specifically it is the writing about wine by someone who approaches his topic with respect for what is ineffable, a someone who brings his language as poetically proximate as is possible to that impenetrable core. Call it beauty, joy, oneness. An extraordinary wine is a portal for him much the way an extraordinary work of art is for me.

Terry Theise‘s beautifully written book, Reading Between the Wines, has become my new touchstone. One of his first sentences captures the spirit of his approach and made it clear to me we were on the same wavelength in our respective métiers: “I have an abiding and evanescent concern about wines that show a strange force of gentleness that makes us grope for a language by which it may be described.” And from there the parallels between wine and art just continue to unfold.

Consider the distinction he makes between “noisy” wines and more quiet ones:

Many wines, even good wines, let you taste the noise. But only the very best wines let you taste the silence…silence isn’t merely the absence of noise. It is the presence of eternity. A wine that can offer such a thing to you is a wine that breaks bread with the angels.

He goes on to describe the experience of drinking these wines that allow you to “taste the silence”:

These introverted wines seem to draw some sheer curtain, and suddenly the world falls away. They banish preoccupation. They deliver repose. They embody a calmness, they channel the daydreams. And they do it with no perceptible effort. They combine a serene diffidence with a strangely numinous beauty in a poignant and haunting way. And such wines are full of flavor, often the most searching and complex wines we’ll ever know. But they hold you in their theta-dance, and some crust starts to dissolve in you, and you liquefy to your core, a place hardly anyone ever sees, and the wine seems to know you, like some strange angel…

If it moves you, and if you try to talk about it, you feel like a fool. You don’t have the language you need, and so you fumble, and people think you’ve been hitting the bong pipe. For you it is entirely definite as feeling and spiritual sense, but in language it is nebulous. How do we delineate between wines that enact and wines that reveal?

And that’s just from the preface.

My entire copy of Terry’s book is marked up with exclamation marks and underlines. It particularly touches into an issue I struggle with constantly: making the distinction between art that screams and art that whispers, between art that feels distanced and detached from the artist who made it and work that seems to still have its umbilical connection in tact. We live in an extremely noisy, extroverted culture. Advocating for what doesn’t scream to compete is hard work.

I also resonated with his description of a polarity that exists in the winemaking world:

Consider the schism between two groups of vintners and drinkers: those who feel wine is “made,” and those who feel it is grown. It is a fundamental split between two mutually exclusive approaches to both wine and life. If a grower believes from his everyday experience that flavors are inherent in his land, he will labor to preserve them. This means he does nothing to inhibit, obscure, or change them. He does not write his adorable agenda over his raw material. He respects the material. He is there to release it, to take this nascent being, slap it on the ass, and make it wail.

If, on the other hand, your work as a “winemaker” is all about the vision you have a priori, the wine you wish to “sculpt,” then your raw material is a challenge to surmount, almost an inconvenience. You learn to be expert at systems and procedures. You make wine as if you were piloting a plane, and there’s nothing wrong with being a good pilot. But terroir-driven vintners make wine as if they were riding on the back of a bird.

That’s a much more poetic portrait of a similar distinction I see in the art world than any efforts I have made to delineate how differently art making is being approached these days. As Terry points out, there’s nothing wrong with being a good pilot. But like his terroir-driven friends, I would much rather ride on the back of a bird.

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Kana'an 3
Kana’an 3, from a new series

Jane Hirschfield, poet and Buddhist, is my favorite guide to the overlapping territory shared by spirituality and creativity. In her books Nine Gates and most recently, Ten Windows, she moves back and forth between the artistic process and the interior life of the soul. In Ten Windows she writes, “The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.”

She continues:

Within a summoned and hybrid awareness, the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees. Catherine of Siena wrote, in the fourteenth century, “All the way to heaven is heaven”; Marcel Duchamp, in the third year of the First World War, submitted a porcelain urinal to an art show, titling it Fountain. Both say: to form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.

But how aware are any of us are of that process in our own creative efforts? Reading what artists have to say about their work makes it clear that intentions are often very different from results. Art historians still argue about how aware Mark Rothko was of the profound spiritual transcendence his paintings elicited in viewers. Agnes Martin doggedly insisted that her work did not contain references to the landscape and nature.

As we all know, saying doesn’t make it so. Freud and others have made the case that everything is autobiographical, that everything we do is a portrait of us. What attracts us and draws us in is all part of that unique matrix that is us, a unique blend of personality, history, identity, experiences.

But there is nothing fixed about that process. It’s a current we enter into, one that allows us to constantly expand what we see and what we understand.

Hirschfield again:

What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped-for outcome is an expanded knowing. Each gesture, each failed or less-than-failed attempt to create an experience by language or color and paper, is imagination reaching outward to sieve the world. To make a genuine work of art, or even to take in such a work fully, is to tie a further knot of that fisherman’s intricate fly.

Sieve the world. Hirschfield’s metaphor suggests that understanding can increase, bringing the idea of accretion into the daily practice of making. Perhaps that is a more dynamic way to think about studio work than my old standby, the Zen koan phrase that describes what you do to reach enlightenment as well as after you achieve it: “chop wood, carry water.”

Or maybe this is best greeted with my favorite response to just about everything: Can we have both/and?

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agamya-2
Agamya 2

“May your imagination know
The grace of perfect danger.”

Those are lines are from the poem, For the Artist at the Start of Day, by John O’Donohue, the warmhearted Irish poet and former priest who died in his sleep at just 52 seven years ago.

Writing this poem for anyone who spends their day making, O’Donohue begins with the essential invocation to slip clear of the “sticky web of the personal.” It comes with “its hurt and its hauntings,” he warns. Once past the perilous distractions of the quotidian, the possibility then opens up to find the “rhythm not yet heard,” that “calls space to/A different shape.”

But my favorite line in the poem is these five words: The grace of perfect danger. It is a phrase that is so concise but encapsulates an enormous idea. I have had that sense many times in my studio, where precariousness lives inside a canopy of exquisite, inviolate sureness. That essential tension was a feeling I knew in my body but could not describe in words. Until now.

Perfect danger, with grace. That’s it.

____
Thank you Linda Crawford to sending the O’Donohue poem my way.

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Lajiva
“Lajiva”, from a new series

In his essay, The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, Jonathan Lethem writes, “It’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange.”

That line is a reference to the 18th century poet Novalis whose early romanticism was captured in his admonition for art making: “Making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” (For an unforgettable glimpse into the life and times of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg—AKA Novalis—read the exquisite novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower.*)

William Gordon, cofounder of a popular problem solving methodology synectics, views this exploration of the familiar and the strange as a metaphorical process. His central principle: “Trust things that are alien, and alienate things that are trusted.”

Good effort in the studio calls up both ends of that spectrum, daily. On the one hand there is the need to actively dismantle old habits and familiar ways of working. Too much rote work and the magic gets thin. But welcoming in what’s strange and unexpected is how we maintain the creative Gulf Stream inside.

It may be that each of us leans one way or the other: Some great efforts tend towards the familiar made strange, while other undertakings turn that around.

I’m more inclined to the latter. I am drawn to the unseen, to those inchoate notions that I hope to bring in closer. I think that is what the poet W. S. Piero was referring to here: “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.'”

________
*
Regarding The Blue Flower:

It is a quite astonishing book, a masterpiece, as a number of British critics have already said…It is hard to know where to begin to praise the book. First off, I can think of no better introduction to the Romantic era: its intellectual exaltation, its political ferment, its brilliant amateur self-scrutiny, its propensity for intense friendships and sibling relationships, its uncertain morals, its rumors and reputations and meetings, its innocence and its refusal of limits. Also, ”The Blue Flower” is a wholly convincing account of that very difficult subject, genius…

And, of course, like the masterpiece it is, “The Blue Flower” ranges far beyond itself. It is an interrogation of life, love, purpose, experience and horizons, which has found its perfect vehicle in a few years from the pitifully short life of a German youth about to become a great poet—one living in a period of intellectual and political upheaval, when even the prevailing medical orthodoxy “held that to be alive was not a natural state.”

Michael Hofmann
New York Times

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Himnae
Recently completed: Himnae, 42 x 84″

We all have a favorite go to distraction we turn to when things aren’t flowing (or don’t seem to be, which is a common deception.) Books, especially really great ones, are my Balm of Gilead.

And right now, for whatever reason, I have a huge stack of new and “must read” books.* It is like someone brought a truck load of mangoes and emptied them in my front yard, all of them perfectly formed, fragrant and ripe.

Managing excess has never been my strong suit.

As deep and delicious as my book stack is right now, reading in that full immersion manner comes at a cost. Too much of it, even when it is so satisfying and insightful, precludes other things from happening that are important for creative practice. I’m a painter, not a writer. While books will always be an essential part of my creative life, they are not my métier. My work is turning ideas, impressions, hunches and evocations into a visual language.

I found some needed grounding from the poet Jane Hirschfield. In her new book (but of course!), Ten Windows, she articulated the work I need to do:

The mind does not remain rooted in any one statement; it, too, moves ceaselessly from one state to the next. One of the ways it does this is by musing—no accident, that word used to describe the ways in which thought’s more fluid transformations occur. “To muse” implies entering a condition of idleness, outside the responsibilities of the fully adult: a playfulness marks the self-amusing, musing mind. It lifts a thing, turns it over, licks it, sees if it moves; explores in a way that leaves behind both simple preconception and the directionality of strict purpose. Here, too, etymology reveals. “Muse” derives from the Latin mussare, meaning first “to carry in silence,” then “to brood over in silence and uncertainty,” and then only finally “to murmur or mutter, to speak in an undertone.” Musing, it seems, is a thing that happens best in the circumstances of quiet. Undogmatic and tactful before the object of its attention, musing does not impose, but bears witness. It quietly considers, and then, when it finally speaks, does so with the voice, respectful of other presences, that we use in a library, church, or museum—the voice used, that is, when we feel we are in the company of something more important than ourselves. The mind that muses is modest and un-insistent, permeable to what lies beyond comprehension, amenable to some sense of proportion and the comic. Arrogance reserves itself for the more self-involved.

To lift a thing, to turn it over, to take a lick. To sit in quiet, in modest un-insistency. That’s my job: engaging with the self-amusing, musing mind.

________
*
For those of you who are, like me, always on the look out for that next great read, here’s my current list:

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal (and another book about Martin written by Briony Fer is coming out in a few weeks)

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, by Annie Cohen-Solal

Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview (Thank you Kitty Bancroft for flagging this Getty Publication from last year)

The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st Century Art World, by Roger White

The Artful Universe Expanded, by John Barrow

Ten Windows, by Jane Hirschfield (her earlier volume, Nine Gates, has been quoted from repeatedly here on Slow Muse)

On Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín

No Other Gods, poems by Todd Hearon (and so honored to have one of my paintings on the cover)

My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, just the first of what could be a double digit volume set of this unexpectedly hypnotic account of an ordinary life (thank you book lover and kinswoman Rebecca Ricks for encouraging me to jump in now)

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, by Lynne Tillman

Open City by Teju Cole (thank you Tim Rice)

Euphoria, by Lily King (recommended by the reliable book scouting team of Michael and Mary Pat Robertson)

And my favorite indulgence: Games of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. After getting completely seduced by the HBO series, I had to research how the storytelling could be so expertly crafted. Amazingly, Martin’s writing is really compelling. Who knew?

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agnes_martin_1954_1
Agnes Martin (Photo: Mildred Tolbert)

From the newly released Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal:

Martin’s mature paintings (she destroyed most of her early work) are incontrovertibly right, in the sense that they convince us that not a single preliminary decision or incident of execution could have been changed without damage. Composed of the simplest elements, including ruled, penciled lines and a narrow range of forms—grids, stripes, and, very occasionally, circles, triangles and squares—and painted in a limited palette on canvases that are always square, they reveal an esthetic sense that is, as her friend Ann Wilson said, the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.

What a thing to say about a body of work: pitch perfect. Having just gone through the arduous task of culling through my archives and throwing out a lot of old work, that perfect pitchness looms as a specter. We all want to achieve that with every piece, but it is a rare state.

I am not a perfectionist (which would be a crippling quality for anyone who learns by doing), but my decision to keep a work or to give it a toss came down to which pieces could hold that essential tension, a version of Wilson’s perfect pitch. There has to be something in the intrinsic energetics of the work that holds the parts together in a precarious, “this almost doesn’t work but it does” delicate balancing. In its own way it is a kind of immutability: that a particular painting is just what it must be, and wouldn’t work in any other form.

Noguchi said, “For artists there is no such thing as progress. It’s only a deepening.” That’s definitely the direction.

And apropos to that, another passage from Princenthal’s wonderful book:

To be abstracted is to be at some distance from the material world. It is a form of local exaltation but also, sometimes, even disturbance…Agnes Martin, one of the most esteemed abstract painters of the second half of the twentieth century, expressed—and, at times, dwelled in—the most extreme forms of abstraction: pure, silencing, enveloping, and upending.

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