books1
Some of my tiny rectangles. (And yes, there are others)

Now this is a headline perfectly designed to be click bait for the likes of me:

On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books

But I’m glad I took the bite since Summer Brennan‘s essay was perfect for me: thoughtful, humorous and yes, reassuring.

The fact is that in spite of digital drift, there are lots of us who have a book problem. Some more than others, I grant you, but we are a subgroup, a self-designated tribe, and Brennan is a good spokesperson for our cause.

While many young urbanists around the world have been spellbound by the home decluttering advice of supra-minimalist Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and promulgator of the KonMari Method), the system falls short when it comes to dividing up the books you keep and the books you let go. “Paring down one’s wardrobe is one thing, but what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose?” is Brennan’s reasonable question.

Brennan describes her own version of the KonMari cleanse with her library, and her conclusions are much more in line with mine than canonical Kondo:

“A book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader comes along,” said the critic George Steiner, and that’s true. The good ones are incantations, summoning spells. They are a spark, a balm, a letter from home. They contain demons, gods in a box. They are tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in. We read books that describe magical portals when really it is the books themselves that are the rabbit hole, the wardrobe, the doorway between worlds. Books, like people, are bigger on the inside…

It’s not true that when you first receive a book is the only right time to read it. Books can stay with you like a talisman on a quest, taken out of your cloak, unwrapped and understood only at your darkest hour: A light to you when all other lights go out.

Brennan’s essay is a loving paean to books, and she differentiates them from other possessions that may clutter our lives and weigh us down. But she also touches into a concern I have had with the hidden side of all this supremacist minimalism that has become so chic:

It’s a useful exercise to clear the cobwebs from one’s bookshelves once in a while, but don’t let anyone talk you into getting rid of your books if you don’t want to, read or unread. Ask yourself whether or not each book sparks joy, and ignore the minimalist proselytizing if it chafes you. After all, the romance of minimalism relies on invisible abundance. The elegantly empty apartment speaks not to genteel poverty, but to the kind of hoarded wealth that makes anything and everything replaceable and available at the click of a mouse. Things and the freedom from things, and then things again if you desire. If you miss a book after getting rid of it, Kondo consoles, you can always buy it again. Dispose and replace, repeat and repeat. Ah, what fleeting luxury.

That’s a great phrase to describe my discomfort with this current version of minimalism—invisible abundance. It speaks to on demand consumerism, with every object just a mouse click away. Thanks, but I’d rather have the stack of “tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in” than elegantly empty.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , ,

Remaya2
Remaya 2, mixed media on wood panel, 36 x 36″

A year ago I had a conversation with Jerry Beck, good friend and founder of the well known Revolving Museum (in Jerry’s nomenclature, a “nomadic nonprofit cultural organization”). We shared an interest in exploring the linkages between art and science, and we agreed that New England is a rich environment for that kind of dialogue. A new exhibit, In Water, is the result of that conversation.

We chose a ubiquitous topic since every day we each have a personal encounter with water. And while it is fundamental to life, it also possesses a high capacity to transform–it can flow, freeze, vaporize, dropletize, bubble, flood, evaporate, absorb, eviscerate. Its many variations and forms inspire expression.

This exhibit includes works that are diverse in form and intention, from the abstract to the political and ecological. Many of the artists are good friends of mine, so assembling this show has been particularly satisfying. The artists include Kay Canavino, Rachael Eastman, Barbara Gagel, Susan Quateman, George Wingate and myself.

In Water is the first of a series that will be part of the Revolving Museum’s Art and Science Partnership. Working with the Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry and Beyond Benign, an advocacy organization for green chemistry education, we hope to explore themes that speak to both aesthetic and scientific touch points.

I hope you will have a chance to stop by.

Show details:
June 25 – October 25, 2016
Artist Reception: Saturday, June 25, 2-5PM
Warner Babcock Institute and Beyond Benign
100 Research Drive
Wilmington MA 01887

Beyond Benign Gallery hours:
Thursdays, 1-4pm
By appointment at 978.229.5400

For more information:

In Water exhibit

Warner Babcock Institute

Beyond Benign

The Revolving Museum

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , , ,

PieroPS
Fresco fragment from Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross, portraying Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in 312. In Arezzo, Italy, Cappella Bacci.

I took hundreds of photographs while I was away, but the one I keep returning to is this fragment. A segment from one of the more damaged frescos by Piero della Francesca in the Cappella Bacci, it speaks to what is hidden, lost, obscured and furtive. Of what lies perpetually just out of our reach.

As my tirelessly patient daughter and her husband, both Renaissance art historians, can attest, Piero is a bit of an obsession for me. I’ll be writing more about him in the weeks ahead once I have reclaimed the rhythm in my daily life here. But this 15th century momento is a powerful touchstone and reminder of what lives outside of the quotidian, of the timelessness that the marks made on a wall over 500 years ago can still evoke.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , , ,

KellDWSeanstreet
Italy last year, in the company of experts (who are now new parents as well)

I am out of range for several weeks. I will be back to musing, both fast and slow, on June 1.

For updates in the interim:

Facebook
Instagram
Twitter

  • Share on Tumblr

08IRWIN-master675
Robert Irwin’s “Untitled” (1969), at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer for The New York Times, Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Robert Irwin holds a particular place in the California annals of contemporary art, and he holds a particular place for me personally. He figured larger than life during my formative years as an artist coming of age on the west coast. I watched as he worked his way through an intense exploration into painting and as he ended up being more interested in the nature of perception than in objects themselves. By the late 60’s he didn’t even want his work to be photographed: Art should only be accessed through direct experience. You have to see an Irwin to “see” it.

“Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” is currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. It is the first exhibit to focus on his evolution as an artist during that period of intensity “when, in full experimental mode, he was shifting the emphasis of his own art from psychic encounters to physical ones, from precious objects to environments, places of contemplation” (Holland Cotter, in the New York Times.) “Images, he soon realized, were a problem. They implied messages to be deciphered, narratives to be read, and he wanted to get away from all that. He wanted to stay abstract, but also to grow more expansive.”

In 1970, Irwin stopped making objects altogether. He closed his studio and engaged in site-specific installations only, ones that were perception-altering. In an interview recorded at LACMA in 1973 (it runs in a loop at the exhibit), Irwin talks about the new “beyond painting” projects that were compelling him at that point in time, from working with NASA to urban environmental design. Many know him for his iconic work in conceptualizing the Dia:Beacon facility and in developing the extraordinary gardens that encompass the Getty Center.

For example, this passage from Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler, speaks to that search for the essential:

“The big challenge for me,” he recalls, “starting around then, the ‘less is more’ challenge, was simply always to try to maximize the energy, the physicality of the painting, and to minimize the imagery. It could all be looked at essentially as turning the entire question upside down: moving away from the literate, conceptual rationale and really reestablishing the inquiry on the perceptual, tactile level. Nobody quite understood that at the time, because they were still thinking in image terms and in terms of literate connotations. When they talked about a painting, they translated it into subject matter, in a way, but it’s not only about that. It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

While my work takes a very different form and may not appear to be in alignment with Irwin’s aesthetic, I resonate deeply with his point of view and the way he languages his art making. His phrase, “phenomenal presence” is one I come back to again and again. (At the bottom of this post is a list of links to earlier Slow Muse posts that focused on Irwin’s writings and point of view.)

The Hirschhorn show is an extraordinary walk through Irwin’s intensely considered journey, one that brings the viewer closer to how he evolved his intention and his gifts. The show is well curated and memorable. It runs through September 5.

More from Cotter’s review:

In 1970 he did something ultra-discreet [at the Museum of Modern Art]: He changed the dimensions of a small gallery by partly lowering the ceiling with a stretch of white scrim. Other, far grander commissions followed over the next 45 years, for site-specific installations in museums, government buildings, airports and parks. When [curator] Ms. Hankins requested a new piece to conclude this show, which will not travel, he returned to the simplicity of the 1970 model. He left the last large gallery in the Hirshhorn’s circling sequence empty but for one element: a floor-to-ceiling white scrim that stretches the length of one wall and gives the illusion of straightening its curve.

The change is both so subtle and so fundamental that it can take even an observant eye time to see it, the way rules can be hard to recognize until long after they’re broken. We accept as a given that art — “great” art — is permanent, precious, the product of personal power, to which Mr. Irwin says: No. He proposes, instead, that art is mutable and conditional. Its materials are ordinary (fabrics, space, light). Its power lies neither in the hand of the maker nor in the eye of the perceiver, but in the meeting, on springy, shifting, flowering ground, between the two.

irwin
My daughter-in-law and granddaughter walking through the scrim room

___________
Slow Muse and Robert Irwin:

Meaning and Presence

Reporting in on the Other Coast

Road Work

Pacific Standard Time: Light and Space

Willing Magic

Staying Curious

Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin at the MFA

Robert Irwin: Part 2

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: ,

KellSiena
My daughter Kellin noodling with her niece Siena 18 months ago

Joan Acocella, long standing dance and culture writer for the New Yorker, discusses how the path of a new idea comes into form in her recent article, A Nice Little Talk. She uses a set of conversations held between dancers as a good example of how furtive it can be. “Artists will sometimes talk about such matters, but in my experience they are less likely to do so in a regular interview, where an expert is asking them questions such as ‘Can you tell me about your process?’ Indeed, it’s likely that they are most forthcoming without a questioner altogether.”

That new idea, a bolt of inspiration, a “throughline” that just appears and carries us into new work—these are the ineffables most artists are looking for. Or waiting for. They are a class of experience that essentially lives outside our zone of control, and how they come to constellate in our creative lives is usually a surprise.

Here’s Acocella’s take on that peculiar path:

I think that most of us still believe that art originates in solitary inspiration, a sort of bolt to the brain, the way Jesus was beamed into the Virgin Mary in those paintings of the Annunciation. There is some empirical support here. If you talk to artists, they will often describe a feeling of openness, receptivity, that accompanied their getting a really good idea. But this is probably true of people in all fields, not just art. Also, chances are that they had had that idea for a long time, and that the feeling they are describing is actually one of release: the idea is freed from impediments, things that were dragging it down. In other words, what these people are experiencing is not the beginning of their piece but its middle, when they say to themselves that maybe it doesn’t have to be performed outdoors or nude or solo or whatever. Then, suddenly, everything that was awful before becomes O.K. In any case, it is amazing, sometimes, to hear artists tell you how many years they worked on an idea, how many times they laid it aside, how many versions they made, and tore up—or didn’t.

The incubation period of an idea—or an inchoate proclivity—is often unclear. Until it isn’t. Incubation and its mysteries are on my mind a lot these days as we await the arrival of my daughter Kellin‘s son Rhodes. After all, the birth of a child is a particular example of the release Acocella refers to.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , ,

Nigrallenoborder
Nigralle, by Deborah Barlow
Mixed media on wood panel, 36 x 36″

kc_ny_2513
Circulation, by Kay Canavino
Digital Archival Print, 13 x 28″

4rc
Limantour, by Ramah Commanday
Ceramic, 18 x 21″

I’m so happy to be showing my work with two artist friends whose work I admire greatly, Kay Canavino and Ramah Commanday. The idea of exhibiting with them seemed so appealing to me several years ago, and now we have a show that will travel to several locations over the next few years. The first venue for UNDER, ABOVE, EVERYWHERE: CELEBRATING MATERIALITY, will be at the Christopher Brodigan Gallery at Groton School in Massachusetts. Details about the show are below as well as a brief description of the exhibit and the artists.

I love seeing my paintings in conversation with Kay’s other worldly photographs and Ramah’s earthy vessels. My only regret is that I will not be able to join in at the artist reception on April 17. I am needed in Italy where my new grandson Rhodes is making his way onto the planet. That is its own sacred celebration of materiality after all.

Show Description
The digital and the virtual have deeply penetrated contemporary culture and consciousness, often resulting a breezy disregard for the materiality that is so fundamental to life in the multiverse. The primary elements–air, space, water, minerals and fire, so essential to our sense of ourselves and the reality we share–are easily overlooked in the rush towards the sophisticated, the cerebral, the ephemeral. And yet materiality is the very counterpoint so desperately needed to bring a sense of balance to lives that are increasingly lived in artificial realities.

In this exhibit, three artists—a painter, a photographer and a ceramicist—comingle their individual methods and media to assemble a multi-dimensional celebration of the glorious materiality that is everywhere in the universe. Deborah Barlow engages with space and the atmosphere as a sourcebook for nonrepresentational paintings that speak to the expansiveness beyond the earth’s domain. Kay Canavino has developed an ingenious method of photographing the enigmatic and beguiling waterscapes that populate under the surface. Ramah Commanday constructs micro-geological worlds from clay, exploring how the processes of massive geological change—motion, heat, cooling—can be used to construct her planetary forms.

Together these artists invite the viewer to engage with the enchantment and the mystery of the under, the above, and the everywhere. This celebration of unabashed materiality—of our world as well as in each work of art—offers a rich reminder of what is essential to our nature.

Show Details
UNDER, ABOVE, EVERYWHERE: Celebrating Materiality
April 5 – May 22, 2016

Christopher Brodigan Gallery
Groton School
282 Farmers Row
Groton MA 01450
978 448 7637

Artist Reception: Sunday, April 17, 2-4pm

Gallery hours: Monday through Friday, 9-5

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , ,

abaloneshell
The cosmos suggested in the etchings on an abalone shell

In writing about inspiration and meditation, musician and performer Amanda Palmer described the conundrum posed by those two concepts:

The songwriter in me struggles like mad when meditating. The rules of my conditioned art-mind say that nothing must stand in the way of a developing idea. When inspiration calls, follow. If I should be struggling with anything in my life, it should be taking that impossibly disciplined step from thought to pen to paper, from seed to full song.

I watch this mental boxing match take place with interest. In one corner sits a meditator, who calmly suggests that good ideas will linger if they are worthwhile. And so what if they don’t? The songs are not happening; only sitting is happening. In the other corner paces the crazed composer with the mind specifically cultivated to jump from image to word to melody in an effort to create a work of art that will move her fellow humans.

A perfect song, to me, is a captured moment of inspiration barely touched. When a good idea hits, it’s as if I’ve thrown a set of colored juggling balls in the air and taken a blurred (yet beautiful) photograph. If I develop that photo unaltered, I will have a perfect image. If I am convinced that I can get a better photo (just a little better) by juggling again before it gets dark and the light changes, I’m screwed. This is where sitting and art-making go hand in hand. Spending hour after hour laboring on finding the perfect line or the perfect arrangement of notes is about as productive as wandering the world seeking the perfect tree under which you’ll find enlightenment.

Her image speaks to so many aspects of creativity: the mind engaged versus the mind emptied, how to hold those moments when lightning strikes, how diddling can wear away at what has its own raw power, the illusion that there is a better tree or a better road.

She completes her exploration with this understanding: “Creativity isn’t necessarily an obstacle to meditation but, rather, its fruit…The moment of divine inspiration may strike at any time; the true meditation is to have the power and clarity to decide when, where, how, and even if I want to be struck.”

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , ,

planet_earth_desktop_wallpaper-1

In one of the essays included in William Gibson‘s book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he refers to the “personal micro-culture” that every artist creates around herself. “We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction.”

That notion of a micro-culture extends beyond formative creativity and primal concepts like “anxiety of influence,” Harold Bloom‘s provocative theory about the poet’s need to break free of those who were most influential. It is a description that applies to so many aspects of our lives. We get pocketed into a particular strata with demographic, economic and social dimensions. We are taught and we are imbued—as if by osmosis—with ideas and beliefs that may or may not be well suited for us. But moving in and out of those micro-cultures isn’t a given.

Class consciousness—the English version—is a familiar and prevalent theme. The Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies), is full of the problematic dynamics of a blacksmith’s son becoming the powerul confidante to a king. As Downton Abbey’s run in the U.S. came to an end last week, the show’s upstairs/downstairs setting in the mid-1920s offered premonitions of changes coming to the old order. But as we all know, class consciousness is still very deeply in tact in the English culture.

A recent production of H.M.S. Pinafore performed by Chicago’s high energy theater company The Hypocrites (at the American Repertory’s Oberon Theater through March 20), is yet another story based on a theme of class. In typical Hypocrite deconstructionist style, the cast and audience are blended together, gender roles are switched, and the set is a pajama party with lots of pillows and a slide. Fun abounds in this production, but the us/them, high brow/low brow themes still echo from the play’s 19th century roots. The revelation of two babies switched at birth, one high-born and the other a commoner, puts everything back in its proper place. Tip top.

Of course it isn’t just the English who have a long tradition of exclusion and class consciousness. August Wilson‘s brilliant How I Learned What I Learned, a memoir in monologue, (at the Huntington Theater in Boston through April 3) is a piercing view into the striated society of Wilson’s childhood in the disadvantaged Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wilson goes beyond the personal to the larger arcs that impact our lives:

My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job. But since 1863, it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.

During a jarringly ugly political campaign season in the U.S., I keep asking what it will take to shift old patterns, to move away from the us/them dichotomy that underlies so much of the hate and rhetoric. Admittedly that is a question some would call naive. But it is larger than social systems, religion, race, economics. It speaks to what it will take to dismantle the crippling notion of separateness, from each other and from our planet. So that’s a question I will keep asking.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , , ,

vangoghbarcode
Advertisement seen in China last year

A few ideas have been perennially circulating in my thinking lately. One is that consensus reality is overrated. I am increasingly interested in connecting with what might be termed the invisible elements of life.

The other is that the perpetual 24/7 news cycle that permeates our lives is more destructive on our consciousness than we might suppose.

So when my friend Megan Hustad shared a link to this excerpt, by artist Carol Bove, from the book, Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, I was heartened to find similar sentiments beautifully expressed.

Carol Bove on art making and the concept of “time and information management:”

I started to adjust my thinking about productivity so that it was no longer valued in and of itself. It strikes me as vulgar always to have to apply a cost/benefit analysis to days lived; it’s like understanding an exchange of gifts only as barter…

And there was more to it than that: I was able to begin the process of withdrawal from my culture’s ideology around the instrumentality of time, i.e. that you can use time. I think the ability to withdraw from consensus reality is one of the most important skills for an artist to learn because it helps her to recognize invisible forces.

Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument. Time is part of what you’re made from. Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Everything that you do and think about is going to be in your artwork. The computer-science idea “garbage in, garbage out” applies to artists. This is something to consider when you’re choosing your habitual activities.

One question is, how do you create a way of being in the world that allows new things (ideas, information, people, places) into your life without letting everything in? I want to point out that your tolerance for media saturation might be lower than you realize. You need to conduct an open-ended search that doesn’t overwhelm you with information and at the same time doesn’t limit the search in a way that pre-determines your findings. That is a puzzle.

Like “chop wood, carry water,” Bove’s advice is about daily practice and an approach to living. And although this is stated simply, that doesn’t make it easy. Some codes are never completely cracked. We all just start from wherever we are.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , ,

« Older entries