January 2007

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In the words of Marlene Dumas:

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I paint because I am a woman.
(It’s a logical necessity.)
If painting is female and insanity is a female malady, then all women painters are mad and all male painters are women.
I paint because I am an artificial blonde woman.
(Brunettes have no excuse.)
If all good painting is about color then bad painting is about having the wrong color. But bad things can be good excuses. As Sharon Stone said, “Being blonde is a great excuse. When you’re having a bad day you can say, I can’t help it, I’m just feeling very blonde today.”
I paint because I am a country girl.
(Clever, talented big-city girls don’t paint.)
I grew up on a wine farm in Southern Africa. When I was a child I drew bikini girls for male guests on the back of their cigarette packs. Now I am a mother and I live in another place that reminds me a lot of a farm – Amsterdam. (It’s a good place for painters.) Come to think about it, I’m still busy with those types of images and imagination.
I paint because I am a religious woman.
(I believe in eternity.)
Painting doesn’t freeze time. It circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns. Those who were first might well be last. Painting is a very slow art. It doesn’t travel with the speed of light. That’s why dead painters shine so bright.
It’s okay to be the second sex.
It’s okay to be second best.
Painting is not a progressive activity. (…)

Another memorable insight from Thomas Merton by way of Louie Louie:

To look too directly at anything is to see something else because we force it to submit to the impertinence of our preconceptions.

The difference between seeing and looking. The disconnectedness of habitual viewing. Impertinence is the perfect word to describe how we can be lazy, slackish and dishonorable in our encounters with the visual world beyond our own skin.

Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to that you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

Thomas Merton

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Thank you to Beth Cioffoletti for posting this quote on her Thomas Merton blog, Louie Louie, originally written about apostolic work. But his wisdom applies profoundly to art making and the state of mind that makes it possible for great work to come through. It’s so easy to get seduced by results, by the concept of completion. I have to step away again and again from the spectre of a finished piece and bring the focus back to the making. It’s a way of keeping your head down, in all its many meanings.

A few lines to remember during those times when things don’t seem to be coming together:

I haven’t written a single poem
in months.
I’ve lived humbly, reading the paper,
pondering the riddle of power
and the reasons for obedience.
I’ve watched sunsets
(crimson, anxious),
I’ve heard the birds grow quiet
and night’s muteness.
I’ve seen sunflowers dangling
their heads at dusk, as if a careless hangman
had gone strolling through the gardens.
September’s sweet dust gathered
on the windowsill and lizards
hid in the bends of walls.
I’ve taken long walks,
craving one thing only:
lightning,
transformation,
you.

Transformation, by Adam Zagajewski

In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron tells a story about Trungpa Rinpoche:

He was traveling with his attendants to a monastery he’d never seen before. As they neared the gates, he saw a large guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes. It was growling ferociously and struggling to get free from the chain that held it. The dog seemed desperate to attack them. As Rinpoche got closer, he could see its bluish tongue and spittle spraying from its mouth. They walked past the dog, keeping their distance, and entered the gate. Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could—straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away.

I have thought about that story so many times, and I have felt an energy in my body that is ready to hurl itself directly at whatever it is I am fearing at that moment. Exhilarating thought! Chodron goes on to say that what really matters in this story is the question, What’s next? The spiritual (or artistic) journey is one that requires that you just keep moving.

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My favorite and most frightening “art” dog is from Robert Wilson’s “14 Stations of the Cross”, from an installation at MassMOCA in Western Massachusetts a few years ago (and also seen at a number of locations in Europe.) No bluish tongue or spittle spraying, but a formidable beast to run at directly.

Viral Yellow

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One yellow door, on one house. It was a reasonable wake up accent for an otherwise understated facade.

But when yellow showed up just a few houses down, the understated gave way to garish.

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Gerald Horne, architect and friend, has long advocated for “architecture insurance”–a way to protect us from really bad decisions made by our neighbors and/or well funded, aesthetically challenged organizations (like my neighborhood’s most notorious offender, Boston University.) Maybe we need a vigilante citizens’ version of W magazine’s notorious FP, the Fashion Police, who scoured the streets of New York for evidence of fashion gone awry (FV, or “fashion victims”) and then published their findings each week for all to gape and gasp.

It’s easier to tolerate muffin topped jeans than a house color screaming so loud nobody can escape it.

Jerry Saltz has written another memorable jeremiad about the ART WORLD (which has to be written in all caps these days given its out of proportion status) in the Village Voice this week. Seeing Dollar Signs: Is the art market making us stupid? Or are we making it stupid?, offers a point of view that speaks for me and many other artist day laborers who are busy working away in their studios and operating well below the radar screen. The full article is worth a read, but here is a colorful passage to give you a taste:

The market is now so pervasive that it is simply a condition—as much a part of the art world as galleries and museums. Even if you’re not making money—as is the case with most of us—that’s your relationship to the market. To say you won’t participate in the market is like saying you refuse to breathe the air because it’s polluted.

The current market feeds the bullshit machine, provides cover for a lot of vacuous behavior, revs us up while wearing us down, breeds complacency, and is so invasive that it forces artists to regularly consider issues of celebrity, status, and money in their studios. Yet, it also allows more artists to make more money without having to work full-time soul-crushing jobs and provides most of us with what Mel Brooks called “our phony-baloney jobs.” Last December, more than 400 New York art dealers representing more than 5,000 artists paid for booths in one art fair or another in Miami to participate in this market. Everyone is trying the best they can. For critics to demonize the entire art world, then, as somehow unethical and crass seems self-righteous, cynical, and hypocritical.

Much confusion stems from there being no new, cogent Theory of the Market, no philosophy that addresses the ways in which the ongoing feeding frenzy is affecting the production, presentation, and reception of art. Nothing we say about the market adds up, partly because “the market” isn’t really an autonomous subject. It’s a diversionary tactic—essentially, a blend of economics, history, psychology, stagecraft, and lifestyle; an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.

Icarus
Fall of Icarus, by Breughel

Musee des Beux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W. H. Auden

The positive psychology movement contends that people are most content when they are fully engaged in a task for which they are well suited. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls this state flow. According to his research, the best way to achieve happiness is to view it as a “by-product of absorption.” And as Csikzentmihalyi points out, it is counterproductive to focus on whether you are happy or not since being concerned with your state of mind will take you right out of flow. So it is a bit of a Catch 22—you can only be happy if you are in flow. And the minute you stop to see if you are happy, you are out of flow.

I struggle with consciousness a lot in the studio. There is a consciousness that pays me frequent visits, a mind set that is a seriously bad-ass critic. This exasperating voice says the work isn’t progressing as it should and that last week’s progress wasn’t really progress at all. Another consciousness that shows up is obsessed with a particular gesture or approach, precluding the potential to stay open and receptive to what’s new or unexplored. There are others of course.

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Welcomed guests in my studio, Kevin Simmers and Joe Gifford

Meanwhile I am blissed out at the memory of those times when I have been in the flow that Csikzentmihalyi describes, and getting there is what I want every day. But like happiness, you can’t get there if flow is your goal. Letting yourself get absorbed in the work is the place to start. It silences the detracting voices and opens up the possibility that, while you were busy working, flow came to town.

From Adam Zagajewski’s poem, The Self:

It is small and no more visible than a cricket
in August. It likes to dress up, to masquerade,
as all dwarves do. It lodges between
granite blocks, between serviceable
truths. It even fits under
a bandage, under adhesive. Neither custom officers
nor their beautiful dogs will find it. Between
hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.

Zagajewski’s portrayal of the furtive self has a parallel in D. W. Winnicott’s description of the artist: Continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.

What makes that liminal zone between what is hidden and what is seen so compelling? The implicit finds residence in my consciousness in a manner so different from the explicit, much the way Wallace Stevens makes the distinction between “the beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes/The blackbird whistling/Or just after.” My best experiences of the evocative and provocative are almost always served up implicitly.

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