September 2008

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Curator extraordinaire Kate Fleming with my daughter Kellin at a previous show at the Gallery at 38 Cameron

A curator who knows her stuff is a great gift to an artist. Thank you to powerhouse Kate Fleming for pulling my work together in such an exemplary way for my show at 38 Cameron. She created a harmonic flow that is dynamic and yet soothing, lively and yet restful. As she assembled this show of nearly 50 paintings, I kept having the feeling that I was encountering my own works fresh, for the first time. I love that sense of seeing something familiar with new eyes.

In keeping with the paradox that is at the essence of all of life, this show has its own set of energies pulling in opposite directions. After this exhibit comes down in December, the gallery will be closing its doors. It has been five years of blending art and community in an unexpected fashion, and I am sad to see it come to an end.

The comings, the goings…I hold to the wise advice of Angeles Arrien: Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome. And that is useful advice for more than a gallery’s last run.


Robiette 2, now on display at Gallery at 38 Cameron

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Bellying Up

Do not quit. You see, the most constant state of an artist is uncertainty. You must face confusion, self-questioning, dilemma. Only amateurs are confident . . . be prepared to live with the fear of failure all your life.

–William Ormond Mitchell

The toughest patch of uncertainty in this artist’s life is usually those few days right before a show is set to hang. My studio has become a staging area full of newly minted paintings, my carefully crafted cast of mute players who must perform their work without the benefit of spoken language. It’s a performance that is more vibrational than expressive. And at some point you look around and ask yourself, is this really going to come together? And more directly: What if it doesn’t?

That response is right on cue says my friend Cindy, a consummate theater actor and director. She says it is during those last rehearsals before opening night when she is suddenly struck by the convincingly horrific thought that this will not grow wings and fly out on its own. But then something happens, and it does. Most of the time.

And there’s the rub.

This is a solo show and it will go up on Saturday. (For those of you in the Boston/Cambridge area, show details are posted on Slow Painters.)There’s some key assets that matter a lot, like having a gifted and experienced curator. And the space itself is inviting, a favorite venue for viewing art. But I’m still feeling restless, unsettled, unsure.

Finding the quote up top by Mitchell helped my mood and outlook. It makes it easier to belly up to the bar. ( I found this quote once again at the most reliable source for succinct and deeply resonating wisdom, Whiskey River.)


Celebrating the belly: This beautiful belly, now a memory, belonged to my niece Celeste until last Sunday’s extraordinary performance that produced a winning and utterly beguiling daughter, Gigi. For more photos, check out Celeste’s blog, Babycatcher.

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Venus Rising by Jean Léon Gérôme

It Is the Rising I Love

As long as I struggle to float above the ground
and fail, there is reason for this poetry.
On the stone back of Ludovici’s throne, Venus
is rising from the water. Her face and arms
are raised, and the two women trained in the ways
of the world help her rise, covering her
nakedness with a cloth at the same time.
It is the rising I love, from no matter what element
to the one above. She from water to land,
me from earth to air as if I had a soul.
Helped by prayers and not by women, I say
(ascending in all my sexual glamour), see my body
bathed in light and air. See me rise like a flame,
like the sun, moon, stars, birds, wind. In light.
In dark. But I never achieve it. I get on my knees
this gray April to see if open crocuses have a smell.
I must live in the suffering and desire of what
rises and falls. The terrible blind grinding
of gears against our bodies and lives.

—Linda Gregg


My daughter Kellin in a moment of glorious upreach

***
Linda Gregg is the author of six collections of poetry. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Literary Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the 2006 PEN/Voelcker Award winner for Poetry.

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Deep Season

A Charm

I have a twin who bears my name;
Bears it about with him in shame;

Who goes a way I would not go;
Has knowledge of things I would not know;

When I was brave he was afraid;
He told the truth, I lied;

What’s sweet to me tastes bitter to him;
My friends, my friends, he doesn’t love them;

I walk the daylight in his dream;
He breathes the air of my nightmare.

–David Ferry

This is a season of shadows. Fall arrives and the sun begins angling its light, deepening the dark silhouettes of the trees along my road. Shorter days. Putting away the white summer clothes and donning the protection of winter black.

A heightened contrast of light and dark is also apparent on a metaphoric level in our culture at large–the recent high stakes meltdown of the financial markets, the struggle of poverty that coexists with chokingly excessive wealth, the deep divide between our current presidential options and the implications that these two choices mean for our world’s future.

This poem haunts. It haunts because Ferry doesn’t let any of us wrangle our way out of owning our own personal dark energy, our very own, custom-made shadow. And that burden feels particularly heavy at a time when so much is at stake on every level. Why are elections held in November, right at the cusp of the long and bleak winter season? Would the outcome be different if it we held the vote in the spring or summer? The mantra going forward: Bundle up.

***
David Ferry has been a poetry mentor for several of my friends while they were enrolled in the masters program in creative writing at BU. They still speak about him with a deep reverence.

In addition to his own poetry, Ferry has done a number of translations including a well received rendering of Gilgamesh. The poet W. S. Merwin has described Ferry’s work as having an “assured quiet tone” that communicates “complexities of feeling with unfailing proportion and grace.”

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I continue to be caught up and compelled by the ongoing saga of the Spiral Jetty. It is a touchstone for so many compelling personal themes: the unique power that is an art pilgrimage site (Bilbao, the Ajanta Caves, Uluru in Australia–there are many art/sacred sites that also move me deeply); the geographic connection I feel to the land in Utah and my family’s multi-generational heritage there; the large scale power of Smithson’s construction to frame and define that exquisite desert expanse (not unlike Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee*); the ongoing organic evolution of the structure as the years leave their marks, like the coat of crystallized salt, on the jetty stones. Just to name a few.

Here is a recent update:

The Great Salt Lake continues to shrink. Today its official measurement dipped slightly to an elevation of exactly 4,194 feet. The last time it was lower was way back in the 1960s.

The lake was at precisely this same level four years ago; then and today, the lowest since record lows in the ‘60s. But this year it’s a real surprise because we had a relatively wet winter.

The Great Salt Lake is now surrounded by hundreds of square miles of dried mud and salt.

The $25-million-a-year brine shrimp industry is scrambling to find usable harbors. They dredged this one at a cost of $200,000. Brine Shrimp Industry spokesman Don Leonard says, “It was a big surprise to us. I mean Lake Powell went up 30 feet, right? But the Great Salt Lake’s going down.”

Robert Smithson’s world-famous artwork the Spiral Jetty is now hundreds of yards from the lake it was sculpted in. It still inspires artists. We encountered a man in a suit of mirrors, San Francisco based Austrian Gustav Troger, at the heart of the Spiral Jetty standing on salt instead of water.

A decent winter snowfall was blunted by a hot, dry summer. Eric Millis, with the Utah Division of Water Resources, says, “With all that combined, yeah the lake has just continued to drop.”

Lee Sporleder opens the gates at a remote, aging facility on the west side of the lake, a pump house built in the 1980s when the lake was flooding. The $65-million state pumps ran less than two years.

The lake is now a dozen miles away across a vast expanse of salt, but the pumps get monthly maintenance in case they’re ever needed again.

It would be a long way off, but we’ve got a big investment here, and there’s no sense letting it go to waste,” says Sporleder, with the Department of Water Resources.

But you know what they say in Utah. If you don’t like the weather, wait, ah, a few years maybe, and it’ll change. Pretty good odds, eventually the lake will make a comeback.

In the ‘60s it was 2 ½ feet lower than today. In the ‘80s it went up 20 feet. Leonard says, “Well the long-term worry is that as the population of the Wasatch Front grows that the people will drink more and more water, use more and more water, and less and less will get to the lake.”

State experts disagree. Millis says, “The impacts of additional water development to meet the growing population’s needs will have a minimal impact on the lake. We’re calculating on the order of less than a half a foot.”

The brine shrimpers worry the saltier water may hurt the shrimp. Duck hunters are afraid the ducks will fly away.

For the rest of us, it’s a drama of nature, a lake that defies efforts to control it, whether it goes too high or too low.

John Hollenhorst
KSL.com

*Wallace Stevens’ infamous short poem, “Anecdote of The Jar”:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

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I have shared the poetry of Juan Ramon Jiménez here before (most recently on September 3), and recently I have been even more compelled by his work. Poet Robert Bly’s volume, Lorca & Jiménez, brings together the works of these two extraordinary Spanish poets and offers a window into the creative context of Jiménez’ view of poetry.

With his usual poetic license and metaphysical intensity, Bly compares Jiménez’ work with that of Nerudo and the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (who, though extremely gifted, suffered from depression and ended his life in 1914):

Neruda and Trakl take all their weight as men, and put that into their poems. Their love goes out as a form of occult energy into boulders, river barges, crumbling walls, dining rooms, women’s clothes. When they step back, they leave the energy there. Their poems lie there separate from them, massive, full of grief. To Jiménez writing a poem means something entirely different. For him a poem has ecstasy: that is the difference between poetry and prose. Living as a poet means feeling that ecstasy every day of your life, every hour if possible. A poem flies out of the poet like a spark. Whatever the poet writes down will be touched with ecstasy—the poem will therefore be light, not light in a sense of light verse that avoids seriousness, but light as a spark or as an angel is light. With one or two fewer words the poem would leap straight up into the sky.

The heavy poems of Trakl lie brooding in alleys or on mountain tops, and when the reader walks up to them they hardly notice him: they feel too great a sorrow. Jiménez’s poems on the other hand are nervous and alert, and when we come near, they see us, they are more interested in us than in themselves—they try to show us the road back to the original ecstasy. The poems are signposts pointing the reader back to the poet, that is, back to the life from which the ecstasy came.

And regarding Jiménez’ subject matter, Bly makes this observation:

We can understand the subject matter of Jiménez’ poems if we understand that it is in solitude a man’s emotions become very clear to him. Jiménez does not write of politics or religious doctrines, of the mistakes of others, not of his own troubles or even his own opinions, but only of solitude, and the strange experiences and the strange joy that come to a man in solitude.

I found this passage deeply moving. This is, after all, what I have wanted to achieve with my visual work. It is a strange joy, indeed.

I’ll also share one last passage from Bly’s short essay about Jiménez, partly because it is just about the most romantic thing I can imagine. I never used to be schmaltzy, but aging has its own way of juking our personality traits and leaving us to wonder, just what kind of person am I really? So I’ll own up if you do, too: Ladies, just ask yourselves honestly if this account doesn’t break your heart:

His love for his wife was one of the greatest devotions of his life and he wrote many of his poems for her. When he received the Nobel Prize in 1958, his wife was on her deathbed; he told reporters to go away, that he would not go to Stockholm, that his wife should have had the Nobel Prize, and that he was no longer interested. After his wife died, he did not write another poem and died a few months later, in the spring of 1958.

Sigh.

Here are two examples of his poetry:

I Took Off Petal After Petal

I took off petal after petal, as if you were a rose,
in order to see your soul,
and I didn’t see it.

However, everything around—
horizons of fields and oceans—
everything, even what was infinite,
was filled with a perfume,
immense and living.

I Am Not I

I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see.
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.

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Lacuna 73, by Pamela Farrell (image courtesy of Pamela Farrell)

I recently made contact with Pamela Farrell, an artist, blogger and psychotherapist. Her rich and lush paintings, mostly done in encaustic, caught my eye immediately. And it was through Pam that I was first introduced to another worthwhile art blog, Color Chunks.

Here is a posting Pam wrote on Color Chunks regarding the complexities of revealing. This is a topic I have written about here before, and one that I continue to examine and ponder. (One of my favorite quotes is Winnicott’s apt description of an artist: “Continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.”) I found her comments insightful.

My work seems like it’s all about revealing…something: remains, lacunae, vestiges, scars, memories, clues, and the subliminal. In addition to being an artist, I am also a practicing licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist.

In both practices, revealing (revelation?) is a complex undertaking: it must be measured, paced carefully, and with time taken to stop along the way to explore that which has been revealed.

Too much revealed too quickly and the result can be frightening or anxiety-producing; too little, and the pace can feel plodding, boring, and can bring about feelings of discouragement and impatience.

Sometimes what has been revealed is frightening or unpleasant and attempts are made to edit or recover the protective layer. This may produce desirable results in art; in therapy, not so much.

If the revealed does not integrate well into the larger picture, but appears to take on a life of its own and is viewed as “precious,” or maybe something to be regarded at another time, the balance can be thrown off, and it must be discarded—in the case of therapy, perhaps temporarily; in art, that move is usually painful and can be experienced as a loss, at least, initially.

This has been a nice little exercise for me, talking about revealing. Revealing plays a vital role in both my art and my clinical work, as a tool, a process, and a result. And this little piece also is a bit revealing…about me, which brings me to the final point I’d like to make. In both the art and the clinical work, I sometimes struggle with how much of me to reveal. Both are intensely personal and intimate endeavors. In the therapeutic relationship, there are practice guidelines about self-disclosure of the therapist. The therapist revealing too much or the wrong things about the self can be seen as a boundary transgression and/or damaging to the therapeutic process and relationship. In my art, the struggle for me is how much of myself to reveal…and what does that even look like? Could anyone really tell? Is my art about me? Or is it addressing larger, more universal themes and experiences? Maybe both, if I’m lucky.

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Erin Hogan

A few weeks ago I posted a review of a new book on Slow Painting, Spiral Jetta by Erin Hogan. And now that I’ve finished reading the book I can recommend it without reservation to anyone who has interest in contemporary art, particularly land art, and who would enjoy a thoughtful adventure served up in a particularly sassy fashion.

Hogan’s writing style is a lively combination of the self-effacing humor of a David Sedaris with the thoughtful insights of a Suzi Gablik. Having made the pilgrimage to most of the land art sites that Hogan visits in her book, I loved retracing my steps with her. My regular readers know how passionately I love Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, so of course I loved every description of the treacherous dirt roads, the primal sense of pilgrimage, the difficulty of traveling in unmarked territory where getting lost and never being heard of again feels very real at times. Her gift of self-deprecating humor keeps the entire art road trip narrative engaging, and her sharp mind makes the journey meaningful to the reader who is traveling with her vicariously.

Here are a few passages that stood out for me:

I walked into the spiral and back out of it. I lay down in the center of it. I crisscrossed its rings, I crouched down and tasted the salt. I looked around, still overwhelmed by the work’s nonmonumentality. I tried to experience it physically, without processing it through any art-historical filter. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t separate my encounter with Spiral Jetty from the reading and thinking I had done about art of this era, by now deeply entrenched in my reptile brain. Trying to consider this object in isolation, to bypass art history, was like trying to knock an irritating song out of my head. I only managed to turn up the volume. It was with this force that the views of critics and historians crowded into my consciousness.

Like anything good and complex, Spiral Jetty can be thought of in many different ways. As lame as it sounds, those “ways” came down to two for me: space and time. Not small topics, I realize. But Spiral Jetty beautifully and subtly distills its experience into those fundamental categories…

Being at Spiral Jetty engendered in me a sense of articulated space, one that wasn’t alienating because it was marked by mountains, edges, colors, which together staved off the disorientation I associate with open, ungridded space, like being on a sailboat at sea…the space is elemental and understandable, only a little overwhelming, and deeply inspiring.

And this:

Smithson’s essay on the Spiral Jetty reads like a stoner’s manifesto, all over the map and deeply profound: he hits Brancusi’s sketcch of James as a “spiral ear”; he talks about lattices, a sense of scale that “resonates in the eye and the ear at the same time,” a “reinforcement and prolongation of spirals that reverberates up and down space and time.” Taking a breath, he concludes, “So it is that one ceases to consider art in terms of an object.”

And I finally knew what he meant. There is something in Spiral Jetty that gives it the internal coherence, the completeness, the self-containment and instantaneity, that makes art. It is a physical quality of a supremely constructed entity, with complex internal relationships that harmonize into a glorious whole.

And how’s this for just about the best blurb ever on the back of a book?

Across the marvelously unexpected little road saga, the stud muffin cowboys of late twentieth-century American art at long last meet their sly gamine match. Pretty much doing for land art what Geoff Dyer did for D. H. Lawrnece, Ms. Hogan, an urban fish decidedly out of water, flopping about in the high desert parch, makes for marvelously endearing company. At at times harrowingly (albeit comically) unreliable navigator (who doesn’t bring a compass along on solo treks across such vast empty expanses?), Hogan nevertheless manages to deploy an expertly modulated prose, tracking the heaviest of subjects with the lightest of touches, melding gravitas with whimsy (vodka and tonic), in a narrative that in the end, like the art is surveys, manages to be about what it is to be an individual alone—pinprick-contingent, achingly vulnerable, gobsmacked enthralled—in the face of all that is.

–Lawrence Weschler*

Hogan’s is a fresh and welcomed new voice.

*I’ve referenced Weschler’s work in earlier blog postings here. Search on his name here if you’d like to read more by him.

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The Terror of Waking

Three Days of Forest, a River, Free

The dogs have nothing better
to do than bark; duty’s whistle
slings a bright cord
around their throats.
I’ll stand here all night
if need be, no more real
than a tree when no moon shines.

The terror of waking is a trust
drawn out unbearably
until nothing, not even love,
makes it easier, and yet
I love this life:

three days of forest,
the mute riot of leaves.

Who can point out a smell
but a dog? The way is free
to the river. Tell me,
Lord, how it feels
to burst out like a rose.

Blood rises in my head–
I’m there.
Faint tongue, dry fear,
I think I lost you to the dogs,
so far off now they’re no
more than a chain of bells
ringing darkly, underground.

–Rita Dove

Rita Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and was the youngest poet to serve as the Poet Laureate of the United States.

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I just returned from three days in Maine. My friend Katie is part of a family that has been going to the same hidden spot–Maine’s largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline–for four generations, and it is through her that I came to know and love this exquisitely unpopulated, shimmeringly pristine beach.


Everything here revolves around the tide chart. When the tide is out, the beach is wide and long, like a moonscape that has no end. Walking along the water’s edge, it is easy to believe you and your friends are the last people left on the planet. But when the tide returns, everything disappears completely. The expanse of sand is swallowed whole. And no matter how many times I have watched this slow rhythmic flow of water in and then out, in and then out, I can’t quite believe something could change that drastically, right before my eyes.

It is a beach of extremes. And being a person who has a natural proclivity to excess, I bonded with this place immediately. It is the place I think of when I long for peace. It gets carried around inside me the way Yeats described the lake water at Innisfree, a sound he could always hear inside himself, “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.”

The eternality of that stretch of beach–or my imagined concept of it–was altered this weekend when Katie told us about a new and unexpected development. Last season a storm ripped out an entire area of the shore that had always been covered with beach grass. That event, plus others that may have contributed to it, precipitated a major change in the placement of sand. Like water, sand has its own kind of fluidity. When existing patterns in stasis are disrupted, it can carve a new cliff or leave the old beach altogether, exposing an underbelly of rocks and boulders too heavy to choreograph a migration of their own.

Of course the children of the children of the children of the families that first began coming to this place are questioning what might causing this. No one remembers the beach being so disrupted this dramatically. Is it global warming, or nature’s own hand cycling through a larger arc the way fires can clear a forest and rejuvenate the ecosystem? Is it a beach retaining wall that inadvertently disturbed the esoteric sand flow? No one knows for sure, but the concern is palpable.

I kept thinking about this business of sand, flow, patterns, predictability. I once heard Frank Herbert speak about the genesis of his infamous Dune sci-fi series. In that lecture he said the entire epic storyline came to him when he was living on the Oregon coast and carefully studied the life of sand. He became mesmerized by the complexity of its existence. I was young at the time and I didn’t really understand how provocative that one concept could be. I’m older and wiser now, and it is possible for me now to imagine how a legendary series of novels could emerge from that seminal observation of nature at work.

I was also reminded of what Robert Smithson said in relation to his Spiral Jetty project:

Time is always there gnawing at us and corroding all our best intentions and all our most beautiful thoughts about where we think we’re at. It’s always there, like a plague creeping in, but occasionally we try to touch on some timeless moment and I suppose that’s what art’s about to a degree, lifting oneself out of that continuum.

Schooled by sand, indeed.

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