June 2009

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Reunion

Just as he changes himself, in the end eternity changes him.
—Mallarmé

On the phonograph, the voice
of a woman already dead for three
decades, singing of a man
who could make her do anything.
On the table, two fragile
glasses of black wine,
a bottle wrapped in its towel.
It is that room, the one
we took in every city, it is
as I remember: the bed, a block
of moonlight and pillows.
My fingernails, pecks of light
on your thighs.
The stink of the fire escape.
The wet butts of cigarettes
you crushed one after another.
How I watched the morning come
as you slept, more my son
than a man ten years older.
How my breasts feel, years
later, the tongues swishing
in my dress, some yours, some
left by other men.
Since then, I have always
wakened first, I have learned
to leave a bed without being
seen and have stood
at the washbasins, wiping oil
and salt from my skin,
staring at the cupped water
in my two hands.
I have kept everything
you whispered to me then.
I can remember it now as I see you
again, how much tenderness we could
wedge between a stairwell
and a police lock, or as it was,
as it still is, in the voice
of a woman singing of a man
who could make her do anything.

Carolyn Forché

Another great poem by Forché. And thank you to Lisa for reminding me to spend more time with Forché’s work. This one, a hit right out of the park.

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(Photograph: Alicia Canter)

Maggi Hambling, another sassy candidate for “ladette” along with Tracey Emin, is an English artist whose work I follow and whose approach to art and life is refreshingly direct.

Here’s her kind of epigrammatic wit from a piece in the Guardian:

Are you healthy?
Early every morning, at least. I do a couple of knee stretches in the park while hitting a tennis ball for Lux, my Tibetan terrier. At breakfast I take a mixture of 12 pills and capsules then hope for the best.

What exercise do you take?
Passionate (but on the whole rather static) tennis, once a week.

How do you relax?
On my bed with a large whisky and Coronation Street in an effort to keep in touch with reality.

Have you ever had therapy?
Once upon a time (in 1983) I visited a famous psychiatrist, on the insistence of an insane girlfriend. He didn’t speak for three months and I left. He was a very round person, and when I told him I’d had enough he shrank into a stick insect before my eyes. At age 60, I started therapy again in the hope of coping. My lady does reply now and again, and it helps, hugely.

How much sleep do you need?
Like most people, more than I get.

Is sex important to you?
Of course. Sadly, as a Scorpio, it’s inevitable. But as fellow Scorpion Picasso said: “Art and sex are the same thing,” so I’m always at it.

Do you worry about your weight?
Constantly. And with good reason.

Attitude to smoking?
Love it, love it, love it. Gave up at 10am on 10 October 2004. Now restrict it to funerals, weddings and other disasters.

How much do you drink?
Too much and not enough.

Attitude to drugs?
Cocaine best, but hangover worst.

Are you happy?
As a manic depressive, it’s either very “yes” or very “no”.

Have you ever spent a night in hospital?
A couple in casualty: once after a wasp sting, then after an oyster. I’ve given up both.

How do you feel about cosmetic surgery?
Don’t approve, but would love some.

I swear by…
Steak tartare at The Ivy.

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(Photo: The Telegraph)

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Friday night was the opening of my ninth show with Lyman-Eyer Gallery in Provincetown. Hats off to Jim Lyman and Melissa for all they did, done with sprezzatura (“effortless effort”), to make the evening happen so smoothly and for selling three paintings. And to my carload of road trip buddies—Gerald, Karen and David—thanks for making the journey from Boston feel like a celebration in itself.

A few installation views:

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On the left: Suama Trei triptych. On the right: Arom 1, Stea 1, Roybee 3

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Suama series

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Greevaye 2 on the left, with work from the Seetina series on the right

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On the top: Baytole series; Below, work from the Mysa Graffe series

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Suama series, another view

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Arom 1, Stea 1, Roybee 3, another view

Opening reception:

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My road buddies Karen Haglund and Gerald Horne

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Fellow gallery artist Jan Lhormer (on the right) with friends

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Art in New England‘s inveterate photographer, second from the left; Jim Lyman, gallery director, on the right

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Artist, cabaret singer and Provincetown legend

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David, art advocate and best pal

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Elegies

375px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Elegy_(1899)
Elegy, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) who was in fact the most successful and popular painter of his era, the very embodiment of everything the Impressionists were fighting against.

I’ve had some provocative back and forths with Lisa the Poet regarding what poems can and cannot do. Poetry that is about poetry: Valid? The abuse of “poetic language.” What topics are acceptable for the poetic form?

As is often the case, something invariably crosses my screen that sheds some light on a particular subject that is provoking my thinking. Grabbing an issue from my “it never seems to get any smaller” pile of Times Book Reviews, I just read through one dating from March of last year where I found a review of Elegy, a volume of poems by Mary Jo Bang, written by David Orr.

Bang’s book deals with the death of her son. Orr’s discussion of the limits of language—in particular, the language of poetry—as well as the concept of the elegy and how those issues are play out in that form proved to be very helpful. I don’t think this is a question that has answers, but I found Orr’s insights deepened my own sense, as inarticulate as that may be, into what poetry can and cannot do.

Here’s an excerpt from that review:


“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Elizabeth Bishop tells us — and yet artistry can often seem the least appropriate response to the misery of loss. When pain is primitive and specific, as it is after the death of a loved one, then we don’t want an exquisite performance filled with grand abstractions. What we want is to go beyond art, beyond society and beyond speech itself, as Lear does when he enters carrying the body of his daughter and crying, “Howl howl howl howl!” We want heaven’s vault to crack. We want the veil parted and the bone laid bare. This is what Tennyson meant when he wrote in Canto 54 of “In Memoriam,” his tribute to his friend Arthur Hallam, that his grief left him “no language but a cry.”

Still, “In Memoriam” is over 1,000 lines long, which is a lot of language any way you slice it. This points toward one of the central paradoxes of the modern private elegy. The closer a poet is to the subject he elegizes, the more we expect him to respond in ways that aren’t “poetic” — but it takes craft to make a poem seem uncrafted, and it takes words to show how short our words can fall. As a result, the elegist is forced to go through increasingly complicated contortions in order to sound sufficiently simple. He finds himself in the awkward position of orchestrating a death wail. Now, one might respond that many (too many) poems meditate on the limits of speech, and that would be true. But it’s equally true that nobody reads a poem about Lacanian theory the same way one reads a poem about the poet’s dead child. Any elegist must confront this fact.

That confrontation can be especially problematic for a certain type of contemporary poet. Stevens accused Frost of writing about “subjects,” to which Frost retorted that Stevens wrote about “bric-a-brac.” The dominant contemporary American style, with its self-conscious intellectualism, evasiveness and preoccupation with “language itself” is firmly on the side of bric-a-brac. This style, like all styles, may be put to any use, but it will always approach its goals through the backdoor via head fakes, double bluffs, rope tricks and an elaborate system of pulleys. It’s a strategy poorly suited to “subjects” in general, let alone the intractable subject that haunts an elegy.

But the best stylists thrive when challenged. This is perhaps why Mary Jo Bang largely succeeds in her new book of elegies for her son, called, simply enough, “Elegy.” Bang’s previous four collections are polished and frequently interesting, but they also contain more than their share of overwrought and overthought poetry about poetry. Sure, a poem might be called “Open Heart Surgery,” but by Line 14 we’d discover that “all the while, the ghost of Gertrude Stein / was whispering in my ear.” Bang’s last book, “The Eye Like a Strange Balloon,” consisted entirely of poems about other works of art (“Always asking, has this this been built / Or is it all process?”), which for a bric-a-brac poet is the equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie about a troop of overgrown adolescents who collect meerschaum pipes and have mommy issues — in other words, pretty much what you’d expect.

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JerrySaltz

I’m basking in Saltzian wisdom. That would be Saltzism as in Jerry Saltz. Yesterday’s posting got me back in the groove, so here’s an excerpt from his “you’re speaking for me, man” book, Seeing Out Loud, Selected Essays: 2003-2007. (An updated version is set for release this September so hold on a few months if you are thinking of purchasing your own copy.)

Having an eye in criticism is as important as having an ear in music. It means discerning the original from the derivative, the inspired from the smart, the remarkable from the common, and not looking at art in narrow, academic, or “objective” ways. It means engaging uncertainty and contingency, suspending disbelief and trying to create a place for doubt, unpredictability, curiosity and openness.

Dishearteningly, many critics have ideas but no eye. They rarely work outside their comfort zone, are always trying to reign art in, turn it into a seminar or a clique, or write cerebral, unreadable texts on mediocre work. There’s nothing wrong with writing about weak art as long as you acknowledge the work’s shortcomings. Seeing as much art as you can is how you learn to see. Listening very carefully to how you see, gauging the levels of perception, perplexity, conjecture, emotional and intellectual response, and psychic effect, is how you learn to see better.

Art is a way of thinking, a way of knowing yourself. Opinions are tools for listening in on your thinking and expanding consciousness. Many writers treat the juiciest part of criticism, judgment, as if it were tainted or beneath them. The most interesting critics make their opinions known. Yet in most reviews there’s no way to know what the writer thinks, or you have to scour the second-to-last paragraph for one negative adjective to detect a hint of disinclination. This is no-risk non-criticism. Being “post-critical” isn’t possible. Everyone is judging all the time. Critics who tell you they’re not judging or that they’re being objective are either lying or delusional. Being critical of art is a way of showing it respect. Being subjective is being human.

Yet people regularly say, ‘You shouldn’t write on things you don’t like.’ This breaks my heart. No one says this to theater critics, film reviewers, restaurant critics, or sports writers. No one says, ‘Just say all the food was good.’ Nowadays, many see criticism mainly as a sales tool or a rah-rah device. Too many critics enthuse over everything they see or merely write descriptively. This sells everyone short and is creating a real disconnect. People report not liking 80 percent of the shows they see, yet 80 percent of reviews are positive or just descriptive.

Obviously, critics can’t just hysterically love or hate things, or assert that certain types of art or media are inherently bad (e.g., no one has actually believed that painting is dead since the Nixon administration, yet writers regularly beat this dead horse). Critics must connect their opinions to a larger set of circumstances; present cogent arguments; show how work does or doesn’t seem relevant, is or isn’t derivative; explain why an artist is or isn’t growing. As with Melville’s ideas about art, criticism should have: ‘Humility — yet pride and scorn / Instinct and study; love and hate / Audacity and reverence.’ Good criticism should be vulnerable, chancy, candid, and nervy. It should give permission, have attitude, maybe a touch of rebellion, never be sanctimonious or dull, and be written in a distinctive, readable way. Good critics should be willing to go on intuition and be unafraid to write from parts of themselves they don’t really know they have.

If criticism is in trouble, as many say, it’s because too many critics write in a dreary hip metaphysical jargon that no one understands except other dreary hip metaphysicians who speak this dead language. They praise everything they see, or only describe. These critics are like the pet owner who sews up the cat to stop it from fouling the sofa: They keep the couch clean but kill the cat.

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Jerry Saltz, critic extraordinaire

Jerry Saltz, one of the better art minds around, has a lot to say about the current Biennale in Venice. And a lot of other international shows. As is often the case with Saltz, he just cuts through the bullshit and makes so much sense.

His description of a particular malaise in the world of art that I too have seen evidence of everywhere I look is something he refers to as “reflexive conceptualism.” As I look at the work that predominates in the international arena I am struck, as is Saltz, with what’s missing. Self-perpetuated through events like the Venice Biennale and the internetwork of art schools throughout the world, the current mind set has landed on a self-referential form of expression that is conducted in “art world-only” code. It feels as strictured and narrow in its delineation of what’s acceptable and what is not as the starchy salon world of the 19th century that drove the Impressionists to set up their own Salon des Refusés. Ironically, there is a–dare I use the word–parochial quality to it all.

In Saltz’s view, it’s a curator problem: “Curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are ‘about’ something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense, or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color, or strangeness.”

I know I’m not the only visual artist who is still seeking after those experiences and expressions that don’t “make sense” on the linear plane. I am also not the only painter who loves overt materiality, physicality, color or strangeness. But I am particularly appreciative that Saltz keeps lunging at these issues. He’s a street fighter with the armature of followers, and one of them is me.

Here’s an excerpt from his review in New York Magazine:

Venice is the perfect place for a phase of art to die. No other city on earth embraces entropy quite like this magical floating mall. There are now more than 100 biennales around the world (most of them put together by the same 25 celebrity curators, drawing from the same pool of 100 or so artists); Venice is often called “the most important” of them. The main show of this year’s Venice Biennale is the work of Daniel Birnbaum, a well-respected 46-year-old Swedish critic and curator. His “Making Worlds,” held in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni delle Biennale and in the magnificent Arsenale, attains an enervating inertia of exhibitions and brings us to a terminal state of what we’ll call “the curator problem.” The show, containing the work of 90-plus artists, doesn’t offend or go off the rails. Rather, it looks pretty much the way these sorts of big international group shows and cattle calls now look; it includes the artists that these sorts of shows now include. It’s full of the reflexive conceptualism that artists everywhere now produce because other artists everywhere produce it (and because curators curate it). Almost all of this art comments on art, institutions, or modernism. Basically, curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are “about” something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense, or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color, or strangeness.

Any critic who says this, of course, is accused of conservatism, of wishing for a return to painting. I’m not for or against video—or any medium or style, for that matter. Nor am I wishing for a return to painting, which can never come back because it never went away. (That said, it’s hard to imagine anything more conservative today than an institutional critique. That sort of work is the establishment.) My beef is with the experience that “Making Worlds” produces. It’s just another aesthetically familiar feedback cycle: impersonal, administratively adept, highly professionalized, formally generic, mildly gregarious, aesthetically familiar, totally knowing, cookie-cutter. It is time we broke out of that enervated loop.

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Venice
Rooftops can be seen at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia through Mona Hatoum’s “Interior Landscapes,” with its cutouts of soldiers (Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

A visually stunning slideshow of Venice during the current Biennale is available at the New York Times site.

Here’s the intro lead in:

Daniel Birnbaum, the curator of the 53rd Venice Biennale, took its title — “Making Worlds” — from the American philosopher Nelson Goodman, who proposed replacing the slippery question “What is art?” with the question “When is art?” During the biennale, still arguably the world’s most important international exhibition, the answer is: always, constantly, art without interval. And Venice itself — that “repository of consolations,” as Henry James called it — becomes the glorious frame.

View slideshow here.

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“Mild Winter II” (Photo: Galerie Michael Werner)

This weekend I found Laura Cumming’s review in the Guardian of the new Per Kirkeby show at the Tate Modern. (It is also posted on Slow Painting.) Well known in his homeland of Denmark, he’s a painter whose work does not get as much visibility (IMHO) everywhere else as it should. Hopefully the show at the Tate will change that trajectory. He is also a writer of poetry and essays, a filmmaker and a sculptor, so his sensibilities bleed over into a number of different forms.

Here’s an excerpt from Cumming’s review:


Kirkeby’s colour – radiant violet, cobalt, glowing ochre – is like a gift, a compensation for the complexity of his art. For he never offers any easy statements. None of his paintings is sewn up, resolved, and very often you feel more certain of the mood than the subject matter. His early work has been compared to that of contemporaries such as Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz, but in its primitive and irreducible pleasures seems more connected to Cy Twombly.

Though there are, of course, those who just find it annoyingly resistant and obscure; which is the occupational hazard of the abstract artist. With abstraction, there has to be some kind of affinity, some vocabulary or tone of voice that the audience may recognise as it recognises the content of figurative art. In which respect, the relative unfamiliarity of Kirkeby’s work is a boon.

For it allows one to see the paintings clearly, uninflected by the judgments of others, to meet them like relative strangers. And this show is the ideal encounter, for it has been very subtly arranged to display the fullness of their character. Rich, earthy, spearing, dynamic, fiercely inquiring, solemn, droll, sceptical and yet abundantly romantic: perhaps a portrait of the artist as much as his art.

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Per Kirkeby (Fotograf/Copyright: Peter Beck)

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A section of my studio wall in South Boston

The weight shifts measurably in a studio space after a large body of work goes out the door. Yes, the chaos of the last few months has cleared out, that’s true. But my experience this week was less a dust settling relief than a strong sense of space being made for something new.

And for that feeling, I would drop everything else I’m doing.

Whether success or failure, the truth of a life really has little to do with its quality. The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.

–May Sarton

(Thanks Whiskey River for the Sarton quote.)

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flowers

My friend Lisa the Poet (referred to on this blog frequently as simply LP) had this to say about poets: “As far as those who can sustain many great poems over many years, the list for me is short: Berryman, Gluck, McMichael, Forche.” Yeah, she’s tough, so I take her recommendations very seriously. My daily poetry fix (done with the ritual of taking vitamin supplements) is now focused on digging deeper into the work of each of those four poets.

This morning I found the following poem by Forche which reminded me immediately of one of my long time favorites, Initiation II by Nina Bogin. It is the poem that brings back full force my first year of living in France on my own oh so long ago. These two poems make a nice pairing on this Thursday morning, the first morning in months when I haven’t awakened with the sense of a creative deadline looming. Yes, the paintings for my upcoming show have been selected and the hanging blocked out wall by wall with gallery director James Lyman. Done and done. So now I can fall into that inner sigh of relief at having completed this very protracted and arduous arc of labor. Initiation means something quite specific to me this morning.

Poem For Maya

Dipping our bread in oil tins
we talked of morning peeling
open our rooms to a moment
of almonds, olives and wind
when we did not yet know what we were.
The days in Mallorca were alike:
footprints down goat-paths
from the beds we had left,
at night the stars locked to darkness.
At that time we were learning
to dance, take our clothes
in our fingers and open
ourselves to their hands.
The veranera was with us.
For a month the almond trees bloomed,
their droppings the delicate silks
we removed when each time a touch
took us closer to the window where
we whispered yes, there on the intricate
balconies of breath, overlooking
the rest of our lives.

–Carolyn Forche

***
Initiation II

At the crossroads, hens scratched circles
into the white dust. There was a shop
where I bought coffee and eggs, coarse-grained
chocolate almost too sweet to eat.
When I walked up the road, the string sack
heavy on my arm, I thought
that my legs could take me anywhere,
into any country, any life.
The air, dazzling as sand, grew dense
with light: bougainvillea spilled
over the salmon walls, the road
veered into the ravine. The world
could be those colors, the mangoes,
the melons, the avocado evenings
releasing their circles of moon.
I climbed the pink stairs, entered
the house as calm and ephemeral
as my own certainty:
this is my house, my key,
my hand with its new lines.
I am as old as I will ever be.

–Nina Bogin

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