March 2010

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Istanbul: a child connects with her grandmother (Photo: Collin Key)

Every once in a while you find a post that says it just the way you would have. Here’s one at All Girls by Sally Reed, regular reader of Slow Muse, about so many themes and ideas that I find compelling—the work of D. W. Winnicott (a post about him here), the inestimable theatrical genius Patsy Rodenburg, the ineffable connection we can feel with certain people, the leaky margins of personal space—it’s all there, and so well written.

Here’s a sample, but stop in to read the entire post:

Winnicott posits that there is a private space (the psychic space within), and a public space, which is clearly outside us. And then, between us, is the place where we connect: the transitional space which is neither purely inside nor purely outside, but rather an enlivened between space. And according to Winnicott, this transitional space is the space of play and creativity — where our culture is created, where love can grow, where teaching and learning take place, where art is made, and where culture is created.

I have been aware on occasion of a friend or lover holding a space open for me … almost as one might hold up a tent or a canopy. It’s like a balm. You feel the welcome and readiness to connect when the transitional space is held open for you. And feel the sadness when that space collapses.

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A watercolor by Renee Collins, from my collection. I don’t know the name that Renee originally gave it, but I’ve always referred to it as “Leaky Margins.”

If you spend a fair amount of time online, you have probably come up against The Membrane. It functions a bit like a cell wall, as the boundary between the cyber inside and cyber out there, the me and the you, a sense of being connected and yet protected, visible and yet not. At certain places that membrane is only a few air packets thick, with lots of porosity and flow back and forth. At other places it is a glove fit and impermeable, invisible armor that makes for easy escapes and to travel incognito. There’s nothing quite like it IRL. Sometimes it frustrates me. Sometimes I think it is the coolest thing in all the world.

It was in that context that I found this quote so provocative.

I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.

–Vladimir Nabokov

Beautiful thing, discreteness, even when contemplated within the entropic morbidity we all face. Thank you Whiskey River for bringing me another great quote moment.

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Roberta Smith keep the dialogue about contemporary painting current and vital. Regarding that old saw, “painting is dead,” Smith is consistent in her refusal to buy in.

In today’s New York Times Arts section (I refuse to call that part of the paper by its full title, Arts & Leisure since it is irritatingly effete, and the “& Leisure” does, after all, show up in grayscale font) Smith’s latest article, It’s Not Dry Yet, gets the center spot above the fold once again. (I wrote about another Smith piece on painting, Post Minimal to the Max, that held the same position a few weeks back, Do Something Else Next.)

Smith’s latest piece begins with a great set of statements: “Few modern myths about art have been as persistent or as annoying as the so-called death of painting. Unless, of course, it is the belief that abstract and representational painting are oil and water, never to meet as one.”

Smith goes on to track the peculiar history of the connection between abstraction and representation, and more particular, where that relationship has brought us today:

As for representation and abstraction, historically and perceptually they have usually been inseparable. Paintings — like all art — tend to get and hold our attention through their abstract, or formal, energy. But even abstract paintings have representational qualities; the human brain cannot help but impart meaning to form.

There have been moments of dazzling balance between the representational and the abstract — for example, Byzantine mosaics; pre-Columbian and American Indian textiles and ceramics; Japanese screens; Mughal painting; and post-Impressionism.

Painting may be in a similar place right now, fomented mostly, but not always, by young painters who have emerged in the last decade. They feel freer to paint what they want than at any time since the 1930s, or maybe even the 1890s, when post-Impressionism was at its height.

This can’t help but feel like leaven in the loaf of the current art world, a willingness to take painting in every direction. This reminds me of a great line I encountered some time ago but can’t recall who said it: Want to be subversive in the art world today? Just paint.

And Smith takes another swing at it, ending her piece with these two paragraphs:

Old habits die hard. No less a personage than Klaus Biesenbach, the Museum of Modern Art’s new chief curator at large, recently told The Art Newspaper that he preferred the phrase “contemporary practice” to “contemporary art” in order to include fashion, film, design and more. That doesn’t bode well for a phrase like “contemporary painting.”

But what really is questionable, and passé, is the implied ranking of art mediums and the leaving of some of them for dead. None of them ever really, ultimately have much of a monopoly on quality. And something else greatly reduces the chances of the death of painting: too many people — most obviously women — are just beginning to make their mark with the medium and are becoming active in its public dialogue.

Keep those fires stoked ladies.

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A few samples from the 12 images included with the article:


“The Butt” by Ellen Altfest. (Photo: Bill Orcutt, Courtesy of White Cube)

“Pillows” by Raja Ram Sharma. (Photo: Victoria Munroe Fine Art)

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Studio view, South Boston

Art making is, for me, a zone of inchoate nonlinearity, one that does not have the Wallace Stevensish delineations* to mark direction or any measure of “progress” (a word that, these days in particular, seems to always need to wear a pair of quotes.) Mostly I am thankful for having worked that portal for so many years that the path in is a well worn one.

But there are times when a little more form can help, and a deadline serves that purpose. So I’ve been in the studio nonstop for the last 2 weeks, coaxing “works in progress” to consider changing their status to “named and signed.” It’s still uncertain how many made the jump.

There are moments in that full immersion when a glimpse of existential detachment emerges and asks with some harshness: Why you are doing this? What does it mean? There’s the personal answer (which is quite simply, I can’t NOT) but I was heartened by a reminder of the larger answer. Thanks to Maureen of Writing Without Paper whose energy and intelligence fills her blog with the useful and the inspirational, I was led to a memorable post on Venetian Red. Referring to a recent address by Bay Area sculptor Bruce Beasley at an Art in Action event, the post recapitulates the societal value of making and viewing art including pattern recognition, whole picture viewing, more multidimensional decision making.

These are topics I’ve written about here before. (Here’s a sampling: Thoughts about the work of Ellen Dissanayake, Finley Eversole and Ralph Waldo Emerson.) But timely reminders are a good thing.

In the meantime (and in the future), it is just chop wood, carry water.

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*By this I am referring to the last two stanzas of my all time favorite poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” by Wallace Stevens:


Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

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The ideal of emptiness: Not there yet, but moving in that direction, the Fisher Center at Bard College designed by Frank Gehry

I’ve written previously about the slim but beguiling book that I found at the William Stout bookstore in San Francisco, Poems for Architects by Jill Stoner (my earlier post is Poetry and Space). A few of the final paragraphs have an ethereal air. It was just what I needed today.

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“This so weighty metal, when it becomes the associate of fancy, assumes the most active virtues of the mind. It has her restless nature. Its essence is to vanish.”

–Paul Valéry

The twin paradoxes of the heaviness of words and the lightness of built form underscore the potentially rich dialogue between poems and buildings. Though Valéry is speaking of currency in its pure state, we might apply his theory of disappearance directly to architecture. It, more than any other art, needs that ‘weighty metal’ to exist; yet I would say that if architecture is to become meaningful again, it too must vanish.

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While poetry at its best continues to make us think of poetry, architecture at its best cannot allow us to think of architecture. Industry continues to tempt us with new products in wood, concrete and steel, but our primary building material is nearly weightless; in fact, it is air. Not only weightless but invisible, quixotic. Building space requires that we make our buildings empty. The villanelle as an ‘acoustic chamber’ is a suitable metaphor for what architecture can now become, because it so perfectly illustrates the ideal of emptiness.

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Winter view looking out from my friend Anne’s house in Carson New Mexico. The chair feels inhabited, and yet not.

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.

–Lao Tzu

And what do you get when you are in search of both?

Martha Beck, a fan of the mangled English that shows up in Asia (and can be enjoyed ad infinitum on Engrish.com) picked her mantra for the year from the wording on a small bag:

A delightful day.
My mind is paralyzed.

Excellent! Like found art and accidental poetry, there is wisdom in random access translation.

I’m heads down in the studio right now. More content (of the language variety) to come.

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March, a month to think about what green means

A few follow ons to earlier posts…

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One more thought on Shenk’s book about genius…A quote from Arthur Schopenhauer:

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

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A few more places online where you can be visually stunned:

Invisible Stories

The Hermitage

Swoond

Beautimuse

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Research continues in a pursuit of the how, why and where of who we are. A new book, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, by David Shenk is reviewed by Annie Murphy Paul in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

And for some reason I can’t resist reading whatever shows up on this topic. Genius is a curious thing, to be sure. (I have long been a fan of the optimistic world view reflected in the quote from John Kenneth Galbraith, “Genius is a rising market.”) But the attraction to this line of scientific inquiry is more than simple curiosity about why some minds are so extraordinary. Perhaps it is an underlying, often unstated but primal question that anyone who makes a painting or a poem or performs is constantly coming up against, like one’s face pressed against the glass: What makes it work? What makes it NOT work?

No hard, fast answers are available from Mr. Shenk, says Annie Murphy Paul. But some of his findings sound a lot like the moral code of my fearlessly hard working, tenacious pioneer ancestors—”put your shoulder to the wheel”, “try, try again”—but on steroids.

The secret to success? From Paul’s review:

The answer has less in common with the bromides of motivational speakers than with the old saw about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible. Behold our long rumored potential, unleashed at last! Shenk is vague about how, exactly, this happens, but to his credit he doesn’t make it sound easy. “You have to want it, want it so bad you will never give up, so bad that you are ready to sacrifice time, money, sleep, friendships, even your reputation,” he writes. “You will have to adopt a particular lifestyle of ambition, not just for a few weeks or months but for years and years and years. You have to want it so bad that you are not only ready to fail, but you actually want to experience failure: revel in it, learn from it.”

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Edwina Leapman, Green Shade

About 20 years ago, Wendy Beckett (AKA Sister Wendy) was busy bringing art history to the masses with her BBC shows and books. She’s not in the limelight these days but I still treasure my copy of her now out of print book from 1988, Contemporary Women Artists. Beckett was very frank in her introduction and said she chose these artists with no particular criteria other than she loved their work. Most of the women are British and unknown to me at the time, but I found Beckett’s selection closely aligned with my own aesthetic and a personally satisfying grouping.

One of the artists introduced to me through that small book is Edwina Leapman (born in 1934), and I been an admirer of her work ever since. She is currently featured in an exhibition at Annely Juda Gallery in London, and the catalog for the show reveals a beautiful new body of work.

Also included in the catalog is a transcript from a conversation between Leapman and writer Ian Hunt. The resonance I felt for how Leapman talked about her work and her process was instantaneous. Her comments about Van Gogh are the best portrayal of my own response to his work I’ve ever read.

Here’s a few samples:

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[Leapman describes her first foray from representation to abstraction which took place while she was sketching a group of musicians playing chamber music.]

EL: I realised I was trying to paint the music, not the musicians. I had made a composition of figures, but it wasn’t what interested me. It’s not the same aspect of music that interests me now as it was then, not the same music that I’m trying to paint. Then it was linear, now it’s the sonority, is that word correct? The sonority of color, of tone, of area, of relationship.

IH: Sonority is a particularly important analogy from music?

EL: It’s the sound. It’s complex, it’s dark and deep. None of this is like transcribing one medium into another. Sonority is a word to describe a feeling that I would like to find, in painting as in music.

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[Responding to a question about the influence of nature and landscape on her work.]

EL: I try not to make that too explicit. Because though I get inspired by it, I’m not painting that. It doesn’t come from there really. It’s more internal. But there are certain times of day, after dusk, when if you look at a tree and a leaf, you feel there’s something way back which is near enough…You feel you could almost touch things that are actually a long way away. It’s coming and going before you.

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IH: It’s something absolutely specific that painting can give in a concentrated way, that experience of coming and going, of something being…

EL: …Held. It’s the holding. Do you know who’s my favourite artist now? Van Gogh. I don’t think he’s been properly appreciated. He’s so original and so intense. The colour is emotion compressed into paint, making the paint totally other than itself as well as being itself. It’s not just his colour but his intense energy. There’s not a weak bit of the painting. There are no null areas—it’s alive. It’s more alive than any other artist I can think of.

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IH: You wrote once that your work had some function as analogous to a quiet place.

EL: That’s always been quoted and perhaps it’s slightly beside the point. The point is that the work should be still, but also alive. The point of vibration is the point between two poles. The poles are still but there’s an energetic force of meeting.

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EL: Composers, they all walked, but in a very different way. In the Vienna woods, or wherever, walking just to walk, in an environment with no other people particularly. Silence or trees, natural sound. It is very rooting to walk and it’s necessary to be rooted and grounded, to just be. You need to be still. A really good pianist doesn’t just start playing. They sit and take a moment to compose themselves, wait a bit, take a breath. that’s complete focusing on the work. In a state of false arousal you don’t focus. It’s very necessary for one’s mental and physical health, not just for art.


Edwina Leapman, Nasturtium

(Both images are courtesy of Annely Juda Gallery)

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It’s so fragile
anything can kill it—
one cold night,
the smoking chimney
too far off in the distance,
another drought,
everyone at the table
either drunk or estranged;
but like a fisted bud,
it rides out even the deluge
that bends bough to ground,
and so persists—sometimes unsure,
like leaves curling and uncurling
outside the staking cage,
or blind as a root-plunge
that draws sap to stem. Like blood
to a muscle, it moves inside you,
a shadow as fickle as desire is,
yet ready to embrace you
if you would just turn around.

–Cheryl Snell

This poem came to me by way of Autumn Sky Poetry, an online poetry publication.

About the author: Cheryl and her sister Janet have written over ten books of fiction, poetry, and art. Recently they won the 2008 Lopside Press Chapbook Competition for Prisoner’s Dilemma, poetry and art inspired by game theory. The two women run Scattered Light Publications, a micro press.

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