July 2010

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Two Boston museum recommendations:

At the ICA


Charles LeDray, Mens Suits (Photo: ICA, Boston)

I have looked at examples of Charles LeDray’s work online for several years, but seeing his work in person is a whole different kettle of fish. As an idea his approach seemed almost too precious—his curious obsession (and I mean that literally) with the fabrication of thousands of miniatures, done with a decidedly fine art flair. But that originating concept disappears when you are actually in conversation, face to face, with these artifacts. His Art Angel sponsored exhibit, Mens Suits, is best experienced in silence. The absence of the living forms for whom these items were fashioned is so palpable I found myself tearing up. This is work that must be seen in person, whether you catch it here or at the Whitney Museum in October.

The description from the ICA website:

For over 20 years, New York-based artist Charles LeDray has created handmade sculptures in stitched fabric, carved bone, and wheel-thrown clay. LeDray painstakingly fashions smaller-than-life formal suits, embroidered patches, ties, and hats, as well as scaled-down chests of drawers, doors, thousands of unique, thimble-sized vessels, and even complex models of the solar system.

The exhibition gathers approximately 50 sculptures and installations, from seminal early works to the first U.S. presentation of MENS SUITS (2006-2009), his highly acclaimed project presenting three complex, small-scale vignettes of second-hand clothing shops. The ICA will also premiere Throwing Shadows (2008-2010), an extraordinary new ceramic work including more than 3,000 vessels made of black porcelain, each less than two inches tall.

At the MFA


From Nicholas Nixon, Family Album (Photo: MFA, Boston)

Nicholas Nixon’s new exhibit, Family Album, is a loving family portrait by a consummate photographer. Seeing the Brown Sisters hanging together on a wall is always a show stopper. But I loved the chance to view new images of Nick’s children Sam and Clemmie (who grew up with my own in Brookline.) One photograph is of a note scrawled by a very young Clemmie apologizing for her bad behavior. In another, Sam’s hands are grubbily holding a stack of bills. These fit right in alongside the flesh of these babies next to Bebe’s breast or an array arms and legs indecipherably intertwined.

Certainly other families have been portrayed in an artistic setting. The most notorious is probably still Sally Mann’s photographs of her children 20 years ago. But without being showy or self-aggrandizing, Nixon has captured a wholeness and healthiness in his family that is hard to fake. And the photos are, as always, masterfully toned and exquisitely composed.

From the MFA website:

Among the most compelling of Nicholas Nixon’s series of photographs are the portraits that he has made of his close-knit family. These photographs, taken over time, explore the nature of long-committed relationships. The exhibition features the entire sequence of the celebrated portraits of the artist’s wife, Bebe, and her three sisters. Taken annually, the Brown Sisters pictures reveal gradual changes in their physiques and shifts in their relationships. The exhibition also includes photographs of the artist’s daily life with Bebe and their children Samuel and Clementine (born in the early 1980s), which enable viewers to share in the daily interactions and joys of parenthood. Also included in the show are recent portraits of Bebe and self-portraits that stand for the steadiness of long marriage. Nicholas Nixon, who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art, is one of the most celebrated American photographers of our generation. The Brown Sisters photographs are a promised gift of James and Margie Krebs. Many of the other works in the exhibition are loans from the photographer.

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Is there just TMI when it comes to the creative process? Some think so, especially in the full tilt confessionalism of blogtown.

On Mind the Gap, one of my favorite art/culture blogs, Wendy Perron from Dance Magazine is quoted on this topic:

There’s an annoying new trend of blogging about the process of making a dance. I am talking about young choreographers, anxious to be in the public eye, who think that writing about what happened that day in the studio will somehow 1) bring them a wider audience and/or 2) make them a better choreographer. I realize a blog is a good way to keep your website alive and to involve your potential audience. But explaining how you make a dance, the problems you encounter and how you solve them, is not going to help either you as the choreographer or your potential audience.

In agreement. The current proclivity to language everything—from personal material to the creative process that belongs outside that “explain everything” domain—is increasingly problematic. There are costs, some of them unperceived.

Mind the Gap’s response brings up issues that I feel strongly about, like the “pre-verbal place” that needs to be protected:

Perron’s original post is worth reading in full, as in it she gets deeper into specifics on exactly why she worries about this reliance on words when it comes to creating fresh art. Her thoughts were really interesting to me, particularly because she’s cautioning young artists to pull in the reigns and that’s not a message I come across very often. Usually it’s about how to be more, do more, and say more, all in the hope of reaching more, teaching more, and selling more.

So, to blog or not to blog about process, that is an interesting question in the messy rule-breaking world of creative expression. Did Perron intend this as dance-specific advice, particularly needed due to its physical nature? How important is the “pre-verbal place” in other types of creative work? I personally thought Perron’s admonishment to knock the blogging off was a little harsh, but the seemingly always-distracted-by-blinking-technology side of me understands that she has a point.

Several people have asked me how blogging has affected my real work in the studio. It is a complex question for me and one for which I do not have a pat answer even after four years. Sometimes I say I use it as a linear counterpoint to the inchoate nature of my painting life. Or that it de-hermetizes me and makes it easier to embrace open-heartedness. Or that my love of poetry and of provocative ideas serves to clarify my intentionality. That the process of writing is palate-cleansing (palette-cleansing?!!)

All these responses feel true but none feels complete. Maybe it is just a case of e) all of the above. And while I have not used this blog to parse the creative process into logical, languaged form, I do enjoy observing that pre-verbal place from a safe distance. It is like watching something quite unexpected and at times mesmerizing, but doing so from behind the bushes.

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Always in search of “clear light”, but even the sunrise in my studio at 6AM can enchant

William Segal was a successful businessman and magazine publisher who also emphatically embraced the inner journey. His interests were in Eastern spiritual traditions and most specifically, the work of Gurdjieff and his disciple Ouspensky. In addition to writing poetry, Segal was a painter. His primary output was self portraits. Lots of them.

A Voice at the Borders of Silence is an autobiography of sorts. Published a few years after Segal’s death in 2000, the book contains contributions by several of Segal’s famous friends including theatrical director Peter Brook and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. While the book’s appeal is uneven IMHO, Segal’s journey is an unexpected one. A man of great passion and drive, he approached life with full gusto. Even a life threatening car accident (which resulted in the need to wear an eye patch for the rest of his life) didn’t throw him off his game.

One of my favorite passages is from Thurman’s foreword:

Bill handed me…his charcoal drawings, which aptly got called “Transparencies.” Simple black and white, still lives of table objects, especially glasses, emerged in the luminosity of enlightened perception. Ultimate experience of this is called “clear light,” which is often misunderstood to refer to a bright white light. But the white light is a more superficial level of reality, the moonlit level called “luminance.” The clear light is just transparency, compared to the gray dawn twilight when you can see your hand but not the lines in it. It is a light that does not fall on objects, but comes from within them, casting no shadows. It is a self-luminous, non-dual awareness and presence. And Bill, untroubled by the sophisticated Tibetan phenomenology of such states, was bringing it into our dualistic awareness by scratching on paper with bits of charcoal. I was awestruck.

I can’t think of a finer compliment, Buddhist scholar to artist.

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I fell upon a small hand-assembled book while I was in New York: Poetry is Not a Project, by Dorothea Lasky, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. (A visit to their site is a quirky and “artisanal” (but of course—they are located in Brooklyn!) adventure that made me want to know more, much more about what they are doing.)

Simple and straightforward, Lasky’s book consists of 19 short pages that offer her view of poetry. The lineage of her thinking about the creative process is complicit with my own. Throughout this short essay it was easy to substitute “visual art” or “painting” every time she refers to a poem or poetry.

For example:

***
Nowadays, poetry critics and scholars often refer to an entire body of work by one poet as a “project,” but I don’t think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, tather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain. I think a poet intuits a poem.

***
When people talk about poetry as a project, they suggest that the road through a poem is a single line. When really the road through a poem is a series of lines, like a constellation, all interconnected. Poems take place in the realm of chance, where the self and the universal combine.

***
Having a project (and naming it) is a powerful tool. A poet with a nameable project seems wise…But this kind of thinking strikes me as a load of BS…I think that if you really are a poet, you don’t think this is how poetry works.

***
To create something like a poem, means that the outside world of an artist and the internal drives within her blend and blur. But there is something so human, so instinctual about the drive, that it might be hard to be conscious of it enough to name it.

***
Naming your intentions is great for some things, but not for poetry. Projects are bad for poetry…I think the notion of a poetic project may actually be very toxic to poetry.

***
It’s hard enough to create a poem. If he is destined to be a great poet, he will never know what his project really was, no matter what he says it is, was, or what he might imagine it could be. Which is to say that a poem, as a thing, resists being talked about linearly in its very nonlinearity.

***
What differentiates a great poet from a not-great one is the capacity to exist in that uncertain space, where the grand external world (which means anything and everything) folds into the intense internal world of the individual.

Note on the author: Dorothea Lasky has published two volumes of poetry, Awe (2007) and Black Life (2010). For more information, visit her website, Birds in Snow.

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Sarah McLachlan in 1998. Her 2010 Lilith Fair tour has had to cancel dates. Lady Gaga, whose influence is pervasive among many female pop singers. (Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage—Getty Images; Andy Paradise/Associated Press)

Sincerity. I knew it was beleaguered but who knew it was on life support? The Sunday Times‘ Arts & Leisure above-the-fold article is about the sea change in women’s pop music: Pure Gaga: Sincerity Becomes a Tough Sell, as Spectacle Rules in Women’s Pop.

OK, sure, there’s more involved here than just the sincerity quotient. But while I take an “I’m curious about everything” stance with music and find both Sarah McLachlan and Lady Gaga of interest, the stark reality is that what has shifted in women’s pop music is just one more facet of a shift in creative culture in general. As Jon Caramanica states it in his article, McLachlan’s Lilith Fair “trafficked in a very specific brand of feminism: organic, direct, unadorned, intimate…But in the recent pop mainstream these female artists are far outweighed by the eccentrics, the freaks, the adventuresome. For them performance and exteriority are central to their self-presentation, far more so than any lyrical message.”

It’s getting more difficult to get both/and in a cultural mood that seems to swing from one end of the extreme to the other.

Parallels could be drawn from other creative métiers as well. I just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a novel that consists of two quite separate accounts that hint at a common protagonist but keeps it intentionally ambiguous. The first story takes place in Venice during a Biennale, the protagonist a disaffected journalist on assignment to report on this legendary international art event. Dyer savagely skewers an absurdist and hypocritical art world without ever having to take on a tone of bitter vitriol—the detached narration simply reports what journalist Jeff sees.

For example:

There was all this art and yet there was very little to see, or very little worth looking at anyway. Some of it was a waste of one’s eyes. Good. Because even though there was nothing to see, there was a lot of it to get round and Jeff had to at least poke his nose in everything. Quite a bit of the work on display could have been designated conceptual, in so far as the people looking at it were conceived has having the mentality of pupils at junior school. fair enough, except most of it looked like it was made by someone in primary school, albeit a primary school pupil with the ambition of a seventeen-year-old Russian whose widowed mother had saved every ruble to get him into a tennis academy in Florida. The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.

Been there, done that. Dyer’s analogy is spot on IMHO.

The second half of the book takes place in Varanasi, India’s most holy city, and it has a very different texture and pace. The protagonist, once again a journalist on assignment, does not possess the parasitic hanger on, self-indulgent, freeloading proclivities of Jeff in Venice. The second half of the novel is a slow unwinding of story, character and tautness as the journalist renounces layer after layer of his life and his sense of himself. It is done in a manner that feels prescribed and ritualistic in its protracted measuredness.

Here’s a sampling:

Some people stop believing that happiness is going to come their way. On the brink of becoming one of them, I began to accept that it was my destiny to be unhappy. In the normal course of things I wold have made some accommodation with this, would have set up camp as a permanently unhappy person. But what had happened in Varanasi was that something was taken out of the equation so that there was nothing for unhappiness to fasten itself upon. That something was me. I had cheated destiny. Actually, the passive construction is more accurate: destiny had been cheated.

Dyer’s book maps a nonmoralistic devolution from the thrill of fame, drugs, sex and celebritism to that state where a postmodern, detached world has nothing to “fasten itself upon.” The contrast between the two narratives in this book—both taking place in water-centric cities (with names that both start with a V) that are self-contained, mythic laden and each overflowing with a singular mystique around death and loss—works as a metaphor for a range of either/ors that populate our contemporary consciousness.

While my particular version of an art world counter vision has more muscle than the slow fade of Dyer’s Varanasi, I’m firmly planted in a landscape that is increasingly becoming an artistic outsider counter vision. While my art making locale isn’t the crunchy granola of “organic, direct, unadorned, intimate” that is the Lilith Fair, it does feature art that has “residential” power (work you want to live with and look at every day) rather than the terminally clever, a quiet groundedness rather than showy theatricity, highly personal rather than detached. It’s a place where there is something to fasten upon, repeatedly, and where Roberta Smith’s memorable line (which I first wrote about here) is in full swing: An “art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

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Anne Carson and Rashaun Mitchell: Ms. Carson, a poet, and Mr. Mitchell, a dancer and choreographer, collaborated on “Nox” and “Bracko” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. From left, Marcie Munnerlyn, Mr. Mitchell, Carol Dougherty,Ms. Carson, Robert Currie and Kate Gilhuly in “Bracko.” (Photo: Liza Voll)

My admiration for the poet Anne Carson has been intact for some time. (I’ve written about her work here.) But with the recent publication of Nox and her extraordinarily successful category bleed from text only into text and images, I’m even more agog.

But clearly Carson isn’t stopping for too long at that achievement, and she is moving on to cohabit with yet another métier, dance. On Tuesday night at the ICA in Boston, Carson participated in a performance with dancer and choreographer Rashaun Mitchell that is in many ways unable to be categorized. It felt like the fine art equivalent of a mashup, calling up bits and pieces from the traditions of dance, recitation, poetry, incantation, theater, art installation/performance and mystery school.

From a review of the performance by Alastair Macaulay at the New York Times who, like me, was very moved by the event:

Since the poet and critic Anne Carson and the dancer-choreographer Rashaun Mitchell are each exceptional artists, their occasional collaborations — which began in 2004 — would be historically remarkable even if they were artistically barren. But “Bracko” and “Nox,” the two main works in which they have come together, are events where different kinds of poetry become layered upon one another with extraordinary eloquence. Words, dance, translation, cultural commentary, lighting, music — all add discrete but overlapping zones of beauty, meaning, drama.

On Tuesday, in a performance presented by Summer Stages Dance and the Institute of Contemporary Art here, a further layer came from the museum’s harborside setting. During “Bracko” (2008), transparent curtains allowed the audience to see yachts, water, seagulls, reflections, buildings and evening sky behind dancers and speakers. Then the blinds rose, so that “Nox” (Ms. Carson’s most recently published book, here receiving its stage premiere in what was described as “a new work in progress”) began, with the background view now brighter.

Yet those blinds soon lowered again, shutting off the luminous harborscape altogether. It’s a tribute to these artists that “Nox” then grew all the more engrossing. The older “Bracko” is fascinating, varied and full of promise, but the new “Nox” is a work of rare theatrical power: a sign that the Carson-Mitchell collaboration is gathering in imagination.

Several friends, also Carson fans, have asked me to describe the evening. I have found that difficult to do. It is easier for me to highlight a few peripheral observances as an alternative into the core and feel of the evening. Like Carson and Mitchell saying in the QandA that followed that they think of their collaboration as a work in progress and that they have no ulterior intentions as to where it will go and what it will become. That they assembled the various pieces—text, dance, music, setting, staging—just two days prior to the actual performance. That, when asked by an audience member to offer up one verb to describe the piece, Carson took some time to ponder this and then finally offered up, “thinging.” That Carson participates on stage alongside these consummate performers/dancers while possessing no theatricity or self consciousness herself, wearing a simple shift and her hair pulled back in a casual, offhanded manner. And that this juxtaposition of extraordinary body-based artists with an extraordinary cerebral poet seemed weirdly perfect.

Words or phrases I would use to describe it? Taut and yet wildly open. A celebration as well as a ritual of human sorrow and loss. Wisdom that lives in the interstices.

That’s vague, I know, but it is hard to get any closer. Macaulay is primarily a dance critic, so his approach leans more into that aspect. But for me, being more poetry-centric, I just can’t find a way to move this event out of its hermetic experientiality and into a more shared sense.

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In his most recent piece for New York magazine, Jerry Saltz comments on the American Museum of Folk Art and its ongoing challenges. (As Jerry points out, the art is interesting but the space is a nightmare for viewing.) But this line was a particular keeper:

I love the museum because it’s committed to showing so-called “outsider art,” which I would define as art so visionary that the “real” art world can’t process it without relegating it to this ridiculous niche. (All great art is visionary; all great artists are in some way self-taught.)

Still recovering from the double barrel assault of current art world sensibilities that is Bravo’s “Work of Art” (better to remove the spaces and refer to it as workofart, or Work ‘o Fart?) and the brilliant but disturbing Exit Through the Gift Shop, I read this and it felt like someone had opened a window—a waft of clear, fresh, genuine air.

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Brooklyn Workshop Gallery: Paintings by Deborah Barlow and sculpture by Rina Peleg

Beautiful imperfection: real beauty is rooted in reality. Give up the pursuit of perfection—visual perfection can be cold and unforgiving. Things yield their value at different rates. Enjoy things that aren’t obviously beautiful, or even a little clumsy, if they engage the senses in other ways.

So says Ilse Crawford, designer and creative director who launched British Elle Decoration 20 years ago. “Engaging the senses” is more than just employing the see/touch/taste/feel/ear array of experiences. There are variations within the visual that continue to astound me as I paint, all these years later.

And yes, it is a recurring theme. I have referenced the extraordinary book, The Eyes of the Skin by architect Juhani Pallasmaa in an earlier post, but have yet to write in more detail about how powerfully this book has deepened my understanding and awareness of these issues. It is such a great title and such a great concept. That discussion is coming, I promise.

In the meantime, I loved what artist and critic Susana Jacobson wrote about my work in the show currently on exhibit at the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery. I was flattered by her words of course but also so enchanted by her suggestion of the all-seeing body, its pores employed with their own kind of seeing:

Deborah Barlow’s newest paintings are sensually generous offerings of luminous color. Like wet light tossed up and caught in acts of implication, they conjure the multiple sensations experienced when our physical boundaries are dissolved. Merging with places where nature and culture intersect, Barlow converts her powers of observation to the experience of vision as a whole body sensation, as though her pores could see.

And some good news—the show has been extended through August. Heading that way now to do a few days of gallery talks and events.

You can read another review of the show by David St. Lascaux at Interrupting Infinity.

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In the liminal zone…

Rivka Galchen is one of those way too smart, “go to medical school before you finish your undergraduate degree and then get your MFA in creative writing” types. Her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, was published in 2008. So it seems apropos that a polyglot mind writes about another—in this case, Galchen on Jorge Luis Borges.

In her recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, she states her view of the unrivaled dullness of literary worship (I so don’t agree!) before continuing her homage the extraordinary mind that was Borges.

More than any other 20th-century figure, Borges is the one designated — and often dismissed as — the Platonic ideal of Writer. His outrageous intellect is cited as proof of either his genius or of his bloodless cerebralism…But perhaps Borges’s most glorious and provocative “fault” was that he lived to be 86 and never wrote a novel. “It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one,” he wrote, in the introduction to a 1941 collection of his short stories, “the madness of composing vast books…The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them…Reading was faith; writing a call-and-response form of prayer. To love a text: isn’t that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?”

He certainly did read vast books, however. For us Borges may be the ur-writer, but he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading.

Turns out Borges adored Robert Louis Stevenson. Who knew? In a mirrored discussion of Borges’ favorite Stevenson novel, The Wrecker, Galchen brings it in with this observation: “So why did Borges read and reread “The Wrecker”?… Borges’s readerly attention re-invents Stevenson, just as his writerly attention created those vast unwritten books that Borges chose not to write, but just to imagine and comment on.”

These unwritten books that are only imagined are like the unpainted paintings that live in my mind’s eye like an ambient, perpetually unrolling canvas. They have a power and a presence for me, but it isn’t one I’ve been able to leverage with the grand gesture that was Borges’. Reading Galchen’s essay offered some solace and credence however to the validity of that invisible and imaginary domain.

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(Image: Doug Johnson at The Blue Skunk Blog)

In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers quotes Henry David Thoreau who wrote that the man who constantly and desperately keeps going to the post office to check for correspondence from others “has not heard from himself in a long while.”

Sounds like a contemporary proclivity with so many who interrupt their lives to constantly check email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. “Of the two mental worlds everyone inhabits, the inner and the outer, the latter increasingly rules,” says William Powers. “We’re like so many pinballs bouncing around a world of blinking lights and buzzers. There’s lots of movement and noise, but it doesn’t add up to much.”

“Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’”

In her review of the book, Rasha Madkour points to Powers’ economic impact statement:

While recognizing that technology has made tasks like paying bills much easier and faster, Powers disputes the notion that it has made us more efficient. By interrupting our work to check our inboxes throughout the day, we’re actually becoming less productive because of the time it takes to refocus on the task at hand. Powers cites a study that found workers spending more than a quarter of their day managing distractions, adding up to $900 billion in economic loss in 2009.

High cost proclivities indeed.

Powers, interviewed by Bella English in the Boston Globe, tells the story behind the title of his book:

The more I connect digitally, the more I’m drawn to hard copy, so I decided to look at the history of paper and all related technologies. In reading Shakespeare, I stumbled on this moment where Hamlet pulls this thing out of his pocket that he called his tables. It was this fascinating example of a new technology where you wrote on pages (made of specially coated paper) with a stylus and you erased it at night. It was very much a 400-year-old version of what we’re doing today. It came to me that this thing was like his BlackBerry.

Focusing on seven individuals from previous eras, Powers explores how each of them used new inventions to make connecting with others easier. His point is clear: This is not a new problem. A more appropriate question to ask is how does a person live a life and use these tools while maintaining some balance.

Powers points to Benjamin Franklin who had a bit of social networking addiction. “He was constantly out and about, forming these new clubs and groups and associations, and he reached a point early in his life where he was just extended in too many directions, ” says Powers. “So he set up 13 goals he wanted to achieve. For example, he loved conversation, but he said he was going to aim for a little silence, too. It was not a case of withdrawing, but a case of looking for balance.”

Powers’ personal solution for seeking balance? Internet Sabbath. He and his family turn off the modem on Friday night and keep it off until Monday morning. Sounds a bit too fundamentalist for me, but I like the concept. Ten days spent hiking in Canada outside the range of cell or cyber felt pretty damn good.

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