June 2012

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Discovering the selfless nature doesn’t have a monumental “Eureka!” quality. It is more like being continually perplexed, the way we feel when we’re looking for the car keys we’re so sure are in our pocket, or when the supermarket’s being renovated and what we need has moved to a different aisle each time we go shopping. That experience of being somewhat dumbfounded is the beginning of wisdom. We’re beginning to see through our ignorance—the everyday vigil we sustain to confirm that we exist in some permanent way. We look at our mind and see that it is a fluid situation, and we look at the world and see that it is a fluid situation. Our expectation of permanence is confounded.

–Sakyong Mipham

I just began reading Sakyong Mipham‘s book, Ruling Your World. This passage rang true. Ah, that state, the fluid situation.

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Whether Utah (like this image) or Wiman’s West Texas, the desert can be a crucible for poets and pietists

This is a continuation of the theme from my previous post…Here are a few more passages from Ambition and Survival, Becoming a Poet by Christian Wiman. His insights into creating—poetry and painting share so many aspects in that regard—as well as a childhood spent among fundamentalist Christians (I grew up in the Mormon faith) speak deeply to me.

On the discipline of preparedness:

I find I can get prose written in just about any circumstances, but I’ve never been able to write poetry, which I find infinitely more satisfying, without having vast tracts of dead time. Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world, including many prose writers (even, at times, this one), doesn’t recognize as discipline. It is, though. It’s the discipline to endure hours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry, though you may in fact not be able to write a word of it just then, and though it may be playing practical havoc with your life. It’s the discipline of preparedness.

On growing up within the Christian fundamentalism of West Texas:

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I grew up with a notion of radical conversion, a sudden, sometimes ravaging call for which the only answer was your life.

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The religious extremity, the way some people seemed to have looked too long at God as into the sun, so that everything they saw subsequently both was and wasn’t that blaze. You must be born again. For most people this happened in puberty, and may be seen, of course, merely as one religion’s way of trying to restrain the animal volatility and confusion of that time, the body’s imperatives countered by God’s.

***
I’d seen my share of people…using God like a drug to both heighten and dull a reality that’s too ordinary and painful to bear, and i’d seen my share of people…who had turned his annihilating loneliness into a spiritual mission.

On moving beyond the religion of one’s childhood:

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It seems that a god possessed ecstatically, as mine was in my childhood, not by books but in my blood and bones, would make a hard departure. I can’t find the scar, though, and I’ve done some serious searching. I’ve begun to wonder if doubt, like grief, is less one moment you can point to, one would you can heal, than all the moments of past and future, memory and imagination, into which that doubt, that grief, has blend. Iv’e begun to wonder if the god I knew so bodily and utterly in my childhood could ever be completely gone.

***
At some point, though, that whole visceral energy of image and language, that charge with which my childhood was both enlivened and fraught, became mere myth and symbol, as if the current simply went out of them. That is happened so easily, was so devoid of crisis, might argue that my faith had no real purchase on me; that I seem prone to periods of apparently sourceless despair might argue the opposite. At any rate, whether that loss is cause or effect, whether it has infiltrated my life in other ways or is merely one dimension of a wide loss, which I would call consciousness, the fact is I don’t give myself over to much. I don’t trust.

***
A ringing headache…persisted…as if my brain were a bell that God, running out of options, sometimes strikes.

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Christian Wiman

I wasn’t familiar with the poet Christian Wiman before watching his interview with Bill Moyers. But his tone in that conversation—the comfort with the “don’t know” mind, a willingness to drop into the interior landscape in spite of many prevailing cultural trends that favor distance and detachment, a fearlessness in facing up to the exacting demands of the creative life—was so singular and memorable that I immediately ordered a volume of his poems and his only prose book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

Once I started reading the essays in A&E, there was no putting it down. It is all I’ve read for days. Already well worn and dog-eared, my copy has marks and annotations on every page. What a great book. What an extraordinary writer.

Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has published several volumes of his own work. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of blood cancer, one that mysteriously might end his life immediately or then again, may not. The profound precariousness of his life has, understandably, sharpened and concentrated his wisdom about poetry and about life. He has a voice that merges the poetic with the spiritual without falling prey to the usual disbalancing distortions that often occur when those two are coupled up. What is often a source of discomfort for many contemporary readers is a seamless ride in Wiman’s world. The refiner’s fire of his life has clarified and crystallized the personal into something much larger than one man’s journey, one man’s life.

There’s food for weeks in this book (and I’ll be pulling more from it in future posts) but here’s a few samplings to whet your appetite for Wimanian wisdom:

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Any writing that is merely personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is…inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.

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There are people of abstract passion, people whose emotional lives are intense but, for one reason or another, interior, their energies accumulating always at the edge of action, either finding no outlet into reality, or ones too small for the force that warps them.

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What happens to a passion that, though it fuels art, remains in some essential human sense abstract, never altogether attaching itself to any one person, any one time or token of the perishable earth? Does art, at least in some instances, and for some artists, demand this, that they always feel most intensely the life they’ve failed to feel? Is it worth it? The will, at least in its higher manifestations, is not a capacity that humans have learned to exercise with much precision. Always there are secondary casualties, collateral damages inflicted upon whoever happens to be in the way. To love is to really be in the way.

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If you one day find that you are living outside of your life, that whatever activity you thought was life is in fact a defense against it, or a crowding out of it, or just somehow misses it, you might work hard to retain some faith in the years that suddenly seem to have happened without you. You might, like Milton, give yourself over to some epic work in which you find a coherence and control that eluded you in life. You might, like me, begin recounting vaguely exotic anecdotes to account for a time when you were so utterly unconscious you may as well have been living in Dubuque—might present them in such a way that your real subject remains largely in the shadows they cast. You might find that the hardest things to let go are those you never really took hold of in the first place.

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Walu, 2008, Tommy Mitchell

On display at the Seattle Art Museum: an extraordinary (as in EXTRAORDINARY) exhibit of contempoary aboriginal art. Mostly paintings, the show has been assembled from the collection of a Seattle couple, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi.

Some of my favorite aboriginal painters are well represented—
Emily Kam Kngwarray, Wimmitji Tjapangarti, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Gloria Tamerr Petyarr and Kathleen Petyarr. It also introduced me to some new favorites including Maringka Baker, Eileen Yaritja Stevens and Regina Pilawuk Wilson.

My passion for this work is a long standing one thanks to my friend Colleen Burke who first introduced me to the Utopian painters 20 years ago. And after spending time in Australia (and the Western Desert in particular) my interest has only deepened. I have a few treasured pieces in my collection that I have been looking at for years and still find compelling.

Interestingly Kaplan and Levi became passionate about this work about the same time, in the early 1990s. After Levi was hit by an Australian Post courier, they used the money from the settlement to start this collection. I like their point of view. Many of the pieces in their collection are paintings I would love to be able to view every day.

If a trip to Seattle before September 2 is not on your agenda, do the next best thing and buy the catalog, Ancestral Modern. This is a beautifully conceived book with texts by Wally Caruana, Pamela McClusky, Lisa Graziose Corrin and Stephen Gilchrist.

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Capturing some of the layered installation by Spencer Finch at the RISD Museum

These two quotes have been helpful to me over the last few weeks. I leave them here for you while I head to Seattle for a week. Perhaps they will open something up in your view of things as well.

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Simplifying our lives does not mean sinking into idleness,
but on the contrary, getting rid of the most subtle aspect
of laziness: the one which makes us take on thousands of
less important activities.

–Matthieu Ricard

***

We have heard all the clichés about 2012 and the Aquarian Age and the Shift. We may believe a lot of it or some of it or maybe we just hope some of it is true. It doesn’t matter how much of it each of us believe, we can still use it. From now through June the energy, the vibration of change, is as powerful as it has ever been in our journey through time and space. So in belief or in make believe, either way will work, take these simple steps and the rest of 2012 and 2013 will bring you benefits you only could have dreamed about.

It is not hard. It is simple. There is nothing to lose. Might as well try it.

Prioritize quiet mind. That’s all. Prioritize quiet mind.

Stop the mental noise several times a day. Long periods of up to an hour are excellent. If not long periods then short periods are excellent. But have a plan. Ten minutes of just looking at flowers. Five minutes of cloud watching. Ten minutes of sitting with your eyes closed watching your breath. Six minutes petting the cat or dog. Read something spiritual that truly inspires you to think about your own divinity. During these times never, ever, think about what needs fixing or your “to do” list. If you have trouble keeping the “monkey mind” at bay, keep a mantra handy. Interrupt the monkey mind by repeating a phrase such as “God is love” or “I love cool water”. Give yourself permission to believe that quiet mind is a mind which heals everything.

Other than a general sense of well being, you may not notice a change in your life right away. However, after the gestation period of a few weeks or months you will gain what you have been looking for. A healed mind heals a world.

–Paxton Robey

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The Dutch Wives, by Jasper Johns (on view at Harvard’s Sackler Museum)

Sebastian Smee. How did Boston get so lucky? Having him at the Globe has made all the difference for me. No wonder my friends down under are still bemoaning his loss (Smee wrote for The Australian in Sydney before relocating here.)

His recent review of the small show at Harvard on Jasper Johns has a few passages that capture the quixotic nature of Johns’ work with an insightful ring of truth that I had to share them here. I have had a long and complicated relationship with Johns’s work, but Smee artfully circles up those diverse feelings into a view that feels balanced and accurate. He hits it directly, even in his intro paragraph:

Jasper Johns is an artist one finds difficult to love, and then, on reflection — and often against a backdrop of crisis or doubt — comes to love wholeheartedly, soberly, sincerely. He is an artist for grown-ups. He might seem reticent, puzzling, at times willfully tangled up in himself. But if you are struggling to make sense of art, life, or any conceivable combination thereof, he is not the bafflingly forked path he can seem, but rather a guide, one who won’t take your hand but will instead send you back out on your own, your sense of the mystery renewed and expanded.

And it just keeps coming. Referring to Johns’s work as “difficult to write about—so tender to the touch,” this passage is also memorable:

One of the reasons Johns’s work is so difficult to write about — so tender to the touch — is that it is stuffed with allusions and clues that amount to a kind of secret order or logic, and thence to what might be thought of as “meaning.” And yet, frustratingly, it goes out of its way to obscure meaning.

That’s because Johns is not interested in clear meanings. Clear meanings are for children and lawyers. He is interested instead in life, and is rightly contemptuous of critics and academics who try to act as village explainers of his work.

When, in a 1965 interview, the critic David Sylvester followed up on an answer to an earlier question by asking, “Do you know why?” Johns said, “No, but I can make up a reason.” It was not a cantankerous joke, I think, but an honest answer, full of gentle forbearance.

Smee goes on to quote Johns from the same David Sylvester interview: “The final suggestion, the final gesture, the final statement [in a work of art] has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement.” Johns is just as interested, Smee points out, in the “inevitable collapse of meaning, and what is left in its wake — the “helpless statement.” This is a graceful way to engage with those hard won concepts like humility, vulnerability, and getting to the essence that does stand up, all the way through to the end.

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Two from Sean Scully:

The power of a painting has to come from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s not just an image; it’s an image with a body, and that body has to contain its spirit. A painting, really, is made by its reason for being there. What’s behind it decides everything. It’s not just a question of attrractiveness or correctness; it can’t be fixed afterwards or by additions. How it starts will define how it ends. So it’s the weight of the intention that defines everything.

My paintings talk of relationships. How bodies come together. How they touch. How they separate. How they live together, in harmony and disharmony. The character of bodies changes constantly through my work. According to color. The opacity and transparency of how the surface is made. This gives it its character and its nature. Its edge defines its relationship to its neighbor and how it exists in context. My paintings want to tell stories that are an abstracted equivalent of how the world of human relationships is made and unmade. How it is possible to evolve as a human being, in this.

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The Twins, Castor and Pollux, by Dorothea Rockburne

I think the reason I paint, or that I do whatever I do, is to deal with (I don’t think of it as unconscious) subliminal knowledge. And I do think that one has knowledge about things that haven’t occured yet, and I try to work for those kinds of knowledges. For me, these are emotional truths.

[Subliminal knowledge] is what I call developed intuition. What I have found is that when I learn something—while you are using it at the moment, it’s right at the top of your brain. But, as you move on and are using newer information, the formerly learned information goes into a mental file and with time that file goes deeper into the drawer and becomes what I call sublminal information. It is trained intuition because the files begin to combine, all on their own accord.

Dorothea Rockburne, in conversation with Denise Green
Metonymy in Contemporary Art

This is one of the clearest statements I’ve ever read of what it is that compels me to paint. Rockburne’s distinction between “sublminal knowledge” and the unconscious is also a key insight. The visual material that we internalize is a bit like the bubble under the tablecloth—you know it’s there, but it is nearly impossible to nail down. It just pops up somewhere else, having morphed into yet a different shape. As Rockburne suggests, the mixing it up happens with or without conscious engagement.

Another provocative suggestion in this exchange is Rockburne’s reference to prescient information and how, as an artist, she is seeking access to those other “kinds of knowledges.” But that is a topic for a whole other discussion.

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(Note: This post originally appeared on Slow Muse in March of 2007.)

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Close up view of a painting by Yayoi Kusama on view in Chelsea. This is a gentle reminder for me of the rhythm of the hand moving, the ritual of a mark being made

A preoccupying theme for me lately has been the compelling (and at times, compulsive) nature of art making as well as the spiritual (and yes, mystical) sense of one’s daily effort being a “chop wood, carry water” undertaking. From Adam Davidson‘s admonitions in yesterday’s post to the wisdom offered up by Tom Nozkowski (see below for a list of links to those posts), I have been in an ongoing engagement with these thoughts.

Other artists are also compelled by these issues, and a very good source for insights about an art worker’s daily life is my friend Lynette Haggard‘s blog. Over the last few years Lynette has published interviews with a wide variety of artists. And while her format is standardized, each interview reveals the very personal way in which each artist finds—and holds—her or his place.

This morning I reread a piece Lynette wrote about San Francisco-based artist Howard Hersh (who is also a friend.) This passage felt like worthy wisdom for my day:

Hersh considers it critical to his creative practice that he spends time in his studio daily. Whether or not he picks up a brush to paint, or a pan to pour—he spends time there, living with his work and the process of making his art. Following his passion, this time spent in the studio contributes to a lifestyle of total immersion. This habit supports Hersh’s ability to have strong vision and awareness as he works.

My experience has been similar. Something happens when you show up regularly. It isn’t about number of brush strokes achieved or works completed. It is about priming. And that priming is happening on several levels.

That commitment to showing up is part of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien‘s Four Fold Way, a set of simple standards that apply to working in the studio as well as living one’s life:

1. Show up.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.
3. Speak your truth without blame or judgment.
4. Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome.

This is in keeping with the Zen koan I have quoted many times:
What do you do to achieve enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water.
What do you do after you achieve enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water.

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Links to recent posts that include worthwhile insights into art making of Tom Nozkowski:

Nozkowski: Working from a Feeling
Letter to a Young Artist
Energizing the Space
Sagacity

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The unstoppable nature of art making…from a recent installation in Chelsea

Adam Davidson‘s piece in the Sunday Times magazine, How the Art Market Thrives on Inequality, explores that rarefied world of art auctions, blue chip galleries, U.H.N.W.I’s (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals) and sky high prices. In a sentence: “The art market, in other words, is a proxy for the fate of the superrich themselves.”

Tracking that zone of activity is about as meaningful to me and the work I do each day as an update on the number of caviar eggs consumed in Monte Carlo. While Davidson’s piece includes some economic insights into this rarefied market—”Art is often valuable precisely because it isn’t a sensible way to make money”—my favorite paragraph came at the very end:

As I talked to art advisers and economists, I kept thinking of my childhood in Westbeth, a subsidized housing complex for artists in Greenwich Village. Our neighbors, painters and sculptors among them, were decidedly not rich. To them, the very idea that art should make someone wealthy was laughable, even offensive. It makes me happy to think that this world of art-as-investment is a minuscule fraction of the art world overall. Most people who create, trade and own art do it for a much simpler reason. They just like it.

And thank god they do.

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