September 2012

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West Coasting

Sally and Meehan

I am back home in Northern California for the wedding of my beloved friend, documentarian extraordinaire Sally Rubin, with her partner Meehan Rasch.

I will also be spending time with several artist friends including Holly Downing* and Tim Rice**.

I am back on Slow Muse after October 1.

Laos III, by Holly Downing

*Holly Downing, based in Sebastopol, is having a show of her paintings, drawings and mezzotints on display at Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at Cowell College, UCSC, September 30 through December 2.

Thread series #22, by Tim Rice

**I met the fabulous Oakland based painter Tim Rice
here, through Slow Muse. (An earlier post featured his work, Resonance is Real.)

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Close up view of one of my recent paintings

A book I have referenced here before is From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual, by David Levi Strauss. (Previous posts referencing the book highlight artists Ursula von Rydingsvard and Donald Lipski.)

Strauss writes in a way that his responses to a particular artist’s work often have a universal quality. His best responses to work are ones I seek as well.

For example, in talking about the paintings of Ron Gorchov, he describes a response I seek constantly when looking at work:

Ron Gorchov’s paintings are among the most fully and graciously embodied being made today. They engage our whole bodies from our first encounter with them and sustain this engagement over time. You have to move to see them, and when you move, they come alive. With one’s whole body involved, the mind is also free to move, and does…

On one level, everything is visible in Gorchov’s canvases: the staples fastening the linen to the frames, the backs of the shaped frames themselves, the palimpsests of drawn and redrawn shapes. But when the shapes and colors, and we, begin to move, a new music begins. With drips, washes, and tension-breaking, the conversation between liquidity and quiddity, or luck and mastery, comes into play. “The music of painting comes from manipulating space,” he says, “and from letting the colors sing.”

And the quote Struass places at the beginning of this piece by Paul Valéry is perfect: “The Day and the Body, two great powers.”

How the body participates in the art experience can play out in many different ways. Sometimes it is overt, intense and dramatic. Sometimes it is subtle but burrows into us with fierceness. But connecting deeply and authentically, that is the full body experience. In Roberta Smith‘s memorable line that describes what she looks for—”art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand”—speaks to that as well.

My personal interest is to create work that is experienced in the solar plexus, not just the cranium. How to make that happen using a visual language that does not include representation is its own challenge. From my most recent post, this quote from W. S. Piero has become a kind of mantra for my time in the studio: “Certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation…today’s artist sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.’”

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Najeev 1, from a new painting series

I found an extraordinary essay by Steve Baker titled “To go about noisily: clutter, writing and design.” I’ve been mulling over the issues he raises for several weeks and I am still formulating my thoughts on this topic. Clutter: It’s a much more complex topic than those hoarder reality shows would suggest. When I come to some clarity, I will write more about Baker’s essay.

But an epigraph from Schopenhauer that Baker uses at the beginning of his piece caught my attention: “The surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment.”

Really? My first response was, that’s not about me since I don’t pick up a book every time I have a free moment (but how about every other?) In all seriousness, my thinking life is best described as hybrid vigor: I am happiest when there are other points of view to consider. I like an idea landscape richly textured, and the origin of the flora and fauna doesn’t matter to me at all. The Schopenhauer approach is too stark and monastic to appeal to my pluralist (or as some would say, excessive) tendencies.

And what’s more, the best ideas stand up well over time, and they can still feed you when you come back to them later. A good example is this quote by W. S. Piero from his book of essays on modern art, Out of Eden. I first posted it on Slow Muse in 2007. When I ran across it quite by accident this morning I wanted to share it here again.

Why are the jets and emulsive tracks of paints in Pollock’s Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 so compelling? It’s not only because he was creating a greater plasticity of space and laying out dozens of contested fields of formal activity where disintegrating patterns pitch against imminent, struggling stabilities. There’s something one can’t reduce satisfactorily to formal terms. In 1964 the Romanian-born Eliade, who was a great admirer of his countryman Brancusi, spoke of “nonfigurative painters who abolish representational forms and surfaces, penetrate to the inside of matter, and try to reveal the ultimate structures of substance.” In order to talk about Pollock, and Rothko for that matter, in other than purely formalist vocabularies (and to avoid the useless argument that both were representationalists masquerading as abstractionists), we have to…talk about the sacred and the mundane. Eliade also says that non-representational art corresponds to the “demythologization” in religion advocated by Rudolph Bultmann. As Christianity may dissolve the images and symbols of its traditional narratives to confront once again the freshness of religious experience in our secular, materialistic time, certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation. Moreover, he says, today’s artist “sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.’ The time of the epiphany has not yet arrived, or does the world truly have no face?” I think Pollock and Rothko worked to paint that facelessness. For Rothko it was toned with a magisterial, voluminous solemnity. For Pollock the tone was one of self-devouring conflict.

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Gerhard Richter‘s abstract paintings are a visual feast of complexity and depth. Using a massive squeegee that he carefully pulls across an enormous paint-laden surface, Richter enables the imagery to bubble up from below. The visual effect is stunning. While a whole generation of painters have emulated his oleaginously lush technique, nobody does it quite like he does.

Now Richter has found another way to explore the complexity of the abstract image, but this time creating enchantment with a more mathematical, structured approach. In a new publication, Gerhard Richter: Patterns: Divided, Mirrored, Repeated, Richter has parsed the surface of one of his paintings to create a thick book of textured explorations.

This description of his process is from the book promotional material:

Richter took an image of his work “Abstract Painting” (CR: 7244) and divided it vertically into strips: first 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, up to 4,096 strips. This process, involving twelve stages of division, results in 8,190 strips, each of which is reproduced here at the height of the original image. With each stage of division, the strips become progressively thinner (a strip of the 12th division is just 0.08 millimeters; further divisions would only become visible by enlargement). Each strip is then mirrored and repeated, producing an incredibly detailed patterning. The number of repetitions increases with each stage of division in order to make patterns of consistent size. The resulting 221 patterns are reproduced here on landscape spreads, making for a truly extraordinary reading-viewing book experience.

This project is fascinating and provocative on a number of levels. The book is a visual feast just on its own terms. The parsing of a shared reality object—a painting—into its multitudinous parts is a variation on the legendary video made by Ray and Charles Eames, Powers of 10. Starting with a couple picnicking by the lake, the view of the image shifts outward until our galaxy is just one speck of light among millions of others. Then, returning to earth, we move inward, down to the proton of a carbon atom within the DNA molecule in a white blood cell. Everything is multiple, many, complex.

But Richter’s book also brings to mind Eastern meditation practices, like the descriptions of esoteric meditations techniques that train a seeker to hold the image of an elaborate structure in the mind in its fullness, down to the tiniest ornate tendril. Or the way trained eyes can look at the 2-dimensional structure depicted in a Buddhist tangka and visualize it in its 3-D fullness.

As many mystics have documented, going into a mystical state is to pass beyond the opposites of the world, to experience the union of those opposites in a “radiant burst of energy.” Milarepa‘s wisdom is that all things are present in all other things. “The state of non-duality, wherein all opposites, even good and evil, are seen as unity.”

I am left with a profound sense of how objects can become a source of power, wisdom and expansion—an idea in keeping with the spiritual intentions of many who pursue abstraction. But it is also the insistent reminder that connectedness is also fundamental, even in the face of this flourish of extravagant visual expansion.

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Rhizom, by The Fundamental Group (Photo: The Fundamental Group)

The Fundamental Group, an up and coming Berlin architecture and design studio started by Gunnar Rönsch and Stephen Molloy, was named after the concept from algebraic topology that describes complicated 3D surfaces.

The Fundamental Group’s mathematically inspired approach to design would appear to be in opposition to the way I work and paint. But there is a mysterious roundness operating in the world of ideas that can bind the two extreme ends of a spectrum into a continuum. The Fundamental Group has posted its precepts on its site, and this is just about the best manifesto I’ve ever read. So much of what they are describing maps to my own inner directed creed of how to see, conceive, invent, make.

THE FUNDAMENTAL GROUP is a collective making mathematically inspired architecture, furniture and artefacts. We are motivated by a passionate belief that objects trancend the physical, that they reflect rules of geometry and space, and that they engage the mind. We play with scale and repetition to draw out the abstract qualities of well loved materials such as oak, and explore the possibilities of new materials like polystyrene and expanded steel mesh. At THE FUNDAMENTAL GROUP there are things we believe and principles we hold dear. These drive our output. Everything we make is an epistle. Now go ahead and read our manifesto.

Children look at things for a very long time, One never forgets the curtains in the playroom or the pattern on the tiles on the floor at church. Seeing part of a pattern one begins to subconsciously grasp the rules that lead to the arrangement of the whole. The pattern develops in the mind, growing beyond the unique. When information is arranged into a pattern, it opens up the source of its logic, allows the observer to plug in, gives access to the rules, and invites development beyond the static. It is through processes like these that we lean in close to nature, which is nothing if not a clamorous a symphony of growth patterns.

Do not attempt to overcome your animal instincts. When we shelter, we are building a nest. It is a sort of bricolage, you gather things that provide comfort, convenience, and that have a sentimental value. Things from your childhood, those teraccotta tiles that trigger memories of your first independent thoughts, are part of that. Accidents of personal history a very important. When it comes to giving form to the world around us, it is important to honour your mistakes. True beauty is when you can forever complete the incomplete, for yourself. Curate your mistakes, be proud of them, and arrange them for maximum effect. If you have a wooden leg, wave it.

Minimalists would have you believe that order is an absence of clutter. This is not the whole truth, it’s more like giving up half way. Order is a word that has very many meanings. When we design, we order elements. This means giving each element a role in a hierarchy, exploring and defining the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole. Beauty is attained when the relationship of the parts to the whole is in harmony, but beauty without force is a bore. There is a theory that the nearness of chaos, but it’s avoidance, gives force. We subscribe to this, and we also propose the inverse – that it is the nearness to order, but it’s avoidance, that gives beauty.

Learning and growth occur in repetition. It is beacuse repetition is sometimes mindless that it is valuable. Every time you read a sonnet or play a sonata it is different. Small flaws occur which can change everything. When we compose our pieces, we are driven by rules. But it is important to pull back from a total expression of those rules. We believe that it is the role of the beholder to draw the principles of a piece to her own conclusion. While care is taken to balance elements, and we usually come very close to symmetry in our work, we leave room for active engagement, rewriting the ending, allowing for the integration of personal narratives. A valuable posession is more interesting the thousandth time you look at it than on the day you bought it.

You haven’t really owned anything until you have fixed it. Trans-form: Beyond the form. This does not mean change in the binary sense, left rather than right, but it means going beyond. The attainment of perfection, were it possible, would be a sort of death. We seek perfection, we are driven to excel, but it is the process through which perfection is sought that ennobles us and elevates our state. Escape the cycle of tiredness, ennui and dissillusion by embarking on a life long transformation.

This is powerful language, and it is also language that is poetic, clear, inspiring, scintillating. What a find.

You can see more of The Fundamental Group’s products here.

Thanks to my smart and savvy friends Rachel Levi and Jessica Bridger for bringing The Fundamental Group into my awareness.

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Begin Again

John Cage, from “William Gedney Photographs and Writings”

One of the most important books of my summer was about John Cage: Where the Heart Beats, by Kay Larson. (Read my initial post about the book here.)

I have been a long time fan and admirer of Cage. But Larson’s book shortened the distance between the myth and the man himself. As is often the case with any good biography, you walk from the reading with a connection that feels personal and almost intimate. That may be imagined, but something in me has shifted permanently. And that’s the gift.

So it is time to begin again. Summer is now, for us Americans, officially over. Here in Boston the students are back, a transition that is as difficult for these late adolescent invaders as it is for those of us who are here year round. (We are pretty sure that every U Haul truck in operation was blocking a street somewhere within one mile of Commonwealth Avenue this last weekend….) The nights are cooler, the days are shorter. So begins the perennial reminder of those rhythms larger than us, of moving from out to in, of the silent synchronization, unrehearsed, that strips down minion trees to their winter underwear.

So here are a few quotes from Cage that were helpful to me this morning. Please feel free to add some of your own.

What I’m proposing, to myself and other people, is what I often call the tourist attitude – that you act as though you’ve never been there before. So that you’re not supposed to know anything about it. If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before.

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.

Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.

As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency.

Art’s purpose is to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens.

What right do I have to be in the woods, if the woods are not in me.

One shouldn’t go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there.

Out of the work comes the work.

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Visual Thinking

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Two recently encountered passages have provoked my thoughts about the power—and what may be a slow decline in—visual thinking. Ray Monk‘s article in the New Statesman, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking, points to Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s unique visual orientation. (He is compared with his fellow philosopher Bertrand Russell who, much to his own frustration, was “hopeless at visualising and was more or less indifferent to the visual arts. His mental life seemed almost entirely made up of words rather than images.”) But not so with Wittgenstein.

“Thinking in pictures,” Sigmund Freud once wrote, “stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” There is, in other words, something primordial, something foundational, about thinking visually…

For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture…

It was fundamental to Wittgenstein’s thinking…that not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words. In the Tractatus, this appears as the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” runs the famed last sentence of the book but, as Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important…

“Don’t think, look!” Wittgenstein urges…Thus, at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he calls “the understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’ ”. Here “seeing” is meant not metaphorically, but literally.

In a similar vein, this admonition on the importance of drawing is from architect Michael Graves in his recent opinion in the New York Times, Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing.

As I work with my computer-savvy students and staff today, I notice that something is lost when they draw only on the computer. It is analogous to hearing the words of a novel read aloud, when reading them on paper allows us to daydream a little, to make associations beyond the literal sentences on the page. Similarly, drawing by hand stimulates the imagination and allows us to speculate about ideas, a good sign that we’re truly alive.

Take out your pencils people. Daydream, associate, imagine, speculate.

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