March 2013

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Ghostly demarcations of the land under cloud cover, taken over the US midsection during a recent cross country flight.

My very clever and well read niece Rebecca Ricks sent me a link to an essay published in Frieze Magazine last year. Titled Of Ourselves and of Our Origins: Subjects of Art, it is an edited version of a lecture given by Peter Schjeldahl at the School of Visual Arts.

Peter Schjeldahl of course is the long time art critic at the New Yorker magazine. I read just about every article he writes and connect with him more than I don’t. This essay is particularly full of resonant wisdom and what’s more, it includes the full text of my favorite Wallace Stevens poem, “The idea of Order at Key West” (whose final line is referred to in the title: “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.”) Schjeldahl says this about the poem after quoting it: “I think it’s safe to say that nothing in recent writing or art reaches this level of beauty and intelligence, so confidently, let alone with such total mastery of form.”

It just may be that there is a stealth tribe, not easily determined but primal nonetheless: the kinship of those who carry an unearthly passion for that poem. Recite it by heart, and you’re in.

A few snippets from Schjeldahl’s essay (and there are oh so many):

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Good art evicts intelligence from its left-brain command centre into other parts of the brain, and of the body. It does this by some or another touch or twist of beauty, which can’t be conceptualized but only undergone, like a beneficent seizure.

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To be really good at anything, assuming that you’re talented, is to work harder and longer, with more ruthless honesty and discipline, than other people could do without bursting into tears. Your secret is that, hard as it may be, it doesn’t feel like work to you. It feels normal, like eating and sleeping…

So as an artist you’re lonely. You know the fragility and vulnerability of your Great Good Place but you lean your whole weight into it anyhow. Along with wanting fame and money and sex, like everybody, you want to slip that place into the map of the world, to make the world a little less wretched to you. You will even go without the fame and money and sex parts, if necessary. You will be misunderstood, often enough by people – darling dumbbells – who praise you. (Be kind to them if you can.) That’s the deal. No one said you were an artist. You said you were an artist. You asked for it. No whining.

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The poet Robert Hass has won the National Book Award, The National Book Critics Circle award and the Pulitzer Prize. I have admired his work for some time. So when a good friend enthusiastically suggested that I explore some of his prose as well, I took her up on it. What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination and the Natural World is a collection of essays that is so readable, engaging and elegantly thoughtful that this book has been at my side for weeks now. (For readers like me who suffer from extreme promiscuity, that’s a seriously committed relationship.)

It turns out that Hass and I score high on shared interests. His first essay is about his adolescent initiation into a lifelong connection to the work of Wallace Stevens (that’s when I fell under Stevens’s spell as well). That is followed by a contextual nesting of Allen Ginsberg‘s legendary “Howl” that was extremely helpful in rethinking that work (which is a portrait of San Francisco just as I was coming of age in the Bay Area), the thoughtful comparison of intent shared by poet George Oppen and painter Paul Cezanne (always a topic of interest), and insightful portraits of many of the poets who impacted me in my college years including William Everson, Robinson Jeffers and Czeslaw Milosz.

And most coincidentally I read his essay, “Notes on Poetry and Spirituality,” while I was flying back from two weeks in Utah. It turned out to be about an invitation for Hass to speak to poetry students at Brigham Young University. Just days before I had been asked to meet with art students at BYU, so reading about his experience at that school was both timely and resonant.

Here are a few passages that may engage you as well.

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Wallace Stevens:

I imagine I am not through thinking about this poem ["The Emperor of Ice-Cream"] or about “Sunday Morning” or “The Snowman” or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or “The Idea of Order at Key West” or “Of Mere Being” or “The World as Meditation,” which are other poems I have been brooding over and arguing with myself about for much of my adult life. But I heard it early and I’ve lived with it for some time and thought that it would serve for one image of the way poems happen in a life when they are lived

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George Oppen and Paul Cezanne:

What’s extraordinary about George Oppen’s poetry is moment after moment in his work, line by line, syllable by syllable, you have a sense of an enormous ethical pressure brought to bear on the act of perception, and a sense that the ethical pressure of the act of perception is for him the same thing as the writing of the poem. And that is a way in which he is extraordinarily like Cezanne, it seem to me. The way Cezanne made lines, the way he studied color and tint, the way he insisted on seeing made it impossible for people to paint in the same way they had painted before…

Most poets are afraid of consciousness, perhaps because our art has magical and incantatory roots. And consciousness of consciousness, as the naked ground of all serious speech, has tormented twentieth-century writing. The first condition of honesty in poetry, and in the other arts, has been a certain self-reflexiveness; at the same time a flight from consciousness is probably the root of the passion to possess the world through language. That seems to be the fork in our path: a self-referential and hermetic poetry on one side, and on the other a passionate quest that strains toward and against dissolution.

George Oppen’s poems are remarkably free of both these passions. They are also free from many of the subversions of ego that accompany them: the desire to charm, the desire to dazzle, the need to have one’s suffering seen and acknowledged. This freedom is the ambience of only a few artists. Cezanne wasn’t trying to do anything to Mont Sainte-Victoire; he wasn’t trying to give it anything or take anything from it or make anything out of it. The mountain was there and he was there, and the painting—which was both consciousness of the mountain and consciousness of the consciousness of the mountain—was their meeting place and a single-minded act of devotion to the meeting place.

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Poetry and spirituality at Brigham Young University:

Sitting there I found myself thinking that those Mormon kids could be good Mormons for their entire lives without getting in touch with their spirituality, whatever their spirituality was. And that the discovery of that possibility must turn on some kind of break from trying to be the kind of person they thought they were supposed to be seen to try to be, that, for me, the content of spirituality was almost always everything in me that rebelled against whatever the pattern of being a socially approved and good person was, even when I experienced that rebellion as failure. And that for me, the content of poetry, or at least what drew me to poetry—the way in which I could say to myself it was spiritual—had to do with negation, with some version of saying no to the plausibly constructed world, and of being drawn through that negation toward—what? i didn’t like any of the words. I tried out mystery and wonder, and more helpfully I thought of Emily Dickinson.

And coming to her I knew I needed another definition. If religion is a community created by common symbols of the sacred, and is not the same thing as a spiritual life, then the first thing to say about spirituality is that it is almost always a private matter.

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It is a bit like raising a child, having an exhibit: it takes a village to bring it into form. Orbilinia, a show of my recent paintings at the Woodbury Museum in Utah, was an (art) barn raising that needed the essential help of friends, family (I have the world’s best sisters) and an extraordinary museum staff—curator Melissa Hempel, installation wizard Allison Hamnett and lighting genie Larry Revoir. (For a complete guide to the show click here.)

A few images of the installation and the opening…

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At the artist reception, March 12, 2013

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(Photographs by Julie Pierce, Keegan Drawe and Anne Call House.)

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Bharry (54 x 72″), Indradah (48 x 84″) and Kadartha (60 x 84″), from a show of new paintings called Orbilinia

I’m out of town again, this time to Utah for my show at the Woodbury Museum. I’ll be back home March 21.

In the meantime, I’m including a bit about this show, the largest exhibition of my career. If you live in Utah, please stop by.

Orbilinia
New Paintings by Deborah Barlow

Artist reception: Tuesday, March 12, 5-8PM

Woodbury Museum
575 E University Parkway
Orem UT 84097
801 863-4200
March 11-16, 2013

More about the exhibit: Orbilinia

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Note: Many thanks to my daughter Kellin—she was kind enough to design the show postcard from her remote perch in Florence.

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Milford Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park

The sum of our own positions on things we value determines the shape and texture of our social lives. This is why contemporary Americans acknowledge the things they find beautiful and talk about them all the time. Our commonality as citizens resides almost exclusively in the world before our eyes. Those little explosions of harmony with the world beyond us constitute landmarks in our inner lives. The landmarks we share with other have personal importance to us as opportunities to experience the confluence of our community.

–Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon

I am back home from three weeks of hiking and tramping (yes, that is what they call it there) through New Zealand. Everyone told me it was an extraordinary place, and since I did see all three of Peter Jackson’s Ring movies I had some idea of what to expect. But you can’t get the full expanse of the place until your body is actually there and in that landscape for real. Even so it still feels a bit otherworldly in its pristine beauty: Is there another place in the world where you can hike for 35 miles and the water is drinkable for the entire length of the trek? (If you know of one, you probably want to keep it a secret.)

The only book I had with me while I was on the trail was the reissued version of Dave Hickey‘s now legendary set of essays on art and beauty, The Invisible Dragon. Originally published in 1993 when the “fluid cultural weather system” (Hickey’s phrase) of the art world was in very different place than today, it speaks to issues that have shifted over the ensuing 20 years. But framed with a new introduction and an additional essay, this is still a book that delights and provokes. As Hickey says himself, “The Dragon was a successful book. It appealed to children and other adepts of ecstasy.”

And the Dragon actually proved to be a formidable companion while I was immersed in a landscape that is so lush and well, beautiful. Of course that word has so many meanings, inside the world of art and out. As Hickey points out, “Beauty is not a thing. The Beautiful is a thing.”

I read the book twice while I was there and I marked up every page. Even so I still feel hungry for another dip into Hickey’s irreverent dismantling of gatekeepers and tastemasters. Maybe this will have to wait since at this moment the rapture from being in such an extraordinary world still has my head spinning. And apropos of that feeling, the final line in Hickey’s book is a good one: “Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highway.”

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Water becomes silk in the cascade of the Stirling Falls, Millford Sound

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Cook’s Beach, Coromandel Peninsula

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Clinton River valley, Fiordland

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Mackinnon Pass

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The sea colors at Abel Tasmin

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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing near Taupo

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Blue ice of the Fox Glacier

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