Artist wisdom

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Cookbeach
Cook’s Beach, New Zealand

Every artist has her own way of working. For me there are a few fundamentals that anchor my art making: Daily practice is one, and a willingness to surrender to the process is another. Following that thread will take you where it will, often down surprising and unexpected side roads. Interfering with logic or willful cerebralism is rarely successful. As a result I have learned to shut down the mental chatter and just get out of the way.

Working in a manner that is personal and intuitive is a counterstance to the contemporary trends. But there are others who have spoken strongly to this way of working. One of them is the poet William Stafford (1914-1993) whose writing about his poetic practice resonates with me. His is an art making terrain that draws on references to the soul and spirit, and these transcendent aspects are referenced freely and frequently. “Art has its sacramental aspect,” he boldly asserted.

His poem The Way It Is expresses some of that sacramental sense that I feel as well:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Stafford was well known for his commitment to write every day. He got up early, went for a run and then wrote at least one poem before going off to teach. His discipline was legendary. He was something of an outsider in poetic circles and aware that many people didn’t cotton to his “artist as mystic” views. In spite of being out of step with the prevalent postmodern mindset, he still had the generosity of spirit to not take offense. “There are so many things admirable people do not understand,” he offered.

This Stafford excerpt also speaks to the distance between his approach and current cultural trends:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and you don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our
star.

Stafford’s predispositions about creativity were neither fashionable nor easily defended in his métier of poetry, and those predilections are increasingly an outsider position in the world of current art commentary today. The majority of influencers and commentariats value a different approach that leans into irony, spectacle, objectivity, scientism, measurability and that suite of non-personal concerns such as the politics of identity, social commentary, edge seeking and shock.

Stafford’s approach operates on the other end of the spectrum of concerns:

I must be willing to fail…Thinking about such matters as social significance, positive values, consistency, etc., I resolutely disregard these. Something better, greater, is happening! I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on. I am making something new, something that has not been judged before.

After years as a painter it has become increasingly easier for me to see what fits and what does not. Stafford’s words on this are memorable: “The signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—/should be clear/the darkness around us is deep.”

This passage from Stafford also speaks to that alternate view in another way:

At the time, the writer is responsible for everything, and at the same time he is simply lost. He has to be willing to stay lost until what he finds—or what finds him—has the validity that the instant (with him as its sole representative) can recognize—at that moment he is transported, not because he wants to be, but because he can’t help it. Out of the wilderness of possibility comes a vine without a name, and his poem is growing with it.

Threads. Vines without names. Patterns that others have made that distract rather than enrich. The value of being lost. Art’s sacramental nature. He’s talking my language.

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George Saunders
George Saunders (Photo: The Guardian)

Is it just my bias or is it truly hard to find an artist who is a gifted creator and also wise? Another personal bias (since we’re divulging these proclivities): It is my experience that wisdom comes from those who have figured out how to get out beyond the distracting lights of egocentricity, careerism, competition, self promotion. They take on a sense of humility as part of their wisdoming. Their way of looking at the world feels slowed down. Stripped to the essentials. Primal.

Case in point, the spectacularly inventive writer George Saunders. His commencement address at Syracuse this year was published in the New York Times this week. Commencement speeches are a form of sermonizing—they typically aim for the concise and the pithy, with a message that is relevant to the young and the old. And like a homily, the best ones leave you with a kernel idea to pull up later. For Saunders’ speech, the word is kindness.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE…

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

I have thought about this speech for days (and thank you to my alert niece Rebecca Ricks for flagging it for me.) I have also been wisdomed by a gloriously protracted read of the poet Mary Ruefle‘s terrific collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey. In her introduction she self-effacingly says:

I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sounds, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve—if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush…but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. “Fret not after knowledge, I have none,” is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.

Later, in a chapter entitled “On Sentimentality” she waxes wise when addressing a scholar’s disapproval of the use of the “vague you” pronoun in American poetry. She is straightforward in getting past what seems like a pointless discussion:

Mr. Sterling asserts we don’t participate in such poems, but become “a passive observer, an eavesdropper”—as if it were of the utmost importance that we always, always, participate, participate, participate. When was the last time you participated in a poem by Emily Dickinson, no matter what pronoun she was using? Sometimes I feel enormously privileged to be a mere eavesdropper.

Her simple defense of privileged eavesdropping rather than participation parallels tendencies in the visual arts regarding the dominance of installations focused on social practice, politics, conceptual constructs. The mystery in seeing, looking and experiencing a work retinally has been put aside as unimportant. In that tension between content and appearance, the pendulum is swinging heavily into the former. As is often the case, what beleaguers poetry and poetry making is relevant to what beleaguers the visual arts. As Ruefle suggests, there is—and ought to be—room for both/and.

Kindness, and the privilege of being an eavesdropper. There is a welcome in those words, almost a soul’s sigh, that comes up in me when I think about embracing those two states of mind.

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Mary Ruefle (Photo: Matt Valentine)
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Other Slow Muse posts on:

George Saunders

Lovell’s Quiet Portrait of George Saunders

Zadie Smith

Mary Ruefle

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Unhitching

Images, Ideas and Tension

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RedButte
Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City

In Mary Ruefle‘s Madness, Rack and Honey, she references the concept of “unhitching.” The very word delights me: the idea of not being tethered or contained, of being let loose.

It can mean so many different things of course, but Ruefle is referencing its particular use in Claude Lévi-Strauss‘s Tristes Tropiques, a book that she says “for better or for worse, changed the views of Western civilization in the twentieth century.”

The full quote from Lévi-Strauss is below, a wild and rhapsodic invitation:

When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; man may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists—Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations!—in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.

I have read this passage about ten times, and every pass through feels like the words moved off the page since the last time I was there. It’s a full spectrum quote.

But it also feels like an apropos parting nod. I will be away from Slow Muse for two weeks while I am in Utah and New Mexico. As always when traveling, I fantasize about being engaged in all manner of unhitchedness, wandering far afield of hive-like activities. I will be looking for an entrance into the contemplation of mineral, and of the lily’s heart.

Adieu til June 19.

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Close up of Nagala that, from a certain angle, feels more planetary than painting

I’ve been in a particular kind of intimacy with my latest body of work (such a wonderful phrase to describe a variety of artifacts that feel connected…) Yes, you bring them into existence. You labor over every inch of their surface. You lovingly coax them along. Then something happens. They begin to talk back. They take on a life of their own. And then, if you are lucky, they find a place to live somewhere else.

I’ve been packing up an upcoming show for weeks now, lots of large paintings heading west. My intimacy with each piece has expanded into a full familiarity with their backsides, their potential unwieldiness, the scope of their girth, the width and length and weight of each one.

It has been a period with a different kind of focus, but a kind of focusing nonetheless. Being present even in this effort has its own rewards albeit harder won.

From Sarah Robinson’s highly companionable small book, Nesting*:

If we can be still long enough, details of the world reveal themselves of their own accord. Steven Holl counsels, “To open ourselves to perception, we must transcend the mundane urgency of ‘things to do.’ We must try to access the inner life which reveals the luminous intensity of the world. Only through solitude can we begin to penetrate the secret world around us. An awareness of one’s unique existence in space is essential in developing a consciousness of perception.” Rather than forcing our experience into a prefixed Platonic ideal or the totality of a planner’s prescription, contextual information is simply allowed to emerge. This is deep listening, the source of both poetic making and responsible action…

Through listening and observing, appropriate form emerges from the unique variables of the situation. Local insight yields diverse outcomes. This is perhaps why much of what indigenous cultures produce bears the signature of their landscape. Being situated is to be at the site, the unique unrepeatable place that is context.

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*More about Nesting here.

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Agnes Martin. Her wisdom and point of view has stepped in and shifted my thinking many times over the years. This week I happened upon an interview with her, and it was like a Heimlich maneuver dislodging a blockage. She is so unabashedly mystical. Some say that she didn’t read a newspaper for the last 50 years of her life. Given her world view, it seems to me that there really wasn’t much need.

She reminds me of my favorite monk who lives in near isolation in Gotsang, a meditation monastery in Ladakh. He has been there for 45 years. We sat with him for most of a day when I was there two years ago. Even with a language barrier it was clear to all of us that he knew so much more about the flinty core of consciousness than any of us ever would. Just sitting with him, something in me shifted.


A furtive photo of the back of the monk at the monastery in Gotsang, Ladakh

Two backs to the world…

A few highlights from the interview with Agnes Martin:

In this world, that’s the only thing you need to know: What you want.

I paint with my back to the world.

Best things in life happen to you when you are alone. All revelations.

What am I going to do next? That’s how I ask for inspiration.

I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for.

That’s the trouble with art today. 50 ideas before you start, and the inspiration disappears.

Art is responded to with emotion. The best art is music, the highest form of art, completely abstract.

Art is not intellectual at all.

You can’t think about beating the rest of them while you are painting. You have to keep a clear picture in your mind.

Don’t let any other thoughts in. The worst thing you can think about while you are painting is yourself.

I wait 3 days before I decide about a painting being done.

I used to meditate til I learned to stop thinking.

Now, empty mind. When something comes in, you can see it.

Maybe it is because Harvard has planetary status in the Boston/Cambridge area, but it seems everyone is still talking about J. K. Rowling’s commencement address last week. Her topic–”The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” is delicious just in its titular power. But the speech (which you can read or watch at Harvard Magazine) has lots of wisdom to offer even if failure and Harvard are hard for some people to place in the same sentence.

Of course some of the graduates took umbrage at the choice of having the author of a series of children’s books as the keynote at a school that, according to some students interviewed on NPR, was used to hearing from the intellectually gifted and powerful, like Madeleine Albright. (We won’t even go there, not now anyway.) But most people I know who heard her were moved by her message.

I’m excerpting a few paragraphs about failure. I’ll highlight her second theme, imagination, in tomorrow’s post.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

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After several days in California, I’m readjusting to the stubbornness of a winter overlord who won’t give up New England. Succession planning? We’re working on that. Spring is off stage, bedecked in faille, fluttering her white and pink organzas, just waiting for an entrance cue.

I had some memorable moments last week, both indoors as well as out. One morning was spent at the Gilbert & George exhibit at the De Young Museum. These two have made themselves into art icons over the last thirty years with their provocative poises, proddings, posturings, promulgations. Even though I have not ever been what I would term a G&G advocate, their campy pranks aren’t just empty suit stunts and theatrics. There is more going on than that.

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Death, by Gilbert & George

For example, the following statements by the artists were posted at the beginning of the exhibit:

ART FOR ALL

We want Our Art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People.

PROGRESS THROUGH FRIENDSHIP

Our Art is the friendship between the viewer and our pictures. Each picture speaks of a “Particular View“ which the viewer may consider in the light of his own life. The true function of Art is to bring about new understanding, progress and advancement. Every single person on Earth agrees that there is room for improvement.

LANGUAGE FOR MEANING

We invented and we are constantly developing our own visual language. We want the most accessible modern form with which to create the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art-material must be subservient to the meaning and purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are.

THE LIFE FORCES

True Art comes from three main life-forces. They are: –
THE HEAD
THE SOUL
and THE SEX

In our life these forces are shaking and moving themselves into everchanging different arrangements. Each one of our pictures is a frozen representation of one of these “arrangements“.

THE WHOLE

When a human-being gets up in the morning and decides what to do and where to go he is finding his reason or excuse to continue living. We as artists have only that to do. We want to learn to respect and honour “the whole“. The content of mankind is our subject and our inspiration. We stand each day for good traditions and necessary changes. We want to find and accept all the good and bad in ourselves. Civilisation has always depended for advancement on the “giving person“. We want to spill our blood, brains and seed in our life-search for new meanings and purpose to give to life.

Unfortunately saying doesn’t make it so…I didn’t find this exhibit of large format images to be any more accessible to the average viewer than most other contemporary work. There’s definitely an essential tension between these populist, anti-art world sentiments and the fact that G&G are driving their luxury car down the center lane of the Art World Circus Parkway, busily exhibiting their work in museums everywhere and merchandising a boatload of posters and printed ties.

But the sentiments expressed in these words, idealistic and naive as they may read when viewed in the hard-edged context of contemporary museum scale art, mean something to me. While I don’t want to flatten the complexity of the tangle of issues that exist in contemporary art dialogue today by promoting a bipartisan view of Art World vs Anti-Art World, it might be useful to make a few categorical distinctions. Doing so has been useful to me.

Here’s one set of demarcations that I have been road testing, and it seems to be holding together. Sally Reed, artist and smart friend, has borrowed traditional literary forms, epic and lyric, and applied them to the making of art.

Epic art, says Sally, deals with large arc issues like politics, philosophy, cerebral calibrations, identity and does so through installations in public spaces like art museums and international art fairs. It is often built on a strong narrative armature, with a heavy storytelling and/or content orientation.

Lyric art is more human scaled. Personal. Demanding a relationship with the viewer on an intimate level. This is art that usually exists outside of narrative, outside of time.

I make work that would be classified as lyric. But I have been amazed and moved by both types. Most of what gets written about and discussed however is epic. Advocacy for art that is intended to incite the intensity of a full body experience is hard to find.

More from Sally Reed:

No, I am not “telling a story” — for me it’s more like (how’s this for grandiosity?) creating a world. Or more modestly, creating a place, a “chamber.” When a piece is finished, it seems I am ready to invite people in. Or at least their gaze, their thoughts and feelings.

My problem with narrative is that it often is sequential and always takes place in time. I feel that when I am making art, when I am at my best, it takes place outside of time, as a dream does. For me, the experience of making (when I am in the flow) or experiencing art, is outside of time. I think this might be why many narrative based visual pieces that I like initially can bore me on a second or third viewing. And also why certain masterpieces are endlessly fascinating; there’s always a new way to approach, a new way to experience, to sort of “unfold” all the wonders with which they are packed.

There is more to say on many of these themes, which I will continue to explore going forward.

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How refreshing to find an art “feel good” counter story in the New York Times, especially one that offers pre-coverage of the ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, “I can’t wait to hate it” Whitney Biennial. This piece made me feel hope, like someone opened a window in a stale, stuffy room with tired furniture and too many people talking loud.

The values in this article mirror many of my own. And since this point of view typically doesn’t get much air time, I am savoring this rare expression of authenticity and stand alone integrity. It also draws a sharp contrast to Terry Teachout’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about artists who lose their gifts when they get caught up in self-importance. (An excerpt of Teachout’s piece can be read on Slow Painting.)

I’d like to think that this point of view is the bellwether for a new and more meaningful set of art signifiers.

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Fritz Haeg (courtesy of New York Times)

Fritz Haeg is not the best-known artist in the Whitney Biennial, opening next month. He has not had a breakout solo show at the Zach Feuer Gallery. He is not being wooed by Larry Gagosian. His prices at auction are nonexistent.

“I don’t even sell work,” he said with a laugh.

But in an art world growing jaded with such signifiers, Mr. Haeg, an architect by training and a landscaper by nature, may end up the surprise star of the Whitney show. Among the “homes” he designed for 12 “clients” are a beaver lodge and pond for the sculpture court, an eagle’s nest over the entry and other cribs around the museum for a mud turtle, mason bees, a flying squirrel, a bobcat and other critters that once lived on the Upper East Side.

Given that Madison Avenue is one of the world’s fanciest shopping streets, you would think Mr. Haeg is casting stones. In 2005, for his first nature-ruption series, “Edible Estates,” he replanted front lawns in places from Salina, Kan., to London, with vegetable gardens.

But his work is more than simple eco-commentary. From his Los Angeles home (a vintage geodesic dome), Mr. Haeg has carved out an intriguing niche within modern architecture, performance art and eco-activism.

This is clear even with his new “Animal Estates,” as the Whitney installation is called. The beaver lodge, for one, will be stained black. “It’s going to look as if Marcel Breuer had designed a beaver lodge,” he said.

Mr. Haeg grew up northwest of Minneapolis, near St. John’s University, with its buildings that, like the Whitney, Breuer designed in the 1960s. St. John’s, a Roman Catholic university run by Benedictine monks, made an impact on the young Mr. Haeg, whose father graduated from the school. “The Abbey Church there is burned into my subconscious,” he said.

Today, even as Mr. Haeg is putting his beloved geodome on the market and deaccessioning unnecessary objects, there is one thing he is hanging onto. That is a teapot made in the late 1990s by Richard Bresnahan, who since 1980 has run the St. John’s pottery program, working only with local materials, from clays and glazes to wood for the kiln.

“It’s one of the only things I’m keeping,” he said. He bought the pot, a traditional Japanese double-gourd shape, a few years ago on a return visit with his father to the campus. “The first time I visited Bresnahan’s studio, I was blown away,” he said. “This is a part of the art world that’s really been marginalized: handcrafts and the stories of how things are made. I don’t think many artists think about where their materials come from.”

The teapot meshes not only with his ideals equating art’s ends and means, but with his retro ’60s aesthetic, a blend of pop-kitsch and eco-sincere. “It reminds me of my geodesic dome a bit, the way it’s this sphere up on three feet,” he said. “And the glaze — it’s very hippie, like it’s still forming itself. And there’s a nice conversation between the light, handmade cane handle and this big orb that’s solid and made of clay.”

And despite the exalted pedigree of the piece, he uses it all the time. “I drink a lot of tea,” he said.

Though Mr. Haeg calls himself a lapsed Catholic, the teapot reminds him of his admiration for the integrated way of life observed by the Benedictines at St. John’s: praying, teaching, farming, hiring high-modern architects.

“They really believe that everything matters,” he said. “There’s something so simple and primitive in the best possible way of what the life at St. John’s is and what the clay pot represents. It’s sort of a reminder that design isn’t just about physical acquisitiveness. It can be a means to a more fulfilled life.”

If it doesn’t make you embrace the Benedictine creed, it at least makes you think about switching to tea.

David Colman
New York Times

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Crown Point Press, a major force in the Bay Area art scene for 40 years, has produced prints with and for some of the greats including Richard Diebenkorn, John Cage, Richard Tuttle, Wayne Thiebaud and Pat Steir. In addition to a gallery and bookstore in its well appointed space on Hawthorne Street in San Francisco, CPP has a tremendous set of files, brochures and descriptive spec sheets on the artists who have worked with founder Kathan Brown and her team of Master printers.

I spent several hours rifling through the extensive resources and files during which I found a small monograph on Judy Pfaff, one of my favorite artists. It features an in depth interview with Pfaff by Constance Lewallen of CPP.

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delfluss (image courtesy of Judy Pfaff)

Here’s a memorable passage from that exchange:

CL: [Your] work is not ironic as so much of the work being shown today, in which the artist is the art critic as well…You once said to me that a positive way of looking at this phenomenon is that now artists have created another arena for themselves–they can be critics, they can be businessmen.

JP: When I am in a generous mood I think that. But often I think it is very depressing that the whole art world seems to demonstrate that attitude now–cool, detached, competent. I think one of the things about being an artist is that you should be allowed to test murky, unclear, unsure territory or all you have left are substitutes that signify these positions. Having it all together is the least interesting thing in art, in being alive.

CL: Someone once wrote that your work deals with art at the fringes of confusion of life itself.

JP: I like that.

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delumi (image courtesy of Judy Pfaff)

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Tarus Mateen, Nasheet Waits, Jason Moran (Bandwagon)

In the “Earth stood still for a minute. Seriously dude, it did” category: My son Bryce came with me on a 2 hour pilgrimage from Boston to Hanover, New Hampshire–Dartmouth College–on Thursday night to hear and see Jason Moran perform with The Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and guest artist Marvin Sewell on guitar.) I’ve written about Jason on this blog before, but in case you didn’t catch it I can say it again and again: He is one of the greats. If you ever get a chance to hear him, take it.

Jason has been exploring the deeper connections between jazz and the visual arts for several years. Earlier albums pay homage to the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Egon Schiele and Robert Rauschenberg. Recently he has collaborated with and explored the works of visual artists including Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper.

In the fall I went to Washington DC to hear In My Mind, a multi-media performance that is a tribute to jazz piano god Theolonious Monk. Jason’s latest undertaking, Milestone, continues to explore the boundaries of jazz performance, the audience/performer interface and how the personal and the public sides of an artist weave in and out. The players move around the stage, sit facing the audience at times, just listening to previously taped conversations along with the audience. Jason is moving outside the armature of a typical jazz performance and looking to create a different kind of experience for anyone who is there, including the musicians. And even though Jason’s wife, soprano Alicia Hall Moran, was not present at the concert, she was very much there in spirit. Her singing and spoken voice are accessed repeatedly, giving the sense that her ambient presence is hovering over everything happening on stage and in the hall.

As Jason describes his approach with Milestone: “We made a full-length theater piece out of an ordinary jazz concert, and Tarus, Nasheet, Marvin and I didn’t really know too much about stagecraft so we got a crash course from Alicia. She was the director and my collaborator as a writer. In Milestone I wanted us to play the part of ourselves almost, and bring the audience inside the heads of this band; show that while we’re up on stage and you’re looking at us, we’re involved in our own examination of you.”

Jason, Marvin, Tarus and Nasheet stayed afterwards to talk about the music. What righteous, thoughtful, soulful men each of them is. When I asked a question about that fuzzy line between the personal and the work of art itself, Jason made a very provocative comment. He said that he cared about content, and it was something difficult for his kind of jazz to provide. Without lyrics, he said, the content is harder to access. With Monk’s music for example it is vital to understand that Monk’s grandparents were slaves, that faith healings were part of his heritage, that the music he made came from his experiences, and that the story of where it came from matters. Jason talked about how he wants to make his own music more content-rich (my phrase) by including and exploring the personal dimension as well as new forms of experiential delivery.

Ah, content. It’s an ongoing question for me as a non-representational artist who values mystery, the unresolved, the uncertain, the unspoken. Jason is extending the frame in which his music sits, exploring new and bold ways to bridge the gap between maker and listener/observer. All the way home, driving in moonlight off the snow covered fields of New Hampshire, I kept thinking of the Seamus Heaney comment about the wiresculpture qualities of Eastern European poetry: “The density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Like the universe, my only answer to all of this is, Yes.

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