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NYC
Sunrise over New York City as seen from the West Side

In Alexandra Horowitz‘s new book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, she explores the blocks around her home in New York City in the company of people with a particular expertise—an artist, a geologist, a self-professed “type nerd”, a field naturalist/insect advocate (among others)—as well as her toddler and her dog. A meditation on the complexity of life that usually goes unnoticed as well as a celebration of the layers of meaning that exist in the world around us, Horowitz’s book is a lyrical journey into how much we miss. It is also a lyrical reminder of how much more we can see if we look beyond what we consider to be the obvious.

From the book:

Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation. In a sense, expectation is the lost cousin of attention: both serve to reduce what we need to process of the world “out there.” Attention is the more charismatic member, packaged and sold more effectively, but expectation is also a crucial part of what we see. Together they allow us to be functional, reducing the sensory chaos of the world into unbothersome and understandable units.

I learned a new kind of attention when I first moved to New York City in the early 70′s. Over those first few months I walked every day, from one end of Manhattan to the other. With no expert guides or a nose-centric dog to guide me, I was in awe of the compression of life, the theatrical verticality, the unexpectedness of nooked and crannied neighborhoods everywhere. Having grown up in the Western U.S., I had my personal compass rose set to the horizontality of oceans and desert. But this! This was something else altogether. I never lost my infatuation with that high strung, high energy, “you can find anything here” city.

Mojave
Mojave Desert

But I have other landscapes and other loves. I just returned from a week in the deserts of California and Nevada. How quickly I felt my sensibilities reacclimatize to the bare, the spare, the horizontal. I didn’t realize how much I have been longing for a reconnection with the solitude of that wide open space. Like Horowitz’s deepening revelations of the layers of life in a few blocks of New York City, these open spaces are full of secrets that could also be teased into view with the right expertise. Such a panoply of life is being played out just below the surface of things.

My interests on this trip leaned more into the personal rather than to probing however. Being there felt like a particular kind of homecoming. Deserts, in particular the Mojave, will always be my landscape of identity, my personal omphalos. That sandy, empty, open world is the set point of my origin: It is that stardust turned sandy soil that made my grandmother, my mother, and me. The same is true of my partner. As a result, that is the soil that also made our children.

In light of that linkage, it was a sacred gift to have been in that expanse when our first grandchild arrived on January 2. Now living in her new landscape of Washington DC, Siena Wilcox possesses a rich and textured tapestry that draws on many landscapes—the sandy stardust of the western American desert, the mountains and shorelines of Korea, and the grasslands and deserts of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat India.

While Horowitz digs into the enchanting layers and recesses of life in New York City’s streets, the flow of our attention is on Siena, this brand new being who has come into existence and coalesces lineages, landscapes and dreams of a possible future.

Sienawinter

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MS
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

McKinnonpass
Mackinnon Pass

AbelTasmin
The sea colors at Abel Tasmin

Alpine
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing near Taupo

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Blue ice of the Fox Glacier

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I just returned from a week in the Outer Banks with my three sisters. Beautiful and remote, that slim slice of land felt even more so with whole sections of the road washed out from Hurricane Sandy and only traversable via 4 wheel drive. Later in the week the road was closed down altogether due to wind and high tides. The only way back was a slow ferry to an out of the way corner of (very) rural North Carolina.

But being there was what matters most. Those grayed over skies and a frisked up surf presaging yet another storm this weekend were a perfect backdrop for my deep dive into the delectably oversized Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 – 2007. Now back home after my OBX sojourn, nearly every page is marked up and annotated. What a feast. If Gerhard Richter‘s work speaks to you, this book is for you.

Here are just a few passages that I opened to at random:

***
One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.

***
Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.

***
Uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.

***
Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.

I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures—even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they lie and somehow just take shape.

***
It seems to me that the invention of the readymade was the invention of reality. It was the crucial discovery that what counts is reality, not any world-view whatever. Since then, painting has never represented reality; it has been reality (creating itself.)

***
Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude—I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone.

***
The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality.

***
Question: You do abstract and realistic paintings at the same time. Isn’t that a great contradiction?

The means you use to organize it are the same: the same structure, the same contrasts…But there is a difference in what I call the climate. For example, the landscape are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive. I look for these differences of climate.

***
I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colors fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.

***
It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia.

And when the mind is immersed so deeply, everything is seen through that Richterian lens. Beach, sand, water—all elements that speak a similar language.

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Hurricane Sandy (Photo: NASA via Getty Images)

Storms, especially the ones as enormous as Sandy, move me to sober. Serious circumspection seems appropriate as my friends in New York and Virginia get dropped from the grid and swamped with water.

But it is also a humbling reminder that we can never step out of the complex and extraordinary life of this planet, this place we call home.

I didn’t know about nature writer Ellen Meloy until after she passed away in 2004. Her books include Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild and The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. Her quiet wisdom about our right relationship to earth rings true for me again and again.

Here are a few words from her that have helped me reset my dial this morning:

***
Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home—not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.

***
For a homebody surrounded by the familiar or a traveler exploring the strange, there can be no better guide to a place than the weight of its air, the behavior of its light, the shape of its water, the textures of rock and feather, leaf and fur, and the ways that humans bless, mark or obliterate them. Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.

I think about home and what it means a lot, and that thinking informs my experience of painting both consciously and unconsciously. It feels like it deserves to be part of one’s daily ritual, to remember what place is and where we fit in it.

In a review of Meloy’s The Anthropology of Turquoise, another thoughtful writer Chelsea Biondolillo catalogs ways of writing about nature and how they reflect on our condition:

Near the end of the series of essays which make up The Anthropology of Turquoise, Meloy gives a few descriptions of nature writing which serve to position her work in the larger context of naturalist literature. The first, “The literature of loss,” is exemplified perhaps most beautifully in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. The second, “An ‘antidote to despair,’” brings to mind David Quammen’s humorous pieces for Outside Magazine, collected in part in The Flight of the Iguana. The third is where Ellen herself fits in: “The antibodies to doom, words and experiences that remind us of our vital connections to the natural world so that we might repair and revere them.” She joins Diane Ackerman and Thoreau in this category.

The antibodies to doom, words and experiences that remind us of our vital connections to the natural world so that we might repair and revere them. That’s a mantra for any day, post Sandy or otherwise.

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Crooked timber and all that jazz

Kingsley Amis, from his review of Don DeLillo‘s latest book in the New Yorker:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less…I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are. One helplessly reaches for Kant’s dictum about the crooked timber of humanity, or for John Updike’s suggestion to the effect that we are all of us “mixed blessings.”

This correlates to a statistic gleaned from the book by Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art: According to Jerry Saltz, 85% of contemporary art is just plain bad. In 50 years no one will care about most of it.

Whether looking at the body of work from one writer, the output of an entire generation of visual artists or just nature doing its thing, not everything hits the mark. And the thing is, that’s OK. In the long run it’s a win. In a conversation with Kevin Kelly (which is referenced in an earlier post on this site), Steve Johnson views the output/yield ratio from another perspective:

Technology wants increasing diversity—which is what I think also happens in biological systems, as the adjacent possible becomes larger with each innovation…when you expand the diversity of a system, that leads to an increase in great things and an increase in crap.

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Only one tree in my Brookline neighborhood is hosting a playful colony of shell-like parasols

My last post elicited several provocative comments and instigated a number of compelling conversations over the last few days. As a result I have continued to sit with several of ideas presented in The Tree, by John Fowles. It is winter in the Northeast after all, a season that inclines us to the warm fire, big armchair contemplation of our place in nature. And as the face of nature moves into its most extreme expression for us in this part of the planet, we meet it with preparation, protection and respect.

Here are a few more memorable paragraphs from the book. The selection below is actually from the introduction by the environmentalist writer Barry Lopez:

The Linnean mentality, which fussed endlessly to make nature seem categorical, serves in turn to introduce us to the differing approach of science and “the kind of experience or knowledge we loosely define as art.” Science pounces on chaos—on “unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable” nature. Art perceives no threat, no great evil in unlimited chaos; the engagement with nature is personal, intimate, and without objective…

Fowles sets down what he believes is the most dangerous of all our contemporary forms of alienation—”our growing emotional and intellectual detachment from nature.” He suggests the remedy for this lies with recognizing the debit side of the scientific revolution, understanding especially the change it has effected in our modes of perceiving and experiencing the world as individuals.

“Science is centrally, almost metaphysically, obsessed by general truths…but all nature, like all humanity, is made of minor exceptions, of entities that some way, however scientifically disregardable, do not confirm to the general rule. A belief in this kind of exception is as central to art as a belief in the utility of generalization is to science.”

Lopez points to Fowles’ use of paradox to illuminate and explore. Paradox it seems is elemental to a discussion of these issues.

The key to this paradox is the distinction Fowles makes between art and science. There is not the space here to elucidate, which is perhaps the coward’s way out on this, but some paradoxes are forever unresolvable and therefore, like koans, provoking and valuable. The best books about nature, like this one, drive you back out there, to the inchoate, the chaotic, the unresolvable.

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A favorite small book, The Tree by the novelist John Fowles, is just the right place to turn for wisdom on this last day of the year. A memoir and a meditation on human and natural notions of control, The Tree can be read again and again. W. S. Merwin claims that he has carried the book with him on his travels for years. First published in 1979 (Fowles died in 2005), this book feels timeless in its clear view of where humans fit in the great chain of being.

An essential framing in the book is built around the difference between how Fowles approaches nature—in particular trees—from his own father. The elder Fowles had a small suburban garden of trees that he carefully pruned and controlled. “He had himself been severely pruned by history and family circumstance, and this was his answer, his reconciliation to his fate—his platonic ideal of the strictly controlled and safe, his Garden of Eden.” This approach reflected his larger view of life and a hatred of natural disorder. From his view, “Good philosophers prune the chaos of reality and train it into fixed shapes, thereby forcing it to yield valuable and delicious fruit.”

Not so for Fowles. When he bought a derelict farm with acres of unmanaged wildnerness, his father was horrified. From Fowles:

He would never have conceded that it was my equivalent of his own beautifully disciplined apples and pears, and just as much cultivated, though not in a literal sense. He would not have understood that something I saw down there just an hour ago…two tawny owlets fresh out of the next, sitting on a sycamore branch like a pair of badly knitted Christmas stocking and ogling down at the intruder into their garden—means to me exactly what the Horticultural Society cups on his sideboard used to mean to him: a token of order in unjust chaos, the reward of perseverance in a right philosophy. That his chaos happens to be my order is not, I think, very important.

Fowles goes on to describe how his father sent him two cordon pear trees to plant. But the outcome was not what Fowles’ father had hoped for:

They must be nearly fifteen years old now; and every year, my soil being far too thin and dry for their liking they produce a few miserable fruit, or more often none at all. I would never have them out. It touches me that they should so completely take his side; and reminds me that practically everyone else in my life—even friends who profess to be naturalists—has also taken his side; that above all the world in general continues to take his side. No fruit for those who do not prune; no fruit for those who question knowledge; no fruit for those who hide in trees untouched by man; no fruit for traitors to the human cause.

Therein lies an essential dilemma many of us face every day. Do we have the stamina to live like Fowles? Its implications for art making of any kind is deep.

The book is full of richness. Fowles goes on to decry Linneaus and the need to name, categorize and individuate every element. It is that detaching of an object from its surroundings that destroys our ability to see, apprehend and experience the whole. “What I gain most from nature is beyond words. To try to capture it verbally immediately places me in the same boat as the namers and would-be owners of nature: that is, it exiles me from what I most need to learn.”

From the book:

One can say of an attitude that it is generally held by society; but society itself is an abstraction, a Linnaeus-like label we apply to a group of individuals seen in a certain context and for a certain purpose; and before the attitude can be generally held, it must pass through the filter of the individual consciousness, where this irreducible “wild” component lies—the one that may agree with science and society, but can never be wholly plumbed, predicted or commanded by them.

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Dar al Islam mosque, Abiquiu (New Mexico)


The White Place, Abiquiu


Rancho de Taos

Santa Fe in February: White light. Radiant. Ubiquitous. Outside. Inside. Writ large. Writ small.


Bowls in sunlight, Santa Fe (Jill Fineberg’s home)


Stonecutters’ glass, Abiquiu


Beard of a mask (at Jill’s)

Last Friday night was the opening of my solo show with Zane Bennett Gallery in Santa Fe. Thanks to so many friends and family for joining in with me. A night to remember.

Installation views:

Opening reception:

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Black rivers of meltwater mixed with volcanic ash, spreading from the erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano (Photograph courtesy Árni Sæberg, Icelandic Coast Guard)


A seven-mile-high (11-kilometer-high) cloud of steam, smoke, and ash billows from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Thursday (Photograph courtesy Árni Sæberg, Icelandic Coast Guard)


Steam explodes from a glacier-topped Iceland volcano (Photograph courtesy Árni Sæberg, Icelandic Coast Guard)


Eyjafjallajökull volcano’s previous eruption. Before dying down on Monday, the vent—shown in a satellite image from March 24 —was a tourist attraction with dramatic lava fountains. (Photo: NASA)

I know how disruptive this eruption has been, and certainly I have reason to be concerned since my partner David is scheduled to fly to London via Reykjavík this weekend. But the images of the volcano are spellbinding. There is something other worldly about black rivers, gorgeously concupiscent plumes of smoke and vapor, the enormousness of it all. Like the extraordinary shots of Jupiter’s Io taken by NASA, I look at these and have a feeling of lightheadedness, of witnessing as a disembodied, floating, weightless energy.


Jupiter moon, Io (Photo: NASA)

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In 1968 two of mid-century’s most influential designers, Charles and Ray Eames, made a short film called Powers of Ten. In just ten minutes they explored the universe from one end of the scale to the other. A book based on that film was published some years later and had a lasting impression on me. It begins with a view from a billion light-years away and moves in at 1/10th the scale steps until we reach the zero point of this journey—humans having picnic on the grass. The journey then goes micro, diving into a human hand, scaling in by tens. In just 40 steps, we are at the quantum particle level, that uncertain and (still) mysterious world.

That visual rubberbanding became an elemental part of my artistic curiosity. In an early artist statement I referenced that micro to macro slide:

The primary influence on my work is the natural world, from the wide open expanse of space to the microscopic view of cellular structures. For all the time I spend looking at nature, I am not interested in duplicating what I see. Instead I am seeking a way to go beyond the domain of nature as we know it and into the place between what we can see and what we cannot.

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Looks from the new Hubble

The extraordinary domains at either end of the spectrum of this shared reality continue to feed the imagination and the eye. New images from the new and improved Hubble telescope (astrophysicist Sandra Faber says “we had to make the Hubble a new set of spectacles”) are visual stunning, provocative, luminous, haunting. (More about Dr. Faber and the Hubble can be read in this earlier post.)

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A pattern cut by leafcutter bees (Photo: Noah Charney)

The other end of the spectrum is explored in a recent piece in the Boston Globe. Talking about the work of Noah Charney, a biologist who is compiling images of invertebrates and their tracks, artist and writer Roger White puts a nice spin on that extraordinary world at the micro level:

As it happens, insects are Modernists. Their work is suffused with abstraction, pattern, and process. They favor bold, all-over compositions that emphasize the physicality of their materials: the rich colors of soil and leaves, the intricate interior structure of wood, the texture of sand and stone. They turn simple actions like chewing, carving, and egg-laying into complex displays of repetition and variation. When it comes to sculpture, insects are born bricoleurs. They fashion ad hoc constructions out of salvaged materials (like the chamber of the caddisfly larva, a casual yet considered arrangement of found rocks and debris) with an intuitive feeling for texture and color that would have made the Catalan architect Gaudí proud.

As a practitioner of the non-representational, I liked White’s quiet defense of that visual orientation:

The irony here is that abstraction, the signal achievement of Western visual art in the 20th century, is still often regarded as a profoundly artificial art form. Abstract art, we’re taught, was symptomatic of a society’s estrangement from the natural world. For some people, the notion that it’s art at all is still up for debate: the popular critique of abstraction – that it doesn’t “look like” anything – has been around as long as the movement has.

The naturalistic argument for abstraction is certainly born out by looking at non-Western, non-pedigree, indigenous art. The painting tradition that began in the 1970s with the introduction of acrylic paints and canvas to aboriginal people in Australia speaks to an aesthetic commonality with the abstraction that emerged in 20th century Western art. The etiology of those similarities are still a hot topic of discussion and not a straight line relationship by any means. But what can be seen is that there is a connection here that is deeper than just style or intention. While I cannot speak to the leafcutter bee’s intention, I can feast on what is left behind.

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Painting by aboriginal artist Bessie Petyarre, from my personal collection

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