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Songwriter Bob Russell ( “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, among many others) wrote these lyrics for Billie Holiday back in the 1940s:

The difficult I’ll do right now
The impossible will take a little while.

The second line was the inspiration for the title of one of my favorite books, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, a selection of essays compiled by Paul Rogat Loeb and published in 2004. He draws wisdom on impossible things—or so they may have seemed at the time—from many 20th century greats including Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Diane Ackerman, Seamus Heaney, Václav Havel, Howard Zinn.

In Daniel Barenboim‘s Norton Lecture series (collected in his book, Music Quickens Time), he brings music into this sphere of the impossible:

I firmly believe that it is impossible to speak about music. There have been many definitions of music which have, in fact, merely described a subjective reaction to it. The only really precise and objective definition for me is by Ferruccio Busoni…who said that music is sonorous air. It says everything and nothing at the same time. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw in music an idea of the world. In music, as in life, it is really only possible to speak about our own reactions and perceptions. If I attempt to speak about music, it is because the impossible has always attracted me more than the difficult. If there is some sense behind this, to attempt the impossible is, by definition, an adventure…It has the added advantage that failure is not only tolerated but expected.

My artist friend Gordon Waters (who sadly passed away in 2013) wrote a memoir that he coyly titled, Unless Your Picture Goes Wrong It Will Be No Good. Any writer/composer/artist knows how important the broken parts are as a work evolves.

But the difficult is different than the impossible. Art making is so full of difficult things, and there may be something emergent about just moving into the zone of the impossible as Barenboim suggests. It is a way of welcoming adventure rather than staying tethered to life-draining reparations and adjustments. It is a welcoming of failure rather than the constant vigilance to protect against it.

Sometimes the extreme is the exit out. Or in, depending on your point of view.

[Note: This post is from the Slow Muse archives. It first appeared in 2013.]

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The Whitney Museum’s current Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue, soon to be abandoned for the new Renzo Piano space downtown. Photo: Gryffindor, via Wikimedia Commons.

As controversies are already abounding regarding the opening of the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum (The most visible being John Yau‘s recent essay in the Brooklyn Rail, The Difference Between Jerry Saltz’s America and Mine), I have been thinking about art criticism and what it means to me as an artist and maker. I have no interest in Koons or in seeing the show, but responses to his work may at times present a narrative that is of interest. Now that’s a curious thing, when art with which I have no connection can create a conversation around it that can be compelling.

A passage I found in Rebecca Solnit‘s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness”, from her new collection, Men Explain Things to Me, addresses some of this.

Referring to her years as an art critic:

I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

The proclivity to “make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable” is an ongoing challenge for any artist whose work is to dig deep into that which is uncertain and unknowable. “What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether,” says Solnit.

But there is also a kind of counter-criticism that actually expands the work of art, that opens up its meanings and its possibilities. Criticism of this kind can liberate a work of art and will engage in a conversation that keeps feeding the imagination. That is when criticism achieves a whole new level.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas…this is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence: the best opens up an exchange that need never end.

That is how it feels to read the really good writers about art. I put John Yau in that category along with W. S. Di Piero, Lawrence Rinder, David Levi Strauss, Sianne Ngai, Dave Hickey, Michael Kimmelman, Sebastian Smee and Donald Kuspit. And of course my all time favorite writer about contemporary art—the great Carl Belz.

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Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian)

My respect and admiration for the writer Rebecca Solnit is long standing. The author of many extraordinary books, she posted a short essay online a few years ago that went viral immediately. No wonder, since the title captures in one phrase an experience that every woman I know has had, and continues to encounter in spite of everything that has happened over the last 50 years: Men Explain Things to Me.

In a new collection of seven essays that takes the first as its title, Solnit has allowed gender to be a leitmotif that strings these insightful explorations together. As much as I enjoyed the title essay in Men Explain Things to Me, my favorite in the collection is Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, a rich blend of the fearless probing that characterizes the minds and writings of Solnit, Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag. And because the inexplicable has been a leitmotif for me these eight years of Slow Muse posting, exploring the realm of the inchoate in company with these three is pure pleasure.

Solnit begins with a Woolf quote: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” The future is an unknown and should be just that, a radical idea in a culture that longs for control, prognostication and predictability. Solnit then quotes wilderness survivalist Laurence Gonzalez: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” It is our nature to be fearful of the unknown ahead, and often it feels easier to choose to be oblivious. When a plan (or a belief, or a relgion) becomes your safety net, you see what you want to see. It is the job of artists and explorers, says Solnit, to let go of preconceptions and to walk into the unknown with eyes open. Relentlessly.

When it comes to the work we do and the positions we take, we cannot see the larger arc of these actions. Solnit shares a conversation she had with Sontag about taking a political position:

I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile: that you don’t have the memory of the future, that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be: and that, in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. That is when the words of so many writers often resonate most.

Every artist who is digging deep in the work they do comes up against that unknowingness with every gesture, with every word. Solnit’s insights resonate for me as an artist, but they also speak to anyone struggling for truth, justice and equality. You know who you are.

To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.

Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.

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I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the work of Norman Rockwell. He used the techniques of illustration to paint a world that ignored complexity and captured some imagined untroubled time. As W. S. Di Piero points out in an essay about his work in When Can I See You Again?, “He represented experience in a way that presumed hospitable intimacies but wasn’t intimate at all…his narrow pictorial and moral range left nothing to chance. He over-managed effects and stiffly controlled audience response. His pictures are by and large cold Yankee products in which human intimacy is a contrived icy gaiety.”

But he was popular. He got his first Post cover when he was 22 and spent his life with high visibility and success. His work became signatory of an entire era in American cultural history.

Di Piero isn’t complete bloodless in his critique of Rockwell. He was a “scrupulous, hard working craftsman” and had no illusions about himself and what he was about. “He once said he painted America not as it really was but as he would like it to be.”

While Di Piero’s essay on Rockwell is in response to a traveling exhibit from 15 years ago, the final paragraph rings true in a timeless way:

Pardon my dyspepsia. I’m ragging on Rockwell for not being what he never wanted to be. But it’s irritating that so much blockbuster expense and space—the show ended its tour at the Guggenheim, whose manipulative curatorial strategies so often cynically twist art-world rumor into established greatness—is given over to such an artist when we need more good, substantial shows of Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, and Fairfield Porter, all of them purer American artists than Rockwell could ever hope to be.

With giant New York blockbuster art shows heading our way from Jeff Koons at the Whitney and Björk (yes, that one) at MOMA, Di Piero’s dyspepsia about “manipulative curatorial strategies” that turn “art-world rumor into established greatness” is a good description of how many of us feel about these two exhibitions. I just have to ask: REALLY?

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“Untitled (Rorschach),” a 1999 work by Sigmar Polke.(Photo: Alistair Overruck/Estateof Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society)

The current show of Sigmar Polke’s work at MOMA, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, is staggeringly expansive. With 260 works of art filling 10 galleries plus the atrium, the curators wisely moved most of the accompanying text into a 30 page handout on newsprint. Headspinnigly complex, the feeling of being overwhelmed is unavoidable.

Sebastian Smee took a stab at it in his recent review in the Boston Globe:

What kind of artist was Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)? The question affords no easy answer.

Besides being the most protean major artist of the past three or four decades, this German face-puller, tongue-poker, and cackling boogeyman was the kind of artist willing to spend weeks and months extracting purple pigment from the glands of snails (following ancient, imperial precedent) only to apply the precious substance to silk with a kind of desultory shoulder shrug.

He was the kind of artist who was happy to spend vast chunks of his life hand-painting raster dots — the pixel grids that make up imagery on television screens and printed matter — or pointing a video camera at whatever took his fancy…Replete with paintings, drawings, and prints on every scale and in every conceivable medium (and in some media, like “meteoric granulate,” “iron mica,” and “thermal enamel,” you probably never conceived of), as well as videos, photographs, photocopies, sculptures, and stained glass, [the exhibit] arrives four years after the artist’s death, at the age of 69.

Polke followed every thread and tried on every art trope. He is probably the most untethered and rule busting artist I know. The energy of his exploration is playful, but it is accompanied with a cold eye to the darker side of human nature and the world we have created. Polke “poured scorn on the idea of genuflecting before great art,” writes Smee. “An incessant, impulsive creator, he ridiculed our habit of revering artists or entering art galleries with earnest intent.”

The expansiveness and outward thrust of this extraordinary body of work is in high contrast to another artist I was reading about while I was in New York: Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). One of the most intimate of 20th century artists, Morandi’s oeuvre focuses almost exclusively on a very discrete number of objects that he rearranges repeatedly. He lived most of his life in Bologna with his mother and his sisters, teaching etching to make his way. He was introverted and private but not so isolated that he did not know about his contemporaries in Europe and the U.S. (He was interested in works by Rothko and Pollock.) He once said, “nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, that what we actually see. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, just the meanings we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.”

His approach is as far from Polke’s as you could possibly get. Where Polke is epic and expansive, Morandi is concentrated, quiet, personal and intimate. Polke experimented with every medium and form he could get his hands on, and Morandi stayed with his fascination for the arrangement of form and light in a simple still life. Polke’s humor and sardonic statements about art and the world require a willed detachment from the whole enterprise of art making. Morandi seeks a oneness with his vessels, working that connection over and over again. Yet both artists achieve an extraordinary expressiveness and are unforgettably forceful in their use of visual language.

My revisit with Morandi came through an essay about his work in the poet W. S. De Piero‘s collection of essays, When Can I See You Again? De Piero has long been one of my favorite poets who write about art (For other posts about him on Slow Muse, a list of links is below) and his description of Morandi’s work pulled me back into that world with just one read.

Here are a few passages that capture so much of what I love about Morandi’s work:

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He uses the material world to disclose the inner life, to get us to see into the secret lives of things and the instabilities of matter. The work scrutinizes in a visionary way the immaterial in the material. The pictures are extreme acts of attentiveness and can induce the kind of mania Ortega described when he wrote that a maniac (or lover) is somebody with an abnormal attention span.

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The paint can be alluvial, buttery, torpid or dashed, thinly whisked, nearly transparent. For years he ground his own pigment and returned all his life to variations on the a familiar range of tones, the sanded-down oranges, blushed umbers, and smoky maroons of Bologna’s walls.

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The modern sublime isn’t about magnitude or clarion ambition: it rubs perception so close to ordinary facts of physical reality that we feel pressed against a membrane that obscurely separates us from whatever lies on the other side, if there is another side. It intensifies and restores physical reality while suggesting something larger than consciousness. The frontal sensuous forms on a Morandi canvas induce an exhilarating anxiety about what’ unnameable and invisible but felt along the nerves.

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Morandi was the least performance-conscious of the great moderns. The only audience other than himself was the space between his eye and the canvas. And no modern more-or-less figurative artist so resists or shrugs off the use of words…Surrealism, Cubism, and Futurism make magpies of us, but his works don’t offer themselves up to words any more than Wallace Stevens’s poems offer themselves to illustration.

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Morandi’s chamber music of color harmonies, the degrees and directions of brushiness, the vibratory frequencies in and around objects—they don’t invite admiration, through they can charm us into casual awe. Modestly sumptuous to the eye, his art is tensely interiorized, it possess a reserve that puts us at a remove where we can observe the working relationship between the painter’s transformative eye and his silent sitters.

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He’s preoccupied not with liquidity and consistency but with what’s aspirated. He makes us see the ghost of a thing in a thing, as if he’s painting dark matter’s hues, a thing’s negative existence.

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Morandi’s art has everything to do with teasing out problems specific to the art, but one of its essential, sustaining pleasures is its comprehensive candor of presence (the studio paraphernalia expand and contract in a complex choreography of architectural or structural possibilities) blended with a humility that’s not reticence at all but something might and self-contained.

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Look long enough and the reappearing paraffin lamps, shells, Tin Man hats and the rest begin to feel like company. They were his company certainly, and they feel like they’re keeping us (and themselves) company…Their presence says: Recognize us, know us in order to know yourself.

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Giorgio Morandi (Photo: SIAE/Museo D’Arte Moderna E Contemporanea Di Trento E Rovereto)

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Other posts about De Piero:

Pitchers and Catchers
Whole Body Art
Hybrid Vigor
Matisse, Giotto and the Religious Imagination
Painting the Facelessness
Beyond Liturgy

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When I arrived in New York City in the early 70s—fresh from a very different cadence that was life on the Other Coast—my first roommate was another artist. George Wingate rented me my first berth on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for $87.50 a month, and we went on to become friends for life. He was studying with two larger-than-life teachers, Henry Pearson and Frank Mason, so many of my first friends in New York were artists I met through him. And it does not seem like a random event that both of us ended up leaving Manhattan and living out our lives in the Boston area. Our mutual geography has been fortuitous.

George has many talents, but lately he has been mastering the one day pop up exhibit. On Saturday in Gloucester he orchestrated his third event over the last few years. (Words and images about his previous two exhibits are posted here and here.) George’s sensibilities are quick, quirky and startlingly fresh. And while his work is uniquely and inviolately Wingatian, he also offers up a respectful nod to many of the artists we both love—Richard Tuttle, Barnett Newman, Lee Bontecou, John Cage, Joan Mitchell, among others.

Driving up to see this exhibit staged in an emptied 18th century space (The White-Ellery house is part of by the Cape Ann Museum), I listened to an entire episode of This American Life devoted to the tale of an abandoned house in Freedom New Hampshire. The storyteller was 11 years old when he first encountered it, and the house and the family who had abandoned it became an obsession and a haunted thread in his life and the lives of his friends. This hour long radio program was the perfect preamble to George’s very personal and provocative conversation with this aged and evocative structure, one that has had its own complex history. Demonstrating respect for the solemnity of its bare essence, George found a way to nudge, tease, prod and engage that structure into an adventure in looking and seeing.

This show had an extra feature that George has not explored in his two previous pop up exhibits: Sound. Sitting monk-like on the floor in an upstairs room, Gordon Williams was surrounded by simple tools for sounding, creating a backdrop of noises that were suggestive of “house language”: obscure knockings, cranked up hammerings, tinny creaks, all reminding us that every structure has a space and spirit of its own which sometimes comes with a soundtrack. This house, for one day, was given a playful festooning and memorable voicing that was both aural and visual.

This portfolio of images speaks best for yet another memorable Wingatian visual exposé.

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Detailed views of some recent paintings that I hope suggest a layered and complex reality

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Science has always wrestled with the idea of an immaterial will, or agency, at work in the universe, and for centuries it was thought to be expressed through the “laws of nature.” God might be dead, but he rules on, or so it was thought, through his immutable laws. It turns out, however, that those laws are at best crude averages, rough generalizations. Take a more fine-grained look, or develop more sensitive instruments, and things get more interesting. At the smallest, quantum, level, there are no laws at all, only probabilities. An electron can be here, there, or both places at once, very much as if it had a choice in the matter…A hint of—dare I say?—animism has entered into the scientific worldview. The physical world is no longer either dead or passively obedient to the “laws.”

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The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.

These two passages are from one of my favorite recent reads, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Living With a Wild God (which I wrote about in more detail here.) This book has been met with mixed reviews, and some of Ehrenreich’s longstanding fans of her approach—no bullshit, straight shooter—consider this book a wrong step into the mystical and the non-substantiated. For many, science is the religion of our era, and Ehrenreich has committed a heresy.

Whether the issue is science, politics, lifestyle, religious practice or art making, I am frustrated by the concept of dogma. There is not just one way to know or understand or do, and my inner agent provocateur gets called up when that is not acknowledged. Bring up the topic of crop circles or alien contactees around physicists and scientists, and they can’t depart your company fast enough. Once they are “Vaticanized” and ordained into their profession, spending any time in the mysterious (and at times mystical) fringe would be career suicide. Science has rules, regulations and practices, and if you break out you are marked.

And even though some have expelled Ehrenreich from the clan of the anointed, it may be that the reductionist/scientific stance is actually softening just a little. Ehrenreich describes how much the practice of science has changed over her lifetime, and her insights dovetail with those expressed by another scientist willing to step into the arena of the unanswered and unknowable, Alan Lightman. In his recent book, The Accidental Universe, Lightman (who is both a novelist and theoretical physicist) devotes an entire chapter to discussing what he terms the “spiritual universe.”

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We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

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There are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind…The strong sense of the infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal.

Lightman has been part of a group of scientists and artists (centered in and around Cambridge MA) who explore contrasting beliefs and disparate ways of knowing. He and his friends are “fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.”

His solution has been to distinguish between the physical universe—that “constellation of all physical matter and energy that scientists study”—and the spiritual universe, the territory of religion and the nonmaterial. “All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis,” he writes. “Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.” For Lightman, the distinction between the physical and the spiritual universes mirrors the essential tension of the personal and the impersonal. While the spiritual universe is perceived by many to hover out just beyond our personal being, the evidence of that universe is extremely personal.

The personal and the impersonal, the willingness to acknowledge a multiverse of more dimensions than we can see or measure—these are expansions in thinking that have import on more than just the practice of science. As Ehrenreich put is so eloquently, the playfulness appears to be unquenchable, dogma be damned.

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The Tempest, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge MA (Photo: A.R.T.)

Ah Prospero. You are my favorite character in all of Shakespeare! The masterful conjurings, the lonely exile, the fierce revenge still raging after twelve years away from the lost Dukedom of Milan, the Other embodied in ethereality and earthiness, the willingness in the end to forgive and forego—there are so many parts of his story that have resonance for me. Many have described Prospero as a primal symbol for the solitary (and often solipsistic) artist, and others see him as a particularly personal stand in for Shakespeare himself (it was the last play he wrote before returning to Stratford upon Avon, and he died just two years later). It is a poetic fantasy, and one that asks for us to step out of the world that we know and to enter into a phantasm of sprites, monsters, magic and manipulated nature.

A.R.T.’s new production of Prospero’s world, The Tempest, makes stepping out of our world and into another domain quite effortless. Aided by the skillful blending of what may seem like disparate themes—old time dustbowl carney shows, classical magic tricks (even cards!), the rough and tumble earthiness of Tom Waits’ music played by rough and tumble musicians, physical performers and Pilobolus-inspired acrobatism, staging in and off the proscenium—Prospero’s island laboratory of extraordinary powers invites us in and we are all his, ready to be enchanted.

Co-directors Aaron Posner and Teller (the quiet one from the Penn & Teller magic duo), have also blended their quite disparate visions of the play in a way that gives it a richly layered texture. For Posner The Tempest is a family play, with the island inhabitants of Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Caliban making up an odd but not unfamiliar version of the dysfunctional family. For Teller it is the magic, the thing he loves most in life. “How different Prospero is from typical fairy tale wizards,” Teller writes. “He doesn’t use spells and potions to affect the physical world. He creates shows, and those shows—’that insubstantial pagaent’—are his weapons. That makes him less like a warlock than like a stage magician.” But as Teller points out, Prospero gives it all up, the very thing that is so essential to his very being. And why? For the love for his daughter, Miranda. Which brings all the theatrics right back to Posner’s view of the play as a story about family.

Yes, the editing of the play has been generous, but I do not take issue with that. Purists are often offended by any prunings of the Bard’s original material. But many of us know this play well, and the well-placed nips and tucks hold this production together in a way that does not feel inadequate or abusive of its intent. And what performances! Nate Dendy‘s Ariel is the best I have ever seen—every move he makes is light as air, and in the end he disappears from the stage as if by magic(!)—plus a Caliban cobbled from two sets of bodies is unforgettable.

We all agreed we would love to see it again. But we would need some serious conjuring skills of our own to make that happen since every show is sold out for the rest of the run through June 15. Standing room, anyone?

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Magpie’s nest (Photo: Wire.com)

Last week I returned from a two week sojourn in the desert. Everything shifts around inside when I am in that landscape, and I have been gently allowing the ballast that balances me to settle into its new positions. Luckily I found the perfect companion for that subtle transition: Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich is a longtime hero of mine, a tireless advocate for humanitarian causes and most especially for those living at the fringe—she took several months out of her life to live and work as a minimum wage earner before writing about the absurd poverty of that life in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She can be relied on for consistently brilliant writing full of insightful—and often very necessary—jabs at issues that are important but often overlooked. Living With a Wild God is quintessential Ehrenreich but with a twist, one that swings in very close to the magpie’s nest of my own handcrafted reality, a collection of sinewy bits that have held true over a lifetime and are still deemed durable.

This book is a very personal account that plumbs Ehrenreich’s formative childhood and adolescence. Most particularly it is about an experience she had when she was 17 that was so inexplicably outside her cast iron atheist, “science can explain everything” upbringing that she buried it as a secret.

Over time however the events of her life worked it to the surface. When things were going well she could “handle a world without transcendence.” But when things began to fall apart, “the repressed began its inevitable return.” The frost heaves of 50 years forced her to come to terms with that experience and the implications of what happened to her on that day so long ago.

After a night of sleeping in her car while on a road trip with friends near Death Valley, Ehrenreich took an early morning walk by herself. Suddenly the world flamed into life. “Something poured into me and I poured out into it.”

Many of us would celebrate this unexpected revelation of the oneness of life, but Ehrenreich greeted the whole encounter with disdain. For her evidence-based scientific mind (she went on to get her PhD in cellular immunology), this was an aberration, something to be buried and forgotten. At that point in her life, she was unwilling and incapable of embracing anything that even remotely suggested a mystical experience.

But her older self eventually comes to see it in a different light. As is her nature, she sought for understanding by researching similar experiences. She discovers that encounters like these are more common than she had ever imagined. While many flatly dismiss these occurrences as a chemical imbalance in the brain or a form of mental illness, an older and wiser Ehrenreich does not find this to be an adequate explanation.

What nudged her into a more expansive view of what that experience could have been was her midlife immersion in nature. Describing an exquisite sunset seen from her home in the Florida Keys, she writes:

I came to think of it as the Presence, what scientists call an “emergent quality,” something greater than the sum of all the parts—the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way—that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other. There was nothing mystical about this Presence, or so I told myself. It was just a matter of being alert enough to put things together, to catch the drift. And when it succeeded in gathering itself together out of all the bits and pieces—from the glasslike calm of the water at dawn to the earsplitting afternoon thunder—-there was a sense of great freedom and uplift, whether on my part or on its.

She goes on to quote author Howard Bloom:

We have vastly underrated the cosmos that gave us birth. We have understated her achievements, her capacities, and her creativity. We’ve set aside will, purpose and persistence in a magic enclosure and have claimed that [they] do not belong to nature, they belong solely to us human beings.

Ehrenreich then adds this thought: “We have, in other words, made ourselves far lonelier than we have any reason to be.”

The values I was taught in my childhood were completely different from Ehrenreich’s. I came from a very confined and narrow religious tradition, full of constraints and limitations about how to live and what was possible. But underneath the restrictiveness was a foundation of numinousness. Mystical experiences were revered, and touching into the ineffable was sought after. While the via creativa was not encompassed in my religious upbringing, the numinousness at its core spilled over into my life as an artist. Uncertainty, ineffability, mystery, trust in the unseen and an easy comfort with what cannot be measured—all essential requirements for my process-driven kind of art making—are concepts that I learned from my religious heritage. While I found no reason to carry any of the theological trappings into my adult life, those fundamental qualities are hobbled into my magpie’s nest.

Ehrenreich’s family traditions were completely different, but we both have ended up with a similar view. Her final paragraph is a lovely tribute to her own journey and closely aligns with my way of seeing things:

Ah, you say, this is all in your mind. And you are right to be skeptical: I expect no less. It is in my mind, which I have acknowledged from the beginning is a less than perfect instrument. But this is what appears to be the purpose of my mind, and no doubt yours as well, its designated function beyond all the mundane calculations: To condense all of the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other or Others, not necessarily because we love it, and certainly not out of any intention to “worship” it. But because ultimately we may have no choice in this matter. I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.

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Pottery shards from a bygone era are everywhere along the upper mesa at Tsankawi

One of the best parts of visiting New Mexico is the rich mix of mark making. A sense of surfaces that have been touched is everywhere, some of it from human hands and some of it by other means. In a landscape that leans naturally into the minimalist and the contemplative, even the smallest gestures deserve attention.

So outdoors and in, alone and in company of friends, some great moments happened for me, extraordinary occasions for the eye to flood the interior landscape with a rare refulgence. That transformative experience—that “retinal flutter”—can and does happen everywhere that our engaged eyes travel. But there is something about the desert variety of those encounters that speaks personally and particularly to me. I have desert dirt in me, going back many generations, which is a handy explanation albeit an incomplete one.

A few highlights for those of you interested in the area of artmaking: Elmer Schooley (I have written about him previously here) has moments of brilliance that stand out from the rest of his work. The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art collection in Roswell has probably the most exquisite Schooley I have ever seen in person. Untitled, it alone justified the 3 hour drive from Santa Fe. Other worthy viewables in Roswell: Susana Jacobson (my old LES loft mate), Johnnie Winona Ross and Jean Promutico.

Between jaunts into the desert on my own, I visited the studios of several friends. Having time to sit with extraordinary work and to talk about this engagement that mutually fills our waking (and dreaming) consciousness was so memorable. These New Mexico-based artists are doing work that continues to inspire, engage and delight me:

Ciel Bergman
David Forlano
Diane McGregor

Special thanks to the inimitable Jill Fineberg who was an intrepid advocate and friend throughout my visit.

I am off again tomorrow, this time to DC to celebrate the wedding of my sweet niece Sarah Larsen (plus some time with my ever changing and ever engaging granddaughter Siena Wilcox), but I’ll be back to being Boston-based next week.

Schooley
Untitled, by Elmer Schooley

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Untitled (detail)

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Untitled (even closer in)

Ross
Johnnie Winona Ross at Anderson

Promutico
Jean Promutico at Anderson

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Susan Jacobson at Anderson

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The view of spaceship clouds from Tsankawi

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Surface of the water at the hot springs at Ojo Caliente

Earthship
The Earthship Biotecture near Taos

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More Earthship

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Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

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At Bitter Lake

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Aspens

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Desert wall

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Visiting Ciel Bergman’s studio (Photo: Jill Fineberg)

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