Nigrallenoborder
Nigralle, by Deborah Barlow
Mixed media on wood panel, 36 x 36″

kc_ny_2513
Circulation, by Kay Canavino
Digital Archival Print, 13 x 28″

4rc
Limantour, by Ramah Commanday
Ceramic, 18 x 21″

I’m so happy to be showing my work with two artist friends whose work I admire greatly, Kay Canavino and Ramah Commanday. The idea of exhibiting with them seemed so appealing to me several years ago, and now we have a show that will travel to several locations over the next few years. The first venue for UNDER, ABOVE, EVERYWHERE: CELEBRATING MATERIALITY, will be at the Christopher Brodigan Gallery at Groton School in Massachusetts. Details about the show are below as well as a brief description of the exhibit and the artists.

I love seeing my paintings in conversation with Kay’s other worldly photographs and Ramah’s earthy vessels. My only regret is that I will not be able to join in at the artist reception on April 17. I am needed in Italy where my new grandson Rhodes is making his way onto the planet. That is its own sacred celebration of materiality after all.

Show Description
The digital and the virtual have deeply penetrated contemporary culture and consciousness, often resulting a breezy disregard for the materiality that is so fundamental to life in the multiverse. The primary elements–air, space, water, minerals and fire, so essential to our sense of ourselves and the reality we share–are easily overlooked in the rush towards the sophisticated, the cerebral, the ephemeral. And yet materiality is the very counterpoint so desperately needed to bring a sense of balance to lives that are increasingly lived in artificial realities.

In this exhibit, three artists—a painter, a photographer and a ceramicist—comingle their individual methods and media to assemble a multi-dimensional celebration of the glorious materiality that is everywhere in the universe. Deborah Barlow engages with space and the atmosphere as a sourcebook for nonrepresentational paintings that speak to the expansiveness beyond the earth’s domain. Kay Canavino has developed an ingenious method of photographing the enigmatic and beguiling waterscapes that populate under the surface. Ramah Commanday constructs micro-geological worlds from clay, exploring how the processes of massive geological change—motion, heat, cooling—can be used to construct her planetary forms.

Together these artists invite the viewer to engage with the enchantment and the mystery of the under, the above, and the everywhere. This celebration of unabashed materiality—of our world as well as in each work of art—offers a rich reminder of what is essential to our nature.

Show Details
UNDER, ABOVE, EVERYWHERE: Celebrating Materiality
April 5 – May 22, 2016

Christopher Brodigan Gallery
Groton School
282 Farmers Row
Groton MA 01450
978 448 7637

Artist Reception: Sunday, April 17, 2-4pm

Gallery hours: Monday through Friday, 9-5

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abaloneshell
The cosmos suggested in the etchings on an abalone shell

In writing about inspiration and meditation, musician and performer Amanda Palmer described the conundrum posed by those two concepts:

The songwriter in me struggles like mad when meditating. The rules of my conditioned art-mind say that nothing must stand in the way of a developing idea. When inspiration calls, follow. If I should be struggling with anything in my life, it should be taking that impossibly disciplined step from thought to pen to paper, from seed to full song.

I watch this mental boxing match take place with interest. In one corner sits a meditator, who calmly suggests that good ideas will linger if they are worthwhile. And so what if they don’t? The songs are not happening; only sitting is happening. In the other corner paces the crazed composer with the mind specifically cultivated to jump from image to word to melody in an effort to create a work of art that will move her fellow humans.

A perfect song, to me, is a captured moment of inspiration barely touched. When a good idea hits, it’s as if I’ve thrown a set of colored juggling balls in the air and taken a blurred (yet beautiful) photograph. If I develop that photo unaltered, I will have a perfect image. If I am convinced that I can get a better photo (just a little better) by juggling again before it gets dark and the light changes, I’m screwed. This is where sitting and art-making go hand in hand. Spending hour after hour laboring on finding the perfect line or the perfect arrangement of notes is about as productive as wandering the world seeking the perfect tree under which you’ll find enlightenment.

Her image speaks to so many aspects of creativity: the mind engaged versus the mind emptied, how to hold those moments when lightning strikes, how diddling can wear away at what has its own raw power, the illusion that there is a better tree or a better road.

She completes her exploration with this understanding: “Creativity isn’t necessarily an obstacle to meditation but, rather, its fruit…The moment of divine inspiration may strike at any time; the true meditation is to have the power and clarity to decide when, where, how, and even if I want to be struck.”

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planet_earth_desktop_wallpaper-1

In one of the essays included in William Gibson‘s book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he refers to the “personal micro-culture” that every artist creates around herself. “We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction.”

That notion of a micro-culture extends beyond formative creativity and primal concepts like “anxiety of influence,” Harold Bloom‘s provocative theory about the poet’s need to break free of those who were most influential. It is a description that applies to so many aspects of our lives. We get pocketed into a particular strata with demographic, economic and social dimensions. We are taught and we are imbued—as if by osmosis—with ideas and beliefs that may or may not be well suited for us. But moving in and out of those micro-cultures isn’t a given.

Class consciousness—the English version—is a familiar and prevalent theme. The Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies), is full of the problematic dynamics of a blacksmith’s son becoming the powerul confidante to a king. As Downton Abbey’s run in the U.S. came to an end last week, the show’s upstairs/downstairs setting in the mid-1920s offered premonitions of changes coming to the old order. But as we all know, class consciousness is still very deeply in tact in the English culture.

A recent production of H.M.S. Pinafore performed by Chicago’s high energy theater company The Hypocrites (at the American Repertory’s Oberon Theater through March 20), is yet another story based on a theme of class. In typical Hypocrite deconstructionist style, the cast and audience are blended together, gender roles are switched, and the set is a pajama party with lots of pillows and a slide. Fun abounds in this production, but the us/them, high brow/low brow themes still echo from the play’s 19th century roots. The revelation of two babies switched at birth, one high-born and the other a commoner, puts everything back in its proper place. Tip top.

Of course it isn’t just the English who have a long tradition of exclusion and class consciousness. August Wilson‘s brilliant How I Learned What I Learned, a memoir in monologue, (at the Huntington Theater in Boston through April 3) is a piercing view into the striated society of Wilson’s childhood in the disadvantaged Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wilson goes beyond the personal to the larger arcs that impact our lives:

My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job. But since 1863, it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.

During a jarringly ugly political campaign season in the U.S., I keep asking what it will take to shift old patterns, to move away from the us/them dichotomy that underlies so much of the hate and rhetoric. Admittedly that is a question some would call naive. But it is larger than social systems, religion, race, economics. It speaks to what it will take to dismantle the crippling notion of separateness, from each other and from our planet. So that’s a question I will keep asking.

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vangoghbarcode
Advertisement seen in China last year

A few ideas have been perennially circulating in my thinking lately. One is that consensus reality is overrated. I am increasingly interested in connecting with what might be termed the invisible elements of life.

The other is that the perpetual 24/7 news cycle that permeates our lives is more destructive on our consciousness than we might suppose.

So when my friend Megan Hustad shared a link to this excerpt, by artist Carol Bove, from the book, Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, I was heartened to find similar sentiments beautifully expressed.

Carol Bove on art making and the concept of “time and information management:”

I started to adjust my thinking about productivity so that it was no longer valued in and of itself. It strikes me as vulgar always to have to apply a cost/benefit analysis to days lived; it’s like understanding an exchange of gifts only as barter…

And there was more to it than that: I was able to begin the process of withdrawal from my culture’s ideology around the instrumentality of time, i.e. that you can use time. I think the ability to withdraw from consensus reality is one of the most important skills for an artist to learn because it helps her to recognize invisible forces.

Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument. Time is part of what you’re made from. Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Everything that you do and think about is going to be in your artwork. The computer-science idea “garbage in, garbage out” applies to artists. This is something to consider when you’re choosing your habitual activities.

One question is, how do you create a way of being in the world that allows new things (ideas, information, people, places) into your life without letting everything in? I want to point out that your tolerance for media saturation might be lower than you realize. You need to conduct an open-ended search that doesn’t overwhelm you with information and at the same time doesn’t limit the search in a way that pre-determines your findings. That is a puzzle.

Like “chop wood, carry water,” Bove’s advice is about daily practice and an approach to living. And although this is stated simply, that doesn’t make it easy. Some codes are never completely cracked. We all just start from wherever we are.

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Times of Too Much

desert
Sometimes just the idea of empty is deeply soothing. (Mojave Desert)

Helpful thoughts when you’ve tipped into overload:

Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses…culling and surrender.

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time…Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”

It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to…If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

From a previous post featuring Linda Holmes’s piece, The Sad, Beautiful Fact the We’re all Going to Miss Almost Everything.

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Wolf-Hall-SFV-Icons-Cromwell_1920X1080
Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall,” brilliantly brought to life in the writing of Hilary Mantel (Photo: PBS)

I’m a passionate fan of Hilary Mantel‘s books, especially Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In a profile of the author by Larissa Macfarquhar that appeared in the New Yorker in 2012, Mantel’s way of working rings familiar:

Difficult as it is for her to be loose, it is even more difficult for her to be lazy; but that, too, is something she has had to learn to become, because the best ideas come to her when her mind is idle…

Some days, she acts busy to convince herself, even though it is the days when she makes not a single mark on the paper which yield weeks and weeks of work. It is very hard to cede control. “I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, What if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”

Mantel cuts to the core fear of the process-driven creative life:

You did nothing to deserve it.
You did nothing to contrive it.
It’s just there.
You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.

Trusting the process—and the mind set it requires—is a longstanding theme for me, as it is for many artists. How refreshing to encounter a similar point of view from Mantel, someone so masterfully linear in her ability to blend historical accuracy with storytelling brilliance.

The “pocketed” fear she has encountered is often subtle and transparent, but it can inflict, influence, derail, detract. A few phrases have steadied me over the years:

Stay in a state of wonder.
Sit quietly and listen.
Disengage from the concepts of success and failure.
Surrender control.
Love uncertainty and the unknown.
It’s about the work, not about you.

And posted here earlier but always worth a reread, this list was found in the papers of Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. (Spelling and capitalization are left untouched.)

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
6. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
7. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
8. Tolerate chaos.
9. Be careful only in a perverse way.

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Matale
Hindu temple in Matale, Sri Lanka

These last few weeks were spent in Oman, UAE and Sri Lanka. The ancient traditions—Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist—are deep and leave me feeling humbly outside a true understanding of these profound songlines. The eyes take it in, but they are just the first step in truly seeing.

Here are just a few images from this most recent journey.

SLbuddha
Buddha in the caves at Dambulla, Sri Lanka

GalVihara
Gal Vihara Buddha, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

SLH
Sita Eliya Temple, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. According to legend, this temple marks the spot where Sita (from the Ramayana) was held captive by her abductor, King Ravana. Some claim this is the only Sita temple in the world.

Dambulla
Cave sanctuary at Dambulla

Dambullawall
Wall paintings, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

Dambullarecline
Reclining Buddha, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

BuddhafeetA
Buddha’s feet, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Anuradhapurabotan
Botantically-inspired columns, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

monks
Monks at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

omanhilltopsettle
Ancient hilltop settlement, Oman

Smugglerscove
Smuggler’s Cove, Oman

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On Break

lights
Votive candles along a roadside, India

Some seasons are more afoot than others, and this is one of those. I’m in Asia again, returning on February 22.

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Making Space

studioat6am
Early morning light, South Boston

The ease of viewing contemporary work today is staggering. The steady flow of images on Facebook, Instagram and online art sites brings thousands of images from all over the globe into easy view every day. When I first started as an artist, new work came to me through two or three art publications, gallery visits or the occasional invitation to a friend’s studio. This change in exposure is exponential.

In all this art viewing, some work speaks to me and some does not. Often however I see new work that I admire, and at times my admiration can spill over into the personal, taking the form of comparing or self questioning: How does my work stack up? Is this better at doing what I am trying to do than my own?

For years I have been advocating the importance for an artist to possess a strong sense of self direction and clarity. It now seems that being connected to one’s essence is more important than ever. It is in that effort that I preserve my studio space as a barrage-free safe zone. Of course new ideas and approaches are constantly being explored, but bringing them into the process of my work is a delicate, alchemical thing. I have learned from experience that it must be done with care.

I thought about that as I read a short piece by Sarah Manguso, Green-Eyed Verbs, which recently appeared in the New York Times. (Her book, Ongoingness, knocked me out when I read it last year, written about here.). Her topic is the envy that writers (and by association, other creatives) harbor towards the work of others. As she did in Ongoingness, Manguso fearlessly turns us over for a ventral examination of those darker underbelly issues of life. In her hands that exposure isn’t harsh, hurtful or demeaning. It is more like a good scrub, a much needed grooming of that hidden side of us.

In her article she talks cuts through the admiration and envy to what really matters:

I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. This feeling depends on admitting to myself that I had an idea of how it should turn out, and that some part of me is trying to reverse-engineer the piece I admire. Some vocations demand this exact strategy: Builders, surgeons and chefs must do this. Writers, though, must not. Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it. That effort is practiced in a place typically insulated from even the idea of publication, and it depends upon a combination of exerting and relaxing one’s will over the writing.

The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

It’s a simple test, and it brings me back around to my own grounded place.

Surrounded as we are by great works—languaged, visual, aural, all of it—we do need a tool or aid that can help us hold the balance between admiration of others and devotion to our own work. “The way to honor great work is to love it, then turn away from it as you write,” Manguso advises. “No imitation, no pastiche.”

She goes on:

All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility. And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.

“Allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.” A beautiful description of humility.

And humility is, as my regular readers know, a favorite theme. A search on that term produced a list of nearly 20 previously written posts. So here’s one more.

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Full Brow

0808_160116_ARTNiceFishDress_0
Jim Lichtscheidl, Louis Jenkins, Mark Rylance, and Kayli Carter in Nice Fish. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The term highbrow was first used in the late 19th century, a reference to the arcane practice of phrenology. In this head measuring methodology, people of intelligence were believed to have a higher brow line. While phrenology was eventually discarded as pseudoscience, “brow-ness” continued as shorthand for measuring artistic and cultural sophistication.

That stratification began being actively dismantled 30 years ago (with books by Lawrence Levine, Peter Swirski, John Seabrook, among others) and those distinctions have melted away. Art making, music, theater, writing have all increasingly pulled in resources from every end of the creative spectrum.

From his New York Times piece, Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow — Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore?, Thomas Mallon put it this way:

The sheer availability of so much art, its ubiquity in the wide, wireless world of the present, assures that more and more blends and mash-ups and integrations are bound to occur. To some extent, people used to settle on a brow for themselves and then pattern their reading and viewing and listening accordingly. Increasingly, art at all levels now comes to us, seizes our attention for a few digital moments before being elbowed aside by something else. More catholic tastes seem bound to result from more catholic exposure, our brows raising and lowering themselves like a spreadable iPhone photo. (Of course, Shakespeare’s audience never had trouble doing that in the course of a single evening, laughing at rustic horseplay and thrilling to lyrical declamations in the same production.)

Two theatrical events in Boston this past week speak to that browlessness. One is a playful and inventive “adaptation” of Twelfth Night performed by London’s Filter Theatre at ArtsEmerson. This muscular and well-honed ensemble takes a Shakespeare favorite and turns its underbelly to the upside. The set looks like a disordered recording studio, and the staging appears casual, disengaged and haphazard. Inspired by Virginia Woolf‘s claim that the play “seems to tremble perpetually on the brink of music,” sound becomes the essential through line. I’ll never see Twelfth Night the same again.

The other is Nice Fish, at American Rep. A collaboration between actor/director Mark Rylance and Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish has just one stage set: out on the ice. Rylance and co-star Jim Lichtscheidl play two ice fishing friends who, as they tend to their fishing rods, talk about their lives. Their words are primarily prose poems by Jenkins. Buried in the commonplace of Jenkins’ everyday speech are larger questions. But the transcendent sense of things is subtle and mostly stays below the surface, much the way the life teeming under the ice is implied and only occasionally exposed.

Nice Fish feels like a blend of a whole bunch of memes most of us recognize—the existentialist stupor of Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot, the wacky but endearing quirkiness of the Coen BrothersFargo (both the movie and spin off television series), the simple truths in the everyday of Thorton Wilder‘s Our Town, the Midwestern self-parody of Garrison Keillor‘s A Prairie Home Companion, the All-American réalité of Cowboy Poetry and poetry slams.

But Nice Fish is more than an assemblage of contemporary cultural reference points. Having been trimmed down and tightened up after its earlier run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the play achieves a memorable balance between the light and the heavy, the silly and the serious, the mundane and the poetic. A tangible air of affection for the material permeates the production. Rylance and Jenkins both have connections to the Midwest—in spite of Rylance’s “veddy English” reputation—and they have become good friends during the process of working on the play (Rylance has famously recited Jenkins prose poems as his acceptance speeches at several award ceremonies). Even Jenkins himself comes on stage to play a role. What’s more, the play is directed by Claire Van Kampen, Rylance’s wife. Nice Fish is unpretentious, made by hand (a high compliment in the art making world) and sticks to the ribs.

Rather than the popular brow-busting term nobrow, I prefer thinking of Nice Fish—and other artistic efforts that draw from a wide range of influences—as full brow: something for everyone.

Here’s a sampling of Jenkins’ sensibilities:

The Afterlife
by Louis Jenkins

Older people are exiting this life as if it were a movie…”I didn’t get it,”
they are saying.
He says, “It didn’t seem to have any plot.”
“No.” she says, “it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused…and there was way too much sex and violence.”
“Violence anyway,” he says.
“It was not much for character development either; most of the time
people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who.”
“The whole thing lacked subtlety.”
“Some of the scenery was nice.”
“Yes.”
They walk on in silence for a while. It is a summer night and they walk
slowly, stopping now and then, as if they had no particular place to go.
They walk past a streetlamp where some insects are hurling themselves at the light, and then on down the block, fading into the darkness.
She says, “I was never happy with the way I looked.”
“The lighting was bad and I was no good at dialogue,” he says.
“I would have liked to have been a little taller,” she says.

________
Note to potential theater goers: This isn’t a fast-moving, laugh-a-minute kind of play. One friend saw it when she was jet lagged and had a hard time staying engaged. It is best seen when you are rested and relaxed so the pleasures can be found in this slower paced, pared-down production.

Twelfth Night is at the Paramount Theater in Boston until January 30. Nice Fish is at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge through February 7.

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