Art Making

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Eliasson at work (Photo: Nigel Shafran)

Over the last eight years, Slow Muse has been my way of advocating for the experience—and the making—of art that is earnest and sincere. In many ways this is a kind of “outsider” positioning, one that has sidestepped the predominant and pervasive zone of irony the way non-pedigree outsider artists have sidestepped traditional academic art training.

But when someone with the stature and recognition factor of Olafur Eliasson takes up the cause—”Is irony really the economy I want to support?” he asks—it does add weight to the cause.

A recent article about Eliasson appeared in the New York Times’ T Magazine (their “Style” publication…OK, yes, I am sensing your smirk) by Ned Beauman is full of so many great quotes. So whether coverage of Eliasson belongs in the style section or not, I’m going with a win/win.

Here’s a few, each one a gem:

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If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world…Irony is almost always a safe bet here [in Berlin], not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.

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There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.

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And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving…“After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”

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“If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”

(To my Italian friends, sorry about the hard knocks on doing anything in Italy…)

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If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better.

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For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness.

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“People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”

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“When Pressure Exceeds Weight VI,” by Richard Tuttle (2012) (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Universal Limited Art Editions)

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“In Praise of Historical Determinism I, II, III,” by Richard Tuttle (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Brooke Alexander)

Richard Tuttle: A Print Retrospective at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is a sophisticated, intelligent, inventive, provocative and exuberant exploration of over 40 years’ worth of printmaking by one of the great living artists of our time. Famously gifted in an ability to see around, under and behind a thing in a way that repeatedly surprises and delights those of us who follow his work closely, Richard Tuttle is the perfect candidate to playfully dismantle the tradition-bound world of printmaking. This show upends the orthodoxy of woodcuts, wood engravings, lithography, intaglio, colographs and monoprints, and the results reveal a great deal about Tuttle’s artistic practice and the way he thinks.

I have been a Tuttle fan most of my art making life. His show at the Whitney Museum in 1975 took place right after I arrived in New York City from California, and it was one of those life changing experiences for me. Controversial and bravely stated, that show cost curator Marcia Tucker her job. But it also gave many of us a paragon for how the visually playful and simple can express an Eastern philosophical sensibility—demonstrated simply by a nailed segment of white twine that took stewardship of an entire wall. Tuttle’s work has spoken to me directly and personally ever since. (A list of previous Slow Muse posts about Tuttle is included below.)

Since that show in 1975 there have been many other exhibits, most recently the massive retrospective mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2005 (which, in a sweet coming full circle, also made its way to the Whitney.) In many ways however this show at Bowdoin offers even more transparency into Tuttle’s work than the others. With over 100 pieces on display, you are able to track his tireless eye and perpetually investigative mind at work.

This exhibit exposes in meticulous detail how Tuttle breaks things down, the way he pulls something wide open and then allows another something quite exquisite to emerge from the most unexpected shards of that dismantling. An early woodcut was created using magic markers. A series of intaglio prints incorporates the ubiquitous tarlatan (the special cloth traditionally used to carefully wipe ink from a plate) as a tiny grid matrix that is brought into the composition as an unexpected flourish. Plates are cut into shapes and the edges become lines in the composition. Paper pulp and other elements go into the press along with the plate, sometimes squeezing out the sides and extending the shape outside the familiar rectilinear form. This isn’t a slackerish disregard for technique but an exuberant celebration of pressing and pressure, another way to extend the dimensions and capabilities of the printing press itself.

The curatorial text is very well done. Unlike the common proclivity to “explain” the art and to dumb things down to the lowest common demoninator, the wall words in this exhibit are respectful, informed and enhancing. Thank you for that curators Christina von Rotenhan and Joachim Homann.

Does a trip to Maine need additional incentives? I think not!

The show, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine (about a 2.5 hour drive from Boston), is on view through October 19, 2014.

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More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Vogel 50 x 50

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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Louise Nevelson (Photo: Nancy R. Schiff—Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I long ago took the position that giving advice is a fool’s errand, especially with artists. My personal MO is right in line with the lyrics from Willie Nelson‘s recently released song, Band of Brothers:

We are a band of brothers and sisters and whatever,
On a mission to break all the rules.
I know you love me cause I love you too,
but you can’t tell me what to do.

Not believing in advice doesn’t mean I’m not curious about how others go about fulfilling their mission of breaking all the rules however. I am actually quite fascinated by how many ways there are to be a transgressive which, at our core, most artists are.

Two books, one by a poet and one by a sculptor, crossed my path this week. Both are memoirs that offer the expected reflective, confessional and personal accounting of a life. But that’s where the similarities end.

What Poets are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life, by Gary Soto, is a beguiling, funny, self-mocking account of life as a not Name Brand poet.

From a review in the Chicago Tribune:

Soto, the child of working-class Mexican-Americans, has not had an undistinguished poetic career. He has won awards and fellowships, been nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (He’s also the author of several successful books for children and young adults.) But “What Poets Are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life,” a loose collection of mostly autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes, is full of genial self-mockery. He tallies his rejection letters, jokes about not getting grants, laments his sales figures, gets depressed when he sees his books (inscribed by him, no less) in used bookstores, writes that he doesn’t translate more often “for I possess only talent enough to bungle my own poems.” He describes reading at a Barnes & Noble to an audience consisting of a single member who listened to a single stanza before waving his hand and saying “Stop, stop, I’ll buy the book.” This is endearing but overfamiliar. If you’ve heard anything about poets in America, it’s probably that they are unknown and unread, except by other poets and perhaps a few freaks on the fringes.

With his easy in/easy out short fiction form, Soto talks with candor about the ignominy of being overlooked, under appreciated, unrewarded and feeling just plain left out and left behind. Which are all feelings with which every artist I know—be they poets or musicians or visual artists—is intimately familiar. Soto is dogged by the specter of being rejected by yet another obscure Midwest journal, being invited to read and no one showing up, or being asked the dreaded question, “Where do you get your ideas?” (We all have our list of those painful occupational rites of passage that don’t deliver on the passage, just the pain.) Soto has found a sweet spot between the gentle insouciance and lightheartedness that are his nature and the intense desire he also possesses to have his work read, appreciated and admired. The humor and self-mockery are his survival skills.

Soto’s little book is about a 1/4th the size of another artist’s memoir: Louise Nevelson‘s Dawns + Dusks: Conversations with Diana MacKown. Famously self-confident, supremely brash and direct, Nevelson was born with a sense that it was her destiny to be famous and very successful, both of which she was.

John Canaday shares this anecdote in his introduction:

One woman asked Louise if she would have felt that her life had been well spent—if she would have felt sufficiently rewarded for a life in art—if the recognition had never come…”if it had turned out that after all you weren’t first-rate.” Louise paused for a moment, puzzled (not typical of her). Other artists of the kind called “dedicated” would have answered, “It would still have been worthwhile,” which I suspect is what the questioner wanted to hear. But Louise finally said, “It never occurred to me to be anything else.”

The transcripts that form the text of this book are full of Nevelsonisms: “I was very sure of what I was doing. I believed in myself and I was utterly satisfied with what I believed in. I wasn’t going to let a soul on earth judge my life.” “I don’t want the safe way. The safe way limits you.” “I wanted one thing that I thought belonged to me. I wanted the whole show.” “I believed in my work and the joy of it. You have to be with the work and the work has to be with you.” Her sense of herself and her work is staggeringly clear.

No one can parse the formula behind Nevelson’s bravado and extraordinary career. Surely it is a blend of genius, guts, hard work, timing, and the secret ingredient in any successful venture, luck. But the mantra still stands, no matter who you are: Nobody can tell you what to do.

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Tiruchchirappalli, India

This year we celebrated Easter with friends from Athens. While a whole lamb turned slowly on a spit, the table was loaded up with fresh bread, olives from the family vineyards back home, and copious bowls of salads and vegetables. It was sumptuous and unforgettable, rendered with the mastery that comes with having been repeated over and over for years.

I have consciously shed most of the rituals that were part of my upbringing, but I am moved and drawn to the rituals of others. During a month long visit to Southern India a few years ago, we spent much of our time at ancient Hindu sites. Most temples welcome non-Hindus, so we were able to watch and sometimes participate in the ablutions, the music and the blessings that have been carried out in just that way for hundreds of years. The meaning for me as an outsider will always be different than it is for a believer, but it is still meaning, it is still a connection with something powerful and moving.

Some consider interest in other religious traditions to be a kind of spiritual consumerism, a superficial supermarket approach to seeking and meaning. But that isn’t the way I see it. When we walk through a museum, objects call to us. Regardless of their origin or history, they draw us to them. They are still speaking, with or without the context that produced them. No one tradition owns them.

The poet Carolyn Forché spent a good deal of time in her life exploring many religious traditions. In her essay, “Infinite Obligation to the Other”, (in A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler) she describes herself as a syncretist, someone who “does not attempt to resolve contradictions between spheres of faith and belief.”

There is a difference, I hope, between syncretism and dilettantism. I would just play around; I would splash and play in the fields of spiritual thought—read the Zen sutras, and then jump off a cliff into the arms of something about the Dharma, and then go back to reading the Bible, and then have a certain dalliance with Judaic thought. I was always enchanted. I was always in awe of these texts. If I did this as a practice of lectio divina, I could experience these different fruits of human experience of God, without feeling there was a contradiction between them. We all get to be many people, because everything is very protean. Spiritual life is protean, too. That’s why you can’t ever really feel accomplished spiritually, because in a second, you know–you’re not. Everything is changing so rapidly.

In our culture, says Forché, spirituality is as misunderstood as poetry. “It goes unrecognized.” But the connection between the two is real for her. Forché speaks to how that connection happens in poetry (and for many of us who are in artistic endeavors as well):

The thing about writing poetry is that the more you’re there working, the more you’re there writing, the more you realize you are not writing it. The little threads and weavings that come into the poem—one is not consciously aware of these things, because something larger is working in you. This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language.

At the end of her essay, Forché quotes Emanuel Levinas: “Artistic activity makes the artist aware that he is not the author of his works.” Which is, in my view, an exquisite truth.

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Shadows on my studio wall

When artist Robert Knafo wrote to request a studio interview with Robert Morris, this was the response he received back. Knafo describes this as the best No he ever received. “I love how he calmly shoots the art documentary cliches, holsters his gun, and walks away,” Knafo wrote. “Thank you Robert for making me think again about what I’m doing.”

I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made half a century ago. Minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made yesterday. Contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art—either mine or others past or present–which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists or art historians about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of speaking. It is possible that I was led into art making because talking and being in the presence of another person were not requirements. I do not want to be asked my reasons for not having worked in just one style, or reasons for any of the art that got made (the reason being that there are no reasons in art). I do not want to answer questions about why I used plywood, felt, steam, dirt, grease, lead, wax, money, trees, photographs, electroencephalograms, hot and cold, lawyers, explosions, nudity, sound, language, or drew with my eyes closed. I do not want to tell anecdotes about my past, or stories about the people I have been close to. I refuse to speak of my dead. The people to whom I owe so much either knew it or never will because it is too late now. I do not want to document my turning points, high points, low points, good points, bad points, lucky breaks, bad breaks, breaking points, dead ends, breakthroughs or breakdowns. I do not want to talk about my methods, processes, near misses, flukes, mistakes, disappointments, setbacks, disasters, obsessions, lucky accidents, unlucky accidents, scars, insecurities, disabilities, phobias, fixations, or insomnias over posters I should never have made. I do not want my portrait taken. Everybody uses everybody else for their own purposes, and I am happy to be just material for somebody else so long as I can exercise my right to remain silent, immobile, possibly armed, and at a distance of several miles.

Some find this to be an unduly aggressive response. Others have pointed out that it speaks to the luxury of being an artist who is so famous he can do whatever he wants. All true. But the appeal for me is something deeper.

My fundamental experience has been that much of what makes art so compelling and important cannot be languaged or articulated. And shouldn’t. That isn’t a notion that is necessarily in fashion right now. As John Seed pointed out in his piece, I Don’t Deconstruct, this unwillingness may be the result of my coming of age when spontaneity and engaging with the ineffable were in vogue. Those art school values have been replaced with a deconstructionist/postmodern/intellectual approach to art making, all of it very language dependent.

From Seed’s article:

Being able to “deconstruct” requires speaking and understanding a certain type of language, and subscribing to certain intellectual theories. People who are comfortable deconstructing converse in a language I call “artspeak.” Artspeak is—for contemporary artists, curators and critics—what Latin was for Medieval priests: an esoteric language that separates and elevates.

Some art lends itself to talk, talk, talk. And that verbally enhanced visuality can be stimulating. But Morris’ list of things he will not do marks off a territory where engagements with visuality are free to be unexpected, compelling and mysterious. Much of the “retinal flutter” (Marcel Duchamp‘s term, originally coined as a pejorative but my favorite phrase to describe those transcendent moments) will continue to exist outside a languaged explanation. That flutter is ambient in its natural state, always a bit furtive and endlessly undefined.

(Thank you Mira Schor for sharing this memorable Morris-to-Knafo response.)

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An angled view of a new piece, “Mangalat”

Kathleen Kirk’s post, “Persistence and Patience”, is a thoughtful description of how she ended up, after several career explorations, being a poet. In her graceful telling, she describes her many forays into other creative fields—music, art, theater, teaching—but none of them evoked the necessary persistence and patience in her that is needed to keep the passion fed and fueled when the work is hard and the way is difficult. Once you find your métier, something shifts. When you are wired for sound, you just have to let go.

I found Kirk’s point of view resonant with my own experience:

I get rejected, accepted, and published all because I am patient and persistent. I have lived through various “trends” in writing, waiting patiently until the thing I do can be appreciated and accepted once again. Beauty has gone out of fashion, and come back. “Nature poems” have been despised, but now everyone is “going green.” Some people equate simplicity of language with simplistic thought, and thus ignore me, while I have always found that the most complex thinking usually requires the greatest clarity of statement. I am not a flashy poet, nor a trendy or political poet. I write about what goes on around me, and inside me.

Paul Auster has said, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.” I am committed to walking this long, hard road and have been on it, in my meandering way, for quite a lovely while.

[The text in this post is from the Slow Muse archives, originally published in 2012.]

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“Ekka,” a newly completed painting (33 x 47″). An art collector had this to say when she stopped by my studio recently: “Lately I have wanted to just quietly commune with a work of art. I am not interested in deciphering references or spending time getting the inside jokes. I just want to find a work that I can sit with alone in silence and feel a connection.” What a heartening thing to hear and very close to the way I choose the art that I want to look at every day.

Theater director extraordinaire Anne Bogart recently wrote a post, Direct Encounter, about attending a theater conference where a young presenter announced that she would not be using PowerPoint in her talk. Bogart was thrilled to hear this young woman declare that she and her generation were moving away from PowerPoint lectures because they understood how much more effective it is to speak directly to an audience.

The bullet points, charts and graphs that fill those dreadful and horribly overused PP decks (and which led to the infamous phrase, “Death by PowerPoint”) actually activate a very small part of the brain, in particular the areas that process language. When you watch a PowerPoint presentation, your brain shuts down its other functionalities.

How different things are when you use metaphor, storytelling, and emotional exchange, says Bogart. “Stories are journeys of the mind that provide the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. If I can engage a person’s imagination, I will have managed to link our brains one to the other. Our brains are synchronized. We are literally sharing brain activity.”

While Bogart makes her case for the full-bodied richness of the theatrical experience, her pitch is an articulate advocacy for direct encounters in every field of artistic expression. Because so much creative expression now is excessively curated and over-mediated, getting to an authentic, unmediated place requires conscious effort.

Case in point, Bogart shares this anecdote:

In Paris, in 1971, writer Deirdre Bair met with Samuel Beckett to request permission to conduct extensive interviews with him for what would become a definitive biography about the playwright. Beckett granted Bair consent but on the condition that she not tape-record their conversations or even take notes while together. Bair agreed nervously. During their nearly three hundred interviews, she listened closely to Beckett who described countless details about his life and work. Then she rushed back to her hotel room to quickly tape-record her memories of Beckett’s words that day. From this she constructed a readable and consequential biography published in 1978.

Perhaps Beckett understood that an unmediated connection between Bair and him would reap more riches than standard interview techniques that depend upon recording and recounting. Perhaps he trusted the event of their human connection from moment to moment more than any act of reported facts. Perhaps what happened between them, together with Bair’s reconstructed memories of their direct encounters, is what makes her biography of Beckett successful and interesting.

While the visual arts occur in a domain that exists outside the spoken/written language zone—for the most part— other factors obscure connection in that world as well. Exclusivity, self-referentiality, meta meanings and other obscurant scrims can make it difficult to achieve that direct encounter Bogart speaks about. Many an eager and open viewer has left an exhibit feeling exempted and alienated from work that appears to be the exclusive province of a limited and rarefied cognescenti.

The solution is not to dumb down a body of work with languaged explanations. Simplification of that nature flattens the potent and richly layered experience that the visual can offer, stripping it of its unique potential for mystery and evocation. The best solution is a two fold one, where both the maker and the viewer take a step towards each other in that numinous space that exists between them.

Some will find this to be nothing more than an idealistic notion. But I don’t see it that way. I have been an artist for a long lifetime, but I still have to work at being an open and trusting viewer. It is easy to fall into suspicion and cynicism, wary of being manipulated or played. As an artist and as a viewer of art, it is a daily discipline to speak it true, to get as close to that direct encounter as I possibly can. It’s a skill set, not a given.

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Detail from one of my recent painting series, “Angaris”

I recently found two statements about painting by Australian artist Helen Johnson that were very resonant for me. While Johnson’s work has identifiable content, her approach and attitudes are aligned with my work as a non representationalist.

First, her description of painting from a roundtable about painting in Frieze Magazine:

Painting is a space for the critical deployment of ambiguity, wit, failure and unknowing. Being a painter today doesn’t mean seeing painting as some kind of anachronistic refuge, or thinking that the modernist project of the medium can be rehabilitated, or even continue to be flogged. I am interested in the complexities, loadings and problems of painting as devices for producing meaning today, informed by a new range of conditions. I am not interested in using painting to defend itself, make statements or draw conclusions, but to open spaces for reflective thought, where a multiplicity of positions can be recognized, particularly as a means of resisting the imposition of a fixed narrative.

This passage is from Johnson’s artist statement which is so much better than most efforts in that category of writing about art that is often so tired and trite. I really like her directness and her awareness of contemporary contexts:

Painting serves as the primary ground of my practice, though the approaches I take seek an understanding of painting as a loaded medium operating on new terms in a post-medium condition…Painting is an interesting vehicle for me because it is loaded, neurotic, problematised, a market force, scattered, essentialised and recomplexified, loathed, able to operate simultaneously within and beyond itself, able to be beautiful and horrible at the same time. My approach to painting divagates from a grounding in figuration in search of a space of pluralism and openness, where the privilege of the subject becomes slippery. A gesture, alive in one painting, might be deadened through mechanised replication in the next…Construct and intuition ask questions of one another. The space of painting is for me a space where seemingly incontrovertible things are constantly being reconsidered, put into new relations with other things, where slippage is always present. In this regard it is a useful space for thought.

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Blade, 6 x 7″, egg tempera on calfskin parchment by Altoon Sultan

Wonder, to preserve itself, withdraws. It withdraws from the mind, from the willing mind, which would make of mystery a category.

I remember being told a story about an old culture that believed the center of the forest was holy and could not be entered into. Even in the heat of the hunt, should the chased beast enter into the sacred center, the hunter would stop and not pursue. I think often about that line—which is not a line in any definite sense, is no certain marking, but rather is itself somehow without definition, a hazy line, a faulty boundary—that marks the periphery. One side of the line is the daily world where we who have appetites must fill our mouths, we who have thoughts must fill our minds. The other side is within the world and beyond, where appetite isn’t to be sated, where desire is not to be fulfilled, and where thoughts refuse to lead to knowledge. I like the moment of failure that finds us on that line, abandoned of intent, caught in an experience of a different order, stalking the line between two different worlds and imperfectly taking part in both. Such a place risks blasphemy at the same time that it returns reverence to risk.

–Dan Beachy-Quick

Poet Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book, Wonderful Investigations: Essays, Meditations, Tales is full of explorations around edges, boundaries and the invitation to cross over and into. Referencing Plato’s definition of a line as a point that flows, Beachy-Quick hopes that the reader of his book may find that point and “follow it as it flows toward that edge where the margin becomes a center, and the end of the book the hazy border to the wonder-world.”

How eloquent a description, and one that describes just what I hope happens when people invest the time to look at and be with my work. Once again I bow in appreciation to a poet’s ability to penetrate an experience I can feel but find difficult to articulate with words.

This concept also reminded me of one of my favorite posts by friend and artist Altoon Sultan on her always excellent blog, Studio and Garden, called The Burden of Content (which I recommend reading in its entirety.) She begins the post with this description of her own evolution as an artist:

Someone recently asked me why I’d stopped doing complex landscape paintings; I answered that I wanted to get closer to 20th century reductive abstraction, which I love. But that’s only part of the story: I also wanted to get out from under the heavy burden of content, the meaning––environmental, sociological––of those paintings. So this post is meant to tell the story of my journey, and it is related to my recent posts on William Carlos Williams, “no idea but in things”, and John Singleton Copley, “The Primacy of the Object”.

Altoon shares how her intentions and style of art making have moved over time. Starting with her early “‘portraits’ of domestic architecture” that expanded into an interest in larger agricultural landscapes, her focus just keeps morphing. Her eye moved in closer, and she became compelled by the very stuff of agriculture—the machinery, the implements, the silage. “I began to feel hemmed in by my content; what had motivated me before—the difficult environmental and social issues around farming—became extraneous to my concerns, which were formalist,” she writes.

And her final paragraph:

In 2010 I began to paint very small works on parchment; their compositions have become quite simple and direct….”no ideas but in things”….and the things are in themselves enough. I still find my subjects in agricultural implements; they have such variety of shape and color that they are of continual interest to me. But I don’t expect any story beneath them, any social/historical/environmental content; there is enough meaning and feeling and mystery in color/shape/form/light/composition.

Meaning and content are usually such loaded issues in the visual arts. Altoon’s ability to speak with such directness and honesty about her own experience of working through these issues is so refreshing, particularly with a topic that is usually fraught with equivocation and complexity. And where her work has taken her continues to be a wonder-world for me.

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A Truing of Vision

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The round object above is a Moroccan hand made drum given to me by my friend John Wyrick. It had one slight tear near the edge when I brought it into my studio several years ago. With time two fissures began to make their way slowly across the taut animal hide, following no pattern I would have expected. This self manifested morphing drum has become a talisman and reminder for me to let things choose their own direction. (The small painting next to the drum had such an unexpected resonance with the surface marks that I hung them next to each other for several months.)

They say it better than I can, those poets who who are willing to write or speak about the creative process. These quotes are from an interview with Jane Hirschfield* in Psychology Today:

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It may be that some other writer is quite unlike me: reckless, feckless, undefended, fearless before joy and grief, pain and incertitude. For this writer I am now imagining, words come easily, perhaps to the point of glibness. For her or him, poetry will serve in other ways. Art’s marrow-request for shapeliness, particularity of experience, arc, may be what is useful. The increase of density and saturation that poetry requires may be what is useful.

What we want from art is whatever is missing from the lives we are already living and making. Something is always missing, and so art-making is endless.

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I’m not saying that art is a matter of beauty, solace, or calmness, though it can be, and that can be welcome. I’m not saying that art is about rectification of character or making visible the existence of injustice, though it can be, and that can be welcome. I suppose I’m saying that good art is a truing of vision, in the way that a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. And that anything that lessens our astigmatisms of being or makes more magnificent the eye, ear, tongue, and heart cannot help but help a person better meet the larger decisions that we, as individuals and in aggregate, ponder.

That the rearrangement of words can re-open the fate of both inner and outer worlds—I cannot say why I feel this to be true, except that I feel it so in my pulses, when I read good poems.

These words are earnest, vulnerable and ring so true for me. My time in the studio is silent time, but the conversations going on inside mirror Hirschfield’s words. Her “truing of vision” is a phrase that describes the many tiny steps, the hours of looking, the need to just be with a work as it evolves. “Art’s marrow-request for shapeliness, particularity of experience, arc, may be what is useful.”

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*More from Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

Spirit and Body

(Thank you Maureen Doallas for flagging this interview.)

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