A few weeks ago I posted a review of a new book on Slow Painting, Spiral Jetta by Erin Hogan. And now that I’ve finished reading the book I can recommend it without reservation to anyone who has interest in contemporary art, particularly land art, and who would enjoy a thoughtful adventure served up in a particularly sassy fashion.
Hogan’s writing style is a lively combination of the self-effacing humor of a David Sedaris with the thoughtful insights of a Suzi Gablik. Having made the pilgrimage to most of the land art sites that Hogan visits in her book, I loved retracing my steps with her. My regular readers know how passionately I love Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, so of course I loved every description of the treacherous dirt roads, the primal sense of pilgrimage, the difficulty of traveling in unmarked territory where getting lost and never being heard of again feels very real at times. Her gift of self-deprecating humor keeps the entire art road trip narrative engaging, and her sharp mind makes the journey meaningful to the reader who is traveling with her vicariously.
Here are a few passages that stood out for me:
I walked into the spiral and back out of it. I lay down in the center of it. I crisscrossed its rings, I crouched down and tasted the salt. I looked around, still overwhelmed by the work’s nonmonumentality. I tried to experience it physically, without processing it through any art-historical filter. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t separate my encounter with Spiral Jetty from the reading and thinking I had done about art of this era, by now deeply entrenched in my reptile brain. Trying to consider this object in isolation, to bypass art history, was like trying to knock an irritating song out of my head. I only managed to turn up the volume. It was with this force that the views of critics and historians crowded into my consciousness.
Like anything good and complex, Spiral Jetty can be thought of in many different ways. As lame as it sounds, those “ways” came down to two for me: space and time. Not small topics, I realize. But Spiral Jetty beautifully and subtly distills its experience into those fundamental categories…
Being at Spiral Jetty engendered in me a sense of articulated space, one that wasn’t alienating because it was marked by mountains, edges, colors, which together staved off the disorientation I associate with open, ungridded space, like being on a sailboat at sea…the space is elemental and understandable, only a little overwhelming, and deeply inspiring.
Smithson’s essay on the Spiral Jetty reads like a stoner’s manifesto, all over the map and deeply profound: he hits Brancusi’s sketcch of James as a “spiral ear”; he talks about lattices, a sense of scale that “resonates in the eye and the ear at the same time,” a “reinforcement and prolongation of spirals that reverberates up and down space and time.” Taking a breath, he concludes, “So it is that one ceases to consider art in terms of an object.”
And I finally knew what he meant. There is something in Spiral Jetty that gives it the internal coherence, the completeness, the self-containment and instantaneity, that makes art. It is a physical quality of a supremely constructed entity, with complex internal relationships that harmonize into a glorious whole.
And how’s this for just about the best blurb ever on the back of a book?
Across the marvelously unexpected little road saga, the stud muffin cowboys of late twentieth-century American art at long last meet their sly gamine match. Pretty much doing for land art what Geoff Dyer did for D. H. Lawrnece, Ms. Hogan, an urban fish decidedly out of water, flopping about in the high desert parch, makes for marvelously endearing company. At at times harrowingly (albeit comically) unreliable navigator (who doesn’t bring a compass along on solo treks across such vast empty expanses?), Hogan nevertheless manages to deploy an expertly modulated prose, tracking the heaviest of subjects with the lightest of touches, melding gravitas with whimsy (vodka and tonic), in a narrative that in the end, like the art is surveys, manages to be about what it is to be an individual alone—pinprick-contingent, achingly vulnerable, gobsmacked enthralled—in the face of all that is.
Hogan’s is a fresh and welcomed new voice.
*I’ve referenced Weschler’s work in earlier blog postings here. Search on his name here if you’d like to read more by him.