New work from Jean Stephens

Through the Hedgerow, Jean Stephens, encaustic on board, 8″ x 8″

Jean Stephens has one of her newest paintings on view at the Annual Spring Member’s Exhibition at Mill Art Center and Gallery in Honeoye Falls. It’s a small landscape in encaustic, Through the Hedgerow, an example of how she’s working more loosely with her medium, with impressive results. It’s a more experimental phase for her, part of a transformation in her work over the past couple years, and she’s getting some remarkable results. The show includes the work of a couple dozen member artists, all of it interesting. Stephens also has an excellent figure drawing chosen for a national show at Main Street Arts, on view now as well in Clifton Springs, juried by Steffi Chappell, assistant curator at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. Both exhibitions close on June 11.

Bartlett Pears, Redux

Bartlett Pears, 12″ x 16″, oil on linen

My life the past two years has toggled between slow-burning family emergencies punctuated by intervals of regular, predictable daily hours of painting. The crises have morphed into ongoing obligations to care for family members who need assistance, but this is a shift toward regularity that allows me to restore the concentrated, monotonous, repetitive attention essential for painting. I’m finally emerging from unpredictable interruptions and, if I’m lucky, I’m hoping I can look forward to quite a few years of being able to put in significant daily hours of work.  It’s what I need to finish a suite of paintings I started more than two years ago: images of salt-water taffy I haven’t been posting because I want to complete most of the whole series in order to decide what to put on view. I’ve completed only ten of these paintings so far—even the smaller ones have taken four to six weeks, with six weeks as the average for painting the largest of them. Even at that deliberate rate, I should have completed far more than ten, but for the entire summer two years ago while providing care for my father I was unable to sit at the easel and then I had several months helping my brother get my mom’s life in order in his absence. Then my son and daughter-in-law left California to stay here in Rochester during the pandemic, finally deciding to actually move here when Laura realized she could work remotely as a video producer—which Matthew may be able to do as well once they hire help for childcare. A freak automobile accident created a situation similar to what we faced with my father two years ago—but Laura eventually recovered enough for them to buy and move into a home a mile away. And then she had a baby, their second son. Her recovery and the new grandchild are a blessing, but also—in a wonderful way—it has provided fresh excuses to do things other than paint. All of this has prompted me to go dormant for periods on Instagram and this blog, still working pretty diligently, but not communicating much about what I’ve been doing. MORE

Flash of genius

Mark Tennant, untitled from Instagram

Mark Tennant ought to be understood as one of the perceptual painters, but he doesn’t really adhere to any of the half dozen implicit rules the hardcore members of that group observe: the delicate balance between flatness and the illusion of depth; the preference for middle values, the slight fetish for letting one’s process show through a palimpsest effect that, for example, allows the viewer to see pencil lines through thin layers of paint or ghosts of earlier and abandoned shapes; their willingness to repeatedly rework a surface, groping toward a final resolution; a preference for middle values; and a general avoidance of photography. Tennant doesn’t adhere much to any of this, but his work shows random glimpses of mundane life in a way that works as both representation and almost gestural abstraction, which seems the prime directive for most perceptual painters. Tennant always works, it seems, from snapshots. His paintings seem intensely immediate and present—an impression of human motion frozen by an explosion of light. The work of the perceptual painters seems closer to the indeterminacy of memory, its slightly faded moodiness, than to the crisp detail of what greets the eye here and now. Tennant’s work oddly toggles between past and present, but it seems to make the past look contemporaneous, rather than the other way around. The look of a snapshot evokes the past, by definition, but what you see in one of his paintings seems alive and ready to move, something that caught your eye fifteen minutes ago. He loves the baleful glare of flash photography and the way it gives relief to figures, nudging them toward the viewer by coating them with dark outlines, penumbras of visible shadow that often seem, by some inexplicable leap, to hint at moral decline.

What’s so remarkable about his paint is the way it looks fresh, spontaneous, alla prima, and yet so astonishingly accurate—each little painting is like a visual haiku, the scene reduced to the fewest possible descriptive details, a face nothing but spots of color with three tiny marks to indicate eyes and nose, no need to even indicate a mouth. But nothing looks all that worked over: he’s giving you just what’s there, minus all the information you simply don’t need. That’s classic painting, but it feels, in his hands, like something fresh and unfamiliar. (And that’s great painting.) So simply executed, yet that little face of the woman in the center of her cocktail party chatter, that visage the size of a fingerprint, would be instantly recognizable to anyone who knew her, whoever she is. How is that possible? The eyes—like the tiny eyes in a very small El Greco I saw in New York years ago—convey a whole world of personality and experience, a soul. But Tennant has nothing else in common with the Greek. There’s no transcendence here, just that unforgiving flash of light and the darkness it only briefly penetrates. At first, his brushwork seems to descend from Matisse and Porter, looking loose and bold, everything quick as a sketch. But he’s intensely accurate, and his sensibility is brooding and ironic. His process may be much slower than it looks, so the painterly effect probably goes back more to Manet and Sargent, where you have a sense of mastery closer to Velasquez than the Impressionists, and they share Tennant’s vision of how metropolitan sophistication draws some of its energy from decadence. Matisse and Porter use color and tone for their own sake, presenting the joy of natural light just as it is, reaching out and embracing the world with love and appreciation; Tennant inhabits a spiritual world as distant from theirs as Alaska is from Africa. Perhaps what continues to awe me with the work he posts is how much it has evolved and crossed some kind of qualitative border late in his career into this recent mastery. Decades of work leading to the alchemy of this transformation after so much effort: Porter crossed that border too in his last decade. You can see something similar happening as well in the work of some other painters, like Stuart Shils, on Instagram. It’s marvelous.

Master builder

There’s a nice video on YouTube about Philip Reed, a professional model builder: “a man who has committed his life to his craft; a lifetime of scrutinising detail, obsession, perfectionism, and in the end, something truly beautiful.” The short film is more reverential than instructive, if you want to know how he actually does what he does, but some of his comments in the video certainly resonate:

I remember Gerald Cooper, a very renowned painter. One day he just stood and looked at us for a while. He said, “I’m going to tell you the secret to happiness. Get up every morning and paint a flower before breakfast.” That is what he loved to do. So the first thing he did in the morning was that which he loved.

I think of them as three-dimensional paintings.

There are many times when little is achieved. There is frustrating research to be carried out and dead times when nothing seems to move forward. But then there are many others when the work just flows and you enter a very quiet space. Time passes effortlessly.

I go through very dark times sometimes. A recent model I’ve been building, every day has been struggle. It’s difficult. I need focus. The work is very fine. I don’t want to be there. But if you keep going you discover something new and suddenly it’s as if the sun’s come out and I’m loving what I’m doing again.

There are moments of excitement and pleasure when you start to see it come together. If you can get the tone, the color, and everything blend together, that final stage, working through it, is a joy.

 

Engaging in creative work can be, at its best, a mystical experience. I don’t know what is behind the creation of art. It’s something innate in man. It’s one of the profound mysteries in human life: creative work and art.

Susan Jane Walp

Four Figs, Two Swans, and Pair of Scissors, 2017, oil on linen, 10.125 x 10″

Matt Klos invited me to sit in on a group Zoom last week with Susan Jane Walp, hosted by Klos and Candice Hill, who teaches in the English Department at Anne Arundel Community College, where Matt teaches painting. Walp has a quiet, distinguished career, living in Vermont, studying Tibetan Buddhism and painting and doing little else, having moved there from Soho where she worked in the 80s. It was a long, interesting conversation partly because so much of it felt attenuated by Walp’s difficulty in putting the most essential elements of what she does into words. That’s refreshing, a person of few words in an era where we live under a tsunami of social media inanity. A lot of the discussion was about a series of improvisational paintings she’s done as a meditation on the loss of her husband six years ago, paintings that somehow remind me of Jung’s The Red Book images, not in form but in spirit—as if she has been sketching emotional and spiritual archetypes drawn from her own subconscious. These are quite different from her core work in still life. What I found most useful was the discussion of these still lifes on linen.

The most interesting questions and answers were on how her work in oil resolves itself into something she considers finished; how she manages to keep the process feeling alive and risky after investing long days and weeks or months into a given painting; and what her primary considerations are, the core values, she tries to observe in the process of making a painting.

This last issue was very appropriate to this particular conversation, because Candice Hill specializes in lyric poetry with a focus on Emily Dickinson and found many parallels between Dickinson’s sidelong, elliptical poetry and Walp’s spare, improvisational watercolors. Walp has said she draws inspiration from Dickinson’s poems, their paradoxical sense of scale, particularly in Dickinson’s ability to evoke cosmic truth through such a tiny pillar of words on the page. That use of scale links her with Dickinson: the leverage involved in using something small to evoke something big. Walp’s paintings feel in some ways even smaller than Dickinson’s gnomic lines. Walp said: “Even in these paintings that are quite small, eight inches by eight inches, if that relationship becomes accurate (between the precise detail and the more indefinite lines of larger areas), I feel there’s something big about the painting.” Given this indebtedness to poetry, it wasn’t shocking that Walp cited Elizabeth Bishop, who was a serious painter as well as a uniquely great poet, as someone who perfectly articulated the three qualities creative work must have. Bishop said every poem needs to be accurate, spontaneous, and mysterious. Walp wants her paintings to hew to those rules.

There is a tremendous tension implicit in those first two qualities. How to be both improvisational and accurate seems to be a core competency for perceptual painters in general and a difficult tightrope to walk for any painter. (Fairfield Porter managed to balance accuracy and spontaneity perfectly again and again toward the end of his career, but Walp’s work doesn’t owe much to the way Porter handled paint, except in a few instances.)

Walp said: “In Dickinson the thing that has struck me in my non-scholarly reading of her work is the way that she can go from some very almost microcosmic detail to just the macrocosm. This idea of scale; how there can be an infinite space in such a physically small poem. That’s something I aspire to certainly in the still lifes . . . Bishop’s . . . three criteria for evaluating poems: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. I’ve spent a lot of time working on the spontaneity. The mystery is divine grace. It’s given to you in certain work.” MORE

Lydia, oh Lydia

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Agnieszka Nienartowicz

The ultimate tramp stamp. Amazing work from a young Polish artist, evoking both Bosch and Richter, with a cautionary twist to the allure it conveys.

The famous little patch of yellow

Vermeer’s “View of Delft”

I find it encouraging that the greatest philosopher and the greatest novelist of the 20th century agreed about some fundamental, crucial things, at about the same time, early in the century. It seems everyone else except maybe T.S. Eliot were heading in the opposite direction—Nietzsche a bit earlier, the modernists in art, Einstein in physics, Freud in his field, Marx in economics and politics–all of them striving to destabilize the values and norms of the Western world. Meanwhile, Wittgenstein and Proust were suggesting that the most fundamental realities hadn’t changed at all and would never change, even though many didn’t understand this about the philosopher, and it this isn’t immediately obvious in Proust, given the structure of his virtually plotless novel, a tapestry of interwoven stories that evolve almost imperceptibly toward his majestic renunciation of society in favor of art.

Wittgenstein, whose efforts have been camouflaged by his role as the patron saint of analytical 20th century philosophy, asserted that human values can’t be derived from our experience in the world. They exist outside the world, and thus, in a sense, can’t be analyzed or deduced, but are simply a given, transcendent and immune to rational justification or questioning. They have no utility. They just are. You don’t “adopt” them to make the world a better place (on what grounds would one chose a set of values that give you the rules for calculating which values are best?). Goodness is an unassailable framework within which human purposes evolve and can be understood. Goodness and truth and beauty govern human behavior, as the essential structure of human experience, whether or not an individual is conscious of them or not. In other words, Wittgenstein actually had a metaphysics, about which he forbade himself to talk, because its truth was impossible to prove, hence the famous last line of the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.” However, he meditated quite a bit on these values during that silence. He carried around a copy of Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief all through his service in World War I, and he relinquished one of the largest inheritances in Europe. He seriously considered becoming a monk at one point. These transcendent values he lived, rather than asserted, because he appeared to consider them impossible to justify through reason or philosophical language. His silence about everything that actually mattered seems, in retrospect, almost uniquely noble and honest.

One finds a similar point of view, an even more Platonic one, from Marcel Proust in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, written during the years Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus, about the death of Proust’s fictional novelist, Bergotte. In The Captive, he talks about the role of the creative imagination, in painting and fiction and music. These thoughts precede one of the great revelatory moments in the story, when Morel’s musical performance triggers for the narrator a crucial moment of enlightenment about the nature of art. (It is typical of Proust that Morel is one of his few genuinely evil characters, the embodiment of sadistic cruelty, yet he is also, despite his depravity, a rare musical genius, one of God’s messengers, as it were, through the medium of the violin.) This passage makes Proust’s narrator sound a bit like a Cathar or a Buddhist, but his essential point is that human beings don’t pick and choose their “values;” those values precede and ground all human choices and behavior, and people spend their lives struggling to simply see them and exemplify them as directly as possible, to live “beneath the sway of those unknown laws”—an achievement that is, like a great golf swing or a sumi-e painting—both unconscious and ego-less, almost automatic, when done perfectly, and yet immensely difficult to “get right”:

He was dead. Dead forever? Who can say? . . . All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—if then!—to fools. So the idea that Bergotte was not permanently dead is by no means improbable.

–The Captive

 

Two girls at dusk

From Jim Mott, this little passage from a short story about a painter by Chekhov. It conveys to me, like many landscapes described by Proust in his novel, exactly why someone would develop a passion for landscape painting:

Doomed by fate to permanent idleness, I did positively nothing. For hours together I would sit and look through the windows at the sky, the birds, the trees and read my letters over and over again, and then for hours together I would sleep. Sometimes I would go out and wander aimlessly until evening.

Once on my way home I came unexpectedly on a strange farmhouse. The sun was already setting, and the lengthening shadows were thrown over the ripening corn. Two rows of closely planted tall fir-trees stood like two thick walls, forming a sombre, magnificent avenue. I climbed the fence and walked up the avenue, slipping on the fir needles which lay two inches thick on the ground. It was still, dark, and only here and there in the tops of the trees shimmered a bright gold light casting the colours of the rainbow on a spider’s web. The smell of the firs was almost suffocating. Then I turned into an avenue of limes. And here too were desolation and decay; the dead leaves rustled mournfully beneath my feet, and there were lurking shadows among the trees. To the right, in an old orchard, a yellow hammer sang a faint reluctant song, and he too must have been old. The lime-trees soon came to an end and I came to a white house with a terrace and a mezzanine, and suddenly a vista opened upon a farmyard with a pond and a bathing-shed, and a row of green willows, with a village beyond, and above it stood a tall, slender belfry, on which glowed a cross catching the light of the setting sun. For a moment I was possessed with a sense of enchantment, intimate, particular, as though I had seen the scene before in my childhood.

By the white-stone gate surmounted with stone lions, which led from the yard into the field, stood two girls. One of them, the elder, thin, pale, very handsome, with masses of chestnut hair and a little stubborn mouth, looked rather prim and scarcely glanced at me; the other, who was quite young–seventeen or eighteen, no more, also thin and pale, with a big mouth and big eyes, looked at me in surprise, as I passed, said something in English and looked confused, and it seemed to me that I had always known their dear faces. And I returned home feeling as though I had awoke from a pleasant dream.

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh

From Brideshead Revisited:

Restrained by this wariness I asked him nothing of himself, but told him, instead about my autumn and winter. I told him about my rooms in the Ile Saint-Louis and the art school, and how good the old teachers were and how bad the students. ‘They never go near the Louvre,’ I said, ‘or, if they do, it’s only because one of their absurd reviews has suddenly “discovered” a master who fits in with that month’s aesthetic theory. Half of them are out to make a popular splash like Picabia; the other half quite simply want to earn their living doing advertisements for Vogue and decorating night clubs. And the teachers still go on trying to make them paint like Delacroix.’ ‘Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?’ ‘Great bosh.’ ‘Oh, I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try and criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist, and snubs to her.’

3D color field

K.81 Combo, 3D painted sculpture, Frank Stella

I’ve been frustrated for years by my fruitless search for a catalog of Frank Stella’s work that gives the reader a comprehensive view of his gorgeous protractor series of minimalist abstractions in the 60s.  I long to see the colors of those paintings reproduced as accurately as possible in a book, and especially in a retrospective devoted only to that series. To see those paintings assembled together, all on their own, would be worth the effort. Most of his career represents a repudiation of Clement Greenberg’s elevation of “flatness” as the defining characteristic of painting, an axiom that seems more and more irrelevant, even silly, with time–and now in retrospect seems even more to miss its target when applied to the painters he was trying to glorify. Rothko’s paintings are certainly a flat surface, but their simple glowing colors recede and advance as the tones of earth and sky do in a landscape, and that illusion of depth gives them part of their somber allure. They invite you to step in, toward that horizon line. After the austerity of the black and metal paintings, in which he constructed shaped canvases at least partly to defy Greenberg’s dictum, Stella embarked on a long exploration of color harmonies in a surrender to flatness, more or less. Many were shaped, but they worked because of color applied in flat patterns on a flat surface. Their lyrical restraint was what made them so charming. For me, they are distinguished by the thin gutter between each straight or curved stripe, a little buffer of white between each designer tone that allows each individual color to respond to the ones around it cleanly and distinctly.

I was reminded of these wonderful paintings–painted in a spirit of what I would consider mid-20th century abstract version of neo-classicism–serene and vibrant despite the relentless geometric order of their flat patterns, a celebration of Athenian moderation and order after the sturm und drang of AbEx. They were another avenue, along with Pop, for a rejection of the grim seriousness of the 50s. Why so serious, painters in the 60s seemed to be asking, but with a smile less violent than The Joker’s. Stella’s protractor designs are a celebration of art’s ability to manifest joy, as Dave Hickey’s last sentence does in The Invisible Dragon: “Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highways.” It’s a sentence so full of the promise of America half a century ago, when Hickey immersed himself in the art world, when we were building a launch pad to fire ourselves at the moon and bringing civil rights to those who had never had it before. America–and Stella’s paintings along with it–felt like a launch pad for an unlimited future. Those protractor paintings are a visualization of happiness and possibility untainted by resentment or anxiety. The global economy hadn’t arrived just yet to erode the burgeoning American dream by narrowing it to exclude those who don’t have a share of Wall Street largesse. Stella’s brief Apollonian phase continues to be a reminder that human life can be a balance between head and heart, math and emotion, open roads under that beckoning, unattainable blue sky.

In my fruitless search for such a catalog of those late 60s paintings, I came across one of his much more recent baroque constructions, included in the Whitney retrospective a few years ago: K.81 Combo (K.37 and K.43) Large Size. It’s a continuation of his Sixties ebullience, by other means, in three dimensions. Stella considers it a visualization of a Scarlatti sonata. In three dimensions, and with color as delightful as a series of life-affirming musical tones, he is bringing what the color field painters did in the 60s into a branch of sculpture. It takes the fountain of interwoven counterpoint that is Baroque music and uses it as an imaginary armature for the construction of brightly colored surfaces that seem to swirl outward and back into themselves like orderly solar flares. As I gazed at the reproduction of Stella’s sculpture, I was struck by how it’s doing something I’ve been trying to echo in my current paintings of salt water taffy.

I think of these paintings as portraits of a highly simplified, three-dimensional color field painting, as if someone had taken a painted canvas and crumpled it into a ball and then let it expand randomly into its final punished shape–all the spirals and glowing quadrants of color deformed and fused into a lump and then wrapped in translucent waxed paper, giving the patterns of color a diffuse, glowing, partly concealed quality. In the shards of translucent paper that surround the candy and flare outward at each side like wings, I’m establishing patterns and lines, whorls and dents and fissures, that repeat and connect in unexpected ways, as the lines in a Braque gueridon do. Before I ever pick up a brush, I create much of these formal qualities, the composition itself, with my fingertips. I often unwrap the taffy and rewrap it myself with waxed paper from the kitchen. I try to gently twist the wax paper (I cut it to precise dimensions) so that it wrinkles it as little as possible while preserving the curved planes. As I’m doing this, I create the object I will work from, building this uniform “armature” for color in the painted image. As I paint flat patterns of tones I will rework with greater and greater detail, I feel the spirit of a dozen previous painters whose work I love flicker through the process. It’s as if the painting goes through its Milton Avery and Braque period when it’s a flat pattern of uniform color and then emerges as a greatly enlarged single object still life–but it’s a still life of three-dimensional chunks of candy making patterns that remind me mostly of color field painters from half a century ago. As I was doing in my candy jar paintings, and intend to do again in future ones, I’m constantly drawing energy and desire from the qualities of those modernists: Stella, Noland, Hammersley, Avery, Frankenthaler, Francis, and so many others, painters whose work became a sort of visual equivalent to music.

 

Objectivity and the good

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis, from The Abolition of Man, a passage that serves as a commentary on post-modernism, before there was such a thing, and how all moral imperatives ultimately are based on values that are accepted as “given” rather than individually chosen or invented, or culturally determined. What’s good is ultimately good in and of itself and not because certain individuals or groups of individuals chose it or enjoy it or invent it:

In their second chapter Gaius and Titius quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it ‘sublime’ and the other ‘pretty’; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust. Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings’ Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion. But the authors are not yet finished. They add: ‘This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’

The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings.

The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant. It is true that Gaius and Titius have said neither of these things in so many words.

The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.

From this passage the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible.

Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.

The differences between us may go all the way down. They may really hold that the ordinary human feelings about the past or animals or large waterfalls are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set.

They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.

‘Can you be righteous’, asks Traherne, ‘unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.’

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.

The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.14 In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill- grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.

In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it.

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.17 ‘In ritual’, say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’18 The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true’.

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.

The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.

However subjective they may be about some traditional values, Gaius and Titius have shown by the very act of writing The Green Book that there must be some other values about which they are not subjective at all. They write in order to produce certain states of mind in the rising generation, if not because they think those states of mind intrinsically just or good, yet certainly because they think them to be the means to some state of society which they regard as desirable.

And this end must have real value in their eyes. To abstain from calling it good and to use, instead, such predicates as ‘necessary’ or ‘progressive’ or ‘efficient’ would be a subterfuge. They could be forced by argument to answer the questions ‘necessary for what?’, ‘progressing towards what?’, ‘effecting what?’; in the last resort they would have to admit that some state of affairs was in their opinion good for its own sake. And this time they could not maintain that ‘good’ simply described their own emotion about it.

Wit and beauty

The Moon Woke Me Up Fifteen Times, Sara Genn, acrylic on canvas

Back when an office copier seemed to be something almost large enough to step into and drive, there was a gag familiar to most people who ever used a big Xerox machine. Someone would inevitably hop up onto it and moon its flashing light to duplicate their naked rear end. It was a trending gag in office spaces for a while: drop trousers, sit on platen glass, press button. Judd Apatow humor. I was amused that all of this was brought to mind by Sara Genn’s marvelous cluster of paintings, assembled into a grid—lovely and suggestive tulip petals, rows of them, each in a color as subtle and lyrical as the tones of Stella’s floral geometry in the Sixties. It’s little wonder her work was awarded finalist status for the Luxembourg Prize last year. Hers was the most beautiful and accomplished of all the work entered for that generous prize.

The Moon Woke Me Up Fifteen Times seduces the viewer gently but relentlessly with the quiet joy of its variations on a single note: a curved bifurcated shape that’s part ravenous Pac Man, part tulip in profile, part suggestion of human life’s anatomical axis in the shape of a Xeroxed moon. What I mean is, along with everything else it evokes, it’s also a colors-of-Benneton cluster of bare derrieres—and that hint of irreverent burlesque puts a cheerful cap on all the work’s other virtues.

Her title is an homage to a Basho poem, “The moon woke me up nine times.” It’s a haiku full of Basho’s characteristic simplicity, profound in its matter-of-fact celebration of the moon’s fleeting beauty and its uncharacteristic sense of humor, a quality more typical of Basho’s poetic descendant, Issa. You can’t tell whether the moon stirred him because it was bright and full, and thus impossible to escape as he slept outside on one of his itinerant quests into the natural world, or did he keep waking up on the hour all through the night because he didn’t want to miss a moment of its luminous silence?

Aside from changing the number of awakenings to suit her formal ambitions, Sara Genn modifies the line into a smiling affirmation of how many times her duplicated moon woke her to rapt attention and celebration of one subtle color after another. But you have to recognize the funny pun packed into the word moon in order to understand this affirmation of her artistic awakening. Alongside that, you realize the line asserts a night of unquenchable desire, the way an old blues lyric is likely to do. But the desire here has been sublimated into a sequence of notes, like a refrain from Erik Satie. The tension between the title’s humor and the simple perfection of those color harmonies, the slight way in which each pair of lips has been parted to create a unique spire of negative white space that disappears into the rich color that surrounds it—the pull between the sincerity of that beauty and the slightly ribald remix of Basho reminds me of how Frederick Hammersley worked so hard to make his viewers smile at his clever titles for small-scale, heartfelt color harmonies. Genn’s work is a close neighbor to Hammersley’s minimalist lyricism. She’s absolutely serious about the radiant beauty she composes in this simple sequence of tones, but she lets her wit give it a title it doesn’t require to do its work. Ever since I first saw this image months ago, I haven’t yet been able to look at it without smiling.

Mediums: chicken feathers, nutshells and unfinished boats

John Steinbeck

From Cannery Row:

Henri the painter was occupied, for Holman’s Department Store had employed not a flag-pole sitter but a flag-pole skater. On a tall mast on top of the store he had a little round platform and there he was on skates going around and around. He had been there three days and three nights. He was out to set a new record for being on skates on a platform. The previous record was 127 hours so he had some time to go. Henri had taken up his post across the street at Red Williams’ gas station. Henri was fascinated. He thought of doing a huge abstraction called Substratum Dream of a Flag-pole Skater.

Henri the painter was not French and his name was not Henri. Also he was not really a painter. Henri had so steeped himself in stories of the Left Bank in Paris that he lived there although he had never been there. Feverishly he followed in periodicals the Dadaist movements and schisms, the strangely feminine jealousies and religiousness, the obscurantisms of the forming and breaking schools. Regularly he revolted against outworn techniques and materials. One season he threw out perspective. Another year he abandoned red, even as the mother of purple. Finally he gave up paint entirely. It is not known whether Henri was a good painter or not for he threw himself so violently into movements that he had very little time left for painting of any kind. About his painting there is some question. You couldn’t judge very much from his productions in different colored chicken feathers and nutshells. But as a boat builder he was superb. Henri was a wonderful craftsman. He had lived in a tent years ago when he started his boat and until galley and cabin were complete enough to move into. But once he was housed and dry he had taken his time on the boat. The boat was sculptured rather than built. It was thirty-five feet long and its lines were in a constant state of flux. For a while it had a clipper bow and a fantail like a destroyer. Another time it had looked vaguely like a caravel. Since Henri had no money, it sometimes took him months to find a plank or a piece of iron or a dozen brass screws. That was the way he wanted it, for Henri never wanted to finish his boat.

Henri had been living in and building his boat for ten years. During that time he had been married twice and had promoted a number of semi-permanent liaisons. And all of these young women had left him for the same reason. The seven-foot cabin was too small for two people. They resented bumping their heads when they stood up and they definitely felt the need for a toilet. Marine toilets obviously would not work in a shore-bound boat and Henri refused to compromise with a spurious landsman’s toilet. He and his friend of the moment had to stroll away among the pines. And one after another his loves left him.

“That painter guy came back to the Palace,” Hazel offered. “Yes?” said Doc. “Yeah! You see, he done all our pictures in chicken feathers and now he says he got to do them all over again with nutshells. He says he changed his—his med—medium.” Doc chuckled. “He still building his boat?” “Sure,” said Hazel. “He’s got it all changed around. New kind of a boat. I guess he’ll take it apart and change it. Doc—is he nuts?” Doc swung his heavy sack of starfish to the ground and stood panting a little. “Nuts?” he asked. “Oh, yes, I guess so. Nuts about the same amount we are, only in a different way.” Such a thing had never occurred to Hazel. He looked upon himself as a crystal pool of clarity and on his life as a troubled glass of misunderstood virtue. Doc’s last statement had outraged him a little. “But that boat—” he cried. “He’s been building that boat for seven years that I know of. The blocks rotted out and he made concrete blocks. Every time he gets it nearly finished he changes it and starts over again. I think he’s nuts. Seven years on a boat.” Doc was sitting on the ground pulling off his rubber boots. “You don’t understand,” he said gently. “Henri loves boats but he’s afraid of the ocean.” “What’s he want a boat for then?” Hazel demanded. “He likes boats,” said Doc. “But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water? ’ Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat—so he doesn’t ever have to launch it.”

BLM vs. MLK, spiritual art, apple fritters

Jim Mott’s painting of a mailbox, after arriving at this spot in his Landscape Lottery.

Jim Mott came by this weekend for a conversation after a long absence, and we picked up more or less where we’d left off last time, talking partly about spirituality, art and God, BLM vs. MLK, his new art project, and some other things I ordinarily don’t talk about, like apple fritters. Though Jim is deeply political, in a way that goes back more to the Sixties than what’s happening now, he’s the least confrontational and least angry political person I know. Many people obsessed with politics seem to have embraced it as a substitute for religion. Jim already has a faith, so politics is simply a way of thinking about how to put that faith into action. What I like about his politics and his religion are the way in which they get submerged into his paint, in a sub-rosa way, neither overt nor strident, producing work that embodies his spirituality rather than illustrates it, if that makes sense. Most of the artists I’m close to are deeply spiritual, but each one in a very different way from the others. Here’s a good portion of our long conversation:

Dave: I went through this spiritual crisis in my teens and it was discovering Van Gogh who got me into it.

Jim: The crisis?

No, he got me into painting. He was so screwed up, but he responded to it by painting. He started by preaching and then went from that to painting, so it was kind of the way he dealt with there being something wrong with the world, or with him.

There’s that romantic notion or tradition that the world doesn’t get it and the individual poet does, so you’re at odds with the world.

It was just the opposite of that with me. I didn’t get it. Life was absurd and I didn’t get it, but that was repugnant to me, so at some level I knew I wasn’t right to have that perception. That was my dilemma. The idea that meaning seemed impossible and this was a crisis, a problem. It seemed the world was pointless and amounted to nothing, and this was horrifying because I couldn’t see out of that mental trap. But there’s a contradiction I didn’t see in this. Camus based The Rebel on a recognition of this contradiction: that people inwardly rebel against nihilism. If nothing matters, then there’s no reason to be dissatisfied with that, just enjoy what you can and that’s that. Why is it horrifying that life seems to amount to nothing? There’s some context in which the absurdity of life is unacceptable but if everything is genuinely pointless how can anything be unacceptable? I couldn’t get to that state of “there’s no way any of any of this can really matter, including my anguish over the impossibility of meaning, so I might as well enjoy life while it lasts.” I couldn’t reconcile myself to this nihilistic certainty I had. So I looked at Van Gogh because I assumed he had to have gone through something like that and responded to it by painting. I’d already been painting pictures of my favorite guitarists, Hendrix, Clapton, Bloomfield. I was in a band, I loved playing my Telecaster. I did the paintings just to have them on my walls. Enlarged copies of album covers. Then I read about Van Gogh and thought, hm, painting is an activity that’s interesting in itself, partly because Van Gogh, this incredibly discontented guy, was so devoted to it. Van Gogh got me to that point. My reading later gave me a way to understand this crisis I’d gone through in a spiritual perspective. So the painting and the spiritual perspective merged.

When you’re doing a good painting you feel like you’re participating in something larger than yourself, at some level it’s about ego-lessness and service. Given all that, the way the art world is all about ego competition and material symbols of success, what would happen if, I don’t know, what happens to you when you buy into that at all. You’re doing what you need to do to advance yourself but, as a result of that, cutting yourself off from your deepest, most authentic sense of what it’s all about – and that awareness of doing something in service to something larger, that awareness and how it imprints itself on the painting, that might be as important to the viewer as all the other qualities that would make a painting conventionally successful.

You mean given the art world’s definition of success. Should you fight it or resist it? That’s always a question.

You’re working to show this . . .

Mystery . . 

Right. The art world wants someone who’s world-famous. If someone had handed me world fame, I’m not sure I’d turn it down, but . . .

If it does amount to something, a painting, then if you aren’t known, how do you get it out there? Something essential to your life, how do you connect it to other people?

Even with the significant but moderately narrow level of recognition we get, is it worthwhile to generate a counter-narrative about what it’s all about? As an alternative to the pursuit of the material rewards or even critical recognition. I don’t know. Just to have a small audience to tell that to, you’re still having an impact. Integration is the mission now for me: art and spirit, left and right.

<Behind him on the little end table, I always display his night painting of the Memorial Art Gallery and nearby Tom Insalaco’s painting of an eclair. We have a sidebar discussion of eclairs vs. apple fritters and where to find the best fritters, which was possibly the most impactful part of the entire conversation, but not worth transcribing.)

So what are you painting?

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Santelli’s stream of consciousness

Minstream 17, Bill Santelli, colored pencil on paper

A three-person exhibition, Constellations, featuring paintings, drawings, and installation works by Sara Baker Michalak, Bill Santelli, and Mizin Shin will open shortly at Main Street Arts. It’s curated around the commonality of their work. Each, in different ways, builds a patterned image—loosely or with gridded regularity—that aims for the cosmic. As with every painting, the particulars matter because of their unity within the whole work, but in this case the particulars are mostly effaced within the flow of what’s happening everywhere else.

I’ve known Bill for years and was pleased to hear that he’d been invited into this show, having seen these new drawings on Instagram over the past year. Like his Prismacolor drawings in the Path series, these explorations of thought—the honeycomb of ovals suggestive of thinking’s fragmented flow—represent a patient, repetitive and extremely disciplined practice using the simplest combinations of tone and line. In the Path series, he creates long, languid and pliant streaks of color that evoke tall grass bending in a breeze, where each line creates cells of pale monochrome. They are like leaded panes of stained glass, but also look surprisingly like glimpses of dawn breaking over wetlands.

In these newer drawings, his colors are even simpler and richer, and the minimalism of the Path drawings has been reduced to a grid of loops with less reference to nature. When I asked him to describe what went into the drawings, he wrote “I began these drawings after reading about the concept of ‘mindstream’ in Buddhist philosophy, which is described as . . . the moment-to-moment flow of sense impressions and mental phenomena.” MORE

Monastic. Cheap. Admirable.

Does anyone still remember those skits on Conan from more than two decades ago where President Clinton would appear as a digital mask worn by Robert Smigel? The writer did a ludicrous, but hilarious, impersonation of Bubba as a Southern party boy living it up and getting away with everything and anything. “I gotsta gotsta have my snacks,” he crowed. And he was talking as much about Monica Lewinski as a side of French fries. A still shot of Clinton’s face on the monitor was lowered into the guest position beside Conan’s desk and within that motionless and grinning face, Smigel’s real-time mouth displaced Clinton’s lips—the writer’s mouth speaking his lines while the President’s face was still frozen into that vote-getting, Teflon grin. It was very funny and outrageous, and it would probably be impossible to perform these days, given much of what was being said, for many reasons. It was so over-the-top and explicit that it took on a reality all its own. (Come to think of it, that would be a good way to describe much of the art world over the last century.)

Those Smigel skits were the first thing that struck me when I saw these $100 portraits of women at The New York Times. The eyes in some of them look as if it were somehow possible to have Photoshopped them into the paintings, like Smigel’s good-old-boy accent. Could the paintings have been done on top of the photographs used as a support? Regardless, they’re good. I loved those boundary-testing skits on Conan, because they simply pointed out that when someone is doing what you want him to do, he can get away with nearly everything else in his life. Again, like the rules that once obtained in the art world. (Rewatching the first season of The Wire this week confirmed that lesson as well in terms of Baltimore politics and law enforcement as observed by David Simon.) In my view, the ends are never enough to justify the means, and integrity matters, but I may be in the minority these days.

In these one painting-per-day style portraits, Jean Smith conveys a subject’s eyes with an eerie photographic precision about how the cornea and iris reflect light, but the eyes are framed by a gesturally primitive mask. These souls are looking out at you from behind their own almost graffiti faces. A few of them I wish I’d bought: I mean, why not, for $100? But I like them. Yet her point is to undermine the economy that continues to push the ownership of visual art into an elite economic ghetto of the uber wealthy.

I shouldn’t be talking this way. The work I’m doing now takes weeks without it’s done without interruptions, usually a minimum of four weeks per painting, but also as long as two months with the sort of interruptions that you face when you actually have a life outside the studio, as I still do. No one can afford to put in four to six to eight weeks on a painting that sells for $100. But the point Nick Marino makes in his piece for the Times is that artists aren’t even reaping the actual profits of what has become an extension of the stock market—paintings are now purchased for high prices at the start and then their value is repeatedly inflated through resale or auction, simply as some corollary to day trading Silicon Valley stocks or investing in Bitcoin. (This can’t last. Our financially leveraged economic boom will not continue forever. The art world bubble will burst along with the others, but it may go on for quite a while.)

I love the idea of doing paintings quickly and selling them for unusually low prices. Jim Mott and Harry Stooshinoff are making wonderful, even remarkable paintings in this mode, along with many others. These quick portraits of women offer a continuous experimentation in ways of seeing and representing nothing more than how light lands on an individual face and how the eyes look out from the prison that personhood can seem—when in fact human individuality is the greatest miracle of life.

Excerpts from Marino’s piece:

I can appreciate that beauty has monetary value, particularly for the one and only example of a particular exquisiteness. Someone spent time making it, and that person should be compensated. But even modest artworks can be out of reach for almost anyone who’s not a real estate mogul, shipping magnate, stockbroker or oil baron. Under the sanctimonious cover of “arts patronage,” these plutocrats use art to launder their money, trading up the value of young artists and enriching one another in the process. The artists, meanwhile, get paid only once, on the initial sale. The end result is (artwork) that costs as much as a Honda Civic.

Opting not to use a gallery, Smith listed each of her works on Facebook for the ludicrously low price of $100. She could certainly charge more, but the egalitarian price is the point. It’s her version of the $5 tickets Fugazi used to sell to its all-ages shows — and anyway, she has never needed much to survive. For the past quarter-century, she has lived alone and monastically in an apartment without a sofa or kitchen table (she eats off a filing cabinet), and her monthly expenses, including rent and utilities, total about $1,000. She only needs to sell 10 pieces per month to break even — though that has never been her problem.

Well, that’s all she needs to make if she doesn’t pay taxes. But at that level of income, she wouldn’t need to pay taxes. He points out that having created an insatiable demand for her low-budget art, she can’t keep up with it. The question is, does she keep her prices low or do what the free market naturally does when demand far exceeds supply: let prices rise as far as demand will lift them. I’m guessing it will depend on whether she ever gets a mortgage. I hope she continues to live monastically, as Marino describes her lifestyle. Monastic is almost always unimpeachable as a way to live, especially for an artist. Thoreau, or “Pond Scum” as The New Yorker referred to him once (at the link, you’ll see a note at the bottom of the essay pointing out the original headline), proved that monastic individuality isn’t such a bad way to live until people come in the winter and start cutting up your pond and selling it as blocks of ice.

The other takeaway here: hey, Facebook is still good for something.

Tonalism then

George Henry, View of Venice, 28 x40, oil on canvas.

As a follow up to my recent post offering two contemporary Tonalist works at Oxford Gallery, this painting of Venice, by George Henry, was on view at the same time as the current work. This one is part of Jim Hall’s available inventory of historical Tonalist work. It’s an amazing painting, in many ways, not least of which is the impasto, stucco-like, surface of the oil. The paint is applied so generously, in multiple layers, that the tactile quality of its pebbly contours, the way in which shifts in tone create a relief map of color, is extraordinary. The overall impression is of a harbor bathed in a blindingly intense gold at sunset, but the way the paint is organized on the surface of the canvas is what’s most remarkable.  Bogert’s life spanned a period of radical changes in technology and culture, and, of course, art.

From Wikipedia: George Henry Bogert (February 6, 1864 – December 13, 1944) was an American landscape painter.In 1911 an exhibit of his work was held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and attracted widespread notice. His work is represented in the permanent collection of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.

His work has been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of ArtNational GalleryCorcoran Gallery of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, BostonHuntington LibraryPennsylvania AcademyBrooklyn MuseumEdinburgh Museum in ScotlandShanghai Club in China, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and others, also in private collections, including those of Andrew CarnegieClarence Mackay, and Thomas B. Clark.

Dean Mitchell

Parking on the Reservation, Dean Mitchell, watercolor.

There are certain painters whose work, the first time I see it, floods me with relief, the way I often feel when I walk through the door of my home after a long road trip. My burdens drop away because I can see, through the work, that everything I need is always at hand, in nothing more than, say, the way sunlight glares off the hood of a car. It’s hard to specify the burdens a painting like this removes, other than what my delight in nothing more than hazy sunlight would suggest: the fundamental human affliction of rarely being able to see things just as they are, being too busy in pursuit of something else not as real. In Dean Mitchell, whose work was recently exhibited at Exeter Gallery, this quality arrives with the mysterious additional blessing of his ability to show things in the world, times of day, the quality of light during certain months and at particular latitudes, as if this abundant, inanimate stage for the petty human craving to be somewhere else, or someone else, is itself perfectly sufficient to be just what it is and nothing else. With Mitchell, there’s no striving to impose himself, interpret, or curate for hackneyed beauties of landscape in favor of a drab bungalow, frail as a lean-to, under a palm tree. Through the title suggests it may be located on a Native American reservation in the West, it is exactly the sort of home one sees in abundance in certain Florida neighborhoods of Sarasota or Tampa or, I would assume, Quincy, where Mitchell grew up in a shack. It’s exactly the sort of place you wouldn’t even notice while taking a residential shortcut off Tamiami Trail on the way to Target or Home Depot. And yet in his painting it’s stunningly beautiful—without his having intentionally beautified the subject in any way. In other words, he has the utter humility and diligence of a photorealist, with scenes that have the instant verisimilitude a good photograph has, though he dispenses with all details that don’t matter through his mastery of watercolor. This is something the medium enables and almost requires. The brevity of the way he indicates clusters of leaves, in other hands, would have the predictable facility of a commercially professional work, but in his paintings it looks original, fresh, and discovered, even though it looks as if he’s hardly trying. And the way he knows what doesn’t matter, what he doesn’t need to show, and elides it into a wash of color with such easy efficiency, makes me envious, self-pitying, and full of awe, as if I were Salieri hiding behind a curtain while Mozart noodles out something immortal with only one hand at the keyboard, maybe eating a sandwich with the other.

 

Haunted by God’s loophole

Doubt, Susie MacMurray, a temporary installation at Southwark Cathedral. London, constructed of butterfly nets.

I went back online recently to get another glimpse of Susie MacMurray’s masterful A Mixture of Frailties, the first work of hers that stunned me when I stumbled upon her solo exhibition at Danese/Corey seven years ago. I was delighted and a little surprised that it continues to resonate in new ways after the passage of years. This time it brought to mind, of all things, The Winged Victory of Samothrace. A frontal view of her headless figure’s prominent shoulders makes them look like sprouting wings or the stumps left behind by their amputation. This hadn’t occurred to me when I saw the actual piece at the exhibition. MacMurray built it around a tailor’s dummy—as she does with her signature garment sculptures—this time enveloping the curvy armature with limp latex gloves. On the floor, they form a train that flows outward and downward in all directions as if the garment were melting. Conversely, the figure seems to rise up out of the floor from under that network of gloves. It’s funny to see in this earthbound dress an ironic echo of the ancient sculpture’s martial grandeur, especially since this work glows with a quietly, almost self-defeating pathos all its own. The fact that you’re looking at what could be a lifetime supply—a life sentence, as it were—of dishwashing gloves both anchors and intensifies, by contrast, the work’s unlikely glory. By creating a ballroom gown out of them, she magically transforms all those flaccid tubes into a spectacular vestment—female power constructed with reminders of male impotence. That’s either a wry sort of Jacobin feminism or honest testimony about how little power any of us actually have. I tend toward the latter. With MacMurray, what looks like an apotheosis always comes with amusing asterisks. The way this dazzling matrix of frailties rises up from the floor, ready for lift-off, seems to echo the triumphant flight promised in the Greek sculpture, but our glove lady isn’t getting airborne any time soon. She is both imprisoned and glorified by all the chores she would love to flee. Feminist interpretations aside, what seems to be embodied here is something wiser and more universal. This beatification of scut work embodies a rare insight into the dignity and worth of long subservience and surrender to a humble task.

All of these impressions reconfirmed for me that much of MacMurray’s work has to do with the unity of polarities in life—in this case, how drudgery and imprisonment and servitude can actually clothe triumph and transformation, or at least can be transmuted to reveal them. A similar truth lies at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions: the identity of form and emptiness in Buddhism, as well as the notion that your everyday mind is the Buddha, for one. In a different way, the Beatitudes hint at paradoxical realities—the last shall be first—set within a more dramatic spiritual narrative. One can find other corollaries. Her wisdom applies to art-making itself, pointing toward a seminal realization for practicing artists of how the freedom of creative expression dwells within the tedium of repetition, craft and patience. MacMurray’s work requires a great deal of all three. For her, it’s meditative. This equivalence of triumph and drudgery applies to her installations as much as, if not more than, the work of a guru of art-as-process such as Chuck Close. His words are well known: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” The paradox of the work ethic itself is that what’s good in life can’t be severed from often tedious labor. The process of making one of her pieces embodies this paradox: Medusa required a year to make,

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Tonalism now

So Close But Not Enough to See, Ryan Schroeder, oil on canvas.

This painting, from a recent group show at Oxford Gallery, has grown on me since I saw it. It fell into a group of paintings interspersed throughout the show that were essentially Tonalist work from various periods. Jim Hall has bought and sold Tonalists for years, and has a stock of examples from well over a century ago from which to pick and choose an occasional painting for his walls.

Another example from the same show is Fran Noonan’s, Quiet Glow. I’ll post a much older example of the tradition shortly, from the same show. Jim’s definition of Tonalism includes artists not often included as part of the school, such as Rothko, but he can make a good argument for the commonalities among them.