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Love and marriage at Maker’s

stephens work

Bill Santelli and I paid our first visit to Maker’s Gallery and Studio this week to get a look at a diptych by Bill and Jean Stephens, part of a “Diptych: A Valentine’s Day Group Show” curated by Alex and Anni Gruttadaro, the gallery’s owners. They’ve created a hospitable and friendly place to see work and hang out, part living room, part studio, part coffee bistro. Alex literally did plumbing, woodwork and helped pour the concrete countertops for his space, and it has the raw-finished feel of a contemporary urban loft, with painted brick walls and exposed rafters. (Alex drives a Ford F150 and works as a contractor to support his painting and the gallery.) Alex and Anni, who opened the gallery last summer and use it as their studio, contributed a diptych of their own, a pair of half-nudes, showing Alex side-by-side with Anni, their faces and most of their anatomy cropped out of the image, beautifully done, with subtle modeling of the figures and a faint wallpaper pattern for a background, hinting at Kehinde Wylie, but pleasantly lacking his postmodern irony. All of the work in the show is fascinating, but I came specifically to see the contribution from Bill and Jean.

Their collaboration was a surprising increase in scale–Bill has been experimenting with improvisational line drawings over the past year, mostly in small sketchbooks, often accompanied by text. This time the work is larger, leaving more space at the center for Jean to elaborate on the rocks she places inside these husks that remind me of dried milkweed pods. I’ve admired what Bill has been doing with the smaller drawings, the intricate, imaginary organic spaces he creates using fine-point pens: my sense is that they evolve as he puts down marks, with a general shape in mind, like a jazz riff meandering around a melody. With the concentrated muted colors of Jean’s rock at the center, the images serve as a perfect fulfillment of the idea for the show: how a man and woman can work together, in life and art, creating something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Jean has been doing a series of bird’s nests for quite a while, and the polarity of egg/nest in those images becomes even stronger in this diptych, so that these two drawings become almost a deconstruction of her usual work. The egg in her earlier nests here becomes a heart-shaped rock, colorful as a hatched bird with folded wings, but permanently earthbound. The protecting swaddle of the swirling twigs becomes Bill’s intricate and less confining fretwork. This shape, and many of his other drawings, remind me of a milkweed pod after it launches seeds into the wind–the botanical equivalent of a nest. The image is warm, inviting, and complete, but without an easy stability. It plays with the idea of a nest the way Picasso played with a face, creating uncertainties and multiple points of view. If you look the drawings long enough, you realize Jean’s rocks cast shadows over Bill’s line drawings, in a trompe l’oeil effect, flattening his lines back into the surface of the paper as her rocks seem to rise up and out into all three dimensions, even as they stay in place.  (A nice metaphor for most negotiations with my wife.) It may have been created to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but this work suggests the happy teamwork and truces of marriage far more than romance, and it resonates less with Cupid’s heat than the isometric warmth of enduring love.

“Diptych: A Valentine’s Day Group Show,” featuring the work of artist couples Bill + Jean Stephens, Alex + Ani Gruttadaro, Cordell + Rachel Cordaro, Clay Patrick McBride + Sarah Keane, Rob + MandiAntonucci, and Duncan + Alisia Chase. “Diptych” opens on Valentine’s Day, which is Sunday, February 14, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., and continues through March 14.

Islamic art

 

Je Est Un Autre

Je Est Un Autre

I is an other. — Rimbaud

In my current re-immersion in Matisse, I’ve been reminded of how deeply he was influenced by the East, both in his Tangier sojourn, and in a journey he made to an historic exhibit of Islamic art in Munich, in 1910. He embraced the hedonism of sunny Tangier, but he was also moved by the peace and order of its religious imagery. He discovered the power of pattern–as a way to free himself from post-Impressionism, reaching for abstraction without completely surrendering to it, and he recognized how what may seem purely decorative can become laden with subtle meaning unavailable to the Western tradition, at least until the 20th century. The mathematics embodied in Islamic designs are assumed to be serendipitous anticipation of geometric insights developed in the 20th century, or were a visualization of math within Islamic intellectual culture (Persian society once considered science and mathematical exploration to be an integral, central part of human life). I’ve always been drawn the fractal patterns of Persian carpets my larger still lifes because of the suggestion that math and science are consistent with a vision of life as sacred. Braque and Burchfield rooted their work, as well, in decorative elements that bore far more meaning than mere ornament: Braque’s father had been a house painter, and he apprenticed early on with a master decorator–his ability to mimic various surfaces of marble, stucco, and wallpaper became crucial in his mature work where it gave the flat surface of a painting a timeless resonance, like a fossil record of daily life, far beyond its representational signifiers. Burchfield, as well, worked as a wallpaper designer, as a source of income, and his emphasis on patterns becomes one of the crucial ways he conveys forces of nature in his most original watercolors–summer insect sounds look like arabesques of rising smoke. In my Googling, I happened across this site of a contemporary artist also deeply influenced by Islamic art: Navine G. Khan Dossos, aka, Vanessa Hodgkinson. As it did for Matisse, Islamic art frees her to find color harmonies that would probably be unavailable in a more representational image, and the effect is musical. She relies on qualities of Islamic “decorative” design, but in a conceptual and more political way. I love the color and the self-effacing way it’s presented in regular grids–how individual expression surrenders the stage to the discipline of repetition and regularity. Echoes of Stella, and many others, as well as Mecca. And like Blake, she forsakes oil in favor of water-based paint, with an affection, similar to his, for the early and mid-Renaissance. For me, the effect seems closer to Byzantine mosaics.

 

Hinges and doors of perception

Wittgenstein’s self-portraits in a photo booth.

” . . .  certain propositions seem to underlie all questions and all thinking (On Certainty, 415).” — Wittgenstein, on “hinge propositions”

That’s a quote from Wittgenstein, in his last book of notes, published after his death. It intrigues me because of the notion that something pivotal and impossible to prove underlies thinking itself–yet isn’t knowledge. He’s talking about his notion of “hinge propositions.” For him, they are simply a given, an unquestionable element of the world. It makes no sense to doubt them unless you doubt everything else in the world. I believe this would qualify as a hinge proposition from Little Orphan Annie: “The sun will come up tomorrow.” This example makes it sound as if a hinge proposition is just something so obvious no one would think to question it. Or notice it, for that matter. I think he was exploring the idea in order to circle around something harder to say: such as, what’s ever-present is sometimes impossible to single out and scrutinize. (But that isn’t it either.)

Since I went back to reread On Certainty last year, this idea of hinge propositions has been on my mind relating to the role painting can play in human awareness. I have been thinking of this term as a distant metaphor of how art works–as well as the mind itself.

I think all forms of art can have a particular kind MORE

This man is building a Trump shelter

c.k.We interrupt our scheduled postings for this bulletin from Louis C.K., one of the few people in this world who has the power to make me happy. And he deigns to do so repeatedly. From my inbox today:

Good morning.  Indeed this is my weekly email, notifying you that the new episode of Horace and Pete (5) is ready for download ($3).  Go here to watch it! Enjoy.

I know that some of you on this list don’t want to get this email every week. And I know that some of you really like getting this email every week. I know this because I get emails from both of you. Some people write me and they say “Hey, you promised not to write me all the time. This is REALLY unfair! This is SPAM!” and some of you write me to say “Hey man. I love getting these emails. And thanks for reminding me about the show this week.” Also, whenever we delay the email for a while, to see if maybe people will come out of habit to watch the show, some do. But not many. And then I send out the email and boom. There’s an explosion of sales on the new episode and even the old ones. And the explosion reverberates though the week.  So.  I’m gonna keep sending the emails.

You may be asking yourselves, or asking me, though within yourselves, “Why don’t you just let some people opt out of the Horace and Pete email list?” Well, the fact is that I did tell my web guys to create some category options for the email list. And to be fair for them, they did that very thing. And they emailed me a few days ago, showing me those options and asking me to review and approve them. And I haven’t looked at it. Because I’m very busy right now doing lots of things like, for instance, taking my kids to school in the mornings, picking them up later, politely asking the dog not to chew things, building a Trump shelter like everyone else, creating and paying for a whole television series and distributing it to you directly. So yeah, I’m fucking busy. Sorry for cursing.

So for the time being, you’re going to get one of these MORE

No thought allowed

Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin

“I don’t have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind. In order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for. That’s really the trouble with art today. They have inspiration but before they get onto the canvas they have about fifty ideas and the inspiration disappears. The best art is music. The highest form of art. Completely abstract. I don’t believe what the intellectuals put out. They discover one fact and another fact and they say that from all these facts we can deduce so and so. That’s just a bad guess. I gave up all the theories. That leaves me a clear mind. So when something comes into it, you can see it.”          –Agnes Martin

Bill Santelli sent me a link to this great, short video about Agnes Martin. Her comments say it all.

 

Art and the commonplace

apollo

There is no place that does not see you. You must change your life. –Rilke

“After he left the Louvre, (Rilke) continued to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The challenge that he issued in his poem was, rather, an inward challenge—whether the refreshment of the senses and the refinement of the mind that attends an experience of art can be made somehow to last, so that one comes to live more significantly in the commonplace, at a higher plane of consciousness.”

Leon Wieseltier, The Atlantic, “Critic Without a Cause”

Everyday beauty

08Jim Mott sent these further thoughts, after our conversation about his last itinerant art project:

The 2015 tour was my longest IAP road trip since 2000, when I launched the project with a 2 1/2 month coast to coast journey. Shorter regional and local tours have proven more sustainable, and I figured 2015 would probably be my last cross-country tour. This inspired considerable reflection and prompted me to revisit some of the key hosts from the first tour. Dave Chappell, the Civil Rights historian, was one.

I’d met Dave back in the 1980s, when he was a grad student at the University of Rochester under Christopher Lasch.

I should mention that my exposure to Lasch’s thought and personal example (I knew him as a family friend and worked for him as a research assistant for a semester) had a strong influence on my thinking and, ultimately, on my formulation of the Itinerant Artist Project – providing some of the intellectual underpinnings as well as the desire to become more than a Minimal Self (the title of one of his follow-ups to The Culture of Narcissism).

Dave influenced my project in more specific ways: he got me to read “Blue Highways,” which must have helped me to imagine, 15 years later, using a road trip as a vehicle for creative engagement. And, when I needed a nudge to get on the road for my 1st cross-country tour, I decided to think of it as a good pretext for visiting Dave in Arkansas, where he’d ended up.

This time, in October 2015, the visit was short and sweet, and when dusk fell the first evening there was about half an hour when a seemingly very ordinary neighborhood in Norman OK became so wonderful to look at that I almost couldn’t bear it. I’m afraid this painting of my car in Dave’s driveway serves more as a shorthand reminder for me than as an evocative transcription of the enchantment that twilight delivered.

I suspect that, along with the enchantment of twilight, something else was at work. I call it the Oklahoma Effect, and it has happened to me whenever I’ve driven across the state. A few hours on the Oklahoma highway induces such a sense of endless, rootless desolation that whatever particular things I see when I stop – weeds, fence posts, someone pumping gas at a service station, birds on a wire, chunks of gravel on the side of the road – feel wonderfully and miraculously actual and present. Dusk maybe just reactivated the effect.

The phenomenon of seeing unexpected depth of beauty in everyday things reminds me of something Joan Acocella recently wrote in the New York Review of Books:

“When critics speak of a writer’s ear, this often carries a political implication, of the democratic sort. They are talking about writers (Mark Twain, Willa Cather) whose world, by virtue of being humble, would seem to exclude beauty and music, so that when the writer manages to find in it those riches, the world in question – and, by extension, the whole world – comes to seem blessed.”

When that thought is enlarged to include the visual arts – landscape painting, for example – it articulates as well as anything my primary motivation for pursuing art: to attempt to cultivate and to share that kind of insight, that kind of discovery.

The underlying principle expressed by Acocella might be called “the gospel of beauty” – a term coined by the early 20th century poet Vachel Lindsay, who didn’t mean quite what I mean by the term. Lindsay did, however, wander the United States for a few years trading poems for food and lodging. I learned of him after I started my own project of aesthetic itinerancy.

Once upon a time there was an American type called “the gentleman vagabond” – presumably a person who was not forced by circumstances to be a tramp but who wanted to see the world in an unencumbered way. Some individuals of this type were motivated by ideals that conventional life didn’t leave enough room for. Or they were intent on sharing life with other people in ways that maybe required the context of the road, or of the journey, to make sense.

Lindsay wrote a book about his vagabonding called “Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty.” For years I took encouragement from the very fact of the book’s existence, its great title. I expected to like the story as well, when I finally tracked it down, but the personality that comes through is insufferable. I’ll just say that Lindsay’s ideals were linked to a level of self-righteousness and delusion I hope I’m able to avoid in the pursuit of my ideals.

Maybe we can all be forgiven for preaching now and then, but not to the point of eclipsing dialogue, which is the essential thing. Especially if one is on a journey.

Shadow of his smile

Matisse, white and black charcoal, graphite

Matisse, white and black charcoal, graphite

Peter Schjeldahl implies it’s a toss-up who won the contest for Best Painter of the 20th century, Picasso or Matisse, who were in constant friendly competition. (He missed his best metaphor when it comes to these two giants: the Beach Boys vs. The Beatles. I’m going to Buffalo to hear Brian Wilson perform Pet Sounds on its 50th anniversary in September; the album that inspired the Beatles to create Sgt. Pepper’s.) I greatly favor Matisse; the more I study his work, the richer it becomes. I’ve been reading a lot about him for a couple weeks, filling in the gaps of my knowledge about his career, and it’s fascinating how it oscillated back and forth, twice, from the soft post-Impressionistic brushwork of his early paintings and later during the period in Nice–which is usually considered a kind of backsliding–to the two more experimental periods when his edges got harder and he came as close as he could to pure abstraction. That second category includes the epic paintings he did after returning from Morocco (before Nice), which were the subject of a revelatory show at MoMa in 2010, and then the final cut-outs. So once again, I’m reading what he wrote, and what has been written about him, and I’m studying his paintings with envy. He’s been a constant example throughout my life, always at my back as I work, making me feel untrue to his example at every turn. I imagine he would be smiling tolerantly if he saw what I do. It’s even more frustrating to reflect on his life and work when you’re in a hiatus from painting, as I am now, because of other obligations, especially when you can visualize about three dozen paintings you’d love to be doing. So, out of that frustration, I decided to start drawing once a day, if I can, for an hour or so, in what time I have available–I can’t remember the last time I drew regularly. I don’t count as drawing the guidelines I put down on canvas. I decided to do what Tom Insalaco has been doing–he showed me the results when I visited him late last year at his home in Canandaigua–a series of quick, daily portraits on tinted paper. He tints his with an oil wash, but I bought a small sheaf of pastel paper in various shades of gray, along with some white and black charcoal. Simple tools for an hour or so of work. A few evenings ago, with the news on TV, I sat on our couch and worked from a screen capture I’d done of Matisse at his easel, a still shot taken from a documentary about him on YouTube. The camera had been aimed at his face from behind his sitter, and I’d frozen it at the moment when he looked away from his easel toward his subject. I used the shot, on the screen of my laptop, sitting on the cushion beside me, to do the drawing on my lap, starting with some orientation marks and then working with areas of light and dark, without establishing any lines except toward the end–with a stroke of white charcoal along the top edge of his collar and a single dark line between his lips. I had to go back over the ear, and the proportions of eyeglasses to mouth and nose, as well as the position of the eyes, but because I worked with a very light touch at the start you can’t really see the corrections. I had never tried this classic technique with the white charcoal on tinted paper, working from a mid-value and putting down simply the darker and lighter tones. (I added some subtle areas with graphite.) The most remarkable and enjoyable part of it was that most of the work, all those mid-values, were already done, tinted into the paper. The results come from minimal marks–though hardly as minimal as the line drawings Matisse perfected. (See what I mean? He’s always there looking on.) The results pleased me and also made me smile: he looks like a banker sitting for his portrait. I think he enjoyed playing the bourgeois hedonist, even though he’d founded an art school in an old convent and taught the hard labor of classic work from direct observation. He really was wearing a collared shirt and a necktie, as he worked, in the little film clip. His nickname was The Professor. Maybe I’m imagining it, but isn’t there a hint of amusement in his eye and the slight curl of his lip? It’s the look of someone who knows exactly what he wants. He did know what he wanted, and yet with each new effort he was still rediscovering what that actually meant. Everything he knew wasn’t enough. He had to surprise himself. It was always a beginning. His smile casts a long shadow.

Jim’s most excellent adventure

 

Chicken on Porch, Ojai

Chicken on Porch, Ojai

 

Jim Mott recently came by to tell me about his latest itinerant artist project (IAP) tour, a drive across the country and back, which took nearly three months. This was his 16th painting tour. Since launching the IAP in 2000 with a trip of similar length, this was also his most ambitious and organized sortie into impromptu bed-and-breakfast land, where he exchanges room and board for a painting, or paintings, with people who have agreed beforehand to host him. When he got to my place, I took him up to see my new space for painting, and he spotted a couple books on my end table. a recent book of essays by Marilynne Robinson and an earlier book on semiotics by Umberto Eco. When he asked about the books, he discovered that he had to wait patiently for me to unload about the contrast between post-modernism and my more Platonic view of things, which is always in the back of my mind when it comes to painting. (I’m starting with my rambling remarks because it’s typical of our usual conversations.) And then I’m transcribing quite a lot of what followed, with some of his encounters, starting near Cleveland and ending on the Pacific coast, because it’s probably the most detailed description I’ve gotten from Jim on how these itinerant projects work.

Dave: How much does post modernism, or Umberto Eco’s semiotics, allow for an absolute at the basis of things? It doesn’t seem to, or else it’s inexpressible. It’s possible that what’s absolute can’t be communicated, that’s all. It’s like a court of law. One thing happened. But you have a dozen different views on what exactly it was, and yet that doesn’t mean a dozen different things happened. It’s just that you can’t be certain about what’s true. It isn’t about lack of truth. In other contexts, it’s a question of how you know how it applies to everyday life. With morality, you know what’s wrong or right, in most cases, don’t you? You don’t steal. Period. But knowing what’s good in terms of outcomes is the hard part: how will this affect everyone involved? If my family is starving and I steal a loaf of bread, the stealing is wrong, but it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? So where’s the absolute in all this? It’s there is my opinion, hard to grasp or not.

Jim: In the area of aesthetics, it gets especially tricky.

D: I did a post from Tolstoy. It was from “What is Art?” I discovered it MORE

William and Catherine

blake and catherine 2

From an account of visiting Blake’s grave in the Sunday New York Times:

‘Death has mellowed him,’’ my friend David Winner told me. He too once had a comforting encounter with Blake, which he recounts in his book ‘‘Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Soccer.’’ (The title is from the hymn ‘‘Jerusalem,’’ whose words come from Blake’s preface to his epic poem ‘‘Milton.’’) A day after David decided on that name, he boarded a random London bus on a whim, disembarking on ‘‘a dull street full of noisy traffic and boring buildings.’’ He spotted what he thought was a park in the distance. ‘‘As I walked down the central path, the sound of traffic fell away,’’ David writes. ‘‘I became aware of birdsong and greenery and trees covered with blossom.’’ He continues: ‘‘The path led into a more open space, with a grassy field. I slowed. I stopped. I looked down and found that I was standing beside the grave of William Blake.’’

And then, David told me, ‘‘it was as if he’d laid his hand gently on my shoulder. I’ve never felt anything like it.’’

One of the first things I noticed about Blake’s grave is that it isn’t exactly Blake’s grave. The inscription on the stone tells us that he and his wife, Catherine, are buried nearby. He was laid to rest in a cheap, common plot: Three people were already buried under him, and in time four more would lie above. Bunhill is said to be a corruption of ‘‘bone hill’’; it is essentially a potter’s field formed as much by ideology as poverty, the final home of religious Nonconformists and other upstarts.

Chekhov’s flock of birds


chekhovFor free via Amazon Prime, yesterday, I watched a hard-to-hear-with-aging-ears version of The Three Sisters, directed by Sir Olivier, and featuring him in a central role, from 1970 or so. It’s basically a stage play, produced as a stage play with some more elaborate backdrops, performed as you would see it on a Broadway stage. It was the first time I’ve watched or read the play in decades, and I got drawn into it for the full 2:20, even though I was constantly imagining how impatient younger people would be as they watched it. What I was thinking, though, was how much nothing has changed since Chekhov wrote the play, except that our aristocracy is in large part newly rich, and our bourgeoisie is what’s shrinking and disappearing–not the aristocracy, which is fading away in the play, during the last years of the 19th century. But the dynamics are the same: the world is defined by the vulgarity of the culture driven by new access to wealth and the decline of older values that once gave meaning to life. But I remembered, as I watched, how much Chekhov could pack into a play: many of the philosophical reflections by these idle characters about life remain just as powerful. Why are we doing anything at all? What is the point of all this? Why is it that no matter what we do, since we always want something else, we’re always looking toward some other place or person for happiness? I remember first reading him in college and our professor pointed out that he’s only one step behind Beckett and the theater of the absurd, and you can see this constantly in the play, but Chekhov has heart, where the absurdists are all head. Beckett transcends any quibbling expectations you bring to him, but I’d much rather sit through Chekhov than Beckett. Anton sees the same absurdity and mystery as Sam, but he feels the plight of the characters and shows how it enacts itself in actual daily life, rather than a stylized stripped-down setting. (Again, not to knock Beckett, who is one of my favorites.) Aristocratic characters dream of the life of laborers: how wonderful it would be to get up in the morning and drive a bus! (A little humorous nod to Tolstoy at the end of his life, I think. But it’s true. Many of us think the life of a contractor or plumber or motorcycle mechanic would be far more satisfying than “the life of the mind”. Painting is another way to avoid “the life of the mind” for me, but that’s another story.) Chekhov is always funny and absolutely accurate–and chilling even when he’s funny. I started watching another, more recent production of the play on film, with Kristin Scott Thomas, to see if it was easier to hear the dialog, and it is–for another day–and it actually looks less mannered, maybe closer to a film than a play. But Olivier’s version conveyed the power of the story, which is moving, full of affection for the little troupe of lost souls trapped in a town 900 miles from their beloved Moscow.  It would be hard to make a mess of Chekhov, though I’m sure it can be done.

The worldview of the play in a few quotes:

IRINA. Tell me, why is it I am so happy today? As though I were sailing with the great blue sky above me and big white birds flying over it. Why is it? Why?

CHEBUTYKIN [kissing both her hands, tenderly]. My white bird. . . .

IRINA. When I woke up this morning, got up and washed, it suddenly seemed to me as though everything in the world was clear to me and that I knew how one ought to live. Dear Ivan Romanitch, I know all about it. A man ought to work, to toil in the sweat of his brow, whoever he may be, and all the purpose and meaning of his life, his happiness, his ecstasies lie in that alone. How delightful to be a workman who gets up before dawn and breaks stones on the road, or a shepherd, or a schoolmaster teaching children, or an engine-driver. . . . Oh, dear! to say nothing of human beings, it would be better to be an ox, better to be a humble horse as long as you can work, than a young woman who wakes at twelve o’clock, then has coffee in bed, then spends two hours dressing. . . . Oh, how awful that is! Just as one has a craving for water in hot weather I have a craving for work. And if I don’t get up early and work, give me up as a friend, Ivan Romanitch.

***

VERSHININ . . . . I think that I do know and thoroughly grasp what is essential and matters most. And how I should like to make you see that there is no happiness for us, that there ought not to be and will not be. . . . We must work and work, and happiness is the portion of our remote descendants [a pause]. If it’s not for me, but at least it’s for the descendants of my descendants. . . .

TUZENBAKH. You think it’s no use even dreaming of happiness! But what if I’m happy?

VERSHININ. No, you’re not.

TUSENBAGH [flinging up his hands and laughing]. It’s clear we don’t understand each other. Well, how am I to convince you?

[MASHA laughs softly.]

TUSENEACH [holds up a finger to her]. Laugh! [To VERSHININ] Not only in two or three hundred years but in a million years life will be just the same; it doesn’t change, it remains stationary, following its own laws which we have nothing to do with or which, anyway, we’ll never find out. Migratory birds, cranes for instance, fly backwards and forwards, and whatever ideas, great or small, stray through their minds, they’ll still go on flying just the same without knowing where or why. They fly and will continue to fly, however philosophic they may become; and it doesn’t matter how philosophical they are so long as they go on flying. . . .

MASHA. But still, isn’t there a meaning?

TUZENBAKH. Meaning. . . . Here it’s snowing. What meaning is there in that? [A pause.]

MASHA. I think man ought to have faith or ought to seek a faith, or else his life is empty, empty. . . . To live and not to understand why cranes fly; why children are born; why there are stars in the sky. . . . You’ve got to know what you’re living for or else it’s all nonsense and waste [a pause].

***

MASHA. Happy people don’t notice whether it is winter or summer. I think if I lived in Moscow I wouldn’t mind what the weather was like, . . .

VERSHININ. The other day I was reading the diary of a French minister written in prison. The minister was condemned for the Panama affair. With what enthusiasm and delight he describes the birds he sees from the prison window, which he never noticed before when he was a minister. Now that he’s released, of course he notices birds no more than he did before. In the same way, you won’t notice Moscow when you live in it. We have no happiness and never do have, we only long for it.

***

IRINA [lays her head on OLGA’S bosom]. A time will come when everyone will know what all this is for, why there is this misery; there will be no mysteries and, meanwhile, we have got to live . . . we have got to work, only to work! Tomorrow I’ll go alone; I’ll teach in the school, and I’ll give all my life to those who may need me. Now it’s autumn; soon winter will come and cover us with snow, and I will work, I will work.

OLGA [embraces both her sisters]. Time will pass, and we shall go away for ever, and we shall be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, and how many there were of us; but our sufferings will pass into joy for those who will live after us, happiness and peace will be established upon earth, and they will remember kindly and bless those who have lived before. Oh, dear sisters, our life is not ended yet. We shall live! . . . .  it seems as though in a little while we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering. . . . If we only knew — if we only knew!

CHEBUTYKIN [humming softly]. “Tarara-boom-dee-ay!” [Reads his paper.] It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.

OLGA. If we only knew, if we only knew!

Horace and Pete

louie-season-4-review_article_story_largeA little news in my inbox from the funniest man in America :

Hello friend guy lady or other,

Some of you are aware that, last Saturday, I launched a new series on my site louisck.net called “Horace and Pete”. I’m writing now to tell you some stuff about it….

Horace and Pete is a new show that I am producing, directing, writing, distributing and financing on my own.  I have an amazing cast: Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, Aidy Bryant, Steven Wright, Kurt Metzger and other guest stars.  Also Paul Simon wrote and performed the theme song which is beautiful.

The response to episode one has been great so far and there are more coming.  We are making them now and having a lot of fun doing it. MORE

Alchemical sludge

John Sabraw, “Axioma VII” (2015), mixed media on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches (McCormick Gallery)

John Sabraw, “Axioma VII” (2015), mixed media on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches (McCormick Gallery)

John Sabraw applies his alchemy to sludge, turning it into art by extracting pigment from it and then creating images of nature, under siege, autumnal, and weirdly beautiful. Turning poison into paint becomes a modern version of creating gold from lead. It isn’t just symbolic but a way to make cleanup a potentially profit-generating industry. An example of his recent work is on view at Manifest’s Secret Garden exhibition right now. Last year, Hyperallergic did an appreciative story on his use of toxic runoff to create pigments and offered examples of the finished work, as impressive as everything he’s done in the past. From Hyperallergic:

You can see the process in detail in a short documentary by Jacob Koestler, but in essence, the team takes samples from the most polluted areas, neutralizes the pH, then separates the concentrated iron from the clean water. As Kalliopi Monoyios reported for Scientific American last month, one goal of the project is to see if there’s a way that remediation could pay for itself through a sustainable product. Iron oxide pigments include familiar names like ochre, sienna, and umber, whose use dates back tens of thousands of years. In theory, production of pigments from the toxic sludge on a large scale could be marketable and support the removal of the pollutants as its own industry.

Darwin, science, religion, art, ice cream

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Adam Gopnik

Last month, Adam Gopnik, a regular writer for The New Yorker, drew an unusual connection between art criticism and religion in this conversation with Krista Tippett who hosts the On Being podcast. Before he got to that, he offered interesting thoughts on how he can be a devoted Darwinist and still take his Jewish faith seriously, as well as a husband who appreciates his wife’s Christianity. He named his children Darwin and Auden (after the poet, who was a Christian.) I’ve been bringing religion into this blog fairly often lately, against my better judgement, since it’s such a politicized topic now. I think painting and religious faith are close siblings. Schools of art, or fixed theories about what art needs to be, are maybe a bit more like organized religions. I’ll leave it to you, and maybe Kierkegaard, to separate the good from the bad in those last two sentences. (Jim Mott and I talk about this quite a bit, which reminds me that I still have to write about my conversation with him.) I see a parallel between art and faith partly because of the way both try to point toward the whole of human experience. Art does it with a quiet, indoor voice–at least the art I love. In contrast to organized religion, which seems to make a lot of noise now, genuine faith more often than not withdraws into silence. Art and faith attempt to draw attention to the entirety of life, the whole of things. How art does this is something only Proust and Samuel Beckett, of all people, offer suggestions that make sense to me, in a tentative way, but that’s for another post. The point is to trigger in the practitioner an imaginative and felt apprehension of the totality of life. For me painting at its best offers a certain kind of attention, a level of awareness, that combines gratitude, joy, affirmation, and a sort of impartial honoring of things as they are. The spirit of painting for me is: “before it’s gone, take a look at how amazing this apple is!” Painting is akin to meditation or prayer: a way of strenuously attempting to see what’s there in front of you, and inside you, as clearly as possible, without distortion. (Would that describe phenomenology as well?) And in both there’s a constant element of self-doubt, a questioning of whether or not what you’re seeing, and doing, is true or real or right or even just worthwhile.

All of this represents, in a different sphere, the striving at the heart of most faiths, especially the element of self-doubt. In contrast to how many people think faith means certainty, including a lot of believers. But to get back to Gopnik (who didn’t talk about any of this) he makes a point that art criticism, not art itself, is a practice before it’s a dogma–he got there by talking first about Darwin and religion. I think that distinction between practice and dogma works much better for art itself than for art criticism. Art is a practice that tends to spin off fixed principles, and schools, and prejudices against this or that in favor of that or this (the way faith splits up into antagonistic sects) but primarily it’s a non-conceptual way to see into the nature of things. Learning how to paint is learning how to be aware. It isn’t an activity that springs from conceptual origins (at least not the kind of painting I practice.) Instead of illustrating ideas, painting tries to show life–and show it in terms that can’t be translated into words or concepts and maybe, to some individual degree, in ways that haven’t been seen before. Dogma and ideas are beside the point. Practice is everything. Doing, not thinking.

This distinction between practice and dogma links back to religion. It’s the pivotal distinction of Karen Armstrong’s recent writing about God. She talks about how religion and faith are learned behaviors, ways of being in the world, that can’t be reduced to dogma, and have very little to do with the various “beliefs” which can be asserted as propositions about the world. Art integrates human experience though learned skills. Art doesn’t assert propositions. Faith works in the same way. What’s incredible about a great painting is that, rising up out of long practice, long learning of skills, you might get work that resonates with a sense of the whole of life and conveys what is true and good–as the artist strives to adhere to those things in something as simple as the way she applies her paint. All of these things are equally true, in a slightly different and more important way, for the discipline of a Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, or Christian. The goal is the same: to act in harmony with what’s real and true, through years of practice. The hope is to create an extremely humble, living relationship with the world beyond your head, as Matthew Crawford puts it, while being acutely aware of how difficult it is for your mind to remain aware of its own severe limitations and its default setting for despair, cynicism, and doubt.

Here is a sample of Gopnik’s comments. I’m puzzled by the genealogy he rattles off–I think I would reorder the isms a bit. Surrealism begat abstract expressionism didn’t it? But he makes his point:

Krista Tippett: How does your reverence for Darwin . . . influence your sense of religion?

Gopnick: I always see Darwin as the model of the active explanation, the ethics of explanation. It affects my own feelings about the universe because it’s demonstrative about the possibility that you can be completely committed to a rational, material explanation of how we got here without being committed to a reductive account of our own experience. You can believe that there’s a completely rational account of how we got here but you can never fully rationalize what we feel here: it’s central to Darwin’s distinction between two different kinds of time. It’s the hardest reconciliation to attempt. That is that anybody who, like Darwin, is committed to science is acutely aware of the limits of scientific explanation. The greatest philosopher of science in the 20th century, Karl Popper, always said the realm of science was small. There is a huge realm of human experience that would never be susceptible to scientific explanation. That didn’t mean it could be subsumed into the supernatural. But there were realms of what for lack of a better word you call spiritual or numinous experience, or simply the experience of sensibility, everything summed up in . . . songs and poems and novels and spirituals all the other ways we have of organizing our experience . . . he believed he had discovered the secrets of life, but nothing could explain the mysteries of living.

Krista: Which is also the confusion that brings us to the religious part of life–community, texts, teaching.

Gopnick: And practices. I’m trying to write a book of memoirs on coming to New York in the 1980s. I was in the art world in those years. I was getting a degree in art history, God help me. I realized then that understanding modern art really was like a religion in that it was a practice before it was a dogma. You could never really get it by understanding the way one picture had changed another, how cubism had created expressionism which created surrealism and so on. It was a practice of interpretation. That is something that is insufficiently well understood. What religion brings us is a practice, not a dogma. The idea of having a spiritual practice is one that’s completely compatible with having a skepticism about dogma. Science demands that we be skeptical of our own theories.

Gopnik doesn’t quite get to the heart of it: religion and art aren’t simply about “feeling” or “sensibility.” But that’s more a limitation of the language, rather than a fault in his view–these are the words you end up resorting to, for lack of better terms. BTW, on the subject of art criticism, the Entitled Opinions episode on Diderot touches on how he approached each painting he wrote about without applying any formal system to his critique or response. You’ll also learn he was crazy about ice cream.

Bill and Jean Stephens

HEARTSCOMBINED1-72Bill writes about an upcoming show:

Been busy here in the studio, entered a couple of shows and continue to draw everyday. Jean and I collaborated on two works that will be shown @Makers Gallery and Studio opening on Valentines Day. The show will feature artist couples who were asked to produce 2 works combining each other skills and concepts. I attached one of the works for you to see.

Jim’s epic journey

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Jim Mott recently returned from what had to be his longest itinerant painting project, spending months on the road, and driving across the country, nearly coast-to-coast, and back again. He had lined up homes where he could stay, MORE

Walter Mitty, c’est moi

George Steiner, by Alecos Papadatos

George Steiner, by Alecos Papadatos

I’m feeling a little Vichy lately, as I surrender to the forces that occupy my time and space. I’m openly collaborating with things that constrain me. My painting for now has become something I remember fondly. (I’m working a bit, but not nearly enough.) Mostly painting has become one of Walter Mitty’s heroic daydreams, something I can only crave to do, while my actual daily life has been overtaken by helping others. (Those who teach art must feel this way constantly.) And I’ve literally pushed myself into a corner. I’ve voluntarily moved my studio from the largest room on our first floor to an upper room, in a southern corner of the house, half the size of my studio for the past decade, but with much better light. I need that direct sun on a few days it appears; I can’t tolerate another gray Rochester winter with nothing but a northern exposure. I’ve fled to that room the way Van Gogh lit out for the Midi.

But all along, I feel as if I’m shoving myself aside, making room for everyone else to live in the space where I ought to be working. (My former studio, our new living room, has become our formal “parlor,” our living room. Which is what the space was designed to be. One of my wife’s friends asked her, “How did you get him to do that?” She said, “He did it all by himself.” She refrained from adding with a smile, “Lucky me.”) As with everything in life, while I do what I know is the most meaningful of all my efforts–caring for my parents and brother (who broke his arm over the holiday and can’t drive), spending time with my children and grand-daughter for a week, reuniting with my little band of brothers from college earlier last year–I feel I’m neglecting my real work. Helping others is easier, because my social life actually requires so much less effort than making a picture. It feels as if I’m on a vacation, being irresponsible. It’s frustrating only because it’s time consuming. While the actual meaning in my life is hidden there in those tedious hours of helping out, whenever I sacrifice work time for the people who matter to me, I’m discouraged because I can’t make meaning by creating a picture. Why worry about making meaning? It’s already there in everything I’m doing–but mostly what I feel MORE

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Peaches, Diarmuid Kelley

Diarmuid Kelley

A Guide to the New Elizabethans, Diarmuid Kelley, oil on linen, 60 x 53 1/2

A Guide to the New Elizabethans, Diarmuid Kelley, oil on linen, 60 x 53 1/2

More here.

Waiting

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Most writing on art is by people who are not artists: thus all the misconceptions.

—Eugène Delacroix

That’s a quote from a book excerpt in the latest Atlantic about storytelling, which has some references to painting, and a nice quote from Robert Hughes. My life right now has been and will continue to be a long obstacle course that keeps me from painting, and I expect not to be able to get back to it for another couple months. After a year of multiple demands on my time–some of them voluntary, like my ride through New England, but most unavoidable–I’m facing two months with a total focus on some bread-winning writing, which is interesting and challenging, but may be my last chance to keep making a living at it. If it doesn’t succeed, I’ll have far more time to paint, but it will mean less income at an age when I don’t have many options left. Right now, all I want to do is get back to painting. All in due time. My down time is forcing me to imagine where I want to go, when I get back to the easel, and that’s what I’m doing, with some good results. It’s frustrating to have to keep waiting to act on it, though. But at least I’ll be ready and focused when I can.