Mindfully uncertain

Memorial Art Gallery at Night, Jim Mott, oil on board

Memorial Art Gallery at Night, Jim Mott, oil on board

I had a desultory conversation with Jim Mott recently, touching on why we paint, so I’m just going to leap into it in media res:

Jim: In a better world the agenda for painting since the Sixties might have been to integrate the abstract and the real.

Dave: Everybody tries to some degree. I think that’s really what painting is, even the most abstract is representational and vice versa.

J: But to have the dialog between them . . .

D: Right. What I love about your work is that you create that tension between the painterly quality and the image.

J: My worldview isn’t defined very well. I try to do tighter stuff but it doesn’t work. I would love it if I could do a Van Eyck. But I think it doesn’t mesh with what reality is.

D: How so?

J: The uncertainty principle. We’re here and we’re gone and everything seems indefinite. I paint not so much delineating but putting blobs of paint side by side. There’s an uncertainty about the image . . . it’s sort of playing with uncertainty rather than being oppressed by it. Even though I’d love to do something more real, I just can’t do it. It doesn’t mesh.

D: Heidegger was about that.

J: I don’t know Heidegger that well. I’m just saying things aren’t really that solid.

D: This is one of his central ideas. Death, the fact of death, means everything is destabilized. So if you are conscious of your mortality . . . nothing is certain.

J: You’ve summed it up nicely. I’ve been worried about the abyss since I was about five.

D: Anyone who is an artist has had some kind of confrontation with that.

J: Speaking of philosophy, I was on the Internet and thought I don’t want to watch junk again. I thought let’s see if there’s a lecture on Kierkegaard.

D: (I laugh out loud.) Really? Just killing time? A little Kierkegaard?

J: He would hate to be on the Internet. I found this guy doing a lecture, with a Texas twang but he was good. I checked him out and I really wanted to meet him, but it turned out he has died.

D: This lecturer you mean. Speaking of mortality.

J: Yes. The thought that he left me with, he was talking about hyper-reality and he was saying the biggest battle of our time isn’t rights or the environment. It’s reality against unreality.

D: My friend and editor Dick Todd wrote a book in which that was one of the central themes. The Thing Itself. He teaches narrative non-fiction at Goucher. I think that’s what Heidegger is mostly about. Thomas Sheehan wrote a book that just came out and I’m starting to read it and his thesis about Heidegger is that in Heidegger “being” signifies “meaning.” That’s a different tack from the usual interpretation of his philosophy. It’s the question of what really matters.

J: What was that paraphrase earlier?

D: The host of Entitled Opinions was saying, about Heidegger’s philosophy, that when you are aware of mortality and not avoiding it through inauthentic behavior, it destabilizes the world and your system of meaning so that you are faced with uncertainty. The point is not to avoid the uncertainty but face it and dwell with it.

J: That would be nice to have known that a while ago.

D: It’s there in Kierkegaard too. You have to leap.

J: We were talking about painting and Jeff Koons, trying to define what it is that defines painting, as opposed to a lot of what’s going on in art. I was thinking that when the power grid goes down you still have a painting to look at. Did you read that New Yorker piece, Adam Gopnick, who runs into Jacob Collins who’s a realist painter so he starts to learn figure drawing and how hard it is. It takes him a year or two and by then his idea of what matters in art changes. It’s great. But Collins hates everything since Manet. That’s reactionary. We aren’t reactionary. I love Ai Weiwei’s work.

D: I love his work too.

J: Meanwhile, though, we’ve still got Jeff Koons, global warming, multi-national coporations. Everything is going a certain way. I don’t see myself as reactionary or pointless, but what is our stance? I think of it more like environmental preservation.

D: That’s the essence of conservatism, the way Fairfield Porter was conservative. (Not politically or culturally, but in terms of painting.) An essay in one of the books of his paintings I have pointed out that he was conservative in the sense that he was trying to conserve certain vital qualities in painting, certain practices, in art. He respected the abstract expressionists and they liked him. De Kooning got him into his first gallery. But he liked the French painters, liked the post-Impressionists and he was saying there was something there valuable and worth preserving. It wasn’t being opposed to change or progress, but wanting to preserve what matters without resisting change.

J: Prophecy. In the Old Testament sense of someone calling attention to what’s real and what matters in a time when much of it is being lost.

D: That’s an interesting term because people associate prophecy with the future, but they were saying this is what’s real. All they were doing was saying look at what you are doing, it’s off the mark.

J: Like you said, mindfulness. It’s sort of a spiritual vocation. It would be nice if I could paint in the service of consciousness and someone else could articulate what it’s about, why it matters.

D: I agree.

J: Oh, I did something totally different. In Tuscon in November I was there for three weeks. Usually I don’t paint because I’m lazy. I wanted an excuse to paint, and I was staying with strangers and for ten days the 14-year-old son of the guy I was staying with used this random GPS generator, which I found on-line. We randomized a GPS point every day and I would go and paint there. With the guy’s son on my back, I had to do it. We’d plug in the numbers and on Google Earth we’d go, “Oh no, not there.”

D: So you’d do it again.

J: No. I’d go through with it. When it isn’t picturesque you’re more alive to it.

D: You have to really look.

I know we talked about more than this, because we’re always trying to articulate what the point of painting actually is, but this is all I’ve retained. On email, afterward, Jim elaborated a little more. He wrote:

I was motivated to write by an interview I read with W S Merwin.

Merwin mentions Max Picard, the World of Silence.  So does Merton in a book of contemplative essays I’m reading.  A very obscure book, but one of my favorites. Did I loan that to you? I can’t recall if we’ve even discussed it.  You must read it. And I have a rare book by Picard that even Merwin may not have heard of.

Well, all this, and I have to report that the highlight of my trip to Memphis was getting a tire fixed in West Memphis, Arkansas. Just interacting with surprisingly nice and very different people.

Lastly, I have been updating my website and now have a page on the Landscape Lottery that you might like. I won’t try to put a link in this message, but go to jimmott.com then news and it is the top link.   i also have a bird art page that might amuse you, i think http://www.jimmott.com/4x_birds.html      oh, i think that worked, so the other may be http://www.jimmott.com/lottery.html

My very last thought is that in these matters knowing what’s right isn’t as important as simply remembering to keep the asking and thinking going. You probably knew that already.

What jumped out at me in all of this were two things: the distinction Jim made early on about the contest between reality and unreality, in which unreality seems to be winning handily these days. I watch far too much television, for example. And the other was the notion of painting as mindfulness. Unfortunately there’s a mindfulness craze happening at the moment, but maybe that’s a good thing. Even a quickly executed painting takes a few thousand times as long as a tweet, and one that really delves into “slow time” represents a completely different sort of mind from the spider monkeys our brains are quickly becoming, unable to sit still, thanks to smartphones, tablets, laptops and cable. Painting is one way of restoring my attention span and applying the mind in a way that serves as a counterforce to the technological hive mind. It’s a way of struggling toward work as some kind of spiritual commitment, an affirmation of life that isn’t deceptive or spurious or glib, and humble as well, because it’s a way of being the servant of what you see, not the master of it—as science and technology constantly suggest we can become.

1 Response to “Mindfully uncertain”

  1. jim mott

    Hey, great transcription, Dave. Thanks for adding the Landscape Lottery link – that web page has a clearer explanation of what I was doing. I thought I’d just add the thought I sent in the latest email, since it fits:

    I just read a New Yorker article about a new miracle substance, called graphene, that everyone’s going crazy about. At huge expense, and with the tech research world mobilized, it may someday allow us to have more flexible video screens and send electronic info through our coffee mugs or have our boat paint tell us when it’s getting rusty. It can bring us closer to a world of integrated information flow. (” ‘Basically everything around us will be able to convert itself into a display on demand.'”). The researchers contrast graphene with its parent material, humble graphite, which has been just sitting there for all these years in pencils, doing nothing exciting. Why is it that I’d rather have a world of sketchers and writers than a world of linked-in coffee cups?