Category Archives: language of imagery

signs and blindness

Yesterday an artist friend and I viewed an exhibit at Penland having to do with human perception. The artist/printmaker’s aim was to “dislodge humankind’s assumption of its centrality.” Her work was inventive, but left me empty. For, if we artfully (and alertly) remove humankind from the throne of mastery, what is being offered as a guiding replacement? Is that not a concern? I see, and I sense the implications; and I need more.

Most artists would recoil at my desire for a follow up plan. They would say they want to ask the questions, not provide any next steps. I counter, such posing is soberly irresponsible in an era of increasing trauma. The signs are all around us with record breaking hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, famines, and mounting armies. Artists are pretty good at noting some signs of the times, but have a poor track record at managing the seismic shifts. We need more than what artists (or politicians, or academicians) are laying out. So much is dying.

Christian philosopher Norman Wirzba observes that in Modernity, we rendered ourselves the Masters. The resultant cultural mind-set assumes that whatever sense there is in the world needs to come from us, and us alone (for God was dethroned long ago). That explains the dogged insistence that ‘we can still figure this out’, that ‘we can fix it all’; even while post-moderns are at least admitting that we have lost control. Few are looking at much beyond the walls of their own perception.

Blindness has been a human problem since long before Modernity. And Jesus had much to say about it. He knew the people around him (with working eyes, ears and brains) had a perception problem. He loved them anyway. He artfully spoke and performed signs right in front of all in a way that revealed who was actually perceiving. In fact, He said that the signs given by Him then, and in the future that He predicted, would not be grasped by the willfully blind. And even better than a prophet with perfect accuracy, better than any artist with probing questions, Jesus offered the next steps for the only sure way through the chaos. He’s Creator after all; and chaos was, in the beginning, just a working canvas.

artwork: Susan Goethel Campbell, detail of Ground No.5, 2017, Inverted, dried earth, dead grass

to craft

A recent article explored the question “Why does craft matter in a digital age” The insights there are worth a look. Here are some snipets from artists trying to explain: Craft is “a way of thinking”, “beyond the cerebral… and through our hands”, “it slows everything down”,  “it’s close to the body”.  Japanese glass artist, Yoshiaki Kojiro: “Craft is an event that starts with a physical sense of relationship between materials and people.”

All this and more fascinates me for the Creation account in Genesis 2 has God Himself getting his hands into the dirt, in time, on the ground to make things. Then we are tasked, after His exampling, to make things. It’s in the making that seeing is enhanced. It’s in the time taken and slowed down where relationships are better understood. It’s work, but strangely hope-filled.

Yet conversely, in what we call ‘real life’ we talk of “sound bites” and “visual grabs”, about “fake news” and “photo-shopped reality”. All the while we’re racing past what is real, missing the bigger things worth considering that will last all this.

I have been crafting. I’m working on a large oil on paper piece for a show. If I can get it where I want it, I’ll show it here first, maybe in the next post. I also have been crafting a small book. I pressed “approve” this morning, and soon this webpage will offer it for your consideration. The reason for the writing (and it’s taken 6 long years) is because the One who got His own hands into the dirt moved me to take the materials within my grasp of understanding and see if I could make something of it.

 

 

 

target

Jasper Johns’ 66 inch square piece is showcased at the Art Institute of Chicago and it jogged some thought. Johns’ intention when he made this and several other target images in the 60’s, was that viewers would see something familiar, “something the mind already knows” as a bridge or a catalyst toward further meaning. He was using the known to pry loose more that is not yet grasped.  

Jasper’s approach here was a significant departure from the way celebrated American artists were working at the time.

Johns was seeking to communicate. The Abstract Expressionists before him insisted primarily that there was nothing to communicate, only to express (hence Jackson Pollock would usually only number and not title his work). Johns instead was involving the viewer in an investigation. His own expression was not the end point but rather he made things with a certain interest in the receiver of His work. He also was demonstrating an expectation that there were things still discoverable that were valuable. The Abstract Expressionists, on the other hand, were a product of post-war deflation of ideas and of hope (even as some of their work is filled with exquisite gestures of communicative interest in spite of their claims otherwise).

 Johns turns a corner on their insistent meaninglessness. He and his friend Robert Rauschenberg used popular signals to prompt the viewer. In fact in the detail here you can see how his medium is part of the messaging. He has embedded newspaper bits into encaustic wax, which hints at much more than just target practice, more than just a simple billboard with primary colors.

I am interested in how Johns seized his moment in history, reflecting on what was immediately vogue yet inadequate, and came up with a way forward. His way is not condescending to his audience, he is inviting them further along with him. That motivation is why this piece is so instructive.

The Abstracters left some damage in the wake of their insular assumptions. Many art newbies resist looking at non-objective work because they think they’re being played by an artist who cares little for their understanding, or who is in some stratosphere above their grasp. They shrink away, feeling belittled.

But Johns and Rauschenberg used common things to speak artfully. Their work was not simple even considering the commonness of items they used. Those common things were stepping stones, an invitation to dialogue with the eyes and with the mind.  

To have regard for the viewer or the patron is sometimes mocked as pandering by artists who remain independent characters in any age. But to disdain anyone who stands before your work and not encourage their opportunity to critique and to explore is in my view elitist: a dead end rather than an offered target. The writer Brenda Ueland spoke of a certain necessary generosity with the craft. Her thoughts were a whole new way of encouraging the “why” of doing art for me. And Johns exhibits it.

 

images are appetizer

You’ve been to the events—hungry and wondering how long until the meal would be served. Then someone shows up with a tray of small things, artfully arranged, inviting you to take. It’s a welcome thing. It leads you in and tides you over. Small tastes, like tapas, awaken the buds. A meal of this would not be enough, but the little bit is like a promise: that more is coming and that it is going to be good.

Images are like this. They awaken, and they prompt forward. They are unobtrusive, quick, and just enough to get one’s hunger pangs a little more hopeful.

Yesterday I had a team helping me flesh out some of the images sketched on some mural walls. The kids who use this space after school each day are watching the progress magically appear. Even the littlest ones have opinions about which figure is the prettiest princess, about where the path is going to go, about whether their own face gets to be included in the final result.

The artists meanwhile worked intently to get the strokes and the colors just right, while I was slapping the landscape connectors in like a banshee. I am the one who knows how much more needs to be done. There is metaphor in all this for me. I’m affected to tears even as I type just thinking about the “meaning connectors” and how this all speaks to my life.

There are little ones who want their faces included. There are bigger ones who want their work to shine, and there is one (in charge) and in a hurry who is somehow going to get it all done in time. I identify with every one of these motivations. Seems to me it’s all part of a much bigger picture. I’m the little kid, I’m one of the struggling artists, and I am working with the One who is moving toward a much more important and satisfying finish. All this is just appetizer.

departing light

I will end the year with a simple post and a simple piece. After the workshop I taught, putting materials away, I decided to play on my own just a bit more. This one is a success and I matted it with an Emily Dickinson poem I have loved:

 

 

“By a departing light

We see acuter quite,

Than by a wick that stays.

There is something in the flight

That clarifies the sight

And decks the rays.”

#1714 in Johnson’s Dickinson Chronology, posted on the winter’s solstice, mourning a close friend’s departing, even as we light candles to remember the son of all light who came into our darkness to save us, and surely He did.

 

why do you work?

Artists examine things. Looking under rocks for clues is maybe another way to say this. And for many of us, digging at our own personal reasons for creating is a necessary hazard in that examining process. The inner motivation behind the working has to be understood and it has to be bigger than our ability or why bother? It’s intimidating to stay at it. There’s got to be a compelling drive that keeps one at it. Sometimes this is intuitively exciting, other times it is a slog that ends up surprisingly fruitful, or sadly not.

Until the next day’s try.

There’s a long road of other artists who have gone before to learn from. There are many right now who are making tracks. But what moves me the most is inspiration that takes off from some well-chosen and very fertile words.

I taught a small workshop this month with a couple eager beavers who were willing to try their hand at abstracting using some new materials. It’s true for me and I hoped would be for them that the cutting edge of “not knowing really how” would produce some exciting personal discovery. They came with only some favorite words to work off of.

Voila, or “There it is!” was the result after a couple hours of experimentation. We really are creative whether we understand how we’re made or not. The excitement in getting a glimpse of that is contagious. This finished result was just one of several little gems made that night. Liz illuminated a favorite quote from Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write”: “Since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of time, you are incomparable.”

“What do you see?”

Zechariah’s prophetic work is a set of visual appetizers, given by God that the writer (and then the reader) is to examine and to absorb, bite by bite. Spiritual Tapas? I’ve taken to drawing out the little visions recounted in the margins of my text. For those who like square meals and tight ships, this is not a simple, nor a satisfying book. You’ll be left hanging. It’s only part of a whole. But as with poetry, or with a gestural stroke, his visions leave you with an eager sense: that there’s more, there is really more.

God through this prophet gives a whole lot of hints, with flying scrolls and lidded baskets, through scattering horns and sprouting lamps that there are “craftsmen” who are presently at work. To me, this idea is pregnant with hope. Especially at this season of advent. Especially after such a contentious national election. “Then, they will look on Me” God says, and what is described there in the 12th chapter has not yet happened in history. It is yet to happen, though spoken out some 2500 years ago. And the mourning that follows will be a cleansing, and a fountain will be opened.

So God says “what do you see?” as He schools the prophet with these visions. I love that invitation to engage. It is no lecture from a high and holy stage. It is no thundering judgment. It is an opportunity to look and to consider, now in time. The news cycles flash past so fast these days. We travel to and fro, trying somehow to maintain equilibrium while on an accelerating treadmill. God says it quietly, and again, “what do you see?”

test-2fixedtest-1fixedI am inserting here two little experiments with some inks for a workshop I’ll be conducting next week. Beginners will be introduced to some of the rationale behind abstraction’s promise. If some good work shows up from some of these craftsmen, I’ll be sure to post.

 

unifying the mural

at-workIn some previous posts, I’ve highlighted the portrait work begun this summer for a community space, an after school refuge for kids. On a recent Saturday, a group of us gathered for several hours to paint in a basic background to set the avatars into a landscape. This entire tableau is going to be a storied timeline, further to be detailed and linked. Do I sound like I know what I’m doing? I laugh at the thought and my own chutzpah. I’ve never tackled something this big! But the stars aligned this year for the project. The ideas clicked, the grant money provided, the kids showed enthusiasm, and the time came available soon after I was asked to consider spearheading the venture. It’s going to come to a unified completion with a little help from friends. It’s way better together. Our goal is to have these two long hallway walls completed with all the elements by Christmas.

holding Hope

A poet started to touch on it this way, “It might be lonelier without the Loneliness—“

Emily Dickinson’s self imposed house arrest allowed her eyes to see and her words to express things that other mortals often avoid. The poet is deliberate in capitalizing “the Loneliness” for she is speaking of something that is beyond surface. Her existential concern (hinted at by the capitol letter L in this case) grasps at that which casts forward past known time and limited place. Hope is a theme in her work because of the confidence she gained in the enigmatic hope supplier.

This is not Pollyanna dreaming. This is hard won, tested and true. It is mixed with fears and challenges and suffering. It wins only because of the Winner.

“When I hoped I feared—

Since I hoped I dared

Everywhere alone

As a Church remain—

Spectre cannot harm—

Serpent cannot charm—

He deposes Doom

Who hath suffered him—“

heThe small painting inserted here got finished today. It is one from the series I mentioned last post. Looking up is not the anesthesia of escape artists. It is rather a choice, based on sure evidence made more necessary in darkening times. It looks in trust toward that (rather Him) who holds beyond our fragile spaces.

first fragment cited is from Dickinson’s poem #405, the second is the entire poem #1181 (Johnson’s Chronology)

seeing for meaning

Before an exhibition, a young family member asked me, “could you give me some help as to how I ought to understand what I will be seeing?” The humility of his question endeared me to him–that he even cared to know beyond just fulfilling a social obligation. But I wondered whether art, any art, has lost its potential to communicate if folks in front of it remain only bewildered.

The Art Historian H.R. Rookmaaker gave thoughtful overview in his writings as to how Art, as we practice and observe it in the modern and post-modern eras has lost its voice. In the very centuries where artmaking became high Art, celebrated by elites (who alone could interpret it) and enshrined in museums, these artifacts no longer held much common value. Artists were billed from the Renaissance on as geniuses, and high priests of culture. But culture has turned away, and pop-art or entertainment art has taken up the void. Now it is not just the artists who are starving.

Artifact or artificial, is this the only choice? No wonder young viewers feel duped before any display of work.

I think of the beauty of certain sunsets (and some are discernibly “better” than others). These are available to anyone, no museum ticket required, no proper lighting necessary, no label or title needed, no “jurying in”. Does an explanation as to purpose need to follow such fleetingly beautiful expression? The patterns of waves on sand, or birds who fly in some mysterious formation only require some attention. This is popular art that is free, potentially meaningful, hardly artificial, with no hint of cynicism.

I struggle with my own voice in my work, living as I do in such a time of disintegration. I cannot make the work of my hands “say” what I hold in my heart so often. It is not my goal to be literal, but it is a desire to lift the viewer’s eyes. A friend of mine who is a photographer, grieving deeply over the death of her husband is now doing the best work of her career. We talked of this: why are we doing this work, this searching with images? Is it meaningful, is it what we “should be doing”? We got this far in our discussion: this work is an exploration into JOY. This expression is as fleeting as a sunset and as mysterious as a bird’s flight, but it is necessary, if even just for us. I have some ability to look, and to craft. Maybe through the work of my own hands others will see meaningfully also. For this, I keep on.

an image for distinction

I’ve been thinking about the tension between the quiet voice and the piercing alarm. It is a difficult one to hold in mind, to balance with integrity, to express with any clarity. A wise friend said, “you need to help us see what you see.” I am not sure I can in a way others can grasp, except through comparisons.

There are two very different sounds going on in our time. One is slow, steady and uncelebrated. The other is an irritating, very troubling, low sounding warning. We all hear it.

With some friends recently in an exhibit, we were looking at heartening images, when each phone in each pocket started echoing an Amber Alert. Beyond the walls, someone was in desperate trouble. Phones were pulled out, screens looked at, some prayers whispered. . . and then silence. The phones were put away, some turned off. We all would rather look at the lovely things. Yes, the alarm was irritating, but necessary, and in that sense “good”. It was a sounder for someone unknown. We are living right alongside the bad, while wanting to shield ourselves with mufflers. Even using those words “good” and “bad” is up for grabs, mocked, thrown to the wind.

I am mourning the muddled distinction. I am troubled by this blurring of things that need to matter, while being lulled to sleep by the insistent matter-less. This morning I read this word “and they followed vanity and became vain.”. If what is good and what is bad is no longer acknowledged, carefully considered, wrestled with, articulated, then in our blind arrogance all we will have to negotiate through is bad.
To honor some kind of distinction then, I offer this link today. The artist, Christine LaFuente, has ability to highlight clarity of color and light in remarkable ways, but always midst very unsaturated mud colors. Look at the surrounds in her work. The settings are dim, completely uninteresting on their own. So, the piercing bits of beauty are apprehended all the more. Her gestural gems are gathered out of mud. It’s the boring that gives the beauty its chance to captivate. To me her work is a parable, a picture of the distinctiveness between that which shines, and that which is only a passing setting.

If you care to comment, look around you as you go about your day: what do you see, or hear, even just one thing: that shines, and what is only passing backdrop?