Category Archives: looking at art

clarifying the door

This piece startled me. Unmistakably Chagall, unmistakably modern, while being uncharacteristically direct as a narrative. I was already thinking about targets, about careful communication with the viewer (see last post). And then this. Chagall nails it. And he wants to make sure you can see it too.

Normally Chagall’s work is typified by dream like, color-filled reflections from his charmed Lithuanian childhood. The artist grew up in a happy Hasidic community, which shaped his worldview. “Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.”

But by the end of the Second World War, his hometown, of 240,000, Vitebsk, had been decimated with only 118 survivors. The year for this crucifixion piece was 1938 just after the Nazi’s raided synagogues in Kristallnacht, “Night of the Broken Glass.” And so the artist has placed Jesus right in the middle between advancing Communists on the left, and German destruction on the right. Above the cross are lamenting Jews, including one of Chagall’s characteristic prophet figures. The mourners are reacting to events even as they are clustered before the speaking prophet. This is in contrast to the Jews on the ground, below the cross who are fleeing every which way. One wears a sign “Ich bin Jude”. The dying man on the cross is obviously also a Jew, wearing only a Tallit or prayer shawl.

Too easily is Jesus dismissed in any age. Chagall in his age makes a distinct effort to point him out. The dying Messiah is the focal point compositionally midst everything that distracts. The light from the candelabra is missing one lit branch, while light from way above the prophet illuminates the prophet’s call to listen. And so no one can miss it, Chagall letters it out in Hebrew: “Jesus Christ is King of the Jews”.

This is not Chagall’s first attempt at a crucifixion. Such a sign is difficult for any Jew. But the events in Chagall’s history, both personal and global, demanded an ultimate statement of conviction. There is no question but that this is deeply felt, and as is so often the case with Chagall: picturing hope. In case that is too abstract an assumption, let the artist speak for himself: “For about two thousand years a reserve of energy has fed and supported us, and filled our lives, but during the last century a split has opened in this reserve, and its components have begun to disintegrate: God, perspective, colour, the Bible, shape, line, traditions, the so-called humanities, love, devotion, family, school, education, the prophets and Christ himself.”

‘My painting represents not the dream of one people but of all humanity’.

Listen to how a contemporary singer-songwriter has tried to illuminate this.

I recently came across another clarified statement from the writer John Updike, reflecting on the resurrection which followed this death of the Jew Jesus:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable,

a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

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.

 

engagement

If someone were to ask me “what is the most fun thing you ever did?” I would easily say, taking my grandsons through the Metropolitan Museum of Art! They flew all the way out from their west coast to a family wedding. Our son flagged us to join them in NYC afterwards and we jumped in the car (retirement has it’s great rewards)! Another close to me said “mom, don’t get your hopes up, the boys won’t be interested.” Well, that only made me work harder to set up something that could keep three school age boys alert in one of my favorite buildings on earth!

Here are just a couple fun shots. We investigated the motivations of artists through history. From Greek dynamism to the Egyptian funerary rules. From Renaissance perspective to Contemporary abstraction, the boys stayed engaged sketching, and questioning for 4.5 hours! Am I excited? The images give a glimpse of a most fun day. I think what was gathered here won’t soon be forgotten. I know I won’t!

a kindness multiplied

avery-head-printI’m not dressed for printmaking. Instead this one night, I attended an art opening of politically motivated art accompanied by an interesting lecture. The show’s juror, Eric Avery is a retired MD and an accomplished printmaker, who has been involved in humanitarian work throughout his dual career. A compassionate man, grappling with human despair, Avery is still mining an early experience he had viewing a man’s bisected skull during an autopsy.

The artist had shipped up to TN before his arrival a large carved block to be printed in our studio here at the University. My friend John Hilton, who teaches the printmaking courses this term was the printer for Avery, spooning the block print onto fragile mulberry paper. After the lecture, knowing John would be working late, I went up to say hi and got to put my hands on the emerging print.

It is only because John is such a generous friend that he let me work Eric’s piece for a few moments. It was only because Avery mentioned John with thanks that I knew this was going on. And only because Avery shared his own heart in the lecture that I understood the reasoning and the depth of pathos behind the head image. I am just a bystander to this particular story, but a graced one. Avery himself was a bystander during the autopsy that occurred early in his career. Sometimes though, grace gives you a stark and disruptive glimpse into the horror of death, the particular vacancy visible when all that’s left is gaping tissue and fluid. Where has what was precious gone then? None of us can be bystanders to this concern. We can barely handle this, indeed I think we cannot. We go numb. Avery keeps retuning directly to it in his graphic images. God says repeatedly through the prophets to “Consider” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Haggai). The fact that there are artisans and prophets who ponder in time and try to awaken us is just another kindness. For me it comes down to this: horror is mediated in ways that allow us to participate in a very necessary exchange.

Thank-you Eric, thank-you John, thank-you thank-you Jesus, the champion over death, the flesh reconstituter, the kindest of grace giving prophets.

 

Handwriting on the wall

You’ve heard the phrase. Do you know the story’s source?

Long ago, during a time of national upheaval, a time of disintegration into mockery, there appeared words written ominously on the public wall. The drunken king, now alarmed, had to bring in a forgotten Hebrew prophet to decode the warning. The decoder, Daniel, spoke boldly, clearly and then was draped with a purple robe (he did not want). The frightened monarch, focus of the warning, within hours lost his kingdom and his life. Daniel’s proclamation remains, echoing through the histories of nations. “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. You have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. Your kingdom has been given over.”

 

The only handwriting that can cut through chaos comes from the words of God.

 

30Ó X 36Ó Embossing with gold leaf

30Ó X 36Ó
Embossing with gold leaf (permission granted from the artist)

When God’s words are highlighted, there is still opportunity to attend to them before the demise.

 

We have a good friend we’ve known for years. Late in his thoughtful life now, he is sensing there is handwriting on our public wall. This man has gone back to the words of God, and become an Orthodox Jew. We dialogue all the time, for we have much that matters in common. Recently I sent him this image, which in its simplicity pictorializes the difference between the words given to Moses at Sinai, and the last word given by Jesus, the Jew. One can’t fully understand the first writing without the decoding grace of the second. This collograph, replete with Hebrew markings, was crafted by another thoughtful wayfarer: Sandra Bowden. The work is titled “Law and Grace.” And as with the frightened king, there is opportunity now. We stand between the giving of the words, and their conclusion. Fear is in the air. Fear, even desperate fear is the soil in which the seeds of wisdom can take root. Grace is the produce, hard-won. Grace speaks out from that very same source.

 

 

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 discernably “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.

 

SavoryI 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.

on the vacancy of meaningless-ness

“I knew nihilism, and my friend, you’re no nihilist.”
In my art History class we just finished the 20th century. My students’ lives barely skimmed the top of that century, while I lived completely immersed in half of it. I remember the horror of the photos from the Pacific war in books my father brought home. I remember the sound of the sirens from the quiet hiding annex of Anne Frank’s family. True, I only experienced these from the safety of distance, but the horror entered my soul and has never left. The image linked here (at the MOMA in NYC) is typical of the art that emerged out of Europe after that time. On this side of the ocean, the work was much more confident, though the thinkers were not. I grew up on this side of the pond, pondering Abstract Expressionism, and Matisse’s effort at order with his cutouts. I looked and then lost interest in Warhol’s reproductions, his 15 minutes of fame. It’s been said that Warhol killed art, and philosophically that case can be made. If a pianist can go on stage, dressed for performance, sit down and then 4’33” later, no finger on the keys, stand and walk away, we are done. We might as well go home. But wait. . .where is home now, maybe that no longer exists as well?

That silence (the pianist would later need to explain) was the real piece. The awaited anticipation of the unsuspecting audience, filled with nervous coughs was the real work, he would tell us. The duration was the real ‘music’ and it was indeterminate. We just needed to take his word for it.
“When I hear what we call music”, John Cage (the pianist) later explained, “it seems to me that someone is talking”. . . “I don’t need sound to talk to me”. . . “it doesn’t have to mean anything”
He spent many meaningful words trying convince us of this.

But the immense problem is that we do not want to live this way, indeterminably. After the high brow concert we still want to go home. It was nice for a time, that silence; souls do love quiet. But quiet is only satisfying in a world where things will eventually make some sense. If indeterminate quiet is all we really have, we are completely un-done.
We raise our kids, and plan our days trusting that certain things will emerge, that important things do have meaning. Cage informed us otherwise, then needed to elaborate. He had to explain because we rubes need meaning. He looked down his nose at us, even as he had to add some kind of sense to his idea. Now we are all looking beyond him.

And artists are still making work after Wahol. If all is meaningless, then why make work? Marcel Duchamp admitted this, spending the rest of his life after rocking the art establishment, by just turning his back on it all and playing chess.
The nihilists are vacant, being challenged by some great work going on now with integrity and intelligence. There is also a lot of meaningless work. One of my students has decided that the work he wants to do “needs to have meaning”.

 

encounter at the gym

IMG_7287Amid the noisy machines, flashing tv screens and the running track, there is a window at my fitness center. It is a glass block section that scatters light into the space where we work. Everyone inside has an individual training plan going on. There’s sweat, determined looks, clocks, and all around the sounds of metal clanking. I was tromping along with my earbuds locked into a current-events podcast when I got stopped by this view. This was greater news.

In the Genesis account of how the world came to be, the calling forth of light was the very first creative act. Everything else followed this. As artists, (creators who move at the initiation of Creator) we know the value of light in any composition. We manage light, move it, mix it, manipulate it, arrange it, mimic it. But we cannot create it out of nothing.
The reflected light dancing on the sill here is so lyrical, cast forward by the waves in the glass, received on another plane and resting there all day for anyone to notice. But the source of this light is what captured me and still continues to quietly move me. The light is not a blinding flood, or an enchanting deception but rather a beckoning presence. And it is highlighted all the more because of the shadows mingling near it. This was a singular moment.

I spent a little time here, turning my phone from talking machine to image recorder. After a bit of sheer enjoyment, I went back to the busy track. The news on the podcast I could not repeat to you now, though it was important. The calories lost and the cardio exercised was necessary. But the experience with this light is sustaining for me, even today. For this was not just about the passing of something pretty. It was an engagement with the maker of pretty.

Imagine if you were walking through a space and came across the illumination in a painting by Carravagio. This might stop you too. But what if Carravagio himself was standing right there, hoping you might notice. What if the artist himself was somehow translated to your time and place so that you could actually talk with him a bit if you wanted to. What would you say to him? “How did you do that?” “Why did you arrange it this way?” or maybe just “. . .thank-you”. I am thinking that Someone greater than Caravaggio is here.

at an intersection

converge

Trajectories that meet at a single point are called a convergence. Lines become a single point of intersection, and these places are rare. Rare in life, and I think intriguing in art. This image is a detail of an etching I did several years ago. The piece is called “Temporal”. The idea to me was just the wonder in the slowness of time. As things look random, time is what gives us a chance to view the quiet emergence of so much that is important: the blossoming of fruit, the maturing of character, the perfect development of every longed for thing. And in this waiting there can be great mercy as a trajectory moves toward fulfillment.

Right now in the evening sky there is an unusual convergence happening. You can see it at dusk above the western horizon. The planets Venus and Jupiter have been moving in their singular orbits closer and closer toward a meeting as seen from our vantage point on earth. Tonight, June 30th they will be so near as to appear as one large star. The constellations (that is the star clusters that have been identified by several ancient cultures) are a pictorial back drop behind what happens as our solar system keeps moving like a swiss watch. This convergence of two planets in line with our own is happening in front of the constellation Leo. Maybe that means something. Maybe it doesn’t. But, thinking like an artist, I’m paying attention. Something’s happening here.

patterns below

When random sound moves to even a hint of rhythm, instinctively human ears take note to listen more carefully. Patterns alert curiosity, giving clues as to some kind of intention. Imagine being in a deep woods when a distant tapping becomes metered. Anyone might begin to wonder “what is happening here that I maybe need to catch?” Is someone trying to send a signal? Is there some kind of purposeful activity going on up ahead?
Patterns in visual work bring a similar alertness. Our eyes look for the connections, for any relationships that reveal the pattern-maker’s idea. Sometimes even just the suggestion of intention is enough to sharpen the observer’s gaze.
Pattern is inherently interesting. It is curious while also even calming, especially in the midst of much else that appears random. But it is also mysterious and that is maybe also some of the draw.

I think some of our heightened interest is because pattern indicates some kind of promise behind the hints. Pattern then is like a veil that allures, that brings close while leaving us with more that needs investigation.
To observe pattern quite simply necessitates the expectation of more. And this I think is founded (wether we admit to this or not) in some expectation that there must be a pattern maker behind that veil. Crumbs are not left on a path unless there has been bread that has already been broken.
To glimpse the pattern and run without giving time to consider the character and intentions of the pattern maker is a sort of consumerist robbery. It is a grabbing of the gift without considering where it came from or why. One needs to take time and consideration when noting the crumbs and any other signs on the ground. One takes time looking at art because it is presupposed that someone made it with purpose. When observing the veins in a leaf, when listening to a sonata, the senses focus to understand. All of these things and many more quietly inform the observer.

Rhythms indicate a plan and a process. And process takes a measure of time.
We are hardwired, I think, to hunger after a sense of intention underneath the veil. The restfulness of this little video I shot last month is a good example of what I am thinking about still today. I sat and just observed that morning. I made myself take time. Then the gentle ripples seemed to be coalescing in a very quiet, very unified dance right in front of me. It was as if I was being reminded, again, that what is underneath, and what is far above is at work. Constantly.

 

patterns above

One evening late, near Canada this month, I was walking outside and looked up.

It was startling!

Above me was a tableau sparkling with wonderment. I remember as a child pondering the patterns in the wilderness skies. I had no concrete belief in God then, at least I didn’t until I started looking up.

I remember not too long ago having a probing conversation with a young Marine. I asked him “have you ever looked up and just wondered about all those star clusters . . ?” The young man looked at me and said, “Ma’am, we can’t see the stars in the ghetto.” I was stopped short. He returned my silence with sadness. He knew he’d stopped my wonder. Poverty is not just material.

When the vacuous haze of our own artificial light is dimmed however, when we can get away to where the simple sky is visible we have opportunity to see so much more. It hangs there for free. It has no boundaries of nation or class. In all the other centuries of history the brilliance was so much more accessible. There are star names from ancient Persian, Chinese, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopian, Hebrew and Chaldean observers who studied and followed the patterns.

I so wanted to photograph the night sky this time. I emailed a friend to find out if there could be a way to catch a record with my simple camera. No, she said, “you will just have to burn the sight onto your retina, and then paint it for us!” So I did, I burned it into my memory and in some way, I want to translate it.

The real display is still there. Find some way to look up. Here is just a tease.milky-way-984050_1280