Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reflecting on Art before Game Night

Tomorrow, I get to spend time with the spouse of a friend, an artist who does collage. I'm going to try to get down some thoughts;  many of them will be highly derivative, as I am still learning to write and think about the visual arts.  This reflection is in two parts:  one on medium (especially the construction of depth in a collage) and one on theme.

Let me start with the medium.  Robert Adams does collage, and you can see at moments how he both plays with and against what we might expect in the medium.  Comparing "Horse with a Colorful Mask" to "Oregon Civil War," there is first the simple tension between the purity of the colors within "Civil War" and the lack of such purity in "Horse" -- in one piece, coloration (and whatever complexity of coloration is achieved in the piece) is achieved by the complex overlapping of pieces of paper, while in the other, within a single piece of paper, there is variation of color (was the original paper colored this way, or did Adams color it, I do not know).  "Dandy Horse" appears to be closer to "Horse" in its construction -- more variations within the sheets of paper that form the collage.

If some artists (Matisse?) turn to collage as a way of working through the limitations of painting, Adams seems to approach collage differently, as a tool that can do the work of paint, but that allows him to play differently than paint and canvas might.

Why am I fixating on this?  Because one of the most interesting aspects of Adams' collages are the way he plays with depth.  And if "Civil War" were representative of his style, I would see the way he plays with depth as indicative of the limitations he sets for himself within the medium.  Instead, in comparing the three, I see someone who can play within and against those limitations to interesting effect.  So, in "Oregon Civil War," there is depth, insofar as optical effects push some colors closer to the front of our vision than others.  But there is no field, no genuine sense of forward and back, within the frame.  The same could largely be said of the "In Formation" series, though the presence of the wood-as-canvas seems to complicate the experience of depth. "Horse" offers us something closer to genuine spatial representation.

"Dandy Horse" shows us what I think is characteristic of what Adams is really trying to do with depth, across the works I have seen (at  That is, in "Dandy Horse," there is depth created.  But it is a depth of planes.  One plane recedes behind the other, in a way like the three-dimensional "Viewmaster" slides of my youth.  The distance from the "horse" in the foreground to the trees, from the trees to the buildings, from the buildings to the mountains, from the mountains to the clouds, is incalculable, or at least, it's not a matter of interest to the artist to represent.

So what is Adams representing here, for us, in his collage work?  I look at these works, at least these three, and I feel someone who is trying to represent the ways that the world rushes forward towards us.  "Civil War" and "Dandy Horse" especially are works that, in the end, press the world forward towards the surface of the canvas.

I look at these collages and what I experience is what I experience when I fall asleep on a park bench on a sunny day (I did that a lot when I was younger).  You wake up, you open your eyes, and the sun is bright and shining and the world just rushes into your irises and you can't stop it.  Adams creates that experience in an 8x8 square.

"Horse with Colorful Mask"

"Oregon Civil War 2010, Third Quarter"

"Dandy Horse with Italian Leather Saddle"
"Anti-Aircraft Gun"

"Exploit the Opening"

I wanted to talk about theme, a little bit, but I do so with a caveat, again:  art escapes me sometimes.  So I see two themes here, and they are blunt and obvious:  a fascination with the military (perhaps biographical, given the piece called "Dad" depicts a man in military uniform) and a pop sensibility that at times reminds me of Rosenquist.  In saying that it reminds me of Rosenquist, I am not calling it derivative;  rather, the strategies of fragmentation, magnification, and intense, vibrant coloration are deployed to different effect and purpose.

So for just a second, I want to think about the confluence of the pop and military thematic.  When I was growing up, which is about the same time I think Adams was growing up, the military occupied a rather complex place in pop culture imagination.  On the one hand, the threat of nuclear war loomed large and terrifying.  Any minute now, we could all be killed in what was called "mutually assured destruction."  But oddly enough, though this was a product of the "cold war" and the "military-industrial complex," it wasn't really a function of the military.

The "military," as in "men with guns," occupied a strange location.  On the one hand, the wounds of Vietnam were still fresh.  On the other hand, a series of tiny exercises (Grenada? Libya?) and a series of movies (First Blood, probably culminating in something like "True Lies" with Arnold S.) were helping to recreate an image of the military.

I look at works like "Dad," "Horse with Mask," "Anti-Aircraft Gun," and "Exploit the Opening," and I see someone trying to work through these kinds of historical processes:  someone who, on the one hand, wants to earnestly reflect what the military is, while at the same time, hammering at some of the pop culture absurdity that accumulated around the military, especially during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

I could be crazy here.  I guess I'll find out tonight.

Friday, March 14, 2014

"To Go in Close Means Forgetting Convention, Reputation, Reasoning, Hierarchies and Self"

So I'm still playing with the idea of "likenesses" in John Berger's The Shape of a Pocket.  Briefly, and no doubt in distortion of what Berger was getting at, I am extracting the following ideas from the book, heavily inflected by what I want to make of his work (the beauty of life after tenure, I suppose, is that there are moments when you can simply bypass questions of whether you got the source material "right"):

1.  Photos are (more or less) direct representations (this can be argued with trivially;  it's a foil point to help make the claim about painting);  paintings are "likenesses."
2.  Paintings, as likenesses, try less to capture the other person, and try more to capture some kind of energetic collaboration between the painter and the subject.
3.  What the painter captures, then, is not the person, but rather the experience of the person as absent -- the traces that the other leaves behind in the mind and heart of the painter.
4.  As a result, what a painting captures, as opposed to a photo, is the experience of the other as absent.  A painting of a loved one does not bring the loved one closer, the way a photo might;  it creates both intimacy and longing, as the painting is presence and absence simultaneously.

I am way off the rails in that last bit, pushing Berger further than he would go.

Constructing the experience of presence and absence, simultaneously.

This all makes sense to me on two dimensions, one relevant to notions of "collaboration" and one relevant to notions of "presence and absence in a likeness."

Collaboration:  As a person and as a scholar, I derive the most pleasure from collaborating, from the process of working with someone to build something.  It could be a writing project, it could be a relationship.  The idea of a painting as a collaboration between the artist and the subject is so energizing to me, so much an inversion of what one might expect, I find it amazing.  I want to keep pushing it as I keep thinking about this.

Likenesses, Presence and Absence: when we talk about how a son shares a likeness with their father, we are both seeing the father present and absent.  I suppose if we say that the Judeo-Christian god made humanity "in his likeness," we can see how that might signify the presence and the absence of that God.  So I like the idea that some arts don't just produce representations;  they produce likenesses, and in that likeness, there is the simultaneous experience of absence and presence.


I am thinking, especially, of interactions I have had lately.  I am meeting new and different people, and there can be a moment of sparkling intensity at the beginning -- those moments when you are comparing notes on each others' lives to be able to see:  How are we the same?  How are we different?  How do the stories I have constructed to make sense of my life work for making sense of your life?  Will the palette of colors I have brought to our relationship capture your likeness?  (What is "umber" and why is it always "burnt" anyway?)

I can offer an example.  In an exchange with a recent colleague-friend, I heard what I thought were the traditional anxieties of the untenured -- the stresses about whether you will be "good enough" to be retained, sometimes heavily inflected with the "impostor syndrome" (the anxiety that someone will discover that you do not belong, you are an impostor).  And that narrative worked for a while, but as we kept talking, as we kept exchanging stories, I began to hear echoes of what I now recognize as the experiences of first-generation academics.  I experience the sense of dislocation that comes from being the first one in my family to finish college, the third one to finish high school, even... The palette was changing, the colors I was using to paint her, to paint our relationship and the ways we interact with each other, were changing.

I still write about listening, once in a while.  Attentive, active listening sometimes mean saying to the other person:  this is what I hear you saying.  this is where I think you are, this is who I think you are becoming, as we speak.  In doing that, I am sharing what-we-are-building with my conversational partner.  Sometimes, the sharing only makes clear the disconnect between partners in a conversation. Sometimes, the sharing becomes intense;  the back and forth, the collaboration, becomes a series of bellstrikes, more and more resonant.

Berger talks about this as a dangerous moment:  "To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self."  There is the possibility that the artist will "dissolve into the model" or be "trample[d] into the ground" by the subject.  (The cacophonous vibrations of the bells, ringing and ringing, threaten to dissolve me.)  That happens to me, sometimes, with some people, people with personalities that are bright and magnificent and sometimes troubled (because inevitably, to be bright and magnificent is to be troubled in the mundane world we share).  The other person shines and shimmers and I am mute.

But when a conversation works, when it works well, there is a real sense that we are making something together.  What we are making is the structure from which a friendship is possible, though admittedly, it may take days or weeks for that structure to be visible;  it may take weeks before one can be sure that the structure is viable.  Collaboration.


The conversation has to end, though.  Time grows short, work calls, or sleep beckons.  The bells cannot continue indefinitely;  the enervating and energizing presence of the other becomes absence.

More later...  on Presence and Absence.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Poem from a Friend

There is loss at the center of who you are.
You paper over it, and enough paper will hold your weight and you can rest.
But it's still there.  --jkd

Thursday, March 06, 2014

To feel presence despite absence must be to experience joy and loss at the same moment.

I visited three colleagues at UWS today.  One, I first met eight years ago, when I was fresh and new and eager to find colleagues.  One, I met about three years ago, and she is now a collaborator and friend.  And one, I met just a few weeks ago.  

This post is about that third person's office, which struck me as particularly vibrant, a window into some aspect of their soul that goes beyond the usual symbolic code of the professor's office.  Profs think simply about their decorations: I hang this poster, to assert my love of music.  I post this quote from some dead dude on my door, to appear wry or educated or cynical or... I carefully place this action figure or statue or other mass-produced goodie to tell students who I am as a nerd.  

Instead of mass-produced bric-a-brac, my friend's office held original works of art, painted by her husband.  Most academic nerdly, a sketch of Merleau-Ponty rests atop a shelf.   Four paintings of a toddler in a single frame stand at the edge of the desk to the left.  Two canvases, still lifes, basically, hang across the top shelf of a bookcase.  

Her office is an environment rich with art, dense with art, that gives me a chance to try out some of the ideas from The Shape of a Pocket.  

"Every authentic painting demonstrates a collaboration.... When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. He stays at a copying distance." 

Do these works represent a genuine collaboration between artist/painter and subject?  Merleau-Ponty is dead;  we will never know the answer there.  The daughter painted four times, in a surface level "Brillo" Warhol-style of repeated imagery, nonetheless feels to me like she is her father's collaborator.  In that sense, her father's struggle to paint her is not, like the Warhol gesture, the struggle to reproduce her.  She is not a can of Campbell's soup on a production line, nor is she a screenprint for a thousand posters for sale.  

The artwork, raw in its coloration in a way that brings energy to the image of the child, feels to me like a sign of artist and model, father and child, collaborating (as Berger describes the model-artist relationship) to create her in color and canvas.  I have never been a parent and may never be one, but perhaps this is in a way similar to the way that a parent must collaborate with the child (and with the child's mother) to help the child become.  The rawness, the energy there -- this is not just a painting of the child at a certain age;  it is a painting of the child as coming into being, an energy that one image could not contain, and so there needed to be four.

“What any true painting touches is an absence - an absence of which without the painting, we might be unaware. And that would be our loss.  [In a painting,] we feel less alone in face of what we ourselves see each day appearing and disappearing."

A photograph on your desk is a momento, a memory cue, designed to remind you of family and friends.  "Here is the thing that is not here," the photograph says to the viewer.  Berger believes that paintings operate differently, and I think this may be true here, too.  

Berger claims that a good painting achieves a likeness.  If I understand him correctly (and the man speaks with so much poetry, I may not), what makes a likeness possible is that, in the absence of the person, we feel them nonetheless present.  Photos make the absent present;  paintings that carry a likeness to someone make us feel the presence of the absent, even as they remain absent.  

So this painting of this beautiful daughter is not designed to make the daughter present.  A snapshot would do that.  Instead, it makes makes my friend feel the presence both of the daughter and her husband, the painter, despite their absence.

I can imagine nothing more beautiful and, at the same time, nothing more sad.  To feel presence despite absence must be to experience joy and loss at the same moment -- a complex of feelings that we don't expect to experience together.  Maybe our contemporary culture discourages these kinds of complexes of feelings.

This tension can be fixed, thankfully, when the lights are turned off and my friend can go home and make the absent present, again, with hugs.


Addendum:  My therapist has already said, several times, that "you think too much."  Yep.  Yes I do.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Media Consumption Log: Sherlock, Season 1-3

While I am deeply disappointed that this show fails the Bechdel test, I love it every minute.

Media Consumption Log: Aspen Showcase, etc.

So pretty, so vacuous.

Media Consumption Log: Deadline (Marvel Comics)

Clever premise (about a journalist investigating revenge killings with a supernatural twist), but I never found the narrator likeable.                                                                                          

Media Consumption Log: Team Titans (DC Comics)

Time traveling Teen Titans story with none of the joy I hope for in these comics.

Media Consumption Log: Assembly (Antarctic Press)

Clever take on education, but otherwise nondescript.