2017 Top Scholars Address

Note: I delivered these comments at Husson University 2017 Top Scholars Dinner.

Dear Students,

In closing his 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa society, a group not entirely unlike the one to which you belong, Emerson claims that “the world is nothing . . . in yourself is the law of all nature. . . , in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” Of course, we tend to grumble a little at this type of ecstasy. Or maybe we simply laugh at or dismiss it; the same way we might dismiss the poignancy of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” or Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Even such name dropping seems pretentious, weirdly elevated and such a common trope this time of year that it becomes hard to countenance.

I sympathize. I too sat where you do—chairs just a little too hard, room a bit too warm, time crawling like a spider along the nape of your neck–and listened to innumerable assertions about the benefits of a higher education. Sometimes the benefit was training for a job, as long as the jobs didn’t change (they did); sometimes the benefit was to make me a better person, as long as “better” had something to do with reading and writing and caring deeply about both (it did, I think). I appreciated these assertions and knew they were, in their way, true. Yet the assertions always seemed disconcerting; much of what we learn becomes integrated into who we are, it transforms us in ways we can’t easily measure or articulate. In his address, Emerson is pointing to this transformation, suggesting a sense of agency that we all, upon such an occasion, might benefit from considering.

We don’t often respond well to assertions similar to Emerson’s that the individual is an active cultural agent. A sincere belief that we have the agency “to know all” and “to dare all” seems at least suspect and to many absurd. Certainly, Emerson experienced this tension and used the panoptic language of transcendentalism to inspire the nation beyond the meanness in which it was enthralled.

We should note that Emerson spoke during troubled times. Only a few months before delivering his address, the country had sunk into a severe recession, during which banks failed and unemployment reached unprecedented levels. People everywhere suffered but few as unjustly as the country’s indigenous population. A few years before, in 1831, Native Americans had been forcibly removed from the east to Indian Territory in the west to free land for usurpation by Euro-American settlers. Diseases such as smallpox continued to ravish the country, killing thousands in the East, and more in indigenous communities. The country was in turmoil and in search of an identity that its political leaders were woefully unable to provide. The echo of this moment in our own time is alarming. In times rent by such pain, Emerson’s address to the Phi Betta Kapa society, a liberal arts organization that defined what it meant to be educated, offered the country’s leaders a way forward and perhaps a way out of the morass created by Andrew Jackson malevolence or Martin Van Buren’s incompetence.

The point of Emerson’s address is located in the modal verb “can”; his point is that you can make a choice, and this ability is the mechanism, maybe the poetry, motivating his argument. In this one act, you come to understand yourself, choosing to use the Reason you have acquired through your educations to confront the world, not only emotionally, but with critical insight, developing arguments that can lead to knowledge, information that can inspire lasting change. Unfortunately, we sometimes are convinced that Reason is merely an aspect of our reading, or maybe a class assignment we are required to complete and then safely ignore. Maybe the effort was fun in its way, but not exactly relevant.

However, Reason with a capital “r,” as Emerson understands it, is the only way we have actually come to know anything. It is the cosmic force binding the paper fibers in your diploma, the miracle defining the chair that keeps you suspended above the floor. It is the medium through which the real is transformed into the known.

Within this context, imagine how different the experience of an interview would be if, instead of asking you your GPA, your employer asked you what you had done to save the environment. Instead of asking you to describe your five-year plan, what if she asked you who you had helped that day. Imagine that instead of asking about salary and benefits, you asked how the company supported families and the less privileged. Imagine what such an interview would tell us about the purpose of an education, about our ambitions and the values that shape our sense of being in the world.

From the perspective of my hypothetical interview, Emerson’s ebullience might prove convincing; in his ideas we might find a joy in seeking to know something, in embracing the anxiety that comes with engaging the intellect in an exploration of the unknown, maybe the unknowable–the beauty that emanates from always having the ability to choose, possibly to choose a better world. In it is certainly, and maybe most importantly, hope.

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Adventure #18, Her Divorce

 

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The Armchair, Watercolor pencil on paper, 5″ x 5″

A friend who recently finalized her divorce asked me to make her a painting. One that might help her imagine her new life. To uncover an image I might create, I wrote a short reflection on those issues she mentioned during our conversation.¹ Similar to Edwidge Danticat, writing is how “I process things, especially painful things” (56).2


The Conversation 

Imagine being tossed away by the one you love. And before doing this, imagine that he did all he could to undermine your self-worth. When committed and so emotionally vulnerable such dissolution occurs more easily than you might think. Didn’t he find someone only days after he left? For how long had he been thinking more of her than you?  If bent on abuse, the person you love knows exactly which doubts, fears, or uncertainties to raise from the gutters that inevitably scar a life together, claiming these alone define you. And he does this without empathy or shame; he is happy and your pain only affirms his rectitude. And the caricature he creates of you will never change, and the only recourse you have to this misrepresentation is silence, a silence that immolates the trust you once had in the resilience of love.

At this moment, to whom would you turn for comfort? How would you set aside the feeling that losing his love was your fault, and move beyond the crippling embarrassment and fear this loss creates? Would you jump into another relationship and hide in its daily routines? Do to someone what has been done to you and so bring more pain into the world? Give up?

About this uncertainty that twists awkwardly around your limbs, who cares? Who cares what haunts you when mind opens to world? People claim, “friends and family.” They do what they can, but at some point both get annoyed with your anxieties and fixations, with the shadow your experience casts upon their lives. No one who cares about you can take that for long. They scold you for feeling what you should not have felt and for revealing the loneliness that can lurk at the end of any couch. But feelings are memories, and because of this they have no half-lives. They can’t be set aside; they don’t decay.

Instead they evolve, replacing one fading agony with another more vivid. They adapt, reflected in the mirror you can’t avoid, but hope will contradict the effects of time and consequence, age and injury. But often the image remains indistinct.

Maybe these thoughts are cynical, perhaps defeatist, but are they true? The past doesn’t write the future and the present is a palimpsest. Can you eradicate these demons with drink or drugs; through positive thinking or the listing of your achievements, your “good” qualities; by stacking assertions to wall out reality, buttressing them against its withering weight?

Hear that “we have all been there.” Know that “time will . . . and that all things happen for . . . and wine and cigarettes and weed . . . sunny days and rain on Sundays and songs . . . other songs . . . and still more songs . . . and wake up each morning with the warble of a magpie “warning of love.” Upon what observation can your mind rest? Where do you find the peace that will allow you to think and feel again?

Only the weak ask, “What am I supposed to do now?” Only the weak pose the question before its answer. But one foot does follow the other; each wants to go. All you know is that you don’t wish to blink out, even if that means pushing your vulnerabilities before you like crumbs across the kitchen counter. So you ask questions and sit quietly, thoughtfully, among a jumble of answers, at peace with a life that is uncertain–knowing that something, not nothing, will happen.


¹Obviously this account is fictionalized. If you know me, don’t try to guess who I was talking to. If you asked, I would say “a ghost” or maybe “a phantom.”
2Danticat, Edwige. “An Interview with Edwidge Danticat.” Slice (Spring/Summer 2017). 54-57.

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Dinner III, Geography

 

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Acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 24.” Flowers over Phillips Pond, Maine

I ate dinner in a clearing off a trail that overlooked Phillips Pond in the hills outside Bangor, Maine. I prepared a meal that included salmon braised in olive oil and garlic and left a few minutes to firm-up in a steel skillet. I cut the result into manageable medallions and laid them over a bed of spinach and assorted greens. I accented the salad with shaved almonds and crushed walnuts, sweetening the repast with a bar of dark chocolate. I cleaned my palate with a moscato d’asti and raspberries.

I reached the scene of the painting “Geography” when the day had nearly gone. The air was cool, and the light filtered through the leaves, tinting the scene with ebullient hues of green. The yellows vibrated against this background. Considering the composition, how the eye is drawn across the objects represented in the field, I understood how a landscape, in all its forms, might inspire introspection.

This interest in landscapes comes from some sensibility, such as the desire to know a place and, in knowing it, gain power over it. This power is to transform the image into either a social or monetary value. It is worthy of praise or of being consumed as an object of fading solicitude, of waning beauty.

Knowing Place: Fundamental Principles

Knowing a place is accomplished by moving through it. Motion translates into thought, which, for instance, explains the impulse to graffiti, a form of expression that relates to the emotional contours of a place. 

During a trip to Isle Royal in Lake Superior, I spent a few nights reading graffitied passages scratched onto the walls of the shelters. One of these passages has stayed with me. It was a simple truism attributed to Goethe or maybe Rimbaud, but the source may be more mundane: “What is it you plan to do with you precious, lonely life?” The irony is clear. A lonely life isn’t precious and may not be, in the Strum und Drang zeitgeist, worth living.¹ Implied in both the saying and where it was left is the idea that when we view or paint a landscape we engage objects in a way that recalls fundamental principles.

To imagine beyond the immediate circumference of the body slouching across the land is to  map the context of experience. Perception is defined by it, giving shape to the sweep of the hills, warmth to the hues, scent to the objects, and memory to what emerges beneath the brush. Meanings that can persist outside us. And provide deliverance from the anxiety of knowing, the sheer preponderance of knowledge.

Beauty has a long etymology.² Meanings we think we know. But clarity is elusive because the concept is burdened with romantic presumptions and sexual implications. The concept roughly equates with desire. A beautiful thing is wanted, and in being wanted acquires a value. John Berger claims that “paintings did to appearances what capital did to social relations” (Seeing 86).³ If capital defines social relations by determining who has access to the means of production, then paintings might determine those appearances that have a social value by selecting those to be featured in the marketplace of ideas and so reproduced. Berger locates this value in the role paintings plays in seeing. They fetishize sight, focusing the exchange on a desire that makes the process akin to voyeurism. These are representations that we can’t and maybe shouldn’t experience. We can see non-representational art, but can we know it. The association at the center of such a work is unknowable, which places the demand for meaning on the viewer. And what the viewer makes of the scene reflects her emotional state, how she responds to mere suggestion. 

In another sense, she either transforms the image into a coherent story that speaks to her experiences, or denies  its relevance to any reality. This is the emotional weight non-representational art creates and why it can be so satisfying.

The Painter: Ritual of Self-Affirmation

The experience of these issues is different for the painter. More than appreciating the scene, he needs to design the composition, drawing the viewer through the scene to enact an experience. That experience might be to appreciate the objects inhabiting the canvas and perhaps respond to them–paintings as knowledge, a museum exhibit. According to Levi-Strauss, “painting was perhaps an instrument of knowledge, but it was also an instrument of  possession” (qt. in Berger 86).² During the Renaissance, paintings might catalog the benefactor’s possessions. But possession also implies power, and it seems more likely that the painter gains a measure of power over the objects in her view. This power cannot be to own something by enacting its image. Rather what pervades is the implied ritual involved in perceiving the object, a ritual of self-affirmation.

Self-affirmation underlies most acts of creation. Isn’t God’s erstwhile creation of the Earth and all the crap cluttering it an affirmation of God’s power? All uses of art butt up against this first principle. When I sell or give away a painting, I hope to affirm the value of my vision more than inspire appreciation, but appreciation affirms that value (so goes the conundrum of communication). Still, I can only guess the reason a viewer is drawn to an image. She might say, “I like the colors,” “the flowers are pretty,” or “it reminds me of something.” These comments matter and are offered as a kindness, nodding at the apparent effort involved in doing something odd, something predominantly useless. But such social niceties make understanding the effect of the work difficult. The exchange is complicated.

Applying the ideas of Walter Benjamin suggests that a viewer might be drawn to the aura of the original work, and all that is involved in its singular, always ephemeral, and audacious creation. This confrontation doesn’t mean the viewer will find the work “good,” or worth purchasing. Instead, it means she will consider the chunk of mind the work represents: the emotional turmoil conveyed in its sweep, the conflict in its dimensions, or the simple uncertainty in the movement of paint toward some need anyone might feel. A failure that haunts all language and defines most of our regrets.

In one sense, a painting is a map of regret. The work that remains captures the moment the painter stopped trying. It captures his limits and points to the vulnerability at the nexus of his being–all physical, emotional, and intellectual effort has converged to create something gloriously imperfect. And that is nakedly human and sad, beautiful–the joy that bends the leaf.

___

¹Read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for an example of the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) sensibility. The late poet Philip Levine claimed the book was embarrassingly sentimental (see his collection of essays The Bread of Time).

²Leo Tolstoy wrote a detailed exploration of beauty in What is Art? In his review of the literature on aesthetics, he noted that for many “beauty is truth,” an observation that explains why we find art both attractive and important.

³Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin, 1977.

 

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Adventure #17, A Tree on the Edge

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Tree among Hills, Acrylic on Canvas

Climbing Trees

“Rarely does anyone remind you, and you always forget, that loss has an anniversary,” a friend once told me over a slowly warming beer. Moments of loss dot and darken the calendar, turn and tighten your stomach, and end leaning awkwardly on the corners of your eyes. No one warns you of this. If they can, they help you past those immediate images that rush in full of presence–color, sound, and warmth–when the day slows to waste the moon and hound the dawn with silence, a silence that is always at your elbow and tight against your hip. But when these moments return, we often face them alone, as maybe we should, and in the encounter emerges an opportunity to grow even as we feel shaken. And reflecting on the pain we feel is not to succumb to cynicism but is instead to keep that pain from defining us, a point Ulysses’s mother reflects on in William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy: “Unless a man has pity he is not truly a man. If a man has not wept at the worlds’s pain he is only half a man, and there will always be pain in the world” (131).*  When painting the scene “Tree among Hills” these thoughts gave me a vague sense of purpose.

Space and Place

As with most children, I used to climb trees, fascinated with elevation and the opportunity to see beyond the limits of my corporeality. In this act, I experienced the construction of a human geography, using the technology at hand to explore my relationship with the physical and emotional dimensions of the space. As Yi-Fu Tuan * suggests, a landscape “feels spacious and friendly when it accommodates our desires” (65). Whether realistic or otherwise, a landscape conveys information about our perception of space that might shape an emotional response to it, a response that turns it into a “place”: space “that feels thoroughly familiar” (73). Climbing trees allowed me to inflate the space of my youth into what Tuan refers to as an “articulated geography” (83). Linked perceptions that could contain my dreams alongside impressions of my past that fed hopes for my future.

The Landscape: Loss and Redemption

Suspended in this matrix, these fantasies filter through landscapes, painted as well as real, investing them not only with the familiar and so comfortable but also with potentiality. A sense of freedom and possibility that even when unrealized motivates us to continue to engage in the process of becoming, traveling, as Lucille Clifton notes, “through this to that.”* This sense of fantasy guided me as I painted. I wandered among the emergent shapes. One moment I traced along the transition between color and canvas while the next I filled in those shapes with the feeling of depth and dimension.

Loss

As in my youth imagining my hometown, I’m not sure what I have created. The tree and surrounding landscape might reflect some loss that remains quietly draped in my subconscious. Maybe a childish impression among the woods out back that never fully emerged into my consciousness. Perhaps the structure of a shadow that is hunched beneath the weight of menace. Maybe the painting carries those subliminal images that filtered in on the day she left. Muslin moments that even now flutter in the faintest breeze. Those impressions that etch memory–a tiny scar across the bridge of her nose carried with her since childhood, or the hesitation above my arm of a newly tentative touch. Maybe it is the haze of our lips on the two glasses left on the counter (the rims touching), or her eyes averted and lips shut tight. Maybe loss is echoed in the distance she wrapped around words suddenly pulled free from emotion, carrying nothing but “a long time gone.”*

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Night at Blaze Restaurant, Watercolor on paper (unfinished & abandoned)

Redemption

Along with these instances of loss, maybe the painting also carries fantasies of their redemption. The early glow falling among drifts of snow on a winter morning. Quiet music playing and warm coffee cooling among the still and hazy light. Maybe redemption is there in her eyes, just a bit too wide and curiously bright, that time she saw me approaching from down the hall. Her lips parted and catching the light. She leaned with her palms open and held out to me in anticipation, a finger along her wrist. That touch that would sift across the chill of her skin. These fantasies leave me bent, reaching for a tree filled with beautiful things. Baubles of the past hanging with potential, the possibility of her breath whispered across my cheek, the brush of her fingertips at the nape of my neck, or her look back that feels like “don’t leave.” These possibilities will, in that place that continually becomes me, quicken these baubles with the shudder of life and maybe the permanence of love.

 


*Saroyan, William. The Human Comedy. New York: Dell-Random House, 1971. Saroyan was an Armenian immigrant and wrote about his family’s experiences in California during the 1940s.

*Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1977.

*Clifton, Lucille. “Blessing the Boats (at St. Mary’s).” Quilting: Poems 1987-1990. New York: BOA, 2000.

*I take this phrase from John Hiatt’s song “Long Time Coming.”

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Adventure #16, “Blessing the Boats”

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The Dock, 5″x 5″ water color on film medium

Years ago, after viewing a few of my paintings, a brilliant young lady asked me to paint her a picture she had found in a National Geographic. The photograph she handed me was composed of a dock jutting out into the placid, slightly overexposed ocean with an empty horizon undulating beneath an eye-blue sky. Just off camera a darkness, suggesting an approaching storm, cast long, languid shadows across the empty dock. The scene felt frozen, no “punct,” as Roland Barth outlines in Camera Lucida, emerged from the scene to suggest a dynamic moment captured on the brink of its realization. Instead the image felt phantastic, a synchronic instance removed from the context of its creation, a simulacra indicating the contours and uncertainty of memory. This mode of representation, at the time, suggested loneliness, but now the solidity of the dock set against the vanishing point across which sky merges with water seems hopeful, an instance of strength fashioned from the formless. It is a generative representation, and reminds me of Lucille Clifton’s “Blessing the Boats (at St. Mary’s),” a poem that speaks to the anxiety and fearlessness inherent in trying to become when the success of that becoming is so naturally uncertain:

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back     may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Clifton’s notion of innocence, which relates the narrator’s wish to the moment of the listener’s transformation, is not an “innocence from experience,” as in some of William Blake’s poetry, but innocence from the cynicism that shapes every action as a means of achieving a predetermined end. Here the end is simply to act, or more specifically, engage in an effort to connect with another, to touch her without reducing that choice to a specific goal or objective that one might seek to hoard or assess. Instead, the moment “to turn to water / water waving forever” is appreciated for the peace it manifests and not for its product. Indeed, nothing is accomplished by “kissing the wind” or watching the water “waving.” These gestures affirm being present, as when reflecting upon a feeling. And when the listener acts, she does so by moving “through this to that,” a sense of transition that more accurately represents how we experience life. In life, we move from a moment of awareness toward one of possibility, some imagined manifestation, and do so again and again. This notion cuts through the standard categories of maturation: infant to child to tweener to teenager to adult to middle aged to elderly to something else. In this journey, we are not seeking to know with certainty, to package experience, but instead to set free the ties and float toward “forever” and away from “this,” quietly kissing “the wind then” turning “from it / certain that it will / love” our backs.

In reciting Clifton’s poem, as I have since I was young, I am reminded of that young woman (and her kind and funny siblings who rarely leave my thoughts). I think of how she gently handed me that page from the National Geographic, a little uncertain, and how I promised her that I would paint her that scene. Here, so long after, is the best I could do. And even though I will never see her again, I am happy knowing that she will do well. And in the spirit of this knowledge, I dedicate my painting and Clifton’s blessing to her and all those young women who are just now leaning, full of hope, into the unknown, furtively kissing the wind, and turning a little each day toward the tide.

 

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Adventure # 15, or First Date

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“First Date,” 8″ by 11″ water on paper

Poem written on the back of the painting


Released from a breath held deep, glass is said to weep

sloughing slightly, impossibly, since the fall of light

across the curve and cull of her cheek; pulled

around the rim, brushing another, salted with a hymn

that cools on the church walls where a fool whispers love

raising his tone, hear the koan, measuring  the margins

the tilt and lilt of his endless lean into the bend and break

of a droplet and her image falling, calling across its horizon.

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Lunch III, Five Little Soldiers

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24″ x 20″ Watercolor on Canvas

I am eating a bowl of minestrone soup for lunch, sitting at my kitchen island, and looking out the kitchen window at the craggy tree in my backyard–a clacky assemblage of spindly branches this late in the winter. I know that representations of the domestic are as old as the concept of home, and do indeed reflect a fixation in Still-Life paintings–a desire to see inner-space, or put differently, our lived space. The motif of these paintings, and how they reflect the domestic, is composed of images of fruit, bowls, and flowers, maybe some tumbling sea shells and tightly woven baskets, all spread carefully on an embroidered blanket or piece of furniture set against a black abyss. Pulled from this abyss is my sense of why the Still-life matters.

Plopped here, facing this depth is the ubiquitous apple that Jennifer Meagher, writing for the Metropolitan Museum, claims is commonly used because of its association with “eve” and the “fall of man.” Her claim clearly fits our symbolic expectations of these cultural artifacts; however, the apple, in its sweeping lines and ubiquity in the human diet, seems a symbol of homely simplicity and peace, suggesting the successful, well accoutered farmstead on the edge of a hill in the Netherlands or a dust-chilled field in the midwest. A stretch overlooking a wheat field running into a forest fletched with deer and meandering along the bank of a spring-fed river. Hope permeates this quaint voluptuary. The bowl and flowers suggest much the same scene, but add the element of control. In the rustic bowl or the cut and slowly fading flowers is nature molded to the wants of some occupant, and hinting at the fleeting nature of time the painting resists, culling a static moment from the inevitabilities of entropy, and pulling away from the emptiness upon which the whole scene teeters.

Teetering on the edge of depth, the line of bottles in my Still-Life list almost imperceptible to the left, the prevailing direction of my brush strokes, which curiously corresponds to the shoulder injury I suffered when I was hit by a car last May. As John Berger notes in his description of a Van Gogh painting in Ways of Seeing, my painting enacts my association with it, leaning as I think it does in sympathy with my injury.¹ Maybe over time and through an assortment of pain, I have begun to shift on my foundations. Certainly the aged shrink, the infirm crumple forward, the sad fade to far sight, and we all absorb a portion of what runs us through. In it is moving and becoming.

As part of this foundational shift, these bottles seem sentinels, guarding over the domestic space while also haunting it. Objects in Still-Life painting seem to have these dual qualities. They reflect a space, suggesting its nature, and at the same time inflect it with silence or death. For instance, Meagher claims that Still-Life imagery “allowed the artist to display virtuosic skills of observation and description of color, shape, and texture” (“Food and Drink”). These observations extend to allegorical representations, in which domestic scenes move beyond the confines of the home and into the struggles of our social lives. Such struggles are reflected, almost literally, in my own work.

The image, as is the case with the conventions of painting, reflects away from the scene to the space the painter inhabits and not, as we might assume, onto the scene. Therefore, most paintings comment on the silence, not emptiness, suggested before the image, as much as they do on the objects represented in its frame. Light and the resulting shadows connect these spaces into a feeling of life that the Still-Life was developed to interrogate.

The interrogation in my painting seems run through with the simple effort to paint the scene. Using water colors on canvas is problematic because the pigments are difficult to manipulate, as they pool and run across the canvas, which has no capillary effect. The imperfection implicit in this effort to manage the image moves forward and back from hand to mind from impression to product. These rails form the method of my imagination, effort producing impression and impression revising product and so on.  I find the anxiety of such work exhilarating, but unlike what some claim, I never relax within the image and so rarely do I feel removed from the effort required to manifest the objects; they always weigh on me. The recursive nature of this process creates or assumes the mistake that is replete with meaning, and if not “mistake,” then a disconnect with reality that differentiates such painting from photography, investing it with something like soul or, more mundane, subjectivity or style. Yet in this disconnect from reality resides the majority of a painting’s meaning; this observation is what makes non-representational art, such as cubism, compelling: the viewer sees within it, and if taken seriously, turns shape into experience, forming meaning out of apparent nonsense. This act is the definition of liberation, freeing one to think, which suggests what art can offer its viewers.

In my painting, the bottles peer into that pregnant space between their image and where the viewer is positioned. That space before the sink, where the viewer’s life may be said to “occur”–where a moment, unrepresented, is frozen while simultaneously being revised each time a different viewer confronts the scene. Each viewer suggests a new kitchen and a different set of circumstances: kids hovering around her knees, some loss suggested by the tilt of the scene, a joy perceived in the wavering brush strokes. Maybe art, and this mode of perception, offers a way to reflect on what we have and so find what we have always loved.

___

¹Berger makes the following claim after placing this sentence below a Van Gogh painting, “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself”: “It is hard to define exactly how the words [under Van Gogh’s painting] have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence” (28).                   .

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Adventure #14: Near Carrabassett Valley

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Valley near Carrabassett, Maine; 18″ x 20″

Still wet and requiring months to finish, my first oil painting recalls the farms in a valley in Quebec near Carrabasset, Maine. The challenge, beyond simply applying unruly paint to canvas, was how to represent the evening falling across the forests and fields while also inserting something of a human presence. This presence shapes the valley, whispering between the conflict of colors, conflicts that are echoed in an old poem that still pulls at me from its corners:

Crossing the Kush

We see ourselves sitting alone,

or walking in a valley washed wet with stone,

watching the grainy lights flare across the city;

it is late; we are tired and leaning close.

Between our hands–

fallen like jobs,

one resting near the other–

little of the rusted railing is visible,

but it’s enough

still enough        to

make mountains.

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Adventure #13, Crucified Thieves

Trees like Crucified Thieves

Acrylic on Canvas

This painting emerged as an intertextual response to Warren Zevon’s song “Desperadoes Under the Eaves.” The song recounts the struggles of a heroin addict who has found himself strung out in a hot room in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel, one of those dilapidated hovels surrounded by a post-industrial wasteland of dead trees and polluted skies, skies that give the day’s fading light a putrid tint. In the painting, my aim is to manifest those dead trees Zevon describes as “crucified thieves”:

Don’t the sun look angry through the trees

Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves

Don’t you feel like desperadoes under the eaves

Heaven help the one who leaves.

While on my way to Montreal or the store or to some wooded spot in Northern Maine, I often find myself replaying this song, drawn to its simplicity. Each time, I’m struck by the image of an angry sun casting a malevolentBeech-Forest-Buchenwald-I light through denuded trees, a sense reflected in Gustav Klimt’s “Beech Forest.” A painting that depicts a tightly packed forest of beech trees with a hint of sunlight draining between emaciated trunks. Klimt’s image recalls a Fin de Siecle Vienna ruptured with creative energy that is entwined with a suicidal urge, a fateful blindness, that played out in the destruction of the Hapsburg Empire after the debacle of World War I. Yet the light in Klimt’s painting does not feel angry. Instead it strikes me as comforting, creating, in the context of the Hapsburg’s demise, a delusion as though a pleasant field with vineyards winding among the Wienerwald might open up once one squeezes through. However, in Klimt’s optimism is a sense, at least in retrospect, that one cannot get through those trees and that one will never achieve the fulfillment the soft light promises.

Zevon’s sun is not Klimt’s; Zevon’s suggests a threat as large as the cosmos and as intimately felt as “waking up in the morning with shaking hands.” His pain is literal, an inescapably modern ache. One wakes to a sense, common with anxiety, that an abyss awaits, creating a dread similar to that described by Jonathan Edwards in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”: Hell is always gaping wide below you, waiting for you to make a mistake. It seems that their imaginations cannot bear irony, even though they see biblical significance in the the objects outside their respective windows–one, the woods of New England and the other, the parking lots of Hollywood.

Zevon’s trees reference Jesus’s crucifixion, suggesting that the trees are the thieves who were crucified next to Jesus on Golgotha. Yet one wonders, of course, why Zevon doesn’t simply refer to a crucified Jesus. The suggestion is that images of Jesus are burdened with the expectations of forgiveness, or a grand narrative of hope, which Zevon as well as the rest of us simply cannot accept. No one is going to deliver Zevon from his hotel bill that will be waiting for him even after California slips into the sea nor from the hurtful deeds of the mean spirited who always seem to triumph (collecting the pain of others like trinkets to line the shelves of their tiny-minded homes). Instead, Zevon’s tone gives voice to those to whom we feel closer, those who have made mistakes or who have been overlooked and so suffer, inarticulate.

Indeed, the song ends in an inarticulate moment, a perfectly postmodern prayer: Zevon hums along with the air conditioner, words making no difference. Those words you wish mattered don’t, and those through which meaning might be traced and in whose persistence some joy might be found, sift leaden to the Earth, simply dusting the indifference of those who betray us over and over, scoffing at the sincerity of our commitment to something felt to feelings that might last. At that moment, words are just noise, and in trying to speak them, we are just humming to the suck of cold air.

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Adventure #12, Montreal Subway

Radisson Station

Radisson Station

This painting offers an impression of Montreal’s subway, suggesting the logic inherent in travel. Most obviously, subways allow us to traverse large expanses of the city relatively quickly. In making such movement possible, it also changes our sense of the urban space, as illustrated in the diagrammatic subway map.¹ These maps were developed to make traveling the subway easier by simplifying the relationship between the different lines and stations. Because of the need for ease, the subway map no longer corresponds to the actual geography of the city, which, even if necessary, dislocates travels from the space through which they are passing.

The Depressed

That dislocation often seems imprinted on the riders. They seem “depressed,” but may actually be in a kind of suspended animation. I recall this state vividly among the riders of the first subway I used regularly. I was studying in Vienna and had to travel Monday through Thursday from the Thirteenth to the First District. Each morning, I would slide into the packed cars and totter downtown while smashed against several other polyestered, sweating bodies. Even though there was literally no empty space on the train, few people talked; the eerie silence seemed Gothic, feeling deranged or diseased. The sense of being with that many people while avoiding all engagement with them hinted at some sort of mental illness. The behavior was anti-social and suggestive of a defense mechanism against the shear weight of urban life–the horrid abundance of living replete with its innumerable desires and fears that manifested in b.o. We were all moving, but few of us could see it, a blindness aided by the tube’s banality. Indeed, I felt as though imagination had been turned off, as people waited to reach their destination, which shrank the experience of the city to microspheres, spaces the body and, so, mind could reasonably conceive and control. It was like talking to  yourself.

Microspheres

Because of these microspheres, I had no sense of the city until a friend drove me back to my apartment after a long night of drinking. I was young, 21, and he, probably twice my age, was drunk, driving the meandering city streets at high speed in his Mercedes while asking me, “Hast du angst!” The city sprawled around us in spokes of impossibly beautiful three or four story buildings. Founded on these spokes, the city was hardwired to its history; no one could alter either the city or its history without a significant act of destruction. Here, one could not simply replace a tower of windows and steel with another tower of windows and steel. Rather, alteration would require a revolution in sensibility, an unimaginable desire to divorce history and tradition from the Viennese identity. The solidity of this geography seemed a tonic against the panic of hyperspeed and hyperspace. It is not a website or Google Earth where one can click to where she wants to be, but instead requires a conscious decision to move elsewhere, transitioning through that journey to a new place. The transition equates roughly, I think, with living. In order to create more efficient movement, the subway removes this experience from one’s understanding of the city and, more significantly, of life.

Of course, the subway helps maintain the integrity of the city and increase safety. If not for the subway lines, streetcar or elevated tracks would eviscerate the city, creating chaotic segments and endangering the lives of pedestrians. To experience such chaos, view old movies of the Chicago streets when they were cluttered with streetcars, wandering pedestrians, and innumerable lines powering the entire malaise. The subway removes some of this chaos from view, allowing us to imagine and experience a more placid city. Even New York, which is often touted as an emblem of chaos, feels quieter when your walking on some of its streets. When walking along 41st Street headed toward Broadway, for example, passing the Irish bars and Italian restaurants, the street seems airy and quaint. I’ve sauntered along this street with a light breeze channeled between the tall buildings tousling my clothes. The street was quiet, and I didn’t feel rushed. Yet when I stepped onto the subway, I felt dejected, as though dropped into somebody’s bad day or waking nightmare: a postmodern experience where meaning is as such and drawn from fragments and interpreted by one’s lonely psyche.

The Loneliness

This loneliness seems etched on the riders’ faces. They gaze without seeing; it’s an odd experience. Some read, or stare at opened books, to resist being or avoid engaging the multitude of stimuli. Others create islands of  sense with friends or a partner, huddling into each other. The disjointed nature of the painting was my attempt to represent this aspect of the subway, colors colliding among disjointed objects that are slightly off center and non-mimetic. Yet the subway feels garish and the image seems to reflect that–sheer overabundance.

All this, however, is not to say I don’t appreciate the subway. No doubt, cities would suffer considerably without them. Yet that allowance does not necessarily alter the story subway tell. Pain has settled within those steel cans, and it can be felt and smelt. Notice how the hopeful or well-adjusted try, in a variety of ways, to shield themselves from it. They huddle, read, listen to music. Others, though, give into the anxiety and pain and bellow at the concrete and riveted girders.  The experience is to tumble from shock to peace to fear while trying to stay above the tide, breathing at least for another day.


¹An example of a diagrammatic subway map is located here.

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