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


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.”

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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.

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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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Breakfast III, A Remembrance

Sister's Headstone Etching

While enjoying a piece of breakfast pizza–ham, egg, and cheese–at a coffee shop in downtown Bangor, I noticed that Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” was playing in the background. Such melodrama, but yet the lyrics yank at something, “we’ve come to far to leave it all behind. . . .” What is it that the sappiness recalls?

This question, and a notion of sentimentality, permeates the painting of my sister’s headstone etching. As Leslie Jamison notes in the Empathy Exams, sentimentality is difficult to unpack. For example, is our concern with the concept “primarily ethical or aesthetic.” In other words, is our issue with sentimentality that it undermines the truth of our feelings, and so their ability to help us shape our emotional lives, or is our concern that it undermines an object’s beauty, and so its ability to transform our experience of the world. In a similar vein, Willard Spiegelman notes in his defense of nostalgia, a particular type of sentimentality, that it has two forms: one is restorative, in which we long for a return to a better time and place; and another reflective, in which we seek to confront an “irreparable loss,” perhaps re-imagining it into something less painful. In this context, sentimentality excavates an experience by exploring the immediacy of the feelings associated with it, thereby mitigating the manufactured aspects of its performance.

Of course, this painting is a performance. In it I seek to make something felt sensible. In particular, the collage relates objects to my memory of my sister: she loved wine and the Outer Banks, and she remembered, I imagine, our hometown, which I always recall as a dirt road bordered by wooden guardrails and patches of sumac bushes, a road that is always leading out of town passed one room cottages and dilapidated shacks. The simplicity of the scene is a stabilizing memory, one that assured me I was from and so perhaps known somewhere. And being known, we are able to dismantle those inevitable facades we erect to inhabit one or another subject position. Maybe in this place I might reclaim a purer sense of self, not the injured iteration I now confront, as it confronts my sister’s memory.

Such meanings, though, are nonsense. No pure self exists; “I” is a process not a product; an impression always in the act of being made. However, when the plan or structure for its making is lost, the effort to build a sense of self can be daunting, deeply confusing, tentative, and uncertain. Teenagers struggle, for instance, because they don’t have such a plan or often the freedom to develop one. So they might choose to either wallow or run.

The painting is a placeholder for the emotions evoked by the etching, as much as it is their expression, and the welling up is confusing and embarrassing. If someone were to look at this painting or read these words, what might she think? I know what I would want her to think: He is emotionally engage and concerned about understanding the real way emotions alter us. Yet I suspect a less charitable response: He is stunted and uncertain, trying to draw meaning from isolated images–such as rivulets of rain running off clogged eaves, hair graying at the temples, insipid assertions dribbling from gaping gobs, puddles of wine on a greasy table, black coffee in bed.

Still, Jamison notes that

Metaphors are tiny saviors leading the way out of sentimentality, small disciples of Pound, urging “Say it new! Say in new!” (122)

A metaphor–such as these images of a road, a tree, a beach, and a wine glass and bottle–can lead us out of generalized thinking about emotions and into more concrete kindnesses. Yet that assurance seems far too certain or simple because a metaphor cannot indicate anything as clear as that. It suggests, always suggests; it prods us toward inquiry and questions. But it does not, will not, assert. A metaphor may save us because it cannot be easily grasped and so does not evoke a simple, learned response. It must be thought through, pierced by hints of sense and unwound by webs of meaning, meanings that are delicate and, so, tenuous. They must be teased into existence. The tenuousness of their meaning requires an engagement that encourages us, as it did Leslie Jamison, to interrogate ourselves. Why am I thinking this way? Therefore, when someone views the painting, I don’t hope for sympathy, but instead desire a sympathetic response, which is characterized by the willingness to think, as Walter Benjamin put it, “Against the grain” of the images I am presenting.

This “thinking against the grain” echoes Jamison’s question about art and emotion:

Do we insist that better artwork can elicit a better kind of feeling–more expansive, supple, ethical? (127)

Jamison is uncertain because the feeling underlying the expression is so complex that art can only reduce it to something, and that can be misleading or merely something else. My answer, however, is less tentative: of course art can elicit more finely nuanced feelings and associated responses. Art evokes these feelings by providing them with a language that in its very inadequacy creates a space for understanding by allowing the viewer either to assent or dissent from the supposed meanings. In this sense, feeling is not a thing “we get” but a process we initiate and prosecute. We can accept the language and what it seems to say or we can dissent from that meaning and desconstruct it. Both responses are founded on the same act, a questioning that opens us up to different perspectives.

This painting, then, might be a question. Asking on one hand, what is meaningful in life. The objects woven into the painting don’t harbor significant meaning for most, as (say) a wedding ring, birthstone, or lover might. And, if asked, I don’t think my sister would have considered these items as all that important to her. She did enjoy wine and vacationing in the Outer Banks, but mostly she enjoyed life and her family and friends. Simply, she enjoyed breathing. How would I represent that? Just the wine bottle and glass–vino veritas? Yet should I shoulder that abstraction? Maybe a portrait of her smiling or frowning or something in between? Representing the meander of a mind in thought, seeking understanding and perhaps peace, is impossible. The image suggests a perception that only the viewer completes. In this sense, it takes two, a creator and a recipient, to exist at all. When the viewer sees the painting, this or any other, she processes the scene and constructs meaning by considering what is on the canvas and how those images, colors and shapes, move her. Even failing to be moved is meaningful and important to make manifest. The viewer says, for example, “I hate wine and the color read,” which doesn’t disavow the work but initiates the viewer’s story, and encouraging such stories is the power of art in our lives. Joan Didion, for instance, argues that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

On the other hand, the clunkiness of the images suggests the struggle inherent in making anything abstract sensible. Heidegger argues that small “t” truth is a matter of perception; therefore, the truth in this painting is related to my perception of my sister. Though I don’t think these things say much about her either. I painted what I could most readily imagine and manage. To do that, define her, I might have included the ideas she drew from her voracious reading, or her passion for home remodeling, or her love of her dogs, music, friends, and family. I might have included her response to someone who asked her, years into her chemotherapy, “What do you do for a living.” My sister said, with as much humor as she could muster, “My job is to stay alive.” The edge in her response recalls her, or at least how I knew her; she was not simple nor simple minded, and she was not afraid of reality. She faced it, as others in my family have, bluntly with a banal understatement that not so much hid as dismantled the emotions running through it.

In the introduction to Speakers for the Dead, Orson Scott Card describes how someone assigned to speak for the dead attempts to reveal who the deceased was in life, not the perfected death mask approximating who we wish she had been. Instead, we consider the flawed person who got up each morning and made mistakes as she tried to manage the day. Art might perform this function, speak of those who have passed and provide a way to recall them, mold something meaningful from their loss. Yet my painting remains inadequate; it simply is not right, not enough, not beautiful. It just is not; it is the negative construct out of which some positive memory might form or not. Like a child’s drawing, the clunky thing remains sincere and is intended, even if what is meant is lost in the performance. Often, I think it best if what is intended is lost. Don’t burden the world with it.

As Antonio Damasio claims in Looking for Spinoza, “Feelings of pain or pleasure or some quality in between are the bedrock of our minds” (3). We engage our feelings, no matter how imperfectly, to understand the fundamental motivations of life: connecting with that stimulus that might give us a purpose, a purpose that Thoreau might see as the source of transcendental experience. Moving on, imagining yourself into the future, requires a motivation, a purpose, a reason to want. Sentimentality, nostalgia, offer a framework for approaching that future, a way of structuring change. Indeed, the phrase “moving on” suggests that the past functions, at least initially, as the path forward. In my painting, I try to manifest feelings as much to think about them as to give them form or some symbolic significance. In doing this, maybe I move away from the hurt and toward some form of reconciliation, a sense that emerges from the courage simply to confront what I feel.

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