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April 22, 2008

Believing and Seeing

On those days where words matter so, like the days leading up to an important primary election, for example, art takes a back seat. Or so it seems. And then...the Latrobe, PA flag-pin questioner at the democratic debate last week appears, an archetype, a woman-as-art-piece...and the artfulness of the public theater of politics is front and center once again.

For me, watching Nash McCabe ask her question of Obama was much like my visit to the art exhibition called "The Believers". I saw this exhibition last summer at Mass MOCA, and found it both repulsive and oddly familiar. For so many artists, deducing the workings of a mind is an agony. And the pain expressed in "The Believers" was palpable, not just in the subject matter (screeds on body mutilation and religion, schizophrenic musings, the essence of witch-ness, glorious imagined machines, the strange connections between all happenings) but in the artists' raw and compulsive need to categorize their own feelings, sexuality, thoughts - - and to in turn be categorized and comprehended by unseen audiences.

They strove to express and be known through symbols that formed a framed, articulated stance on Life's Important Question (whatever the artist determined that was.) Overall, the work in the exhibition seemed to me to be about the need to be identifiable, to self-describe in order to be known by the stangers who encounter these expressions of belief. To have their belief solidly seen.

On the other side of Mass MOCA, running at the same time, was an exhibition by Spencer Finch ("What Time is it on the Sun?") which conveyed the opposite. His installations explore other truths - - that light is tricky, that comprehension is subjective, and that memory (as in the hilarious and sad multi-piece "Trying to Remember the Color of Jackie Kennedy's Pillbox Hat") is specious. What you can and think you know, what you recall, even how you see color, Finch seems to say, is ever-changing.

Questioner Nash McCabe, belongs squarely in the camp of "The Believers". She knows what she knows, and it is constant. She feigned a vetted question about patriotism (and what is today's definition of that exactly?) when what was churning underneath was something else. Something about an unspoken shared comprehension she desired. Something like: "I don't want to challenge your humanity, Senator Obama, but how can you expect me to vote for...a black man? I mean you look nothing like anyone I would ever want to know, and in the privacy of my own home I say terrible things about you because you are not white like me, so how can I comprehend your mind - - but I will frame all that as a question about a symbol, since we all see a symbol in the same way, don't we?"

April 9, 2008

Staying Sweet

The crazy-long 10,000 page ‘enormous theorem’ (a massive algebraic proof categorizing simple groups) is a mathematical method for analyzing abstract and physical systems that have symmetry. In mathematics and physics, symmetry is “a transformation or rearrangement of something that leaves it unchanged…The theory of relativity says that the transformation from one observer's point of view to another's may alter the values of some observations but will leave the laws relating those observations unchanged."
Perspectives change, but the song remains the same.

The enormous theorem identified all the mathematical building blocks from which all groups can be constructed, with the exception of 26 simple groups that did not fit into the theorem’s identifiable patterns. Thanks to this intellectual feat, “the principle that any fundamental physical theory must possess certain kinds of symmetry has become a scientific axiom.”

When Daniel Gorenstein, the father of the enormous theorem, published his work in 1982, mathematicians and academics around the world were immediately enthralled. And some immediately connected Gorenstein’s work with…God. One of the quotes I saw at the time was from a professor who said that to him, the enormous theorem was like the first proof, a balanced and beautiful geometric proof that God may have written as he was test-planning the creation of the universe.
About 1300 years before Gorenstein and his collaborators published their theorem, this symmetrical image was created to honor both St. Matthew and God (who apparently was the universe’s first geometer.) The image is from the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated manuscript created by an early Christian bishop at the Lindisfarne monastery (the creepy ruins of which, located just off the Northumberland coast in northeast England, I have had the pleasure of wandering around.) The manuscript served to honor and preserve the ideal Christian church in a hostile world full of crazy Celtic pagans and invading Vikings.

As with any religious text, the author of the Lindisfarne Gospels followed church-sanctioned rules in his choices of script and illumination, symbol and illustration, many of which were also evident in Roman codexes written 100 years earlier. These rules of presentation placed an incredible value on visual symmetry and balance.

Taken as a whole, the illustrations in the Lindisfarne Gospels offer up their own visual ‘enormous theorem’ on how one should systematically convey (early Christian) religious experience, which is guided by unchanging laws and…symmetry.

Francis Collins is a scientist (now author of a book on God) who recently claimed to have found proof of God through Collins’ research on the ‘beautiful system’ of the human genome. This solid proof finally came to Collins many years after having a revelatory moment when he was hiking in the Cascades here in Washington. On that hike, he saw the natural ‘beauty of creation’ all around him and realized that denying a supernatural force was at work was, for him, now impossible. Of course, much of the beauty (systemic, symmetrical or otherwise) that Collins saw around him in the forests of the Cascades was likely second-growth trees planted and regulated by Weyerhaeuser’s minions...but I digress.

This week law enforcement officers raided the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints compound in Texas, and the released 400 women and children living/held captive there. Daily life on the Texas compound (we now know from the victims) was as controlled and regimented an experience as prison life. Or monastic life. The women in particular in this FLDS church had to follow very specific rules, like not cutting their hair and marrying at puberty. The women were also admonished to not think, to not contradict or disagree with their religious leader/husband, or with any man, or any belief of the church -- they were to “stay sweet” in their minds and hearts at all times.

Francis Collins sees proof in patterns that God created the symmetry and beauty of the natural world and the beautiful symmetry of the human genome. The Lindisfarne Gospels offers us an instruction book for religious experience that claims to celebrate, through human artistic effort, the symmetry and balance of God’s ideal world. And a mathematics professor, reacting to the publication of a theorem that explicates the symmetry of most physical systems, claims it is an example of God’s prowess in geometry.

How these responses are any different than “staying sweet” is beyond me. Scientists and those of faith who hit against something complex yet orderly claim that this symmetry is just more obvious proof of God. The enormous theorem, in actuality, conveys just the opposite: natural, physical, and abstract systems contain symmetry as a basic attribute and finding the random outliers (or 26 simple groups) beyond that pattern is what really should give us pause, or make us dig deeper, or spark creative exploration.
But of course forcing order in the face of complexity has always been a form of refuge, especially in art. And I find that however much I am a contrarian, I’m a little mesmerized by this kind of thinking, especially as expressed in the work of painter Rudolph Bauer (who composed a number of his orderly geometric drawings while captive in a Nazi prison.)

Bauer and other non-objectivist painters seem to have used art to ruthlessly and consciously redirect their attention away from the chaotic reality of a world at war. And I see in their artwork something very like the Lindisfarne illuminations (and in the psychotic control in the FLDS church and in God-is-the-explanation scientists like Francis Collins) -- evidence of that act of human will it takes to contain all curiosity and critical thought.

To think sweet, to say God is the answer, to paint the geometry of a mind strictly contained and rigidly conforming to aesthetic rules...I can imagine these all serve a purpose, are perhaps part of assuring your identity’s survival. One can imagine finding refuge in drawing geometric shapes if one were held in a Nazi prison, or in drawing endlessly repeated knot patterns in a manuscript while utterly alone in a cold and dark monastery. But using the ceremonial majuscule script in the illuminated Gospels is akin to (and just as practical as) requiring all women in your sect to wear dresses. Seeing symmetry and geometry in science as mystical and proceeding from a creator being is akin to claiming that the regulated forms used in a non-objectivist painting actually give access to some spiritual power.

What makes my head twist on all this is the question of what is accomplished by these limits, by mentally or creatively “staying sweet’? What is left when you get there? Entry to heaven for the select few? The promise of knowing something other minds do not? Seeing the hand of God in your very own scientific research? Claiming the supernatural in your own geometric patterns on paper or canvas?
How frighteningly, mind-numbingly narcissistic.

April 2, 2008

Considering Emma Peel’s Hairdo

In a scene in a recent chick flick, Hugh Grant’s character says salaciously that he enjoys painter John Currin’s work because it has “the perv thing.” It’s a memorable moment in the otherwise forgettable film -- bad boy narcissist swaggers through a gallery filled with Currin’s overtly sexualized portraits of huge-breasted, wide-eyed women and sings the praises of his perceived brother in arms. It’s also an ironic scene, for those art critics who see Currin’s work as his indictment of our culture’s continual objectification of women. Grant’s character, apparently, just sees the breasts.

People often try to identify, or identify with, an artist’s ‘thing’ - - their method or subject or mindset, and critics often ascribe motivation to artists, where there really is little evidence of its existence. Why Currin would choose to spend his working life trying to make the point that we objectify women by painting grotesquely exaggerated females that look just like all the women we see objectified in the media every day is a question only a critic can answer. As an artist, I think this critical assessment is a little off.


Currin has gained renown for his method as well as his subject matter. He mixes his own paints and preparations, using the processes of an artist from a previous century, and this ‘method thing’ adds to his appeal for collectors. He is a very successful painter. He also quite obviously is a bit of an obsessive and has some serious issues about sex and women that likely need working out. But I for one do not think he is presenting his images for a larger political or sociological purpose (and he himself does not claim to). Currin just seems to like to abstract and morph the female form and capture this in paint. Which is what painters do, after all; we use what we see, and we paint because it is what we enjoy. One could also say Currin visually prefers the abstracted and morphed female form and, much like Hugh Hefner, has made a living expressing this preference.


The need to know about an artist’s ‘thing’ seems to cloud the viewer’s perception of what they are actually seeing, and often clouds the context in which they are seeing it. I am still surprised at how often viewers of an artist’s work, including mine, get things wrong. I once had a studio showing where a visitor asked me, in all seriousness, to give him the nickel tour of the art history of my work - - who my influences were, whom I was most imitative of, what phases I had gone through, what phase I was in now. It was as if he had a standard artist questionnaire at the ready. A few years back at a solo show, a visitor asked her friend if she had seen my work before, and she rolled her eyes, sighed dramatically and said “yes, I know her, she's the queen of the palette knife”. She thought she had identified my ‘method thing’.


Artists certainly comply with these requests and respond to these needs, because we tend to be sensitive types, or because for some, comprehensibility is a pathway to recognition. Regardless of how (or if) the artist responds, it is always the viewer who ascribes the ‘artist thing’-- usually for their own viewing comfort. And thinking about viewers ascribing and artists complying, and Currin’s objectifying of objectified subjects is what brings me to Emma Peel.


Diana Rigg gained fame by playing this catsuit-wearing main character in the mod 60’s television series “The Avengers” and set a certain standard as the ever unattainable femme object (who was so very good with karate and car engines). As a female viewer, I tend to ascribe ‘things’ like vivid intelligence and savvy to the character, but know in truth Mrs. Peel’s purpose is simply to present a female as object, as is the case with many of Currin’s subjects. She too is an abstracted and morphed female form, exaggerated by her clothing and her preternatural ability to leap over high walls with the grace of a ballerina. Mrs. Peel also functions as lovely visual contrast for her partner, the utterly unsexy but very well dressed Mr. Steed.


As regards my own artist ‘thing’ and interpretations thereof, it turns out that I never actually use palette knives in my work. I use almost every other kind of object though, including my fingers, brushes, wallboard scrapers, spackle knives, and a ruler on occasion. And when I really see the female object Emma Peel, I think many things, but mostly I think about the object that matters in my world - - I see her teased and sprayed 60’s hairdo (such stiff hair!) and think “I could make a brush out of that.”