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December 6, 2009

Inclination Changes

Physicist Arthur Worthington's desire to prove the perfection of the splash, using drawings he made from observations of mercury droplets, was abandoned after flash photography made it possible to see that the droplets actually made imperfect, non-symmetrical splashes. This was both a scientific set back for Worthington and a spiritual bummer, since the connection between symmetry and spiritual perfection was assumed in the 1890's; natural symmetry was taken as hard evidence of God's sublime hand at work, and as a model for man's attempt to perfect himself.

With this new view on things, Worthington questioned how he (and all the other scientists that predated him) could "have seen for so long a perfection that had never been present" and he reasoned that the human mind's "psychological tendency to improve" had led him, and all other viewers, to "attend to part of the image with a preference for the part that is regular, and then tend to fill up the rest in...imagination."

About 100 years earlier, Immanuel Kant wrestled with the concept of aesthetic judgment (and imagination, and pleasure) in a long and intricate essay that hinges on the idea that there is a clear distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. "The delight which we connect with the representation of the real existence of an object is called interest" he wrote (living as he did in a time before secular, non-representational abstraction was everywhere). "The beautiful is what pleases in the mere estimate formed of it [outside of understanding]. From this it follows at once that it must please apart from all interest. The sublime is what pleases immediately by reason of its opposition to the interest of sense...The beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, apart from any interest: the sublime to esteem something highly even in opposition to our (sensible) interest."

So, responses to beautiful things are on one level, irrational maybe but certainly comprehensible. And responses to sublime things are on another level, as awe or respect for something sublime is actually rational (an act of esteem) but not really comprehensible in the mind of man alone. Because for Kant, the sublime was tinged with something, a sprinkling of a spiritual perfection that is not attainable by humans.

It strikes me that Kant did a lot of "filling up the rest" in imagination. Living as he did before flash photography. And high definition tv. The core dichotomy (beautiful versus sublime) Kant deemed necessary for his understanding of aesthetics makes me question the need for this kind of thinking. I wondered about this last week while listening to Lauren Wye, a doctoral student at Stanford, describe the complex measurement-and-correction process used in radar mapping of a lake on the surface of Titan, the largest moon around Saturn.

We know from photographs and readings taken by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft that this lake, Ontario Lacus, is 18,000 km long, is shaped like a super giant right footprint, and is filled mostly with methane and ethane. Because of things I can't comprehend, like the actions of pulse echoes, sinusoid signals, backscatter and signal distortion, lots of mathematical hoops had to be jumped through to achieve reliable data about the surface of the lake and whether it is viscous or wave-filled.

Turns out, Ontario Lacus is kind of like a large pool of oil on the garage floor -- not choppy or wavy at all, but dense and sluggish. And working backwards from the data about the lake's surface features, scientists can now more confidently claim knowledge about all of the lake's content materials and what the bottom of it may be like. Which is fine, and nice to know, and alongside the data about Titan's other surface features, gives us a pretty robust picture of a place we've never been to.

Titan is similar to the other objects in our neighborhood, it has some gravity, mountains, impact craters, lakes, etc. Having that totality of information is wonderful, in and of itself, but the description provided by Wye of the the filters and sieves the data had to be pulled through to match a theoretical frame seemed...self-serving. Like reading Kant's neat categorizations of all things knowable in art, or one's reaction to art. Both seem to be exercises in proving bounded reasoning to itself, and both seem propelled by the notion that bounded/defined reasoning about objects is superior not only to guessing or projecting ideas onto the object ("Maybe a skillion years ago a huge space giant stepped on Titan and made the lake?") but to not projecting an answer at all.

But what if we all just waited until the Cassini-Huygens space probe or its progeny got down to the moon's surface, and analyzed the materials in the lake, and took photographs of its surface? And in the meantime we all lived in a state of not guessing or projecting, but simply not-knowing-but-open-to-knowing-someday?

This is not the point where science bumps up against art; this is the point where the expectation that humans can know the why and wherefore anything they ponder or imagine about (the why of time, what God has planned for folks) bumps up against a different reality, the one where humans recognize what we possibly can't know, and instead of covering up that apparent failing with a guess or projection, actually don't see that as a failing at all.

The drive to find a concrete expression about all things we encounter, the idea that all is knowable and therefore explicable, drives a pretty large percentage of human action, and interaction of course. But does that mean its a moral good? I'm not talking about remaining willfully ignorant about what is knowable, as it seems a human imperative not just to "improve" on what we see, but simply to know what you can, to learn more, to allow for contexts.

There is a point in that process where, when one comes up against what is imaginable but currently inexplicable, then something like fear, or perhaps the desire for power over nature, or power over other humans, or the desire for connection overtakes, and...signal distortion is implemented, the concrete division between the beautiful and the sublime is constructed, the adherence to an unchanging set of rules is instituted, and we are bounded by description. The not-totally-explicable-yet is captured, limited, crafted into a version of "known" through a process of extrapolation, ratification, reiteration. Images become meaning, nature's perfection becomes sublime. Radar signals become a comprehensible physical feature, the surface of a lake on a distant moon.

This process is subjective, and context-bound; before flash photography, another reality existed. What if the research team at Stanford had claimed that the process they undertook was simply to learn about how radar works in space on a weird moon far away, not to define the smoothness constraints of a lake on Titan? What if Kant had claimed that his "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment" was not a prescriptive essay about the way man's mind is designed to comprehend art, but rather his own personal exercise in figuring out artistic taste in his time? What if ancients had claimed up front that creating systems of gods with superpowers was awesome simply because it was an exercise in human imagination applied to reducing stress about as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena?

What if the most sustaining, engaging, energizing part of being conscious was simply in recognizing that human capability, rather than using imagination on itself to create a bounded, word-filled structure one must adhere to when engaging in an act of imagining?

Critic Dore Ashton wrote of artist Mark Rothko that the painter was "dubious about the world of men" and strove to operate outside the "clutter of the mundane world" so that he could paint that most non-human experience, boundlessness.

Boundlessness. It seems like this is what Worthington and his colleagues bumped up against when finally really viewing the variations in the natural, not very symmetrical world. And this seems to be what Kant worked so hard to describe around in the geometrical proof that is "The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment."

Certainly we are all stuck here on earth, and stuck in our own heads...but we are able to consider unanswerable questions and unending space, to encounter endlessly mutating nature, and we are capable of imagining boundlessness, and creating about that, even if we can't inhabit it. Do we really need to always map the borders?


November 19, 2009

Spinning Above Flatland

Some interactions or conversations between people are not what they seem to be, but are instead art acts. You may not even be aware when this happens, and you may actually never have consented to being part of the art piece, but you are in it nonetheless. I have this experience fairly often and by now have learned to read the cues and ready myself, to some degree. I just had it again about 2 weeks back. And here is the story:

The setting is a local pub, the artmakers were myself and an acquaintance, and the subject of the conversation/art piece was his recent engagement in two simultaneous pursuits: Bible study, specifically the Book(s) of Samuel, and close reading of everything by Ayn Rand. Really. It was surreal.

The transporter of conversation was used to beam me into his internal sphere of self-justification (where all art is made) and simply by being responsive (or sentient) at all, I was part of his process. The product of the activity was not a painting, or a song, or photograph. The product of the activity was an emotional state, a very well-crafted one.

He first determined that I knew something about both Samuel and Rand. (He primed the canvas, loaded the film, readied the recording devices.) He then described to me the experience of talking in his group about the leadership qualities of Samuel, and then, after a very long meander, connected this to Rand's ideas about individualism vs. over-reliance on leaders. (Paint on canvas, a shutter clicking, tape rolling.) And finally he tied this all back to his own rather unnerving experience of being a parent to a little girl. (The last stroke. Now he was just ready to varnish.)

The process he was engaged in was not about grappling with the ideas of Christianity or Objectivism, but rather with seeking and finding justification for his own leadership role in his own family. The emotional state he had sought to craft for himself through this interaction was sureness, a solid, analyzed, and perfected sureness. And I guess my part in the piece was as the dark and unmoving background that cast that product/feeling into high relief, an aid in making his subjectivity as vivid (in his own mind) as a Bible story or Rand's philosophy of self-interest.

I am never surprised that the need to make this type of art exists, or that the need is so strong, particularly in people who feel otherwise constrained by their own lack of creativity.

But I tend to find that people who are not constrained just don't do this kind of artmaking in public, with unwitting conspirators as foils. And I would guess they don't need to, as they make something subjectively "perfect" out of their own vivid imaginations each time they paint, or print an image, or capture sound.

October 19, 2009

Bright Star

Last year, Dr. Paul Kalas identified the extrasolar planet Fomalhaut B, a cold gas giant about the size of Neptune orbiting around a super-bright star in our southern sky. Kalas was able to identify the planet via images captured (and manipulated with a corona device) by the Hubble Space Telescope. "It's a profound and overwhelming experience to lay eyes on a planet never before seen" he said at the time. But in truth, as with all we explore beyond our immediate boundaries, it is still a planet "never before seen" unless we grant the Hubble (and the Kepler, and any other unmanned spacecraft) human attributes. Photographed-by-machine is not the same as seen. Or is that distinction becoming meaningless now?

Ken Burns' droning documentary on the National Parks is best enjoyed with the sound off, as it provides the viewer with an astounding compilation of images from the earliest days of Yosemite, Rainier, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc. Without the cloying narration about how American spirituality is found and reflected in these great places, one can reach one's own conclusions about the impact of those images on the American psyche. Or one's own psyche.

No doubt the early white "discoverers" of the lands that would become national parks felt the same thrill as Kalas, proclaiming that what they were encountering was never before seen -- at least not by white people living elsewhere. The early reportage about (and paintings, drawings, and photographs of) America's natural wonders helped rally support for protecting those places, while at the same time ramping up racism against Native Americans and driving up tourism.

The images served to promote and advertise, and to capture and reveal the beauty...but also to challenge people to get there themselves, in order to get their own images and impressions, to stake their claim. Because any photograph, painting, or sketch of such a place was, while magnificent, still filtered through the artist's experience and limited by their skill; any other set of human eyes would see the same place as markedly different. So, in seeing, the impulse to own or claim or verify one's own view over the artist's presentation.

In the mid-1980's, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite was able to determine, through stellar temperature measurements, glow tracking, temperature variables, and an ambient temperature matching concept similar to the behavior of snakes (long story), that other sun-like stars out there were being orbited by solid material in a similar fashion to our solar system, which itself formed out of a circumstellar disk of swirling space dust. This was cool for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this gave Dr. Kalas incentive to keep looking more closely at circumstellar disks to see if there were planets like ours within those disks. And as imaging technology advanced, he was able to determine the answer.

But by "laying eyes" on Fomalhaut B for the first time via images sent digitally from a space telescope, Kalas did not really see anything at all, if seeing a new natural wonder engenders claiming, owning, seeking to verify through one's own experience. Because no human eye has ever seen Fomalhaut B, only human-built machines have.

And though human-built machines which take space photographs can't morph/photoshop a planet as one might morph, say, a Ralph Lauren model, Dr. Kalas did avail himself of the coronagraph on the Hubble, to block out the brightest light from the star that Fomalhaut B orbits in order to capture greater detail. The manipulation was necessary, due to the limitations of our eyeballs, not the desire for a skinnier planet. And listening to Dr. Kalas describe the decades-long process of getting to this moment of image discovery, I was entranced by how little imagination-fueled-by-desire played a part. He described observational astronomy as engaging precisely because it was revealing and unsettling and meant constant challenge to known and accepted views. And he, for one, did not imbue what he discovered with any meaning whatsoever, beyond the fact of its existence.

September 23, 2009

No Ghosts, No Telepathy

I'm beginning to wonder if abstraction causes such discomfort in some because non-representational art is a reminder of what philosopher Colin McGinn calls the "cosmic loneliness" that drives spiritual belief.

McGinn notes that the sealed nature of human consciousness (i.e., I am and can only be in my own mind, not in yours, even though I'd like to think I can know your mind, or that dog's...) fosters, in some, a relentless loneliness. An antidote to this oppressive feeling is to believe in direct, ever present mental contact with another, even a spiritual other.

I talked with both a science professor and with an ethical humanist recently, and asked them about the same moment of awareness: the moment you look in a telescope and see the moons around Jupiter. The science prof said he has often had people take in the view and then proclaim that what they are seeing is God's creation. And I asked him how he dealt with that; he said he usually replies "How do you know I didn't create what you are seeing through my telescope?"

The ethical humanist stated that what those people were expressing was awe, but they just had to use the language of God to express it. I responded that I imagined what those people were expressing was something like fear, and that they used the language of God to make the unknown less fearful. But thinking on it, "cosmic loneliness" could be an apt description.

Art making and art presentation, especially abstraction (in my view) are such connected, human-to-human activities. Experiencing a great painting can feel like a means of traversing across sealed consciousnesses...but for many, this is completely dismissible. Because if what is viewed on canvas is not recognizable, it is not instantly verifying, and so not of value to the viewer's experience. Yet art created out of the minds of other humans actually is inherently verifying.

A view of distant planets through a telescope is a pretty one-sided, human-to-object-in-space activity, one which can give you reason to both celebrate that humans have created telescopes and reason to be in awe of, well, space. And often this moment of real awe gets taken and proscribed, made into a known, mapped, identifiable thing, a "God creation" -- in part so that one can feel less alone in the universe.

Yet seeing the moons around Jupiter is absolutely not verifying; this view says nothing to me (or any human) about human experience, only Jovian experience. Which at this point in time is utterly, fantastically unknowable.

August 28, 2009

Stuck in the Primum Mobile

Before eyeglasses were invented and put into use, how the hell did nearsighted people see anything? And how did how they saw things impact how they thought about vision?

Up until the late 1200's it was generally accepted as a natural fact that vision was possible because eyes emitted light onto objects -- which seems a remarkably subjective/self-focused idea. And also kind of like a superhero power. Once the theory of vision through emission was disproved, less subjective studies of the eye led to our modern understanding of how vision works.

I tend to think humans go into any new endeavor eyeballs first, so trying to imagine a world where a large section of the population can't see beyond their feet stuns me. But this also explains how some of the more interesting theories of the universe were accepted as natural facts, before the telescope made looking up into the beyond possible. Crystalline spheres, perfect circular orbits, us in the center of it all...such very subject-centered ideas. And these were very sustaining ideas, for generations. Until seeing made things change.

Today I saw an item in the news about how researchers have imaged a single molecule. You can actually see in the image the bonds between atoms. A few hundred years ago, people looking up could only "see" crystal spheres, and people looking in could only "see" ethers and energies. And right now there are telescope cameras flying through space, sending back skillions of pixels that can show us something about the transits of earth-sized planets across the galaxy.

But these leaps forward in understanding do not mean much to people who find navel-gazing sustaining, to those who adhere to the subjective as if it is objective. The act of being objective about anything means that a portion of the self is restricted, or held in reserve, or suppressed in some way, so that new information can be taken in and identifications are not made from an entirely self-focused gaze.

Objectivity is not impersonal, of course, because we are still thinking through and filtering whatever it is we see. In contrast, true subjectivity is nothing but personal filtering, as exemplified by many a recent Town Hall meeting-goer...and anything Rep. Michele Bachmann says. And for some of us, that relentless subjectivity is a frightening, mind-numbing prison.

My favorite Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last" spells that problem out exactly. Eyeglasses and all.

August 7, 2009

The Noise that Undermines Certainty

Blue is the first color I remember seeing, or being conscious of seeing; I was in a living room with a blue couch and chairs when I registered my own existence for the first time. I was three. My mother had taken me with her to a League of Women Voters meeting, and there were women in skirts, and a lot of talking, and cookies with what I found out later were apricot centers, and blue, all around me.

And this memory -- of the moment I was first cognizant of anything outside of myself -- is still completely color saturated. Which is a weird but familiar comfort, because I am addicted to thinking about color. Or perhaps by this point I am simply addicted to being conscious, which is the same thing. Seeing two examples of color-infused thinking recently is what made me reflect on this idea, and wonder if everyone is addicted in their own way to their own patterns of thought.

I saw a production of Electra a few weeks ago (a play about a daughter addicted to her own experience of grief/vengeance) that had a very spare set: a white wall, a red tomb, a red front door, and a cluster of barren, blood-red trees. I appreciated the spareness, but the director's use of this intense red was a distracting choice as the frame for a play filled with arguments about love and hate. I kept seeing a painting instead of listening to the modernized version of Sophocles' story being spun. But part of that distraction was to be expected, because regardless of the set, Electra is most compelling to an audience who get off on well-crafted insults, collusion, plotting. You know, like watching Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Watching the film The Hurt Locker was just the opposite, because it centers on a character who is addicted to a nearly wordless, intense, visual pursuit: defusing bombs. I know rationally that the film is also about the addiction our culture has to war making, or that a subset of us have to high-testosterone activities, and the consequences of such. But I found watching the main character work, watching him engaged in a life and death situation that depended for a positive outcome on his visual acuity, totally mesmerizing.

The life and death part of his job seemed secondary to him; the time-stopping focus he was capable of achieving when looking at a bomb and figuring out how to defuse it was what seemed to bring him intense pleasure and release. Time away from the work was presented in the film as just unavoidable downtime spent between one injection of the drug and the next. But the drug was actually self-generated. His character provided his own high by using his eyes and hands and concentration. And war gave him the best hook-up to a situation that would keep him generating that drug.

Which is what made me wonder about the addictive nature of consciousness itself. Like anyone else, I don't seem to have a say in what I can remember -- or in the colors of those experiences. What was said at the time is a noise or a sound I often cannot recall with the same acuteness, and I do wish I had better recall of words.

But I also wish sometimes that I existed in some surreal place where my color-thinking drug was always being generated and continually keeping me as high as I feel when I am deep in a painting. I have to wonder if that kind of wish holds true for any thinking being, and wonder how that impacts our choices about what situations provide the best hook-ups.

And I think, how lucky are those (especially in this day and age!) who have minds that are addicted to words. They can shoot up anytime.

July 14, 2009

De-constricting Fictions

I tried to read Fielding's Tom Jones once and decided, after about fifty pages, that I really should not read books that don't like their readers. And vice versa. I find much of the enjoyment of reading good books is that they can propel you forward, can trigger something formerly unseen or unknown in your mind. But it can be enlightening to take oneself through reading a book again after a long lapse, precisely because the experience can take you back to places you have already visited. Odd places, sometimes.

This summer I'm re-reading books I first encountered years ago, and am going backwards with each page. On the list: Godel, Escher, Bach; The Lady or the Tiger?; Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind; all of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse mysteries; Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy; and anything I can find that explains what the frak Foucault meant by 'episteme', which I have lamely interpreted for years as meaning the dog whistle of an era.

(Every now and then I pause in this furious re-examination of logic and fiction and cultural history, see Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's blank stare of empty blankness in some photo on the web, and am reminded that there is balance in the universe. But I digress.)

Godel, Escher, Bach is a great read, now, but it reminds me of college and of boring hours spent sublimating lust and discussing irrelevant theories of everything. The Jaynes opus is also a really engaging read, but holding the book in my hands reminds me that the ferociously pretentious therapist my first husband and I met with as our marriage sputtered out had this very same book prominently displayed on the shelf in her waiting room. And Davies' work, which is pure pleasure, old-fashioned, fully crafted fiction, reminds me of watching my brilliant Mom relax into the welcoming weird world of a Davies novel while she sat in her favored reading chair in the living room back home. But all those real world associations -- college life, a starter marriage, a mother, and a girlhood home -- are now long gone.

I'll be glad to get beyond this current reading phase, which is also historical re-engagement, which is also brain twisting, when it expires. Or my head explodes. Whichever.

But I guess I do recognize that, as with anything that catches and really seizes hold of one's attention for a span, there is a purpose. This is mental fuel, and a distraction, and possibly an antidote to Palin fatigue. And perhaps it is also this reader's quiet little hurrah that anti-intellectualism no longer holds the sway -- at least in the executive branch -- that it did during the last decade. Which means some of us can revisit the pleasures of the percolating brain pan, and (at least in the privacy of our...bookshelves) let our freak flags fly again.

July 4, 2009

Bigger the Punch I'm Feeling

The idea (roughly) of consilience -- or perhaps I should say the hope of this theory -- is that a defined set of principles underpins and unifies all areas of human knowledge. I have as hard a time agreeing that this can be true as I do agreeing that my siblings and I have the same memories and perceptions of our parents.

And though I am always interested in the discovery of interconnectivity between two things previously seen as disparate (like the genetic overlap of certain mental disorders) I tend to feel unease when these get translated into universals or generalizations about human beings. This is the same unease I feel when people refer to God as a universal "known" while claiming simultaneously that their own perception of or relationship to a god is personal, individual. After watching the Mark Sanford meltdown and the Sarah Palin resignation "speech", this also made me wonder about the toll that the desire for universal applicability or unity, contrasted with the subjective and inconsistent reality of, well, reality, takes on a person, or a collection of people. Because as these recurring meltdowns (personal, political, economic) attest, there is a toll.

Perhaps the feeling of separation from self (expressed by both of these pols, in different ways) is an aspect of our time. In The First Moderns, W.R. Everdell's history of modernism in art, culture and thought (an almost entirely male domain, by his narrow reckoning) he describes this problem of internal division:

"High on the list of the classic complaints of modernity is the one about the failure of integrity of modern life, and particularly of modern lives, fragmented and inharmonious, their activities asynchronous and divided against themselves. The complaint is old and was probably first heard in the 1820's when railway passengers were warned that speeds of twenty miles an hour might ruin their health. At the great World's Fairs of the turn of the century...visitors were warned about the dizzying effects of seeing and doing too much, deranging the senses and bringing on neurasthenia. We call it 'museum fatigue' and do not think of it as being modernist. In the 'post-modern era', in fact, fragmentation of lives has been not only touted as inevitable, but even hailed as a new sort of virtue."

But if personal time/life/activity fragmentation is a modern virtue, then what is consilience? If dissipation is now a goal, then why do people also strive for a unified vision of a god? And if streams of science, from physics to psychology to genetics, are daily revealing that there is overlap and interdependence even among the most complex systems, then why are we simultaneously defining improvement (or modernity) as being about segmenting ourselves and lives into discrete portions?


June 23, 2009

At a Second Remove

After having seen countless iconic Ansel Adams photographs of Yosemite all my life, seeing the iconic forms of Yosemite in real life made me feel as if I were betraying Ansel Adams. Seeing the place in living color also felt off -- as if these enormous tongues of granite should be stark black and white, and not their actual mottled greys and blues.

There are jagged spires in the park (of rocks and of evergreens) that remind you of the drip-castle forms of Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia, and the flattened bald peaks look like the so pale and so high forehead of the patriarch in Grant Wood's American Gothic.

Driving through Death Valley, you can see Henry Moore sculptures in the shadows on the sand dunes. And out in Red Rocks, in Pine Creek Canyon, the striations in the hills echo the intricate patterns of quilts.

How persistently images usurp other images in the privacy of one's own head.

This mental categorizing and referencing seems so automatic. And though it is a pleasure to have a rich visual inventory to choose from, this is a mental governor as well. Because what are you left with after identifying the recognizable in the formerly unseen other than some minimal sense of comfort or control? What comes after the identifying?

A viewer once saw the image of train tracks in one of my paintings, and insisted to me that they were there. Because they were, for him. Watching him create that recognizable image of train tracks and verbally inject the image into an abstract painting was both agonizing and reassuring, for me. He was being exactly who he is by doing so, by seeking (unconsciously) both comfort and control in the interaction with my canvas. But he was also identifying intention and form that were completely absent. And telling him otherwise would not undo the image he had fastened onto in his mind's eye, or dissipate the reasons his mind did so.

And that is the water's edge, in abstraction; once the painting is done, every other eye makes of it what it will. And at that edge is the viewer's unconscious need, that unceasing wave that hisses "make it familiar to me, make it familiar to me, calm my discomfort."

June 10, 2009

Mapping

From what I can recall from childhood, Connecticut summers regularly featured thunderstorms in surround-sound, and the humidity made the season feel like it was always on you, not around you. The summers I spent in Minnesota as a 20-something were the antithesis; you could see the thunderheads building from across the flat, and you could watch the sky turn from blue to green to black, storm directly over you, and then quickly reassemble its calm blue face.

The clouds in Minnesota bundled together at the end of the day and were pulled offstage like a cluster of balloons. The sky in Connecticut was more like the pale-hued wall of a hospital or a school, a wall propped up between you and the Long Island Sound. Some days were grey/blue, some grey, some white. And at night the cloud wall would stretch out to the horizon and settle into a deeper grey. The sky was never fully dark -- too much ground light from the densely packed suburbs, and from Manhattan, 30 miles away -- and never really clear enough to see many stars.

The beach in our town was built on a point jutting out into the Long Island Sound, so that even though the coastline ran along the town's southern edge, you could go to the point and stand on a beach and look east, out to the imagined Atlantic and then Spain and then Mongolia. Or you could stand on another stretch of beach and look southwest and (squinting) see the skyline of lower Manhattan, or you could stand on another small beach and look straight south, across to the mundane mirror shoreline of Long Island. This was the unchanging geography of my childhood.

The geography of adulthood is still being mapped. The sky in Wyoming on a September night was overflowing with stars, and I felt, looking up, as if I was falling into a pool of crystals -- just as my husband had promised I would. I don't recall the sky from my years in Boston; I spent that time looking down, or sitting in a class, or waiting for the T. The sky over Philly in the summer was dense and pale and enclosing, like the damp Connecticut sky, only moreso. And our first summer in northerly Seattle, it seemed as if the sky just moved from blue to deep blue to indigo, though the pines blackened at night.

The latest point on the map is here, in Northern California, south of foggy San Francisco, west of the scorching central valley, a spot between the muggy bay to the east and, to the west, the foothills that hold the seawall back at night. There are stars, and deep blues, and on a full moon, the water around Santa Cruz pier looks as silver and shiny as mercury. There are so few clouds.

I can't see the weather coming from afar, here, but I can smell the smoke of distant wildfires. And on the rare days when it's humid and the wind blows the right way across the bay, the air has a familiar salty tang. I am still unaccustomed to the colors here, having grown up in a world that was, in every possible way, a muted palette (the milky purple crocuses coming up by the church on the hill on the Post Road counted as "vibrant" there) and having just lived for years in the northwest, where it seemed everything but the sky was some tone of green.

Even my car looks like a different color here, a funky super-infused purple. And the gardens in my neighborhood are ridiculous with reds. My eyes are newly saturated with the intensity of color and the yellow-white daylight of the here that has always been here (so different than the cool white of Minnesota days) and this makes me weep with relief.

June 1, 2009

The Chameleon Particle

In contrast to this horrible event here on terra firma, where limited imagination and limited acceptance seem to correlate pretty directly with violence, the seemingly limitless curiosity about dark energy (which I posted about last week) just keeps churning up weirdness and beauty and change. 

May 27, 2009

Opening Directly into Starlight

While Margaret Atwood's fictional Republic of Gilead has now come vividly to life in Afghanistan, and some here at home some are arguing that being female is a disqualifying bias for a Supreme Court nominee, the quieter work of pushing awareness forward goes on. 
     
Last week I went to a lecture given by Dr. Patricia Burchat, an experimental particle physicist and chair of the Stanford Physics Department who also studies antimatter at our local linear accelerator in her spare time. Dr. Burchat works on and thinks about interconnections, and is particularly interested in figuring out the make-up of the fundamental constituents of the universe, a subject about which she says we have "vast ignorance." She explained in her lecture the processes used to determine how much of what is out there is out there -- how much luminous matter, how much dark matter, and how much dark energy -- and the research being done to find out what the what is made of. 
     
So far, based on how we currently measure, we can surmise that our universe is made up of about one-third visible/knowable stuff and invisible-but-reacts-to-gravity stuff, and 70% invisible, almost immeasurable, pulls-the universe-apart stuff. Also, space itself is like an ever-expanding gem-studded Slinky, and our planet a rhinestone stuck on for the ride. 
     
On the same day as Dr. Burchat's lecture, IBM officially announced that it has developed a new software (System S) that analyzes disparate data sets concurrently, in a stream, allowing researchers to quickly track the interconnections between things like financial data, current events, and weather patterns...or gas clouds, particle movements, sun spots, and cell phone disruptions.
     
Contrasting these advances in human understanding of understanding itself with, say, the Taliban's wholesale elimination of education for girls, or the rejection of the idea of evolution, or the push for hetero-only marriage, makes me think about whether we define reality correctly, or whether that is a subject about which we have vast ignorance as well. 
     
Or perhaps these contrasts just highlight the push-pull of comprehension. It often seems (from my own narrow perception) that what new knowledge can be comprehended by some will be comprehended in the here and now, and ideally be comprehended later by many more, and what old knowledge is comprehended by many now will be questioned by some, and ideally reframed, later. But its always a fight. 
     
I just don't know why its a fight. I mean, I don't comprehend why the infusion of new knowledge about humanness (like that women can have intellectual heft, that information can be poured into a stream of interconnection and be clearly understood, that educating girls has positive practical impacts, that marriage can be defined as a commitment beyond parenthood) is met with resistance at all. Ever. 
     
Surely this resistance has a purpose, but what is the overall purpose? Preservation? Some inherent aspect of evolution? Noise making? A time-allowance to express emotions about change? A desire to hold on to one's own inch of turf? A fear of offending a vengeful god? 
     
I can imagine that all of those forms of resistance are, for those resisting, quite valid. 
     
But in truth, I do wonder how much all that resistance matters...if after all we really are just denizens of one of the billions of gems in a BeDazzled Slinky universe that is itself being pulled apart by vast amounts of weird, amazing, impossible dark energy.

May 19, 2009

How to Compile an Inventory

I have to admit it is difficult to not throw something at the television when watching old white men, some of whom are professionally celibate, discuss the "issue of abortion." 
     
I just had a similar reaction watching Vikram Pandit try to be cool, and Jack Welch get flushed and cranky, as they discussed the perilous state of capitalism and their concerns about regulation. They certainly don't want too much regulation over private interests and investment because that would be bad, bad, bad. But by contrast, lots of regulation regarding female reproduction is fine?
     
I feel the same way when I hear people discuss the issue of school violence, specifically Columbine and Virginia Tech, as if these violent events reflect a broad problem in "today's youth." No, this is not a problem with today's youth. This has been a problem among a subset of boys. Shooting up schools is not a problem among girls, who are fully 50% of the aforementioned youth. But this is never the lede, and the headline is usually gender-free. 
     
And oddly enough, this is true with the issue of abortion as well. Honestly, I felt that Obama's mention that abortion is a "wrenching choice for a woman" was almost a footnote in his speech at Notre Dame, not the centerpiece it should be. The operative word there being woman, not wrenching. For many women, I am sure the choice is not at all wrenching. But it sure as hell is a choice about a procedure that no one who is without ovaries will have to undertake. 
     
I have never accepted this false parity between the genders on issues of violence and reproduction, and have never understood this hypocrisy about the regulation of private interests either. I do not see the rationality of the arguments presented by people who claim to be "deeply committed" to the issues. 
     
Why advertise an epidemic of school violence as a youth issue when it is clearly a gender issue, unless you have no real investment in getting to a solution? Why advertise that the "abortion issue" is something that should be seen through the lens of a church headed by celibate men, unless you wish to keep the "abortion issue" permanently unresolved? Why protest against any government regulation of disastrously unregulated capital markets (or sow the fear of a permanent socialist state when these regulations are tested) unless you have no true interest in regaining any semblance of balance?
     
Which makes me wonder yet again about what deep commitment to an issue actually is, for others. And to worry that it is often simply a commitment to propelling oneself forward, not to fixing a problem. 
     
Or perhaps it is simply a commitment to making noise about action, any action at all, because taking action (even action about nothing) is what living is supposedly about. 
     
I think perhaps writer Umberto Eco provided the perfect description: "I had to set up a committee of logicians, who suspended their own researches for three days. In my statement of the problem they saw something comparable to The Set of Normal Sets. Then they decided that the act of compiling an inventory, as it is an act, is not an object and therefore cannot be inventoried, but they further decided that its output is the catalogue of the inventory and, as this is an object, it can be inventoried. We asked the private firm to bill us not for the act but for its result, a result that we then inventoried. For several days I distracted serious scholars from their specific tasks, but I avoided going to jail."

May 12, 2009

Modes of Association

New research into memory (and the mapping of the brain's management of memory) has led to an astounding result: the development of an experimental drug that, when delivered to a certain area of the brain, could disable the connections between the cells that hold a memory within the brain, and effectively erase that memory and its associations. 
     
The positive spin on this development is that it makes it possible to think of a future where people are not plagued by addiction, for example, or traumatic stress. Which is a creepily delightful refutation of the mantra that everything happens for a reason...because now the things you didn't really want to happen to you, or didn't really want to witness, can be undone. But what if those memories you'd like to delete provide the underpinnings of your identity or your ethical conscience? That is a whole other sticky issue.
     
Memory is the field any artist plows through every day, turning earth to reveal the tender and the grotesque. I wouldn't choose to take the drug. Besides, while being alive means being conscious of self, it also means being conscious of (and taking in) how others' memories have shaped them, wounded them, strengthened them. 
     
About ten years ago, I sat in my friend Mary's living room and had an intense conversation with her house guest -- a woman in her late 60's who told me that her family had been murdered twenty years earlier. She explained that her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild had been at Jonestown and had been killed by Jim Jones. I'd never met anyone who had been so closely connected to that (or any) act of violence, and had no idea I ever would meet someone just sitting near me in a living room in Philadelphia whose adult life was so shaped by that experience.
     
This woman lived her experience, and I simply heard from her about it -- but my brain has retained the memory of her words, her face, the light in the room, the lumpiness of the couch I was sitting on at the time. The question is, what triggered the retention of that memory for me, the listener? The easy way out is to claim emotional impact, but this was not the first time she had told the story, and this was not a person I had any connection with before (or since) that day. In truth, I think it imprinted because it triggered a question in my mind; time froze there -- the light, the couch, her words -- and I knew she was describing anguish I have never (and hopefully will never) have to suffer about people I love, but I also knew she was talking about a kind of thinking that she could not understand. 
     
She told me she had never understood her child's commitment to the idea of Jonestown, and she also did not understand why people spoke about the victims there as if they were the agents of their own lives. And what imprinted for me as a memory was precisely that ethical quandary -- I too could not understand how people wind up in situations that demand an exchange of group acceptance for their free will. I think its what triggered my brain to retain the conversation, because considering will, agency, morality, and choice is what my brain has always spent a lot of time doing.
     
Of course, I'd want to give her the memory-erasing drug, to somehow ease the pain of her horrific loss. 
     
But I don't know that she'd choose the same. 

May 7, 2009

Parallel Action

The mold of nostalgia seems to have almost entirely covered the edifice of the Republican party at this point. 
     
It has been noted that this slow suffocation has been occurring as the country is becoming "less white" and "less Christian." 
       
That kind of pronouncement makes me laugh, based as it is on the Toby-Keith-ish-full-of-fear idea that the country is supposed to be a certain (magically predetermined) percentage white and Christian, in order to maintain its status as America. As if a non-majority white/Christian America is a blighted wasteland, a country with no history, too horrifying a fate to imagine. 
     
Not to unduly disdain my own tribe but...I think American history has shown that when freaked-out, gun-toting Christian whiteys run the show, it can have pretty frightening consequences. Take Texas Governor Rick Perry. He was just ranting a few weeks ago about his state's sovereign right to secede (because the prevailing values of the nation are not shared by him and his party, and therefore should not be permitted to infect Texas), talk that sounded a lot like that of George Wallace, or even Jefferson Davis. At least now we citizens get to see it all, via the pointedly non-nostalgic interwebs, and can make up our own individual minds about the weight (or weightlessness) of Governor Perry's convictions.
     
And, at the very same time that Maine and New Hampshire are using the powers of their sovereign state legislatures to enact laws that allow and protect gay marriage, Louisiana and Arkansas are supporting an anti-gay families bulwark, based on the Sarah-Palin-reads-the-bible-endorsed idea that the sole purpose of marriage is to create more people. Even though someone in her family just made another person...outside of marriage. 
     
Its an interesting moment, and it is fascinating to watch the mold grow, and to see in real time how a lack of imagination about an unmapped future reveals itself as serious mental constraint. 
     

April 29, 2009

Creatures of Change

Over the course of the last twenty years I have lived in five cities (on both coasts and in the midwest) and in twelve different homes, so by now I've figured out that when you relocate your life, a particular type of sustained energy is required in order to get beyond the grief and stress of change.
    
The aim is to thrive in new soil without forgoing your own history, whatever the forces that brought you there. And while this process of adaption has an obvious impact on survival, it also has a very real impact on creativity, a point brought vividly home to me recently by the words of scientist Dr. Margaret Race and the work of artist Rene Yung.
    
Dr. Race's work for NASA and for the SETI Institute keeps her engaged in researching just how biological the universe actually is, and working on the development of a model environmental impact study pertinent to interplanetary exploration. She gave a public talk on Earth Day about the possibilities of and challenges associated with biological adaptation in our universe...and also gleefully reminded her audience that we are all just walking bags of microbes.
    
Dr. Race explained that what first peaked her interest in studying adaptation was the ubiquitous mud snail that clogs the marshes and salt flats around San Francisco. What she found fascinating was that these Ilyanassa obsoleta were actually imports from the eastern United States; they were unintentionally transplanted 130 years ago (attached to the oysters that were shipped west via the Transcontinental Railroad) from their native environs.
    
The same day I heard Dr. Race's talk, I saw artist Rene Yung's installation  "...anges and Disappearances" for the first time. This is an interactive work about a seminal story in Chinese-American history that has faded with time and change -- the story of the immigrant laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad and what they suffered through (and adapted to) as sub-citizens in 1860's California.
    
And today I read a review of a new book on the life and impact of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the billionaire master and commander of that very same Transcontinental Railroad...a book written by T.J. Stiles, an historian who graduated from Carleton College one year ahead of my own class.
    
Aside from the weird coincidences of interconnection I just recounted (and these things do happen to me often), what I am appreciating at the moment is the reminder, through the work and art of others, that adaptation is actually interconnection, not an individuated event.
    
As a young entrepreneur, Cornelius Vanderbilt made a killing trading oysters on the eastern seaboard. As a railroad magnate, he created a demand for them among the wealthy on the west coast and built a system (using Chinese laborers) to deliver these indulgences, among many other things, to the leisured class. The creation of the railroad introduced thousands of Chinese to post-Civil War America, and their descendants keep that history alive through their own creative work. And Vanderbilt's project also introduced eastern mud snails to a new world, snails that were the inspiration for a scientist to think about what may be on or under the surfaces of other worlds beyond the beyond.
    
My own adaptations have been minimal in comparison, and I find that the tether to my own history remains, despite my changes of locale. It is the work that changes most. I cannot see things the same once I shift my position on the planet, so things come out on the canvas differently. The light is different, of course, but truly its the thoughts that adapt and fuel a new direction of form. Because different things are true, with age and experience and distance, and true things seem to get sharper in the mind.
    
Last week my husband and I went to a star watching party out on a peak nearby, and through the generosity of the astronomers gathered (and their very very cool telescopes), we got to see globular clusters, and Mercury, and the most amazing view of Saturn. I could see with my own eyes three of the moons around Saturn, moons I have painted about in the past.
    
And I could see the rings, and even the shadow of the rings against the planet's surface. The telescopes we looked through were showing us objects across distances I cannot fathom and the light of an ancient time, the same things that peaked Galileo's interest when he fiddled with a looking glass and built his own telescope 400 years ago.
    
But what we can see now is thousands of times clearer, sharper, more detailed. And what I could see were the waving tones of blue and orange in the atmosphere between us and Mercury, and the pale weird yellow of Saturn, and the cool crystal blue, smudged with grey dust, of a group of stars clustered on the edge of our galaxy. Things I'd never have seen if I had not packed up a life and moved 900 miles south last summer, here, to my fifth city and my twelfth home.

April 21, 2009

The Proper Use of Artifice

Some lucky people are blissfully unburdened by cognitive dissonance, that awful mental cramping that results from recognizing that things you really want to be true are simply not. Many of those people have been fomenting about taxation lately. And some have been talking about the positive outcomes of torture.
     
These are people who are willingly lying to themselves about themselves and their motivations. Because it is reassuring to believe a set of ideas about oneself, firm and unchanging, and to believe that because of this unwavering stance, one is always on the side of the angels. Who would like to admit otherwise? Its excruciating, truly, to realize that what you believe may be false, and worse -- that through acting on that belief, its quite possible you have done damage to others.
         
A number of protesters at the recent tax day rallies melded racist language with a libertarian political view (and a really freaky intellectual blankness about American history) to promote the argument that they do not have a say in their government. No rational response to this works. And not one of them would imagine for an instant that their beliefs are damaging in some way to others. But in my view, being immune to cognitive dissonance is in itself damaging to others, as it seems to signal a lack of conscience. 
     
But why would someone's lack of a conscience be harmful to anyone else? Ask the torturers. Or for that matter, ask the true believer terrorists. Or ask the racists at the tax day rallies, to whom our new African American Commander in Chief is giving...a tax break. 

March 30, 2009

Not From the Strongest Light, But From the Pattern

The best movie I ever saw was the radio play version of Star Wars. 
     
I "saw" it while stretched out under the speakers on the floor of a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania one evening in July, 1981. This imagined Luke Skywalker-reality was far richer than what I had seen in a theater a year or so before. As I viewed distant planets on the screen of my mind, there were no continuity problems. I did not have to suspend my disbelief. And since the feelings I had about the characters I was hearing over the speakers were generated by me, not cued visually, I felt them to be utterly true. 
     
That same summer I visited a slaughterhouse and looked on as a cow got a metal rod punched into it's brain. No getting around what was true in that scene; the cow it was that died.
     
The best interview I have ever seen was also on the radio. It was on NPR's Fresh Air several years back, when Terry Gross asked Monica Lewinsky how she (Monica) knew Bill Clinton was truly loving her in the moment if she (Monica) could not talk to him or even see him, given the sex act she was performing on him...and that it was performed from beneath a desk. At this point, Ms. Lewinsky stopped the interview. 
     
The interviewer had asked an apparently unsupportable question, one that required an unvarnished look at the truth of a moment. Terry Gross had wondered aloud just how a person can imagine love is mutual when only one person has power, and the silence that followed that question was louder than any screed on the subject. The quieted Lewinsky had told herself that something was true (she was loved! she was satisfied!) which was patently and provably not. On the other side of the radio, I swear I could see her break.
     
I could understand her self-delusion. Because the real emotions are those that generate up from the dark, out of the whole story of the self. The fake ones, the tricky ones, are the ones you are told (or tell yourself) you should have, particularly in certain Lewinsky-like situations. And those are the ones that come with strings and strands and shame attached. Especially if you were raised to be a nice girl.
     
Bringing that recognition to the work of Making Art While Female means some undoing is required. 
     
Of course people do create art about fake things all the time. Just as people create fake lives or fake identities for themselves. And fake feelings. And women often are encouraged to express, at least situationally, required emotions. Because it just makes things easier for the group, somehow. 
     
But I don't believe one can paint about required or fake emotions and get anything like a good painting. Which gives me motivation to not dwell for long in required or expected or advised emotional responses; there is a cost, on several fronts. Bad art costs, as does the loss of self. And in the end, no other expected reality actually ever fits you. The one that fits, that generates the work of creative work, is only the one you have shaped. 

March 24, 2009

Keeping on the Beam

Artist Agnes Martin viewed painting as a means of staying in balance with the world, and as a means of expressing memories of joy. Not joy in the moment, but recollections of innocence and innocent feelings, unweighted emotions. For Martin, painting abstractions (as critic Holland Cotter put it once) "kept psychological chaos at bay, and it kept her on the beam. She hoped that her art would do the same for us." 
     
I take Martin's work over her lifetime as an extended act of generosity, because her choice to revisit emotional states and present them via abstraction provides the viewer with an open-ended invitation into somewhere other than the known universe. 
     
But this is a rare thing. Most of us figure out how to stay on the beam in very prosaic ways. An English professor of mine once claimed that receiving mail was what kept her on course, since it confirmed for her that she actually existed outside of her own mind. Zen master Robert Aiken discovered Buddhism while he was trapped in a Japanese internment camp during WWII, and this provided an inner order that sustained him in the midst of chaos. A friend (the mother of three) told me that for her, it was a nap and a beer a day. 
     
I witness the daily routines of neighbors, actions that seem essential for them to maintain. And like everyone else, I see the ordering rituals of commerce and religion and politics, furling and unfurling in front of us all, every day. All this makes me contemplate my own means for staying on the beam.
     
Apparently, the best of all balance-keeping devices is interaction with others. And the idea that inner balance comes from being seen and heard by others does seem a perfectly pleasant one. Unless you find being seen and heard generally unpleasant. And remarkably unbalancing. 
     
In that case, I find it's better to just let the paintings communicate in my stead.

March 20, 2009

All the Fools Will Understand

I read recently that the way to stay happy is to not think about the past or the future, and I have to admit reading that did make me momentarily happy, because it made me just laugh out loud. In this author's picture of how happiness works, he seems to imagine we can all achieve a pristine and unencumbered state of pure selfness. But wouldn't that take an unwavering will, and a sky-high dose of narcissism, to only think about the present, your own present? 
     
I doubt this is even possible to sustain, mentally...at least not for actual grown-ups. Or people who don't run bailed-out investment banks. Its not even chimpanzee-possible.
     
I also read recently a brief interview with philosopher Alva Noe where he describes his approach to thinking about thinking: "The classical picture of our human predicament is that we're all interiority and the world as far as we know is nothing but a source of impingement. We're bombarded with sensory stimulation, and insofar as we occupy a world with an independent existence and other people, all that is really sort of conjecture; we're trapped inside the caverns of our conscious mind. I'm offering a different picture, where the world and the others around us come first, and we are spread out and plugged in and implicated." So, in his "different" picture of how consciousness works, we are all...responsible?
     
Well hello, Professor Noe. Welcome to connected-to-others-land. 
     
Lately there have been too few representatives from that land on the national stage (or at least getting coverage in the press) and too much analysis of those who have been shoved out of their "self-matters" reverie and find themselves suddenly, shockingly implicated in the human condition. Coupled with this is the silly mantra of "specialness" that seems to be repeated about these types, particularly when defending extraordinary pay for their money skills. 
     
Obviously I am not in finance, and given my chosen profession, one can rightly assume that I am generally unmotivated by material gain. So, to that argument, I offer the words of a much more enlightened ambassador from connected-to-others land, Richard P. Feynman: "I don't believe that there are a few peculiar people capable of understanding math, and the rest of the world is normal. Math is a human discovery, and it's no more complicated than humans can understand. I had a calculus book once that said, 'What one fool can do, another can.'  What we've been able to work out about nature may look abstract and threatening to someone who hasn't studied it, but it was fools who did it, and in the next generation, all the fools will understand it."
   

March 12, 2009

In the Apparent World

When I am not being particularly kind to myself, I get concerned with comprehensibility. A common enough activity, I suppose; people do seem to spend a great deal of time framing themselves for others. And reframing themselves, too
     
When I am stuck in that, I tend to mentally categorize my work into pleasing, clear compartments -- paintings of places, paintings about people, etc. And as soon as I think that, I realize I've reduced the work down and it is now edible. In one bite. Three-course-dinner gum.
     
A sticky form of punishment, this creative self-reduction. And reducibility does not breed contentment, or promote more creativity, in my case. It just makes me feel dead.
     
Titles are tricky, then; I don't strive to be obtuse when I name work, I just tend to reach for something clear out of the nebula of thought and feeling and visual cues that make the work. At Deer Isle (above) is a good example. 
     
The colors in this painting do not correspond to the colors of that place. When I first saw Deer Isle, Maine, the summer I was 14, it was a brilliant cloudless day, all blue sky and green trees. The colors and shapes in the work don't correspond, either, to the physical place I was in when I painted the piece decades later. If the work is about anything at all, it is about a moment of consciousness I had that day, sitting on a hill looking at the harbor.
     
When I got home from Maine that summer, I told my big sister Ann that I had figured something out about God on this trip, that I could now "get" why people believed God existed -- it was because such beautiful, idyllic places existed. This was not something I'd given much thought to previously, the why of belief. But I felt aware that summer of a way of thinking which I did not share, but could appreciate. Sort of like realizing what it is that two friends in love see in one another. A recognition that beauty could open up, and even sustain, a spiritual belief.
     
High school came, and I put that thought away for quite awhile -- another thing people do, often to our own detriment. But it reappeared when I was in my studio, about five years ago. I started thinking about the why of beliefs (any beliefs) and all of the moments and elements that cluster to form a sustaining idea. 
     
If I believed in the spirituality of nature, that moment at Deer Isle would have been a springboard (and a reinforcement) to a lifetime of belief, since I spend a great deal of time in and observing the natural world. If I believed in a deity, the existence of this peaceful-looking place, aglow in the summer light, would have been a confirmation, and would have been confirmed repeatedly by my encountering other idyllic places over my lifetime.
     
What I knew -- what I felt to be true for myself as a 14-year old girl -- was that an ideation did not, and likely would never, sustain me. But I could suddenly see how it could be sustaining to others.
     
And what I recognized so much later, at age 38, is that moments of quiet and aloneness were the thing I craved most (and enjoyed with delicious abandon) as a child. Time away from my large family provided clarity and calm; time alone generated wider thoughts and more compassion for others than time with them ever did. And now here I was, all grown-up, alone in my studio, standing silently in front of an empty canvas. Gazing. 
     
And after a time, the canvas became inhabited by a summer day when something made sense and I felt connected to the lives of others even though I was alone. And the canvas became, in turn, every known place, every clear thought, every memory, every loss -- the moments and elements that have clustered to form my own sustaining idea. 
     
And my hand reached out for a tool. And colors got chosen, and forms took shape. And when it was done, clear, balanced, enough, it was done. A painting of a place.

March 6, 2009

Boarding Passes Out, Please

Enthralling as it can be to watch the offended reactions people have when certain taps stop flowing and it is revealed that the well is dry -- when a certain way of being can't be taken for granted any longer (as if taking for granted is ever the right way to go?) and those who have been masters of taking become furious -- it is exhausting too. 
     
Because the rest of us have been here all along unable to escape the ceaseless noise that greed generates, we're already tired. Listening to the fury now really just wears one out. And makes one hope for the return of the fulfilling quiet that comes of being sustained by what you already are. 
     
In silent (and thankful) celebration of even the slightest possibility of that return, I re-read Seamus Heaney's poem, From the Republic of Conscience
     
The airport in this wonderous republic is "so noiseless that when the engines stopped/I could hear a curlew high above the runway." 
     
In this place there are "No porters. No interpreter. No taxi./You carried your own burden and very soon/your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared."
     
And it is a place so remarkable and humbling that "At their inauguration, public leaders/must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep/to atone for their presumption to hold office."  
     

March 4, 2009

Ourselves a Sphere Behind

Father George Coyne is the Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, a Jesuit who is intrigued by space, and a very funny person. He posits that, since the universe is very star-filled and star-generative (and contains lots of the stuff necessary to star-making, like helium and hydrogen) then the universe is very fertile and undoubtedly contains recognizable, comprehensible life...even though it took 13 billion years to make an amoeba. 
     
Dr. Lynn Rothschild is an evolutionary biologist and NASA Research Scientist (and also a very funny person) who posits that, since life really doesn't do anything it doesn't have to -- since research shows us that life is basically lazy and just sort of takes advantage of situations which arise -- then life elsewhere in the universe, if it exists, will most likely be adapted to its situation and is probably unrecognizable to us. 
     
Father Coyne has said that "Through physics, biology, mathematics...we put the universe in our heads." I imagine Dr. Rothschild would say that we're just on the cusp of learning to read the universe, a fact which concerns and impacts the universe not a whit. 
     
I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Rothschild and Father Coyne speak at an event recently, and while the content was not as combustible as, say, CPAC, the science presentation did make me think about the political gab of late -- and of Rush Limbaugh in particular. I think he'd be a Father Coyne fan. Both men talk similarly about a way of seeing, and both talk with real conviction and a commitment of purpose. 
     
I get oddly fascinated when I listen to true believers (whatever their conviction) describe the world as if all others are blind. Fascinated because I recognize that it is important to them to see the world in the manner they do, and also because there is such an ego investment in persuading others to see in this same way. The current Chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, a creationist who used to "believe" in science, puts it this way: "If evolution is development of life through unguided natural processes, how can we be made in the image of God? How can humans be worth anything?"
     
This fear-inducing question of human worth seems to be the issue which guides the vision. And it seems that the question of worth is the issue that guides Rush Limbaugh and dittoheads, true believers, conservatives, and the Bernie Madoffs of the globe. Because how can humans be worth anything without control over bonuses, without control over government spending, without control over contraception, guns, how we see God, how we see the future? Isn't a serious ego investment and a projected morality required, even demanded, in order for the community of humans to really live? How could it even be possible that people exist just within the context of their time, adapting and evolving, unguided? 
     
And yet...here we all are. The universe around us is filled with the detritus of exploded stars, which is both background noise and also the fuel for the creation of more stars. I don't know exactly what happens to the exploded ideals or beliefs of those who find (or lose) a true vision, but I imagine that detritus is all around us too -- and Rush would have you believe that background noise must be yelled over in order to be reformulated. 
     
But while some talk and challenge and attempt to define the whole universe as a human-centric thing, billions of stars just go about formulating themselves, from their own context, in their own time.

March 2, 2009

The Ineradicable Stuff

I am not sure if one really can orient time to oneself, but I sure do love thinking about that weird idea. I painted about that too, a few months ago, in black and white and tones of gray for some reason, and I am still chewing. 
     
The scheduled accumulation of segments of time (the goings and comings of daily life) and recognition and response by others of shared time - these things tend to center time on the self. But I don't really understand why this should be so.
     
The conception of time was radically different to past generations. And that makes me wonder, has the portion of the human brain calculating and marking time been honed to center time on the self as some kind of a survival tactic? 
     
Proust famously (or infamously) created a lot of writing about the fluidity of time, but he was writing in his own time about his attempts to center time onto himself, without the aid of an external scheduled accumulation of time segments (i.e. an office job) or recognition and response (i.e. interacting with kids and friends). He had his memory only. Unlike pretty much anyone alive today. I suppose memory can serve a similar function as recognition or response; you tend to mark and center time on yourself when remembering past events...but to what end? 
     
Is engaging in one's memory an action taken for self-awareness alone, or is there another function? And do our minds jump to recounting experience when there is some slippage in the present marking of time? And why is there slippage anyway? Is it caused by stress, or joy, or other people, or is it just an outcome of being conscious?
     
So I wonder about the reasons for dwelling in memory. And what is the best reason to dwell in the moment? And why do we do both?
    
It can seem (especially when I watch the freaky spectacle that is "American Idol" or hear stories from friends with very small children) that for some, the essential function of just being awake is to center time itself around one's own needs and wants. 
     
I imagine that visually as a clock with hands not pointing to the recognizable numbers on its face, but rather pointing outwards, towards oneself...and while time moves forward, some kind of force (well, a whole lot of self-interest, I guess) must be exerted on those outstretched clock hands, in order to maintain the focus of time on the self. 
     
For others, especially those engaged in thinking about solutions to conundrums in physics or the search for life elsewhere, time seems to be a thing that is wonderfully vast and entirely impersonal.  
     
And for some others of us, the sense that time or forward motion has stopped (in moments of great feeling, while creating, when seeing differently) is what makes one conscious of time at all. And that consciousness can be imagined visually as of a kind of sphere of unchanging stuff that surrounds and holds you as you clearly, viscerally, wordlessly experience whatever it is that you are experiencing. 

February 19, 2009

Upon Entering the Temple

"Most people just look to the left when they come in" said the security guard quietly, "and then they get up close to the Eakins and look at all the faces. Some of those faces are bored! Some of them are asleep, you know? People don't even really look at what's on the other wall. That's a shame." 
     
He pointed to the right, toward where I had been looking -- at H. O. Tanner's The Annunciation. "I see a lot in that painting. I like being in this room with it. I see a cross. Do you see that? Mary is so young but I think she is ready. People don't look." I agreed with him. And I felt a strong jolt of jealousy that he gets to look at Tanner's brilliant painting (which was the first subject I wrote about for this blog, on March 24, 2008) every day as he guards the galleries in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
     
On this visit I saw more than I ever have before on the canvas. I saw Tanner's use of color differently; the section on the right of the painting, of a low shelf covered with a blanket, is a painting in itself -- an abstract color field. The blaze of light from the angel/heavenly idea on the left seems to transmute the blanket on the bed into thick curves and waves of yellow and white. Up close, the shape and tones of that light seem to actually generate the blanket, the bed, and the figure of Mary. Where Tanner has placed you as the viewer is also mesmerizing; this is a large canvas, and you are situated looking out of the darkness and up at the action. There is more abstraction and more action in the painting than I had remembered. Seeing it in person again changed both my thinking and my eyes.  
     
Talking with the guard made me also think on what is interesting to viewers about the Eakins painting The Agnew Clinic, beyond its historical significance to Philadelphia and Eakins' brilliant reputation as a portraitist. Of course, people do like to look at faces. And the viewer is situated in the stands of the operating theater, right there with everyone else. But the subject matter (for those of us who are not in medicine) could make one queasy; the female patient is having a mastectomy. And it evoked in me a very strange feeling, standing there in the center of the gallery, standing between two such powerful paintings of powerless women. 
     
The guard's observation about the standard mode of seeing in his gallery stayed with me for a long time. Like so many people, I search in my own past for inspiration, and this requires some willful revisiting. When this goes well, it too changes both my eyes and my thinking. When it does not, nothing changes, and the dull thump of the past just recurs, like a wet bath mat thumping around in the dryer. 
     
But I feel the thrill of consciousness when I can re-encounter a painting (or a piece of music, or a piece of writing) and it presents itself seemingly anew. Something is engaged, more space is made in my mind, and a habit of seeing or knowing is broken. 
     
That is a blissful moment.