November 29, 2008

Skirts and Signifiers

At the risk of offending the reader, I would like to share the contents of a dream I recently had: McCain had won the election and was being sworn in, and Sarah Palin and her husband were sitting near the podium and gazing adoringly at McCain. As McCain started to speak, Palin turned her head and looked out at the assembled crowd on the Mall, smiled, and slowly hitched up her skirt to reveal...well, it was very "Basic Instinct".

Yes, yes, creepy, and symbolic - - and it got me thinking about human symbols and hollow meaning. And about Sarah Palin as kitsch.

When Palin was led onto the national stage, I was in we-are-not-amused-Toronto, Canada. When Palin was led offstage (literally, by Governor Rick Perry of Texas, at the Republican Governors Conference), I was in we-friggin'-love-guns-and-hate-Government-Rachel, Nevada. There is not much to Rachel, but what is there is pungent. This tiny town in the Nevada desert borders the boundary line of Area 51 (they have maps) and the only bar in Rachel has walls hung with photos of UFOs (they have been seen) and art about the connection between alien life and dolphins (they know things).

The refrigerator cabinet behind the bar is covered with anti-Clinton, anti-Government, pro-gun, pro-Bush bumper stickers. While there, we were advised by the barkeep that although my husband and I were feeling sick, we ought not to get flu shots, because the government makes those shots and who knows whats really in them? Over breakfast, a local patron exclaimed that the bailout was a crock and those government people should have just given each and every one of us $100,000 to do whatever we damn well liked. One got the sense that anything outside of Rachel was just not to be trusted, or possibly not even real, as defined by Rachel-ites. I felt like I was in the pub scene in "American Werewolf in London" and at any moment someone was going to quietly advise us to stay off the moors.

What I realized later was that Rachel was, like Palin, a pure melodramatic entity. And the sense of personal dislocation I felt there was similar to the sense of confusion I felt anytime I heard Palin make a was as if the drama of the inner life of these citizens, or of Palin herself, supersede that of all others, and of any other experience of reality at any time in history.

In Peter Brooks' excellent book The Melodramatic Imagination (on the evolution of melodrama in modern literature and theater) he explains that as "the modern politics of created charisma - - inevitably a politics of personality - - and self-conscious enactments must imply, we are within a system of melodramatic struggle, where virtue and evil are fully personalized. Rarely can there be the suggestion of illumination and reconciliation in terms of a higher order of synthesis. It is indeed struggle alone that matters: the modern political leader is obliged to posit continuous battle with an enemy." Which is exactly how I imagine McCain and Palin perceive of themselves (and in contrast to the no-drama-Obama meme) not just on the campaign trail, but all the time, even when they are just sitting at the bar talking about...the flu.

Certainly Palin's loyal fans and event attendees perceive of themselves as being in an ongoing battle against socialist-terrorist-abortion-loving-communists. And, since it is being in the struggle that matters, they did not seem engaged in reconciling contradictions or even disparate ideas through any form of synthesis. What they know is what there is to know, and it is true because they have personally felt it to be true. The scope of their beliefs is encompassed in transcendent personal experience. Palin has said as much about her faith, and about leaving future decisions about her political life in her (not the, not ours, not yours) creator's hands. And this brings me back to the idea of kitsch and how what we have all just lived through on the political stage seems to me to have been a struggle between the value of the real and the value of the sentimental.

To my mind, enacted melodrama is the cousin of visual kitsch. Art that is kitsch has been described variously as sentimentalized, common, tacky, crass, eminently marketable work that is not ironic, and does not promote analytical thought. Kitsch allows personalized virtue to be presented in a pure visual form.

Kitsch is self-defining and self-completing; it is a kind of marker in visual history that is not in dialogue with any other creative expression. Though she was silent in my dream, verbally Sarah Palin is certainly melodramatic. And visually (consistently) she is a self-contained marker of an ideal of male-defined, outwardly virtuous femininity, in high heels and skirts. And possibly not much else.

October 29, 2008

Isn't it Pretty to Think So?

Early in the pretentious-yet-informative art history documentary The Rape of Europa, an interviewee poses the "age-old argument: Which is of more value, a work of art or a human life?"

The film covers the destruction of symbolic architecture during World War II, and the celebration of fascist art and theft of "non-degenerate" European art by the Nazis. Much of the looted art, including the Mona Lisa, was hidden away in Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle; some was stashed in a salt mine, some was horded privately by higher- ups in Hitler's organization. The actions taken 60+ years ago obviously had an impact on the cultural history of Europe at the time, but this is also (like any element of that war) a contemporary subject.

Just last year, paintings by Corot, Pissaro, Monet and Sisley were found in a bank vault which had been rented by Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer and the former head of the Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the bureaucracy tasked with stealing art from European Jews and from galleries and museums. This is contemporary also in that any effort at destroying a cultural history, or at controlling cultural interpretation, is integral to the waging of war...the looting of the National Museum of Iraq being one recent example.

But the life/art issue still flummoxes. A former infantry officer interviewed for the film says of the Nazi plunder: "All of this accumulated beauty had been stolen by the most murderous thieves that ever existed on the surface of the earth. How they could retain the nicety of appreciation of great art and be exterminating millions of people nearby in concentration camps I couldn't understand then and I can't understand it today."

We know from history which humans the Nazis considered less than human. But what was considered worthwhile art by the Nazis, and what was degenerate? What symbolized best the ideals of a conquering nation? What memories were worth preserving? And what, in the end, was worth knowing?

The Nazi idealization of symmetry and order in architecture and political symbolism is obvious. Judging by the art stolen by the ERR, the preference for ordered representations of beauty, particularly a certain physical human beauty, was also strong. Goodness and rightness were implied in the beautiful, and the art worth stealing represented to the Nazis a pinnacle of human expression.

In the late 1930's, philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called "Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian" in which he praises Fuchs (a Socialist writer who died in 1940) for getting around the over-idealization of art. Benjamin wrote that Fuchs understood "the products of art and science owe their existence not merely to the effort of the great geniuses who created them, but also, in one degree or another, to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." A collective-history view of creativity which sort of spoils the symbolic "worth" of the art plundered by the Nazis...and also, in essence, redirects the question about art versus human life.

In Errol Morris' recent film Standard Operating Procedure, a staffer at Abu Ghraib prison wonders aloud more than once just why she took the photographs of prisoners being "softened up". She could identify in herself that she knew something was wrong, but resigned herself to being a participant observer, using her digital camera as the substitute for her conscience. Yet by taking those photographs, those documents of culture and barbarism, she created art that truly symbolized the ideals of a conquering nation.

October 9, 2008

Tongues of Marble

During this week's debate between Senators McCain and Obama, McCain mentioned that Herbert Hoover was the last president to raise taxes in a time of national strife. I thought the mention was odd in and of itself, but odder still (for me at least) was that I had just spent some time exploring the exhibition "To Choose Freedom: Soviet Dissidents and Their Supporters", which is housed at the conservative Hoover Institution on the Stanford University campus.

"To Choose Freedom" presents photographs, letters, essays, and publications by (and some video interviews with) Soviet dissidents who had been imprisoned after expressing their views on democratizing the Soviet Union. All content in the exhibition was drawn from the Hoover Institution archives, and consequently all content in the exhibition connected to the meta-theme of "We at the Hoover hate evil Communism and really really love free market Capitalism. Bigtime."

On view in the exhibition space was a mesmerizing 1977 video of William Buckley, Jr. interviewing dissident Vladimir Bukovskii. Joining Buckley as "examiner" was Andrew Knight, then editor of the neocon guide to life, The Economist. Vladimir Bukovskii was a student activist who protested about and famously argued in court for recognition of basic civil rights in the Soviet Union in the late 60's. He was sent to Lubyanka prison and then on to a mental hospital/prison for 12 years, where he was tortured. Upon his release (post-Helsinki Accords), Bukovskii went west.

During the interview/debate, Bukovskii was complimented by Buckley on his skill with the English language, and Buckley also condescendingly reassured Bukovskii that he was doing a great job. Then, Buckley asked Bukovskii whether the former prisoner's view of America (that full flower of happy free Capitalism!) was "quixotic." When Bukovskii seemed stumped by this word, Buckley's eyes grew large and he leaned forward slightly, instantly engaged by the limitations of his guest. Or perhaps Buckley was making a pass?

Anyway, Knight later chimed in to ask/confirm whether Bukovskii was or ever had been a Communist, and to ask just how much Bukovskii admired Capitalism.


Posted throughout the exhibition were large-type definitions of words and ideas the Hoover Institution deemed pertinent to the "struggle against the Soviet Union's 70-year reign", including Hannah Arendt's view of totalitarianism as a system that attempts to control the private behavior and innermost beliefs of an individual, directing one's personal decisions, including how one raises one's children, and who one can marry. There is a ballot initiative in California right now about that, actually.

The exhibition taught me much I did not know about the Soviet Union post-Stalin, and as Joe Biden recently repeated, past is prologue. But both the exhibition and this week's Presidential debate also raised a number of questions in my mind - - not the least of which was, do conservative thinkers even have the capacity for self-reflection?

After being drenched in this sweat lodge of conservatism, I wandered across campus to the Cantor Arts Center to air out, and spent some time looking at the Rodin sculptures. But on this day all I saw in his gorgeous sculptures were Soviet prisoners in gulags being verbally beaten to death by the hypocrisy of conservatives who said torture was an "evil" only unfree nations engage in. So I retreated to the contemporary section of Stanford's mini-temple of art, and attended to Jean Arp's 1942 sculpture "Silence". One could view "Silence" as an act of force, a tongue which turned to marble after being removed from its owner...but Arp said he really intended it as a beautiful reminder of the clarity- and contemplation-inducing silence that the world is rapidly losing.

October 2, 2008

Getting Out of the Corner through Painting

So, when the world around you seems to be filled with claims of the certitude of 'moral knowledge' and you are left with cranky old Bertrand Russell as solace, what is a creative person to do?

If my 'function' as an artist is to stay open, to interpret and contextualize my world through what I make with my hands and tools, and yet the voices of authority in that world push always for finality, for certainty, in each conversation...then I have to paint myself out of the corner.

Creating new work is about dwelling in uncertainty. It is also about being willing to be led along by a shifting balance of chance, imagination, and confidence in an aesthetic sensibility. I don't plan what I paint, it emerges; I reflect and I feel and I push paint and compositions emerge. And I don't have moral knowledge of anything at all, least of all the role or source of this creative output.

Painting can be quite painful; working through something in my mind and making it comprehensible on canvas is often painful emotionally, mentally, sometimes physically. Thinking about painting "Why He Fled" sort of hurts and gives me release, too. I undertook that painting while trying to dwell in the mind of someone who claims his identity through an act of violence, and thinking about what a luxury it is, in a sense, to not be him. What I am not, how others may be, what I can't know, how things make sense and then don't, how time changes absolutes -- that is where I live, where any artist lives, I think. At my core, I am fascinated by 'moral knowledge' as an essential self-defining need, and am fascinated too by non-belief.

When I am not frustrated or spent, I can try to imagine what it must feel like to be the other, to live in faith. And that imagining is a creative act, an interpretation, the beginning of a painting, what keeps me alive.

October 1, 2008

Painted into a Corner

Recently, a man traveling on the same train with me tried to convince me, as we sped past the strange glow of northern New Jersey, that determining once and for all when life begins is the most important political issue of our time. He spoke passionately about how the law of the land must be consistently applied, and the hateful murderers of pregnant women should be charged with two crimes, since in his (Christian) view two lives were lost. He also talked at length about the Illinois "Born Alive" bill, and the growing threat of hospitals not caring for aborted fetuses who survive the process.

Years ago Michael Dukakis was famously asked in a debate about what his response would be if his wife were raped; Katie Couric just asked Sarah Palin about her (Christian) stand on abortion via a question about a girl being raped by the girl's own father. Palin replied, in her way, that she was unequivocally pro-life. In South Dakota, State Senator Bill Napoli said in 2006 that his support of SD's anti-abortion bill was solid, but he allowed for one (Christian) exception: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."

Passionate arguments about virgins and rape and incest? About what moment life begins? This is what matters right now?

Richard Rorty's book Philosophy and Social Hope contains a chapter called "Religion as Conversation-stopper" where he discusses, among other things, the distinction between 'moral knowledge' and 'moral beliefs'. Palin, Napoli, and my train companion give examples in conversation of their moral knowledge, sourced from Christianity. But Rorty points out that moral knowledge can't really be clearly or consistently sourced, in the manner one would source a quote or content for a story in a newspaper. Moreover, he points out that the "test of a political proposal is its ability to gain assent from people who retain radically diverse ideas about the point and meaning of human life, about the path to private perfection"...which often means de-emphasizing religion in public arguments, precisely for the sake of protecting the freedom to believe what one will.

But Rorty's best point in the chapter comes at its conclusion. Here, in response to the argument that "religious believers' moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs", Rorty points out that self-identity based on Enlightenment ideology results in a life of meaning for that person, just as Christian theology offers a life of meaning to its adherents, but atheists are tagged with spiritual shallowness...which leads then to the question of "why a speaker's depth of spirituality is more relevant to her participation in public debate that her hobby or her hair color."

Apt, considering everything is up for public debate at the moment, particularly candidates' depth of spirituality and commitment to 'moral knowledge'. And lipstick color. I recall a devoutly Catholic friend saying to me once, "I don't get how you have morals since you don't have faith." She also was annoyed that she could not "put her finger on me" and say in one phrase what exactly I was. Other than human, I guess. And one can see her same annoyance writ large in an election year.

When I am exhausted by the subject, or when stuck across the aisle from it on Amtrak, in my mind I move right beyond Rorty's coherent pragmatism. After hearing many people who devoutly believe in their religion unavoidably come around (in public conversation no less!) to rants about virginity, rape, abortion and incest, I wind up agreeing with cranky old Bertrand Russell: "The three human impulses embodied in religion are fear, conceit, and hatred. The purpose of religion, one may say, is to give an air of respectability to those passions, providing they run in certain channels."

September 25, 2008

Peter Hong is Now the News

The Newseum is a new cultural history center in Washington D.C. which seems to have been designed specifically for people with attention deficit disorder who like big shiny things. My own experience of visiting was in turns surreal, alarming, and a freaky reminder of what shaped this citizen's own cultural history. But I'll begin at the beginning...

When you enter the cavernous glass enclosure that is the Newseum, you are politely asked by one of the volunteers how precisely you plan to have your Newseum experience - - will you start in the interactive news area, at one of the theaters, or at one of the various permanent exhibition spaces? My first impulse was to respond that I'd like to have it alone, thanks, but instead I said "Oh I think I will just explore everything, just wander." This was not the correct answer. Rather than have my own experience, I was advised by the volunteer to watch the orientation film in the media room to my right. And to do so NOW, thank you. Only after being oriented should I proceed on, and explore this wonderful beacon of light, this paean to freedom of expression.

Um, no.

My first stop was in the exhibition area displaying (through text, photographs, audio news clips, video, etc.) the "Story of the News"; of particular interest were details about the underground news movement during World War II. Another compelling exhibition presented the impact of press freedoms (or lack thereof) in countries around the world, and one honored journalist who have died while covering conflicts. Yet another exhibition area contained a section of the Berlin Wall and a display of international coverage of the end of the Cold War.

I was getting the message: news is truth, and truth news, especially in times of war. And then I entered the grotesque, gaudy, shiny, loud multi-level shrine to the events and news coverage of 9/11.

It was at this moment that I realized the Newseum was a Cliffs Notes version of the segments of history that are deemed to matter only to people of my generation. I came of age in the Reagan era, in that neoconservative wordcloud about welfare moms, the crack epidemic, tearing down that wall, wilding, AIDS and the devil, free markets, trickle down. This summer was my 20th college reunion, and this fall it will be 24 years since we re-elected Reagan, 24 years since I walked out of the student union at my small liberal Midwestern college on the morning after the landslide election and saw this phrase on a sign hung from a tree: "What Have We Done?"

I decided I needed some air.

There is an outdoor balcony at the Newseum that offers a great view of DC, and just inside the museum on this level is a display area containing the front pages of newspapers from around the world. This display is continued on the street level, outside, so that anyone can come up to the museum any day and read wide range of headlines (in dozens of languages) and stories deemed newsworthy at the moment. After exploring the balcony and the view, I went back inside and started to read the front pages, and realized a young man with a college t-shirt on was doing the same nearby. His t-shirt was from Carleton College, my alma mater.

I acknowledged him as a fellow traveler (a recent graduate) and we talked about the campus, the current college president, the state of things. With all the zeal of a recent convert, he encouraged me to go back to campus some time and to stay connected. I demurred. I told him that when I was on campus, it was a strange era for a conscious person: College Republicans were coming up and taking over, sexual harassment issues were just (barely) being grappled with, divestment, race (and the significance of it), and disease were the campus issues of the day. There was actually nothing enjoyable about that time.

My sense of displacement from the reality we all supposedly share did not begin at the Newseum, but that certainly accentuated it; being at Carleton in the 80's is likely what started it. Even then I could not (as many could and still cannot) reconcile the real and the rational with what was coming out of the mouths of our political leaders. And the very young and impressionable adherents of the Reagan Revolution on our small but relevant-in-the-zeitgeist-campus functioned in a manner that I found confusing, and then, outright scary. The campus was fully co-ed, but the College Republicans were well-mannered, hardcore misogynists all. Among other activities, they defended - - through complaint, publicity, rumor, threat - - behaviors by male students and male professors that were frankly indefensible. They caused damage.

Flash forward 20+ years: this is the summer of the "history changing" campaign, the possible beginning of a revision to a philosophy of governance, a possible re-emergence of valuing something like contextual thinking, of pragmatism. An inkling of a movement forward.

And meanwhile in St. Paul, the grown up Reagan Revolution-ites, including my classmate from Carleton, Peter Hong, are (like Newseum's wall of images of 9/11) forever, horrifically, stuck in time...and doing exactly what they have always done.

September 9, 2008

The Great White North

Whiteness is in the news a great deal these days, as Sarah Palin is being paraded across the national stage, presented as the whitest woman with the whitest values from the whitest state in the nation (the lives and histories of the native citizens of the area notwithstanding.) Palin exemplifies that Northwest "frontier spirit", otherwise known as sneering small-town contempt for the non-Alaska world. She is the ultimate anti-Obama.

I was in Toronto when she made her debut at the Republican Convention and the denizens of that northern city were not very impressed one way or the other. They have their own version of whiteness up there, and it is quieter and more refined that what those "Alaska hicks" put on display. Alaskan whiteness pales (yes I said it) in comparison to Toronto's, and the cool demeanors there make Palin see m hysterical by comparison.

In celebration of all this relentless whiteness, I visited the McMichael Collection (a private museum and estate originally founded by art collectors in Ontario in the early 1950's and later donated to the Canadian government) which houses only Canadian art. Specifically, the McMichael has a huge collection of work from the Group of Seven, and six of the Seven are actually buried on the museum's bucolic grounds. So essentially the McMichael is a shrine to the memories of the pristine landscape of Ontario-that-was, and a shrine to the memories of a group of dead white male Canadian painters.

These artists gained renown in the 1920's through capturing the landscape around them with both a nationalist and a theosophist bent, displaying through their art the spiritual essence of their world in a unique way (the lives and the artwork of the native citizens of the area notwithstanding.) Much of the work, particularly Harris', has a strange, soft geometry of form. Emily Carr, of Vancouver fame, was later an appendage of the Group of Seven, to her detriment I think; only one of her paintings was on display here.Thankfully there was a small collection of First Nations artwork at the McMichael as well, to give some counterweight, and the paintings by Alex Janvier were totally fascinating.

Fascinating, too, was the experience of walking the grounds and seeing the natural models for many of the Group of Seven's subjects: white pines, horsetail, the white-golden light on the trees. I was impressed with the organic art history lesson around me. As I walked I could grasp what the Group of Seven sought to do, to (forcefully) imbue their canvasses with an intense spiritual or emotional sense that was so very fleeting in the real world. They loved their place and wanted to sustain it, but only the beautiful parts. That was what they wanted you to care about. And that was all they wanted you to talk about when you talked about their country. They used a warm method but the message was cold: the newly settled European-white world of Canada, its landscapes and country houses and lakes, was the world that must be defended.

Of course Alaska has a similar un-peopled beauty, and Palin and her compatriots obviously feel that they are the chosen managers and defenders of this possible northern launchpoint for the Rapture. And they too want you to care and talk about what matters most in that management and in that defense -- in the very whitest terms.

June 23, 2008

The Via Vegas, baby!

This summer, the Episcopal/Anglican church is holding its every-10-years-lets-review-ourselves Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, while a separate conservative group of mostly African and South American Anglicans are meeting on their own in Jerusalem as a protest against the western church's acceptance of homosexual pastors. These separatists feel the need to fight against the serious problem (as they see it) of homosexuality before it takes their church over.

Because, really, what is faith without sex?

And what is Vegas without faith?

As I wander in boiling Sodom (a lovely 107 degrees outside, but who goes outside?) looking at the overweight casino men praying on a good hand, and at the sparkly hookers adorning those men, I find myself wondering yet again about why people need what they do, and about what awful things can spring from expressing those needs.

On a scale of visual awfulness, the local art in Vegas is fairly high up there. There are on display showgirl fantasies in soft oils, bright digitally enhanced blobs of color printed on canvas, over-bright photographs of Strip kitsch, and shiny copper paint on boards that express the artist's "abstract meanings". The hotel art is mostly color blobs or forms generated in what I imagine is the Vegas Discount Abstract Hotel Art Factory (Free Gold Leaf with Bulk Framing Orders!) The restaurant art can be sensuous (cleavage, ass, ripe red peppers that look like cleavage...or ass), making dinner a mental cacophony of Freudian half-theories. One attempt to enhance the accessibility of "real" art here, the Guggenheim extension at the Venetian, closed due to lack of interest more than a month ago.

So, one is left to people watch and to wonder about needs and what they get you into. The need to express oneself as an artist in such a completely imaginary place seems to result in rather cheesy, rather conservative artwork. The expression of other needs - - to gamble, smoke, screw, drink, what have you - - all take place in a city that is cleaned, pressed, repaired and repainted each day in readiness for the next night's happenings, so one can never actually see the results very clearly. And that is the power of conserving the norm, of maintaining a public "middle way" in Vegas. Seeing it in action it is truly remarkable. It is Westworld, it is Victorian England, and there are no consequences. You just go on and do what you do, whatever that need may be, and we will work to maintain the slot-machined-filled communal order that allows each to his own. The placid subject matter of the art will not offend, either.

In Canterbury, they will be wringing through what they believe regarding homosexuality, and in Jerusalem the offended Anglican separatists will be shouting out against it - - but participating in both meetings will be gay pastors, and polygamous pastors, and adulterous pastors. Silent pastors. It seems the separatists are forcing the church to act in alignment with specific thoughts about sexuality, and the sacred.

Yet Anglicans have built the modern church on the idea of the via media, the idea that public lives and actions should conform to the church standards, but that conformity of thought is not required. Over time, of course, one infects and informs the other...resulting now in a stated need that the church narrow itself to align with historically/socially accepted norms, that participants in the church all think the "right" way. And so it is in Vegas - - with all the shiny and color and hypnotic casino bells (and belles), everyone winds up thinking Vegas, and praying in the same way everyone else does, sooner or later.

May 22, 2008

Necking in San Francisco

Aberdeen, Washington's other artistic native son, the photographer Lee Friedlander, has spent his long career capturing people doing what they do, especially when they are unaware of their doings. He shoots the moments after events, the reflections, side angles, shadows. He shoots the rhinos humping at the zoo while onlookers stand anxiously waiting for something more zoo-like (and please, less animal-like) to occur. He shoots the last hour of the cross-country road trip, the last act in the street parade. His recent retrospective, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, showcases Friedlander's almost pathologocal social voyeurism. And it showcases his fascination with that most awkward and vulnerable of our human parts, the neck. The vantage point in many of his photographs is that of a dog or a child; he shoots from what seems like the subject's knee level, and shot some of his self-portraits from this up-body stance as well. Its a funny angle. But Friedlander is a funny guy. His shot of 1980's cubicle workers in a Boston office is hilarious, revealing coiffed professionals in nice office clothes sitting and staring blankly at the computers in front of them, as if these strange new machines are holding them in a force field while slowly sucking every thought from their brains.

Friedlander gets close enough to touch, in his engaging images, and stays just far enough away to let us see the strange and the goofy. Which meant that for this viewer, seeing his show at SFMOMA was disconcerting. That angular, segmented museum space is filled with offputting dark corners and sharp edges. It felt cool, pretentious, unwelcoming.

I recently bought The Architecture of Authority, by photographer Richard Ross, and found myself (to my own dismay) mentally noting, as I wandered SFMOMA, all the integrated control systems in this supposed center for artistic and intellectual exploration. I would expect that of, say, a jail or courthouse, or even an airport, but not a civic museum space.

And then I went to see the artwork at the San Francisco International Airport, and my head got turned completely around. First off, I saw work on display in the small and quiet SFO airport museum and library by Herb Lingl, the aerial photographer (who prefers a far loftier vantage point than Friedlander.) Lingl's crisp, highly saturated photographs of the Baylands restoration in Sonoma and of SF Bay salt ponds were creepy and offputting, but where they were displayed was anything but.

I completely lost time in the contemplative museum space. I also saw an installation at SFO of sculptures of the Buddha, about one dozen sculptures created in various centuries and from various Asian countries. The installation was just feet from the security lines in the International Terminal, yet it was quietly mesmerizing. The airport people-watching was also delicious.

But, back to necks - - I ended the day watching John Edwards not really stick his neck out for Barack Obama (as it seems the nomination fight has been called) on a big screen television in a hotel lobby while chatting with Milton, who was on his way from Yosemite to an elderhostel up on Orcas Island. And after talking politics for about 20 seconds, Milton volunteered to me that life is about protecting yourself from vulnerability, about covering your neck, and that was why he usually carried a gun while at home in Arizona. Milton said there were three kinds of people in the world: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. I was (obviously, since I am female) a sheep, and he considered himself a sheepdog/protector of the flock (see above: gun carrying). He was on the fence about Obama, because he was not sure how Obama would be on torture.

Then Milton asked me very directly if I would waterboard someone if my husband's life was at risk. I kid you not. I tend to have these kinds of conversations with people, where they reveal and revel in the philosophies they have hard-baked for themselves. Needless to say, when I stuck my neck out and told him that I was an artist and painted abstract oils, he quickly defined me for me: "Oh, ya mean those paintings where you can't tell what they are about just by lookin' at them? I just don't get that."

Right back at ya, Milton.

May 1, 2008

Consolation Prize

Agatha Christie wrote a a funny piece of dialogue in one of her very early books, a quote I like to re-read often: "A man who has shot lions in large quantities has an unfair advantage over other men." Just so. Another favorite quote is from a play by Christopher Fry, The Lady's Not for Burning, where a character pleads "When I think of myself, I can scarcely believe my senses! But there it is - - all my friends tell me I exist." This can be a doubtful proposition, as personas shift in differing contexts, and who you are (or what your work is) to others is morphed by those very others. This kind of thinking smells metaphysical after a while, and that is not my intent; I just am engaged by the way a mind attaches itself to an idea, and like so many other creative types, I dig painting about that.

Christie wrote her characters as absolutes, which is precisely the comfort and the appeal of her mysteries. It is a relief to read about known and unchangeable qualities in (fictional) others, a true mental relief. Because engagement in our here-and-now belies that. Sound bites change perception, and character is splayed out on cable shows, one relentlessly morphing interview at a time.

The pleasure of painting, by contrast, is the pleasure of a completed internal conversation, at least for the artist. I loved seeing the RBC Canadian Painting Exhibition at the Emily Carr University in Vancouver last fall for that reason; it was a room of finished thoughts expressed by young, emerging Canadian artists. The thoughts varied, of course, and some were more challenging. Some were pristine. I found the acrylics by Elizabeth Grant particularly compelling. But funnily enough, Arabella Campbell, the winner of the competition, had a lot of nothing to say about the nothing that inhabits a lot of art. Her winning composition presented the structure beneath a painting. It was also seemingly about the inner state of nothing that often precedes the work (because honestly some of the best stuff comes from a blank mind) and the blankness you are left with after you get a composition out of you and onto canvas.

What struck me as funny is that compared to the other work in the show, Campbell's did not take me anywhere other than where I was - - namely, in a big white room at Emily Carr looking at (or in this case for) paintings. Her work was silly and pleasing, as if the painter herself was somehow like the Fry character, assured of her existence only through others telling her there is something to her, since her senses are unreliable. The idea she seemed to want the viewer to attach oneself to was not self-awareness, or the wonder of creativity, or even the basic comprehension of the structure of a painter's canvas. The idea my mind attached to, upon seeing Campbell's work, was that she is an artist who thinks very easy, knowable, concrete things.

And no, I am not going to follow that with a Seinfeld-esque "not that there's anything wrong with that" sentiment. There IS something wrong with that, especially if your compatriots in the same show are grappling with ideas like the fear of overloading oneself with sensory experiences, or the eeriness of nocturnal suburbia, while also displaying dexterity with paint and color and some intellectual discernment. I don't perceive that a work of art does anything much in and of itself, but it is good when you as the viewer can find in the work evidence of that artist's internal conversation - - or an idea or image to attach oneself to, an attachment that lingers after the viewing, and changes one's own mental lineup.

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.”

March 24, 2008

Tanner, Obama, and Wright

Henry O. Tanner was a hellishly good painter, and like Barack Obama, a barrier-breaker: Tanner was the first black man accepted into the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, about 30 years after the Civil War. His experience of the irrational racism so pervasive in America drove him abroad, however, and he spent much of his life painting in France.

Tanner is regarded as a mystic realist, a painter who preferred subject matter that was religious and frankly spiritual. He was a naturalist representational artist who also worked deftly with tone, light, and abstract themes, which is why I so appreciate him - - and why I thought of him last week as Obama tangled with race, Wright, and the media.

What I reflected on most last week was Tanner’s remarkable 1898 painting “The Annunciation”, which hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I visit his painting each time I am in that city and have a small print of it at home. So compelling is the image, I have been working lately on a response, on my own abstract interpretation of what I see in his canvas, in my studio. So too the news media - - and most sentient beings engaged in the political process - - have been working feverishly on responses to Obama’s abstract interpretations on race, racism, and the distinctions between his and Reverend Wright’s generational experiences of same.

Tanner was born just as the Civil War ripped open the country, and spent most of his youth in Philadelphia. His father was a well-known minister, his mother an escaped slave. That Tanner reached the heights he did creatively as a black man in post-war America is remarkable; that he had to go to another country to be recognized for his achievements is no surprise.
About eighty years later, Reverend Jeremiah Wright was born in Philadelphia and he spent his formative adult years navigating a post-war America as well, cementing his career in a country and a city shaped and defined by racial division. Barack Obama, in contrast, has grown up in a time of relative peace and in an amalgam of racial and cultural environments both within and outside of this country.

For me the intersection of their experiences connects vividly to what I see expressed in Tanner’s “The Annunciation”. It is obvious from his work that Tanner was truly devout and had a deeply Christian sensibility, and obvious from his life story that he was also acutely aware of perceptions of race. The religious story Tanner captured in “The Annunciation” is the moment when Mary receives the word from the angel Gabriel that she will be the mother of Jesus. She is portrayed, as many Tanner subjects are, in a natural setting; she sits on the edge of a bed in a small room hung with a colorful carpet, a room framed and decorated in non-western style. She is a small, young, obviously non-white-European version of the Virgin Mary. And, also like other Tanner subjects, she is portrayed as a humble supplicant, a Mary with no halo. The painting reveals that there is a force at work in Mary’s life, in her room in fact, that is entirely beyond her control or comprehension. This is the moment that she must consciously give up her free will, and she must give that will up to an unstoppable force. She was born into the arrangement, apparently; she has absolutely no choice; she is a slave. Faith must carry her. And I imagine faith is what carried Tanner through as well - - that, and a life abroad spent in more diverse and accepting cultures than our own.

Wright expresses his righteous indignation in his sermons, his absolute determination to be fiercely black and unabashedly Christian, in response to the unstoppable force of racism that has so permeated his life and the lives of his congregants. But he is also, in his way, a humble supplicant; he was born into the arrangement as well. He can’t be non-black in the embattled, segregated country in which he has lived. I appreciate his expressions of will against that force of racial division; his statements are a reflection of his life and faith experiences. Yet Wright is still not the driver of his own fate. Seen as a representative of his generation, of those who came of age as the fight for basic rights came to the fore in America, there has always been a force at work in his life that is beyond his control, that has been perpetrated upon him, that he has been challenged to bend and obey to.

Obama has been spared some of this, simply by the timing of his birth and his parentage; that he lands on the world stage almost 150 years after the Civil War and almost 50 years after pivotal Civil Rights battles were fought means his outlook is distinct from Wright’s, or Tanner’s. Barack Obama is also much less devout than either man. And that is where the connection is, for me as the viewer, listener, and witness.

Tanner relied on his faith and expressed it through his work; Wright has made a living through direct proclamation of his faith. Tanner’s Mary sits awaiting her fate, powerless to stop it or change it; Wright rants against those who would demonize his race or his expression of faith, and yet the media make him powerless by doing just that. When Barack Obama spoke on race last week, and addressed his pastor’s opinions, he spoke as an intact, not-intimidated person. Obama spoke as a person whose path, future, and will were assuredly his own, not as reflective of one race or of one religious view. And, given that I am only a few years younger that Obama, I found his pragmatic perspective entirely familiar.

When reading Wright’s sermons, I think that his views make sense in the context of his life, which is of course different than my own but nonetheless comprehensible. His passion makes sense to me. When I look at Tanner’s “The Annunciation” I am profoundly respectful of both his painterly skill and of his beliefs, but I also see what I see because of what has shaped me. I am a white female with no religious inclinations whatsoever, a well-educated Generation X-er who is acclimated to a diverse world where capital is a greater force than faith.

And when I view Tanner’s Mary, sitting there helplessly on her bed, I see that what the painter has portrayed is the incredible force of fear in the abstract. He has painted the moment before a rape. It is a vivid, dreadful, real and intense painting of something Tanner knew and lived through - - absolute victimization.