January 30, 2009

Images, Part 1: Imagining the Mountain

After seeing images from Mars recently, I was visited again by that strange feeling about the use of digital images in representing reality (and I use that term loosely).
The images from Mars were sent courtesy of the Mars Exploration Rovers (which have been toiling away on Mars for five years now) and of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has a super-powered camera that can capture objects as small as a baseball on the planet's surface. And the images taken from the surface are truly remarkable, in that (for the non-scientist at least) its hard to imagine the space of 200 million miles, much less imagine all the work involved in processing gigabytes of information and images from that far away -- sent by geologist-like robots with wheels for feet. But the images are (for the non-geologist) mundane as well; they show a bleak landscape with gigantic volcanoes, vast craters, clumps and balls of hematite, and striated crater walls. 
The desire to have that reality look nothing like our own seems almost an imperative. Yet more than anything else, the images sent back from Mars show that...the other place looks a lot like our place. Which makes sense, since the whole neighborhood was built at about the same time. 
No doubt the immense amount of information collected through this foray to Mars will re-align our understanding of our own planet's 4 billion year history, or maybe even alter perceptions of time itself. But the truth is, most of the images that are part of that story are modified and colorized and abstracted by the NASA and JPL scientists working on the project, both for their own use, and for the "enhancement" of the viewing public's comprehension of what they are seeing. 
But I guess I am not one for enhancement from an external source, as that is the task my mind is engaged in. I encounter things I cannot quite believe almost daily, and it requires an imaginative leap to take those images to complete resolution. 
A few years back, in drenched and mossy Eugene, Oregon, I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of poems written in gorgeous calligraphy (presented on sweeping long banners hung around the gallery space) at the Schnitzer Art Museum. One line of poetry authored by a Korean poet in the mid-1500's read: "With no friends on the secluded mountain, I pile up books." 
This line stopped me. I was moved by the sentiment, which is accessible to anyone who has felt the need to sustain oneself. And I was moved by what it may have meant to the author, if it was at all biographical -- for what were books like when he wrote that line? What did they look like and smell like, how did you come across them, who created them? And what variety was there, at that time, in that place, of content? I thought of "Fahrenheit 451", where in a sacred and imaginative act of preservation, people became books. And I wondered, what that would look like, a secluded mountain? What would it be like to paint that? 
The excellent presentations I saw on the progress of the Mars mission ended with a panoramic image of the surface, an image in 3-D. We all put our blue/red glasses on and suddenly the space rocks were more real than real. We were on the planet, looking out of one of the Rover's at-human-height eyes. We were, incredibly, right there. To encounter the incomprehensible reality of another planet (another planet!) imagination was required.

January 21, 2009


An inauguration is a state funeral for the undead, and state funerals are great art pieces. The funeral of the last Pope, of Kennedy, Diana, even of Nixon -- all used color and composition to create an identifiable aesthetic, and provoke emotions aligned with the occasion. The Obama Inauguration did as well. 
Among many other things, the ceremony was a trigger for a kind of grief about wasted time, or opportunity, or lack of courage. This happened while the red-nosed undead grimly watched from his seat, in front of walls of white marble, surrounded in the stands by blue- and black-coated witnesses. And the millions of onlookers seemed (in the satellite images) like the red Styx encroaching -- his cue to get on the ferry and cross over to the other side. Or at least back to Texas. 
Some years ago, writer and New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell wrote an essay about his state of mind as he approached his 90th year. He had a lot to say about reflection and its perils, and I found myself re-reading his essay after the inauguration. Of memory, Maxwell says: "I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living. But now it is different, I have to be careful. I can ruin a night's sleep by suddenly, in the dark, thinking about some particular time in my life. Before I can stop myself it is as if I had driven a mine shaft down through the layers and layers of the past and must explore, relive, remember, reconsider, until daylight delivers me." This nocturnal struggle further reconciled him to his "own inevitable extinction." 
Maxwell's departure not long after he wrote the essay was final, not aeronautic, so grief for him had a clear trajectory. I think the Inauguration of Barack Obama established, both visually and viscerally, only the opening of that mine shaft of memory, only the beginning of that strange work. It seemed to mark not just the starting point for a new era, embodied by a new President reconciled to his own past, but also the starting point for a collective grief about actions taken by a protagonist (himself unburdened by reflection) whom we all must still see, hear, and react to. 

January 16, 2009

An Order of Understanding

“The awareness of visions is not just a state of mind in which one realizes and perceives things, but a state of mind where conscience perceives itself.” -- artist Oskar Kokoschka, 1912

Poet Seamus Heaney’s description of the poet or artmaker is of a person engaged in the world of culture and who consequently has a particular “inner system or order of understanding.” For the audience or viewer to comprehend that artmaker’s creations at the present moment, Heaney says, it is “important to change the plane of regard and relocate ourselves in the world of culture -- in other words, not to respect the imperial drive…”

Virginia Woolf, in describing the impact that a novel leaves on the mind’s eye, said that it was a changing, dynamic “shape…not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being. Thus a novel starts in us all sorts of antagonistic and opposed emotions. Life conflicts with something that is not life.”

My sister recently told me of an experience she had with an abstract painting -- that her primary response to it was to feel set outside of the order of understanding expressed (and thus to dismiss what she was seeing as superficial) and also to feel that very conflict Woolf describes. Wordless feeling can be threatening. I have heard this story before, and often.

In response to my sister whom I love, I have tried here to describe my own inner system, to describe what comes before the work of artmaking, and what is consequently imbued in the work:

All I have ever seen is in what I create, so history is always present in the work. Context matters. I don’t know anything outside of context.

I don’t hold in my mind anything concerning the perceived thoughts of others (materialism, comparison, competition, ambition) when working. If I do, what is created is shit, the shit of projection and assumption and other voices and disconnection.

I attend to my thoughts because they are purposeful for me, even if not directed to a productive end (whatever that means) and even if not expressed to another living person in words, so thoughts come up unbidden when working, as markers of emotional understanding, as confirmation of coherence.

I respond, unedited and unprotected, and with no shame, to what I witness, feel, and remember. About now or somewhere. About anything or anyone or that time.

And I translate my experience into an expressive form that uses no symbols and no words.

I find that the same phrase echoes in my head at some point, when I am truly in a painting -- the phrase “Every universe has its own laws.” So, I must be the author of that phrase.

Woolf also described writing a novel as a voice answering a voice, a sentiment that I imagine many artmakers can relate to. For Woolf, that connection implied some spirituality. For me, the answering voice is identity, or consciousness. Or, as Kokoschka said, it is conscience.

January 13, 2009

Vienna, Part 3: Rooms of Time Regained

Beneath Vienna’s Judenplatz and the Holocaust Survivor’s Memorial, in a large and dimly lit room, the 600-year old ruins of a Jewish synagogue are quietly preserved. A few blocks away, on the upper floor of the Jewish Museum, holograms provide interactive displays on the history of Jewish life in Vienna, including one that brings to imaginative life that medieval synagogue. And painted on the far wall of that same thoughtful gallery space there is a quote by philosopher Walter Benjamin: “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”

Those words stuck with me as I wandered through other rooms in Vienna. And while I wandered, I came to understand that this city lives by holding time, uses both seriousness and force to fasten those flashes of the past to the present. Curator Edelbert Kob describes this as a consequence of “the politically motivated demolition of modernity in Austria.” It is as if a particular form of memory in Vienna will fade to black if not diligently attended to, and as if the denizens of the city still cannot be trusted to make their own moment.

This feeling was most intense at the Kunstschau 1908 re-creation, now on display at the Belvedere Schloss. The Kunstschau was an exhibition of new art and craft (paintings, glassware, bookcovers, posters, works in silver) put together by a group of modernist Viennese art makers to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign, and the installation was overseen by Gustav Klimt. Many pieces created for the 1908 exhibition have been collected and are on display again, 100 years later, including Bertold Loffler’s original exhibition poster, which looks contemporary.

The room that Klimt designed to display his own paintings within the 1908 exhibition has been reconstructed faithfully, and any of the original paintings which were subsequently lost or destroyed have been reproduced in black and white. The room is a study in balance and control, with white walls patterned with a small graphic designed by Klimt, and all the paintings sized and spaced perfectly, symmetrically. Klimt’s way of making only the human form three dimensional in his paintings and flattening out all else was fascinating up close, and makes a statement about representation, I guess. I imagine Klimt's brain and hands worked differently on objects than on flesh; he painted objects like a supreme craftsman and people like a passionless iconographer.

The control you see in his work is echoed in the exhibition layout, and in the work of other craftsmen represented, and echoed again in the slavish attention to detail in the re-creation of the exhibition itself. When you enter the 2008 exhibition space, there is a palpable force that seems to push you back, to the time just before (before the end of the monarchy, before we became the modern world that Klimt and his colleagues idealized, before the wars) and hold you firmly right there.

That same force is on display over at the Empire and Biedermeier Room in the MAK Museum, the Austrian museum of applied art. The room is filled with stunning Empire and Beidermeier-era furniture, including original models of what were some of the first mass produced pieces - - and the room is overlaid with laments. Artist Jenny Holzer installed electronic signs high on the walls of the Empire and Biedermeier Room and chose the text that scrolls across those signs. The texts she chose were written by those living in Germany/Austria in the 1820’s and 1830’s, writers who both lamented the introduction of industry as the end of beauty and natural order, and lamented the sorry state of the new working poor at the same time.

The Museum of the 20th Century (Moderner Kunst) contains an exhibition that is an homage to that museum’s founding director and curator, Werner Hoffman. On display in the exhibition are works by seemingly every male modern artist working since about 1905, collected in one large white room. The self-proclamations in that room, about forceful self-discovery and expression through the use of new art forms, are truly deafening. Hoffman himself wondered if the museum (particularly in Vienna in the 1960’s) was a cage rather than a wide-open forum for ideas. This exhibition felt like a display of the contents of a time capsule rather than a cage, and I again felt pulled in to space that was fastening the edited past forcibly to the present, with no actual relation to the present.

In the end, of course, the room I spent the most time in while in Vienna was the room of my mind. The last time I had spent days in that city, I was a 20-year old backpacker who was blissed-out by train travel and aloneness and the beauty of the Vienna State Opera Ballet’s performance of Orpheus and Eurydice. Back then, I was too na├»ve to even imagine the impact that death has on all of one’s feelings, thoughts, and decisions.

But I came to Vienna this time having experienced loss and grief, and so that desire to seize and hold the past motionless in the present which permeates every room in this bereaved city now seems, in some small way, recognizable.

January 7, 2009

Vienna, Part 2: Gunter and Egon Make a Porno

While I was trapped on the long and boring flight home from Austria, I watched the awful re-make of “The Women” on my tiny in-seat movie screen. Caricatures of female power and sexuality! Heel-wearing harpies, lingerie flashing, jungle-red nail polish! Self-awareness through hair straightening and tampon burning!

I felt sorry for actress Annette Benning, who also seemed trapped on a long and boring flight. And given what I had just seen in Vienna, I had to figure Freud would have lapped it all up.

My starting place for this reflection was the galleries of the Belvedere Schloss, which contains a remarkable collection of Austrian art, almost entirely by men, displayed in chronological order. Much of that art contains images of women or at least their component parts.

Austrian sentimentalist and artist Hans Makart liked ass, particularly the buxom, pear-shaped behinds of aristocratic white women. And Makart knew his audience, as his paintings of nymph-like ladies frolicking among grapevines were the popular porn/art in the 1870’s. But the soft beauty of the female form that for Makart was an allegory for a lyrical and romantic history of Vienna gave way, at the end of the 1800’s, to much more discomfiting presentations of Purposes for the Female.

A few years after Makart’s peak, Gustav Klimt gained renown for (and was embroiled in controversy over) painting female figures who were in an idealized state of sexual ecstasy. His contemporary Egon Schiele drew women in a realistic-to-the-point-of-grotesque state of sexual readiness. Judging by the work I saw of theirs in museums all over Vienna, the artist were also really fascinated by female masturbation - - but fascinated in Penthouse way, in a manner that implied the whole thing made them (the male artists) feel a need for dominance.

Klimt seems to have responded to this need by adhering to the brand-new-in-his-day Freudian idea that intellect is not a female characteristic, only sexuality is, and thus presented most of his female forms in erotic reveries, with eyes closed. In many of his drawings (now on display at the Leopold Museum) Schiele repeatedly presented women laying back and exposing their genitalia, and a few years later, artist Christian Schad painted the same.

These artists were, in their different ways, shocking the system; they refused to engage in making myths about Vienna’s past, and they connected ferociously to the new century and to their own id-ego-superego present. I’m sure people who are not me find the work I saw on display arousing. And as someone who works in paint, I was certainly awed by the artists’ skill and expressiveness. But as a viewer, even though I am conscious that what Freud theorized about female mental infirmity still impacts us generations later, seeing it front and center in secular art seemed to make the work very history-bound. This presentation of women as sex itself, dominated and unintelligent, just seemed archaic.

And then I saw Gunter Brus.

The retrospective of works on paper by contemporary illustrator/performance artist/lunatic Gunter Brus (who is referred to in the exhibition write-up as “one of the most important protagonists in Austrian modernity”) now on display at the MAK Museum in Vienna significantly raises that level of discomfort. The work includes some political cartoons, commentary, and wild drawings of dream states and strange creatures. But most of the work presents the viewer with ingenious ways to carve up a woman, starting with her genitalia - - or at least Brus’ violent fantasties about that idea.

Putting this all together, I think I began to understand something about oh-so-enlightened, cultured, modern Vienna.

My first day in the city was a Catholic holiday, the celebration of the immaculate conception…of the Virgin Mary. Yes, in the mid-1800’s the Catholic Church integrated a retroactive understanding of Mary the Asexual Mother as a product of immaculate conception herself. I sat in on part of a mass at St. Peter’s church and listened intently to the proclamation that the Holy Virgin was, unlike Eve, entirely free of sin. So Mary’s identity was defined by the very absence of sexuality itself. And as I listened to the mass, I thought maybe this was the starting point in a long unbroken line of presentations of Purposes for the Female, Viennese style.

January 2, 2009

Vienna, Part 1: The Bend of Christ’s Neck

When I was a teenager I would sometimes go with my parents into the city to hear the New York Philharmonic perform, and I usually found the experience dislocating. I would try to center myself by calculating how many dead animal pelts were slung over the shoulders of the overly-made up women who clustered during intermission. During a performance of Bartok, I found the force of the music so intense that I started to pick incessantly at a small scab on my neck; I felt berated. But one evening, the Philharmonic played several Viennese waltzes, and for that performance my attention did not falter. About halfway through, something clicked, and I whispered excitedly to my Mom “Oh my god, this music is all about sex!” She gave a slight smile and whispered back “Yesssssssssssss.”

I thought I had decoded a meaning that must have been so obvious to everyone else listening, and was surprised and totally chagrined.

When I was somewhat younger and accompanied my mother and siblings to Catholic mass, I had a similar small epiphany about the bend of Christ’s neck. We’d see him every Sunday, hung on the crucifix above the altar, and it always struck me that the way his head hung down and slightly to the side was odd. He looked like he was asleep, or like he was crying, or like he was just really tired. And then one day it dawned on me, in that same embarrassed, everyone-must-know-this-but-me way, that in looking at the body of Christ on the cross, we were all just looking at a dead man. So…the bend of Jesus’ neck was just lifelessness, which meant that every week we knelt before and prayed about…death?

That was when I (finally) began to understand what a supplicant is, and the morose nature of Catholicism. The bomb-worshipers in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" made a whole lot more sense at that moment, too.

Spending time in Vienna recently, I felt that I re-encountered these two forms of code wherever I went. Strauss and his music are everywhere, as is the containment of sexual energy his waltzes describe. Vienna itself seems like the church of restraint. And the bent neck of Christ is everywhere too, in altar pieces in Catholic churches all over the city, and in the work of Austrian Expressionists who worked early in the last century. A fascinating small museum in the Augarten is filled with sculptures by Gustinus Ambrosi, who came to fame after winning an art competition with his bronze sculpture “Man with a Broken Neck.” Even Gustav Klimt’s famous “The Kiss”, which I was fortunate enough to see on display at the Belvedere Schloss, contains that famous bent neck, and a supplicant.

Klimt’s own description of what the neck means was sexual rather than religious --he apparently stated that the man’s neck represents the shaft of a penis, which puts the woman in the painting in rather a regrettable position -- but at a certain point in Vienna, as with the crucifixes and the waltzes, the two are just inextricably linked.

An artist did not need to be Catholic to catch the mood of somber deference to fate, and those like Gerstl, Kokoschka, and Schiele even placed themselves in the role of the dead Christ in some of their self-portraits. Nearly all of Schiele’s paintings conveyed to me this same fascination with and subservience to death, in fact, except perhaps his paintings of a six-year-old boy -- but even there, the message to the viewer seems to be “Eh, just give him time.”

These artists, who all were working in Vienna before WWI (and presented in the Leopold Museum’s amazing and thoughtful exhibition, ‘Vienna 1900’) were engaged in an anxious group response to modernity, what with Freud and Darwin reshaping thought about existence and industry and capitalism reshaping what had been a feudal society. And for reasons I am too limited to fathom, they all chose to paint a kind of hyper-realism, to focus on the basest parts of human life and the human form, instead of reaching into abstraction.

When I was in Vienna, I was lucky enough to see the first retrospective in Austria of work by French artist and creator of cubism Georges Braque, and I could not get over the contrast. The forms in the abstract expressions of Braque convey a sense of life, and real emotional openness, and it seemed like Braque used color to imply memory or reflection or movement, or the absence of something, not anything concrete. Looking at the work of his Viennese contemporaries -- who were so ferociously committed to representation (and to representing the exposed self) -- I felt I was being scolded about my own mortality.

Or perhaps it was that I was a woman, looking at the work of Viennese painters who seemed to have a very singular view of what women are for? More on that in my next post…

January 1, 2009

Seeing LeWitt, Sounding out the Thoughts

There are several sculptures by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt now on display at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and each piece is a serene geometric construction enclosing space. At the same time the forms seem open - - since each one is brilliant gloss white, it reflects back onto the viewer anything projected onto the surface. Interacting with these familiar yet almost life-sized shapes sets up in the viewer a soft mental vibration, like small lapping waves.

A few miles away in North Adams, Massachusetts, the massive 3-floor retrospective of LeWitt’s wall drawings is now open at MassMOCA, and here the intensity of color and force of the forms are anything but soft.

You encounter his wall drawings intellectually at first, because they present design challenges. And all of the paintings are examples of collective action; LeWitt stated the rules of the image-making, and other painters created the work itself, which gives the viewer pause.

I struck up a conversation with two other visitors who were engaged by the technique used to create specific, repeated line shapes on one of the wall drawings. The background of the drawing, which spanned 4 huge walls, was architect-blueprint blue. The collection of lines (some curved, some straight, some dashed, some bent) floating across the intense blue background were chalk white. And there was perfect uniformity of each line; the curves on one wall matched all other curves, the dashes matched all other dashes. But these seemed to be painted freehand. We deliberated about what tools were used to achieve the uniformity - - perhaps exact templates of the space around each line?

And then we turned the corner and saw, on the fifth wall, LeWitt’s primer. He had constructed, in the same blue and white, a detailed map of line shapes, sizes, and arcs to be used in the wall drawing, with lengths specified down to a fraction of a fraction of an inch. By this example he had set out the shapes we put on a space, just like those we put on time, and on thought. He had provided a primer for a visual language conveying the parts of a conversation, or a memory, or a song…the arcs and curves like the exact repetition of moments within that song.

In fact, it was impossible to look at the work in this exhibition without hearing it; the images on the walls pulsated and sang. And they were borderless. A few especially vibrant wall drawings on the third floor (his most recent work) seemed to span the entire gallery space, shoot out the eastern windows across Massachusetts, continue out over the Atlantic, and straight on into space.

This is a collection of thoughts by a man who was seemingly always thinking about thinking, and who operated as if we all are too. Being around his work gives the viewer a sense of deep relief. He was unabashedly conscious of the constant flow of thought and feeling, of geometry and music, happening at all times, coming from whatever distant past and into whatever distant future.

Over the holidays, a relative and I were discussing the idea of infinity, and that even though this relative was a philosophy major, he could not believe in the concept. Grasping what is meant by infinity stumped him as a college student and still does 40 years later. Happily for him, recent research in astrophysics has found that dark energy is acting as a gravity-killer on distant galaxy clusters, retarding their growth, and eventually could stop their development altogether…which means that, in a manner of speaking, our universe may have an expiration date. Which also means that the idea of infinity may no longer be such a stumper.

But in truth, an answer to this problem exists much closer to home - - and it is in the engaging, vibrant, and wonderfully vast collection of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings that MassMOCA has now presented to the world. The infinity LeWitt reveled in is that of thoughts, looping and arcing, pulsing and soaring on, forever.