Monday, December 15, 2008

Drawing - on the Walls

It’s Blogthirty. It’s cold, it’s warm, we’re having an ice storm, no wait, it’s 50 degrees outside. It’s been an unsettled week and as you can tell, I’m hard up for subject matter this morning. Trying to jump start my engine by reading other people’s opinions has so far been no help. The banality of Ikea furniture? Blah. Lily Tomlin’s brother’s go at creating a sectional by sawing his mother’s sofa in thirds? Nah. Remember drawing rooms? What sort of furniture does one put in a drawing room? How about no furniture at all and you just strip off the old wallpaper and draw on the walls?

Drawing is either a process or a goal-oriented activity. Someone with a narrative imagination is required to come up with formal inventions which allow the narrative to proceed and be manifested for the viewer. A manga artist could do wonders for the walls of that drawing room. If it were my room, I would start by letting the materials generate the result. A process drawing happens because of the artist’s curiosity about how things get made, and what materials will do; and the inspiration for this may lie - either or both - in the physical inclinations of the artist and in the processes of the natural world of which the artist, who is a life-form with just as much potential for art as Johnson grass, is a part. Things grow adapt change, get moved around come into being and disappear. The challenge for the artist is to be as inventive in making process work visually, as nature is in inventing form.

My hope is that whoever stripped off the wallpaper left the mess behind, along with some cans of paint, so I can get started.

I'll be busy drawing for the next two Mondays - and back here in the New Year. Have Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 08, 2008

If Not

It's a cold, very cold, snowy day, though it's not snowing now. Last night the wind blew yesterday's snow all over the place, making surf-like patterns on the gravel, in and out of the weeds, across the snow walks and frozen pond. In the studio, I like to give myself over to what the landscape provides, and watch what happens when the wind blows my thoughts around until they pile up around one idea or another, and from that, art gets made.

Language has always fascinated me too, the old idea that the universe was created from sound, or language. Which is why I was so taken when I first found rocks that had what appeared to be inscribed x's and l's. Hah, I thought, here's evidence that the world is created out of language. I know now the inscriptions are actually quartz inclusions in what's called "graphic granite," but still, it's a minor thrill even now to see those bright lines in the granite matrix. I have another rock, a jasper stone, that I use as a meditation object. Jasper stones are so named because they turn up at Jasper Beach in Downeast Maine. This stone is a sort of mottled yellow-brown with no inclusions, but as I stared at it one afternoon, I realized that I was being texted. The darker grains of the stone's surface organized themselves to spell out, in an elegant cursive script, the words "if not." If not what, I asked. If this is not the perfect zen question, then what is? And so my rock continues to ask me, or I ask myself, in response to whatever expectations I may have and whatever ideas the wind blows up in my brain, what if not?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Portraits - A Snapshot

“Just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture, television has killed the novel of social reportage.” This from Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “Why Bother?”, reprinted in his book, How to Be Alone. What caught me here was not his lament for the novel, but the assumption that serious portraiture is dead. It’s true that the paintbrush as a tool for social reportage has mostly been displaced by cameras in the hands of everyone from your dad at Thanksgiving to Annie Leibovitz. But serious portrait painting has been and continues to be practiced by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Elizabeth Peyton, in ways that comment on contemporary society and on the personality of the sitter. The fact that Elizabeth Peyton often works from photographs, not life, intensifies rather than diminishes her insights into the psychological makeup of her subjects. Instead, it’s reflective of the ways in which information is delivered these days – at several removes from reality. And the bright, harsh color juxtapositions mirror our secular world in the same way that Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portraits mirrored the darks and lights of the Reformation in Saxony. That's his Martin Luther upper left.

Elizabeth Peyton’s exhibition Live Forever is on view at the New Museum through January 11. There’s an excellent slide show/interview online.

In another portrait story, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne believes it has identified a Dosso Dossi portrait of Lucrezia Borgia.

And to follow up on my November 17 blog about Relational Aesthetics, John Perreault’s Artopia blog has a great tour of the show at the Guggenheim, theanyspacewhatever, with commentary on the artists and the RA movement, or absence thereof.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Country Time and the Environment

First it was the unnaturally bright green color, now that all the leaves are down, that pulled me over to the fence line. A pine sapling has started up under the birch, but as I crossed the ditch and looked closer, a glint of yellow metal caught my eye. Nope, I wasn't panning for gold. The yellow turned out to be a Country Time Lemonade can stuck up in the crotch of the birch. I wonder how that got there, and when, and who put it there and why. Did the drinker think to save it for later recycling, or just not want to pollute the ditch? Last summer I found a shattered Mason jar along the same fence line. No question about recycling there.

These items, so oddly out of context, take me back to a recent trip to Quoddy Head State Park, and the plateau of the Great Meadow with its open view to sea. The beauty of that spot has always been its uninterrupted quiet, but noise can be visual as well as auditory. I was dismayed to see one tacky cairn after another erected (and left behind) by visitors in some vain attempt to say "hey look I was here." Nothing wrong with the occasional cairn that marks the trail, but on the ledge, there's no trail to mark, and there were so many non-functioning cairns that they really ruined the sense of open space and untouched beauty. The motto "pack it in, pack it out" applies here too - in the sense that we should leave nothing behind to disturb the natural quiet that brings us to places like Quoddy Head in the first place.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Old Wine, New Bottles

The field of “relational aesthetics” is fairly new to the art world, and one has to accept that art can be redefined in such a way that the object is no longer the art-maker’s goal. Artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Carsten Höller, and my personal favorite, Pierre Huyghe, traffic in events and installations which require viewers to be active participants. Wikipedia's page provides this: “Relational Art (or relationalism[1]) is defined by Nicolas Bourriaud, co-founder and former co-director of Paris art gallery Palais de Tokyo as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space."[2] Artworks are judged based upon the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt.[3]” But even though the purpose of these relationships is to make art more democratic, relational artists mostly preach to the converted, while the public at large still prefers to define art as something one hangs on a wall.

This past weekend, the craft-faith-based initiative WOWHAUS, out of California, came to Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine, to present a Symposium on Deep Craft. WOWHAUS puts its faith in the involvement of community, and in teaching people to use what’s locally available, from food to building materials. They define deep craft as an “interstitial place” where skills, tradition, innovation and knowledge come together. But does this create a place that is deep, or only just spread thinly across the social landscape? Mainers are a pragmatic bunch for whom deep craft is digging out after a serious snowstorm, and I think too, it seemed to most of us that deep craft is something we’ve been doing every day partly just to get by, and partly because we came in on the seventies wave of environmental awareness.

So what’s new about ecodesign, permaculture, and the biodynamic movement? Just the buzzwords, really. WOWHAUS’s contribution to craft is in the field of possibilities, brewing the legacy of William Morris in the stewpot of sixties activism. Though they have realized some impressive designs, for Alice Waters among others, for WOWHAUS, building community relationships matters more than the actual making of things. Still, in a world where we can now order Domino’s pizza directly through TiVo, there’s something to be said for keeping the flame alive.

Monday, November 10, 2008


What to write about today?? What was I doing last week?? Trying to keep my head above water, get some work done in the studio, go to Portland – none of this is worth a blog. Of course it was election week and the results were beyond good. The sign on the side of the road said “Free at Last.” The Heartfield book lies waiting – are there parallels to the narrow escape we’ve just had? Why can I not be as disciplined as Obama in setting and sticking to a schedule? Shall I go read some more in hopes of finding a spark for what to write? Possibly yes, because I seem to be drowning in a sea of bad feng shui – books out of bookshelves, papers in piles on the floor, desktops and tabletops buried under sketchbooks and broken rocks.

So I pick up Post-Modern Theory, by Steven Best and Douglas Kellner. I knew of a Kellner once and he was German. And I read this: “Privileging botanical metaphors, Deleuze and Guattari employ the term rhizome to designate the decentered lines that constitute multiplicities.“ What they’re saying is that we live in a world where all things are interconnected in “random, unregulated relationships,” and desires flourish like crabgrass. Crabgrass proliferates where it desires to multiply, in a positive way, taking advantage of newly mulched soil or improving poor soil by breaking it up. Crabgrass is useful that way, and so is art that is decentered, for instance the cartography of Julie Mehretu, and the worlds that Matthew Ritchie presents. Like crabgrass, I desire so much – electronic music, more and more books, life amid the Northeast coast’s botanical and geological feasts, and time spent in big cities. In practice, these are the concepts and things that fuel my studio work, in which, rhizome-like, an oil painting generates an acrylic on paper generates an installation generates a woodblock.

Some rhizomatic connections:
John Heartfield
Matthew Ritchie
My Installations
Roadside Geology
Free at Last

Monday, November 03, 2008

Past to Present

Frost has knocked down the ferns and valerian, and for the first time since early spring, I got in close enough under the winterberry bushes to haul out lengths of wire fencing, its barbs long since blunted by rust. My project is to expose the rock walls along the property lines and get rid of old farm detritus. It’s at least as satisfying as making paintings, and quite possibly more enduring, since those rocks will be there long after we humans have departed. Later in the day. I heard a poet read this line: “walls made of rocks make a story from past to present.” That’s truly said.

The Center for Maine Contemporary Art, which hosted the reading, currently houses three exhibitions dealing with the past and present of art. Downstairs, there is an exhibition of paintings by the mentally ill members of the LINC and Waterville Social Clubs. Some of the artists are also poets and it was they who were reading. The directness of their poetry and conversation is that of people who, in spite of what life has handed them, maintain a rare honesty about who they are and why they make art. In speaking of how art has affected his life, the poet who spoke about walls also said this: “When you’re sick, you sink into a puddle, and when you’re getting well, it’s like you’re picking yourself up and making a body.”

How many artists, in this time of mental gymnastics, appropriated ideas, and lax physical discipline, are able to say that with each new work of art, they are in the truest sense producing themselves? Look for clues upstairs in Dennis Pinette’s work. Pinette is a passionate advocate of the art of painting whose watercolors let us follow indirect paths, the images taken up or left behind, as he develops concepts into concrete objects. On the ground floor, “First Traces,” an exhibition of sketchbooks and preparatory materials, also examines artists’ progress from ideas to finished works of art.

The shows continue through December 20, and you can read more about them here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Big Three

The enduring subjects of art are three: the figure, the landscape, and the still life. It may be possible to assign any given image to at least one of these categories. For instance, Jenny Holzer’s truism, “action causes more trouble than thought” refers to the human condition, and falls into the category of figurative art. Tomma Abt’s abstractions are landscape-based, as are Mondrian’s. Joseph Beuys’ great Lightning with Stag in Its Glare at MassMOCA, is a still life that incorporates by allegory both the landscape and the figure.

I’ve often wondered what makes these subjects so compelling, and as I continue to read Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place – see the Oct. 6 blog – I’ve come to realize where their appeal lies. Figurative art is always the mirror ourselves, our humanity, and our compassion or lack thereof. The visions of Goya and Banksy belong here, as do Monet’s odalisques and Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits. But those are easy ones. It’s harder to articulate why we find landscape painting so compelling. A scene is just a scene, but a really good landscape painting evokes longing for the unknown, a world we are ultimately unable to become part of even with the aid of one-point perspective. A Canaletto seems to invite us in, but into a landscape that moves away from us in time and in distance. Caspar David Friedrich’s horizons are always far off, his sea is boundless, our boats too small. Conversely, a still life is intimate. We get the point immediately, and how lovely to possess a rose that never fades, a table always set, an apple always ripe. How satisfying to contemplate a Hopper house, to have the tank filled at a Ruscha service station.

Confusion sets in when one considers that some landscapes offer a glimpse of the intimate and the familiar, and so have the same appeal as still lifes. Thomas Kinkade’s smarmy cottage scenes come to mind, as do generic lighthouse paintings. These set up longing of a different kind, longing for art that will fit nicely in the home, perhaps, and longing that can be indulged in without pain. Conversely, Dutch still lifes are reminders of life beyond the grave. To dwell on the insect-nibbled peach is to have a glimpse not only of sin, but also of the fact that the wages of sin are death.

Confusion is resolved, though, in a great artist like Van Gogh, in whose singular paintings we see all three subjects: our selves reflected back by a starry night, infinity in a vase of roses, and timeless familiarity in the postman’s face.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Follow This Blog

Ways to follow blogs include RSS Feeds and "Following" which seems to me the less complicated of the two if you're a blogspot user, so I've added a following gadget. It immediately let me know I have one follower and that in addition to writing her own blog, white space imaginings, she follows some other truly interesting blogs including VoxPhotographs Weblog out of Portland, Maine, and black white and grey matters.

If you're not inclined to follow the blog publicly, with your picture on the sidebar, you can follow privately and and still get the updates. You'll be given the choice when you click on the "Following" link. So I encourage you all to follow - it's so much more fun than trying to remember to check in every Monday and it helps me grow my audience.

Welcome, Claire, and welcome future followers all!

N.B. "Follow This Blog" floats to the top left, RSS feeds are below my Profile.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Rocks, Water and an Island

Yesterday I was out moving chunks of granite around, and this morning reading Space and Place, by Yi-Fu Tuan. To paraphrase, Tuan claims that breaking the bounds of gravity is the innate desire of man, and he was not referring to the difficulty of picking up large rocks, but rather to ice skating. I would add other activities in which there is total freedom of movement and an attempted or perceived escape from gravity – surfing, sailing, great sex, and colliding subatomic particles.

So what about man’s desire to go deep into the earth, and what are the physical attractions to the solidities of metamorphic and sedimentary rocks? This is the complementary desire for security. According to Tuan, a social geographer who taught at the University of Wisconsin, “human lives are a dialectical movement between shelter and venture, attachment and freedom.” I hate more than anything to be tied down, but on the other hand, those rocks, which are the foundation of my art, provide a resting place. The ideal subject matter? Water moving over rocks.

I’ve used “man” in its now out-dated sense to include men and women, but something I read this morning made me realize how far we have not come. A story about the origin of the yoga pose “Matsyendrasana” (Lord of the Fishes) tells a fish and flood story about a man who rescued a fish, only to have it later save him and his ark in the great flood. Many eons later, Parvati begged her consort Shiva to give her the secrets of yoga, so that she might use them to help humankind which was once again in a fix. He took her to a remote island, imparted the secrets, and then realized that the neighboring island, looking so like a rock, was actually that very fish referred to above. So Shiva transformed the fish into the first great yogic teacher. And Parvati? The story I was reading forgot to say.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Cosmic Circus

Over the years, I've been intrigued by the inventions Stew Henderson comes up with to express his view of the cosmos. To name a few, he’s used three dimensions, two dimensions, bird song, the covers of many New Yorker magazines, water from the Danube River and clock time to arrive at images which, though disparate, are always recognizably Hendersons. He describes his “Paper Circus” series, on view now at Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, as a group of images which happened during a transition between two intentional bodies of work, but it seems to me that these images are more truly complete than the work which preceded and which follows them. Henderson has always been comfortable with a diamond format, which is very effective here, as is a larger vertical format. But what really makes these images successful is the combination of jewel-colored collaged “beads,” red Pollock-like skeins of paint, and black-and-white forms that seem derived from eyes and eyeglasses. While he has used these elements before, here, framed in black, they are overlaid in such a way that their activities reference an indefinable something that lies beyond themselves. I venture a guess that this might involve more abstract ideas such as vision and anti-matter and the cosmic dance. The strength of the message results from Henderson's accurate use of space, color. and line.

See more Stew Henderson here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Deep Craft at Waterfall Arts

I've been working with Waterfall Arts' founder Alan Crichton, to co-curate their upcoming show, titled Resonance and Response, which will showcase the work of two Maine artists - and am doubling up by writing and posting here the statement for the show, which is to be held concurrently with Waterfall's annual symposium on the connections between art and nature, this year titled "Conflux." I love blog sentences - they go on and on. Here's the statement.

Joe Ascrizzi and Diana Cherbuliez are artisans, sculptors, and story-tellers. In terms of what we ordinarily think of as “craftsmanship,” each is a master. But there is more to craft than careful making. To speak of “deep craft” is to acknowledge the art of slowing down, engaging more people, living through process and results. It implies knowing how to look, and how to think about what comes next. A carpenter at work with his tools always envisions the steps he will take before they happen. C follows B follows A. This kind of deep thinking and making means responding to the given, whether what is given is the mythology implicit in a found object, or the resonance given off by a block of wood.

Diana lives in a house of her own making, in an island world that provides her with a constant source of raw materials. In considering an apple wood limb, she will parse out the cultural and mythological implications of the apple tree, Eve and the snake aided by a rat. Or, a particularly disorienting wallpaper pattern will trigger associations with her childhood bedroom, and she will progress from that idea to create a mirrored box that invites us into the dreamtime, the in between time when we are just falling asleep. In Diana’s work mirrors are the tools through which we build the scaffolds of our personal histories, and by which, through the magic of infinite reflection, we come to understand universal human truths.

By contrast, Joe works intuitively, listening for the frequencies that emanate from his materials. As if tuning into a universal channel, he lets the materials tell him what tools to use and what images to bring forth. The resulting imagery may be a Renaissance-like allegory, or it may be constructed on a geometric abstraction, a five-pointed star or a Golden Section. Joe’s family is from the Italian region of Calabria, where he learned the medieval and Renaissance crafts he now practices. Something in the air, perhaps, has carried forward through history. In one of his mirrored pieces, the mirror appears to be on the surface with the frame, but is not – one reaches back, and back, to find an elusive reality.

In bringing these two artists together at Waterfall Arts, in confluence with CONFLUX, the Deep Craft Symposium, we acknowledge the connections between art and nature, that one informs the other, that although we no longer live solely in the natural world, art is the reflection of our surroundings, the reminder of who we are and have the potential to become, and how we may attend to the practice of living as individuals in community.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The More Things Change

“We talk far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic Nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches. That fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon on my window sill quietly awaiting its future – all these are momentous signatures.

A person able to decipher their meaning properly would soon be able to dispense with the written or the spoken word altogether. The more I think of it, there is something futile, mediocre, even (I am tempted to say) foppish about speech. By contrast, how the gravity of Nature and the silence startle you, when you stand face to face with her, undistracted, before a barren ridge or in the desolation of ancient hills.”

This quote, attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), is the starting point for today’s blog, that we might reflect on the pure and the impure aspects of the art world.

Would a return to the 18th century and the simple acts of drawing and deciphering visual information remove us from the evil influences of the 21st century’s ART MARKET and its UNEDUCATED COLLECTORS? In the Guardian, Robert Hughes has just written a scathing indictment of Damien Hirst’s auction, today and tomorrow, of his (Hirst’s) own work through Sotheby’s. You can read it here. And the French have their pantalons in a twist over the installation of Jeff Koons’ Bunnies and Lobsters at Versailles, the Sun King’s legendary palace with its Hall of Mirrors.

But was not Versailles a very grand Bunny of its day? The more things change, the more they stay the same. And when it comes to art as commodity, the 17th and 18th centuries have more in common with the 21st than we might imagine.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Viewers' Choice

Yesterday afternoon I attended a panel discussion on the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s Biennial, where audience and panelists tossed around questions of what defines a Biennial. Is it a showcase for emerging talent? Should the selections reflect the post-modern scene and a variety of media? One panelist, whose career is well-established, felt that this Biennial, and the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, should reflect the career spectrum of Maine artists, and had entered because he felt a certain responsibility in that direction. The other two artists on the panel, though they work in traditional mediums, are new to the “fine art” scene. All around, the dialogue was refreshingly direct and free of art-speak.

CMCA Curator Britta Konau pointed out that Maine’s Biennials are unusually democratic, because they are juried rather than curated (and also carry no entrance fee), so that anyone with a Maine connection is eligible to enter. In addition to the recognition that inclusion provides, there is a Jurors’ Award which, since CMCA is not a collecting institution, takes the form of a small solo show the following year. And then the question was put, should there also be a “People’s Choice” awarded by popular vote of the viewers? A part of the mission of arts organizations these days involves engaging the public, and one imagines that the People’s Choice would be very different from the Jurors’ Award. Even so, viewers would likely make a more sophisticated choice than Komar and Melamid’s version of the most-wanted American painting: a dishwasher-size realist landscape with blue skies.

So, why not let the public have its say? Contemporary art derives part of its meaning from the viewer, and what better way to engage people in new forms of art and do a little consciousness-raising at the same time?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Batting Around Ideas

What’s been going on around here this Labor Day Weekend? Nature. There was a bat in the bedroom the other night, and yesterday, I took some time out to prune foliage away from the boulders that line the creek beds along my property, because I would rather look at rocks and water than at weeds. Just now, an eagle/osprey/turkey vulture soared overhead – not close enough to identify positively. There is a dead fox up the road. Been there for four days now. But, so as to avoid the tedium of personal journaling, let me point you in the direction of the sidebar blogs, each of which I’ve chosen for a reason.

Lies Like Truth: Love the title, and the eclectic coverage of all the arts. Scroll down to read the recent post on Chartres Bleu – not a new varietal, but a video installation at the Di Rosa Preserve in Napa, California.

The Artful Manager: Reflections on the business of art. This is useful reading for me, and since (full disclosure) I’m on the Board of Trustees at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, I like to stay in touch.

Life’s a Pitch: As the bat in the bedroom, art has become part of community. Check out "Auf Wiedersehen, New Media," the August 26 blog, and the August 28 blog on Comments. Apparently, some blogs get hundreds of comments from the on-line community.

Here’s a comment that came to me via email - “just enough familiar information injected with some reflection by you . . allows me to unearth information that I have taken in but didn’t realize was there.” Thank you, commentator: you nailed the reason why I blog.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Weasel Art

The lead essay in Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk is titled “Living Like Weasels.”
A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving. Outside, he stalks rabbits, mice, muskrats, and birds, killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and often dragging the carcasses home.
Without continuing on into more gory passages, I think it's safe to say this can become a metaphor for artists.

Artists are a little scary – who knows what we’re really thinking? Or doing when we hole up in the studio? Maybe we’re just sleeping, or having too much fun. What about the visual information we drag home, which in my case once included a fox carcass? Certainly, many government officials and the public at large are uneasy with what we might be perpetrating, but I think it is essential that as a society, we allow artists to do and show us those things that we don’t fully understand. As soon as you’re in a place that’s unfamiliar, everything becomes more vibrant. You see with new eyes. Art can do this for us – show us the unfamiliar, make us understand and accept new ideas, bring order out of chaos.

And so as an artist I try to maintain a wildness of perspective and a willingness to embrace the unfamiliar. Specifically, when it comes to making art, my installations reflect my interest in space, and my paintings are all about the process of creating patterns. I like the kind of installation art that alters space and refers to our place in the landscape. In this day and age we do not experience nature without culture, and Richard Serra, one of the great transformers of indoor and outdoor space, operates in the intersection of industrial and landscape. I also like Yayoi Kusama, whose disorienting patterns cause one to lose all sense of one’s location in space, and all sense of personal physical boundaries. It’s telling that she lives by choice in a psychiatric hospital.

My own art is not intended to be disorienting, but rather to offer a place for quiet reflection. It's process art, and I spoke about it recently at Aarhus Gallery in Belfast.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Where Has All the Passion Gone?

I’m remembering a Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode in which Detective Bobby Goren goads an extremely cool and affect-less perp to try and get some sort of reaction out of him. The perp finally breaks. “Now see, that,” says Goren, "is affect.”

The 2008 Biennial at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art is a curious mix of concepts that left me and my friend asking how one accounts for the cool temperature of recent art. There are plenty of obsessions with the vernacular, with alternative materials. and with greatly reduced palettes. Irony has given way to self-deprecation. The influence of post-modern theory is everywhere evident in the careful efforts of artists who have been schooled first in making straight A’s and then in crafting a product.

So where is all the passion? It’s at Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland. Passion luxuriates in Nancy Wissemann-Widrig’s paintings of shallow water. It bounces off the stones in Alan Crichton’s pastel images of a waterfall. It’s there in the gestural abstractions of Anne Ayvaliotis. And most of all, passion, and life, radiate from Kathleen Florance’s large format charcoal drawings of bees and butterflies. These artists not only know their craft, they love their subjects and they love the difficult act of making art. And that, sez I, is passion.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Essumasay Community?

In my list of blog ideas, there’s one called “excuses not to paint.” This morning I’d like to consider excuses not to blog. You have, for the week, a resident two-year old. You have a show to install. A dentist appointment. A sudoku lures. You know how it goes. The two-year old and I got into a private joke about coasters of the kind you set your drink on to keep from making a ring on great-grandmother’s cherry table.

My set of coasters features 50’s ski babes each saying something with double entendre. “I have to get down how?” “The word on the slopes was . . . she was fast!” “Did somebody say coke?” It was the two-year old’s job to hand me a coaster, and my job to read it aloud. Her favorite, “Did somebody say coke?” became “essumasay coke?” Language evolves, as has the meaning of coke.

The concept of community, both in general and as it applies to theater, has also evolved to mean different things to different groups of people. Community once meant a close-knit geographical entity, the village or town. Now we have communities of common interests, often widely separated by geographic location. Community theater in the UK engages local political and social issues. In the US, community theaters are formed by volunteers with a great love for the performing arts, who re-produce classics and Broadway hits. It’s a struggle to keep these US groups going in the face of changing demographics, the explosion in entertainment options, and a stumbling economy. But it’s not just a question of everybody wanting the same dollar. The true bottom line is that to remain viable, community theater groups must develop new programming that draws in new audiences, incorporates multiple types of performance, and engages contemporary issues, while at the same time remaining a source for the classics and being an attractive venue for up-and-coming actors. In a word, community theater must re-define itself in terms of changed communities.

Now I’m off to install that visual arts show. Back next week . . . .

Monday, August 04, 2008

Rules, Limitations, and Situations

Rules: Stick to one thing, make one kind of art, find a signature style, make it easy to sell.

Limitations: Exploring a range of media or concepts is a bad thing. If you’re a painter, paint. If you’re a sculptor, carve. Don’t’ ask too much of the viewer, and don’t overtax your own imagination.

Situations: Avoid narrative. Narrative situates your art in a particular time and space. At best it marks your own output as storytelling and at worst it illustrates someone else’s story.

These have been the rules of contemporary art. Imagine these rules falling off of a turning world, and artists, Prometheans unbound from the marketplace, regaining a lost freedom. A little pop backstory: Prometheus as envisioned by the poet Percy Bysse Shelley uncompromisingly speaks truth (art) to power (marketplace), and herein lies the moral of the story. In art there are no rules, no limitations, no given situations. The best art comes by surprise, puts stones beneath wheels, and upsets apple carts.

Personally, I have found it difficult to keep my apple cart on a smooth path. I draw like a painter, paint like a sculptor, and make three-dimensional work that is effectively two-dimensional. Drawing the figure has trained my hand. Time given to walking the landscape informs the spatial narrations of my installations. Heidegger’s concept of physis provides a cogent explanation of my painting process and of the way I understand the natural world. It is greatly satisfying to me that artists are once again exploring multiple concepts in multiple media. It’s a leap of faith I know, but I hope this means that their work reflects a more engaged and rigorous intelligence than has lately been the case, and that they, unlike Prometheus, will not have their livers eaten out by the powers that be.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Color, Line and Texture

Color, line and texture: this is the subtitle of Betwixt and Between, the current exhibition at Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth, Maine, curated by Bruce Brown. At a panel discussion this past Thursday with artists Robin Mandel, Lois Dodd, and me, Brown spoke about his wish to present work that was off the beaten path – the beaten path being a familiar one, strewn with images of the Maine landscape like boulders in a blueberry barren (my words, not his). And while there are plenty of landscapes in this show, from the abstract to the very representational, there are also Henry Wolyniec’s digital ink prints, Joe Kievitt’s accumulations of ink lines, and texture in three dimensions by ceramicist George Perlman. Brown, who is Curator Emeritus at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, has long been instrumental in bringing new forms of art to the fore in Maine.

Line, color and texture are qualities which exist in every work of visual art, so it was interesting to hear Robin Mandel speak about his avoidance of color in the service of identifying an ideal and impersonal form. His steel sculptures are the uninflected-black contours of ordinary objects, such as boxes and grocery bags, in which “absence” of color serves to locate each object in its own Platonic shadow. By contrast, Lois Dodd builds her paintings out of color shapes which reference very specific subjects, and because she generally paints from life, she maintains a balance between local color (what’s actually out there) and the color relationships that will make a strong painting. I was on the panel as the texture person, even though texture for me is not so much intentional as it is the random by-product of building up layered encrustations of paint. Hence I am indebted to Bruce for pointing out that perhaps this kind of texture has its correlation in what I too am looking at, the very real accumulations outside my studio. Granite, clay, gravel, and, right now, the endless weeds of summer inform the invented line, color and especially texture, of my abstract paintings.

The show – with a selection from each artist - can be seen online in the catalog. The exhibition is up through July 30.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Artist and the Scientist

I have a giraffe. His name is Roland. He’s almost as tall as I am, which either makes me a very tall person, or Roland a not-so-tall giraffe. In addition to size differences, giraffes also differ in their coat patterns. A friend recently dropped off a page from National Geographic illustrating six different genetically distinct giraffes, and we tried to match Roland's pattern to one of the real African kind, reticulated, or Rothschild’s. But it was not to be, and I suggested that Roland might represent the Platonic ideal of giraffeness. To which my friend countered, “Or a new species waiting to be discovered.” A giraffa melissaanddougii?

Which brings me to the current vogue for science-infused art, and the aesthetic of meaning (see last week’s post). It’s not easy to find pure painting anymore, or pure sculpture. Perhaps these traditional forms have beaten a retreat into the savannas of printmaking, where technology allows for all kinds of formal permutations. Drawing has become mapping, photography the documentation of time, painting is the handmaiden of computer generated imagery, and sculpture – well, Arthur Ganson's machines do all these things and more. Not that I think any of this is bad. To the contrary, it is in the light of the discoveries of new species of art that we become more rigorous in our evaluations of the patterns of form and meaning.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Arthur Danto Comes Out - for Beauty

Thanks be to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland for bringing Arthur Danto to the coast of Maine. Danto was required reading when I was a student back in the late 80's, and I always liked how his essays started off in one direction, then took a different tack, and finally got back on course to make his point. His lecture tonight was the inaugural presentation in the Farnsworth Forum series, and he was interviewed by the Farnsworth's Director of Education, the excellent Roger Dell.

By his own description, Danto's work as a critic has been to arrive at a philosophy of art as defined by the sort of Socratic questioning that is itself definitive of much of Western thought. He began his talk tonight by positing that when Andy Warhol presented the Brillo Box as art, he set in motion a sea change in what art can be. Of course, it was Marcel Duchamp, not Warhol, who questioned the boundaries of what we may consider to be art by giving us the urinal, and Danto did later make a correct philosophical distinction between the Duchampian and Warholian reasons for adopting the ready-made.

A new tack: what of the market, of government repression and the freedom that American artists generally enjoy, as long as one doesn't look too closely at Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Jesse Helms, or Rudy Guiliani? From here, Danto rumbled into considerations of aesthetics and the philosophy at which he has arrived: that art is no longer judged by an aesthetic of form, but by an aesthetic of meaning, of which beauty is not a necessary component. When pressed by an audience member for criteria by which we might judge meaning, he reasoned in circular fashion that meaning is to be found in meaning. What did the artist mean, and where has meaning resided throughout art history? Socrates would never have let him off the hook on that one.

But never mind. The interview ended with a return to the shock of the new in the form of Jeff Koons' exquisite balloon dogs. How is it we are allowed to think of these as art? They are a far reach from ready-mades, and they are gorgeous in their form. It's ok, Danto implies, to like them just because we can't help ourselves. But what do they mean, and are we to depend on the artist for the answer? I like to think we can trust our own critical judgment here.

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Welliver Sky

Scrolling through my collection of notes for blogs-in-waiting, I’ve turned up this quote from Peter Schjeldahl in the June 9 New Yorker: “Painting is a medium of concerted imagination, symbolizing consciousness. It’s not a flat dump for miscellaneous ideas.” This is an accurate assessment, and it strikes a chord with everyone who loves painting. Independent Curator Suzette McAvoy incorporated it into her lecture last week at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. She was talking about the simple act of seeing, as it relates to Lois Dodd’s paintings (whose exhibition remains on view through July 19).

Making a painting remains the solitary pursuit we've always thought it to be, and it is a complicated one, too. Cognitive theories are not much help to the painter confronted with a subject, a blank canvas, and a palette full of paint. If there is no subject, as is the case for pure abstraction, the complications multiply. So how is it that the viewing of a painting is a simple act, and one to which we must bring an open mind empty of theories?

Painting appeals to the senses. It’s visual, it evokes both sound and smell, it’s tactile (too bad that in galleries and museums we are not allowed to touch). I have a friend who once licked a Van Gogh – giving him perhaps an enhanced understanding of the painter’s struggle. Our sixth sense, intuition, or instinct, tells us whether we like the painting or don’t, but it also does much more. It brings up a host of visceral associations, and it is to this conciousness that we should listen first.

What a painting means in formal terms or in light of its subject matter and narrative, are layers to be discovered as one’s sophistication increases. But the simple act of seeing opens the door, makes the connection between the lived world and the depicted one, so that walking outdoors one fine day, with sudden insight we may see a Welliver sky or, driving through the city, come upon a Hopper row of buildings. It’s our imagination plus the artist’s skill that makes these moments happen.

Monday, June 23, 2008

If a Tree Falls, Is It Art?

If a gallery exhibits art and nobody comes to see it, is it art? In this post-post-modern world where art requires a viewer, possibly not. The participation of the viewer is part and parcel of contemporary art in all of its incarnations. Education as it applies to contemporary art is no longer about teaching people how to paint. It is about bringing people into the gallery, setting up dialogues, facilitating the interactivites that make the art real. Education is also about outreach. People have to know the art is “there” before they can decide to be part of it.

In most parts of this country, the fear factor is still operative. Fear of walking into a white box and not knowing what what to do. Fear of having to meet an artist and not knowing what to say. Fear of seeing an installation/painting/video and having no idea what it is about. When I was four, my grandfather died, and was laid out at home. I really wanted to see him so I could know what a dead person looked like. My parents, trying to reassure me, urged me to go upstairs to his room, because they said, he was with Jesus. But this only made me afraid. I pictured Jesus sitting on the windowsill waiting for me to make conversation with him. What would I say? I was too scared to find out. Now I know it was just a misunderstanding of what was actually in that room. Education, experience, involvement and perspective have changed my thinking.

Contemporary art forms, like great musical symphonies, are not revealed all at once. Consider the richness that is yours when you broaden your perspective. Walk inside that Serra. Experience the double videos that are Shirin Neshat’s view of Muslim societies. Turn yourself upside down in a Kapoor. Unravel a Meheretu. Get down with Contemporary Art.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Two Painting Shows and the Old Guard

Last week I wrote about the Olafur Eliasson show at MOMA, my disappointment in which set me up for the pleasure of the Merz installation one floor above. As I continued on into the Modernist collection, the vibrancy of the paintings and the engagement of the viewers were palpable. Even the old guys – Pollock, De Kooning, Warhol – flashed a freshness that I had become been inured to, what with all the hoo-hah about politically and environmentally correct work that holds sway these days.

Painting of course will never die, it just has to compete with a much expanded set of offerings. The knockout show of the season is at the New Museum, where on the top floor Tomma Abts exhibits a group of small acrylic and oil on canvas paintings, each eighteen and seven-eights by fifteen inches. She says this is for her an inherent size, and that she works on each one for a long time, making changes to color and spatial definition. As you read the paintings, you can almost follow her decision process, and though these the paintings have no direct subject, their purity most reminds me of Vermeer’s luminous renditions of perfect space and light. This show continues through June 29.

Here’s another show and I regret that it has just closed. Claire Seidl’s exhibition at the Painting Center in Soho is still on-line if you’re quick, and there’s more on her website. Seidl’s work is abstract but appears to me to be landscape-based. The overlays of semi-opaque paint remind me of the outer wall of forests where you literally can’t see the forest for the trees. But beyond the wall, and behind these overlays, lie worlds of colored secrets, slowly revealed by slowly looking. The more time you spend with them, the more you will discover

Monday, June 09, 2008

Arte Povera, Impoverished Art

Take Your Time, the Olafur Eliasson show at MOMA, has me wondering what people have not been seeing in their daily lives that would have them excited about this exhibition. At the top of the escalator in the third floor corridor, yellow lighting has been installed. The effect of this is to leach color from all viewers and objects, so that everyone and everything appears in shades of grey. It’s a curious phenomenon, but even more curious is the fact that upon entering the normally lit spaces of subsequent installation rooms, though color is returned to their faces and clothing, visitors maintain a zombie-like grey affect, as if their minds have been leached of thought. And no wonder, for there is little in this group of installations to challenge the imagination. A wall of moss is a wall of moss is a look-alike for foam insulation. You can see droplets of fog in beams of light. A rotating prism casts color bands and shadows on the surrounding walls, but leaves the zombie-viewers reduced to striking odd “look-ma” poses, or casting rabbit head shadows with their hands. The brochure accompanying the exhibition announces that “by making bare the artifice of the illusion, Eliasson points to the elliptical relationship between reality, perception, and representation.” Huh? This is Artspeak for take your time reading the text because it won’t take long to figure out that where nature and culture are concerned, there’s just not that much for the viewer to do or see in these galleries.

By contrast, Mario Merz’s single installation on the next floor up, Luoghi senza strada (Places without streets), is a rich metaphorical space that combines an igloo-shaped structure set on a bed of twigs, run through with a neon-lit Fibonacci sequence of numbers. Merz was an artist associated with the arte povera movement of the sixties/seventies, and connections may be made to Eliasson’s use of simple makeshift technical devices. But Merz goes further. Through the juxtaposition of icons drawn from nature and culture simultaneously, he accesses an archetypal world independent of time, and both asks and gets more from the viewer.

Here’s another curious phenomenon: work that’s all about creating a space where the viewer is told to be active, can have the opposite effect of making that viewer passive.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A fetching farmland

Many natural and man-made objects rise to the surface of a Maine field. Rocks are the obvious ones, and at the time that this part of the coast was farmland, rocks were piled in walls along the boundary lines. Even now, rocks continue to surface with every winter frost, and the litter of stones, boulders, and pea sized gravel across my piece of property is a reminder that once this area was a mile under a glacier’s ice. The Drinkwaters, who kept cattle here in the last century, added their used machinery to the rock wall, and in the past year, we have fetched up, for instance, inner tube tires preserving 1920’s air, a still shiny Sterling truck hubcap, a rusted out carjack, and yards of barbed wire. There’s more to come. My neighbor has a wheel and axle set which when turned on end is a dharma wheel waiting for prayer flags.

Each of these products of industry partakes of wabi sabi, that Zen concept of the singular and melancholic in art. The rust, the organic color, the minimal form, are all reminders of the passage of time and the transience of existence. One of my discoveries – and I have no idea what its original purpose was – is a bowl-shaped piece of metal that can be held in the hand. It has the simple elegance of raku pottery. As a form, it asks the viewer to collaborate with its original maker and the processes of the natural world, in re-creating it as a piece of art. Explanations of wabi sabi and postulations on the relocation of art from the viewed object to the collaboration between art and the observer require many words. More pleasure is to be had pondering the fundamentality of a well-worn rock or an all-day every-day hubcap.

Thanks to my html guru, the site feed to the left now does what it's supposed to and will let you know when I'm back online.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Wall Animation

Muto - a wall painted animation by Blu - is graffiti gone nuts. Imagine a drawing that perpetuates itself along the gritty backways and brick walls of a nowhere city. Imagine this drawing executed in repeated washes of grunge white and black lines. The self-perpetuating characters recall high brow videos by William Kentridge along with the lowest brow South Park regurgitations. There were anime influences as well. If I tell you that my all-time favorite comic strip is Little Nemo in Slumberland, you'll understand my fascination for mediums that combine good drawing with few words. In fact this video has sound, but no words. See for yourself on vimeo.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pigs, Squirrels and Street Art

Long time ago when I lived in Louisville, I walked out to the back alley one morning to find “Die Pigs” and other unprintable slogans graffitied on the back of our garage. My reaction was the same as when, also in Louisville, I saw a squirrel strolling along our upstairs hall – Wow, I thought, that’s really cool. Not because I have it in for pigs, but because the visual impact of the graffiti had so much to offer the otherwise plain grey surface that was the garage wall. Graffiti, like squirrels in hallways, can re-locate our expectations either momentarily or permanently. My second thought was, Wait a minute, there’s something wrong here.

Squirrels really do have no business being in houses, but graffiti can be good or not so – bad graffiti being that which is visually unappealing, and good being humorous, well-designed, I saw a lot of really good graffiti in the 70’s while I was traveling by train in Europe, and the Tate Modern, described in the Guardian as “the world’s most popular modern art gallery,” is now hosting a street art exhibition that will use the building’s walls as canvas for spray-painters. Apparently, street art has become very big business in the UK. It’s hugely popular among the public, which nominated the street artist Banksy for the Turner Prize in 2005, but also now among collectors and museums.

If you are among the graffiti-challenged, and prefer to keep your thoughts and doings where they belong, I offer the ZOPP approach to project management, or Zielorientierte Projektplanung, which I discovered by accident while short-cutting the url address for this blog. It’s all yours – have at it, or go out and paint a building.

Monday, May 05, 2008

What We Know About Cows, or Sing One Song

Me being a Kentuckian and all, I guess people might expect me to write about the Kentucky Derby which was Saturday, but I think I’ll write about cows instead. My grandfather was a cattle farmer in Mason County, Kentucky, and still stands proudly by his prize cows, preserved forever in an aged black photo album, the kind with black pages, where the black and white cows are fixed in with black photo corners,.

Right now at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, there is an extraordinary congregation of cows, painted by Lois Dodd. One of those cows will be looking straight at you, its face a plane of clear yellow, a simple plane of earth and endurance, the color of butter. It was Dodd’s painting that got me thinking about what it is about cows that entices artists to choose them as subjects. And that led me to the way cows epitomize unhurriedness. When rushed, they have the same awkwardness as swans forced to walk out of water. Cows have the solidity of boulders in a field – and like boulders, they’re thinking something, but you’re not quite sure what.

A quick Google search for artists and cows turns up a disappointing number of references to projects in which people decorate cows and put them on city streets, but also this directory of cow cartoons where you get a glimpse of what cows think, and this review of paintings by Sharon Yates, another artist who gets the essence of cows.

And then there are the references from The Rig Veda, in part a song praising cows, which makes them god-like. “To me the cows seem Bhaga, they seem Indra, they seem a portion of the first-poured Soma . . . . O cows, ye fatten e’en the worn and wasted, and make the unlovely beautiful to look on.”

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dancing Sardines

Once upon a time time . . . Belfast, Maine was recognized as one of the One Hundred Culturally Cool Towns in the United States. It’s had its downs since then, but thanks to Waterfall Arts, Culturally Cool is back in Belfast. Waterfall’s mission is to make connections between art and nature, which it does with a mix of symposia, lectures, exhibitions and classes. Waterfall also has Dan Beckman, about whom I wrote here in Fluxus Redux on March 25. In his unassuming way, Dan had invited me to “a couple of events we’re putting on.” I didn’t make the first one (and boy, I am sorry now), because Friday night, the second event was excellent. Nature came right in the door in the person of Shana Hanson, a singer and storyteller whose a capella song about planting seeds (which is what she does for a living) was down to earth simple and beguiling. While singing, she kept time with her feet, as if putting the seeds into the earth right then and there.

The evening continued with Max Ascrizzi’s video projected onto a can of live sardines. Well, not really, but since Belfast’s sardine factory shut down only a few years ago, the mental connection is there. What did happen? A dark room, a black plastic backdrop, and six or seven people dressed all in white were the screen onto which Max projected a black and white video abstraction, and since those people in white were moving around in a very confined boxlike arrangement – voila, silvery sardines dancing in their container. Perhaps not what Max had intended, but a stunning visual nonetheless.

And wait, there’s more! Bill Daniel’s film , “a mostly-factual cinematic account of the epic search and unlikely discovery of hoboemia’s most legendary boxcar artist Who is Bozo Texino?” had its East Coast premier at Deitch Projects in New York, and is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Extended and detailed, in the way of Fred Wiseman documentaries. Grand, in the sense that the physical canvas of these United States is grand. The juxtapositions of scale, the close-ups of boxcars and couplings, tiny trains moving through a vast landscape, excellent music and dialogue, kept me riveted the whole time. Makes you wonder how Daniel got some of the footage without getting himself killed. If it comes your way, get on board, or best choice, buy a copy. There’s more here too – don’t miss it.

A note about feed for this blog: the site feed to the left is dysfunctional, and until I get it fixed, you can scroll down to the bottom of the blog for an atom feed.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Exploding Art

In the April 17 Free Press, poet Don Tescher writes “this morning’s poem is yesterday’s prose . . . .” And so it is in blog world, as last week’s events become this week’s blog. On Saturday, I stopped by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, where exhibition and education programming go hand in hand. Poets were engaged in writing poetry inspired by “An Other World,” an exhibition of visionary sculpture and paintings brought together by CMCA’s Curator, Britta Konau. In her talk earlier this month, Britta explained that the show’s title makes it clear that this art presents not just another world (as, say. a group of paintings about Italy would do), but very specific looks into worlds that might exist in some parallel universe. This multiple universe concept is directly tied to Education Director Cathy Melio’s invitation to poets to come to the gallery and present their other world visions.

Upstairs in the Loft Gallery, Jesse Gillespie was at work installing found industrial and utilitarian objects, some of them really big, others more modest but all equally quirky and appealing. On the end wall by the stairs, look for a spray can which apparently exploded in a garbage dump, because its head of foam insulation is embedded with gravel and a rusty nail. At the opposite end is a personable tribe of upright objects. But Jesse will provide no titles, and no labels – so you will be free to let your imagination run amok and possibly come up with poems of your own about artists and poets and bloggers whose heads periodically explode with the ordinariness of daily life.

Jesse’s show The Gleaners and Lois Dodd: Directly Considered downstairs open to the public Saturday, April 26, with a reception Friday, April 25, 5-7 p.m.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bulldozers, toast and coffee

This particular day is beginning with the squeaks and creaks of a bulldozer on its way up my drive to pull some dirt around. Eventually I will have a courtyard of rocks and gravel that will make being outdoors in mud season a lot more pleasant. But generally, my weekdays begin with Douglas McLennon’s artsJournal. This comes to me as an email menu of arts blogs and news articles, organized under the headings of “latest in aj blogs,” “today’s video,,” music, dance, issues, visual, and so on. It’s all there – and though I am a visual artist, I pick and choose from every submenu as the headlines catch my interest.

And as a visual artist, I find it’s no longer just about studio time and painting, though that takes precedence. It’s also about the larger picture (a Freudian slip?) where arts education and arts organizations are linked in community. How can the methods of Project Management be useful to arts organizations? “Is there a better case for the arts” is a particularly well-considered, in depth online discussion about expanding the role of the arts locally and nationally. Here the point is made that to act locally is to stimulate the arts on a larger scale.

In making a better case for the arts, McLennon initially asked “How do we get the public engaged in talking about art? We have to promote the conversations wherever we can.” And that’s why I’m blogging. I would rather begin and end the day with conversation about art in any of its forms and permutations than with another re-hash of the political scene as defined by the next election.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Goth Bling, Cityscapes and Meanders

First Friday in Portland, April 4, found me entranced by a piece of Goth bling in the Maine College of Art BFA Senior Exhibitions. Holly L. Gooch’s “Necklace” most resembles a shed snakeskin, but is actually made of linked maggot casings, caught at each end in a clasp of green gold. The inclusion of green gold was a right choice which set off the ghostlike white of the casings. I imagined what it would be like to wear this necklace, though it must be incredibly fragile, and like Cinderella’s ball gown, crumble to dust at the stroke of midnight.

Across the hall at June Fitzpatrick Gallery, Alison Hildreth’s “Forthrights and Meanders” have the visual impact of oriental scrolls. Each ink and wash drawing is a confluence of rusts, greys and ochers, archaeological tracings of architectural floor plans and roadways populated by scatterings of scorpions, wasps, bees, flies, and skeletal creatures of prehistoric age. The drawings on crumpled paper are pinned to the wall like specimens in a natural history museum. I had the feeling that Hildreth has excavated the thick surfaces of her early paintings to discover mementi of a distant past, in which the beginnings of civilization are waiting to be discovered.

A black and white photograph of Sixth Avenue, New York City, in the “Urban Seen” exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art rotates the vertical format of Hildreth’s drawings into a horizontal cityscape which references human scale and activity against manmade architecture and silent existential space. The relative absence of color in each of these forms – necklace, archeological excavations, urban scene – provides the key to the kingdom of what may have been and what is yet to come.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Bright Common Spikes

Since seeing John Bisbee's show at the Portland Museum of Art last month, I’ve been pondering the nature of artists’ materials and whether they are barrier or boon in providing access to the spiritual. Bisbee works with oversize nails of different lengths, which he refers to as common spikes. It’s true that if you take a spike and scratch a contemporary artist, you’re likely to find traces of Duchamp or Warhol somewhere in there and that these were artists whose work ostensibly negated the spiritual.

But is it the spikes, or the way Bisbee uses them, that encourages the viewer to think spiritual thoughts? His sculptures are variously objective, provide food for the mind, and embody natural forces. Having seen his work before, I had come to the museum expecting to find something of the other-worldly, but it was not until I got back home that I was able to let go of my sense of awe at the extreme physicality of materials and technique, and revel in the multiplicity of patterns which is where, ultimately, the spirituality resides.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Fluxus Redux

For some time now, I've been building momentum to re-enter blogspace, and last night’s happening at Waterfall Arts gave me the push. Though innocently billed as one in a series of monthly lectures that Waterfall, in Belfast, Maine, has offered for the past 4 years, this turned out to be a sixties-style happening, an event in which, to quote the tech man, “form and content merged." The audience was treated to a flow of old videos, readings, songs and magazine stills, backgrounded by an iPhoto slide show that repeated itself through various fades and washes and featured a trio of pink bunnies borrowed from North Carolina prison décor. All of this occurred in fits and starts amid a physical tangle of equipment, wires and stacks of magazines that was an installation in itself.

The presenter of this curiously charming event was Daniel Beckman, a peripatetic artist, musician and people magnet who has landed in Belfast as the Facilities Manager at Waterfall. He is also the Curator of the current show there, titled "Treading Lightly: One Foot at a Time." Two hundred ninety-six artists answered the call for this non-juried exhibition which specified that each work fit into one cubic foot of space. Beckman has ordered the work in a grid structure on the gallery walls, with overflow on cases and stands, a Wunderkammer in which no individual work is given priority. Meaning evolves through looking, and by looking, I came upon the one work that says it all. Wesley Reddick's "Footprint" is a wooden box inside which, by means of the viewer's turning a crank, a footprint appears and disappears in a bed of rice. Ephemeral, Hindi, and very clever. Like the footprint, the exhibition disappears on May 28, so you still have time to walk over and see it.