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.