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.