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.