NOTES ON A THIRD OF THE NIGHT
January 21, 2021
There are twelve paintings and one sculpture in A Third of the Night, my upcoming installation at Baldwin Gallery. The project surges from questions about the immutability and remoteness of the world in the face of human problems, uncertainty, and losses. It is also influenced by reflections on the exilic imagination and its longing for home.
I avoid addressing images, themes, and narratives in the work, preferring instead to speak about the intellectual and emotional context in which it was made. For A Third of the Night, however, I would like to say a few things about what I see in the work, though, knowing how easy it is to limit the experience of the painting with words, I hope my writing will not be understood as definite interpretations or explanations of the work.
These paintings and sculptures seem to point to a charged moment when awareness recognizes that something is happening or about to happen. In a journey, this could be the moment of departure, arrival, or recognition that it is the end, as in the painting, The Night, where the figure glances at the horizon as the boat sinks. Is this a glance of recognition of the situation—the unfinished odyssey—or is it the last look at the world and our projections? Whichever the case—and there are many other possibilities—it is a moment of inflection that opens an insurmountable gap between the before and the after. Similar junctures occur in the still skater in The Jump or the confrontation with the self amid nature in The Mirror.
And who recognizes these inflection points as inflections when they are happening? This question has haunted my life and work for many years, and it and the observer it implies, reappear in A Third of Night as a mirror, moons, stars, and birds—all of them witness, all of them watching. Suggested by this awareness and the discontinuity between the before and the after is the question of innocence and the loss of identity in exchange for another. After the dividing moment, the past, the home, and who we were will be out of reach, even if the new has yet to become or materialize.
This trade is familiar to exiles, who exchange a known reality for a projection created by the imagination. The exilic dream promises that the future will be better than the past. Yet, as it often happens, the arrival at the great future, the utopian home, is continuously postponed. Far off course as exiles always are, we search the sea, look for rainbows at the shore, fear the seduction that will detour us, and place flowers at the tomb of who we were and in the altar of what we hoped to be.
The exhibition title, A Third of Night, comes from the Book of Revelation, 8:12: "The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night." At this point in the scripture, three angels have delivered calamities to the earth. Then it is the turn of the fourth angel to bring darkness—confusion, obscurity, shadowy understandings. Two-thirds of the stars still shine, and it is this visible sky I chose to reference in all the works, an intentional visual consistency that is unusual in my exhibitions. Unlike many painters, I rarely use a repeated motif or reference in my projects, preferring a conceptual, emotional, or philosophical throughline.
When I looked at the stars from the shore of my childhood beach town, questions came up about the world, our place in it, and the connection between all things. Back then, the dome of heaven and its relationship to us was a mystery out of the reach of reason—or, at least, not tamed by reason. Even after studying the universe's extraordinary physics, that dome remained charged with mystery, as well as with metaphysics and ethics. In A Third of the Night, I try to acknowledge that mystery and the tension between the sublime sky's epic scale and the smaller scale of our lives, problems, hopes, and feelings. More than a tension, I see the relationship between the two as friction that shapes our understanding of place, destiny, and identity.
But references like stars, sea, birds, or people should not be understood as separate from the materials and conceptual conditions of painting and sculpture. For instance, the crude representation of mirrors, diamonds, stars, transparency, and light in my paintings acknowledges from the onset the futility of "capturing" the world and suggests the aim of art has something to do with the acceptance of that deficit. The paintings are made with roughly applied thin layers of oil and wax that reveal their gesture and physicality even while pretending to render light or a leaf. In the way the work is approached, the etherealness of references is recognized to be in a battle with the earthliness of materials and action, and whatever truce is achieved in each painting or sculpture will be unstable.
Finally, I want to acknowledge my debt to poetry, which continues to inform the type of experience I want from my work. I read and write poetry not so much for content but to shape the emotional and intellectual ambition of what I am doing. While every poet and writer I have read is in some way relevant, in A Third of the Night, Boris Pasternak, Robert Frost, Czesław Miłosz, Harry Martinson, and Robert Lowell were most influential.
November 9, 2020
[…] if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
Where do we find strength, guidance, and clarity to helps us contend with political and social instability, a runaway pandemic, greed and materialism, an environmental crisis, an overt as well as covert exploitation and cruelty of those we consider different or inferior, and the desperation and addiction afflicting so many individuals and households? An excellent place to start is with those two American thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. The American empire might be waning, but the American literary, philosophical, artistic, and scientific traditions are not to be dismissed, and Emerson and Thoreau are examples of why people have admired these traditions as well as Americans.
The painting above, The Prodigal Son, is based on the cabin at Walden Pond where Thoreau spent over two years. He later recalled his experience in Walden, which included reflections on the choices we make and the importance of thinking of ourselves as part of nature rather than its rulers. Today, many of us are trapped in cycles of acquisition and arrogance while we compromise our intellectual and spiritual ambition and honesty. On the other hand, Thoreau advocated shedding and simplicity but remaining ambitious and honest in our intellectual and spiritual aspirations. In the conclusion of Walden, he writes (feel free to change all those “he” for whatever pronoun seems right to you),
A NOTE ON TRUST
March 17, 2020
Even though trust is an issue for most of us, the question of who and what do we trust sometimes moves from background noise in our interactions to an urgent, existential threat, and in those moments, our life comes to a crystalline stop. The question taps us on the shoulder looking for an answer when we are all talked out or crawls into bed at night to expand our loneliness. It is our mirror when we are cheated on, devalued, or abandoned, and it becomes our misguided co-conspirator when we decide not to be fooled again. Depending on what you are dealing with, the question of who and what do we trust can wait patiently in the corners of life watching our mightiness, our plans, our hopes, our distractions, knowing the time for the ambush will come.
The world now is confused, and fear spreads. The same people who a month ago were feeling invincible or toasting the markets today panic not knowing what the hell is going on. Those who were a month away from homelessness now fear to lose even that small buffer. Institutions and governments seem lost. In the empty supermarket aisles, the veil of civilization that covers the savage in all of us has thinned and frayed. Will you have enough to eat? Is your job safe? Are banks safe? Are you safe?
Who or what do you trust when so many victories begin to feel pyrrhic? Were they victories at all? Who is keeping tally of the casualties? Did the triumphs make you feel virtuous, and now what? Who or what do you trust when the person to whom you showed even your microbial flora re-invents you and describes you as someone you don’t recognize?
THE OTHER LIFE
April 19, 2018
WRITING AND WORDS
Part of me likes consistency and systems, though I am aware that granular observations and examinations of life patterns undermine the illusion of order. Growing up, dislocation and chaos were more familiar to me than order, and maybe that is the reason for its appeal. This conflict between order and the particulars of experience is commonplace; what differs from person to person is the magnitude of the struggle. In his 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, philosopher Isaiah Berlin described this tension in Leo Tolstoy:
This violent contradiction between the data of experience, from which he could not liberate himself, and which, of course, all his life he knew alone to be real, and his deeply metaphysical belief in the existence of a system to which they must belong, whether they appear to do so or not, this conflict between instinctive judgement and theoretical conviction–between his gifts and his opinions–mirrors the unresolved conflict between the reality of the moral life, with its sense of responsibility, joys, sorrows, sense of guilt and sense of achievement–all of which is nevertheless illusion–and the laws which govern everything, although we cannot know more than a negligible portion of them–so that all scientists and historians who say that they do know them and are guided by them are lying and deceiving–but which nevertheless alone are real.1
In my case, the desire for consistency and system-building was, and remains, a tendency of my writings about artistic projects. Behind this tendency is the expectation that each new essay or note should have a relationship to previous ones, particularly in their overarching emotional and philosophical tone. This is why I am surprised by the new work, The Other Life, which wants to carve out its own territory. The Other Life has connections to what I have done before, but its emotional register posits more starkly than before despair, loss, and loneliness against tenderness, redemption, and love. As I consider the paintings in this body of work, I find myself reflecting on inevitability, tragedy, and loss in a way that does not discount hope but places it out of reach—an unavoidable and maybe worrisome narrowness of scope that also affects this writing.
This writing is also influenced—and probably made more convoluted—by my desire to challenge what I think are misunderstandings about my work that often stem from ready-made analyses. One motivation for mounting these challenges is the recognition that for me to be clearer, many of the terms and words I want to use need to be repositioned or reclaimed. Words are clustered with associations that influence their meaning. If I say painting, for instance, the word brings with it ways in which paintings are described and considered; or if I say loss, it is usually assumed that as an immigrant I must be invoking exile. Decoupling associations is difficult, however, so we tend to either ignore their clustering around our words, or avoid words altogether by letting “the work speak for itself.” Since our interpretations rely on comparing what we see and hear with what we know, the success of either approach in serving the work depends on how closely its spirit mirrors the contemporary artistic and intellectual discourse. In the case of my work, current biases towards familiar themes and approaches have had at least two detrimental effects on its being understood: the insistence that my project should be examined with the apparatus constructed around exile; and the assumption that everything is secondary to the narratives suggested by the images.
THEORIES OF EXILE
All too frequently, art people expect to tease out the vagaries of self, loss, identity, and other related concepts with the use of an idiom of equivalence—this means that, this leads to that—which is crude in its insights, and cruder still in its revelation of the dynamics of those insights. In equations of dislocation formulated by whack-a-mole philosophies, nuances are displaced by pamphlet politics, packaged phrases, and international biennial themes. These common art idioms and the spirit underneath them strike me as hubris originated in fear. One of these idioms of equivalence revolves around dynamics of displacement and loss. I have been asked, or told, many times how the loss suggested in my work relates or must relate to my exile, a well-trodden analytical path that seems to propose the foreigner is to be considered mostly, and often only, in relation to his or her national dislocation.
Is that so?
Yesterday I saw a woman with lumps of gray wooden hair sitting outside a McDonald’s asking for money. In early March, I had lunch with an investment banker with shark eyes that he uses to look for something he lost a while back. J’s manicured hands rub his thighs as he talks, and now he sleeps in a separate room from his Mayflower wife. A wilting rock and roller lays on me his Native American borrowings while his spirit flaps mournfully in the wind. The vast nothing has opened within them. Their moral aims have grown vague. Are they exiles? I don’t know about the homeless woman, but the others were born here.
Losses, failures, and near misses, as well as achievements and the efforts behind them, exert their weight and their drag on us. Meaninglessness and fancies worm into our drives, whether we are natives or foreigners. Finding oneself in a strange land leaves an indelible mark, especially if brutality, poverty, or sexual abuse are part of the migration, but the emotional equations are different for everyone. Some experiences are shared, but each exile has his or her own story to tell, which may or may not be more acute than his or her other individual psychological, existential, and domestic conditions. Insisting the foreigner’s equations of loss and gain can be solved with the algebra of a displacement narrative oversimplifies. The price usually paid for accepting conventional dissections of who we are is the invisibility of the existential and psychological dimension of our experience, and thus of ourselves.
Where is divorce in the narrative of exile; by which I mean not a social or legal term, but the lived reality of losing one’s grip on the known life, or of looking at one’s kid lost in his twin bed, wondering what the derailment of a marriage will mean to him? Where is poverty; again, not the statistics compiled and discussed in offices, but the shame and hate for the stray cat who took the only meat to come across your plate in weeks? Where is the embarrassment and aloneness of feeling different, not enough, not counted, and not countable? Where in the intellectual framework of exile can I find the means to capture my neighbor rubbing the head of his dick on the picture of my teacher’s daughter, while I stare at my yellow ducklings he drowned in a mud hole? Where is the jargon of translocation that helps me understand my mother’s longing, or my father’s Jules Verne dreams, or the melancholy of the violent and incestuous barrios in which I grew up?
Why would I accept, then, a formulaic exile harness for my losses and hopes? One common reason for accepting it is to have something to hold on to in the elusive-and mostly doomed-pursuits that are art and life.
I walk to the mirror, and I see that champion of doomed pursuits, Captain Ahab. And then it is hard not to look at all my aims, loves, regrets, and stories as part of a foretold, cursed drive to conquer an unyielding fate. My work, my family, my ideas: harpoons to be lost in the unfathomable depths of nothingness. Standing in a matchstick boat, struggling to wrestle something redemptive from art and life, searching for a part of me lost long ago whose traces will not be found in the merciless teeth of the whale. I look anyway between gums that smell of death.
Courage might mean not heeding Fredrich Nietzsche’s warning,
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.2
Ahab became a monster, and the abyss gazed back into him. Without the moral compass or the civilized limits of Starbuck, and too distant from who he once was, the black-hearted Ahab has only the white monster and the abyss to keep him company, to give his wrath meaning. His wrath against the whale is also a wrath against an absent God, against the meaninglessness of existence; but there, in that crucible of hatred and darkness, meaning emerges in the monomaniacal desire to keep going, to shape a future from nothingness. The vastness of his, and our, isolation is revealed in the loneliness of battles to wrestle life from an impassive universe, which one day will take us into its depths.
The narrative of exile I am interested in is Ahab’s. The unmoored stranger, condemned to loneliness by his distance from all that he was, and enslaved by this freedom to the chase. He is and forever will be embarking until the whale allows him to arrive. The whale is his release. Tragic and, like the whale, scarred, Ahab is not heroic. Nor fragile. All that was fragile about him went with his leg into the boundlessness of Moby-Dick. The delusion of his normalcy amputated, his heart tempered by the loss, and all of his other options scorched by the fiery meaning of his pursuit.
Ahab’s wrath is also towards his inability to be anything but what he is, however hideous, however unknowable. Maybe he longs to be another, one who stays with his wife—”a sweet, resigned girl”—and his child. If it is true, as Peleg says, that blasted as he is, he still has his humanities, then those are a dwelling for another; and that another is there, along with his leg, in his cosmic hatred against the way things turned out and against the universe of wife and child, a universe that is not his. More than a stranger to himself, he is an alien in a world he only infers through his compulsion, a spectral world whose only possibility of embodiment-and only for moment-is in his deadly encounter with Moby-Dick.
Maybe seeing myself in the mirror as Ahab is a fancy. More than captains, artists are pseudonymed narrators performing menial tasks. I am aware of the fuss around art fairs and of the exuberant market trades, and I see the photos of the parties with artists often at the center of the fanfare, but the truth is that artists are only worth a seven hundred and seventy-seventh share of the proceedings. No more. And is the world of the pseudonymed narrators less spectral than Ahab’s? I doubt it. And unlike the captain, for an artist the embodiment of the specter is always postponed by art: the rescuing ship. Here is the end of Moby-Dick,
Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.3
ORPHANS AND LOSSES
In Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Out, Out-’, it is not the jaws of the sperm whale but the saw that maims: more impassive and remote than the Leviathan, and also more arbitrary.
I recognize that leap. I cut my hand with a saw in 2008. Part of living is contending with a growing inventory of loses. It might seem we mourn the leg and the hand, but we mostly miss who we used to be when we thought our parts were intact. Maybe we don’t want to return to all that we were; after all, the past has many blotches of darkness. But if only we could extract the wholeness we imagined we had.
Memory is an unreliable cherry picker of the past.
What is lost is the way back to things, to people. Somewhere everyone is still waiting for our return. Even Ahab’s wife waits for him in a rocking chair, her child on her lap, dressed in linen. Old homes are both burnt, blackened, and reduced and re-imagined transparent, like ice, distorting surroundings with the light bending the power of irretrievable moments. The words of the past are kept in precious silver books no one will open.
I look down when someone speaks to me about the dialectics of displacement or the fragmentation of identity. Conflated concepts intended perhaps to systematize the unsystematizable. The illusion of truth in these matters is not made more factual because an armature of words is put around it. And put armatures around might be all that words can do. The heart of the matter remains out of reach, deep in the dark sea of time. Like the chase in Moby-Dick, the final bounty of clarity, and through it the release of the phantom limbs of the past, remains elusive. Words, especially those with arcane aspirations, are puny harpoons never intended for capturing the vastness of what is left behind.
Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness,
Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of inextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.5
There is something in that riddle for us that does not want to be ignored. And so, despite all I have written so far, we launch in the pursuit of our whale maybe knowing it is delusional and destined for failure. How could we, glorified sardines, expect not to fail at trying to wrestle meaning from a vast, near-eternal, meaningless, and dispassionate universe?
What is in that riddle for us is love.
PAINTING AND LOVE
Art, like all rescue ships, is a shape-shifting ghost whose appearance depends on what we lack and what we long for. Floating in the vast sea, unknown to ourselves and orphaned of purpose, we wait for our rescue, and while waiting, we see the waning sun shatter the rustle of waves. That light reminds me there is something to be rescued despite my heart telling me it is otherwise. Without the false security of a matchstick boat or the blindness of the mad chase, I float in the immense home of the white whale. Its vastness and its impassiveness bring my own vulnerability forth, and its torment and violent thrashing makes clear that the notion of meaning and purpose in this life is human-made.
Painting is one way I create meaning, and it is the main way in which those meanings are compared to the friction between the data of experience and the larger context of Being. Painting mirrors our struggle to find meaning in life, in the aspiration as well as desolation—and often failure—of trying to create or impose meaning in and through means that seem inadequate. Some days painting seems banal: smearing pigment on a surface in a struggle to summon meaning. And on those days it seems, as it is said, a form of production whose significance is connected to codes and contexts. But for the most part, painting is that rare bridge between the mundane, the epic, the past, and the present. The capacity of painting to create meaning depends not on its undeniable conditions as production, object, record of Being, or divine inspiration, but in its simultaneous claim to all of them. This claim is brought to life by the instability between the references in painting and its materiality; or
to put it another way, between what it brings forth as idea, dream, or invocation, and its factual condition as object and reservoir of work. It is that instability I am after in the studio rather than the dumping of biographical stories, formal tricks, and theoretical postulates into the stable vessel that painting is often considered to be.
That instability always has to be found again, in each painting, in a process so mystifying that it usually feels as if I have never painted before. Painting is physical, so this lack of mastery manifests as a limitation of my body and my hands, as well as my heart. The vastness of all that there is and all that paintings can be has to be brought about with the necessarily limited means of the artist. Sometimes I wonder why I should pursue painting, and art in general, when the probability of failure, even doom, is so high.
Sigmund Freud saw the motivation as compensatory. He wrote,
[The artist] is impelled by too powerful instinctive needs. He wants to achieve honor, power, riches, fame and the love of women. But he lacks the means of achieving these satisfactions. So like any other unsatisfied person, he turns away from reality, and transfers all his interests, his libido, too, to the elaboration of his imaginary wishes, all of which might easily point the way to neurosis.6
This view of painting as a turn away from reality seems to me too convinced of what reality is. Painting is not a sublimation of existing desires and dreams, but often the discovery of what these are. As I approach it, meaning in painting does not come from transferring my interest or my imaginary wishes, but from my effort to put them away. Rather than turning away from reality, painting is, simultaneously, an intellectual, emotional, and physical pursuit of what the real might be.
While this simultaneity works for me, experts and non-experts alike often prefer to collapse the multiple spheres in which painting operates to settle its conceptual and emotional agitation. This impulse to decide whether it is fish or mammal is especially forthright when confronted with recognizable images. The experiential tendency toward representational work is to want to “dive in” by ignoring every aspect of the work except for the narrative suggested by the images and their allusions and allegiances. These divers of the deep deploy politics, history, race, gender, and so on to decode, deconstruct, translate, and contextualize. In the process of mining for particulars and dredging far in the search for nuggets that support the divers’ agendas, the ecosystem of the painting is dismantled; and so, the fragile equilibrium that kept those recognizable images alive and in constant evolution with all aspects of the paintings is destroyed. In exchange, the diver rises with a pile of junk less relevant to the world of the painting than to his or her ongoing accumulation of ruins and relics. These ruins and relics are-unlike the ecosystem where they once lived-easy to see and talk about. Everyone has something to say when the complexity of the living has been
reduced to the manageable simplicity of the dead. Who is not able to be a pundit on politics or race or historical influences or cultural and artistic associations?
A surface of paint accepts everyone and everything, but a painting that exists in the world of loss, love, and meaning as something other than an artifact trapped in an epoch is as mad of a pursuit as the whale. The demented spirit that drives any effort to wrest meaning from cotton, oil, and powders is what keeps one of our legs in the Pequod and the other-the good one-in the Rachel, despite the inevitability of failure and demise, and the crop of inextinguishable regrets.
Painting does not exist in an emotional vacuum. Its meaning and purpose, like ours, depends on love. Love doesn’t overcome the fate of the chase or the gaping hole in the middle of things, but it does make the present-this edge of nothingness that is the moment-meaningful. It is not meaningful on the scale of stars or even whales, but making something where there was nothing is redemption nonetheless. It might very well be another rage, another monomaniacal dream, another search for completeness, except that meaning lights the immense darkness in a way that revenge and hatred and compensation do not, and this is enough of a difference. In this light, we can see another life.
THE OTHER LIFE
When our attention is on the undeniably concrete aspects of our life that revolve around matter, insisting on its thingness, as well as around social conventions, electric bills, and animal needs, the canopy of stars above us, with all its immensity and fantastic physics, seems to have nothing to do with us. We trust the tangible even though our judgment of tangibility depends on faulty intuitions. But the more we consider what we initially judged as concrete, the more we sense secrets rumbling under the surface, and then life recovers the mystery and the immensity of the stars above. At the heart of its mystery and immensity is the enigma of life’s singularity, which brings about many questions. Is this moment the way it had to be? What if things are not what I think they are? What would another life be? This last question, which ultimately includes the other two, is the one I have been thinking about for a while.
The other life is nowhere and everywhere. It glows in the crack between things, and it is also the firmament against which we navigate our life. It is a premonition, a promise, a denial, and an archaic ruin irretrievably in the past. It is letters that were never sent, the hands of the old woman who caresses her pillow, the scar tissue where the limb was lost.
What is Ahab’s other life and what is mine? Maybe there are an infinite number of them, each split from ours at some point, in the way a branch divides itself from the trunk. Sometimes it seems that what we are is not only our life, so unknown in itself, but the sum of all these branching, uncharted lives that emerged from the choices we didn’t make, the doors we didn’t see, the other things that could have happened if the conditions would have been different. Each moment is full of possibilities, a bit of will, and a lot of randomness that decides the course of actions, and also what will lay dormant and what will not. We move forward, sensing a similar movement in parallel lives originated from all the unexplored possibilities.
I go to those choices, those events, and those images in which the other lives reveal themselves: sometimes disruptions in the everyday, sometimes as mounting consequences about to shatter orders we value. I dwell on those moments that are aftermaths of some unknown step. I see them not with longing or with melancholy, but with resignation, and wonder towards a world I find increasingly mysterious. Perhaps Conrad is right: the most we can hope from life is some knowledge of ourselves—that comes too late. A crop of unextinguishable regrets; but even when the knowledge of ourselves is postponed, and regrets mount, the other life refuses to be banished. It exerts a force on the present, reorganizes and disrupts. The other life surprises us in the wilderness with the image of what we were or could have been.
A long-forgotten dog fetches an apple basket, and we ask, “Why did you fetch that? I was trying to forget it.” But we know he fetched it because the other life is in that basket. That basket of apples glows with the alluring and dangerous red of ripeness that brings us back to the old kitchen table, and also to that first garden to which we can never return. Another basket, one of pine cones, remnants of the forest in which we dwelled, offers us echoes of the garden again. Pine cones still in embers are the memories of where we were, and a basket of them is the uncomfortable and unstable marriage of nature—chaotic, random, and impassive—and our need for order.
Nature’s exuberance exalts and clarifies, but it also overwhelms plans and paths. Like Ahab, we will lose all that we value in the unfathomable depths of nothingness, but, perhaps, we can slow our monomaniacal pursuit by recognizing the richness of the present. Maybe the other life is of aims we give ourselves to wrest meaning from a meaningless and aimless universe, but whether we are destined to pyrrhic victories or real ones (what are they?), the recognition of ourselves in the chase and as the chase may redeem the whole pursuit. Chasing the whales of adulthood or the hares of childhood will mark us in ways that will never allow us to be the same again. The markings left by the trajectory of our aims are the history-scars that remind us that however arbitrary our hopes and aspirations have been, we are them.1 Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953).
August 14, 2017
The morning he was going to match with her, Milton was in his garage working on a mahogany chair. Woodworking had been his middle age discovery, and he had come to need the mystery of wood, the experience of making something tangible with his hands, and the manliness of silent, attentive work. He had known for years he would eventually do more than move paper and money around, but it wasn't until Victoria left and his daughters went to college that he set up the shop and devoted most of his free time to making furniture.
The other thing he did with his time was online dating which started as an amusement but evolved into an obsession. So, when he finished turning the last leg, he sat on the stool by the lathe, grabbed his phone and went, as he has been going almost every hour for the past several months, to the dating site. The first four or five swipes were the usual middle-aged women who like to travel and dine, but then he found her, and he looked at the screen for a while without moving his fingers. She had very white skin, was wearing a black lace choker, and smiled without showing her teeth. Her brown eyes were friendly and bright, and the sandy blonde hair falling over her shoulders looked soft. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen someone so freshly beautiful. He flipped through her other pictures, saw glimpses of her life, and although she was less than half his age, he imagined what it would be like to be with her. He swiped right instinctively but without hope and placed his phone on the bench. He got up to compare the similarity between the four legs of his mahogany chair, and he had only made to the third one when the phone pinged. Normally he would have waited to finish his work, but that time he walked back right away, unlocked the phone, and looked at his matches. There she was. He recognized her even in the little thumbnail, and he was happy.
She sent him a text right away, something that had never happened to him before. The conversation began with banter about their age difference and he made a comment about her eyes which he had learned was always safe but intimate. Things moved quickly from there, and in less than 20 minutes the conversation had become sexual. He felt confident, smooth, and she was encouraging him with emojis and compliments. That night she sent him naked pictures, asked him what he would like to do to her, and he got caught in her storm. The plan they forged over a fiery exchange was for her to come over the following night at eight.
In the morning, Milton woke up excited, walked to the bathroom, and looked at himself in the mirror. He felt good, strong, but wondered if she would notice the flabby arms and the deflated chest? Many women, though, including young ones, would give him second looks. That afternoon he went to the supermarket to buy flowers and wine and spent the rest of the day preparing for the visit. He put candles in his bedroom, hid condoms in the top drawer of his nightstand, and vacuumed the carpet. He cleaned the kitchen countertops and the toilets, and was doing push-ups in the living room when she sent him a picture of her crotch. At seven he showered remembering to spray cologne in the right places, at seven thirty he lit the candles, and at quarter to eight, he sat on the couch with a glass of wine, so that when she arrived, he would seem at ease. He sent her the first text at eight fifteen and the last one at nine, and he waited until ten to realize she wasn't coming. When he knew he had been played, he went to the garage and worked on his chair, and he kept working until tiredness made the lathe work dangerous.
August 1, 2017
On a recent flight I sat next to a man who was reading The Cardinal of the Kremlin. During dinner he told me I should read it. I asked him why and he said it had a great plot. He also told me he had read almost all of Clancy's books. I asked him if he ever felt differently about himself after reading one of them. He looked at me for moment then he said, "that's not why I read." That was the end of our conversation.
In 1904 Franz Kafka wrote to Oskar Pollak, "If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?" and later on he added, "we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."
April 13, 2017
Earlier this week I was a Visiting Artist at the Vermont Studio Center, where I spent three days having individual half-an-hour meetings with 34 artists. At dinner, people would ask me if I was tired of talking and I said I was all right.
It was not the talking that got me, but the feelings stirring in each of those rooms. However unknown to him- or herself, each artist is a world, and there are only so many hopes, possibilities, misunderstandings, efforts, surrenders, and plans, one can be acquainted with before they make their way in. Sometimes to rest I would look through the window at the river or the trees. What is the thing that makes people spend their days alone in a studio doubting themselves or making transactions with their limitations and their history? Is it the occasional reward? The (supposed) freedom? The sense there has to be something more? Is it truth or some internal darkness? When I hear technology prophets say robots will eventually be able to do everything humans do, including making great works of art, I wonder how many of these AI-savants would choose to be artists.
INTERVIEW WITH MYSELF
February 20, 2017
Question: What shape does this new body of work take?
Answer: This body of work is all paintings, though I expect to make a sculpture and a few works on paper in the next few months. A couple of the paintings are large, but many of them are mid- or small-format.
Q: Aren't these smaller formats unusual for you?
A: Yes. I am interested in presence and reference in painting and the right equilibrium between presence and reference is easier for me to achieve in the large pieces. This difficulty is why I only manage to make a few small paintings, but also why I keep trying to make them.
Q: How long have you been working on this body of work?
A: Some of the paintings were started more than two years ago. My process depends on the evolution of individual works as well as the movement of the entire series, including the writings and the intellectual structure that provides their framework.
Q: You speak often about the intellectual structure of the work and you also talk about ideological influences, why are these concerns important?
A: Understanding the workings of the experience of art, which is related to the intellectual and emotional structures as well as to the ideological influences, is central to what I am trying to do, and that experience is inseparable from the references or images, which is what people usually prefer to discuss.
Q: Do you think people appreciate hearing about the intellectual structure of the work and ideological influences or do you think they are more interested in what the work is about?
A: Some people are interested in the intellectual structure and ideological influences. I certainly am, and I usually admire artists not because what their work is about but because of the stance they take towards their work, which is related to structure and ideology.
When people ask what the work is about, it is usually because of habit and because it is uncomfortable to stand in front of a painting or sculpture without some point of entry. Both habit and discomfort are exacerbated when the work includes figures, landscapes, and texts as my work does. The immediate reaction is to think those recognizable images must be telling a story. I don’t think the same people who ask me what my work is about would be doing it as readily if the paintings looked like Brice Marden’s or Sigmar Polke’s.
Q: You must understand why that is the case. Your work suggests narratives, even if they only fragments or traces of narrative, and they are also mysterious and seem to hold secrets. There are also aspects of the work that seem biographical. So it makes sense that people want to know the source of this imagery and how it influences what the work is about.
A: I understand the impulse. What I am trying to say is that considerations about the referential elements of the work—the figures or the landscapes, for instance—should also account also for the way these references come to be in the total experience of the work.
That being said, I don’t think of my work as being about something but as being something, and this is an important distinction. Art offers a confrontation that in the best case brings forth revelations. These revelations are not riddles or stories to be figured out. They are transformations not unlike religious experiences. No one asks what a religious experience is about. Instead, what people are interested in is how a religious experience comes about. They want to know what the mechanisms are, the state of mind, the devotion, and so on, that facilitate such an experience. Every believer seems to get that the mysterious narrative of the images and the stories in the Bible, for example, are not the end or even the beginning of religious experience.
Q: But imagery and narrative matters, otherwise you would be making abstract paintings or something else.
A: Yes, images matter because they point to the world and provide entry into places I cannot get into without them. The image of a boy or a jewel or a path brings in the world to interact with everything else the painting is. These references exist in the particular situation of the paintings, so it is misleading to speak of images disembodied from their life in the painting or sculpture.
Q: Do you consider your paintings allegorical or symbolic?
A: I don’t. There are preoccupations or themes as well as metaphors in each body of work, but they don’t assemble themselves into allegories. I don’t want my paintings to be pointers to something else as it is the case in allegory. Also, the story allegorical paintings construct convey something already known to the artist and the only thing I actually know about my paintings is a disquiet within me that leads me to search for something. I consider a painting finished not when I find that something but when the mystery that motivated me glows brightly.
Q: You mentioned preoccupations or themes. Do you think there is a theme to this body of work?
A: My work for the last decade or so has touched on paired themes more than individual ones. Loss and redemption. Doubt and resilience. Regret and promise. So these and other paired themes are still present in the work, both, in the imagery and in the very way the paintings are approached. This new body of work has many references to unfinished or abandoned projects and also to gains, though these gains often seem questionable and occasionally empty.
Q: In a recent body of work called Empires some of the themes revolved about ambition and projection. Now you are talking about abandoned projects. Is this new body of work a reaction to those earlier ambitions?
A: In a way, yes. Even though there were many reservations and many warnings under the ambition of Empires, there is a new level of recognition that comes when those warnings have become outcomes rather than possibilities: Stairs abandoned in fields; snow globes as souvenirs of someplace else or some other time; tattoos that historicize the body; a glass house lost in a cluster of firs; apples frozen and rotting in the tree; the underlying structure of columns left unfinished. However, just like the ambitions of Empires included the seed of loss and regret, the abandonment and failure of the aftermath of that venture contain the seed of possibility and rebirth.
Q: The trees in your work make me think of these seeds of possibility and rebirth. Like other series in the past this new body of work has many references to trees—firs, apple, sea grapes. Why are they important in your work?
A: In the paintings trees point to being alive and thus to consciousness, and in their separation from the human they are also, both, the setting, as in the forest, for example, as well as The Other. I also appreciate the dignity of trees, their silence, and their endurance.
Q: There is dignity in their verticality and verticality is also in the steel columns that appear in the new paintings. I was surprised to see man-made constructions, including very specific reference such as the footings. I have not seen references like these in your work before.
A: It is something new. They surprised me too. Unfinished—maybe permanently unfinished—columns and the drawing quality of twisted steel are interesting to me in part because they suggest power, resolve, plans and hope, and also because in their unfinished state, with the re-bar rusting, they intimate of abandonment and decay.
Q: Is there also a reference to shelter?
A: Yes, and not only shelter but the part of the structure that keeps the shelter up.
Q: To what extent is your concern with shelter related to your life as an exile, which is an idea that has been used by many writers in regards to your work?
A: Shelter and home have been important ideas for me, and the reason for that importance has to do in part with the lack of belonging that comes with migration and exile. In some ways an exile is always a wanderer and in that wandering which is often so exposed and exposing shelter becomes chimerical, like a unicorn of sorts. However, the problem with the exile narrative is, one the one hand, that it generalizes the experience of losing one’s country as if all exiles experience that loss in a similar way, and on the other hand, the narrative of exile assumes the most defining loss or concern in one’s life is losing one’s country. In my case, for instance, the restlessness of my childhood home, the dynamic of my parents, my early concern with existing in a world without god, and the isolation of my younger years, have been significantly more defining of who I am as a man and as an artist than the loss of a country I barely knew. Of course, like many immigrants, I lived, and probably still live, in the web of stories of the lost world that was spun around me growing up. Life in that web festers melancholia, regret and disenchantment, so much of what I do in regards to exile is to insist on the present. Exiles are averse to the present. They are also too familiar with the cycle of ambition and loss.
Q: Is there a way to transcend this cycle of ambition and loss?
A: This is one of the questions that animates my work.
Q: Animates to what end? What are you after?
A: I try to make sense of the world by working. Art can reveal truths that life usually keeps to itself, and art does this not by translating the world into images or texts or symbols or theories, but by shocking consciousness into a deeper recognition than the relatively dull awareness with which we experience our lives. So what I am after is an experience that shocks me into wakefulness.
Q: Do you feel you are communicating what you want to communicate?
A: One could chose to describe the exchange between artist and viewer as communication, but communication is not how I think of the experience of my work, so my approach emphasizes other factors other than the effective delivery of “a message.” My work is an inquiry first—an inquiry into what things are, into what I think or thought they were, into time, into transcendence, into values, into identity, and so on. Since it is an inquiry first, my main preoccupation is to make this inquiry as deep and as honest as I can, so in a sense my approach shares something with religion without being religious and something with science without pretending objectivity.
Q: I understand why you might want to pursue an inquiry that matters to you, but why should your inquiry matter to someone else?
A: I am not the only one who is asking questions about the choices we make, about who we are after who we thought we were is no longer, about our relationship with time and what is, about our identity and what we perceive as otherness, about our plans and our failures. I think these questions have been around for a long time and they matter to many of us. There are always new ways to consider them, so the work is never done. Also, the way the questions come up is different now than they were for Aristotle or for Rembrandt, so the inquiry and the answers revealed through this inquiry take new forms.
Q: How does that inquiry need the image of a boy or of stairs?
A: In a general sense, the inquiry does not need any specific elements, but as that inquiry manifests in my life in particular, my questions invoke a boy, and not just a boy, but a boy alluded to by smeared paint, crudely articulated, connected in some manner—in some manner that is almost always a question in itself—to who I am but also to who I left behind and to that Other I don’t recognize. Nothing in my paintings is accidental or arbitrary, but their justifications—if you want to think about it that way—is not something I am interested in commenting about because anything I say misrepresents or limits the work.
Q: Could this inquiry exist only in words? As a poem, for example.
A: A version of this inquiry could exist as a poem, but it wouldn’t be my inquiry. My own needs visual elements as well as words. My writing alone—or my artwork alone, for that matter—cannot do the job.
Q: Text has always been part of your visual work, but it is very present in this new body of work. Why?
A: I have been writing and erasing text in my paintings and sculptures for a long time. In ways I cannot fully articulate yet, I have been thinking of my paintings as poems for some time. Let me try to explain what I mean. While there are many historical artists I admire, when the conversation shifts to recent or contemporary people who I am thinking about or whose project I respect, I find myself thinking of writers, and more often than not, poets. This literary context provides a framework for what I am doing.
In addition to this framework, for me the relationship between the parts of an exhibition or between the elements in an artwork is poetic. I don’t mean poetic as in flowery or distilled, but rather that it is an effort to discover truth in the resonance of an embodied image, its treatment and appearance, and in the metaphor brought forth by the juxtaposition of sometimes disparate references. The real power of a poem comes not from the right words or the right rhythm, but from moral and spiritual certitude that binds the poem together. In a visual work the binding has a lot to do with the equilibrium between presence and reference I mentioned before.
Q: So tell me more about this equilibrium between presence and reference. Is presence the same what is sometimes called "physicality?"
A: I think physicality is the recognition that something other than concept or formalism is involved in our experience of an artwork, but it is not the complete story. What I mean by presence points also at the tension between aims and means—for instance, between paint and illusion—as well as the tension between the mental projections suggested by the work and where one is, which has something to do with consciousness. Authenticity in the work of art is related to the equilibrium of these tensions.
Q: Is that equilibrium an esoteric philosophical idea you are thinking about or something practical you are addressing in the studio?
A: It is true that equilibrium between presence and reference is seldom discussed unless it is within the context of, say, minimalism, but there is nothing esoteric about it. It is practical. Most of my studio time is spent wrestling with this equilibrium, which by necessity is always unstable: a small movement one way or the other destroys this equilibrium. This instability is how things ought to be if one is not making inert or predictable paintings. Much has been said about shape and content, but it is a relatively trivial—and most often false—opposition that does very little to explain the power of artworks. In contrast, the energy generated by the tension between presence and reference is responsible for most of what happens in painting and a great deal of what happens in sculpture and installation.
Q: Can you provide me with some examples of how we find this tension at play?
A: You find it in the way the painting depicts something while the material threatens that depiction. Paint asserts itself at the expense of the depicted. The scene is rendered and then threatened by the refusal of the material to subordinate itself to the illusion. The conviction of the scenes is put into question by the way the paint doesn’t reach the edges, for example. This quality of the edges also problematizes the “framing” of the world suggested by the paintings—my paintings are not windows to a world but all that there is.
Q: How do you achieve that tension?
A: I might initially paint a tree, for example, but then I will rework it searching for a true tree, not in the sense of being an accurate representation or a sharp pointer to what a tree is, but rather trying to find the most authentic experience that reconciles the reference to the tree and its appearance in a particular painting, with a particular scale, with a particular material quality, in the context of a particular universe of references and conditions offered by a very specific painting.
Q: So the tree is a very specific instance.
A: There is no tree. There is only a reference to a tree emerging from a unique circumstance. Truth sparks when there is a strong enough collision between the many references—the tree brings many other allusions in tow—and their presence in the painting. To ask, “what does the tree represent?” is to invite superficial analyses, unless one is ready to speak about a very specific embodiment that accounts for everything happening at once in the painting. Few people ever ask, “Why did you paint the tree this way in this specific painting?” but it is along this line that the values of the painting and the mind of the artist can best be understood.
Q: Are we talking about style? In other words, is this specificity, this connection between the references and the way they exist in the artwork, style?
A: I don’t think it is the same thing. Style exists before the artist takes on a new work. The works of Max Beckman, Elizabeth Peyton or Neo Rauch have a style. We sort of know what their next work will look like. It is harder to say what the next work by Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp or Francis Picabia will look like, though we can recognize their sensibilities and minds running through their different pieces. In my case, every painting is an instance, which is why my paintings as well as my sculptures can look very different from one another. Many aspects of the works are shared and I am a similar person every time, nonetheless, each new work is unique in its references, scale, and moment, so it would have to be approached with fresh eyes and with an open mind. Nothing can be decided beforehand. Authenticity is connected to the artist’s willingness to be in front of a new work as if considering art for the first time. There should not be a “look” to the work or a branding style.
Q: How do I know if I am in front of a painting that is authentic?
A: It is a recognition. How do you know you are in front of an authentic person? What signals do you look for? When we are speaking of an abstract situation it is very difficult to define or even describe a criterion for judgment, but it is not very difficult to sense authenticity when a specific person is addressing you, and our belief in his or her authenticity has little to do with what is being said.
The distinction I am trying to make is in a way analogous to what happens when we listen to a radio interview. Sometimes you hear someone who sounds informed, who says all the right things, and yet there is something in the cadence of the words and the voice that does not convince us. What are we perceiving? I think we are perceiving authenticity—the depth of connection between the words said and the person who said them. Frequently, we are moved, even transformed, by someone who seems to be saying something very simple and uncomplicated because we perceive a very deep and authentic well from which the words are springing. For better or for worse, words—especially spoken words—are always more than information about a topic. What is said is never just what is said. How and why it is said are present for the right listener, and sometimes the why and the how are more important than the what.
In my work the why and the how exist in the equilibrium between presence and reference, which is why speaking about this equilibrium matters, and it is—unlike many other aspects of the work—something one can actually talk about without making a mess of things.
Q: What kind of mess are you referring to?
A: In art, like in poetry, a great deal of damage can be done by talking about things that don’t lend themselves to words. The best way to address these is to go around them, to encircle them, until we get close enough to sense what might be there. Humility and patience are useful in this task and vigilance helps avoid the philosophical and artistic confusion introduced by the desire to explain. Often it is seemingly harmless explanations such as the “meaning of images or stories” that are the most dangerous.
Q: How are they dangerous?
A: In part because superficial or misguided explanations offer a false comfort—the comfort of thinking one knows what is going on when it is frequently not the case, and in part because they limit the work or hide it under a cloud of “signification.” This is the case even—or especially—when the explanations are highfalutin. It is easy to weave impressive sounding political or personal narratives whose main purpose is to make the interlocutors feel good about themselves, but whose consequence is either the propping of mediocre work or the obscuring of good works of art. If an artwork is more than an illustration or a pastiche, many of its more meaningful aspects resist translation or require very subtle—and sometimes very complicated—explanations.
Q: Let’s go back to the cycle of ambition and loss. To what extent is this cycle and your related desire of wanting the work to be authentic a consequence of having grown up in a Latin Catholic environment?
A: Surely there is an influence. Christianity, and especially Spanish Catholicism, insists on cycles of loss and redemption where transcendence comes by full immersion in or acceptance of the loss rather than by avoidance. Value is placed on authenticity and lack of authenticity is understood as a moral failing as well as a pointer to more profound deficiencies. There might also be a connection between my interest in specificity and presence and the traditions of saints and relics, which suggest that sacred materials are channels to revelations or miracles. Santería, a syncretic religion that was all around me when I was a kid in the Caribbean, also believes on the power of relics and on the capacity of matter to mediate the divine.
Q: But you think of your work as secular. Do you think of it as metaphysical?
A: Yes, the aims of my work are not religious, but I don’t know how art could simultaneously claim to unconceal certain truths through paint or dirt or bronze and not accept that such a claim is metaphysical. The line, however, between physics and metaphysics is not as clear as many people assume.
Q: Is the metaphysical quality of the work generated or alluded to by the images or by the object itself as it is the case in a relic?
A: A successful artwork dissolves that distinction: Its inner workings don’t announce themselves, presence and reference exist in an unstable equilibrium, text and images vibrate together. Unfortunately, paintings and sculptures with recognizable images, as opposed to those obviously conceptual or non-figurative, encourage people to expect the decoding of symbols and this desire for interpretation stifles other ways the work can be engaged. These symbols and the stories they weave represent an aspect of the work, but we cannot forget it is an aspect that cannot be separated from the experience of being in front of the work. People are often surprised how my work feels in person, which is different than how it seems in pictures. In real life it is, among other things, less narrative, more elusive, less rendered, and more physical.
THE PLENTIFUL SOURCE
October 31, 2016
Here is Acquainted with the Night, a Robert Frost poem I keep coming back to.I have been one acquainted with the night.
THE CASE FOR NOT ANSWERING A CALL
October 28, 2016
I kept time by watching the candle's reflection bounce through the amber liquid in the small thick glass while the jukebox followed George Jones's She Thinks I Still Care with Lefty Frizzel's Long Black Veil. Jones seemed far away and Frizzel farther still. Good distances for Wild Turkey. Thomas, like always, was drinking water. We were both quiet, mostly passing time in our heads. Then Bob Dylan's Shooting Star came on.
What do you think? he said.
About what? I asked.
About the prize.
He's good. Great probably, but literature is something else, isn't it? I said still looking at my glass. As if he was listening, the Dylan in the jukebox asked if he became what we wanted him to be.
Maybe this is what poetry is, Thomas said and we didn't say another word for five or six songs.
I hope he never answers the Swedes, I said as we were walking towards the door.
Me too, Thomas said.
The sentimental jukebox was saying goodbye with Ray Price's For the Good Times. Through the window I could see it was raining and neither of us was ready.
THE COLLECTOR (Not the John Fowles novel)
May 10, 2016
On a day like any other this happened.
Has long has it been? Two weeks? asked the collector.
A month. You are too busy for us, said the director putting his arm over the shoulders of the collector. They walked like that, like two soccer players after winning a match, through the galleries and into the pavilion. The director waited for the sound of the airplane to pass.
Well? he asked.
It was big. Bigger than the collector had expected and spectacular in full sun against the white wall of the museum.
Wow, he said.
Isn't it great? Wait until you see it lit up tomorrow night.
Well done, Paul.
It was you who made it happen.
I'm glad I could help. It's fantastic. It looks better than in Venice.
The collector turned his head pretending to take in the site. He wondered if it was time to speak about the board. After a while, he returned his attention to the sculpture and kept his gaze on the thing until it seemed right to announce he had to go.
The director offered his right hand, touched the side of the collector's forearm with his left, and said, Dean, thank you for making the time. I'll see you tomorrow night. Tell Sandra that Katherine is coming.
The director went back into the building and the collector took the stone path. Inside the parking structure the sound of his wooden heels became louder. He stopped in front of his car and watched the convertible top lift and disappear. He sat on the red bucket seat, put the invitation in the glove compartment, and fixed his hair in the rear view mirror. Something like fear crossed his face, but he didn't see it.
HEART, HEMINGWAY AND THE ICEBERG
May 8, 2016
I have met many admirers of Ernest Hemingway. Some fish. Some go to Key West or to Cuba. Some write in short declarative sentences. For the most part, they are caricatures. Their inner dimension—like mine—is not large enough to make anything enduring of their admiration. That inner dimension is what another age might have called soul or heart. Maybe we are born with some of that. The rest is hammered by contending with loneliness, by thinking and seeing as intensely as possible, by looking at the fuck ups and the losses and the near misses without averting the eyes, by knowing when we lie and what we stand for, and by not losing track of the ground. Style, accommodations, and cleverness, cannot replace the substance that is not there. Hemingway said that writers should only show 1/8 of what he or she knows, but for that to mean anything, the writer needs to know—and the writing hold the secret of—the other 7/8. The draft of the unseen is what distinguishes the aplomb of an iceberg from the quiver of a lump of foam.
A CONVERSATION ABOUT THE PORTRAITS
April 13, 2016
Ben Tufnell: I presume you work from photos and other archive images but do you have the original sources alongside the paintings as you work? Or is there a degree of deliberate "detachment" to allow other considerations (for example, memory) to enter the work, alongside the necessity of capturing a likeness? I was struck on my last visit that there was no source material in evidence in the work space.
Enrique Martínez Celaya: For some elements in the paintings I use photographs, sketches, and notes, as references, but I abandon these sources when the portraits have been blocked-in. From there I continue the painting from memory to avoid enslaving it to an existing image or a likeness, and also to consider the painting as a painting.
BT: Have you "curated" the selection for the show along visual/aesthetic lines or more on the basis of possible connections and relationships between subjects—and for what that might say about the author of the overall project (i.e. you)?
EMC: I have tried to do both. The subjects in the paintings come from culture rather than politics or business, and all them are or were outsiders, never quite comfortable in the center. I am also interested in the exploration of representation, the consideration of the loving and dissolving power of the acquisitive gaze, the mutability as well as the stability of identity, and the boundaries of the cult of celebrity.
BT: Is it a deliberate position (of course it is!) that you've included so many musicians in our show?
EMC: In this body of work I take on subjects who are known by many people and for whom the idolatrous portrait may be a commonplace occurrence, such as a pop star. The perceived greatness of a pop star has as much to do with our own projection manipulated by the machinery of propaganda as it does with what might actually "be there." Although, this elusiveness of identity seems especially clear in a rock star, one reason why it is worth further consideration is because some degree of elusiveness is an aspect of all identities, including our own. Sometimes elusiveness and identity are indistinguishable and at those moments we become precisely the unplaceable, the unamenable.
Another reason to represent pop stars is because the scent of idolatry or fan club that rises from the painting suggests something like kitsch. This suggestion comes about in part from the expectation that we know the rules and the framework of a portrait of, say, Freddie Mercury. The experience then becomes known before the work is seen, and once "known"—once categorized in our minds—it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see anything but what we expect to see. Although perhaps counterintuitive, I find this dynamic to be an effective way to unearth the possibility of authenticity.
BT: Meaning. The subjects are mainly 'creative' individuals. Where is the focus of your interest in them, in their biographies or in their creative work and how that has affected you? For example, when we discussed Freddie, you spoke of his 'outsiderness', his journey into a kind of exile and to self-realisation, and I presume it is that idea that drives the painting rather than your relationship with his music. But perhaps I'm wrong, or it is in fact both?....
EMC: More than a portrait, each of these paintings is an encounter with an inner condition, which I interpret or invent by merging aspects of the subjects biography, their work, what they look like, what that look suggests, their moment in time, and so on.
The subjects are people whose work I admire. They are also people whose charge or power seems inseparable from the charge or power of their work. In them, life and work seemed indistinguishable, and thus a moral position emerges from that continuity between the biography and the work. As I see them, their work is the way they came or come to terms with the world and it also a way—often the way—to endure or assuage loneliness. In part, I admire them and their work because they make my own life more bearable.
BT: The inclusion of Higgs seems like a pointer back to your previous work as a scientist. Forgive my ignorance but was/is Higgs active in 'your' field?
EMC: I knew of Higgs when I was a physicist, but his work was not really touched on in what I did day to day. In part, I am interested in Higgs because he and his work make explicit what is implicit in most of what we do. Namely that creating a theory, an artwork, a poem, or a song, in addition to being a way to understand the world, is also an act of faith, of believing that the work means something, that someone else will connect with it, that it is true even if no one believes it is. I chose to paint Higgs as he looked the year I was born which was also the year he predicted the existence of the boson that is named after him. For years no one took him seriously and he had to wait five decades to see his predictions confirmed.
April 12, 2016
Thomas and I were stopped at the light where Imperial Highway meets Vista del Mar trying to decide whether to drive towards the sea or towards the ghost town, but before we could make up our minds someone knocked on my window. I wasn't startled—my nerves have lost some of their spring—but I was surprised to find anyone on foot around there, especially someone dressed as Superman. He was looking for money.
Sometimes I miss the Sandwich Man and the Russian rancher, I said to Thomas as we drove away.
Near El Segundo I saw a movie billboard advertising a battle between Batman and Superman. Less than a mile later, another billboard announced a civil war featuring Captain America.
Is it a coincidence there are two different movies about superheroes battling each other? I said.
We are trying to explain why we are not where we imagine we would be, Thomas said.
Dreams of superheroes make me think of Joey. Did I ever tell you about him?
I don't think so.
Joey likes to pad his crotch, especially when he goes to art fairs. Last month, I saw him talking to a curator at the Anton Kern booth, but the curator could barely pay attention. It was either the padding or the shirt bunching up below the belt, the case is that things looked off, but Joey was standing there as if he was on fire.
It is all heartbreak, Thomas said.
February 26, 2016
I started working on a trilogy of environments where portraits will be installed in relation to paintings of semi-permanent aspects of experience, such as sea, sky, and land. The portraits, based on real people, will be presented without identification or reference to the subject's biography, and often without obvious relation to the paintings of nature against which the portraits are juxtaposed. Using different formats in painting as well as sculpture, this body of work will touch on recognition, legacy, memory, and absence, as well as the capacity of art to affect us, often precisely as a consequence of its failures. Seen in relation to paintings of the sea, sky, and land, these portraits seem to invite reflection on the subjectivity governing inner life and also in how it is intertwined with, and often not distinguishable from, objective reality and a universe of rules and biology.
If one looks at a portrait long enough, the initial observation, "here he or she is," frequently gives way to the question, "who is that?" which in turn evolves into the question, "who am I?" and searching for answers we are likely to begin the rotation of questions again. These questions and rotations do not come about in a vacuum, but rather exist in what can be described as a force field generated by tensions between self and other, subjective experience and objective reality, memory and fact, and the temporary and the permanent. This force field is part of the reason why the tradition of portraiture expects a portrait to offer more than just a semblance of its subject, and why the work of art is often seen as a commemoration as well as an affirmation of having lived for both the subject and the artist. Without abandoning that tradition, these portraits also acknowledge there is something absurd in the expectation that paint dabbed on canvas, unconvincing renderings, and materiality, can reveal much beyond an appearance distorted by our filters and delusions. And so, when we experience the portraits we are left to sift through marks, suggestions, and allusions to construct not only the identity of the represented, but also to overcome doubts of whether or not we as well as the subject have existed.
COURAGE AND DESPERATION
November 24, 2015
At a moment like ours, when choices tend to be made based on convenience and motivations are drained of idealism, it might be pointless to write about courage and desperation, so I will keep this short.
When I was leaving physics at the age of 25 to become an artist many people told me I was courageous. What they usually meant was that they thought I was a fool for doing it. After all, I had a good record as a physicist and not much to show as an artist, other than naive ideas and a group of unresolved paintings. I accepted their equivocal compliments knowing that while my decision involved risks, what would take courage would be to stay on a course that no longer seemed true and risk the likely chance of an unfulfilled life.
Courage is a desirable and rare quality, but it is usually desperation we count on when making the choice to take, and to live with the choice of having taken, a difficult or impossible path. Desperation does not guarantee success. Success might simply be "what we can make of the mess we have made of things," as Agatha tells her sister Amy in T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion. But desperation can be useful in bringing about the habit of truth, which helps with self-respect and with not having to pretend fearful settlements are righteous stances.
MORE WELDERS AND FEWER PHILOSOPHERS
November 11, 2015
During the recent Republican debate, truant senator and presidential hopeful, Marco Rubio, said "we need more welders and less philosophers," and he was rewarded for this insight with applause.
I know he wasn't talking about me when he said "we," but I decided to take it on anyway.
The pressing need is for people who can explain clearly and without affectation or bitterness why the crucial political battle is not between philosophers and welders, but between the powerful system puppeteers and the puppets who live with the illusion of self-determination.
October 14, 2015
The Captain dreamed he was travelling through space with his wife and his two children, each in a separate pod and all dreaming of playing together back at their farm. The Captain knew the shared dream was a doing of the spaceship and this knowledge woke him up. Awake, he moved through the silent house and sat on a chair in the dark. The grass touched his feet. The patio as a living room had been his idea. All ideas are burdens, he thought as he watched the sun struggling to rise over the hills. The Captain arrived at the launch pad when his family was still asleep and by the time they sat at the iron table for breakfast he had already been swallowed by what seemed like a giant—maybe infinite—mirror that crossed the path of his ship for 10-30 seconds. He made many attempts to return home, but his odyssey was made more difficult because all universes looked like his own. Eventually, he was delivered back to his farm by a group of explorers on a white ship half engulfed in a cloud of something that could not have been smoke. Nothing that smokes can travel from there to here, he thought as he sat on his living room again. A creek of mud ran through the grass. He looked at the mess and thought his idea did not make for a good place to rest, then he wondered when they would be back. They are probably at the store, he thought.
EMPIRES (XI: Endings)
August 11, 2015
I write this from the Montgomery House at Dartmouth. It is raining outside. The windows look like they are covered with frosted moss.
I have on the table in front of me images of the works for my upcoming exhibitions at Jack Shainman, Empires: Sea and Empires: Land. Seeing the paintings and sculptures and models as small images makes me think about remnants, about all that is hoped for and risked. A professor at Dartmouth asked me why I have not remarked on the collective aspect of empires, on the inevitable mobilizing of people, and the reason is because this body of work was never really about those types of empires. In part, this project is a reflection on the seed of striving, the soil in which that seed is planted, and why and how is that seed fed and watered. And in part, this project is a confrontation with the decision to go somewhere and the road unfolded by that decision. The nature of this material means the analytical tools at my disposal have been of little use, leaving the work to depend on bewilderment, inventories, and memory. Seeing now several years of work as snapshots makes me think the heart of Empires is a heart of endings.
EMPIRES (X: The Dream)
August 8, 2015
And Jesus was a sailor
When He walked upon the water
And He spent a long time watching
From His lonely wooden tower
And when He knew for certain
Only drowning men could see Him
He said, "All men will be sailors, then,
Until the sea shall free them."
Excerpt from Suzanne, Leonard Cohen
When I was nine and living in Madrid I read an account of Hannibal's campaign to Italy. It was a story of revenge and courage with all the ingredients a kid needs to get excited: the undertaking was daunting, if not crazy, the Carthaginian army had mercenaries from many places and war-elephants that crossed the Alps, and Hannibal himself was a great general whose father drowned fighting in Spain. I wanted to be Hannibal without knowing much about him other than his ambition, and I was excited and deeply moved by the absurdity of exhausting a nation's resources in trying to defeat an empire far away.
Despite this early interest in Hannibal and Rome, the empires that matter most to me now are the smaller empires of day-to-day living constructed by promises and shaped by our drive, our accomplishments, and our failures. These are big and small empires built around our hopes and around our scorns, empires of place as well as of memory, of today in the land and of tomorrow in the sea.
We come to life with a will to populate, to discover, to be more tomorrow than today, to know more, to have more, and in significant ways this will is indistinguishable from us. We are it and it is us, but this relevance does not make our will any less absurd or any less suspicious. It doesn't take much soul searching to find moral complexities rumbling under our actions, and fragile, imaginary worlds summoning our motivations. As a kid I thought the fantastic qualities of Hannibal's effort pointed to something unrealistic in a hero of that scale, but now it seems to me that illusion and delusion are inherent qualities of most of our journeys.
Seen from the perspective of the accountant who keeps the ledger of gains and losses, ambitions might be a spirit-pump sucking answers and fulfillments from the future to fill holes in the past. And so, the geography of conquests could be understood as some sort of mapping of one's heart onto a landscape of circumstances and opportunities. If an empire is a conception of the world constructed around lacks and fears with the appearance it is constructed around bravery and vision, in a paradoxical way it is also built around freedom, around unwillingness to accept constraints, boundaries and, most importantly, the world as we found it. In striving, in departure, we transcend ourselves as temporary beings to become redeemed and eternalized in and by our quest. And so, necessarily, every campaign is spurred and plagued by one question: is the drive to move forward, to re-invent ourselves in a new territory, an attempt at self-actualization or a manifestation of some fundamental wound that will never heal?
The lessons we learn from the empires we gain as well as from those we lose are a measure of our strength and perseverance as well as of the hollowness of most illusions; though we often postpone the recognition of this hollowness lest it reveals the quest itself, and our life by extension, was without merit. Perhaps the parting gift of conscience when we embark on our imperialistic adventure is the mirror it places alongside our campaigns and our effort of understanding and maintaining new territories. In the reflection of that mirror, we see our journey either as itself, in all its actuality, or we see it as a way, or the way, to the dream.
EMPIRES (IX: Drifting)
August 3, 2015
This past Sunday Thomas and I were sitting on a bench in Rustic Canyon watching children play and a hawk fly in circles over the canopy of oak trees.
What's he looking for, Thomas? I asked.
To keep things going, like the rest of us, he said.
We don't pursue it like that. We usually take the roundabout way, I said.
Thomas turned to me. His head framed by eucalyptus bark belonged to the park as much as the tree.
I spoke to Francis yesterday, I said. He's closing his shop. He told me the only reason he gets out of bed in the morning is his bladder.
What does that mean? Thomas asked.
He's missing Georgia. Sooner or later he's going after her, I said.
Thomas looked at the children and I stared at the hawk. The problem with California parks, with all their fine trees and dryness and sharp light, is that they make it easy to weave stories of reverence, banishment, and pain, and while following that hawk I thought of Georgia on her bed waiting for Francis to finish peeing. Heartaches are worse near bathrooms. I imagined Georgia, her head on the pillow looking out the window at the sun suspended like a spider between the leaves of the sycamore tree outside their bungalow. Maybe it was the boredom of the repair shop or Francis's size. Who knows why people leave.
In any case, Georgia was always of the road. I could tell that the first day I saw her wedged in the booth next to Francis with those eyes so sparkly and so full of tomorrow, and so full of other things too.
I am decidedly not an expert on matters related to getting out or waking up, but there is evidence to suggest getting out sometimes has to do with waking up in a bed wondering where and what things are and why we have been drifting through the day or the years. Before we know it, we find ourselves in some journey without having really intended to go anywhere as if one had gone to the store to get diapers and was lost along the way or was called in by some thicket. Maybe that is what happened to Georgia and what will happen soon to Francis. We drift when we stay and we drift when we go. Sometimes the pain and pleasure of that drift is delocalized, as if it was not about us, and yet this drifting, unconscious in so many ways, shape and often define most of our lives, and this is true even when we insist on master plans, conscious actions, and embracing conventions.
Francis will leave not because Georgia left, but because he has no reason to stay. He will remember getting into his heroic blue Civic with three suitcases as a calling rather than as a drifting, and he will remember it that way probably for the best.
When Thomas and I left the park the children were still playing and the hawk was still above us. Constancy is another thing about the parks.
EMPIRES (VIII: Prodigal Son)
July 18, 2015
The prodigal son came home.
There was fatted calf for dinner.
The father sat there with his huge coal-black beard from Babylon.
There were things he wanted to ask about
but they no longer spoke the same language,
besides he didn’t want to make a fool of himself.
They ate in silence.
The son was hungrier than he wished to show.
The platter of fatted calf was passed round several times
and all of them in fact had a good appetite.
I want to tell you, said the lost son,
but a crumb stuck in his throat and he had to cough,
after which he forgot what he had to say and went on eating.
The meal over, the mother washed up.
She was tearful and stooped.
The son lay down outside the grass and looked up at the clouds
and the father went and broodingly combed that Babylonian beard.
From Chickweed Wintergreen: Selected Poems by Harry Martinson translated by Robin Fulton.
MISREADINGS AND SEARCHINGS
July 16, 2015
The apparent accessibility of the imagery in my work has led some people to come up with rigid and often simplistic readings that are frequently extrapolated from my own biography. For instance, the imagery of Empires: Land and Empires: Sea, my upcoming exhibitions at both locations of the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York—boats, sea, houses, children—may be misunderstood as a reference to exile. The truth is more complicated.
For example, how does one describe not the separation of oneself from the old country but from things as they are? From the world as it is? Is the solitary nature of self a denial of the expansiveness of being or a confirmation of the delusion of language—of the way we have spoken to ourselves? What language can be used to describe homesickness not as longing for what was left behind, but for what was unspoken, or what fell between the cracks of the spoken?
A project like Empires emerges from questions like those, and to remain open to where the questions take me, I try to avoid simplistic readings and conventional interpretations, particularly those that seem to come easily or that respond to pre-packaged thinking. I also resist understanding the work through a particular instance—say a look or a strategy—knowing these could change. For example, I tend to use simple compositions and quasi-archetypal images, but neither defines the work, and chances always are they will not appear in my next project. If there is a definition of the work, it is to be found in my refusal to let what I am doing congeal into anything other than a search for understanding and meaning.
Of course, any search that is pursued with enough rigor to keep it viable (and with enough honesty to deal with the accumulating failures) has to necessarily be unpredictable as it mines for its findings in the ways that it must. If you were to inspect the paintings, sculpture, works on paper and writings that make up the project Empires, for example, they will seem to shift from the fantastic to the concrete or from the domestic to the transcendental. To me, they are just bringing forth different facets of reality and it is that reality rather than the facets that the work is ultimately after.
My intention for the last two decades—and maybe before, even if I didn't have words for it a the time—has been to create some sort of visual poems capable of offering insights about that reality. If they are going to be non-trivial and authentic, those insights must also acknowledge that any attempt at truth must carry within it the possibility of its own negation. The ambiguity that results from this truth-no truth pair is one characteristic—but not a definition—of the work. This charged ambiguity can be distinguished from the hide-and-seek games or puzzles often practiced in the arts by the energy it derives from the emotional, philosophical and psychological resonance of the underlying search.
It seems to me that in art, resonance comes partly from awareness in the work itself (in contrast to awareness in the artist) of the always-ongoing construction of meaning and the persistent reconsideration of the way art comes to be and functions. Therefore, the stories revealed by a work of art are then not solely to be found in the images or in the symbols, but also in the ways those images are chosen, articulated, and trusted, as well as in the instability buried in the artwork's claims of truth. These other stories can be described as a stance or, perhaps, as a worldview, and it is less transitory than the story of images or postures, and also informing of the spirit behind the work.
EMPIRES (VII: The Fridge)
July 2, 2015
For Anthony the rituals of supper are sacred. His usual staple, the cottage pie, long enough in the oven for the potatoes to brown, his lentils to the right of his plate, the butter dish to the left, and the knife and fork aligned with the toile napkin. For good digestion he undoes his belt before sitting and chews his food until it's almost liquid. When he is done, he washes his dishes carefully as if cleaning a wound. Then, with the traces of supper put away, Antin, as he prefers to be called, gets his tools out of the special cabinet and lays them on the table. Tongs, chisels, knives, and saws; his secret weapon, the dental pick set, closest to the felt pad.
He could skip these preambles. He rarely thinks of food, he doesn't enjoy doing dishes, and his orderliness is willful rather than natural, but delays stir his yearning so that when he opens the door of the freezer his hands tremble and his heart becomes too big for his chest.
He places the ice block on the felt pad, turns off all the lights except the sconce by the door, undoes his belt again, and sits. Before starting to work, he inspects the turrets and the windows, the roundness of the towers, and runs his hands over the walls. At some point, he grabs a small Japanese chisel, scrapes a point and the ride is on.
The ice castle is Antin's stronghold against the bull of loneliness. When he started carving, the bull would buck him off in a few minutes and he would find himself shuffling to his bed unsure of what had happened. Before the ice, he didn't make it past the bucking chute, not getting to swing his arm up in the air even once. Now he stays mounted for hours, stopping only because the cold stiffens his hands. When that happens, he jumps off and looks at his work triumphantly before placing it back in the freezer. Sometimes he returns the tools to the special cabinet, but most often he takes advantage of the exhaustion and puts himself to sleep.
EMPIRES (VI: The Dream)*
June 30, 2015
Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Ray of Light, 2008
I was climbing a tall mountain for many days, maybe months, without stopping to eat or rest. I was a boy, about 14 or 15 (maybe younger), and I knew it was really me, even though I didn't recognize my movements or my clothes. I was wearing shiny black shoes, a gray schoolboy uniform, and I had a sheathed sword attached to my belt, which I knew I had never seen before and that kept getting in the way of my legs. From the mountain I could see for miles, and what I saw looked like hell. Everything on it—houses, soil, trees, rivers—was, depending on the time of day, either charred or frozen. In the mornings, the sun would rise over my back carving the black soil with long furrows of fire, then, after sunset, ice would cover the same landscape the day had scorched. This cycle of destruction seemed normal to me, and if I bothered to look down at the land, it was only to know whether it was day or night. The mountain itself was always at twilight.
I was determined to climb and other than the sword nothing got in my way. At some point I became used to the sword hitting my thighs and to the anxiety, which increased the higher I got. Then, I saw the cloudy peak and I wasn't worried whether it was night or day anymore. All that mattered was what I would find at the top. My feet moved faster and I swung my arms to help me up the mountain. Despite this fretting, I felt at peace. My climb was almost over. When I reached the barren peak of the mountain, which came unexpectedly, I looked around at the snow and at the cloud layer covering the world below and I couldn't remember why I was there or why I had climbed so far.
I stood motionless for what seemed like hours, gripped by a hollowing sadness. All I have had for months, maybe years, was the climb, and for what? I didn't feel as if I had lost something, but as if I myself was lost, and maybe that I had been lost for a very long time. Confused as I was, I walked to the edge of that peak hoping to fall and had I not heard them I probably would have fallen. The loud rumbling made me take a step back. I saw them rise. One of the snakes reached the top of the mountain and loomed above me, thick and tall as a tower. I could see my reflection on its silvery body and I thought I looked more like my son than myself. I tried to run, but my legs were heavy as if they were filled with tears. I can't remember when I had been more afraid, and it was not the snakes I feared. I feared the waste: all of those weeks or months or years climbing only to deliver myself to the snakes.
To the surprise of the boy I was in the dream, I unsheathed my sword, which was childishly made—sort of a toy—but which glowed like molten metal. As I was about to deliver my blow, a German Shepherd came from nowhere and stood fiercely between the snakes and me. Everything stopped. During that impasse, and for the first time since I had started the climb, the twilight turned into night and the change brought with it the bitterest cold, which felt like a knife piercing my eardrums. The snakes seemed to feel the chill as well. I don't know if it was because of the cold, or because of the dog, but they retreated as fast as they had advanced. The dog looked at me briefly, then jumped over the cliff after the snakes, and I ran to the edge to call him back.
That's when I woke up, and now that I am awake, the world feels different. This room, for instance, feels like a stage.
ONE REASON TO STAY IN
June 22, 2015
I took this picture early on Monday morning. Those are the feet of my son Sebastián covered by the fringes of a blanket. He was curled on a living room chair trying to sleep. The sun had not come up yet. I could hear his breathing, his sniffles and his shifting. The sounds stopped and I realized he was asleep. I saw his feet suspended over the chair's edge, the light from the floor lamp barely pushing the darkness aside.
The scene was out of my reach: an equation I was not clever enough to solve. What is the "what" in what I'm seeing? Who is this boy? What do I know of those fringes lying so mysteriously over his feet? The childhood turning in those heels, where is it going?
After a while I returned to my computer to continue writing. Two emails had popped up on my desktop. One from Artnet with the headline, Best and Worst of the Art World This Week in One Minute, the other, an clarion-sounding announcement from an artist who likes to make mountains out of his career molehills. I wondered why I'm part of the art world, then I looked over at Sebastián who was still asleep.
A FOOTNOTE ON EMPIRES
June 16, 2015
Indirectly, this entry is also about empires, but it is nothing more than a footnote.
Today, Donald Trump announced he is running for president of the United States. Usually I don't remark on this type of nonsense, but soon after the speech I saw two middle-age women and one man wearing their employee badges and laughing while wringing themselves into a white Toyota Tercel.
Trump made the announcement at his own Trump Tower in front of a friendly crowd. "Our country is in serious trouble," he said, and he is right but not because we have too many Mexicans or not enough victories. The country is in trouble because empires built on bad taste, shady dealings, lies, and vanity—like his—continue to thrive despite the hopes of those first American ideals influenced by non-Trumpian thinkers like Kant and Rousseau.
Trump is not the first mogul who thinks he has it all figured out nor he will be the last, but his version of this old story has its own gems: A man who cultivates a self-made aura but who inherited his father's money and business; a fervent attacker of the government and the welfare state who benefited from the racket of four bankruptcies and his father's wealth built partly on government sponsored financing; a showman who speaks of greatness for America and who makes more of a mockery of the political system than it already is; an air conditioned-office-tough-guy who says that "toughness is a quality made up of equal parts of strength, intelligence, and self-respect," whose lack of moral strength has made greed into a spectacle, dignity into a farce, and tackiness into a virtue.
EMPIRES (V: The Dresser)
June 11, 2015
Edie's empire is her almond-colored dresser.
In the rest of the house she is a slave, bonded to labor in the yellow-tile bathroom and the marble Formica kitchen, and resigned to the demands of the shiny dining room table and the daily rations of week-old soup.
But she rules over her dresser. Most nights she arranges the framed photographs and the porcelain figurines as she pleases, away from the watchful eyes of the frog cookie jar collection and the silence of the room where Louis, her son, once slept. She loses herself for a few minutes in the black and white picture of a four-year old Louis laughing on a rocking chair, airs the straw on the manger, and kisses the forgiving baby Jesus on the lips. Twice a week she dusts the doilies. The dresser is as long as her bed, curved at the ends, its six drawers bordered with plastic metallic trim. Out of habit she uses only three: one for her uniforms, one for her shirts and skirts, and the top one for her underwear, socks, and muumuus.
EMPIRES (IV: Cowboy Junkies's Staring Man)
June 9, 2015
I live only here, between your eyes and you
But I live in this world. What do I do?
Collect no interest—otherwise what I can.
Above all I'm not that staring man.
I move like a spirit, between this world and that
the weight of them both square on my back.
Collect no interest—and I shed what I can.
Above all I'm not that staring man.
You sit in your tower, straight and tall,
your kingdom around you beginning to fall.
You close your eyes and you hold your tongue.
And every night you check on the damage you've done.
I live only here between your eyes and you.
Caught in your world, what do I do?
Fear in the air—I made my stand.
Prove once again I'm not that staring man.
You hold your ground, and you take what comes.
And every night you check on your desire to run.
You hold your ground and you take what comes.
And every night you check on your desire to run.
I live only here between your eyes and you.
But I live in this world. What do I do?
EMPIRES (III: The Lions)
May 29, 2015
An argument could be made and has been made many times the success and failure of empires cannot be measured on a human scale, but rather that their quality and its judgment belong to a higher realm. It has also been said that hands and hearts are bigger than they seem as Schopenhauer did when he suggested love is the desire of the species acting through us or as religion does by remarking on our godliness. This past Wednesday, Ronald Winnick, a successful wealth manager, made a related argument while looking out his dining room window.
Ron reads books to see the big picture, to identify patterns and trends, and to understand human nature, which he finds helpful in his line of work. He usually reads non-fiction, especially biographies and war books, but the night before he had come across this passage about Napoleon Bonaparte by Victor Hugo in a magazine article on Les Miserables,
The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the balance. This individual alone counted for more than a universal group. These plethoras of all human vitality concentrated in a single head; the world mounting to the brain of one man,—this would be mortal to civilization were it to last. The moment had arrived for the incorruptible and supreme equity to alter its plan. Probably the principles and the elements, on which the regular gravitations of the moral, as of the material, world depend, had complained. Smoking blood, over-filled cemeteries, mothers in tears,—these are formidable pleaders. When the earth is suffering from too heavy a burden, there are mysterious groanings of the shades, to which the abyss lends an ear.
Napoleon had been denounced in the infinite and his fall had been decided on.
The passage had moved him deeply and that morning as he looked at the elegant front yard of his small estate, he knew he had to install a roaring lion at either side of the iron gates. Not those lions one sees Mexicans moving around at nurseries or Chinese renditions of a neoclassical marble. He wanted something European, something authentic made of limestone that would be in keeping with the gravity and promise of the feeling stirring within him.
EMPIRES (II: The Shore)
May 27, 2015
Where the land meets the sea marks the end of a world that appears more or less known—or at least knowable—and the beginning of another, more mysterious territory. The shore is awash with scouts and messengers from this other world, but neither the bottles, driftwood or armoires, or even that old, drowned man who floated onto the muddy banks of Playa Caimito, share much about the other side. If anything, they only deepen the mystery by suggesting a world of adventures and wreckages.
We know the same gears move all worlds, even those far into the sea, and we also know that regardless of the adventures which brought that French armoire to a Caribbean cove, it was built, like our own armoires, one dress at a time, one hopeful opening of its doors the night of an anniversary, and one wipe with lemon oil after another. But—at least until we burn out—this knowledge of the universality of world gears is not enough to keep ourselves from imagining that far away the physics of matter, energy, and emotion will function differently, even if just slightly. The practical champions keep this hunch in check by herding themselves away from the sea or by banishing the sea altogether, others stare at the horizon and wait, often missing what is happening around them, and a few, driven by restlessness and ambition or by desperation, take to the sea.
Most of these journeys will only matter to the loneliness of one home or to a pampered mirror abandoned on a vanity. Occasionally, an Alexander the Great comes around and that journey has a broader resonance. Maybe Alexander's drive was sharpened by his Aristotelian tutelage or maybe he inherited the hunger for quests from his father Philip. Whatever the reason, one day he launched himself to the Great Outer Sea and the world was never the same. Undoubtedly, there was something larger about that lyre-playing Macedonian boy, but in the end, all epics and all empires, including his, are grand assemblies of human scaled ambitions and dreams which suffer losses one miscalculation, one failure, or, as in Alexander's case, one disease at a time.
May 21, 2015
My new work has something to do with empires. Not the type of empires created by Cyrus or Alexander, though indirectly those too, but the other empires, the ones of everyday life. The ones built with the dust that settles on nightstands. Sometimes these stretch to the length of birds-in-hand and sometimes they reach to that elusive nursery of rainbows. Regardless of their size, empires are made of dreams so there is a good possibility that in the final account—if such an account were to be available—they are nothing but reflections of our vanity. The tendency, however, is to postpone that recognition. Empires are always of tomorrow. Today, the wonders and frailties of the kingdom might be available for the wise to see, but the wise are busy with the next campaign.
April 30, 2015
Last Sunday, Thomas and I had been sitting in silence for about an hour before I asked what he was thinking.
I was thinking about Eugene Reed. A guy I used to know, he said.
An old friend? I asked.
I don't know if Gene had any friends. Everyone who met him was charmed, but no one seemed to like him for very long.
It's hard to know these things. Gene laughed a lot and I never saw him angry or anxious, but there was something like a mixture of both under all that cheer.
I nodded, though, as it often happens in many of our conversations, I wasn't sure if I understood what Thomas was talking about.
Where is he now?
I don't know, Thomas said. I haven't spoken to him in 20 years. The last time I saw Gene was the day I spent with him in Bedford. I was passing through. We met for lunch and afterwards we went for a walk around Sebbins Pond. Shaves of sunlight bobbed on the surface of the water and a swarm of dragonflies busied themselves with air, but Gene only had eyes for the soft silt at the shore. He walked over to a willow tree, broke a long, thin branch, and used it to scrape the bottom, creating billows of powdery mud in the clear liquid. For a moment, I thought he might want to understand their flow, why they spread, and how they will settle again, but when Gene looked up, I saw he was restless. On the way back to the house, he told me he was planning to take on dog sledding, and the way he described the adventure made me think of the weeds that grow in all of us.
I nodded again. I knew weeds. There is also cotton in the mind, I thought of adding, but by then Thomas had moved on.
April 13, 2015
At the opening reception for Lone Star, a young artist asked me how I have avoided selling out. I reluctantly said whatever one could say in a few minutes in the middle of a crowd. Now, hoping he will read this journal entry, I am including an excerpt for my upcoming book, On Art and Mindfulness,
Who wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I am going to sell out”? Selling out, giving up on your dream, your integrity, usually happens slowly, imperceptibly, over time. A little compromise here. Another one there. One day you are too busy. The next you are being reasonable. Then you are trying to fit it in. You tell yourself you have responsibilities, that you are accountable to many people. Many of the steps you take will make sense and some will seem righteous and necessary. But eventually there you are: a shadow of what you used to be. Be vigilant. Recognize the choices you are making and why you are making them.
March 6, 2015
I have written three separate texts on my new body of work, Lone Star. The first of these, which I posted two days ago, outlines a few ideas in the work and discusses its aims as well as aspects of the imagery. The second text, which I posted yesterday, is a brief survey of the environment of works. The third, which I am posting today, is a poem-like note; a work in progress. All three texts are different and all of them are related. One way to think of them is as different facets of the same crystal.
ON LONE STAR (III)
March 6, 2015
A boy (a girl; a self in mid-flight) in front of a mirror stands in a lake of tears.
This is how it is, I hear the voice of bitterness say. Grace, where did it go?
On the other side of the mirror the sun rises and sets. Its absence is my hollowness. Give it a name.
Lone Star, you say.
Speck of heat-light in the night sky, too far and too frigid a lantern for feet soaked in tears.
My kingdom is small but deep, you say, and I rein it from the gaps.
I listen by placing candles in rooms of dust, by lighting fires by your photographs.
I count you in skates. Water-ravens. Impatient. All eyes. Slimy, like vaginas. Smelly, like sheets soaked in urine.
Houses are cages. The world is glass. Start over in birds, their song so far away from mirrors.
Lone star, I say.
And separated from the letters you wrote to me (spiders on thin glass webs) it is now my time to weep.
ON LONE STAR (II)
March 5, 2015
Lone Star is a new cycle of paintings, installations, sculptures, and writings. The environment, which opens to the public on April 9, incorporates all the galleries at LA Louver in Venice, California. It begins with a flooded room of mirrors where a bronze boy cries silently and ends with an outdoor room where the same boy, his chest made into a birdhouse, stands in a cage with live birds. Among other things, these boys suggest loss, perseverance, and redemption. Their innocence comes across as a state of missed or yet-ungained awareness of experience as well as a condition of completeness where nothing is lacking.
The paintings and sculptures we find between those two rooms mark a possible trajectory of the boy and point to a world that is familiar and unknown, radiant and brutal, personal and vast. Some of the imagery in these other works, such as ice, sunlight, birds, glass, and water, bring forth everyday marvel, while the appearance of skates and rays, Schopenhauer's childhood home, cages, fire, and bridges reveal a darker undercurrent. The claim to representation in the paintings is under pressure and often collapses in the collision of the chosen imagery with the means of painting and use of texts.
Throughout the environment of paintings, installations, and sculptures as well as the writings, there is an emphasis on those instances of the world which are of interest to children and through this emphasis the work layers innocence, loss, hope, possibility and dreams to construct a new state, which seems to be the real aim of Lone Star.
ON LONE STAR (I)
March 4, 2015
On the evening of a turbulent day in my childhood I searched the night sky for something in myself that was adrift and looking at those stars and at the abyss of nothingness between them, I felt both a piercing awareness of selfhood and an equally intense sense of self-negation. Although I had considered that dome of stars many times before, it had never seemed as relevant to who I was nor as distant from my life, but what struck me most was the awe and dread I sensed at facing the mystery of the vast hole above me.
Some mysteries, like the cosmos, are more apparent than others, but all things, as Maurice Maeterlinck wrote, are secret—the window through which I saw the sky, the curtains of my old bedroom, my eyes, and whatever in me gathered the vision of those stars. Everything, including consciousness, radiates with the glow of this inherent mystery, and depending on our capacity for mystery, the allowances we make for this unknowable basis leads us to fears, to the safety of the measurable, or to dreams. In any case, our arrangements with the unknowable allow us to wake up each day and put aside the likeness of our insignificance and our transience to make sense of our lives. We build memories, have children of our own, collect stamps, write journals, measure our age and our progress, and make lists of the places we have visited to confirm we have lived. Part of that confirmation is looking in photo albums at what will never be again or, perhaps, at what never was, and also walking as ghosts the rooms and the landscapes we once walked as children or as men or women.
Sometimes we find a place for ourselves under the great canopy of stars and sometimes we do not. Regardless, there usually comes a time in our wandering when familiarity replaces innocence and freshness, and with that replacement, almost inevitably, the glow of the unknowable dims.
There is, of course, no growing up without a rupture with our past—with those childhood bedrooms from which we looked at the night sky—but the necessity of rupture does not prevent us from feeling homesick for a vanished, mythologized time when the world was more radiant and when we were less weary, even if not necessarily happier. Unlike the prodigal son, whoever longs for a vanished time can never return home. What was no longer is, except in our memories, and so we wander forward managing our restlessness as best as we can. At times we might feel at ease and distant from these stirrings, assembled by our routines, by our accomplishments, but in the depths of the self-content there is always restlessness.
The interactions between these forces as well as love and loneliness define, in my view, the dynamics of becoming. While much has been said and written about these dynamics, I find that it is mostly through the "indirect" approach of art and literature that I gain insights into their movement and consequences.
This new body of work, Lone Star, considers aspects of that dynamic by means of an environment of paintings, installations, sculptures, drawings and writings. I write the word "considers" reluctantly. While my conscious efforts and readings helped guide the work in the studio, it was the undercurrents and vague nags that were most valuable during the critical periods and also most influential in what came about. But since undercurrents and vague nags are difficult to talk about—especially with the distortions of hindsight—this writing concentrates on those aspects of the work that I can articulate with some degree of success.
The ideas for this cycle first emerged thirteen years ago while I was thinking about the connection between the big gears of nature—time, space, light, matter—and the small gears of personal experience—gains, losses, love, hopes, birth, death, joy. Most of us understand these small gears are forever bound to the big gears by knowable and unknowable forces. What is more difficult to understand is where we fit in those gyrations and where they fit within us. The mystery of how these gears fit makes not only the world but ourselves into a riddle. Herman Melville writes in Moby Dick about this riddle,
With a wild whimsiness, he now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there. Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.
Unfolding that riddle of self—or, perhaps more properly, of being—amid the dynamics of what is unknowable, awe, homesickness, and restlessness, seemed, and still seems, critical and urgent, though not easy. The riddle insists on being "unsolved to the last." But what are we to do if not sort out what we can, marvel at the mysterious dynamics of becoming, and try to deceive death by carving the wood of our coffin with the markings on our skin?
To help me find a way through these efforts and ideas I have used my writings and my own observations as well as aspects of the writings of Karl Jaspers and Otto Rank, and the poem Desert Places by Robert Frost. These texts have been useful in giving form to the elusive confrontations and ensuing transformations implicitly or explicitly addressed in this body of work. I have also been thinking about two Grimm fairy tales, The Rose and The Juniper Tree. In addition to using these fairy tales as stand-ins for the biographical, what intrigues me most about them is their clear relationship between the large and small gears, which in both is framed through the device of fate in the form of revelations and curses. The fairy tales also point to the inheritance of loneliness, an idea that first came to me in relation to Arthur Schopenhauer.
Eight or nine years after the night sky incident, I ran across his book The World as Will and Representation. His writings had a lasting influence on me, but it was the loneliness I sensed in the man and in his family that created the biggest impression. Familiar as I was with it, I did not need Schopenhauer to recognize loneliness, but his example, in relation to his family's history in particular, was haunting so I kept a picture of the philosopher's childhood home as a reminder. I use the image of his house for a sculpture as a well as a painting in Lone Star.
I do not think of this body of work, however, as an assembly of individual artworks and writings. Instead, I approach it as a totality or as an environment where one artwork is revealed or hidden by another. Throughout this environment the friction between images and their negation, often through the agency of materials, suggests the instability of recognition. This instability and the layering of ideas bring about circuitous discoveries as well as reflective or indirect recognitions, often the only kind of recognition available to us. On my Philosophy, Karl Jaspers writes the following about indirect recognition,
In every form of his being one is related to something other than oneself: as a being to his world, as consciousness to objects, as spirit to the idea of whatever constitutes totality, as Existenz to Transcendence. Man always becomes man by devoting himself to this other. Only through his absorption in the world of Being, in the immeasurable space of objects, in ideas, in Transcendence, does he become real to himself. If he makes himself the immediate object of his efforts he is on his last and perilous path; for it is possible that in doing so he will lose the Being of the other and then no longer find anything in himself. If man wants to grasp himself directly, he ceases to understand himself, to know who he is and what he should do.
In the case of the paintings, instability and indirectness are generated by the way they are painted as well as by images themselves. The scenes, for instance, seem convincing and stable only if one does not look at them carefully. When considered with some attention, images are become disrupted, space is flattened by drips, the edges fray representation, light is rendered as materials, and so on. This dissolution of trust in what one sees, which I find important in relation to indirect recognition, is especially manifested in those represented objects whose optical qualities make them natural metaphors for the unknowable. Ice, glass, water, and clouds, for instance, are familiar and yet our encounter with them often uncovers the unexpected, the unknown, in the commonplace—light bends around, colors shimmer, the real becomes evanescent.
The painting of these optical elements is, by necessity, futile, regardless of whether they are painted by Jan Davidszoon de Heem or by me. Even a trompe l'oeil rendering of light reveals itself to be a viscous smear of dirt when carefully inspected. But rather than a fault of painting, this incapacity to represent that which cannot be represented despite efforts to do so is at the very heart of what makes a painting into a work of art, and it also what gives a painting its strength and its tenderness. Art is truest when it is, both, convincing and revelatory of the artifice. Theodor Adorno writes in regards to these unresolved contractions in the work of art,
A successful work of art is not one which resolves contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.
The painted image of, say, an ice block, is banal yet radiant, affirming of the painted act and eroding of its conviction, innocent in its wanderlust but untrustworthy. In addition to suggesting an emotional atmosphere, these collisions of attributes reveal the ethical stance from which the works are made, a fragile stance built on unknowns. Art depends on unknowns and on the actualization of imaginings, dreams, thoughts, and emotions that are almost always poorly understood. Plato writes of the poet in the Laws,
is not in his senses, but, like a fountain, lets flow what comes to him, and often contradicts himself without knowing whether the one or the other thing that he says is the truth.
Like Queequeg, the logic of our carvings is partly or completely beyond us, but that does not prevent them from unconcealing truths, or even from marking the choices we make and the world we find in and through our wandering. Lone Star is maybe best thought of as an inventory of these markers.
THE JUNIPER TREE
February 20, 2015
I have been thinking about the Grimm's fairy tale, The Juniper Tree. The story comes from a text given to the Grimm brothers by the German Romantic artist Philipp Otto Runge, who apparently had a role—maybe a significant role—in rewriting this old folk tale. In this story, a juniper tree stands in the courtyard of a grand country house as witness to their hope for a child. One winter, while peeling an apple, the woman cuts herself and her blood falls onto the snow. Seeing the blood on the snow, she wishes for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. As the seasons changed, the woman went through a series of emotional rotations marked by anxiety and fear. In the seventh month she ate berries from the juniper tree and became sad and ill. In the eighth month she made her husband promise he would bury her beneath the juniper tree and in the ninth month she had a child as white as snow and as red as blood and she was so happy she died.
There is a suggestion here, in between the lines perhaps, that there was something wrong with the child that led the mother to eat the juniper berries, which often leads to an abortion. The result, however, was not the loss of the child but the death of the mother, thus leaving the child indebted to her sacrifice. This sacrifice casts a shadow of resentment over the story and blurs the distinctions between fair and unfair, right and wrong, innocent and evil. With his fine-tuned sensibility to symbols and his well-developed theory of colors, it is likely that Runge limited the colors of the child to white and red on purpose. While all societies recognize white, red and black and their symbolism, red and white by themselves are considered the colors of hell, and this suggestion of hell is re-affirmed in the story by the multiple references to death, decay, fire, dread, burial, and evil.
After her death, the rich man buried his wife under the juniper tree and married another woman with whom he had a beautiful daughter. The story tells that "The Evil One" began to fill the mind of the boy's stepmother with the idea the boy was an obstacle to her daughter's inheritance. One day when the boy came back from school, the stepmother tricked him into putting his head into a wooden chest whose lid she used to behead him. Then she tied a bandage around his neck to dissimulate her murder and manipulated her own daughter into believing she had killed the boy. The stepmother, plagued by fear and guilt, goes one step further in the effort to hide her crime by cooking the boy into a stew and feed him to the father when he returns home. As he eats, the father is told the boy went to visit his mother's great uncle, and although disappointed by the sudden departure, the father enjoys the meat and throws the leftover bones under the table.
This aspect of the story, as well as its reference to hell echoes the myth of Tantalus, who slayed his son Pelops and fed him to the gods as a test of their omniscience. While most of the gods realized what had happened and did not eat, a distracted Demeter ate Pelops' shoulder. In retaliation, the gods sent Tantalus to the underworld where he spent eternity standing in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree whose branches he could never reach (this notion of the unreachable sustenance is a remarkable detail). The gods also brought Pelops back to life, a reincarnation that reoccurs at the ending of The Juniper Tree.
In the Grimm/Runge fairy tale, the daughter buried the bones leftover from the father's meal under the juniper tree, a mending gesture that is followed by another hellish scene,a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently.
Through the charm of song, the bird obtained a necklace from a goldsmith, shoes from the shoemaker, and a stone mill from the millers, then returned to the courtyard outside the rich family's house and sang the song again
With the appeal of its song, the bird brought the father out of the house and gave him the gold necklace, then, seeing the father's necklace when he returned to the house, the daughter went out and the bird gave her the shoes. The stepmother who had been feeling sick and scared, hearing the bird's beautiful song and seeing these gifts, said
As soon as the stepmother walked outdoors, the bird crushed her with the millstone. The daughter and father went outside and saw smoke, flames and fire rose from the place were the stepmother lay dead and when it was over, the slain brother was standing there and they were all very happy and went inside and ate.
In The Juniper Tree two mothers must die for the boy to live and only then—motherless—can the boy be happy. But, as we know, those deaths will have to be paid for. The thriving of the child—his very life—has come at the expense of the ambitions, hopes, and ultimately, life of another so he will always carry the burden of the death of the first mother and probably also of the second one.
The Juniper Tree is an odd heroic story, but a heroic story nonetheless, and as such it speaks of childhood happenings as seen through the eyes of the adult and it is the adult who transforms a story of desperation, loneliness, and murder into a fairy tale. This revision of childhood is the revision of fantasy, of trying to relive the past with different rules in hope of different outcomes, and/or the desire to relive childhood events with the advantage of the experience gained in the course of a lifetime.
Otto Rank writes in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero,
The ego can only find its own heroism in the days of infancy, and it is therefore obliged to invest the hero with its own revolt, crediting him with the features which made the ego a hero. This object is achieved with infantile motives and materials, in reverting to the infantile romance and transferring it to the hero. Myths are, therefore, created by adults, by means of retrograde childhood fantasies, the hero being credited with the myth-maker's personal infantile history.
As well as,
Since the normal relations of the hero toward his father and his mother regularly appear impaired in all these myths there is reason to assume that something in the nature of the hero must account for such a disturbance, and motives of this kind are not very difficult to discover. It is readily understood that for the hero, who is exposed to envy, jealousy, and calumny to a much higher degree than all others, the descent from his parents often becomes the source of the greatest distress and embarrassment. The old saying that "A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country and in his father's house," has no other meaning but that he whose parents, brothers and sisters, or playmates, are known to us, is not so readily conceded to be a prophet. There seems to be a certain necessity for the prophet to deny his parents.
And yet, the gains time bestowed upon the adult and his denial or revolt against his parents come at the expense of innocence—of the lightness (even if anxious lightness) that comes with not knowing—which is childhood's greatest gift as well as its most longed for quality. In the end, then, the effort of revision is a bitter effort which secretly hopes for its own failure so childhood can remain free of the touch of adulthood, and thus, of experience.
February 9, 2015
In response to the last journal entry, a few people have written asking what I meant by right work and by hard work, but there is not much that can be said in general terms. Work and life are currents that change with the day, circumstances, state of mind, opportunities. Sometimes the current flows fast and we ride it. Sometimes we come to an eddy and we have to paddle. Sometimes an obstacle is in the way. Sometimes there is a drop. If we are attentive, in time we get to know about flow and about ourselves and about ourselves in the flow, but we will never know enough. Familiarity is a lie and a trap.
That being said, I find it useful to remember that although each day is never exactly the same as any other, some situations recur for reasons that are analogous to the reason why we find eddies and whitewater in the same place in a stream: streams look as they do because streambed topography, gradients, and shores are similar from one day to the next. Sometimes this constancy is good. Sometimes it is bad. Reinvention is not easy, but a little of it is sometimes necessary.
February 4, 2015
Occasionally artists ask me about ways to improve their work or their career prospects and I have noticed that coloring many of these questions is the belief that success and failure are mostly dependent on luck, connections, tricks, ruthlessness, looks, birth, and so on.
Some obstacles are real and some are not, but in either case I have found that situations improve if you ask why and you keep the right distance, if you are nimble but specific, and if you work hard without whining.
More on these.
Ask why. Understanding how, who, what, and where, while necessary are not as important as understanding why.
The right distance. Distance and investment are not the same thing. The best outcomes come from being invested while maintaining the right distance.
Be nimble. It is important to be attentive to what is obvious, but I try not to underestimate the complexity of things or to become obligated to my assumptions. I change if change is necessary.
Be specific. It seems to me that most failures can be attributed to two related tendencies: satisfaction with vagueness and overestimations of what we actually know. Although it is not easy, I make an effort to distinguish clear ideas from a concatenation of poorly understood ones—five vague ideas do not add to a clear one.
Work. Working right is best. If you do not know what "right" is, then work hard, and keep in mind we often overestimate our effort. Put work aside when it is time to put the work aside. I think the hardest part is knowing when that is.
Don't whine. Our circumstances are not the most difficult and our challenges are not the biggest.
THE QUESTION OF PLACE
January 26, 2015
Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Riptide, 2009
Place can be a marker we make or one that is made for us: the house where we were born; the town we grew up in; the field where our parents ran as children; the old country as constructed by stories; the conglomerate we think of as our nation; and so on. These markers are real to the extent we see them in ourselves and ourselves in them.
When we ask, "what is my place?" however, we are usually asking about something more than a location. As I have asked it myself, it is simultaneously an examination of identity and a desire to match that identity with a circumstance in which one can dwell, and by dwelling I mean a state of emotional attachment accompanied by peace, perhaps similar though not exactly, to being settled.
In Building, Dwelling, Thinking¹ Martin Heidegger writes,
The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is Buan, dwelling. To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell...man is insofar as he dwells.
The idea of dwelling in this essay by Heidegger is closely bound to a material building, a tangible house. My own understanding of dwelling, however, circles around a more elusive state that is, more or less, the opposite of disquiet.
Although reaching that state or remaining there has never been easy, there are significant challenges brought on by a set of conditions that, if they do not define, they certainly permeate our age: narcissism, trust in the wisdom of collectives, separation from nature, fear of solitude, dependency on restless electronic gadgets, information overload, and reliance on hearsay. In this environment, the development of identity often consists of the agglomeration prevailing trends, prejudices, tastes, and opinions, whose homogenizing effect is felt in the disappearance of many qualities characteristic of individuality. While individuality diminishes, claims of customization increase, suggesting that instead of seeing ourselves as a territory whose topography and boundaries we must continually remake in order to maintain our claim on it, we see ourselves as a space confirmed by our whims.
As an alternative, let us consider then the question "what is my place?" as an effort, maybe unconscious and likely futile, to trade the crust of agglomerated identity for an identity which has its origins as well as its evolving impulse in the struggle for authenticity as well as in the desire for some measure of freedom.
So if asking "what is my place?" it is in fact an examination of identity and a desire to match that identity with a circumstance in which one can dwell, then we can approach the question as an evaluation of our trajectory: "where have I been?" "how have I walked the paths that have led me here?" "what do I hope for?" "can I find that elusive dwelling, that place which reflects something I recognize as myself?"
It is through examination of the trajectory, the road, that we get closest to the relationship between what we are and our longing because the road is often indistinguishable from our own understanding of self and world. The road, however, suggests movement rather than fixed locations, so anyone who has not taken "their place" for granted is and will remain a wanderer whose "place" is always becoming, an elusive answer at the other side of a faceted question. When we ask "what is my place?" are we not also asking, "where have I been?" where am I going?" "how do I get there?" "am I lost?" "how will I know if I am lost?" "who is the 'me' who seeks 'a place?'"
When we ask, "what is my place?" we are trying to understand how we are in the world as well as how we construct that world, and we are also embarking on an inquiry about, and into, time, which we often confuse (especially in memories) with place.
¹Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, Harper Colophon Books, New York, 1971.
December 9, 2014
For some time, I have been thinking about the poem Desert Places, written by Robert Frost in 1936.
To discover or, more typically, to sense, our interior untamed moral expanse and its remote, unknown, and desert places is to know ourselves more and also less. Why more I cannot tell, except for the fact there is more of something there. Less is easier to explain. For one thing, less certainty in what we are to the point of being uncertain that we are.
I have it in me so much nearer home/ To scare myself with my own desert places, is how the poem ends.
Perhaps we hope to drown the uncertainty and the loneliness by holding on to the meaning we give to a world inherently empty of meaning, but this is a small consolation. The fear that sooner or later we will be completely erased is never far for those who search for it. I am too absent-spirited to count, Frost writes.
I have sometimes wondered if refuge could be found in that blanker whiteness of benighted snow with no expression, nothing to express. I am not sure what refuge would mean then and, in any case, there is no getting around ourselves for too long. Wallace Stevens proposed something of the sort in his 1921 poem, The Snow Man.
The hole in the refuge is the improbability of sustaining a listener that nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
So what is left?
Thomas offered this Kierkegaardian reverie: the loneliness that will be more before it will be less, that is the refuge.
THE FROG KING
November 17, 2014
Now that I am back in California, Thomas and I are getting together more often. Last Sunday, sitting under a naked persimmon tree, he told me a lesser-known version of The Frog King. In this other tale, the frog began to miss who he used to be soon after becoming king. He despised his new smelly toes and hoped to wake up again one morning with his slick, long, webbed feet. He longed for his old permeable skin almost as much as he loathed his new hairy one. The rotting meat he was served with great ceremony repulsed him and he hated putting powder on his already dry skin. He despised his small human eyes and what he saw with them: the adulating teeth of the courtiers, the bombastic dances and strident songs, the soldiers maimed by war selling trinkets at the market, the dry stone chapel, the spoiled princess now queen and her evil gold ball. He was disgusted with all these visions, but nothing was as revolting to him as the face of who he had become: the weary stare, the bloody lips, the big hot nostrils, and the droopy eyelids, which reminded him of foreskin. In the end, the king, tired of himself and of his new world, and undoubtedly seeking the other one, drowned himself in the deepest part of the moat, on the side of the castle that had no windows. Thomas ended the story with a nod, as if saying, "that is the way it is," then we remained quiet for a while listening to the creaking sound of the naked persimmon tree.
SEEING THINGS DIFFERENTLY (PART III)
September 30, 2014
Why should an artist, or anyone for that matter, bother to explore the sources, values, motivations and consequences associated with the idea seeing things differently in the limited way in which that idea was described in Part I? One reason is because such an exploration amounts to an examination of contemporary hopes and prejudices. A better reason is that when you are finally worn-out by pretension and insincerity, it is nice to know there are options.
Alain de Botton in his book The Architecture of Happiness writes, "we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient." This view of beauty as reaction to lack echoes Friedrich Schiller's who on Naïve and Sentimental Poetry states, "just as nature gradually begins to vanish from human life as experience and as the (acting and feeling) subject, so do we see it rise in the poetical world as idea and as object."
Undoubtedly, there is a reactive component to our sense of beauty. We often covet those qualities we would like to have more in ourselves. We try to come across smarter than we are, with more taste, more balanced and happier, perhaps thinking that "coming across" is a step, if not the most important step, towards "being." But we also seek affirmation. We like to surround ourselves with memories and images that prove we have lived. There is an aspect of what we consider beautiful which seeks confirmation of our choices, in particular, and of our life, in general, even if we know our life to be flawed or infirm.
The coexistence of these two seemingly conflicting motivations informing the judgment of beauty within the same person, the same house, or the same group, is facilitated by the low intensity of these motivations. We like to have aspirations and we like to have confirmations, but our lives are too claimed, too mortgaged, for us to devote anything more than casual attention to our needs. Moreover, that conflicted motivational coupled-pair is filtered through the need to be appreciated, respected or feared by those we envy or admire.
It is an understanding of those conflicts and filters which helps us clarify the views, the art, the houses, the lifestyles, and the life we usually crave. It is also that understanding that can lead us to ask the question: what are other ways to approach what we want out of art and life?
There are many ways, of course. Let me mention two memorable ones.
One way is to look at art as a way to create an ethical community, as Leo Tolstoy does in What is Art? He writes, "art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost. In order to be able to speak about the art of our society, it is, therefore, first of all necessary to distinguish art from counterfeit art." Later on, he adds, "however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it)."
A second way is to seek art capable of offering the kind of ethical imperative that Rainer Maria Rilke suggests in his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo,
SEEING THINGS DIFFERENTLY (PART II)
September 24, 2014
I read a novel or a poem or encounter a painting or a sculpture hoping to be moved, to be confronted, not so much to be surprised, and I find it best not to waste too much time with flourishes and twists and smarty things. Occasionally I find revelations in the surprise offered by a work of art, such as in Guiseppe Penone's The Hidden Life Within, but usually I find the most useful surprises in everyday life—in the way the pink stem of a purslane weed grows from a crack in the sidewalk or in why something turned out different than I had expected. I go to art, literature, and sometimes philosophy, to find the type of transformative experience others might find, say, in religion or science. Here, for example, is a poem by César Vallejo,
Below you can read the poem in translation (from Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems. Edited by Robert Bly, Beacon Press, Boston, 1971), or you can listen to a rendition by the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa here.
SEEING THINGS DIFFERENTLY (PART I)
September 22, 2014
At a recent art event I heard one collector say, "art forces you see things differently," and everyone around him nodded in agreement. It was a familiar scene: the effervescent joyousness of the dull guests, the smart topical remarks being exchanged, the vapid work on the walls. People in cultivated circles like to appear flexible and confident, and, when claimed in relation art, professing a willingness to be challenged suggests an appealing combination of refinement and edginess.
Most of us, however, limit our confrontation to those questions that obediently remain around the fringes of our lives. In the case of people with a high social status, the challenges they typically accept do not include difficult examinations of more fundamental aspects of self, choices and morals, since success ought to be proof enough of the righteousness of their assumptions and decisions.
So what then does the willingness to be challenged by art amount to? In many cases it is nothing more than a tingly stir of entrenched affectations. Being challenged around the edges allows the successful art enthusiast to feel the frisson of risk without having to face a real threat and the arrogance of intellectual prowess without having to think too deeply.
THE SEAMAN'S CROP
August 24, 2014
While writing or speaking about my work I always reach that point of wondering if I should say anything at all. It is not that there is nothing to say, the problem is that what can be said, or what can be said by me, at least, does not adequately point to the emotional and intellectual source of the work. In art, any content or any concept is in itself—away from the work—of little consequence. Art lives on its particulars, on the way a light is not like another light, or how the boat in The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer is not like the boat in Boating by Édouard Manet. If despite my reservations I end up offering some sort of statement as I am doing now, it is usually to create points of entry for those who do not know the work or do not know it well, and also to discourage a gross misreading, but this statement should be understood to be peripheral to the kernel of the work.
With that disclaimer as a backdrop, let me frame my new body of work, The Seaman's Crop, by saying that in recent years I have been thinking about the relationship between the small turns of human lives—our plans, relations, disappointments, births, deaths—and the big turns of history, nature and time. We are all aware of these turns and, to an extent, we recognize that our experience of ourselves in the world is influenced, if not determined, by the interactions between the human and the cosmological cogwheels. In the new paintings, watercolors and sculptures, I have explored aspects of these rotations, such as the fragility and ruthlessness of innocence, the value of what is left behind, the randomness, marvel and terror of nature, and the dynamics of hope and disenchantment.
The world suggested by this cycle of work is a radiant world grounded in experience, richer than what we can capture with our senses, and secret, but without too many metaphysical, social, cultural, or cynical overlays. Although the works in the cycle are often different from each other, they all gravitate around the idea of a journey and, more specifically, around markers of place. Undoubtedly, there is something biographical in this exploration of journey. I have planted many things—homes, lives, children, countries, hopes—and I have left many things, but my stories are neither the only source of this work nor its aim. The images in The Seaman's Crop draw upon my childhood in the Caribbean, for instance, but they also come from Nordic poetry, the popular Florida painting tradition, American Transcendentalism, children games, pop songs, and day-to-day observations.
Initially, many of these images recall vague memories, but this first impression is usually superseded by the recognition of another, more robust order. This type of "image unfolding" also happens with the landscapes, which change from theatrical stages to intersections for memory, reality, dreams, and myth, as well as with the figures and animals that instead of remaining actors evolving narratives become pointers to conditions, placeholders, and mirrors. This aggression to the scene or to the reference in favor of presence is more apparent when the works are experienced close enough to notice that their scale and the way they are painted undermines many representational devices, such as rendering and the illusion of space. Another factor that contributes to the enhanced presence of the work is the history revealed by its surfaces. Since I am interested in a search rather than a strategy or an aesthetic consideration, I neither rely on sketches, pursue a continuity of style, nor look for peers or for common ideas among my contemporaries. The instinctiveness and individuality of this process leads to many failures, wrong turns, hidden images, and destruction. This history, manifested in layers of paint, ghostly images, frayed edges around the borders, and also in the final conviction of the work, suggest that we could also think of The Seaman's Crop’s invocation of a journey as an allegory of artmaking.
Finally, let me say something about text and literature, which play an important role in this new cycle. As it is usually the case, I wrote while making the work and I returned often to the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Harry Martinson, Tomas Tranströmer, and Robert Frost. What is different about The Seaman's Crop from previous projects is the significant presence of text in the works themselves. I have written on artworks for a long time but never as consistently and as extensively as I have with these new paintings and watercolors. Most of these texts have been written with the same lack of preparation with which I have painted the paintings, which account for their immediacy, and also probably for their occasional awkwardness. In a way, the texts suggest that all these ostensibly visual artworks are really poems, and a lot of the time that is how I saw and approached the work. Here, for example, is something I wrote while making this work,
Farewells circle the traveler like moths. His attention, though, is on crops sprouting in furrows far away and also (and maybe mostly) on those seeds who by carelessness of the planter fell outside the furrows. But to call him a traveler is to misunderstand him. He is more suitcase than wanderer, more actuary than explorer. His restlessness is that of a dreamer who battered by old affections and by near misses knits wind from his bruises and takes to the sea carrying only the rootworm, the beetle, and his vision.
A WASTED JOURNEY, A HALF-FINISHED BLAZE
January 15, 2014
For A Wasted Journey, A Half-Finished Blaze, my new exhibition at the Galleri Andersson/Sandström in Sweden, I reconceived the sculpture I created for my exhibition at SITE Santa Fe and recontextualized it within a series of paintings to imagine new ways of connecting the domestic and the epic as well as the experiential bond that exists between time, loneliness, and memory. This body of work is not a treatise but a searching out of that bond, a searching out that seems to simultaneously suggest the enduring impact of the past upon the present and a world whose radiance and danger are not diminished by that past.
A Wasted Journey, A Half-Finished Blaze continues my exploration of ideas I have been pursuing in the last decade: memory, suffering, longing for radiance, loneliness, the revelation of choices in the work of art, and the possibility of art to be relevant to life. The individual objects have been assembled to create an environment where the visitor can sense the presence of those ideas without dictating how he or she participates in the unfolding of a narrative. Like most of my work, its reason for being is not my knowledge of things, but my bewilderment towards the secretive nature of experience. While some of the images come from specific events in my own life, many others are mined or fabricated in search for metaphors capable of illuminating that secretive world.
The main sculpture in this environment presents a bronze boy encrusted with large jewels crying onto a bed of pine needles. His tears carve a channel through the beds as they cascade from one bed to the next. When they reach the last bed, the meager stream falls on a stack of dishes and pots reminiscent of what one might find in the sink of any house. If the literal and metaphoric circulation of the tears over the pine needle beds points to unspoken—or maybe unspeakable—losses, it also brings to mind a creek in the forest. The forest is then taken on, expanded, and dismembered in the paintings—images of trees with tears and faint horizons, a ghostly child on a field of dandelions, a pine branch on a white bed, barren white trees against a yellow sky. In one painting the forest gives way to a desolated snow-covered landscape where a single figure cries into the mouth of an elephant, as peculiar an image in that context as the jewels are on the boy. The paintings, made with layers of translucent paint, present a narrative but don't quite unfold it—don't quite believe it.
Doubt is the price of memory. The dynamics of recollection bring back what is no more to recreate worlds where truth and lies are frequently indistinguishable, and where what was once familiar becomes strange, foreign. In A Wasted Journey, A Half-Finished Blaze this invocation of memory and the resulting transformation of the familiar are brought about not only by the references themselves—the boy, the beds, the forest—but also by the materials used and the way in which references are compounded—tears and jewels, beds and pine needles, dishes and waterfalls. Like in dreams, a personal secret becomes shared by nature, trees carry on with the tears of those who don't cry anymore, the sun shines coldly over the landscape, and pinecones come to rest on empty beds.
As important a source of, both, clarity and mystery, as nature seems to be here, A Wasted Journey, A Half-Finished Blaze, is not a Transcendentalist or Romantic work, in part because it breathes with doubt of our capacity—and need—to move beyond the human world. And so, ethical choices appear in suspension against an impassive world that seems to whisper all possibilities of inspection and introspection are hidden in the subjective fabric of presence, and it is to this hiding that the title of the exhibition points. Our incomplete awareness of all experiences—of our journey through life—renders them a missed opportunity, a waste. But not a complete waste. Although the blaze threatens the entire landscape of awareness, the destruction is never absolute. What we know and what we are, then, are discoveries made by searching this burnt field for the surviving bits of cognition and intuition.
A Wasted Journey, A Half-Finished Blaze is a work built from dualities echoing the intrinsic ambiguity of real experience. Thus, the work touches on the domestic as well as the epic, on the small arc of individual histories as well as the big arc of time. In its invocation of the past, A Wasted Journey, A Half-Finished Blaze inspects those memories we thought we left behind, and through this inspection recognizes them to be stowaways in our current life, itself a stowaway riding in secret compartments of our consciousness.
THE ADVICE (Part I, to be continued)
December 18, 2013
Janko Lavrin writes in his book Tolstoy: An Approach, "Needless to say that Tolstoy the artist is at his best when free from any interference on the part of his moral chaperon. His best pages are those in which he describes the breadth of life spontaneously: as he feels it pulsing and vibrating in his own blood, in his instincts."
Lavrin's writing was thoughtful and full of valuable insights into Tolstoy's biography and his work, and yet as I closed the book I felt—unlike when I close one of Tolstoy's own books—the lingering aftertaste of that judgment one usually hears from people who consider themselves free from the fault they point on someone else. In the end, the book came across to me as the work of an author who while profound is also more arbitrary and more opinionated—and thus less objective—than he pretends to be. I wonder, for instance, how Lavrin is able to pick apart the life pulsing in Tolstoy's instincts from the life that Tolstoy saw and agonized over. Where did Lavrin find these golden tweezers and why couldn't Tolstoy find them also?
In any case, Lavrin's quoted admonition is another version of the advice usually given to those artists who, to paraphrase Greenberg, confuse the area of competence of their discipline with extraneous inclusions. Stick to your art, these advisors say regardless of whether their counsel is relevant to what the artist is after because it is apparently known to everyone but the artist what he or she should be after; and it is an advice offered with a degree of confidence of what "the work" and "the art" are that eludes the artists themselves.
In addition to judgment, there is yearning for what could have been under that advice. Why couldn't Tolstoy sublimate his complexity, doubts and contradiction, his social guilt, his sexuality, his deaths, his difficult marriage, his struggle with faith, into the work? Why, in short, he had to live as a man struggling to find his way and using his art to do it, instead of being just an artist? Here, the contemporary urge for specialization and for the removal of amateurish efforts joints the Modernist lament in imploring we decant the artist from the man. The assumption being that the source of Tolstoy's greatness can be separated from his weaknesses, from his smallness, from his humanity, and from all his other limitations—the genius apart from the bad husband; the realist apart from the preacher.
Although it is commonplace to think art rises from itself and that everything else is an encumbrance, a distraction, this is a luxurious viewpoint sustained by lack of engagement, like a battle studied from an easy chair safely away from the trenches.
November 19, 2013
I saw a vulture at the beach today. A big black stain against the silver sea. Have you noticed the size of these turkeys of death? At first he was picking at a dying jellyfish on the shore. This time of year jellies are tricked by the tide. Then, when a wave brought in the head of a tarpon, he moved on to the bigger payback, pulling the loose flesh from the gills and jerking the fish spine. He worked at it patiently and looked around every two or three pecks. Next to me, a man with a flower swimsuit and crutches watched the nervous feast. His girlfriend came when the vulture was separating the mouth from the carcass. She kissed him, shook her blond hair, and ran to the water. He dropped his crutches and walked after her. His legs didn't move well. He fell once. She giggled, but sweetly. I left when the vulture was working on whatever was left of the eyes. Across the street from the beach a laborer on a scaffolding drank from an orange Rubbermaid water jug which he raised high above his head.
CONFETTI WORDS AND DARK MATTER
November 14, 2013
In some writings about art the goal is not to understand how and why experiences happen as they do and not otherwise as it is to establish the credibility of the writer through the use of devices that signify thought without imposing the burden of thinking on the author. But while it is easy to weave a few topics together in response to the ideas that seem present, works of art are built by choices of exclusion as well as inclusion, and it is significantly more difficult to say anything constructive about what is absent. So, a distinctive quality of serious thought about the experience of art* is the recognition and the articulation that what is missing is as important—and perhaps more important—as what is there.
The work of art is an argument disclosed in the dynamics of awareness as we respond to, and, in turn, unfold the experience. We measure the effect of the work on us and of us in the work, and through this dynamic we sense the ideas of the artist, his or her presence, and those concepts and attitudes hovering outside the boundaries of the work. In the best of cases, this encounter opens a crack of intelligibility in an otherwise obscure reality, but recognizing this opening requires sensitivity to the "dark matter" whose gravitational pull creates the context of the encounter.
Often it is this material outside of the boundaries of the work that most clearly reveals the character and ambition of the artist and the territory of his or her exploration. Thus, the aware artist accounts for these factors while keeping in mind the viewer reactions affect, change, and at times define, the work of art, particularly in those situations when the "location" of the work of art is hardest to identify. The unconcealness brought about in the confrontation between us and the artwork depends on our capacity, and the artwork's insistence, on us being present in the experience, which includes awareness of "the experience" as a mutable condition in tension with what the artist has left outside of it, often at great cost. The artist, who is not all-knower but a searcher, enables the disclosure of possibility and the enlargement of meaning not only through what is offered, but also from what is hidden, and probably even more, from that which in the encounter becomes different from what it initially seemed.
*I am using the terms art and work of art in this writing to mean great art or art capable of effecting the type of transformations I am suggesting. In other words, art as a certain category of experience rather than a certain category of activity or production.
WHAT THERE IS AND WHAT THERE OUGHT TO BE
November 11, 2013
Tolstoy began with a view of human life and history which contradicted all his knowledge, all his gifts, all his inclinations, and which, in consequence, he could scarcely be said to have embraced in the sense of practicing it, either as a writer or as a man. From this, in his old age, he passed into a form of life in which he tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe, by behaving, in the end, as if factual questions of this kind were not the fundamental issues at all, only the trivial preoccupations of an idle, ill-conducted life, while the real questions were quite different. But it was of no use: the Muse cannot be cheated. Tolstoy was the least superficial of men: he could not swim with the tide without being drawn irresistibly beneath the surface to investigate darker depths below; and he could not avoid seeing what he saw and doubting even that; he could close his eyes but not forget that he was doing so; his appalling, destructive, sense of what was false frustrated this final effort at self-deception as it did all the earlier ones; and he died in agony, oppressed by the burden of his intellectual infallibility and his sense of perpetual moral error, the greatest of those who can neither reconcile, nor leave unreconciled, the conflict of what there is with what there ought to be. Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the life-long denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilized world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.
Excerpt from The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin
November 8, 2013
I am grateful for the foolish swagger, melodrama, and nervous consciousness of those 5 years between 14-19. They softened the miserable situations I often found myself in; they made me think I was closer than I was; they helped me believe good things were around the corner; they veiled what now will seem hard to miss. When I see that picture with the black Q-tip hair, the white shorts, the long computer program printout, and the eyes who didn't look at themselves in the mirror, or at least not in the same way as now, I recognize youth saving itself from, or delaying, empirical evidence.
BURNING AS IT WERE A LAMP
November 4, 2013
I first read The Genealogy of Morals when I was thirteen. I do not know if I understood it, but that doesn't matter so much. I was not trying to learn philosophy. I was mostly looking for ways to navigate adolescence, and probably also for justifications to avoid Sunday Mass. In any case, Nietzsche’s arguments convinced me if I were to explore his other books I might make sense of eighth grade, which seemed as good a reason as any to set myself upon that course. But by the time I started Thus Spoke Zarathustra things were already not going as well as I had hoped, and the following passage persuaded me the curriculum for life I had set out for myself was going to take more than a year,
It is hard to know exactly why this passage stopped my march towards middle school wisdom among so many other ones which were perhaps more challenging or that now seem more relevant to who I was then. I know I did not read it as Nietzsche's own concerns towards the misinterpretation of his ideas, but rather as a confrontation between the mirror carried by the childhood I was leaving behind and the strangeness I recognized, but could not decipher, in the reflection of who I was becoming. The passage spoke to my doubts, and that confrontation influenced the paintings I was making at the time–mostly still lives, family portraits, and teenage fantasies. Over the next decade, the mirror came up literally or metaphorically several times, often signaling the frailty of certitude. More recently, the mirror has appeared between the antlers of a tar and feathered deer in Coming Home, as part of diptychs in Shore, and by itself in The October Cycle. I have also used the qualities of a mirror—reflectivity, transparency, secondary reflection, and interference—in my paintings to offer what is uncanny as well as what is unpaintable. Setting out to paint these particular qualities of light's refraction and reflection without the artifice of trompe l' oeil—and even with it—situates the work in a representational threshold between showing and telling that argues for the authentic by failing from the onset.
In late November, I am installing a new project, Burning as it were a Lamp, at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Miami that takes on the mirror again. The environment consists of few elements: a painting on one wall, three other walls tiled with mirrors, and a bronze boy who stands in a pool of his own tears. The reflection of the pond is dark and faint while the one offered by the wall mirror is fractured, as if we were looking at facets of a world carelessly brought together. The boy has big circular holes cut out from his metal shell, water comes out of his eyes, and a valve is visible by his heel. Although we can only see him from the back, we discover his face in the mirror along with our own reflection and the reflection of the painting behind us; a mid-format vertical painting of a burnt angel crashing into the sea.
As we move, the relationship between these elements shift, and we shift with them. This change as well as the nature of the imagery makes it difficult for the visitor to establish a point of view free of contradiction. Take the boy, for instance, his holes and his valve suggest he is a metal conduit, nonetheless, we do not completely forget him as a boy. He is not lost to his own image, like Narcissus, but are his tears not vanity also in the end? And why does he weep? For his distance, we assume—for what will never be his. And so, although he is metallic—solid—he becomes absent. The painting of the burnt angel also invites contradiction and ambiguity. It has ambition and surrenders into clumsiness; it represents and destroys; it is theatrical and hermetic; bombastic and mute. Can it really be more than an allegory of itself—more than a painting about the act of painting a fallen angel? And where are we in relation to this painting? Do we, like the ship in Auden's poem, have somewhere to get to and cannot be held back by those falling from the sky? Or is it that the vanishing of things like angels, memories, and who we used to be or thought ourselves to be, is drowned by images rustling in time?
As sources of, both, confusion and revelation of our place in the world, the mirror on the walls, the reflection on the floor, and the shifting point of view, seed the cloud of generative questions. The mirror suggests recognition of self, but it also invites misrecognition, lack of familiarity, and, ultimately, the assumption of a self that does not completely, or at all, fit who we feel ourselves to be. Are we that burnt, abandoned angel? Are we the boy? Are we the seer who can only inhabit this house of mirrors as a ghost?
To me, this world of repeated, intertwined, anachronistic, images announces our uncertainty as well as our fragile and limited apprehension of ourselves and of the world in which we believe ourselves to be. The reflected burnt angel and crying bronze boy are phantom consciences whose existences echo ours, and so as we interact with this reflected world our own dissolves. Our image in the mirror, like a painting, invites a dialectic between the perceiving/experiencing subject and a perceived/experienced object. Thus, to look at the image in the work of art or in the mirror is to recognize our distance from what we see while at the same time being offered the suggestion, if not the promise, of unity, a promise that is frustrated as soon as it is recognized.
Burning as it were a Lamp brings forth those questions that have an effect on our own identity and memories, and maybe also on our relationship to loss, especially the loss of who we had been and of those places in which we had been. The environment places the duality of self and reflection at the center of a visual, literary and philosophical web of relationships that tries to represent—to catch—the irrepresentable. The project also suggests any non-trivial knowledge of who we are in the world depends on our recognition of the movement of those invisible gears of history, world, and individual experience, and that even in the best of cases, this knowledge is inadequate. This inadequacy hovers around Burning as it were a Lamp in the form of the instability and, perhaps also, of the dislocation of one's relation to the work, as well as in the uncertainty we feel in knowing what the work itself is.
September 19, 2013
It has been five years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a pivotal point in the most recent financial crisis. Despite the end-of-the-world rhetoric during that week in 2008, and the many private planes that had to be sold in the subsequent years, today the stock market is higher than ever, Wall Street is making money again, and fine spirits are flowing in London and New York nightspots.
The cynicism, greed and narcissism that fueled that rollercoaster are old news. What seems to be new news, at least new in the sense of being a phenomenon coming of age in last three decades, is the way in which the art world now understands itself as the art market. Certainly, a part of the art world has always been a market, but until recently pockets of resistance as well as the refusal by many artists to make bourgeois decorations helped complicate the mercantile picture and provided encouragement to many up-and-coming artists. Things are different now, and perhaps it was Tobias Meyer of Sotheby's who best encapsulated the difference when he said, "the best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart."
The dominating forces of the art-world-turned-art-market are the corporate dynamics of the curator-dealer-auction complex, the multi-national gallery, the proliferating art fairs, and, as a consequence of these, the idea that meaning and value are created at the point of sale rather than at the point of making. There are counter examples to these forces, but they are not easy to find in the mainstream art world, which consists primarily of art journals packed with advertisement and market-aligned writing; critical commentary that follows the auction leaders or are summoned to write on behalf of auction leaders in order to justify prices; critics who posture against a market of commodities but who eagerly speak at an art fair panel; big galleries building massive spaces in many cities to convince the market of their importance, and small galleries trying to be like the big ones; collectors who are watching indexes, top-ten lists, and biennial choices, hoping that by collecting what others approve they will not make a mistake; and artists coming out of MFA programs looking for recognition in the curator-dealer-auction complex.
None of that is categorically new, but we are entering a new epoch where the cynicism of the last century and the decadent end of the Modern Project combine with powerful means of communication and lack of coherent socio-political alternatives to create a widely held (and predatory) faith in the wisdom of markets.
June 21, 2013
The Pearl, my upcoming exhibition at SITE Santa Fe, is a poem about time, its marker as well as the current of those markers. Like memory, it retrieves and hollows what was, and in doing so, builds and undermines what is. Ostensibly it is made of objects, images, words and sounds, but it is really written on the dust of rooms long ago left silent; rooms where the boy I used to be still waits for my return, sitting on a pine-wood chair, his eyes wide open.
Some poems need to be written, others we write willfully, and a few we find, which is the case with The Pearl. I am not suggesting it was inevitable, but it was always there, like a dull ache. For years its fragments called me with their mermaid song from the rocks of a family dinner or from the rough seas of the caress of guilt. There might be other fragments I didn't find—perhaps the ones that too numb, too happy, or too bruised, didn't sing loud enough—and the fragments I did find, I might not have connected right or well.
Be as it may, The Pearl is, in part, a poem from my childhood, at times insignificant, at times epic, at times shameful, and always distorted by the veil of years. If it points at anything in particular it is at the secret inherent in all things.
WHY DON'T YOU GIVE IT AWAY MORE EASILY?
May 2, 2013
Although there seems to be a mountain of evidence to the contrary in the form of intellectual analysis, handbooks, financial algorithms and teaching fads, what makes a painting moving remains a secret: see the hand of the imitator fail, see the flares of the hero burn off with his age, see the earnest artist make nothing of her hope, see the shallow passages of the virtuoso, see the sharp booted semiotician's knotty work, see the market favorito strut his rhinestoned muteness, see the sweet broccoli-eating naturalist deliver a sponge cake, see the timid speech of the academic, see the pious craft an earthly lump, see the baroque hollowness of the informed. Once you have seen them all, then stare at the light coming off a great painting and try to extract its inner workings, its source.
If you look long enough, you will probably come away from this research with two conclusions.
The first of these conclusions is useful as a beacon, particularly in the face of the always-present human tendency to obscure fear and shortcomings with talk, distraction, power, religion, consensus, or lies. The second separates the reaching from the having. Even though you might be a faithful student of painting and that devotion might help you learn the way a work is made, considered and positioned, as many mediocre paintings prove, the source of the work's energy remains secret.
Many people are discouraged by this stubborn silence and with good reason. Painting is—depending on your point of view—an ungrateful master or a disloyal servant. No amount of flourish or restraint, and no amount of sacrifice or indulgence, can guarantee results. Painting remains impassive to our offerings, to our life, to our claims, to our connections, to our titles, to our past accomplishments, and to just about everything else.
Authenticity might be the only way towards the light of a great painting, but even if this assertion were to be the case, it is of limited help. The equation between authenticity, subjectivity, talent, experience, interior capacity, is beyond most of our algebras. Nonetheless, keeping authenticity in mind might help you waste less time.
April 16, 2013
THE GREAT RACE
March 12, 2013
Many of my friends don't go to McDonald's, so they are missing some discoveries that seem to only happen in its franchises. There is one McDonald's in particular which is worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Delray Beach. It is decorated with a racing theme—a real car in a plexiglass box, pictures of car races, mannequins in racing gear—and 50s music plays on the coinless jukebox.
There are many things to say about the place, but what I find most remarkable is how the combination of frozen speed, nostalgia, and burger scent strangles me with loneliness, and probably because there is something heartbreaking about a checkered flag pattern near a toilet, I find the loneliest area of this restaurant is the bathroom. Recently, a repair was made to its wall that has added new emotional twists, and today I stood in front of this near-miss patch thinking it was just another case of caring-but-not-enough.
But when I stepped back into the restaurant and saw that the jacket in the plexiglass case was bleached by the sun, I realized the race enthusiast who owns that McDonald's is tired. Then I thought, tiredness is the ending of all things, and on my way out, I looked around missing whoever had bothered to put the whole place together.
THE REGRET OF THE MOUNTING DRAGON
February 25, 2013
I once knew a gallerist who hoped to do something significant. Not something significant in the world of dealmaking, although that too, but significant in the historic sense. He spoke of greatness and he had the ability to excite other people, to convince them of his dreams, and whether you believed him or not, it felt good to be in his company.
I have also met artists with similar hopes, and occasionally collectors, curators, theologians and arts administrators. But these dreamy motivations tend to only fuel the early part of a career, when the real world, as it is sometimes called, has not yet revealed itself fully. Eventually, most of these dreamers get tired of struggling and life gets in the way of their dreams.
Some claim they learned the way things work and others that they are only buying time until they won't have to compromise anymore.
Perhaps all these claims are true. But it is also true that the lesson of how things work and temporary compromises crowd the heart, and as Yoshida Kenko writes in Essays in Idleness, in all things, where there is no room for advance decay is at hand.
January 2, 2013
Recently, I found these two sentences in an article about Alain-Fournier in The Economist,
December 15, 2012
In this neighborhood debates are carried on the walls of buildings. This is partly the legacy of Tony Goldman, a developer who in 2009 came up with the idea of transforming the warehouse district of Wynwood into "giant canvases to bring to them the greatest street art ever seen in one place." Despite Goldman's enthusiasm, many of the owners and renters of the tow lots, thrift stores, galleries, studios, and homeless shelters that make up the neighborhood don't welcome the art on their walls, so the street artists work mostly at night and on weekends. This makes mornings, especially Monday mornings, always a surprise. This weekend my studio was spared, but the pink building across the street was spray-painted with two lines of text separated by a roll up door, "I am not defined by your ignorance," and "I am beauty. I am love." Signed by TMNK.
Reading this bit of Aquarian wall wisdom, I thought of writing underneath it, "no, you are defined by your own," but maybe I was just talking to myself.
Daily, if not hourly, I feel my ignorance, my limitations, hemming in my choices and my dreams—defining me—and I suspect it is the same for TMNK. I feel it most when standing in front of one of my paintings sensing my ideas are circumscribed by what I know, by who I am. Perhaps at times we are lucky enough to sense the radiance of the world, and then, caught by the exhilaration, we feel we are beauty. Love. But we always return to our long list of shortcomings and to our ignorance. An artist has to start in those shortcomings, in that ignorance, rather than in the beauty or the love. Artists who try to start with the light make decorative and mute work. Like a bean sprout, light comes from and through the dirt.
ON COMPLAINTS ABOUT THE ART MARKET
December 14, 2012
A friend recently sent me an article criticizing the art market in which its author, Felix Salmon, conveys disgust for what he sees as an environment of excess and compromised ideals. The article circles the familiar absurdities and the author supports his insights with quotes from Dave Hickey, who claims to have recently quit the artworld, and from Sarah Thornton, who quit writing about the economics of art.
I sympathize with Salmon's indignation. Many concerns of the art market have little to do with quality and much to do with trends and trades, and its machinations tend to reward indulgence, insecurity, and immediate gratification, especially if there is a great deal of money involved. In this market it is not unusual for major acquisitions to depend on hearsay and superficial, mostly circumstantial, knowledge, and there is a frequent collusion of taste and positions between museums, art galleries, collectors, critics and fairs, which one suspects it is not so much a conspiracy for power as it is a compact based on fear.
So I sympathize with Salmon, but he did not construct a convincing argument against the problem. He stomped the floor, pointed his finger, and called for something more authentic to rise from the ether. This outburst, while dramatic and probably heartfelt, does not clarify the problem, in part because his article centers the conversation—not unlike the environment he criticizes—on artworld players rather than on art.
This is not a surprising strategy. Speaking about players, production, prices, absurdities, and indignities is easier than speaking about quality. But the superficiality of the market, the fast rise of some artists, and the transitory quality of many collections, cannot be understood solely by considering the dynamics of money, narcissism, and status. Shchukin and Frick, for instance, had money and bought work for their mansions, and so did many other wealthy people who built good collections and who were not necessarily kinder or more socially minded than today's plutocrats.
One reason why it is difficult to construct an argument against the glitterati of the artworld and its affections is because counter examples are not obvious. There are many factions in the artworld, but beyond the labels and the rhetoric, the imperative of most of these factions is reproduction and survival, which usually means proclivity to self-indulgence, lack of authenticity, and convenience. For example, Salmon uses Hickey, who he calls a doyen of American critics, to show the good ones are heading for the doors, but Hickey, who says he came to art because of sex, drugs and Roy Lichtenstein, is an uncertain moral compass if what we hope to find is clarity and not flourish. Salmon also uses Thornton's refusal to write about the economics of art as a sign of the deteriorating situation, but after reading Seven Days in the Art World, and her articles on Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, I wish she would have quit earlier. So, I am not impressed by his examples, nor am I moved by his calling for equality, honesty and human scale as possible alternatives to what he calls the obscenity of the artworld.
Art—as anyone who has seriously tried to create it could confirm—does not care for equality, and does not spring from, or can be measured by, a human scale. Art is resistant to good intentions, and hermetic when confronted by what people usually consider art knowledge, especially of the kind who-what-when. Of course, it is disconcerting to see a still-life by Edouard Manet amid a circus of self-importance and shiny trinkets, but the problem is not so much a market controlled by wealthy opportunists. The same Manet would look pained amid pedantic academic talks or hanging next to dim-witted socially conscious art. Confusion and mediocrity are the real threats. I feel them, and I know they also haunt the gray-haired guru in New Mexico, the sharp-dressed gallery owner in New York, and the oligarch in Moscow.
Ultimately, the problem I have with Salmon's article is that he is not the ally I would want against the nonsense of the artworld. His choices of good guys, for instance, tell me he and I don't seek the same solutions. Like many people I know, he seems repulsed by a few popular artists, but this repulsion doesn't make his ideas or the art he likes better. Moral outrage does not, in itself, make anyone moral. I know artists who seem to feel their dislike of Koons or Cattelan make them more authentic, and yet their work shows they are not. I know writers with all the right heroes whose opinions are questionable. For instance, the British newspaper The Observer quotes Will Gompertz, the BBC's arts editor, as saying, "There are important artists like Ai Weiwei and Peter Doig, who produces beautiful and haunting paintings in similar ways to Edward Hopper." What does he mean by "in similar ways?" I can't think of any relationship, except the most banal, between Doig and Hopper. Yet, it is likely that to some readers Gompertz's statement will sound right, even insightful, because these two artists paint scenes and lonely figures.
Art exists despite the interlocutors, the vultures and the fancy-pants, even if it often has to go underground to survive the spectacle of the trends and chases of the art market, or the war of academic and journalistic opinions. As many artists have shown, it exists when no one is clear enough to recognize it. Art survives the muck we artists make of ourselves in search for light, and it also survives hanging in museum rooms with the now-dull luminaries of the past. The aura and the symbolic arguments notwithstanding, it survives not as a form of production, a convention, or the given outcome of an artistic activity, but as a transformative experience undiminished by its surroundings.
November 2, 2012
A lot has been said about existence, essence, thought, identity, the am, the first I, the second I, etc., in regards to those philosophical propositions, I think, therefore I am, and I think, therefore I exist.
But in the last few years it has been that deceiving adverb, therefore, which I have found intriguing. Therefore asserts logical consequence, inevitability, self-evidence, but, if I were to overcome the argument (not easy to do) that existence is already presupposed in thinking, then nothing about I am or I exist seems a self-evident consequence of I think. It is not my hack philosophy that matters to me here, but the recognition, once again, that many ostensibly obvious steps are not so obvious. Secrets rumble under the surface of things and strangeness hovers around the familiar.
October 28, 2012
It is not hard to make a convincing argument that pandering, mediocrity, fad-hounds and manipulation have always been around. Nonetheless, the like button that appears on many websites (including the Facebook page where my studio posts notices about the work) typifies our moment, and its popularity is a harbinger of what is to come.
To understand what we are wrestling with, try this experiment: read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, then click a like button somewhere to offer your positive feedback on the book.
October 8, 2012
Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Grief Box, 2010
He found a delightful house, just the thing both he and his wife had dreamt of. Spacious, lofty reception rooms in the old style, a convenient and dignified study, rooms for his wife and daughter, a study for his son—it might have been specially built for them. Ivan Ilych himself superintended the arrangements, chose the wallpapers, supplemented the furniture (preferably with antiques which he considered particularly comme il faut), and supervised the upholstering. Everything progressed and progressed and approached the ideal he had set himself: even when things were only half completed they exceeded his expectations. He saw what a refined and elegant character, free from vulgarity, it would all have when it was ready. On falling asleep he pictured to himself how the reception room would look. Looking at the yet unfinished drawing room he could see the fireplace, the screen, the what-not, the little chairs dotted here and there, the dishes and plates on the walls, and the bronzes, as they would be when everything was in place. He was pleased by the thought of how his wife and daughter, who shared his taste in this matter, would be impressed by it. They were certainly not expecting as much. He had been particularly successful in finding, and buying cheaply, antiques which gave a particularly aristocratic character to the whole place. But in his letters he intentionally understated everything in order to be able to surprise them. All this so absorbed him that his new duties—though he liked his official work—interested him less than he had expected. Sometimes he even had moments of absent-mindedness during the court sessions and would consider whether he should have straight or curved cornices for his curtains. He was so interested in it all that he often did things himself, rearranging the furniture, or rehanging the curtains. Once when mounting a step-ladder to show the upholsterer, who did not understand, how he wanted the hangings draped, he had a false step and slipped, but being a strong and agile man he clung on and only knocked his side against the knob of the window frame. The bruised place was painful but the pain soon passed, and he felt particularly bright and well just then. He wrote: "I feel fifteen years younger." He thought he would have everything ready by September, but it dragged on till mid-October. But the result was charming not only in his eyes but to everyone who saw it.
In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes—all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional. He was very happy when he met his family at the station and brought them to the newly furnished house all lit up, where a footman in a white tie opened the door into the hall decorated with plants, and when they went on into the drawing-room and the study uttering exclamations of delight. He conducted them everywhere, drank in their praises eagerly, and beamed with pleasure. At tea that evening, when Praskovya Fedorovna among others things asked him about his fall, he laughed, and showed them how he had gone flying and had frightened the upholsterer.
"It's a good thing I'm a bit of an athlete. Another man might have been killed, but I merely knocked myself, just here; it hurts when it's touched, but it's passing off already—it's only a bruise."
So they began living in their new home—in which, as always happens, when they got thoroughly settled in they found they were just one room short—and with the increased income, which as always was just a little (some five hundred rubles) too little, but it was all very nice.
Excerpt from The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy
THE HUNT'S WILL
September 20, 2012
My upcoming exhibition at LA Louver in Venice will present paintings and sculptures created over the last two years whose central concept is a state of heightened awareness brought forth by the layering of two conditions, which depending on viewpoint are either two aspirations or two traumas: a life under threat of forgetfulness and the collision between what one hopes and what happens.
The title of the exhibition points to the tension between will and choices, in particular the mysterious dynamic of will, identity, and longing, binding together those two aspirational or traumatic layers. The exhibition is assembled using all the spaces in the gallery and simultaneously pursues the monumental and the seemingly insignificant, the intellectual and the commonplace, the conceptual and the physical. The works bring together images belonging to the imagination of a child—ships, tigers, unicorns, dogs, birds—and images with epic overtones—bullfighters, roses, decapitation, sea, ice, landscape. The friction between these references seem to bring forth surprise, nostalgia, visions of an alternative life, and the difficulty of knowing the difference between the recalled and the real.
Perhaps more colorful and more narrative than previous projects, these figurative works are unsettling in that once they are carefully considered they appear not to be about telling stories or about art, but instead show themselves to be an attempt to document the undocumentable, in particular the collision between hope and loss.
My goal is to create a new world in which the forces that matter, which are often clouded by familiarity, tiredness and cynicism, become clear again. Undoubtedly, my work has connections to real events and to memories, but it is not autobiographical in the sense that my life is not what interests me. What I am after is not the telling, but the explorations of the ambiguous—and fundamentally unknowable—forces and memories always at play in our move through life.
In a way, the work is a mapping of the world not unlike in the way a scientific model is a mapping of the world, except the area of inquiry outlined by these paintings and sculptures is the space between ontology and emotions instead of the natural world. I sometimes think of this body of work—and most of my work—as delayed manifestations of the apparently remembered as well as the hidden failings and possibilities that only become known through the artmaking process.
Although I don't intend for the work to be constructed by the subconscious, it is apparent that an aspect of the intensity of the images and the way those images are handled—and mishandled—is out of my conscious reach. The final state of the work is usually the suggestion of an ephemeral, precarious reality. What makes this state precarious is the elusiveness of where one is, the fragility of what is hoped for, and the threat of a constant, dark, or at least unqualified, undercurrent.
During the years I have been working on this exhibition, I have been influenced by reflections on the life of Robert Frost, the writings of Karl Jaspers, Jean Paul Sartre, and Hermann Ebbinghaus, Arthur Schopenhauer's essay On Suicide, toys, and the design of Chinese night lights for children's rooms. The biggest influence, however, was observing the twists and eddies of the movement of time.
SHOWN RATHER THAN TOLD (I)
September 8, 2012
During my trip to Stockholm last week I spent some time with Dick Bengtsson's paintings, which, like the paintings of fellow Swedes Carl Fredrik Hill and Hilma af Klimt, rarely come to America.
Cecilia Widenheim, curator at the Moderna Museet wrote,
In Bengtsson’s imagery no one seems to get off scot-free. He guides our gaze to the cracks in the modern project and the darker ideological sides of rational society. Like no other artist, Dick Bengtsson creates subtle short-circuits between functionalism and fascism, between the idyll of red cottages and the brown-shirted ideals of purity, between the blond 1930s Hitler Youth and abstract painting. He alludes to a kinship between authoritarian religious practices and the totalitarian inclinations of modernism. In an interview in 1983, he says, “My pictures are largely about forged reality, about the idyll that is not what it appears to be.”
As Widenheim's comments suggest, Dick Bengtsson's work points to dark currents under our private and public lives, and in particular, under the shiny constructs of the modern project, and for that alone they are worth seeing. But, what interests me most about Bengtsson (as well as about Hill and af Klint) is the way he approaches his paintings—the feeling of the work, if you will.
It is hard to tell from photographs of artworks what the artworks feel like in the flesh. In the case of af Klint, for instance, the experience of the often surprisingly large paintings is more visceral than what you might expect from ostensibly symbolic works. The dry, thin layers of paint and impatient movements of her brush make the work immediate, specific and present, which distinguishes her from other painters with related worldviews. She is not Philipp Otto Runge, for instance. But one wouldn't know it from reading most of the literature about her work. The strength of Hilma af Klint as a painter is overshadowed by the cloud of interpretation and the stories that hover above her.
If an artwork has an image in it, especially an image that does not seem cynical, the response, overwhelmingly, is about the image, the decoding of its symbolic meaning, its connotations, its failures, and so on. For the conversation to go in a different direction, the work has to establish—rather overtly—allegiance to a conceptual, or at least a non-figurative, framework.
The day I went to the Moderna Museet three other shows were establishing those allegiances: Explosion! Painting as Action, which connects painting and performance; Yoko Ono's Grapefruit, which revolves around artists' responses to one of her instructions; and He Was Wrong, which juxtaposes Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. In addition to whatever else they were doing, these three shows argued, subtly and in different ways, for the correlation between pushing the boundaries of art and intelligence, an argument that undoubtedly challenged many visitors' expectations. Yet, it was not in these exhibitions, but in front of the dragged, often ironed, and varnished surfaces of the relatively traditional paintings of Dick Bengtsson that I found myself making connections between artistic sensitivity and intellectual insight, connections that made me feel awakened and uneasy.
The intelligence in Bengtsson's work is shown rather than told by the paintings, and thus it is resistant to dissection. Intelligence might not be the right word, but whatever it is, it has more to do with embodiment of awareness than with its display. It is a quality that, unlike ideas, symbols or currency, is hard to fake and is often responsible for artworks that separate themselves from those "examples of the art of their time" which make up the bulk of museum collections and art exhibitions.
NOT A FOREST
August 5, 2012
Schneetbett, Installed at The Berliner Philharmonie, 2004
Recently, I was asked about the image of the forest in Schneebett, and I feel it might be good to revisit the question briefly in this journal.
In Schneebett the image of the forest makes me think of the clearing and of the difficulty of getting through; maybe of a mind that hopes to get around, to find redemption. It also brings up danger, darkness, magic, imagination, and the unknown, and reminds me of the fairy tales of my childhood and of childhood itself.
But that can be said of many forests. In painting imagery is always specific. It is this forest and not another. It consists of these choices and not other ones. It is handled in this unique way in this specific painting. It is brought up in this context. And so on. This specificity matters, and it also matters that there is no forest in this work, but dabs and smears of paint on a surface of tar and feathers. They matter because they point to the defining tensions at the heart of the work. Tension between specificity and absence, between what seems to be and what is, between where I am and where I am projecting myself, between what I wish and what I fear.
AUTHENTICITY AND DRIFT
July 13, 2012
How many corrections towards fear can we make to an authentic life and still be able to claim it is authentic?
Cynicism is heart-mud. Hiding brings forth more hiding.
Corrections towards courage invite radiance.
June 11, 2012
In Plato's The Trial and Death of Socrates, Socrates reponds to Meletus's accusation of atheism with the following words,
No one believes that, Meletus, not even you yourself. It seems to me, Athenians, that Meletus is very insolent and reckless, and that he is prosecuting me simply out of insolence, recklessness and youthful bravado.
Perhaps I am not reading the right books, but I don't come across the words insolent and insolence too often. I do in Spanish, French and Italian texts, but in English texts, which are mostly what I read now, the adjectives pretentious, arrogant, conceited, and even impudent, are easier to find than insolent. If it is in fact the case that describing someone as insolent in English is rare, the reason, as we all know, is not an equivalent rarity of insolence in the Anglo-Saxon universe, and we also know this rarity can't be a matter of restraint, since English speakers are able to recognize and feel compelled to call out the pretentiousness in a famine fighter. So what could be the reason for this lexemic mystery?
Maybe English writers, in a similar way to feeling no need to come up with a specific name for someone missing an arm, who the Spanish call un manco, don't feel compelled to label that unique chemistry of pride and contempt that insolence brings forth.
And yet, there is no better way to describe the work of some authors who write in English. Take Martin Amis, for instance, specifically in his writing about the work of that manco, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Amis, who sees virtues in a telling selection of writers that include Don DeLillo, found a significant part of Don Quixote boring and padded, and suggests that a modern author like Carlos Fuentes should edit and modernize the book, by which I think he means take some of the padding out, among other things.
Considering the comfort Amis feels in Elizabethan English, and his interest in farcical elements, I suspect he is bothered by more than Old Castilian and its manners. Undoubtedly some of it is cultural, and Amis makes this point in his writing, but I think the real rupture is that Cervantes is not a cynic and Amis is, and it is cynicism that Amis finds lacking in Don Quixote. Although there is something beautiful about Amis's writing—for example within Money—the underlying current of wit and disenchantment in his books comes across as insolent, and I think it is hard to write anything really good when pride and contempt are at the heart of the enterprise. If Amis re-reads Don Quixote more carefully and with less Shakespeare in his mind, he might find that Alonso Quijano and Cervantes have something useful to say about his disillusionment.
June 7, 2012
Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Guest, 2012
Before telling us how salty the bread will taste, how hard the climb of stairs will be, and how evil the company you will find in foreign lands, Dante, in his Paradiso warns the future foreigner of his greatest loss,
Without—and more than without, against—empirical evidence, I like to think that arrow lands somewhere, in some landscape just waiting to be found, waiting to surprise us with the beloved again. Until that great finding, there is only the road.
Without a home, he [the foreigner] disseminates on the contrary the actor’s paradox: multiplying masks and “false selves” he is never completely true nor completely false, as he is able to tune in to loves and aversions the superficial antennae of a basaltic heart. A headstrong will, but unaware of itself, unconscious, distraught. The breed of the tough guys who know how to be weak.
For Kristeva, and for most, home—the beloved—is a place. But what if home is a time, and perhaps place is primarily a pointer to that time, to what was there? Maybe the fundamental problem of the arrow, and thus the foreigner, is that what we hope to find in a future place, a future home, is another time. If so, the return home will always be postponed, and the road will be ongoing.
What is the value then of trying to find what is out of reach?
Whenever I get lost in these thoughts, which is often, I find myself thinking of Harry Martinson and Albert Camus. Of course, I can also think of many others carrying their own suitcases, but Camus and Martinson seem lost and found in just the right way to make home and road more than just words or philosophical pretensions.
In different ways, Camus and Martinson bring forward a new country, a new beloved, and with it, a new anxiety and a new longing. I will call this new beloved by the unsatisfying word, roadhome. Roadhome is not their discovery, and it is not new in a real sense, but, for me, Camus and Martinson inhabit the experience best and most clearly. Roadhome is the making of a home of the journey, not because of some enlightened notion of journey as destination, but because the road reveals the stranger in oneself and once revealed it is only there, in that strangeness, that one can be true—or at lest, semi-true.
For the past year I have been making work circling around these thoughts in the hope of making something clearer out of them, and I hope to show this new work in Sweden for the inauguration of Galleri Andersson/Sandström's new space.
When I started I hoped these works would be devoid of figures. It seemed what I was after was less mediated and more elusive that what I might find through the figure in the landscape. But figures came in anyway. I couldn't pry them out. Perhaps without them, the work would have been too ghostly or too intellectual. Who knows.
The road and home have appeared in my work as images as well as concepts for some time, however, this new emphasis on their co-dependence and ultimate merge comes from the book I have been writing for a few years, The Year of the Moth.
I hope to write more about this.
A MOLE IN THE SUN
June 5, 2012
This week when Venus passes between earth and the sun, we will see the planet as a dot moving across the face of the sun. Since the next time this will occur is 2117, news bulletins are posting pictures from 2004, the most recent transit of Venus, and in seeing one of these pictures, I was reminded of Sartre's essay on Tintoretto, in particular the section called "A Mole in the Sun."
I recommend this essay even if you don't like Sartre. It is written with less flourish than his essays on Giacometti, and has many surprising insights: and let no one come up and say that he [Tintoretto] is aware of his genius, for a genius—this is ironical but true—knows his courage but not his worth. In the final part of the essay, Sartre uses Venice to frame the life of Tintoretto as he passes across the bright (and long) glow of Titian. As this transit makes clear, the arte moderna of the 1500s was a battlefield fought at an age when Venice, declining and the eve of the Plague, preferred to see itself engulfed in Glory than in the mirror. Sartre writes,
When Tintoretto passes by, people step aside: he smells of death. Exactly. But what other odor is given off by patrician festivities and bourgeois charity and the docility of the people? Pink houses with flooded cellars and crisscrossed by rats? What odor is given off by stagnant canals with their urinous cresses and by grey mussels fastened with squalid cement to the underside of quays? In the depths of a river a bubble is clinging to the mud; broken loose by the eddies formed by gondolas, it rises, spins around, glistens and bursts; everything crumbles away when the blister bursts—bourgeois nostalgia, the grandeur of the Republic, God and Italian painting.
One doesn't have to be a visionary to project our time into Sartre's writing, except our squabbles and delusions seem farcical when we consider La Biennale di Venezia, La Nona Ora, and all of that against the Venice of Titian, Giorgione, Bellini, Tintoretto, and Lotto.
THE MAN WHO WENT TO SEA
May 23, 2012
The Cable Ship
Painting and poems by Harry Martinson, translated by Robert Bly.
May 21, 2012
Claims of breakthroughs are almost always exaggerated. Typically, these breaks are rather continuations or affirmations of everything that has come before. The relocation of point of view that a breakthrough demands is rare, and in some cases impossible. In his beautiful, if somewhat rough, notes gathered in the book On Certainty, Wittgenstein writes, "all testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life."
Modernity—and seeming all its recent prefixes—has led us to expect breakthroughs, and many artists have reacted to this expectation by relying on intellectual arbitrage and sorcery of the marketplace. But don't deceive yourself and others with cynicism, pretzel-phrasing or relocation of content to where it is foreign. Try instead to understand the system, perturb it, and work in what is out of reach, all with the aim of being lucid rather than new. You might end with something new, but novelty will not become the emphasis of your work, or of your life.
May 16, 2012
In considering Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art," Richard Stamelman writes in Lost Beyond Telling that for Bishop poetry and loss are one art. Then he goes on to say, "writing reverberates with the long-echoing thunder of the lightning of disastrous change, the rumblings of the emptiness of loss continuing to resound in the fullness of language."
Art is always loss. Sometimes it looks like a black rectangle or a portrait or haystacks, but behind these appearances is what cannot be or what never was. Monet's haystacks might make for charming posters, but they are paintings of mourning, and not just for the passing light. Maybe there is a first-impression of contentment in these pictures, but that contentment is uneasy, and since the thing itself can never be recovered—or known—these works, like all art, are always in-failure.
Some might say art is more, or that it can be something else. But not if what we mean by art is great art, in the way Heidegger, and Hegel before him, defined it: "What makes art great is not only and not in the first place the high quality of what is created. Rather, art is great because it is an absolute need."Great art generates light from the fusion of what is and what isn't, from making what can't be made, patching what can't be patched. This light, in turn, can be useful as a working definition of art: when it is present, the thing is art, and when it is absent, it is not art, even if it looks like it ought to be.
May 5, 2012
The Scream (1895)
Pastel on Board, 31 × 23 in
Sold at Sotheby's
$119,922,500 on May 2, 2012
Small Oil paintings (12 styles)
Oil on Canvas, 19.7 x 19.7 in
Sold at Winn Dixie Supermarket
$9.99 on May 1, 2012
SPIRIT OF THE HIVE
April 23, 2012
Maurice Maeterlinck wrote in his book, The Life of the Bee,
Finally, it is the spirit of the hive that fixes the hour of the great annual sacrifice to the genius of the race: the hour, that is, of the swarm; when we find a whole people, who have attained the topmost pinnacle of prosperity and power, suddenly abandoning to the generation to come their wealth and their palaces, their homes and the fruits of their labor; themselves content to encounter the hardships and perils of a new and distant country. This act, be it conscious or not, undoubtedly passes the limits of human morality. Its result will sometimes be ruin, but poverty always; and the thrice-happy city is scattered abroad in obedience to a law superior to its own happiness. Where has this law been decreed, which, as we soon shall find, is by no means as blind and inevitable as one might believe? Where, in what assembly, what council, what intellectual and moral sphere, does this spirit reside to whom all must submit, itself being vassal to an heroic duty, to an intelligence whose eyes are persistently fixed on the future?
Art could be approached with this "spirit of the hive." There is a time to do, to shelter and to maintain, then, when destiny, rut or tiredness begins to stir within us, it is time to swarm. To move on. Maybe it matters to where or maybe it doesn't.
We usually pay for this spirit in restlessness, but most art—most things—are not "the topmost pinnacle of prosperity and power," and even then it might be right to abandon what we are doing today for what we might do tomorrow, however unlikely. And when is the right time to leave behind a hard-earned pile of almost-good work? Here Maeterlinck's words are useful again,
They [the bees] will not leave at a moment of despair; or desert, with sudden and wild resolve, a home laid waste by famine, disease, or war. No, the exile has long been planned, and the favorable hour patiently awaited. Were the hive poor, had it suffered from pillage or storm, had misfortune befallen the royal family, the bees would not forsake it. They leave it only when it has attained the apogee of its prosperity; at a time when, after the arduous labors of the spring, the immense palace of wax has its 120,000 well-arranged cells overflowing with new honey, and the many-colored flour, known as "bees' bread," on which nymphs and larvae are fed. Never is the hive more beautiful than on the eve of its heroic renouncement, in its unrivaled hour of fullest abundance and joy; serene for all its apparent excitement and feverishness.
Do bees feel remorse?
Humans, after the initial euphoria, like to see success, and if the new ways are not panning out, we often run back to our old habits and tricks, or to our titles and positions. Sometimes this works (look at what happened with Charles Burchfield) but usually it doesn't. So I find it helpful to keep in mind another reminder of perseverance from Maeterlinck's little gem,
And even though the bee-keeper deposits the hive, in which he has gathered the old queen and her attendant cluster of bees, by the side of the abode they have but this moment quitted, they would seem, be the disaster never so great that shall now have befallen them, to have wholly forgotten the peace and the happy activity that once they had known there, the abundant wealth and the safety that had then been their portion; and all, one by one, and down to the last of them, will perish of hunger and cold around their unfortunate queen rather than return to the home of their birth, whose sweet odor of plenty, the fragrance, indeed, of their own past assiduous labor, reaches them even in their distress.
AGAINST THE ODDS
April 15, 2012
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait During the Eye Disease I, 1930
The late work of Edvard Munch and Pierre Bonnard is almost always surprising. Their early work is better known, but its successes are easier to understand. The loose, almost unfinished paintings of the late years, on the other hand, work against all odds. Who, for instance, would expect Self-Portrait During the Eye Disease to be as great as it is? Munch and Bonnard extract the unexpected from genre paintings to reveal the mystery, the anguish, and the beauty in the familiar. This is not easy to do; it is easier to add the unexpected than to extract it.
A PRIMER ON FREEDOM
April 9, 2012
In my teens I used to watch out for conformity and mediocrity. I was all eyes: from that pirate-themed Sears desk in that cinderblock house in that development that looked like many others, I took notice of ways in which the big fights are abandoned, often imperceptibly, in exchange for an easier life. And as it happens when we read the books we want to read, this watchful worldview echoed in my readings of Erich Fromm, Hermann Hesse and Jean Paul Sartre.
The critical concept then was freedom. Not freedom to consume or say as I please, but freedom to make a decision apart from social conventions and expectations as well as from all previous decisions and from God. The aim of this freedom was authenticity in the definition of self.
Authenticity seemed urgent back then, and not just for me. Kids are acquainted with lies, without yet having become one. Kids know what delusion, pretension, deception and distraction sort of look like on a face, and those kids who have not been gutted will struggle to keep these vermins off.
But the young don't usually know what it is going to take to keep this struggle going. Alienation and loneliness, like ticks, are easier to handle when they are not yet fastened to the body. Looking back now at those days I see the hormonal spark of youth, and I also see how little I understood—and undoubtedly, how little I understand—of costs and trades. It is easy for a fourteen-year old to overestimate the heroics and underestimate the sorrow.
April 3, 2012
I kept an online journal (or blog or collection of notes) from August 24, 2007 to May 25, 2009. It was called Bad Time for Poetry, a name I took from a Bertolt Brecht poem. This online journal was later compiled as a book called The Blog, which you can find here.
It was right for all that to end when it did, and now it seems right to do something again for a while. Like in Bad Time for Poetry, the entries in this journal will consist of observations, notes on works and ideas, and brief essays. New entries will be published consistently, but sporadically—two might appear in one week or in one month.
I am publishing this journal for the handful of people who might be interested. I have no pretension about its importance, and since I know the clumsiness of my thoughts and of my writing, it is not necessary to send me emails on the subject.