Eleanor Aldrich paintings: Lawn Chair with Pink Sky, The Reader in a Hammock, Reader in a Lawn Chair, Lawn Chair with White Tee Shirt, Nanette (Back with Fence)
Around the time I read From the Holy Mountain, I did a web search for “how to become a Christian mystic”. I wasn’t planning for a seismic life shift or anything; I was just curious. Not surprisingly, there were actual results for this. Everyone has an opinion on everything.
How do you end up being Simeon Stylites? What makes you think that the people need to see you on top of a column for years on end as an example? He lived on a column of one variety or another for 37 years. Would someone even be allowed that now? The only thing close to this I have seen in my life is when sports radio DJs would live on billboards until a particularly bad team finally won the first game of their season. People would forget about a 2019 Simeon. He’d starve.
There was an ancient monk in From the Holy Mountain, that wedged himself into a dark alcove that was so narrow that he purposefully could not sit or even bend his legs. He was upright at all times, his eyes inches from a wall. I don’t know how long he lived like that, but he was determined to remove all of the known world from his senses and not be like another guy who put himself into a dark box, lying or sitting down at all times. The standing guy didn’t want to dishonor God by lying down on the job.
These stories all seem insane and maybe they are. In their minds, these people were living an extreme life to serve as an example of what mediated version of that we should take into our own lives. Not everyone is supposed to wedge themselves in an alcove but maybe we look at that guy and then look at our own lives and start trimming some fat of the world off of our daily walk. Diogenes didn’t want everyone to live in a wine barrel and possess nothing. Who was going to feed him at that point? But he probably assumed that he was taking one for humanity and it would be successful if his life gave people pause about their own.
These monks, Simeon, and Diogenes all lived at that crossroads of the east and west. Westerners overwhelm themselves with information and entertainment and don’t even realize that, exhausted by all of it as we are, there are still about 5 billion peoples worth of news and entertainment that doesn’t even wash up on our shores. Byzantine monks and ancient Greek philosophers, in some ways, had the known world passing their monastery, column or wine barrel. My “profound thought in the shower” last week was that American Christians might be shocked to see how overwhelmingly in the minority they will find themselves once in Heaven.
The dots connect in my head between all of that and the rest of my week, but it might take even longer to type that out than the rest of this will be, so I’ll spare you the effort. Just know that this seed was planted before most of the week opened up before me.
There are shapeshifters in art that can seemingly do no wrong no matter what they choose to pursue. Sometimes this is perceived as complete mastery of every tool in the box. I think it is just that some people developing an engaging but basic language that can be plugged into a variety of approaches and it works. You get frustrated that they make it look so easy.
I teach a section on Islamic art in my class and the main point is that traditional Islamic art uses three subjects: calligraphic Koranic script, vegetation and geometry. The way that these three elements are abstracted, repeated, placed into pattern, etc means that you can plug this into anything, and it should work: manuscripts, carpets, mosaic tile, pottery, etc. The center will hold on all of it. Matisse figured that out; Picasso too. Kara Walker and William Kentridge make it work as well.
You can jump from one new adventure to another. More than likely what you are doing is bouncing around, accumulating new skills and then, at some point down the road, they will all snap together into one fully realized mature form like Matisse’s paper cutouts or his chapel. You can bounce around forever and never settle down and hope that people stick with you as long as what you are doing is either competent or interesting. You can go the Max Fischer route in Rushmore: “I guess you've just gotta find something you love to do and then... do it for the rest of your life. For me, it's going to Rushmore.”
I probably shouldn’t be creeping up on 45 and wondering which of these camps that I fall into. I’ve been in all of them but at some point, you need a home address. I say that, but honestly, the majority of the people I know that are my age do not want the job they have. That’s not just artists. Everyone. I’m fine by comparison. But you can always find someone to compare yourself to in order to feel better about yourself.
Some events lined up this week to plant this question in my head. The most ridiculous is that I listened to U2’s Rattle and Hum. That album came out when I was 14. I had a friend buy it on tape. Then his dad got him a CD player, so he bought it on CD. Then we went to a junior high dance and he won it on vinyl in a raffle. He and I went to an opening day matinee of the movie. I’m not sure that I have listened to it in its entirety in the past 25 years. It gets dismissed a lot because of the movie. I really don’t have a problem with the movie aside from one or two scenes. These are guys in their mid-to-late 20s at the peak of the powers, touring the world with cameras on them. Of course, they think they’re important. You would too. You’d say ridiculously ambitious things if someone pointed a camera at you. The funny thing is, I can’t go to Memphis without thinking of them sitting at the edge of the Mississippi and visiting Graceland with “Heartland” overdubbed. It’s staged and casually epic but the emotion that is trying to be conjured at that moment is how I feel about seeing that river every time I see it.
They check off every American box in that album. Write a song with Bob Dylan that is part Sun record/part Psalm? Check. Perform a song with BB King? Boom. Write a song about Billie Holiday? Ding. Think, “Hey would should write a song with a Bo Diddley beat” and crank out “Desire”? Good grief. Slap on top of that a new arrangement of one of their gospel tracks with a Harlem choir and a big live version of “Pride” and you can see how sincere but calculated it is. This is U2 bouncing around, accumulating new skills but still producing at a high level.
I am as guilty as anyone of looking at an artist of any kind that makes a shift and thinking, “No, do the thing we like that you do” while simultaneously wondering if people are going to follow me wherever I roam. I’ll go along your evolving journey as long as it’s working: Talk Talk, Dana Schutz, Jonathan Lethem. But if you go too far out on a limb, feel free to retrace your steps and regroup in familiar territory. Matisse “revisited” old material a lot. Guston’s late figurative work is a return to his youth in a lot of ways. I spent over 20 years waiting for George Michael to get back to 1990 and he never did. Prince put out Art Official Age which was a return to basics for him in a lot of ways and there wasn’t time to see where that was going. It all left me thinking that I’ve been floundering a bit lately from one thing to another, hopefully picking up some new tricks, but really more than anything just playing around with stuff that I like. I wanted to do the equivalent of writing a Bo Diddley song. I didn’t come up with “Desire” though. I didn’t even come up with “I Want Candy”. Maybe I need to walk back off the limb I crawled out on. Not much has proven to be competent or interesting.
Another event this week was spending a few hours in Hendersonville. The primary mission was to show my son where my wife and I got married. He requested it. I’m not sure why he wanted it, but I had not been back to that church since the day we got married 20 years ago so I was as curious as anyone. We got to town at the wrong time of day for lunch and had to abandon options 1 and 2 because they were too crowded. Option 3 landed us at a sports bar where my high school art teacher was also eating. This is not coincidental to me. These are the small things that are supposed to happen. My wife and I met in her class. We spent some time at the park afterwards, which backs up to one of my wife’s childhood homes. For a person already prone to bouts of nostalgia, time compressed to a paper-thin circle. For a few years, nostalgia seemed like a curse but, in an era that refuses to look back, maybe it’s a gift. I show a diagram in class of the St. Peter’s in relation to the Circus of Nero to show how time works in Rome. This is how I walk through life. There are a lot of people now that will adamantly say that nostalgia is weakness and that they’re over it and it is pedal-on-the-floor to the future now. Russian troops did that to soldiers while fighting in Napoleon. You homesick? Well that’s bad for morale. You gotta die before you poison the rest of the company. That’s not even denying nostalgia though. That’s just a rejection of history. I think I’ll walk around in this fog instead.
I spend a lot of time telling young artists to not forget why they got into art in the first place. I have forgotten to tell myself that lately. The problem with being able to dial up an image of whatever artist you like is that, without discipline, you’re going to want to try your version of a lot of stuff you like…but you’re probably not a shapeshifter. You’re just going to end up making a lot of derivative stuff. We punch some keywords into a search and now we are that monk standing at the crossroads of the world. Do you fall into it and give yourself to it completely or do you go build a box and live in it? That’s the branch I’ve been crawling out lately. I want to try it all, but I’m not necessarily good at a lot of this and I’m not supposed to be. There are things I excel at. It took me years of teaching basic drawing to understand that when I said, “You don’t see five or six different grays in this area of the still life?” to understand that, no, they don’t see it. I do. That’s my thing. I see subtle shifts in value because I have the patience for that thing. So why am I ignoring this? Some artist wish they had one thing, anything. I at least have this. That and an inherent concept of design. I’m not outfitting our house with an alcove just yet, but I need to crawl back off the branch and regroup.
Quotes for the week:
“Endurance comes only from enduring” - Czeslaw Milosz, from “A Magic Mountain”
“Run with patience”- one my church’s elders
The Book of Luke
The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware
The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis