2019.33 (William Blake, The Book of Job)

            Interlaced realities. That’s my preferred way to explain sleepwalking to someone that has never experienced it. You see the real world in front of you, overlaid with a dreamscape where objects in the real world kind of correspond with what you are dreaming but your brain can’t separate the two, nor can it assign a hierarchy to it and favor one over the other. You could be standing on the edge of a quarry, ready to walk forward, off the edge, to your doom because you’re dreaming that you are on a road, and your brain might make the wrong decision as to which world was correct. You’re stuck not between two worlds, but in both, at the same time. It takes what seems like minutes for your brain to sort it out.

            When I was 17, I dreamed I was in a Shoney’s in Martin, TN. What an absurd sentence. I dream of Shoney’s. I sat down on a bench to wait for a table to open up and discovered the bench was covered in cassette tapes. But it was a dream, so I said, “Oh no. I sat on someone’s cassettes” and the dream moved along. When I woke up the next day, all of the cassettes in my bedroom were spilled off a bookshelf and onto the floor. In my 20s, I dreamed that I stabbed someone. I woke up holding a magic marker like a knife. In graduate school, I pulled my bed 5’ from the wall it was pushed up against.

            I had a solid 15 year run of sleepwalking when I lived in Philadelphia. Stress seems to trigger it in me, but lack of sleep also possibly contributes. So tired that I sleepwalk? My body hates me. There were two big sources of stress at work in me while living in Philadelphia. First: Philadelphia, itself. Maybe not Philadelphia as a specific town but living in a city in general. I don’t think I slept well because of the street noises. Second: deadlines. It was either the stress of them or the lack of sleep caused by them that made me do something wild on a weekly basis. There were a number of years that I worked about 70 hours a week in the studio on top of adjunct work and trying to be a part of society. There were a lot of deadlines but not a lot of accompanying sales so, if I calculated it, I bet I made about a 25 cents/hour. Things have slowed down in the studio, and I no longer live in the middle of a major metropolitan area, so this is a rarity now more than a predictable occurrence. It has only been in the past 5 years that I have realized that I’m not probably not going to be stuck with sleepwalking as a routine part of my life.

William Blake-  Job’s Evil Dreams , engraving, 7 9/16 x 5 5/8”, 1825, image courtesy the Tate

William Blake- Job’s Evil Dreams, engraving, 7 9/16 x 5 5/8”, 1825, image courtesy the Tate

            When I saw William Blake’s Book of Job engravings at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1997-98, I was in full somnambulist mode. The “Job’s Evil Dreams” panel spoke to me. “This seems familiar. Maybe I’m a visionary,” I thought. Maybe you’re a whackadoodle 18th/19th c. British visionary artist? Get a grip, kid. It’s a nightmarish vision of sleep. You get that these days. You’re tired because you paint until 3:00 every morning and yet you’re not getting any better. Sleep more and the visions will subside.

            But the series stuck with me. I consider seeing that complete series for the first time a key art viewing experience in my life. I’ve only experienced it as a full set one other time, in Philadelphia. It is the opposite of last week’s post about Hugo van der Goes’ meditative space. This is beefy drama plopped down in my life when all I read was southern Gothic and grotesque books. That’s what I wanted and felt like I needed at the time.

 

             “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”  - Genesis 3: 8-11

 

            “Who told you that you were naked?” is one of the saddest verses in the Bible. One of the saddest and it’s only on what…page 4? It’s over. If you’re Adam or Eve, you might not know that it’s over. But then again, you ate the fruit, so maybe you do. You covered yourself due to your newly recognized nakedness so maybe you can also see it coming that you’re getting ready to get booted from Eden. Life is getting ready to multiply in difficulty. The earth will no longer sustain you without effort. You’re going to get cold. You’re going to get hot. You’re going to die. One of your sons is going to kill the other. Maybe all of that snaps into focus when God asks you, “Who told you that you were naked?”

            Job is the “why do bad things happen to good people?” book of the Bible. The text in no way says this but my first thought to that question is usually, “Who told you that you were good?” In Mark 10, a young man addresses Jesus as “Good teacher…” Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Some interpret this as Jesus saying to the man that if Jesus is good then Jesus is God. If you see Him as good then you have to see Him as God. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition with Jesus. It’s something that would be mulled over through the centuries and eventually take the CS Lewis “liar, lunatic, or Lord” framing.


             I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to… Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.                                                   

(CS Lewis - Mere Christianity)



            An insane person or a person of pure evil is not going to make for a great moral teacher. You can’t pick and choose what you like from Jesus. Under what contemporary circumstances would you allow a person to present themselves full of moral wisdom, of which you respond favorably, only to have them turn around say, “Ummm, one more thing, I’m also a diety” and you say to yourself, “I mean, he makes some valid points so I can probably overlook the diety thing”? In one response, Jesus not only reveals his divinity but explains what is good. God is good. That’s it. It’s a short list. As harsh as it sounds, you’re not good. I’m not either. The only people that you hear say, “I’m a good person” are a) people that have never thought about it b) people that have done something horribly wrong and need to explain that misdeed as an anomaly more than it is part of a pattern of brokenness or c) when they feel like they have been wronged and that the universe doesn’t make sense…why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to me?

            Our “goodness” as a relative measurement is laughable. Large chunks of our lives will be spent doing something awful, followed quickly by looking around to see anyone noticed it. If someone did see us, then we look for someone else doing something more awful so we can say, “Well, yeah, I did something bad but at least I’m not that guy.” And we can always find that guy. There is always someone worse than you, but sometimes you are the person that is worse than someone else. That should be the slogan for Twitter: “Twitter: You can always find a horrible person to make you feel better about yourself.”

William Blake-  Satan before the Throne of God , engraving, 7 5/8 x5 7/8”, 1825, image courtesy of the Tate

William Blake- Satan before the Throne of God, engraving, 7 5/8 x5 7/8”, 1825, image courtesy of the Tate

             If you read Job expecting an answer that gives you peace based on the idea that you’ll get a logical explanation for why God allows for all the evil of the world, you will be very disappointed. That’s not the book. The book is not going to tell you why people get shot or drown in tsunamis or die of cancer or commit genocide. That’s what you want to know, right? By golly, that’s what you deserve to know. I’m hopefully going around the sun 90 times, I’d like for a few of those trips to make sense, dadgummit. You demand it and if you don’t get the answer you want, then that must mean that there is nothingness and that the universe is cold and indifferent. This is ludicrous. There are 7.5 billion people and an infinite number of environmental factors constantly in flux on this planet, each one with a self-centered goal and you’re wondering how your life managed to get caught in someone or some thing’s wake. That doesn’t mean that the planet is wired incorrectly or needs a software update. At least for the stuff related to other people, it means that everyone is broken and self-serving and we trip each other up. At my worst (and my worst comes out on a daily basis), people around me in traffic or somewhere in public are simply things to be negotiated. I am a horrible person that will forget your humanity and instead just wonder why you and your dumb car are in my way in my attempt to get to the grocery store. “My way.” That’s evil. I can be evil. The world is so vast and deep and old and woven together that we’re all breathing Caesar’s last breath from over 2000 years ago, but you need a tidy explanation of a particular thing or event right now or the bargain made betwixt you and God is void. Best of luck. If that’s your position, you wouldn’t accept the complex truth even if it were offered.   

            Another reflexive reaction is to say, “Well I don’t believe in a God that would allow X or cause Y to happen…” What if that’s the God you got though? This isn’t a public official that you vote out in the next election. We’re talking about an entity of infinite power and knowledge that is beyond time. I don’t believe in a public bathroom where men would make a mess and not clean up after themselves, but life never fails to prove otherwise. I was at a concert for a semi-famous band about 15 years ago and the singer said something like, “If you believe there is a God that would allow this (ed.- I forgot what this was), then you should reject that God.” You should reject that God. What kind of 8th grade stoner logic is that? What if it is that God? If you believe in a temperature so cold in Alaska in January that it would allow a naked person to freeze to death, you should reject that temperature. Problem solved. Reject what you think doesn’t work. But really, what are you going to do? If 7.5 billion people just all said, “God, we reject you” do you really think that the entity that made the universe would rethink things? God is God, not a weak-spined politician getting ratioed on social media. That might sound defeatist and harsh and cruel. What if none of that is cruel? What if we’re too stupid to see that it is just and righteous. What if we are the equivalent of 7.5 billion 4-year-olds throwing a tantrum in Kroger because our parent won’t let us get gummi bears? What if your protests, though huge in your world, are minor in the larger picture? Every kid is going to yell at some point that they “hate” their parents. This is the child’s version of “rejecting a God that would allow something unfair to happen.” It doesn’t make you a bad parent. It makes you a being with a larger view of creation than the kid that’s only been around the sun four times. You don’t cave. Caving legitimizes immature behavior. If you’re undisciplined, you hit back as hard as you got hit and let the kid have it. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you exhibit patience and grace and understand that your child is incapable of understanding because your decision doesn’t jive with what he wants. Pick them up and remove them from public or allow them to flop around until they’re tired.

            Job doesn’t have everything taken from him in a challenge between Satan and God so that at the end God can swoop down with a towel and a spit bucket saying, “OK, champ, you’ve been put through the ringer but there’s a good reason for it that you’re going to understand…” God doesn’t even “reward” Job at the end by giving him double what he had lost. God gives it to him. There is no explanation. It’s a gift. God’s response to Job’s questions and protests is to give Job a lesson in humility and explain to him, in a way that he can somewhat understand, that Job doesn’t know what he’s talking about and he never will, but not to worry about it, because God is capable of understanding it.

William Blake-  Behemoth and Leviathan , engraving, 7 3/4 x 5 7/8”, 1825, image courtesy of the Tate

William Blake- Behemoth and Leviathan, engraving, 7 3/4 x 5 7/8”, 1825, image courtesy of the Tate

To quote John Calvin-

“For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”

            You want an explanation for how the world works? You wouldn’t even understand it if God told you. But that’s ok. Most of us really don’t know how the internet works, but we loooove the internet. You don’t know what dark matter is. You don’t know if you’re alone in the universe. You don’t even know, definitively, how the moon was made. You don’t know how you got here. But sure, demand your idea of justice and fairness and goodness in the world. How can you know what is just and fair in the world if you don’t even know what the world is? You float around on one rock near one star, of which there are an assumed infinite number and you haven’t even figured out that rock yet. What do you know about anything? Take comfort in your ignorance. Look how dumb you are. You forgot where you left your car in a parking lot last week, but the world holds together.

2019.31 (Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve)

            I taught 2D Design as my first post-graduate school teaching job. All of those kids probably deserve their money back. If you’re honest with yourself as an instructor, you know this is true for the first year or two that you taught. Oh man, the poor kids I taught while I was still a graduate student. Oh man. I’m not going to give the money back to them, but the state of New Jersey and commonwealth of Virginia might want to consider it.

            I taught 2D Design without really having ever taken it myself. My undergraduate transcripts record that I did earn credits for “2D Design” but my teacher didn’t know what they were doing either. I was taught by a graduate student who apparently had no supervision or advisement as to how to what the class should be. They ran it like a drawing class. When I say they “ran it like a drawing class”, I simply mean that we drew the whole semester, charcoal on newsprint. Albers was nowhere to be found. When it came time for linear perspective, they said, “Who here knows two-point perspective?” Some of us raised our hands and the instructor said, “OK, well if you know how to do it, then go out in the atrium and draw it. Those of you that do not know it, stay here.” Can you imagine teaching anything else in that way? “Who here knows the proper medication to prescribe to a 6 year-old for an ear infection? Cool. Go do it. No, no, no, don’t tell me what it is. Just go do it.”

            Keep in mind, I was also taking a basic drawing class in addition to this 2D course. I guess everyone in there was as clueless as me because none of us ever thought to ask, “Does anyone know why we are taking two classes that cover the same material?” Somehow, we all survived. As an art student, you realize that you’re there to learn how to teach yourself. If you don’t figure that out, then you go study something else. I assume my students survived me. If nothing else, they learned the golden ratio.

            I started teaching long enough ago that we were still using slide projectors to look at images. It’s not really that long ago but to some younger people, that seems impossible. Like I read online last week, a guy said, “I told an 18 year-old that I used to get Netflix delivered in the mail and he called me a liar.” There are a lot of things in this life that I am desperately nostalgic for, but a slide projector is not one of them. I don’t miss the jammed slides, the bulb that burned out at the most inconvenient time, the carousel that spontaneously would drop half of its load out of the bottom. Most of all, I don’t miss slide libraries and having to keep lists of slides from semester to semester to assemble and return over and over again to teach the same presentations from one semester to the next…and have all of those images be compromised versions of what I really wanted to show. Slides of the wrong painting or slides so old that they predate a major restoration of a piece, etc. Some of you justifiably reject Powerpoint while sipping from your Edward Tufte coffee mug, because it’s not a perfect tool for every situation but for art history it is no worse than a slide projector, makes my life easier and makes it possible for me to show anything I want in class- which my students will tell you is a blessing and a curse. If you want to know what that means, ask my Intro to Art students why I waste their time talking about abstraction in relation to what a male turkey will attempt to have sex with. The answer is: because I can.

            If nothing else, I got a thing or two out of teaching this class. After all, my first time teaching it was my first time taking it as well so I couldn’t help but learn something. For some reason, we had to teach the students the Corel Painter software. Not Photoshop. Painter. If I had to guess, a school subscription for Painter cost a lot less than Photoshop at the time and that’s why we used it. It didn’t really matter because I had never used either before, so I was out of luck either way. My school couldn’t even get me a copy of the program to use at home so that I could teach it. I reached back a decade into my brain for inspiration and said, “Who here knows how to use Painter?” Someone answered, “Well, it’s a lot like Photoshop.” I then said, “Who here knows Photoshop?” Half the class raised their hands. “OK, if you know how to use Photoshop or Painter, get started on the assignment. If you don’t know how to use Painter or Photoshop…sit next to someone that does know how to use it and ask them.” Years later, I would read a David Sedaris book where he talked about teaching a writing class, but not really knowing how to teach a writing class, so they watched his favorite soap opera instead. I can relate.

            It sounds selfish to say this, but one of the most profound shifts in my own work came from teaching this class. (Thanks, kids! I got a lot out of it!) In an effort to illustrate positive and negative space, I spent a lot of time looking through the slide library at the school. I think I started with Robert Longo charcoal drawings and Franz Kline paintings then worked my way back through the drawings and prints sections of the library, eventually coming to something I’d never seen before- the Albrecht Dürer ink study for his Adam and Eve engraving. I’m talking about a 10+ year old slide of this drawing that was probably a copy of a copy of another slide, so let me simulate what I was looking at before showing a clearer version of the drawing:

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 9.56.10 AM.png

             Looking at it this way, as a slide held up to the light, made the piece look so graphic and modern. The quality of the slide was so bad that it even looked like this when it was projected onto a screen. High contrast. Deep black shapes. No subtlety. It didn’t look 500 years old. It looked fresh. Sometimes you get a bastardized version of an original that gives you a different perspective than what other people are going to get. One of my favorite albums is The Grifters’ Ain’t My Lookout. My only copy of this for years was taped from someone’s vinyl. Unbeknownst to me, it played slightly faster than the original recording. That was the version I knew in my head. It took a year of listening to it on CD to forget my taped version.

            I saw The Sixth Sense in the movie theater when it was released, not knowing that it had a twist at the ending. The scene immediately after Bruce Willis is shot shows a collection of rowhouses with the text “the next fall” laid over the top. I didn’t read this correctly because the “l”s in the word “fall” are white text laid over bits of a white house. I read it as “the next day”. It’s like when my wife misheard “cash rich, time poor” as “cash bitch, time whore”. Stuff happens between the ear and the eye and the brain. But since I saw “the next day”, I immediately thought, “Oh, he’s a ghost” and spent the entire movie with that perspective. But it’s not like I was having a conversation about this with the other 200 people in the theater, so I thought everyone around me had that perspective. I thought we were all sitting there thinking, “Man, it is really cool how he structures these scenes with his wife, so it seems like they’re communicating but they’re really not”, etc. The revelation that Willis is dead came at the end and then I became the only one in the movie confused as to why this was such a surprise. I walked out and asked my wife, “Why was it such a big deal when he figured out that he was dead at the end?” She looked at me, justifiably, like she had made a mistake in marrying such a moron. Seeing a less-nuanced version of the Dürer drawing gave me a different perspective on it than if I’d seen it in person first. The questions I was asking about it were the wrong questions.

film still- The Sixth Sense

film still- The Sixth Sense

           A few years later, in 2006, the Morgan Library renovated and expanded their facilities, relaunching with an exhibition from their drawing collection: From Leonardo to Pollock. This show provided me the first opportunity to see the Dürer study in person. The drawing that had always been so modern and fresh to me now became even more so but in a much different way. Here is a better image of the drawing, close to what it resembles in person, next to what I saw so you can compare the differences.

simulation of slide experience versus seeing the drawing in person (better image below)

simulation of slide experience versus seeing the drawing in person (better image below)

Albrecht Dürer-  Adam and Eve , 1504, brown ink and white corrections on paper, 242 x 201mm, courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum

Albrecht Dürer- Adam and Eve, 1504, brown ink and white corrections on paper, 242 x 201mm, courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum

             My first encounter with this piece was that it was flat and graphic. It seemed appropriate because it was a study intended for a print. But this drawing is a true working study. It’s not a drawing, it’s an assemblage of drawings. Dürer set these figures up as examinations of his theories of human proportion and scale. Beyond that he knew that their placement had be just right for the Garden that would eventually fill in the negative shapes. What you can’t see in my original experience is Dürer’s mind and hands at work. When you finally see this drawing, you see that it is two figure drawings that have been cut out of separate sheets of paper and gently nudged into position, then glued down to a third piece to fix their spatial relationship.

Here is a rough illustration of what is happening. I’m sorry if it’s not 100% on the money but I’m doing this from memory. My best memory is that the yellow lines I have drawn represent where Dürer cut the figures, at least Adam’s, in order to experiment where it would go in relation to Eve. The blue arrows reveal a lot of correction. There are white highlights in the piece now that show where he changed Eve’s elbow, adjusted Adam’s calves, tweaked hands, etc. Not that he would have cared, but these would have been less obvious during Dürer’s life. They add to the piece now, not unlike old Robert Crumb drawings where correction fluid remains a cool white even though the paper has aged and dulled.

image with my approximate diagram of the drawing’s construction

image with my approximate diagram of the drawing’s construction

            The background is not deeply saturated black like the slide suggested. It’s mottled and gestural, slow where it needs to protect the edges of figures, faster in the larger sections, such as the space between the figures’ feet. His methods for hatching and cross-hatching are quickly-rendered (by his standard) to study line direction, light and volume necessary for the final engraving.

            The differences between the drawing and final composition are notable. The figures are roughly the same height and will remain so, but Eve will be lowered in the picture plane. That move activates the bottom corner, whereas Dürer feels like he needs to pepper the bottom left with rocks to anchor the space. The move also drops her extended hand from the middle of Adam’s bicep down to the bend of his arm, taking advantage of the shape of her curved fingers and the divot of his arm. The one piece of fruit simultaneously in Eve’s hand, in the serpent’s mouth and touching Adam’s arm, placed near the center of the image creates an X of limbs that marks the spot. Dürer connects every central dramatic element. Where is The Fall? Right here is The Fall. If Eve had not been compositionally lowered that half of an inch, the center would be lost.

Side-by-side comparison with the Adam figures on the same plane at the same height

Side-by-side comparison with the Adam figures on the same plane at the same height

            Adam holds a piece of fruit in the drawing but is empty-handed in the print. In the drawing, the vacancy of the negative space allows this action to indicate the two figures are equally complicit. There is not much drama in “equally complicit after the fact” especially when you still have a serpent to work into the final plot. Instead, by the end, Adam is empty-handed, but reaching out. He wants the fruit that Eve holds behind her, although there seem to be other implications. She’s already physically succumbed to temptation, and even though he hasn’t taken ownership of the object, he has still fallen victim to the same trap. Between the tail of the parrot, Adam’s arm and Eve’s left foot, Dürer draws one axis of the X from the top left to the bottom right. Adam’s bent leg, the serpent and its branch and what seems to be a suicidal goat in the upper right draw the other axis.

            The drawing gets some of the X, but Dürer glued it down too quickly and missed connecting the dots by “that much”. He realized the error before the burin started cutting. It’s a working drawing for him, not a final product. For me, it was a missing link. The years between seeing the slide of this drawing and the real thing were incredibly fruitful. I taught myself how to draw by looking at books of Dürer etchings and engravings. I needed no other teacher for what I wanted. It severely limited my range, but I don’t regret that. Most artists will eventually limit themselves anyway. Instinctively, I started composing images by working from photos or working in Photoshop (I eventually learned enough of it) to arrange compositions. I superimposed Xs and grids to help order the picture plane. I nerded out occasionally and dropped a golden rectangle into the mix. It hearkened back to my childhood with superhero Colorforms. This pursuit of a constructed image is what I was subconsciously taking from Dürer while I was learning how to properly hatch, crosshatch and stipple. Seeing the construction and assembly of that Adam and Eve drawing in person made me want to drop to one knee, stare at the ground and say, “My liege!” It was all there. What I had been doing for a few years and would continue to do in one form or another was all there. I can still follow the same methods and use all of this work behind-the-scenes to compose a final image. But I will also pull back the curtain and make work intended for public view that shows this assembly or collage or whatever you want to call it. Do I look at Cubism or any other offshoot of it or Dada for tips on collage or assembly? Of course. It would be silly not to take advantage of those resources. Do I need them? This drawing would suggest that I do not. The rules are the rules and they have been for centuries.

R. Crumb,  Sketchbook , 1971 courtesy of David Zwirner

R. Crumb, Sketchbook, 1971 courtesy of David Zwirner

Batman Colorforms like I had as a child. Courtesy of Amazon

Batman Colorforms like I had as a child. Courtesy of Amazon

2019.29 (Charles Ray, Hinoki)

            I’ve been in four car wrecks in my life. One of them was my fault. I was 16 and had skipped Sunday school to go to a donut shop with some other kids and hit another car when exiting the parking lot. That’s what you get for skipping Southern Baptist Sunday school. Instant judgment.

            The other three were not my fault. When I was in college, I was driving down the main road that cut through the entire town when an elderly woman, coming from the opposite direction, turned left in front of me and I didn’t have time to stop. I t-boned her car. She told the officer, “I had the turn signal.” I said, “I had a green light.” The officer spent a grand total of 30 seconds thinking about it and said, “Well, no one was at fault here so you’ll each have to take care of your own cars...and, sir, do you mind driving this lady home to her house?” I drove the woman that had just mauled my car back to her house. It was a 15-minute drive and the only thing we had in common was that she had just caused our wreck. We talked about her grandchildren. It seemed a better option than me hammering her for 15 minutes with statements like, “Just admit it’s your fault, you old bag!”

            On the way back to campus, my car started overheating. I pulled into a student parking lot and it died a convulsive death right as I hit the parking space, complete with a puff of steam emerging from the hood. A tow truck met me in the lot a couple of days later to take my car for repairs. I saw a hole in the door to the trunk that wasn’t there before. I said, “I wonder how that hole got there?” The tow truck driver said, “Uh, that’s a bullet hole.” Well, leave that. I need the street cred.  

            The other two were more recent. I got hit from behind by a student at the school where I teach. This past March I had a tractor trailer veer into my lane and drag his tires down the entire length of my car, totaling it while it somehow still remained drivable. Being rear-ended was an annoyance and an inconvenience more than anything. The 18-wheeler collision brought out a lot of “Thank you, Jesus!” expressions and infinite gratitude from me. So many things could have gone the wrong way. Despite the driver hitting me, he also reacted quickly enough to not pin me between his truck and the concrete divider on the other side of my car. He dragged the side of my car but turned away after 2-3 seconds and saved both of us.

Tennessee Electronic Traffic Crash Report, 2019

Tennessee Electronic Traffic Crash Report, 2019

            I ordered a copy of the highway patrol report for this. It is clinical and factual but does not tell the whole story. We are listed as “Unit 1” and “Unit 2”. There’s a diagram of the accident that reminds me of the Spy Hunter video game. There isn’t a section of the report documenting me cursing and hitting the horn like I was sending Morse code, trying to get the truck to pull over. It’s like looking at a box score for a baseball game. You know the balls, strikes and where the ball went but you don’t know how amazing an outfield catch might have been (like this almost amazing Mike Trout play) or if a second baseman tricked a base runner to get him running. The humanity of the game is missing, but the moneyball is there. Same with this accident report. The report would not have a different tone if there would have been a fatality. It would record the death. I don’t expect highway patrol to write a poem but having such an impactful moment of your life reduced to something so by-the-numbers is humbling and disturbing. The absence of humanity in the report calls attention to the fact that the human experience is not recorded.

             I’ve lost two family members to drivers that were under the influence of something: drugs, alcohol, etc. I’m not going to talk about one but, I will explain my grandmother’s death. My parents and I were at home on Sunday, February 8, 1987 watching a basketball game between the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. My dad’s side of the family, since at least the 1950s, has been devoted to UNC athletics. UNC and UVA battled it out into overtime, with UNC edging them out 74-73. My grandmother, uncle, aunt, two cousins and one of their friends had gone to the game. They had taken two cars to get there, with my grandmother driving one of the cars and my uncle driving the other. I remember the genuine joy of watching that game on TV. It ended but my parents and I kept watching whatever came on afterwards. My brother was at church doing some youth program. About an hour after the game, my uncle called to tell us that my grandmother was dead, killed in a car wreck. Later we’d find out that the driver was under the influence and had crossed the center line and hit the car, head on, going about 80mph. My grandmother was instantly killed. The effects of finding out about the death hang with me more than the death itself, if that’s possible. Not the death, but the moments after finding out about it.

            I made art centered around this when I was young. I didn’t drink in college. I was the unofficial designated driver of the Knoxville music scene. I kept so many of your drunk asses off the road at 1:00-2:00AM that I should probably get a key to the city. It took me a long time, off and on, by myself, to reconcile that I believe in a truly loving God and that life can seem so cruel at the same time. That both are possible and coexist. I never doubted either. One does not cancel out the other. But as a teenager and college kid, it’s a lot of work to thread that needle. I spent too much time thinking about the what-ifs, just of the basketball game. It went into overtime. What if one more free throw had been made in regulation, or one missed shot had gone in or one made shot had rattled out of the rim. Those two cars would have never crossed paths. I don’t know how long a state highway patrol keeps records, but at one point there was a sterile incident report about my grandmother sitting in a filing cabinet, one fatality recorded- unit 2.

             Sometimes your brain has to stretch to connect with a work of art. More is required of you than the art. Some art puts a bloody body on a cross and shouts out to you “JESUS!” while other times, it’s a room saturated with projected light and you have to find that part of you that lives beyond the expression of language to connect with it. But when you carry certain baggage then a piece will make you stop in your tracks.

             Is Charles Ray really going for that? His work swings on a pendulum in that respect. Intensely performative at point. Silly at another. But like most artists of any medium- painting, poetry, music- he has shed that immature swagger and start looking for something a bit more poetic and understated. Ray has burned off that juvenile ego over the past 25 years and produced work that can be described as tender, quiet, and nostalgic in some cases, no matter what kind of controversy he occasionally creates or how ambitious the scale or intense the process of creation.

Charles Ray-  Unpainted Sculpture , fiberglass and paint, 60x78x171”, 1997, Walker Art Center

Charles Ray- Unpainted Sculpture, fiberglass and paint, 60x78x171”, 1997, Walker Art Center

             I can go in an obvious direction with this post related to Charles Ray: Unpainted Sculpture from 1997. The pre-internet legend of this piece is that he bought a wrecked car that (probably) involved a fatality. Look at it. What did the inside look like when he got it if it really had a death related to it? A bloody mess. Not a British “bloody” mess. A real bloody mess. I’m confused on the specifics but, his team took it apart, made a cast of every part and then tried to assemble all the cast parts back together to simulate the wreck but the pieces were all thicker as fiberglass than steel so he had to adjust them somehow. The “somehow” in that sentence is a mystery to me. Looking at this piece, initially, is like looking at a highway patrol report. It is factual. It is monochrome. The sterility of it draws attention to the humanity that is missing. You might be able to see the damage of the car more clearly in this sculpture than in the original when it was a mass of tangled metal and didn’t know what part belonged where. Looking at a wrecked car is not an artistic experience. There is rubbernecking but not for any good reason. I pass a wrecker lot every week that proudly(?) displays the biggest wreck they have at the front of the lot. Maybe they mean it as a warning sign. Either way, I don’t get John Chamberlain vibes from it. With Ray, it’s a quiet reflection. A lot of people put in a lot of time to bring this to you. There is great purpose behind it. It’s kind of a postmodern sculpture and a monument to loss all in one. A ghost of a wreck. It’s not a singular car wreck anymore. It’s bigger than that. But I’m bringing a lifetime of baggage to it. If you never got that phone call, you are going to see this differently. But that’s not the Ray that punched me in the gut. His version of a crucifixion did not make me raise my hands in ecstatic joy or praise. I like it. It hit home in a specific way but it’s not the piece that stays with me.

Charles Ray-  Hinoki , cypress, 60x300x92'“/25x168x82”/25x150x78”, 1997-2007, The Art Institute of Chicago

Charles Ray- Hinoki, cypress, 60x300x92'“/25x168x82”/25x150x78”, 1997-2007, The Art Institute of Chicago

             Hinoki is something I show in class and generates one reaction as an image projected on a screen: complete and total rejection. Eyes roll, pens drop to the table, people that were leaned forward and paying attention now lean back, phone passcodes are punched in and screens illuminate. I get it. You know how worthless it is to talk about art with a projector screen? You know how much more worthless it is to talk about sculpture with a projector screen? To describe this piece, you have to say something like, “Here’s an image of a dead tree, but it’s not a dead tree. He saw the dead tree, made a mold and cast of it and then paid some master Japanese wood carvers to faithfully carve a duplicate of that cast of the dead tree in virgin wood. I know you look like you want to die right now, but seriously this is great if you see it in person. Can you trust me? No. What do you mean ‘No?”” Such is the life of an art appreciation instructor. If you have no experience of letting yourself project meaning upon an object, then the whole discussion of art is lost for you. I don’t mean worship an object or make an idol of it. I just mean allowing yourself to think something as simple as, “I’ve had this blue coffee mug for the 20 years of my marriage and it’s chipped and imperfect but it represents the routine of marriage and its continued presence speaks to the unbroken day-in, day-out of a steady, strengthening bond with another person.”

            It is difficult as a teacher, with a PowerPoint and a projector, to get this to translate. I often wonder how I would respond to my own class. I took a number of art history classes. I fell asleep. It was dark. It was air conditioned. Neither my dorm nor apartment were climate-controlled. I was tired and we had a slide projector with a whirring fan that lulled me to sleep. I guess that’s how I’d react to my own class.

            Hinoki is something I’d read about before seeing. I understood the commitment to its creation. That more than anything should always let you know about the sincerity of some work: some art just takes a long time to make and there is no guarantee of “reward” at the end, yet it gets made. It’s one thing to paint the Sistine Chapel because it’s a place of worship and the ceiling will serve a purpose in enhancing that worship. No one, no one is clamoring for a carved replica of a dead tree. To make it at all is to prove your commitment.

            Standing in the room with Hinoki was humbling and much different than reading about it or seeing a jpeg of it. It’s a faithful recreation of a fallen tree. How many times have you walked by a fallen tree? If the answer is “not many” then you need to find a state park and take a walk. But for those of you with somewhat regular hiking/walking experience, you know what it’s like. You walk through the woods and you see a dozen fallen trees on a given day. If you go back 6 months later, they are still there. They are going to be there for years, feeding the forest. You probably don’t carry memories of these trees. But Ray did make that memory. Something in his brain said, “That is a remarkable fallen tree for reasons that far exceed the tree itself.”

            We have an established phrase for the idea of impermanence and whether or not any of us matter: “If a tree falls in the woods but no one is there to hear it...” The answer should give you some sense of comfort. Of course, it does. It’s physics and science and all that crap. You think something doesn’t make a sound just because ears aren’t there to hear it? Do you know how sound works? Do you matter if no one else thinks you do? Of course, you do.

            I had one thought upon seeing this work in person. It reminded me of a sermon that I once heard and a pastor said, “We are all 80 years from being totally forgotten.” That’s not a Bible verse nor was it the point of the sermon. Some off-the-cuff statements stick with you above the intended thesis. My great-grandmother that drew the Landseer that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago: I don’t even know her entire name. She has had a significant impact on my life without ever knowing her, but I couldn’t tell you her entire name. It’s all goes so fast and does not last, for better or worse. Sometimes that’s a good thing. We need to forget some dirtbags. But quiet, unpresuming people get lost in the shuffle. That’s not horrible. They deliberately lived that way. Like another pastor said, “I’m pretty sure heaven is going to be full of little old ladies that spent the majority of their days praying by themselves.”

            Hinoki takes the idea of your impermanence and places it on the ground in front of you in a very ambitious, yet humble way. The creation of this piece is masterful and tedious. The presentation is muted and reserved. It’s untreated wood. Monochromatic. Simple. It is quiet. If you are by yourself in the gallery, it might even be quieter than the woods where its original form was witnessed. And at that point, you might have the same thought I had, which crassly put was, “Holy sh*t, people are going to know this tree lived and died long after they have forgotten about me.” Life is beautiful. God is good. Life can also appear to be cruel. But to quote Matt Chandler, “We are bit, loved players in a divine epic”. I’m happy  to teach this piece of art twice a semester to remind myself not to sweat how big the dent is that I leave in this world. The ground where you fall is the ground you will feed, even if the people you inspire don’t remember your full name.

2019.28 (Paulus Potter, Figures with Horses by a Stable)

            Things I was taught at horse camp: 1. How to clean stalls 2. How to brush/groom horses 3. How to pick out and clean their hooves 4. How to feed them 5. How to ride them.   

            Things I learned the hard way at horse camp: 1. Don’t touch an electric fence. 2. Don’t try to steal anything out of a vending machine because the owner might see you do it and wear out the seat of your pants. 3. Don’t throw a ton of hay down the chutes that lead to the horse stalls for the same reason that you don’t steal from a vending machine. 4. Don’t double up on a pony ride with your friend if that pony has recently given birth. When that pony knows it’s going back to the barn and back to its colt, it will take off at a ridiculous speed and buck you off to lighten their load. If you are lucky, you won’t get stomped by the pony once you’re on the ground.

            My lone horse camp experience occurred when I was 6-7 years old. It would be disingenuous to say that I attended. That would imply intent. I had a friend that owned a pony. He went to a camp at the stable where his family kept the pony and they invited me to go with him. I think if you ever know anyone that owns a horse, it’s probably just one kid from your childhood. It’s not a gang. If you know more than one person that owns a horse, you probably own a horse as well. You’re horse people. This boy’s family, from a 6-7 year old’s perspective, seemed to do pretty well. The kid had a go kart and a zip line in his backyard. Their garage was so big that he had a basketball goal installed in there. That blew my mind. It still blows my mind.           

            I don’t know how many hours a day that camp lasted, but my memory of it is that it went on all day. For all I know it was just the morning. In retrospect, it seems like a lot for a kid with no farm experience to learn all of this in a week. Maybe I just sell my own son short. He could clean some horse hooves and manage to not get kicked in the head. Somewhere, someone that grew up on a farm is reading this, laughing. “That’s all you had to do?” No one over the age of 7 probably likes to clean out horse stalls but I remember it being fun. At some point, a person loses their fondness for horseshit.

            The week ended with a set of races for which I was not remotely qualified to participate. I might have been the only one at the camp that did not own a horse or a pony stabled at the farm, so I had about 4 hours of riding experience by the time they had us “race”. I ended up in a contest where you had to carry an egg on a spoon while riding a horse. I don’t know that I could walk and do that, much less ride a horse and do it. There were only two kids in the race: a girl whose name I don’t remember and me. She could legitimately do this: carry an egg on a spoon while sitting on a walking horse. I could manage no such thing. I made it two feet and it fell. Someone picked up the egg and put it back on the spoon. It fell again…and again…and again. It wouldn’t break. Maybe they were hardboiled. It was muddy. Maybe that helped. There may have been some tears involved. The girl finished her race. Based off my showing up to that point, mercy was granted, and I was not expected to finish. I got a second-place ribbon, which is accurate but does not necessarily reflect the entirety of the event.

            We spent the final night in the loft or mow or whatever you call the top level of a barn. There was a nighttime horse ride. I don’t remember much else but that all seems like a good amount for 1st or 2nd grader to experience in a summer, and I think the camp only lasted a week. I remember that my primary horse’s name was Charlie. He was solid but, one day he decided to run rather than walk which freaked me out, and Charlie was dead to me after that.

            That camp represents 90% of my total farm experience. Someone in Philadelphia once asked my wife why I didn’t have a country accent. She said, “Rob’s southern. He’s not country.” True. No matter whether I lived in a small town or a suburb growing up, I was very much in a residential, “town” environment. No one ever had to get me up at the crack of dawn to feed anything, ever. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family lived and worked on a farm. Nelly Oleson’s family ran the mercantile. I’m Nelly.

            Despite that, or because of it, I do like northern European painting that centers on farm life. It is always referred to as “peasant” life. I get it. Within this genre, there is a sustained interest in depicting the dignity and honor of these people and their commitment to a simple life. Implied in this is a choice of a “simple life”. Like someone walked up to these people and said, “You can continue to labor in difficult circumstances and provide this country with sustenance and probably die early of some malady or you can join us in the city during this continent’s greatest economic boom of the century. Poverty and farming it is? God bless you, noble peasant! Let me paint you.” Despite being regarded as realism, it is a romanticism of a subject. The realism extends only to depicting a “real” subject otherwise ignored by art history. Otherwise these painters treated their subjects like Bono speaks about anything from Joey Ramone to Crest toothpaste.

            A large number of Dutch and French painters committed themselves to this work. Van Gogh probably considered himself one as most of these painters were his true conceptual heroes. For the casual art fan, consider what van Gogh painted in the south of France and you’ll see the connection. He was not a Parisian Impressionists painting the middle class engaged in leisurely activities and ridiculous amounts of bathing. He painted farmers. He was attracted to “sowers” and “reapers” and “gleaners”. It was all very Biblical for him. His formal execution was radically different, but his subjects were no different than his Dutch predecessors.

            The genre is meant to bring dignity to this slice of the Dutch population through how they are presented in the work but, it’s not like they could buy the art. Instead, their dignity is sold to the merchant class. I assume the subjects appreciated the hat tip to their lifestyle, but I don’t know how much they believed it. Very few people living this life would look at it and think, “You know, you’re right. I’m a dadgum folk hero. Thanks for capturing that part of me.” It’d be like painting a version of that now but the dude in the painting would rather be listening to Florida-Georgia Line than looking at your painting. More than likely they were glad to get paid to pose for the work. There is cultural history and the recognition of a hard day’s physical work shown in the painting which is something that might be lacking in the life of the importer/exporter that bought it. Like I said, I either like this work because of the limited experience that I have or because I have so little experience with it that I carry these same misguided stereotypes. Either way, all of this leads to a piece from this genre that sticks with me more than most others.

Paulus Potter- Figures with Horses by a Stable, 1647, oil on panel, 17.75x14.75”, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paulus Potter- Figures with Horses by a Stable, 1647, oil on panel, 17.75x14.75”, Philadelphia Museum of Art

            17th c. Dutch painter, Paulus Potter died of tuberculosis when he was 28. His focus in subject seems to have been animals and, despite his premature death, is judged to have left an influence in the way they are/were depicted in art. Because of his early passing, he left behind a relatively small number of paintings and etchings, around 100. If I would have died at 28, I would not want to be judged on the 100 pieces that I had made until that point. I’m 45 and I still would not want to be judged on my 100 most successful pieces.

            Potter’s focus was farm life: cows, horses, dogs, etc. There are a lot of low horizon lines to make the animals loom in monumentality. Despite his young age, he already seems to have developed a system of composition. He has one formula where the animal of choice is the largest element- seemingly a portrait of a horse, dog or cow. He has another method that focuses on the landscape, with the animals clustered in a bottom corner, not dissimilar from Chinese landscape painter, Ma Yuan, or “one-corner Ma”. Potter had another compositional structure with a farm building or barn holding down one side of the piece, with a door revealing part of the interior and the other side allowed to remain open in a landscape with a horse alongside the building and a smattering of other farm animals in the foreground. He was masterful at foreshortening which leads to a lot of cow and horse rumps in his work. He painted life-sized pieces and a number of intimately-scaled works.

            The Potter that I know best is Figures with Horses by a Stable from 1647. It is small in size: about 18x15” and has one of those titles that curators at museums slap on it when it enters a collection. Potter was around 21 when he made it. It falls under the “barn on one side, infinite landscape with horse on the other, animals in the foreground” method. As with most pieces that I know better than others, it is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Some of my coworkers and I were incredibly confused by this piece for a long time. I guess I should say that we were confused what the farmer was doing to the horse. It ends up that he’s probably brushing the horse. The horse’s body is blocking your view of the farmer’s hands so that mystery sat with us for a few months. You just see the farmer’s glowing face. When you get too close to the painting and just look at the farmer, you forget where the light that illuminates his face is coming from and you can fool yourself into thinking that the light is coming out of the horse’s butt in a mysteriously veiled way like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. I will say that I learned enough at horse camp to know that the farmer is standing in the wrong spot. He’s just asking to get kicked in the stomach by standing directly behind the horse. I took a hoof to the butt during my week because I lost focus for a bit.

            The look of pleasure on the farmer’s face is odd, considering that he’s staring at a horse’s rear end and lit by an invisible light source that you can only assume is a window or open door to the barn that is out of frame to the right. It’s an intense light considering the limited value range in the background and in the cloud. The closest cow to the fence line has a shadow that is in line with what could be lighting up the horse and farmer but it’s the only animal that registers a shadow at all. It seems like the sun is low, which makes for some confusing light because if it were that low, would it be that white? It’s the beauty of art, I suppose. Lie to tell the truth or bend elements and principles to get the image you really want. It’s like in The Big Lebowski. The Coen brothers tried a number of takes to throw a bag of underwear (“the ringer”) out of a car and over a bridge. They couldn’t get the arc of the bag’s flight to be what they had envisioned. It takes a lot of strength to throw it out of the car that high in the air, especially while the car is rolling. After a few failed attempts, someone suggested driving the car backwards and throwing the ringer at the car, then rolling the film backwards in post-production. As with everything else about The Big Lebowski, it works.

Rene Magritte- Empire of Light, 1953-54, 76 15/16 x 51 5/8”, oil on canvas, Guggenheim

Rene Magritte- Empire of Light, 1953-54, 76 15/16 x 51 5/8”, oil on canvas, Guggenheim

             The Potter bends the rules to make it work. He beats Magritte to his Empire of Light trick by 300 years. There are issues. The white horse’s head, despite Potter’s gift for foreshortening, doesn’t really jive with the body. The body fades into a convenient shadow to cover up that the neck doesn’t connect to the body well. There is a missing front leg that should be in frame but is not. Either that or the horse has 5 legs. Something is amiss. If I had to guess, the horse’s body was from one sketch and the head was from another and Potter stitched them together with enough success. The horse on the outside of the barn with the two figures is beautiful though. It is such a great total positive shape, cutting a high contrast with the ground around it. You could remove that and make an early 20th c. modernist abstraction out of it and it would sing. The rest of the foreground is a simple arrangement of chickens and twigs to activate the lower 1/5th of the piece. I looked at this a lot when I had a landscape show a few years ago. I’d study this and Dürer to see how to activate the ground. I needed to use beer cans and cats for props, but Potter seems to understand that you just need to put something there. Anything will do as long as it makes sense in the scene. For this he has twigs on the left and chickens on the right. There is a dog outside the barn, scratching itself and Potter has put a lot of time into the dog’s testicles. There is a pile of what I assume is dog poop next to the fence near the horse’s back hoof. The strongest shot of color is in the nursing mother’s dress. It calls attention to her but is also one of only a few solutions for not having her swallowed by the background. Her bonnet is abnormally lit as well, breaking another rule to insure the clarity of the piece and establish her presence. The tree growing next to the barn connects the barn, sky and ground and also seems poorly placed in a real-life situation. It’d tear through that barn over the years. A cloud activates the top left and, aside from a couple of birds, Potter allows the top right to remain static.

            This painting became one of my favorites in the museum over the years because of the mixture of gentle-rule breaking, compositional prowess and general oddness. I was working in this format in drawings for a while and it gave me a few ideas. It was a structure that was lovingly referred to by a friend as “a tree, some people doing something and some crap on the ground”. I wasn’t trying to romantically depict peasant life, but I learned a bit about landscape from it. I always placed the horizon line higher than Potter because I was too enamored with Dürer-esque overlooks into an infinite beyond, but I learned how powerful a subtle cloud could be and what could be altered to be highlighted yet still fit the intended vision. I’m the furthest thing from an iconoclast. I’m not a rebel. I believe firmly in tradition but, being an artist that represents anything in two-dimensional form understands that you enter into it knowing that everything you put down on paper or canvas is an abstraction and therefore not true. Everything you do breaks rules. Bending reality to your will is unavoidable so don’t get fussy about it and say the thing you want to say in the way it needs to be said.

2019.27 (Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay)

            It’s difficult for me to remember a lot of firsts. At best, I have an oldest memory of some thing or event but there is no guarantee that those are the first times I experienced anything. I could figure out the first 45 that I bought because we still have them all. I could just check release dates. It was probably “Watching the Wheels” or “Woman” The first album I bought with my own money was The Outfield’s Play Deep. Anything I had up until that point was a gift or mixtape. The first time I remember being in a movie theatre was when my parents took my brother and me to see Kramer Vs Kramer. I assume they expected us to sleep through it because I was 4 years old at the time. I know I was awake long enough to see Jane Alexander walking down a hallway naked right before my mother’s hand went up over my eyes. Mom would repeat this maneuver two years later to block the giant Nazi in Raiders of Lost Ark being chopped up by the airplane propeller.

            But what is the first unique piece of art that I saw? It had to be in our house, because, as I have previously established, I did not enter a museum until I was 17. I didn’t visit an art gallery until high school. We had prints in our house for a long time. My parents still have a series of what I think are offset lithography prints of northern European engravings that celebrate each month, like Breugel. Scenes of harvest, etc. They have four, one for each of our birth months. As family finances improved, unique works like paintings or monotypes showed up. My parents still have some Anna Jaap monotypes from the 1990s in their house- still lifes a bit more recognizable in presentation than the abstraction she has progressed to since then.

            There are strengths and weaknesses in the means by which you form a lifelong bond with a work of art. The biggest weakness seems to be the effort required to go see it. Music is everywhere. It goes with you and gets directly tied to wherever you are when it is playing. The Sundays were from London and wrote about British things, like losing a pound in the Underground, but their first album is forever burned in my brain by driving down Conference Dr near Rivergate Mall in Goodlettsville, TN in my friend’s very old, red Volkswagen Beetle that was in such bad shape that it didn’t even have floorboards in the back seat. If you sat back there, you pulled your feet up and hoped for the best because you could see the road passing underneath the car where your feet were supposed to rest. The heat for the car was broken in some way that prevented you from turning it off. It was on all of the time, even in the summer. No matter the season, the windows were always down, which does make for good cruising and listening to The Sundays in the spring evening. This relationship to an album is nothing that a band in that position could have ever predicted but that’s the strength of recorded music. This is art’s weakness. No one is driving around Goodlettsville, TN having an Albrecht Dürer moment. Dürer is not in the air. But this weakness is countered by art’s strength that when you stand in front of a painting, you are standing where the artist stood. There was a show of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at the Met years ago. A friend of mine and I were standing in front of a drawing, 2 feet from it, when we heard a woman behind us say, “You know, you can see it from here too.” My friend turned back and said, “Yeah, but he was standing where I am when he drew it.”

            I assume that most artists have had that moment early enough in their lifetime to nudge them a bit into the profession of making art: a person stood where I am standing and made the thing I am looking at and this is the only place you can stand to have this experience because  this is a unique object and I occupy the singular space directly in front of a unique object at this moment. The closest thing to a first for this experience that I can remember happened in my grandmother’s house. She was the caretaker of some of my great-grandmother’s art. I have little-to-no information about my great-grandmother. I should ask more questions. She lived in eastern North Carolina and was a hobbyist of art more than an artist. She taught some classes but what remains of her work are pieces that she copied, predominantly images from magazines. We have a small watercolor still life in the kitchen that she either set up herself or copied it. It’s a handful of red, green and yellow apples with a small glass dish. It lacks volume and light but possesses a nice washy quality. It’s also well-arranged, from my perspective because it’s a relatively-long horizontal and a quick scan of all of my work will reveal that I don’t consider myself to be good at arranging along a horizontal. I make verticals. I really need to work on expanding my range of formatting.

Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay, engraving, approximately 1848, image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust

Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay, engraving, approximately 1848, image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust

            The work of hers that grabbed my attention over the years was the biggest surviving piece that the family kept. It’s a copy of Edwin and Thomas Landseer’s The Stag at Bay. It is unclear to me whether or not the original Landseer painting exists now. The composition is best documented by Edwin’s brother, Thomas’ engraving from approximately 1848. It depicts a stag in what I assume is a lake being attacked by two wolves. The winner and loser of the fight have yet to be determined but I feel like if the stag is in the water, then the stag is going down. It looks like it could go either way. There is a threatening cloud hovering over the composition with a bird of prey circling in the darkest section of the cloud. Despite the storm, broad rays of light streak from behind the cloud to illuminate the shoreline and forest in the distance. It’s a nice slice of British romanticism. Every element of the natural world is turned up to maximum volume.

            My great-grandmother’s charcoal copy of this print hung in my grandmother’s house and then came to my parents after my grandmother’s death. For the first few years of it being there, I considered it a hideous thing and rarely looked at it. But one day I finally had that “Hey, someone stood right here and made this” moment and my relationship with it changed. I think it happened because I understood that it was a relative of mine that made it. My father knew the person that made it. Now it was a mysterious object. I had no idea who Edwin Landseer or what Romanticism was or that my great-grandmother had copied this. I thought she made it up out of her head. Why would she do this? It seemed unlikely that she would ever see a stag attacked by wolves. As my eye developed, I graded it. Her drawing has space and light and proportion but lacks form. But she was seeing more than likely seeing this in a magazine so how much form did she have to observe? The horizon line doesn’t match up on the left and right side of the stag’s body. This is not a Cezanne move. It’s an error. The drawing’s importance to me grew as I grew. When we bought our first house, my parents unloaded a lot of my childhood stuff on me that had been in their attic. They gave us furniture they didn’t need. I asked for the stag and got it.

slideshow: Edwin Landseer- Night (Two Stags Battling by Moonlight), oil on canvas, 1853, 56x103”, Morning (Two Dead Stags and a Fox), oil on canvas, 1853, 56x103”, Ptarmigan in a Landscape, oil on canvas, 1833, 19.5x25.75” - images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art         

Once I started working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I dusted the frame of two large Landseer paintings every week. Other smaller Landseers were around, and honestly, it is a gem of a small collection of his work. Click here to see them. The Ptarmigan in a Landscape painting is a masterful control of earth tones and grays. One large piece I dusted depicts two stags battling at night. The partner of the same size depicted two dead stags with a fox and a bird of prey. Saturday night, Sunday morning? Not knowing Thomas’ prints, I was still able to look at these and my great-grandmother’s drawing and know that she was looking at his work. The composition of forms was too similar to not be him. That gave me enough to start searching. Over the years (this is early internet 2.0) I would occasionally search “Landseer stag” and find work similar but not it. After a year or two, I got an eBay hit on the print and the mystery was solved. Now I knew what she had been using as her guide and I could compare and contrast the original and the copy. The unsolvable mystery will always be where she saw it and what she was copying. She sliced off the right quarter of the composition, but maybe that wasn’t included in what she was looking at. Maybe the edits in her composition were not hers. She washed out the storm. It’s a clear day in her drawing. The landscape is downplayed. The true romanticism of the piece is negated just to focus on the subject. She nailed the shape of the stag and the antlers and the wolf on the left though. It’s a good copy. No wonder I wanted it up on the wall.

film still from  Bull Durham

film still from Bull Durham

            The drawing hangs above my studio door now. I’ve drawn it in the background of at least one piece of mine in the past and I’m sure I’ll use it again. I see the print pop up on auctions, but I’ll never spend $5,000 on it. I found it hovering in the background of a bar scene in Bull Durham. It’s a nice steady reminder of art history as well as family history and that your children and grandchildren may latch onto an oddball thing you make as a keepsake that you were ever here. We have this drawing and some of my wife’s grandfather’s whittled oddities. You can hold those whittled piece in your hand in the same way you can stand in front of a Leonardo drawing and say, “This is the only one of these. I am holding it (or standing in front of it) and no one else can have that direct relationship right now but me.”

2019.26 (Michelangelo, The Deposition)

            Depositions, descents from the cross and pietas are standard visual language at this point. The act of removing Christ from the cross or of Mary holding the dead, adult Christ or burying Him were Western standards and have been secularized over the centuries and reworked into any dramatic narrative involving one living human body cradling another, deceased body.

Screen Shot 2019-06-24 at 10.39.15 PM.png

         I’m sure it happens every year but my go-to reference is from my late junior high years when Robin died in the Batman: A Death in the Family series. The cover is pure pieta. Really if you just Google image search “comic book pieta” and look under the Images tab, you’ll see how deep it goes just in that format. This is not shocking. What better language to borrow for comic books than European Christian art, particularly the Baroque? No one is trying to hide this. Consider this advertising campaign for the Netflix series, Daredevil. Be it through Apple or Pinterest or books about scaling down and being minimal, you’d think we live in some streamlined age of bare necessity and elegance but, everything about our popular culture screams, “Baroque!” Endless superhero movies and bloated TV series that demand hours upon hours of ourselves to find any kind of resolution. This compositional choice is embedded in our memory bank and when you see it, even if you’re not Christian, you probably get it. You don’t need to consciously get it, but part of your brain understands that a loss of epic proportions has occurred.

            I have favorites within this genre. I would imagine that they are no different than most other people’s favorites. I have seen about half of these in person: Rogier van der Weyden, Enguerrand Quarton, Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, Giotto, El Greco and Michelangelo.

El Greco,  Lamentation , 1571-76, oil on panel, Philadelphia Museum of Art

El Greco, Lamentation, 1571-76, oil on panel, Philadelphia Museum of Art

            The El Greco painting is the one that I have spent the most time with. I dusted it every week for 5 years. It’s a beautiful gem, roughly 11.5x8”. You could hold a piece of typing paper in your hand or you could hold this El Greco. I love it because of its mystery and honestly, because it lacks the level of sorrow and weight that most of the others listed above possess. It has less weight. It is lighter and more poetic. Don’t get me wrong: he’s dead but the weight of the body is not fully there. If you just look at his legs, they look alive, almost in motion. They’re propped against rocks for support, but the rocks don’t seem necessary. You have Mary, distraught and looking into the distance but she’s not shouldering much of the weight. Mary Salome (?) and John or Joseph of Arimethea(?) are doing the work. John/Joseph even appears to be removing the crown of thorns in an act of delicate, loving care. His figure is heavy and dark compared to the rest. He seems more burdened by it all. There is a beautiful violet/pink cloud rolling off on the right, revealing a deep blue sky. Is it the cloud that brought darkness to Jerusalem during the crucifixion? That hovered above while the earth quaked and the temple curtain was split down the middle? If so, the El Greco does not interpret it as a colorless, black mass but instead as a vibrant display of heavenly power.

            Strangely this is not a typical El Greco in that it is not as tonal as you’d expect from him. His masterworks are grisaille paintings with color glazed on top. Those pieces sit there in a hallucinatory way that few would see again until black-and-white movies were colorized. This Lamentation was warm from the beginning and carried through to the top layers.

Michelangelo,  The Deposition (The Florentine Pieta),  1547-55, marble, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence

Michelangelo, The Deposition (The Florentine Pieta), 1547-55, marble, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence

            The composition appears indebted to a late Deposition of Michelangelo’s. OK, so it’s probably a deposition. It might be a pieta. It might be both. Apparently, people really argue about this. It’s Mary holding her dead son. Are you really going to sweat whether it is at the foot of the cross or the opening to the tomb? We’re not sure who the man is. It might be Joseph of Arimethea or it might be Nicodemus. Whoever you think it is determines how you interpret the piece. If you think it’s Nicodemus, then you interpret the face as a self-portrait on Michelangelo’s part and it is a way of tipping his hat to a return to his faith in his later years as well. All of this is interesting but if you just appreciate Michelangelo and you’re a Christian, you don’t really need all of this to be completely floored by it when you see it in person.  

            It’s a similar triangular composition to the El Greco but, the placement of figures is different. You could argue that El Greco based his work off of this. Christ is in the middle and he looks much more possessed of weight than in the El Greco. Those legs are not dancing. They are collapsed. His left arm is so contorted that no living person would voluntarily rest it in that position. Once again though, no one seems to be stressed out. The Magdalene figure is stoic, rigid, seemingly indebted to Michelangelo’s Renaissance schooling as much as the medieval period. Michelangelo is a bridge. He knows antiquity, he knows the medieval, he is the Renaissance, but he is the Baroque as well. His later works would be considered mashups by contemporary standards. He lives long enough to shake off who people think he is and to defy their expectations of him.

            The relationship of Christ’s head to Mary’s head is one of the most tender creations in European art history. The way his head rests on her cheek is simultaneously a pieta and a traditional Madonna and Child. It is a dead, adult Christ and an infant Jesus all in one shot. Her face is unresolved, but her eyes appear to be closed and the rough rendering of her mouth is that of a smile. It’s not a joyful smile. Contextually it has a quality of knowing that someone is finally at peace. You could say that I’m reading too much into it but y’all are the ones that have been writing books about Mona Lisa’s smile for 200 years. Nicodemus/Joseph/Michelangelo places his hand on Mary’s back to brace her and grabs Jesus’ right arm with his right hand. Mary Magdalene places her free arm on Nicodemus/Joseph’s leg, presumably for stability. Everyone is joined. Everyone touches Christ and everyone is connected to everyone else.

            All of this is poised to drag your heart around on an emotional rollercoaster when you see it in Florence. The Duomo Museum does not do what you would expect it to do with a Michelangelo. They don’t take a massive room and isolate it to allow for massive crowds to fill in 20’ deep in front of it like you would expect. Instead, you hit the top of a stairwell and it is sitting, by itself in a small recessed space that has just enough room to hold it and to allow people in single file to walk around it or stand in front of it. It is you and Michelangelo and that is it. It is not arranged for spectacle like the Mona Lisa. The museum really wants you to have an experience with it, to connect. There is nothing else to do but look at it, to see it hover above you as you come up the stairs and then be confronted with absolute loss. This is the burden that someone drawing a Batman comic assumes when he or she switches out the characters but tries to maintain the drama.

            As a Christian, I look at this motif and I look for knowledge from the artist that this is simultaneously the worst and greatest thing that has happened in the history of humanity. This is the partial fulfillment of prophecy and one of the final steps of the fulfillment of a covenant, set into motion millennia prior. That’s the intention of people that work with these themes in a sincere way. I get that. That’s what I look for first. But I also can’t help thinking about when I accidentally ended up in my own pieta situation in kindergarten.

old jungle gym, photo courtesy The NY Times

old jungle gym, photo courtesy The NY Times

            For those of you born much later than me, this is a jungle gym. It is not a Sol Lewitt sculpture, but I’ve never seen one of those sculptures without thinking of a jungle gym. As best I can tell, these were used as early as the 1940s and lasted at least until the 1980s. I don’t know when they would have been deinstalled because once I outgrew the use for playgrounds, I stopped going to them until I had a child of my own. Otherwise, in case you don’t know, if you’re at a playground and you are not a child or a guardian, then you, my friend, are creepy and need to leave.

Sol Lewitt

Sol Lewitt

            My elementary school in North Carolina had a jungle gym similar to this but in my kindergarten memories, the one that Wells Elementary had was at least one block taller and seemed deeper and harder to get to the middle. My kindergarten year introduced me to this school. Things to know about Wells Elementary: 1) at the time, in the late 70s, high school kids were the school bus drivers. Try to imagine a 17-year-old driving a school bus today. It might still happen in less densely populated areas, but it seems unthinkable to me now. If I remember correctly, this policy was changed when a couple of drivers were caught racing one another. I remember that the engine of our bus caught on fire in the school parking lot one day and we all had to jump out the back. Now imagine a 17-year-old being responsible for making a bunch of elementary school kids jump of the back of a smoking bus. 2) For some reason, the interior hallway doors that led to the cafeteria were screen doors like you would find on the patio at your house. 3) I passed out while standing on the bleachers in the auditorium while practicing for the Christmas music presentation. I was on the top bleacher and I fell forward onto every kid in front of me. Don’t lock your knees, kids. 4) I found a crayon in the grass one day and wrote my name all over the porch of the school because it was probably the only thing that I knew how to write at that point in kindergarten. It wasn’t hard to track down the culprit and make me clean it up. 5) In first grade we could take 45s to play on my teacher’s record player before school. I have no idea why, but I was obsessed with Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” and would manage to play it everyday until I assume everyone had enough of it and never let me play it again.  

            But back to the jungle gym. One day, during PE, I climbed up to the top of the interior of this jungle gym and then proceeded to fall down. If you look at the photo of the jungle gym, you might notice that there is not a lot of room to fall, unmolested from the top to the bottom. Judging by my experience, there is no room for that at all. When you slip, you fall backwards, so your head hits a bar. Your feet hit the one that is opposite. Your arms instinctively try to grab for something, which sends them out of control hitting other bars on the side. Your head/face hits another bar as you fall. Your legs and arms hit a variety of spots, forcing your body to flip over and back and forth, throwing your head and face into as many pieces of metal as you can hit in the 1.5 seconds it probably takes to finally hit the ground. Congratulations, you are now on the ground. The live action game of pinball is over. Let’s assess the damage. You’re bleeding. A lot. From the head and the face. For some reason, your arms are scraped up and bleeding. There is no blood on your legs, but they were sweaty. That might not seem like a bad thing but you’re thinking of a 2019 playground with rubber flooring and/or 12” of mulch to cushion that fall. But that’s not it. This is 40 years ago. What broke your fall in 1979? Sand. A pile of sand. You know what sand sticks to? Sweat and blood. Let’s step back and take a look at this scene. You have suffered a head injury among varying other bodily injuries yet to be identified. You are covered in blood, sweat and sand…and you are still stuck in the middle of a jungle gym. No one is getting you out of there at the speed you need.

            My teacher was probably in her late 20s or early 30s, but I was 5 so she seemed 45 to me. Her nickname was/is Honeybun. I swear, I thought that was her real name until my mom told me otherwise just 4-5 years ago. Honeybun must have crawled in there and removed me from the jungle gym because I can guarantee you that I didn’t get up and walk out. She no doubt saw the mess that was my body and decided to not wait until the school nurse could come to her but instead to take me and find the nurse. Honeybun picked me up, cradling me under my knees and, unfortunately, my neck instead of my head and ran into the school to the nurse’s office. The nurse was not in the nurse’s office. The nurse was in a 3rd grade room probably administering a fluoride treatment or something. My head was pitched back completely, so I could see (upside-down) immediately to the right of Honeybun. We bounced down the hallway at a jarring, uncomfortable speed for someone that has just received massive head and possibly neck trauma. Honeybun ran into the 3rd grade room and stood in front of the class because that is where the nurse was standing at the time. I picked up my head and rolled it to the right and saw 25 3rd graders looking at me in absolute horror. Horror. Shock. Pity. Hopelessness. I was a pieta. But a pieta in Buster Brown shoes.

            My faith would coalesce a few years later. The heart of the pieta, deposition, lamentation, etc would be revealed to me as I got older and these works of art would take on substantial meaning. That’s a blessing because, if not for that, I might look at a Michelangelo or El Greco and never really see anything other than Honeybun and me and some freshly-flourided 3rd graders and Batman. Honestly, that’s not too bad but the other way is richer and more in keeping with the original intention of the art. Otherwise, I might just be some guy that climbed a flight of stairs in Florence, saw a sculpture and thought, “Honeybun”, chuckled and moved on.

2019.25 (Jackson Pollock, Number 7, 1951)

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 5.22.03 PM.png

            On Saturday, November 2, 1991, I flew to Washington DC for some sort of young leadership conference. I know it was this date because, according to a ticket stub you can buy on eBay, on Friday, November 1, 1991, the Violent Femmes played Memorial Gym at Vanderbilt University. I wanted to go to the show but my parents seemed to think that I couldn’t manage going to a concert one night and getting on an airplane the next day so they gave me the ultimatum, “You can go to DC or go to the concert.” To this day, I don’t understand the logic but it’s fine. 30 years later, the Violent Femmes are not anything on my bucket list despite a still-strong affection for their Why Do Birds Sing? album. A friend of mine had a recordable cassette tape that would cycle through a 30-second loop tape. He put 30 seconds of crowd noise on it so I could stay home and listen to the Femmes on one tape player with the crowd noise in another. 

            I have no idea what this conference was that I attended. I don’t even know the name of it. It had a generic “Future Leaders of Something” kind of name. I don’t know how I was invited. I just got a letter in the mail because that’s how things used to work. Did I get nominated by a teacher? No clue. There was nothing in my permanent record in 1991 that would suggest that I was going to be a future leader of anything. For all we knew, my parents were buying a plane ticket for me to get sold off into servitude. More than likely the organizers just checked tax filings versus age of kids and said, “I bet this kid’s parents can afford to send their kid to DC for a week.” Somewhere in my parents’ attic is probably an article in the free Hendersonville paper of me going and meeting our then-representative, Bart Gordon. We had a mock Congress about the Brady Bill and I had to contact my congressional representatives for info before I left. Al Gore’s office sent me about 300 pages of something or the other with a photocopied note of his handwriting that said, “I’m happy to send these materials to you” or something generic that would suit any request for information that came into his office. No one else sent me anything. The material that I did get was written in legalese and was worthless. 

            Along with a bunch of clueless teenagers debating the finer points of gun control, we were put on buses a few times to see different landmarks in DC. There was a nighttime tour of the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorial. We went to Arlington for the Iwo Jima statue. There was a tour of the House and Senate. I still remember sitting in the House gallery listening to them debate something about telephone companies. It was tedious for a 17-year old and I imagine it would be tedious for a 45-year old. We went to the south lawn of the White House and watched George H.W. Bush welcome the president of somewhere not too big or powerful to the House.

            We went to Union Station. There was a record store in there. I bought Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Golden Palominos’ Drunk with Passion. I could probably tell you where I bought every 45, LP, tape or CD that I ever owned. Now I just wake up on Friday and scroll through a “New Music” tab. It’s a shame. The Nevermind purchase felt mandatory. One of those things you get so you know what people are talking about. The Drunk with Passion purchase was because Michael Stipe sang the first track and, in 1991, I felt like I needed anything he sang. That was a hit-or-miss proposition. If you win, you get him singing “Alive and Living Now” on this Palominos record. It’s a recording that shows, R.E.M. or not, you were going to hear Michael Stipe’s voice in the 80s and 90s. If you miss, you get him rapping about sex education on a Neneh Cherry album. 

            The collection of students was random and semi-threatening? I couldn’t figure it out. There was me- nerdy, suburban, cloistered and a few other people like me and then dudes that look like they stepped out of some educational 80s video of “tough guys”. There was a guy from New Orleans who always wore a Saints hat and one of those early 90s “team jackets”, the kind like Ice Cube always had a Raiders version of. I don’t know what you call them. This guy always had a lollipop in his mouth, and he took every opportunity to make some sex joke based off the word “cherry”. He latched onto me like fresh meat and would say the strangest things as insults. “I bet you couldn’t even get a girl pregnant.” What? Is that a goal where you come from? We’re at a leadership conference, right? 

            Somewhere in the mix of this week, we were given a full day in the Smithsonian area. I think I spent 10 minutes in Aersopace and just long enough in the American wing to see Archie Bunker’s chair. After that, one of my fellow nerdy suburbanites and I went to the National Gallery. And there I was, finally at an art museum. If you’re an artist (as in an artist that went to school, got a degree, then got suckered into going for the MFA) you probably had decent access to art growing up or at least went to a museum at some point. I grew up in a suburb of Nashville, a city that for some reason never developed a collecting art museum. We didn’t have art books at the house. We didn’t really have art books at school. Our art history was a collection of aging magazines and none of it was ever laid out in chronological order. In junior high, I thought Picasso painted the Mona Lisa. The first time I stepped into a legitimate art museum was when I was 17 years old during the first week of November of 1991.

Jackson Pollock,  Number 7, 1951 , enamel on canvas, 56 1/2 x 66”, National Gallery, Washington DC

Jackson Pollock, Number 7, 1951, enamel on canvas, 56 1/2 x 66”, National Gallery, Washington DC

            My memory is that I went straight for the modern wing, bypassing anything from the medieval to the early 20th century. Winding through the galleries led me to Jackson Pollock’s Number 7, 1951. It was the first Pollock I’d seen in person and it was nothing like what I knew of drippy, all-over Pollock. And when I say, “what I knew of drippy, all-over Pollock”, I mean that I once saw two of his paintings in an old issue of a high school arts magazine. This had drips but it also had figures. It only used black. I had no frame of reference for this. Was it pre-drip? Was it later? No clue. The card on the wall lacked any information other than the basics. In the modern era, not even the entry on the museum’s website provides any context. Compare it to the page for Lavender Mist and you’ll see how highly regarded one is compared to the other. Mist has an essay. It’s a “highlight”. Number 7 isn’t even on display right now. It’s what the art world regards as Pollock past his prime. The painting equivalent of any Beach Boys album after Pet Sounds. Fortunately, I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t have the baggage of critical opinion to unpack when standing in front of it. It was just me (and the other guy I was with) and this Pollock that was not all-over. There was a structure and a hierarchy. There was a top and a bottom. There was a man and a woman stuffed into the right 1/3, embracing (?) while the left 2/3 contains 15 or so vertical lines dotted with pools of black and a pile of marks at the bottom that look like an abstracted attempt at an extinguished campfire. It is Pollock rediscovering his mid-1940s figuration. Pollock, like everyone coming out of the war, with a foot in Surrealism-inspired analysis and Picasso. I see heads in the left, but it is probably meant to be trees or something organic and exterior. But the positioning of everything has a sensation of observing or spying or peeping. A monologue started going through my brain while looking at it and it took me a minute or two, but I realized I was going through Steve Martin’s monologue from L.A. Story when he’s explaining a painting at the L.A. County Museum in a completely ridiculous way. But it seemed to fit this Pollock. I know it’s not the real inspiration for Martin’s script, but I thought it was funny how it lined up.  I didn’t need any of that. I just really liked the painting.

            Maybe Pollock is like Haruki Murakami. Whatever Murakami book you read is probably going to end up being your favorite. For the most part, they’re variations on a theme. Maybe whatever your first Pollock is, that’s your favorite. This is my favorite. I don’t really care what history says. There was a show of his later black works a couple of years ago that reignited discussion of their merit. I don’t know where we collectively landed after that. It got good press, but I don’t know if that’ll trickle down into the classroom. Granted, these are not the paintings that get him into the history books or “reinvent” painting, but they’re my favorites. They make sense with their predecessors and their followers. It’s just black enamel. Such clarity of mark and shape and image. The raw canvas sits there, open and bold. The reductive nature of that period, compared to something more “important” like Lavender Mist, is something you look for in the late work of masters. Matisse boiled it down to nothing as did Cezanne (relatively speaking). You want an artist to get to a point where they know a single line can do the work of an elaborately constructed form. I think the solo in Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl is one note? You want to see artists grow into that confidence.

            The day ended and I went back to the dorm or wherever I was staying on that trip. Where was I?! Somehow, the tough kids saw photos in my wallet of girls that I went to high school with. It’s weird to think that used to be a thing. You walked around with a wallet full of photos of your friends that you saw every day. Anyway, the tough kids apparently thought the girls I hung out with were attractive so they stopped thinking of me as a sexless wonder that would die a virgin and tried to be nice to me after 3-4 days of acting like rejects from a John Hughes movie. I didn’t get to another museum until I got to college and went to the Knoxville Museum of Art. It’d be another two years after that before I got back up to DC and saw another moment of clarity: the National Gallery’s installation of Matisse’s large-scale paper cutouts. It’d take two more years to get to New York. I’d see a lot more Pollocks. They always looked nervous and unsettled and angsty but once I knew his story then I became like everyone else and couldn’t divorce the man from the art. More often than not, when looking at Pollocks, I looked for the bugs that got caught up in the splatter and died. I took art history classes. We never talked about Pollock in 1951. I never had to argue for it because no one ever brought it up. It was mine, and in some ways, it still is but only because no one else seems to want it.

2019.24

            I have to engage in the dangerous practice of attributing a quote to someone based on another person quoting them. I sold Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar a couple of years ago, so I don’t have the direct quote anymore. If you want that book, go to McKay’s in Nashville and see if it is still there. It was a mistake. I don’t regret getting rid of The Invisible Dragon but having an “all Hickey must go” moment was a bit hasty. Reasserting beauty in the mid-90s art world was a necessary thing but it felt like The Invisible Dragon was written in an obtuse, dense manner to discourage debate or at least determine a winner of the debate before it even began.

            Air Guitar, by comparison, was more direct and approachable. It is a series of essays of one person’s life with art, in Hickey’s case as a songwriter, an art dealer, a critic and an instructor. How you live with art and how it shapes you or at least confirms what you believe to be true about yourself is a lot more interesting to me and a lot more valuable to people that are trying to figure out why they should care about art than burdening them with theory that you can take or leave, even as an artist, without it affecting the quality of the work.  

So here’s the Hickey quote from Air Guitar, thanks to Chuck Twardy from Las Vegas Weekly:

“I have never taken anything printed in a book to heart that was not somehow confirmed in my ordinary experience,” he asserts in 1997’s Air Guitar. “Nor have I had any experience of high art that was not somehow confirmed in my experience of ordinary culture.”

            Who you are as a person determines how much wiggle room is in that quote. How curious you are as a person sets the stage for your ability to let a wide range of art function in this equation.

            There are things we seem to have given up on in my lifetime: that the US men’s soccer team will ever be competitive, passenger train service to Nashville and that the majority of the western population can meaningfully engage with art on a regular basis.  2 out of 3 of these problems are Herculean, bordering on Sisyphean, in their need for education, training, funding and infrastructure. The art problem is not difficult, but the people tasked with it (artists) have decided to “specialize” and treat it like you need a medical degree to “get it”. If you don’t live in NYC, the conversation you hear in every other city with artists is that there is a lack of “criticality” in the art scene. Naw, dawg. There is just a lack of knowledge of art history because no one really teaches it anymore other than to hop on a soapbox and view 500-year-old art through a 21st century lens and a lack of steady exposure to rock solid art in the flesh. You want the average art crawler (whose primary goal is free wine) to walk in on a Saturday night, look at your pile of hair and beads with a random postcard and scrap of paper arranged on top of a shoebox and have “a moment” based on nothing more than your artist statement about your “practice that investigates the juxtaposition of post-structuralists concepts of language and contemporary gender conversations in an emergent post-urban, return-to-land movement.”

            If you want criticality, I’ll give it you: 75% of this garbage and needs to go. I’m not being holier-than-though on this. 50% of my stuff has gone over the years. You and I can discuss whether I kept the correct 50% but at least I know that I make a lot of mistakes. A lot of stuff out there is obtuse and navel-gazing in order to try to look smart and justify being $70k in the hole because of graduate school. Either that or it is nihilistic because your worldview is so cynical that you don’t even think that the thing you have committed your life to pursuing is actually worth the pursuit. On top of that, there is a 50/50 shot that your craftsmanship is lost in some sort of lo-fi 90s aesthetic so you don’t even give people the pleasure at looking at something that is well-made. If you want to know what I’m thinking at a lot of art receptions, it’s the quote from Mo’ Better Blues that the Roots (ironically) use to open Things Fall Apart:

“Everything, everything you just said is bullshit. Out of all the people in the world, you never gave anybody else, and look, I love you like a step-brother, but you never gave nobody else a chance t- to play their own music, you complain about... That's right, the people don't come because you grandiose motherfuckers don't play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that.”

             The Roots used this clip in frustration that they were trying to make intelligent music, to make albums instead of hits, and still having to play 200 nights a year to make money, rather than making some sort of Kriss Kross song and being able to take it easy. In reality, what they ended up doing on the album that opens with them venting their frustration was make an artistically-satisfying album and finally managing to put together a couple of great songs that could act as singles to sell said album. You can do both and it makes sense that it would take them a while to find that balance. You can play the “shit” that they like sometimes because if you love music as much as the Roots do then, as high-falutin as your artistic goals may be, you still probably like some of the same “shit” that they like and want to play it sometimes. You’re talented enough that you might accidentally play something that we can all agree on. That’s not a horrible thing. If I had to write an artist statement now, something that would not just sit for a show but encompass my career, it would be that I want to follow Peter Buck’s summary of R.E.M.: “the acceptable edge of unacceptable stuff.” You can’t get everyone. I get it. But you can write both “Stand” and “Belong” and not explode from sort of internal conflict. You can write “Man on the Moon” and still have a song on an album where you fill a room with 12 music boxes and let them rip just to see what would happen. And “Stand” is a decent song anyway. The art world could be a lot more generous and a lot more approachable and open some doors so that people could have a high art experience that is confirmed in ordinary experience. What is the art for if not to point to that?

            There’s a scene in L.A. Story where Woody Harrelson’s character and Steve Martin have a disagreement about Martin’s humor during his daily weather report for his TV station:

 

Woody: You're doing some sort of intellectual thing.

Steve: Intellectual? It may seem intellectual to you, because you were educated with a banana and an inner tube. This is an intellectual-free zone.

Woody: More wacky, less egghead.

 

            The Woodys of the world might not be reached. I’m not saying that you have to make drawings of Game of Thrones characters to get people actively involved but throw them a rope.

            So here’s the deal, I think, in my own tiny way, sitting out here in the artistic hinterland, this is my job and probably what I should be writing about. It is how I teach my lecture class and how I should teach my studio class. Moving forward, I’m going to try to take one piece of art (not mine) and show how it is woven into my life. Sometimes the connection is tangential. Ask my students or my family. There is a large chunk of my time that is spent answering the question “How did you get there from what we were just talking about?”

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

Leningrad - Anna Reid

2019.23

            I read a biography of Edward Hopper about 20 years ago. It’s primarily based off of his wife, Jo Hopper’s journals. The book frames him as a jerk that treated her poorly, discouraged her career and refused to change to make their life more comfortable. I have no idea if this is true. I’ve seen some of Jo’s paintings. There wasn’t much to encourage. Edward and Jo left all of their work to the Whitney Museum. They chucked most of her stuff. Edward didn’t seem like a pleasant person, but he might have just been a hard-headed recluse.  He didn’t leave any written record of his side. What we get is Jo’s words. One side of an argument.  Jo seems exhausting. She writes a lot. A lot.

I think I’m turning into Jo. My texts are way too long. I’m usually sitting at a computer when I get them so it’s too easy to respond with a much too thorough answer. I assume that most of them don’t get read. When I lecture, I occasionally slip into some sort of manic speed of delivery. My students probably think I’m crazy. So, at least for this week, I’m trimming the fat and not going to write much.

Screen Shot 2019-06-01 at 9.05.48 PM.png

            I finished another still life, started another and worked a bit more some Surrealist-inspired stuff. That’s it unless you want a recap of me hauling brush to the street for pickup this week.

            Here’s a new Jay Som song. She’s playing the High Watt in November:

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

Leningrad - Anna Reid

2019.22

            I started another still life drawing. I thought about a linocut. I bet I’ll be thinking about a linocut for a while until I finally get fed up with myself and go buy a linoleum panel. I have a really cheap Speedball press that I’ve never figured out. I should give myself a project in order to work out how to use the press. I have occasional visions of myself selling enough of one print to buy a better press and then just making linocuts and selling them online. Keep in mind, that I have never actually made a successful edition of linocuts, so currently there is no audience. I see other people doing it but then again, they know what people want- animals and flowers. I don’t know that there is much of a market for cubist-inspired vanitas linocuts.

            It has been a quiet week and I have enjoyed every bit of that quiet. Saturday was our now-annual trip to the Nashville National Cemetery to put flags on all of the tombstones with other local Scouts troops and packs. There are about 35,000 veterans buried in the cemetery, which always looks daunting, but someone how we get a flag at every marker in about an hour. I found a marker for a man that was born in 1901 but listed as a private for WW2. If he was an ordinary civilian that signed up, he’d have been over 40 years old when he enlisted. It’s hard to put myself in that headspace. I turn 45 this week. I’m not sure what would have to happen to get me on a boat headed for Europe or the Pacific right now.

            Other than that, I got a batch of books from the library for summer reading. None of them are “fun”. I am playing around with some Surrealist drawing techniques both for teaching and for myself. Hopefully, for me, it’ll lead to some collage work. We made cyanotypes at the house, but they faded quickly upon drying so I need to research the best kind of paper to use to see if we can get anything worthwhile to develop. I know they aren’t mean for permanent display or anything, but it’d be nice to keep them in a box.

entopic graphomania exercise

entopic graphomania exercise

            Times like this remind me of a studio visit 15 years ago when I said to someone, “I think I’d like to make a lot of works on paper and slowly pick at 10 paintings a year rather than feel like I have to make thousands of paintings to justify my existence as an artist.” Maybe that’s what this year is going to end up teaching me.

 

“Is forty-five the midpoint, the hinge point of a life? In the past I have gravitated toward transcendence. I’ve sought weightlessness, unboundedness, continuity, have followed the wish to be outside of time. I have wanted to escape or deny the body; I have loved art that defies limit, that reaches for a scale beyond the human.”

 Mark Doty- Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

Leningrad - Anna Reid


2019.21

            Our internet has been unreliable for the past two days, which I would assume would make me happier considering how much dissatisfaction with the modern age that I ascribe to it, but I find myself irritated. I was re-watching Stranger Things to get ready for season 3. I was in a good work rhythm with that on in the background and nonstop 80s hits beamed into my house. The Boomers had “oldies” stations in their middle age years. For a while it was 50s and 60s. Then it was 60s and 70s. I waited patiently for an 80s radio station. Instead, we get “the best of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.” So, like nonrepresentational office art, everyone is equally dissatisfied rather than just irritating a portion of the audience. The internet was picking up the slack recently. I had plans to make playlists for each year of the 80s- each year’s list would have every song that cracked the top 40. Then I realized that could mean 10 playlists, each with 500 songs. Maybe I’ll just do the top 20. Or maybe I’ll just keep streaming the 80s station that I found. Some stuff slips through the cracks though. I’ve been listening for a couple of weeks and no one’s dialed up Timex Social Club’s “Rumors” yet. 

            The Nashville Symphony performed Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony this weekend. It was the first symphony performance that I have attended where they explained it from the stage before they performed it. It wasn’t necessary, but it was appreciated. You could always read about it in the program they give you, but it was nice to hear from the performers. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet had been able to seek advice about the symphony from Messiaen and his wife (pianist) Yvonne Loriod while he studied in Paris. He had Loriod’s marked score for the symphony in his collection. She was, in some ways, the inspiration for the piece so it felt like, at least for the piano, this was as close as someone could get to the source for a performance. Thibaudet’s comments on Friday were semi-off-the-cuff and touching. Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero (please don’t ever leave Nashville, Giancarlo) talked about his hesitancy to take on such a complex piece and left you with the impression that, hey, you came for a live spectacle…who knows what’s getting ready to happen. It was great though. It’s a beast of a symphony. 10 movements. 75-80 minutes. 100-110 musicians onstage. Guerrero appeared to look to the Thibaudet right before the 10th movement with a look on his face that read, “I think we’re going to pull this off.”  

            We took a 2-week trip to Utah 10 years ago to wind through the national parks in the southern end of the state. Our flight home was out of Las Vegas. It was a jarring re-entry into the world of people. I can’t call Las Vegas “civilization”. There are a lot of buildings and people. That’s as far as I want to take it. Being surrounded for two weeks by the variety and majesty of creation (coincidentally, the same area that inspired Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles) and then plopped down into the hellscape of Las Vegas was a reminder of just how awful people are when left to pursue whatever they want, free from restriction. Stepping out of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on a Friday night was a pocket-sized version of it. I went from Messiaenic grandeur to e-scooters, pedal taverns and bachelorettes in the span of 5 seconds. The reprieve was nice while it lasted, I suppose. Two symphony musicians were behind us on the way back to the parking garage. I was still trying to mull over what I’d just seen but that was colliding with the musicians talking about Hilton Head. It was a lot of gear-shifting for my brain to deal with in such a short amount of time. Ultimately though, I’m grateful. I never thought I’d get to see the Turangalîla performed and never expected to only have to travel 7 miles to do it.

            Other than that, I started a couple of new still life drawings. I feel like drawing for the summer and setting aside painting. I had a skull/vanitas theme in the most recent drawing so my first thought was that I shouldn’t put a skull in the next one. My second thought was that I should put a skull in ALL of them. If you’re miserably out of step with the market, keep dancing. I also started experimenting with cyanotypes. There is a lot of trial and error ahead.

            I tried to go to an art event, but parking was in serious overflow mode, so I had to go home. That’s a good problem to have for an art show.

            I started re-reading some Mark Sayers books in anticipation of his new book coming out in the late summer/early fall. Between re-reading those and re-watching Stranger Things, I guess I’m setting myself up for a letdown. Not really. I’m almost 45 years old. I don’t set my clock by album, book or movie releases like I did when I was 14...or 20. Ugh. I still remember going to a midnight madness sale for R.E.M.’s Monster album, getting back to my dorm room at 1AM, putting on the disc, listening and thinking, “All of that for this?” That might have been my last midnight sale.

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

Facing Leviathan- Mark Sayers

Quote for the week:

“All the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do -- remember that -- and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

2019.20

            Most colleges have held their graduation ceremonies within the past week so I guess that I will say, as of now, I have been a professional artist for 20 years. I graduated in 1999. Getting an MFA is probably not like getting a lot of other advanced degrees. Or maybe it is and all college, aside from medical school, is a sham. To be honest, I was given a degree that I do not think I deserved at the time. I was an artist in name only. I didn’t know much and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I worked really hard in school and got a nice participation award. My philosophy in art school (and for about 10 years after that) was that most people are lazy, and I can work more than they can. Granted what I meant by “lazy” was really that people had a balance in their lives, and I didn’t. The majority of the nights of graduate school I painted until 2:00-3:00AM. My wife (fiancé at the time) would call me long distance almost every morning and wake me up. I had a TV in my studio to keep me company. If you didn’t know, in the late ‘90s, the Tonight Show was rebroadcast at 2:00AM. I know this because I just turned on NBC and left it there in the background and heard the Tonight Show twice a night. I had movies on audio cassette. I taped them from my VCR onto a tape deck. Rear Window has been my favorite movie since I was 10 years old. It is a jewel of sound even without the picture. I only remember taking one night off during those two years. I sat down on my couch, I think to watch the final episode of Seinfeld, and for some reason, the plaster ceiling in the dining area of my apartment spontaneously crashed to the ground. No warning whatsoever. It didn’t seem like a good idea to take nights off after that.

            Art school was too focused on talking about the process of making art, which is a nice way of saying that it was about being an art student, not learning how to be an artist. It was camp, divorced from reality that one day you were going to graduate and leave and have to make your way in the world. I had to sit through endless hours of critiques debating what the word “painting” meant. If you’re reading this, thinking, “I know what a painting is”, let me tell you, you do. That it’s debated and never settled at the tune of $60k in debt is pathetic. You’d have a better chance finding 10 theologians that agree on what “selah” means than finding 10 MFA candidates agreeing on what a “painting” is. When you graduate, poof, it’s gone. All of the sudden, no one needs to have that conversation anymore. You’re an artist, making work. Making terrible work. And who cares what a “painting” is? You’re more concerned with the fact you are absolutely terrible at this thing of which you are presumably a “master”.  

            Despite the bitter taste I have in my mouth of art school, I am still very grateful to have received the scholarships that I got so I didn’t carry any debt out the door with me. My advice to all students with a fresh BFA is the same advice I have offered for 15 years: go get a job and make art. If you want a masters, wait. Get a full ride somewhere after you’ve spent some time teaching yourself how to be an artist or go low-residency. This is not worth a lifetime of debt. Your favorite artists probably do not have a masters. I wish I could remember who said something like, “It pains me to think of Herman Melville sitting in an MFA class.” I guess Flannery O’Connor sat in a master class. But did she need it? Not really. She needed a gang. She needed feedback from other writers. Do you need to take a class for that? No. You need a bar.

graphitestilllife.jpg

            I finished a legitimate drawing this week. If I were in school and said that I finished a “legitimate” drawing, there would have been a 30-minute discussion about that. I put the pencils down for a long time to not have to be that guy anymore. I was going to die sitting at a drawing table. Now, maybe I’ll get to die sitting in front of an easel. It’s a coin toss. The drawing was, dare I say, an enjoyable experience to make. I’m going to keep going for a few more drawings before trying to build a painting language out of it. Making graphite drawings is holding my attention more than it used to. Not having a deadline removes the arbitrary pressure from the situation.

            Thanks to an email exchange with another artist, I got Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon from the library. It’s a memoir built on the idea of objects and their importance to memory and sense of self, etc. It’s about still life paintings and nostalgia. That’s me in a sentence right now. That and listening to almost nothing but 80s pop.

            Game of Thrones ends this week? I have never seen it before and have no plans to see it once it’s finished. I feel like that guy that everyone knows that hates sports and says “Happy Sportball Day!” to everyone on Super Bowl Sunday. I don’t want to be that guy. If you watch GoT, enjoy the finale. It has to be better than the last Seinfeld. But I guess not every show can end as well as Newhart or Justified.

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware



2019.19

            School’s out for summer. School is definitely not out forever. Grades are submitted. Contract is expired. See you in August. I’m currently slated to teach 2D Design in the fall. I haven’t taught that class in at least 12 years, maybe more. I wasn’t particularly good at it when I taught it, but I plan on prepping steadily throughout the summer, so I’ll be ready to go. My own art-making methodology has changed a lot over the years, so my brain is better prepared for talking about this stuff on a regular basis. I’m limiting the amount of collage I use in the studio these days after a few years of focusing on it, so it’ll be nice to keep active with that somehow. Something as simple as a piece like this Ellsworth Kelly always makes for rewarding experiments with spontaneity.

Ellsworth Kelly- Brushstrokes Cut into Forty-Nine Squares and Arranged by Chance, 1951, MoMA

Ellsworth Kelly- Brushstrokes Cut into Forty-Nine Squares and Arranged by Chance, 1951, MoMA

Other than continuing to make a series of still life pieces, I plan on using the summer light to work on cyanotypes. I’ve never done them before, but it looks ridiculously easy. Sometimes a person just needs a hobby.

            I’m rounding toward home on another skull painting. After that I need to be more intentional about a legitimate composition and use of color. It’s nice to be deliberate and mechanical and straightforward sometimes but it can’t last forever.

            My family and I moved back to Nashville six years ago as of this month. I’ve had six solo shows since then. I wish I had realized that a few months ago when I was jaded. I’d have been more grateful or at least more aware of why I was tired of the idea of exhibiting. I did not know what to expect in regards to my art when we moved here. I knew the “scene” was growing but there were no guarantees that there would be a place for me here. I’m grateful for the way the art world has invited me in here. I should get out more, be more proactive, mingle, whatever. Maybe I’ll be recharged by the fall and ready to go. Right now, I rarely leave the house. I went to a coffee shop last week and ran into four people that I know. I forgot that was possible. 

            Right now, I really need to paint more than sitting here, writing. I was reading Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly but I found the audiobook of it read by Paul Giamatti. His reading of it is a lot better than the voice in my head so I’m going to roll with that for 8 hours instead of doing it myself.

            Quite possibly the most glorious comeback in the history of Liverpool happened yesterday. They overcame a 3-0 aggregate deficit and beat Barcelona 4-0. On to the Champions League final. You’ll never walk alone. Something like that.

 

Currently reading:

The Book of Luke

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

2019.18

            If you are reading this from somewhere other than Nashville, take comfort in knowing that we have survived. The NFL Draft landed on us last weekend, as did the marathon…as did a viral marketing campaign for a new Taylor Swift song. There was also a mosaic tile convention at a hotel near the airport that I found out about by way of two attendees eating tacos in my neighborhood, kind of stunned that the town had been overrun by grown men in football jerseys. Bachelorette parties that didn’t do their research either had to embrace the chaos or spend the entire weekend upset that they weren’t going to be the ones making the most annoying dent in the city’s nightlife.

            The Swift song is called “Me!” which might be the most perfectly calculated name and concept for a song for this time in which we find ourselves. That’s not a compliment. It’s like boy bands singing songs about how girls don’t know that they’re pretty, but darn it, they are, and that boy band sees it. The boys you go to school with don’t see it, but they do. That is some low hanging fruit. Strangely, it is the first Swift song that I have heard in its entirety. I watched the video out of curiosity. It looks like Baz Luhrmann and the ad agency that handles Target hosed down Paris with unicorn pastels. Like I said, it’s “perfect”. I’d say more but I don’t want a bunch of Swifties emailing me death threats.

            The overwhelming weekend invasion is probably best summed up by a segment of an article from the Nashville Scene:

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 11.33.09 AM.png

            What is it that we are really doing in this town right now? And why can’t any of you drunkards buy some art? For a town that floats on an ocean of beer and whiskey, you’d think someone might accidentally buy some art. They accidentally do everything else. I saw a crew of 10 people today with matching “I’m Just Here To Party” t-shirts. That’s fine. Just don’t pee in the fountain at the symphony hall. I feel like we’re turning into an old Mardi Gras episode of COPS where the officers would say stuff like, “Can you have sex on a sidewalk in your town? Well, why do you think you can do it here?” Am I the only one that thinks a downtown casino is an inevitability? Might be 5 years. Might be 20 but it’s coming, right? Am I too cynical?

            I was at the bank this week and a woman walked in the door about 20 feet from me, looked at me and loudly said, “Oh! *giggles* Oh!” She walked over and said, “Who do people tell you that you look like?” I said, “Well when I was younger and didn’t have a beard, people said I looked like Egon from Ghosbusters.” I also had a Rob Morrow phase but that didn’t last long, and I think it was because of a Yankees hat that I wore. She said, “Do people tell you that you look like Mo Rocca?” Yes. Once or twice. Yes. She then didn’t let it drop. It went on for so long that she really might have thought I was Rocca and she was going to ride the conversation a bit further to see if I would eventually cop to it. It was uncomfortable.

            I lifted my Instagram account suspension. That’s a not-so-clever way of saying that I am back on there in some limited fashion. I don’t have anything to post though. I finished a painting of skull. It’s on there if you want to see it. As with most things that I start, I tried to give myself some rules about the whole thing to keep from being swallowed by it. The 5 months I was away from it were great for clear thinking and powering through some studio/life issues.  

There is a base level that I have been trying to get back to with art. After 20 years, it’s taken so many turns and has been growing larger one little layer at a time. It’s like when I moved into a rental house in college and my roommate and I ripped out 6 layers of linoleum flooring from the bathroom. Every layer had water trapped in it. Each layer had the best of intentions but piled on top of one another had caused an increasingly messy situation. I’ve spent the past 5-6 months stripping my art down to the studs to see what I valued most and what would adhere to new career goals less interested in “me” or individualism, period. Things are clicking. I am re-reading an essay about still life and its denial of the body, etc and I spend the entire time nodding my head and highlighting passages. The rest of the year will be spent making work and establishing limitations. I allowed “everything” into my studio and now it is time to kick most of it out. I work best with established restrictions. For the first time in months, I feel like I have a specific goal. I tend to feel passionately about revelations like this and then crash and burn 48 hours later but this seems to be sticking. Fingers crossed.

 

Lyric for the week:

“So I'm back, to the velvet underground. Back to the floor, that I love.”

            “Gypsy”- Fleetwood Mac

 

Quote for the week:

“Still life pitches itself at a level of material existence where nothing exceptional occurs: there is a wholesale eviction of the Event”- Rhopography, by Norman Bryson

Currently reading:

The Book of Luke

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

temporarily suspended:

The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis

2019.17

Some weeks you just have to punt. This is one of those weeks.

I have a ruled composition book to jot down bullet points for a weekly post. There is a page that has “April 24:” written and underscored on it. There is nothing written underneath it. I have a folder in my notes on my phone for “Writing”. There’s not much in there either.

            Easter was a mixed bag of emotions for every Christian around the world. The holiest day, celebrating the greatest sacrifice and victory, tempered with news of over 350 people being killed, some of whom were targeted for the very thing we all were celebrating. I woke up to news of the Sri Lankan bombing. Others experienced it in real time. Even more probably had their morning services out of the way before it happened. This is the part of our calling that on most days Western Christians have the luxury to push to the margins. That comfort is a double-edge sword that simultaneously allows us to sleep but also threatens our faith. Our security makes our faith soft, like a person that needs medication for mental health that stops taking it because they feel good, all the while forgetting that it’s the medication that makes them feel that way. I rarely think someone might shoot up my church. There was a church shooting in Nashville less than 2 years ago and I know a family that was in it and had to provide medical aid to the wounded but even that doesn’t make me fear for much. That said, we have to live with the knowledge that the profession of our faith puts a target on us. It’s not unique to Christianity. Anyone that declares themselves anything risks attack.

            Currently I am reading St. Augustine’s City of God and a history of the Orthodox Church. Couple that with a daily reading of anything in the New Testament and that fear of not being loved by the world around you turns to vapor. None of this is new. It is a faith born into one of the most decadent, hedonistic empires the world has known. It spreads underground where it is made illegal by dictatorial atheistic governments. It was overrun by competing ideologies and survived. Whether threatened by violence or the recent Western weaponization of public shaming, we can take comfort in knowing that we are not alone. That contemporaneity that allows Easter of the year 50 to feel closer to us than Groundhog Day of 2015 not only allows us to share in a message of eternal love but also strengthens us to share our anxiety related to exterior forces across time as well. Long story short, it’ll be ok:

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Quote for the week:

“You deserve less”- Trenton Doyle Hancock

Lyric for the week:

“These prayers are a constant road across the wilderness” - Paul Simon “Cool Cool River”

Currently reading:

The Book of Luke

1 John

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware

The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis

2019.16

            I watched a documentary on 8-year-old golfers called The Short Game. I can relate to the French kid:

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 8.48.37 PM.png

             It’s Holy Week. I listened to nothing but Arvo Pärt for 3 days. I’ll get back to him today and ride out the rest of the week that way. There was a temporary detour yesterday afternoon to listen to Todd Rundgren’s “Wolfman Jack” about 5 times in a row during my afternoon exercise.

            I walked to Pärt’s “Litany” one day, which is a musical composition he made for the 24, hourly prayers of St. John Chrysostom. It is a head trip of walking music to wind through your neighborhood while a choir either barely breathes or powerfully pounds out prayers like “O Lord, free me from all ignorance and forgetfulness, from despondency and stony insensibility.” That ain’t “Wolfman Jack”.

            I read a quote by him recently: “Music is my friend. Understanding, empathic. Forgiving, comforter. A towel to dry tears of sadness. A source of tears for happiness. Liberation and flight. But also, a painful thorn. In flesh and soul.” That is the artist’s paradox. It’s felt more like the thorn than the towel for me lately but lately I have begun to feel confident that I am carving out a simplified version of what I want to do and that simplicity should bring liberation and flight back into the studio.

            This time of year reminds me of an excerpt from a book I read a couple of years ago: How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith. It’s a summary of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I will read one day. It’s a big, dense book. There is a section in the Smith book that examines secular time versus “higher” time. I keep a photo of this quote in the book on my phone as a reminder of where my head should be: 

In the premodern understanding, because “mundane” or secular time is transcended by “higher: time, there is an accounting of time that is not merely linear or chronological. Higher time “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked”. This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion that mid-summer’s day 1997.”

            There’s a disconnect between the way the Notre Dame fire has been framed and the faithful have responded. We want to talk about a building because it’s 850 years old and it’s the heart of a city and a country. That’s the secular response. A BBC reporter I listened to said something like, “It’s not like that many of us are really religious anymore but…” and then continued to explain why people should care that a church caught on fire in very secular terms, almost feeling like he had to explain to the 21st c. West why you’re supposed to care about the past? It was so discouraging. A significant landmark has been significantly damaged. But for those Parisian Catholics, kneeling and singing “Ave Maria” while the church burned, sure it was a threatened landmark but, for some of them, it’s as much the approach of Passover in 1st century Palestine as much as it is Holy Week in 2019. We’re not supposed to be completely present right now. Some people just want to focus on the age as an abstract number. Others watch it burn and simultaneously see the cornerstone be placed into position.

            Hopefully there is a Maundy Thursday service in my near future. Hopefully there is a joyous Easter service on Sunday where I get to hear the phrase “He is risen” repeatedly spoken by people that believe it fully. Hopefully anyone reading this gets to go and do the same. 

            Happy Easter.

 

Quote for the week:

“In this world/we walk on the roof of Hell/gazing at flames” – Kobayashi Issa

 

I haven’t been reading a lot lately. Get used to seeing this list. I’m reading too many things right now and need to scale back down once I finish the Ware and Lewis books.

 

Currently reading:

The Book of Luke

2 Peter

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware

The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis