Outlasting Eternity: Reflecting on the Figures of Stephen De Staebler

L to R: Man with Broad Chest, 2010. Bronze with patina. Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco; Winged Woman Walking I, 1987. Bronze with patina. Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco; Winged Figure with Three Legs, 2003. Collection of Peter and Beverly Lipman, Portola Valley, California.

Three figures stretch upward on long attenuated legs, assembled from roughly matched parts. Standing at the mouth of a hallway like sentries protecting a passage, they seem neither malevolent nor benign. All are armless, two are headless; yet they are animated by an unencumbered grace that the expressiveness of hands or faces would undermine.

One of these, a tall angelic form whose shoulder blooms into a single scapula-like wing, attracts me magnetically, its pose simultaneously balletic and warlike. I make a slow arc around it, observing the subtle torque of the body, the rapturously long stride, the dissolution of the torso into untamed elements.

In these bodies are complex histories—airs of remote prehistory mix with shades of dystopia. While they bear affinities to the work of Rodin and Giacometti, their ties to ancient sculpture are stronger still: fragments of classical and Hellenistic statuary, most specifically the Nike of Samothrace, are paid homage in these heroic and fractured figures.

In any of De Staebler’s works, I find much to admire: a lyricism of form, the subtlety of a patina, or the unexpected grace in a broken human body. The genesis of the artist’s vision, his push against the orthodoxies in place when he took up his trade as sculptor, is encapsulated in the gallery that follows: between masks and torsos are bodies not described but implied, in rough masses of clay or metal.

Recognizably anthropomorphic, or perhaps protohuman, these forms confront us bluntly with their earthy corporeality. They appeal to the body more than to the eye, perhaps evoking some of the more solemn connotations of earth: burial and excavation.

I am most powerfully drawn to a work called Standing Man and Standing Woman (1975), positioned at the end of the exhibition. In a light-flooded gallery, this pair of figures presides over an assembly of human-scale clay sculptures. The standing man and woman lord over the room as though enthroned, but they are neither seated nor truly standing, their near-vertical forms embedded in tall wedges of clay. Sunken into these slabs, they bring to mind the tombs of medieval knights whose effigies are rendered in massive granite blocks, as though petrified in their beds.

Photo courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco © Estate of Stephen De Staebler

The pillarlike volumes of these pedestals bear the distinctive marks of wire-cut clay, a texture suggestive of erosion and wind-sculpted cliff faces. The figures themselves crumble like desert canyons, laced with fissures, aglow with vivid mineral colors. The nearer I get to the man and woman, the more they seem to dissolve into piles of stony rubble.

If the artist’s winged bronze seraphs are modern echoes of the Nike of Samothrace, the standing man and woman surely descend from Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. The Colossi of Memnon in Luxor are one likely inspiration: twin enthroned pharaohs, veined with fractures, crumbling and wind-eroded, like earthenware shattering in geological slow motion. And while our imaginations would struggle to restore these disintegrating monarchs of Egypt to wholeness, their majesty and potency is truly of a piece with their infinitesimally slow return to the dust. Certainly De Staebler understood the poetry contained there: his figures are born ancient, eroded and broken.

And however vividly they recall these ancient god-kings, the standing man and woman are not idealized by any measure: they show the ravages of time as only human bodies can: the draping of flesh over bones, sagging here and sinking there—the unrelenting liquefaction of beauty.

As it slowly came into focus, this entwining of the emblems of age, in stone, sculpture and flesh, struck me as achingly sad. When I’d first encountered it, this work had beckoned to me—I felt I could write volumes about it; then, on a second visit I nearly abandoned the notion: How could I do justice to its devastating spell? And furthermore, who would willingly read it, this encomium to broken bodies and human frailty?

But in conjuring these limbs and bodies from the clay, De Staebler understood that while the eons give stony dignity to mud and earth, mere years mock the conceit of human strength and render it to utter pathos.

If each artist has one story, a personal creation myth which defines them, De Staebler’s tale may be one of a nearness to mortality. He spoke of a broken ankle in his childhood as a formative experience of his youth—that moment the illusion of invincibility fell away to reveal the body’s true fragility. His personal tragedy began with the death of his mother when he was an adolescent, and deepened with his father’s death from cancer and his first wife’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. These experiences find expression in a powerfully emotional language of entropy, age and mortality.

And this, I suppose, is the artist’s particular alchemy. His sculptural language fused not only classical and modern sensibilities but also wove in a vocabulary of geological entropy, and gave us figures that could seemingly outlast eternity. It is in this idiom that he shows us a portrait of our unfathomable selves, whose moment on earth is quickly passing.


Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler is on view at the de Young through May 13, 2012. Outlasting Eternity was published May 4th on the de Young Museum’s blog.

Photos courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, © Estate of Stephen De Staebler

May 04 2012 | art on view | No Comments »

One on One: Serra Drawings Revisited

Sketch of "Union"

How many times does one need to look at an all-black painting to understand it?  A question like this crossed my mind in the final days of the Serra Drawing Retrospective at SFMOMA. I had walked the exhibition completely twice, each time slowing down in the latter half to take in the enormous all-black canvases which dominated walls and rooms. But as the closing date drew near, I considered getting one last look.

Among the works which beckoned me back is an installation called Union (2011) which consists of two enormous canvases which stretch from floor to ceiling and face each other across the room. Each is painted edge-to-edge and stapled to the wall, and tailored to meet the edges of the wall precisely, effectively assimilated into the architecture. The room is not deep enough for a viewer to see the whole of this installation; you may see one half or the other, or look at the white wall between them, with the dark expanses in the periphery of your vision. Where is one meant to stand?

Stepping into the zone between the two halves I breathe in a perfume of beeswax and linseed. I position myself squarely in front of one canvas and I feel the presence of its twin at my back, bearing down on me. How I am so acutely aware of it I cannot be sure. Is it because it drinks the light from the room, or casts a heavy shadow on my back? Does it exert some subtle gravitational pull, or is a trick of the mind, my awareness of it transmuted into a phantom sensation?

As I turn to face the other side, the difference is insubstantial; the experience of being within the piece is not about the looking, but about being. Its monolithic forms register visually first, then almost instantly they are felt, bodily. It brings to mind arriving at the edge of a cliff: once we’ve seen the precipitous drop, the depths will tug at us magnetically, as though a more powerful gravity is awakened.

After my first encounter with these works, I wrote an entry, Drawing is Thinking, in which I questioned whether these works can legitimately be called drawings. Indeed, these works evolved from a lifelong drawing practice–but they are in fact paint on canvas. Though I wanted to challenge this taxonomy, I find no suitable alternative. In their sheer physiological effect they most evoke Serra’s massive steel sculptures (specifically I think of works like Call Me Ishmael (1986), which invite passage between parallel plates), but I wouldn’t insist that makes them sculpture. Standing within the field within Union brings to memory certain Anselm Kiefer canvases which seem to have their own gravitational field; even when Kiefer’s paintings depict space, the solidity and unwieldy thickness of the canvases overpower and annihilate that space. Serra’s Union works a similar alchemy by more subtle means: it presents us with a field which shifts capriciously between density and emptiness. We can choose to perceive it as a window into a void, or like a monolithic slab of stone or steel. It can be these things simultaneously, and our  very inability to hold the whole of it in our field of vision, to bring the work into clear focus, is essential to its power.

January 28 2012 | art on view and drawing | 2 Comments »

Swan, Redacted: dirty pictures at MoMA

The myth of Leda and the swan has been a favorite subject for artists since antiquity, in part because it invites sensual explorations of form, both in the female nude and that most curvaceous of avians. With the gentle arc of its neck and its serene glide, the swan is a paragon of grace. Why, then, does Cy Twombly’s painting Leda and the Swan (1962) resemble an explosion?

I had just come from the Willem de Kooning retrospective at MoMA when I saw it. When taking in a monographic show of such scale—there are nearly 200 works in the de Kooning show—a viewer will gradually construct a sort of lens: a sensitivity to the evolutions, shifts, and any elements which endure through the arc of the artist’s career. At the tail end of the exhibition, when my senses were fully seasoned to the work, it was worthwhile to take a second pass through.  Certainly the fully calibrated lens would reveal subtleties which hadn’t been readily apparent to my uninitiated eye. And sure enough, there was much more to be seen once equipped with the complete overview.

And it was in this state that I encountered Twombly’s Leda. A tumult of pencil and black crayon blooms from the center of a square white canvas; the palette is so subdued that at a distance the painting is almost quiet. Closer in, it riots, churns and smolders.  Dabs or smears of color are scattered throughout, and in places, images appear amid the chaos of hatches and scribbles. But I had to question what I was perceiving: does the painting really teem with female body parts? Would these marks take on such prurient suggestiveness had I not just looked at dozens of brazenly lewd de Koonings? Twombly’s painting so often evokes graffiti, but rarely the bathroom-wall type scrawls these marks bring to mind.

Or, perhaps this element has always been there, and I have simply looked past it. Here, a heart shape is pierced at its cleft with a dark dot, transforming it into a cartoonish derriere. This is certainly no accident: the same heart-with-dot motif appears perhaps a half dozen times. Elsewhere, lobe-like shapes crowned with pink-red smudges become pendulous breasts. A stack of these bulbous forms at the upper right resembles, more than anything, a de Kooning Woman: a voluptuous hourglass of flesh, with only the barest hint of head or feet.

I have no doubt that these forms are intentional—the myth, after all, is a tale of rape or seduction. The violence of the painting echoes Yeats’ vision of a forceful and frightening encounter, far from the consensually erotic scenes from Michelangelo, Leonardo or Correggio. (In Ovid we find a mix of the forceful and gentle: And shew’d how Leda lay supinely press’d / Whilst the soft snowy swan sate hov’ring o’er her breast)

In an entirely uninformed interpretation, I imagine the artist enraptured of someone who is out of his reach. The act of painting is a passionate daydream, a surrogate seduction; he scrawls “Leda + SWAN” in the lower quarter of the canvas–but his mind is not on the swan, it is fully and desperately preoccupied with the object of his desire. A long, impassioned tussle with the canvas reveals Leda in fractured—mostly obscene—glimpses; the presence of the aggressor is evidenced not bodily but only by the carnage it leaves in its wake, like a devastating cyclone. In the end the artist scratches out the word SWAN. In this feverish and unrequited desire, there is no serenity, no grace. The swan—creator-destroyer and lecher—is the painter himself, subsumed by the painting and laid waste by it.

January 08 2012 | art on view and museums and myth | No Comments »

Place and Verse: a drawing chronicle

Reason Laid in Stony Sleep, 2011

I begin with a place.

To prepare for a site-specific work, I need to learn something of the site’s history or function. When I was invited to make a wall drawing at the Incline Gallery, I began thinking about what stories the drawing could tell about the location or area.

The surrounding neighborhood could offer an inexhaustible supply of historical narratives; the vanished Dolores Lagoon, site of San Francisco’s first settlement—a West-coast Plymouth Rock, in effect—is very nearly beneath the gallery’s foundation. The history most present in my mind, however, concerns the building in which the gallery resides, which served as a mortuary from 1914 until 1979. The incline from which the name derives is a long ramp climbing three stories, wrapping around two hairpin turns and constituting most of the gallery’s wall space (Picture the Guggenheim squeezed into a small, narrow box).

I met with Christo, one of the gallery’s co-owners, a week before the opening, and we selected a nine-foot stretch of wall with the advantage (or challenge) of being visible from multiple angles and long sight lines. It is also one of a few spots where the floor is level and not pitched at an angle.

Over the next two days I would need to keep my mind and senses wide open, awaiting some germ of an idea which could guide me into the process, but nothing came. I had decided only on a few formal details:  the image should snake its way across the width of the wall; it should culminate in something vertical, that begins at heart-level and climbs up to seven feet.  And it was critical that although the floor levels off there, the drawing should continue the upward motion of the ramp.

Once I drew the very first figures—cloaked, nearly featureless, ascending a slope—I knew that I would add scores more of them in a long, upward procession. The repetitive rhythm of rendering a form over and over would produce variants and mutations; surely some story would emerge. (Words from a song were playing in my mind: Procession moves on, the shouting is over / Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone—the opening verse of Joy Division’s “Eternal.” I resisted any temptation to respond to the words, not wanting to overdetermine the drawing’s outcome. But the idea of calling the work Procession, or perhaps Eternal, lingered.)

I added figure after figure, the movement becoming a mantra. When an undulating line of a hundred robed figures stretched across about three-quarters of length of the wall, I stopped for the day.

Returning the following evening to continue, my anxiety had largely abated. I only needed to give the procession a destination, or purpose. In my mind I had always seen a tower-like form—a monument or chapel of some sort, which would allow the image to fully inhabit the wall. I used a photograph of a monument for reference, wanting to anchor the freeform feel of the rest of the image with the solidity of a real-world structure.  At the end of that night it felt essentially complete, but I remained open to the possibility that the image might further evolve. Furthermore, I still had no definitive title, and the work wouldn’t be truly whole without one.

Reason Laid in Stony Sleep, 2011

A friend, after seeing only a photo of a small detail of the work, brought to my attention the poem “A Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats. This work has long fascinated me with its hallucinatory, revelatory tone and coarse fusion of religious sentiment and mythological imagery (in particular, the unexpected appearance of a sphinx).  Without readily seeing its connection to the drawing, I dug into the poem,  dwelling this time on these lines:

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In particular I landed on That twenty centuries of stony sleep. The “stony sleep” is likely derived from William Blake’s First Book of Urizen (1794), which contains the lines “But Urizen laid in a stony sleep / Unorganiz’d, rent from Eternity.” Urizen is “Reason” in Blake’s cosmology, a demiurge who breaks from the other immortals, called Eternals. When Urizen buries himself in rubble, he achieves a sort of death, hitherto unknown to the Eternals.

I decided I would wait a day to complete the drawing, to add the final touches just prior to the opening. I was attracted to the parallelism of that date, 2011.12.10, with its irregular rhythm of repetition, like an unconventional poetic scheme: ABCC / CACB.

The day began with a complete lunar eclipse, and I ventured out before dawn to see it. Eclipses will always evoke mourning, since a complete solar eclipse occurred the day that my brother died, twenty years ago. The inclusion of the day’s date helped to complete the circle, linking the final marks to the work’s sepulchral starting point. I made final enhancements and added the inscription:

Reason laid in stony sleep

Though no casual viewer would glean even a fraction of this, this couplet of title and date binds together a dense collection of references, some direct and many oblique: the words of Yeats and Blake, my departed brother, and the words of a song whose name seems to connect them all, The Eternal.

December 18 2011 | art on view and drawing and history | 1 Comment »

Naming the Mystery

“The question sometimes arises as to whether the experience of mystery and transcendence is more available to those who have undergone some kind of religious and spiritual training, for whom, as I have said, it has all been named completely. It may be less available to them precisely because they have got it all named in the book. One way to deprive yourself of an experience is indeed to expect it. Another is to have a name for it before you have the experience. Carl Jung said that one of the functions of religion is to protect us against the religious experience. That is because in formal religion, it is all concretized and formulated. But, by its nature, such an experience is one that only you can have. As soon as you classify it with anybody else’s, it loses its character. Ornate and detailed religions protect us against an exploding mystical experience which would be too much for us.”

— Joseph Campbell, from Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor.


December 10 2011 | spirit and symbols | No Comments »

Drawings are Thoughts: Richard Serra’s Drawing retrospective

Detail of an unidentified Serra drawing

“I make drawings almost always. Almost every day. And for me, it’s like a language. It’s a way to think — and drawings are just thoughts put down in a different kind of language.” — Richard Serra, in a 2011 interview at SFMOMA

The Richard Serra Drawings retrospective at SFMOMA contains a range of materials and forms, but it is dominated in my mind by just a few works: immense expanses of linen canvas tacked directly to the wall and covered edge to edge with black paintstick. In many cases one work alone occupies a room. A sweet aroma of linseed and beeswax pervades the air, chiefly because these works must be retouched during installation. Other works concurrent with these canvases are powerful in their own right; but the ones which feel most superlative, and which deliver on Serra’s reputation for creating new experiences in space and perception, are these vast, encrusted tracts of blackness.

Serra emphatically rejects representation and anything associative. He is insistent that these works, like his sculptures, aren’t of anything, and that while they may trigger something in the imagination of the viewer, none of this is intrinsic to the work. There aren’t other colors in his work because most colors carry associative baggage, while black, he says, “doesn’t give over easily to metaphor.”

Surely the closest relation Serra has in this practice would be Robert Ryman. Ryman has established a niche for himself making all-white paintings for more than forty years. From one painting to the next, we see variations in brushwork, coverage, scale, material, supports, mounting and more, while the white of the pigment remains the single unwavering characteristic throughout his work. By comparison, Serra’s black canvases are far more like one another, with the salient variation being the way each one acts upon its architectural space: some stretch from floor to ceiling; others mirror each other across a room; one is pressed into a corner, enveloping a portion of the room with its gravity. These shapes enlist the surrounding expanses of wall in a way that brings to mind shaped canvases by Ellsworth Kelly, chromatically polyamorous when compared to the monasticism of Serra or Ryman. Kelly’s vivid one-color canvases can endow the viewer with an acute new awareness of the wall, the room, the light; like Serra’s work, they demand the participation of the architecture.

All of this leads me to ponder the question, why is it drawing, while so enmeshed in the idioms of painting? Though one could argue that a paintstick is wielded more like a drawing implement — like charcoal or a crayon — so the action of making the work is drawing. But if we carry this logic further, then a great number of paintings would enter a grey area (for example, aren’t other paintstick-on-canvas works paintings? Isn’t a Warhol silkscreen a painting?)

Certainly none of this is lost on the artist, who has elected to call these works drawings and who ostensibly perceives them as having properties which he would not ascribe to paintings. While we might imagine most paintings being born of a dialogue between the artist and the canvas, a drawing can often consist of a single line, one gesture, without ever reworking or stepping back. Perhaps that directness, or that spareness, is the conceptual aim of this work.

“How do you change the context of what a drawing would be or could be?” he asks. “And how do you change it not only in relation to procedure… but how do you change it in relation to the context of the space in which it’s seen?”

My intuition tells me that the artist needs them to be something wholly other, to occupy their own category, in order that they not be measured against paintings. He wants to speak of them (and wants others to speak of them) with a language reserved for drawing — that of raw, unedited impulses and just-formed thoughts.

November 24 2011 | art on view and drawing | No Comments »

Cy (1928-2011)

Fifty Days at Iliam (detail)

I’m revisiting a recent piece, which centers on a pilgrimage to see Fifty Days at Iliam, a series of paintings by Cy Twombly, who passed away today.

“Each canvas is a battleground. The frenzied gestures that left these traces are half combat, half somnambulistic; half fractured, half whole. With wide, sweeping arcs of his arm, the artist is the windmill giant and he is Don Quixote. More Cervantes than Homer, he recognizes the artifice of his hero’s endeavor, and of his own.

I can’t decide whether Twombly’s cycle of paintings is good. Lone canvases by this artist have left me breathless, overpowered. But these elude me in some way…  these paintings have a secret. Is it helplessness, is it defeat? For all the heroism of the title and names, each canvas is part wasteland, expanses of lonely wanderings and crushing self-doubt.”

When I set out writing I thought I would write the piece about seeing Twombly’s canvases, but they defied so much description — I found it far easier to talk about the circuitous journey toward my goal than to describe the work itself, and my reflections on Fifty Days occupy only a few short paragraphs.

You can the whole entry here: Sounds of Time Suspended.


July 05 2011 | art on view and museums and pictures | No Comments »

Sounds of Time Suspended

Reliquary Bust of St. Benedict, photo by Shamrockah on Flickr

Sunday, April 10, Philadelphia. After days of conferencing with seven hundred other museum professionals, I finally made my way to a museum. I elected to visit the PMA, whose encyclopedic collection can occupy me for a long while. With what one might call a discursive hangover from listening and talking for four solid days and rarely a moment of silence in between, I felt a craving for the farthest extreme, a place among strangers, with no need to talk or listen.

The objects here are not all strangers, however. Depending on how I wander, I might see works which remain unchanged since my previous visit three years ago, ones which I’ve perhaps never looked at, or those I’ve looked at but not seen. I thought ahead to a roomful of Cy Twombly canvases — that may be my only certain destination today, and one where I might seek a spell of silence.

I didn’t ask directions or look at a map. I had time, I felt, to drift through unfamiliar rooms and corridors for a while before seeking a place to pause. Following a passage chosen randomly, I stopped at a vitrine of sculptural maquettes of horses by Thomas Eakins. Four small bronzes deftly capture equine essence without ever revealing a detail, though in their attenuation of form they are halfway to Giacometti. Adjacent in the same vitrine are two plaster reliefs of horses, one reduced to bare bones. All of these whet my appetite for more of the same, but they are accompanied instead by some of Eakins’ more familiar work in oil; large, chiaroscuro paintings and quick oil sketches. Impressive, yes, but they do not speak to me today. An adjacent vitrine contains an imposing life-size bronze ecorchet, a torso gruesomely notched to reveal the layers of muscle, one of the artist’s many anatomical studies.

From there, I make my way to the medieval. The nearest I get to a sense of religious reverence is when looking at medieval altarpieces, but it is always tinged with some horror; religious painting from the era is well-stocked with scenes of harrowing brutality. Nearby are two wooden reliquary heads, peppered with holes from woodworms. (I have always assumed the worms eat the already-carved wood, and not that the sculptors somehow preferred the holey lumber. But to imagine the woodworms burrowing into the hallowed visages inside a church and in the presence of the pious is unsettling to say the least.)

One of these reliquaries, the reliquary head of Saint Benedict, is outfitted with a small glass porthole through which I can see nothing but blackness. Whether the hallowed body part is missing (if a reliquary reaches a museum, the relic can be presumed absent) or if the glass has somehow become opaque, I cannot tell. Even emptied of its original contents, there is no mistake that this bust is concealing something. The saint’s face says to me It is not for you to know. Perhaps another time.

A Romanesque Cloister, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

In the heart of the medieval galleries, a gloomy cloister is embedded, with stone archways and a fountain. Unexpectedly, the air is suffused with sound; choral voices swell dramatically into the room, just as they would in the soundtrack of a period film. I follow the acoustic trail, through galleries and out to the grand staircase where a youth choir, white-frocked, has assembled. The vacuous space is rich with the mellifluous tones of the choir. But beneath the 19th century Diana perched atop the staircase, and a Calder mobile above, the style of song is no longer a perfect match to the setting. After a moment I slink back in among the altarpieces where the medley of voices regains its mystery.

I am not yet oriented to the full sprawl of the building, but I know that I am still far from the contemporary galleries. Gleaming, hollow metal sentries watch from all sides, while flesh-and-blood guards slouch deeply in their chairs, barely awake in the low-lighted rooms. As I wend my way through arms and armor, some rooms are rife with conversation. A college-aged girl explains to her family which swords are actually for fighting and which were for fancy dress. Other patrons photograph helmets and armor, angling their bodies to avoid reflections in the glass.

Eventually I traverse the corridor of the modern and contemporary, alert to whatever might call to me. I cannot name what else I passed along the way. The contemporary can sometimes leave me at a loss — right now I want the visceral, not the intellectual. With nods of recognition, I pass cornerstones of modernism and conceptual art, occasionally pausing to take something in.

Achilles, Achilles! Here it is at last: Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam. A roomful of canvases, roughly attacked with graphite, oil and oil crayon; scrawled with names of heroes, names of gods. Achilles, Hector, Hera. Forms elusive, crude, and verging on indecent are mixed within the melée.

Cy Twombly, detail from 'Fifty Days at Iliam,' 1978

Each canvas is a battleground. The frenzied gestures that left these traces are half combat, half somnambulistic; half fractured, half whole. With wide, sweeping arcs of his arm, the artist is the windmill giant and he is Don Quixote. More Cervantes than Homer, he recognizes the artifice of his hero’s endeavor, and of his own.

I can’t decide whether Twombly’s cycle of paintings is good. Lone canvases by this artist have left me breathless, overpowered. But these elude me in some way. Like the Saint Bartholomew reliquary, these paintings have a secret. Is it helplessness, is it defeat? For all the heroism of the title and names, each canvas is part wasteland, expanses of lonely wanderings and crushing self-doubt.

But this is only what it says to me today. I haven’t ever read about Fifty Days at Iliam, nor spoken to anyone about it — much like seeing a film before reading the reviews, I want to form my own impressions before they are shaped by opinions from others (impressions are highly malleable in this way). I expect that next time I will witness something altogether different here in Iliam.

Although I’d set out with an express desire not to speak or listen, the sanctuary I find isn’t really silence — the day is, in effect, steeped in dialogue: the musings and revelations that comprise a meditative walk through the museum, my ears attuned to the words and songs of mute objects.

April 25 2011 | art on view and museums and travel | No Comments »

An Open Book

An Open Book

In this age of oversharing, I am at heart a fairly private person. The social web has not, thus far, inspired me to post millions of pictures of my face or to tell the world what I’m having for breakfast. My own dance with the public-private paradigm occurs in the analog world.

Twice a year, during open studios, I routinely place my recent sketchbooks on a table for visitors to peruse. The first time I did this, several years ago, the response caught me off guard — several visitors only looked at the books, ignoring the paintings on the walls. Some return to visit me at open studios year after year, and still look only at sketchbooks.  At about a hundred pages apiece, the books take much longer to look at than the average painting. The drawings, with their implied storylines and unidentified characters, incite much conversation, prompting questions and anecdotes.

The unforeseen repercussion of making the books public is this: at times when I am quietly journaling, a part of my imagination skips ahead, to a point in the future where a stranger will leaf through the pages. I begin to fret, This one is kind of juvenile; Maybe this one is too precious.

The last thing I need, while I am working, is the judgement of any onlooker.  I try to banish these phantom visitors from the room — I’m not listening! This is not yet public!

For a long time, I would say of my drawings, these come from another place — a subliminal process.  My experience has been that paintings, unlike drawings, can be planned ahead, mapped out, revised, covered up. A good painting, in my estimation, was usually one which had at least two entirely different works buried beneath the visible surface. Ridges and berms, and shimmerings of hidden colors may whisper of the painting’s former lives.

In drawing, however, I never attempt to hide anything — the ink drawing is an x-ray of itself; nothing is concealed. (In the many hundreds of drawings I’ve made in the last few years, only a handful are so terrible that they truly cause me to cringe. The worst ones most likely come from moments of frustration or desperation (e.g., wide awake when in dire need of sleep, etc.), unable to escape successfully into the image or the process. Even these sad affairs, in the right circumstances, can be worthy of reflection, and therefore escape destruction.

Certainly I always try to rescue a bad drawing from catastrophe — this is only natural. I contemplate how it can be salvaged, but the fixes are anything but subtle. One of the tricks I have for reversing a drawing gone bad is something I call head replacement therapy. There is nothing sly or subtle about how an ink drawing is “repaired.” Scars and sutures are always readily apparent.

August 05 2010 | drawing and pictures | 2 Comments »

The silent places of the spirit

For reasons I can’t explain, the publication last Fall of Jung’s Red Book slipped beneath my radar for some time, and I began to search for it only after it had sold out from most book stores. I found the tome much later at a small bookshop in Point Reyes Station, and though I was not ready to spend the substantial sum necessary, a friend who was with me didn’t hesitate, and acquired it that day.

To one who keeps journals of images, writings or both, Jung’s Red Book induces an awestruck envy.

While the Red Book remained hidden from view during his lifetime, Carl Jung advised at least one client to keep a journal of her more troubling visions:

“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can — in some beautifully bound book… It will seem as if you were making the visions banal — but then you need to do that — then you are freed from the power of them. . . . Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them — then you will lose your soul — for in that book is your soul.”

Quoted from Carl Jung and the Holy Grail of the Unconscious, in the New York Times Book Review.

August 04 2010 | drawing and myth and pictures and spirit | No Comments »

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