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 12:06 pm | art on view and drawing and history

One Response to “Place and Verse: a drawing chronicle”

  1. liz on 20 Dec 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Thanks for sharing your creation process, Tim. Very interesting.

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