Pull your chair over here, into the studio corner for jargon free “art talk.” Artists, people interested in aesthetics, creativity and the mystery of beauty might find this corner a congenial place to visit, or not…
Just being around the tools is uplifting, no?
Art Journal Entry: October 24, 2016 Feastday of St. Kosmas
This 18th Century saint foretold of a time when people would have in their homes little boxes that would scream at them. And also that “The time will come when the mute and dumb objects will manage the world.”
Am sooo very glad that my toaster doesn’t talk to me.
Stopped at the Art Museum after work; it’s been six years since the last painful visit to the Modern section. That prior go-around was just too painful to witness; for the evidence was on the walls, eyed with newly blossoming awareness – of the extent of our internal and external fragmentation. Lying below the surface of the works, that emptiness became sharply apparent. At that point, I’d just begun to understand that the innate aesthetic drive to transcend oneself through artmaking (especially as expressed in our current mode) was just another form of travel by dead reckoning. This was devastating to face, as someone built and trained to make art, that The House of Art was not the house of human transcendence. Oh sure, one could feel fulfilled via many joyful, entertaining, even profound horizontal materialist pathways though the fields of art – but the destinations on exhibit were ultimately, pitifully, self-referential.
There were so many varieties of “selfies” on display at the museum. Some with heads still attached, some not, some really big, some not, some with eyes missing, some not. Detachable command modules galore! Even some heads laying on the grass outside… So many busy artworks attempting to make the trivial into something monumental or conversely, undermining the very concept of the monumental. Am pretty sure that the term “detachable command module” is already too obscure for general use today. The lack of a vertical pull from the heart of the art on display was something that I’d not recognized until that last visit as cries of spiritual poverty. I’d been living in a completely materialistic mode, the ‘in breaking’ of that vertical axis, that mystery, was shocking and completely unexpected. Everything looked different afterwards, the scales were falling away from my eyes – despite years of immersion in beauty and careful study as an artist, I had not seen and had never faced the inherent dignity of a human being. My art life, built with so many years of dedication, the ups and owns of overcoming many obstacles, the honest hard work and love of craft, dissolved into dust and ashes.
At the Museum seemed best to start over in the 2nd floor 14th-18th Century European art galleries; in the company of quiet works, the well defined but self effacing art. This will be a journey, a cautious wandering back before moving forward. My art life, had been a simple version of functional zen – to pay attention, to work, to learn – while trying to produce something along the way reflective of a worthy stewardship of a bit of talent. That life, seems so far away from me today. The process of recovery from certain aspects of my culture has been a painful struggle. We’re quite used to thinking that we can understand almost anything by gathering enough information about it – a cultural legacy of ‘enlightenment rationality.’ This is a delusion, and it was humbling to discover its limitations. Learning, and more to the point, unlearning requires hard work. It’s difficult to be patient and hope that the results will ultimately prove worth the effort.
The gallery of European Madonnas, of soft quiet edges, of fine gold, of careful precise marks, feels welcoming today. Am glad of the benches. Early Madonnas, Childs and Christs embody an immediate gem-like calm. The later Renaissance and post-Renaissance works are too fleshy, too busy, to agitated for me right now. This collection has no Byzantine icons, but that’s OK as icons would not be serving their function in here.
After sitting with the gothic art for a while, ventured over to the Thorne Miniature Rooms collection, where each room is encased in it’s own pristine little world. I wondered what they would be like at about palm size & encased in cast resin to preserve their stillness… they would fit in a pocket! Now there’s a word with a jolly sound – pocket. You could put stillness inside your pocket – you could feel the weight of the stillness, and sometimes take it out to peek inside at the stillness. Had to ignore the reflection of my head to gaze into the little Art Deco Library, Breton Kitchen and my favorite, the American Federal Dining Room. I think that’s the one with a window vignette of painted ships – the masts all grouped together to suggest the docks close by. Each room had little side windows, complete with light streaming in from tiny gardens, or railings, or courtyards – similar to aquarium features in their gentle artifice but without the waving lid of a Sunken Pirate Treasure Chest bubbler making bubble sounds. This gallery was busy with rushing, giggly teens, and mothers entertaining children during the ‘free day’ for a cultural activity. I was also there because it was a ‘free day,’ but didn’t feel like people watching today. The little rooms didn’t have any little people inside ’em, so I could survey each scene without intruding on little people fights, or little people dining parties, or little people doing private little people things. Time to move on.
There were very few people looking the ‘La Virgen de los Desamparados (the Virgin of the Forsaken) c. 1665 in the Spanish Colonial section. Where is her other hand? Holding the Child? It looks like the painter didn’t know what to do with the sleeve? This painting has little fleshy angel figures that make me nervous… and the gold edge of the pillow recreated the shape of those creepy Victorian contraptions that held people still to take portrait photographs due to the lengthy exposure time needed for a clear daguerreotype image.
Strolled around and sat inside this area for a while absorbing a different version of calm. The small set of retablos contained some compelling items. Especially the older ones with the cracked wood and slightly discolored, faded paint. They are definitely not shiny. The delicately painted “nun’s shield” was shiny, and plate sized, worn as part of a habit… couldn’t see how it was attached, and the available information didn’t say whether it was worn on the outside or inside of the habit. The shield and retablos were protected behind plexi boxes that were very shiny, so you have to nose around for a viewpoint free of reflections of yourself (again with the selfies!) and light spots in order to study them closely.
Went from the Retablos and Madonnas, into the 19th Century selection of Corots and various Impressionists. The Corots were small little paintings – subtle colored landscapes, a forest, a serving girl, nuns in a courtyard – these all had ornate carved wooden frames. Why large frames? To protect the fragile? To give them an ostentatious presence not supported by the nature of the work? To provide enough separation from the walls for the quiet in the work to bloom in the eye? Is it because I mourn the loss of subtlety, the relative peace, and slower, deeply textured way of life crushed by successive World Wars, corrosive social/political ideologies, and invasive technology since then that makes these subtle little works so poignant?
Looked at the Corots for a long time; not as long or as deeply as I could have done as a child. Am old now, so it requires more work to ‘enter in’ today; maybe I’ll be able to recover the ability to ease back into that level of sensibility. Am sad that I got restless and had to move on. Another interesting and timely word: restless. That one won’t fit in your pocket.
The bigger Pisarro painting near the Corots was brighter and looked like one of his earlier works. I wonder if he ever heard Debussy’s music and liked it. Some Impressionist artists actually engaged in duels (swords) over art theoretical positions. Yes, they started and ended these fights in bars, pals again afterwards. I don’t recall that Pisarro joined in any of these theoretical fisticuffs. He was in and out of favor with the ‘in crowd’ and didn’t let their theories derail his artistic maturation. I wonder if he watched any fights… There aren’t any of his lovely later works in this collection. He truly got better with age.
Let’s respect him for not letting theory get in the way of working and looking with authenticity and attention. He worked through illness and in constant financial insecurity. Another artist to admire as an example. He almost has a monk’s gaze in his later life.
From here I turned to the earlier Southwest art of the 19th/20th Centuries. Mostly landscapes, landscapes sparsely populated with figures. For some reason am paying attention to edges today. Hard edges, soft edges, clarity and definition.
For the next visit will have to note which works were deemed important enough, or intricate enough to have a viewing bench for longer appraisal. The stairwell corner bench with artfully composed window views to dress up a harsh, ‘art brut’ construction aesthetic, conveniently provided a plausible reason not to have to make eye contact with people stepping up and down. Dug around in my purse for a long essay to read on Christian artists and aesthetics here on this bench, but I stupidly left it in the car. Next time. At least, while the summertime heat lasts, here the concrete wall feels warm and snug on the back… I’ll forgive them the artsy-fartsy prison look today, even though the heat ratchets up the pungent vinyl paint smell a bit. Modernism has a nasty plastic smell sometimes.
Stopped at the gift shop on the way out and bought an Edward Curtis postcard and a little set of children’s erasers that look like crayons. These two things were appropriate Tokens? Mementos? Relics? for me to mark today’s passage. Started getting jittery after about 2 1/2 hours in here, so it was time to go… Stepped out into a MAGNIFICENT (really!) big monsoon storm with the largest variety of cloud types that I have ever seen in a single front. From very dark, low fuzzies to skuddy white patches to cauliflowers with blinding edges to the wind scoured saucers in a variety of greys. Across the whole horizon down from the north they were ‘a-coming in. Bits of papers and small items were swirling over the road; tree limbs were starting to wave about enthusiastically, the rain began before I reached home. Rain in the desert is a party inside and outside.
Delightfully it’s still raining, so it’s time for a cup of tea. I love the ‘stillness’ of the Curtis works, they have a condensed, quiet intensity. Will keep the card visible in the studio for a while… maybe play with an eraser or two… and contemplate this wisdom from Simone Weil that was kindly passed along to me from a mentor:
“If we consent, God places a little seed in us and he goes away again. From that moment God has no more to do; neither have we, except to wait. We have only not to regret the consent we gave, the nuptial Yes. It is not as easy as it seems, for the growth of the seed within us is painful. Moreover, from the very fact that we accept this growth we cannot avoid destroying whatever gets in its way, pulling up the weeds, cutting the grasses; and unfortunately, they are part of our very flesh, so that this gardening amounts to a violent operation. On the whole, however, the seed grows of itself. A day comes when the soul belongs to God.”
In this little painting below, the first painting done in 5 years – my heart spoke of the pitiful nature of that self-powered vertical journey long before my head could get the message. I hope that I can come out of this desert soon. Another selfie anyone?
Will see how this goes and wait for more rain.