Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Grasshopper Mind

A thousand times a day
I resolve myself
to do something.

A thousand times a day
I resolve myself
against it.

Grasshopper mind.

I wrote this poem back around 1978. Around that time I was also reading a book about the French Minister of Culture and philosopher, Andre Malraux. One of the things that he commented on was that whenever you choose a path, you leave all other paths unchosen. A simple thought that has complex implications. This thought haunted and hounded me for a long time. I had a need to find a way around it. I became obsessed with it. It was a sickness, literally. That sickness is my OCD and it is an anxiety disorder.

Every time I would start to explore one path, to see where it might lead me I would become anxiety ridden that it might be the wrong path. I would have to stop and go back and start over on another path. Part way down that new path I would become overcome by the same concerns and anxieties. Once again I would stop, turn around and go back to the beginning to start over. Sometimes it might be a change in materials and techniques. Other times it might be a change in subject matter. Sometimes I might be so indecisive that I would do nothing but make excuses for a while. I don’t think that I was really aware of it at the time. Now, I can look back and see why I didn’t make a whole lot of forward progress. This is one of the realities of my life. This is how I have lived most of my life.

In some cases fear can be a motivating force. Fear of becoming trapped in a life that I saw as filled with unhappiness motivated me to say goodbye to family and friends and move alone to the other side of the country. Fear of wondering if I would wake up one day as a stagnant old man and wondering what might have been if I had just tried motivated me to attempt various things. In other cases it can cause paralysis. Fear of trying something because I might fail. Fear of trying something new and different because I might be ridiculed or be seen as strange.

Youth had its own set of anxieties and resolutions, as did every decade of my life. Now I’m getting older and I don’t have as many years to screw around and indulge myself. The greatest anxiety now is that I might not discover whom I truly am and what I am supposed to be doing before I die. Yet, jumping from one path to another seems so counter productive to achieving this goal.

Now, I have long believed that the solution to a problem, any problem, lies within the problem itself. If I sit quietly and think about it, pray about it, reflect on it or contemplate it, the answer will make itself known. This sounds easy enough but how many things are easier said than done? What also adds to the difficulty is that the answer might be something that I don’t want to hear. Actually, it might be something that I am not ready to hear or accept. Big difference. I try to make myself fit into cultural norms that just don’t work for me. It is not that these norms are wrong but rather one size does not fit all.

I look at the work of other artists and I see unified bodies of work. I see a cohesive whole that moves forward with deliberation and purpose. Then I look at myself and I see zigzagging all over the place. So what’s a poor boy supposed to do? Well, the answer for me is to accept the fact that my path is a crooked path. In the Judeo-Christian Bible the prophet, Isaiah says that God makes straight lines with crooked writing. I can relate to that idea. In a recent post the blogger, Philip Edson does an interview with the artist Jafabrit and discusses her work, which she calls interstitial art. She defines this as “Art that blurs the divide between fine art and craft, high art and low. Art that crosses boundaries.” Jafabrit goes on to say, “I love so many types of art and the process of doing them. Over time each discipline/medium has added to my repertoire and each satisfies a creative need.”

Perhaps I have spent too much of my time being obsessed with achieving some form of financial success or recognition. Those aren’t really bad things especially when you are trying to support yourself. But trying to be someone other than who I really am isn’t a good thing either. A recent event has freed me from an anxiety that was a major stumbling block. Now, as an artist, I am free to be a happy wanderer. Free to wander along a road that goes here, there, and everywhere. Free to embrace my anxieties and eccentricities and see where they lead me. God knows fighting them and trying to deny them only left me tired and frustrated.

The above paintings are a continuation of my attempts to combine representational with abstract. They are all oil and oil pastel on prepared paper. The first is titled, “Standing Alone” and measures 20” X 16” (51 cm X 40.5 cm). The next measures 24” X24” (61 cm X 61 cm) and is titled, “Distant Echo.” The final piece measures 24” X 18” (61 cm X 46 cm) and is titled, “Red Hot Mama.”

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Politics of Illiteracy

An educated population can govern itself. I am not sure if this is an exact quote but it is attributed to the American Founder, Thomas Jefferson. This is a sentiment that I agree with completely. I not only believe passionately in education but more importantly I believe in knowledge, wisdom, and creativity. These attributes all seem to be in short supply in today’s world. I look back over the last 4 decades of my life and I see a general decline in education and the ability of people to think critically. I have seen people, in general, shun the responsibility for their own lives and place failure on some mythical other. This both saddens and frightens me. I have to ask, what happened?

Over the years the educational system has been blamed for this problem. I think that this is somewhat true but I put a greater share of the blame on the politicians and on society itself. The USA is a very materialistic culture that is driven by consumerism. It is very good at being goal oriented without really understanding the consequences of its actions. It is an impatient culture that wants results and wants them now.

Education, for me, is learning how to think critically and learning how to ask the right questions not learning how to memorize the correct answers. It seems simple enough; you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what is the real problem. The danger here is if you or I ask too many (or enough) questions we will find the answer but we may not like it. We just might discover that we are the problem. God forbid that we should live an examined life. We want absolution but we don’t want to have to admit fault or have to change so there is only one real course of action, delusion. In step the politicians, the corporations, the churches, and yes even the schools. They are happy to provide this service because it is profitable and gives them control. Here I think of two things, the book, A Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley and the movie, The Matrix. If you are not familiar with them you should research them. They are both entertaining and educational.

Back when I was in high school (1964-67) not everyone was considered to be college bound. Skills and temperament decided that some would have their education geared to going into the job market after graduation. This could be in business, manufacturing, or the skilled trades. Those of us that had the skills and temperament for college were given a more rigorous and well rounded education. We studied advanced math, laboratory sciences, literature (American, French, English, and Russian). We took foreign languages, music, and studied art. We even had to take the dreaded P.E. (physical education or gym). It was to make us well rounded and expand our worldview. It was to teach us to understand our world. We fear what we do not understand. If we want to remove fear then embrace understanding. To understand we need to embrace learning and thinking.

What does all of this have to do with art, especially abstract art? I comes from my last post where I said, “It was way too easy to think that people didn’t understand (abstract art) because they were illiterate about art.” This is true. What is also true is that I was expressing my own frustration, or guilt, at not having the skills to make others understand what I was doing. I am very good at feeling guilty. As a child my mother controlled me by using guilt. Later the Catholic Church got in on the act. Now that I am grown up I can feel guilty all by myself. There is something else at work here, though. I learned how to think and because of that I feel that I have the responsibility to make others, who have not learned how to think very well, understand what I am doing and saying. Art is a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. I realize that I am personalizing it way too much when I take the blame for someone else not understanding it. Guilt, the gift that keeps on giving. By doing this I may have become part of the problem by trying to dumb down or pander to the viewer’s inability to understand. It may also be a sign of my own insecurities and wanting to do something that was more readily acceptable. Silly me, I’ll never be able to survive in that world.

So yes, Philip, we are both coming at this issue from slightly different directions but our thrust is the same. Education is failing because it has become a bureaucracy just like the government and any large corporation. The primary goal of any bureaucracy is to sustain and protect itself. They are not there to serve but to be served. These worlds are exclusive, they are there to support the elite. This is not the world that I want to live in. I want to live in a more inclusive world. As a culture we say we value thinking outside the box to solve problems. The reality, I believe, is that we fear it because it upsets the order and rule of the elite. This is a culture that claims it embraces the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition says that we are all created in the image of God. Well, God is creative so we are all created in the image of creativity, to be creative. So I have to ask the question, why do we, as a culture, try to beat the life out of creativity in our children, our schools, and jobs?

The above images are my trying to combine abstract and representational methods. The first is soft pastel, measuring about 16" square. It is titled, "4 Yew" and is about 10 years old. The other image is oil pastel. I don't remember the size. It is titled, "Red Field, Green Road and was done about 4 years ago.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Now, Where was I?

This saga of my life goes on a bit more, dear reader, so I hope that I am not boring you. I know that it has been interesting for me to revisit my own history and look back over my old work. As the old saying goes, if you fail to learn from history then you are doomed to repeat it. It is also hard to know where you are going if you don’t know (or remember) where you have been.

I really like abstract art. I enjoy looking at it and I enjoyed making it. What I did not enjoy was constantly being asked, “What is it?” or “What does it mean? Or especially, “My kid could do that!” I got tired of explaining myself. I had to use too many words to explain a non-verbal form of communication, i.e., painting. It was way too easy to think that people didn’t understand because they were illiterate about art. As the artist, I am the one responsible for communicating. I am the one responsible for making the viewer understand. For me to believe otherwise would be for me to agree with those artists who only created for the critics or the art intelligentsia. I am way too blue collar (and perhaps too pedestrian) for that to happen. I wanted to find a way to combine what I liked about abstract art with what the average viewer might be able to appreciate.

I also had a need to prove to myself that I really did have the skills and abilities to be able to draw and paint what I saw. This is one of the stumbling blocks of my disability (OCD) that I have to constantly recheck, reaffirm, and reprove everything. I had also remembered a book that I read about the artist, Henri Matisse. I remember it saying that after he had been declared the FAUVIST, the wild beast that he had set up his own school. The story goes on to say that many students were disappointed because he had them doing academic studies first before he would permit them to go onto more free style work. The basic attitude being that you had to know how to do it correctly before you could do it in a distorted manner. This is echoed in a story that I heard about the American artist, Frank Stella, having a conversation with the British artist, David Hockney. The story goes on to say that Stella expressed regret that he never learned to draw and that he was limited in his art because of it. True or not it is a great lesson. True or not, it is something that I have obsessed over ever since then.

The obsession is how do I combine the best of both of these worlds, abstraction and representationalism? This is the path that I have set myself on. I do realize that it may be a fool’s errand but it doesn’t seem to matter to me. Part of it becomes to find the sacred in the everyday ordinary things. I remember the movie, American Beauty, where there is a scene of the young videographer, showing a bag endlessly caught in the swirls and eddies of the breeze. This is a scene of the common place being recognized as a moment of poetic beauty.

When I look at my paintings of silent prayer I ask, can I find the same thing or theme in the world around me? I believe that I can do this. For me, the landscape has become a metaphor. In the landscape there is a metaphor of the spiritual and all things living. The common place that shows itself to be more than what it really is, or to be more than what I think it may be. There may be a brief moment when the light shines on an ordinary object, like a pear, and the shapes and colors come alive in a way that I have never noticed before. That in these simple things I become aware of something that is eternally true yet hidden in plain sight. I am not sure of what it is that I am looking for I just hope that I will recognize it when I see it. My life seems to be more subtractive than additive. I don’t know what it is that I am looking for but I know what it isn’t. So, I have to keep trying things out until I finally get it right.

These are all pieces from the last 10-25 years. The first two are portraits of my wife, and her dog, shortly after we got married. I was re-exploring my love of Matisse and the Fauvists. They are both oil on gessoed watercolor paper. The others are soft pastel on prepared paper. I needed to prove to myself that I still had drawing skills. Looking at the works of Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatte, and Wayne Thiebaud influenced the use of the pastel.