Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Birthday Gift

Shell Beach; Sea Ranch, CA

On the morning of my 32nd birthday, I am sitting on the northern California coast, watching a great egret balance on a raft of dead sea grass. The grasses are held in suspension on the Pacific Ocean's surface by submerged kelp beds, and the white bird rises and falls atop the coastal surge, otherwise motionless as it awaits potential prey. A pair of brown pelicans glides north, just over the waves.

32 years on this Earth, and still I feel like I am opening my eyes for the first time.

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Or A Falcon

Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus); New York City

"I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumblebee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house."

- Henry David Thoreau
Image credit: ripped from Pete.Mac's Flickr photostream

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Global Climate Justice Fast

350 Candle Vigil; Washington Square Park, NYC; December 2009

"How well we control our numbers, our appetites, and the efficiency with which we satisfy those appetites will ordain just how desperate the situation becomes. They are the battles for our time, as morally compulsory as the battles for civil rights or against totalitarianism."

- Bill McKibben, The End of Nature

The group gathered at the northern entrance of Washington Square Park last Friday evening was smaller than I'd anticipated. We were assembled for a candle vigil in conjunction with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, and 350.org, environmental activist Bill McKibben's project to increase global awareness of the environmental (and status quo) threats posed by the exacerbation of climate change due to anthropogenic influence.

The New York City vigil was one of hundreds of similar events happening around the world on December 11th. Given the date, the vigil was also a satisfying way to bring in Hanukkah, a holiday that, despite its complicated history, is essentially about standing up for the causes that you feel most strongly about, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Small though our Washington Square Park group may have been, then, I was upbeat and hopeful.

Tomorrow (Thursday, December 17th), there is more cause for hope. I'll be one of thousands (hopefully one of many thousands) of true cosmopolitans forgoing food as part of the Global Climate Justice Fast. Bill McKibben's organization is trying to spread the word from Copenhagen, but the easiest place to sign up is at the Climate Justice Fast website. The official statement of the fast participants reads:
"We will fast voluntarily, for one day on Thursday, in solidarity with the millions who have and could lose their lives to preventable and involuntary hunger, disease and conflict resulting from climate change.

We call on world leaders for a real climate deal now--a deal grounded in science and strong enough to get us back to 350 [parts per million]."
I urge HH readers to take action this season. The specifics of your engagement matters less than its spirit. As I wrote not long ago,
"If global warming isn't appealing to your still, small voice, get involved with political activism, volunteer at your local homeless shelter, pledge financial support to non-profit activist organizations working for causes that you feel strongly about; it doesn't matter what you do, but it does matter that you do something. Turn off the television, put down the tabloid. I beg this of you."
If you have the energy and spirit to take action in multiple ways, so much the better, but every little bit helps. We're all in this marvelous mess together.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Turn That Frown Upside Down

Olaf Breuning wall drawing; Metro Pictures Gallery; November 2009

In "Riding the Waves," a post that I wrote in August 2005, I described the creative process as a wave of crests and troughs. I recalled the post recently, when viewing Olaf Breuning's Metro Pictures exhibition, "Small Brain Big Stomach." One of Breuning's amusing wall drawings depicts passengers aboard small boats, smiling when atop a crest, and frowning when at a trough's bottom.

From the original post:
"The creative process has much in common with a wave. When the artist finds herself atop a crest (Points A and F in the above wave diagram), life is grand. This peak is short-lived, however, and plateaus are rare; the bow of the artist's little boat begins to nose downward soon enough. Heading downslope is not all bad; during the descent, the artist is generally content, busy producing work associated with her last creative crest. But as the boat's bow nears the base line (Points B and G), she begins to fret...about everything.


Generally, I'm an upbeat individual. Despite some seemingly pessimistic attitudes regarding long-term ecological health, not a day goes by that I don't appreciate being here. The world is an amusement park of ideas and discoveries, and I simply can't understand how anyone could be bored or uninspired. That said, the creative troughs do pull me very low. I become self-absorbed, distracted, pessimistic, and argumentative. In short, I'm not a pleasant person to be around.

There are two ways for an artist to ride out a creative slump. I might opt to stop producing work for a spell, hoping that a break will sort things out. Alternatively, I can work wildly, embracing whatever inspiration compels me. More often than not, the latter, active approach is the one I choose. Something useful may come of the mess."
In some respects, I'm in a trough presently, and have been since October. This particular trough, however, hasn't made me unpleasant "to be around," and I'm happily plugging away on studies for new paintings and drawings, even if my pace has been adversely affected. Maybe I'm just getting better at contending with creative highs and lows? I hope so!

Image credit: (oddly) "The Lord's Daily Way" Bible Study at keyway.com

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sunset, Sunrise

Heron Hope sunset; November 2009

"Our destiny, our being's heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be."

- William Wordsworth, The Prelude

"Indeed, from within the murkiness of human knowledge and experience, we rightly wonder, is there any room for theology as such - or has it gone the way of all heavenly things? Perhaps all that remains is some mode of natural piety, such as the shudder before the mortal mysteries (with Goethe), or the felt ecstasies of springtime (with Wordsworth). Surely this is a lot, and unsettles the mind from its human habitudes. But is there more?

[...] Like all matters human, theology must be grounded in earthly experience and understood from within its forms. The phenomenal world is all that we have. This is the sphere that lies before us in our everyday existence; it conditions the products of aesthetic perception; and it provides the sphere for theological experience and reflection.

[...] As natural beings we are, in the most elemental sense, coextensive with this realm: our bodies are composed of it, our stomachs take in and digest its matter, and we traffic with this world all our days until we die and are decomposed into its elements. [...] To more properly sense [the] unfolding of the Godhead into world-being, so to speak, or to perceive or intuit its penetrations therein, we must first return to our ordinary experiences."

- Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology

Sunrise at Heron Hope; November 2009

Happy Hanukkah, folks.

Photo credits: Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

"Two Degrees of Separation"

One of my drawings is included in "Two Degrees of Separation," a well-populated group show that opens this Thursday at Gallery SATORI.
"Gallery SATORI is pleased to present 'Two Degrees of Separation,' a group exhibition with ninety artists to be held in the Project Space and Lounge at Gallery SATORI. The artwork ranges widely from intimate paintings to delicate paper sculptures to videos on minute monitors to a ceramic soccer ball. The show investigates the web-like interrelationship between many of the artists working in New York as well as a few artists working in London, Seoul, Tel Aviv, and Sydney who have connections to the artists based in New York.

The relationships may include friends, colleagues, partners, lovers, spouses, studio-mates, room-mates, friends of friends to shared experiences in educational programs, residency programs, artist panels, and exhibitions. Some may not remember how or when they have met or why they know the person but when asked if they know him/her the answer is 'yes.'"
If you're in NYC, please stop by Thursday evening to say 'Hello'...assuming you can find me in what's sure to be a very crowded gallery!


"Two Degrees of Separation"
December 9, 2009 - January 24, 2010
Opening reception: Thursday, December 10th, 6 - 8 PM

Gallery SATORI
164 Stanton Street
New York, NY

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why Some Of Us Resist Miami

"The problem is no longer that artworks will end up as commodities, but that they will start out as such. Expanded scale and intensified pace have cast over the art arena a veneer of glamor that further imbalances it all."

-Thomas McEvilley, Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium

"Most of what the...art world has to offer is glamour. Glamour, like the art world itself, is a highly fickle and commercially driven enterprise that contributes to...the 'humdrum.' It appears and disappears."

-Robert Morgan
Image credit: picture of Pulse Miami 2008 ripped from e-flux website

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Christopher Saunders' "Whitenoise"

Christopher Saunders
"Whitenoise no.8"
Oil on linen
24 x 18 inches

A regular passenger on New York City's subway system, I'm grateful for the Metropolitan Transit Authority's "Poetry in Motion" and "Train of Thought" programs, efforts that repurpose subway advertising space as a showcase for poetry or significant quotations. This week, I noticed the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's quotation, "Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world." I appreciate the substance of Schopenhauer's cynical observation, but I would amend his statement. Certainly, too many men do take the limits of their field of vision for the limits of the world, but the truly reverent man does not mistake the two for the same. As the critic, author, poet, and essayist Wendell Berry describes it, "to feel reverence, to be reverent, is exactly to surrender the 'precious self.'" In surrendering the self, we accept our insignificance, we recognize the infinitesimal reach of our individual vision. And yet, counter intuitively, this same surrender of self also opens our field of vision to the infinite variety and scope of being; through negation, liberation.

Schopenhauer and Berry again came to mind as I contemplated Christopher Saunders' "Whitenoise" paintings in LaViolaBank Gallery's group exhibition "Outside In." (1) Dark and cloudy skies dominate Saunders' vistas, and the horizon in these flatland pictures draws a conspicuous boundary between sky and earth. In "Whitenoise Suite no.4," an ominous storm front moves over a lonely stretch of highway; a pitch veil chases away a sunset in "Whitenoise Suite no.8"; and in "Whitenoise Suite no.9," a brooding twilight settles above a tarmac. There are echoes of Mark Rothko's luminous melancholy in Saunders' work, but his atmospheric paintings seem most akin to the Romantic landscapes of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.

Christopher Saunders
"Whitenoise no.9"
Oil on linen
24 x 18 inches

Caspar David Friedrich is perhaps the most celebrated painter of the Sublime, and his "Wanderer above the Sea of Mist" (1818) is among the best known examples. The work pictures a well-dressed, solitary gentleman, his back to the viewer, positioned confidently atop a rocky crag as he surveys a vast, mountainous landscape that is mostly obscured by fog. Concurrent with Friedrich's work on the famous painting, his friend Carl Gustav Carus described Sublime experience in a passage that could well have been written in response to "Wanderer."
"Stand then upon the summit of the mountain, and gaze over the long rows of hills. Observe the passage of streams and all the magnificence that opens up before your eyes; and what feeling grips you? It is a silent devotion within you. You lose yourself in the boundless spaces, your whole being experiences a silent cleansing and clarification, your I vanishes, you are nothing. God is everything."
Carus' experience of the Sublime is, like Berry's reverence, a reduction or erasure of the self-conscious individual and a simultaneous opening of the individual to the wilderness within. His dramatic description brings us back to the moody Schopenhauer, who prescribed the Sublime as a remedy to his every man limits. In his volume The World As Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer elucidated a scale of aesthetic experience. At one end of this spectrum, he described the "Feeling of Beauty" as "Light...reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt [the] observer.)" At the other end of the spectrum, the philosopher positioned the "Full Feeling of Sublime" and the "Fullest Feeling of Sublime." These categories are described, respectively, as "Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects.)," and "Immensity of Universe's extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer's nothingness and oneness with Nature.)" At the amplitude of "Fullest Feeling," then, Schopenhauer's aesthetic philosophy is reconciled with that of Carus and Berry.

Most modern humans (especially modern humans in the First World) are insulated from inclement weather. We fret over a rained-out ball game or beach party, but we rarely tremble before dark cloud heads; our appreciation of the elements is principally one of admiration, an aesthetic experience that resides near the middle of Schopenhauer's scale. But Saunders' landscapes provide viewers with a vantage point that repairs the reverent awe that we once felt before the expansive firmament. He does not include the rugged, mountainous imagery familiar to most artistic depictions of the Sublime. Instead he portrays clouds pushing over a featureless land, the violent potential of atmospheric flux readily observable at a distance. The clouds, vast, magnificent, menacing, dominate Saunders' compositions; they are the rough mountains of our inner wilderness. Despite the "Whitenoise" paintings' relatively small size, their effect is formidable. Before the strongest in the series, I stood quiet.

Christopher Saunders
"Whitenoise no.4"
Oil on linen
24 x 18 inches

(1) Although Saunder's oil paintings preoccupied my imagination, related ideas are addressed by the work of other artists included in the "Outside In" exhibition. I also admired Diane Carr's fluid and evocative landscape paintings, Leighton Pierce's hypnotic video of a woman underwater, and Mira O'Brien's photographic floor installation.

Imaged credits: all Christopher Saunders' works, courtesy of the artist