Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Self-expression/Trash/or Art?

As someone who has mostly worked with less than conventional materials, I am always interested in conversations about what art is, or isn't.  This article in the Los Angeles Times engaged me, and many others, in that conversation again.  Reading their comment section, I see that some went from 0 to explosion in short order.

It used to make me angry (and defensive) when someone would suggest that what I do with gourds was not "art" (with that tinge of disparagement in the voice...or, was my sensitivity barometer too finely calibrated?)  There are certain undeniable rights to aging (or is it maturing?), and one of them is the throwing off of the yoke of caring what other people say.  It really is something to be treasured (and envied if you're not there yet).  Obviously, whomever is negating the art of fine craft is seriously limited in imagination.

But, oooops! Am I now one of that limited audience?  I actually have seen some visually beautiful and exquisitely executed graffiti, so I would have to say, no, I don't think I am dismissive of graffiti or outsider work.  And, I don't have problems with calling much of it "art".

 So, what are the distinctions between what is art and what isn't?  Good art and bad? Commercial and "real?"  Trendy and lasting?  For people with a language as massive, fluid, creative and alive as English is, we are sorely lacking in either actual words or use of words for "art."  (Admittedly we also seem to fall short of words for "love" and "snow" (not so short for "rain.")  I also mourn the lack of imagination when it comes to expletives.  (Skip the remainder of this paragraph if the 4-letter word offends you.)   How seriously can one be taken if the only response to "That's not art! That's crap" is the ubiquitous (and therefore relatively meaningless) "Fuck you!" (unless it is amended, as does my friend, Bob, with "...and the horse you rode in on."  After all, if that doesn't make you smile, you may need a day off.)

But, back to distinctions.  Personally, I distinguish between "decorative art" and "serious art", which now, upon reflection, seems pretty lame.  Does that mean that Diego Rivera's monumental mural work, which certainly "decorates" the National Palace in Mexico City is not "serious?"  It doesn't get too much more "serious" than holding a brush in one hand and a pistol in the other to guard your work against right-wing students as Rivera did with Creation done at the National Preparatory School, also in Mexico City.  So much for that distinction.

What about distinguishing between work that is traditional, executed with great skill, and work that is innovative, experimental, untrained?  That lets out Dubuffet, the father of outsider art and may allow in the many who are painting the same aesthetic over and over without expansion of their own sensitivities.

In regards to Chaka, many comments referenced his hoody connections to crime, the criminal aspects of painting on private property.  What does any of that have to do with art?  How does what the work is done on matter?  Does the Chaka work, hung in a gallery, mean more or less to the viewer than Chaka painted on the gritty walls of LA?  (I'd say that hung on gritty walls, it may have more relevance, since graffiti implies a certain revolution and willful act of protest which would certainly be lacking, made impotent, in a gallery setting.  Perhaps that is what is achieved, after all, by hanging Chaka in a fine LA gallery, 700 people in attendance, drinking wine, waiting to be photographed with this outsider who, in other scenarios, might be far more intimidating than they would like.  Is this our way of putting his guts in a box?  Or is this his triumph, knowing he's not really anything remarkable in the vast, untapped world of grafitti artists, as he mugs for the camera?  Or is Chaka a true self-expressionist?  He paints his name repetitively.  Listen to me!  I am here!  I count!  And does this make him an artist?

What about work that stimulates thought and conversation as its main end?  I think of a recent incident in my own town when a local artist hung a pair of men's underwear in his shop window.  Someone was offended and the controversy was ignited.  The underwear was unembellished in any way, but because the local artist is, in himself, controversial, the underwear became the fuse.  In the end, there were weeks of interesting conversations about what was art and why is art.  Seems that hanging underwear on a gallery wall is not the same as hanging underwear on a clothesline.  In the same way, Chaka writing his name over and over on a gritty LA wall, dodging cops and security guards, hanging by a rope from an overpass, risking jail and fines, is not the same as Chaka painting his name onto some surface that can be hung in a gallery.  The intent makes all the difference.

Or maybe not.  I have seen much work with good intent and disastrous results, either because of unclear intention, complete failure in execution, or both.  The road to mediocre artwork is often paved with good intentions.

Distinctions seem self-limiting. Exclusions the same.  Inclusions become a dilution of meaning.

It would seem, then, that we are in dire need of an expanded vocabulary.  This is a dictionary definition of art that I came across - "Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature. "

I am imagining myself at a holiday party.  An attractive couple joins me at the table.  Mr. Attractive turns to me and asks, "And what do you do?"  I spread my napkin in my lap, take a sip of water, and reply, "I make a very human effort to imitate, supplement, alter and sometimes counteract the works of nature that surround me."  He smiles, pats his wife's hand, and they turn to an imagined question from their other side.  Too broad, I decide.

There are many phrases for the styles of art: fine art, graphic art, impressionist art, expressionist art, modern art, classical art, outsider art, folk art, and dozens of others.  If we spent money on art history education in our public schools, this all would be so much easier.  I am flummoxed.  (Now isn't that a great word for confused, puzzled, baffled, bewildered, mystified, nonplussed, stumped, stymied?)  Why do we use only "art" for all the results of making a "human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature?"

I just don't have the answer, so now I am going to return to carving, sanding, sculpting, painting, and grinding an interpretation of my inner thoughts about expressing the impermanence and significance of both my personal and female human relationship to the ethereal and spiritual qualities of an experience with a wall of succulents in my neighbor's garden.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

From Start to Finish

Several weeks ago I posted an "in progress" group of pictures on my FB page.  I did finish the piece and here is the chronicle of the project - from start to finish.  It's a long process, doing a sculpted gourd using the natural direction of what nature gives me.  There isn't much sense in making drawings on paper because your plans will invariably go awry and your paper drawings will have been wasted.  I believe one has to "see" what the gourd wants to be, then help it become.

This tall snake gourd bent fairly gracefully in one direction,with a nice gentle swelling at the bottom.  The iris hiding there needed to be set free to blow in the garden breezes, leaves wanted to arch and droop as landing places for dragonflies and butterflies.  

After drawing the images onto the gourd and burning the line work in, the engineering begins - after all, when you cut a leaf or bloom from the center of the gourd, what will hold the remaining top to the bottom?  Leaves and stems must be rebuilt behind the flower which wants to lean outward.  After soaking the "free" parts of the design (blooms and leaves), the gourd walls are soaked in warm water and gradually bent, holding their positions with strings tied to weights or to the table, till the piece is completely dry.  If the parts are very narrow or the stem is all that holds the large bloom, support must be built onto the backside of the gourd wall.  But, careful, don't build so much support in that you can't reach the inside of the design where a butterfly might be resting.  The contraption in the pictures holds the gourd for me in any one of many positions.  I used to have to do the holding in my lap - very precarious!  All of the cut edges and the sculpture material added to make the design more 3-dimensional must be sanded, hence the mask.  The sander is loud - headphones help.  Sander makes talc-fine dust - so I hold the vacuum in my left hand while sanding with my right.  It's definitely a balancing act!

The painting is done in stages - basic colors applied in the beginning so that I don't mistake positive image for negative space.  Lots of layers of transparent acrylics build the nuanced color in each leaf and bloom.  Often something may start out life as magenta and end up as yellow!

Here are several views of the finished piece.  I miss gardening, but I love making one that lasts forever!  I'll be bringing this one to the Celebration of Fine Art, Scottsdale, opening Jan. 15.  Hope you'll get to see it!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Pace of Mindfulness

I have lately become a fan of Daisy Hickman's blog, Sunny Room Studio.  Today she was reflecting on writing by Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote,
     "Our habit energy is what causes us to repeat the same behavior thousands of times... The practice of mindfulness helps us to recognize that habitual energy.  Every time we can recognize the habit energy in us, we are able to stop and to enjoy the present moment.  The energy of mindfulness is the best energy to help us embrace our habit energy and transform it. The energy of mindfulness is the full awareness of the present moment...The energy of mindfulness carries within itself the energy of concentration.  When you are mindful of something, whether that something is a flower, a friend, a cup of tea, you become concentrated on the object of your mindfulness.  The more you are mindful, the more concentrated you become.  The energy of concentration is born from the energy of mindfulness.  And if you are concentrated enough, the energy of concentration contains the energy of insight.  Mindfulness, concentration, and insight are the energies that make up the Buddha."

Ms Hickman went on to say,  "A superficial life is much like an “unexamined life,” a sequence of events without meaning or purpose. Or understanding."

My studio is very sunny and quiet today, Sunday.  There is no music, or sound other than an occasional bird or muffled road noise from a passing car.  I am at work on an intricate gourd and, at the moment, the sculpture medium needs some drying time.  For a while I can drift in the topic of mindfulness.  

There is something acutely near my mind that I cannot quite grasp.  This sensation surfaces frequently when I am in the midst of my work.  The creative process is one of great concentration, or mindfulness, when one is fully engaged.  Some would call it focus.  Others might define it  in more religious terms as in God speaking to me.  I am neither a very scientific, nor a very religious person, so those analogies don't quite work for me.  Nor am I of a meditative nature.  My mind is not easy to quiet.  One of the most difficult things about being an artist is turning the generative mind off - sleep eludes me, and when it does come, it often arrives with much dream activity, sometimes solving problems, often giving the gift of wholly finished works which I must try to capture in my conscious mind in the instant of waking, lest they slip away.  But, I do like to ponder.  

Buddhist thought is often expressed in simplistic terms and becomes trivialized as greeting card adages.  An example of this was in vogue several years ago when everyone was spouting "you create your own reality," and much sadness transpired as folks with major illnesses came to believe that somehow they had created their illnesses, and parents dealing with the death of a child were shamed into believeing they were to blame for their tragic circumstances.  Too simplistic.  Not incorrect, perhaps, in certain deeper implications, but far too simple to be left unexamined.  Life is not a greeting card.  Why are we always looking for the simple, the easy, the quick in everything that we do?  

Ms. Hickman went on to say,  "A superficial life is much like an “unexamined life,” a sequence of events without meaning or purpose. Or understanding."  I agree with this, knowing that I have many superficial moments - after all, how deep is the moment I spend plucking my eyebrows or making certain my dishes don't have water stains on them?  We could talk about levels of superficiality here, but let's not.  Pick up People magazine for that.  But I do think that some pondering on the Buddhist Mindfulness-Concentration-Insight path is worth some time.
The link that Mr. Hanh makes is mightily important, because it points to growth, and by extension, change.  Ms. Hickman's "sequence of events" may coincide with a certain level of mindfulness (think focusing, visualizing that new car, winning lottery ticket, check-in-the-mail from nowhere).  But is there meaning or purpose beyond the simplistic car, ticket, check?  Does the mindfulness of the self (or self-desired object) lead to Mr. Hanh's "concentration?"  He says, "The more you are mindful, the more concentrated you become.  The energy of concentration is born from the energy of mindfulness."  So, when we are disappointed that the car doesn't materialize, do we recognize that we have not fully enrolled ourselves in the mindfulness of the car, to the point of concentration?  Probably not.  We, most likely, are like a child who wants what he wants now, until he wants something else in the very next moment.  Which leads to the question of what happens in the state of "mindfulness?"  Turns out that perhaps mindfulness is not so easy after all, nor simple.  I'm pretty certain that anyone reading this who has been practicing mindfulness for very long, is having difficulty staying in the moment, without clicking to another blog.  Yes, I say yes, not so easy.  Not simple.  How many things snag your consciousness when you are focusing on mindfulness of breathing? Please!  I know I've already copped to not meditating.  So what is there for us less disciplined folk, we who feel our stomach rumble in the middle of the out breath, who have to scratch the itch impeding our in breath, whose every aching joint and muscle scream for our attention while we sit cramped in the impossible lotus? 

There is this: slowing down.  That's all.  Just slowing down.  Try this: get three clocks- one with no second hand, one with a second hand, and one digital (stop watch) counting one-hundredths of a second.  Sit down with them, one at a time, and be mindful, or concentrate on one specific thing for two minutes.  Be mindful of how well you can do this in each given time sequence.  This is not rocket science, because, as I mentioned, I am not of a scientific bent.  It is, however, pretty obvious.  Given the slower pace of the clock with no second hand, your mind quiets itself, able to readjust it's thought even if it wanders.  It wanders, if you will, at a slower pace.  I think that perhaps what Mr. Hanh is telling us is to slow down.  Being in the moment is not equivalent to jumping into the moment.  It is slowing down your eternal forward motion enough so that the moment, the elusive moment, can envelope you.  The moment isn't stationary.  It isn't a stop in time.  The moment is moving forward also.  But, if one is able to slow down, become enveloped in the moment, that act will take you to a different place than you would otherwise have arrived at.  And that is the insight.  That by slowing down, we can change what we are consciously aware of; we can alter our moment, and in that altered moment, or altered consciousness, something may open for us.  An insight. An understanding.

"A superficial life is much like an “unexamined life,” a sequence of events without meaning or purpose. Or understanding."  A superficial life, then, is a life in which we, without consciousness, allow ourselves to be propelled by the ever increasing speed of the Universe, without pausing to experience our own being.