Recent Writing


Some background for the museum box artifacts

It is my practice to journal a lot at the beginning of a body of work. It helps gather the disparate threads that have been coming gradually into awareness and begin to load these into images. As the body of work evolves, the writing continues and evolves.  I have just delivered the first 8 pieces of this series of museum box artifacts to Avis Frank Gallery and I want to share the thinking and some of the history behind them here.

guitar shop logo

In 1968 I came back from graduate study at the Royal College of Art in London to play in a rock band. In 1968 that made perfect sense. Pink Floyd was the oft-present house band at the Royal College and the summer of Flower Power had just happened in San Francisco. In New York the Village was itself blooming, the Electric Circus was alive and Sargent Pepper’s had just been released. I worked as a partner in “The Guitar Shop” in the West Village, repairing and customizing acoustic and electric guitars. By word of mouth and the presence of Dan Armstrong (vintage) Guitars upstairs, we became the primary resource for touring bands during their New York engagements. We worked regularly with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Who, Johnny and Edgar Winter, The Mothers of Invention, and just about any studio musician or band of note active at that time. We did a lot of creative problem solving, inventing, fine-tuning of instruments as well as custom design work. It was a very heady time.

leaf set from alisonmontessori.com

8x10x1/8" jigsaw sculpture from Heavenstone Works 8x10x1/8" jigsaw sculpture from Heavenstone Works 2

With some of the woodworking experience and invention earned at the Guitar Shop, I began making Montessori “didactic materials” for a friend teaching in an alternative school in New Hampshire. These materials are elegant objects and include wonderful insets that depict and allow children to interact like jigsaw puzzles with an astounding array of natural shapes  from Botany and Zoology. Some of the specialized techniques led me to develop my own objects, abstract organic artwork of tightly fitting cut shapes, which were shown and sold until 1983 in galleries and most major museum stores such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

paper relief #105 paper relief #113

I had become interested in papermaking in 1971 just as the renaissance of hand papermaking was beginning in this country. At first I was interested in casting and I developed some techniques of my own to make thin highly detailed casts from my sculptural work. Although I loved paper made by hand, I became more interested in the raw, irregular and imperfect qualities of the fiber than in making perfect stationery or drawing paper.

diorama hall at Buffalo Museum of Science

As a child, I lived near the Natural History Museum in Buffalo. I loved the Victorian atmosphere of the building and the semi darkness that highlighted old display cases and their wonderful, peculiar specimens. My favorite halls in the museum were devoted to fossils and collections of insects from around the world. There was something special about the not-quite-naïve excitement of collecting and displaying nature. It was a form of learning that was not yet jaded or removed to the rarified laboratories of science. There was mystery that was not altogether chased away by fact. There was a sort of fascinating darkness that today we might call Gothic.

All these influences find their way into my drawing and painting. I like objects. I tend to see even my two-dimensional work as object, as artifact. Many of the pieces in this current body of work are indeed artifacts. I have thought a lot about my early experience of Museum, of collection and specimen and the significance of objects in my life.

Museums occupy a peculiar place in our culture, in our assertive, busy, materialistic lives. They are oddly out of place and yet fascinating and telling. We warehouse these objects and collections to keep them safe. But I am perverse enough to turn that around and wonder if we aren’t also keeping ourselves safe from them. Does that naïve excitement or that mystery threaten us? What happens then if we find such objects out in the world with us rather than safely tucked away? Perhaps they are evidence not of what we have saved, but what we have lost.

Loss is itself interesting because it reveals change. We live in a world that is infatuated by change. Yet it is superficial change, fashion, the next new thing, and it is a device to drive commerce. It simulates and co-opts change so as to avoid the reality and what the full awareness of it means.

It is interesting that in addition to museums, we warehouse old people in nursing homes and young people in school rooms which then allows us to put our attention into the middle years of worldly production. We go about our business as usual without distraction. This middle part has a kind of security of routine and normalcy. But it masks the arc of a life. I find the awareness of loss compelling because it throws that arc into relief, precisely the way a story does.

apparatus for lifting trees

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Patrick Renner’s “Vestigial Structures”

Avis Frank Gallery

I like the work of Patrick Renner, a Houston artist whose show titled “Vestigial Structures” has just closed at Avis Frank Gallery. Patrick reclaims, among other things, wood sheathing from demolished houses, keeping the color and evident aging of the original material while giving them entirely new form.

Vestigial structures are forms that remain but whose functionality has been lost, evolved beyond. In the piece dewclaw a peninsular shape refers to the dog’s leg with the higher unused toe. The shape of the piece itself has evolved into a geometric simplification of the reference.

dewclaw

What is apparent and compelling is that we witness both the former identity and the present form of these materials. This creates both a tension and a bridge. We move between these two lives of the material. The rich associations and emotions of home and family and survival and loss and memory all hover right at the threshold as we confront these new forms. There are aspects of collision between the old and new identities, and there are resonances that shift or amplify the meanings.

The piece titled wooddauber turns the relationship between old and new inside out. The walls of a house whose attic may have hidden the nest of the Dauber Wasp is reconstituted as the nest itself, with its own entrances and chimney.

wooddauber

In the large roof-like form titled p-shift, we first see the subtle shift of meaning in making roof from walls. Then we notice the sculpted shape of the eve edges that take on the image of an inverted head and shoulders silhouette. There is a connection between the shell of the house and the dweller, a body sheltered by the roof and itself a shell for the being within.

p-shift

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Looking at the June Life Drawing Workshop

unravellingMy life drawing workshop this June used iconic images posted on the wall to symbolize the central ideas of the class. The image of unraveling rope above represents the revealing of significant paths to approach this complex problem by way of the particular aptitudes of the participants, paralleling Patangali’s system of different but complementary Yogas.

the class in my studio

The workshop was organized around Grimm’s story The Drummer. This tale is a metaphor for the adventure of the hero who uses daring, craft, stealth, and even surrender at appropriate moments to meet challenges that in fact exceed his or her own capacities . The workshop faces participants with the not insignificant challenge of drawing the figure by inviting courage, by using insights from classical masters, and by some skillful trickery.

idea and action

Some of the other important ideas encountered included:

•  The joining of separate ideas and actions into pairs which begin to weave together to constitute meaning and over time, create the arc of our story and purpose.

•  The issue of Bandwidth, how we choke the input and how we can instead expand our vocabulary of expression and achievement.

•  Holding the tension of Opposition as the key to the emergence of creative solution.

bandwidth and tension

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Drawing and the paradigm of Division

the well between opposing forcesI invest a lot in preparation for my summer life drawing sessions. There is something meaningful about returning to this same challenge of mentoring the process of drawing. I love drawing as I have since I was a child, and I find in it a kind of nourishment that cannot be substituted by anything else.

But I am also inclined toward ideas. I spend more time in these workshops addressing ideas than I think is usual in a life-drawing class. It is natural for drawing to be about doing, about action and seeing and practice, perhaps about some information like anatomy. And it is true that artists have a natural wholistic and doing orientation. Yet artists grow up in and are subject to the literal, logical, linear, left brain orientation of our culture and often find themselves fitting in poorly. That may be partly why they identify themselves as artists to begin with, in a kind of self-labeled separation.

Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am” can be juxtaposed with “Just Do It!” And we can talk about Mind / Body, Male / Female, Red States and Blue States, War / Peace, Spirit / Soul etc. If we look at what’s happening in Washington we get a taste of how divided we are and how poorly it serves us.

This left-brain / right-brain split is part of a paradigm of duality and division that is larger than our culture alone. It is one of the Oppositions we seem to make as a way to clarify and define, but we then fall into the trap of believing it’s real. And this does have a direct effect on learning to draw. There is a slew of books about making art using the qualities of the Right brain. Daniel Pink’s important book A Whole New Mind makes the case in an even wider context.

The paradigm of opposition is better understood as Tension, a state of readiness and creative energy. The two temptations are to compromise, that is find an average, median, or pastiche formed by the collapse from extremes or to fight it out on the spot and declare victory of one side over the other. Surely we are learning to see that these approaches also serve us poorly; they are impatient, short attention span solutions. In drawing, the parallel is to surrender, overwhelmed by the complexity of what we draw or get into an arms race of ever heavier attempts to force a closure, to dominate the drawing and to hurry it to an end.

The answer instead is a whole strategy of postponing both surrender and domination. This means to hold the tension, to keep the drawing going, to quiet the voice of judgment, to use any means to stay in a state of ignorance or perhaps better, Wonder, in which we lose ourselves in the process and the experience. The creativity, the delight, and the new answers, unforeseen, arise from the tension if it is held long enough. In a left brain oriented culture, this is often promoted by misdirecting the impatience, by finding ways to impede and neutralize the logical, verbal, conceptual side while feeding the Right. It is not to shift dominance, but to make a more useful and energizing balance.

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Rix Jennings Summer Life Drawing Workshops

drawing flyer image

I am teaching two life-drawing workshops again this summer at my studio. These have evolved over 30 years into 3–day immersion experiences quite different from regular drawing classes. The evolution was the result of 2 important, divergent traditions in my own learning.

3I drew in the studios of two different masters in the classical tradition, where there was nothing that could be called instruction per se, but a lot of learning by contact and osmosis. I was also involved in the traditions of Eastern consciousness and meditation and studied with a master in that tradition for 2 decades. Our present day education is very different from either of these approaches and I felt compelled to translate and invent ways that inner and outer work could be brought to bear on drawing. This led to the development of my own approach.

4Thus, my workshops are part consciousness, part experimental practice, and part classical structure. In three intense sessions, we cover a lot of ground. There are a lot of different ways the subtlety and complexity of the human figure can be approached. A class that is driven by the one style or attitude of the teacher misses the fact that students are each different and have different strengths and aptitudes. The goal of the 3-day workshop is to discover the particular path that is natural and of least resistance for each participant. My role as teacher is not Instruction (Latin: “pack it in”) but to lead out, sometimes even by trickery, what is already there.

5

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Spring, Emergence and Drawing

Art has a lot to do with the energies of ascent and descent as I have written ( Circulatsio, Ascent and Descent ). These divergent movements create an image of the metaphorical earth below and heavens above, leaving some kind of middle space, a mesocosm of human endeavor, I suppose. The surface of the lower demesne is the garden (or it could cynically be the desert), which is the space of cultivation. That indeed wakes up in spring in art I think as well as in earth. It seems to be a space of Emergence in the tension between Transcendence and Immanence.

cultivated earth

Emergence is a really good drawing metaphor for me. Drawing can be approached as imposing one’s will on the field of action, an act of declaration, or it can be an act of receptivity, an intuitive exploration for discovery. It is of course neither, purely, but this is a useful typology for self-awareness as an artist. I tend to link my own drawing more to descent than ascent; I have a desire to be surprised, enlightened by my work as it emerges, to immerse myself in the substance of it.

My work may begin with an attempt to do something that is not entirely conscious, as if I need to stand in shadow of some kind so I can respond to it rather than control it. In shadow, in darkness, it is possible to see where the germ of light exists. It is not avoiding responsibility for the image, but rather a shifting of responsibility from conscious intention to a deeper awareness that can catch more subtle drifts of purpose, follow a thread that may be overrun by too much Mind or Will.

the ground at the threshold of drawing

A drawing often starts with a texture, a fertile swamp of marks and stains that feels very much like working in the earth. That cultivation reaches in time a critical mass. I lean into it with what is present in me, not a blank slate at all. All the time, I have been making images in my journal, writing, carrying many threads, listening to stories or discussions, worrying the edges of ideas. These things churn and perhaps connect in small bundles and influence a gestural response, a division of space, a sense of order, dark and light. At some point, these movements coalesce and seek more solid form. Then I have something to work with or against. Both energies are part of the drawing. There is as much need to dissolve or resist as to solidify and define. There is an ebb and flow that seems to energize the drawing and keep it from becoming stale.

The character of these energies varies greatly even in a single series of drawings. It is evident in the 14 Dilemma Tales drawings included in my Recent Work gallery.

 

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Dilemma Tales and Art

Circus, Fire and Water

A dilemma tale is a particular kind of story with roots in a variety of tribal cultures. It sets up a situation in which the arc of the story is incomplete and the hearers are faced with a choice that leads to discussion and unraveling of the threads of the dilemma. The tale is not a puzzle to solve, with a correct answer. It offers an opportunity for the group to struggle and explore the dilemma and find meanings that are relevant for each individual in that moment. An example of the Dilemma Tale is King Rat.

Stories in general come in Greater and Lesser form. The work of Joseph Campbell and Michael Meade speak to the former kind, stories which pull us deeper into our selves and our issues, and unfold meanings rather than merely give us light entertainment.

The Dilemma Tale influences the approach I take in my current series of drawings. The intent is to create the same kind of tension that then evokes a sustained exploration and questioning of the image. Dilemma tales evolve over time and are shaped by their culture. Their survival depends on their ability to resist easy answers and to sustain their relevance. It would be presumptuous to “invent” a dilemma tale and likewise for me to invent a drawing that purports to be its equivalent.

Yet the process of creating an image, of sustaining the idea fragments and holding the tension open for deeper ideas to emerge seems to parallel exactly what happens in unraveling the threads of the dilemma tale. That is what attracted me to them in the first place. The fertility of these stories that provides the opportunity to pull out important threads of meaning is exactly that state of wonder and exploration that is the reason I make art. It has never been about lecturing, about showing off. Questions and yearnings have always been the motivation.

I believe this state of mind is both closer to the understanding of Art and to a great healing needed by our culture. We have moved so far to the mechanical, material and controlling side of culture that we are losing the ability to explore and experience wonder and ask questions for deeper reasons than to get simple answers.

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Circulatsio, Ascent and Descent

painting and drawing

I am one month into a Sea Change: a change from painting to drawing, but also a change from one world to another. The word “circulatsio” from Alchemy, means a move through different conditions, a progression of consciousness. My image comes from Michael Meade, whose work has been an important influence in my life and who describes a sort of mythic subway that visits different stations in turn, that circulates through its route, defining and reawakening its territory by tending to each stop. In addition to the path around the perimeter, it moves above and below the plane in a wave-like cycle, which in Meade and Jung and Alchemy is described as Ascent and Descent.

 

 

 

 

 

Ascent may represent a high angle, a view from above, perspective that seeks and believes in unity and wholeness and clarity of understanding, brightness, optimism, the center and the spotlight or solar orientation, fire and heat, the Puer, spirit, and transcendence. These are mostly pretty wonderful things, but as Meade eloquently explores, also one-sided, missing the qualities of soul and vulnerable to a fall to earth.

This analogy is not pure or perfect. The qualities inherent in painting and drawing do not stay neatly separate, but for me the core understandings resonate. The qualities I enumerated as Ascent are more closely linked for me to painting. Drawing on the other hand is about shadow and the margins rather than the center. It is about feeling one’s way by touch and by error, stumbling blind, emerging from the fertile swamp or soil rather than staking out a claim upon it. It is about water and earth, about being lost and wandering, not knowing but guessing or intuiting, the qualities of stain and mark, texture and gesture, immanence rather than transcendence.

It is interesting that the processes and materials of drawing seem so closely tied to earth and water and Descent: scratching, marking, staining, digging, immersion in ash and soil-like substances. Paper itself is an earth-grown material that involves soaking and beating and pressing.

I have a temptation to unite these qualities of drawing and painting, to integrate Descent and Ascent. Perhaps. But more likely the tension between them is necessary and meaningful and the movement around the center is life giving.

Michael Meade CD, book, CD

Note: Michael Meade is represented by many videos on YouTube. The particular works I reference are his recorded talk The Water of Life, the book of the same name, and the CD set Alchemy of Fire which appears on his own website www.mosaicvoices.org. In addition Meade is featured regularly on the Huffington Post.

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Artist and Audience 1

abakanowicz_flock  www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu

Recently, Scott Simon interviewed author Anita Desai in relation to her collection of 3 novellas entitled The Artist of Disappearance. At the end of the interview Simon asks Desai about audience:

SIMON: Well, for me this story raised the question: Is there art without an audience?

DESAI: I think the audience is quite certain that there isn’t – that the art only becomes art once it is looked upon as such. But I, in my experience, there are artists who have done things entirely for themselves and the audience is unimportant and often destructive to their vision. But all of us who’ve ever written, composed music, painted, know that when we performed these acts, we are not in touch with the world, we are completely withdrawn from it and in our own world we are recreating an inner world.

 

Desai specifies 3 forms of art making that seem more particularly independent of audience. Critics might suggest this independence is arrogance or introversion or the mythology of the 19th C. that wanted the aggrandizing image of the destructive genius to put artists on pedestals and to marginalize and stigmatize them at the same time.

There is a tension here for me. I do feel it is difficult and perhaps destructive to second-guess the audience when I am in the studio. It gets in the way and it adds noise to the need to hear subtle voices, to see where an image might lead me.  But I also feel that the audience completes the arc of creation when the work is seen, when it is received. This is a kind of mythic idea that the artist is part of the community. It is not about praise and inflation so much as it is about the wholeness of belonging and that in a healthy culture, the artist’s purpose is invited, recognized and validated. Perhaps after all this is about the health of the culture.

This is a topic I intend to follow and expand in later posts

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A drawing manifesto from Barcelona

When I was in graduate school, this document from Barcelona was circulated through the department. The only reference to it I found on the internet was as the mission statement of a show at Angstrom Gallery in 2008. There was a sixties style optimism and crusading quality in it that appealed to me; it seems a positive way to inaugurate the Drawing category of my blog. There is a romantic aspect to the hard copy circulation of such a manifesto, created prior to blogging, but its stated intent to be spread virally suggests to me that it should be posted and available by this more powerful means.

DRAWING

The most ancient, modern, difficult and the cheapest form of expression in the world.

This message is an appeal to the memory of man.

Let us remember our magic ability for communicating the rich world of our imagination, a personal experience unique in its essence and mood, by means of the simple practice of drawing.

Drawing has been neglected as a regular means of expression of human beings, devalued, and finally forgotten. Thus, a universal instrument has been reduced to a specialized technique used only by artists, and has lost, in this process, its deepest sense. Civilization is a paradox: while it boasts of cultural progress it degrades human beings to a pre-graphic stage. In view of this, this reminder becomes a proposal:

•That we recover the universal skill of drawing, conquered by humanity in its childhood, and which can not be replaced by any other language. Thus we will bring new life to a kind of message that neither word nor gesture can produce.

•That we find ourselves again in the self-created images, recovering that source of understanding, expression and, therefore, cultural identity.

•That we no longer be silent receivers of somebody else’s fantasy, but active creators who bring new strength and richness to collective imagery.

The following ideas are set forth as practical ways towards a critical consideration of current prejudices and self-repressive behaviors in the practice of drawing. They intend to promote a new attitude for liberating our natural graphic capacity.

Loose inhibitions and be assertive

•Disregard your fear of expressing yourself and the insecurity and shyness caused by opinions given by friends, relatives and teachers.

•Develop a responsible and independent attitude towards vocation and run the risk of showing your work in exhibits, personal shows, publications and any other means of communication.

Develop your own drawing criteria

•Encourage graphic research and experimentation in all their aspects, permanently devising new exercises and methods.

•Strengthen self-critical sense and own selection criteria, and recreate evaluation techniques.

•Learn to analyze and criticize your own work and its products, and pass that knowledge on to others.

•Disregard the vulgar concept of “taste” and the “good/bad” dichotomy applied to it; and criticize the validity of the aesthetic rules which support it.

Free yourself from conventions and graphic prejudices

•Break the taboo over “copying.” Learn and teach how to do it, for the practice of copying can lead you towards your own creative processes.

•Accept the effect of chance as a source of creation, such as staining, rubbing and correcting; these also have their own valuable graphic languages.

•Consider “mistakes” as a positive and irreversible fact, which can be of help during the experience of learning.

Increase graphic resources

•Do not set beforehand any limits to the process of learning how to draw or to its type of results. It is an unlimited process

•Consider sketches, roughs and preliminary schema – or any conscious or unconscious graphic expression as ends in themselves. Encourage this practice.

•Vary the supports for drawing: paper, wood, walls and floors, etc., etc.

•Consider your collection of books and images as an important working tool. Encourage the habit of selecting this material from any kind of source, classifying and ordering it with a practical purpose.

The increasing consciousness of cultural problems, both of individuals and organizations all through the world, the actual development of a critical attitude towards cultural reality, and the growing interest on enterprises and projects involving any progressive development in these matters, will enable the general understanding of this proposal and the importance of its implications.

This is not a commercial or institutional endeavor. It is simply a way to find out if these ideas have any echo in inspiring positive changes in the practice and meaning of drawing.

If you share this belief, spread these proposals by any available means, and put its suggestions into practice through your own experience.

America Sanchez , Norberto Chavez. Barcelona June 1979

Translation Martha Moia

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