Sunday, November 29, 2009

What If.....?

November 29, 2009

‘What’ and ‘If’, are possibly the most creative pair of words in any language. The essence of the creative nature is to look for inspiration and ideas in one’s surroundings. A true artist is always ‘on’, with an eye peeled towards what is going on around them. It can be so persistent that it can even become just a bit annoying to those who hang-out with the artist. Ask my wife for any further elaboration of this, please. My most frequent way of doing this is to pull off the roadway in a precipitous fashion, just missing the ditch, but at least with some consideration of any drivers who are behind me.

But, once an artist has identified an idea, found a stimulus and begun to work with it, the creative process has only just begun. The initial concept can take off on a flight to either nowhere, or destinations unknown. As an idea develops it begins to take on its own momentum. Like a fetus in the womb, the artist becomes pregnant with it and needs to feed it as it grows. This can happen in myriad ways, but one of the most common ones is that of ‘brainstorming’, in which the above title question is asked repeatedly, until all evident possibilities are identified. Note: this can easily become a neurotic process too, so it’s important to have some restraint via a good connection to the present moment and place.

In the contemporary art scene’s constant effort to upgrade the ‘wow factor’, you can see what happens when a possibly good concept runs amok. Because artists are under the impression that they have a mandate to come up with something nobody has seen before, they often cave-in to the impulse to add some shock factor, pour on a little enigma, stir in a dollop of obfuscation and come up with something that requires some pseudo-sophisticated line of bulls**t art-speak to justify it. I recently saw a mention of a ‘piece’ that was done in a Manhattan gallery, in which the artist hired a contractor to come in and tear a hole in the floor and dig a pit beneath it. A ladder was installed and the viewer was invited to climb down into the hole and stand there…hopefully lost in a state of wonder and bewilderment. “It’s a HOLE! Oh, my God!” How profound; how ‘deep’! Argh.

This is what can happen when the ‘what if’ train jumps the rails and plows through a mental junkyard. But, assuming the artist is sincere and not playing The Game, this process of querying the possibilities is essential. But, here’s the kicker: it DOES NOT all have to happen before the piece is underway. It can—and actually is more effective—happen as an ongoing willingness to head in a new direction as you are working. This means that the artist needs to be willing to surrender his or her pre-visualized goals, and replace them with a sense of adventure. And, the highest culmination of this is when the artist actually feels LED by the piece. I am not alone in feeling that the artwork itself can show you where it wants to go. I know many other artists who agree that this is when being an artist is the most satisfying and exciting.

I am still not used to it when it happens, and I have been aware of this for at least forty years, first experiencing it in college via my photography. In fact, when it happened back then, I finally knew that I was meant to be an artist--however that might pan out--for the rest of my life. Suddenly, making art became a receptive act as much as a creative one, and that felt magical. I am not exaggerating…that’s how it really felt to me. If I would open myself up, become willing to receive, the Great Creative Well-spring in the depths of my being would respond by showing me possibilities I would never have arrived at by mere force of intellect or will.

By merely asking the silent question: “What if…..?” I learned to create that opening. And, I am absolutely convinced that I am no different than anybody who picks-up tools and materials with a desire to create something that transcends themselves.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

I'm outta my mind......I hope.

November 28, 2009

In 1971, I was a hippy in the Bay Area. I lived with an extended family of amazing souls, spent my days hiking, hitch-hiking or exploring in some fashion or other what it meant to really feel FREE, for the first time in my young life (I was 26 that year). Exploration was taking place on the outer level, but even more so on inner planes. One of our family members was a fellow named Russell. He had been a self-declared ‘conscientious objector’, but the draft board didn’t recognize that because he wasn't a Quaker or member of some other pacifist organization. He was just Russell and he knew what felt wrong to him. Not good enough for the feds. The FBI eventually caught up with him and told him it would either be jail or the army. Russ went into the army and told them that no matter what they did, they couldn’t force him to kill anybody. So, they made him a medic. And, yes, he went to Vietnam. At one point during his ‘tour’ his unit was in an outpost that was overrun by the NVA and he survived by laying down between his dead comrades and playing dead. Russ received two purple hearts and had the same typical disdain for the medal that most every combat soldier I have ever met has.

When I first met him he was living on a Chinese junk that he’d rescued from oblivion and made at least ‘bay worthy’ if not a real ocean-going vessel. She was a doughty little boat with real vibes, and she flew the flag of the Fool (from the Tarot, of course) from one of her stays. I was pretty numb and straight at this point, having fallen out of an Ivory Tower straight into the Bay Area. I was still trying to figure out that my background was something to be overcome instead of identifying with it. Even after three years in the infantry, and then another three years getting a degree in philosophy, I really was isolated from mainstream life in America. Eventually, much of that would be anti-doted by traveling, but in the spring of ’71 I was still wet behind the ears and looking wide-eyed at the counter-culture, with lots of questions too.

Russ was patient. He knew exactly where I was coming from and he could also tell that I spent a lot of my waking hours up in my head…trying to ‘figure stuff out’. He never said a single word to dissuade me from that approach to understanding…..well, to understanding EVERYTHING. As a philosophy major—with a serious allergy to all things mathematical—I had fulfilled my math requirement at Penn State by taking Phil 3, formal logic. This was considered the fundamental foundation on which all philosophical undertakings must be built. If A is to B, as C is to D, then…..blah, blah, blah. The goal was for the student to stay on firm ground, with all the relative values adding up to a correct result via deductive reasoning. I hated it, but I pulled a C and was done with math. It was at about that point that I began to suspect that ‘reason’ was being used to justify pretty much anything that the person using it wanted it to. Furthermore, I was becoming aware that the world above the neck was devoid of some critical human assets….like compassion, empathy, conscience.

So, here comes this fellow who would listen to my flights of rhetoric and just look at me and smile…not a derisive smile, not at all….but, in mid sentence, I would suddenly hear what I was saying and realize that it was—taken from a holistic perspective, i.e. including the Heart center and the gut—just plain silly. I think a few tokes also helped in coming around to this realization. I was taking myself and especially my ‘thinking’ way too seriously…just like the dead German philosophers I so detested in college. Bringing it all down into the full body was a HUGE transition for me. I slowly came to hear as much with my Heart as with my head, and to understand that the discursive mind really is like some sort of crazy monkey… that has run amok on the bridge of the ship, and will ultimately put it on the rocks if he’s allowed to do the steering.

During my years in Ithaca NY, I met tons of Cornell students who were extraordinarily bright. Most of them had been at the top of their class in high school, and were now students in an Ivy League college that would demand their very best efforts to succeed. But, as time passed, I also realized that an alarming percentage of these people were so ‘heady’ that the ability to be grounded and to navigate their way through daily life and be happy doing it….was compromised. Cornell made a decision to put ‘suicide barriers’ on the footbridges that led from the dorms to the classrooms. Students were ‘gorging out’, because the rigors of an elite education were destroying their equilibrium. For many, the ability to get down out of their head and be solidly ‘grounded’, connected to reality, was elusive.

At one point, in Marin, I began writing a piece that I titled: “Derf, in the Land of Rs”. ‘Derf’ was my pre-Sufi name, Fred, backwards, and ‘The Land of Rs’” was the land of Reasoned, Rational Rhetoric. I was, in my own measured way, coming to terms with the fact that everything I had been taught up to that point in my life, needed to be re-examined in a new light. I was getting my own head around the realization that a person can identify with their discursive mind to the degree that it leaves them unable to really function as a human being.

In the decades since that time, I have met countless people who have proven this to me way beyond doubt. Perhaps the most stunning example is a fellow who is Mensa bright. In terms of what we call ‘I.Q.’, he’s near the top of the curve. He is also a highly paid professional and has had a successful career. And, along the way he has paid untold thousands for therapists and still remains unable to zero-in on what it takes to be a happy person. It’s tragic. He is a kind and generous soul; by any human criteria he deserves to be happy….but, he is miserable. If I could tap him on the head with a magic wand and give him the blessing of simply getting down out of his head, I believe it would transform his life. But, only he can do that, and the very object of his misery is the faculty that tells him the brain is the boss, “Don’t ever doubt that intelligence is king.”

That’s his Crazy Monkey whispering in his ear.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Every piksha tells a story...........don't it?

November 25, 2009

And, if you stop to think about it, that’s true: every picture does tell some kind of story. My personal preference is that it be a story that leaves me feeling better than before I ‘read’ it. You might come away from one of Jenny Saville’s stories with an urge to drop to your knees in front of the porcelain throne….not my idea of a good time.

But, take a look at the attached image of a painting that I did recently. It has all the elements of a ‘story’: setting, character, props. It is loaded with bits of evidence that tell the viewer what this character is experiencing as he walks down the street, his gaze on the bricks at his feet. Who is he? What is he thinking, feeling? Is that a look of ‘determination’ on his face? One of my painting students—before I had painted the cable-lock on the light pole—said, “He’s thinking: ‘Oh, look….a bike….and it’s un-locked!” Very observant, don’t you think?

In fact, despite how concrete and detailed all the elements of this painting are, it is still an open-ended story. It’s like a ‘Mr. Potato’ kit: you get to choose which eyes, which nose, mouth, ears, etc. to put on your potato..and what character it becomes is entirely determined by your story. All the complex elements that you bring to the moment are what will create the story a decent image tells. And, no artist in their right mind would have it otherwise. In the modernist vein of thinking, the elements are often either ‘blunt instruments’ that force the viewer into a story that is more about the artist than anything universal (M Bunyan’s ridiculous blather about Twombly’s intent notwithstanding)--or they are puzzles that defy comprehension...purposely. In the present Age of Narcissism that has overtaken the art world’s elite echelons, it is all about the artist, and they will never let you forget that. The game is to keep you reeling, off balance….never let you feel that you are on top of the game. Of course, you can move over to the ranks of the effete 'insiders', those sly dogs who actually claim to see the Emperor's Magic Clothes. But, to do that, I'm afraid, you will have to actually accept the stream of critical sewage from people like M Bunyan...or, at least, pretend you do. Gag.....wretch.

In the more traditional genres of painting, the opposite holds true. The goal of the artist is to give you the tools and the material to create your own meaningful reality. So, when a person stands in front of ‘Cut Above’—the painting seen here—they are being invited to dive into an act of co-creation, in which they are bringing their own sensibilities, formed over an entire lifetime, and find a story that speaks to them…with rich detail and eloquent embellishment. In its highest permutations, Fine Art is ever so much more than eye-candy, entertainment, or elements of design. It is an alchemical key to unlocking hitherto forbidden or ignored spaces in the viewer. A single piece of art can be a stepping-stone, one of many, in the viewer’s life process and their journey towards coming to terms with all of life’s challenges.

Perhaps, more than anything else, that is what I find so unforgivable about art that is intended to disrupt, annoy, anger, perplex, even to assault the viewer. It is unconscionable that an artist take it on themselves to make life MORE difficult, when it is—for most people, especially in these times—already verging on overwhelming.

I want anything that I create to be that ‘gift’ to the viewer that I believed it could be as a young artist and art lover. And, that is one tiny piece of my own healing process.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Light 'em up!

November 23, 2009

Here’s a photograph that I took this month. It is a farm a few miles from my door and I had been looking at it for years as I passed by on motorcycle rides, or on photo safaris. It never had that special ‘something’ that made me pull off the road and reach for my camera. But, as I was riding past it this time, the sun was headed for the horizon and there were a few clouds in the distance, and so I did pull off and shoot some images with a small Canon pocket camera.
But, when I loaded them into Photoshop, they just didn’t have the quality that I was seeing as I was standing out there. So, I went back the next day. And, this time I took my DSLR, a tripod and a compliment of filters. I got there in plenty of time to watch the slow transition as the sun sank. Because I was shooting at a right angle to the sun’s path, I knew that a polarizer would have maximum effect. So, that was what I put on the camera and then rotated it until the sky darkened and the clouds ‘popped’. I liked what I was seeing and shot about 30 images as the last rays of light streamed across the field, bathing the farm in warm light.
In fact, I went back again, just the other day, to reassure myself that I couldn’t improve on what I already had. And, I got some more nice images, but nothing hugely better. I like this enough that it will form the basis of a paintng. The painting won’t be exactly what you see here, and I will share it when it is done.
Once again Nature has smiled on my willingness to be her witness. This is a simple farm scene, but—for me—it is utterly transformed by the delicate and fine quality of light that shapes and colors the land and structures. Someone once asked me to define what it is about a particular quality of light that so appeals to me. I told them that it seems somehow ‘poetic’, and even ‘heroic’, but I am thinking that ‘poignant’ also fills the bill. As I look at a scene like this, it takes on a timeless quality, as if it could be anytime, and even anywhere.
So, tell me….am I odd?

Behind every Cynic...

November 23, 2009

"This painting reminds me of the drawings of Rudolf Steiner, but here the performance of marking is pushed beyond the bounds of the spiritual by the ferocious attack of the artist – repeating the form but transgressing the boundaries of that form, disintegrating the ritual into the physical release of energy through the hand. One can almost see the maelstrom of the splitting of the atom in Twombly’s repeating performance threatening to destroy himself and the world around him."

M Bunyan

(deep SIGH……) This is one of the most perfect examples of ‘art speak’ I have found. It was written about the painting by Cy Twombly that appears here….yes, the childish scribble. Apparently, M. Bunyan has reason to claim some expertise in the "...physical release of energy through the hand." Er, uh.....okay, we won't go there.

Now, if I were one of the inner-circle of cognoscenti, I might say, “How utterly fascinating,” and pretend that I was moved by the stunning sophistication and depth that could be contained in such a simple piece of art. But—assuming that this is not the first posting you have read here—you already know better. Sadly, all the endless hours of art history, and the days spent roaming the concrete canyons of the Big Apple as an adolescent and later, didn’t take. I remain firmly camped among the vast throng of people who look at this piece and say, “What the hell…any third-grader could have done this.”

I came across a quote the other day: “Behind every cynic lies a broken idealist”. And, I immediately realized it must have been written or spoken by somebody who knows me (google: "symptoms, narcissistic personality disorder" to understand why I might feel that way) Argh. In fact, I grew up loving art…all kinds of art. If it was painted, sculpted, written or filmed it had my rapt attention. I wanted to believe that art was a gift from the artist to ME…and to all people. I wanted to believe that it was a window into a realm of wonder and that it was unencumbered by limitations of any kind. And, as the entire modernist movement has tirelessly tried to demonstrate, that is exactly right: no limits apply or can be imposed on art. But, as I look back, there was a dark cloud looming over my idealistic projections. As I learned more and more about the history of art, including all genres and periods, I also was becoming aware that the art I was particularly drawn to was increasingly held in low regard by the Ivory Towers of academia and the mavens of taste in ‘The Art World’, which, of course, is centered—some would say begins and ends---in New York City.

As an independent painter in California, I would take the bus into San Francisco and spend entire days at the De Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park. In their permanent collection were paintings by artists I was unfamiliar with, and some of them had an almost narcotic effect on my young sensibilities. “The Broken Pitcher”, by Wm. Bouguereau was one of those. There were also works by some of the great Masters of Europe. Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Rabbi”—later stolen and now thought to be a fake—was one of them. I had an afternoon in which I spent more than an hour looking at this painting. And, that evening I attended a gathering in Berkeley where Rabbi Zalman Schachter was the speaker. An Auschwitz survivor, Zalman was becoming known as the “purple sox rabbi” and he was among the first people I met whom I would identify as clearly and indubitably ‘enlightened’. All the symptoms of a fully awakened human being—one who emanated love and light—were there. And, I was sitting in the front row as he spoke about whatever came into his Heart. As I watched him speaking I slowly realized that I was looking at a dead-ringer for the rabbi in Rembrandt’s painting. Whoever painted it—and I really don’t care--whoever it was, had tapped into the universal essence of Wisdom and Love. I felt like I was tripping, but I was not. It was an eery feeling, but not creepy. Quite the contrary, it was an ecstatic realization of the presence of archetypes in people. It was there in the painting….and here it was, right in front of me. This was a life-changing moment for me.

This was most probably the peak of my idealism surrounding the true potential and the real meaning of art. At its highest level, it was mystical, laden with energy and a kind of knowledge that could only be perceived and absorbed through the Heart.

I do not know exactly when I finally became ‘broken’. But, somewhere between here and there, I surely did. When I heard the other day that Warhol’s insipid ‘painting’ (which isn’t really a painting as such, but a silkscreened print) , “200 Dollar Bills” broke a record for his work, selling for $43.7 million bucks, it simply drove the dagger deeper, confirming that our society has come to think of ‘art’ as simply collectable objects that people buy for their investment value. I would be very surprised if anybody has EVER stood in front of this print, made in 1962, and had an epiphany…of any kind. It is just one more piece of intellectual blather, utterly devoid of magic or any heart content whatsoever.

In philosophy 101 most instructors cover a quantum shift in how people perceive reality. There is no consensus on when this really took place; generally speaking it is dated back to the mid-1600s, and it is referred to as The Enlightenment, which is enormously ironic because it really has been exactly the antithesis of that in so many ways. My college professor who introduced it, said that it really began with DesCartes’ proclamation that, “I think, therefore I am.” It was indeed a release from religious tyranny in which the clerics dictated the nature of reality, killed those who dared to disagree, and dominated western civilization in ways that still echo today. But, the exaltation of logic and reason to the throne of power and authority, as ‘bringers of truth’, is almost as blind as what preceded it. In a society that has gone up into its head to find ‘truth’, you have created the ability to justify and act out all manner of despotic ideas. We use this reliance on logic to justify pretty much whatever we want. I cannot do an explanation of that statement justice in this limited space, but the net result is that much of what goes on under the banner of being ‘reasonable’……is heartless and inhumane. I will spend time laying out why I feel this way, but not right now.

My point at this moment is: art—the faithful mirror of ‘who we are’-- has become heartless too. The magic has gone out of it and we now have something that is vapid and unemotional, pinning its legitimacy on inane bulls**t and innuendo, like the critique of Twombly’s painting above.

Maybe I had to be broken. Perhaps it was a vital part of the process of proclaiming that for me….and the millions of people who now feel dissociated from painting and art in general….the Emperor is as buck naked as ever.

But, I have a plan. And I am working on repairing my broken ideals….and my broken Heart.