Jul 22, 2008

back to the land of snows

laura mcphee (daughter, incidentally, of john) was at the ranch a few weeks back. for her guest lecture, she showed her quite beautiful photographs of idaho (part of the series river of no return).

she also mentioned, quite offhand, that her epiphanic photographic expedition, the one that made her a landscape photographer, was to iceland.

i sat down with her at breakfast the last day she was here and discovered that she went to iceland with her father in the '90s as he was writing the heimaey story in the control of nature, about the vestmann islanders arresting the flow of lava from surtsey by continuous application of cold seawater. she also saw the deeply surreal and fantastic nature of iceland -- broad expanses of snow and rock, heights that warp perspective, clear light, and (in her case), the birth of a new island.

when i went to iceland in march, our last night in the field was at myvatn, a geothermal area in north-central iceland. it was the fifth consecutive day of rising with the sun, cutting ice, snow, and rock deep into the night, and of meals hastily made and eaten. the day after, we went to the myvatn hot pools to wash off the week's accumulated dirt, then hit the ring road westbound for reykjavik. for hours, we drove on empty roads through mountains covered in ice. one truck, a sixteen-wheeler, passed in the opposite direction. the stereo in the car would not relinquish the tape of chopin's nocturnes we'd put in. we stopped several times to take leaks in freshly-blown snowdrifts and into gravelly rivers. lunch was a salami, gouda, and cucumber sandwich eaten in the parking lot of the graduate dorm of the university of bifrost. a bright pink and orange playset took two spots in the parking lot, and was separated from an enormous field of lichen-covered volcanic rocks by an icy rivulet. several hours later, as we drove into reykjavik, we passed into a tunnel that dove under the hvalfjörður -- 5.7km long, and 165m deep, there was a noticeable declination. in our work-mazed state, listening to vladimir ashkenazy on repeat, it all made us wonder a little what kind of visual sense a child growing up in iceland develops, surrounded by such scale and landscape.

Jul 21, 2008

seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees

i've been trying to get a copy of lawrence weschler's wanderer in a perfect city for at least a year; the san francisco library had one copy (always on loan), and the pitkin county library is sadly deficient. beggars not being choosers, instead i took out a copy of weschler's biography of robert irwin, the west coast avant garde painter and engulfed it in just a few nights of reading. much of weschler's description of irwin's work over the last half-century reminded me of bench scientists and their relentless pursuit of resolutions to hypotheses (a psychotherapist in one of the painting workshops agreed with me)  a sort of a research and development undertaking applied to art. not coincidentally, there is a fine art research and development program at the swedish royal academy of art.

Had one asked Irwin in 1965 how he viewed the relationship between his activity and that of a scientist, he might well have replied that he saw none whatsoever, or that he saw the two enterprises as diametrical opposites. By 1970 .. he had developed a rich sense of the interpenetration of the two endeavors. "Take a chemist, for example, he starts out with a hypothesis about what might be created if he combined a few chemicals, and he begins by simply doing trial and error ... What the artist does is essentially the same. In other words, what you do when you start to do a painting is that you begin with a basic idea, a hypothesis of what you're setting out to do ... It's just a million yes-no decisions. You try something in the painting, you look at it, and you say, 'N-n-no.' You sort of erase it out, and you move it around a little bit, put in a new line; you go through a million weighings. It's the same thing, the only difference is the character of the product. Let's say at a particular point the scientists gets what he set out to get, he arrives at what he projected might happen if he mixed the particular right combination of chemicals in the right way. But the same thing is true of the artist: when he finally gets the right combination, he stops, he knows he's finished.
most rewarding were the many accounts of the extensive process underlying the final objects irwin produced (the line and dot canvases, the discs, the glass and acrylic monoliths, etc)  it validates the need to tool about in the shop or studio concentrating on process rather than product and figuring out what questions to ask and how to frame them. (production furniture is nearly, but not quite, the antithesis of a question-orientation).
There is a strain in the Jewish mystical tradition that asserts that there exist questions larger than the sum of their answers, questions all of whose possible answers would never exhaust them ... "The thing that really struck me the most as I got into developing my interest in the area of questions is the degree to which as a culture we are geared for just the opposite. We are past-minded, in the sense that all of our systems of measure are developed and in a sense dependent upon a kind of physical resolution. We tag our renaissances at the highest level of performance, whereas it's really fairly clear to me that once the question is raised, the performance is somewhat inevitable, almost just a mopping-up operation, merely a matter of time. Now, I'm not antiperformance, but I find it very precarious for a culture only to be able to measure performance and never to be able to credit the questions themselves."
the constant pursuit of a goal which cannot be realised in the coarse stuff of the world is heroic, like trying to capture the meaning of a Dreaming without the right song, or trying to produce a 3D version of a 4D shape.
frank stella: "I always get into arguments with people who want to retain the old values in painting -- the humanistic values they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there ... If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough, or right enough, you would be able to just look at it ..." karsten harries, commenting on stella: "No matter how radical the pursuit of presence, the work of art will always fall short of that purer art that is its telos. It points beyond itself and lacks the plenitude it demands."
the nice thing is, sometimes the heroic endeavor is rewarded, though not because but in spite of the trying.
Grace: you work and you work and you work at something that then happens of its own accord. It would not have happened without all that work, but the result cannot be accounted for as the product of the work in the sense that an effect is said to be the product of its causes. There is all that preparation  preparation for receptivity  and then there is something else beyond that, which is gratis, for free.
last week, paul bowen took a pencil and drew a smiley face on a sheet of butcher paper and it had the most perfect line. he tried to replicate it and was unable to; we ended up tracing over it to produce a pale shadow of the original. but perfect lines are the result of this kind of beginner mind or state of grace, where consciousness recedes in the act of creation.

to really see is to penetrate through to the meaning-essence of the thing seen, to enter a state where the name of the thing becomes irrelevant, where the sign is replaced by the signified: forgetting the name of the thing one sees.

Jul 10, 2008

new from colorado

cloud 1, white ash. approx. 39" x 27" x 30"

this is the first of the clouds.