Space and Place, the Tangle and the Wonkiness

To continue my thoughts on space and place:

I have been working on textiles, which means 10% design and 90% execution.

Execution always gives me lots of time to think. So I am pondering, still, on my own art making — what I make, and why it’s not necessarily what I generally like in art. And how I can improve what I make, something can’t be done by analyzing what I am attracted to.

What I “like”¬† often is graphic, tidy, clean, spare. It’s¬† how I attempt to arrange my domestic space (when I’m not in the midst of a painting or sewing frenzy). It’s¬† Modern.¬† It’s calm. It’s decorative (although Rothko, Newman, and company just rolled over in their graves to hear me say this.) What I like is often serene — or at least not jittery. It’s rooted in some of the abstract expressionists’ work and continued by more graphic designs:

Mark Rothko, White Center

Helen Frankenthaler, Contentment

Terry Grant, Rice Bowl and Bird

However, in my own work, it turns out that I like to make “messy,” “wonky,” tangled images and processes:

JOU Block (work in progress), raw, hand-painted batting, commercial fabric, sheer overlay

This piece of hand-painted, raw batting topped with a commercial fabric,  cut through and overlaid with a sheer was too regular for my taste; I had to muck things up further:

JOU,  Red 1, 2 (working title) Details.  Hand-dyed and painted raw batting, commercial and hand-dyed fabric, sheer overlays

My love of dealing with unorthodox (or unquilterly, in the traditional sense) stems partly from my lack of methodical training in orthodox sewing methods. It’s easier to work with stuff that shouldn’t work if you don’t know it shouldn’t work. But it also speaks to my artistic desire (which differs from my desire to live with a certain kind of environment) to find that spot somewhere between the comfort of well-known paths, like smoothly pieced¬† and calming quilted blocks¬† and the chaotic mystery of¬† heaps of undifferentiated fabrics.

With my painting, and my painted, stitched textiles,¬† I’m drawn to making work which has little or no focus, which goes¬† over the entire fabric or board and doesn’t rely on color or texture to convey meaning. I’m always thinking about meaning, but one which is complex and goes beyond the framing of the frame.

JOU, Circling, 35 x 36″, oil on canvas, 2008

Of course, color, line, shape, light and texture are important elements of my art — any painter/quilting artist has to deal with these. But they aren’t the reason I make art. I am not essentially interested in light — certainly not as the Impressionists were, nor as the Neo-Impressionists still are.¬† I find the shapes on canvases of others¬† fascinating, and am involved with a crit group whose work is heavily dependent upon a sophisticated searching out of shape. But as is obvious above, shape isn’t my strength. The same is true of line and texture and color. These artistic issues don’t drive what I see; they are ways to depict meaning, not ways of meaning in themselves.

Please note that I am not saying that all art should work toward some inchoate sense of meaning in the way I do, nor that those whose primary interest is in shapes on canvas aren’t making great art. This is about my artistic journey, not a manifesto on what an art journey should involve.

I make art to make sense out of what I see, and what I see seems to be complex, unfocused, unscenic in some ways. Some wag said (about California) that there was too much landscape and no scenery (or was it the reverse?) At any rate, I don’t see “landscape;” I scarcely see “scenery” or, heaven forfend, I can’t depict “scenic viewpoints.” I see too much to give what I see that kind of nomination.¬† For me, the “scenic viewpoint” includes the graffitied sign discussing why this “view” is scenic.¬† I want to include in my recordings of that scenic viewpoint the geology of the rocks and old cars that jut so unpicturesquely at an awkward spot in the landscape. I don’t delete as much from my view as most people unconsciously edit out; I tend to think in multiple viewpoints rather than the singular one of the camera; and I have a desire to encompass more rather than less when I “record” (paint or piece) the landscape.

I can trace some of my art preferences from my personal history, tramping around second and third growth, brushy forests, with roads that meandered without clear direction, living in a tiny community with all the complexities that a somewhat isolated group of humans can present. As a child I had an eager roving eye that had a visual, historical and narrative greed. I wanted to take in everything¬† — visual, historical, personal– that the scene involved. I knew my home landscape: Pine Mountain, Pine Station, Pine Run, Pine Creek, Mrs. Piney, pine trees, as well as tea berries, birch trees, skunk cabbage, shacks, outhouses,¬† barns,¬† Susquehanna River muck, and the inhabitants’ names and most of the interiors of the frame houses in the hamlet of 67 people in which I lived. I always wanted more of that place.¬† And so I learned early on to look in an encompassing manner, to find pleasure in an immersion in space and place, everywhere I’ve resided, worked,¬† and made art.

But that immersion comes at the cost of clarity, of focus. It doesn’t result in spareness that concentrates on simple clean imagery.

Photo, view to the west, from SE Main Front Porch, 2011.

JOU Cool Landscape, Sample. approx. 12 x 16 Oil on board, 2010

I think what I seek is to portray depth, but depth that isn’t linear; I seek a depth of material space that is visual and emotional and cerebral. The material can be dendritic and rhythmic but seldom repetitious. The illusion of space can’t be, for me, the expected illusions, the monocular perspective, the retreating road into the “Z” shape with traditional illusionistic softening of hues in the distance. I have done these kinds of illusions in paintings, but I always want to do something else with them, to push them into something different and more. It’s my greediness that makes me want to record the complex visual that drives me.

So, my concern encompasses space and place, and the point in-between, where space nudges place and all kinds of complex interactions occur — something like a riparian zone where¬† eco-systems interact, where histories bump into each other, where geography becomes geology.

The problem I find myself coming back to in my art processes is to find examples of other visual artists intent upon the pursuit of the complex, yet representational. I need to know more about how others pursued similar courses (I almost wrote “curses.”)¬† Right now, my search has honed in to Thomas Hart Benton, and Jackson Pollock.¬† About whom I will undoubtedly meander as well as maunder, soon.



Space and Place, First Thoughts

 The Amargosa Panorama

from Fra Lippo Lippi,
by Robert Browning

…We’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out…
This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

Having spent 6 weeks in February and March 2009 at the Goldwell Open Air Museum’s Red Barn (near Beatty Nevada) as a Workspace Resident, I returned in November to paint a full panorama of the space seen from the Barn doors. I had played at working the space in oils on small panels earlier, but this time I wanted to try large linen panels. I also did a small scale set of studies for the larger panels. The set above, called The Amargosa is 5 feet high and 28 feet long. The image above, photograph by David Lancaster, is the way the linen panels looked on November 30, exactly 30 days after I began cutting the rolls of linen to size.

Here are images of the individual panels:

The Amargosa, Panel 1 (east),¬† 4 x 5′,¬†
Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 2 (east),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 3 (east),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 4 (central),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 5 (west),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 6 (west),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 7 (west),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The ¬† Amargosa, 28′ x 5′, Oil on linen, 2009

“Dancing, which is always accompanied by music or a beat of some kind, dramatically abrogates historical time and oriented space. Music and dance free people from the demands of purposeful goal-directed life….” Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place.

“The desert has no middle ground. It lacks the natural features or built structures that allow us to focus on that part of the landscape where normally our vision, hence our imagination, spends most of its time. It’s [an] example of our dissonance with the Great Basin…. the emptier the space, the less history we perceive. Without evidence of events, save those of geological occurrences mostly eons ago, we are…temporally unanchored.” William L. Fox, The Void, the Grid,& the Sign

For a couple of years now, I have been pondering, maundering, circling and scribing about space and place. These words came to the forefront of my brain with with my forays into desert “space,” attempting to render it in landscape paintings. More recently I was painting at the coast during wild winter storms and present at a trifling yet startling effect from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, an effect that set off more contemplations of the wild unknowable, implacable nature of Nature.

This post is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series that will examine, from my point of view and, through comments, from yours, the dilemmas and questions the artist faces.

Peter Schjeldahl says “We now know, from brain science, that seeing is not a direct register of what meets our eyes but a fast mental construction that squares sensation with memory and desire: what we believe and wish reality to be.”

Looking at the two photos above, it’s clear we can name them “Desert” and “Ocean.” Some in the know might be able to further clarify: “Mojave desert” or even “North American Range and Basin.” And perhaps an oceanographer, or knowledgeable traveler might be able to say “West coast” or “Pacific Ocean.” [This last I’m not so sure of, not being an ocean aficionado; nor do I know if geographers could identify the Mojave from the information in the first photos, although it seems to me to have more information than the one of waves].

But — and this is a big but — these spaces — desert and ocean — are enormous. They cover miles of territory, disorienting territory. They can easily be without landmarks, particularly if you aren’t a “local.” We have memory and desire about the ocean and the desert, but they tend to be about a particular ocean — Atlantic City, Cannon Beach — or a particular desert scene — the sand dunes of the Sahara or the Sonoran Joshua Trees. We name these things and tame them. We see photos of them and we identify them as gorgeous or sublime:

But with that naming and familiarity comes the artist’s dilemma: how to indicate “space” without it turning into an ordinary, banal “place.”

Yi-Fu Tuan, in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience says:

…it is doubtful whether human beings can naively apprehend the [sense of calm of the sea at rest, the exuberant energy of the primeval forest or the vastness of the endless sweep of the plains] without prior experience in the sensible forms and scale created by man. Nature is too diffuse, its stimuli too powerful and conflicting, to be directly accessible to the human mind and sensibility.

Thus the task of the landscape artist is two-fold:¬† to see something — something different, something more, something less — than that fast mental construction of convention, hope,and desire. When seeing at her best,¬† the artist may perhaps come closer to directly accessing nature — or at least the visual space — with something like “naive apprehension.”

And then, the second task, equally difficult,  is to render that seeing, render it for the viewer in a vision that  communicates the naive view, yet with some landmarks,  something to key off of, something making sense of the pigments of light and color:

JOU, Nye Beach,March 10, 2011, 12 x 16″¬† Oil on board

“Space” says Yi-Fu Tuan “is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning.”¬†¬† But for the artist, there’s a particular spot of visioning that, as I am understanding it, is neither Space nor Place, is neither incomprehensible nor tamed by naming and use, by memory and desire. The visioning I hope for is both startling and true to my own naivet√©.

At the same time I am contemplating Space and Place, I am also thinking about Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton and the use of of time and movement in delimiting Space. But that’s to be left for another post.