Monday, October 29, 2012

After the harvest

As I rewatch and consider horror films apropos to this time of year, I have been considering how these films are linked to Halloween and what the conditions of the archetype of the holiday are that relate not only our sense of the macabre but also our strained relationship with death or dying as well as our thoughts towards our ancestors--specifically, why this time of year and this change of seasons has such a strong relationship to these ideas of mortality, fear, and things we cannot control.

My own impression of the archetype of the seasonal change (from a Northern Hemisphere standpoint, from late summer to fall to winter) is that it is, in part, a transition to less daylight and more dark night time.  There is legitimately less sunshine, not only in terms of the feeling of the weather but also due to the arc of the sun and its path that is lower in the sky.

Additionally, the days are shorter.  Despite modern attempts for us to extend our work periods with light, there is a pull for less activity in the winter, the hunkering-down and waiting out the winter.  Samhain, Halloween, and Day of the Dead are all at the beginning of the downhill race towards not leaving the shelter of a warm home until the snow melts and spring starts to warm the days.

How does this connect to the macabre and to fear?  In part, longer nights might be responsible for this.  There is also the connection that this time of year has to giving thanks and reflecting on our ancestors; though at times it is hard to determine what of this is cultural (i.e. the holiday of Thanksgiving) and what, truly, is an archetype of the history of humankind--the type of history that is engrained in our bones from the very dawn of being.

I think that I am creating more questions than answering anything in particular, so I'll try to state my case plainly:  this time of year is a confluence of the past and preparation; and that transition certainly creates an unsteady period of change.  The unsteadiness might create a sort of moving reality that opens itself up to questioning.  This moving reality is harder for us to control and harder even to understand, though we know what is about to happen; in the end, it is our own uneasiness that allows our imagination to create more ghosts than actually exist.

I have been interested in the ineffable feelings, ominousness, and reflection of the fall for quite some time.  Obviously, if you've read this far, I have few answers to offer; and here in lies part of my interest in this time of year.  Here is a great image of a gaelic carving, in some ways thought to ward off evil spirits.  This Samhain "jack-o-lantern" is carved out of a turnip.

Also, check out Studiobreak for my interview with its creator, Dave Linneweh, and Bill Conger, concerning Kubrik's The Shining and other horror films that might come up.  I imagine it will be posted sometime this week to correspond to Halloween.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Postmemory and forgetting

I've recently picked up Joan Gibbons' 2009 book Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance and I am processing some of the concepts of the book.  In the chapter "Postmemory: The Ones Born Afterwards" Gibbons uses Marianne Hirsch's concept of postmemory to talk about some works by Christian Boltanski and Ansel Kiefer and their relationship to the Holocaust (to put it simply).  Kiefer (b. 1945) is of a generation in Germany known as Nachgeborenen, which translates as "the ones born afterwards."  The heart of the chapter is to work with the ideas of how memory of an event (especially a tragic event like the Holocaust) is remembered by generations that did not experience it, especially artists who are dealing with the remembering (or, rather postmemory) of the event of the Holocaust.  The chapter has been ringing in my head, especially with the broader implications of postmemory in art making, its relationship to nostalgia, and the imperfections of memory and how they translate into a concept like postmemory.

With the discussion of memory comes the discussion of the accuracy of memory.  I think it is a common assumption that the only accurate memory is one that is experienced by an individual (I'm going to leave this on the individual level and tackle how this applies to collective memory at a later date) and that a memory of an event that an individual was not alive for is not memory at all, but rather something more akin to history (as in an individual being told what has happened at a particular time).  An individual can, of course, have a memory of history but most would argue that the individual can never have a direct memory of an event in which they did not experience.

I think postmemory begins to address this in that, in a broad sense, people can have memories of something that they did not directly experience.  Undoubtedly these memories are imperfect (which is in line with most forms of memory!) and suspect to bias, but they are memories that come up just the same.  I think the most obvious example of this for me might be a photo album of my parents' lives before I or my brother was born.  The pictures are filled with people and places that I know and, in some capacity, fill in information of what happened before my own consciousness.  I know what my mother and father looked like, and, because of the photographs, I have a memory of what my mother and father looked like when they first started dating.

I have very little interest in nostalgia, and I think that the concept of postmemory might start to explain a nostalgia-esque feeling that I have had in my experience--looking to what has happened in the past and how it fits into my identity. In particular, I have been thinking about nostalgia, postmemory, and contemporary artists (and pop culture, for that matter) invested in Americana.  It is widespread throughout contemporary music, and is prevalent enough in contemporary art for their to be exhibitions surrounding it (Old, Weird America comes to mind).  I was accused a few times in graduate school of being nostalgic or even ironic when I used symbols of rural american culture; and what could be seen as 'americana' contemporary art is typically approached skeptically and is seen as romantic (almost as an opposite of contemporary art that engages with current social issues).  Can there not be a group of artists who also look towards the past--which they have no direct experience with or memory of--as source material for their work?

I am feeling myself veer back towards Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History", so a re-read of that is probably in order.  To try to summarize a bit of what I am talking about here, I would like to claim that the past is such a monumental entity in our identity, and we as individuals are aware of the past exceeding our interaction with it, that we can not but help deal with it in our current selves.  Perhaps this means that postmemory is an intrinsic part of identity. More on this to come, for sure.

Other books that I am reading, currently:
Wieland, or, the Transformation by Charles Brockden Brown
The American Soul by Jacob Needleman
A Void by George Perec
"Testimonial Objects: Memory, Gender, and Transmission" by Marianne Hirsh (mentioned above) and Leo Spitzer (a great essay from Poetics Today dealing, in part, with miniature books from the Holocaust).

And, of course, some new studio work:
too many gone without a song, 2012
spray paint and weed

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Twombly's Photographs

 I have not found much information about Cy Twombly's photographs; some of them, apparently, where taken in the 1950's, others were taken in the artists' later years.  The images are incredibly striking to me and even though they predate Luc Tuyman's paintings significantly, I can't help but relate them to a "reality" version of Tuyman's disinterested, removed, and disenchanted paintings.  Interestingly enough, though, the captured reality of Twombly's photographs read almost oppositely of Tuyman's paintings:  I think of Twombly's photographs as intimate as images and revealing an intimate relationship between the artist and his subject matter.

I'm not sure that it is exactly the same plant/tree, and I've seen a variety of plants with this same flower shape, but the first photograph reminds me of a tree that was prevalent in Peru called the Angel's Trumpet Tree, or brugmansia arborea (our own photo of a tree is at the end of the post).  The interesting thing about the Angel's Trumpet is that it is connected to cultural history that one should plant an Angel's Trumpet immediately if that person wants to kill someone else; if those feelings of anger still exist when the Angel's Trumpet still exist when the tree blooms.  Apparently, the plant take so long to flower that it provides enough time for the anger to subside and the hostile thoughts to pass.
The picture below was taken from a train in Peru, between Cuzco and Machu Picchu this summer.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

painting and the concept of mantra

painting and the concept of mantra

I only have a basic understanding of what a mantra is, and what its purpose is; but at least one aspect of it is a phrase, verse, or set of words that are repeated to aid the practitioner seeking transcendence during quite times of focus, meditation, or prayer.  I have recently started considering how this might play out as a concept for contemporary painting (as well as contemporary art in its broadest sense), especially in terms of what we consider to be a series of work.

The concept of a series to me is slightly disturbing, as it leads someone to think that the type, amount, and kind of work created for a series is arbitrary or, even worse, market driven.  I am also someone who makes a large amount of work in many different "series" and often have to justify to myself how one body of work fits or relates to the conceptual framework of another body of work, so any sign of something arbitrary makes me skeptical of my own creative directions.  I have started to think of the concept of mantra to replace the idea of a series or grouping, and I think that it works fairly well to link works together with purpose, justify the natural start and end to a body of work, and create a greater framework of a type of mindfulness in my studio practice that is from a new perspective and prevents me from needing to justify any new direction of work and how it relates to other work that I have made in previous years.

Firstly, my idea of a mantra is a phrase that is repeated in meditation.  In a body of painting, the main idea, concept, or visual source material might be seen as a mantra; recently, in my own work, I have been fascinated with the image of a 16 light window, both as a sign and as a an object with history.  The 16 light window--specifically, just shapes of paint that stand in for the glass that would be in the window--has been in a number of paintings now.  It is not simply this repeated shape that forms the mantra, however--as a symbol, the 16 light window (or any window for that matter) forms a sort of gateway and a translucent barrier between the dichotomy of inside and outside.  Not only does this have psychological implications, but it also affects our state of being; figuring out which situation we are of, and how we relate to its counterpart.  There are implications to a window that is painted in light colors (outside, looking in to a lit house; or inside, looking out to something during the day) and in dark (an empty house, night time).  The 16 light window was also prominently used in Victorian architecture--not for any particular reason that I can see, but it has the strong cultural context to me and the things that I connect to Victorian culture.  Of particular interest in this body of work is the idea of mesmerism that was being discussed and affecting the ways that people who lived during that time acted and behaved.  It is a sort of link to a quasi-natural existence that resulted from shoddy science but was really, at least from what I can discern, more a form of superstition.

[As a side note,  I have recently started reading into the idea of Postmemory, developed by Marianne Hirsch, and I think it provides an interesting lens to look at all of this through.  I think it has great implications in contemporary art and how artists deal with memory.  As I read more, I plan on dedicated at least one blog post to this concept.]

Secondly, the mantra justifies a beginning and an end--I believe I referred to it as a "natural" beginning and end earlier.  I do not know why I need this as a crutch, but when I can relate the idea of a new series starting to a type of chant or phrase that I can only partially understand its purpose, it seems to make the whole body of work function more purposefully.  Through the development of the works I discover more fully the meaning and implications of the mantra that I am working on.  Most series have a purpose.  A series of baseball cards is dictated by a season of baseball, and that season is dictated in part by the weather.  A series of television shows is in part determined by the arc of a narrative (though, we can often come up with a number of television shows that are truly running past their narrative arc and are continuing to be made).   For some reason a series in art making has not connected to anything for me--but this idea of a mantra is a good association that helps me to understand the archetype of a group of works that have started and that will end.  The natural ending I speak of, of course, is when the idea is no longer working with the formal qualities of a work, or I have exhausted the aspect of an idea and need to move on to another image/idea/concept.  Undoubtedly there are some artists who have repeated the same mantra their entire life (Gene Davis comes to mind), but I know that my mantras will have a beginning and an end, and new mantras will come along.  It is related to a much bigger archetype of the cycle in this way, to me, as well--which will undoubtedly come up again in the future.

[Postmemory plays into this idea, too; from what I understand so far is that Postmemory is a memory that is experienced through a generation that did not live through the original act; yet the younger generation still deals with the original act to work through the implications of it.  I think the idea of working through a memory is what has my brain reeling right now, in relation to all of this.]