Monday, January 28, 2013

Thank you, Fog; or the last of things

The sense of one's last works before death is absolutely filled with portent (the inevitability of our own end), poetics, and beauty; though all of us that make things understand that it is not quite as simple as working up to our last work, the last of things is haunting and sad.  Auden's last poems (Thank You, Fog), collected and published posthumously, are far from the most interesting things he has written; when I read them, they even verge on being trite and lack his expected bite and observation.  There is a phenomenological symbolism to them, though, that transcends the nature of the poetry to take on a new meaning as a collection, as a piece of history published.

The fog is a strong presence outside today, and undoubtedly it reminds me of the symbol of Auden's last works.  The fog is not only an element of weather that creates a different sense of space and feeling of being outside (moisture hanging heavy in the air) but it is also an element of ambiguity, an obscurer, the thing that erases edges that are a distance away.  Its density is at once tangible and soft, and I actually find it quite comforting, even in the winter months.

Is there a visual reminder connected to fog?  To a sort of passage that could be connected to what is after life?  Not 'the afterlife', mind you, which is a concept wrought with pre-determined images.  I might argue that fog creates a spatial complexity that leads to our typically path-oriented minds to be less sure of the direction in which one should travel, in a metaphoric and metaphysic sense.  It is not that we don't know where we are going, but the space that we typically understand as being a part of the journey is less clear than normal.

Posthumous works of art and literature support this idea, I believe.  One of the most astounding things I've seen at the Art Institute was a series (a progression) of Ivan Albright's self portraits, two of which are below.  The last portrait he did before his death (1983) is shocking.  Though it may sound obvious, his head takes up less and less space in each composition.  The portraits seem fuller of questions at the end, not finality or decisiveness that would point towards an artist at their peak.  This is not to assert that artists make their best work at some other time and then slowly fall downhill until death; rather, it is to say, that death is a progression that is unavoidable, but it is not related to making.  I would also argue that it is hard for any maker to live up to the pressure of last works and posthumous work; the symbol that they stand for themselves is enough.

I remember being curious about Gilbert Stuart's unfinished portrait of George Washington in my art history texts--wondering why it was important in terms of art history.  I think of it as an amazingingly important work to my own understanding of the phenomenological power of an image and a painting; but I don't think that is often the topic of art history books.  

Other posthumous works that I have been interested in are Wei Wu Wei's Posthumous Pieces (which was printed in Hong Kong many years before Wei's death, but is still interesting in this context, as it deals with the death of a sense of individuality or identity in some respects) and Roberto Bolano's 2666.  There is a wiki list of works published posthumously, found here:

Ivan Albright, Self Portrait 1980         Ivan Albright, Self Portrait, 1983

Gilbert Stuart, 1796

January 28, 2013  Des Moines, Iowa

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Prisoner of Passage

I've been reading as much as I can about the artist Arthur Bispo do Rosario.  There is a collection of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and bits a pieces of information about him as an artist who lived in an asylum in Brazil for much of his artistic production.  The author Eduardo Galeano wrote about Bispo do Rosario in his book Mirrors: 

Arthur Bispo do Rosario was black and poor, a sailor, a boxer, and, on god's account, an artist. He lived in the Rio de Janeiro insane assylum. There, seven blue angels delivered an order from the diving: God wants an inventory taken of the world. 

The mission was monumental. Arthur worked day and night, every day, every night, until the winter of 1989 when, still immersed in the task, death took him by the hair and carried him off. 

The inventory, incomplete, consisted of scrap metal, broken glass, bald brooms, walked-through sneakers, emptied bottles, slept in sheets, road-weary wheels, sea-worn sails, defeated flags, well-thumbed letters, forgotten words, and fallen rain. 

Arthur worked with garbage, because all garbage is life lived and from garbage comes everything the world is or has ever been. Nothing intact deserved a listing. Things intact die without ever being born. Life only pulsates in what bears scars.

Eduardo Galeano, "Mirrors"

As someone who uses a lot of different materials and makes a lot of different works, Bispo do Rosario is a pretty interesting example of how one can make a large amount of work.  I often times feel that contemporary art (which, of course, ABdR is not working within) encourages a strict studio practice in which artists a singularly directed with one body of work until they move on to the next.  Through graduate studies, I certainly understood the benefit of this in the sense that I was able to really contemplate what the meaning of the work I was making, with the help of my faculty mentors, in a way that is really only possible with intensive thought and practice with a single body of work.  What I am referring to, in terms of a body of work, is a group of works that are aligned in terms of content, visual aesthetic, materials.  

What works best for my studio practice now, however, is to push myself in materials and not restrict myself to a single body of work.  I'm sure it puts me in a awkward place for commercial galleries and is not recommended in terms of professional development.  And like Bispo do Rosario,  I think it is just a matter of looking at the broader spectrum of my work to see how the many "bodies of work" link together in terms of meaning, content, and even visual aesthetics.  While some might propose that my multi-faceted trajectory doesn't allow me to fully develop one body of work to being masterful, I say that the bigger picture is, in fact, working towards a sort of total understanding of the meaning behind my studio practice, work, and ideas.  

ABdR also brings up the contemporary concepts of folk art, outsider art, and other commercial terms for what it is that he does.  I'll get to that in the next post, but for now, here is a few of his works (along with some questionable music in the background).  On Vimeo you can see a clip from an older documentary made about him called The Prisoner of Passage.   I've also got a number of images of his on my pinterest pinboard titled 'Nomadic Reverie', some of which are more striking than what you could find with a image search of his name, so check those out as well.   

Sunday, January 6, 2013

the new year

Happy new year; the first of the two new years.  We have made it a point to celebrate the Chinese new year as well, so we are in the month-long period of the transition into the new year.  The snow and cold are here and will surely melt with warming weather in the months to come.  This ephemerality--especially after not having any noticeable or lasting snow last year--is apart of the beauty of the cold months here in the midwest.  Everything is brighter with snow, trees without their leaves hold the potential of new leaf growth in the spring; most everything around us here is some shade of brown, white, or gray with slush.  Even the bare pavement has been bleached white with salt.

Though my thinking is entrenched in the cycle of seasons, time, and my surroundings, very little is new.  A cycle suggests repetition.  Though we proceed through time our experiences (in the studio and out) are more complicated than a simple diagram of moving forward.  I have yet to perfect a diagram or model that illustrates this line of thought, and I may never complete it; but I do feel that this line of thinking contributes to my studio practice as well as a certain awareness of being.

Along with the Mayan calendar, recent popular media and press has shown a poor understanding of what it is to be in an era.  Certainly, to humans, a year is not an era (if we take era as a word that refers to a long period of time), but if we think about different cultures having different belief systems of time, era, and cycle, I think we could have a better understanding of what each new year means.  Regardless of the time, I would propose that eras are larger cycles that are structurally similar to smaller cycles, such as a year.

In the studio, I am constantly seeing things resurface--even those things that I felt never had much weight for the future of my art making.  Ideas, symbols, methods, and practices are constantly coming up again to create these large, repetitive arcs within my studio practice.  Some simple and direct examples of this are abstraction and reductive compositions; ideas are those of folklore and Appalachian culture; and practices of painting on panel or making sculptures or drawings on paper.  Though these might seem like dichotomies, they really provide a structure for the cycle of my studio practices that all contribute to my studio output; some part of which the public sees.  Add into that research, reading, and various forms of writing and music, and one might start to get an idea of the complexity of a single cycle of my studio practice.

Soon I will stop apologizing for the incompleteness of these thoughts, it is still hard for me to get used to the format of blog writing--but I do apologize, there are some holes in this line of thinking that will be developed down the line.