Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Tree Unadorned

(A New Autotelism: VII)

Andy Goldsworthy, out in the morning, the winter, and the wilderness, is working to the rhythm the sun, though the it has not yet risen. He is alone, and has brought no tools. Beside him rests a pile of large icicles, and he is going to work.

Snapping, spitting, and re-freezing the ice at a pace just a bit faster than seems comfortable, he must finish his work before the day warms up, and his saliva will no longer freeze.

As the sun rises, he completes the work.

Hanging uncannily around the trunk of a tree, levitating over the snow, is a spiral of ice. It doesn't seem to touch the tree at all; but it grows from it. The spiral begins high on the trunk, the tip made from the most delicate icicle, and already a glinting layer of liquid water has formed as it melts. The ice loops around the trunk again and again, growing thicker and bolder, surging to several inches across by its end.

Before the day is done, it will have crashed to the ground. The photos, once developed, are breathtakingly beautiful. Goldsworthy calls the work 'Tree soul.'

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Rusty Ribbon

(A New Autotelism: VI)

When a front moves across the endless grassland of South Dakota, the mouth of Jewel Cave inhales, and wind pulls at anyone standing in the cave entrance.

I feel a similar wind at my back now, though I am 4600 miles away. Thousands of tons of weathering steel are balanced on edge, sheets six inches thick, twelve feet tall, and hundreds of feet long, gently coiled in arcs and spirals. I'm pulled into a gap between two that is only a few feet wide.

Once I am inside, the intangible wind does not let up — there is no chance, yet, to examine the protective layer of rust that covers the walls, or to gawk at the seamless steel, because I am pulled relentlessly along in an elliptical orbit. The cant of the ribbons slowly changes, and above me the river of metal slowly opens up, revealing more of gallery ceiling. As soon as it has opened, it begins to close again, undulating fluidly as I drift forward in the unceasing current. Then, a change up ahead; the COR-TEN wall to my right comes to an end, and I am dumped into the silent space inside the spiral.

Here, the cave-breath is released, and there is a moment of calm; I run my hand along the rough surface of the ellipse, and listen to the distant muffled voices reflected off the gallery skylights. It takes time to become acquainted with the space; the walls tilt and curve, and give my eyes nothing solid to rest upon. There is no restlessness here. It is a human, comfortable place. here is still no where to sit or wait, so my body stays in motion.

Eventually, reticently, I return to the narrow winding way, and it is like climbing uphill; the equilibrium of the interior pulls me back, but the tight corridor wills me onward, until I have returned to the outer space. I stand dumbly for a moment, like a spelunker blinking in the light.

I do not stop in the external world long; in Richard Serra's The Matter of Time, the gap I first entered has a dozen sisters, and one of them is tugging at my feet.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Pile of Pigment

(A New Autotelism: V)

I remind myself: I am looking at a painting.

For hundreds of years, artists concentrated on creating the illusion of reality. There were moments of dramatic innovation; Giotto's perspective, the advent of oil paint, the mathematical perspective of the High Renaissance, Leonardo's anatomical studies, Vermeer's Lapis Lazuli daylight, and on, and on.

With the advent of the twentieth century, more and more artists became quite literally dis-illusioned. The idea of reproducing optical reality became less important than conveying the psychological truth of reality.

René Magritte decided he would go even further. He would depict the real, right-here-right-now reality. I am looking at The Treachery of Images. It is a painting of a pipe, clean and neat and emotionless, as if torn from an old Sears catalogue. Below the pipe is inscribed the neat cursive text Ceci n'est pas une pipe. It translates, roughly, 'This is not a pipe.'

Because it isn't. It's a painting.

And that's it. There is no question of masterful brushstrokes, or brilliant choice of subject, or devastating emotional impact, or political context — RenĂ© just wants you to stare at the paint on the canvas and try and see only patterns of pigment.

I can't. I always see a pipe.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Stripe of Red

(A New Autotelism IV)

In my mind's eye, I'm standing in the Quinta del Sordo — The House of the Deaf.

When Francisco Goya was well into his seventies, he lived here, alone. Driven to solitude by politics and the pain of Encephalitis, he still painted. He painted on the walls — not a fresco, on wet plaster, but secco: he brashly applied his oils directly to the white walls. He painted upstairs and down, between every window and every door. He accepted few visitors; the scenes he created were entirely for himself.

The 14 images around me are known as The Black Paintings.

I'm looking at one in particular, on the first floor, in a corner opposite the stairs. It might, if there were room left in me to think, remind me of Walking Man. Tn the center of the wall is a small figure, unposed, legs hanging; it has no arms or head.

But there is no room to think. The rest of the image is taken up by a huge naked man, who is crouched, his legs contorted, his shoulders twisted and unreadable. He head is thrown back and his eyes are unbearably wide and white. Clutched tightly in his hands is the dangling figure, like a doll. The little figure's head and arms are indeed gone — a strip of ripe red flesh pulls upward into the madman's mouth. His bloody hands are locked as though in rigor mortis; they will not let go. The brushstrokes are harsh and heavy and broad. The anatomy is impossible; the madman is a cripple, his shoulders are dislocated, his legs dwarfed. The blood is, in truth, only a flat stripe of red.

Goya did not title it. Historians call it Saturn Devouring His Children.

However uncouth the brushstrokes, the fear in this face is unmistakable. He's panicked. Saturn's teeth tear at his children because he knows one of them will cause his downfall.

The effect is painful and immediate. Saturn's fear is infectious; I see him and am disgusted and miserable and frightened in a soggy, unending way. I feel nothing for the nameless torso; the relation to Walking Man is meaningless to me, because I'm trapped in the small house of a hermit painter, watching a Titan, a God, lose his mind and devour his offspring.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Butterscotch Pearl

(A New Autotelism III)

"Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high."
— John Denver

I can't remember the day I first saw my mother smell a tree; but I can imagine it. A hike on a hot summer day (the trick works best in the heat), myself still clumsy with extreme youth, and my mother leaning easily forward to bring her nose close to the bark of a tall pine, just a foot off the trail. I might have asked her why — I might have simply followed her lead and pressed my face to the rough trunk.

The bark of the Ponderosa Pine gives off a rich, yeasty, butterscotch smell. Mixed with pine needles, fresh air, and sweat: for me it is one of the most pleasant smells. When I smell it, I feel a sense of accomplishment, and think of peanut-butter sandwiches that have been crushed in a backpack. My legs get jumpy; they want to move, to get to work. The reverse is true, too. When the weather gets crisp and warm in the spring, the smell comes rushing back to me — though I'm now 500 miles from a Ponderosa — and I get a bounce in my step.

I don't know what to call such a pattern of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and external stimuli that all get tangled together. It is more than just a memory — I don't smell, then remember, then feel. Instead, it all happens in a seemingly random order. Sometimes it takes a great deal of work to track down the actual memory that originally connected what I'm seeing with what I'm feeling.

There must be thousands — hundreds of thousands — of delicate patterns like this one. Sometimes sauerkraut makes me proud. Bring my nostrils the fantastic smell after a heavy, angry rain — Actinomycetes blooming, as it turns out — and I go euphoric. 'Gargantuan' makes me smile secretly.

I think of them as pearls. Hidden deep inside, invisible, is the event that caused the pattern to form; on the lustrous exterior are the thoughts, memories, emotions, and sensations that have become tangled up because of it. They come in great long chains, one after another after another.

It seems to me that those pearls, when taken all together, are much of what make me who I am.

A Man, Walking

(A New Autotelism II)

I have seen Rodin's Walking Man. I was at the Hirshorn. Having rested in a shady corner of the sculpture garden, avoiding the D.C. heat, I stood up, walked around a wall, and there it was.

It's a bronze sculpture of a man's legs and torso. It's nearly seven feet tall and has no head or arms. The front foot (his right) points forward, and the rear foot is canted outward, as if the heel were being twisted into the ground. The knees are nearly straight, the legs clearly defined. The trunk grows looser and rougher as it rises; and just before it vanishes entirely, I get the sense that it leans forward, firmly, as if into an impossible wind.

It's possible that I was dehydrated. Or that I stood up too quickly. But I don't think that that is why, for a moment, everything else faded away. I felt that world was pinned beneath those bronze feet, forced to rotate around that fulcrum. The forces he leaned so unwaveringly against had torn away everything unnecessary; his very identity had been stripped off by the gale and only his resolution remained. Nothing would pull those toes from where they pushed silently into the earth.

The sensation came in a flash, and weakened gradually. Afterwards, I felt like my world was weightier. My steps were solid, and my mind held fast. The flavor of it has not vanished - it is still there, when I think of it.

Walking Man, and that experience, come back to me at the oddest moments. A car, or someone's voice, or a sudden gust of wind will remind me. I think that maybe that's important. Walking man didn't just change what I thought or felt right then, right when I saw it; it changed the way I thought and felt about things indefinitely.

Would the same thing happen to you, if you stood in front that Rodin?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Raving Lunatic

(A New Autotelism: I)

I'm sitting on an uncomfortable bench — it doesn't have a back. But along with everyone else, I'm trying to sit up straight for the cameras: we're taping a panel discussion show. At least, we're supposed to be taping a panel discussion show. Instead, we're trying not to laugh, and feeling sorry for the host: the teleprompter has been spouting nonsense all afternoon, and she's gotten flustered because she feels she's wasting our time. We understand, of course — no one could have suavely read out the balderdash that was scrolling past the camera lens.

When the panel finally gets started, I'm not paying too much attention to the actual discussion. None of us say anything new — there's not enough time. The topic of the day is dull (internet piracy), and we've heard all the arguments for and against it. So I'm settled in, and trying to get comfortable, to look sage-like, and to say as little as possible.

You can imagine my surprise when I suddenly realize I'm yelling. "Of course it's vital," my mouth has just said. "We've been at it for 30,000 years — what kind of paleolithic fool spent his time on luxuries?"

My gut clenches, and I replay the previous moments in my head.

Ah. The man who was now leaning away from my foaming mouth had said, "We don't really have an excuse; art's a luxury. We don't need it. It's not like stealing bread."

My mouth is right, of course. The people of the upper paleolithic — when us Homo sapiens sapiens began to thrive, and erectus and neanderthalensis sank back into the chaos — they had no need of luxuries. Nevertheless, there sits the Venus of Hohle Fels, a statuette 35,000 years old if she's a day. The survivors made art.

No matter! In the studio, damage control has already set in. I'm calming down, trying to talk rationally, and soon the show is over.

I've never actually seen that episode; to this day I've no clear idea how much I said — but it is my goal in this series to give a reasonable explanation of my gut reaction: art is vital.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Method

"There is a distinct limit [...] to all works of literary art - the limit of one sitting."
-Edgar Allen Poe

Yesterday I found myself attempting to twitter, write code, listen to music, read a book, and eat. Every once in a while I would glance at an article online for one purpose or another. Then I realized -- anything I write online will receive just that once-in-a-while-glance; the glance that waits in a queue with a thousand things that must get done.

If I want you to meet my writing, it needs to be at the top of that queue: you must want to read it. You need to know what to expect from it. And you're busy. It needs to be so short you can read it, not just in Poe's single sitting, but in the span of a few breaths.

Three goals: Appeal. Predictability. Brevity.

I asked myself: how do I appeal? "No dry prose. Tell a story."
I asked myself: how do I become predictable? "Post daily."
I asked myself: how brief? "500 words."