Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Simple Surprises

Process Reflection: I'm starting to get the hang of the printmaking process. And one of the things I'm learning is that sometimes simple is better. At the end of last week's Tuesday night printmaking class, I had about forty-five minutes left to work after having spent most of the evening working on a big experimental print that didn't really work out. So rather than go back to the drawing board with that one, or just pack up and go home discouraged, I figured I'd play around a little bit.

I took a piece of scrap plexiglass from the drawer and rather quickly drew out some curved shapes with an x-acto knife through the contact paper that protects the surface. Then I painted the whole thing with a mixture of acrylic medium and carborundum grit. While it was drying I tore up some scraps of painted paper into small triangular shapes and painted the backs with Rhoplex, a pressure-sensitive glue which binds the papers to the print when you roll the plate through the press.

Once the medium and the grit had dried on the plexiglass, I peeled off the remaining paper backing, which left smooth plexiglass in some parts and tooth-like rough shapes in other parts. I inked up the plate and then wiped it down, leaving ink on the rough areas and no ink in the white areas. Then I put the plate on the press bed, laid the paper triangles down on the plate glue side up, put the white paper for the print on top of that, lowered the blankets that protect the roller when the press is being used, and rolled it through. I really didn't know how it was going to look, but when I lifted the print I was pleased with its musical, rhythmic quality. It's bright and lively and easy to look at. So last night I wound up doing two more along the same lines, the first with the same plate and the second with another, slightly larger piece of scrap plexiglass:

The last print has more contrast and is more dramatic, but those big black areas feel a little overpowering to me. I'm going to try another next week with a more neutral ink, maybe a brown or green, and maybe scratch back into the dark areas a little.

One thing I've got to try to figure out: the Rhoplex is a very sticky, rubbery glue and it's a bear to work with. It's very hard to get glue on the back of the paper without also getting it on the front, especially with small pieces of paper, which tend to move around when you are brushing them which gets glue on the edges that smears onto the front. Then when you go to print, the paper sticks not only to the white paper, but also to the plate, and you wind up tearing it when you lift the print. Rats.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Way to Work

I've been attending a series of Saturday morning plein-air painting sessions with George, and one of the things that he has been encouraging us to do is to draw and paint with our non-dominant hand:

"People talk about being the master of the medium and all of that, but in fact when you look at artists' work a lot of times mastery isn't just dexterity, mastery is about control over the process, it's about control over what is conceptual in the work, what is abstract in the work, what is important to the storyline. [Painting with your left hand] gives it a kind deliberateness and intentionality which I think is a critical thing..."

The point of working this way is to take yourself out of your comfort zone, out of the kind of comfortable automaticity that leads you to work more quickly because your hand seems to know what it's doing, and into a way of working which is, because it is unfamiliar and somewhat awkward, introduces a kind of vulnerability and freshness into the process.

As George points out, the problem with landscapes at a certain level of proficiency is that they all start to look pretty much the same. That's a mountain, that's a tree, that's a lake, that's the sky. You take it in at one glance, and it's an unusual landscape indeed that has the power to draw you into it and keep you there. A less self-assured, more ambiguous landscape, if it is composed well, has at least the potential to exert that kind of power.

As we've been working on this, I've been thinking about a writing exercise I sometimes ask my students to do, which has some of the same purposes and some of the same effects. I ask them to write about whatever they would like to write about, with one minor restriction: they can't use the letter "e". Writers, and not just student writers, have developed a kind of shorthand proficiency with the basic elements of written communication, and often what gets written has a kind of offhand, glib quality to it. Choosing to work without the letter "e" throws you a little off balance and forces you to pay a different kind of attention to the words themselves, how they are spelled, how they are shaped, how they are sequenced. You can't work automatically any more. You have to invent a new way of working on the fly. You may lose something (you may lose a lot) in terms of precision and fluency. But you may gain something in terms of texture. And you will definitely gain something in terms of originality and freshness and compositional interest. And it's certainly not impossible to do:

This last Saturday, up at Wa'ahila Park on looking out on Manoa Valley, all of us drawing with our non-dominant hands, I got to thinking about a task I could assign which would allow for this kind of play in both art and writing. My kids maintain journals, and I thought I'd ask for us all to draw a cross to cut our journals into quadrants, thusly:

So tomorrow — or on a day not far away — I'm going to try this out in class. With luck, kids and adults will all play around with it a bit and find it satisfying, if not scintillating. So that's a plan. Aloha, for now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Novel No Longer?

In the March 15 issue of the New Yorker, James Wood wrote a review in which he raised the question of whether the novel can be said to be an evolving form, and if so, whether the more traditional writerly techniques associated with the form are now, in essence, old hat.

Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

By grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“ ‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, “Harriet the Spy” and “Disgrace.”
I am willing to concede the accuracy of his inventory, willing even to extend it by making note of on the rhetorical power of devices as the lengthy inventory in the form of a list, such as the one with which the second paragraph above begins. And I understand that a critic like Wood, who has read God knows how many novels a year for how many years, may well reach a point when everything comes across begins to sound like something he's read before.

But I do not share his impatience or disillusionment with "mainstream realist fiction," and I find that I have little patience for the sort of avant-garde "experimental" writing which jettisons such hackneyed devices as plot, characterization, and the careful accumulation of details, in hopes of becoming The Next New Thing.  On the contrary, it is precisely the fact that the tools are so familiar and the rules of the game so well-defined that allows me to make credible distinctions between "Harriet the Spy" and "Disgrace," or, say,  between Jonathan Franzen and Leo Tolstoy, to whom, incredibly, Franzen has recently been compared in several adulatory recent reviews.

By way of illustration, here is a passage from a book my friend Paula loaned to me recently, The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears. This is a book I have been working my way through slowly and with full gratitude and appreciation for the authors masterly attention to exactly the kinds of narrative mechanics that Wood purports to find tiresome. In fact, I marked this passage as I was reading (and then re-reading) it precisely  because the writing itself gave me so much pleasure:

It was raining lightly and he hurried, crossing the road and putting his foot in a deep puddle that had opened up in the pavement the previous winter and had never been repaired. He stopped and looked down at his soaking foot and sodden shoe, his only decent pair of winter shoes, which he had taken out that morning and checked carefully to make sure their soles were still good. With luck they would last. This would not help them, and he cursed the war, the Germans, Marcel, the city, and the weather equally, for bringing their final disintegration that much closer. Then, more slowly and carefully, looking down at the ground, he walked the last couple hundred meters to his home, standing in the entrance, shaking himself and brushing as much water as possible out of his hair and off his clothes.

He went up the stairs, into his chilly apartment, and even before he switched on the lights he fetched a towel. He stood by the window drying his hair, staring down at the steps of the church of Saint Agricole opposite. It was nearly eight; the doors were open and the last people at evening mass were coming out, each one pausing at the door, looking up at the rain as though they could see where it was all coming from, then hunching down and hurrying away.

Only one person there was not in a rush, standing close by the entrance, faintly illuminated by the light coming out of the open doorway. Julien stiffened. The patience of the way the woman let the rain run down her body rather than trying to find cover. He could see little, but he would have recognized here in any light or any weather.

He ran down the stairs, forgetting his soaking shoe, not taking a coat or umbrella, and ran as quickly as he could across the street, bounding up the steps two at a time.

“Julia!” he called out.

She turned and smiled, and held out her arms to him. When he finally let go he was soaked to the skin once more. (257-8)

I love this passage. I love the specificity of detail in the first two sentences, and how much work Pears is able to get done with such deft, quick strokes: the puddle, the shoe, what Julien's concern for the condition of his shoe manages to suggest about the larger circumstance of his life. The way that the rain becomes not just a weather event but an efficient means of driving Julien's actions (going up the stairs, toweling off, looking out the window), characterizing Julia's state of mind (she's the only one NOT seeking shelter) and finally dramatizing, through Julien's obliviousness to what a moment ago was his greatest concern, what he feels for her. If this whole passage were to be thought of as a sort of writerly performance on the parallel bars, that last line is just a lovely, artful dismount.

Wood says,

I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels.

I say, I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I love stories which are told artfully and which reflect, precisely in their artfulness, the writer's deep concern for what he really cares about. I would hope that that care would extend to his characters, to his reader, and to the careful deployment of what storytelling resources the writer has at his disposal, as well as to the larger questions (Clausen: What kind of world we is this? How we should live in it?) which, as Wood rightly suggests, the novel as a form is uniquely designed to explore.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

September Song

There hasn't been a whole lot of music on the radio the last few years that I much care to listen to, so I've been happy with the rise of Pandora, which gives me the chance to put in the name of a song or an artist to create a channel which will play songs selected by some computerized algorithm that matches my song to others having some of the same tonal or instrumental or generic characteristics, or, as their web site has it, "everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony."

I've tried different channels, and some of them wind up giving back a pretty narrow band of songs just like what you thought you might get. But last week I tried basing a channel on Richard Thompson, and the thing about Thompson is that he's pretty much a category-buster all by himself: a folk singer most people have never heard of, an innovative and edgy lyricist, a rock legend who has never had, as far as I know, a song in the top twenty (or even the top fifty), and one of the most versatile and accomplished masters of the guitar ever to walk the planet. And so he seems to knock the algorithm-making machine sideways a bit, and it keeps spitting out a very weird and eclectic and surprising mix of songs by all manner of musicians across a whole bunch of decades (Thompson has been cranking out his eclectic music for 40 years), everything from Led Zep to Neil Young and Boston and Dire Straits on the one hand, to people I've never paid much or attention, like Bruce Cockburn, or even ever heard of, like Stephen Bennett or Colin Hay or Big Head Todd and The Monsters.

Anyway, the other night I was in the gym and suddenly found myself listening to Tom Rush singing "The Urge for Going," a song I used to love and had not heard in maybe 20 years. It's a great song for September, and his gravelly voice against the clean acoustic guitar lines really resonates with Joni Mitchell's lyrics. I particularly love the end of the song, where acceptance and appreciation swirl in competition with mourning and regret:

I'll ply the fire with kindling,
I'll pull the blankets to my chin
I'll lock the vagrant winter out
I'll bolt my wandering in
I'd like to call back summertime
And have her stay for just another month or so
But she's got the urge for going
I guess she'll have to go

And she's gets the urge for going
when the meadow grass is turning brown
All her empire's are falling down
and winter's closing in

I lived in New England for twenty-five years, and know only too well whereof he sings. Even though we don't have seasons in Hawaii (well, we do, but the differences between them are much more subtle), the song still reverberates with me, perhaps even more so as I approach birthday number 64, and September as begins to feel maybe a little optimistic. But that sun still feels good.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Me and Louise

During the summer I took a printmaking course at the Linekona Art Center downtown. I have for some time been an admirer of the sculptures of Louise Nevelson, many of which were essentially assemblages made up of small wooden pieces in complex architectural configurations. "Sky Cathedral" is a good example:

There's something magisterial about this piece, and many of her others, a forcefulness, a kind of authority, all of this random stuff being gathered together and composed, asserted as a unified whole. It's beautiful and impressive and even a little scary.

As I've looked around on the internet and elsewhere, I've run across a lot of other things I like, like for example this configuration of sculpted steel squares:

Anyway, during the printmaking course we were encouraged to try, among other things, using cardboard to print from, I thought I'd try make a print that borrowed on her architectural style. So I made a cut out a series of cardboard pieces and glued various shapes on top of one another and laid them out and did a couple of prints like this one:

So that was okay, but the paper-and-ink medium didn't really offer the tactile, monumental quality that I was looking for. So the other day, I took out the bag of cardboard cutouts I had made and glued them down onto a piece of plywood and then used acrylic paint and medium to make it look like it was in fact made out of weathered wood. The (12"x24") panel came out looking a lot more like what I was after, especially after I painted over it with a gloss medium that put a soft sheen over the textured surface.

So there it is, my little homage to Louise.