Monday, March 31, 2014

Out of Dreams

As a child I often had dreams that consisted of colored geometrical shapes against a black background, moving over and through one another: rectangles, triangles, circles in motion, combining and recombining, morphing into one another.

Over the last few years I've devoted a fair amount of time to what might be thought of as abstract expressionist drawings of a sort. But whereas the abstract expressionists were enamored of the spontaneous gesture, making their marks in bold strokes, the drawings I have been doing are spontaneous only in conception; in execution, since they are being done not with a brush but a fine-tipped pen, they are very slow to evolve. Just to do one dark black line or curve involves drawing two outlines at either side and methodically inking in the space between. It's a centering exercise, slow and and deliberate, and most often when I'm at it I'm listening to music as well. (I toyed with calling the last one below 400 Lux, because Lorde was a dominant presence during its gestation.)

These drawings typically begin with an impulsive mark—a random shape, a line, a squiggle—and then evolve outwards. Having made one shape, I make another next to it, and another next to that, working around in a vaguely circular motion toward the edges of the paper. Often, early in the process, a rule will suggest itself: this drawing will have only curved lines, or only triangular shapes, or only shapes that do not touch each other. Sometimes the rule is that the drawing will consist only of solid black and solid white; other times I will use an extra-fine marker to create shading via parallel lines and different degrees of cross-hatching. Recently, I've played around with adding ink washes of varying consistencies for contrast:

I rarely have any idea at the start what the drawing will look like, and most often I will make an effort to steer away from anything that begins to look like it might want to be something. Every once in a while what emerges from under the pen is so strongly suggestive of something real that I will go with the flow and let it become what it seems to want to be. In one case that caught me by surprise, I found myself looking at some kind of fishlike creature, at which point I just gave him some additional fins in the back and let him be:

The drawings I've been doing lately have reminded me very strongly of the dreams I had as a child. In several cases, I've actually gotten ideas for drawings from the latent images on the inside of my eyelids as I was arising from sleep. The image below had its origin in just such a way. I was waking up from a nap and the image of the blue rectangles with the incomplete lines moving in from the edges to the center were in my head, and I thought, okay, maybe I'll try drawing something like that:

So while my drawings may not have a subject as such, they do feel true to a deeper, discursive logic that arises from within me. The two most recent ones I have completed were both more complex and more satisfying in the way those complexities resolved themselves:

There were several points in this last one where I was tempted to stop and leave more white space, but it somehow wanted to keep growing. Now it's presenting itself as some kind of fantastic tree. It didn't start that way; it really began up toward the top in the darker section and grew downward. But once it reached the ground, I felt like it was in fact done.

So this is the current state of my art practice. I'm hoping to work my way back to painting at some point, but in the meantime, the drawings are helping to keep me tethered.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Memories Prompt

Make a list of five childhood memories that immediately pop in to your head. Write about one of them. Why do you think you remember that moment?

1. I remember spending a lot of time with my mother. She and I were at home together pretty much all day every day until I went to kindergarten. I would follow her around the house as she did the cleaning and cooking and washing. At one point I was convinced that there was a group of animals—a fox, a wolf, a crocodile—waiting outside the window for me, and I made it a point to keep my mother in sight. They seemed reluctant to manifest themselves when she was around.

2. My father had a fairly elaborate woodworking studio in the cellar, with a table saw, a band saw, a drill press, a vise, and a big pegboard with the outline of each tool painted on it so that it was clear if something was not in the right spot. He had a motto: "A place for everything and everything in its place." He built a miniature workbench for me in the adjoining room and gave me my own tools: hammer, saw, screwdriver, wrenches.

3. I remember my grandmother, Lottie, coming to visit. She was my Mom's mom, and was maybe 80 or 85 years old. She was very slender, had pure white hair, and generally wore a heavy blue sweater even on the hottest of days. Sometimes she would call me over, open her pocketbook, and press a fifty-cent piece or a silver dollar into my hands.

4. We had a crabapple tree in the back yard, and when the apples fell my mother would gather up the apples, boil them, press the fluid through cloth, and "put up" crabapple jelly in glass jars. She would melt paraffin and pour in on top of the jelly to seal it.

5. My Uncle Ege used to run a music store in Hudson, New York, and each year at Christmas he would send each of us 78 rpm records. Two of my favorites was "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause," which my mother did not like. On the porch next to the living room we had an RVA Victrola record player that you had to wind up by hand. The needles for the record player were made of sharpened slivers of wood that you had to replace every couple of days when the point wore down.

6. My father had his den off of the dining room. All of the furniture in the den he had made himself in the cellar workshop. In the evening after dinner he would go into the den and work on his scrapbooks. He had a number of them, into which he would paste articles relating to hunting and fishing from the World, Telegram, and Sun. The Thornton W. Burgess animal books were also serialized in the paper, and it was a ritual for me to sit in his lap as he read the day's installment to me before I went upstairs to bed. He also had a wooden bucket with a top on it which held candy bars, and I was allowed to choose one each day if I had been good. I have had, as a result, a lifelong fondness for Hershey Bars, Three Musketeers, Milky Ways, and what used to be called "Forever Yours" but are now called "Milky Way Dark."

7. My first day at kindergarten I crawled under one of the tables and refused to come out. The teacher had to call my mother to come take me home. She was very angry with me and made me promise never to embarrass her like that again.

8. My closest friends in the neighborhood were Kenny Chester, who live across the street, and Peter Halstead, who lived up the street and went to the same school as me. I remember walking home with Kenny one day when we were about 7 and he was walking on top of a stone fence and fell off and broke his leg. And I remember one day when I started reading some of Peter's comic books, which he kept in his bedroom closet and was very fussy about, and he got angry at me and started chasing me around his yard waving a hatchet.

9. We had a large yard and an enormous gasoline-powered lawnmower that you had to walk behind to steer. It had a metal roller about 8 or 9 inches in diameter and levers on the handle that would make it stop or go. It was a big day for me the first time I was allowed to mow the lawn with it. One time it got away from me and wound up running itself into the bushes and stalling out.

10. We always had dogs. We had two house dogs, a giant schnauzer named Kim and an ancient infinitely patient black mutt, Fiddle. Then my father had three pointers he kept in the kennel under the garage: Zeke, Deldoon, and Sampson. In the fall he would take them to Billy Gladwin's farm in Brewster to hunt pheasant. When I got to be about ten years old I got to go with him a couple of times.

Reflection: I got the prompt from a colleague of mine and thought I'd give it a shot. Once I got going I couldn't quite get myself to stop at five. You start scanning through the memory bank and all kinds of stuff starts pouring out. I'm tempted to keep going, but since there would likely be no end to it I'll stop here and post this.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Status Report: A to Z

Okay, so, once again, I know, it's been, like forever, right? All of January, all of February, half of March. So what's the deal? How come I haven't been posting to Throughlines? I'm besieged by legions of fans (as if) who want to know where I've been, or where I've gone. And so, here's the update. I've been otherwise engaged. I have not been living the sort of life that is conducive to daily reflection.

Why? Because, I have, in the last two and a half months, a) retired, b) moved from Honolulu to California, c) in the process of said move packed all my stuff at that end and d) unpacked it at this end and e) redistributed the stuff in my new home, f) signed up for Medicare and Medigap coverage, g) started working out at one of the local gyms, h) set up my new office/studio, i) retrieved my car from the dock it was shipped to, j) spent two days at the DMV getting the care registered, k) continued with my drawing explorations in something of a new vein, l) gotten hooked into the (excellent) local library collective and m) begun a kind of informal research project that began with Robert Motherwell and has now spilled over to Picasso via a book that Motherwell claims is the one book (see below) that anyone interested in modern art must read, n) started to explore the local environs, o) spent more time at Bed, Bath, and Beyond than at any point previously in my past and hopefully in my future, p) made my first foray by ferry into San Francisco, q) kept up my Tumblr blog, r) spent several days a week in the company of a Golden Retriever puppy named Cassie, s) come to appreciate the manifest virtues of The Container Store, t) become something of an expert on mail-order furniture assembly, u) developed a taste for home-made pizza, v) read half a dozen books, none of which lit me up in quite the way I long to be lit up by what I read, w) began to get a read on local artists and galleries, x) played Scrabble almost every night and Words With Friends every single day, y) fell off the wagon with Instantchess, and z) have finally arrived at the point where the new home feels like home.

So that's my story. And it's true, as far as it goes. Of course, what you have just read is, necessarily, an abstraction, and rife with omissions of every kind. 26 is a random number, and I am, as we all are, under the inevitable constraints of time and energy and focus. Here's Motherwell, writing with typical precision and perceptiveness:

The word "abstract" comes from two Latin words: it literally means "to take from" or "to select from." The only way one could represent completely without selecting would be to make a painted world identical with this world—which I think sometimes certain realist painters really want to do! Let's say your subject is the battle of Gettysburg; if you want to do it realistically, you have to put in every soldier, every cloud, every tree, every bullet, every drop of blood, smell, everything. Even artists who want to represent have to be highly selective in what they do. So, since the essential nature of abstraction is "to select from," obviously the purpose of selection—this I learned from Alfred North Whitehead—is emphasis. In this sense, there is no communication, no work of art, that's not essentially "abstract" by definition, abstracted for the purposes of emphasis.

Writing, in the case of this blog post, as in every other case, is the same. I was reading in the March 17 New Yorker that arrived yesterday a terrific article about Lydia Davis. Dana Goodyear, who wrote the article, at one point is talking with Davis about the dilemma of including too much detail on the one hand or telling it with broad strokes on the other.

Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teenager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: "We went over to Joan's house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald's." Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

I remember that there used to be a TV show on in the late fifties called The Naked City. The tagline at the end of every show was "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them."

Cute, but inaccurate. It was making the assumption that each soul in the city was the source of one story. But take all the individual stories that might be told about each soul, and multiply by the number of ways each of those stories might be told, and you come up with something like infinity squared.

Which leads me back around to the book Motherwell recommended: Life With Picasso by Francoise Gilot, who met Picasso when he was 61 and she was 21. She became his lover, lived with him for ten years, and bore him two children. The book is fascinating both for the story of their lives—they are both fascinating people—and for the many instances in which she is able to unpack Picasso's thinking and working methods. She often seems to be quoting long segments verbatim from a distance of some 35 years, so I don't know how much we can trust that what she says he said is in fact exactly, or even approximately, what he did in fact say. But it's interesting. She also dishes an impressive amount of dirt about the other people hanging around him. It's clear that she's telling a carefully constructed version of events from her own point of view, and you can't help but wonder what she is leaving out (intentionally or unintentionally), nor what stories Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Dora Maar, among many others she includes in her narrative, would have to tell about her. But it is indeed a very good book from any number of angles. I can see why Motherwell recommended it, and I'm glad I'm reading it now.

Okay, that's it for the update. With luck it won't be another three months before I am back in the saddle.