Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Sleep of Reason and other oracles of art

The sleep of reason was the condition Goya named as beginning the grotesqueries and nightmares he witnessed in his extraordinary book of etchings called Caprices. Even the sardonic use of a lighthearted term shows the nuance of what it means to abdicate thoughtful responsibility. It is also a defensive term to underplay the strength of his indictments via the harrowing journalism of his eye and the wickedly ironic titles of those images. It is not surprising that Goya’s intense realism, his honesty, his risk in speaking out, was rewarded with exile – the one place, short of death, the free artist is allowed to go when taking up a critique of society.

To condemn cruelty in the way Goya does, and aristocratic self-indulgence, is a way to make specific the grand pageant of Christian suffering as a matter in his own time. By contrast, Breughel’s oblique criticism of the depredations of the Counter Reformation in Flanders (The Slaughter of the Innocents) is a more cloaked critique that used a contemporary depiction of ancient martyrs to shame the sadists of his day. Goya’s modernism is in his avoidance of this age old method of creating historical metaphors in painting. Goya depicts the disordered state of his own world.

It may well be that when all are subjective, when all are in the thrall of some cruel insanity of belief-based hatred, that the subjective response is one of reclaiming reason, reclaiming the objective state. Who can see this way, and from what position?

Goya’s privileged position as painter to the King’s court was similar to the access Moliere achieved in the French King’s court of his day. Both men were allowed to grow in their worldly and moral satires, because those kings were themselves enlightened enough to share some of those opinions and allowed themselves to be entertained by others. Similarly, in Breughel’s life, a prince bought most of Breughel’s paintings, enjoying their views of the lives of peasants.

In our later age, as kings and court were closed as offices of patronage, someone like Caspar David Friederich, who celebrated the social revolutions in Europe of 1848, became an outcast. A few years later Edvard Munch was jailed for knowing an important anarchist. These are the steady drumbeat of art as conscience, and society does its best to prefer aesthetics to truth and subjectivity to reason. It is perhaps more interested in applying reason in the aid of subjective states than the other way around. Classicism is a nice example of rational depictions of what are irrational stories. Throughout the Christianization of Classicism, or really the classicization of Medievalism, we still see the artist decrying the destruction of kindness by oppression, and celebrating the victory and hope of the soul. In such storytelling, the good outlive the evil in repute. In that tradition, in my lifetime, a Pope helped undo the cruelty of an oppressive system of government by symbolizing the suffering of God, or the soul’s intention, in society. He suffered both exile and attempted murder. When there was a pause in his exile and he appeared in Poland, the chief of state’s knees shook with fear on meeting the Pope; such is the force of truth and the woken state of reason.

The dogma of Christ is nothing but love and tolerance. The many smaller dogmas by which people conflict themselves violate the example of Christ and the spirit of the greatest Dogma, which is born of the love of mother and child, the love of spouses, the love of lovers. Love is a human knowledge of humanity so extraordinary that it is enshrined in Divinity, which may as well exist, so strong is our feeling for what is true and good in us. The essential friendship of people, which can be destroyed by lies and hatred, is a likewise sacred thing toward which great literature and painting urge the viewer.

The fallen and the risen both know this thing in its true light, or in the shadow from which they envy it. It is as universal a knowledge as many lesser truths like counting and spelling, and so also undergirds religions and the toilings of philosophers, even if their disputations lead to a negation of their original motive.

An artist is the likely liquid of a modern age, able to pass among people without a seeming office or position of power, only a commentator off to one side seeking to please by beauty and truth, and discovering the time living in us. Almost by accident a shock occurs. Like Columbus still, we are shocked by the great distance west to Asia, and shocked by the intervening discovery, not able to recognize what, in fact, we have discovered, nor how to treat the people we encounter.

In the sleep of reason there is enough wrong to supply delusion on a mass scale, but the objective state in our subjective nature reveals enough that is eternal and true to bring us up again, and again, generation after generation.

This is the meaning of culture, its long repetitions, its rediscoveries, its persistence in the face of cruelty.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Blue Hour

At Rosenfeld Gallery this month a show of Leslie Fenton’s works of paper, literally torn, wrinkled and opened and dyed and painted and soaked and handled and assembled into beautiful abstract paintings, shows what can be achieved in the inspiration of the imagination working with almost impossible tools.

If you place your hands on paper and work it by wonderful alterations, a real artist can summon from the scraps something magnificent, delicate, fierce, or watery. Ms. Fenton has made these materials into paintings that reflect the impossibility of their creation by appearing created by time and processes altogether natural and graceful.

A surgeon with the same hands would be highly sought after. This sensitivity to the tissue of sight is practiced on all the pieces in the show, but the one I most prize for its illusion of infinity, and the light of its title is The Blue Hour, a large work that deserves a longer life of exhibition, as might be found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Blue Hour is a term for the interval before dawn, when the sky begins to brighten and illuminate the world in a soft blue hue. People rising early would be known to appreciate it, and be familiar with its magic. This painting allows that experience in daylight, and gives forth the same benediction of a kind infinity returning us to earth from sleep and forgetting.

Some have spoken of a morning light in painting. This is an entirely extra territory. With this artist, night, the dark spaces in trees, the color of rock and sand and cloud, make up the world that hasn’t been covered enough. The work is palpable, synesthetic with a new sense, not bas relief, but very much reminding us that something slight and fragile makes up the orchestration of the cosmos.

Until October 4, 2009

Leslie Fenton
Mixed Media on Paper
Rosenfeld Gallery
113 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
215 922 1376

Friday, July 10, 2009

Subjective Natures

Artists are understood to practice subjectivity almost as a professional trait. Their vision, their vocabulary, their language are frequent terms used to warn onlookers that what they are coming to see consists of having to practice a sort of translation into the state of mind of the artist. The artist, for his part, has been trying to enter the state of mind of say “nature,” or spiritual truth, or the sublime, or the truth of gesture and action painting.

For the Impressionists, the subjective newness of their art consisted of looking seriously at the modern world as a subject. Their charm was their sense of celebration, via the effects of light on dappled lawns or the dance of light on water, or the very dance of the artist’s brush on canvas. Forms of mental distress were viable means of altering the image, as Van Gogh did, or exile, as Gauguin did, or an evolving abstraction, as Matisse did. The loner could express in a pre-cubist mosaic of colors, as Cezanne did, and the list goes on.

Were these things done before? Certainly Goya took other than what we would call the official line on war in his time, and El Greco found a manner of painting that exaggerated the form for spiritual reasons. Mannerism itself was an altered state of reality, and recognized as such.

It is the moment when a subjective state seems to be the most real take on things that it takes off in popularity. That may not coincide with the date of the innovation, and so the (clearly subjective) history of art that I propose includes a concept of the oh-so-much-more-real. Comparing an Inness to an Albert Pinkham Ryder one has to admit the more real emotional state of delirium on Ryder’s part, and the more real state of rapture on Inness’s part. It is in these ways that we value them most, not in the factuality or primitivism of their means. And it is because we can be objective about the subjective that we understand the equal merits of great artists. Artists are not all doing the same work, although they work in much the same faith to arrive at their different realities of emphasis.

Another way we show we appreciate a great range of subjective states is by the popularity of museums, and the adventure of seeing new art by contemporary artists. Even if befuddled or outraged, the engagement and curiosity of the viewer is a singular force driving the growth of art.

Can art run out of subjective states? My experience as a teacher of art suggests no. I practice a rather Hippocratic method of teaching, in which I work with the tendency of a student and try to help realize in technical matters what the prototype of the artist in the student’s work is showing. I have never seen two people in the same subjective state, although I meet with many in the same literal or objective state. It is the habit of students to attempt an escape from the subjective through an appeal to the literal. If only they could get that right, they tell me, it would really look like the model. If only, if only, and yet, the thing they often see as misshapen is really a form of exaggeration, or a nuance of adjustment that announces very clearly what they are trying to say.

A long struggle ensues during which I try to save the artist while educating the critic in the artist to know what he may treat as correctable error and what he should respect as a subjective truth. It has been a marvel to me that this art instinct resides in almost all people who come to me. It resembles the inner working of life itself, in the way a particular form of life will weave itself from an inner knowledge of its own design, never getting the chance to see itself in the mirror to make adjustments, as it were. The inward way is already well prepared in both the artist and viewer. For whatever reasons of living and experience, for whatever friction between hope and dismay, for whatever ideal the cynic suffers for, or sad reality the dreamer mourns, a person will take up a cause in art as in life and make a semblance of the things that rouse or delight him for their correspondence with his inner truth. That truth, shared by us in our own workings of life and loss, are recognized as the appropriate matter of art. We see in the subjective truth of art that truth we ourselves harbor in tandem with the artist. We say with this that a larger reality tinges all real things with a certain mood, or energy, or tone of color. And it is about that larger reality we all share and all co-create that we are concerned with in the study and making of art. It is for this reason that the literal fails the test of art, though not that of craft. And it is because we recognize that craft is an attempt to remove the subjective that we relegate it to a second place. Craft alone is not beauty, although laudable in its means. The place it takes, although it fought against it, is the industrial prototype. The more perfectly it is made, the more desirable it becomes as an anonymous matter, a fact worthy of reproduction if one could come by the factory to do it. And it is because the great craft object remains aloof from industry that it threatens the mass produced by its uniqueness, and by the eros it creates in the machinery of reproduction to exploit the design so proffered and denied a license to.

It might be thought that design itself is the subjective, and that art and craft are really one, along with the other matters the Bau Haus attempted to unify. This is not so, because design only covers the matters of form as apparent to the eye. The subjective reality of a Ryder, or an Inness, precedes and supercedes design. It works not on the matters of denotation, but through the effects of connotation. If anything, the great paintings denote less by design. Part of their design is in their unfinished state, the unfinished state that emphasizes one dovetail of nature over the others. Were one to look at a wonderful craft piece – say a silver piece by Paul Revere – and a painted version by an artist of that same craft object, one would see the added appeal the painted image has, because of how it imitates, recreates, in fact, the experience of that silver piece, and what it means to the artist. Without the felt addendum of an artist, the craft piece is always complete in itself, available for analysis, appreciation, but exquisitely objective.

However, craft pieces are sometimes also considered an art of subjective means. Furniture’s animistic past, silver’s mutability of luster, the quilts of Gees Bend, have language and secrets that fulfill the subjective requirement of art. Should we go back to an earlier definition of art, we would find many activities of people fit under the rubric of art, art as a special knowledge, art as a subjectively discovered means of truth. In its totalities, summed together, these make up a time. If one examines one’s times by a study of contemporary arts, and finds them wanting, one is obligated to set off on the journey of one’s life, to set the objective things right by the subjective truth at one’s disposal. It cannot be that one will be entirely wrong, though he may be considered wrong-headed, literally heading in the wrong direction. But the wrong direction has been proven out before as a right direction, or at least a viable one.

An art creates us, so also we create an art.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lynne Campbell, painter

Wingohocking (bluejay), 2008, by Lynne Campbell

The art of this painter, with which I have been familiar for many years now, is perhaps hardest to write of, because I have seen all of it, and because I am so close to the artist. I must be careful not to read into the paintings things I know about the painter, and yet, to explain the artist is sometimes a help in appreciating her art.

While still a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Lynne began an interest in the square format, not that she hadn’t created in another format, but it was this shape she began to explore as a window. Notice that the equality of the sides is a very even and calming equilibrium between the vertical and horizontal. It resolves at the outset what classical composition must struggle to obtain. Unlike classical composition, which balances horizontal and vertical by increasing the meaning of the vertical, Lynne’s composition begins in a state of harmony. The implied vertical distance, supplied by classical art’s belief in the divine (think of John the Baptist’s finger pointing upward in Leonardo DaVinci’s painting), or in mannerism’s exaggeration of the vertical (as in El Greco’s figures, streaming heavenward), here is made equal to the horizontal. Such paintings could only be created in an age of post enlightenment; it sees into the world according to nature’s equidistance from us.

Sighting (silently), 1993, by Lynne Campbell

In her early paintings in this format, Lynne Campbell used the occurrence of manmade structures in the natural or wild landscape as evidence of the mathematical sublime – a term De Chirico used to describe the metaphysical effect of certain large manmade structures in the world and in his paintings. Whatever marks time, or endures time, would give him that effect, thus the clock’s presiding over statues or classical ruins, with a train crossing the horizon far off. Time and timelessness keep track of each other, emphasize each other, in those paintings.

untitled, 1995, by Lynne Campbell

Entry, 1996, by Lynne Campbell

For Lynne Campbell, who especially loved De Chirico’s paintings then, the mathematical sublime was visible in oil tanks, or water towers. The water towers became an important motif, after the interest in oil tanks seen in refineries. These early compositions had high horizons, and the sources of oil and water seemed to require that. They were studies of the earth as a source of one or another elemental fluid.

Return, 1997, by Lynne Campbell

With the water towers, an eventual shift took place, and the horizon moved to the bottom of the composition. Water’s other source, the divinity of air and weather, became acknowledged, and it is about that time that she and I became bird watchers. With that interest a new motif became her obsession, the sighting of a bird.

And now I will explain how like Agnes Martin these square, abstracted skies, become. They contain the slenderest piece of horizon. There is the equilibrium of the format, and then there is the placement of the bird in that context. The way the space is divided, the way the line of flight enters, or predicts its passage, all balance in a remarkable way. The object of each of these compositions, whether they include energy or the stasis of humidity, is an extraordinary serenity.

Late, 2004, by Lynne Campbell

The serenity of nature is not what she implies in these paintings, but the serenity of the onlooker. She is showing a certain viewpoint, in which we are at the moment between dwelling on a sky-filled landscape and noticing a passing bird. The sense of the cosmos, of the allness of the sky has us absorbed, and the bird noticed is placed in an incredible fit within the viewer’s universe. It is not locked-in so much as released-into. The environment and the inhabitant are as one, imbued with the spirit of each other. It is in this way that the older classical vertical direction has been made imminent. One can see spirit right there before oneself. Centuries of science and understanding have brought us to the potency of the present. These are paintings possible after Emily Dickenson, and after the general awakening about the fragility of the environment. They are a discovery coincident with that which holds that life evolves from its surroundings, that context matters, and that passage moves through the creating air of our life.

Wingohocking (goldfinch), 2008, by Lynne Campbell

Observations like these are timeless because we can understand they were always true, even if they now seem recently new, beginning the wave of the present age. While in the city, the birds were part of the urban environment, passing over rooftops with the complete ease of belonging. Now, though still in the city, they constitute a series named for a street that in Lenape means “a good place to plant.”

Edward Sozanski has termed them visual haiku, admitting their spare means and profound effect. As poetry does, they awaken us to a sense of being, and a state of awakened bliss. Though many are summer or winter visions, they grant that first truth of seeing the spirit of life, the spirit most of us assume each spring when we wake up to the sky and the weather in a state of bliss. If a Buddha were to come as the face of nature, he would make us compassionate in the way these paintings of our nature make us feel.