Monday, July 13, 2009

Goodbye blogspot

To take advantage of new tools like Google Earth, and Panoramio, I’m making the switch to WordPress. “Along a Long Line” is moving to a new address,, and new stories and images from Botswana will be posted at In addition I’m opening a Pro Flickr account so you can upload pictures from both blogs.

The book, “Along a Long Line” is being published by Hard Press Editions and will be available in bookstores by September 2009 and can be pre-ordered at the Hard Press website Hard Press Editions

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Next, Botswana!

In late June of 2009, I’m traveling to Botswana to continue picturing the globe with a small French easel. This trip will inaugurate a new project called “Antipodes”, in which I plan to visit opposite points of the globe to paint comparisons. The trip to Botwana will be paired with a visit to Hawaii, its antipode. Future trips to antipodal pairs include Italy/New Zealand and Mongolia/Patagonia. Like “Along a Long Line”, I’ll be posting photographs, stories and paintings. Please come along!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Teresa Mind

My trip along the 70th line of longitude is over and it’s time to consider it. Painting in the landscape has been great fun. Ecstatic, really. Using the word “Ecstatic” to describe a year of plein air painting may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the term is a fair approximation and it makes a useful bridge to other, similar experiences. Ecstasy is the experience of losing one’s boundaries. In the ecstatic moment, the self merges with what is outside of it. Think how one’s edges are lost at the moment of orgasm and one becomes briefly, but wonderfully, merged into the world of the sheets. Oddly, this moment is often described as a “loss of the self”, but perhaps it is more accurate to describe the experience as an “addition of the other”. In an ecstatic moment the little dams that hinder the flow of consciousness and turn it into an eddy of self-consciousness, are opened and one experiences the flood of the outside world as it passes through the body. I don’t think this experience is mystical; it most likely has to do with certain brain functions being inhibited and others excited. But most often it is a delightful state of being that can engender love for what is outside. Sex and spirituality are the best known pathways to this neural intersection of delight, but many other experiences, like witnessing the birth of a child, club dancing, and singing with abandon also qualify.

Ecstasy is not necessarily all pleasure, since pain can also pass through the body once the defenses are down. The “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” by Bernini is a great visualization of the complexity of the ecstatic experience. Teresa is in a swoon. As if a bolt of electricity has just passed, her body is limp and her gown is in a frenzy. A smiling angel delicately exposes her breast to a spear and her face shows the pain and pleasure of being wantonly open to its advance. Her eyes are shut, so she does not see. Instead, she inhabits the world at the atomic level, where the animate and inanimate are the same and she feels the orbit of every little electron.

Do I look like Teresa when I’m painting out of doors? There is a lot of comic potential here. Does my mouth hang open and my tongue wander from its mooring? Probably. Like Teresa, I feel excited and open and greedy to be filled up. When making a painting, I’m not very aware of observing the scene. Instead, the scene passes through me. Thinking is not interrupted by words. There is no lag time between the provocations of the outside world and the response of the brush and the knife. Stimulus and response become one thing and the experience obliterates linear time. Hours go by in a blink and the world does not feel separate from the self.

It is tempting to say that art making is the best way to have this satisfying experience and that it deserves an exalted place in the hierarchy of human activity. But this would be silly, since that argument would mostly reveal how one’s ego tends to evaluate its own experience as superior.

The ecstatic experience that I am trying to describe is worth considering, not because it is special, but because it is common. There are many ways to make time disappear, let the tongue loll about and send the eyes rolling back into the head. Science could help here by evaluating people as they engage in deeply absorbing activities. Does the brain light up similarly in a computer game designer who is writing break-through code for an exciting, new effect and a retired woman paddling a canoe on a quiet lake at sunrise? Does the brain map the same for an investment banker as she wires millions to start-up companies in Beijing, a Buddhist nun in prayer, and a country singer who feels the lament about which he sings? Although these examples veer between creative action and meditative repose, they are all moments of being plugged in, like Teresa.

The Teresa moment is a powerfully receptive state of mind that, if cultivated, could be very useful for addressing the politics of everyday living. What if the ecstatic experience was stripped of mystery and was understood as a biological event ¬– a mode of perception that is common to the species? What if this experience of wanton openness could be directed toward a new philosophy of ecology, replacing old policies of ecological dominance and separation with new policies of ecological exchange and permeability? What if heightened states of receptivity could help one see a face simply as a collection of colors, shapes and textures, rather than as an accretion of associations forged by cultural prejudices?

Painting along the 70th line of longitude this year, I’ve lived hours and hours of Teresa moments, and I’m convinced that the experience is more than an indulgence. It is a platform from which the world is felt as a profoundly integrated place, and a solid launch pad from which to jump into action.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

In Emergency Break Glass

Gardens are for touching, walking, sitting, sniffing, admiring, and most importantly, pondering.

Approaching the Enid Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, I wondered if the contemporary cultural world is constrained by its own success. I'd like to think that art is potent pollen, whipped into the air by the need for change and carried to unlikely places to seed the imagination of people working in many disciplines. But often it seems a casualty of its container.

The Botanical Garden is preparing a major exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures. The large bronzes have been thoughtfully sited to take advantage of the composed vistas and textured backgrounds of the rolling 250 acre campus. In this setting the pastoral qualities of Moore’s art come to the fore. His abstract bronzes can evoke the effects of wind and water on rock. And they can also describe the gesturing flesh and the durable bone of beautiful, living things. But what about the meanness of Moore? He lived through two World Wars, soldiering in the First and reporting eloquently through a series of drawings about life during the Nazi Blitz in the Second. How would a Moore sculpture look if it was placed in a contemporary scene of trauma like an abandoned air force base, or a clear-cut jungle whose soil is so depleted that it can only sustain scrub, or in Harare, the capitol city of Zimbabwe, during the election battle between Tsvangirai and Mugabe? Would the line of Moore’s edges be more taut? Would the hollows seem to have been blown-out and eroded rather than scooped and polished into being? Would the bone-like forms seem less bleached and clean? We’ll never know, since these sculptures are worth too much money. Now, they live in World Headquarters, private villas and museums curtained in glass. The owners do the world a favor by protecting the art, but it is regrettable that some of the urgency of the objects is lost in the safety of their display. With this regret in mind, one can appreciate the visual violence of the day-glow, crowd-control netting which ensnares the sculpture (a fallen warrior in the above illustration) as it is prepared for exhibition.

Entering the Conservatory, I wondered at what point the vibrancy of something is diminished by the urge to protect and preserve it?

Emotion has seeded and money has watered the contemporary art world so that it has grown into an extravagant collection which is magnificently housed.

Strolling through the collection of carnivorous plants, I thought about the large number of contemporary art works that try to be socially provocative, but rise only to the level of Xtreme entertainment. Even if the art object is as extravagant and terrible as the 8 foot, Sumatran Corpse Flower, which releases the stench of putrefaction at peak bloom, the art work will most likely find care and shelter.

In contrast the spontaneous vignettes of the day that are composed by chance and are as vigorous and common as weeds, seem so free and sneaky and lovely.

My wife called to tell me that dozens of sparrows were dust bathing in the paths of Bryant Park, behind the New York City Library. The birds rubbed their shoulders and cheeks into the path, and made furious, little dirt clouds with their wings. The park paths were packed with people, but every foot was carefully placed, leaving the sparrows undisturbed. It was a pretty little moment of peace that can not be captured, commodified and preserved. Perhaps insignificance and impermanence is a way to shatter the glass that contains culture so elegantly.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Ramble

On the streets of New York City words and pictures fall around you like leaves in the forest.

Along the walk there are cascades and…

cliffs and…

colorful canyons.

Shallow pools line the way and offer a chance to reflect…

and celebrate the glory of nature.

In this Arcadia on the Hudson,

Nymphs and…

Satyrs dance with the animals.

And when the night comes…

and the moon rises…

people search the forest for love.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

7 Paintings in Progress

The view from the rooftop of the Avenue C studio.

The following 7 paintings were made in New York City. Complete titles coming soon

Wall Street

7th Street Garden

Avenue C

Avenue C Delivery

Seventh Street Garden

Seventh Street Garden Wisteria

Wall Street

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Divine Comedy

Michelangelo, Creation of Stars and Planets, 1508-1512, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome.

Today, April 22, 2008, is Earth Day. Its approach was heralded by Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich and Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who appeared together on TV, warming a park bench as they promoted cooperation on global heating.

Too bad the Pope, while in New York last week, didn’t add his voice to the Green Chorus. Imagine the impact he could have if he would re-write the following critical bit of text and insert it into Genesis.

The original line from Genesis:
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’"

And the new Green version:
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Plan a small family, so that you don’t kill each other over limited resources, and follow the golden rule when you encounter the creatures of the earth. And remember, the natural world is fine with or without you; the issue is saving yourself from side effects of arrogance.’”

The Pope probably won’t make this re-write, so it is up to a legion of individuals to start making incremental changes in the way people think about the earth. And the artist Justen Ladda is doing his part by creating an instructive, sculptural comedy on Allen Street.

In the Chinese section of the Lower East Side, Ladda has installed a handsome collection of Chinese spirit stones on the narrow traffic median that divides Allen Street, a heavily trafficked artery that pumps buses, cars and trucks into the heart of Manhattan.

Great comedy like this is rooted in surprise. The appreciation of unusual stones in China is an ancient tradition whose earliest known reference is found in an historical text from the third century B.C.E. (before the common era). A stone was not considered a static object, but as a dynamic, miniature universe in which the inchoate forces that formed it could be felt. Unusual shapes and textures that evoked mountains, the course of water and even animals and plants were collected and those which best expressed the exuberance of the natural world were highly prized. Those stones that were not adequately imbued with the power of primordial fire and erosion were enhanced by human hands. Over time a culture of connoisseurship evolved and fine stones became a sign of the social status and sophistication of the owner. As objects of meditation, stones were traditionally mounted on graceful, carved stands for indoor viewing or composed with plants and water elements into serene garden vignettes. But the spirit stones of Allen Street are surrounded by the rushing-smelly-honking chi of New York and it is in this arena, where refined tradition meets the democracy of the street, that the comedy is played.

If comedy is defined as the drama of conflicting expectations, then the effect of the spirit stones of Allen Street is similar to 4’ 33”, the infamous musical composition by John Cage in which a pianist sits quietly at her instrument, so that the ambient, random noise of the auditorium can become the music. Like the dignified, classical musician of 4’33”, the spirit stones of Allen Street hold still so that the contrasting swirl of the New York street can also be felt as art.

By framing the street as a work of art, the spirit stones coax the mind into a pleasantly complex state of awareness that trots between three points. First, one notices the beauty of the stones themselves and the Asian aesthetic from which they derived. Second, one is transported through memory to other landscapes and, finally, one feels the richness of the contemporary, urban moment. This state of perception is comic in its unexpected collisions of time, space and culture, but it also enlightening.

The ideas threaded through Justen Ladda’s spirit stone installation are part of a progressive movement to think inclusively by collapsing a number of opposing ideas into larger concepts. The installation, for example, collages the East onto the West, effectively emphasizing the global nature of this time. Similarly, Past and Present in the artwork are no longer irreconcilable moments on a line of time, but are, instead, floating moments that may cohabit consciousness through memory. It was wonderful, for example, to look at the wild, vertical shape of a stone and remember a family trip down the Snake river through the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming, and at the same moment, assess the progress of a Chinese grandmother as she negotiated a pram up the Allen Street median. Landscape and Cityscape, also, are folded into one pot; each no longer discrete but part of a single, encompassing ecosystem. In this new way of thinking, men, mountains and metropolises are part of a single environment that progresses through the laws of evolution. The relationship between Man and Nature is no longer one of dominance and submission decreed by the Divine, but rather it is a search by people to balance and preserve a complex habitat.

The comedy of the spirit stones of Allen Street begins with a laugh at the collision of art and life, but it resolves into a new, complex consciousness that attempts to see the connectedness of things before they are parsed into bits. This new emphasis on inclusive thinking is a hopeful sign. Thanks Justen.

(The information on Spirit Stones was culled from “Spirit Stones of China”, by Stephen Little. Published by the Art Institute of Chicago with University of California Press, 1999.)