Monday, January 28, 2008

Snorkeling in the Dark

Round Bay is a tranquil scoop of sand and sea that is fringed with reefs. After a morning of painting in nearby Haulover Bay, I occasionally put on a mask and flippers and go for a swim there. Even though it is not a risky sport, or one that takes any skill, snorkeling is a thrill.

Just beneath the surface of the water, skeins of light are crocheted across the backs of sea fans and fish and turtles.

Unusual chromatic chords of ochre, crimson, celadon and lilac spread across the coral structures, whose organic forms are both ancient and futuristic.
But there is more to the thrill of snorkeling than seeing novel form and color, and I’m wondering what it is, and I am reminded of a favorite work of art.

In 1968 the American artist Bruce Nauman made “John Coltrane Piece”, “a 36-inch-square, 3-inch-thick, 400-pound aluminum plate laid on the floor, with the word 'dark' written on its unsee-able, mirror-finish bottom surface”. (Saunders, Wade, Not Lost, Not Found: Bill Bollinger, Art in America, March, 2000) Nauman provides little explanation for the reference to Coltrane, other than the fact that he likes his music and that Coltrane had a habit of turning his back to the audience. ( Auping, Michael, “Sound thinking: Michael Auping on Bruce Nauman at the Turbine Hall.”) It is understated to say that this sculpture is laconic. The one bit of excitement, the mirrored surface, in which one would at least expect to see an imitation if not an explanation of life, has been pressed to the floor, all the light squeezed out. In the tradition of the other minimal art works of the time, the obduracy of the "John Coltrane Piece" may be a purposeful denial of the usual delight that is to be had in indulging one's fantasy in front of an art object. But the mirror is a chestnut in the repertory of symbolism and the act of denying light to it is just too provocative to go without more explication.

Snorkeling is an occasion when simple technological enhancement of the body opens the door to a different world. Like the electron microscope and the space shuttle, flippers and a mask extend the body into new space. With each kick of the flipper, something new comes into view, and this is the reason that snorkeling is so thrilling. It’s not just the discovery of something new, it’s the realization that there will always be something new. Anticipation of making a discovery is thrilling, deeply thrilling, like falling into the well of hope. Discovery may be satisfying, but it is the anticipation of discovery that is motivating, particularly for creative people like scientists and mathematicians, who log countless hours developing the tools to extend knowledge in hopes of making discoveries. And it’s here, where bodies wait for augmentation to explore unknown worlds that the John Coltrane Piece lives. The mirror facing the blackness is forever a threshold beyond which there is something we do no yet know. Thinking about The John Coltrane Piece is like wading into the reflective surface of Round Bay on a moonless night, putting on the flippers and mask and setting off for the center.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Haulover Bay

About 25 years ago I visited with Leon Golub in his studio, when he was painting his great “Mercenary” series. Standing in front of gigantic men of war, we fell into a conversation about the unusual painting process he had developed. After drawing the rapacious figures and giving them heft with broadly defined areas of light and shadow, Leon would pull the canvas to the floor, saturate the surface with solvent and scrape the paint with a meat cleaver. The scraping took the paint down to the weave of the linen, leaving the figures clearly visible but distressed. Although aware of the aggressiveness of the abrading and its tragic implications, Leon talked about the process with self-aware humor. Laughing, he said something like, “If they live long enough, all artists grow into their own strange ways of working”.

Now, painting in Saint John, I’ve been thinking about Leon’s comment. He was talking about the connection between making an object and living a life. Over time, he suggested, the elements of an examined life -- the values, the psychic habits, the social relations -- find expression in the process of making art. One would expect the subject of an art work to reveal the motives of the maker, but Leon was noting that the process of making the thing was just as illuminating.

Currently, I’m working on windy, Haulover beach under a canopy of sea grapes, making pictures from shadows cast by the sun as it rises. It’s an exciting process, since the sun and the wind have become active collaborators.

The beach fringes the north shore of a narrow, flat isthmus, which divides the open water of Sir Francis Drake Channel from the shelter of Coral Bay. Slaves once hauled the boats of the Danish plantation owners across this narrow strip to save the masters the trouble of sailing around the east end of the island to get to open water. Hence, the name, Haulover Bay.

I arrive at 7:30 AM, more than an hour before the sun rises over the mountain that shades the bay from the east. Sea Grapes line the shore and at one spot they have grown so tall and thick that they make a shelter. Someone has dragged an old timber that floated ashore into the cover to make a convenient bench. After setting up the easel in this fresh air studio, I take a look around to see what’s new, which is usually a lot of plastic crap that has washed in from the boats. But in a few minutes it’s possible to pick up the worst of it and get back to searching for colors and forms.

First, I mix up little pools of paint to match the color of the water, which changes from minute to minute in response to the sun and passing clouds.

The shades of turquoise are intense, so I balance the palette by adding the neutral colors of beach stones.

And to this cool collection of colors, the copper of a fallen leaf is included for warmth.

Once the palette is set, I look for interesting forms to paint. The shapes of light on the water made by the wind are often inspiring. The sun will soon be rising over the hill, so I have to work quickly to make an interesting ground.

On this particular morning I choose to start with the sky, which is pale and dotted with peach-hued clouds, which I paint upside down as an inconsequential poke at convention. To this up-ended skyscape a few blobs of sea and chlorophyll green are added as well as the ochre of a coral that I observed while snorkeling the day before. Abruptly, the sun rises above the mountain and the strengthening light intensifies the action of the wind and the water so that everything seems to expand and contract, as if caught in an elastic net. On the panel ovals and bars of light shoot across the picture plane and undulate to the rhythm of the wind in the sea grapes. I trace the edges of the waving shadows and let my hand move to the rhythm. Sometimes I use a knife and scrape out ovals of light. There is no lag between the provocations of the sun and the wind and the response of the brush and the knife. Stimulus and response become one thing and the experience is transcendent, like a moment of shared belief.

When the sun first rises, the shapes are slashing diagonals. But as the morning progresses and the sun circles behind the sea grapes, the shapes become rounder.

To check on progress, the panel is turned away from the light and rotated. If one looks at a picture sideways, it’s easier to ignore the subject and study the scaffolding of lines and the repetition of motifs that make a well-built composition.

The picture is complete, when it asks for nothing more.

I love and admire Leon Golub for his life and work and over the years I have felt myself respond to his accomplishments. His mercenaries-in-action are good representations of violence, but they are great paintings because they are convincing demonstrations of violence. His pictures embody the human capacity for destruction because of his actions, which are to use a mighty size, to overwhelm with big gesture and to flay the surface as if it were alive. In life Leon was far from being a violent or destructive man, but in his art he could conjure brutality and show it nakedly. Like Leon I’m interested in human potential, but I’m working on the flip side of the same coin. Playing with the light and wind and water on Haulover Beach is an attempt to demonstrate the human capacity to embrace.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Christian at the Petroglyphs

Christian goes belly down on the ledge, cups a little fresh water in his hand and splashes the design carved in the rock. Fresh water pools are rare in the Virgin Islands, so animals and people have been congregating here forever. Christian wets the rock again and runs his index finger around the grooves. He runs his finger around and around and he doesn’t think much about the image, but he notices that the bottom of the curves hold water and are slippery with algae and that the tops are dry and rough with emptiness. His finger scoots fast through the slippery stuff and drags across the dry part. A little skin is left in the rough section.

Christian is on vacation with his parents and three younger brothers. He lets his finger go around and around until the sensation in his finger is so big that his ears stop working. Mom is bubbling with nonsense, much like her sleep machine which covers clamor with the sound of jungle birds. She would be pretty if her fists would relax, but she is worried that Dad will blow. Dad would be handsome with his shirt on. He loves them all and he is proud of what he has made, but the intimacy of vacation is too much for him. Boo, the youngest, will be the trigger and target of Dad’s discontent. Boo is tired from the hour long trek from the SUV, but he is too young to notice, so he wanders around the pool tempting the edge to make him slip. Dad says, “Stay away from the water, son”. But Dad thinks “Don’t make work for me”. Warned, Boo scoots back from the edge and wanders innocently, waiting to test the edge again when no one’s looking.

Christian lies there, deaf, with everything in his fingertip, when suddenly he passes through his fingertip and he is on the other side touching his own fingertip as in a mirror. Now he is the carver, one of the Taino who were the pre-Columbian inhabitants of St. John. Or maybe he is the one of the first people from Africa to stand here and draw images from the Ashanti culture from which he came. He slips naked into the pool, and hears the tap-tap of his labor, and he sweats and feels his sweat, and he is strong and independent carving something important, and he draws a breath over a 1000 years. His body and his carving reflect in the pool, both existing as matter and as light.

Of course Boo slips. He needs to know when slime and angle overcome mass and friction. But Dad can’t appreciate the brilliance of this physics lesson. He’s pissed. “I told you not to get so close to the water. See what you’ve done, your feet are all wet and you won’t like walking back to the car. You won’t like it. You don’t listen. It’s a long walk and it’ll be real uncomfortable, and you won’t like it one bit and I won’t carry you either. No, you are on your own. It’s a long walk, and don’t complain and don’t expect me to carry you”. Dad’s point about the consequence of action is a good one, but the point is lost in the harangue and Dad’s anger traumatizes Boo, altering his brain chemistry just a little and irreversibly.

Christian takes his finger out of the groove, and his hearing returns, and he also changes just a little and irreversibly. Fantasy sheltered him from the present unpleasantness, but it also opened, unexpectedly, into human history. He hasn’t listened to Dad, but he knows his youngest brother just got it. He is happy it wasn’t him who got it, but he is resolved to stick it to Dad soon. He stands, a little older, in this own time.

Anxious to cover up the little bit of shit that just dropped on everyone, Mom uses Christian’s rising as the cue to end the scene. “Christian, does that sign next to you have information about the petroglyphs? What’s it say? Will you read it to us?”

Monday, January 7, 2008

Wish You Were Here!

On New Year’s Day as the temperature and the snow dropped on New England, I arrived in St. John, Virgin Islands, and began to fret. The temperature here is perfect. The sea is thrillingly blue and the beach is bone bright. I’m living in a house that clings to the side of Mt. Bordeaux, the highest spot on the island. Hurricane Hole, a nicely protected deep water bay, is visible from the porch, as are the islands of Tortola and Virgin Gorda. Little yellow birds, out for the evening feed, are negotiating the wind to land on my work table in hopes of a crumb. Chimes and motorcycles can be heard in the distance. The only real challenge to peace of mind is remembering to drive on the left. But with everything being so bucolic, I’m worried about making art that is cliché. So, I thought it would be wise to spend time studying the landscape through photography. For five days, I’ve hiked through the National Park land, diligently looking for the unique panorama and revelatory detail. After reviewing hundreds of photographs, it seems that I am living in a postcard.

Wish you were here!