Monday, April 26, 2010

In the beginning was the Word

Two recent conversations have reminded me that, while people are intrigued by my use of book pages as a substrate for painting, that material can be disconcerting for others. The first conversation happened when discussing possible materials for use in a drawing student’s final project. I mentioned book pages and she vigorously objected. She said that, having worked for a library, she had too much respect for books to tear the pages out. I assured her that, having worked for three libraries and a bookstore myself, I had no less respect for books.

The second conversation happened via email with a friend and collector. I was describing the recent 1821 German Bible I had acquired from a local used bookstore and noted that I was excited to start tearing the pages out. My friend has actually purchased some of my works on book pages, but assured me that his fundamentalist upbringing has so marked him that he felt he could never tear pages out of a Bible.

It actually took me some time to warm to the idea of removing pages from Bibles and hymnals—or any other books for that matter. I asked a couple artist friends about their use of Bible pages first. I then began experimenting with work on book pages by using books other than Bibles, and texts that I wasn’t planning to keep in my own library. Eventually, I began to use Bibles, hymnals, and other religious texts. I found these in used bookstores and at flea markets. These tend to be forgotten books that have no remaining connection to their original owners.

This German Bible is a good example. It is one of those old, large family Bibles in which people used to write births, deaths, and marriages—the kind that were passed down over generations. There are many things handwritten—in German—on the front pages. I can’t read any of it. It seems, to many people I know, that dismantling such a book, which must have a rich history, is a travesty. That is one way to look at it.

I see the re-use of this book within artworks in a different way. Yes, there are pressed flowers, prayer cards, and a lock of hair scattered between the pages. However, no one had a lasting connection with the people those items represented anymore, otherwise they would not have given the book away. The book is also somewhat unreadable. The pages are riddled with discolorations and foxing. When I use the pages for a painting they get a new life—they are resurrected.

Not only does the text itself matter in the paintings, the connection with history is important. Since many of my works consider the lives of saints—canonized or otherwise—the continuity with those who have gone before us is essential. The quiet lives of the ordinary folks, unknown by the masses, are equally significant in the scope of things.

As an artist, I wish to invite viewers into my work in as many ways as I can. For some, it is the visual images themselves that draw a connection. For others, the existence of text within the works seems like an invitation to learn some deeper truth about the work that the image itself does not readily reveal. There is even a segment of viewers who, sensing the age of the book pages, feel a connection to a common history. These are all valid approaches. Feel free to pick whichever point of entry feels most logical. The work is multifaceted and open to several interpretations.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Sacred Body by David Japser

David Jasper. The Sacred Body: Asceticism in Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Studies in Christianity and Literature). Waco TX: Baylor University Press, 2009.

David Jasper’s recent book, The Sacred Body, explores the body through the lens of the ascetic desert tradition, via the forms of art, film, poetry, but especially literature. The author’s background as a teacher of literary theory is apparent in his analysis of all these forms.

While Jasper explains that the text is formed as a continuation of his earlier book The Sacred Desert, this volume, at times, tenuously connects the body to the desert tradition. The reader may easily find herself drawn deeply into what initially appear as various, meandering side discussions only to discover Jasper ultimately forming his connection to the desert through some obscure contextual twist. Since Jasper filters his processing through philosophers from Heidegger and Kant to Derrida and Foucault, it is not surprising that his writing can sometimes read as densely as contemporary philosophy.

Some of the more absorbing aspects of the analysis are revisited throughout subsequent chapters. After an examination of the hagiographical evolution of the figure of St. Mary—transformed over time from Mary Magdalene, to Mary of Bethany, and finally Mary of Egypt—Jasper extends his discussion of the body’s ascetical relevance with an exploration of the character parallel to St. Mary of Egypt in Paul Bowles’ existentialist novel The Sheltering Sky and the adaptation of that work in Bernado Bertolucci’s film of the same title. He rounds out the discussion of the desert life of St. Mary through his commentary on Diego Velazquez’s painting Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Just as the character of Mary evolves from the historical person(s) to whom she is connected, Jasper’s analysis progresses. The carnal aspects of Mary are tempted and tempered in each art form as her spirit seeks to conform to the guidance of the desert path.

Jasper’s fresh eye on visual art—considering artists as various as William Blake, Hans Holbein, and Vincent van Gogh—is similar to Henri Nouwen’s. It resides somewhere between the explicitly theological and the intimately devotional. He is aided at times by the writings of art critics Arthur C. Danto and Leo Steinberg, which is a welcome supplement to his own analysis. Jasper is clearly more comfortable when he stays closer to his literary roots. His scrutiny of the Hans Holbein painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb relies heavily on the discussion of that work within Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Like Mathias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece—also discussed by Jasper—the Holbein work focuses on the scourged and crucified corpse of Jesus. Both of these paintings establish a transformed understanding of the physical being—focusing on a glorified body. Christ’s taking on of mortal human flesh is pushed to the extreme when these artists examine the death of God and the perplexities and mysteries of the incarnation through the divine Word made flesh. Yet for the flesh to be renewed and resurrected, it must first suffer death. Jasper addresses this significant point in relation to ascetic practices, not simply glossing over the expansive implications of Christ’s incarnation as paralleled in the way of the desert.

It is Jasper’s knack for mingling odd bedfellows that produces some of the most satisfying "perplexities" in the book. The works of Meister Eckhart and James Joyce form the core components of a chapter devoted to holiness and the resurrection of the body. The mystical contemplations of Eckhart may seem a natural match for a discussion on the holiness sought in the desert. It is the pairing with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that comes as an initial surprise. In Joyce’s work, Jasper finds a parallel to the incarnation of the Word. The reader must be fully present in the text, a text that reveals itself—if somewhat opaquely—through its aural recitation. In both Eckhart and Joyce the reader is lost within the poetry of the words, becoming one with the text just as the ascetic believer seeks to be united with the holiness of Christ.

Jasper concludes his analysis with a chapter that acts as a template for future theological readings—whether pure theological texts or theology nestled within the guise of the various arts. For Jasper, the ascetic tradition is simply a system by which one lives out life liturgically. We may each approach our lives through an ascetic lens if we choose. Jasper offers possibilities of bodily "dwelling" in this life through the ascetic tradition. He suggests dwelling: on the edge, in anticipation, as vigil, with consistency, at the end of history, in dispossession, and in perfect joy. These approaches are meant to act as filters that usher us into the way and wisdom of the desert.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Karma Chameleon

Having a variety of interests can pose a challenge. For me, it has never been quite like the saying about the Jack-of-All-Trades, but dividing time among a multitude of interests certainly takes time from those things about which one is most passionate.

In the late 1990s, when I was teaching full-time, I tended to use the semesters as a time for reading, research, and sketching. Printmaking, particularly, was accomplished in the summer months. In those months there was plenty of time and no one else using the studio. When I was later working full-time as the director of an art non-profit there were no summer breaks, though I kept generating complex ideas for future artworks.

Having the ability to devote nearly all of my time to producing art over the past year and a half opened my eyes to something. I can never keep up with all the ideas. Even though I am producing exponentially more artwork than before, it takes time to actually create it. While carving a woodblock or painting on a book page a new thought is bound to enter my mind—another rabbit hole is opened and the chase begins again.

Occasionally, the reason I take several years to complete a piece has nothing to do with the time it physically takes to complete it. Many of the altarpiece constructions are developed through sketches and the assemblage items are devised at that stage. I often have some items collected already, awaiting an altarpiece in which they can be placed. At other times I imagine an object I would like to use, but then I have to search to find it.

The hunt is always on. I have previously relayed stories on this blog about my search for chattering teeth and doll parts. My great white whale, for several years, was a chameleon figurine. Aside from eBay and Google searches I have looked at dozens of flea markets, antique stores, and junk shops everywhere from New York City to Los Angeles—I mean this literally. There was a glimmer of hope in New Haven, CT when I spotted a plastic chameleon in a shop window display. It was, unfortunately, there for effect but not for sale.

When I recently stopped into an arts and crafts supply store, for an unrelated item, I spotted a wooden lizard. It was a somewhat generic lizard, but I knew it could easily be transformed into my reliquary chameleon. After I bisected a glass bead, for the eyes, hollowed out some eye sockets, and applied paint and gold leaf, the chameleon was complete. One of the best parts is that it still functions like a child’s toy—giving it a certain Joseph Cornell air.

I imagine that through all this discussion you may be wondering, "Why would you place a gilded chameleon in a reliquary anyway?" Without divulging too much about the work in progress, I will mention that the chameleon reflects the very sentiments with which I began this essay. Many of us live multifaceted lives in which our various interests cause us to become "all things to all people."

Political correctness has so subdivided our society into various, predetermined, sub-cultural roles that we often find ourselves exhibiting one form of behaviors in one setting and a completely different set in another. While I am not implying that we are being untruthful or immoral in any of these actions, I do suggest that this belittles the complexity of who we are as human beings. We cannot be defined by checking off the boxes that best describe our main interests and personality traits.

In order to navigate this complex terrain we have learned to acclimate to each new circumstance. The chameleon-like ability to do this is held sacred to many. Considering that most of us will now change careers nearly half a dozen times in our lives, this might be thought of as an asset. Conversely, we may want to criticize a culture that vigorously opposes any ambiguities or "seemingly" antithetical beliefs or interests held by an individual. Philosophies and ideologies are far from perfect and it will take our entire lives to decipher our personal belief systems. These will also change and transform over time. The chameleon is, therefore, an accurate portrayal of our human growth and self understanding.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville: The Full Weight of the Body

Rumors concerning the death of painting have perpetually surfaced for half a century now. Yet the pluralism of postmodernism has left sufficient room for this more ancient form of art to remain. That being said, the role of the realist figurative painter seems to shrink a little more each year. In Britain, however, which has tended to champion some of the most innovative and non-traditional artists for the better part of two decades, there remains an unbroken line of figurative painters.

This is not an endless chain of teachers and pupils who pass down a strictly academic style of paint application, technique, and style; rather, there remains a continual fascination with the human form and its attendant psychological trappings. The subject of psychology and matters of the mind naturally brings us to the grandson of Sigmund Freud—Lucian Freud. Freud, the painter, has been hailed by many as the most important contemporary figurative painter for the past few decades.

Psychological states are certainly integral to Freud’s canvases, but physicality is really the dominant feature. The painter’s style, which began in a more surrealist vein, progressed to a maturity based on the physical qualities of the paint itself. By the 1980s the paint was not just a tool employed to present a facsimile of a human form on canvas. The encrustations of the medium and pigment on the canvas surface took on a substantial physicality of their own which bore the fullness of human presence.

The broad view of Freud’s work suggests an interest in humanity’s complexity and dignity. Again, as the work matured, the scenes depicted became less like staged theatrical productions—less like historical or mythological scenes of the past—and more like the focused gaze of an artist within his studio. Aside from strict portraits (most notably his 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II), the bulk of Freud’s paintings are quite obviously models posed within the arena of the artist’s studio.

By stripping away the props and accoutrements of some fictional, staged scene—and often the model’s clothing—Freud directs our focus on the person or persons as he views them. These are typically friends and family members. The artist feels a need to know his models. The result is that his familiarity produces such a high level of vulnerability (on the model’s part) and scrutiny (on the artist’s part) that we are drawn past the magnificent surfaces into the hidden psychological aspects below. This forms a grafting of the physical with the psychological.

Freud’s work is often linked to the confident corporeality of his subjects. Rotund figures with excessive mounds of flesh have become a trademark. At times these figures seem little more than an exercise in the mastery of materials. The protuberances of paint are a stand-in for the folds of flesh, though a mere masterful bravado is seldom the end. The starkness of these immense figures within the limits of the studio space provides a glimpse beyond their sheer fleshiness and beyond that sole trait that we most often associate with an obese figure—the immensity of his or her physical body.

One of Freud’s most notoriously fleshy works—Benefits Supervisor Sleeping—sold at auction from Christie’s in New York in 2008 for $33.64 million.The estimated selling price would have made it the highest selling work by a living artist at that time. Yet all the publicity aside, this painting brings several signature elements of Freud’s work into alignment. The fleshiness and encrusted paint surface are coupled with the placement of the figure inside a studio setting, in a pose that heightens the sense of her physical weight with psychological heft. Still, the work is steeped in the tradition of the male gaze and the complicated heritage that that implies after the introduction of feminist theories.

Fellow Brit Jenny Saville approaches the figure with the sensibilities of a younger generation. She keeps one foot firmly planted in the figurative tradition that includes both Freud and Francis Bacon, but she is also ranked among the YBAs (Young British Artists) who rose to prominence in the mid-1990s. Her contemporaries are artists like Damien Hirst. Both artists were included in the infamous Sensation exhibition that induced cultural tremors when displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Saville’s work may seem conservative in comparison to Hirst’s, but something more than a cursory glance reveals shared traits with the other YBAs.

Saville’s images are typically viewed through the lens of feminism, but that is too narrow a construction. The paintings that exhibit lines and shapes drawn onto the naked skin of fleshy females (Plan) imply the pre-surgical markings of a plastic surgeon. The artist actually observed plastic surgeries in the year after her art school studies. While there are connections to body image and the pressures placed on women in contemporary cultures—worldwide and not just in the West—the work is more expansive than that.

Saville’s figures do not merely exhibit a density of flesh, they often allude to severe physical traumas. The figures are wounded at times, yet the viewer is uncertain whether these are self-imposed traumas or the results of living in a tragic, broken world. Hybrid (1997) seems like a patchwork quilt of skin—a body mismatched to its ill-fitting parts. And this idea of not necessarily feeling at one with the body is a recurring theme in Saville’s work.

The displacement is most noticeable in the works of transvestites and transsexuals. There remains a uniquely female gaze, even in these works. To take these specific paintings on their own, divorced from Saville’s entire oeuvre, is to misread them. Saville is not simply concerned with issues of gender identity, nor even the finer points of feminism. Her work rings truer when linked to the universal theme of self identity.

Like Freud, Saville is exploring the linkage of body and soul. The physical weight sensed in a representational style and the inflictions enacted on Saville’s figures both allude to the woundings of the psyche and the immensity of existential crises in modern and contemporary human beings.

The adoption of the figure as the primary image in periods following the rise to prominence of abstraction and non-objectivity can be risky. It has sometimes been aligned with a non-progressive traditionalism that has been touted as irrelevant. The Greenbergian criticisms that still echo through contemporary art criticism favor elements of the chaotic and performative. And while analysis of art in these terms has trickled down to our larger culture in diluted forms like "reality television," it only subtly impacts the thinking of the average person. That is a primary reason why the figure has not disappeared in contemporary art. Its presence acts as a necessary ligament connecting the ordinary person to his or her place in the wider world.

In viewing the paintings of Freud and Saville we are each confronted with more than naked humanity. Ultra-physical bodies resonate with our own primal needs to uncover the complexity of being—physically and spiritually—and the implications that hold sway over our every day existence. This is why figurative work will never go out of fashion; our figure-to-figure relationship with artwork is a basic and necessary human experience.