Wednesday, August 29, 2007

And Now For Something...

... completely different--though nothing ever is. As we shall see...

Ellie and I walked down the hill yesterday, late afternoon, to enjoy a glass of wine with our neighbor, the artist Marcia Hafif. A painter in the tradition of minimalist, monochromatic work, she's just completing a new series of bichromatic paintings and has them hanging in her living room. I didn't count them, but I guess there are perhaps a dozen of them, each square divided vertically into two non-equal parts whose graduated width evokes the rhythmic progression of a spare, musical composition as the eye follows the series around the room. The paintings have a silvery, silken glow to them, with barely perceptible modulations on two subdued colors, both difficult to name; one is a kind of subtly mauvish grey, the other a reduced celadon green. They would have the fluffy seductiveness of cotton candy, but for the carefully-structured formal context that lends them a quiet sobriety and depth. In keeping with the history of Hafif's work, their Zen-like reductiveness induces a state of meditative attention and serenity, but there's a gentle quality in the touch that keeps them from being severe. Up close, the artist's hand is everywhere evident in the patient brushwork and this, I think, is where the viewer is invited into the work. This is chink in the formalist armor where we come in contact with the human presence and the human values that give the work its depth of content.

Not an adequate description, perhaps, because such work defies attempts to translate it into language. I was reminded once again of the seeming contradiction in my aesthetic passions: while I'm attracted to the work of artists who persist in looking to the human form and to the landscape that surrounds us, I also get that frisson of recognition, of acknowledgement--that YES!--with reductive, even monochromatic work like Marcia's. It's the response that tells me that what I'm looking at has something vital to tell me about my own humanity.

Outdoors, on Marcia's deck, with a glass of wine, we got to talking about art, and music, and literature--but not in that awful academic way, that one-upman trade of esoteric information and display of intellect. Our conversation came, I think, out of mutual experience and the process in which we are engaged in our creative work, and the ways in which that process is fed by others who have walked the path before. So Marcia could speak easily about Fra Angelico and the painting he had made for himself, in his cell, beside the window, competing with that light source, so that its whiteness--the painting's--became central to its meaning. And somehow this gave another dimension of meaning to the work we had just been looking at, and led to more thoughts about painting and writing, and engagement with the medium as having meaning in itself. And how emotion is conveyed more vitally not by the heavy sighs but by the unspoken subtleties--which brought me back, again, to thoughts about Jane Austen.

All interesting stuff. Thinking back to yesterday's entry, and the anger, and the reticence about giving vent to it, and wondering how "Buddhist" it might be, I realize that the relationship between passion and dispassion is a close one indeed. The idea that passion can be experienced perhaps more deeply through restraint, that equanimity does not imply removal--this idea is one that's worth exploring.

I trust I haven't bored you all today, with my aesthetic speculations. To me, they're anything but abstract, like Marcia's paintings. Very present, very real. See? As the French say, Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. (Approximately: The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

AND ANOTHER EPIPHANY...

... sent to me by my friend Marsha, also an artist (though spelled differently from the Marcia above; just another of those strange coincidences!) who was reluctant to use the "Comments" button. It's a lovely story, so I append it here. Enjoy...

The lucky thing about my childhood was my father's sense of adventure and his total lack of care as to where we might end up. We went on great trips all over the west, driving for hours, days. I spent all that time looking at the land, the forms, and the horizon line. I think that is where I learned what America really is. Anyway, one summer we were traveling through Navaho country and my father announced that we were going to stay the night at Goulding's Trading Post in Monument Valley. Goulding's was known because some of the great westerns were made there by and with John Wayne, John Ford, etc. Needless to say it was not a tourist destination, as it is today. To get there meant driving miles on a two lane road through the reservation and then off on a dirt road for a while.

We arrived late in the afternoon. A storm was coming in. The place was situated high against red cliffs, overlooking the spectacular valley with its endless flat land and scattered red buttes and mesas rising straight up. It was a working trading post with some out buildings, two of which were the low slung guest quarters and the dining hall.

Once we were settled, I wandered out to where the dirt road began to slope toward the valley. There was another girl standing there looking out. She was a guest too. I don't remember her name, but I do remember being impressed because she was thirteen, which made her a big girl, and she wanted to be an anthropologist. We talked a while, watching the storm move in across the valley as the sun began to set. Then we wandered into the trading post.

It was dark with log walls. Lariats and silver necklaces hung from pegs, sort of glinting because they caught what light there was. At the back of the store in the darkness was Goulding himself, leaning on the counter with his hands spread apart. My new friend said, "It's windy outside". Goulding answered, "That's what spreads the seeds". At that moment I got the big picture. It was as if I could see and feel the whole universe and the interrelatedness of everything. The experience washed over me and was very quiet, very deep. Still is.

The storm arrived after sunset. Lighting strikes, long , skinny ones from sky to earth, lit the valley in high contrast black and white. We were so lucky because we could witness it from our little room against the cliffs.

I never told my parents or anyone about my experience for a long time. I was sort of mute about it. I just felt it and knew what it was, even as a little kid...

8 comments:

LB said...

Interesting topic, passion vs dispassion. Do we equate equanimity with dispassion? Yesterday was the anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream Speech", a stunning example of the transformation of anger into something creative. Passionate, but not destructive.

I keep remembering, also, the Buddhist monks' self-immolation during the the Vietnam War. Also passionate gestures.

How we express our concern in this apathetic, but troubling, time is the question to me. Are silent vigils and editorials enough? The political situation obviously isn't bad enough for people to start withholding taxes and (thankfully) committing suicide over the killing in Iraq, but it is somehow painful to just sit and accept with equanimity.

The description of the beautiful, subtle paintings is lovely. I hope we can transform this political situation with equal subtlety, or at least effective creativity.

They call him James Ure said...

You haven't bored me friend!! I'm a fellow art nut. That "flow" you spoke of in Zen like art is why I like to paint in my own version of abstract/surrealist styles.

Much of my art has deep spiritual symbolism. My last piece is a portrait of Buddha and I next want to do a painting of Ganesh.

They call him James Ure said...

I also want to just do some "play with colors" stuff too.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, LB, for the perceptive comments--and for having caught something of the spirit of those paintings! Thanks, too, to James, for not being bored, and for caring about art and Buddhism enough to bring the two together!

carly said...

P: I know you will find some insights in the New Yorker article. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. And it relates to this:

I think a good distinction to be made in clarifying yours and my expiations is the difference between inward and outward, when we are internalizing or externalizing. For instance, I would think it is un-Buddhist to be outraged by presidents and their lawyers, for they should not matter and are influences superfluous to the thrust of the idea. However, even the buddhist will not escape the emotional impulses of the mammal vertebrata which constitute us as men. As mundane as it may be, rules of conduct are essential.
The sage is a third alternate: to affect change indirectly or without action from a position of inner peace, a Ghandi approach, which is inward but influences the outer world, for the sage works in the background. Very few people can do this however.

The same could be applied to the art you speak of. It sounds like an example of inward vision, deeply personal with no desire to effect change out in the world. And outrage art, of course, is public. Goya, for example, best effected this type of art, which is not propaganda however, for he internalized, then externalized evil by exposing it in the public light. And Goya also did inward art, best shown in the paintings of La Quinta del Sol, the Black Paintings, painted for an audience of one, in deafness by candlelight. They defy analysis and are among the most enigmatic inward works anywhere.

So, like Goya, you have two sides, an inward, peace seeking part, and an outward desire to affect change seeking part. I mention this because we understand you are speaking from the public part.

So, go in peace and carry on the jolly good fight.

Mark said...

Peter-
My first response to the question you raised about Mother Theresa is one of amazement. To me, it's incredible that she could be that honest with herself and the people who looked up to her that she could question something that crucial to her life.

It is also amazing to me, and what I strive for, that she didn't need that belief to live her life. Whether or not God exists, helping people and being selfless in that regard is a good thing. Even if she couldn't be sure about the existence of God, people need someone to reach out and love them. That reaching out in love affects people the same whether you're doing it in the name of God or in the name of secular humanism, right?

That notion, that people need help and love no matter who's name it is or for what reason, is more of the example Mother Theresa set for us all than her faith in the divine, in my young opinion.

LB said...

Had to post a "Thank You" to Marsha and Peter for the Monument Valley story. Windy days have always been my favorites, and now I understand why...

robin andrea said...

I love Marsha's story about the storm and the seeds. Those are the epiphanies that wake the spirit to the whole world. Thrilling and momentous.