Well, I thought I’d post my first real term paper of my PhD program. It is entitled “Dangerous Aesthetics.” I have tried to make it as readable as possible, but I’ll let you be the judge! The paper is an exploration of the morality of aesthetics. In other words, is it possible to use those things that give us visual pleasure to manipulate us? The Nazis used visual imagery like it was going out of style. Walter Benjamin called this politics made aesthetic, that is, you turn the regime into something that generates visual pleasure of one sort or another. What I’ve done is to look at the issue from the standpoint of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics, and ask if there is a way of protecting beauty from being used for purposes of terror? I’ll be giving a shortened version of this paper while I am in New York, as part of my IDSVA residency. I’ll add some images for the presentation, and share them with you, too,
I’m off to New York City in January for an intensive residency with IDSVA (Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts). Last spring we were in Italy, and in the meantime we’ve been force-fed a diet of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Freud. Someone asked me on Christmas Day: “Does philosophy help you to live your life?” It’s a great question. After all, philosophy, along with art and religion, is the field that asks “What is the meaning of life?” Philosophy has the problem of being an ambiguous science (with its soul-mates art and religion best not making the claim that they are sciences). It’s the one science with no clear boundaries. My answer, though (to cut my story short, which I can see would go on forever!), was that philosophy gives us a means of analysis. It does not as much answer, but asks questions. That sounds uninspiring, but it is not. It gives us a way to clarify problems, to nibble at them. We are naturally seekers; just think what a letdown it often is to buy something, get it home, and realize it was more fun to think about getting it than to actually have it. Asking is more interesting than answering.
Below is the artist’s statement I wrote for an upcoming exhibition at Matzke Fine Art Gallery and Sculpture Park, which runs from September 28th – November 10th, 2013. We just studied Freud late this summer, and interestingly enough, even though I was already familiar with the concepts that I mention in the statement, reading Freud gave me the confidence and vocabulary to state my ideas more explicitly and clearly. Thanks to Lorena Morales, my fellow IDSVA student, who pointed out my rather Kantian inclination regarding subjective experience. We just studied Kant, but I was oblivious to how much I had assimilated his ideas.
Hjortspring Boat with a detail image, above. “Weia! Waga!” and Dowager, with a detail image, below.
Private Experience in the Public Realm
The undercurrent of our human existence is that as individuals you and I have private, subjective experiences, even when we are in public. We walk around with our private thoughts, not necessarily oblivious to the world, of course; we can be quite engaged with people and things around us, yet we are still experiencing reality from an individual perspective. How does personal experience remain subjective, yet be obviously affected by that which is universal—those very things that define us and from which no one is exempt—such as life and death?
Sigmund Freud thought that living things have both a life-instinct and a death-instinct, called Eros and Thanatos. That is, we have a desire for growth and regeneration, but also a wish to return to nothingness. It is a very provocative idea, and I can now see that it pervades the sculptural installations that I have in this exhibition.
Much of the inspiration for this work came from my visit to Europe in the summer of 2010. I saw the extant Viking ships in Oslo, Norway, and in Roskilde, Denmark. I also saw the pre-Viking Hjortspring Boat in Copenhagen (it is a much larger version of my Hjortspring Boat here in the gallery). The Oslo ships were actual tombs and interred human remains, although one really has no sense of that when seeing them in person. Perhaps because of that disconnect, and because I also saw the lavish tombs of the Danish monarchs at Roskilde Cathedral, I felt compelled to create work that crossed a gulf between life and death.
My Hjortspring Boat is an homage to those Danish tombs and their uninhibited celebration of continuity and power; it is simultaneously a kind of cradle, swaying gently, and funeral bier. I collected the flowers from a cemetery dumpster, like a grave-robber. The flower-corpse was initially made for the lace boat, but it did not seem quite right there. So, I made the Hjortspring Boat specifically to fit it.
The title “Weia! Waga!” and Dowager is meant to signify this combination of life and death, or love and death, with the lace alluding to seduction or widowhood. “Weia! Waga!” are the first two words of Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold. Some consider them to be a kind of German baby-talk, and they are often left untranslated into English. The next words in the opera are “Woge, du Welle.” (“Awaken, you waves.”). No matter the exact translation, it was Wagner’s representation of the birth of speech or sentience itself. Like Wagner, I want to show the relation of beginnings to endings.
A vessel form is an evocative symbol. One could see the levitating vessel form as a metaphor for our precarious state as living beings, or as a kind of coffin in which we will be interred. Yet I would like to avoid easy metaphors, and instead create an environment for you to have your own experiences. And, in spite of the serious subject matter, I hope the sense of pleasure with which I created this work is also apparent.
I borrowed the Three Graces from the Piccolimini Library at the Duomo in Siena (from a photograph that I took), and placed them in another landscape (or is it a seascape?), this time a Venetian fantasy. I mentioned my fixation with the interplay between interior exterior spaces in my post on Raw Siena. What strikes me about Italy is how people’s private lives seem to spill out into public spaces, and it is my pet theory that this manifests in Italian art. Think of the Mona Lisa. She seems to be sitting inside, yet outside, the mountains in the background are distinctly portrayed, not as a decorative motif, but as something important.
What I particularly like about this collage (actually, I guess it’s more of a painting since the only collaged element is the photograph of the sculpture of the Three Graces), is the topsy-turvy nature of it. That certainly makes me think of Venice! The sky looks like water, and the water like fields of grain or a plain surrounding the city. Everything seems to sway or at least tip, since the ground subsides, and buildings lean. Plus, riding on the vaporetto (the motor launches that go from place to place) gives one sea-legs, and I found myself feeling like I was still at sea while standing on land.
Here is another collage, like A Debt in Venice, meant to integrate ideas from my Italian junket (actually my IDSVA residency!) with work that I have already been doing. In this case, I reused a panel that was an abstracted landscape painting (in acrylic) and added a photographic element. In this case, the photo was of a marble sculpture of the Graces in the Piccolimini Library at the Duomo in Siena that I took. I removed the frescos that appeared behind the Three Graces, turning them into the Tuscan blue sky, not because they weren’t fantastic, but because I was inspired by them in a rather peculiar way. I layered thin paper over everything. It gave a nice tooth, and then I repainted certain sections (which are more vivid).
Because the spectacular frescos [http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/p/pinturic/siena/] gave one a sense of being inside and outside a the same time, I wanted to depict the Graces also as being inside and outside simultaneously. Something struck me about the three-dimensional ladies living in a room whose walls were covered with two-dimensional depictions of space. So, I wanted to show the ladies in an inside-outside landscape, with the architectural elements behind them as a kind sham ruin. Note that the arches are “real” in that they are the actual architectural elements of the library wall and ceiling, but they are also depicted in the frescos, so the “real” interior extends illusionistically into the frescos. I’m planning to go further in this exploration of interior exteriors, but I need to make some more images. Writing helps clarify ideas; it sets the stage, so to speak, for what ultimately needs to be expressed visually.
Now that I’m in a PhD program in Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory (at IDSVA), I feel that I ought to say something profound about the works of art that I’m making. But—perhaps this is a good thing—I find it more difficult to write about the work that to actually make it. Part of the problem, I realize, is a desire to give an explanation in the correct context. Doing so, however, makes me feel obligated to go back to the beginning of whatever train of thought that manifests itself in the art. That’s ironic, though, because in the works of art themselves, I never feel compelled to do that. Visually, it seems to me that the context is built in, since a work of art creates its own world to exist in. An explanatory text, on the other hand, seems forlorn: “If I, Little Text, were more interesting, I’d be a work of art, too!”
This painted collage, entitled A Debt in Venice, was started at Spannocchia Castle during my residency there with IDSVA. The original collaged elements were the phallic constructions flanking the figure. Those are actually Italian cheeses, not penises! The figure is not a collage, but a drawing based on an Adonis statue of late Antiquity, that I subsequently painted. The background is an abstracted landscape that I sketched several years ago and never painted, but turned from “landscape” to “portrait.” What I wanted to do was to assimilate the experiences of my time in Italy from the perspective of being back home in Seattle. I was inspired to do (what I hope is blatantly) homo-erotic imagery, inspired by the candid discussions of sexuality during our IDSVA residency, with a particular (or perhaps I mean peculiar?) nod to George Smith’s lectures on Freud. George let it all hang out, so to speak. . .The title A Debt in Venice is an homage to Thomas Mann. The Hotel des Bains from A Death in Venice was a short walk from our hotel on the Lido. My thanks to Simonetta Moro for pointing it out. I would have never remembered since I read Death many years ago!
Walking into St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice is entering another world. It is dark inside compared with the dazzling Venetian light outdoors, which seems to emanate from all directions. What is also disorienting is the undulating floor. Centuries of settling have made it like the surface of the sea, but the waves are frozen and mosaic tiled. Above, it is another sea, this time of gold. Opulent and heady, everything seems to be encrusted with gold, with spectacular mosaics lining the multitudes of domes that make up the ceiling.
I wanted to share an idea that popped into my head after visiting Saint Mark’s in Venice. Plainly put, what if the Protestant Reformation was not what it claimed to be about—a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s corruption and intention to act as a gatekeeper between man and God—but a rejection of exoticism and “orientalism” as represented by Saint Mark’s Basilica? Christianity, after all, is a Middle Eastern religion, and I cannot help but wonder if the Reformation, centered as it was in Germanic (including Anglo-Saxon) northwestern Europe, was a reassertion of a Germanic sensibility. I am reminded of certain undercurrents in Norse mythology, which (itself derived from Teutonic myths), namely a suspicion of the feminine and of mysticism. I suspect that these cultural undercurrents were merely dormant as Christianity spread throughout Europe, and reasserted themselves in Northwestern Europe.
I am trying to make this a brief blog post, just to get this idea out into the world. The subject is so complicated, and I am aware that I will be stepping on a lot of toes, offending some. Yet, an idea is an idea, and I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind, especially since I was inspired by my visit to baroque Venice. This baroque opulence was the visual manifestation of the Counter-Reformation. If the Protestants in the north where going to be iconoclasts, the Roman Catholics intended to further embrace visual imagery as part of the religious experience. I should mention that St. Mark’s dates from the byzantine era with later additions, some of which date from the baroque period, if I have my facts correct. Most significantly, it represents a lavishness that was antithetical to Protestantism.
Please feel free to post comments. I’m grateful for comments and encouragement regarding my nascent theory that I received from my fellow students at IDSVA, Lorena Morales and Shadieh Mirmobiny, our professor, Simonetta Moro, and last but not least, the inimitable Brittany Olsen.
The following is a blog post I wrote as the final assignment for the first-year summer residency for IDSVA in Italy. It’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but also to point out the odd relationship we have with a work of art. Personally, I make no distinction between “low” and “high” art. For instance, ceramic ware can be beautiful as well as functional. Painting, on the other hand, aspires to be fine art, but there are plenty of examples of really awful paintings. Sincerity is a bad word these days. We don’t use it to refer to art any more because it sounds sentimental and old-fashioned. Instead, we have catch-words like “intentionality.” Obviously, the words don’t mean the same thing. Intentionality means, typically, that the artist is saying that what they are doing is “art.” If it’s a pile of trash, and they call it art, it’s art. Sincerity, though, to me means that the artist is striving not just for audacity (or perhaps not striving for it at all), but to create something meaningful, using their skill and intellect as well as they can. My post is an answer, to some extent, to the question “Is it art?” I am trying to be funny, but the following really did occur, and I was trying to accurately document my impressions and feelings.
Installation view of “Cripplewood”
At the Belgian pavilion after walking around the amazing “Cripplewood” tree installation, I walk through a doorway into an adjacent room and expect some kind of artistic experience, an encounter. But there is apparently nothing there in the murk. I have a feeling of dismay; I am disappointed. Then I am disappointed by my own disappointment. I have stepped into the abyss, taken the plunge, ready for adventure, with my biennale maps and catalogs in hand, like so many travel brochures for far away places, but there is no destination in this room. I have merely stepped into an empty room. My anticipation that something interesting might be there turns into self-consciousness as I meet the bored gaze of the guard, whose eyes seem to say, “there is no here here.” This peripheral room is purgatory.
Well, I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve enrolled in a low-residency PhD program in Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory at IDSVA (Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts). First stop, Tuscany!
The uncanny thing is, when I was in New York, I kept gravitating to the European Decorative wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I kept thinking, I should do a master’s degree in art history, since I am interested in the ideas associated (in, on, over, under) with art. What especially piqued my interest was the Wedgwood pottery – the blue and white Jasper Ware (photo below) – which makes me swoon. In a sense, I shouldn’t like it, because it was calculated to be beautiful by the illustrious Josiah Wedgwood, more than 200 years ago. Thus, it should be suspect, and it is. Wedgwood has churned out zillions of these things, and the vases are still made today. How could old Josiah’s vision, his projection of neo-classical beauty, last this long, through all these repetitions? Is an individual vase a work of art if it is created after Josiah’s time? He hired the artists to do the cameo-like bas-reliefs, John Flaxman being the most accomplished and celebrated. Josiah was a scientist, salesman, artisan. . .but was he an artist? My gut instinct is resoundingly “yes!” Like a Fellini, or an Altman, or a Spielberg, he put things together. He didn’t need to (nor could he) do all the work, but he could project his vision, and create an aesthetic response in a viewer, even as his work is infinitely reproduced, like a DVD of Fellini’s 8-1/2 that I put in a player.
My little homage to Wedgwood aside (as you can tell, I’m completely enamored), when I returned home I happened to have an invitation from IDSVA, via email, to attend an online presentation of their Topological Studies program. My first thought, not knowing what “topological” meant (“maps”? “landscape”?), was to be dismissive of what I saw as pretense. But, I signed up for the presentation, with the little angel and devil sitting on either shoulder, arguing, then in agreement, then abandoning their posts. During the presentation there was a snow storm on the East Coast (I was actually sitting outside in the Seattle area, since it was mild here!), so initially the sound quality was bad, but Simonetta Moro, Associate Professor and Director of the school mentioned the word “space” several times, in both a physical and metaphorical context. It was as if I were awakened from a dream (or put into one), hearing the word, especially as it was being related to ideas of time. In New York, I had seen Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, and all of the sudden, I felt like the main character who states: “I scarcely tread/ yet seem already to have come far.” To which, Gurnemanz, the kindly monk replies, “You see, my son/ time here becomes space.” This odd set of references to time and space knocked me off kilter. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think the reasons are both conscious and unconscious. Time and space are bizarre concepts. We know what they are, don’t we? We do, in the sense that we can function in the world without needing concrete definitions of them. Scientifically and philosophically the issues become more complicated, and as a sculptor time and space are integral aspects of my work (if only at the simplest level where we say that a sculpture inhabits a space, and the element of time is represent by the fact that the viewer takes time to look at it).
Something tells me that there is something (a favorite word!) underlying all of this time-and-space stuff, General Relativity and String Theory notwithstanding. I think there is something fundamental to be discovered, exploring unanswerable questions, especially since art itself is an unanswerable question. Rather, I should say that these questions cannot be definitively answered. One can answer and come up with all sorts of tripe in the meantime. But, an exploration of ideas is a beautiful and enriching thing, and I know that it will enrich my studio work. I came across an essay by Mircea Eliade in Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts in which he stated his creative outlets in writing fiction enriched his academic pursuits, even though this is frowned upon in academia. He felt that the two were in a symbiotic, not oppositional relationship.
Returning to IDSVA: it became clear that topological simply referred to context in which something exists, both in space and time, like the Italian Renaissance. My initial preconception, a suspicion of pretentiousness, was wrong. It was like lying in bed, reading a book, not realizing you are no longer in the world of the wakeful, until the book smacks you on the chin. Now I feel awake again.
One of the things that I wanted to do, more or less the minute I started doing ceramics about a year-and-three-quarters ago, was slip casting. Plus, porcelain sounded gloriously mysterious. . .White gold. . .Liquid porcelain is poured into a two part plaster mold, poured back out again, et voila, a copy of the original. So easy. Except in practice. However, here is Little Man, a prototype for a series of figures that I want to do, and possibly project video images inside of them, if I can make the porcelain translucent enough. He is cast in cone 6 Grolleg from Clay Art Center in Tacoma, Washington, and glazed with Seattle Pottery Supply’s clear glaze. He is about 9 inches tall (what’s that. . .about, uh, 23 cm. . .I had to look it up), and the wall thickness is less than 1/8 inch (3 mm), perhaps less, but not quite thin enough. Subsequent castings that I left for a shorter time in the mold were too weak to handle, partly because my mold wasn’t perfect. I’m working on another.
Technicalities aside, I’m very pleased with the way he turned out. The inspiration came from recumbent tomb statuary in Europe that I saw over the last couple of years (especially Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark, and St. Denis outside of Paris). I will write about this more as this work develops, but I am trying for a mythic figure, a sort of heroic everyman (or everywoman, since there will be female figures also), that will be vague but particular, mysterious but not spooky. I may sound like I’m being coy, but I am not. I am serious in my exploration of ambiguities. I have decided not to pretend that there are words for some things. I have also embraced the idea that my thought process can be intuitive and intellectual, with each bolstering the other. (I just realized that I’ve stolen this idea from Henri Bergson, to a great extent. I have always had a weakness for French philosophers, I guess). .
I don’t think I have ever sculpted a human figure before, strangely enough (having been trained initially as a painter), and I found the experience to be very satisfying. It’s odd to realize you haven’t done something before that you should have done. It’s also odd that it seemed so natural, that eventually my self-consciousness and trepidation left me, and a tactile, sensuous pleasure took over. To me, that sensuous satisfaction carries over into the finished piece. I don’t know how well that carries over into the photographs, since he is meant to be seen in person, but I hope you get an inkling.