- Cormac McCarthy The Passenger, page 174
Good in the world
You have to believe that there is good in the world. I’m going to say that you have to believe that the work of your hands will bring it into your life. You may be wrong, but if you don’t believe that you will not have a life. You may call it one. But it won’t be one.
New Art Statement
My work is not about me. It is not self-expression, but rather self-less-expression. Rather than a world represented, it is the world itself presented. My central focus and intention is a very particular gesture, upright and present, the physical attitude of a monk in meditation. It is contemplative.
Contemplative art is non-confrontative, yet inevitably at odds with our culture. This is an uncomfortable position for an artist. Today's America, as we all know, is awash in over-stimulating, under-nourishing imagery. Most of us live in visually busy cities, driving and being driven at high speeds down the road and through the air, perennially absorbed in our restless screens. The scale of this assault on our senses is historically unprecedented. Today’s eyes, relentlessly taxed with the daily effort of sorting this bombardment, are sorely in need of a more contemplative visual engagement. Unfortunately, the art world appears less concerned with this need every year. Most of what I encounter in galleries and museums mirrors and contributes to the neurosis of the culture that produced it. This is an unacknowledged tragedy of our times, when even fine art is overstimulating. When our eyes do not rest, neither do our spirits. When our eyes are abused, so are our hearts.
The challenge for me then, as a twenty-first century contemplative, is to meet this growing need with art that is good to spend time with, art that heals with a meditative visual engagement, art that rewards contemplative attention. My day-to-day intention is to create art that opens space within, and as well as apart from, the visual chaos of our lives, art that offers space in which to breathe. Contemplative art is quiet, but engaging, soft spoken, yet articulate. When seriously absorbed, this art restores the spirit and brings goodness to the heart.
Contemplative art does not demand attention, yet it rewards interest. Because it is nonaggressive, it will be easily overlooked, yet when seen it tends to satisfy. Most of my work is comfortable to be called still life: alive but still. It is quiet, a whisper only, never a shout. It lives in the shadows, never competing for the limelight. It only stands out when sought out. Because it has no political or social agenda, it is unlikely to be the center of most people’s attention, reviewed in newspapers or featured in art journals. It does not ask to be noticed. I have often noted that when I visit an art gallery, the art that I most value in the end is the art that I didn’t see on my first walk through, because it didn't call attention to itself.
The artwork I make is intended for just such cultural invisibility. It Is not meant to be discovered by the unquiet eye, but to feed the engaged and honest seeker. I do not ask it to be easy, but to bring ease to the struggling spirit. In the end contemplative art is experienced as pure gift, undemanding and generous.
Last week Friday I had the opportunity to tour the MIA with my daughter, Jill. We went especially to see the Botticelli exhibit, with selections of artwork from the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. It was a great opportunity to see things that only visitors to Italy would ordinarily see, and we were grateful to have them here for a time. It was crowded, but we could still get close to most things eventually. Very impressive paintings, of course, some very large. Although I noticed what I have observed before over the years, that after viewing all the "masterpieces," it was the smaller images -- in fact, in this case the drawings -- that seemed to mean the most to me. They are so intimate. So carefully and thoughtfully rendered, with only the most modest of ambitions for themselves. The larger works were intended for prominent installation in cathedrals and palatial homes, but these drawings were probably tucked away in books and folders once they had accomplished their purpose of helping to plan the paintings they led to. They may have been framed and hung on walls at some early date, but even then their presence would have had to be a very low key contribution to a larger space. And yet, I kept going back to them to view them more closely. They rewarded our close attention.
Jill and I also spent some time looking around the rest of the museum. Two of my favorite rooms featured drawings from late 19th century Europe, and I again was drawn in to their intimacy and modesty of scale and ambition. While the Botticelli was a crowded $20 special exhibit, the rest of the museum is free -- but we pretty much had these other rooms to ourselves. Very quiet, for the most part. There were a lot of school children milling about, and they weren't always very quiet, but it's good that they were there, I think. I was especially happy to see them in the African and Asian exhibits, reacting naively and authentically to the objects that naturally struck them as so odd. Such foreign cultures which created such unique items... There was so much to see...
Most of what is there goes largely unseen, of course. I had to wonder if some pieces had been closely viewed in years. We walk by treasures that could fill our hearts and minds for a lifetime were we to stop and really take them in. I, of course, walked by most of it with the reset of the crowd. I stopped and looked as much as I could, but there is too much. There is no way to take it all in, even in a lifetime of looking. For instance, I spent some time with the Islamic art before Jill joined me. Breathtaking art -- but only if one has the time to look at it. As well as it is enshrined and displayed it can be hard to see fully. It's so out of context, lifted from some time and place and placed under plexiglass... It made me think of my Remnants series, where I have set aside bits and pieces of the natural world to create a way of valuing those small objects which are so easily overlooked -- and fast disappearing -- in our culture. These precious objects on display struck me as remnants of long past cultures, mere markers of history to most who encounter them, and that is all. Objects that were once vibrant pieces of life for people now live as artifacts in a museum to remind us that we don't make things like this anymore... There is a sadness that comes with this viewing...
Today I watched a video of Siberian nomads assembling their tent-like homes up in the Arctic snow. Beautiful people making beautiful living spaces.
"The Nenet reindeer herders need to move their tent every few days throughout most of the year. Every time they migrate they must pack the whole tent away, drag it across the tundra on sledges, and erect it again in a fresh place, sometimes in temperatures of minus thirty degrees. Survival depends on working together as a team."
There is no art on their walls, of course, because their walls are art. The purpose of art in our "Western" culture is at least partially at all times to counteract the offensive ugliness of the rest of what we surround ourselves with. But if you are already surrounded on all sides by beauty, what would be the purpose of art? To tell stories, perhaps, or to record history? I suppose. But there seems to be no need for contemplative art. Their entire lifestyle is contemplative. Am I romanticizing? Perhaps.
In any case, I admire these people. You may find the video here, with more description of their life:
Of opinions and appreciation
A few days ago a friend sent me an image he liked that was posted on Facebook, a painting. I liked it too. But as I scrolled down and read the comments that accompanied other that and other images I was reminded why I left Facebook a few years ago. Opinions. Opinion, opinions, opinions. Too many opinions. Mostly unsupported opinions, of course, but even the well-supported opinions are tiresome. I ask you, is there anything less contemplative than judgmental statements? I find them exhausting, frankly. Which isn't to say that people are not "entitled" to their opinions -- they are, of course they are -- but to what end? Opinions about artwork, whatever their value to art critics and other individuals who enjoy struggling with discernment, whether "good" or "bad" for whatever reason, serve no contemplative purpose. They don't enlighten; they only distract -- and usually discourage, demean and depress. Or so I experience. I know, I know, there is art that thrives on controversy, art that is made for art-critical review, insights of dissection to ponder and reflect upon, and who am I to say there is not value in such things? I imagine there is. To someone. But not to me. Contemplative Art lives without judgment in a gift economy, where appreciation is not dependent on the weighty dualism that passes for intellect, where one value is forever pitted against another. Nothing disrupts contemplative appreciation quicker than the critical approach.
Well, you may ask, what is the alternative? Do we need to dismiss all matter of discernment? If we are not to approach art with a critical eye, forming opinions about what we like and what we don't like, how are we to look at art? Must we abandon all distinction between one thing and another? No. The contemplative eye is not undiscerning. But the approach is different, as the end is not to judge but to value. If one is presented with a gift one does not say, "I like this, but I don't like that." One simply says thank you, and accepts the gift on the face of it. Appreciation is rooted in whatever can be found of value, without complaint. And art, like life, is a gift. As every tree you see is a gift, a visual blessing whatever its shape, so is a work of art. I taught college level art for 26 years, and never once found a drawing or painting in which I found no value. Does that mean that all art is "good?" Did I give all As, as I've heard some art teachers might? Of course not. Some art is more successful than other art. ...But all art has value on its own terms.
Last night I was reading in an old (1998) book on art called Portraits: Talking with Artists at The Met, The Modern, The Louvre, and Elsewhere, by Michael Kimmelman. In it, artists, one by one, are interviewed by Kimmelman about the art they see together as they walk through galleries. Last night I read the chapter on Brice Marden, and it was a joy to follow along as the two conversed. Marden was full of insights into different pieces, discerning, yet appreciative. He criticized nothing, but enthused often about the varying aspects he discovered in a great variety of art. It was a very different experience for me, taking that all in, from scrolling through Facebook.
My colleague, Erica Bauer, was intrigued when she saw my sketchbook and picked out three! These are her three choices.
I hope they bring contemplative life into your world for years to come, Erica!
I'm proud of my cousin, Nate, for the work he's doing, and happy he is getting the attention he deserves. He's featured at Another Gallery in Denver. Click not he link and take a look at the video embedded that shows his process.
November 25th, 2022
If people looked at good pictures more,
they would learn more about meditation,
and if they meditated
they would learn
about looking at pictures.
-The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 15)
Lately I've been reading the sermons of Martin Luther King. Yes, he was a pastor and minister of The Gospel. I think that is sometimes forgotten. This is the beginning of his ninth sermon in the book, Strength to Love, a book I've had since high school, but never began to really appreciate until this year. I was happy, and a little bit surprised, to come across this sermon based on a verse about the geometry of heaven. But I really shouldn't have been surprised at all. Dr. King's legacy is all about justice, and "justice" (as I mentioned in a recent blog) is defined as "right relationship." And after all, what does geometry describe, but right relationship? Justice. "...ideal humanity...life at it's best is complete on all sides." Where "the length and the breadth and the height of it are equal."
I am an artist. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota.