I had the pleasure this past weekend of seeing the artwork of Toby Sisson at the air sweet air gallery in St. Paul, where she had a one person show. Toby was my student many years ago at The College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, and it was very good to see her again. After CVA she went to grad school at the University of Minnesota, and she is now an Assistent Professor of Studio Art at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. It is very gratifying to see what she has accomplished. She has a rare gift. She is also working in a rare medium, encaustic. It is an old technique of working with wax on panels, and with it she creates a wonderful surface of texture and light.
Her website is http://tobysisson.com/news.html
When I first heard of Ran Ortner he had just won the grand prize of 250,000 dollars at the first ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2009. I have many relatives and friends in that town who were eager to tell me about his wonderful painting of the sea, and I was curious about him. But I couldn’t see the photos of his large painting very well and he more or less slipped from my mind. But last month I received the latest issue of The Sun magazine in the mail, and in it is an interview with him, along with a couple of good photos of his work, including the one above.
Ran Ortner does very large paintings of the ocean. The image featured in the magazine is six feet tall by twenty-four feet long. His work includes no images of people, boats, or flotsam of any kind, for scale or spatial orientation. And he never includes a horizon line. All we are given is the endlessly fascinating surface of the water. The space of these works becomes our space, pushing and pulling on us like the moon on the tides. These paintings are both contemplative and daunting, full of life and energy that requires of the viewer a stong engagment.
I encourage you all to check out his work at his website:
I also encourage you, if you are not familiar with The Sun magazine, to check that out as well. Here is their website:
“The vertical axis is ‘ontological.’ It corresponds to a scale of the degrees of being that extends from the visible matter of this world to absolute divine Spirit.” -- Bruno Barnhart, Second Simplicity
Father Barnhart has perhaps described here why I am drawn to the vertical in my work. In contemplative awareness I dwell on the ontological connection between heaven above and earth below. This is not a reaching so much as a discovering and honoring sensibility. I find in this statement, as I find in much of Fr. Barnhart’s writing, affirmation of my visual and contemplative experience.
However my interest did not begin with this conscious awareness. I was first drawn to the vertical for the way in which it holds the contemplative gaze. There is no wandering in this looking. It is a more centered visual engagement. There is a focus in the consideration of vertical forms that is absent in the broader horizontal.
When I first began making Stone Poems, in 1999, I was very touched by the braveness of the gentle but urgent vertical gestures of precariously balanced stones against the broad Montana skyline. How they stood up against the odds. They echoed the energy of the fragile flower arrangements I had been painting, as well as the delicacy of the Suspended Objects in that series of painting-constructions. There is a prayer in that gesture, a physically enacted yearning of the spirit, to know this ontological axis intimately. In fact, to live inside it, in a way, grounded, yet upright, engaging both heaven and earth.
“The man who lacks the substance of silence is oppressed by the all-too-many things that crowd in upon him every moment of his life today. He cannot be indifferent to the fact that new things are being presented to him every moment, since he must somehow enter into relationship with them. There must be an emotional reaction to each new object so that he can respond, and it is part of the nature of man that he should respond to the object before him. When too many objects crowd in upon him and he has within no silent substance into which a part at least of the multitude of objects can disappear, the resources of emotion and passion which he has at his disposal are insufficient to meet and respond to all the objects. The objects then lie all around him menacingly and without a proper home. To save man from this invasion and congestion of the too-many objects that are beyond his powers of assimilation, he must be brought into relationship again with the world of silence, in which the many objects find their true order automatically, in the world of silence where they spread themselves out into a balanced unity.” – Max Picard, 1948
I discovered a "new" artist today in a used bookstore, Chris Drury. He is older than I and has been around for quite a while, but I had never heard of him. His book, Found Moments in Time and Space, was published in 1998, so it was time I came across it. Though I have to say that being 13 years behind the times is about right for me; I have never been one to keep up very well with the "art world." Many fashions come and go there, and the only work that really interests me is that which transcends time. But I find Drury’s work to be timeless, so any time to discover him is a good time. I expect I will be enjoying this book for many years to come. He reminds me of both Andy Goldsworthy and James Turrell, two other artists who I admire very much. Like them, he is deeply in tune with the natural world, and his work is powerfully grounded in archetypal form. Though his work is very much his own as well, I find it shares with Goldsworthy's and Turrell's a contemplative depth. None of these three artists, from what I have read, self identify as contemplative as such -- each speaks of his work in unique ways -- yet I see in it all a great joy of life, rich in the sort of intimacy that I value most.
I was also happy to discover that Drury is still an active artist. You may wish to look him up at his website:
To consider life is to consider its limitations. Contemplation, as I experience it, is intimately connected to a sense of my own mortality. My work reflects this vulnerability. There are many artists at work today, in whom this awareness may also be found. Much work is temporary: installation work and performance art, for instance, are deeply connected to time. Environmental work is typically intended to deteriorate naturally with the changing seasons. Even art created for museums is sometimes made from materials that are less than archival and clearly not meant to last. Some is crumbling on display, more is deteriorating in storage. I believe our culture, in general, is not as interested in making a “permanent” mark on the world as has been fairly typical in art over the centuries. The old trope about art being a path to immortality for artists is not so true as it once was. This may be due to a general skepticism over the long-term prognosis for our culture, or, indeed, our planet, and much work is reflective of that viewpoint. Many artists see no point in making things that will live for centuries. Ephemerality and entropy are themselves common themes.
I identify to some degree with these artists, however I associate myself more closely with those who are interested in temporality as a simple human awareness of the fragility of life. In my contemplative engagement I am invested more in the natural, everyday end to things than in the fate of the planet. In my Stone Poems and in my Disappearing Journal series, I consider the ordinary shortness of life in the natural cycles of all nature. As the seasons come and go, so too do we all. This is an ancient wisdom, and the ephemerality of my work holds this contemplation, treasuring the transitory nature of all creation.
I have not written on this blog for awhile. Except for my brief digression about baseball and the place of artists in our culture, I have been busy with other things. I am writing a book on ontological perspective in painting, pulling together thoughts I have been incubating for a long time on the common formal aspects of art that is non-individualistic, and therefore non-linear. Perhaps I can say more in future entries here.
I would also like to return to my list of the attributes of contemplative art, posted in February, before too long, to look more closely at each of them. I have not forgotten about that thread.
However there are three characteristics of my own artwork that did not make that list, and I would like to talk about them next. These are distinctly contemplative characteristics, yet I did not include them as “attributes” because I do not find them to be universal. However, they are by no means unique to my own artwork, often popping up in other contemplative art, and bear a closer look.
There are three:
1. My subject matter, usually called, still life,
2. their temporal, often extremely ephemeral quality, and
3. their visual orientation, their general verticality.
Today I would like to talk about still life, and continue with the others this weekend.
A contemplative painting does not have to be a still life, as is evident in the work of my friend Teri Bloch, who I mentioned recently. Teri paints people, many in fleeting street scenes. They are contemplative, not by subject matter, but by nature of her gaze. She lifts an image out of the glance and creates a painting that holds the eye. She paints scenes that have lasted only a moment, but in her transfiguration they are held, in her work, for a closer, more contemplative, gaze. Likewise, in the dioramas of B.J. Christofferson, we are presented with a lot of visual information, but B.J arranges things in a contemplative way. Her works, like those of Joseph Cornell, become still life objects in themselves, open to a deeper, more concentrated attention.
But the contemplative gaze is very commonly caught by ordinary things from everyday life, things that hold still. Objects on a table and other such quotidian forms are more likely to be contemplated because they are so ordinary, they don’t move, and they are with us every day. They almost seem to have a quiet life of their own, waiting patiently to be noticed. They create a time and a space in which the eye may become engrossed. It is a safe place for our vision to settle, perhaps to heal from the abuses of speed and boredom. Part of their appeal, certainly, is the comfort of the familiar: the simple vessels of mealtimes, the odd decorative knick-knacks that almost subliminally engage the corner of the eye as we move through the rooms of our homes. These objects of still life, the simple ordinary everyday odds and ends of life, have often captured my attention and engaged my looking.
As a student in painting at the University of Minnesota, I found this interest to be quite unique in the graduate program. My colleagues had largely moved on from the subject matter of their earliest classes to subject matter that is generally considered more important. There is no surprise in this. Historically still life has been the least credited genre in western art. Over the centuries it was largely considered to be the subject most appropriate for student artists. The most important subjects for serious artists were usually stories from the Bible or Greek mythology, “history paintings” as they were termed. My colleagues weren’t painting Bible stories, but the contemporary popular equivalent, works about major issues of our time such as gender and racial equality, homosexuality, and multiculturalism. Issues important to mainstream culture. I mean no disparagement of such work, but my mind was… elsewhere. Large themes, often layered in dogma and didacticism, seldom seem contemplative to me. The study of the subtleties of light and shadow, the interaction of unmoving objects, and the ever changing spaces that each thing holds, are aspects of my visual world that I have consistently found to be more interesting than anything else.
This is an essay which I wrote for the local paper but never submitted, once I saw that it was too long. It doesn't pertain to contemplative art per se, but perhaps there will be some here who like it!
THE NEXT GREAT ARTIST
As an artist, I am sensitive to the fact that I live in a culture where art, particularly contemplative art, is simply not a very high priority for most people. In this way, it’s rather unlike professional sports. I was thinking about this when I was at at a Twins game on Monday, in the brand new stadium. Our boys were behind about 8 – 0 in the middle innings, so I was looking around at the sold out crowd and wondering what it would take to get that many people together to look at painting or sculpture. Well, that line of thought didn’t get me very far, so I reversed the hypothesis. I wondered what would happen if our culture suddenly lost interest in watching professional sports. What if we all just quit going to games and, in the words of Yogi Berra, “stayed away in droves?” It seems unlikely, but I tried to imagine people not even watching sports on TV. There would be no money to maintain the teams. The whole system would collapse. Athletes then, with no less talent than ever, would have to quit doing what they love and go get jobs. Just like artists.
I think it would be hard for most of them. Athletes are a lot like artists in that we all seem to be born to do what we do. Just like Joe Mauer, for instance, is a natural born baseball player, there are many artists who live and breathe art. It’s not just our passion, it’s who we are. And yet there is a great contrast between how most people seem to feel about professional sports as compared to art. If our culture found watching baseball as boring as it finds looking at art, Joe’s great skills would be just as irrelevant as those of a great artist, wouldn’t they? He would probably feel like many artists often feel, like a fish out of water. I don’t know Joe at all, but I’m guessing he would be at something of a loss.
I can’t see him giving up baseball though, so, like an artist, he might have to get creative about ways to make money doing what he loves to do. He might, for instance, find a way to interest people in some sort of street performance, swinging his bat and passing the hat. Not much money there, so maybe someone would organize a “baseball fair.” That would be where they close down a street for a weekend so people could come and watch Joe and others like him do their thing. Like at art fairs, there may be just enough people who appreciate the skills he exhibited to make it worth his while. Or maybe, like artists at art “crawls” he would be able to round up enough other athletes in one place to get a little larger crowd together. They might even be able to get a pick-up game going, so that their skills would add up to something a little more tangible than mere demonstrations of skill. Of course, speaking of tangibility, if these games were just like art crawls they would be free. People wouldn’t pay just to look. So the only way for the athlete to make money would be to sell something that people could take home with them. Like souvenirs. They could maybe buy baseballs in bulk, sign them, and resell them individually for a small profit. Of course their signatures wouldn’t be worth much, as there would be no stars without the game, so they might not sell.
And buying the baseballs would be only a small part of what Joe and his friends would need to invest to get anything going. They would have to buy all their equipment themselves, their uniforms, and rent the lot besides. And don’t forget, Joe’s got a “real” job now, flipping burgers or running tables. If his boss even lets him off for the evening, he’s going to be tired when he gets to the game. It’s a tough life, but what else is he going to do? It’s not as if he doesn’t have any other skills that he might be able to trade on, to make a little more money, but remember he’s a natural born athlete. He was made to swing that bat. He probably doesn’t have too much interest in other things. Maybe he likes football too, but that doesn’t pay any better than baseball in this strange culture, where spectator sports are now passé. If he doesn’t want to give up baseball, he’s going to have to give up ideas of having a family and living in the suburbs. He can’t have both. He’ll probably just have to rent a garret downtown, and get used to taking the bus to work, like all the other athletes.
Or maybe he’ll decide to go back to school. It’s a gamble, because it’s unlikely that he’ll have any better income when he graduates than he does now, and, along with his diploma in four years, he is going to be handed a very significant student loan bill. He might be a better athlete by then, but in this world where no one watches baseball, that hardly matters. There is little difference at this point between a good athlete and a bad one. Joe knows this, of course, but he figures that at least they still play baseball there. There’s a community of people there who love the game. That’s where all the coaches went when the system came apart. He considers that he might have a chance at a better job if he took business courses, but baseball is his only passion. It’s in his blood. He wants to study the history of baseball and learn all about Babe Ruth and the other stars of the past. He wants to learn about what made those athletes great. He thinks he might even improve his swing so he could star in the games between the students. There’s one almost every day! So, despite the cost, school is very attractive to him…
That’s as far as I got in my daydream... Coming back to the real world I saw that there were still a lot of people in their seats watching the Twins lose. We eventually lost 15 – 0, but I reflected that Joe’s job is still pretty safe. In fact he probably made enough money that evening to keep a small arts organization afloat for a year. I’m happy for Joe. He and the Twins are having a tough season, but they’re going to get through this downturn just fine. And the artists? We’ll make do too, somehow, as we always have. We’ll keep doing what we do, the best we know how.
But I am often asked why there are no more great artists these days, people like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I answer that there is plenty talent around, but it’s not going to surface without a place to go. It takes a great culture to produce great art. You get what you pay for. Today in Minnesota, in a declining economy, we’re going to spend more time and money on our sports teams than on art. Lots more. The day that begins to equal out and we as a culture start to exhibit the same level of interest in painting and sculpture as we see in professional games, then, and only then, might we see the next Michelangelo.
Thanks for your comments, Jess. I appreciate your gentle way of showing that, with five websites open at any given time, the internet is perhaps not the most contemplative place. In fact, I think staring at the computer screen might be a lot like staring at the TV, in that it mimics a meditative mindset, calming the brainwaves. It can seem right at the time, but later one finds that it was a false calm, and anxiety returns at an increased level. Hopefully the content on my site helps to override the problems inherent in the medium.
Personally, I still spend much more time with books than online. I picked up a book on the painter Balthus last week. It is edited and introduced by his son, Stanislas Klossowski de Rola. He is clearly tired of the myriad interpretations of his father’s work. He says, "A possible way to avoid the depressing misunderstandings that seem, almost invariably, to prevail among even those who claim to be Balthus's greatest admirers might be for the lover of his art to contemplate his paintings. By 'contemplation' I mean the elevation from mere perusal and observation to vision, from the empirical to the ideal -- a state wherein the act of seeing, the seen and the seer become one. Should one be able to overcome the superficial handicap of one's 'aesthetic reactions' (described by the anthropologist R. Firth as 'an excrescence upon a genuine interest in art which seems peculiar to civilized peoples'), one might then be able to penetrate the deeper meaning of the work and thus truly to judge it."
I think that is very good advice for appreciating Balthus, as well as for many another artist. There are far too many critics around who are enamored of their own “aesthetic reactions,” and have therefore lost the ability to look at anything in a contemplative way. Of course artists too are often to blame for presenting work which is little more than a stick in the eye, work that hardly invites the contemplative gaze. I would like to see more artwork that demonstrates the kind of attention that Balthus gave to his paintings, as well as the kind of vision his son suggests for its true appreciation.
Can it be done in the age of the internet and multi-tasking, Jessica? I truly have no idea, but at least there is something of a format here in which these things may be discussed…
I discovered a kindred spirit this week in the work of Peter Juhl. He is a balancer of stones who lives in Eagan, Minnesota. I recommend his work at his website:
I am a painter, designer, writer, poet and translator of Chinese poetry. I also teach art and design at the Art Institutes International, Minnesota, in Minneapolis.