Steve Locke’s ‘Family Pictures’

honeymoon-yellow

Steve Locke’s new exhibition of installed photographic works, Family Pictures—up through Saturday, November 26 at Kayafas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave, Boston—is perhaps the most important and vital body of artwork to be exhibited in Boston in my recent memory. Like all great art, its reach and trajectory extend far beyond Boston’s small art enclave, and should be felt by and reverberate into the area’s social, political, and racial fabric. Together with the concurrent exhibition School of Love (itself a great work) at Samson Projects, also at 450 Harrison Ave in Boston, this work shows Locke conjoining his exceptional artistic skill, mastery, political acuity, historical depth, and deep sense of the experiential mechanisms of meaning, to present a full-throated indictment of the deep set racisms that disease contemporary culture today, and continue to spur normalized violence to black and brown bodies.

The images Locke employs at the center of this work are lynching cards—black and white photographs of atrocities visited on black bodies and used in the late 19th through mid 20th centuries by Whites in the United States as postcards, keepsakes, mementos—used for terror, intimidation, and, in the artist’s words, from a recent email:

…for the people who take comfort in images of black suffering because those images are an assurance of their White supremacy.  Their sense of safety depends upon the presence of brutality meted out to black people.

But Locke doesn’t simply display these images nakedly to index the horror that might be seen as distant or other (or worse, recycled by the forces of supremacy), but instead embeds them in a series of photographic framings that at once reclaim and repurpose the lynching image as revelatory, while mitigating directly any desire to keep these images safely in the ‘past’ or safely at arm’s length. These nested frames do not do the work traditionally assigned to frames—to decorate or bracket artwork with tropes of ownership, meaning, and viewing norms—but instead use those tropes to perform a liberatory operation: they show how the brutality and supremacy of the past are here, now—even, and especially, in the heart and mind of the viewer, and in the pervasive privilege many of us enjoy.

I just wrote us. Steve Locke’s Family Portraits cannot be experienced in its fullness from the vacuum or distance of an easy, objective, historically- or art-historically codified place. It’s personal: the part of me that is perhaps afraid to write this in full is the part that is indicted by Family Pictures: the part that sees in the mirror of Locke’s work one who is complicit in the violence depicted here—not in a lynch mob, but in the silence and privilege that normalizes and enables violence against black and brown bodies today.

So some readers might stop here. Because, first, make no mistake: the images we’re talking about here are awful, horrible, shocking: images of black bodies strung from tree limbs, burned and charred black bodies, surrounded by proud, menacing, angry, sometimes gleeful white perpetrators. If we look, and turn away, we haven’t gotten very far toward, or to the point of, Locke’s transformative gesture, his art. And we’ve earned the criticism about our silence and complicity.

So the Family Pictures on display here are not anyone else’s family pictures; they’re ours, they’re mine. Locke brings me there steadily, as his nested frames develop a narrative of looking that keeps me in contact with and aware of the unspoken beliefs behind my habitual responses to these images—beliefs which encourage subtle but no less potent forms of violence.

First Frame

The first frame—the lynching card—narrates the violence inherent in, and inherited from, not just the atrocities depicted in each image, but in how they are used: for trophy, sport, terror, intimidation, and, in their use as traded and collectible currency, as ‘proof’ of White power and supremacy by whites who depend on this dominance and normalized violence of the black other for their security. We witness the horror of White dominance and violence and the explicit tools and tactics of White supremacy: photographing the brutalized, denigrated, and lifeless black bodies of victims, along with the white perpetrators; and we see also images of domestic White power, white babies nursed by black women, denigrated by stereotype and exploited functionally.

This is the most shocking and affecting frame, it is also perhaps the most familiar and normalized frame for many viewers: familiar and normalized in the sense not just that we may have seen and considered the images before, but also in the sense that their codified historical surface—grainy black and white images featuring early 20th-century markers—can more easily be rendered as past and passed over: as not today, and perhaps not relevant for today. But we may also have the uncanny feeling we have seen all this before—maybe in the present, maybe on our TV screens. Perhaps in our horror, couched in appropriate outrage, undergirded by the false sense that these lynching and denigrating images are of the past, we won’t recognize the repetition of these images in HD. We may not see Laquan McDonald’s or Eric Garner’s body in that past lynching scene, nor recognize that when we repeatedly witness the brutality to their bodies on CNN, we become the faces in the crowd of perpetrators, and the casual recipients, observers, collectors, and traders of these cards-turned-digital-images.

Second Frame

Locke’s successive framings are designed to mitigate our reflexive denial about our current circumstance, our tendency to say it’s different now or it’s not like that today, and to split off my presence, my hereness, from the depicted scenes. To accomplish this, he first places the cards inside banal kitschy frames—frames clearly of today. They’re the kind you get at Target or Wal-mart, frames that want to contain happy family images designed to create and reify an image of stability, wholesomeness, comfort and security. Captioned with Hallmark sentiments, they seem to say we are safe and happy.

These happy, banal sentiments caption the card images in what reads, at first, as total dissonance: Good Times Good Friends captions white men in quasi-formalwear admiring a burning, charred, half-consumed black body; a night lynching scene with a proud white finger pointing out two dead hung bodies gets captioned I Can’t Believe We Did That!; and Who Wouldn’t Want To Be Us? describes a group of white men parting smilingly to allow a snapshot of their recent atrocity. But the caption’s incongruity is driven only by the presupposition of the viewer, again, the sense that this is not here, now, or me. The inverted sentiments of these frames, after all, celebrate, memorialize, and normalize the violence they depict—exactly what the cards were designed to do. But their everyday kitschy contemporariness brings them into my now, and may chafe, if my now is congruent with the sentiment, but not with the image.

Taken by themselves, these kitschy sentiments are markers not just of reified ‘happiness’, but of the cultural imperative toward mnemonic biases that split off whatever we don’t like in our history, to favor and integrate into our sense of ourselves the things we like, exactly to reinforce and grow those very biases. Such was the function and work of the lynching card, to split off black lives from White lives as lives that don’t matter, are worthy only of contempt, exploitation, and brutality, to better ensure White dominance and control—to remember who we are, and who they are.

But aren’t the biases expressed on the lynching card identical to those expressed on the kitsch frame, but with the sentiments of the former split off from my self-image by the biases expressed by the latter? Aren’t the kitsch sentiments laced with the bias against that which I don’t want to be considered part of, that I wish had never happened, or wish wasn’t happening now—for example, in the collective White memory: slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, institutional criminality, and current police brutality. Locke’s choice of these sentimental frames collapses the historical biases of then and now, and in doing so exposes the gap between the biases that represent and sustain my current image of my happiness and goodness, on the one hand, and the current atrocities I observe, but do nothing about, on the other. I want to forget these things ever happened or aren’t happening, or—failing that—that they are at least not able to disrupt the happy image I hold of myself.

Third Frame

The personal narrative gets extended and complicated by the third frame: the imagined ‘real’ of Locke’s photographic lens, the repeated, symmetrical, identical, and hierarchical nature morte he has set up to house the kitsch-framed cards, forming a visual invariance (excepting background color) as we move from work to work. This serves two functions: first, the invariance refocuses attention on the juxtaposition of the first two frames—horrifying historical atrocities captioned by contemporary banal sentiments—and keeps us in the discomfort of our sense of their uncanny congruity; and, second, it weakens gestalt considerations of formal difference (which would pull us into abstract evaluations), except as a repetition. It is, after all, repetition of the dominant gaze itself that creates normalcy. (Witness the normalization of current White supremacist views via media repetition following the recent election).

As the repetition of that gaze creates, supports and sustains its dominance, it draws into itself and folds into that normal its manifold representations—in this case, its manifold atrocities and its representations of those atrocities. But Locke has added to that manifold the domestic place of these images: where they might be shown, kept, adored. It’s that domestic place that gets repeated, one imagines, in home after home after home, deepening the normalcy, creating my normal. And so lastly, most importantly, the imagined real becomes the real real: this real, my real, my normal, me standing here observing the real surface of photography, representing itself as my wall, my table, my frame, my lynching card, my life, my now. Past becomes not just present but presence—not just the present of the political, social, cultural situation out there, but that situation right here. The gaze of Locke’s photographic lens becomes my gaze, conspiring with my reflexive tendency to normalize: my simple normal exposed as my hidden normalized.

Fourth Frame

Locke’s fourth frame is how he presents the photographs for viewing: in long, waist-high pine vitrines that compel us to look down at the images through highly reflective glass. The twelve images that comprise each set are laid out in specific order, and tightly arranged so that we pass by each image, and view each set, in a steady, regulated, horizontal order. Processing before the vitrines with others at the show’s opening was as an open casket viewing, of multiple and repeated dead: a somber, ordered procession, a viewing of multiple bodies, pre-resurrected bodies, victims of murder; a viewing of the horror and atrocity of each death reified in the stillness and formality of the vitrines, reinforced and mimicked by the stillness of the photograph, and called forth by the repetitive nature morte tableau depicted in each one.

The architecture of the vitrines describes a somber and formal participation, infused with sacredness and reverence, which suggests transformation. Locke doesn’t allow his photographic images to be viewed from a comfortable distance in ‘real’ frames. He instead uses the experiential situation of the vitrine to fully reclaim the image from that habitual residence, in order to represent the cards, the scene, and all the nested frames, as a form of memorial, an honoring of these bodies, and a refusal to allow them to remain as curiosities or enablers of violence. The vitrines offer not so much a reimagining of the lives of the victims (we cannot imagine away the horror), but an exhumation of these images from White imagining and an honorable and ennobling memorialization. A chance to reverently remember. In this gesture, the domestic tableau, the kitsch frame, and the lynching card all gain the weight of that memorialization—hopefully, an honoring of fallen bodies that will carry the works’ intended transformation: a call to action.

Fifth Frame

And this memorialization opens the fifth frame, which Locke has created and conjured to the surface so carefully through the steady journey of the first four: my gaze—in my case, my White gaze, now rendered clearly and transformed in the steady light of the truth offered by the experience. For if these are Family Portraits, how do they depict and render my family, other families, black families, White families? Here’s where Steve Locke’s work really takes root in the heart, with questions specific to every viewing, that cut through the fog of denial and angle toward a real solution: how is my gaze, my privilege, my fragility, my silence, and my inaction complicit in the manifold violences of the present, and built on the violences of the past? Even if I am not perpetrating the crimes depicted, am I not still complicit in the world those acts of violence handed me—particularly if I am silent and refuse to interrogate and work to change the institutions of privilege and sanctuary I enjoy?

Isn’t Our Honeymoon a metaphor for the seemingly permanent honeymoon of White privilege—built in the hull of a slave ship? How can I say the White perpetrators depicted in Who Wouldn’t Want To Be Us are not me, when the sentiment can easily be rendered Who Wouldn’t Want To Be White? And does the beside in It’s not where you go or what you do, It’s who is beside you that counts become a statement of the dismissal of other, of the wish to maintain superiority embedded in my silence?

Perhaps the work that best expresses this transformation is Memories. It pictures a smaller group of whites—perhaps a family—that don’t look like the menacing and bloodthirsty perpetrators of the mobs depicted in other images. They seem more like bystanders, a family out for a Sunday walk in the woods who encounter a lynched, broken body as if they had encountered a dead deer or some woodland curiosity. A young girl pokes her head toward the camera from the front right corner of the frame, nonplussed and relaxed at the scene. Horror? Atrocity? Terror? None of the disgust we register at the image gets reflected in the cool poses for the camera.

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I may be able to distance myself from the perpetrators, but can I distance myself from the violence of the bystander of yesterday or today, whose silence and refusal to act enable and embolden these crimes? Do I watch in ‘horror’ as atrocities to People of Color loop across my TV screen, and in effect I pose with them within the tableau of my privileged life? Do I feel bad, shed tears, show up at book readings and rallies and wear a pin and an armband and form groups, but when it comes time to interrogate the structures that sustain my privilege, I leave it all at the threshold? Do I really like my privilege, and don’t want to disrupt it?

These are just a few of the questions Steve Locke’s Family Pictures gifts to me. Perhaps the main difference between the then depicted in the lynching cards, and the now of the violence of silence that Locke has so carefully framed for me, is simply the depth of our denial, and the depth of our blindness—our inability too often to witness the everyday violence in plain view because the fabric of our everyday life is so soaked through with its blood, we can no longer distinguish it from the patterns in our wallpaper.

In the clarity of this realization, perhaps we can find a way forward. Locke suggests so, finally, in his use of the background interior wall color of each successive set of images: from yellow to green to blue to red, invoking alchemical markers of the transformation of base material into gold: in this case, the gold of awareness and truth rendered from the base denial, silence, complicity, and ignorance of the White gaze. Perhaps, if we can stay and spend time here in the discomfort of our horror at the images and our complicity, if we can make it through the pain and grief of witnessing and owning the personal truth represented, then it will work on us with its clarifying agency—not absolving us of responsibility, but placing it where it always lived: in our hearts and hands. Maybe it will spur us to more than good intentions and the right opinions—maybe to honestly interrogate that White gaze, to vigorously tear out the roots of White supremacy where we encounter them inside and outside of us, and to wholly and permanently defect from its effects in our lives. When we take on this transformation, we may perhaps really, finally, have done something.

November 2016

Top Image—Steve Locke: Untitled (Our Honeymoon – Yellow), 2015, Family Pictures, Ultrachrome pigment ink on Hahnemuhle 100% cotton photo rag

Bottom Image—Steve Locke: Untitled (Memories – Red), 2015, 2015, Family Pictures, Ultrachrome pigment ink on Hahnemuhle 100% cotton photo rag

Suite of 48 images: Series 1, print 30″ x 40″ (paper 33.75″ x 42.88″), Edition of 3 + 2 AP Series 2, print 15.5″ x 20.5″ (paper 19.88″ x 24.63″), Edition of 10 + 2 AP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hilary Tolan: The Depth of Shadow

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The depth in Hilary Tolan’s new work is easy to miss: not because the work is quiet, and reserved, and unassuming, but because its subtle power confronts us in a way we might want to overlook. Tolan’s new modestly scaled photographic works, on view in an exhibition entitled Shadowland from November 4 through 29 at Kingston Gallery in Boston, appear as straightforward photographs of personal and uncomplicated landscape scenes. But her subtle drawing intervention develops a complex and challenging dialogue about concealment, revelation, and the real – and not just the real of photography, but also the real of experience.

The real at first appears as the kind of transparent rendering of ‘nature’ that photography usually assumes for itself. Neither sublime vistas nor efforts to record ‘beauty’, Tolan’s scenes show a raw, unpeopled, personal view: simple, direct renderings of specific places, that bear traces of someplace we might know, while retaining a nameless and placeless quality.

Tolan invites us in close, to show us the finer details of light: sun bleaching rock surfaces and earthen paths while pushing cracks and shadows and the backside of braches into void. And here is where things get complex and challenging: for as we lean in, we encounter an unexpected intimacy: Tolan has intervened in these seamless, transparent renderings of reality with a gentle hand, drawing with flat black gouache into small, spare, subtle shadow areas of each photograph. These delicate intrusions seem to trace what’s given: the spindly cracks in rocks, shadows cast on earth, the shadow-darkened parts of thin tree branches.

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But the flat quality of the marks also lifts them from the photograph’s glossy mechanical surface, severing the eye from the supposed ‘reality’ of the scene, rupturing our sense of the real of the photograph, and rendering organic abstract shapes that force consideration of the immediate, material real – no longer the ‘here’ of the scene but this here, now: the photograph itself, and our looking, as things in the world.

What’s given is no longer given: shadow, once ground, is figure; photographic reality, once assumed, is rendered as material and process. The artist’s intervention takes center stage, and the eye and mind now contend uncomfortably with the rift this interruption creates in the real. The deliberate act has us question the truth of what’s given, and makes us notice photography’s – and art’s – manipulations and machinations. Can we be sure Tolan’s interventions are not inventions of shadow? Are we sure these are tracings and not additions what the lens passively sees? Our uncertainty about reality doubles down. Suddenly, the work renders nothing – or, rather, it is rendered not as a rendering of reality, but as art, a produced thing in the world – a produced reality.

Tolan’s drawing interventions are extremely subtle in this regard: they do not announce themselves in oppositional contrast to the photograph’s rendering, and yet they do not reiterate ‘photorealistically’ the supposed truth the photograph beholds, either. The flat, dark black gouache at once announces its difference from what’s given, while seeming to trace the outlines and body of shadows – seeming to follow what’s given – and at the same time forces us the consider the possibility of pure invention.

It lands us, here, in a vertiginous dilemma. Stripped of our former faith in the photographic real, what can we trust? Are these tracings of real shadows, or are they created – another real: the created real, the real as art? Tolan finally suspends us among reals, in a void that deepens an original mystery, the mystery and depth of shadows. For the difference between invented and real shadows collapses into the truth of shadows – the real of shadows as withdrawal itself from the light of exposure, and from what appears, or can be known.

And this real, by contrast, is content to be in shadow, in mystery, in unknowing. Hilary Tolan’s new work bears witness to these always present shadows of our experience, and what the operation of her interventions – the operation of art – simultaneously reveals and conceals: how our assumptions about and longings for the real get swallowed by the long shadows of what we don’t know.

October 2015

Top image: Dirt Path, 2015, 20 x 29 inches, photograph and gouache paint.

Bottom image: Wall Shadow, 2015, 20 x 29 inches, photograph and gouache paint.

Images courtesy Hilary Tolan and Kingston Gallery.

 

 

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Francine Koslow Miller

Francine Koslow Miller

I was shocked and saddened when Francine Koslow Miller, the great art and cultural critic, writer, and constant presence in the Boston artworld, passed last week. She was a good friend and confidante, and wrote a number of catalogue essays regarding my work.

I first met Francine when looking for an essayist for a gallery show catalogue. My friend Andrew Witkin suggested her name, and I looked into her writing – I was looking for someone with more than just a fleeting knowledge of contemporary jargon, and someone who could connect contemporary practice with a historical reach. That writer, at the time in Boston, seemed hard to find. But Francine’s writing, I saw, had depth and scope, a unique way of joining the immediacy of current practice with the weight of history.

We spoke on the phone. She knew my work and immediately mentioned a few touch points that gave me some comfort in her approach. But there was something else: Francine was immediately personal, intimate, connected in/to our conversation; she was present and alive, listening and offering thoughts, open and receptive, permeable and pointed – generous. It was a dialogue, a real dialogue.

When she came to the studio for the first time, I saw this personal quality take on new life, in her direct encounter with the works. I had become used to a different type of encounter with my work from art critics and professionals, a relation staged from a distance, filtered through a set of a priori ideas about what the work was about, what art was about, what the encounter was supposed to be about. By contrast, Francine opened herself to a real, authentic encounter with the work: associations and ideas and theory and historical touch points were all there, but all folded in to the immediate unfolding of the encounter – the language of the encounter. It seemed she never lost contact with the work as she looked and considered. There was respect and allowance and growth, instead of an easy superimposition of received knowledge. It seemed she considered each work, not as a dead object to be dissected, but as a living, breathing entity, fully engaged itself in the encounter, and the discovery, and the writing. This open and generous approach greatly influenced how I think about and approach my work, and how I think and write about others’ work as well.

And it was fun. I looked forward with pleasure to her visits, knowing that, through her uncanny ability to contact the work so intimately, she would reveal aspects and facets of the work I hadn’t yet contacted. These surprises were fun, but more so was the manner in which they were delivered, with a rare combination of directness and joy: challenging a supposition in the work with an eager smile that suggested curiosity – critique twinned with a desire for truth, instead of a need to be right. I could laugh at the misses as much as the hits.

When it came time to write, she was patient and kind with me, a sometime writer myself with my own set of prejudices about, and goals for, an exegesis. Honoring my ideas and writing, she would let me rework sections of her essay, and, before they got restored (which they always did), she would patiently explain her direction and focus, accepting my input graciously, and often including what worked – but firmly and rejecting what didn’t. It was always a collaboration, a joining of ideas, but she never lost sight of or relinquished the depth of her knowledge or perspective. Today when I read the essays she wrote, I can easily see how right she was always was from the get-go, and how much her vision of my work exceeded my limited perspective on it. These essays continue to unfold for me.

But when I think of her today, I don’t think so much of the studio visits and essay writing, I think of the family visits, her constant talk of and care for her husband Marc and daughter Rebecca, as well as her dogs and cat; her big generous smile, and the eagerness with which she held and soothed my newborn daughters. She was caring and gentle and funny and easy, with a huge heart.

Once when she came for a studio visit to our place in Cambridge, she found me with a newborn and an 18-month old, my wife sick in bed. She took hold of tiny Lili and we went upstairs to the makeshift studio on the third floor, where we played with Coco and Lili while we looked at and talked about some new paintings. Life could be played on life’s terms, with joy and acceptance – and truth: I recall she was pretty hard on some of the paintings that day, pushing me to reach deeper into the well. She demonstrated always how to strike that balance between life’s and art’s demands, and how to be easy about it. She turned what I saw as a dilemma into an opportunity with an easy laugh, undercutting my seriousness with her lightness about life and her clarity about what we are here to do: to her, it seemed, we are here to love, first, and to do our thing in the world, second. She taught me how to do that for real, and that I think was her finest gift.

Francine, I miss you and love you dearly. That essay we talked about writing, the one about the broad scope of the work, will have to wait until the next lifetime, because no one can fill your shoes in this one.

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Brian Zink: Figure/Ground

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Brian Zink is unapologetic.  Without a trace of irony or the unnecessary bracketing of abstraction that has served as a refuge for many abstract painters since the figurative/narrative-centric oughts (’00s), Zink has, for over 20 years, maintained a steadfast commitment to abstraction and its promises of openness, freedom and the rigor and depth afforded by simply and gracefully working at and through its problemsZink wrings the familiar tropes of modern abstraction through a rigorous process that joins the limitations and possibilities of a single, industrial material with an exploration of basic geometric form.  In his current show at Miller/Yezerski Gallery (460 Harrison Ave, Boston, through February 10), Zink pushes and complicates this project significantly, challenging and, ultimately, transforming the Modernist foundation of his practice.

The artist’s body of two-dimensional colored Plexiglas constructions at Miller/Yezerski continues a longstanding investigation of interlocking geometric planes of color set in modestly-scaled rectangles and squares. Since 2010, Zink’s clean, clear formal arrangements – generated simply by the parameters of the picture plane – have focused primarily on interlaced diagonals. The resulting pictures seem at once to honor and challenge the formal language and established tropes of Modernism – from Constructivism to Donald Judd – as they move the eye uneasily along a restless gamut of sightlines.

Zink’s work in the current exhibition – aptly-named Figure/Ground – ups the ante in transforming that legacy, as it takes on Modernism’s twin sacred cows: flatness and materiality. Using titles such as Composition in 2051 Blue, 2114 Blue, and 3015 White (the numbers referring straightfaced to the the particular Plexiglas colors employed), and with his trademark cool, crisp, tight arrangement and manufacture of the work, Zink seems to traffic in early hard-edged abstraction’s wish to purge pictures of all but the thing itself.

But our initial, comfortable sense of that thingness quickly gives way to a deeper intent. By combining his diagonals, set against simple bisecting horizontals, with close, quasi-monochrome color arrangements set against clean, bright white grounds, Zink employs the very elements of utopian Modernist discourse to birth its opposite: a reanimation of figure and space.

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And here the artist doesn’t present a Modernist version of the abstracted (human) figure occupying deep space – or flat figures occupying spatial grounds – but instead evokes the figure of painting, a spatial figure occupying flat ground: folded in upon and projected out from the stark flat white plane of their grounds, Zink’s figures tease the eye as they play among their flat elements, the three-dimensional pseudo-architectural spaces they suggest, and the movement they explore through their surprisingly dynamic symmetries. In our developing experience of them, their figuration announces itself in stark opposition to the Modernist wish for a material facticity devoid of emotion and content. Zink effectively reanimates hard-edged abstraction with an inner aliveness and drama that – the work points out – it has always, already possessed.

Essential to Zink‘s achievement is his modesty, simplicity of process, and restraint of choice, which offers viewers a refreshing generosity and openness in their exploration of his works. In a Postmodern glut of more, his is a patient, deliberate, and reductive practice that employs less to render a more that impacts us deeply, rewarding our view with a subtle and sustained transformation.

Brian Zink: Figure/Ground is on view at Miller/Yezerski Gallery at 460 Harrison Ave in Boston from January 9, 2015 through February 10, 2015. Accompanying the exhibition is a full-color catalogue, featuring an essay by Bill Arning, Director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.  http://www.milleryezerskigallery.com/

Above photo: Installation view, Miller/Yezerski Gallery, photo by James Hull

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The Unexpected Art Fair

END STILL BLOG

I had some trouble following up on my posts about art fairs. I hear complaints from artists (like me) all the time – and yet we still participate when we can. Often the canned excuse is some version of the kind of learned helplessness most artists seemed trained to – ‘It’s all there is for me’ or ‘you gotta play the game’ etc.  And, I ran into several curators in Miami who agree with the one percenters who love the one-stop shopping approach to art, and seem undaunted by the mind-numbing repetition – while swearing by orthotics and (as one put it) ‘the time in cabs to recollect, collect oneself, and get ready for the next dive.’

I also spoke with dealers who flatly said that art fairs are no place to see and experience art (one said, ‘it’s no place for artists’), and who seemed cynically resigned to the bald mercantile realities. Some estimate they make 40% – 70% of their annual income at the fairs. Others feel they have to do it, to be included in the conversation.

Still, in thinking about the art fair dilemma, I am struck by the fact that the direction of much current art and curatorial practice seeks the opposite of the reality the art fair wants to entrench. The most successful new exhibition forms, in my opinion, are temporal, ephemeral, and mine marginal (to ‘art’) contexts that surprise viewers and cultivate new audiences, while developing a context for viewing and experiencing art that critiques the neutral white box and tired institutional norms that suffocate the art encounter. More importantly, these new forms seek not only to provide critical context for art (terms of space and time) but also demand that art be accountable to that context: they don’t allow artists and art to be produced simply in the supposed neutral vacuum tube that extends from studio to gallery space. They ask art and artists instead to account for the systems and networks and spaces that get created by their relation to the status quo ‘neutral’ institutional site, while also offering an opportunity for artists and artworks to risk losing their dependency on those norms and forms by creating their own exhibition contexts.

This is a tall order, but, especially for artists and artworks whose political mission is to challenge and convulse authority and institutional norms, these forms seem indispensible. They offer a passageway from inside-out institutional critique (where art engages status quo norms to challenge those very norms) – which, for me and countless others, has limited staying power – to perhaps a more sustainable and authentic forum/form for critique.

There may be another, more resistant and critical model for an art fair model burgeoning through these very local and vital practices. But it wasn’t on view in Miami. A colleague reminded me that expecting anything more than a hollow experience targeted to the 1% is asking an art fair to be something it isn’t, something more than the trade show that it is. So perhaps the sunny beaches and limos and endless traffic and (see my stream-of-consciousness below) of Miami aren’t the context for art but strictly for art commerce – and perhaps the Unexpected Art Fair will turn up in our back yard next week.

Art Fair Encounters, Miami, December 2014

Paintings of art fair encounters.

Long aisles. Small booth. Big booth. No booth.

Gallerists staring at phones.

Rope across art. Don’t touch.

Artists who look like rock stars. Rock stars who look like artists.

Does anyone eat?

Big abstract paintings about ‘nothing’.

Long titles and longer lists of ingredients.

‘Lost in forever’ works.

Another Blah Blah Blah painting.

A huge complete seeming painting to which one oddball object or feature is added, intending irony.

Paintings that stress figure/ground with bits of non-identifiable stuff floating around.

Abstraction, without irony or critique.

Looking for an instant, then quickly walking away from, anything vaguely homoerotic.

Staring for a long time at, and doing selfies with, anything vaguely homoerotic.

Things that take a lot of time and patience and the mastery of one crafty skill.

Woven works. Knitted works. Beaded works. String art. Cutting art.

Goofy childlike abstraction looking like goofy childlike abstraction.

The ultra minimal gigantic hardedged abstraction that is just – gigantic.

Rosemarie Troekel looks good.

The sublime readymade: some plane fuselage.

Do you have a VIP card?

Everything and everyone trying hard to be more.

Non-narrative video that acts like painting.

The big sublime landscape undercut by some clever, ironic insertion.

Exoticism in photography – something beautifully rendered from an ‘other’ place with ‘other’ people you don’t know.

Irony isn’t working.

Obscurantism sells.

The intentional unintentional: ‘there’s nothing here to get.’

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(Art) Miami – Part 2

I’ve experienced a lot of great art in Miami – which makes the nightmarish parking and traffic seem vaguely worth the aggravation. I learned too late last night about the midtown protest against the horrific decision in New York – and it was from an art dealer who complained that the protest was disrupting her important dinner plans. The protest was simply unknown to or ignored by seemingly most at the fairs.

I hate to generalize about a thing as vast as the Miami art fair phenomenon. There are too many well meaning and passionate artists and dealers who spill an awful lot of blood and sweat in pursuit of their craft. And, after my post yesterday pointing out the numbingly flattening quality of the standard art fair architecture, I was asked why I participate. Why is my work here and not someplace else?

If contradiction and irony disqualified critique, situated as it often is in the midst of structures we struggle to comprehend, challenge, and transform, then critique wouldn’t happen. Nipping at the hand that feeds you is risky. Art is a public and very human enterprise, and that fact demands examination of how art is made visible. Nothing new here, nor in yesterday’s remarks about how the structures of capital and commerce eclipse all else in the art fair experience. So, again, sadly and maddeningly, no surprises that this bastion of the 1% looks the other way when a real tragedy of injustice is unfolding, and when the real demands of action come calling. Art likes to refer to this kind of injustice – in fact the liberationist ideal in the exigesis of art is well established. Art wants us to examine our political and social blind spots, to make visible in our personal experience what otherwise goes unexamined, remaining the source if unwitting prejudice and limitation. But rarely does such enlightenment translate to real transformation in action. My point yesterday was that the very architectural structures of art fairs militate against the liberationist ethos at the core of art’s desire for itself, not just by reducing every decision of inclusion (galleries and works) to a profit potential equation, but further, and more insidiously, by crushing engagement with art into bits of ephemeral sensory experience. At least, you have to work for the real encounter with the object.

And this is exactly what capital wants from art objects – to take the risky and uncertain nature of engagement out of the equation, to enhance the work as the empty vessel of value. When I was mistaken for a potential collector (some were that desperate), a gallerist would assail me with the artist’s stat line: how many museum shows, whose collection, which curators have written about them, etc. The work itself was presented as the offshoot or byproduct of all of this, rather than its potentisl source. The experience of the work, then, becomes the experience of the stat line – presented as a way to couple the collector’s own ambitious ego enhancement project with that of the work. Obviously, the riskiness and uncertainty of the work’s content (especially for tricky social or political ideals) is not just unimportant in this equation but also – and especially if it challenges a collector’s or institution’s ideals – can be a real drag to the flow of commerce.

It’s no surprise then, that the collective consciousness at an art fair is blind – has a collective blind spot – to the real content of life going on in and around it. I am lamenting that the art fairs ignored Eric Garner; I am lamenting that the manifest content of most works is buried and sublimated in its commodified exterior; and I am lamenting that this form of art encounter has assumed a central – even dominating – place not only in art experience but has become a source structure (‘but will it sell in Miami?’) of how artworks and artists are made publicly visible.

So back to the question – why do it? Why participate? Why is my work here?

There are no confident answers. The truth is I am not free of the consciousness that wants to sell and sees selling as a source of more than commercial value for my work. The truth is I want the work to be visible – to be seen and considered. And the truth is that I also witness, as I have witnessed this weekend, the real encounter in action: people witnessing the very structures I am bringing to light here, including that knowledge in their experience, and fighting through the fog-of-art-fair to an authentic, intimate, expansive encounter with art works. I had one encounter with a curator who offered a deep and pentrating and valuable critique of a work.

I am also not lamenting that the art dealers do what they do in this context, a context that minimizes their creative and curatorial role to the role of clerk functionality. They, after all, are doing the work of making art visible in ways in which it can gain a toe-hold into a real, transformative encounter. I met many passionate dealers this weekend who do their best to couple their commercial imperative with an honest desire to Sherpa a real encounter with works.

Any analysis must include this acknowledgment. It’s an acknowledgement about what persists in the desire to make and present and encounter art: the desire to evolve in and as truth – not to discover the one truth but to midwife the evolutionary nature of personal and collective truth. In other words, the desire for freedom. Freedom – not as some ideal of unfettered free will (which is what capital ultimately sells) but as continual and interested (indeed, passionate) movement out of encountered limitations and restrictions in consciousness. That, after all, is what art – and I think art viewers – seek. And that is what art can deliver. As corny as it sounds, it is the heartfeltness of this endeavor that keeps me coming back for the good fight.

That rapture stated, do I think there’s another, better way? Yes. Would I have liked to see a full scale protest and acknowledgment of the Eric Garner case (and Michael Brown and…and…and)? Yes. Would I like to see art and the Artworld do more than point to political content and then politely take its place on the walls of the Rubell Collection? An emphatic yes.

I think art and artists and curators and dealers and collectors and institutions can do more. Yes. I will approach some ideas in Part 3. But let me generally suggest that the means and tools of collective understanding and action are with us now.

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(Art) Miami 2014 – Part 1

It shouldn’t be news that the ‘art fair’ phenomenon works entirely on the level of capitalization and commodification of art – nor that vital political and social content gets particularly flattened and politely repackaged for sale in this context. The art fair as a system of commerce and control, indeed, in many cases seems to militate against the very content it puts forward. It is saddening but not suprising, for example, that any response or reaction to this week’s appalling New York grand jury verdict was virtually absent – at least in my experience at the fairs – from discussion or action, even and especially, by artists.

This is a vast topic destined for another post, but I want for the moment to look at one work at Art Basel that I think embraces a strategy to begin confronting art fair structure on the level of its architectural form.

To me this show ‘stopper’ at Art Basel was Urs Fisher’s installation at Sadie Coles Projects. Hundreds of organic, pellet-shaped green pods suspended from the hall roof engulfed the space. Distributed densely but evenly throughout the booth, it created the effect of a kind of invasion and colonization of a space usually reserved for easy human interaction. Even the walls of the booth, hung handsomely with Coles’ other artists, were virtually inaccessible to viewers – except as viewed through, and altered by, the suspended arrangement of same-sized, weird, quasi-teardrop shaped things.

Visually arresting with its photosynthetic early-spring green, and formally non-hierarchical with its distribution beyond the easy edges of the booth space, Fisher’s work drew an awe-seeking crowd hungering, it seems, for sublime rapture. But this effect was countered by another one, for those same sublime-seekers were frustrated in their appeals to ‘get in’ to the space: Fisher’s pods had excluded them, reserving the large box of the booth for itself. The result was a subtle critique of the art fair space of commerce. Who’s in? Who’s out? Do I ride the aisle, or do I need access? Either way, Fisher’s work frustrates, situating the art fair goer in an untenable position – the aisle-huggers find their space and safe distance encroached upon, and the ‘art-divers’ are relinquished to the sideline. And always, the eye is brought back to the innocuous little suspended seeds, the soothing green sea of light and form.

Fisher’s work is memorable not because of its formal choices or even for the critique above, but because it was one of the few truly disruptive moments in an otherwise numbing experience – not because of the art, which to a work is fascinating, but because of the architectural choices: rows upon rows of evenly spaced boxes arranged in a organized, easily controlled grid of interaction, human movement squeezed through passages, caught up momentarily in pods, squeezed again into a tireless, lazy momentum. If you want engage with art, you need to fight through the ennui-enducing stupor of this mode of circulation, where everything and everyone has been reduced to a brush with brief sensory contact. This is the result, though, not of (in)effective architecture or space design (indeed there is absolutely no nod to contemporary architecture’s willingness to confront, engage and overturn these very issues in the fair design), but in allowing capital to effect the design, where every square foot and allocation of booth space for works is reduced to profit potential analysis.

In my view Fisher’s work was (perhaps unintentionally) able to help viewers confront and consider this space – the consideration of architectural space as space of artfair commerce – and open a portal into a real encounter with capital’s wish for that space.

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New Work at Pulse Miami 2014

I’ll be showing new work at the Pulse Miami Beach fair beginning tomorrow night, December 3, running through Sunday December 7 – with LaMontagne Gallery, booth A4. Info about the fair HERE.

RW167_(Extremophiles)_2014_72x68_Oil_linen_HiRes

These new paintings explore the Random Walk (RW) process as the accumulation of smaller, sperm/snake/bacteria-shaped marks over a large surface.  They develop the wholly abstract marks of my past RW works into chance-derived,swelling networks of autonomous, tiny entities – the ebb and flow of a kind of microbe population morphology.

I call this body of RW works Panspermia – the hypothesis that life-generating material (microbes, DNA) could be distributed throughout the universe by meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids and spacecraft. Panspermia is one possible explanation for how life emerged from pre-biotic states on early Earth. Could it be that we were flung here from a distant galaxy, that we are no more essential to what we call home than our things or thoughts?

In fact recent research undertaken by the University of Zurich (HERE) shows genetic material can survive the extreme conditions of atmospheric descent.  Some believe panspermia may also serve as the best escape plan, when this home gets uninhabitable.

RW168_(C'mon C'mon)_2014_78x56_Oil_canvas_HiRes

The painting is a negotiation among various contingent agencies – the painter among them.  It withdraws constantly; I experience it partially, inexhaustibly.  But as far as I can tell, it is itself fully: complete and certainly enough.   And after all, as an agent to its formation like any other agent, I am close – a friend – and so I am at least with it in the vanishingly vast process surrounding us, in us, forming us.

RW169_(Sisyphus)_2014_72x68_Oil_canvas_HiRes

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

RW166_(Thermophile Study)_2014_40x36_Oil_linen_HiRes

Top to bottom:

RW167 (Extremophiles) 2014 72 x 68 inches Oil on linen

RW168 (C’mon C’mon) 2014 78 x 56 inches Oil on canvas

RW169 (Sisyphus) 2014 72 x 68 inches Oil on canvas

RW166 (Thermophile Study) 2014 42 x 39 inches  Oil on linen

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Back to School

20-Ex>LVE>(3)EndDtl

I’m taking a few classes through the New Centre for Research and Practice, which I would describe as an online collective of philosophers, social theorists, and programmers offering classes via Google classroom in an entirely democratic way. Here’s how the Centre describes itself on its homepage.

The New Centre for Research & Practice is conceived upon the idea that the space of knowledge is a laboratory for navigating the links between thought and action. Our pedagogical approach bootstraps the conventional role of the Arts and Sciences to construct new forms of research and practice alongside, within, and between the existing disciplines and technologies. The New Centre’s aim is a constructivist one, to assemble an environment, both virtual and actual, that inspires our members to invent alternate understandings that can be put into collective practice.

Boom. Wow. You got me.

I first heard about the Centre through Larval Subjects, the excellent blog of the philosopher Levi Bryant, whose developing work in what he calls ‘Onticology’ is refreshing and bold, and, for me, promises a new way to consider art practices and the nature of the art encounter. Levi is offering a course called “The Anarchy of Objects” at the New Centre, that presents and seeks to (re)locate and develop the ideas in his book The Democracy of Objects. The fresh air for me in Democracy of Objects is Bryant’s effort to bring together the liberationist projects of contemporary continental philosophy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the project of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology, which for the last decade has reconsidered the nature of objects as more than constructions of human thought.

It’s a tough task, and what I admire about Levi is his willingness to continually question and refine his own objects of thought – his ideas – and reformulate his positions as his wide ranging research brings new evidence and insights to light. I have never witnessed him stubbornly stuck in an idea, and frequently witnessed his free and stringless abdication of earlier ideas that later research showed were wrong, or needed refinement. Case in point, Levi is thoroughly rethinking the ideas of Democracy of Objects, and working it through the diverse and divergent student ideas encountered in the seminar. The seminar, then, feels and acts more like a collective agency or object developing its own ideas. While loosely sticking to the exegesis of his own text, and deploying his precise knowledge for support, Levi is creating an opening for thought to emerge – instead of lecturing from a place of supposed mastery.

What I intend to write for the coursework is a more detailed and thoroughgoing investigation of the ideas I present on this blog; here’s the way I described it in a post to classmates on the course stream –

“What excites me about a robust ‘realism’, as an artist, is that it seems to promise a path through what I see as the strict and limiting correlationist modes of representation, signification, and discourse at the center of the encounter with contemporary art. To paint with a 4″ brush, we tend to ask ‘What does the artwork mean (for me)?’ prior to asking, or investigating, or allowing the open question ‘What is it?’. This seems to severely curtail the art object’s potentialities. The norms of discourse around meaning not only take precedence in what I am calling the ‘art encounter’ but often seem to want to eclipse the object and those potentialities altogether. I share Levi’s caution in this observation, as the dominant mode of this discourse (since at least 1960) has involved a liberationist project that I believe has been quite successful: examining and critiquing modes of representation and power that have in turn exposed cultural and societal blind spots and prejudices, particularly in the ways groups and voices are marginalized and muffled by those structures. However, it has often struck me that the discourse itself, in leaving the object itself behind, marginalizes and muffles its potentialities. So I want to open up this question, examine my assumptions here, and ask if the art object itself can mount an effective critique (perhaps via the liberation of its perhaps anarchic potentialities?), of the very structures of discourse and power that seem interested in confining it. Historical precedents like Dada and Fluxus come to mind, as well as the current move to less and less object-oriented and more ephemeral art making and encountering modes.”

Talk about a tough task (and for a non-philosopher!). I am not sure I can tackle all of that in the truncated timeframe of the course, but even addressing the outlines of the question What is an art object? seems a poignant piece of research. Levi describes objects variously as ‘machines’ or ‘assemblages’ or (currently) ‘networks’ that incorporate in their objecthood their relationalness and potentiality, as they take their place with, are influenced by and influence, and cohort with other such objects. To think an object, then, is not to think a thing in isolation, but to consider its thingness as the product of the relations and histories, together with the as-yet encountered potentialities, all forged and created in the realtime contingency of its varied encounters with other things – encounters that are not solely the product of human consciousness, but that don’t exclude it either. What we think of as the art object, for example, could be a network or assemblage that includes the artist, the materials, where and how the materials arrived, the conditions for production, the mindset of the artist at any given stage of making, the ideas and intentions that drive production, and where THEY were forged, etc., all the way to the capital and institutional systems and structures that enable viewing and consideration of the artwork, to the power systems that encourage some in their capacity to engage the object in encounter, and limit or forbid others from that same engagement. My own thinking has changed in this way: the ‘conceptual regime’ that I have named here (as, above, the tendency in artworld thinking to ask what it means prior to engaging what it is) is not merely interested in limiting the interpretation of the object for meaning’s sake – it is interested in preserving the status quo of a system of privilege. Artworks produced for and by this system cannot help but support and encourage its continued dominance, and the marginalizations the system, in turn, produces.

As I get ready to have some new works considered in Miami in December, I contemplate what my participation really entails – not what it means, but what is it really producing.

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Thank You

When is the last time I said thank you as I approached an artwork?

RW164_(Swarm)_2014_42x39_oil_linen_hr

Typically, I’m looking for something in an artwork – looking for it to be or to do something. This can be subtle or gross – for example I have my thoughts about certain types of abstraction that can get applied pretty early in the encounter, and effect a wholesale rejection of the object. And I have similar thoughts and reactions when an artwork seems too ‘messaged’ – too interested in having me take on its point of view uncritically or as a knee-jerk political response. These are obvious.

But there’s a subtler kind of rejecting – a rejecting of the encounter itself. This happens when I am busy measuring the artwork against some preconceived (and mostly unconscious) ideas about what the artwork is supposed to do and be for me. I take this model from the conditioning of everyday life. It may be instinctual, biological – but I tend to move through my experience in a reductive and prejudicial way: I reduce the varied and continuously changing stimuli into two categories: what matters, and what doesn’t matter. And I then ignore the ones that don’t, and sift through the ones that do, developing a plan – of attack.

Further, my prepaving of what does and doesn’t matters bleeds into the opinions about things – about good and bad – that I carry with me moving forward. I learn, in other words, how to make my future encounters safe and familiar, and I superimpose those, on arrival, in any situation that strikes me (even, and perhaps especially on the cellular level) as unfamiliar or unsafe – like encountering something new.

I’m writing all this because to me the artwork presents a unique phenomena: uniquely unfamiliar and perhaps (at least from the instinctual point of view) unsafe — and yet I choose to engage it. Something in me, it seems, wants to engage the new and unfamiliar, is curious and open to what I don’t yet know and haven’t yet encountered. Then, yet again, this curious (can we suggest that it is un- or less-conditioned and more progressive?) part of me comes in conflict with the more conservative and instinctual parts, that want to know for sure – to feel secure in, and, ultimately, dominate their environment.

This is one reason I speculate we have such a hard time staying open and allowing in the encounter with art. When it rubs against the instinctual drive, we feel uncomfortable, insecure, and so we reach for something familiar and secure. Here’s where meaning comes in. If I can apply a handy meaning structure or bit of content (especially something I habitually use to bolster and reinforce my positions, likes and dislikes) to something as unfamiliar and wild as most art objects, then I can feel secure and stable, get my bearings, and re-engage the familiar self I take myself to be. For the instinctual drive for survival, this amounts to a reduction of the tension and anxiety I feel in the presence of the unfamiliar – a sense of safety. The problem is, this reduction of the encounter to what renders comfort in turn reduces the art object to its use value for my comfort, limiting the rich possibilities of the encounter, and ultimately rendering it as purely self-centered: only useful to me.

I believe artworks challenge all this – and I think that’s why we love them ultimately; they bring us beyond that familiar and instinct-driven self to an expanded sense of what the encounter can be, and also of who we are and what we can be. Allowing a real encounter with art seems to require a bit of resistance to my tendency to dominate, first, and a little more tolerance with the discomfort of hanging loose in the uncertainty, second.

It’s useful to remember that the drives to know and dominate and be in control help me survive perceived threats; I wouldn’t have made it through early humanhood without them. But, however useful in my past life on the savannah 15,000 years ago, or as the underdeveloped and vulnerable infant and toddler I was, their influence is limiting, at best, from a mature, evolved perspective, and at worst keeps me small and hidden and defended, unavailable to anything in the encounter that doesn’t reinforce the need for safety and security.

Now, I am not saying I should (or could) give up thinking or meaning with respect to art, and I am not saying art can’t or shouldn’t authentically engage rich philosophical or political ideas. But from my point of view, the approach that wants to dominate and subordinate the richness and vulnerability of the encounter to a caption, is the one often participating most energetically, subtly, and effectively in the politics of domination. In fact art engaging politics and conceptual advancement needs the chance to authentically and freely engage in the space of the encounter, to allow itself to reverberate more openly and wildly there.

Then again, the conceptual naming that allows a collective gathering or rallying point around especially oppositional stances is important as well. And this text, too, employs reason and a hierarchical array of concepts, relying on familiarity and a relatively ‘safe’ space of discourse, to make its points. So don’t mistake this as a call for perfection and purity in the encounter – no such luck. We arrive at this moment with the conditioning we have, the linguistic norms we have, with our drives intact. Part of my real is my acceptance of the limitations of my freedom from my conditioning, and a recognition of the development of that freedom with respect to a more open and allowing approach to life’s threats – real and fancied.

In my view, the typical approach to art – what I call the conceptual regime of thinking, that asks in the first place ‘what does it mean’, prior to any encounter – needs to be balanced by open engagement with an intuitive, unfolding, uncertain encounter with the object – an encounter that, for me, leads to a richer, more powerful and, ultimately, far more meaningful relationship. The point is to confront and challenge the need to know, that in turn sets up the encounter to be a one-way affair (what can I get out of this?) and to open a path for less discursive, more open and felt and intuitive forms of text and meaning.

So what does thank you have to do with this? As corny and unweighty as it sounds, it’s a simple technique to make this kind of progress in how I relate. For when I begin with thank you in the face of what I don’t know, I am more open and sustained in my sensing into what the artwork really is and is really offering as the encounter unfolds from moment to moment, in my capacity to withstand and hold the uncertainty and perceived threat there, in my ability to perceive the perceived threat for what it is (a shadow form or trace of instinct), and in my availability to the wildness and richness the encounter offers.

So that when I speak, and name, and am forced by linguistic protocol to nail something down, it may itself include some aspect of that wildness – of the nature not just of the object, but also of the encounter itself. And I begin to enter a real encounter – an encounter centered in exchange, negotiation, and collaboration, rather than in my will to know or dominate. If serious artworks are anything, they are teachers who instruct from beyond the familiar and secure self, in a language that initiates me into the wildness and realness there in the encounter.

Image: RW164 (Swarm), 2013, 42 x 39 inches, oil on linen.

 

 

 

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