L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Elizabeth Pennington Foster Matson Alberts Dahm Burpee

Today is my grandmother's birthday. She would have been ninety-nine. She was born in 1911 in St. Paul. She died on Christmas Eve in 2006. She was my mother's mother. She was married four times. She had many businesses and interests throughout her life. She sustained a hearing loss in early adulthood that caused her much grief. She was quite vocally opinionated and not at all a diplomatic person. She was admired but, sadly, not very loved. As with a lot of people, there were regrets and disappointments in her life that she couldn't really process or find peace with. Corners she couldn't approach. But she had tremendous energy, was hard-working, creative, always moving forward, always interested. I was very close to my Grandma Betty. She was so important to me, in my life. I thought she was a fascinating woman, and I know I fascinated her. And we recognized each other. We saw each other as people and as creative beings. She was the first person who understood that I was an artist. And what that meant.

I loved being with her, visiting her home. From earliest childhood. She had marvelous taste; she always had beautiful things around her. In her house, her garden, her clothes. She was always looking for beauty in everything. Color, proportion, juxtaposition. The intrinsic beauty of some object and how it might relate to its surroundings. It was never about how much something cost or its pedigree, although she had some nice things. But things were never showy, and they didn't have to "match" or "go". (She wasn't afraid to be a little silly with things, either; many times I'd ask her about some unexpected ingredient to the decor, and she'd just laugh. She'd get such a kick out of it.) She was fascinated by the interrelation of shape and mass and color; it was always about the arrangement of things. She might place an acorn and a dried oak leaf next to an old silver bowl, on top of a cheap bamboo mat, on top of an antique Duncan Phyfe work table, and hang above it a battered plaster architectural casting or a Japanese ink drawing. Whatever appealed to her eye. Whatever objects or arrangement appealed, delighted. I do this, too. In every apartment or house or garden. I have my arrangements, my tableaux. I must arrange. And this kind of patterning, this attention to placement is integral to my art-making. I've often said that she was the one who taught me so see. Her attention to me, her appreciation of me, and the inspiration of her own creativity did more than anything else in my life to make me the artist I am.


Funny that one of my favorite blogs is celebrating grandmothers today. My grandmother wasn't able to keep going strong like these amazing ladies. Several years before her death, her mind quickly retreated from the world, as so often happens. When I'd visit, she'd smile and hold my gaze, silent. When she passed away, I was in LA with G's family for Christmas; I got the word during Christmas dinner. They raised their glasses and made a toast to my grandmother. Spontaneous and sweet. (Just the sort of lovely thing I've come to expect from them.) Honestly, I felt much more relief than sadness. Relief that her strong body could finally let her go. Past the indignity, not being who she was anymore. Relief for her hard-earned peace. And also, in a way, thankful to her for her lingering. Because, for the last several years, every time I saw her I was able to say goodbye. Each time a little more. Each time a little more deeply.

I'm very grateful she got to enjoy the early part of my art career - since she had so much to do with it - but I'm so sorry that she didn't get to know Gigi or be at our wedding; I think they would have been mutually fascinated and have had such appreciation for each other.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Another thing that's "just the way it is"?

Why is it that arrogance and vulgarity are so often linked? A particularly noxious pairing. Separately, both are certainly "timeless qualities". Arrogance has always been disapproved of (but often tolerated in the very great), and vulgarity clearly shunned. But the entwining seems to be a very current prevalence: The rude and the crude are given all our attention. The loudest and foulest, the ugly-acting, the ugly-making, are our celebrities. The most tasteless, the most rich, the most outrageous, the most cruel. In our culture everyone has a "right" to do whatever they want - on television, preferably - and shame is the dirtiest word.

Arrogance is one of the basic human weaknesses. But, it seems to me, if you're to be "respectably" arrogant, you need at least to have something - great talent, great beauty, great learning, even old wealth or a noble family - to make it in some way explicable. Never defensible, never excusable, arrogance in a person should at least be comprehensible. If you have little or nothing that is useful or "important" to offer the world, at the very least be kind. Just be kind.

If you're a vulgar person, getting there wasn't your fault. It certainly wouldn't have been a personal goal. But I believe we're all responsible - at least to some degree - for trying to make ourselves better than we are; what's the damned point of being human if we can't improve ourselves a little. Working to recognize our weaknesses, first of all, and working to compensate for them. A lot of people - maybe most - shy away from things they don't understand culturally. They hold close to lifestyle and entertainment choices they know and to the people who make similar choices. Sadly, much - maybe most - of what we do choose (in this country, now, especially) is just junk. Really, just junk. If you choose not to look farther than your comfort zone, if you are afraid to think and appreciate differently than those around you, or if you know the difference and merely enjoy the ugly or inexpert or vulgar, that doesn't make you a bad person. But chances are you're an ignorant (or just perverse) one. And is that ever something to be proud of?

It used to be that people were embarrassed by their ignorance. By their common-ness. They respected education and culture, even when they possessed neither. And they strove to attain it; if not for themselves, at least for their children. But, now, stubborn ignorance is a virtue. Greed is a virtue - it used to be a sin - and tasteless excess is the surest indication of success. In a world of Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, American Idol, the Kardashians, George W. Bush, Jerry Springer, et al, being loud and proud about your intellectual and cultural limitations - large and small - can make you a celebrity. Or president.

I understand that the human mind - even a very deficient one - is a terribly subtle, contrary mechanism. Most people have backward, self-deluding reasons for doing unpleasant or unattractive things. If they think about it at all. So I don't really wonder why people act like this. But I wonder why the rest of us give it such credence, why we don't condemn it. Why, instead of listening to the tantrum or watching the program or buying the music, or in all other ways validating this mind set, we don't feel at least enough "embarrassed for mankind" to look away. I suppose most of our lack of restraint is because of the "car wreck" reflex; we're just programmed to gawk. But shouldn't we fight that instinct? Shouldn't we try? My thinking, as the damnably old-fashioned parent I would have been, is to say to all this fairly toxic nonsense, as I would to bratty child, "If you can't behave in a civilized manner, please go to your room; I don't want to look at you when you act like this."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Until Autumn

Bless the trees that lag behind and keep their color
Bless the stubborn leaves that refuse to let go
They're not ready yet,
And neither am I

Bless the souls of fern,
implanting themselves in the newly-wet, blossoming moss,
Curling out fresh, vivid tendrils,
This isn't the end of anything; look at what I've done,
All the fading is a lie

Bless the twigs and chaff
And fallen leaves, anyway,
That hide the mud on the path
Bless the birds that sing and sing
With no tomorrow

Bless the blue sky, bright as any Summer
Bless the fingerprints of windowpanes,
Slanting hard on the wood floor
Bless the sun warm on the bed
Bless the chin-high covers
Bless the waking brightness,
And eyes wet with sun

Bless the brain soft from sleep
Bless the body hot from exertion
Bless the heart in its gauzy hopefulness
In all their landscapes of confused believing

For the moments of delusion that the changing could wait this time.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Things are going pretty damned well for me right now in the art department, this career thing I've got going. I've got a new gallery - a really good one - in Seattle, and I've been asked to talk about my work at a symposium at the Tacoma Art Museum in April. Both of these things just dropped into my lap, and I couldn't be more flattered and grateful. For a while now, I've been working at my craft, doing good work but not really focused on anything else. Not thinking beyond the work to career. Treading water, really. But now, I feel like a door has been flung open and - to completely frappé my metaphors - I'm being asked to step up.

Step up.

The gallery in Seattle, Winston Wächter, has asked for new work for a show in January. One of the two I'm preparing is 36x24. Not really large by "industry standards", but larger than anything I've yet done as a professional artist. So large, that the little table-top easel I've always used just isn't able to accommodate it. I've had to acquire a real-deal floor-model easel. Large. With clamps and knobs and casters. Something that tilts and swings and gets locked into place. Solid wood and damned sturdy. In my whole life - from a small child - of making art, somehow I've never had a real, serious easel.

When I told Gigi that I was going to have to get one - in bed, getting ready to go to sleep - she quietly asked if I would let her buy it for me. Very touched, but knowing that it could cost several hundred dollars, I asked if maybe it would OK if she paid part of it. Contributed. But she said, just as quietly that, no, she wanted to buy it for me.

And just a few days later, she did. After we stuffed the huge box in the car - G actually had to assume the shape of a "G" in her half-folded-down seat to make it fit - after heaving it upstairs, and after yet another shuffling of the contents of the room we call the "studio", everything actually seems to fit. And I've started my big painting.

While not wanting to get too much into "our business", let me still say that G and I think and talk a lot about how we can support each other. As two very different people, with different expectations and needs - who love each other - we're always looking for ways to do that better. Just as people trying to grow and be more of who we want to be, are meant to be. And in all our many artistic endeavors. People need support in different ways. They need it delivered in different styles, even. For myself, I need a good share of "tough love". And when it comes to making art, I'm so easily distracted, so emotionally fluctuating - so squirrelly - that I often need a "stop, go sit down and get to work." And then, of course, I might argue the point. Because I'm rather a spoiled brat. (In case you didn't know that about me....) But, even if I do, I need it anyway. I need the support of someone telling me, "I don't care about your excuses, the art you want to make - need to make - is bigger than all that. Go get to work." I need some stern, to-the-point truth-telling.

So, this easel that Gigi bought me? This necessary gift? Could any metaphor for her support be clearer?! Solid, sturdy, serious. Large. Taller than I am and with a great capacity for expansion. To me it clearly symbolizes her belief in my talent and my goals, and her devotion to my dreaming and to my success. The way she supports me.

Et parce que ce soutien, je dis merci à toi, ma femme. Je t'adore.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

No leading 2

Knowing our limitations, being comfortable with them, also leaves us more room to admire and appreciate those people who have the qualities we don't.

A few weeks ago, on a Friday evening and the following Sunday afternoon, Gigi and I performed minor roles in a production of Ordo Virtutum, the allegorical morality play, written in the twelfth century by Hildegard of Bingen. (Read Gigi's posts on Ordo here and here.) We were part of the chorus referred to as - with perhaps more than a little hyperbole - the "Mega-Chorus" and we sang in sections near the beginning of the production and at the very end. And there were five places in between where, as a group, we declaimed Latin text; we were the voice of the devil.

Musical direction was by Ben Landsverk, stage direction by Stephen Marc Beaudoin, and movement/dance by Kaj-anne Pepper. A holy trinity, certainly. Ben Landsverk is - I'll say it again - a genius. Geniuses, like saints, don't get the credit they deserve; they make it look too easy. But I marvel at the cosmos of music and just plain - sound - that he must carry about in his amazing brain. Kaj-anne combines a beautiful playfulness with an absolute belief in what he is doing, what he is giving. And he always seems tuned in to some frequency the rest of us are missing. A celestial channel. One of my favorite parts of the production was experiencing Kaj, portraying the soul, bounding along the top rails of the pews, the whole length of the nave, turning back and glowering, like a winking demon.

The other highest points, for me: Gigi Urban, high above everyone, singing at the very top of her range, as the music crashed in around her - like lightning, like a sharp cloud-break. [she said it was really too high for her but, God, it so worked!]; Andy McQuery singing a solo, rocking in a rocking-chair, in the shadows, nearly unseen, his gorgeous, deep voice resonating - enveloping - the acoustical quality such that it was almost impossible to tell where this amazing sound was coming from; the Mega-Chorus rising mob-like out of a lull, randomly shouting "Euge! Euge!" (bravo) with shocking and unexpected bitterness; Stephen Marc Beaudoin's solo, embodying Mercy, twining around one of the pillars of the baldacchino, his aspect brimming with compassion, his beautiful voice - an amazing voice, so particular - circling and spiraling upward, almost bird-like.

Stephen is really the primary focus of this post. I don't actually know him at all that well - though he's always been charming and so sweet to G and I - but I have tremendous admiration for him and what he is able to accomplish. In all his many projects. It brings me back to what I was saying about being able to recognize those qualities we do not possess - and never will - and yet having such admiration for those who do. SMB is a fantastic leader. Which is very much a quality I would so love to have.

Almost any time I have tried to be a "leader of men" I have sadly failed. I never have the right words, I don't know how to encourage, I don't know how to get a group to "sign on" to the task that has been set. I begin to speak of the grand endeavor in which I ask them to participate, and all the happy faces begin to fold in on themselves; the atmosphere curdles. I am now grateful - most grateful - to be able to accept that leadership is not one of my talents.

As the stage director of Ordo, Stephen had just the right touch. The principals had a fair bit of rehearsal, I believe. But the chorus had only a few scant hours. And we were asked to do things that should have had more rehearsal. So we had to trust that we would be able to pull it off, and Stephen - by his charm, energy, and good-will - instilled that trust. And, maybe more importantly, he made us feel trusted. Trusted that we could hit our cues, follow direction, be a team; to do what needed to be done. He found exactly the right balance of humor and focus, working with us. And I felt, as I watched him do this, that he was constantly making adjustments in his thinking and communication, finding the right tone to take, deciding what issues he needed to push and what - to keep our enthusiasm, to nurture our self-confidence - could be let go. Always striving to balance artistic coherence and integrity and the well-being of the players; he wanted the performances to be spectacular, but he also wanted everyone to really have a great time.

Ben and Kaj-anne seemed to be working with us in completely the same way. All three of them subtly adjusting their expectations, letting go of what wasn't as important, encouragingly stressing the parts we really needed to get right. It was fascinating to watch. And all the more so for me, because I know that this kind of sensitivity and quick-witted wisdom was not a talent I was dealt. Bravo!

No leading 1

I do quite a few things rather well. To be honest...yes, I do. Some through natural ability, some through years and years of practice. Mostly, a combination of the two. And I'm not afraid, which is a huge part of any creative endeavor, putting inspiration into action or form. "I can do that - sure, why not!" But perhaps most importantly, I know my limitations. The older I get, the more I understand this, the more crucial I believe it to be.

We all have talents and skills of one sort or another, developed to a lesser or greater degree. And we all have dreams or ambitions or goals that involve those talents and skills. To me, the difference between success and abject mortification and disaster - out in the world or just subjectively personal - is to find the balance between those two things. To be able to assess what we can and can't do. To dream about the creation of something and waiting, if necessary, until the moment when we've developed our skills, our selves, enough to pull it off. I look at older paintings or performance and sometimes think, "Oh, I see what you were going for - bravo! - but you didn't quite get there, did you...?"

To be creatively ambitious is important for any artist, making any sort of art. To challenge ourselves, to grow. But I feel recognizing our limitations - somehow - and working with/working within those limitations is at least as important. Earlier this year I finished a painting that I began almost a decade ago. I'm currently working on another I started at about the same time. I don't know why I put them aside - not something that I do, once a thing has been fully begun - but I feel something in me said, wait. And my understanding of these two paintings and their very long blooming - one finished and publicly successful (see an explanation of this painting here.), one happily progressing - is, "I just wasn't ready until now." I somehow intuited that I wasn't yet capable of doing what I wanted to do.

And I think it's also very important to know what we'll probably never be good at. No matter how we want it, no matter how we struggle to master that quality or technique, I believe there are just some things we're not designed to do or be. I'd love to be a painter who is known for his beautiful brushwork - to be able to describe something accurately and meaningfully with just a flick or a drag or a blob - but my brain doesn't work that way. I'd love to be a tenor - or, better yet, a soprano! - but I have a low voice. There are so many areas of life - not just related to creativity, and much more subtle and logical than those two examples - where, if we could only allow ourselves to let go of our striving after the wrong, unnatural goals, we would have so much more energy to do the things we are meant to do, are uniquely designed to do.

To know what we can and can't do, to know what we are ready for and what we are not yet ready for, and to know what we really have no actual aptitude for, is very freeing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The perseverance, the adaptability, of nature is quite remarkable. Hiking in Forest Park last week, I came across this tree.

It's difficult to tell from the video, but the trunk grows right at the edge of a steep slope. Upward, only briefly, it then grows horizontally for some time before heading straight up again, to a great height. There was another part of the tree that is now gone. It apparently forked near the base. That section of the tree, the diameter of which seems larger than the part that is still alive, appears to have died and fallen; at least, all that's left is a jagged stump. Still a part of the whole, though. And then there are the odd arm-like connections, moss-covered, looping up and over. Linking. All together, this tree, this structure, tells a story. A story of striving. Whatever attacked it, whatever suppressed it, it found a way to go on. To adapt and go on living.

It's trite and maybe just a little simple-minded to make the obvious, expected comparisons between man and nature. But, as man is a part of nature - mostly unwittingly, uncooperatively - it's only reasonable to reflect on this. Things live, struggle, and die. Everything, all of us. That tree that has survived so much, will still eventually die. I will die. Most of us, if we give much reasoned thought to it, hope for a quick, easy, dignified death. A graceful exit. But until we get there, we have life to contend with, to struggle with. I used to think that other people got through life more easily than I, more fluidly. But I realize, more and more, that everyone struggles - hard - traveling along the path of their lives. To overcome. To endure. To become. If you could make a picture, a sculpture, of the struggle of people's lives, it might look something like that tree trunk. That tortured, ridiculous, beautiful thing. Just as I can see the beauty in the contortions of this gnarled, still-growing survivor, I need to try harder to recognize the beauty in the struggle of others. To remember how touched I am, how lightened I am, by this statement made of living wood: Life is struggle, and the struggle is beautiful.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A sensual nature

Sensuality means different things to different people. Depends on what you enjoy, really. Most would define it as an indulgence of the senses. Any or all of them. A surrendering to them. Through food or physical touch, through visual or aural richesse. A revelatory dining experience, a perfect massage, the smell of a campfire in the desert. I think, most of the time, this stimulation of the senses is best enjoyed in a quiet, unhurried setting. In a state of pleasant lassitude. Something akin to the famous luxe, calme et volupté of Baudelaire's L'Invitation au voyage:

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

[There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.]

Of course many, if not most, people equate sensuality with sex. And little more. They're unable to separate the two. And certainly they go quite well together. But there is so much in the world, subtle and luscious. With smells and tastes that, by nature, are programmed for our delight. And I think we'd all be better off as humans, have more reverence for life and nature, if we strove to remember that an appreciation of the sensual might extend a little further than the urge to fill one orifice and empty another.

As an example of another sort of sensuality, from recent experience:

A ripe blackberry. Pulled from the cane, heated through with sun. The dark purple of its fragile skin, the soft rounds breaking with even the most careful touch, pooling shiny velvet-red on your fingertips. On your tongue, in one stroke, you crush it against the roof of your mouth. The sweet juice flooding over your tongue and the exquisite perfume ascending.

Is there anything in the world that could compare with this, could replicate this particular wondrous object, this beautiful and startling experience? Gigi and I got to share this ridiculously simple and profound thing last week; I'm so fortunate that I share my life with someone who searches for beauty and the sensual experience as I do.

Bessie Smith, still rattlin' 'round my brain....

...Oh, Cho-ol-ly
Make it si-ing
That slide tram-bone.

You'll e-e-ven
Make a ki-i-ing
Get down off his throne.

And h-e-e would break a
A-doin' the Charleston

Oh, Chol-ly Green
Play that thi-ing
I mean that slide tram-bone.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Long [really long] Day's Journey..."

Last night Gigi and I attended a performance of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night". Pulitzer Prize-winning, considered by most to be one of the greatest American plays of the twentieth century; many would say the greatest. Never afraid to think - and speak - for myself, to form opinions that run recklessly counter to the consensus opinion, I would strongly disagree. I don't really think this is a great play; I don't really think it's even terribly good.

I know that's fairly blasphemous to say but chacun à son goût, dammit! If you enjoy this sort of thing, then by all means go. We all have things that we enjoy greatly, and need make little effort to try and sync them up with those of others. But I certainly did not "enjoy greatly" Mr. O'Neill's celebrated play; honestly, I left the theatre feeling battered. And pointlessly so. I am quite willing to be tortured artistically if I get something out of it. An insight, some mesmeric image, a subtle wisdom. G and I talked for hours after getting home about what we were willing to endure for the sake of art. A lot, actually. And we're both very willing to accept a work in its own context, taking into account the world it was born into, and how the world has changed since then. And we're also always very careful to monitor our own limitations, what our expectations are, having been born into the world we know. And we're not afraid of "dark", either; G's favorite play is "Streetcar", for crissakes. So we'll always try and give a play a break. But, comparing this with a lot of the other great theatre we've seen, and with the writing of the playwrights we admire, we both felt this was rather awful.

Bloated and self indulgent. G liked a lot of the language, but there was no discernible structure; if I were to wax metaphorical, I'd say it was like taking all the materials for a building and dumping them into a heap at the construction site. You can't live there! It went on and on, repetitive in the extreme. I can see no reason for it to be as long as it was. I understand that, in a striving for naturalness, O'Neill has the characters repeat the same concerns and stories over and over again, because that's what people really do. But this is theatre, not real life. There is a job to do, in a (hopefully) fairly limited space of time. As I've said before, I believe art is always about some sort of communication. If, in the service of naturalism, the play runs on for an inordinate length of time, structureless, with the characters repeating the same not-very-interesting business in not-terribly-interesting language and, at the end, the audience really doesn't know anything more about these people than the clichés presented as their motivation, what have you got? What can you feel for these people besides some vague pity? What is the point? Andrew Upton, the director of this production, says, "Even though by the end of the play nothing has been resolved and their lives are difficult, there is real wisdom in it. There is humor and wisdom that leavens the darkness." I agree entirely - except that I find no wisdom here. Only "recording", no understanding or insight. And what humor might be written into the play, is flooded out by the physical and emotional discomfort the audience is forced to endure. There is, sadly, no useful/usable leavening.

I believe I'm fairly able to keep my opinion of the play and the performance separate, but the current production can't have helped the situation much. This was a co-production of the celebrated Sydney Theatre Company and Portland's own Artists Repertory Theatre. Being performed in both cities, this is a pretty high-profile endeavor, not the least part being that James Tyrone is played by William Hurt. So one would expect to find something that felt better worked-out, more polished. It doesn't seem casual as a "choice", it just seems half-baked. Visually, it manages to be both confounding and boring. The strangely flashy set, extremely pared down, all "Expressionistic" angles, seems meant for some other play. It doesn't relate to or service this one at all. And the costumes are as misunderstood and incomplete as what one might expect from a high school production - and they only had five actors to dress! The lighting was flat and used to no real effect. I will say that the final tableau was beautifully posed and lit. And all the more striking as, in comparison with the rest of the production, it seemed thoughtful.

Though I think some of the casting choices were not entirely wise, all five of the actors did admirable work. But none of them were in the same play; there was a jarring disunity of acting styles. And both Hurt and Luke Mullins, who played Edmund, were very frequently unintelligible. I have excellent hearing, but their diction (and, often, projection) was so poor that much of the text was lost. I thought both of them gave rich, interior performances, but if you can't understand what the actor is saying...? By contrast, local Todd Van Voris, as James Jr., and Emily Russell, as Cathleen, might have been playing in Vaudeville. Gesturing and mugging, you could "read" them out in the lobby. But, by God, you knew what they were saying. Robyn Nevin as Mary Tyrone gave probably the most subtle and comprehensible performance. And the most theatrically balanced; nuanced but still audible.

So why didn't the very lauded director pull this together better? Why couldn't he guide his very capable actors into a unified whole? It's fairly shocking, such negligence. And, whether I liked being subjected to this particular play or not, I feel bad for the actors. This is a long, strenuous, naked play; no actor would approach this lightly or without the utmost commitment. It takes great courage and trust to sign on for something this "big". I feel Upton let them down.

Which leads me back to Hurt, the "star-power" of the production. Obviously, a fine, respected actor. Awards, money in the bank, etc. And also obviously, not one who seems particularly interested in the "star" business; an actor, he wants to act. He wants to work. And I think he gave a very interesting performance last night. I don't think he was exactly right for the part, but he gave such an intelligent, particular interpretation. The odd way he made long, quick rolling passages, all his words run together, was fascinating. He's a very specifically interior actor. And in perhaps all of his roles you feel that coiled energy and intelligence. I can't think what occurred in rehearsal but, if his director had helped him, technically, to better get that interiority out to the audience - and made sure of a fully-functioning diction - I feel his might have been a great performance.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The new phone

I didn't know if I'd ever get around to it, but it has occurred: I now have a cell phone. I know nothing - beyond nothing - about how the buggers work. And through a small lapse in communication, I've been provided with an iphone - not the brandest-newest one, but the next-to-brandest-newest one - so the learning curve shall be steep. A "smart phone" for a dumb guy.

Having been so long on the other side of the shore, as it were - a non-cell phone carrying citizen - and having observed the often hair-raising behavior of those more modern than myself, I have had time to ready a few rules of conduct, to which I now vow my allegiance:

- I shall not stand at a corner - with or without a stop sign, crosswalk, what-have-you - facing into traffic, whilst motorists scratch their heads or otherwise gesticulate at the opacity of my intentions.

- I shall not walk down a sidewalk or aisle, talking or texting, at a pace significantly slower than my fellow pedestrians.

- I shall not walk, roll, drag (or merely ignore) my child or dog - should I accrue either of these things - whilst persistently texting or engaging in all-consuming phone conversations.

- I shall not stand, resolutely, in a doorway, in the middle of an aisle, at the top or bottom of a staircase, or any other area of egress, talking or texting, whilst everyone else is forced to negotiate a path around me.

- I shall not walk with my wife or other dear relation or friend whilst carrying on a full-blown phone conversation with another.

- I shall not use the phone in a check out line or whilst speaking with any sort of cashier or attendant.

- I shall not talk or text in public or in stores whilst moving in circles or less distinguishable patterns, thereby stopping, confusing, or otherwise annoying the general population.

- I shall not dine with friends or family at a restaurant and spend the meal texting those others currently unable to share the pleasure of our company.

- I shall not talk or text whilst driving, of course. (Oregon has a law against doing so but it appears that, unless an officer of the law also witnesses me simultaneously chugging vodka from the bottle and/or some part of my vehicle is aflame or becomes suddenly detached, I won't be stopped for breaking the law.)

If I am witnessed in violation of this oath, I welcome any and all public shaming. With the exception of spitting, please.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Happy \'hapē, -pi\ verb

As I stumble awkwardly through my own Middle Ages, I'm slowly coming to the realization that one needs to work - work pretty hard - to be happy. I guess I've always thought that happiness is just a natural state of being, the normal thing. The default setting. If you have the necessities of life, are in proximity to congenial people, and are blessed with a good digestion, you can expect to be happy. And if you have these things, and aren't happy, then it's your fault. You're unappreciative or lazy or just a rather unpleasant person. But I'm beginning to believe that isn't true.

I'm beginning to believe that most "happy people" - maybe all - have to work to be that way. It might come a lot easier to some. They might be more exercised, more flexible when it comes to the happiness game. It might seem like second nature to choose happy over grumpy or whiny, but I think they're still, however unconsciously, making a choice.

In the last months, I've been consciously choosing to "go toward happy". It's a sadly cheapened catchphrase, "fake it 'til you feel it", but it's a really practical thing: push yourself to model the behavior you would want to have. As I've "acted" cheerful, more and more, I think I'm becoming that more often. And I can begin to see the cost of running my old pattern of the grumpy, whiny guy; it's much more pleasant to be the cheerful guy. It feels better. And moving farther into this new territory, my choice in the matter is more and more evident. I have a choice to be happier. And I need to do the work to get there.

I've heard it said, in more than one context, that we should always try to see love as a verb rather than a noun. It isn't some thing you have, that you hold onto, that you have no control over. It's something you do. You work on it. You give it all your attention; you tend it like you would a garden. I completely agree with this. And I'm starting to see that personal happiness might just work the same way. It isn't just a gift or a natural state of being. It's something we might achieve with a whole lot of work. Happy: an action verb.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Always. Grateful.

I often have days that veer out of control. Sometimes they just get bent right at the beginning. Like when the morning is cloudy when it's supposed to be summer - bright and sunny - and when I barely made it through the winter. Or when I can't kowtow to my stupid food sensitivities another moment, and have a tiny piece of cheese or a scrap of bread or a potato, and I wake up the next morning feeling like crap. Other days, things might start out fine and then go off. I'll get that creeping dread knowing I'll have to go to work in a few hours. Or, later, stewing that I'm stuck at work. Or just dwelling on the fact that I don't have enough money to do what I want. Or that I can never produce enough artwork to get anywhere with it as a career. Just leaving the house and coming in contact with the crude, mindless world can be traumatic for silly and overly-sensitive me.

I can easily get overwhelmed by all this - honestly - trivial stuff. I lose any perspective or sense of proportion. To be fair to myself, I've been struggling with PTSD for some time; worse in the last few years but probably, to some degree, most of my life. And I understand now that one of the most common issues with this is a difficulty in retaining perspective or a sense of proportion. I know there are things I can do/need to do to help balance things out - breath work, exercise, eating right, going to bed at a reasonable hour, getting in enough painting each week - but when I get negatively over-stimulated - a stranger stands too close to me; Gigi is late coming home; a co-worker acts like a jerk to me; I'm stuck in a too-small, window-less waiting room - it can be very hard for me to stand back psychologically and see the "big picture", to discern what's important and what's not important. I panic. And when I panic, I go into warrior mode. Me against the world.

As I mentioned above, being at work can be especially hard. I want to be able to graduate from that place. And though a lot of my frustration is centered there, I can't move on just yet. I've made a huge amount of progress in the last several months making it a healthier, happier place for me to be. But it's only to be expected that some days won't be entirely my best.

So I want to thank the people who, at those times, help me out. Almost always they don't know they're even doing so. They just do or say something that takes me out of myself and helps me back into the world. Shakes me out like a wadded-up shirt, gently smoothing down the wrinkles. Coming up to me, telling me some good news. Joking or teasing me. Just acknowledging or interacting with me in some small way. Some small, mindless thing, but it helps me so much. And I want to say thank you for that. In those moments, there is never a way to say it, to express my gratitude. For the help you give me. For that light. I will always be grateful.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


As I finish a new painting, it's hard not to notice the irony in what I've been listening to lately for my painting-music. The painting itself is typically frilly-

-but the music has been about as low-down as I get: Bessie Smith and several of her colleagues, the great women blues singers of the 20s and 30s. Mamie Smith, Margaret Johnson, Trixie Smith, Rosetta Howard, etc. Hard core blues only leavened, in the CD shuffle, by some Boswell Sisters and early Louis Armstrong.

One Bessie Smith recording in particular clings to me. There's something about the exquisite droning of the vocal line and the audacious text that keeps it replaying in my mind:

Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair

by George Brooks

Judge your honor hear my plea, before you open up your court
But I don't want no sympathy, 'cause I done cut my good man's throat

I caught him with a trifling Jane, I warned him 'bout before
I had my knife and went insane, and the rest you ought to know

Judge, judge, please mister judge, send me to the 'lectric chair
Judge, judge, good mister judge, let me go away from here

I wanna take a journey, to the devil down below
I done killed my man, I wanna reap just what I sow

Oh judge, judge, lordy lordy judge, send me to the 'lectric chair

Judge, judge, hear me judge, send me to the 'lectric chair
Judge, judge, send me there judge, I love him so dear,

I cut him with my barlow, I kicked him in the side
I stood here laughing ov'r him, while he wallowed ‘round and died

Oh judge, judge, lordy judge, send me to the 'lectric chair

Judge, judge, sweet mister judge, send me to the 'lectric chair
Judge, judge, good kind judge, burn me 'cause I don't care

I don't want no bondsmen man [?], to go my bail
I don't want to spend no, ninety-ninety years in jail

So judge, judge, good kind judge, send me to the 'lectric chair.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Norma moment

Just dreaming of Norma Shearer's Marie Antoinette (1938) and thought I'd post this image from a Hollywood, shimmering at its very starriest heights. The moment the dauphine and count Fersen first meet, on the staircase of a gambling house, Norma turning her full-wattage glamour on (a sadly dull) Tyrone Power.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I almost always wake up with some sort of song or musical passage rattling around in my brain. I never know what I'll find; it can be literally anything. What I got this morning stayed with me as I was hitting the trail: Fanny Brice's "Cooking Breakfast For The One I Love" from her second film, Be Yourself. Not at all, as it turns out, an encouraging tune for vigorous exersize. The rhythm is all wrong. It totally worked against my own; I felt like I was dragging a cannon behind me, up the hill. So I forced myself to switch to my old stand-by, that final waltz from Ciboulette.

It made me think that maybe what makes that particular piece work so well for me is the fact that it's in three quarter time. There's something about this time signature - I'm sure someone with a musical education could explain this - that feels like it's moving itself forward, tossing out its notes, ahead of itself, with never a chance to really catch up. It must have something to do with why we respond so readily to the music of a waltz, or anything in three-quarter time; we respond to it physically. We want to get up and dance or just move about or, at least, sitting in our seat, to wiggle our toes. Right there in the time signature is a vitality, a rhythmic propulsion. So, I find it perfect for regulating my pace and getting me to move just a bit more briskly.

After a while, I found that "Amour qui meurs!...amour qui passes!..." had somehow morphed into "Makin' Whoopee", the old Eddie Cantor song; a slightly more down-to-earth selection. And after a bit of that, I finished the rest of my hike to the strains of "High and Low" from the original stage version (1931) of The Bandwagon; which is not in three-quarter time, but constructed with more than its share of lilt!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Second day on the hill

I took another hike today. Grayer and more populated than my first of the season, but full-length; I was wary of overdoing it, last Wednesday, so I only did about three-quarters of my regular route. Happy that I appear to be in better shape than I thought I was. And happy that I've got my walking music back.

You'd think that I'd be content to revel in the quietude of the trail - nothing more than my footsteps and my breathing, the wind in the trees and vigorous birdsong above - but my frantic little brain will have none of that. So one of two things is continually unspooling as I march along: a particular musical passage played on a loop in my head or Madeleine Prévert's non-stop babbling.

If you're not familiar with my alter-ego, Mlle. Prévert, she's a glamorous, appallingly egotistical chanteuse. She believes herself to be Anglo-French - though she is neither - aged thirty-ish - certainly not that, either - and her existence is firmly stuck in 1936. I've performed Madeleine three times, now, and G has joined me twice, playing her feisty daughter, Penny. The problem is that, when la Prévert isn't actually singing, she spends all of her time spouting utter nonsense...emphatically; her entire life is written in italics! And last year, during most of my hikes, I found myself channeling the silly creature - in the woods! The very last place one would expect to encounter the rantings of this, the most urban and theatrical - and unnatural - of women. She chattered on and on and on until I was forced to give her her own blog, if only to have some peace. Thereafter, she spewed forth the most inappropriate and idiotic blather; hopefully some readers found it amusing. Oddly, after I stopped hiking, when the weather got too wet, we began to hear less and less from the old girl and, now, she hasn't addressed her public since February. That might be about to change. I didn't hear a peep out of her last Wednesday, but I think she is near. In amongst the trees, circling round, like a Patou-clad wraith. And today, on the trail, I do believe I may have caught a whiff of her (terribly costly) parfum wafting on the breeze.

When Madeleine goes blessedly silent, I'll find a tune going on and on - fully symphonic - in my head. Last year's hit parade was topped by "Amour qui meurs!...amour qui passes!..." from Reynaldo Hahn's delicious Ciboulette. A grand waltz for soprano and chorus that is the climax and finale of the operetta, it turned out to be an excellent accompaniment to hill-scrambling; I expect mountain goats would find it delightful. Having a steady beat in your head makes those beastly little ascents so much easier to make, trudging along, manfully, in waltz-time! Last week, over-oxygenated and concrete-footed, I tried to access this piece, but could only do so sporadically. And when I did, I found myself dreadfully under tempo. It was less valse brillante and considerably more marche funèbre. Today was much better. I caught it and it stuck - happy trails!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

First day back on the hill

I did my first Forest Park hike of the season today. I'm making a late start but, then, so did the season. And I don't like walking about in mud and slime. They say it might make it to ninety-five degrees today, but it was just perfect for trudging up the hill, under the trees. It was so great, making my way along the same route as last year, negotiating the same ascents. (And the same nearly invisible roots and rocks that mine the path; it would be a slightly more transcendent hike if I didn't have to spend all my time, eyes to the ground, averting shame and grave bodily-harm.)

Beautiful. And very peaceful; I only encountered five souls in the time I was out. And one was un jeune homme, très beau - brun et aussi doux et juteux qu'une pêche. Yes, yes he was. And therefore easy enough to incorporate into my solitude.... He noiselessly galloped by - like a well-groomed pony - in black shorts and a neon chartreuse t-shirt. He didn't appear to sweat. He didn't appear to breathe. Such youth and grace is damned Olympian! To witness such perfection, such beauty is, for me, the most exciting and confounding thing. He mumbled something at me as he passed. Some sort of shy greeting. But it came out rather like "hurm-bel". A sweet little noise, but not any recognizable word. So I think the kindest thing would be to presume he is merely... foreign. Yes, I believe that would be the generous thing to do....

Coming back the other way, I encountered another fellow - handsome and shirtless - and he gave me a very jolly, open-faced "hello". But he was slightly sweaty and appeared to be actually breathing, so I judged him rather too mortal and therefore uninteresting. One must have standards, after all.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Enfant Gentil?

I spent a literary evening at the side of my wife, last night. I do enjoy being the consort whenever I can. I went with her to class - the Dangerous Writing workshop - enjoyed the wonderful writing and at the break they called it a night and had a little birthday party for Tom (Spanbauer). Then, most of us trucked over to a benefit for poet Walt Curtis. A few months back, Walt lost just about everything he owned in a fire, and this was one of several fundraisers in his honor.

The evening was long and rather...taxing, shall we say. We had all thought that Tom would be reading early in the program; one of the main reasons we went was to hear Tom and Kevin Samsell read. They eventually read, back to back, about three hours in. Before that, there was a lot of poetry slowly read - much of it unintelligible since, apparently, poets are unable to intuit the function of a microphone. The high point of this early part of the evening was Monica Drake, who read a great piece and gallantly fielded the rantings of the honoree.

Walt Curtis is known for being irascible, loudly whimsical, perverse. At least at big public functions. I hear he's quite charming in smaller, more intimate settings; I've never seen him that way. And last night, even though - or perhaps because - he was the one in whose honor the benefit was formed, he displayed behavior - loudly disruptive, antagonistic, insulting - that could only be described by employing the overworked phrase enfant terrible. A nearly elderly enfant, but still.... And I couldn't help but wonder why we laud such behavior in artists - poets - that we would condemn in a florist or a plumber.

We seem to think it's endearing that an artist might run amok that way. I think it goes along with that thing about artists being special. The role of an artist in modern art and literature. Not merely a craftsman, but special. And entitled - encouraged - to be loud and ridiculous. And it shouldn't really matter, I suppose; fools are often quite delightful. Entertaining, certainly. The problem is when we equate behavior with talent. And I think, all too often, we do. If the artist or writer acts extreme enough they're probably really good! We may not think this consciously, but the image of the brilliant, celebrated artist/author who goes about acting like a horse's ass is so deeply iconic, and is just the kind of thing that warps our expectations.

I can't really make any comment on Walt Curtis' talent or skill as a writer. I've only read Mala Noche, and I remember really enjoying it. (Though, I must admit that what I remember enjoying are the parts that related to my own life; when I read it, I'd just moved here from LA, and my experiences there had many parallels with his story.) But Walt is so loved and respected that I must assume he's a good writer. And beyond the nonsense, a good guy.

But I'd just like to make an obeisance to the artists and writers who work hard and are respectful and know how to behave in public. I'd really like to see a shift in the paradigm (I used the word paradigm, oh la!) of the artist's persona. What we think an artist looks and behaves like. I happen to know lots of artists and writers who are respectful and responsible and make amazing work. My wife is one of them. The writers she is in workshop with, who are kind and supportive - and fantastic writers. And Tom Spanbauer, a gentle, soft-spoken man of great dignity and grace, whose work is heartbreaking and fearless and...I honestly don't have the language to be able to describe the beauty and wisdom of his work.

So I'd really love to see a new image of a artist, a new icon of a writer. The sort of writer or artist I'm speaking of. A new terminology. Instead of the well-worn enfant terrible, may I suggest enfant gentil...? Or perhaps even enfant doux...?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday morning with Freddie and Ginger

G and I went to a party for writers last night. A (slightly delayed) solstice party at the Writer's Dojo. (Sounds terribly literary, doesn't it?) We were totally pooped from work, but we allowed ourselves the option of leaving early if need be. It was a lovely evening, and G connected with a lot of the writers there. We spent the latter part, downstairs, talking with her friend Holly from the Dangerous Writers workshop. I love sitting back and listening to G and her writer colleagues discussing their work; fascinating. It wasn't at all late, when the host came down to put some food in the refrigerator. Then he came down again. And I thought, well things must be slowing down. It turns out we three were the very last ones there - rather embarrassing - and so much for leaving early. The host let us off the hook by explaining that, while the musician functions there usually go into the wee hours, the writers always leave early because they don't serve hard alcohol at the Dojo. Oh, those boozy, hard-core writers!

Is was about eleven-thirty when we left. First thing G said when we got in the car was, "I'm hungry." We'd barely eaten anything there: a piece of cheese, a cracker, and a nut. So, by the time we got home, we'd decided to eat our leftovers from the night before. Some wonderful squash enchiladas from Oba. In the door and on the way to the food, first thing G said was, "what are we watching?" This from the woman who's often in bed by ten. Or so out of it she should be. After the delightfully starchy meal, I dozed through much of the movie, but G was going strong. Until after two in the morning. Crazy world!

G was really running the show last night, so she chose "Roberta"; Astaire and Rogers is always a good choice, I'm thinking. Here is "Lovely To Look At/Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" which comes at the end of the fashion sequence, near the very end of the film. So brief. So perfect.

(Rogers' strange accent is explained by the fact that she's playing a phony Polish countess.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Beauty is enough

As simply as I can say it, I think beauty is sufficient reason for a work of art. It doesn't need to do anything else. It doesn't need to say anything. It most certainly doesn't need to make commentary on the world in which it was created. Beauty is sufficient.

When a work of art is clearly beautiful, when it is able to coherently communicate that beauty, it does something to us. Earliest man felt the imperative to make art, to create beauty, to communicate through art. When we're confronted with beauty, when it communicates its incomprehensibility to us, I believe it makes us something more than we were before. It feeds something in us; I truly believe that it changes our soul. And I believe it's something we truly need for survival, to be in touch with, to strive toward. To make us more. And we are so in need of that - that striving toward beauty, the communion with beauty - as a country, a planet, as humanity. Because I believe, as Dostoevsky said, that "beauty will save the world."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I'm going to say again - and it won't be for the last time - that I have great respect for my fellow contemporary artists. That I rail against the state of contemporary art should never be seen as a criticism of what you do; and it doesn't even matter whether I happen to like your work or not. Seriously. Most of us have to devote a ridiculous amount of time to make what we make, giving up a lot, striving to realize our vision. And working hard. Long and hard. Being an artist is not for sissies.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Language is the problem

Most artists - and probably anyone else who ponders such things - would say that art is about communication. It may do other things as well, but most people would say that art will always say something. Fine. I can easily agree with that.

The problem - as I see it - is that, preparing to wade into the twentieth century, artists decided that in order to be Modern - the great addictive striving of the technological age - they needed to remake the vocabulary of visual art. They needed to devise a new language. New languages, actually: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism - all the "isms" - down to abstraction, Pop art, conceptual art. Schools of art that attempted to "break the mold" - you always need to break a mold in order to make anything good, you know - to show the world something new. And then another school, another new. Or just individuals following their own path, but always with the goal of making something new.

This has also been the age when artists went from being craftsmen to being something else. To being something special, something different. Visionaries. Celebrities. Artists. When artists were content to record "what is" - or even an imaginary "what could be", based squarely on "what is" - they were craftsmen, striving to be the best at their established craft. Even the revolutionary "art stars" of the past - the Michelangelos, Leonardos, Caravaggios - still worked within a fairly prescribed framework of pictorial representation. When artists decided that it would be better - newer - to imaginatively interpret "what is" - or more, "what isn't" - all bets were off. Anything was possible and, eventually, anything was permissible. Anything came to be accepted as art. At least anything new, anything approved by whatever current art establishment. That very rarefied strata that has eventually changed the definition and understanding and reputation of art.

Collecting fine art, living with it, has always been the privilege of wealth, but the imagery was always comprehensible to anyone; wealth and sophistication weren't prerequisites. But in the last century, art has become less and less accessible to the general public. Artists and the art establishment make art for themselves; they don't really make any effort to communicate beyond their own sphere. They have devised their own language. If you take the time, you may be able to learn that language; I'm sure it's worth the effort. But it is "elitist"; it has earned that criticism. If you demand that people must be instructed, that art must be explained, if you often refuse to give them anything of what many feel is the greatest purpose of art - beauty - then you leave many, perhaps most, of the world out. You have excluded them.

(Which is fine, I suppose. I see nothing wrong with strong-willed individualism. Do what you want. Make what you want. But don't be surprised or indignant when the public has become so disconnected from and/or uninterested in the arts that schools don't see a need to teach them and that our government looks on them with such disdain that they don't really care to support them financially.)

And so here's where I fall off the edge of the world. The edge of the art world, anyway. Because I believe art should be - relatively - accessible. It can be many other things: thought-provoking, beautiful, ugly, tranquilizing, incendiary, things I might not want to see, or something I just can't understand. But I believe at least I should be able - without instruction or explanation - to access the question. That is what I want in art and I really believe that most of the world wants it, too. If they even remember what art can be.

I don't mean this to be dogmatic; I think there should be room for everything, all forms of artistic expression. Chacun à son goût, as the French say. Each to his own taste. But the balance is horribly off. Craftsmanship needs to celebrated at least as much as nouveauté. And it isn't. And comprehensibility and accessibility should be seen as virtues. You can speak the language of the public - of "real people", people who need art, even if they don't know it - and still manage to say something meaningful.

Monday, June 21, 2010

In love with a white dress

I just keep thinking about this dress I saw on the Vintage Textile website. I already included an image of it in a previous post, but I wanted to fixate on it a bit longer. In detail. This is a perfect example of the sort of dress to be worn by a young woman just prior to World War I. An absolutely refined, almost innocent elegance; I can picture one of the last Tsar's daughters wearing a dress exactly like this one. The fashions of those few years right before the war were often a strangely satisfying hybrid of delicate, layered fabrication and trimming, and an adaptation of classical Greek form. The asymmetric skirt panel on this dress and the semi-detached panels at the side of the bodice make me swoon.

Here is something of the website's description:

Hand-embroidered tulle tea dress, c.1912 [or later]

This [dress] combines hand-embroidered cotton tulle with a mixture of delicate machine laces. The hand-assembled tape lace around the neckline and on the skirt front is exceptionally pretty. The two outer layers are hand embroidered with a floral pattern of raised padded satin stitch with eyelet accents. The underskirt has a plain tulle top with a wide machine-embroidered hem flounce. The two layers of the bodice and three layers of the skirt close separately with snaps. [The dress was photographed without an underdress so that the various patterns can be seen.]


While I may criticise much of Modern art, contemporary art, for many things - its failure to communicate to the public beyond itself, its preciousness, hauteur, often underlying silliness - I need to make the deeply-felt distinction between my opinions about the work and the respect I feel for the artists who make it. Certainly, there are those I might find as distasteful as I find their "product", but I don't believe I've ever met a fellow artist who didn't believe in the work they do. Who didn't put long hours of thought and toil into the work they make. While I can't always enjoy the products of their vision, while I may wish they would see that communication to the public is more important than the striving for individuality or the pointless/vain struggle to be NEW, I must respect them for how hard they work and their belief in what they do.

Whatever the endeavor, it's a sort of divine, stubborn madness to work and work - to give up time for "otherwise living", to fail again, or come up short of your vision - to make art that half the world (or more) doesn't care about or thinks is useless. There is a sort of dogged, sacrificing foolishness at the core of any artist - or writer, musician, dancer, actor - that means something more than just the thing they make. I believe it puts something out into the universe, an energy that is possibly only produced by artistic expression. An energy that tells us to pause and look. To think. To challenge our sense of reality. The world is in constant need of change, constant need of fixing. I believe that art - all art forms - can be a portal to the sort of listening that must come before change.

So, as much as I rail about the state of the arts and its failures, as I see them - and will continue to do so - and no matter how loathed I may be by the "art world" for my heretical opinions, I want to say, unequivocally, that I have HUGE respect for artists - of any calling - their dedication, their madness, and what they give to the world. Cheers and amen!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Scotto and Domingo in "Manon Lescaut"

[At the Met in the Eighties. Not always in sync, and there is a fair bit of necessary monitoring of the conductor, but what joy to see these two perfectly matched singing actors, surrounded by the gorgeous largess of the Met....]

The re-united passion of Manon and des Grieux:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mimi's Death - speaking with Renata Scotto

This year, at 76, retired from the stage, giving an appreciation of the quiet simplicity of the death of one of opera's greatest heroines. A great singer and artist, Scotto was also a very great actress.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Painter of...ec-c-ch!"

It may screw with my karma, but I have to admit no small satisfaction that it appears Thomas Kinkade has hit the skids. Born the same year I was born, graduated high school that same Bicentennial year I graduated, he made millions and millions from the mass-marketing of his wretched work. Copies of that wretched work. And now all his gold-spinning ventures seem to have devolved into lawsuits and bankruptcy. And a highly publicized DUI arrest. While I'm completely envious of those millions, and the clever marketing that got them, it's mystifying and extremely disheartening that someone with so little skill, with so little actual talent - so little - got so far.

But the fact of his one-time amazing popularity tells us something. The general public, the ones who don't go to museums or art galleries - maybe never in a lifetime - are still clambering for beauty; people want something of beauty in their lives. Accessible, pictorial beauty. Something that they can hang on their walls and live with. (I think this is some basic human need, to take something of beauty into one's home.) And the simple fact is that this avaricious, bible-thumping hack gave the public something it needed. Maybe without even knowing it needed it. Because our country is so totally uneducated in art history and has so little appreciation of any of the arts, and because contemporary artists make little that the uninitiated are capable of responding to, the great unsophisticated public - the numbers are probably inflated, but some say 1 in 20 homes in America has a Kinkade "product" - threw itself wholeheartedly into his grasping, sweaty hands. In some ways, they had nowhere else to go.

On so many levels, the great, puffed-up success of Thomas Kinkade is very, very sad thing. For this country, for artists, for art. And if he falls, nothing gets any better.


[Sorry, but I felt unable to post an example of his work, here; I do hope you'll understand....]

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I just happened upon a terrific website: VINTAGE TEXTILES

They sell vintage clothing from the eighteenth century through to the Forties and Fifties. The presentation of the website itself is quite uninspiring, but the detailed photographs of the clothing are really wonderful. I'm - not surprisingly - most drawn to the items from the Edwardian period and from the Twenties and the Thirties. Along with all the details of each garment, discussion of condition, its history - if known - are often little wisps of fashion-mad wisdom. (Or maybe it's just cleverly high-toned salesmanship.) One I really enjoyed:

[Describing an Orientalist-style coat, ca. 1912, in orange corded wool, thickly embroidered in a Chinese cloud pattern in black, fur-trimmed and with collar and cuffs faced with an amazing Chrysoprase-colored velvet] "...[this] coat again proves what we have always known: style is individual, aristocratic, and reckless."

Well, I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Timothy Michael

My dad was killed three years ago today.

He was riding his bicycle. I miss him.

I love you Dad.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Never gonna happen....

Why I'll never be included in the Whitney Biennial:

- A selection of the work of the fifty-nine artists/artist groups/performers chosen for the 2010 Whitney Biennial.

(Click on the image for detail.)

Saturday, June 5, 2010


The problem with writing a blog where I often take contemporary art to task, is that I'm part of contemporary art. I'm a professional artist. And I show in a gallery that shows all sorts of artists. There is a lot of work they show that I do not like. Some I do not like a lot. But, of the other artists I've met, I "do not like" none of them. (That's rather a sentence.)

So I'll have to just keep saying that I don't think the problem - my problem - with contemporary art is at all the the fault of contemporary artists or even galleries. It's a problem - as I see it - of evolution and taste, education and expectation. The role of art in society and the persona of "artist" have evolved from what they once were. The taste for specific kinds of art, trends in art, is shaped by critics and educators and curators, and by those who can afford to buy it. (It's really just fashion after all.) I didn't go to art school, but most artists I know did. Where, at least to some degree, they were indoctrinated in the religion of Modern art. I may be mistaken, but I don't believe there are many art schools of prestige that encourage young artists to set a Titian or a Boucher as their idol. But Pollock or Picasso? Certainly. There is a Modernist slant; there has to be. And humans are infinitely influenceable. To not be influenced by recent art education and the expectations of the marketplace, one has to be amazingly stubborn or slightly mad.

And I went off, again.... What I mean to say is that I don't want be seen as tearing down my fellow artists. Not at all; I respect them very much. Making art of any kind is hard work. And thoughtful, sincere hard work is always worthy of respect. I just feel that another perspective needs to be voiced. And there needs to be room for that. And that less "fashionable" styles of contemporary art should be seen and valued and encouraged.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pale pink

There are just some things that I think pointless to paint. Futile. Right now, we have a vase of pale pink peonies on the coffee table (if you could call it that) in the living room (if you could call it that). They are amazing objects - almost animals, they're so vigorous and dancing. Shaded rose-pink-white, butter-white, shell-like rose, they look like they've exploded. Quietly, gently exploded. Every irregular little petal - of what looks like hundreds - is an individual. Turning, bending, striving in its own direction. It's as if each one communicates - hisses, shouts, whistles, coos - with all the others. There's a madcap neighborhood in each ridiculously glamorous blossom.

If you have a very exacting technique as a painter - mine is reasonably exacting - if you are able to describe each petal, each transition and mutation of color, if you are able to show the navigation of light through the endless translucent layers, capture the light reflected around and within - if you can do all these things, is it anything like the actual flower? If you have a more impressionistic technique, if you can insinuate yourself into the "moment" of that peony, can capture something of the air about it and, again, the light that attacks and caresses it, is it anything like the actual flower? If you have any sort of technique, any sort of skill, if you are able to create something truly beautiful from your observation of a pale pink peony, is it anything like the actual flower? No. Never.

The miracle of most living things is impossible to really even comprehend. To really look at something - like those peonies - to let in something of that incomprehensibility, is probably the farthest we can reach toward capturing anything of its essence. For that alone I'm so incredibly grateful. And those genuinely precious moments are enough. Blessedly enough.

If you want to paint that flower, that tree, that ocean - because it excites you, challenges you, because you want to better your skills - do it, of course. Why not? But for me, being an artist never crosses over into any real desire to try and "capture" anything, to somehow replicate the essence of something. Certainly not something of nature, something so much smarter and richer and full of creation than I believe humans are capable of understanding. I paint paintings of paintings. I'm grateful and happy within my limitations. To be able to look at a pale pink peony is enough for me.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

An allegorical explanation

Nine years ago I started a painting. An adaptation of the famous painting by Bronzino which is usually titled "Allegory of Venus and Cupid". A beautiful and wonderfully perverse work, painted in the 1540's as a gift for François I, its iconography has confounded scholars ever since it first appeared publicly. Entering the collection of Britain's National Gallery in 1860, whose director judged it "the most improper picture" - which it certainly is - most of the naughtiest parts were painted over; it was only restored in 1958. (Incidentally, the year of my birth.) 

I finished my painting "Allegory of the Artist - After Bronzino" just this year. My "official" explanation for the long gestation is that I was waiting for my technique to catch up with my ambition. Subconsciously, at least, I do believe that I knew I wasn't yet ready to complete it. Beneath the rather flashy imagery, this is really a very personal painting for me; most of the objects depicted directly relate to my tastes and/or my life. Therefore, I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to take it in to the gallery and have it up for sale. I very nearly just kept it. But now that it's been sold, I thought I should try to explain what the details represent. As some sort of record. I kept as much of the original composition as was feasible and useful for my purposes. The blue drapery is as close as I could make it to the original; I only changed it where, because of the physical impossibility of recreating the inhuman pose of Venus, the figure wasn't in precisely the same configuration. This mainly affected the position of the left foot and leg and the aperture between the left hip and arm. There is also more drapery at the bottom which I felt better balanced the composition. (Oddly, reading later, I found that the only alteration to the original was that, at some time in its history, approximately five centimeters were trimmed from the bottom - I wonder if it would have related at all to what I added.) I kept the pink pillow with much the same detail. I only changed some of its drapery as it was so stylized that to copy it made it look like I was mistaken in my drawing. I kept the (nearly) black background and the position of the arm and hands of the figure (now me) holding up/pulling back the blue cloth. I kept two masks positioned in the right corner. Other than that, I tried to add back colors and pattern and some of the textures that are in the original. Reproductions of the original vary wildly in color but it would be safe to say that my overall tone is much warmer, though perhaps not as much so as my reproductions would indicate. The other thing I should mention is that, contrary to nearly all of my other work, the composition of this painting altered over time. It was fully begun and then set aside. After Gigi came into my life, I added several new elements. And then, as I was finishing it, I added several more. 

My friend Shane Sullivan, an artist himself, posed for this painting. I was amazed at how well he got the impossible pose of the Venus in the original. Because this wasn't meant to be a portrait, but something completely idealized, I generalized the face, made the hair more "picturesque", and added a foreskin to his rather American penis - yes, I did - to better accommodate a classical iconography. He still holds Cupid's arrow - as well as Venus' golden apple - though there is no Cupid here. My arm, in the position of the original, holds back the drapery and, looped in my hand is a ribbon which drapes over a large blank panel - the ready place to make art - and has a pencil and paintbrush knotted at its end - the tools with which to make art. There are no putti in the original work, but there are two winged figures. Here, the wings were useful for adding some of the colors from the Bronzino. The putto peeking over the drapery on the right, was added far into the process; actually, I painted over (something I never do) another one that was cropped off at the mouth like the central one. This one is my favorite, seemingly shy, and is the only figure in the painting that gazes out at the viewer.

Me - or the me of nine years ago - with my mustache and "soul patch", wearing a black t-shirt, the "artist uniform". A silver vase of white lilies - why? Because I think they're beautiful. And they work compositionally. They also represent, I suppose, a pristine natural beauty. The top of the vase is ringed with pink roses; in the original, a small child has pink roses clutched in his hands. But they're also useful compositionally and because they're beautiful and fragrant. The small banner that spirals around the lily stems was added later. Aperto Vivere Voto is a quotation from Persius. I've never known the context, but it is usually translated as, to live one's life as an open book. Or, to live with unconcealed passion. Years ago I adopted it as a sort of personal motto; I had a ring made that is inscribed with it, and I have it tattooed on my left arm. Also added later, is Gigi's right hand holding up the edge of the drapery. She's wearing the silver and amethyst ring she always wears. I gave it to her soon after we met and fell in love. A sort of promise ring. The original painting has two hands presented horizontally in about this same location, so that was another reason to place it here. The leafy vine was added at the same time. Coming from beyond the picture plane, through my grasp and down and through hers. Besides the color and compositional concerns, it also symbolizes growth and passage - our journey together - and our connection. And how we work together.

The flat plan on the far left is of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Built for the future Alexander I of Russia, its last residents, famously, were Nicholas II and his family. At first preserved by the Soviets, trashed by the Nazis, and then given to the Russian navy to use, it is currently undergoing an intense restoration. The two Cyrillic letters visible are the beginning of the word transliterated as dvorets: palace. The rolled plan is that of the Petit Trianon at Versailles. At the bottom is a fragment of Maison de la reine, as it was for Marie Antoinette. The score that spills out of the portfolio at the top of the stack of books is that of Rachmaninov's second symphony. Or what I imagine it might look like; I've never seen the actual score, and the scale of the painting is small enough that trying to reproduce it would be pointless, so I merely made a - fairly - detailed representation of a full orchestral score. I always refer to this piece of music as my favorite, the "great work" that I always return to, the music of my "Russian" soul!

The other books in the stack aren't actual ones, but just a way to celebrate the role of books in my life, and a place to inscribe names that have meant a lot to me. F.X. Winterhalter, the nineteenth-century portrait painter; Les Romanoff, and all the pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy that have so fascinated me; Versailles, preposterous to say but, in many ways, my spiritual home. And Marie-, being all the Maries: Marie Antoinette, Marie Pavlovna, Empress Marie, Queen Marie. Even my mother, Mary. The book in the middle, with the spine turned away, is the mystery book. I can think of many things it might represent. The story of a life - mine, mine with G. Or an actual book. Most often, though, it represents for me the book that hasn't been finished yet, the first (full-length, grown-up) book that G gets published. A very important book to me. On the cushion is an emerald and diamond sautoir I designed to represent the fascination I've had with great vintage jewelry - Cartier, Chaumet, Boucheron - and the Russian Imperial jewels. My cat's tail curls in from the side and, when G and I got together, I added her little dog José's tail as well; both of them are gone now. The very last thing I added to the painting was the little flowering plant, a sort of (made up) wildflower. There was something missing in that space. I made one of the stems broken, I suppose to symbolize the delicacy of beauty and of life. Which leads to a probably expected ingredient of any classical allegory, the skull. Crowned with laurel; death is always the ultimate victor.

The vine that threaded through my hand and G's, trails down, twining around the hourglass - time, of course - and rests, wrapped in the ribbon end of the pearl necklace. It's the growing end of the vine, and the necklace is another symbol of beauty. And, of course, pearls are symbols of growth and transcendence - the irritation of the oyster that makes the amazing jewel. The silver vase is an example of the neo-classicism that I so love. And the two quill pens signify the importance of writing in our lives. The beautiful white one - with ink on the tip - is G's. The inkless, stubby gray one is mine, untested. The two masks represent the two female idols of my childhood: the Empress Eugénie, in profile, and Marie Antoinette. The sheet of parchment tucked into the corner, beneath the drapery, was drawn in at the beginning. The original has something similar in the same place, but I've never been able to tell precisely what it is. My sheet was left blank; I didn't know what to put on it. But after G and I got together, I thought to add the date of our first contact. The date that changed the direction of my life. The date she sent me an email, praising my work, after seeing a show of mine: 12-12-03.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I will not paint sloppily!

More and more these days, I come across contemporary painters who are working in a pictorial vein similar to what I've been doing for the last few years. The whole dix-huitième siècle business seems to be rather too popular of late, no doubt a lingering response to Sofia Coppola's wretched Marie Antoinette. I know there are many people, genuinely or strivingly artistic, who admire that film. And the display of eighteenth-century imagery, misunderstood and misrepresented though it is, seems to have been extremely influential. Everywhere you look, figurative artists are cluttering their subjects with flossy white wigs and bubbling plumes, groaning hoops and pink ribbon bows. No real attempt is made toward historical accuracy, of course, but that isn't the point. The point is that all of this frothy picturesqueness has now been claimed by Modernity. And to be really, obviously modern, painters must stamp modern, new, vital all over their work: cartoon-like, distorted figures; drips and squiggles and other evidence of gritty distress; rough - or just stupid - draftsmanship (hands and drapery suffer the most extreme indignities); superfluous breasts and on down the line to full-blown pornography. I expect my contemporaries are drawn to the aesthetics of the (French) eighteenth-century for many of the same reasons I am, a similar inspiration to want to explore that visual language. But in practice we diverge. Because I am, in so many ways, not a modern painter. Don't wish to be, am unable to be. Because to be seen as modern, to be accepted as contemporary, to be proven non-derivative in the "Art World", as we know it, one needs to adopt those qualities, those methods that I cannot appreciate. I can't paint in a way that shows that I am Modern. I can't design a historicist costume or setting without doing all I can to ensure a high degree of historical accuracy. I can't scuff up and drip paint onto my carefully planned out composition. I can't intentionally - or because I don't have enough time or skill - paint a hand that more closely resembles a garden rake. I can't make my work ugly or nasty just because that's fashionable and admired and smart. I can't be, to use an old-fashioned word, sloppy. I just can't be sloppy. My dear late father always told me that, if I was going to do something, I should "do it right". And I think there is an overwhelming difference between a job done "good enough" and one done to the best of one's abilities. In a culture that celebrates mediocrity and vulgarity and plain old ugliness, there isn't much room or recognition for real craftsmanship. Isn't much room or appreciation for excellence, and the hard work that goes along with it. Gigi and I recently attended a small concert of baroque music. A dear friend of ours works with two string trios made up of young people; the average age is seventeen. I can't really begin to express how moved I was by the level of their expertise, their poise, and the sheer beauty of the music they shared with us. And it was the most exciting - hopeful - thing I've experienced in years. Because these kids, exposed just like everyone else to the sad state of "culture" in this country, have still found a way to transcend all of that. Those young kids gave me such hope. Hard work, striving for mastery, striving for beauty. It does make a difference in the world. I have to believe that.