Wednesday, June 24, 2020

215. Erin Johnson } “Lake (Skowhegan, ME)” 2020




Is it queer to float together in a lake?

18 artists (“a group of friends, peers, and lovers”), video-recorded by a drone, (mostly) float on their backs in Lake George, a lake in Skowhegan, Maine. Clustered & centered, the artists tend to float apart. (The artist who, at the video’s start, floats at the heart of the cluster, floats furthest from the group—gradually off-screen.) The artists wear bathing suits; most of the suits are black or black & white; half are one-piece. A turquoise one-piece, a yellow & pale blue two-piece, & black & neon-green swimsuits stand out—amongst the group & against the background—

the lake. The lake appears black. & gray where it ripples.

“Lake (Skowhegan, ME)” is currently part of Unnamed for Decades, an exhibition of Johnson’s work at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. “Lake”—a 4:30 min. video—is projected in a dark room on a single screen. Two other videos—“Tomatoes (Skowhegan, ME)” & “There are things in this world that have yet to be named”—accompany “Lake” in the exhibition. “Tomatoes” is a three-channel video w/ a rhythm of repeated moments; people eating & holding bright red tomatoes. “There are things…” shows Bucknell University’s Solanum plastisexum lab & the Australia section in Los Angeles’s Huntington Botanical Garden. Passages from love letters between Rachel Carson & Dorothy Freeman are read & the phrase “there are things in this world that have yet to be named” is chanted.

Accompanying the show is this explanatory text:

In an adjacent series of photographs and video installations, a group of friends, peers, and lovers engage in collective queer and desirous exchanges such as eating tomatoes in a field and floating together in a lake.
“Tomatoes” = “desirous exchanges” I suppose; “There are things…”—w/ gender-fluid plants & the text between two women in an indefinable relationship clearly is interested in queer exchanges. “Lake,” however? Read “In [a] video [installation], a group of friends, peers, and lovers engage in collective queer and desirous exchanges such as… floating together in a lake.”
Such as floating together in a lake?

“Lake” strikes me as transcendently free of desire; free from ideological labelling.

I read the term “queer” as welcoming & wide open, so by all means floating together in a lake can be queer, but it can also not be queer.

Erin Johnson’s videos are subtler & stranger than the explanatory texts that accompany them. Watch any of the three videos & you’ll see how frustratingly reductive the texts are. Possibly written by a curator, possibly written by Johnson herself (likely the case—a nearly word-for-word description accompanied the same exhibition—under a different name [Nightshade] at the Iris Project), I suggest viewing & not reading—it is, after all, a video & thus meant to be looked at. I find it both calming & mysterious.

“Lake” ought to be watched on a big screen in a dark gallery—alone. Unfortunately, we can’t do that now. But we can watch it on Johnson’s website where there is no artist or curator’s statement to undermine its power.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

214. Harold Redicliffe “Fourteen Paper Cups” } & Terry Bisson “Bears Discover Fire.”


Aunt Marie gave me Terry Bisson’s short story collection Bears Discover Fire; I must’ve read it soon after I saw Redicliffe’s “Fourteen Paper Cups” (1996) at the Pepper Gallery; on the back of the promotional postcard I wrote the titles of the stories I liked. I liked the collection’s titular story—it’s the only one I remember. The title is literal. Bears have discovered fire. “Fourteen Paper Cups” is a pretty literal title, too. Arranged on a red counter top (with aluminum trim) are fourteen paper cups. Six white, six teal, one blue, one red. Some of the cup are crumpled and on their side, some dented but upright. Behind the cups is a solid dark blue/gray; beneath the counter it’s white—a brighter white than the white cups. At the start of an interview of Redicliffe conducted by Larry Groff, Groff asks, “Can you speak about the difference between what you do and photorealism?” Redicliffe defines photorealism as painting from photographs, which he does not do. But Groff is onto something else. The objects in Redicliffe’s painting are near photoreal—you would not mistake the postcard reproduction of “Fourteen Paper Cups” for a photograph the way might mistake a postcard reproduction of Gerhard Richter’s “Betty” (1988) for a photograph. Redicliffe’s choice of a monochromatic background is a tip-off. The cups themselves—if the title wasn’t “Fourteen Paper Cups,” I’d’ve gone on thinking they were plastic.

The postcard reproduction is 2” x 3”—this reduction suits “Fourteen Paper Cups”—the show was called Small Paintings. On a visit to the gallery, I held “Fourteen Paper Cups.”

If bears discover fire, do they cook? Do they light their caves? We know what happens next.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

213. Susan Schwalb } “Vibration V” 1998.



“Vibration V” refers to an effect:
In my wood panels I began by carving thin lines into the surface after which I applied several layers of paint or gesso. Then, after lightly sanding the surface, enriched the surface with bronze tones and metalpoint drawing. The works seem to vibrate as the eye moves around the painting.
“Vibration V” (1998), acrylic and metalpoint on paper on wood, 30” x 30” x 2,” by Susan Schwalb, presumably “seem[s] to vibrate” as does “Toccata 1” (2010), silverpoint, acrylic on wood, 30” x 30”—
In Toccata… a large yellow surface with contrasting pink highlights is covered with carved lines and metalpoint drawing so that it seems to vibrate as the eye moves around the painting.
At the RISD Museum is Richard Anuszkiewicz’s “Primary Hue” (1964), a painting that also seems to vibrate. Vibration is an apparent effect even with a reproduction of “Primary Hue”; vibration is not apparent with a reproduction of “Vibration V”—or with any of Schwalb’s work. Neither are her works subtle tonal shifts: “Vibration V” becomes strata only.

Schwalb’s focus is her materials. Whenever she is interviewed, she teaches the materials. This is metalpoint, this is the ground. Although music flavors her work (thus, “Toccata 1”), music does not inform her work. Her idea is to make lines (mostly horizontal lines) within the constraints of metalpoint.

Twelve years of work from “Vibration V” to “Toccata 1,” horizontal lines etched with metal into a variety of grounds brushed onto 30” x 30” wood panels (in an interview promoting her 2013 show Spatial Polyphonies: New Metalpoint Drawings, she’s asked about the wood panels. “So, do you have these made or do you do them yourself?” Schwalb lowers her voice and replies, “No. I have them made. I have a wonderful person who does this for me.” The she doesn’t make the panels contrasts with her approach to prepping the surface she etches— “Most of the artists who work in metalpoint today use commercially prepared paper. Coating the paper takes a long time, but it is an important part of my creative process.” Making the panels or not; making the ground or not—choices about what’s important enough to take time).

Time! Decades spent etching horizontal lines with a wide metal band into sanded coats of gesso. “An even grid of narrow horizontal lines forms the basic structure of my drawings and paintings.” “…groups of horizontal bands are carefully (but intuitively) measured.” “…[A]lways searching for a finer and finer line.”

A.R. Ammon’s register tape fed into a typewriter but instead of verse, hyphens only.

Or, had Mark Rothko not committed suicide.

Friday, May 1, 2020

212. Nancy Friese } "Tama Skyline" 1993.


Postcard reproduction:

3.5” x 4.25”—

for real, “Tama Skyline” (1993) by Nancy Friese is 18” x 15”.

But I’ve got only the Pepper Gallery postcard from Friese’s 1994 show Far & Near. A tack-hole in the sky—what corkboard?

Off-center a cottonwood tree, its trunk lit with pink and orange (where the sun hits)—its trunk leans right, branches pull left; the tree’s leaves make a right triangle of sky, blue and blush. A tree with branches like the arms of an exploding firework in the low foreground.

Tama is a city in Iowa. Google search “Tama Skyline” images and most are of downtown Tama. The image that most resembles Friese’s “Tama Skyline” is a photograph of Eileen Crone’s home after the fire that “destroyed her home and all of her belongings on Christmas Day.” Where the cottonwood leans in Friese’s painting stands a brick chimney. Crone is stoic: “We have kids that are good carpenters and they’ll help us get something back up.”

In what book did I keep another Pepper Gallery postcard with a Friese tree on it? A tree painted at the hour before it’s night when the sky is dark blue and the leaves are black?

Friese says, “…and since I don’t go to isolated areas, I go to areas that are fringes of preserved spaces or easy access spaces I am out there [painting] in public. It’s public art. The result isn’t public art but that’s, that’s an interesting way of thinking about contemporary landscape painting.”

If I sit in my backyard and look up at the oak that grows in my neighbor’s yard I see only sky and tree. I’m still in a city. My view of the oak is a fringe. Friese’s trees grow not far from highways and power stations. A road runs nearly the whole length of Friese’s 12” x 96” oil on linen “Through the Groves and Fields” (2005). “Spring Arbor” (2017) is horizontally split by a high fence. Her landscapes are not national parks or golden valleys but are my landscapes: the green between east and westbound traffic on route 2, coastal marshes alongside route 95, the copse behind box stores, the chain-link fenced-in yard. The vernal pond and the junked car is ugly or beautiful.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

211. Of Denis Diderot’s } La Religieuse.




Sainte-Suzanne, the nun of Denis Diderot’s La Religieuse, while meditating in her cell “about the strangeness of women’s mentality” determines such strangeness is due to  “the effect of segregation” and concludes,
Man is born for life in society; separate him, isolate him, and his ideas will go to pieces, his character will go sour, and hundred ridiculous affections will spring up in his heart, extravagant notions will take root in his mind like tares in the wilderness. … It may well be that greater strength of character is needed for standing up to solitude than to poverty, for if poverty degrades us segregation depraves (136).
Additionally, she claims that “The urge to hurt and torment gradually wanes in the world outside; it never dies in the cloister” (59).

Am I insensitive to those who feel isolated now? I feel the loneliest when I am not with my daughters. And I am with my daughters.

This morning I did wish I could go to a coffee shop to write, but it’s not the company I want. I plan to go outside shortly, windy and cold as it is, and write there. That ought to do the trick.

Saint-Suzanne’s problem isn’t isolation (although when she’s thrown into solitary confinement—
…a little dark underground cell and threw me onto some matting half rotten with damp. There I found a piece of black bread and a pitcher of water, with a few other necessary vessels of the coarsest kind. For a pillow you had to roll up one end of the mat, and one a stone block was a skull with a wooden crucifix. My first instinct was to put an end to myself; I tried to throttle myself, I tore my clothes with my teeth, uttering fearful cries and howling like a wild animal. I banged my head against the wall until it was covered with blood. In fact, I went on trying to kill myself for three days; I thought it was going to be for the whole of my life (65).
—she doesn’t do very well). Sainte-Suzanne’s problem is who with she’s segregated. Specifically, two Mother Superiors who warp the environment around them to suit their own wants. Sister Sainte-Christine finds gratification through punishment; Madame *** (the second superior is unnamed) finds gratification through sex.

(Though certainly not Diderot’s intent, I read Saint-Suzanne’s narrative at the second cloister, where she is loved by Madame ***, as a caution against celibacy and a caution against the condemnation of homosexuality.)

Leonard Tancock, translator of La Religieuse, confuses me when he writes, “A recent French film of the novel… ended by showing Sainte-Suzanne, lured into the brothel, break way from a man’s lewd embrace….” I would not be confused if he wrote, “lured into a brothel”—then I would know the brothel scene was entirely the filmmaker’s invention. But the brothel—I’ve reread the ending several times and there is no brothel.

Tancock also writes, that, “After years of convent life she is unsuited for anything, a lost, helpless soul with no knowledge, no skill except for some music, no initiative, no future.” I’m not sure this is true, either. Sainte-Suzanne writes, in her application to be a maid,
In my father’s home I learned how to work, and in the convent to obey. … I can sew, spin, embroider and launder, and when I was still in the world I mended my own lace…. I am not clumsy at anything and nothing is beneath me. I have a voice and am musical, and I can play well enough to entertain any mother who would like me to, and I could even give lessons to her children, but I should be afraid of betraying my identity by these signs of a superior education. If I had to learn hair-dressing I would quite like that, and I would take some lessons and soon master this little skill (188).
That she is asking for a job shows she has initiative, and within that request she shows an interest in learning new skills—more initiative. Does she have no future? She has knowledge. Unless she has exaggerated throughout her narrative (that would be uncharacteristic of her), her singing voice is extraordinary; furthermore, she can play harpsichordmore than "some music."

Maybe she has no future. Diderot does not decide her fate. Her benefactor is dead, but she has a job. Does she have no future? We suspect that she does not.



[Quotes from Penguin Classics 1974 edition of The Nun, translated by Leonard Tancock. Above image from La Religieuse, directed by Jacques Rivette ,1971.]

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

210. February 22 - 23, 1969 } from 8pm – 5am.


Mark Lewishon writes “…a number of [Abbey Road’s] songs were well under way by that time. One was ‘I Want You,’ a fine John Lennon song…” A “fine” John Lennon song? And, “…begun now with 35 takes of the basic track and John’s guide vocal (one experimental take was sung by Paul McCartney)…” Is there a McCartney vocal bootleg somewhere? [from The Beatles Recording Sessions, Harmony Books, 1988.] Kevin Howlett writes, “…in a session produced by George Martin, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ was recorded from eight o’clock on a Saturday evening through to five on Sunday morning at Trident Studios….” And, “During that night in Soho, there were 35 takes (many of them breakdowns) recorded on three reels of eight-track tape.” [from Abbey Road Anniversary Edition, Apple Corps Limited, 2019.]

Consider the nature of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”: lyrically simple / repetitive and musically repetitive (you might object to repetitive; the music changes quite a lot); what would it be like to work on 35 basic rhythm tracks?

When the session was over, did McCartney, the only Beatle still living in London, step out into the brisk air—it was in the mid-30s but with clear skies in London on February 23, 1969—and contemplate a walk back to Cavendish Avenue? It’d be a long walk—52 minutes. Too bad, he might’ve thought, we weren’t at Abbey Road, just a 10-minute walk from his place.

Coming out into the city so early on a Sunday morning, high from a productive session of artistic collaboration with friends—McCartney surely looked up at the sky, smelled the air, wondered if he ought to go straight to bed, or locate a bakery, or if he could find some way to ride the high a little longer—why not walk toward St. John’s Wood?

# # #

Posted to YouTube in 2011 by Astrid Shapiro is “Paul’s house” a 1:42 video that shows “my best friend” (in purple, with a slightly downcast expression) outside the gates at 7 Cavendish Avenue, where McCartney lived in ’69 (and he still owns the house). Their timing is good. The gate is opened for a messenger by someone who works for McCartney, and he’s very friendly. As they’re talking, the front door opens, and another employee steps out, and Astrid and her pal are simply beside themselves.

# # #

And, you can walk with “American drummer Marty Richards” from 7 Cavendish to Abbey Road Studios (posted to YouTube by ursulageorge in 2010). A familiar walk.

Monday, March 2, 2020

209. Mountain series } ATH 1 - 4

[ Mountains ATH 1 ]


[ Mountains ATH 2 ]


[ Mountains ATH 3 ]


[ Mountains ATH 4 ]