Thursday Thoughts: Selected Quotes from “The Aesthetics of Silence” by Susan Sontag

“Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at the resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.) In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.”

…The newer myth, derived from a post-psychological conception of consciousness, installs within the activity of art many of the paradoxes involved in attaining an absolute state of being described by the great religious mystics. As the activity of the mystic must end in a via negative, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the “subject” (the “object,” the “image”), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.

…no longer a confession, art is more than ever a deliverance, an exercise in asceticism. Through it, the artist becomes purified — of himself and, eventually, of his art, The artist (if not art itself) is still engaged in a progress toward “the good.” But formerly, the artist’s good was mastery of and fulfillment in his art. Now it’s suggested that the highest good for the artist is to reach that point where those goals of excellence become insignificant to him, emotionally and ethically, and he is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a voice in art.

…Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence… And none of the aggressions committed intentionally or inadvertently by modern artists have succeeded in either abolishing the audience or transforming it into something else. (A community engaged in a common activity?) They cannot. As long as art is understood and valued as an “absolute” activity, it will be a separate, elitist one. Elites presuppose masses. So far as the best art defines itself by essentially “priestly” aims, it presupposes and confirms the existence of a relatively passive, never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity which is regularly convoked to watch, listen, read, or hear — and then sent away.

…But these programs for art’s impoverishment must not be understood simply as terroristic admonitions to audiences, but as strategies for improving the audience’s experience. The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc. — specifically, either for having a more immediate, sensuous experience of art or for confronting the art work in a more conscious, conceptual way.

…Contemporary art, no matter how much it’s defined itself by a taste for negation, can still be analyzed as a set of assertions, of a formal kind. For instance, each work of art gives us a form or paradigm or model of knowing something, an epistemology.”

You can find the complete essay online or in her collection Styles of Radical Will.

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Thursday Thoughts: John Dewey on what makes bad art

“We derive the impression that the artist is trying to regulate by conscious intent the nature of the emotion aroused. We are irritated by a feeling that he is manipulating materials to secure an effect decided upon in advance. The facets of the work are held together by some external force. The author, not the subject matter, is the arbiter.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that I make art. Aesthetically, I find order and structure fascinating. A problem arises when that interest in order expands into a desire for control over every facet of the creative process and the subsequent experience of my work. I want to know ahead of time how a piece will turn out how my viewer’s will “read” it. When an artist starts with a message and stays on task, analyzing every element to be in as much control as possible over his audience, that is propaganda. Good art is made by those who are looking for truth and meaning, not those who already have all the answers. I want to have a posture of openness and humility as I work. In an undergraduate paper I once wrote, “art-making is a process of discovery and response,” a sentiment I’d like to hold on to. I could just make pretty pictures from a place of comfortable control, but the whole reason I make art is to learn and discover.

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Thursday Thoughts: Looking at Julie Mehretu’s “Mogamma II”

Mogamma II, Julie Mehretu, 2012, 180"x144"

Mogamma II, Julie Mehretu, 2012, 180″x144″ (Be sure to click on image and scroll through the amazing complexity of the marks)

The above image is the second of Julie Mehretu’s Mogamma, A Painting in Four Parts. These four paintings were created around the time of the Arab Spring and consist of a complex web of gestural marks and vector lines overlaying technical wireframe drawings of Al-Mogamma (a government building in Tahir Square, Cairo). Mogamma is also the Arab word for “collective.”

All four paintings hung together to give you an idea of scale.

All four paintings hung together to give you an idea of scale.

Like most art, Mehretu’s paintings diminish when not seen in person. Much of the meaning of her work lies in experiencing these complex images at their massive scale and being unable to take in their entirety at once. They read one way from a distance, but as the viewer approaches they must select a portion of the image to examine more closely. Because it is physically impossible to see everything at once, the viewer must slow down and allow their eye to explore and discover the painting. Each person will see something slightly different as no two people will examine it in quite the same way. As Mark Godfrey said, “viewers have to abandon the desire to fully master what they see.”

Mogamma II, detail

Mogamma II, detail

In writing about Mehretu’s work Richard Shiff said, “The culture is complex, contradictory, and commodious; for better or worse, it tolerates extremes of opposition, assimilating diverse impulses, nevertheless avoiding collapse. To navigate a hyperculture of this sort requires a hyperimage, a perspective far more complex than a map of eighteenth-century trade routes…” I think what I find so fascinating about Mehretu’s work is the way in which her paintings function as hyperimages that juxtapose our perspective of chaotic experience with the suggestion of an underlying order. Her paintings are models and metaphors for a way of thinking about culture and reality.

Mogamma II, detail.

Mogamma II, detail.

“I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.” – Julie Mehretu

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Thursday Thoughts: A Community of Order

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. I highly recommend this book, not only to artists and writers, but anyone who is interested in living life with a greater sense of awareness.

“But how can housework be made into a creative activity? The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenomenology while polishing a piece of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions. It even dominates memory. How wonderful it is to really become once more the inventor of a mechanical action! And so, when a poet rubs a piece of furniture-even vicariously-when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object; he increases the object’s human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human household… Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order.

As anyone familiar with my work can attest, I have a deep and abiding interest in geometry and order However, that geometry can feel cold and empty. I am drawn to an ascetic and severe aesthetic of sharp edges and rigid rules. I can feel a lack of warmth in my work and all but my most successful pieces feel defined only by their geometric reality. This summer one of the professors in my graduate program pointed out that all of my work depicts from a distance. Everything is on a distant horizon, shown from an aerial perspective, or abstracted to a degree that it is seen only in diagrammatic terms. I’m not sure what to do with that information yet, but I’m becoming increasingly aware that distance in my natural posture towards both art and everyday tasks. Perhaps if I begin to approach the mechanical gestures of the everyday with that glimmer of consciousness I will find a more intimate reality. Instead of the cold distant order of the theoretical I can find warmth in a community of order. 

Detail of a recent experiment with Dura-lar and layers. Jacob Rowan. 2016

Detail of a work in progress experimenting with Dura-lar (a translucent surface) over paper. Jacob Rowan. 2016

 

 

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Peter Halley

The Other World, 1992, Peter Halley

The Other World, 1992, Peter Halley, 87″x157″

Model, 1998, Peter Halley, 92"x133"

Model, 1998, Peter Halley, 92″x133″

“The deployment of the geometric dominates the landscape. Space is divided into discrete, isolated cells, explicitly determined as to extent and function. Cells are reached through complex networks of corridors and roadways that must be traveled at prescribed speeds and at prescribed times. The constant increase in the complexity and scale of these geometries continuously transforms the landscape…Along with the geometrization of the landscape, there occurs the geometrization of thought. Specific reality is displaced by the primacy of the model. And the model is in turn imposed on the landscape, further displacing reality in a process of ever more complete circularity. ”–The Deployment of the Geometric

Peter Halley’s visual langue primarily consists of the cell and the conduit, executed with endless variation. In an age when so much art is charged with political content and images from popular culture it may seem that Halley is merely painting pretty pictures. However, his paintings acquire layers of depth the more one reads his theories on geometry, abstraction, and society. He uses the formal language of modernism, and particularly that of abstract expressionists like Newman and Rothko, but with the cynicism and ironic tone of post-modernism. His work stands as a response to the hopeful geometric mysticism of artists like Mondrian and the abstract expressionists’ vision of the sublime.

Two Cells with Circulating Conduit

Two Cells with Circulating Conduit, 1985, Peter Halley, 63″x108″

“While the analysis of themes in the mass media is no doubt significant, an ideological exploration of geometry can be still more so for despite the profusion of media images in contemporary culture, geometric signs still remain the most ubiquitous and influential in our society. At almost every instant, we are confronted by countless geometrical signs, even in environments that are free of media signs….it is geometric signs in the form of art, architecture, and statistical analyses that the managerial class reserves to communicate with itself.” –The Crisis of Geometry

His work explores our fascination with the language of our enslavement. Or, to put it in his own words, “the very object of discomfort, geometry, is transformed into an object of adulation.” He questions whether geometric form is really the true essence of things or if it is merely the most expedient method of control. He asks the questions: “to what purpose is geometric form put to in our culture? Why is modern society so obsessed with geometric form that, for at least the last two centuries, we have striven to build and live in geometric environments of increasing complexity and exclusivity? Why has geometric art been so widely accepted in our century, and why has geometric imagery gained an unprecedented importance in our public iconography?”

Two Cells with a Conduit & Underground Chamber, 1983, Peter Halley

Two Cells with a Conduit & Underground Chamber, 1983, Peter Halley, 70″x80″

“Space became geometrically differentiated and partitioned. Circulatory pathways, the omnipresent straight lines of the industrial landscape, were established to facilitate orderly movement” –The Crisis in Geometry

The Prison of History, 1981, Peter Halley

The Prison of History, 1981, Peter Halley, 63″x77″

“The cell. Its ubiquity reflects the atrophy of the social and the rise of the interconnective. At the same time that the advent of piped-in “conveniences” has made it unnecessary to leave the cell, it has also made it impossible to leave the cell…In the planar universe, only color is capable of coding the linear with meaning: Colored lines on maps distinguish the character of highways. Wires are colored to mark their purpose. In hospitals, one can even follow colored bands on the floor through labyrinthine corridors to one’s destination.”–On Line

While the human figure never appears in his work, I find it interesting to consider how we increasingly conceive of ourselves in mechanistic terms. We use the language of “hooking up” or “recharging” to describe physical actions. We think of our brains as computers, even though they function in very different ways. Halley’s paintings visualize this language we have adopted to describe ourselves.

Elimination, 2010, Peter Halley

Elimination, 2010, Peter Halley, 72″x80″

“The modern conception of man as a machine is more economic than biological in its accent. It refers to the human robot rather than the human animal, and suggests an efficient control of the costly movements of the body, a submission to some external purpose indifferent to the individual. . .Thus the social is finally becoming the site of “pure abstraction.” Each human being is no longer just a number, but is a collection of numbers, each of which ties him or her to a different matrix of information…With Mondrian, a decade later, any reference to specificity is gone and the world is described as an utopian grid of abstract flows and forces.”–Notes on Abstraction

Here's a close up of Cool Hunting to give you a better idea of the actual surface texture of Halley's paintings.

Here’s a close-up of Cool Hunting to give you a better idea of the actual surface texture of Halley’s paintings.

Galleria Massimo Minini Collaboration with Alessandro Mendini. Bresica, Italy, 2008

Galleria Massimo Minini Collaboration with Alessandro Mendini. Bresica, Italy, 2008

Bilder der 90er Jahre. Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, 1999

Bilder der 90er Jahre. Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, 1999

You can find more images of his work and the complete essays quoted here on Peter Halley‘s website.

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Thursday Thoughts: Art according to Hans Hofmann

The Search for the Real by Hans Hofmann

The Search for the Real by Hans Hofmann. I definitely recommend getting your hands on a copy of this book. 

“Creation is dominated by three absolutely different factors: first, nature, which affects us by its laws; second, the artist, who creates a spiritual contact with nature and with his materials; and third, the medium of expression through which the artist translates his inner world…The impulse of nature, fused through the personality of the artist by laws arising from the particular nature of the medium, produces the rhythm and personal expression of a work.”

It should be noted that what Hofmann means by “spiritual” should not be confused with the religious use of word. For him the spiritual is an emotional and intellectual synthesis of relationships perceived in nature, rationally, or intuitively.

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Andrea Zittel

How to Live Billboards, 2013, Andrea Zittel

How to Live Billboards, 2013, Andrea Zittel

“What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves.” – Andrea Zittel

How to Live Billboards, 2013, Andrea Zittel

How to Live Billboards, 2013, Andrea Zittel

Andrea Zittel works from the self-proclaimed “Institute for Investigative Living” in Joshua Tree, CA. She is part prophet performing acts that point to alternative modes of being, part Bauhaus guru fusing art and craft, and part desert hermit humbly dedicated to the art of living. Her property, A-Z West, is a fifty acre site in the California desert and is an “enterprise that encompasses all aspects of day to day living. Home furniture, clothing, food all become the sites of investigation in an ongoing endeavor to better understand human nature and the social construction of needs.” Since fall of 2000 it has been “undergoing an ongoing conversion into a testing grounds for living, in which spaces, objects and acts of living all intertwine as a single ongoing investigation into what it means to exist and participate in our culture today. ‘How to live?’ and ‘What gives life meaning?’ are core issues in both Zittel’s personal life and artistic practice. Answering these questions has entailed the complex relationships between our needs for freedom, security, autonomy, authority, and control, observing how structure and limitations often have the capacity to generate feelings of freedom beyond open-ended choices.”

A-Z Carpet Furniture: Cabin, 2012, Andrea Zittel

A-Z Carpet Furniture: Cabin, 2012, Andrea Zittel

Her work is a fascinating investigation into the border between representation and the literal–a collapse of the space between viewing and experiencing. A-Z Carpet Furniture is an excellent example of this collapse. It “ highlights the slippage between represented space and literal space. It hovers between being a representation of something (it can hang on the wall or lay on the floor) and the actual thing itself, and it is meant to be used just like any furniture.”

Parallel Planar Panel (Black, Ochre, Off-White), 2014, Andrea Zittel

Parallel Planar Panel (Black, Ochre, Off-White), 2014, Andrea Zittel

Another dichotomy she explores is our complex desire for art objects. We want beautiful objects to interact with in our day-to-day lives. Yet, we also want those objects to be loaded with ideological or philosophical significance and positioned in the forefront of artistic tradition. She answers that complex desire with her Parallel Planar Panels which “evoke manifold types of physical fields: abstract paintings, walls, floors, furnishings – as well as offering metaphors for the multifarious ‘planes’ of human experience. They reflect an enduring interest in the porous boundaries between distinct modes or genres – whether between abstraction and figuration, or the decorative and the functional. Rather than seeking to deconstruct categories and taxonomies, strategy of careful syncretism are honed adopted.”

Hard Carpet 2, 2014, Andrea Zittel

Hard Carpet 2, 2014, Andrea Zittel

Bench (after Judd), 2014, Andrea Zittel

Bench (after Judd), 2014, Andrea Zittel

In her video Dynamic Essay about the Panel, Zittel notes that it is the limitations and definite boundaries that define the use and relevance of manifestations of the planar form. She describes horizontal panels (tables, rugs, floors, etc.) as “energetic accumulators.” They are the support structures on which we live. On the other hand, vertical panels are vehicles for meaning and messages, which she labels “ideological resonators.” I highly recommend watching this short video in which she explores the profound ramifications of such a simple structure in our daily life.

Wonder Valley Cabin Interior, 2016, Andrea Zittel

Wonder Valley Cabin Interior, 2016, Andrea Zittel

The Wonder Valley Experimental Living Cabins are the most recent addition to the Institute for Investigative Living. “The cabins are located in a remote part of the Mojave, 40 minutes from Joshua Tree, off-the-grid, without power or running water. In lieu of these amenities, the cabins offer the vastest of space—an instance when patterns and routines are stripped away, allowing a new kind of awareness to emerge. Conditions are minimal, but all basic necessities are provided, including water, light source, bedding, seating, composting toilet, cooking tools and utensils.”

Prototype for Billboard, 2007, Andrea Zittel

Prototype for Billboard, 2007, Andrea Zittel

All quoted text from http://www.zittel.org/

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