There is no Place Like Home

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. ~Franklin D Roosevelt

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Image courtesy of http://www.martharosler.net

It is nearly impossible to drive around San Francisco and not see persons living at risk on the streets. This happens not only in San Francisco, this is a concern for the state, the country, and also internationally. I intentionally and purposefully avoid calling it a problem, because it then mistakenly gets misconstrued that homeless persons are the problem, and it is the problem for those living on the street, rather than a problem of the greater community, a societal problem, one facing those of us who are sheltered; and, by sheltering oneself from the problem this can lead to avoidance rather than engagement to finding solutions. Awareness, concern, and support (along with budget commitment) are needed.

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Joel Daniel Phillips, Aunt Kitty, 2016, graphite and charcoal on paper. Image courtesy of http://www.joeldanielphillips.com

Last December when visiting an art gallery where directly across the street was a row of colorful tents lining the sidewalk, ‘tent city’ as many locals call these makeshift communities, I asked if anything could be done to provide support for these neighbors who we observed from their gallery windows. There must be local services in the neighborhood, I inquired. What about holding an exhibition to raise monies for the local services or offering a percentage of art sales to support existing organizations that help those in need? I suggested.

I thought of various other businesses that are successful models for combining consumerism and charity; for example, Patagonia has given to charitable organizations over the years and this last December donated 100% of black Friday profits ($10 million), the small employee-owned Four Sigmatic, a nutritional food supplement company donates a percentage of profits to cancer patients on an ongoing basis and this last January donated 100% of profits to cancer organizations, and this past January Petzel Gallery’s exhibition “We need to talk…” not only donated a percentage of sales to charities chosen both by collectors and artists but also during this exhibition visitors were invited to write their thoughts, feelings and hopes for the future.

Undoubtedly, it is costly to maintain an art gallery and living as an artist has economic challenges, yet I wondered could there be a way for art to be an advocate for change, to make an impact, to support shelters, food banks, or social services, all which help towards improving the lives of those living on our streets? Could this be done with the gallery acting as a catalyst through annual art exhibitions and fundraisers, if not on an ongoing basis?

Fouladi PROJECTS, opened the New Year with an exhibition focusing on homelessness, “Coming Clean: SF”. This group show is co-hosted and curated by Lava Mae, a local organization that provides shower and toilets to persons without permanent shelter and access to the basic need to get clean. Doniece Sandoval, Lava Mae’s founder and CEO, took her compassion that all people deserve dignity and the ability to keep clean combined with her creativity and innovation she then looked towards a solution inspired by gourmet food trucks and gaining access to out of service metro busses created mobile bathrooms.

Lava Mae’s team inquired how might they bring greater awareness to their organization and needs of homeless persons. They contemplated alternate ways to think about philanthropy and to engage a community. Art was the answer.

Artists have a unique way of addressing a serious matter and creating an artifice that doesn’t belittle or exploit the difficult subject, instead they create an aesthetic, a fictional rendering, making it easier to access than looking directly at darkness and undesirable realities. Perhaps through art we can feel enticed and invited to experience caringly and without judgment. We are able to see the precarious lives of people living under freeways, in doorways, in tents, and in public parks toting their entire possessions in shopping carts and rolling suitcases; through an artists’ perspective we can look empathetically at these members of our society where we might otherwise have chose to look the other way or cross to the other side of the street in order to avoid coming close to a homeless person, or worse, wanting to displace them to a place not-in-my-neighborhood. Maybe art provides an access for people to face one another, approaching from compassion. I hope art elicits empowerment to be a part of the solution. How we choose to either pass judgment or show empathy towards the disadvantaged reflects on our commonwealth as a society. Just beginning by connecting eye-to eye with people affirms that they exist, are seen, and are humanized. It is a deeply healing, therapeutic experience.

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Joel Daniel Phillips, Vicki, 2013, charcoal and graphite on paper. Image courtesy of http://www.joeldanielphillips.com

In 1989 Martha Rosler created “If You Lived Here” exhibited at Dia Art Foundation, an art project on housing, homelessness, and architectural planning with a collaboration of work from artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, homeless people, community groups and schoolchildren which took the form of town hall meetings and deployed activism and discussion as a form of art. This exhibition has shown around the world, most recently in 2016 on a one-year stint in Seattle funded by The New Foundation and re-titled “Housing is a Human Right”.

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Other artists have used their art to illuminate the homelessness challenges in our society. Michael Rakowitz created paraSite shelters, custom designed inflatable transportable temporary shelters out of recycled zip-lock bags which were inflated and heated by attaching to exterior outtake vents of a building’s HVAC (heating ventilation, and air conditioning system). These ‘art objects’ have been distributed to over 30 homeless persons in Boston and New York City since 1998.

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per owner’s request, designed to look like a rib cage. image courtesy of http://www.michaelrakowitz.com

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle unveiled in an exhibition at the Clocktower Gallery in 1988. It is a hybrid between a shopping cart and a rocket-like-looking sleeping compartment. Wodiczko, like Rakowitz, ‘consulted’ with homeless persons in developing the design for his art piece.Both Rakowitz’s paraSite and Wodiczko’s Vehicle are neither a temporary or permanent solution to the housing problem, nor are they intended as prototypes for mass production, rather they are social/political art raising awareness of the existence of a crisis and calling into question its causes and possible solutions.

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Kryzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Vehicle version 3, 1988-89. Aluminum, steel, plastic, plywood, lexan, rubber. Image courtesy of http://www.mca.chicago.org

And, Willie Baronet’s artwork stemmed from a direct purpose to raise funds for his “We Are All Homeless“campaign and exhibitions. He gathered handmade signs, those often seen held by people standing along a busy city street or propped against the leg of someone sitting on the sidewalk with their hand out asking for help, and he collaged these signs together making them into large wall installations. These few examples make clear that this has been a decades long challenge with no simple solutions. I believe with innovative, intelligent community engaged citizens, artists, and local/state leaders we can garner visibility and funds required for developing housing that is connected with social services as a part of tenancy and with upward transition possibilities. We can help give people more stable homes than those made out of blue, yellow, and green nylon. We can start creating solutions, it is happening now, and tomorrow it continues.

In this essay are images from two artists in the fouladi Projects exhibition; Amy Wilson Faville, whose art transforms mobile shopping cart collectives into aesthetically appealing images, she is interested in the tableaux created, the narrative of the contents, and Joel Daniel Phillips, intricately draws portraiture on a lifelike scale, capturing the commonalities we share as humans, exposing visibility to deeper, truthful emotions. “A true portrait is far more than a rendering of physical form-it is the capturing of the vulnerable, un-invented narratives that make us human.” states Joel Daniel Phillips. In addition, the other artists in the exhibition Elizabeth Lo, Danielle Nelson Mourning, Ramekon O’Arwisters,Yon Sim, and Kathryn Spence each in their own words expressed homelessness could happen to anyone, it could happen to them, and they hoped their art would open hearts and minds. The “Coming Clean: SF” exhibition showcases art as an imaginative and compassionate advocate for the precarious and complex issue facing those living on the streets. This is making art that matters!

Please share in comments any other art projects or exhibitions that matter, particularly those addressing homelessness. Thank you!

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Amy Wilson Faville, Pasture, 2007, graphite and collage on paper. image courtesy of fouladi  Projects.

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Beside The River

paro-riverBy the time it came to the edge of the Forest the stream had grown up, so that it was        almost a river, and being grown up, it did not run and jump and sparkle as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going and it said to itself, “there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.” – A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

Many of us grew up with the tales of Winnie the Pooh, and have relived the stories with our children. There is an ageless wisdom from the characters living at Pooh Corner. I thought of Winnie the Pooh sitting beside the Tassajara Creek. I thought of the simplicity, yet not simpleness, of Rabbit, Piglet, Pooh, and Roo playing the game of “Pooh Sticks” as I tossed two twigs into the creek and watched as the current carried them downstream. It didn’t matter which stick went faster–they will float downstream together for a while, then they may go their separate ways. They will reach their destination, someday, and perhaps meet again in the vast blue sea.

I came to Tassajara Zen Monastery in the Ventana National Wilderness to practice walking meditation and to deepen my meditation in nature. In my hut next to the creek, I woke each morning and drifted into sleep each night listening to the water babbling, constant and calming, like a mantra. During the day, I wandered alongside the creek watching it leap over round rocks and fall down larger boulders. The water deepened my understanding that everything is connected and each of us–my fellow retreaters, the Zen leader, and the Monks living at Tassajara–is alone and yet together, connected: a passing smile along the path, soaking in the hot springs with a calm mind, attending to the current of daily life cleaning, cooking, and caring for the property, or sitting as still as a stone in silence together. We create ripples; we share energy. Being there amongst monks in a working monastery, the importance of ritual made sense to me as I began to embrace the purposefulness of Zen practice. I realize how each person is a part of the whole community; together they sit in silence and together they flow in breath and unity. The creek taught me how all matter leaves traces and that we all influence each other. I realized our interconnectedness with nature.

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From rivers we learn to observe the flux and change of our world both internally and externally. Everything changes, all is in flux, and we cannot stop the current of change—therefore, embrace it. “No man ever steps in the same river twice for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” stated Heraclitus.

The rain and snow melt runs down the hills and through the plains into rivulets, brooks, creeks, streams, and majestic rivers flowing into the vast blue seas. The water sometimes runs swiftly, crashing with forceful energy into boulders, pounding the rocks into new formations, eventually breaking them down into sediment. At other times, it drifts at a gentle pace, smoothly gliding over the rocks and boulders, creating a mirror to the sky and trees along the way as it travels downstream. In return, the rocks change the flow of the river. Big boulders form walls creating deep pools, scattered boulders create mini waterfalls in the river’s rapids and a fallen tree limb may provide a restful eddy for upstream swimmers where the water curls into a bend along the shore. Its energy and rhythm changes, sculpting with its continuous flow. Whether fast or slow, it carves into the landscape, flexing and shifting the banks creating a new path from the past and a new one for the future. I wonder, do I change like the river, broadening and deepening?

This leads me to think of a poem by David Whyte, “Where Many Rivers Meet”.

All the water below came from above.
All the clouds living in the mountains gave it to the rivers
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.

And so I float on cloud become water,
central sea surrounded by white mountains,
the water salt, once fresh,
clouds fall and stream rush, tree root and tide bank
leading to the river’s mouths.

And the mouths of the rivers sing into the sea,
the stories buried in the mountains
give out into the sea
and the sea remembers
and sings back
from the depths
where nothing is forgotten.

Stories of history flow down a river, from exploration to settlement, to trade and transport, to life and death. Water is the lifeblood of our earth. From the Nile, the Amazon, the Euphrates, the Thames, the Colorado, the Mekong, and to the Sacred Headwaters in Canada, around the globe rivers have inspired timeless symbolisms and metaphors. Each river as it winds through the landscape plays a part of human history. In his stirring ode to nature, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, “The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers are not small themes.” And many a writer, poet, musician, and artist has extolled on this theme to reveal both personal and universal meaningfulness to life.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as an insightful young man with an old soul telling the interconnected story of rivers he had never traveled on yet sharing the interconnectedness they held for him. This poem reflects on ancient rivers, holding a depth of history older than civilization. These four important rivers of the world were important in human existence; they not only provided passageways for people traveling but also served to traffic humans in slavery from Asia to Africa to America. The lyrical lines in Hughes’ poem flows like the water.

I’ve known rivers
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Mary Oliver in her poem “Of What Surrounds Me” sings the praises of the essential presence of nature to inspire her poetics,

Whatever it is I am saying, I always
need a leaf or a flower, if not an
entire field. As for sky, I am so wildly
in love with each day’s intentions, cool blue
or cat gray or full
of the ships of clouds, I simply can’t
say whatever it is I am saying without
at least one skyful. That leaves water, a
creek, or a well, river or ocean, it has to be
there. For the heart to be there. For the pen
to be poised. For the idea to come.

Looking towards visual artists, they too sourced from rivers to create art that shares both a singular resonance as well as timeless messages. From the river they found creative inspiration akin to spiritualism, a sense of identity, nationalism, and union with nature.

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Thomas Cole journeyed up the Hudson River from New York City to Catskill; enthralled by the natural beauty, he painted sketches along the route just as today, passengers taking the Hudson-bound Metro-North train are inspired by the same beauty to snap images of the scenery on their smartphones. Cole’s documentation of the changing light reflected in the wide, watery surface gained popularity and began an artistic movement known as the Hudson River School, which celebrated the splendor of nature as a spiritual renewal. Sunny Morning On The Hudson River (1827) is one example of his paintings in which he romanticizes the sublime American wilderness and the tamed pastoral farmlands by the river. Focusing on the ominous dark mountain, the stark leafless tree, and the windblown limbs of the sparsely leafed tree creates drama depicting a merciless danger within nature’s throes, while at the same time he shows movement in the wispy fog and clouds which offer a sense of passing of the tumultuous weather. There is a promise of peacefulness in the oncoming sunny skies illuminating the river beyond, surrounded by tranquil pastures. Weather, like the river below, constantly changing, constantly flowing.

German artist Andreas Gursky, in his photograph, Rhine II (1999), shows the Rhine from nostalgia. Recreating the river landscape, he allows the viewer to imagine an idyll: a serene, surreal landscape without trees, buildings, or the effects of urbanization. He manipulates the photograph to create an abstract, minimalistic, painterly image with texture and tone. The Rhine River, to many, is associated with German nationalism. Rhineland is a pseudonym for Germany, and Gursky’s Rhine II, with its horizontal stripes of sky, grass, and river could serve as a national flag.

The Rhine II 1999 by Andreas Gursky born 1955Andreas Gursky, Rhine II (1999) c-print. image courtesy of http://www.tate.org

Anselm Kiefer, also a German artist historically considers the Rhine with a nod towards melancholy, in relation to Germany’s history and identity. With dark ash like marks his drawing Der Rhein (1982) reveals the Rhine through an ominous forest of charred, leafless trees, a devastation of the German landscape, ruins from the era of the Third Reich. For both artists, the Rhine holds importance as symbolic in German history, culture and identity.

der-rheinAnselm Keifer, Der Rhein (The Rhine) 1982. woodcut and ink on paper mounted on canvas. image courtesy of SFMOMA

Olafur Eliasson captured on film the entire 100-kilometer length of the Markarfljot River in Iceland as it winds through mountainous glaciers and broadens, spilling out on the plains until mixes in with he waters of the Atlantic ocean in The Aerial River Series (2000). Eliasson’s photographic series reads more as a study documenting a place before time changes its course. One could say it was a sketch leading to his Riverbed sculpture in 2014, where he brought nature into the gallery, recreating a river with snakelike curves, boulders, and stepping stones. It has a direct link to the Earthworks movement (which I discuss in this essay), particularly Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977). Often when looking at a painting, I wonder, what might it be like to enter into the painting; with Riverbed, the viewer is required to enter the art. The viewer, in fact, is a part of the landscape. Yet, what is Eliasson aiming at? I consider the artwork a critique on how one experiences nature in the world, and how man has altered both nature and wilderness. Is going to a manmade manicured park experiencing nature any more authentic than going to a museum and wandering alongside a riverbed?

river-seriesOluar Eliasson, The Aerial River Series, 2000. image courtesy SFMOMA

en-louisiana-dkOlufar Eliasson, Riverbed 2014. image courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (www.en.louisiana.dk)

Susan Derges created photograms of water’s movement and form by submerging large sheets of photographic paper into rivers, using the night sky as a darkroom and the moon and a flashlight for exposure. Within these still images, she apprehends an almost ghostlike effect, the trace of a life within the river that remains as a palimpsest. These photograms capture the dynamic, imaginative, and magical word of nature.

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Susan Derges, Waxing Moon, 2013 30X17 inch digital c-print. image courtesy of Danzinger Gallery

Two British artists, Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, are both considered part of the Earthworks art movement in which the intention is to use material from nature (mud, stone, water, twigs, leaves) to create impermanent sculptures that depend upon earth’s elements to decompose and alter the artwork. Ideally, these works are made site-specific or outside the traditional gallery setting. Richard Long paints on walls using his hands in place of a paintbrush and mud sourced from the Avon River in lieu of paint. The Avon River runs through Bristol, his childhood home; perhaps with each new rendition he is performing a ritual to memorialize his origins, leaving traces behind of his past along with the traces of history residing in the sediment.

richard-longRichard Long, image courtesy of pinterest.

Similarly, there is a form of ritual in his performance and subsequent art piece, A Hundred Mile Walk (1971-72). In this interactional performance within nature, he documents in photograph and words things seen and thoughts evoked while walking a circuitous route along a river in Dartmoor, England. His art is a true discourse between the artist and nature, he records his perceptions, both internal thoughts and external sounds, for example, “In and out the sound of rivers over familiar stepping stones” (Day 5)

hundred-mileRichard Long, A Hundred Mile Walk, 1972. offset printing on paper

Andy Goldsworthy (not unlike Pooh and his pals) gathers leaves, makes ropes or chains from them, and sends them adrift in rivers floating downstream creating a chain that ebbs and flows with the current and eventually dissipates, each leaf eventually going its own journey to the sea. For Goldswothy, nature is his material and he recognizes there is no perfect beyond nature, yet he works with that ideal form to create his manmade ‘natural’ object. This, too, he knows will be reformed and changed by nature. Within hours, perhaps, days, his work leaves little to no trace. In the end, nature claims the process of the artist to change its form. Both artists in their own way express beauty in the certainty of impermanence and, in their manner, a performance or ritual with nature.

goldsworthyHazel leaves each stitched together to the next with grass stalks gently pulled by the river out of a rock pool floating downstream low water. SCAUR WATER, DUMFRIESSHIRE 5 June 1991. Andy Goldsworthy

Albert Einstein advised to “look deep within nature and then you will understand everything.” These artists, in word and image, reveal varied and multiple meanings, metaphors that sprung from observation of brooks, creeks, and rivers. We are reminded of history, of letting go, going with the flow, and allowing everything to drift on by.

Returning to Tassajara, while there I read a Zen proverb about two monks and a woman by a river.

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A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his 
journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself no longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

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As I sat by the creek watching the two twigs drift downstream, I let go of my thoughts, allowing them to drift away. By letting go of the thoughts from the past and planning for the future, we can better be (inter)connected with the world around us. Most importantly, we should be mindful of the present. What we contribute to the flowing waters have an effect on what is downstream just as those who contributed to the waters upstream affect where we stand now. River time is now time, the water flows by, and each moment drifts by with it. Be with it.

Enya, The River Sings video

Made Of Plastic

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ana de la cuesa, untitled, 2013. mixed media

From the beginning artists sourced nature to create art: paint originally made from plants, sculpture formed from stone and clay, and now artist reuse discarded plastic for creating art.

Some artists use this plastic and other trash-destined debris in their artwork for both material and conceptually as embodied points of view onto the world they live in, and a few, ahem…perhaps, one, consider human detritus as simply anart medium without reflecting on or moralizing it’s impact in our world.

Tony Feher’s material is our civilizations toss-a-way packaging. He finds delight in plastic bottles, but also boxes, and bags with labels removed yet easily recognizable by their trademarked shape. With a wink to modernist sculptors before him and well, the public, his audience, he creates serious sculpture (or at least with serious price tags). Is he intentionally drawing attention to the wastefulness of excessive packaging, or is he intentionally drawing our attention to how branding influences our visual vocabulary that consciously and unconsciously manipulates consumer choices. Is he ridiculing our addiction to consumption of both wasteful, trash-bin-destined debris and at the same time passionate global art consumption? My inclination is that he doesn’t think about important environmental issues nor is this what his art is about, in his esteem; but, as they say, when the art leaves the studio, the object takes on its own symbolic in the world, it carries it’s own meaning—the place in which to access the real the imaginary must be conjured.

Another ambiguous work of art by Kris Martin, Water, 2012 an assemblage of various size, shape, and colored glass vessels, each containing water, either half full or half empty, depending on the viewers perspective seems to inquire into the worldly water issue. Does each vessel represent all the nations in the world and our dependence on water for existence? Is the piece questioning how much more time do we have before the half full glass empties? Martin’s art ponders humankinds most vital issues, like the fleetingness and fragility of existence, mortality, time; albeit, he challenges the seriousness of his art with a wink and whimsical playfulness, like an art jester.

Kris Martin, Water, 2012. glass bottles, water.

Kris Martin, Water, 2012.

On the other hand, Alejandro Duran leaves no ambiguity about the intention of his art. His latest project Washed Up, he states is intentionally to address the issue of plastic pollution. He focuses his lens on the debris from around the world that wash up on the shores of Sian Ka’an in Mexico making Andy Goldsworthy like forms and capturing them in photography.

Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang turned their daily strolls along the Kehoe beach in Point Reyes National Park into a collaborative art project. They consider themselves artist archeologists. Since 1999, they began gathering and sorting by color and or theme the varied thermoplastic junk or our throwaway culture and recreating it into inspired colorful art pieces.

Pam Longobardi’s mind continually analyzes and investigates humans’ relationship with nature. Drifters Project began in 2006 when she came across mountainous heaps of plastic detritus washed up on the shores in Hawaii. She began following the ocean currents to catalog, study, and collect the floating waste from the perspective of a scientist, artist, and anthropologist. She describes her passionate pursuit,

“Traveling expanses of space and time, ocean plastic is a material that can unleash unpredictable dynamics. I am interested in plastics in particular, as opposed to all garbage, because of what it reveals about us as a global economy and what it reveals about the ocean as a type of cultural space and a giant dynamic engine of life. As a product of human consumer culture that exhibits visibly the attempts of nature to reabsorb and regurgitate it, ocean plastic has profound stories to tell us about the interconnectedness of the fate of the planet and our impact on it. “

Pam Longobardi. Installation View.
Pam Longobardi. Installation View. “One World Ocean” SoS (So Sorry). Ionion Center for Arts and Culture, Kefalonia, Greece. 2011

Pam Longobardi

Pam Longobardi 2013 exhibition image.

Underlying all of Mark Dion’s art is a high-minded ecological agenda. Like the other aforementioned artists, Dion considers himself an explorer, a historian, and a dilettante archeologist. I see him as an intellectual ecological artist. He creates installations or assemblages that are a take on the form of the tableaux-like scientific arrangements found in natural history museums or historical cabinets of curiosities. Like Longobardi he is fascinated by the histories the found objects hold, he treasures the stories a washed up piece of plastic tells us about civilization as much as he would value discovering artifacts from the Antikythera shipwreck.

Mark Dion, Landfill 1999-2000. Mixed Media. Image courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Landfill 1999-2000. Mixed Media. Image courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Ichthyosaurus, 2003. Synthetic Ichthyosaurus, backdrop, misc. obects, sand, rocks. image courtesy of Tanya Bondakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Ichthyosaurus, 2003. Synthetic Ichthyosaurus, backdrop, misc. obects, sand, rocks. image courtesy of Tanya Bondakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Marine Invertebrates, 2013, 70 objects in glass jars, isopropyl alcohol, glass and wood cabinet. image courtesy of Tanya Bondakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Marine Invertebrates, 2013, 70 objects in glass jars, isopropyl alcohol, glass and wood cabinet. image courtesy of Tanya Bondakdar Gallery.

The common theme connecting many of the artists who use plastic and humankinds detritus as their material is how they begin to look upon their material from the viewpoint of an archeologist and a conservationist, as well as an artist. I, too, find the history of plastics in our civilization intriguing; although, I wonder how future generations will remember us. Just as we learn about the precision of the Incan architecture and the aesthetics of the Greek design, what story will the heaps of plastic and technological debris say of our era?

The Readymade is Already Made

image courtesy of www.huffingtonpost.com
image courtesy of http://www.huffingtonpost.com

Dinner with Marcel Duchamp and On Kawara

Of the twentieth-century art gods (Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol), Marcel Duchamp elicits no middle road. He is either revered as a godlike figure of contemporary art or disdained as a charlatan. Curators, artists, critics, and dealers praise his import in reframing and redefining what is art and how we view it. In fact, the other night at a dinner party seated amongst a crowd of the aforementioned art-world folk, I asked, “Are we done with Duchamp?” Knives and forks dropped from their fingers as their eyes shot daggers at me. The rebuttal that followed began, “ We can never be done with Duchamp!” and “If you know anything about contemporary art, how can you propose such a question?” Indeed, I swear, on a stack of Artforums, I am no art historian or art scholar, nor a curator, critic, or dealer. I am simply and purely an art appreciator. And, I realize by proposing that I see an overuse of art proclaiming a Duchampian lineage or ideal that I am certain to provoke strong opinions from people smarter than I. What has this idealism that Duchamp strived towards done for art? The ideal form, the ideal material, the ideal expression, the ideal truth; these things continue to be sought, but alas, they have all been found! They have all been found in everyday materials (which seems to be the popular medium used in contemporary art), such as trash, used clothing, packaging supplies, broken furniture, and other multitudes of mundane objects thrown together is cast out in the galleries as “Duchampian.” Marcel Duchamp influenced contemporary artists perhaps more than any other master from the twentieth century. He paved the way for pop art, environmental art, assemblage, installation art and conceptual art. Even so, Duchamp is overdone in contemporary art. Art historian and critic Barbara Rose, in her well-written article for The Brooklyn Rail reviewing the recent exhibition of Duchamp’s paintings at Centre Pompidou, commented in her post script: “What Duchamp himself had done was always interesting and provocative. What was done in his name, on the other hand, was responsible for some of the silliest, most inane, most vulgar non-art still being produced by ignorant and lazy artists whose thinking stops with the idea of putting a found object in a museum.” Bravo! I completely agree. This is what I am asserting when I ask, “Are we done with Duchamp?” The products that call themselves works of art copying ideas and images put forth previously are far too numerous, too sporadic, and have been done again and again. Duchamp, by contrast, was compelled or obsessed to not fall into complacency or predictability; he challenged himself to not repeat and reuse the same thing. He disliked reproduction and secondhand experience. From his failures, rebellion, or both, Duchamp emerged successful. He failed at art school, in printmaking, and with painting. Yet, he was not deterred. He could have changed course, pursuing a life as a chess-playing librarian, but he didn’t. He continued to question, “What is art?” and “How do we see art?” In both life and art, he looked beyond what had already been done, rejected conventional conformity, and avoided an affiliation with any group—thus, not claiming to be a cubist, dadaist, modernist, surrealist, of futurist, yet associating with all. He felt it unnecessary to encumber his life with attachments and stated that he chose to live with or without “too much weight, with a wife [although, he was twice married], children, a country house, an automobile.” He was a champion of independent thinking. An evasive, private, elusive man, and often known as a poker-faced trickster, he was a controversial figure with contradictions.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel. 1951
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel. 1913

Conceptualism began with Duchamp’s wheel-and-stool sculpture—the first of his thirteen “Readymades” [his term] completed in his lifetime. This revolutionary art form changed everything. Before this, in the 1600s, exquisite Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings glorified everyday objects, and works like Monet’s Haystacks honor forms found in everyday life.

Claude Monet, Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), 1891. image courtesy of www.metmuseum.org
Claude Monet, Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), 1891. image courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org
Sebastien Stoskopff, Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell, and Chip-Wood Box, c.1630. image courtesy of www.metmuseum.org
Sebastien Stoskopff, Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell, and Chip-Wood Box, c.1630. image courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

Yet, Duchamp turned over the table; he used the everyday as the material for his ideas rather than the subject of his art. By this bold articulation, he changed what he called ‘retinal’ art and proposed an intellectual art, what today we call conceptual art. He changed how we see art and what we call art. The Duchamp “ideal’ has found the source of art in the mind. Duchamp was interested in the mechanical and the machinery of the industrial age-artists must find their own material to bring forth and start their own machines, instead of relying on utterances which have many times been uttered. And, thoughts abound of every imaginable sort: sociological thoughts, political thoughts, economic thoughts, philosophical thoughts, thoughts on religion, race, and morality. We seek a new language in art. Form, materials, and ideas continue as elements to define and question the nature of art. Warhol chose Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes, Bochner makes measurements, Flavin uses neon, Weiner and Holzer create works of art from words. And, On Kawara chose dates. Which brings us to the other artist discussed at the dinner table from the other night. Following my bold assertion in regard to Duchampian art overdone like the current kale craze, I stated that On Kawara’s art is the crown of conceptualism, sitting upon a heightened throne, so much so that his art is void of aesthetic appeal. I was stepping outside of popular sentiments with my opinions.

On Kawara, Mar.16,1993. From Today series. SFMOMA collection
On Kawara, Mar.16,1993. From Today series. SFMOMA collection
in honor of John Caldwell
in honor of John Caldwell

Actually, I believe On Kawara a champion of Duchampian ideals. Duchamp an “antipainter,” On Kawara chose paint as his medium—that, and his day-to-day existence. Both artists steered clear of the intrigues of the art world and remained on the periphery of the art market. Unlike Duchamp who was easily recognizable (and his private life was subject of gossip), little is known about On Kawara’s personal life, and even his work is absent of personal mark-making, using a an ink stamp and telegraphic text rather than pen or pencil to scribe to his correspondents. Life and time were elements in their art. Duchamp would work and deliberate on one piece for nearly ten years. On Kawara would start and complete each piece within a day, ritualistic, Zen-like, a meditative moment beginning with a brushstroke, and once begun, fluid in movement to the end, marking time. With a long period of gestation for his art objects, Duchamp produced far less than On Kawara’s 3000 date paintings. Both were dedicated to thought-out, deliberate, and handmade precision. Duchamp held an excessive, obsessive fixation on the act of seeing and On Kawara held an obsessive fixation on the act of recording.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Bicycle Wheel (1913)-and Fountain (1917), the infamous urinal-both immediately resonate as Marcel Duchamp, and DEC.29, 1977, meticulously painted in white on red, is instantly recognizable as uniquely one of On Kawara’s Today series paintings.

image courtesy of www.huffingtonpost.com
image courtesy of http://www.huffingtonpost.com

Both artists dared to work outside popular art parameters and became known for their singularity. Both artists are a combination of all of Yoshio Markino’s classifications of modern painters: the humbug, the degenerate, the lunatic, the eccentric, and the genius. After ascending and descending the spiral gallery of the Guggenheim’s On Kawara exhibition I saw more than the singular date of one canvas. I saw the entire body of his work was one piece, an installation work of art. I felt each piece was integral to the whole. I questioned whether an individual work could be realized as what the artist intended. What value could it hold? Like critic Peter Schjeldahl, I thought it would be arbitrary and pointless if ‘the object’ reflected the collector’s birthday or anniversary. I have come to see otherwise. I believe what On Kawara created in his disciplined, diaristic manner of recording his personal life experience touches upon our interconnectedness and interdependence universally. For whatever reason a collector paid more than four million dollars for May 1, 1987, it connects his or her life with On Kawara’s and with everyone else who was alive on that date, reminding each and everyone that his or her existence matters. For this, I find On Kawara’s art revolutionary.

image courtesy of www.huffingtonpost.com
image courtesy of http://www.huffingtonpost.com

And so, I ask, “Are we done with Duchamp?”

Head, heart, and soul in the Clouds

Sun veiled by Northwest Clouds

Cloudy day with veiled sun and humid gleam of light over Puget Sound

When clouds are slivery grey, lying low, I feel introspective. When they are wispy thin like delicate paintbrush strokes, moved calmly by a whispering wind, I feel dreamily contemplative. When the sky is speckled with billowy, fluffy white forms drifting playfully, fantasy floats into my mind. When the sky turns dark with thick looming masses, I am infused with crazed energy. And, on clear, blue-sky days where the sun beams powerful brilliant rays upon me, even though I bask in the warmth and a happy-go-lucky-naught-a-worry-in-the-world glow, I miss the divine afflatus in the clouds. Inspiration, for me, is more easily evoked in a cloudy day.

Foreboding clouds over Puget Sound
Foreboding clouds over Puget Sound

The artist Vik Muniz, who creates illusionary forms from dust, chocolate, or even garbage, must also believe that a blue-sky day needs a voluminous drifting white puff to loft our spirits. He put a smile on the sunny New York City sky in the form of a cloud. For his 2001 Creative Time project he ‘drew’ clouds in the sky creating vaporous joy, then capturing the transient moments in photographs.

image courtesy of www.creativetime.org
image courtesy of http://www.creativetime.org

Preceding his Creative Time project, in 1993 he created a series of cloud like forms from cotton, including the below image of praying hands imaginatively referencing the spiritual; perhaps as angels drifting skyward bringing one nearer to heaven or bringing visionary form to the formless as in the Sambhogakaya realm of Vajrayana Buddhism, beckoning one to the goodness within oneself.

Vik Muniz, Durer's Praying Hands, 1993. image courtesy of www.artarchives.net
Vik Muniz, Durer’s Praying Hands, 1993. image courtesy of http://www.artarchives.net

Clouds transform landscape and are nature’s most elusive realm. Serving as an awakening for living in the present, confirming that this moment, now, will never come again-take notice. All is malleable; everything is in a constant state of change. What was the past is only a memory, fleeting and altering, like a cloud transforming shapes from a face to a fish, sometimes a serpent, or a rose before my eyes until the wind carries the airy illusion away. Diaphanous clouds metaphorically nod to life’s permutations and impermanence. One need only beckon the natural world to remind us, it is here, right now, that we must pay attention, because in a flash it changes. The present beauty, the present experience, whether joy or sorrow, is evanescent.

Another contemporary artist, Jim Hodges, has been both inspired and daunted by nature’s most elusive realm. He once stated that he missed living amid the closed in caverns of New York City’s towering buildings, and that living up in the Hudson Valley, with its broad, open expanse was “too much vastness and sky”. Even so, those skies brought forth from him great art. Was he paying tribute to nature’s beauty or subconsciously condemning nature for being the master of beauty that no artist can replicate? In one immense piece, Untitled (One Day It All Comes True), 2013, he dramatically recreated a majestic cloudy sky with swaths of denim. In another, Untitled (Scratched Sky, I), 2011, he slashed his photograph of cloudy Hudson Valley skies, gesturally lashing out at nature’s exalting beauty.

Jim Hodges, Untitled (One Day It All Comes True), 2013.
Jim Hodges, Untitled (One Day It All Comes True), 2013.
Jim Hodges, Untitled (Scratched Sky, 1) 2011. image courtesy of www.gladstonegallery.com
Jim Hodges, Untitled (Scratched Sky, 1) 2011.
image courtesy of http://www.gladstonegallery.com

Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable arguably may be the most well-known painters of clouds. Turner’s famous mood altering paintings hold an almost divine illumination. They are masterpieces in color and light, calling upon passion in the viewer and inspiring future Impressionistic and Abstract art.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851. Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning. ca.1845
Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851. Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning. ca.1845

Constable, on the other hand, was known to be obsessed with meteorology. His ‘sky sketches’ were untitled but offered descriptives of the natural weather conditions, such as, “morning under sun-clouds silvery grey, on warm ground sultry. Light wind to the SW fine all day-but rain in the night following.” His cloud paintings were done as studies to hone his painterly skills and represent the shape of looking, a visual truth, while also being aesthetically appealing. Today these works are considered finished paintings, examples of texture, color, and atmosphere, capturing for many dreamy illusions.

John Constable, Cloud Study, ca. 1822. image courtesy of www.collections.frick.org
John Constable, Cloud Study, ca. 1822. image courtesy of http://www.collections.frick.org

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’s paintings from the late 1700s, whose landscapes are more skyscapes may have inspired both Turner and Constable. The scale of the diffusive clouds in relation to land serve as visual signals to call to mind the humility of self.

Valenciennes's  A Rome: Etude de ciel de Nuages, ca. 1778-86. image courtesy of www.fr.muzeo.com
Valenciennes’s A Rome: Etude de ciel de Nuages, ca. 1778-86. image courtesy of http://www.fr.muzeo.com
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Landscape, Storm, ca.1817. image courtesy of www.bbc.co.uk
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Landscape, Storm, ca.1817. image courtesy of http://www.bbc.co.uk

Artist Joseph Wright’s dramatic painting Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, circa 1766, renders fantasy, dreams, and Surrealism. Wright captures nature’s dominating power on canvas, the human presence in Landscape, Storm is both diminutive and barely discernible; its appeal as a reminder to what is mortal in us is essential in life’s temporality. Clouds are signs of motion and metaphors of instability.

Joseph Wright, Vesuvius in Eruption with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, ca.1776-80. image courtesy of www.tate.uk.org
Joseph Wright, Vesuvius in Eruption with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, ca.1776-80.
image courtesy of http://www.tate.uk.org

Wright’s painting brings to my mind a work by Ken Fandell, a contemporary artist who merges science and art in unsettling illusions, Days and Nights, Dawns and Dusks, North and South, East and West, Mine and Yours, 2008. It is dizzying to look upon it, similarly vertiginous as gazing up at a Tiepolo ceiling. Like Constable, Fandell’s sky photos began as a simple exercise in photographing, transforming into a visual diaristic demarcation of time, and evolved into a Surrealistic, mesmerizing, disorientating collage of the sky from hundreds of PhotoShopped digital frames.

image courtesy of www.tonywightgallery.com
image courtesy of http://www.tonywightgallery.com

Clouds have been muses for inspiration to poets, painters, and great philosophers throughout the ages. Several artists in visual and literary form, before and since the 18th century, including Milton, Thoreau, Whitman, and also Shakespeare pondered, studied, and attempted to capture form from the clouds pregnant with perpetual change.

In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, after Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium and nearing his death, says to Eros:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;

A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,

A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,

A forked mountain, or blue promontory

With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,

And mock our eyes with air.

Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra (IV, xii, 2-7)

Arousing visions of Eros, The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the Indian ink, watercolor, and gold drawing Andhrayaki Ragini: Folio from a ragamala series (Garland of Musical Modes) ca. 1710. with amorous illumination.  “Within the palace interior a lady reclines on her bed, restlessly pulling her hair in frustration at the absence of her lover. Her maids are outside, sheltering themselves with their saris from a great thunderstorm that fills the sky. The dark swirling clouds are riven by bolts of lightening. The drama of the storm serves as a metaphor for the turmoil of love.”

image courtesy of www.metmuseum.org
image courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

I am continually guided by words from Henry David Thoreau. In an excerpt from his journal, dated 01-June-1852 he expressively contemplates the evening’s transience form…

“The sounds I hear by the bridge: the midsummer frog (I think it is not the toad), the nighthawk, crickets, the peetweet (it is early), the hum of the for-bugs, and the whip-poor-will. The boys are coming home from fishing, for the river is down at last. The moving clouds are the drama of the moonlight nights, and the never-failing entertainment of the nightly travelers. You can never foretell the fate of the moon,-whether she will prevail over or be obscured by the clouds half an hour hence. The traveler’s sympathy with the moon makes the drama of the shifting clouds interesting. The fate of the moon will disappoint all expectations. Her own light creates shadows in the coming (advancing) clouds, and exaggerates her destiny. I do not perceive much warmth in the rocks.”

Amongst the many exaltations to honor mood forming clouds, I must include John Milton who coined the phrase ‘silver lining’ in Comus (A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634).

I see ye visibly, and now believe

That he, the Supreme Good, to whom all things ill

Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,

Would send a glistening guardian, if need were

To keep my life and honor unassailed.

Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud

Turn forth her silver lining on the night?

I did not err; there does a sable cloud

Turn forth her silver lining on the night,

And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.

Thus, I know why I am summoned by the clouds-I believe in silver linings.

drama of the moonlit cloud over a St. Lucia night
drama of the moonlit cloud over a St. Lucia night