Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Adventure #8: "Sands Through Doorways . . ."

Sands Through Doorways
"Sands Through Doorways," Acrylic on Canvas 20" x 20"
My most recent painting, "Sands Through Doorways. . ., " was intended as a Christmas gift, but I was not able to imagine the sand until a few days ago and so couldn't deliver it. Now that reason for the gift is gone, and the painting has taken on a symbolic function at once revealing and heartbreaking.1 After so many months staring at the canvas on the easel next to my kitchen table, I finally figured out how to adjust the sand. Previously, I had used too many colors in the sand, which offered no sense of dimension. Also, I found that the acrylics were too flat; therefore, I used modeling paste to give more weight to the paint, which allowed me to sculpt the sand rather than merely paint it. That seemed to help me feel the dimensions, applying hues to them in several passes, an approach that gave the image some movement.2
The painting's symbolic meaning emerge only while having a beer with a friend during a trip I took to Montreal, a trip that was both escape and medicine. While I watched the head on the imperial stout flutter indecisively, my friend described the recent collapse of his relationship. A while back, my own relationship, which I had hoped would last forever, had tumbled off the steps and into the gutter, and his observations echoed roughly some of my own experiences. I showed him the painting I had finished sometime afterward, and he said, "Yes, that is my relationship."
"The sand is like those minuscule, often unconscious, acts of meanness and viscous disregard that over time tear down the edifice," he said, beer to mouth, knuckle knocking against the brass-topped table. "And the destruction only becomes clear once the structure is no longer of use, its original purpose made defunct." He seemed too certain, full of that early alcoholic euphoria that characterizes the conversation in so many college pubs: wisdom built on uncertainty and the convenience of limited consequence.
"All those wants and needs developed into a personal philosophy that is so hard on relationships. My ex.," he said moving his hands to his sideburns, "was told to assert what she wanted and do so honestly (and it's assumed only her version of the truth mattered). On the face of it that advice seems sound, but it sets up a difficult dynamic in the hands of one who takes it too literally or abdicates her reason for that of the professional, who works for you so does not necessarily have any broader interests in mind. If only one is allowed to express her wants and needs then other is forced, if he wants the relationship to continue, to respond with 'I will provide.' I guess this dynamic can work, it probably has forever, but it seems as though it might cause the couple to travel on parallel, and often diverging tracts that may never converge, without some possibly counter-productive incentive to motivate a merger. Often this incentive is some version of co-dependence, which can be harmful to the identities of those involved."
He took a deep breath, heated up. "It seems better to ask 'what do we need and what do we want?' These questions might lead to building a life together, especially for older couples, who did not have the benefit of growing together both personally and professionally while building their relationship." He stopped and drank, taking a heavy pull from his beer. That last thought increased his sense of hope, it would work wouldn't it if she would just hear it, but that hope was dashed against his recollection of her last words: "I've been sad, but also happy, relieved, hopeful, and peaceful." If the preponderance of synonyms for happy indicate what they seem, then she is 80% happier without him (4 parts to 5). He teetered for a moment, set his beer down and went quiet.
I understood what my friend saw in the painting, but the painting also seemed to suggest that, even though the original function of the edifice is entirely destroyed, beauty remains, perhaps a beauty even more intense than that possessed by the original structure. However, to populate this structure, to make it meaningful, takes great courage, maybe a sense of joy in the sloppiness of life and its possibilities, or a sense of humor to take the poison out of pedantry and self-help that can deform otherwise evolving relationships. Yet those who can see this damage as transformative and embrace the new relationship it opens up--such as one based on mutual discovery and the acceptance of one's quirks and those human flaws that make him unique and (actually) lovable--might learn to live and love beyond individual wants and needs and perhaps discover a joy unforeseen by psychologists and talk show hosts.
1. If anyone would like this painting, let me know (free of course). This is probably one that I shouldn't keep.
2. This title reminds me of the catch phrase, "Like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives," that played somewhere behind my early childhood. And I recall watching it with my sisters with a some interest for some amount of time. I can't recall why I watched it, what prepubescent struggles I was facing that found some expression there.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Breakfast II

August 25, 2013

At the end of a meal in a Pakistani Restaurant in Washington, D.C. with two of my oldest friends, our server flipped my empty coffee cup over to coax impressions of my future from the lingering grounds. When she returned a few minutes later and righted the cup, I saw that the dark flecks rose up the side of the cup in a steep parabola from a fecund layer at the bottom, similar to the shadow water might cast when interrupted by a drop. Turning the cup to catch the dim house lights, the server claimed that she saw “a wolf; look here,” she pointed, “a wolf’s ears and teeth, under this, which might be the moon.” Satisfied with her performance, she set the cup down and brought us our check
Coffee on Canvas Board

I had little doubt that her theatrics were intended to encourage a friendly tip from one as clearly parsimonious as I, and maybe titillate us with the hint of a Roma mysticism carried quietly from the high, mountain passes of human memory where time intersects both the sky and the liminality of political hegemony—India melting like wet tea into the guise of Pakistan and Pakistan wafting through colored cornmeal into the tint of India. The difference, or the bhedabhav, is revealed in subtle inflections that define the slightest lilt in ancient traditions, traditions that have become the foundation for decades of divisiveness. And such difference, in the case of the server’s decision to read my future in the wet, shattered beans, creates the tension—the cognitive dissonance—out of which meaning is made: my inner sense has only a fleeting relationship to the sense others have of me and a purely mystico-mathematical relationship to the emotional nexus that will define my future consciousness.  Without wading too deeply into this conundrum, our constant effort to define ourselves into a relation with reality and some comforting truth is exhausting and likely one of the main reasons our brains, by simply being “turned on,” use so many calories.

While I was struck by the good nature of our server’s performance, I was also drawn to her impulse , which I assume rumbles around in most of us, to pull meaning from the apparently meaningless, find purpose in the non-mimetic, and joy in the wreckage of social associations. The open field engages the imagination, having no clear boundary or imposed framework to either confuse or impose. Our reaction to the blank page or empty canvas is in part a response to our need to stifle the anxiety such uncertainty can cause.[1] In negotiation the discomfort caused by this unresolved tension, we construct boundaries complete with border guards and related defense mechanisms creating a region that we can reasonably control. Few, if we are honest, can abide what Keats referred to as the “negative capability,” which in general denotes an ability to accept and appreciate uncertainty without always, as he says, “reaching after fact and reason.” This capability is illustrated in a child’s behavior, as she transforms her stuffed animals into a chorus participating in her performance or draws a scene in which she freely associating disparate images, creating, for her at least, a coherent narrative. She simply does not feel compelled to explain her story in what adults assume are reasonable terms.  

In an effort to open the field and engage my imagination, and perhaps uncover the insight reflected in a child’s play, I took the coffee grounds remaining at the bottom of my French press and dumped them on a canvas board. After letting the mess dry (see figure 1), I used chalk pastels to encourage an image from the (let’s call it) cosmic accident (see figure 2).

As one of my employees noted, the raw grounds resemble fallopian tubes with the offal attached to them. Unlike her, my initial impression was that the dollop resembled a chain of islands with a series of coves and a boundary of coral reefs. The problem with these initial impressions is that they are attempts to create meaning, to make sense out of the senseless. What I sought, however, in the pastel reconstruction of the image was to innervate, if you will, the meaninglessness of the image. Yet what some claim when viewing modernist paintings, such as cubist works, might relate here: colors and shapes are words that when combined create a discernible syntax, even if that syntax does not describe an actual image. Because of this syntax, the painting can be read, deconstructed, and enjoyed as a cultural artifact. However, that reading experience might be analogous to the feeling one has reading Gertrude Stein, who believed words were objects and need not convey conventional meaning to remain meaning-ful. Her book Tender Buttons, a collection of prose pieces divided into “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms,” illustrates her cubist sensibility: 

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading. 

Stein’s “Carafe” cannot, or probably should not, be explained, but it can be interpreted, just as a cubist painting can. The distinction relates to that Bruno Latour makes in his analysis of how we might “reassemble the social.” In his explanation, he claims that the term “social” loses its usefulness when it becomes an institution use to identify static relationships. For example, for centuries the idea of the family has remained seeming static; however, upon closer observation, we see that the concept has always been in flux. Everyone who cares enough to think about this shrugs at this obvious observation. Yet what it reveals is that each time we identify a social category we “always already” know the category contains no content, has no source. For this reason, Latour argues that it is better to forgo this misguided process and examine social structures as a set of shifting negations conducted in time and space, which may or may not designate a social structure.
I understand the distinction between an explanation and an interpretation in similar terms. An explanation often relies on an established understanding. A family is a “family” because it fits a predetermined framework that object social meaning. Conversely, an interpretation requires one to draw connections between moments in experience. In this case, the family is defined by those moments that can be connected, and reconnected, to create the object, really a cubist image, that transforms over time. The process of transformation is, in my way of thinking, how the social Latour discusses related to the traditions, to be brief, that help define a culture.  In Stein’s case, then, Tender Buttons frustrates assertions about meaning yet remains emotionally satisfying. In particular, as you read “Carafe” certain phrases erupt from the text, such as “a system to pointing” or “a single hurt color,” conveying the potentiality of experience and the emotional realities associated with it.  In other words, readers can suspend Stein’s phrases and observe them as we might an experience, becoming meaningful as we associate them with our own patterns of experience. These phrases are objects, satisfying in their own materiality, which seems more organic because the meaning is not and need not be settled.

Pastel and Coffee PaintingIn creating the pastel, I sought to make associations, denying the urge to make something, allowing one impression to carry me from line to shape with the hope that I might feel something about the piece when finished. However, unlike mere decorative art, circles and squares used to supplement the color of furniture and upholstery, I wanted to encourage the hybrid, pulling something from the world, the coffee grounds, and using their application in space to drive the creation of an image that is not, necessarily, purposeful or associative.

I found the result, while no doubt amateurish, satisfying. Standing it on the edge of my kitchen table, some tableau in that, I feel a tension in the relation of complementing hues and butting shapes. The inherent motion suggests a process as one instance of image, a circle or curve, engages with another. I am not sure about the overall effect of this beyond an apparent theme of engagement, which I think is encouraging. Examining the piece, I really have no desire to know it—the way one ex-girlfriend use to claim she “knew” Beethoven. The posturing toward sense is relieved and this piece can be as little or as much as my imagination or that of other viewers will allow.  The curiosity is that accepting this ambiguity actually reduces my anxiety; I am fine letting the work wander.

[1] If you teach, try this experiment. On the first day of class give every student a blank sheet of paper and tell them to write something, then either sit down or leave the room (you could also do the exercise with your students; however, part of the point of the exercise is to avoid providing an external framework). After 15 to 30 minutes return and ask the students to share what they wrote. You may find that many of the responses reflect expectations students have about higher education: they feel compelled to write something that sounds academic. Others, who have come to believe that education is some type of put-on, will dissent from what they perceive as the dominate ideology of the institution: “If you think I care about you or writing, let me show you that I don’t.” In these cases, I find it interesting to consider what the responses suggest about student interests. Thirdly, to succumb to that Western impulse for threes, students may respond to the open field aesthetically, addressing figuratively either of the other response. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Scholar's Dinner Speech--April 25, 2013

[I delivered this (5 minute) speech during the 2013 Husson University Scholar's Dinner. This dinner was organized to honor those seniors who had achieved a 3.6 or above grade point average. My aim, as expressed by the Provost, was to offer these students some thoughts on life after graduation.]

I realize that you will hear much about the importance of your education over the next few weeks. As is often the case, some of these assertions will sound familiar, drawn from an old tradition that includes such evocative statements as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar”: “books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst” (23). Indeed, given this history and enormity of such insights, speakers can claim only so much about how what you have learned will affect what you will do or who you will become.

I, for instance, remember nearly nothing from the events surrounding my undergraduate graduation. I couldn't tell you who spoke at what event or for that matter what was said about the importance of the years I had just spent in the classroom—though I never doubted that those years were important. As with many of you, my thoughts were elsewhere. During the run-up to graduation, my girlfriend asked me what I planned to do, and I actually said, “I would like to sit for a thousand years.” As you might imagine, she was not impressed, and now looking back the angst of that statement makes me laugh. Yet that assertion, if I take it seriously for a moment, articulated my implicit desire to find something to do, to construct out of the noise of my young life some purpose, which in the final wash is what our educations can help us do, and is what I would like to explore in these brief remarks.

Though we rarely consider this point, the purposes that shape our lives often emerge not from a will to succeed but from a sense of place, which through our experiences and education we pull from diffuse and sterile space. This idea might seem merely academic; yet the distinction between space and place points to the following observation: we draw from the generalities and abstractions of everyday life, such as going to work, shopping, or talking with friends, specific objects or impressions or realities that in being emotionally prescient give our lives meaning. Yi-Fu Tuan, a social geographer, describes the creation of such places, claiming that “all people undertake to change amorphous space into articulated geography” (83). Determining how these geographies are articulated and why that might matter is challenging? Michel De Certeau, a French social critic, argues that these geographies are created through the stories we share: “stories,” he claims, “traverse and organize places; they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them. They are spatial trajectories” (115). These stories are the stuff of reality, which is what De Certeau means by trajectories. Individually as well as collectively, these stories suggest paths through and relationships among the complexities of life, complexities that we navigate by developing and committing to a purpose.

We construct such purposes as we connect the objects–which include physical items, images, and associated impressions–into emotionally resonant narratives. For example, you will remember little of what I say this afternoon and that is to be expected. Unless we choose consciously to do so, we don’t record the ephemeral moments of our lives. Instead, these experiences become implanted as general impressions that invest a place with emotional as much as intellectual meaning. In the years to come, you might recall the feel of the seat, the perfume of the person beside you, the temperature of the room; or you might recall an image or phrase that links in surprising ways with what you are now thinking. These impressions become points of reference, moment of tension, that drive the narrative of your lives, and out of which the outlines of your identities emerge. These outlines shift as we gather experience, becoming the fabric of our ambition, the foundation of our purpose.

One instance from my own life is as follows: I recall walking into my grandmother’s barn when I was a teenager. My grandfather had built the barn in the 1930s and it had housed a milk cow, several pigs, a work bench, and a number of peculiar farming implements. I remembered examining these implements as my father told me stories about them. The seed planter used to plant corn, the scythe used to cut hay, or the blood stained block used to butcher chickens became invested with familial significance. Later in graduate school, my memory of these objects became redemptive, suggesting through my relationship to that larger history they a sense purpose. That purpose registered simply as the feeling that I could do something, that I was not, as we can all sometimes feel, irrelevant.

Embedded in the things of your life, your purpose will not just be anything, but will run deep, reverberating with the stories that will give your life meaning. You have and will continue to tell each other such stories. They resonate around kitchens, workplaces, and restaurants, they reverberate like strings, linking you to different people and perspectives, to a larger reality. In the end, it is this story that you will pass on and is what your education will help you build and revise and finally express. It is my hope that you will leave here inspired to continue your story and with enough courage to tell it. Thank you.