House sitting outside the loop while friends visit Dallas this weekend. I’m struck by this line of gargantuan utility towers marching down the center of the easement behind the property. Photo taken just before sunrise and given some filter whammy for a kind of Hockneyesque look.
I love the idea that abstract art is a kind of joke in the same way that a Zen koan is a joke: you project your expectations of the familiar onto a new object and it throws it all right back in your face. This is not a thing made to look at, especially, but a thing to make you ask, “what is actually happening when I look at things?” Confounded by the lack of a subject our habits direct us to find one anyway, so people might say, “it looks like a such-and-such.” Like finding faces in clouds.
Much of Buddhist mind training centers on destabilizing this habit of clinging always to the conceptual. When you understand this, the entire facade of Modernism comes home like a punchline and then you can have a good laugh. Or you could try to sound smart and cook up some interpretation of what you think the artist is trying to say.
Photo (CC BY-SA) 2021. Wood scraps staged temporarily for the photo, with further graphic effects.
Captivated by the imagery produced in sand by the wind and water I decided to curate a little show of its work. Water or air moving over loose sand will produce a matrix of interlocking dune forms reminiscent of the cords of gray matter on the exterior of a brain. Dappling from raindrops adds texture to the mix. Some of these are combinations of all three effects. The photo captions serve as titles and attempt to gather loosely into a poem.
Cropped and minimally edited photos of Gulf Coast beach sand made with a Galaxy S9 over several days. (CC) 2021
An amortization as periodic table as a protractor stabbing pinholes in the charts of a then comes wonder These are the geometries of heaven the wavelengths of moonlight The scholar studies it, a merchant ponders its returns, a poet lurks in its blue shadows, scribbling charcoal rubbings from the reliefs These are the trade guilds of heaven the arbiters of moonlight What seeing saw, the feelings felt are the joins and fittings where everything that comes together in congregation, parts
(Graphic: Selectively tinted photograph of temporarily arranged steel scraps.)
An abstract painting
looked at my kid
and said, “I could do that.”
The conscious mind is trained by nature to seize upon the world and make sense of it. Alas, poor conscious mind!
An Abstract Expressionist spun her palette on a lazy Susan in the dark, like the chamber of a revolver in a game of Russian roulette. It spins and slows to a halt and she begins work. She jabs at the hapless canvas in knowing ignorance of the colors and deliberate non-concern for the emerging abstract forms. The close air sustains the poisonous cadmium vapors and smell of linseed oil. The blackness of the studio like pitch, a dead end in an abandoned coal mine. She executes the work in total darkness.
The painting completed, unseen even by its creator, is quickly sealed in a steel box welded shut. Whisked away to a deep sea fishing charter, it is motored out to sea and hoisted overboard, deposited in the Atlantic by an uncredited boat captain. It makes an ominous sploosh in the salty waves, which is recorded in digital audio for the exhibition, and disappears into the murky depths, bye bye. Fare well, unseen painting! Godspeed!
Take this image for no one’s eye
And stick it where the paint don’t dry
On opening night of the exhibition, the sploosh recording is looped in a darkened, empty room. The guests are asked to stop sipping their wine for a moment and imagine what the painting looks like. An explosion of faux-abstract imagery mushrooms up from the collective unconscious, a glorious, swirling mess of non-objective visions mixing with the ambient sounds of cleared throats and cocktail chatter. The critics bubble over with enthusiastic reviews. The conundrum of the unknown as a medium of expression: the mind is the commodity! It helps to be in the know on these matters, one supposes.
Time passes. Things are forgotten. Fare well, time! Godspeed, forgotten things!
At the retrospective decades later, a well trained docent at the MOMA will explain it all to a bedazzled couple from Topeka while the subtle energy waves from the artist’s original thoughts continue to propagate out into the blackness of outer space, bye bye. Fare well, original thoughts! Godspeed, conceptual art!
This bit originally appeared here September 3, 2016
He was born as the Light and the Way
So let’s honor His birthday, okay?
Return us tomorrow
To violence and sorrow
If we must, but for now let us pray
Image: wikimedia – The Birth, by Paul Gauguin
(first posted here December 25th, 2017)
A thing of beauty
is a joy for a
if you act now.
(another, lesser known, John Keats)
that still life painting
in the hallway irks me a little
with its confidence, its sense
of fulfillment, its dubious claim
that things can outrun the madness
and simply come to rest
on the wall next to the thermostat
the attic folding-stairs pull cord
dangles before it, a record of
movements court-martialed to a halt
illumination caught in the act
all brushed to a standstill, aloof
colors like subway strangers, everything
composed with a brushy carelessness
fronting a thumb-bumbled whimsy
of basket spills, lemons, tangerines
rolling all over the place, though somehow
settling to, actors in their places
staged in a frame, of the golden ratio
like a postcard from your cultured aunt
who’s accidents, even, seem a little elegant
The first six lines are lifted (and modified) from my piece ‘it’s still here’.
a truly original work
would not be recognized as art
and language cannot begin to function
without tapping the manifold intents
of its every instance
from the first lowbrow grunt
to the last ephemeral buzzword
creation implies something springing from nothing
a nonstarter, a hat trick beyond
the scope of even a heavenly godcraft
The stupider it looks, the more important it probably is.
—J. R. “Bob” Dobbs