Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cute Little Studio Mousey

Let me tell you something that will add absolutely nothing to your understanding of art. For some years now, my studio has had a cute little studio mousey. I can often hear him scuttling about in the walls, and sometimes he scampers across my line of sight.

I don't have anything against disease-carrying vermin if they're cute enough. But there are two downsides to my cute little studio mousey: he leaves little mouse poops everywhere, and also, mice are known to gnaw (style guide: lice chew, rodents gnaw) their way through things like, you know, canvas.

My cute little studio mousey has a distinctly cavalier attitude toward the various anti-mouse measures the building's exterminator has taken, and my landlord thinks that I am frankly being a hysterical sissy about the whole thing.

The other day, my ever-more-aggressive studio mousey hung out long enough for me to finally get a picture of him:

I don't know what his deal is. I think he's drunk with power. For his next stunt, he climbed the cloth hanging from the top edge of my studio window. That edge is maybe eight feet above the floor. As Hubris invokes Nemesis, so my cute little studio mousey soon fell from a prideful height, stunning his rodent ass long enough for me to slap a cup down on top of him.

This, he did not like.

Then I slid a piece of board under the cup edge and flipped the entire apparatus upside down. Thus I had myself a cup of mouse. Unsatisfied with the aesthetics of this arrangement, I effected a transfer of my extremely-pissed-off studio mousey to one of the many gelato jars I keep around the studio for miscellaneous holding tasks:

You don't have to go home, cute little studio mousey, but you can't stay here.

At this point, I considered drilling a couple holes in the top of this deal and trying to keep my mousey as a pet. But I thought this was overall an impractical idea. I was also by no means going to kill the little bastard. So that left taking him outside and dumping him off somewhere away from my studio building. Here, we head down the stairs:

I will confess that at this point, I began to feel that searing pity which animates Aeschylus' depiction of his own enemies, the Persians, in his dramatic account of their defeat at Salamis:

Ah me, how sudden have the storms of Fate,
Beyond all thought, all apprehension, burst
On my devoted head! O Fortune, Fortune!
With what relentless fury hath thy hand
Hurl'd desolation on the Persian race!
Woe unsupportable! The torturing thought
Of our lost youth comes rushing on my mind,
And sinks me to the ground. O Jove, that I
Had died with those brave men that died in fight!

Consider again my cute little studio mousey, captured, cut off, cast out from familiar comforts. He journeys toward a strange land whence no mouse hath returned. Is there not something tragic to his aspect here, to that terror which freezes his limbs in iron tension as alien vistas scroll past his stricken gaze?

I could scarcely bring myself to enforce so harsh an exile on him.

And yet, I did.

I took him outside, showing him off to Jared, the printmaker, who was in front of the building, enjoying a cigarette and talking on the phone. My mouse-in-Talenti-jar routine was enough to throw him off his conversational rhythm. Then I went down the block, searching for some likely spot. I couldn't very well leave him in front of a business or home. At last, I found a building under construction, with a grassy lot next door. In front of the lot, a fence, and in front of the fence, an apple. Beside the apple, a foundation with lots of holes in it. Surely this should be acceptable? I unscrewed the lid and dumped out my little friend.

He sat there a little while, blank and overwhelmed; and then, as living things do, he began to take stock of his situation and figure out the angles. Thus my cute little studio mousey embarked on his new life. I wish him well.

Be free, cute little studio mousey! Be free!

Returning to my work in the studio, I was met with a silence. At first this silence felt blessed, but soon it came to feel melancholy. There were no scuttles or thumps. There was no companionship. I began to regret my rash decision. I went on considering the right and the wrong of it for a quarter of an hour or more.

Then another motherfucking mouse streaked across my floor like he was a naked dude and this was Wimbledon.

Letters in the Alphabet of Joy

Ali Cavanaugh
solo exhibit, "Mapping an Odyssey"
opening (opened) at Robert Lange Studios September 6th
details at bottom

Many years ago, my friend Julia - not you, Julia, another one, all my friends are Julias - expressed skepticism at the concept of happiness. Manageable, she thought, was about as good as can be expected. I differed. I said that I had been happy. She asked when. I recalled some occasions as recently as the age of twelve. She scoffed and said this didn't count, any fool can be happy before puberty.

This Julia had somewhat of a point, and happiness for me and many people I know is intimately linked with the textures of childhood. But I disagree to this day with Julia regarding the feasibility of happiness in adulthood. I still believe in it.

Happiness gets short shrift in art. There are two main problems with it. One is a category error. Because happiness flies, people think it is weightless. This compares unfavorably with the manifest massiveness of tragedy. The other problem is that happiness is simply difficult to portray or demonstrate. In art, certain things are easy to pull off, and others are hard. Happiness is hard.

For all that, some of the most famous and popular art is happy art, especially in music. The Beatles wrote some very happy songs. My favorites in the happy category are "Across the Universe" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." You, of course, may favor others. Of some interest here is the formal rigor of Beatles music, a characteristic they share with the other great maker of happy music, J. S. Bach. What could be righter with the world than "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" or "Wachet auf"?

What do we learn from the formal sophistication of Bach and the Beatles, and our sense of laughing rightness in the experience of their work? I think it is this - that their brand of happiness is built up from a substrate of reason, of a very profoundly felt revelation that the universe is a universe of sense and order, and that we humans are up to the task of comprehending this sense, and finding that we have a place in it, and thus are made not only for celebrating the glory of things, but contributing to it too. This intuition of brightly-colored, decipherable promise is natural to children, and persists into adulthood when luck and force of will play their parts.

All this helps to explain the difficulty with depicting happiness, or at least this kind of happiness, in art. Not only is it a rare emotion, but the sensibility to support it is intellectually and aesthetically demanding. This brings us to Ali Cavanaugh and her watercolors.

Cavanaugh has spent years painstakingly compiling the visual components of happiness, much as the composers of happy music have sought ratios and structures to express their vision. Most of the tools Cavanaugh discovered are on view in the work she has made for her solo exhibit at Robert Lange Studios. Let me lead you through a few of these letters in her alphabet of joy:

Summer, Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x 20", watercolor on clay, 2013


Here we have blue skies and angled sunlight. Human beings take joy in seeing, and these weather conditions promote clarity of sight. Everything stands out sharply. We have an impression of great contrast, and yet deep darkness cannot be found. Everything seems to swim in light. Colors are vivid, edges are crisp, the forms of all things are distinct. I should point out here that Cavanaugh has innovated a technique of painting her watercolors onto specially prepared clay surfaces. This is not so unusual in art - silverpoint is often done on clay as well. The clay allows her to maintain both sharpness and luminosity. It makes her watercolors glow like stained glass.

Press On, Ali Cavanaugh, 15"x22", watercolor on clay, 2013


Here Cavanaugh explores another visual counterpart and promoter of happiness: wind in long hair. There are a few things about wind in long hair which we are virtually hard-wired to respond to with happiness: 1. We enjoy the touch on our skin of wind of a strength sufficient to cause the curves Cavanaugh shows. It is not an overstrong wind, but a refreshing one. It has risen suddenly, a welcome surprise. 2. We like the invisible to be made visible. It augments our sense of sense, that things can be understood. The hair embodies the wind in a visible medium. 3. The hair in the wind is an instance of visualized nonlinear dynamics. We are programmed to be delighted by visualized nonlinear dynamics. Just try stirring a little cream into your coffee. 4. These curves in the hair are in themselves beautiful curves. They partake of formal beauty. Formal beauty makes us happy. Art nouveau gets a lot of mileage out of this little quirk in our brains. 5. Hair that can take on such curves is healthy hair - young hair. We want to touch this hair, and we are gladdened at the sight of a person who has such hair.

Transfiguration II, Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x38", watercolor on clay, 2013


In general, Cavanaugh's subjects are slim-limbed young women with their faces obscured or turned away from the viewer. Here too the "of course"-ness of happiness takes over: of course Cavanaugh would take young women as her subject, and of course she would hide their faces. They are as prone to flight as shore-birds. They embody health and vigor. Cavanaugh's chaste eye invites us to be cheered by her figures, and to identify with them.

Attempt, Ali Cavanaugh, 11"x14", watercolor on clay, 2013


Cavanaugh paints a lot of paintings of her youths wearing long patterned socks on their arms. This was some kind of stroke of inspiration she had years ago. The working of our visual system is such that we enjoy constructing form from the mapping of patterns over the surfaces of three-dimensional objects. That's why you get such a kick out of finding the Dalmatian in the field of dots. Evolution has shaped us to get a little neurochemical reward of some sort for successfully picking out the latent object half-hidden in the visual field. I assume it has to do with striped grassland predators. Cavanaugh has found this button in our brains and never stops mashing it.

A Boat For You Within My Arms, Ali Cavanaugh, 30"x30", watercolor on clay, 2008 
(not included in the exhibit)


Cavanaugh is in no way above taking advantage of the human taste for bright happy colors, and lots of them. That's why she worked out her esoteric medium of watercolor on clay. But notice she doesn't just splash her colors all over the place. When she is not stimulating our form-detection apparatus with pleasingly high-contrast monochrome contour lines, she stimulates it with carefully defined colored patches. Who can resist such a thing? She's playing around with the fundamental building blocks of visual cognition: edge, contrast, color. These elements at the amplified levels Cavanaugh invokes are the means by which children learn to process sight. We are helpless not to love solving Cavanaugh's little puzzles made out of such delicious parts.

Over, Ali Cavanaugh, 12"x12", watercolor on clay, 2013


We love translucent and transparent things, nearly as much as we love sparkly things. Figuring out what we are looking at delights us: the outline of the translucent enclosing object, the outline of the opaque interior object, the shadow of the interior object on the near side of the enclosing object, and the surface textures of the enclosing object - all visible in this painting - are things which we love to separate and comprehend. I don't know why.

Banded, Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x38", watercolor on clay, 2013


There is a whole body of speculation on why we are so attracted to symmetry, and this speculation applies to structure in music as much as it does in visual art. I personally think it is linked to the symmetry of our own bodies and that of most of the animals and plants we normally contend with. Bilateral symmetries tell us that all is well. Seeing a thing on one side, we seek its double on the other side. Finding it, we know an organism is both natural and healthy. We feel a horror at deep asymmetries, but we get a little thrill out of slight asymmetries. Those are natural too - perfect symmetry is uncanny and unnatural. Cavanaugh takes advantage of our symmetry-seeking habits in her work, calibrating the irregularities she introduces to maximize their rewards.

Adapt, Ali Cavanaugh, 30"x30", watercolor on clay, 2013


The semaphore-like intentionality of the arms in Cavanaugh's work suggests to us that her figures are speaking. They are signing. They are making that link from the physical to the mental which is most elemental to us as symbol-making animals. Communication through symbols affirms to us that we share the palpable universe with souls like ourselves. It raises us from a state of merely sensual reward to one of companionship and transcendence. Without this linguistic element, Cavanaugh's work would celebrate the senses and their pleasures alone; it would not answer to what animates us socially. With the linguistic element, she makes her figures, and us, not alone. She sketches out the basics of humanity. Her model is not complete, but her work is not meant to be all things. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Deafen, Ali Cavanaugh, 8"x8", watercolor on clay, 2013


Her work depends on focus. It's not like other artists haven't figured out the elements we've been considering, and used it in their own work. Many of these tools are standard; none is new. But Cavanaugh uses forcible exclusion to focus on what she keeps. Like Kubrick, she puts only the relevant items into her frame, and excises everything else, leaving a stark white. The white tells us about the intentionality of those elements which are present. It is like the rules in the notebook a child uses to practice letters. The blankness tells you where the letters stop. It defines what is inside the lines. What is inside the lines is the alphabet of joy.

As I said before, there are two problems with happiness in art. The second is the difficulty of manufacturing it: both of having the feeling, and of meeting the high demands of its originating factors. I've taken the trouble to spell out exactly what I am seeing in Cavanaugh's art to demonstrate what I mean about that difficulty, and how one artist meets it by refining and overlaying structure upon structure. The first problem remains the category error, the confusion of that which flies with that which is massless. If you disagree, I don't think I can convince you of my point here, but I can elaborate a bit on what I believe.

I believe that happiness is real, and that it is important. In the units of measure of the soul, there is nothing so heavy as happiness. Art educates. Tragic art teaches us how to deal with life, which is similarly tragic. But happy art, which is extraordinarily rare, also teaches us how to deal with life, because life is happy as well. Cavanaugh's jewel-like work, so smiling and colorful and bright, is terribly important. She preserved her primal sense of joy, and as an adult, discovered a language to convey it. The pressures of living tend to make us forget her brand of happiness, which is our brand as well. She returns it to us. This is so unbelievably, casually generous.


All images courtesy of the artist.

Ali Cavanaugh
Mapping an Odyssey
Robert Lange Studios
2 Queen Street, Charleston SC, 29401, 843-805-8052
opening September 6th, 5 p.m.-8 p.m.
in conjunction with the nationwide Women Painting Women exhibitions (more here)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Prairie Theology

You may have noticed I've been a little away lately. I've certainly been writing, but I had an avalanche of show reviews I needed to get written up for Huffington - shows of work I was very excited about, and wanted to share from their tall platform. I'm going to start posting those reviews here, and also try to settle down and provide some writing specifically for this blog. My schedule is a-jumble and my mind a-tizzy, and I apologize for the continuing halting pace of posting.


Prairie Theology: Jonathan Soard at the Swope Art Museum

We in the West are inheritors of a compelling idea: that there is a world of matter, and looming over it a world of spirit. The relation between these two worlds is complex and dynamic. We ourselves are the offspring of both worlds, and one story of our lives is the story of our struggle with this dual nature. John describes Jesus in terms of this idea: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." (1:14, NIV) John's description applies to all humanity: spirit incarnated in clay.

I am reminded of this Western motif when considering the work in painter Jonathan Soard's solo exhibition Between Heaven and Earth: Inspirations, on show at the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, starting September 6th.

Soard has participated, for much of his life as an artist, in the carnal aspect of the Western dualism (carnis - flesh); he was a materialist, and not only a materialist, but a sensualist. He had a horror of the vacuum, filling the spaces of his works with the same marks he used to represent bodies:

Figure, Flesh, Facing Left, encaustic on Arches cover, black, 60"x40", 2009

This craving for flesh became, at its most intense, a craving for meat (carnis - meat). He recognized that the formal unity and spiritual connotation of the human body was insufficient for the frenzy of his desire to possess, and turned to cuts of meat:

Slaughtered Lamb, gouache on Arches cover, black, 60"x40", 2009

When meat itself became insufficient for the categorical nature of his desire, he innovated a kind of hideous deconstruction, a continuous and infinitely extensible epitome of skinned flesh. Specific anatomical forms appeared in this flesh, and yet the flesh itself was without form and without bound. It was a filling of all conceivable volume with utter meat:

Ventricle, oil on canvas, 20"x20", 2012

It appeared that Soard was seeking to isolate and expose the virus of desire, to uncover the inhumanity of its real focus.

But his work in meat does not answer to this drive alone. Soard's relationship with meat is ambivalent. A gay man entering his sixties, he was an adult in the 1980's. He saw his community devastated by AIDS. A caretaker by nature, he witnessed the horrific decline and death of many of the people he loved most.

For a long time, he sought the solution to his desires and his griefs alike in the concept of carnis. His materialism dictated this strategy: the glories and the sorrows of the flesh begin and end in the meat.

Advancing age, however, has clarified some things for him. It has loosened his desires, allowing him to think around and outside of them. And it has given him the perspective to recognize some of his materialist passion: it is not due only to his essential character. It also responds to his Southern Baptist upbringing, expressing a decades-long rebellion against its model of spirituality.

This broadened perspective frees him from his dogmatic materialism. In composing himself, he can now choose from a broader range of ingredients.  His freedom allows him to depict a new quantity: air, space, light - all the immaterial things, the things between, which his horror vacui denied him before.

Prairie Study (Heaven and Earth), gouache on black paper, 11"x30", 2012 
(This and all the paintings that follow are included in the Swope Art Museum exhibition.)

Alongside the innovation of space to breathe in his work, Soard's growth has allowed him to return as an artist to the landscape he fled as a youth: the Indiana prairie.

Prairie Power Plant #9, oil on canvas, 12"x24", 2013

He identifies the many miseries of his childhood, and sets them down; they are completed. He accepts his deep bond with the land he came from. Eyes opened, he lays hands on a tool as powerful as any he has yet discovered: the use of his home as a lens through which to investigate the nature of things. If we resonate most deeply with our homes, then naturally it is through our homes we can best learn what the world is. But we can only look through our homes, and not at them, when we have gone away and become free, as Soard has become free.

When he returns from New York to forgiven Indiana, what does he see?

Prairie Power Plant Study #14, oil on canvas, 12"x24", 2012 (collection of Dixie Coates Beckham)

He sees his familiar carnis as part of a greater world. The swirling meat becomes the land, and the sky the illimitable spirit. This is a prairie theology, subject to that prairie dread expressed by Kathleen Massara in her essay "Greater Omaha":

" grow up in Omaha is an exercise in confronting the void. The Void should be capitalized, though, because it is a big deal. ... In the winter, when the surrounding farmland lies fallow, the only thing in your rearview mirror will be sky—ominous, gray-streaked winter sky with giant clouds hanging low. It reminds you of your insignificance..."

She seems to me to say here that the mere presence of the spirit is not a solution to the problems of the flesh. The spirit is an obliterating presence, variable and cold, illegible and vast. Prairie theology finds consolation neither in the flesh nor the spirit. Where can the midwesterner turn for solace?

Massara continues:

"In the summer, when corn and wheat are harvested, all you have are land and sky, with an oddly quaint city in between."

For her, the endless land and sky are punctuated and made bearable by the city. For Soard it is a different thing of man, bridging land and sky:  the smokestack of the power plant. Each of his Indiana landscapes has one, just as the view from his childhood backyard was dominated by a power plant smokestack. In a materialist sense, he identifies the smokestack as a penis and its steam as semen. But he is not bound by his materialism any longer. He does see humanity now as both spirit and flesh, and the smokestack as having the same character. It too is a link between matter and spirit, a locus of the human struggle toward meaning. The smokestack is a mighty pen, and its steam a broad "I am" inscribed on the page of the world:

Prairie Power Plant, Moon View, oil on canvas, 20"x20", 2013

Soard finds himself transformed from a sensualist into a humanist. It is the smokestacks which anchor and focus the world, and the smokestacks are the works of human beings.

For all the harshness of this stark theology, it offers consolation. In a doctrine of unified self-awareness, of work and struggle, and of turning to one another as like turns to like, it offers an escape not only from the squalid corruptibility of the flesh, but from the overbearing infinity of the spirit. I think that in thinking over Soard's work, we can puzzle out the existential roots - or at least the existential counterpart - of the famous decency and taciturn humility of the Midwestern character.


Between Heaven and Earth: Inspirations
Jonathan Soard, part one of a two-part exhibition
September 6 - October 19, 2013 (OK, I'm reposting this a little late - but there's a part II exhibit you can still go to!)
Swope Art Museum
25 South 7th Street, Terre Haute, IN 47807
(812) 238-1676
All images courtesy of the artist.