Kintsugi

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Sometimes we know who broke the bowl, the pot, the cup. Other times a guilty party is not readily identified, or it might be an inhuman force – time, changing political or social culture – that does it. What matters is, the piece is valuable and we wish to save it.

In Japan this is called kintsugi or kinsukuroi, where lacquer is mixed with powdered metal and used to repair broken pottery. The repair is not disguised, but emphasized; it relates to the philosophical idea (also Japanese) of wabi-sabi, which relates to accepting imperfection. It has been argued that sometimes the object becomes more beautiful for having been broken and repaired.

Sitting here today, I realized that that is my wish for the world: that when this is over, and we stand among the broken shards of our political system, government, the very ideas we hold about the world, that we get out our gold and silver, and start gluing the pieces back together. Some needed fixing before all this, and some were deliberately broken. It doesn’t matter. Let us fix them. Let the wounds show. Let them be beautiful and useful again.

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Shells and the journey

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Seashells. Photo by the author.

This blog has become rather intermittent lately, as I am preparing to move. It’s a big step, going from New England to the desert Southwest, but art is always in my mind, however many boxes my books, paintings, and whatnot might contain.

While looking around for the hundredth time to see what I could pack today, my eye fell on a pile of seashells atop a bookcase. Throughout the years my girlfriend and I have been together, we have lived in several different areas of the United States, but those locales can be defined by one word: coastal. Most were dominated by the presence of the sea, which has been important to us since our childhoods. Our California home was sandwiched between the ocean and the desert, and moving there and back again had helped give us a deep attraction to the desert landscape. Now, for the first time, we are moving out of sight of the sea, in favor of the desert environment.

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The beach at Napatree Point, Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Photo by Heather Hyland.

Slight pause here while I look (yet again) for a Rebecca Solnit quote about the ocean and the desert. It’s a marvelous quote, and if I was writing this for a paid platform I’d put everything on hold to find it. But this is a blog, and we’re packing, so you’ll have to imagine it.

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The San Rafael Plateau

I looked at these seashells, and my mind said, “those are desert colors.” I took the photo at top to illustrate the thought, with the idea of writing a quick post to remind my readers I’m still here – though, whenever you read this, “here” could mean a far different location.

Some deserts were once ocean floors, before the changing shape of the land raised them up or dried up the waters. Deserts and oceans share sand as a base material. (With no apologies to Anakin Skywalker, I like sand.) Shells out of water have a dry, matte look that reminds me of desert stones and the strata of cliff faces. The shells appear bleached by the sun. Their rounded edges could have been worn by wind or water, both of which shape land in similar ways. To put it in a religious context, you can see the hand of the same artist in both environments.

When I return to blogging regularly, in August or perhaps September, I will be in the desert, and will, I hope, have more to write on the subject.

Observations

I offer these few notes to remind the world I have not forgotten it. Whether it has forgotten me is a different matter, one I have little investment in. Posterity is fine to think about in an abstract way, but it is decided by others. Writers should lose no sleep worrying about what future generations will think.

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Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Ocean)” (1970). Courtesy of the Artist, Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Inc., Los Angeles

I presently live in the very southeast corner of Connecticut, cheek by jowl with the Rhode Island border. That’s not quite correct, as the border is the Pawcatuck River, a soothing vein which keeps cheek and jowl cool and separate. Although I am on the CT side, the water for our apartment is in the care of the Westerly (RI) Water Department. Their annual Water Quality Report came in the mail yesterday. It’s glossy, in color, and only the preponderance of text separates it from a tourist brochure.

Our water tastes good, and is fairly good for us, barring a couple of days last November when we were under a boil order due to elevated e. coli levels. We think so little of what comes out of the tap that it’s a relief to hold the brochure and know that someone is paying attention.

Thinking of the trace elements in the water in which I wash my brushes: a hint of barium in my cadmium red; a soupçon of perfluoroheptanoic acid in my phthalocyanine blue.

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Édouard Manet (French, Paris 1832–1883 Paris) Cat curled up, 1861 Graphite, on ivory-colored paper Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Clifford A. Furst, by exchange, 1995.493

I awoke at 5 a.m. one Sunday morning to a tearing sound coming from somewhere in our apartment. Thinking “that is not a sound I should be hearing” I got up and went to investigate. Our bedroom is directly across the hall from the room I use as a studio. Looking through the studio door I saw a black and white cat, sitting nonchalantly on the windowsill, next to the hole he had clawed through the screen to get in. We haven’t had a cat in two years.

Did I mention we live on the third floor?

I stared at the cat and he stared back. I asked the obvious question “Well, how did you get in here?” Whereupon he turned and climbed out through the hole, across the roof to the back stairs, where he descended and vanished from sight.

I enjoy visits like this, with a touch of fantasy in them. Cats bring an otherworldliness that wraps their actions in a pleasing air of make-believe. To the cynic this is what posterity looks like; the cat who enters uninvited, surveys your life’s work, and exits without comment, leaving behind a few hairs and a sense of mystery. Like unexpected elements in the drinking water, the cat’s effects are subtle and long-lasting, unless they are negligible. Since writing this he has visited again, disappearing the moment he saw me.

To the best of my knowledge, I have never used the word “intimated” in my writings before now. I had intended to write “intimate”but realized it could be mistaken for the other word of the same spelling, which I have used. In prose I have been intimate, but have never intimated. What that says about me as a writer is anyone’s guess. Posterity intimates; strange cats paying calls in the early morning intimate. What they are intimating remains obscure, as do so many of cat’s emotions. As does much art, hiding its thoughts, its trace elements, letting the imbiber settle (should they wish) for the taste straight from the tap.

Sculptures for the Blind, part 2

You can read part one here. This entry is my own response to Brian H. Morgan’s inquiry.

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Constantin Brancusi, Sculpture for the Blind, circa 1920. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Dear Mr. Morgan,

In Confessions, Book II, St. Augustine related stories of his past transgressions. One of the best known is from his adolescence. One evening, while out with friends, they decided to steal pears from a neighborhood tree, “A pear tree…laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste*,” and throw the pears to pigs. There was no purpose in this, just youthful hijinks, a demonstration of the old adage that “the Devil finds work for idle hands.” Looking back on it many years later, Augustine spoke to God of his deep regret. “Fair were the pears we stole, because they were Thy creation…”

The naming of things is profoundly important. No one can look upon pears hardly fit for pigs and beautiful pears God made and see the same thing. By the words we use, we alter the substance of things in our mind. We create meaning even when others might find none. This is the job of the critic, the interpreter, the propagandist. We share our word and our history through our choice of words.

You refer to your great-grandfather’s egg as sculpture, which shows you regard it as art, which is just as it should be. Yet you do not call him an artist. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, making significant a lacuna required by the brevity of a letter. Of course it is art, whatever Finck’s intent. You have named it such. But we differentiate between art and Art, which causes as many problems as it resolves.

Brancusi named his work in the way Art is named (though that is uncertain in the case of Sculpture for the Blind) and was recognized as an artist in his lifetime. Finck’s title, if there was one, is lost. “Egg” is evocative as well as descriptive. It goes beyond describing the shape (“Ovoid” would have made it seem even more abstract) to suggest generative processes, or a boiled egg waiting to be peeled and eaten for lunch. Was there some inspiration in the area in which both men lived, beyond the obvious? Or is it a matter of “great minds think alike”?

Art is everywhere – small a art, that is. It is the doodle we draw while trapped in conversation at a meeting or on the phone; it is the indistinct scribbles of a two-year old put up on the refrigerator. We decorate our world to an extent no other species does. Perhaps that is one of the prerequisites for civilization. But most of this art is bad, and most artists do not merit the capital letter. It is up to others to name something as Art, and not mere art. That is the artist’s eternal frustration.

But your question has gone beyond mere naming, asking if it is art worthy of inclusion in a museum. That is another matter. Artists create art, but they don’t always create museum-worthy art. There is plenty of bad art by great artists, some of which is in museum collections. Similarly, there are great works which are unknown because they are anomalies from the hands of otherwise obscure artists. Museums collect to define narratives they have chosen to tell, to support their communal definitions, which sometimes means buying a lesser work to fill in a gap. No Picasso in your galleries? That must be addressed. No Finck? Well…

I could make excuses. Is Finck’s egg perhaps a bit small to command space in a gallery? That assumes it was made for such a space. Did he make any attempt to share his work with the greater world, or was it a private pleasure? The best artworks come to us as personal gift, something that speaks to me, and perhaps others. Thackeray said something of the sort about Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and I have found it a universal truth. Through art, something divine (if your beliefs encompass that idea) is given human scale. Although I have never seen Finck’s egg, I imagine holding it in my hands and wondering what it would say to me.

Museums are a human creation, and heir to all the flaws of individuals and society as a whole. Whatever caused Finck to be forgotten by all but his loved ones and excluded from art history is our loss. I hope you continue to treasure his egg, and, even if no one else does, call it Art.

Sincerely,

Stephen Persing

*translation by Edward Bouverie Pusey (1909-14)

Sculptures for the Blind, part 1

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The letter that started everything.

In 1978 a letter arrived at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, addressed to their curator of 20th Century Art, Anne d’Harnoncourt (mis-spelled “d’Harnomcourt by the writer, Brian H. Morgan). The letter, shown above, is self-explanatory. Ms. d’Harnoncourt, who would become director of the museum in 1982 and continue in that capacity until her death in 2008, never answered it.

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Sculptures for the Blind, installation view / Made in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia / Photo: Carlos Avendano. Images courtesy of Lenka Clayton

Fast-forward to 2016, when artist Lenka Clayton discovered the letter in the museum’s archives, and was inspired to create a project, entitled Sculpture for the Blind after the Brancusi sculpture mentioned. She sent copies of the letter to 1,000 curators, museum directors, and others, asking them to write replies. She received 179 responses – not a great percentage, but enough to exhibit and even assemble into a book. That book, entitled Sculptures for the Blind, has now been issued by J&L Books, of Atlanta and New York City, which specializes in books by or about contemporary artists.

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A book that is intimately concerned with words and their meanings, yet has no text on the cover? I like it.

I have not yet read every letter – in fact I am not going to until I have written one of my own. There is a selection of them on Ms. Clayton’s website, and I did skim a couple of those, but I wanted to approach the topic as they did, without lots of input on it from my peers. Perhaps what I say will be redundant, or there may be things that 179 arts professionals from 12 countries have missed. My own response will make up my next post.

Sculptures for the Blind is a wonderfully conceptual project, in keeping with Sol LeWitt’s dictum, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art” (from Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, 1968).  The meta quality of it – art about the meaning of art – is just right. Individual interpretations do not necessarily equal a definitive answer, so the question remains open. Are answers even what’s being sought? Art history is a discussion, always evolving, over what qualifies as art and which artists are held in esteem. Art theory is much the same, just less concerned with the historical valuing of works of art and artists.   I’m looking forward to sitting down with these ideas and expressing my opinion, perhaps even working toward a theory or two. A blog like this one is a notebook in which scribbles both trivial and profound can be shared publicly.

Ms. Clayton’s website has all the requisite links to press coverage, etc. I particularly like her appearance on PBS Digital’s The Art Assignment, a series well worth checking out.

You can continue on to part 2 here.

The Star Catcher

I thought I’d share my current favorite of Remedios Varo’s paintings. I mentioned her last week, and a while back in my posts on Surrealism.  Shown below: The Star Catcher, 1956, private collection. Copyright the estate of Remedios Varo.

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It’s a fascinating image, as formal as a Renaissance portrait, yet suffused with that dreamlike Surrealism that is particular to Mexico. The Star Catcher (who seems to have caught a moon, but we’ll skip over that) holds the tools of her trade while standing in a vaguely defined castle or palace setting. She wears something like a Spanish soldier’s helmet on her head, and has a curious set of vertical white lines around her throat, perhaps a ruff or other sort of collar. Her body is practically invisible under the voluminous dress and cloak, save for a glimpse of a severe black top through a distinctly labial opening in her cloak. Sex and surrealism, to paraphrase the old song, go together like a horse and carriage. The caged moon casts light on her outer garments, but does not illuminate within. Hints of a grid of lozenge shapes show through toward the bottom left of her dress – a pentimento, perhaps, as it doesn’t recur anywhere else. Her face is a pointed oval, almost symmetrical except for the eyes, which differ slightly. Her feet peek daintily out at the bottom.

Varo’s colors could be strong, but most are mitigated by texture, making them less assertive than, say, Salvador Dali’s colors. Here texture takes command, and color is reduced to the golden glow of moonlight on fabric. The exuberant folds in her clothing are mostly edged in light-colored fringe, making the figure seem partially dissolved into light. Perhaps she lurks in clouds, camouflaged, until the moon or a star comes near enough to snatch up in her net. Judging from her face, she takes her work very seriously. I like to think of the hint of landscape behind her, the dark shape of a tree or bush with sepia sky beyond, as akin to an old photograph, or a modern attempt like some of Sally Mann’s landscapes. Only she and her quarry are sharply delineated; the rest is fogged as in the memory of a dream.

What she does with moons and stars once they are caught is another matter, one for sleepers, perhaps. She could stand in the halls of Hogwarts, though J. K. Rowling’s stories seem more earthbound when it comes to paintings. Hogwarts art may move, but it’d otherwise look at home in more staid art circles.

I like Varo’s work in general, but the frontal composition and the echoes of older art traditions make this one particularly appealing. I hope you enjoy it too.