A matter of innocence

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I’ve been doing a bit of research on my new hero, Etel Adnan. One good source has been, believe it or not, Pinterest. I get to see/pin my favorite photos of her work and keep them for further viewing.

In addition, my research led me to an article by Negar Azimi in the Wall Street Journal on Why the Art World Has Fallen for 90-Year-Old Etel Adnan.

The article has some pithy quotes from Adnan. About her process, which verges on the existential, she says: “Once I put down a color, I never cover it up. If you are born a musician, why become a banker?”

and describing her current successes, the WSJ says:

The fact that artistic renown has descended upon a nonagenarian woman who paints tiny abstractions and writes poetry and prose of quiet force and complexity might seem like a historical accident. Today’s contemporary art market, after all, places a premium on large, shiny, expensive objects. Adnan’s work is the anti-Ozymandias—a corrective to exuberant art-world bling. There is none of the bravado or self-regarding mythologizing of other artists of her stature. And yet, invitations stream in daily for exhibitions, collaborations and symposia. “I am happy it didn’t happen any sooner,” Adnan says of all the attention, adding, “It’s ironic, isn’t it, at a time when I can’t really use the money.”

The claim is that she has defied the current climate of exuberant, large abstraction and kept a steady hand at creating paintings about a quiet, contemplative inner world, small in scale, big in that important inner dimension, allowing introspection and contemplation, along with an intense visual excitement.

Distilled down to the essence of her appeal, Adnan says it clearly:

“I always had a few people who liked what I did, and that was enough,” says Adnan, with a wry smile. “I do think I’ve kept my innocence.”

In addition to Adnan’s work, what I have found on Pinterest has been interesting, educational. There is a lot of good abstract painting being posted. I’ve found it challenging in that I think maybe I should be working like that, with lots of loose linear elements extending over the entire canvas. It looks good, enticing, but then when I get into my studio and try it, I realize I just can’t do that. I really do need a large amount of quiet space, a resting place to balance the active expressive marks that are needing more and more of my painting’s energy. I just cannot give it all away; I have to keep some protected space. And above all, my own personal integrity and ideally, innocence.

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My new hero

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Over the years I’ve had a few art heroes. Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, and of course, Rembrandt. I have been inspired by Diebenkorn’s early abstract paintings, but he isn’t a hero. I don’t know why he doesn’t transcend that boundary, from being great, inspiring, to being a courageous hero. I need to think about that.

But now, I have a new hero. Etel Adnan. Not only is her work brave, she is extraordinary as a person. A poet, writer, painter, intelligent in her life and work, and still producing great paintings and writing at 94. Amazing and inspiring.

Usually I wouldn’t comment on age or sex being inspiring and I wouldn’t if I didn’t resonate so much with her work. I know there is ageism and sexism in most fields, especially the visual arts, but I have always worn blinders, just kept going straight ahead. I do hope I will be “discovered” before it is too late but I know I would not feel alive if I didn’t paint. I don’t think it is her age that I find so inspiring, although that too is unusual. The work itself has a quiet power that is important to me. So, yes, Adnan is my new hero.

 

 

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Quirks

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This morning I realized why Romeo is so intent on taking his stuffed animals outside, one after the other, especially after he has been away for a bit. He’s a herder. A Portuguese Water Dog, who has been bred to herd the fish, fisherman and buoys. He is just doing his job. It took me three years to figure this out. Just shows how little we know about others.

Reminds me of when I am working and trying to do something “different” and end up doing the same thing I usually do, more or less. I have my own handwriting style, my own painting marks, preferences and can’t seem to change that. Even if I really wanted to, which it seems, I don’t.  It’s my job to stay honest about who I am.

What does seem to be changing is the energy of the work. It is still mine, but different. Different enough to prod me on to know more. As long as I can appreciate what others are doing and who they are, that’s enough. I’ll keep being me.

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The pleasure/pain principle (in art)

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Etel Adnan,  “Untitled” (2014), Oil on canvas, 10 ½ x 13 ¾ inches (27 x 35 cm) (© Etel Adnan, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.)

Recently I came across the art of Etel Adnan and have been smitten. It’s not just beautiful. It is more than beautiful. It seems to exist at that point where pain and joy connect. Without one, the other would not be so powerful or create such profound beauty, such important sensitivity.

The power comes not from the delineation of a message, telling of a story, expression of likes and dislikes, but the experience of it all without words. There is a Buddhist line in a text: “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into space like the imprint of a bird in the sky.” Before they vanish, or maybe afterwards, there is great art. The acknowledgement and experience of the alternatives of every situation and feeling. That place of non-thought, just being with the pain and the joy, the good and bad at once.

The intersection, convergence of pain, suffering and the celebration of the goodness of being alive, of survival: that, to me, is where art communicates.

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The honey pot

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“It’s Not What You Think, no. 3″; oil & collage on canvas; 60″ x 84”

At the end of a week workshop I taught in Mahone Bay last September, the group gave me a mason jar filled with little notes of appreciation. Since then when I feel low I dip into the jar, my honey jar.

Having been down with the flu for the past week, I found it lifted me up today. Little words that added up to a big feeling of gratefulness. Thank you, my lovely friends. It is always a joy to teach and especially when I feel I have communicated well.

So often I hear people repeat back to me what they think I have said and it is different from what I know I have said. Then I need to rethink what I was talking about to make sense of the misunderstanding.  When something is out of context, it can be very confusing. I know it is easy to misconstrue; I just need to understand what I was trying to say and why and how it went sideways. Then maybe I can restate what I was trying to say.

Sometimes what someone says I have said is better than what I know I must have said. The mind plays tricks on us when we listen to someone. Not only how much do we remember but also what have we really heard of what was said.

My dog talks mostly with his body and his understanding of mine and how and when I move. So much is communicated by what I am doing. He’s been good while I have been sick, knowing by my body language that I am not up to running around with him in the snow. But it has been over a week now and he is getting restless. So am I.

Communication is so important. We are lucky to have words, visual images and physical expressiveness. When all that is put together well, and understood, it is a big honey pot.

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After the exhibition

 

Totally exhausted is all I can say. Came home from Ottawa eager to get back to work. After a day home, one morning in my studio, and I have come down with a bad cold/flu. Nothing like the body to slow me down! I am enjoying lying around, sleeping half the day, reading and forgetting about housework. But I am getting a little restless, for sure.

The exhibit looks good. Up until March 20 at the Orange Art Gallery. Ingrid Hollander, the owner, does a beautiful job of placing the work. As well, I taught a two-day workshop. I had one day, Sunday, to play before coming home Monday. I’d like to say something profound here but my mind is a blank. So . . .

 

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Confessions of a grammar nerd

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I’ve always been fascinated by language, specifically words, and more specifically proper use of words. Give me a book, or any piece of writing for that matter, and I am either picking out the typos or correcting the grammar. I can’t help it. Even when listening to the radio, I correct, in my mind, the sentences of people who I think should know better.

In the fifth grade, we studied sentence structure. Obviously I thought it was great fun, diagraming a sentence. Putting verbs in one place on a line, nouns in another, and adjectives and adverbs in their proper other places. For me, it made charming visual puzzles.

But these days anything goes. Even what I would call poor grammar is sanctioned by newspapers, novelists, radio and TV commentators. Proper pronouns have definitely taken a holiday, had too much wine, become tipsy. It has become okay to say “me and my . . . ”. I was taught always to put myself after the other person, to say “. . . and I” or “. . . and me”, depending on where we were in the sentence. That has definitely changed.

I had an intense discussion with my daughter recently about split infinitives. They drive me up the wall, appear regularly where they never did before. She, being more contemporary, thinks they have a place, sometimes they need to happen. Nevertheless, I am always correcting them mentally when I see or hear them. I do try to be open-minded, to see if they are necessary. Try out all possibilities. And I am sorry to say sometimes they do work, but rarely.

Even common phrases can upset me: when a radio moderator says “see you tomorrow” and I say back, “no, you haven’t seen me at all but I have heard you”. But they don’t hear me.

Recently there is a need for many young people to be referred to as gender neutral. I can understand this well. I wouldn’t like to be known as a female artist; I’m an artist, period. Gender doesn’t change the work, I hope. A painting is a painting, especially when I am not working on it. But what I find difficult, confusing, is referring to one person as “they”. “They” is plural and one person is one person. I may never be able to hear this without all the brain recalculations that I now do to be clear about what is being said, who is the reference point, one person or many.

This all keeps my mind very busy. But I do get great pleasure from it, especially when I come across good grammar, beautiful sentence structure and no typos.

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Memories of a rock concert

 

 

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When I was nine months pregnant with my second child, living in Manhattan, just before Christmas in 1967, I went to a concert by a favourite underground rock group called The Fugs. The band was formed in 1964 by the poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, with Ken Weaver on drums. Many of the lyrics on their songs couldn’t be sung on public radio today, but I’m fortunate to still have a couple of their records. Some songs I remember well are “Slum Goddess from the Lower East Side” and “Kill for Peace”.You get the idea. The beat is so strong and the words so irreverent.

Being a small person, and almost at my due date, I was very noticeably pregnant. Coming to a concert of foul-mouthed singers was entertaining for more than my about-to-be-born baby and me. It was a small theatre so everyone turned around to look at this very pregnant person walking down the aisle to our way-up-front seats. 

Just a few years later, my young son and I would wait every morning on 6th Avenue and Spring Street for the bus to take him to P.S. 3. As it happened, Tuli Kupferberg was also waiting with his son for the same bus. Recently the two boys have reconnected and are friends as grown men, possibly because of that very early, prenatal introduction.

I still love the Fugs music.

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Let’s Talk (about what)

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Let’s Talk, no. 2; oil & collage on canvas; 36″ x 112″

For weeks I’ve been trying to figure out what I am doing, want to do, with my painting. If it is more talkative, as someone at the Secord Gallery exhibit in September astutely  commented, to whom am I talking, about what, when does it communicate, or not, and to whom.

Basically I am talking to myself and just hoping it says something to you. It’s not with words. Just with paint. If you love paint as much as I do, maybe it tells you a story you need to hear. I want it to have that feeling of needing to be just what it is.

One question from someone at my talk in Mahone Bay In September was “Do you ever get stuck?” I said “No, I just paint.” Paint my way through and that’s how I figure it all out. Lately I had the thought that I was lying: I was not sure I know what I am doing. Is that being “stuck.”

So the conversation now has been a lot of questions. The answer as I see it at the moment is to take a good painting and paint another hopefully better painting that still talks to the original painting, and exits in conjunction with it as well as on top of it. That is, not to stop too soon nor to completely cover what was good enough before. Let all experiences of the painting talk to each other.

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How to spell Trouble

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Let’s Talk, no. 1; 36″ x 112″; oil & collage on canvas

Lately I’ve been scaring myself when I am painting. This has happened periodically before but this time I don’t want to back away from what is frightening to me. My work has undergone changes, rearrangements, and rerouting continually over the years and especially in the past few months. If I look back to the beginning of the year and try to see a direction, the current situation is near unrecognizable. Which breakthroughs do I trust enough to act on, stay with? What am I trying to learn? What has revolutionized in my life? I really can’t put it into words; maybe that’s why I paint.

The less I try to go back to old patterns, the more sense this situation makes. It doesn’t always mean it gets easier to manage, but it gets more interesting to be a part of and the more I want to continue to explore.

It seems I  need to pay curious attention to what feels hard to pinpoint. I hope to develop a deeper understanding of these areas of life that are insisting themselves into my paintings. Fear is less of an issue, has less power, as I get older because the end is closer. So I feel more willing to take chances, face fear down.

Recently, I visited some people who own a painting I had done several years ago. At the time I did the piece, I felt somewhat unsettled about the work but someone wanted it and to this day they enjoy having it. Having not seen it for quite a while, I saw the painting as closer to what I am doing now. There is a certain energy shift I want to expose and play up. Probably the comment that my paintings are more talkative, is the most accurate statement I can use to explain what’s happening.

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