Reading List: The Art of Reading

Stories and transformation; these are elements to all successful art, whether realist, abstract or conceptual. It’s ironic that art often involves very non-verbal narratives and transformations, yet we persistently try to describe and understand it in words. We have to- if it’s compelling enough, we feel the need to communicate its transcendent glories and vain failures to others. Any truly successful work is a teachable moment- but how to teach it? That question is often on my mind, but in pondering it, one is fortunately standing in the shadows of giants.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger:  A sociological, and sometimes, overtly marxist take on art’s role in propping up the higher echelons of the class system, and attitudes toward gender, power and possession.  It’s based on a BBC series from the early days of cultural studies’ slow seep into popular discourse and is presented as a series of essays both literary and visual on aspects of art and advertising as they relate to each other and to the conventional wisdom. As such, it goes well beyond interpretation of composition, iconography and metaphor and into cultural theory and structuralism. How do society’s truisms affect the way an image is created, viewed, interpreted and consumed? Who is it for, and who does it exploit, or exclude, or perhaps more cogently, gaze at?

The images presented mostly span the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Romantic/Surrealist movements and the Advertising Age, excluding the Medieval and Modernist (the Modernist era having its own fraught, and possibly post-structural relationship with the materialist/imperialist impulse, of course). Thought provoking and compellingly readable, it becomes a sort of reference to the semiotics of privilege in art .

Picasso the Printmaker, Dallas Museum of Art: Catalogue of an 1983 exhibition of the Marina Picasso Collection that I sadly never saw ( it appeared at the DAM before I arrived here). It very much has a cataloguer’s approach to fitting the prints into Picasso’s main body of painting work, so most of the actual process of printmaking is glossed over, except what can be seen in the reproductions. Which is enough- these are rich images. A history of Picasso’s various Master Printers and graphics publishing over the decades is nice, but not nearly as interesting as the revelation that Picasso did not merely show up at their print shops to doodle on pre-prepared plates; he actually bought a small press for his studio to pull his own (gloriously sloppy) proofs. Whether Picasso intended this as a way to access less wealthy collectors, or simply loved the medium would be something I’d like to see studied. Mostly readable.

The Genesis of a Painting, Rudolf Arnheim: A reconstructed history of one painting, Picasso’s Guernica. It is very engaged in the examination of the creative process. How many of us have seen the famous film of Picasso at work- the cigarette smoke in the backlight, the shirtless and barrel-chested artist, the time-lapse transformations, painted on a see through surface. This is a more academic, less romanticized version, using the artist’s sketches and preceding iconography- much of it found in prints, by the way ( see above). Much less visually dramatic than the film of course- many of the records of the process are faint squiggles on scrap paper, but one must always wonder how much of the film is exhibitionistic posing.

Reading, and the slow visual mining of images both complex and improvisational leaves us the mental space to absorb and contemplate the creative process. We are following in the footsteps of genius, and Arnheim’s accompanying observations add much food for thought. This is especially true in a long first chapter in which he gives more general thoughts on the subconscious processes at work. I’ve been writing on this subject, and these passages were red meat.

Literary TheoryA Brief Insight, Jonathon Culler: I’ve made numerous snarky comments about academic theory, but if one reads a lot of lit and art criticism, as I do, one is bound to run into it. I’ve found it creeping into comics criticism. A basic understanding of it is quite helpful, in fact, and I admit that one of my major frustrations (beyond the clotted academic jargon) with it is that I can’t just bluff my way through a given passage on context; my lazy reading habits are exposed. Still, its multiple contexts and arcane canon are confusing to the recreational reader. Regular readers of this blog ( Hi, Mom!) may be surprised that I didn’t search out the Classics Illustrated version of The Foucault Reader, but it’s hard to find in Very Fine or better.

Instead, I ran across this little volume in my favorite used book shop. It seemed very readable and concise, yet didn’t soft pedal the subject, or end in “For Dummies”. At eight bucks, it was thousands of dollars less than a Masters Degree in English.

It turns out to be very useful. Not a page-turner, by any means, but organized well into basic concepts in separate chapters such as “Language, Meaning and Interpretation” and “Rhetoric, Poetics and Poetry”. These introduce major figures, and an appendix tries to sort out significant movements within theory. I still can’t claim to fully understand literary theory after having read it, but it’s very handy to have around to crib from.

As Culler points out, literary theory actually spends relatively little of its time on books. Linguistics, psychoanalysis and philosophy are often part of the analyses, and the objects  of study are often images or pop cultural ‘texts’, with tweets noticeably being more avidly deconstructed since 2016. It seems as though theory and cultural studies are here to stay, and bluffing one’s way through this critical landscape is not an option. At less than 200 pages of fairly limpid explication, this seems like the sort of volume one might pack if one is trying to travel light.

Laughter In The Void: Ideas-Where Do They Come From?

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Into an emptiness comes a lone rider. Whether dark, intimidating nightscape, or  infinite and featureless white mist, the landscape of ideas exists just over the border from conscious intent, and many see it as just an obstacle to be gotten through to get to the final destination. But artists, like explorers, often linger. Sometimes, too much. Other times, not enough at all.

This shrouded interaction of actor/spirit/blue spark and fallow ground/environment/lightning field will determine what happens in one’s studio for the foreseeable future. But ideas answer to no one, and understanding what they are and where they come from is not only hard, it can be inimical to the process of actually having them. I sometimes suspect that my ideas are laughing at me.

Where DO ideas come from? Douglas Hostetler believes ideas stem from analogous thinking- something is like something else. If this is true, then there is a lot of mystery hidden in that adverb ‘like’. Rudolf Arnheim in The Genesis of a Painting, about the creation of Picasso’s Guernicanotes the difficulty in scrutinizing an “impulse issuing from beyond the realm of awareness.”

For me, there are often three components- A mental image, let’s go with a landscape, in the spirit of our opening metaphor; a word or phrase that can often start the metaphor rolling, literalizing it just enough to invite mental manipulation; and some supporting imagery or sketch material, often preexisting, but not necessarily.

In “Bramble, above, my first conscious awareness of the idea came from the phrase “in the bracken” in a Robyn Hitchcock song “I Don’t Remember Guildford”, a fairly surreal little ditty about blocking out painful memories- or so I suppose. In my mind the phrase merged with the idea of tangled wilderness, a place of power and danger I’d explored in the previous decade, in a series of pictures about ravines inspired by mountain hikes during and after a residency in Wyoming.

A verbal or visual component, once teased into more literal form, can be ‘flipped’ to add tension or surprise, as in a palindrome, or anagram type of treatment. Recall that printmaking is, in itself, an actual visual flipping of any idea. This becomes habit, a creative gymnastics that kicks in when cliche or a rote visual syntax threatens to starve or disorient the mysterious, laughing rider. Ideas, I believe, may start with analogy, but thrive on paradox. They are jokes that consciousness plays on itself.

In this case, I’d made acetate stencils of natural forms that I’ve used in past work. When I get sick of them, or feel they’ve been repeated too much, I simply take out the scissors and modify them or cut them into smaller fragments. During printing they can be literally flipped, too, revealing crystalline formations of residual ink formed by the pressure in printmaking. This mimics the mental activity of paradox; it provides the “disruption” or syntactic flipping, though there are of course many other ways of doing this. The cutting and decaying of image also physically mimics the natural breakdown processes that happen in a ravine or wilderness.

Ideas are “functions that prefer the shadow to the light,” Paul Valery said.

Ideas come in colors, though ill defined. When the blue spark hits, a simple color scheme (such as black and white) and a limber, intuitive hand can help clarify ideas, without scaring them away. Enter the sketchbook.

In the Jungian, pre-concious soup, elements collide, creating more energy. Though as Arnheim points out, these are not in themselves significant, or even ideas. An interpretive, conscious creative mind must bring them into the light. The sketchbook, with its fluid watercolor wash, or open-ended pencil lines, is the stage where this drama plays out. Write your phrases, working titles or half baked poetry in the margins. There’s no sense entering this wilderness without a verbal lifeline. Date your entries, yes, if only so you can later marvel how long you’ve wandered the void. It takes years, sometimes.

No matter what baggage you’ve brought into the void, it is only your senses that can get you back out.

Loosen the reins and follow your pencil. Paths coalesce, contours emerge. One is receptive at this point. Most of us are not geniuses; it’s good to listen to the words, feel the contours. Ideas favor the receptive mind. It’s okay to laugh back.

Receptivity comes in different forms. When working in black and white, a schematic, a transparent ideograph is the thing I see. When shadows are added, movement of light is implied, which is a simple narrative. Then colors are added. Colors are in themselves receptive, and speak to other colors. On an existential level, colors are just as baffling as ideas, and may also be having fun at our expense. If you set yourself a balanced, simple palette, it’s quite possible that a given color will find drama in its tonal neighbors and vice-versa. Complementary colors are all about paradox. And black and white are dynamic, so a single added color can tease out a lot of nuance.

The color chosen above, a sort of dark sea-green, refers to nature, but also somewhat to the watery depths of subconscious. This is actually the ‘sketch’- the first appearance of this idea, direct to the printing plate. There is no ‘preliminary’ sketch, although I explored the idea further in my little note book later. The etching I did to learn the non-toxic polymer process in a workshop last month, which I posted here, is also a later sketch. The image is  compelling to me, but far from a ‘finished’  idea. I like working this way, with smaller versions ( here, 11×15″) leading up to larger, more refined work.

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Above is a further image relating to this idea. I found a crude, simplified clarinet shape that was stick-like, so I added it to “Bramble”. It makes no sense, but I enjoyed the joke.

In information theory, there exists the phenomenon of signal to noise. Ideally, when the noise is filtered out, meaning coalesces. I had a conversation with a friend, Noah about how writers write. His observation: writers for larger audiences- his example, screenwriters- always seem to have more definitive ideas about their process than writers for smaller audiences (eg: poets). We decided that poets often don’t even know what they are writing as they write it. It brought up the question of creative process. This resonated, and brought me the sudden flash that “Bramble”, heretofore a compelling but simplistic dreamscape, might be considered a metaphor for the creative process itself. If you were expecting me to talk about a light bulb moment in my discussion of ideas- there it is, though, of course, it came relatively late in the game. If all this sounds a bit self-reflexive, I can’t argue, but viewers bring their own stories to works they see as well. I’ve seen it happen, at street fair shows, and I don’t begrudge their creative input. The conversation, both before and after execution, informs the idea.

The Pixies once wrote a song called “Space”, about the conga player they hired to make that same song seem more ‘spacious’. “d=r times t” they sang, the first time I’d ever understood that synesthetic concept in relation to creativity. Thus, an idea is never really finished.

The creative mind is a creature of habit, too. A raw idea in its soupy jumble is often affixed to an image matrix the artist has used before, in order to establish order. It’s worked for him before, it can work again. I chose the landscape metaphor very deliberately. It’s been a powerful and generative notion in my mind since that month long residency in the mountains of Wyoming in the Oughts, and indeed, since I came west as a teen. Paradox and reversal, palindromic thinking can un-moor us from pre-conceptions and add freshness and surprise to an idea, like a punchline to a joke, or logic leap in speech, or dissonance in music. The surrealists used this sort of thing often, and a small bit of disorientation in a visual conception can paradoxically, add to a sense of presence or heightened reality in a picture, as the senses are awakened, and curiousity engaged. Max Ernst made a career of these disorienting juxtapositions.

Ideas are messy. I think that they are less like lightbulbs and more like radio static.

I often don’t know what an idea is until well after I’ve had it, because I’m unable to separate the signal from the noise. The subtle calculation of what belongs in a given composition and what does not often involves a complex interplay between “story” and image. Something as simple as an unrelated conversation can provide the story that focuses the image. Separating the signal from the noise often involves keeping these syntactic “negotiations” open for a while. It’s not a hierarchy, but an interplay. The street fair interactions with viewers sometimes add to meaning in a specific work as well.
Ideas have their own logic and rhythm which can be quite circular or even hermetic, and which lends them power. In a formless void, they very much march to the beat of a different drummer- their own.

Somewhere between “paradox stated” -the joke or pun, and “paradox resolved”-the scientific discovery, Arthur Koestler says, lies creative fusion. “The ‘ah’ of aesthetic insight” is placed in the middle between “the aha! of scientific discovery” and “the Haha of …the punch line.” puns James Geary, in an article adapted from his book Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, And Why We Need It.

Analogy, metaphor, puns. Palindromes, anagrams and literal non-sense. The wit of the scientist, inventor, or improviser seems to be no different from that of the artist, the sage, or the jester. I’m not sure I know where ideas come from, but there seems to be much laughter tumbling in the void.