Sunday, September 27, 2009


I find myself in a strange kind of melancholy mood today. I was looking at some of the old realist/visionary paintings I did, and never showed, because I suppose I always thought they were "commercial", "illustration", not up to "fine arts" par.... all those derogatory words that got heaped on us in grad school. I occasionally wonder if I ever actually recovered from all of that!

I've made the mistake, perhaps, of reading Tom Wolfe and THE PAINTED WORD recently.........he will always be a great wit! In his famous 1970's book, he argued that contemporary art had become far too much a creation of art critics and the phenomenon of marketing and media. And, I reflect, there is still some truth to his cleverness. Who does create "value" and "aesthetic", if not the cultural backdrop or paradigm that the artist operates within?

I went to the National Museum recently, and stood in long communion with old friends......... two of Monet's vibrating Cathedral series, Manet's wonderful "slice of life" moments in a long ago French countryside, in the very flesh, some of Gauguin's dark Tahitian goddesses, Van Gogh's face looking out at me in all its tormented energy, Degas dancers forever suspended en pointe, Toulouse Lautrec's ladies of the Moulin Rouge forever drunk and sadly vulnerable.........oh, what a delight!

Claude Monet
Rouen Cathedral, West Fa├žade, Sunlight, 1894

And John Singer Sargent's portraits, so close I could touch their textured surfaces, if I wasn't sure the guard would then throw me out. How incredibly Sargent was able to not only capture the "remains of the day", the colors of light at bay windows, endless New England summers, the feel of silk skirts and a still uneaten peach in a painted bowl.........but most of all, the way he could capture, with true sympathy, the soul of his subjects. A society woman peers at her audience with spirit and humor, a child laughs with intelligent eyes, Madame X scandalizes with the cool, elegant sensuality that oozes from her bare shoulders and her sheer essence. And Whistler, fluent in all his arrogant mastery, whistles effortlessly from 30 years of exploring color and shape at viewers from across generations, pulling you into his world. Robert Henri and company paint the fierce struggle of life in New York tenements and hopeful immigrants at the turn of the century, while his colleagues further upstate paint peaceful scenes of the gorgeous Hudson River valley.

John Singer Sargent
Nonchaloir (Repose), 1911

And then you cross a long, very impressive hallway, into the new, Contemporary Art section of the National Gallery. Well, I here comes some heresy. C'est la difference!

Frank Stella
Sacramento Mall Proposal #4, 1978

A huge, vast, cavernous first floor ........some interesting large mounds of black rocks outside the glass windows (I liked them because they reminded me, naturally, of prehistoric Irish Cairns, but the artist called them something else) , a Max Ernst bronze with a Minotaur, a colorful Caldor mobile, and a large intentionally rusty thing by Richard Serra that looked like a piece of the side of a shipwrecked battle ship sticking upright in the sand (he called it Five Plates, Two Poles).
A few abstract paintings with stripes (Stella) , and one entire (vast) wall with about 10 canvases climbing it at different levels. The canvases were each about 4 feet square, and were each painted a different color - by this I mean, they were flat squares of yellow, magenta, teal green, red, and I think some black and white as well. They looked pretty much like latex house paint, no need for brush strokes or Liquitex there, by golly. They were "Untitled". Yeah, I guess if the artist is so unimaginative he (or she) couldn't come up with anything better to do with such expensive canvases as to pull out left over house paint and a paint roller and cover the offending white, why should he be expected to come up with a creative name?

But, and I have to ask, why? After emerging from the rich, vibrant, complex mastery of the impressionists, the post-impressionists, the portraiture of the past century............I don't care what anyone says, this piece at least certainly shows distinctly less imagination!

Don't get me wrong. There is much abstract art I love (especially Kandinsky, who wrote the wonderful "Concerning the Spiritual in Art". ). Within Modernism, I especially enjoy Jackson Pollock. I can look at the dapples cast by the sun on pavement and see beauty in the patterns and texture, and in the same way, I can look at Pollock's canvases and see color and texture, the same random patterning at artful play. I also feel what a lot of fun he must have had in creating them. His paintings are all about process, and the vitality within that process. Still, I can't resist quoting the man who had so much to do with marketing, if not publicly creating, the phenomenon that was Jackson Pollock. Harold Rosenberg was THE influential art critic of his day. His quest was for some kind of "pure" aesthetics, which he imagined and celebrated with the emerging Abstract Expressionist movement. As Rosenberg wrote in 1952,
"The turning point of Abstract Expressionism occurred when its artists abandoned trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism), and decided to paint - just PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from Value - political, aesthetic, moral."
But, to liberate art from aesthetic or moral value is to render it meaningless. It becomes thus an intellectual exercise, an objective endeavor isolated from any larger context, like ethics, meaning, cultural mythos, etc. I don't know, from my point of view, if such a thing is even possibly, no matter how heroically the artists in Soho tried to imagine such a thing. Artists are generally human beings, and thus firmly embedded within their cultures and social constructs/contexts, at least, as long as they speak a language, and have mothers. I also pause at that old, tiresome argument from the long ago days............"Does art have to mean anything?"

Well, ultimately I suppose not. What's the "meaning" of a rose, or a dragonfly? We impose those meanings upon the inherant mystery and beauty of nature. But, returning to the peculiarly human environment of a museum or art gallery, maybe the question can have a bit of relevance, as a viewer, tour guide in hand, stands before a canvas. If the art, being part of a long cultural discourse that began somewhere in the Renaissance, aggressively doesn't "mean" anything, then it's "meaning" is still a rebellion against meaning, context and aesthetics.............and we're right back at the chicken and egg proposition. I can't believe I'm still doing this!

Jackson Pollock
Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950

Anyway, I quickly retreated back across the corridor, into the sweet, familiar landscape of the Impressionists. I know the aesthetic of the Post Modern Era is harsh, and I'm feeling quite lonely these days (being in a strange city), so, I even lingered to have tea beneath the graceful, corny 19th century nymph eternally cradling a marble art nouveau water lily.

Regarding my Peace Corps application, here's something completely unrelated to the above rant. An extraordinary person to know about. Muriel just turned 85, and she is into her first year as a PC volunteer in Morocco. Read about her at her blog "Muriel in Morocco" . What an amazing woman!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Native American Museum in D.C.

You have
noticed that everything
an Indian does is in a circle, and that
is because the Power of the World always
works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In
the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all
our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and
as long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The
flowering tree was the living center of the hoop and the circle of the
four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south
gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty
wind gave strength and endurance. Everything the Power of the World does

is in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the Earth is round like a
ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds
make their nests in circles. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a
circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons
form a great Circle in their changing, and always come back again
to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood
to childhood, and so is everything where Power moves. Our
teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were
always set in a circle, the nation's hoop, a nest of
many nests, where the Great Spirit meant
for us to hatch our children.

----Black Elk

I had an interesting syncronicity occur this past week. While enroute to the National Gallery with my friend Rose, we went to the Horticultural Museum. There, Rose decided she absolutely had to have a cup of coffee before proceeding, and the nearest place to obtain such, we were informed, was down the street at the American Indian Museum. So, even though unplanned, there we went - an amazing building, very modern in design and concept. After coffee, we decided to see the exhibits, which were so well done as the museum attempted to address the myths, histories, and what has survived of some thousands of Native American tribes and languages. Their logo? A circle of hands around a circle!

On the way out, we stopped at the bookstore, where my eyes were immediately drawn to a book by psychologist and storyteller Susan Hazen- Hammond, called Spider Woman's Web - Traditional Native American Tales About Women's Power. Such a wonderful collection of stories by many different traditions, many of which I did not know. And the logo running throughout the book (at the end of each story, with the title "Connecting the Story to Your Life"?) A hand holding a thread!

All tales are born in the mind of Spider Woman,

and all tales exist as a result of her naming."

---Paula Gunn Allen

The Sacred Hoop, 1991

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Peace Tent

"Blessing Hands" by Dorit Bat Shalom

Since I have participated in discussions about art and spirituality while here, I felt like sharing the work of a colleague of mine, Dorit, whose "Peace Tent" project has travelled throughout the Middle East and the U.S. for at least 10 years, bringing together Palestininians, Jews, and others under the "tent" of creativity. She has also been touring for the past 6 years with Salima Shanti, with whom she has created a 2-person play.

Dorit Bat Shalom is a native Israeli who can trace her family back seven generations in Israel. Her

not-for-profit theater company in Israel became the source of the concept for the Peace Tent. Dorit used theater as a medium for participatory discussion of social and psychological ills, so that theater became a forum for understandoing, issue mediation, and resolution. The Peace Tent becomes a teaching forum.

Dorit travels throughout the United States and Israel with the Peace Tent project, bringing individuals and groups from foreign and domestic locations to participate. In the past 5 years, Dorit has taken five delegations for peace from the United States to Isreal to give workshops and participate in inter-faith healing sessions and ceremonies as part of her Peace Tent mission. Dorit uses her own art work as well as work from other artists to further the reach of the Peace Tent.

"Creating and sharing art is how I personally pray for my homeland Israel and the Jewish and Arab world. I invite you to join me on a journey that embarks on a pilgrimage into the collective story of Israel and Palestine.

A Peace Tent in the Middle East is an ancient tradition, creating a sacred space for reconciliation where people in conflict can safely share their vulnerability without threat of blame or judgment of right and wrong. Entering the Peace Tent is thus a portal into the Holy Land with fresh eyes, a tender heart and courage to fully be present with images of the enormous pain, inner terror and uncontrollable rage of traumatized, crushed and angry souls.

After my brother was killed in action in Jerusalem during the Six Day War (1967), I decided to dedicate my life to peace work. As a mother and artist, I especially am concerned with ways that we, as women - whose very beings are about bringing new life into the world - can step forward with

courage into our divine role, so that peace will manifest in the world."

Salima Shanti, her collaborator, is also an artist, an actor, and a dancer and choreographer.

Salima is a Sufi teacher who has led Dances for peace as part of the Peace Tent's instructional performance segment. She is an ongoing instructor.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Australian Art

Saw a very good show of contemporary indigenous Australian art at Katzen Gallery at American University here in D.C. Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors This is a travelling show that is well worth seeing and reflecting on, and for any friends who are in this area reading this, it's also free.

September 8–December 6

Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors showcases the works of artists from each state and territory in Australia that represent a diverse range of contemporary Indigenous art. This traveling exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Australia.

Julie DOWLING | Walyer

Julie Dowling Walyer 2006.

The paintings I liked the best were by Julie Dowling (above). They were masterfully executed representational paintings, one of a woman who is a historical cultural heroine, having escaped slavery to become a kind of Australian Geronimo, making defiant war on settlers until her death. Skillfully painted, the eyes were especially striking in the way this artist rendered them........there was an essence communicating there I haven't felt in a painting in a long time. Frankly, I tend to feel that representational art gets less attention than abstract, non-objective art these days.

One other thing I loved about this painter, and something I saw in other less representational paintings as well, was the overlay of patterns, suggesting to me indigenous perception of interpenetrating energy fields or dimensions of being; in the figurative paintings transparent glitter paint was dotted about the outlines of figures, suggesting auras. Or perhaps, suggesting participating in the "song lines" of their native land, the interweaving "song lines" of their ancestors.

I don't know how exactly to express it, but interested as I am in indigenous art and symbol around the world, the elaborate, ritualistic, and often very subtle patterning of Australian native art very powerfully illustrates our "layered" and interwoven world, the many fields of perception and meaning these ancient people experienced themselves participating within. A web of spiritual and environmental relationships.