The Past, Repeating, Repeating
Try to talk about things from outside egoistic boundaries. Just try. You will fail. Navigate the impermeable barriers between brain and brain; it is not possible.
I may only experience another living being from within my own living body. Egoism is all I know, stuck as I am, here inside this body and inside this brain. Yet it is not necessarily infantile narcissism that is at play here. It is simple anatomy. Made to function in groups, we do so from within a single skin, captives beneath our own skulls. We are such isolated singularities. It’s amazing anything gets done, given these handicaps. Communication must be well nigh unto impossible. When I say “I love you” to whom do I say it? To what do I say it; a bunch of cells, muscles, bones, ligaments; to a mind, to a soul? Who am I talking to, thinking about, worrying about, and agonizing over? Who do I love?
Then add to these handicaps a sudden punishing jolt of blood to the brain with its devastating blockage of necessary grammatical and associational links and what’s left? You float; I float, farther away from one another into incomprehensibility. Blocked, damaged, your brain is much less likely to connect to my quotidian bumbling, but still generally functioning brain. I love you. We love you. Whispering this into an ear that might be, but most probably is not, connected to a brain, a soul, a person. We love you. We utter dimming words across damaged receptors. Stroke is aptly named, metaphor for a stroke of a blade across all lines of communication, cutting completely.
Back in 1993 I had a solo show at the Richard Reynolds Gallery on the campus of the University of the Pacific. Entitled Conceptual Portraiture the show consisted of about a dozen larger than life-size portraits of my dearest and “longest” friends. The smaller paintings measured six feet square and the larger ones were nine feet in height. Almost every person I had painted came to the reception. And everybody except for one person loved their portraits and stood grinning next to them for snapshots. It was fun. Except for the very voluble complaint of the one person who was not happy with what I had painted. Naturally I overreacted.
“I will never paint another portrait as long as I live!”
A decade later I sit across the table from you. We are happily dining on matzo ball soup and fragments of rye bread heaped with chopped liver. Your body is much shrunken from your spinal column having accordioned down upon itself for these past eight decades. Your head is just above table level. But you are bright and lively and alert and we are laughing. I push my soupspoon into the huge soft matzo ball, a dumpling really, and discover that it is surprisingly hot in my mouth. Big shreds of chicken float around it in the bowl. You are tearing daintily with your perfect manicure and small long fingers at a piece of rye bread.
You say to me, “You know that painting you did of me a few years back?”
“Yeah,” I say laughing, “You hated it!”
There are several transverse slices of carrot lodged under the chicken in my bowl and I concentrate on them for a moment.
This is not an unfriendly exchange. I am reconciled now, and look up from my soup, a little teasing, and see you across the table. You laugh a bit, tentative. You are, however, steadfast and I see that you are serious. Holding your shard of bread you continue.
“Well maybe if I saw it again I’d like it better now.”
“Yes, I think so, too,” I say.
No apology necessary; none needed, none tendered. But you give me kindness and an olive branch and I take it, gratefully.
I shiver; an unexpected frisson of surprise, of connection between minds. Why now? But of course, it would be now. And so we have no more unfinished business. I look at you. Clumsily, I smile then look away at all the families in this deli having pastrami and potato salad and egg creams and epiphanies. A rush of voices, all talking, talking, happy, angry, urgent and some of it just quiet reconciliation. It is so clear. It was so graceful, so simple here at our table. But now—I shiver again—with no unfinished business between us, what now?
Will I have the redemptive opportunity to make something better and more beautiful of death than I had done the first time around? Redemptive? Isn’t that a bit grandiose? Way grandiose? It sounds like a joke along the lines of a New Yorker cartoon captioned “The Redemptive Power of Art” showing some angst-ridden female, pony tailed, arm to brow, deep in the throes of Existential ennui, standing in front of a blank canvas while a cat quietly barfs in the background.
Hamster on the wheel of life; I will relive some karma, forever and ever and ever. Except that one little thing got done right this time around; there is no unfinished business between you and me.
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Repeating the Past
In the Eastern world view there is the concept that we must relive our past karma. We repeat, lifetime after lifetime, the lessons we did not learn the first time around. It is a kind of punishment or admonishment; do that particular thing one more time and you will have to do it a thousand more times until you never do it again. You will have a thousand more lives to live and to learn your particular karmic lesson. Or it can happen within a single lifetime. You will be presented with the same lessons, over and over and over again, within the span of your own finite lifetime, until you learn, full and well, a particular lesson, whatever it is. Take that!
Yoga taught me that there is attachment and aversion to actions and things. Attachment is the twin to aversion and aversion’s twin is attachment. The concept goes like this: you should not be too attached to anything; you should not be too averse to anything. It sounds like a pretty good idea. Do not be too attached to any particular action or event or thing or person. Do not be too aversely affected by a particular action or event or thing or person. But I say it’s hard. What if I am too attached to the very idea, to the very concept, of not being attached to something?
One time at a yoga conference I was sitting by my yoga teacher at dinner. After a long day of asana, we sat in a hotel banquet room, not unlike business executives sit down in a banquet room after, say, a conference on marketing. We sat at our round table, dining on unctuous vegetarian fare. She noticed that I was kind of picking at my salad—playing food hockey with the lettuce, as Gary would say—and she asked me if I did not like the salad. Attempting satvic yogic grace and truth I said, “I do not like lettuce, but I should try to eat it so as to not be rude to the people who made this salad for me.” My yoga teacher laughed very hard and, very wise, she said, “If you do not like it, do not eat it.” My aversion was to lettuce. My attachment was to so-called good manners. Neither made a very good salad. None of it was yoga.
So I know that attachment and aversion are twin concepts with which I must repeatedly wrestle. And unless my unlikely sainthood is achieved, I just keep getting attached to and being averse to the same damn things, over and over again.
This week I am being handed a chance to repeat my own past. What will I make of it this time? Will I attach, barnacle-like? Will I be averse to the inevitable? Either way, I will have to repeat and relive the same kinds of events that I experienced forty years ago. How will I handle this reenactment of events? Will I drop the ball? Will I choke?
Again, the experience is the losing of a beloved.
How will I cope with death this time? What will I do with the stone of enervation that comes with loss? Will the forty intervening years that have passed since the last time I experienced this thing have taught me anything; or nothing? Will I have the redemptive opportunity to make something better and more beautiful of death than I had done the first time around? Or will I need to relive this karma, forever and ever and ever, a hamster on the wheel of life?
In this process of, this morass of, this conundrum of, this pain of losing a beloved person, I must abandon attachment. But I am averse to loss. In the mess, I am stuck. Worse, crippled. Attachment and aversion, my old nemeses, are here again, accompanied by that universal cliché, common, unremarkable, ubiquitous death.
For the past ten days I have been experiencing the long forgotten physical feeling that comes when I must go through the death of a loved one. It is a feeling of having an empty ribcage and stomach. It is blankness. It is feeling like sleeping all the time; of waking up in the morning feeling sleepy. It is not possible to have a “good cry” because that person is still living now, yet they are gone and my eyes ache with holding back this ambiguity. It is a familiar feeling, though one which I had forgotten in the forty years since the last time I had had it. I had forgotten this physicality, this somatic aspect to emotional bleakness. Forty years ago I was in a nascent state of becoming an adult with only two decades of living behind me. I had somehow not yet learnt how to compartmentalize and just go on living no matter what was going on around me.
Forty years ago I was enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute, taking classes in serigraphy and painting, but I was consumed with living through my first experience of the death of a beloved. It broke me completely. I was sick with fear. Subsequently, I lived a kind of death myself. I did not attend many of my classes with Kanemitsu and Woelffer at Chouinard. Not only did I not participate fully in my Chouinard studio classes, I was seen as irresponsible, flakey, mercurial. The quintessential artistic temperament; am I right? Instead, I sat by the sickroom bedside. How observant was the first person who called it the sick room, because sickness seeps into the very doorframes, the joists, the motes in the sunlight and into the people who are in the room where someone is very sick, mortally sick. Physically and metaphorically, the sick room is where I stayed back then. It would be my room for the next decade.
A blue glass bowl with a peach, an apricot, and an apple sits on the mahogany desk beneath the hot open August window. In torpor the curtains stir. The fruit, sweet, sickly, perfumes her bedroom, the ironed sheets, the quiet white carpet and I sleep in terror next to her on the big bed. Will it be now? Or now? Or now?
This is all very good fodder for psychotherapy. But this reenactment is ultimately about the souls of the departing loved ones. Harder, much harder, is to envision their path. I cling to my life, my experience of it, harder and harder the worse things get because all I know about is living. And I may only experience another living being from within my own living body. To cross into another person’s life is impossible. For the next few days I will try to navigate the impermeable barriers between brain and brain. Later I will try to talk about it from outside egoistic boundaries.
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Why do artists create?
Happy as a lark, I pick up my wounded aesthetic self and plough on.
The one bit of so-called fame that I had gleaned has been yanked away. The American Surrealist Initiative show at the Saginaw Art Museum has been cancelled. Well. Well, at least it is not a direct rejection of my work, said Pollyanna.
This sucks, of course.
But, to take this out of the realm of common vulgarity, it’s all material, as Nora Ephron says in her most recent book. So what to do with this?
My friend Jody said in her email the other day, “What amazes me is that you are able to keep going. You have such strength.”
No, Jody, strength is not what it is. It is something like angry pigheadedness. It is perhaps mere foolishness. Compulsion? Madness? Despite evidence to the contrary, I paint as if someone out there actually cared about my work. This is not sensible behavior. This is not normal. Lacking acceptance, notoriety, “fame”, why do I keep doing this thing?
Which is the quintessential question, of course: why do artists create?
This is too big a topic, too generalized a question but, what the heck, I tackle paint and canvas every day and do it despite what common sense would dictate—that, for instance, I get a desk job—so I might as well, doggedly, try to answer the great unanswerable questions. It can’t make me any more foolish than I already am. I’m not going to pretend that I have universal answers or that I have formulated new breakthrough concepts. I’m just a person, here. But I am able to look at this question through the tunnel vision of my own little world. Narcissism anyone?
Why do artists create?
Let’s look at this from the perspective of a business student asking the question. Business is, after all, the great engine of our nation and, hence, it must be the great arbiter of motives and reasons for doing things. Right?
Do artists go into art to make money?
Some artists do, indeed, make money. Which begs the question, did they “go into” art to make money? I think not. While some (all? most?) business students go into business to make money, I hazard an educated guess that most artists do not go into art to make money. There may be the hucksters out there, artists who find a profitable niche concept and learn how to market it and go full-tilt to sell, sell, sell their creations to make money. No names please. But my gut feeling is that most—shall I say 90 percent?—of artists do not go into art to make money. It’s murkier than that.
Again, from the perspective of the business student asking the question:
Do artists go into art to become famous?
Ah, that fame thing. See how pervasive it is? It has to do with that narcissism thing too. How much attention can I, I, I wring from the world? Some (many?) business students go into business seeking fame. It is the vaunted corollary to the money thing. With fame comes money. Or is it, with money comes fame? The two are linked, arm in arm, the Jack and Jill of human enterprise. But do artists “go into” art to become famous? I think not. Generalizing the particular, here, I do not go into my studio and say,
“Today I seek fame. So, to do this thing, I think I’ll paint a goose girl.”
Really! Do you know of any artist who would say this? No matter how narcissistic, any sensible artist would have the pride not to say this out loud and in front of witnesses. But I have heard business school educated people say, “I want to become rich and famous.” Or is it famous and rich? With the fame, comes the money. Or is it the other way around? I quibble.
Now the business student asks:
What are the cost/benefits to becoming an artist?
One way of analyzing why artists create is to analyze their income versus their expenditures, and, as in the case of any profitable business, when the costs exceed the income benefits, the business ceases to exist. Do artists create because their benefits exceed their costs? Now we are closer to the answer to: “why do artists create?” Because most (many? all? few?) artists spend more money on their artwork than they get selling it. Ergo: artists create because they are: 1) bad at math, 2) stupid, 3) irresponsible, 4) possessed? For the answer, see below.
Artists create despite evidence to the contrary, despite costs exceeding sales. This implies certain madness, yes? Now I am very close to the crux of why artists create. They create because they cannot keep themselves from doing so. It has nothing at all to do with profit and loss. They are possessed, perhaps crazy.
Well, says the business student, sometimes it takes money to make money. So maybe artists create because they have a five year plan; yes?
Are you nuts!! Plan? What plan? If I knew an artist with a plan I would run screaming from her studio. But then that’s just me. Does an artist fresh from art school actually plan to create in a vacuum? Does she plan to go merrily along creating while stacking up all those rejections and blank stares from the world outside her studio? Does she plan to be poor? Plan for five years (hell, for forty years!) of no income, no comforting human accolades? Give me a break. Five year plans are for Chinese communists.
No, I think madness is the closest answer to the idiot question: why do artists create?
Madder, still, is the question itself?
Why do people ask: why do artists create?
Mad as a hatter, the artist creates despite being crazy as a loon.
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The Trite Simile Game
Like a bolt out of the blue,
Just when I had been
As busy as a bee,
as happy as a clam,
I was caught
Naked as a jaybird
By the news that was
as cold as ice.
It was as plain as day
that the exhibition was
as dead as a doornail.
As sour as vinegar,
I sustained another letdown.
It made me feel
as delicate as a flower,
as dry as dust,
as flat as a pancake,
as lowly as a worm,
as mad as a wet hen.
Naturally I proposed to get
Drunk as a lord,
as high as a kite,
as blind as a bat.
Obstinate as a mule,
as old as the hills
as hungry as a wolf,
I vowed to hit back
as straight as an arrow,
to be sharp as a razor and
brave as a lion.
Thus, innocent as a lamb, I was also
hot as hell,
mad as a hornet.
as patient as Job nor
as wise as Solomon,
I vowed to be,
as tough as nails.
Sober as a judge,
I vowed to paint again
as solid as a rock,
as silly as a goose,
as bold as brass.
And as crazy as a loon,
as cunning as a fox,
as cute as a button
I shall remain
as deaf as a post
when I am told the show is
dead as a dodo.
I will be
fit as a fiddle,
free as a bird,
still here painting
as busy as a cat on a hot tin roof,
as easy as pie,
as happy as a clown,
as large as life,
as light as air,
as mad as a hatter.
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Late Breaking News:
A Snowball Had a Better Chance in Hell
The American Surrealist Initiative show, curated by Michael S. Bell, to be held at the Saginaw Art Museum in 2008, has been cancelled.
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Extreme Narcissism of the Breath ©2005Mary E. Carter
What I Did On My Vacation
I flew away from my studio.
A grey-haired man with a receding hairline and a straggling pony tail sits down next to me at the Oakland airport. Flexing his creaking black leather jacket, he invades the armrests on both sides of his chair which includes my armrest. I continue reading my novel, holding it with my elbows tucked into my ribs. He dials his cell phone, talks, dials, talks, dials, talks. He talks very clearly, very loudly. I do not have to eavesdrop. He is a technical engineer for a rock and roll gig which is fund-raising for Republican candidates. He met the local candidate for congress during his last show. Does he repeat his story, again and again, to the people on the other end of his cell phone because they do not already know this about him? Or does he say this all for me? Am I a narcissist?
I stay with friends in the San Fernando Valley.
I was born in the San Fernando Valley. Back then, in 1945, it was dirt roads and orange groves. My mother was waiting out the war at my grandmother’s little ranch, pregnant, anxious, twenty-three. My father was in the Royal Air Force, away, somewhere, in danger. The scent of orange blossoms and mown alfalfa filled my mother’s pregnancy. That free perfume must have wafted into her bloodstream and into my own cells as I floated, a suspected twin, inside her comfortable encircling womb. As it turned out, I was a single, not a twin. The hot quiet of that farming valley provided an embrasure for my mother and her child; soft sunsets were the unsuspected prelude to the portentous killing flash of the first atomic bomb which was ignited in the August before my birth. My earliest memory is visual, my new eyes receiving their first retinal images from about eighteen inches off the ground upon which I toddled. There is sunshine, white clapboard, a purple bearded iris peering down at me, friendly, curious. Memories acquire accretions over my lifetime as my mother, over the years, gradually filled me in on her pregnant summer of ’45. Grandma had hens, geese, a cow, an apricot orchard. A letter to my father dated August 1945 says, “Thank God our child will be born into a world without war.”
Last week, visiting my friends Jody and Kim in the San Fernando Valley, I try to evoke the dirt roads, the orange groves. Grandma’s ranch was on Parthenia. Try to evoke its two dirt lanes now, here in 2006. Instead, I am in Blade Runner. A helicopter swoops down. A glass shard juts up. Cars, cars, cars, cars. People rushing, dealing, shouting into tiny mobile instruments, not really here, not actually there, but always in transit to a nether land of a simulacrum of a place in an interpretation of a perceived idea that is based on a concept of a place that is like a place, but not actually a place, called the San Fernando Valley. It is a treatment about, based on a book by someone whose option ran out years ago. It is dead. There is no such place. I am a stranger in a strange land. I grok nothing.
Window shades are drawn in my friend Jody’s daughters’ room—she is away at college; the daughter. A pale blue dawn infuses the room each morning and illuminates a hat rack upon which are draped an extravagant and amusing abundance of hairy and glittering purses. A FedEx airplane jets over the rooftop—I asked Jody which airline flies over the house in the wee hours and she guessed it was FedEx, not having noticed the sound herself before. The cat, Gomez, deaf, arthritic and senile, wails in the echoing kitchen where he wakes up on a somehow unfamiliar and threatening dog bed. He seems not to be able to stop howling until I enter his line of vision to break his spell of fuzzy anxiety. He chirps at me as I comfort him and whisper into his ear, “You’re my favorite. Don’t tell the others.”
Jody I know since forever. I met her the same night I met my husband, thirty-two years ago. She is the kind of old friend you do not have to explain things to and who will not hold you to your always having to behave correctly in her presence. We can whine at each other without it being unseemly.
“I had always thought I would write novels and that I would be on the Dick Cavett Show, dropping witty bon mots to an audience of my admiring readers,” she said.
Jody was the first woman vice president appointed at Grey Advertising in LA. Her appointment was a very big deal back in the late 70s when it took place. I remember her party to celebrate it; her holding court to hundreds of ad people at a big hotel bar, how elegant and poised she was, a clotheshorse redhead, her cigarette and martini, necessary accessories for her hard-won success in that era’s macho corporate setting. I had been in awe. At the age of 40 Jody quit drinking and smoking, had a child and, subsequently, quit her corporate job to raise her daughter, Kate. Kate, now nineteen, sings the classical repertoire and is firmly aimed at being an opera diva.
Jody introduces me to her horse. She shows me his hooves and the conformation of his neck muscle which droops slightly. He radiates a kind of catlike companionability. He swings his big head my way and breathes warmly at me.
In Los Angeles loud restaurants echo violently with shouting that escalates because nobody can hear what anybody else says, so they shout, ever louder, and on and on it propels upward, pumping the decibels until I am deaf. Cutlery collides with dinner plates. Waiters mumble something. What? Beg pardon? Huh? I nod, ignorant of content, order a mumble, and dine within a cacophony.
A teenage girl sits behind me on the plane. Since we are both seated on the window seats, she takes advantage of the little space between our seats and the body of the plane to put her bare feet, barely sandaled, up onto my armrest and directly under my right earlobe. It is not that her feet are dirty. I gesture to a bustling seating professional, pointing at my traveling companion’s toes and say, “Can’t we do something about this?” The seating professional shakes her head peevishly at me. Prickly, she says, “No, we can’t. You will have to move.”
I lie on a chaise lounge beside a vineyard in St. Helena. Over my head oak branches crackle with fall leaves and I am blinded by flashes of sunshine between their indolent waving. Some California oaks are evergreen and some are deciduous; either way, oak trees drop prickly leaves with a kind of nonchalant abundance that mocks the individuality of the single leaf. Without moving, I see above me an animation of the carelessness of Nature that Annie Dillard writes of so profoundly. If I imagine myself soaring upwards beyond my self-involved little ego, up into the dark space of, say, Pluto, I need to admit that I, too, am simply a singularity in a massive overabundance of egoisms. Seen one human being; seen ‘em all. Later I scrabble along a dirt road, grit dusting into my yellow huaraches. I pick a green oak leaf, selecting one that is just about to turn yellow and drop. It is a surprising shade of pea green, not at all what I would call “leaf” green. It is the exact, and I mean the precise, color of my purse!
My friend Joann is finishing a huge commissioned landscape—twelve feet by five feet—for the Napa County Courthouse. Her tiny vineyard studio is overwhelmed by the huge painting so that she and I have to get down on the floor to try to visualize how it will look when seen from about 15 feet above eye level, where it will be installed at the top of a staircase in the building. We discuss the perspective of the clouds and whether or not the bottom edge of the painting will be visible to viewers when seen from below. It is a very pure moment; two artists discussing paint on canvas. Soon the painting goes on to a life of its own, becoming part of the history of the Napa County Court House. What now—now that this is done?
Joann’s sister, Sue, is also finishing her commission for the same building. Her studio is dwarfed by her huge almost square picture. In a bold frontal view, she has rendered the skeletal branches of a monumental oak tree, mossy with age and weather. I see she includes indigenous birds, a second read, among the branches. The silhouette of a tree which stands outside her studio casts gently moving shadows onto her painting and the proportion is exactly right and the two trees, one painted, one alive, blend into a shimmering landscape of art and nature. There is a lonesome moment at the courthouse as I watch her place her last mark—her signature—on the back of her painting. Who will be the next human being to see that signature, her final brush strokes, on the back?
I am a cat magnet. Sitting in a garden they trot up to me, the bold ones, tails questioning, lighting lightly onto my lap, sitting proprietarily and haughty in front of their shyer companions who mill around on the grass and under the chair I’m sitting on. The shy ones finally gather their nerve—feinting and licking and dawdling—then they nudge the first lap-sitters off, and one by one, taking turns, each cat jumps up to greet me. I bend low over each one and whisper into their little felt ears, “You’re my favorite. Don’t tell the others.”
And the men of my vacation, where are they? My husband, Gary, stays home with our cats. He called me to tell me that the cranes were flying over our house, sure harbingers of winter. Kim, Jody’s husband, is happy to see me. He is a comedy writer and every once in a while I can make him laugh out loud. Scott, Joann’s husband, is free-er now—I think happier, too—now that he is a retired Superior Court Judge.
What do women talk about when they are together? This is an old question, of course. Men are always joking about what women talk about when men are not present in the room; something meaningful, something to do with feelings, something sensitive. Turned out into the grassy fields of their female friendships, women’s talk ranges somewhat like a foreign language, coded, understood, private, not exclusive of our spouses, but ineffably different in tone and manner from when they are in the room.
I return after two weeks. It is cold now, winter-bound. The key slugs into my studio door with a sharp clank and the screen door sounds its creaking three-notes like a radio creep show. It is Day of the Dead time where I live. As a souvenir of my vacation, I have a long, full skirt with skulls printed on it that I’ll soon be wearing.
I am glad to be home, to be in my own studio. I expend perhaps more energy being with friends I love than I would expend being with strangers; for I must pay attention, listen for inflection and meaning and try to understand, with the fullest and most attentive of my energies; I must listen and hear precisely what they are saying to me. It is an exquisite expenditure of energy. And, is it even possible to hear, really hear? We are so limited by our verbal skills. They are so small in comparison to what we might really want to communicate. But, limitations aside, I had needed to look at each of my friends directly in the eyes and so I had made my trip. Now I am drained and unbalanced.
After nearly two years of continuity to my painting, with very few interruptions, I had needed this long trip to see a dozen friends and live, for a moment, inside their dozens of lives. I am weary. The vacation has overwhelmed my senses. After twenty-four months of singular interior existence in my single room studio, in single-minded pursuit of my singular voice, working inside my own skull, I took a trip.
I. I. I, me, me, mine.
I had resided inside my own head so much that I had felt my social skills slackening. And so I traveled long and with intensity, listening, listening, talking, and talking. Now I am drained and silent, alone within the extreme narcissism of my own breath. No matter what, we breathe. Even in sickness, the breath goes in and out. It’s the ego of the body made manifest, so powerful in its “me-ness” that it never gives up no matter how happy, no matter how sad, in and out. The yogis say that the first breath of the newborn is an inhale and that the last breath of one who is dying is an exhale. On and on the body tends to itself and makes sure that oxygen feeds the cells which are ultimately the ego of an individual person. None of us, not even the holy ones among us, is so free of narcissism that we stop breathing.
I slump over my big door-desk. It is sloppy with splashes from all my paintings. They are stacked and leaning against the walls around me; a body of work spanning a period of time. But I have no energy. I sit in a glaring beam of morning sunshine and think, well, I think of nothing. I whisper to my studio: You are my favorite. Don’t tell the others.
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That Fame Thing
As one of the least-known artists in the US—for that matter, in the world, the universe—I know about fame. I keep a file in my studio of rejection letters dating back to the 80s. This may sound like a masochistic exercise, but I am no masochist. Nor am I a defeatist. But I do, from time to time, go through my file, poking down some poignant memory lane. I note that back in the 80s, when I had left one of my career incarnations to paint full–time, that as I gained momentum as a painter, that, as I got in more and better exhibitions and shows, that the quality of my rejection letters got better. No longer receiving mere form letters that filled in my name at the top as “Miss Craster” or “Ms. Cartwright”, at long last I was receiving small hand–written notes that revealed to me that someone had actually looked at the enclosed slides; I had graduated to “Dear Mary” with things like “we thought long and hard before returning your slides to you.” This was progress.
Recently, after having spent the past decade in my studio “full–time”, I have started sending out my portfolio again. Sometimes it comes back in an impossibly short period of time, given the US Postal System. Was it the mail carrier who rejected my work and popped it handily back in the mailbox? I am considering placing a single hair between the pages of my next outgoing portfolio, Philip Marlow–style, just to see if any human being has so much as even flipped casually through it. The nadir of portfolio reviews for me was the incident of the stabbing last spring. My very handsome portfolio was returned to me; stabbed! Right through the center of the front cover—which is a stiff intractable black plastic and which has a clear plastic pocket into which I slide a frontispiece of my latest image—there was a 2 inch stab wound. I tried to replicate this injury on one of my unused portfolios and I observe that it would have taken a lot of energy and strength to do a thing like that! A matter–of–fact little typewritten photocopy of a form letter informed a “Ms. Crater” that the portfolio was not acceptable. No kidding! Not a peep about the laceration.
What I wonder is why, exactly, when I have no name recognition—let’s face it I am a nonentity in today’s art world—why, then, do I seek my illusive brass ring when that world, in not uncertain terms, has already taken a pass on my work? And, let’s be candid, it is very late in my life to be still reaching? Why would I volunteer for so much rejection? That bit about not being a masochist is looking less and less true.
There is, however, one morsel of fame on my little butter plate. A curator named Michael S. Bell added my name to the list of invited artists to participate in the 2008 Saginaw Art Museum show “The American Surrealist Initiative”. At last! I was thrilled, childlike and gleeful, when I received his email response to my portfolio and to see that my name had been added to his list of invitees. Of course, there is always the chance that later on Mr. Bell will see my name on his list and say, “Mary Carter? Oh, not that Mary Carter” and off I’ll slip, back into oblivion.
That lovely email acceptance arrived at my computer in August of 2005. At the very moment that it arrived on my computer, I had been online looking at photographs of people in New Orleans who had just been, worse than devastated, literally shunted cruelly aside and I had been crying, stupid, impotent, when I saw my thrilling email acceptance. Fame and pain, more than just imperfect approximate rhymes, are fiendish twins for me. And so, my pitiful fame jerked me back and forth between horror and pride. Fame, alloyed with the dross witness of hideous suffering, was ludicrous that day.
As we learned at our parents’ knees: pride goeth before a fall.
One morsel of recognition served up with a bitter draft. How do I balance this juxtaposition? Balancing is, after all, part of my chart; I am a Libran. What do I do with this thing? I had thought that being an artist in these deeply ugly times was bad enough; but this was atrocious! There was, and is, no justification for my narcissistic pursuit of “art” when these human travesties overwhelm me.
I have walked into my studio every day for the past decade. An early riser, I am most able to get into my little groove by 7:30 in the morning. Coffee, hot, makes delicious steamy swirls into the cold studio air. I turn on lights, it seems like winter here, and I walk around my work in progress. I work standing; hovering over my paintings which lie on tables, face up, waist high. I hoist the current painting into the vertical, lean it against the wall, sit across the room and sip my coffee to assess progress. Mostly, I hear Bob Edwards, lately on Satellite Radio; his sonorous good humor is the background of my morning’s consciousness.
My recent paintings may be viewed with almost any side “up”. This may be because of the way I work with them in their horizontal position. I am constantly moving, walking, dashing around and around, applying paint from any side of the painting, so that now the concepts of “top”, “sides” and “bottom” seem to have lost relevance to my completed paintings. When I start a painting, I do have a preconceived notion of which way is “up”, but often when I’m standing on this side or that, I see a different “top”. I see things, ideas, metaphors, that I had not consciously been working at. I like this so much that I have taken to signing my works on the backs so as not to place a basement on them. Let the viewer decide which way they should be displayed.
Like lovers, each painting I am with in the present tense, is my favorite, my most beloved. At completion, the metaphorical cigarette wafts smoke to the ceiling and it is over.
Working, I tune in contemporary electronic heartbeat thrusting music. My current studio is so excellently soundproofed that I may turn up the sound to painful levels and not disturb the neighbors. I have to shut out consciousness while I work. Yet some fiendish curiosity about my world, the real one, the ugly one, tugs me to change the station and see if something else incomprehensibly horrible has happened while I was otherwise so dreamily engaged. Plunk, plunk, plunk, I descend into its morass. By noontime I am finished.
How could fame diffuse the inconsolability of the world? Would it even do so? Do the lovely creatures in the Sunday papers, with their legendary fame, feel any less awful in this world, than I feel in mine, anonymous?
This is my atmosphere, my fantasy; the lone artist in the echoing studio, alone with her self–possessed incandescence, her tiny ant–like activity, her tremulous hairlike feelers tip–tapping the surface of her next great unrecognized futility. Fiendish fame lures me with its narcotic’s promise to reward this foolishness; soon, soon, but not now.
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If: Goose Girl(s)
I have a very hard time talking about my paintings; I mean with actual people. It’s especially bad during our community open studios event which takes place during one weekend of each year. People are invited to our studios to see us and our work and our creative environments. When the first car drives up my driveway, I am overwhelmed by a state of verbal anesthesia. I freeze. I go blank. I am so rattled by people’s interest and their honest, if not somewhat self–conscious, questions about my work, that I can barely mumble a few clichés in their direction. Even small talk is deeply anxiety provoking for me. My voice quavers. I sound inane, or worse, inebriated. For me, the open studios event is twenty–four excruciating hours of stammering embarrassment. I’m so relieved when it’s all over.
I am, however, a master of l’esprit d’escalier: those urbane, witty, brilliant comments you think of just as folks are leaving down the staircase. I’m hopeless.
The first goose painting I attempted was back in 1981. Inspired by the story of Leda and the Swan, I had wanted to paint a swan/goose/girl in some kind of flight or passionate leap. Unfortunately, I did not have the conceptual skills at that time to visualize an image that was other than decorative. So my goose was more whimsical than I would have wanted. It was polka dotted in a high color palette and was thoroughly charming. Looking at it, I felt an odd kind of stomach–tension, as if my stomach were holding its breath. I felt anxious the way I do when walking into my dentist’s office. I had failed. My painting had failed, utterly.
About ten years later I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw, as if for the very first time, the Greek vessels–you know, the ones with the bird–headed human creatures and the humans with equine buttocks and all the other wondrous creature/people. I had looked at those objects hundreds of times, both in museums and in books. It must have been that new brain cells had formed in my head since my last viewing of them, because it was as if I had NEVER seen these figures before and suddenly I was able to take them in, to digest them, and to think about them.
On that same visit to the Met, I discovered a heartbreakingly beautiful little bronze–tucked in a kind of darkened corner–which depicted Leda and her Swan. It was almost pornographic in its intensity. The passionate cross–creature embrace was unashamedly orgasmic. Just a little thing, that bronze. I visited it again, twice, and each time I was mesmerized, engrossed, hypnotized (is this too florid?); I was entranced, by its intensity.
Every once in a while I would think about Leda and the Swan. Swan? Why on earth would a god, Zeus, presumably all–powerful, decide to transform himself into a swan for his courtship of a beautiful mortal human woman named Leda? What could he have been thinking?! What could she have been thinking? I have been approached by all kinds of guys with all kinds of intentions, but I can’t believe that I would have fallen for a swan. Well, not truly, madly, deeply. Never mind the rest of it: the embrace, the heavy breathing. Penetration? I must be more skeptical in my age and time than Leda was in hers.
In 1998 I started a series of paintings unlike any I had done before. One of those, “Animus”, shows a bird headed female creature stepping up into flight. Deep bands of atmosphere are cut through by the figure which rises upward, thrusting athletic quadriceps in a powerful vertical lunge. If the arms are transforming into wings and my use of several arms on one side of her body represents the multiple–image shorthand of a cartoon pumping action, then is she about to fly? Or if those several arms infer the multi–armed goddess figures of Eastern iconography, is she divine? A raptor beak cries out. Or sings? If I had been subconsciously focusing on Leda and the Swan when I painted this piece, then “Animus” came from that subconscious source. I can, with certainty, say that Leda was not in my consciousness when I did that painting.
About now, I can see why I have so much trouble at open studios. There is a cascade of information, thoughts, parenthetical phrases, questions, edits, reconsiderations, recapitulations, and comparisons for every single painting I paint. No. That should read: “for every single element in every single painting I paint”. I am buried under an avalanche of chattering visions, murky associations, and hasty addendums – all chugging, churning, charging around in my brain. When a viewer asks about my work, I am confused by my own mind’s unintelligible, irretrievable, gibberish. I stumble.
In my “Goose Girl Dancing” of 2005, the female figure with the goose head, again, danced onto my canvas. If she leaps or swims, arching her spine to show off her pregnant belly, is it a happy gesture? If her beak is open, is it a cry or a laugh? She has one transforming hand and one wing firmly sprouting where her other arm would be. If I had, again, picked out an image from my preoccupations, she, too, could have referred to Leda and the Swan.
Recently, I read an interesting article in Communication Arts magazine. The author, an illustrator, suggested that you periodically review your work by making photocopies, preferably black and white, of each and every image or object that you have produced throughout your artist career. Shuffle them around out of chronological order. Look for thematic similarities. By making photocopies, you are once–removed from the busyness of color or scale and you can see with a fresh eye the sometimes hidden or unnoticed content of the works.
This is not quite the technique I used when I first noticed the similarities between my 1998 “Animus” and my 2005 “Goose Girl Dancing”. In this case, making room for another painting, I simply took my dancing goose girl down from the wall, made a half turn, and propped it up against the first thing it came in contact with: “Animus”. Aha!
If “Goose Girl Dancing” had as its progenitor “Animus”, or even my first Leda/Swan, that decorative, unsuccessful little painting from 1981, then I must have more than just a passing subconscious interest in this as a theme. Once I saw this pair, I quickly shuffled thru my slides and found other Ledas, other swans.
I see that “Daughter of Leda”, painted around 1999, is another one. For that painting I had consciously tried to imagine what sort of female creature would have been born out of the union of human and swan. (I understand that there were twins, actually, who resulted from the union of Leda and her swan. Never mind.) My 1999 “Daughter of Leda” combines both human and bird anatomies. She appears to struggle against the very edges of her painted surface, pushing at her perimeters. It is as if she were growing too large for that canvas and will soon push out the very edges of her constraints. She is very like Alice when she ate something that made her very large. In this version of Leda, one hand is very strong, masculine. She sprouts inadequate wings. Are they sprouting? Her legs, human, push and transform into bird legs. If her heart’s desires are the pink birds that spring from her chest, she is not only a human transforming into a bird, but a bird with human heart’s desires. Is this true?
As I line up these paintings, I see their relativity; I feel a visceral surge of energy in the area of my chest or heart. I see, and paint, very quickly, four more paintings in 2006: “Fecundity”, “Parthenogenesis”, “Illumination on Pluto”, and “Goose Girl Globe”. If my goose girls are one creature, are these her various incarnations? If my goose girls are several creatures, are they sisters, mothers, bearers of the same mitochondrial DNA? If I ask too much of my goose girl, will she disappear? If I ignore her, will she go on living in my own subconscious?
If I talk about her, does that diminish her? Or me?
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Advertising Slogan Rant #1: “Senior Citizen”
It’s a good thing I have the perspective of having worked as an advertising copywriter in the halls of corporate-est America. I know a lot about the etiology of the words “Senior Citizen” in a marketing sense. Firstly, it is the name of a target audience in the world of “consumers”. It is also a glib advertising slogan or catchphrase, which names, classifies, judges, pigeonholes and communicates and gives everybody an all-too memorable phrase to describe what is always much more complex. And, quite deviously, “Senior Citizen” is also a form of marketing doublespeak; it is pejorative and connotes the exact opposite of “seniority”. Being senior connotes experience over time, superiority to others, and competence at a task. Contrarily, coming from the halls of contemporary advertising, “Senior Citizen” brings with it an automatic, subliminal, demotion.
First a little background.
Let’s say you start out working at a company as a “junior” level employee. A Junior Copywriter, for instance. If, after fulfilling the dreams and aspirations of your upper management, you, the younger writer shows yourself to be able to jump thru impossible hoops, and if you are personable, well groomed, and just kissy enough to satisfy upper management (but not so ingratiating as to offend your creative peers), well, then one day you get the title “Senior Copywriter”. Oftentimes you get the title with no extra pay. Not until later. That way you can amortize your title over an unspecified period of time until they cough up the raise and, surprise, it will have been pennies a day. But I carp.
Nice little compensations abound with your new title. “Senior” confers its little perks. Now you can lord it over the kids in the training program, the crispy new MBAs who, everybody knows, will eventually lord it over YOU when they get into the corner office. With “Senior” appended to your calling card, you can lord it over other departments at your company. A “Senior” Copywriter is always (in her own estimation), well, senior: to marketing, research, production, human resources and staff. So you get a little puffed up. It’s fun when people start to kiss up to you or at least to pretend they do. That’s how the word “senior” gets its cachet. Nothing more fun than throwing your weight around!
So how come when you get the title “Senior Citizen” you get an automatic demotion?
Here’s how that works:
“Senior Citizen” connotes a supposed seniority, it’s a corporate reward-construct which, in real life, confers no additional income or value on its conferee. In fact, the title “Senior Citizen” confers a kind of societal pity. It is especially devious in the area of the “Senior Discount”. Here, at last, you are given a perk for being a so-called “Senior”. Finally, I have earned some respect! But look! It is really quite the opposite. You, the “Senior Citizen”, with your nice rewarding “Senior Discount”, are actually some kind of incompetent “junior” citizen who can barely provide for yourself. (Unfortunately, this is all too pitifully true in the lives of too many people aged five decades or more. Sadly, pathetically, it goes without saying, most people have less income when they are older human beings. How ironic, then, to be referred to as “senior” when in reality you are not in a position of seniority, with all its connotations of power and accomplishment.) Poor you, the title “Senior Citizen” infers. Poor you, the “Senior Discount” infers. The implication, hidden in these words is that “Junior Citizens” are more competent. After all, they can afford to pay full fare.
But there is further semantic hanky-panky in the words “Senior Discount”. First, the aforementioned connotation that you, the “Senior Citizen”, could not, due to some failure or incompetence in yourself, pay full fare. But it goes on. Advertising copy is crafted to project attitudes onto people. When an advertising slogan projects the notion that you are somehow incompetent to pay full fare, that notion tends to get further projected onto your totality as an older human being. The subliminal message is that you could not, due to incompetence or failure, say nor do anything of value. Check.
We live in the gulag of the “Senior Citizen”–separate, unequal, a special needs group, hobbling along out there somewhere, no longer part of the rest of the citizenry, poor, sick, stupid, homely. “Senior Citizen” as a title dispenses us conveniently off to Pluto. Divide and conquer is the mother’s milk of marketing and advertising. They call it market segmentation and it starts with labels. A single–category title, “Senior Citizen”, implies we are nothing but our age. Beware the label that describes only one, and merely the most simplistic, of your descriptors. Copywriter–well, I am so much more than just a copywriter. Artist–well I am so much more than just an artist. Woman–but I am so much more than only a woman. “Senior Citizen”–I am so much more than merely old.
On the bright side, said Pollyanna, some of us are still smart enough to parse an advertising slogan. The conferee of the title/label “Senior Citizen” starts to feel a little bilked, when she groks the deeper meaning of the message: it is in fact the very opposite of “senior” that I have become, not one of higher status or even one who can lord it over the underlings, but one who is very subtly condescended to. Being labeled a “Senior Citizen” is the antithesis of an honorific. It is pure advertising. “Senior Citizen” is slogan, slang, which is crafted to fit older people into a simplistic grammatical context and in so doing, to dismiss them entirely. The words “Senior Citizen” are semantically crafted to give people a handy, charming, harmless little moniker, a cute little nickname, to append to otherwise complex older human “others”. Many a so–called “Senior Citizen” refers to herself as a “Senior Citizen”. Stop that! Stop doing that! Whenever the urge to use an advertising slogan comes over you or, worse, if one pops out of your mouth automatically, slap your hand over your mouth! Rearrange your neurons, compose yourself! Then peel your hand away and say that you’re going to faint. Say you’re getting a hot flash. Say you can’t remember what it was you were about to say. But do NOT repeat an advertising slogan!
Do not denigrate your subtle, intricate, seasoned, burnished intelligent and accomplished “self” by repeating glib, manipulative, contrived, slick, sick, sickening, simplistic advertising language to describe that self.
Now, back to the studio!
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Proto–blogger: That’s Me.
Back in 1994 I started to write about my backyard flock of chickens on The WELL. I became The Chicken Lady. Little did I know, little did anyone at The WELL know, that what I was doing then was to foreshadow things to come on the Internet. The WELL, founded by Stewart Brand, was a living experiment in online communication. With my Chicken Lady posts I started by telling a simple story; free association grew as I riffed on my hens. I interacted with readers as they followed my writings for several years. I do not mean to sound pompous, but I know my writing as The Chicken Lady on The WELL touched souls. I was a kind of proto–blogger.
So now I’m doing it again. My topic this time: art and aging.
Who better than a surrealist painter to tweak conventional concepts of aging? Who better than one of the original proto–bloggers to do this in an interactive medium?
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Blogs have certainly changed since my Chicken Lady days; metastasized, unfortunately, sickeningly multiplying like germs. Whatever happened to “less is more”? I see bloat. I see overdressed, glitzy, technological whiz-bangs, laden with lists: lists of other blogs; pointers to must-see magazines, newspapers, and web sites; lists of painters, doctors, plumbers, the weird, and the wonderful! Peppered with alluring pale blue links, blogs tempt the skittering consciousness of the ever–scattered viewer, tempting me to leave their sites and read about something else. Why would you do this thing? Why would you want to tempt someone to leave your blog? Is a puzzlement. And the sheer crush of offerings–does it confer glamorous wisdom–on the reader, on the blogger? Both? Neither? Does a photo of your own face on your blog every day actually signify? Reading–no, one does not read but, rather, flits–through tidbits, odds and ends, through shimmering, insubstantial moats. The logolepsy! The narcissism! No wonder people feel inattentive. I bounce around these offerings with increasing nausea. I click off. I seek a garden, a kitchen, a darkened room to, yeagods, to rest. I know with a kind of fuzzy, dizzy, anxious sureness that there is a better way to do this thing. I propose not only my own reinvention, but a slight “tinkering” of the very medium I choose to work in–the so–called blogosphere.
Keep it simple. Make it human. Speak slowly. Pay attention.
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Exquisite Corpse Marches to Own Drumbeat
My painting has evolved over 40 years into figurative surrealism. I seek to paint certain enchanted states of mind, ineffable dreams, to reveal images which are just out of reach. I paint the quiet, weird meanderings of my own subconscious. My historic forebears used the Exquisite Corpse to tweak preconceived notions of what was “right” or “correct” in art. Similarly, I work with the human figure in my paintings. But I work alone. My work evolves out of my interaction with the human form as I cut it apart and reassemble it. My paintings grow as much from my hands working as from my brain thinking. I alter and rearrange body parts, organs, and poses as I develop my work. By redrawing and rearranging the human forms, I open the doors of my perception to access my own sub and pre–conscious material. My paintings can act as Rorschach tests–different viewers see different things. Throughout my rearrangements I challenge my own notions of artistic correctness. Who would want to do this thing?
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Doesn’t anybody just paint anymore? Just?
As I paint, I pursue convincing virtuosity leavened with virtuous accidentals. I allow my subconscious to tinker with allegory and metaphor. I try to paint lyrically, stuck as I am in this era of cynicism. I am successful if my work stirs the viewer’s solar plexus. I am not seeking a thinking viewer, a well-connected viewer, an educated viewer. I want a viewer who can see. Melt into my eerie luminosity, profound and magical. You can see where this gets me; without a trendy veneer of cynicism, I am naked. I cannot feign that I painted what I painted to jape painting. If my paintings are banal, it is not because I am trying to make them so. I am without distance. I am not joking about art – not looking for my place in art history, not doing a simulacrum of any pre–existing painting style, not seeking the most shocking image, not, (certainly not!) marketing my work. I’m not trying to be more clever than anyone else. As much as possible I want my paintings to come from my stomach, not my brain and I guess I want more viewers who can see with their stomachs too.
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For months I have been working on a proposal for an important grant. As I have worked on my project proposal, written my career narrative, and assembled my other materials for consideration, I see that I am somewhat peripheral to my various career incarnations; even an outsider. Stunned and paralyzed by my mother’s death, I could not concentrate and did not go to many classes while at Chouinard. A wary observer in corporate settings, I discovered I was just too quirky to be a model corporate citizen. A one book author, I was–what?–shocked, disappointed, crushed, (enter other unworthy feeling here_____) when I saw that the world had not rushed to my door after its publication. I was positively prehistoric as a blogger, way ahead of the popularity curve with Chicken Lady. And as a graphic design entrepreneur, I was ever impatient to get back to my studio. In the studio, I am very productive, but scarcely exhibited; not exactly a Sunday painter but certainly not in the mainstream. On the one hand, I am grateful for not having to live up to gallery expectations as to output or style. I am free to paint my own vision. Then again, I am not satisfied in my almost complete anonymity. Least–known of painters I would, however, like to be just a little bit less least–known.
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Just My Opinion; Don’t Shoot!
Now I better define and explore “contemporary surrealism” and see where I fit in. First of all drop the “contemporary” which simply means “current”. Here are the categories of surrealism as I see them:
Woowoo Surrealism: a kind of mooshy sentimentalism for all things mysterious or uncanny; dream or trance–induced; angels, spirits and the reincarnate; messages from outer or inner space,
Movement Surrealism: generally left–leaning, somewhat revolutionary artists who write political manifestos (long) and create art (when?),
Surrealism–lite: accessible sometimes humorous works of art which employ quirky juxtopositionism as a kind of visual stimulus to free association; very popular for bathrooms,
Outsider Surrealists: generally untrained in traditional methodology or art history; artists who march to the beat of their own psychological drums and inadvertently (it is thought) come up with surreal imagery,
And Classical Surrealists: generally traditionally trained artists, who by some dint in their characters are drawn to items one and two in this list, but who are able to paint, draw or sculpt with an “edge” and to do it with some facility.
That and twenty–five cents will go towards a cup of coffee.
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My technique is “lean”; I use acrylic paint like watercolor, watering it down to stain the canvas and thinning the color with acrylic medium to create transparent glazes.
I paint things, people, objects and settings that viewers of my work do not see in their everyday lives. They cannot see the things I paint until I paint them, until I show them my paintings. I am a great demonstrator, I am one who points out, who reveals, all kinds of things unseen. I present the unseen situation, thing, or creature to an often baffled viewer. I show things that few would seek to see. And, not seeking to see my kind of subject matter, it is fascinating and frustrating for me to discover how often the viewer of my work does not, can not, see my work at all. The work, being “not real” gets labeled “surreal”.
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Oh come on, Surrealism is dead.
Hell. Painting is dead or haven’t you noticed? Yet, still, I resuscitate it. Them.
I paint. I paint surreal, “not real”, subject matter. You know, people only refer to my kind of subject matter as surreal because it is otherwise “not real”. But the word “surrealism” comes with a lot of historic and cultural baggage with which I have to grapple. There are, on the one hand, an entrenched line of historic forebears like Tanning, Varo, Ernst, Dali and all the rest and on the other hand, there are other surrealists who pile onto the contemporary scene with any and all paintings that have less–than–real subject matter. There are, of course, the wonderful, the wondrous, as well, painters who show the viewer something ineffable; words do not quite work to describe this category of artist who paints the “not real”. In a way these artists are, indeed, the real surrealists. When I call myself a “surrealist”, I am in danger of sounding: 1) pretentious, 2) ridiculous.
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Getting older, more people we know die. Now it is the friends. I had a friend, an occasional friend, whose missing presence in the world hurt badly when I found out that he had died. I would not have thought that losing so distant a friend would hurt at all. Never a lover; not even a particularly close friend from my past, I cried when my husband read me the email about his death.
He was an artist. He died age sixty.
I would have thought it possible to get used to this. John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King; Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. Susan Sontag, Wendy Wasserstein. Death of hero-strangers is not unfamiliar to me, aged sixty. Does any other generation have so many public deaths under its belt? I wonder? But this death is strictly private; the passing of a friend.
My friend was Tim Clark and this year he died. Funny, though ironic, I had been wondering, lately, what had become of him? Wondering if he were a grandfather; unimaginable for a man who was so deeply individualistic and inherently rebellious. Rebellious! How quaint that sounds! How inadequate to describe Tim’s insistence on never, ever, doing the expected. This made him a great painter, this recalcitrance, as he fled the mundane, the historic.
Tim was the guy who did that great painting of Fats Domino; absolutely nailed it. And that painting became iconic.
When I heard he had died, age sixty, I Googled him, of course. He did not have much of an online presence that I could discover; mainly web sites of various reps he’d had. I saw that his work had stayed nice and quirky. Not much there. Oh, Tim! You probably hated technology! Or not.
What he loved was surfing; blonds; thirties tailoring. He was a natty dresser. What he ate was hamburgers. One day he blew into our house, no knock, no doorbell, skinny, skinny shirt riding his ribcage, floppy pants, hip–borne, standard–bearer for a hairstyle called “the shag” and said, “Jimi Hendrix is dead.” I can hear it.
We only crossed paths a few times. Each time I was with a different boyfriend.
Tim was a classmate of my boyfriend Tom when they both attended Chouinard Art Institute. Tom brought Tim and Tim’s girlfriend of that time up to visit me in Stockton CA where I was going to college at the University of the Pacific. We did nothing much. Later that same year, say it was 1966 or so, Tom said that Tim was house-sitting up in the Silverlake hills and that we should pick him up there to go dancing at Pandora’s Box on the Sunset Strip. That was it. We picked Tim up. We danced. Not much.
In 1969 I had a new boyfriend. Michael. And it came around to his wanting to take me to meet his parents. We drove up into the Silverlake hills, pulled up in front of a house and I said, “Hey I’ve been here before.” Tim’s house–sitting house; turns out Michael and Tim grew up together.
In 1974 I met Gary, my own true love as it would turn out; we are still married. Gary was an art director on the Datsun automobile advertising account. He had hired Tim to do some illustrations for him. And there was Tim again on the edges of my life.
Tim and I drove to Malibu once in his Karman Ghia which, characteristically, broke down. We talked. The next year, when I had moved to San Francisco, Tim and his new girlfriend came to visit me. As I say, not much, not much.
I can honestly say I can’t remember the last time I saw Tim. Now, it is a kind of strange nostalgia I feel, a familiar dip into a past life, for just a moment, hearing of his death. And I remember the unremembered moment; Tim at Maxfield Bleu on Little Santa Monica modeling a pinstriped suit he was going to purchase, swaying back and forth in front of a three–way mirror in perfect dove gray, thumbs caressing flaring lapels, two pleat Dagwood pants, elegant; dancing.
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