Monthly Archives: June 2011

A Story of Creation – Post 1

"Figure and Leaves in Rain" Lawrence Russ

“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu

Post 1 of 2:  The Photograph,

From time to time in these posts, I’ll write about an image that has caught me in its spell.  No, my present subject isn’t the sorcerous tree above, which is mine.  My flimsy excuse for putting it here (not that I need one — hey, it’s my blog) is that it led me to discover the superb artwork below – “Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu, a young Vietnamese-American photographer — because both were included in the recent “Seeing Seeing” exhibition at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut.   (The obviously-discerning juror was Felice Frankel, a celebrated science photographer.)

A little .jpeg, especially one that’s sized to fit the confines of this column, and especially if it’s a long panoramic, can hardly do justice to its original .  The framed dimensions of Van Chu’s exhibited photo were 24 x 74″.  So I’ve also provided a larger .jpeg of the image, which you’ll see if you click on the one below.

"Mushrooms & Trees 5" Van Chu

The first thing that happens to me when I immerse myself in this image is that I feel its spatial depth, its large apparent scale, which results from its atmospheric perspective, from the way its clouds seem to thin out as they retreat toward a distant horizon, from the backward tilt of the body of liquid at the bottom of the frame, from the difference in sizes among the smaller shapes rising at its center and the enveloping cover of cloud above them.  And then, looking more closely at the work’s details, I enter into the rhythms of floating and curling and wavering shapes, of darkening or brightening spaces, of shifting areas of turbulence or calm.

Then we home in on the points of sharpest focus, especially the three vertical “trees” at the bottom center of the frame, which seem to grow upward from a relatively calm expanse of liquid.  They draw our attention not only because they’re centrally placed and comparatively solid, but because they’re backlit by the brightest area in the photo.  Yet even those three more definite shapes are calligraphic, somewhat unstable and insubstantial, as though they’re not just growing from some kind of ground, but still in the process of coming into being.  The suggestive title increases this impression (and yes, I do appreciate titles that actually do something):  “Mushrooms & Trees  5.”

Our first reaction when we compare the title to what we see is likely to be “Wait a minute, there aren’t any real mushrooms or trees in this photo.”  Our next thought may be “Well, I guess you could say that those shapes are the beginnings or the ghosts of mushrooms or trees,” leading us to think that what we’re witnessing is a stage in the spectral creation of living things.  We think of mushrooms as growing in the dark, and certainly this image is pervaded by a dark, mysterious, brooding atmosphere that brings to my mind the words “and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . and God divided the light from the darkness.”

But our view is also affected by our presence in this year 2011 A.D. (the photograph was made in 2010).  Which of us can see this image and not think at least briefly of, say, the natural disasters we’ve seen this year, the roiling clouds from which tornados grow, or the “mushroom clouds” of nuclear explosions.  Or we might see oil in those viscous black shapes, the oil of devastating spills, or the enormous billows of smoke from burning wells in post-invasion Kuwait or Iraq.

At the same time, the image remains a dance of drifting, curling, flowing shapes, of delicious gradations of black and white, of implied motion as in a Jackson Pollock “drip” or “action” painting.  But Pollock’s rhythm is more likely to resemble that of boxing, with flurries of punches, jabs, hooks; Van Chu’s rhythm is more like the rhythms of Tai Chi, flowing and curving like the motions of water in a trance.

If we’re open and attentive to our experience, we can see that the whole of it or any part of it may play its role in any moment.  A vivid dream or nightmare can color our feelings for hours after waking.  A stray piece of scrap metal seen on the beach may bring to mind war or societal waste.  A song may flood us with emotions that we felt during the year in our childhood when we first heard it.  Van Chu’s photograph, as good art does,  opens us to a concentrated vividness and variety of associations, to a greater-than-usual wholeness in the moment.

But the qualities of Van Chu’s imagery don’t summon up only a host of contemporary and personal evocations; they also recall and revive the artistic and spiritual tradition that inspired Van Chu:  of the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist painters of  inkbrush calligraphy and landscapes, a tradition that blossomed late in the First Milllennium, in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties of China.  I hope that you’ll follow me into the realm of Quo Xi, Ni Zan, Ma Yuan, and their descendant Van Chu, in Post 2 of “A Story of Creation.”

“To the Unknown Friend”

For those of you who may not know it already, I took the phrase “the unknown friend” from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in one of his journals in the Spring of 1848:

“Happy is he who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts & not from the necessity of sale—who writes always to the unknown friend.”

This sentence is just one of the many for which I’m lovingly indebted to Mr. Emerson.

In a speech to the Academy of American Poets in 1958, Robert Frost said that he had often thought that he would like to name in a poem the men he thought of as our four greatest Americans:  George Washington, as our pre-eminent statesman and general; Thomas Jefferson as our political thinker; Abraham Lincoln as our martyr and savior; and Emerson as our poet.

Art as Experience

"Tea Ceremony (spillway)" Lawrence Russ

What I’m about to say to you is, in a sense, simple, though its ramifications are not.  This will be an essential foundation for much that I’ll have to say in future posts, and it’s crucial for truly understanding art photography and the other arts.

Yes, many forces and purposes go into an artwork’s making, like the urges for self-expression or self-discovery, and motivations both conscious and unconscious.  But the finished work, in the way that ultimately concerns (or should concern) the one who makes it and the one who receives it, is the shaping of a medium or media in order to create an experience in another person.  Once it’s made, the work can be rightly perceived, understood, and valued only by giving yourself to that experience and knowing first-hand (in the metaphorically-Biblical sense, you might say) what that experience is and what it does to you.

The measure of a work of art ought to be how much life it brings to you, in the present and for the future.  How often have people said of great photography that it teaches them not just to look, but to see?  And I think, for instance, of the opera conductor who declared that the two hours he was spending each night watching Maria Callas in Tosca were far more real to him than anything else going on in his day.

The psychologist Carl Jung wrote that we all have, to differing degrees, four basic modes of orienting ourselves to reality:  physical sensation, emotion, intellect, and intuition.  Isn’t it interesting to note how close this is to the Old Testament’s exhortation to love God “with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all they strength, and with all thy mind”?  An artwork that is whole employs all four modes to good effect, not just one or two.

I’ve seen many, many photographs that are very little more than striking color patterns or geometric designs, with perhaps a bit of pleasing texture.  I see too many inexpressive closeups of peeling paint, especially on old cars.  Though I’ve taken those kinds of pictures myself (and you probably have, too — why not?), I’m unlikely to exhibit them in public.  My vote is with Van Gogh, who wrote in a letter:  “I’d rather be an honest cobbler than just a magician with colors.”

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Welcome to Artists, Lovers of Art, and Unknown Friends

[Although this first post is addressed mainly to my fellow artists, I hope that this site will interest anyone who loves art, anyone interested in the topics that I take up here, and anyone whose singular curiosity or wayward impulse draws him or her to this corner of the Web.  This first post will continue to be available under the “My Purpose Here” tab at the top of this site’s home page.  I hope that you’ll join me here again – and join in – soon.]

Yes, in some ways what you’ll find here will be like what you find on other sites:  descriptions of gear and techniques that were used to produce a particular image, reviews of exhibitions and books, meditations on admired work by famous or little-known photographers.  But you’ll also find types of writing and subjects that you may not find elsewhere.  I hope that when I write, say, on the death-longing that shapes certain kinds of commercial photography, or on the reasons why beauty makes Edward Burtynsky’s “ugliness” more powerful, you’ll find that we’re swimming in deeper waters than usual, or climbing farther into the mountains.

If you’ve been graced (burned, inspired, or deranged) by the art-making fire, then you know that keeping it going, stoking it, trying to spread it, is like being a resistance fighter in occupied territory.  You have to cope each day with the assaults of a society whose values are aggressively opposed to your efforts, that aims to stifle any voice calling into question the value of its trinkets and trash.  You have to resist the bribes for turning a blind eye to official wrong and mass delusion.  You have to bear up against outer voices telling you that what matters dearly to you doesn’t really matter at all.  You have to fight the inner voice insisting that you don’t have the know-how, the gear, the courage to carry out your mission.  (If you want to see this story on film, try Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician.)

Even genius (and sometimes genius least of all) fails to bring immunity.  I think with sadness of Tu Fu, one of the greatest poets in literature, who spent most of his years as a civil servant in exile, far from friends and cultured society, his poems known only to a few fellow writers. Or I think of Edvard Munch (whose work my wife and I, then living in Chicago, drove through the mountains in a blizzard to see at the National Gallery in Washington). He was brutally persecuted for his gorgeous, ground-breaking works by the bourgeoisie of late 19th-century Norway.  No doubt you have your own essential list of such examples.

We say, “It’s a miracle that real art gets made at all.”  I like that cliched sentence because it says not only that the odds against us are great, but that what happens despite them is indeed a miracle.  Such miracles, time and again, sustain us.  As I hope that this site will also do for you.

I’ve worked not only as an art photographer and poet, but as a lawyer in private practice and in public service, and as an arts administrator and advocate, dealing with deceitful corporate executives, corrupt public officials,  sexual predators in federal agencies and in the ranks of feted (or is that fetid?) poets, members of the Mob, and other such fellow creatures.  I know that what happens in novels and movies happens outside of them, too.  But all my experience in the alleged “real world” hasn’t shown me that art is frivolous or inconsequential.  Quite the contrary.

In this site, I’ll bring to bear not only my experience in the arts, but my encounters in those other societal realms in order to make my case for what matters.  In my social battles, as well as in my artistic labors, works by Beethoven, Balzac, Coltrane, Kurosawa, Bill Brandt, and Robert Frank, among many other artists’, have  guided and strengthened me.

Art doesn’t sit on a shelf apart, and it shouldn’t be judged as though it did.  It has its life and its force in the heart of the world that so often belittles it.

I hope that what I bring to this site makes you, too, want to bring more sustenance to me and to your other fellows here, in our ongoing conflicts and luminous engagements.  And I hope that I can do here what the best art does:  open doors to the fact that life is greater than its representation in reality shows and political harangues, that it still contains visions, demonic seductions, inexplicable power,  mysterious danger, and miracles, both within and beyond the borders of art.