With President Obama’s imminent departure from office in mind, I thought of a photograph that I’d taken back in 2003, before I’d ever heard the name “Barack”: “Mr. Lincoln’s Sympathy Viewed with Suspicion.” If I’ve ever captured what Cartier-Bresson called a “decisive moment” (when “one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart [join] on the same axis”), this is evidence of it.
I was sitting on a bench in the Town Square of Stamford, Connecticut, waiting to see what the world would bring my way. Across from where I sat was the statue of Abraham Lincoln that you see in my photograph. Abe sits, leaning forward, forearms on his thighs, head tilted downward, thoughtful, maybe melancholy.
Slowly, another critical element came into view, crossing the square toward the statue: a heavy older woman with frizzy white hair glowing, backlit by the summer sun. She wore a tight, hot-pink T-shirt with a picture of Minnie Mouse dressed as Carmen Miranda. She lowered herself carefully onto the front of the concrete slab that supported the Great Emancipator. Then she set down beside her a couple of plastic bags and a cup of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee. Certainly, this, too, was an American presence.
She looked around suspiciously, squinting at passersby with a wary disapproval. And I started to think, “Oh, please, please, please, let her look at Abe’s face in just that way!” I began, as covertly as I could, taking photographs of her and the statue — wishing and hoping all the while. At the twelfth exposure, not only did the moment I prayed for arrive, but something else, entirely unforeseen and felicitous, had happened in the meantime. Four pigeons had settled on the corners of the concrete plateau, surrounding Lincoln and his sour companion. So, at the moment when I got the desired image, it also featured those avian sentinels, witnesses to the less-than-happy encounter.
(For a better view of this photograph, see my website at: http://www.lawrenceruss.com/index/C0000HrILmRgUq4A/G00004_tcloQpRik/I00006jzaFm0FQaw
I voted for Barack Obama in two presidential elections. In my hopefulness, I’d been struck by his admiration for Lincoln, and by my sense, a sense shared by many other people, that Obama, too, had uncommon intelligence and uncommon concern for his fellow humans. In the end, I think that most of us who supported him are disappointed that his Presidency didn’t come to more. Yes, some of us think that he should have realized sooner what intransigent selfishness and malice he faced from Republicans, and that he should have confronted them with the central issues of “economic inequality” more directly and forcefully. But we can’t justly blame him for the ruthlessness and heedlessness of his opposition. Sitting on the sidelines, we can’t know if and how he might have accomplished more of what we wanted. And we can’t know the pain, frustration, and sorrowing disbelief that he must have suffered while trying to swim against a terribly cold and unrelenting tide.
What I do believe is this: that part of what thwarted Mr. Obama as President, in addition to the racism, the unconscionable greed, and the lust for partisan power, was that so many people are blind to honest virtue when they see it. They’ve strayed so far from it, and society and its media have cast it in such a disdainful and worldly light that when people meet earnest good will, they frequently view it as weakness, simple-mindedness, or deceitful posturing. Too many people just could not believe, given his seeming difference from them, that Obama did not wish to cause them harm. Suspicion and projected selfishness faced our all-too-soon-to-be-former President whenever he came to the public square.
For his wonderful collection of short, imaginative poems from world literature, called The Sea and the Honeycomb, Robert Bly rewrote Frances Desmore’s translation of a Chippewa poem. And I think that it’s crucial to notice, in these days of promoting esteem for a misconceived and egotistical “self,” that the poem’s last line does not read “I am flying”:
Sometimes I walk about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.
I drove by the site late one day and took a few photos for my final-stretch planning. After dinner, when I looked at the photos on my computer, I did a troubled double-take. In the few days since I got the property owner’s consent, the very tree whose “pose” I intended my wife to imitate had disappeared.
Perhaps the owner had thought that the trunk was so close to breaking that it would be a hazard for us. In fact, on the day of the shoot, as I was setting up, he came out to talk for a couple of minutes and warned me that the trees were not in sound shape and might have to be taken down, so we should be careful.
I have to say that my experience, and my trust in God’s will and the gifts of the Tao, give me decent equanimity about such turns, knowing that however they first appear, they can lead to something better than what I’d planned. As I believe this one did.
I got the idea that I might also try having my wife kneel in an attitude of prayer or supplication for the photos. After all, those were not exactly friendly-looking trees in that yard. Part of my sense of the desired image had to do with the brutish look of those trees, and the brutish nature of our world, which in turn made me think of Moses’ statement that during his exile in the land of Midian he had been “a stranger in a strange land.” It struck me, looking at the remaining trees, that a kneeling posture would more closely mirror their verticality.
The Unforeseen apparently took this as an invitation to make still further improvements on my scheme. Not only had I not planned on the alternate pose for my model, but I didn’t anticipate that when we tried the kneeling poses, a wind would rise to blow her hair sideways and to make her move her head and hands a bit during a few exposures, so that. Seeing them later, I would feel that those effects had given my wife’s appearance an added sense of urgency or distress, which I believed was affecting.
I also didn’t plan or foresee that during the kneeling shots that I liked best (with my wife’s palms turned pleadingly upward and the wind blowing her hair), an intensely-red sky would appear behind her. Without the emotional and visual force of that sky, my “final” image would not be nearly as compelling as I hope that it is. Here’s the photograph, “In the Land of Strangers” (please view it at larger size and better visual quality on my website, by using the following link – it’s Image # 6 of the “Marion under the Moon” portfolio within the “Fires in the Night” collection):
But there was a still-deeper element to the work of Mystery in making this picture.
While we were engaged in the shoot, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the fact, and my wife did not know, that about three weeks before that I was given news that caused a crisis in my life. I didn’t want her to have to suffer while awaiting its outcome, so I kept it from her in the meantime. In such a time, under other circumstances, I would have wanted her to pray for me.
Two days after our photo session, I was able to tell her what had been happening, and that there was no longer anything to worry about.
The next night, as I was intensely engaged in editing the new “Marion” photograph, I realized that by having her adopt the pose that I had, and having shaped the image as I had, I had essentially drawn her into praying for me without her having to know about it or the reasons for it – except insofar as she might have prayed for the success of the photographer’s present, complicated efforts.
And when I consider who and what gave birth to this photograph, I have to remember that part of my idea for “Marion under the Moon” is that each photograph in it should in some way reflect another aspect of my wonderful model-wife. If she were not as loving and caring, as spiritually profound as she is, would I have made this photograph as it now stands? Would I have thought to put her in the pose that I did? Was I unconsciously or half-consciously calling on her prayerful strength without having to disclose my troubles to her? If none of that had been the case, if she were other than she is, if she were a lesser or different kind of inspiration to me than she is, could I have made this photograph? I don’t believe so.
And did her posed prayerfulness contribute to the happy conclusion to my trial? How can I know? We live among mysteries. And sometimes we receive help, with our photography and more, without asking for it or even being aware of it. There are more things and allies in heaven and earth and art, in anything that “we” achieve, than are dreamt of in our philosophy or vanity, Horatio.
Photographers, or artists of any kind, are probably more aware than most people are of fortuitous coincidings, of happy or regrettable appearances and disappearances: “I could kick myself for not having shot that scene the first time I saw it, and now it’s gone!” Or: “I sure am glad I photographed that building with the graffiti last month, because they’ve knocked the whole thing down!” And, especially around Halloween, both great and popular artworks engage us with unseen forces, unexplained happenings, intimations of malevolent or benevolent magics.
Earlier this year, a bit of such elvish fortune occurred (as it does from time to time) in my photographic life. Certain friends of mine who know my work would not be surprised that it would happen, as it did, around evening, in the woods. (Evidence for such a view might be taken, for instance, from my website’s “To See in the Dark” portfolio.)
In late winter, the ground was beginning to thaw. I was walking near twilight in a small wood near my home, when I happened on an abandoned livingroom couch. It lay at the edge of a dirt path, flat on a wooden pallet. I snapped a few pictures, as notes, thinking that perhaps I could have made something from it if at least I’d had a couple of flashes with me. Even so, I thought it somehow fell short.
But walking back that way a month later, I found that someone or someones had, whatever their intention, arranged a gift for me. The couch had been dragged about twenty feet from where it had been, onto sloping ground near the base of a tree. Its bottom raised up more, the bulky couch tilted at an angle had now struck a livelier pose. The biggest surprise, though, was my discovery that neighborhood spooks, vandals, or photography sprites had painted in big black letters on the fabric skirt below the seat this single word: “FLYing.” Had I missed it the first time? What did its author intend? No way to know, but it was certainly good fortune for me.
I hurried home and returned with three Speedlites and a couple of light stands. Dark woods, digital darkroom, and here it is:
The felicity continued. I wanted to submit the photograph for an exhibition, and the A Smith Gallery in Texas was soliciting entries for a juried “Habitat” show. What could be more homey than a livingroom couch? (Although, of course, mine was not in a comfy frontroom.) Almost without thinking about it, just recognizing that I needed a good title and didn’t want something as obvious as “Couch in the Woods” or “Flying,” it popped up as if from behind a tree: “At Home in the Secret.” (I hope that you like it, too.)
A little twilit magic in it all — which continued when the “Habitat” juror, Julie Blackmon, chose the photo for the exhibition, and the Gallery’s owner, Amanda Smith, gave it a Director’s Honorable Mention.
My friends and fiends, in case you don’t hear from me again before Halloween, I’ll wish you happy hauntings now and hope that you like my darkling photograph. And I won’t warn you not to walk in the woods at nightfall.
My unhappiness with my website provider had grown ever since it was taken over by an outfit specializing in wedding mementos. Of course, the new owners assured us innocent client-lambs that the quality its website services would not slip, but would, rather, reach new heights. They announced a plan to create new templates that would benefit us in ways that the existing ones never did.
At the same time, for some mysterious reason, the images on my site began suffering from cases of the jaggies, visible pixelation at the edges of objects and in human flesh tones. The tech support people denied that what I saw happening was happening. Not only did that “nonexistent” problem never get solved, but it got harder and harder to get responses from tech support to any of my questions or pleas for help with the trial version of the new templates. In addition, the wonder-templates were plagued with problems.
Finally, an immediate circumstance made it critical that I show my art off to better advantage. So I fled the broken pixels and promises. After researching other website providers, I packed my domain name and moved to PhotoShelter. So far, I’ve been delighted with almost everything about it: its templates’ many features, its speedy and useful tech support replies, its online help files — and, most of all, the great leap upward in the resolution and size at which my images are now displayed. So I hope that you’ll feel moved to explore my new site, at the same URL as my old one: www.lawrenceruss.com .
If you do, you’ll find that for the first time, I’m displaying in public a portfolio (in two parts) of my oldest, longest-running photography project, comprised of images taken at Devil’s Glen in Weston, Connecticut. The place is a kind of sacred site for me, despite its name (though the name’s not irrelevant to my feelings about it or to some of my experiences there). I’ve exhibited a number of my photographs from the Glen. “The Power That Builds in Solitude,” for instance, accompanies the July 20, 2011 post (“Summoning the Genie’s Power – Part 1” of this blog, was published as a Merit-Award winner in COLOR Magazine, was selected for juried exhibitions in Oregon and Vermont, and has been written about as part of an “ideal bachelor pad” — not the way I ever saw it, but there it is — in an online design mag called HOUZZ. Until I launched my new PhotoShelter site, however, I’d never shown a group, much less a portfolio, of images from the project, as I have here: in “God and Nature in Devil’s Glen,” Parts 1 and 2, in the PLACE AND PRESENCE collection tabbed on my site’s home page.
Yes, I know I’ve laid out more territory on the current site than anyone is likely to explore in one visit, but I hope that you’ll get lost in it for a while, and that you’ll want to return to it more than once for further adventures in various kinds of forests.
I wish you all for thanksgiving what, in a sense, but only in a sense, we already have — a world of wonders. Or, rather, I wish that we would all enter into it more wholly. I wish that everyone, and certainly all photographers, knew and loved the following poem by Thomas Traherne (ca. 1636-1674). (Forgive me, Thomas, for having lost your indentations in printing this here! See how it should appear.)
How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled his eternity,
In which my soul did walk;
And ev’ry thing that I did see
Did with me talk.
The skies in their magnificence,
The lively, lovely air;
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
In my esteem.
A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But ’twas divine.
Harsh ragged objects were conceal’d,
Oppressions tears and cries,
Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes
Were hid, and only things reveal’d
Which heav’nly spirits, and the angels prize.
The state of innocence
And bliss, not trades and poverties,
Did fill my sense.
The streets were pav’d with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appear’d to me,
And every thing which here I found,
While like an angel I did see,
Adorn’d the ground.
Rich diamond and pearl and gold
In ev’ry place was seen;
Rare splendours, yellow, blue, red, white and green,
Mine eyes did everywhere behold.
Great wonders cloth’d with glory did appear,
Amazement was my bliss,
That and my wealth was ev’ry where:
No joy to this!
Curs’d and devis’d proprieties,
With envy, avarice
And fraud, those fiends that spoil even Paradise,
Flew from the splendour of mine eyes,
And so did hedges, ditches, limits, bounds,
I dream’d not aught of those,
But wander’d over all men’s grounds,
And found repose.
Proprieties themselves were mine,
And hedges ornaments;
Walls, boxes, coffers, and their rich contents
Did not divide my joys, but all combine.
Clothes, ribbons, jewels, laces, I esteem’d
My joys by others worn:
For me they all to wear them seem’d
When I was born.
I don’t know how many “favorite” photographs I have, but I know that one of the frames in my sanctum of photographic love holds Imogen Cunningham’s “The Unmade Bed.” It’s clicheish to say that you could look at a particular artwork every day of your life and never grow bored with it. In fact, though, I can pretty much say that truly of “The Unmade Bed.” A postcard of it has been pinned to the corkboard that’s hung in every office I’ve occupied since I got my last diploma. Whenever I see that card, it draws me away, into its lyrical silence.
Why do I love it? What our conscious mind grasps and can tell about such things is only the fractional edge of an ocean that stretches out endlessly, through our experience and emotion and ideas and who-knows-what-other-kinds-of-causes. Still, I’ll try to describe at least some of the features and factors and facets of my ardor for “The Unmade Bed.”
Its atmosphere is the first thing that absorbs us. The contrast in the print is moderate, like music turned low. The scene feels private, intimate. Most of the bedroom is dim or dark, and the light is softly diffused. There are plenty of curves, but no right angles or sharp-cornered shapes in view. And we’re alone in the room. We see no person, just clues to who was there and what may have happened before we looked in.
As our view moves outward toward the edges of the frame, the light diminishes gradually, the bedsheets and blanket grow darker. What we see most clearly, the folds of the upper sheet and especially the flat sheet below, are like the space inside the periphery of attention in a loving gaze or in making love; everything outside tends to blur or vanish.
The smooth transitions between shadow and light evoke a feeling of gentleness and, in this case, even tenderness. At the same time, the curving folds of the upper sheet remind us of sexual movements, of the curves of the female body that we imagine has recently lain in this bed, where a woman has left a few hairpins on the sheet.
Those hairpins, though small, are the center of our attention. The waving folds of the upper sheet surround them as hills surround a small cluster of houses in a valley. The pins are the most sharply-defined objects in the scene, showing all the more clearly because they’re placed on the brightest area in the image. They make us think of a woman unpinning and taking down her hair, for sleep or for love. The number and size of the pins imply (at least to a “layman” in matters of female grooming) the luxuriance of the hair that they held. And their lying together as they do suggests the care that the woman must have taken in laying, not tossing, them down. Our response is subtly affected as well by the pins not lying dead center in the scene, but “modestly” to the side, cradled by the upper sheet that surrounds and rises behind them.
All of these things make for an experience of sensuousness, not sensuality; of savoring, not ravening; of grace and quiet and attentiveness.
You feel, indirectly, the loveliness and gentleness of the woman who was in this bedroom just a while ago.
In part, I love this photograph because for me it’s a mirror in which I see my wife’s reflection. When it comes to why we love certain works, we can’t overlook their reach into the personal particulars of our lives and our selves. In a poem of mine (“The Wedding Poem”) that was first published in the year after my wife and I were married, I quoted another artwork that I love, a poem by the 9th-Century Chinese poet, Chang Hu (translated by Witter Bynner), that’s the literary kin of Cunningham’s visual image. Both works are sexy without being showy, and both embody an irresistible tenderness of spirit in the artwork’s maker as well as in its subject.
And beneath your talk I could see
the woman of that Chinese poem that I love:
When the moonlight, reaching a tree by the gate,
Shows her a quiet bird on its nest,
She removes her jade hairpins and sits in the shadow
And puts out a flame where a moth was flying.
I’m gratefully moonstruck, as I have been for years, by the lovely folds, dim light, and loosed pins in Imogen Cunningham’s photograph; by Chang Hu’s compassionate heroine, removing her hairpins by a moonlit window; and by the glorious, unpinned hair of my own gentle beauty, pictured below, glowing in a new scene of moonlight and shadow:
This post concerns a rare sort of case in “big market” criticism, and a rare opportunity to see what often goes on behind the critic’s mask (even when that mask stays more firmly in place than it did in this instance). In this instructive case, the critic was Andy Grundberg, writing in Aperture (#199, Summer 2010) about the photographer Robert Bergman.
Mr. Grundberg has credentials to burn, including years of writing reviews for The New York Times and various awards, including the prestigious Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography. Part of what made this case exceptional was that Grundberg was being called upon to judge a photographer who did not himself come packed in the usual steamer trunk plastered with the names of recognizable schools, galleries, former teachers, commendatory reviews of past exhibitions, etc. As Grundberg himself was to point out in a lame and irrelevant defense of his critical misdeeds in this matter, Bergman didn’t come entirely out of nowhere: he had published a book of his work in 1998, with an introduction by the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison, and, more importantly for an art critic, with an essay of praise from one of the greatest art historians and writers on the visual arts of the 20th Century, Meyer Schapiro.
Nonetheless, these were sparse pickings compared to the usual graduation from a trendy art school like CalArts, the usual history of representation by AIPAD galleries, and the usual list of solo exhibitions on several continents — the kinds of things that would almost always trail behind a photographer that someone like Andy Grundberg would be reviewing for a journal like Aperture. In Grundberg’s frame of reference, Bergman “spr[a]ng] onto the art-world stage like Athena from the head of Zeus.” Bergman, already over 60 at the time of the review, was only just then having his first major solo exhibitions, at the National Gallery of Art, the Yossi Milo Gallery in Manhattan, and the P.S.1 branch of MOMA. In relative terms, and in Grundberg’s estimation, Bergman’s resume left Grundberg naked in judging the work before him.
To understand my reactions, you’ll want to read the full text of Andy Grundberg’s review:
One of the curious things that will strike you about this review is that, in fact, Grundberg never gives his considered response to the quality of the work itself, and, therefore, also gives no substantive reasons for such an evaluation. But that central omission isn’t the major vice of the review. What Grundberg’s remarks remind me of is a common emotional phenomenon that we’ve all witnessed any number of times. A person does something hurtful or harmful to another person for petty reasons — of insecurity or jealousy or suspicion, or just for the pleasure of wielding power over another human being — and the perpetrator, consciously or semi-consciously, feels ashamed of himself for doing it. And then he resents the victim whose very presence now discomfits him so.
What we see in Grundberg’s review, I believe, is anger at the artist for “coming to him” with so little respectable baggage, “expecting” him to take a critical stand with little by way of badges or prior testimonials that might prop up the critic’s position. And so the dubious review, though void of genuine critical judgment, is full of petty sniping at Bergman for the crimes of asking to be praised without having climbed the usual rungs of career advancement, for achieving some notoriety only at an “advanced age,” for using less expensive equipment than do most current critical darlings, for photographing (and failing to label for Grundberg) people whom Grundberg regards as foreign to his own social circles and station. Sarcasm and scorn run through Grundberg’s piece like sewage through a drainpipe.
Grundberg disdains Bergman for his “ink-jet-produced” prints and for their being “moderately sized.” I expect that Grundberg would deny his haughty tone and intent, but anyone who reads his review attentively can’t miss it. He implies that no one who was any good could have escaped greater critical attention and approval for so long. Really? Melville after publishing Moby Dick? Dickinson? Kafka? Charles Ives? Eugene Atget?
Bergman has been on the scene since the 1960s and been taking color photographs since 1985. . . It seems a tad curious, then, that scarcely anyone had heard of Bergman before this show, much less seen one of his pictures.
Perhaps the photography world is larger than we think, or perhaps there’s still room for genius to emerge at a late age. Both are comforting thoughts. Nevertheless, there’s a temptation to dismiss Bergman’s pictures as latter day Bowery Bum photography.
Grundberg can’t even keep himself from insulting Bergman’s subjects, repeatedly. “For the most part, the people appear to be downtrodden, or at least on the outs with conventional society; more than a few seem afflicted with a wasting disease.” He talks as though they are a bunch of derelicts, far outside the pale, no doubt, of tony galleries and the holy precincts of monied Manhattan. Yet I would venture a guess that Grundberg himself has known more than one friend, relative or colleague with a wasting disease. And I would bet that he’s seen, as we all have, bitter, disappointed, addiction-addled, depressed people in every walk of work and life, including “the art world.”
(And, please, for heaven’s sake, anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the arts should know how often the majority of contemporary critics not only have missed genius when it appeared before them, but have disdained it in proportion to the degree of its greatness.)
At the same time, the floundering Grundberg resents Bergman for not helping him out by labelling his subjects, by telling Grundberg enough for Grundberg to know what he should think about them. “Unfortunately it is impossible to verify any of the questions a viewer might have about these people, since Bergman calls each image ‘Untitled’ and provides it only with a date. No name, no location, no facts except those given by the lens. . . .”
Grundberg condemns Bergman in part because Grundberg himself apparently hasn’t considered the possibility that Bergman saw these people, or that someone like me would see these people through his photographs, as fellow human beings, as people with loneliness or disappointments or bitterness or sorrows like our own — not just pathetic victims of “foreign” wars or fates. Grundberg’s talk of Sontag and critical “issues” are quite beside the point. I would bet that, at least until the fashions change, he’ll think that we should all be applauding those “deadpan” portraits in which the living are posed to resemble corpses or cardboard cutouts.
In Grundberg’s view, it’s bad enough that a nobody like Bergman should want his work displayed prominently despite his age and his relative lack of social success. But Grundberg is equally incensed that a respectable institution like the National Gallery would put Grundberg himself in a position to have to use his own eyes and judgment and whatever humanity he possesses without the armor and aid of received opinion:
Is it any wonder, then, that Bergman’s professed ambition was to launch his exhibiting career at [the National Gallery], and with a one-person show no less? [Quelle horreur!] But the real wonder is that the museum collaborated [String the both of them up together!] in this willful and seemingly quixotic enterprise. [Hey, we can’t let people into the club when they haven’t played by the rules!]
Yeah, let’s flog this Bergman bastard in the public square, along with late bloomers like Julia Margaret Cameron and other mere 35mm-shooters like Cartier Bresson and Josef Koudelka. For that matter, how dare the likes of Munch or Goya ask us, from the grave, to concede their greatness after years of their contemporaries’ critical neglect?
My main purpose here, though, isn’t to pillory a particular critic in a particular instance, but rather to give a warning against blind concession to artistic authorities, a caution to be wary of the hidden insecurities, confusions and pretenses of credentialed experts . Let this be another call to careful and wary examination, to reading between the lines, to giving no due to mere uniforms and medals. Trust your own response to the pundit as well as to the art.
Shadows or darkness, fog or cloud, curving shapes, blurred or fantastical objects. Why should photographs with elements like these help to bring on that state of deep calm and heightened sensitivity that makes the Muse more inclined to visit?
I think it’s partly because they mirror conditions and circumstances outside the artwork that bring us to the border of our deliberating, daylight minds: walking through the streets at night or through woods in deep shadow, letting our sight and hearing absorb whatever comes in our solitary quiet; or lying drowsy in our darkened bedroom, drifting into daydreams or sleep. Art is one way that we can see what lies beyond the flashlight’s beam, reach into that invisible or half-visible place where so much is born and so much is decided.
Research has shown that people who make an effort to remember their dreams right after waking, especially if they try to write them down, will remember their dreams more often, and will remember more of what happened in them. But we don’t need scientists to prove to us that doing a thing repeatedly makes us able to do it more readily or easily; that muscles and memory — and, I believe, intuition and imagination — grow stronger the more they’re used.
I believe that this is also true for repeatedly visiting, experiencing, giving yourself to the kinds of art that carry us into those mysteries of the unconscious or whatever we might better call it. In Norse mythology, the king of the gods, Odin, who had the gifts of vision and poetry, rode a magic eight-legged horse. That steed, Sleipnir, could carry him across the borders between the various realms, of gods and frost giants and fire demons and the dead. As with anything else, the more we ride that border-crossing horse, the better we ride it, and the more swiftly and farther it’s likely to take us.
And why do I care so much, why should you care about riding across those borders? Because that place across the shadowy bridge is where we can discover our greater selves, our greater lives. After all, what do we think those gifts and treasures in the folk tales are all about? Over there, in the forest of intuition, in the scenes of paintings, in our dreams, is the place where the mythical creatures live and act out our battles with each other and with monsters and tyrants. If we see the vampire or the Cyclops clearly “over there,” we may recognize them in our “daily life” (we’ve all met them) and may be more likely to escape the temptations and dangers that they bring. In that place (though, of course, it isn’t exactly a place) is the soil in which our most powerful fears and desires, our most glorious insights and revelations are rooted. It’s the universe, the universe that stretches out from where we stand, from the little place of our planning and striving.
(If you click on the image below, you may even be able to see the plane’s noselight a little.)
“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu
Post 2 of 2: The Tradition,
The brief artist statement on Van Chu’s website, http://vanchuart.com confirmed my initial impression that his photograph reflects the influence of Chinese calligraphy and, even more strongly, of the inkbrush landscape paintings of Guo Xi, Ni Zan, and other Chinese masters of that medium.
Commenting on the calligraphy of the Princess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the character Yu Shu Lien notes coyly how much the handling of the brush in calligraphy is like the handling of the saber in wu shu (commonly known as kung fu) swordsmanship. Or, she might have said, like the movements, simultaneously meditative and martial, in Tai Chi. There’s a pleasure and a meditative effect in following the fluid movements and the variations in density of ink in Chinese inkbrush painting — and in Van Chu’s photograph. Van Chu achieves his patterns by dropping ink or acrylic paint into water and blowing on the water (and then photographing and compositing the effects), rather than by mixing dry ink with water in a bowl and then applying it to silk with a brush. But Van Chu’s purposes and end results bear a distinct kinship with those of his artistic forebears. And neither the purpose nor the desired results are merely physical or philosophical.
If you’ve ever done Tai Chi in something like the way that it should be done; if you’ve ever done Zen meditation for a substantial while; if you’ve sat in a quiet room and done nothing but listen to shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) music or certain pieces by Chopin, Scriabin, or Takemitsu; or, for that matter, if you’ve ever become quietly lost in the making of a work of art, so that when you stopped at last, you were shocked to see how much time had passed — then you’ll know something of the state of mind (and of more than mind) that the Taoist- and Buddhist-influenced artists of China sought, and sought to induce in readers and viewers of their work. Not a philosophical belief, but a state, a certain quality of being alive.
In Chinese inkbrush painting, parts of the silk or paper surface are left unpainted, and such spaces may stand in place of sky or sea, river or plain. There is something deliberately incomplete or partial about the completed works. And those blank spaces also stand in for a number of vital intangibles: for the continual changing of the world, impossible to capture and freeze in a painting; for the infinity that lies beyond the frame (one of the most famous scroll paintings is called “Mountains and Rivers without End”); for the ongoing nature of creation. They wanted to give, not hide, evidence that the artwork, like the rest of reality, was part of a never-completed process of creation. For those Chinese artists, the creative force behind the artwork’s creation was a part of the same creative force that is constantly making and reshaping the world beyond the painting, part of the never-ending dance of being and non-being, as described in the Tao Te Ching. (Here in the West, Dorothy Sayers of detective fiction fame set forth in The Mind of the Maker her belief that the main way in which God created man”in His image” was that He gave us creative powers of our own.)
For most Western writers, being and non-being are mere philosophical abstractions, but although the two aren’t actually separate (their relatedness and wholeness being expressed by the famous yin-yang symbol), what they point at (as almost all language merely points) are not intellectual categories. Let me suggest an exercise.
There is a reference, don’t ask me to remember where, in Zen literature to “chasing the tiger’s tail.” For ten or fifteen minutes, stop doing anything active, try to quiet whatever space you’re in, and listen attentively to the sounds around you, picking one to follow at a time. What you’ll experience will be something like what Christ described some 2,000 years ago: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it came from and you don’t know where it’s going.” And he added, “So is everyone who is born of the spirit.” I think that classic Chinese painters like Quo Xi, Ma Lin, Ma Yuan, and Xu Daoning, and now the photographer Van Chu, would agree with that description and that assertion, and I believe that their hope would be that the viewer would receive at least an inkling of such things from their art.
The 11th-Century artist Guo Xi wrote: “. . . haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.” (As it happens, that describes pretty well what appears in his masterwork, “Early Spring,” an ink painting on a hanging silk scroll, dated 1072 A.D.)