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JR and Public Art

Saturday, April 21st, 2012: Arts, Musings.

Just finished reading the Juxtapoz interview with JR, the new international art star who empowers the anonymous by pasting their images across the urban landscape. And it again challenged my antipathy toward public art.

I live in a small rural town that’s mural-crazy. Murals tend to bug the shit out of me now, but in my younger days I was a public art repeat offender, and I still identify strongly with street art and graffiti. I absolutely love JR’s work – it’s clearly some of the most potent, socially conscious urban art ever made – but where does it really fit in the overall ecological, or ethical, landscape?

The first public art I can recall doing was the collaborative sculpture I made with my performance-art band the summer after I graduated high school. We made it out of salvaged junk in the barn lot of my grandma’s farm, along a country road. It was almost twenty feet tall, and I have no memory of what happened to it – I went away to college shortly after it was completed. All I know is that it was a lot of fun and we definitely intended it to surprise and puzzle people – that was the extent of our adolescent vision.

In college, in Chicago, I was surrounded by monumental public art both historical and modern – everything from heroic to humanistic to the abstractions of Picasso and Calder. The city was new to me and I took it for granted that cities had this stuff, for better or worse.

In the 1980s, after art school and in the wake of the punk rock revolution, I joined my peers in two divergent tracks of public art. The urban track consisted of guerilla performances and wheat-paste poster attacks, one of which ended up on the cover of the book Street Art. Still aiming to surprise and puzzle. In one of our performances, we did a maypole dance around a particularly ominous public sculpture.

The other track was even more rural than my high-school farm sculpture: ephemeral paintings and rock alignments in the remote wilderness of the Mojave Desert. Long before hearing of Andy Goldsworthy, I gradually discovered that other nature-loving artists like me were sporadically and spontaneously creating little zen-like, anonymous, short-lived interventions in nature, driven by our irrepressible creative urge and the liberation from the studio that was the art school legacy of the 60s and 70s.

As I became committed to a specific desert site that was becoming an ecological preserve, I did the usual urban artist thing – I put together a proposal for a large-scale project that would presumably add historicity to the site, foster ecological and cultural awareness, and otherwise jibe with the mission of the preserve. It would consist of enigmatic signage along trails and roadways, keyed to an educational subtext. That proposal was a turning point of sorts – as I went over it with the preserve director, I suddenly realized that the last thing I wanted to do was add more man-made shit to this place which was already littered with the detritus of ranching and mining. Instead, I stopped leaving my own marks on the landscape and started paying more attention to the ancient markings of others.

A long field study of Native American rock art transformed my stance toward visual art. I came to feel that the entire culture that my society had inherited from Europe was illegitimate. Nothing in our arts seemed as well-integrated with our environment as the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Indians. I continued to make visual art, but it stopped being pictures of things and became purely a series of enigmatic symbolic expressions, like the rock art panels I was finding in remote desert locations.

Then I fell into dire financial straits, and my only way out was by embracing the digital revolution. In the early days, my generation saw “new media” primarily as a way to increase the democratic and participatory nature of the screens that were already a pervasive part of our environment. Forgetting my ill-fated desert project, I proposed new site-specific works, this time a network of kiosks throughout the urban landscape that would serve as access points to the deep history and culture of each site.

But as the idealism of new media rapidly devolved into the big business of the internet, and as information overload became a cliche, I realized again that our landscape was already carrying a crushing burden of signs, text and images demanding our attention and becoming a level of background noise equivalent to the glare of public lighting, the blare of horns and sirens, the roar of traffic, the hiss and hum of plumbing, heating and air conditioning that form the urban sensory environment.

That’s one reason why I grew to hate murals and public sculptures and was ambivalent toward graffiti. I felt that there was already far too much man-made junk, far too many signs, an overload of images. The ethical thing for an artist to do would be to refrain from adding to it. I wanted to see those walls come down, not turned into more screens for our redundant likenesses.

Which brings me back to JR. They say some of his work can be seen from space, like the Great Wall of China. The message of these anonymous faces seems to be “Look at me! I’m here! I’m human too!” That’s an important message when people are downtrodden, but in a larger ecological context, do we really need more attention to the human? The European tradition was to literally put people up on a pedestal. Oppressed or not, hubris is not one of our healthier traits.

Looking at photos of his work makes me so glad I don’t live in one of those landscapes of concrete, glass and steel. It also gives me more respect for the Islamic proscription against representational images – images of people. Traditional societies used representational images carefully and with restraint, recognizing their power. In Orthodox Christianity, representation was restricted to religious icons, often sequestered in cavern-like sanctuaries. And of course, there are the famous painted caves of southern Europe, where the magic of representational images was buried deep underground.

I think maybe we need to tone down those walls and public spaces, attract less attention to them and to the human presence which is already overwhelming. Then, maybe we can focus more on the changing seasons and get back to learning from our non-human partners in this risky dance of life.


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Memories, Dreams, Art & Friendship

Saturday, March 16th, 2013: Arts, Musings.

I feel both blessed and challenged that, as an artist, I move through life as if poised on a wave, with strange and beautiful dreams in front of me, drawing me forward, and rich memories, delightful or painful, at my back, informing everything I do.

The title of this post is a variation on Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” which my mother gave me to read as an adolescent. It was a touchstone of my youth, and I recently re-read it and reflected on the similarities and contrasts between his quest for a synthesis of art, life and history and my own.

Like Jung, I’ve been both inspired by and obsessed with dreams and memories, which since the late 19th century in our culture have been largely the subject matter of psychology and psychoanalysis. And, whereas I’ve always treasured my memories and dreams, both good and bad, as raw material for my art, I’ve also become aware that they’re much more problematic for some of my friends.

Art and artists come in many forms. Many people hold fast to the idea of pretty pictures for the wall, like you see in cafes and bistros. My mother, channeling my grandma, sometimes wonders why I don’t paint horses running on flowering hillsides. Some artists are overtly political; others think of themselves as “shamans” and make visionary work. In the ethnographic literature on traditional societies, the shaman or medicine man or woman was a misfit outsider living on the fringes of the community, a troubled soul the community turned to when beset by traumatic mysteries, someone who had little to do with routine sustenance – definitely not someone who made pretty pictures.

My own large, evolving community of artist friends has proved to be seriously dysfunctional. Many of them have been lost to me, some from suicide, some from a breakdown in health or fitness that they never learned to value and maintain, many from alcoholism or drug addiction as they struggled to self-medicate the conditions of their emotional or social dysfunctions, the inner flame that was also an inner demon. How I loved them and how I miss them!

Others have been lost to me when, rather than facing their demons in their work, they tried to tame them by joining cults or “recovery” programs which taught them to “photoshop” their memories and abandon everything which might remind them of their past, including old friends. Years ago, when “recovered memory” was a trendy topic in the new-age self-help community, I had a couple of artist friends who claimed to uncover lost memories of childhood abuse, which then became a defining element of their new personas.

Some friends became exquisitely brittle, so hyper-sensitive that a single conversation, or a single taboo word, could cut them off from me forever as they struggled to defend their precarious emotional balance. And I’ll admit that my own sensitivity, which, as an expressive artist, I treasure, can be a liability as I over-react to perceived threats and criticism.

Another troubled artist friend tried on and cast off new solutions and relationships like suits of clothes, rejecting and abandoning whole episodes of his past, including most of his identity as an artist.

When I speak of my dreams with peers in my own age group, I often encounter sarcasm, cynicism, or resignation. So many of us have been beaten down by stress, life’s constraints and setbacks, declining health and fitness – I know because it happened to me! I was beaten down by living in California, a place where I could never escape the affluence of others, my own relative poverty, the peer pressure to consume, the feeling that I was continually falling behind in the race of life, and the real, absolute limitations on what I could do in a place where health and sustenance – not to mention the arts – had become luxuries of the rich.

On several occasions, and at the prompting of artist friends, I had tried professional therapy or counseling, but I could never find – or perhaps afford – a professional who even remotely understood my issues and feelings. The last couple of counselors I tried concluded that my issues – situational depression, anxiety, loneliness – were minor and didn’t really justify treatment. Lucky me!

It was only when I moved to a sparsely populated place with a depressed economy that I was able to recover my memories, my dreams, and my art – and to gradually recover my health and fitness, after all those years of abuse in the rat race.

The loneliness is a different story. I still miss those artist friends who are lost to me, and I struggle to find kindred spirits, artists in good health despite their outsider status, who embrace the darkness as well as the light, who honor and learn from their memories while chasing their dreams.

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Miracle in Indy: When Art Transcends Intention

Sunday, January 24th, 2016: Arts, Musings.


For many years, when visiting family in Indianapolis, I’ve escaped the confines of the cramped family home to spend a few hours at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), which, unlike many urban museums, occupies a bucolic site in the midst of park land on a bluff above the forested floodplain of the White River. The museum grounds are surrounded by an even larger forested cemetery, so there’s literally nothing in sight to remind one of the city, and the architect took advantage of this by providing large windows in all the outer galleries, for an indoor/outdoor feel and expansiveness that’s missing from most urban museums.

As I identified favorite works in the collection, my sporadic visits became more like pilgrimages, and as I fell in love with the Japanese gallery, which most often features scroll paintings, I came to think of my visits as a form of meditation, ritually beginning with the Japanese gallery.

But at some point, every visit continued to the back of the 4th floor, the contemporary floor, where a sound installation by Julianne Swartz had been more or less permanently relocated.

The Swartz installation, “Terrain”, had originally opened in the museum foyer, the highest-traffic site in the museum. It consists of a broad network of audio speakers suspended overhead, playing continuous, spatially distributed loops of people breathing, whispering and humming, a soundscape which comes and goes in gentle waves. Swartz asked her recording volunteers to think of someone that he or she felt tenderness for, and to say what he or she would whisper in that person’s ear. According to Swartz, “the piece is negotiated by the movement of your body – it’s all happening overhead and you negotiate it by the path you walk.” What the listener hears, if they hear anything, is unintelligible, seemingly random, and can often be interpreted as nature sounds. All good so far, except that the unfortunate “negotiate” should be replaced by navigate.

I had sampled this installation since its opening in the foyer, and had always found it underwhelming, visually distracting, and somewhat pretentious. The foyer installation just couldn’t work, with the high ambient noise level and high traffic. I can’t imagine what the museum and the artist were thinking, opening it there. And even in the upstairs location, the artist and museum provided no effective guidance on how to experience the work; the strong overhead visual network of cables and speakers overwhelmed the gentle audio component, and visitors tended to enter talking with each other, walk around talking inside, and leave without ever really experiencing the work.

But after my recent hip surgery, I arrived at the IMA to find the Japanese paintings replaced by ceramics, and when I reached the Swartz installation, my hip was aching, the room was empty for a change, and I laid down on one of the two padded benches and closed my eyes. Finally, in its aerie high above the river and the winter landscape, “Terrain” began to work on and for me, teasing my ears and freeing my mind. My thoughts slowed to a standstill and my hearing expanded, at least until a group of talkers came in, circled cluelessly, and left. Contrary to Swartz’s stated intention, the audience needs to be still, not in motion, in order to apprehend how the sound is changing across the space of the installation.

Hence, in yesterday’s return visit, I took the elevator straight up to 4. “Terrain” was occupied, but this time, amazingly, by other silent, motionless kindred spirits: 3 on the benches and one on the floor in lotus position. I tried standing at the wall of windows for a while, gazing out over the stark winter forest and river to the dull western plains, but full attention required full relaxation. So I went elsewhere and returned later, when I found a young man sprawling on one bench and the other bench empty.

I laid down again, and we two strangers shared the ever-changing soundscape for a blissful 20 minutes or so. Whispers from one direction, tickling my ears, fading away. Tuneful humming from another direction, building, fading. A sustained silence, emptiness outside and in. Eventually, my body felt like moving again.

The least distracting way out is thru a narrow lightless corridor, past a James Turrell installation, and through a small video projection room. As I emerged into the bright central atrium of the museum, I heard someone behind me saying “Excuse me, sir.” It was the young guy from “Terrain.”

“Do you visit often?” he asked.

“Yes – I don’t live here, but I visit every chance I get, just to meditate,” I replied.

“Have you tried the Turrell?”

“No, not really. What’s up with that?”

He led me back into the darkness. From the narrow corridor, the Turrell room is so dark the room itself is indistinct. “Hold your hands out in front of you and walk to the wall,” he said. Together, we slowly advanced into the darkness. As your eyes adjust, you begin to recognize an even darker rectangle centered in the opposite wall, like a large black painting. Then when you reach the wall, your hands go right through – it’s actually an opening, but the inside is not just black, it’s a colorless void – you can’t see an end to it. It could be infinite.

“Amazing!” I said quietly. “Thank you!”

We stood side by side staring into the void, alone in the silent room, for 10 minutes or so. It was another form of meditation, that would’ve been spoiled by others passing in the corridor or entering the room.

Then I turned and thanked him again, slowly returning to the outer world.

I don’t know of any other museum where an experience like this is possible – and at the IMA, it seems to be an unintended and well-kept secret. We artists are painfully aware of the gulf between our intentions and our achievements, but we are much less aware of the broader potential of our work to come alive and transcend our intentions in different environments and with different audiences. Swartz’s original idea that “it’s all happening overhead and you negotiate it by the path you walk” turns out to be a very limited way of experiencing her piece. You really need relaxation, stillness and silence for something like this. But going beyond the artist’s intention is a success, not a failure.

Even now, years after their openings, I think the Swartz and Turrell installations have the potential to be the most powerful works at the IMA, but largely accidentally. I’m dreading the day when the museum will retire them.

Julianne Swartz’s “Terrain”

James Turrell’s “Acton”

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