Lecture at TAG Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, March 16, 2000.
In this talk, I hope to share some insight into what inspires my artwork. I'll discuss how certain other artists have been important teachers to me. Some of these artists I have been able to study with in-person, and others I have encountered through their paintings and books. Although I have not met with them in person, I feel I am right to claim them as my teachers, for I have spent much time with their work and their words. Not to acknowledge my debt to them would be a mark of ingratitude to those who have given me so much. Harold Bloom discusses this issue in his book, "The Anxiety of Influence," and he claims that each artist first finds his "fathers" in previous artists and then must struggle to overcome the "father" to achieve his own sense of self.
As you follow this discussion of my work and influences, one thing will become apparent — I love to read. I read so much that this is considered an almost comical addiction by my immediate family and is sometimes referred to as "Rebecca's Reading Problem." I read novels and I read science. I read psychology and anthropology. I read the Hebrew Bible and its commentaries. I read book reviews and criticism. In short, I read eclectically and I enjoy it all tremendously. Since my high school years, I have kept journals that combine my sketches and favorite quotes from my reading. I have always believed that this reading, this immersion in other worlds, has provided an ongoing source of nourishment for my artwork.
As a second theme, I will share with you some poetry and other writing that has been particularly important to me, and explain as best as I can how it ties into my own efforts. I feel that I should clarify here that there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between my reading and my own work. Often, I will recognize the "fitting" reference after the work is completed and I am wondering what to name it. While I believe the artwork should be engaging without any title at all, I trust the right name will add a nuance to the viewer's experience and will provide a hint to understanding my intention. At other times, the book I'm reading, whether it is Genesis, or Rushdie's latest novel, will summon up a rush of emotional energy and I will discover that I am working from it as I paint. In other words, I do not generally set out to "illustrate" a particular set of words.
The work that I am showing in this exhibition (TAG Gallery, Los Angeles, March 1999) is abstract but often is inspired by real world subjects, which I draw in a quite representational way. I have brought a number of additional works with me tonight so that you can see the visual development of the ideas. This discussion will move back and forth between these drawings and the more abstract works they engender.
First, I'd like to speak about someone who is refreshing as both an artist and a writer, Betty Edwards. One of the breakthroughs in the last decade in training people on how to draw has come from Edwards who teaches at California State University, Los Angeles. Much of her work is related to brain function research by Roger Sperry at the California Institute of Technology. Edwards has codified a way to teach almost anyone how to draw. Her method is what "natural artists" learn to do on their own. I really recommend Edwards' work and have given this book as a present to a number of friends. The following list is from the introduction to her book, "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain."
"The global skill of drawing something that you see ‘out there’ (a perceived object, person, landscape) requires only five basic component skills, no more. These skills are not drawing skills. They are perceptual skills, listed as follows:
"One: the perception of edges
Two: the perception of spaces
Three: the perception of relationships
Four: the perception of lights and shadows
Five: the perception of the whole, or gestalt
The edges are the visible boundaries of the object that one is studying. I want to emphasize that a lot of drawing is really looking. One has to look at the subject for quite a long time. The drawing is sort of the residue of the looking experience. It is key to ignore one's preconceived or previously held intellectual structures in order to be open to really observing the edges. Here's a counter-example, if you say to yourself, "Okay, I'm going to be drawing a branch now," then you will not really be looking at what you are seeing. You are going to be drawing a conscious symbol, just as a pre-school child learns to make a face with a circle, two dots, and a half circle. This early shorthand quickly communicates the concept of face to other humans, but, later, that simplified symbol becomes a habit that will prevent the person from getting rid of those dots and half circle and really seeing that a face is not round. You have to let go of your previous systems of symbols and just draw what you see.
The spaces are the areas between objects, or the silence between the musical notes. Sometimes the edges are best found by drawing the spaces between the objects. In other words, if I am trying to understand how one branch exists relative to its neighbor, I might very well draw the space between the two branches. This is one way of letting go of the conscious system of symbols. So, sometimes when I am drawing things, I study the negative space and achieve a more accurate representation.
The relationships are the connections and the relative proportions — what is in front and what is behind, what is above and what is below.
The lights and shadows constitute the light logic, which informs how we see each part as having its own integrity. Light logic is what people in grade school call "shading." Sometimes I hear people say, "I have problems with shading." What you are really doing with light logic is asking, "If there was a single source of illumination, such as a lightbulb, or the sun, which parts would be illuminated and which would be dark?” When we imagine this successfully, the objects start to look three-dimensional. The pattern of light tells us which parts are presented as noteworthy and it reveals the relationship of structure among the edges and spaces. The necessary corollary to this is that shadows obscure other parts, or hide some areas entirely. Sometimes, this shadowing is conscious, with a deliberate attempt to conceal, but more often it is unconscious, reflecting the assumptions about what is important or acceptable or aesthetically pleasing.
As for the word gestalt, meaning the whole experience, I hope that this talk will give you the sense of how one drawing builds on another and, so, a result which is greater than the sum of the individual observations.
For a long time, I have drawn trees and other botanical subjects. They are patient models for they do not need rest breaks as do human models. They hold still, even if the sun is constantly changing and, so, remind me how time is passing even when it seems suspended by my concentration on the work in my lap. Those of you who draw know that one of the most pleasurable parts of drawing is how time seems to disappear as you enter completely into the experience, and let go of the verbal part of the brain. Having announced my desire to leave words behind in the pursuit of drawing, I would like to explain the influence of literature in my choice of subjects, and how I name the works long after they are completed.
I'm now going to start what I think is the riskier part of the evening, which is to read you poems that I have copied out through the years and tell you how they relate to various drawings.
Here is a drawing of a hibiscus tree in my front yard and a very brief poem by Czeslow Milosz that seems to fit it.
I looked out the window at dawn and saw a young apple tree translucent in brightness.
and when I looked out at dawn once again, an apple tree laden with fruit stood there.
Many years had probably gone by but I remember nothing of what happened in my sleep.
This particular drawing was made about sixteen years ago. I remember that our older son was in a playpen nearby as I drew the tree one winter day. What I would like you to look at in terms of this painting is the very strong relationship and tension between the positive and negative space. These spaces in between the branches operate as importantly as the lines that describe the branches. The tension between the branches intrigued me and motivated me to start this rendering. Long before I read Betty Edwards, Bernard Chaet, my drawing teacher in college, challenged us to find the living tension in dried seaweed as the first step in planning a drawing. The energy and enthusiasm he brought to teaching made attending class a pleasure.
The next drawing is a different subject, entirely, although I suppose it could also be classified as one of the things found around my house. As you see, it's a pair of rubber washing-up gloves. I have a series of domestic items, clothespins, sponges, and rags. I find these objects compelling. For this I have a single quote, it's from Muriel Rukeyser, who was a poet and a critic, and very socially engaged. She wrote a wonderful, long poem about the artist, Kathe Kollwitz. In it she has Kollwitz saying, "If one woman told the truth about her life, the world would split open."
Somehow, these rubber gloves reveal a daily truth about life. I think that domesticity is often sentimentalized, as an extension of the concept that the home is where there is peace, and so forth. But I think that most of us discover our most dramatic situations at home. For we have our most intense relationships with those with whom we live, and home is where a lot of life comes to a point. So, I think that these gloves are a statement about how ordinary objects can be observed intensely and take on a greater power.
Here's another drawing of a mundane domestic object. It's an old T-shirt. What I liked about it was the simple sense of light. Think about what I said earlier, that the light shows both what is important and not important. In a way, this concern with light relates back to certain Spanish painters, who are important to me, like Francisco de Zurbaran and Sanchez Cotan, whose work I studied in Spain. These artists created still life paintings that operate as miniature theatrical tableaux. The pictures often feature a windowsill that establishes a proscenium that supports the vegetables who take on personalities. There are bunches of grapes suspended from the top, or squashes lounging in the corner. A bunch of fennel dominates a scene or a basket of oranges seems transfigured. These are small paintings with a great deal of presence. This sense of drama, this heightened emotion, is created by the artist's orchestration of the light in these paintings. I grew up in Colorado where the light is very strong. When I went to Spain, I felt an emotional connection with the light. It is a rich, yellow light. As I look at this drawing, it ties back to that strong kind of seeing. In a way, it's like a puppet show, playful and comical but, nevertheless, it has the power to touch you emotionally.
So, I think that two of the things that I've been talking about here are tangles and knots. The knots in particular are worth considering because there are several kinds of knots shown. There are tree knots, and there are fabric knots. Those of you who have read psychology know that puns reveal a comical way of relating things in our mind. I hadn't really made this connection until I was writing this talk, and I said to myself, "Oh, knots...knots. I get it."
Even when I go on vacation, my drawing interests go along with me. Often, there is only time for a quick sketch to note a combination of colors or a gesture. Yet, once in a while, I can steal the time to make a more careful rendering. This kind of slow painstaking observation of everyday life has yielded some of my most satisfactory work. I made this drawing two summers ago while on vacation on a schooner sailing around Penobscot Bay in Maine. Like the household objects, the rope has acquired both character and pliancy by its long use.
This is a small watercolor painting and it's a knot island. You might wonder, well, when is something a drawing, when is it a sketch, when is it a painting? I would say that in a painting the whole surface is moving. Usually, there is color and there is a calculated tension so that every part of it is critical. Whereas in a drawing or a sketch, the background may not be as developed. For example, with the rubber gloves, you could crop in the background a little, and it remains the same image. Here, you cannot remove any of the background without changing the balance in the image. This is a cloth knot. I believe it was an old pillowcase. After I knotted it, I thought, how does this become a painting? And, I started to draw these sort of vibration shapes radiating from it. Looking at the work later, I realized that part of the source for this pattern was Hawaiian quilting.
If you are familiar with the motifs in this kind of needlework, the central figure is often an abstracted flower, seedpod, or fruit in a bright color. This shape is then repeated at intervals following the edge of the central figure and is called echo quilting. I felt that this technique served to echo the tension that was being generated from the center of the knot. When I was reading an article from Hawaii about this kind of quilting, however, I found a different interpretation. The view was that this central figure is an island and so this background area is the lapping ocean. The waves are deflected differently depending on what kind of shore they meet.
To me, this was an interesting tension between the personal and the environmental. On the one hand, the tension spreads out from the knot, and on the other hand, you have the outside world coming in and getting different responses depending on what part of the knot it hits, whether it gets an open part or a tight part. This struggle between the foreground object and the background becomes a stylized representation of an emotional interplay.
There are few poets who have had as powerful an emotional impact on me as Rainer Maria Rilke. As I was considering what to name this transitional painting, I thought of his poem, “Blue Hydrangea,” as translated by William Gass. This painting shows the how the imposition of a new pattern on an older one changes both patterns, revealing a third composite with different qualities than either parent. Rilke wrote about the fading of colors over time —
the way, in old blue writing paper, yellow shows, then violet and gray;
a washed-out color as in children's clothes which, no longer worn, no more can happen to: how much it makes you feel a small life's brevity.
This amazing connection, from the faded colors of a piece of faded writing paper to children's clothing is what makes Rilke so remarkable. I haven't read any other poet with this kind of agility. The way one image climbs onto another image and then acrobatically propels itself aloft is just magical.
From images of worn-out children's clothing we proceed to another form of making art out of recycled clothing — the American pieced quilt. I have studied quilts since I was a child and learning to sew myself. Their extreme constraints of form have always intrigued me. Each pattern has a fixed structure providing a free rein for exploration of color relationships, much like Josef Albers' best-known series, “Homage to the Square.” Albers was an important person in my education because he taught at Yale and several of my own teachers, William Bailey and Richard Lytle, had been his teaching assistants. The work of Anni Albers has also been valuable to me, particularly in her appreciation of botanical forms and her elevation of textiles to an art form.
Another important painter for me is Henri Matisse, whose work I have spent many hours studying. He was an effective writer as well as wonderful painter. I enjoy his explanation of the goal of painting—
"I want to reach that state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture." I like this quote because it collides scientific method and artistic results. Condensation is a natural process, the cooling off and gathering together of droplets after evaporation of water or other liquids. In science, distillation is used to separate, extract, concentrate, or purify a substance so that its component elements can be further observed. The picture is the result of the observation. There is looking and there is seeing. Seeing takes a long time.
This economy of expression is the hallmark of another of my long-time favorite poets, Emily Dickinson. I have copied her poetry into my journals for at least the last 30 years. Dickinson is stunning in her quality and her economy. There is a terseness to her work with its sometimes ambiguous punctuation and phrasing which yields imagery that reminds me of the pieced quilts. She masterfully uses very few words to open up a vivid emotion. At other times, Dickinson can signal the emotion's power by establishing the sequence of events taking place but remaining silent before the event's outcome.
My quilt-like painting, Tell It Slant, was named for her poem which admonishes us:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth's superb surprise.
As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind —
To me, Tell It Slant, refers to an artist's necessity to encode his or her message so that the overall picture can be comprehended by the viewer, and then decoded bit by bit. Telling the truth all at once would blind the audience. Therefore, the artist must find a way to lead the viewer, “gradually,” by degrees, to the intended truth.
Here is another long-time favorite of mine by Dickinson,
You cannot put a Fire out — A thing that can ignite Can go, itself, without a Fan Upon the slowest night —
You cannot fold a Flood — And put it in a Drawer Because the winds would find it out — And tell your Cedar Floor —
As the French writer, Gaston Bachelard, observes in his discussion of Henri Bergson, the drawer is an image of intimacy, "with all the other hiding-places in which human beings, great dreamers of locks, keep or hide their secrets." The poetic leap is superbly achieved in Dickinson's contradiction between a drawer in a cupboard and a flood, a huge natural phenomenon, which cannot be controlled.
I had been thinking and reading about floods in quite a different context, the accounts given in Genesis. The sending of flood is considered to be the opposite process of creation, God's furious undoing of his own work.
God had created the world in love, and then decided to destroy it in anger at its unworthy and quarrelsome human inhabitants. Where before the firmament had been lifted to separate the waters, the flood caused the floodgates of the heavens to open and all the wells on earth to back up. Here are some images I created shortly after reading the flood narratives.
Water, and its transition states, inspired much of the painting in this exhibition. When I was in Maine a couple of summers ago, I lived for a week in a lakeside cabin. It faced west over the lake and the entire porch and good portion of the house itself were built over the water.
The first night I arrived late, after midnight. I sat and watched the almost full moon setting in the lake. The next morning, I walked down from the house to the lake's edge to photograph some reflections in the water. When I looked under the porch, I saw that the old supporting piers had twisted and tilted. Some handyman had used fresh lumber and oversized nails to stabilize the supports. I asked the cabin's owner if he had done the repair work himself. "Oh, yes," he said, he had to repair the piers every spring. "You see, there are 18 inches of ice on the lake in the winter and it expands onto the shore under the house. Then, when the thaw comes... I have to go down under the house and prop up what has changed."
I sat thinking about the tremendous force that acres and acres of 18-inch thick ice would accumulate with each drop in temperature and each new snowfall. How the ice would push beyond the lake's shore and then hold that compressed force through the long Maine winter and how it would release that energy in a sudden thaw.
I began to draw the ice exploding apart and imagined what I would feel when walking on this unstable ice. First, I could imagine the shock and fear of an established world giving way and then an almost involuntary fascination with the colorful worlds revealed beneath my feet through the fissures of the separating ice. The destruction took on a joyful quality for me as I realized the false security that a firm ice field might open to an unknown yet irresistible experience.
This painting is named By Moonlight, because the colors seemed to me to evoke the sensation of being under a full moon. The lighter colors are brightly lit and pastel, but the surrounding, shadowed areas are all in very subdued tones. There is no middle range of color at all. In addition, its imagery seemed to summon up a scene of some kind of obscure ritual, both frightening and intriguing. So, in the title, I suggest to the viewer what he or she might decode from this painting.
Just as textiles and quilts from different traditions have long intrigued me, I have read a certain number of works of social science and philosophy seeking answers to my on-going questions about what it means to be human.
In his book "Rulings of the Night," the anthropologist, Gregory Maskarinec, describes his work of the last twenty years with Nepalese shamans. The book's title derives from the fact that the shamans are in power at night. The kings rule during the day, but the shamans and the spirits they control rule at night. This book blends philosophy and anthropology in a way I had not previously encountered, for Maskarinec believes that this is a philosophical approach to healing, that the shamanic rituals are effective because the words establish an order for the world. The recitation of this ordered set of beliefs helps the shaman to explain how a particular illness has originated and then the shaman proceeds to make himself valuable by curing the illness. The healing model is one of a philosophical ordering of existence rather than our more scientific medical model. In a lovely turn of phrase, Maskarinec summarizes, "The right words create the world anew, curing the victims of a stale, deteriorated world."
In my view, this is also the task of the painter, to make the world vivid and startling again by providing the right blend of image and color sensation. Again, Bachelard provides an insight from the history of the philosophy of phenomenology, when he says that the philosopher describing his "entry into the world," or "being in the world," by a transformative experience of perception of an everyday object. For example, a man considering his inkbottle through a magnifying glass becomes a "fresh eye before a new object." This fresh eye is what I seek in my daily encounters in the studio or wherever else I draw or paint.
I believe that through my active perception and my work at casting the perception into a form that is open to you, I can convey my ecstasy at the color experiences in this world. And I believe that this experience can be both upsetting and healing.
Another writer who has been a lamp in the search for why I make art is Italo Calvino. The essays he prepared to be given as the Norton Lectures at Harvard, "Six Memos for the New Millennium," are a wonderful framework for considering the function of writing, and by extension, all art-making. In one of the essays, he retells the myth of Perseus and Medusa and describes how the drops of blood from this hideous monster's head were transformed into coral as the sanguine entered the ocean's water. These hardened drops were then gathered up as jewels by sea nymphs. I thought of this essay when I was seeking a title for this bright underwater scene, so it is called, Coral and Nymphs.
For most of the last decade, I have worked in multimedia, creating interactive software products for children. This has been my “day job,” although a fortunately interesting one. During this time our team included many animators and so I was exposed to a different mixture of art and film history: cartoons. Animators are necessarily actors, but, like puppeteers, their acting is expressed at one level of remove from their own bodies. They can be terrific observers of character and mannerism and I learned a lot from supervising all of this animation. One of our first animation directors was Steve Segal who told me "Personality is all in the walk." In other words, every step a character takes reveals something about his personality and his attitude toward the world. I think that the titles for these next two paintings are influenced by the time I spent watching characters being stretched and squashed for comic effect.
This is the most recent of my paintings, called Renewal, and so an appropriate place to conclude this talk. Its title refers to the tremendous energy and sense of celebration I have experienced while creating this art.
I'd like to leave you with a final aphorism from Paul Klee, writing to a friend after Klee visited Tunisia for the first time.
"Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever. That is the significance of this blessed moment. Color and I are one. I am a painter."
Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, translated from the French by Maria Jolas, Boston: Beacon Press,1969.
Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1985-86. Vintage International Edition, 1993.
Dickinson, Emily, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Johnson, Thomas H. (ed.), Little, Brown, 1976.
Edwards, Betty, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Tarcher/Putnam, 1989.
Gass, William H., Reading Rilke, Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Klee, Paul, Diaries of Paul Klee. Klee, Felix (ed.), University of California Press, 1964.
Klee, Paul. The Thinking Eye. G Whittenborn: 1964.
Maskarinec, Gregory G., The Rulings of the Night, An Ethnography of Nepalese Shaman Oral Texts. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Milosz, Czeslaw, The Collected Poems, 1931-1987. Hopewell, N.J: The Ecco Press, 1988.
Rukeyser, Muriel, The Life of Poetry. Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 1996.
Tobin, Jacqueline and Raymond G. Dobard, Hidden in Plain View, A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 1999.
Tufte, Edward R., The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press, Cheshire, Connecticut, 1983.