Lecture at TAG Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, January 18, 2001.
The title for this exhibition is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson, called Suddenness. This poem powerfully encapsulates the experience of seeing instantaneously, the moment of seeing all at once.
I remember driving across the country twenty-seven years ago. When we were midway in our journey and riding through Kansas in the dead of the night, a late summer storm started. There were no other motorists around as we advanced steadily through the flat landscape. It was pitch dark and we had little idea of the surrounding countryside, but then a tremendous bolt of lightning hit the road, maybe ten miles ahead of us. In that strobe-like moment, the entire landscape was revealed, frozen and held for a split second, then just as suddenly returned into utter blackness. Listen to how Dickinson describes this phenomenon.
The Soul's distinct connection
With Immortality Is best disclosed by Danger Or quick Calamity –
As Lightning on a Landscape Exhibits Sheets of Place – Not yet suspected – but for Flash And Click – and Suddenness.
For the contemporary reader, the "flash" and "click" summon up the whir of the mechanism for automatic film advance in cameras. Of course, in Dickinson's time no such camera or associated sound existed. Yet, photography was beginning to change the way that people saw the world since Eakins and Muybridge began their celebrated stop motion studies in the 1870's. What is more, flash powder, with its abrupt burst of intense light that recalls a flash of lightning, was used starting in the 1880's. What interests me, however, is Dickinson's ability to express this moment of sudden insight through the metaphor of the lightning revealing the world surrounding the viewer.
The paintings in this exhibition are my "sheets of place," for they show the unexpected effect of light on a darkened background or landscape. These artworks are two-dimensional representations of natural subjects that I have studied for years and then abruptly recognized as single, powerful images. These paintings are my efforts to capture that experience.
As you can see, there some clear distinctions between this set of work and work I showed here last year. For one thing, most of the pastel paintings in this exhibit are on black Arches etching paper. Often, the sources of some of these abstract images are more obvious. Finally, all of the images are about the tension between darkness and light. I didn't start out to paint about a tree; I actually was looking for a way to express the power of the imagery in the Creation account in the Hebrew Bible.
I've been reading a book by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg for the last ten months called "The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis." Zornberg provides a wonderful way of tying together the traditional text, the older Rabbinic commentaries, and contemporary literature from Franz Kafka to Richard Rorty. Zornberg’s discussions are compelling and have sent me scurrying to dig up her references as well as to reconsider much of my own beliefs. When I was reading in Genesis about the creation of light, I tried to imagine what the world would look like when the darkness was rolled away, revealing the newly created light. As it says in Bereshit, “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.” I considered how that first dawn appeared, as the light spread over the waters for the first time.
Interestingly, the Hebrew prayer one recites when seeing the first light of dawn is the same as the prayer for seeing lightning. Both conclude with acknowledging God as the Source of Creation. (Thunder has a different prayer which acknowledges the power and might in the world.) This means that the Jewish tradition had an awareness and an acknowledgement, for what is prayer but acknowledgement, of a linkage between these two kinds of dawn and lightning long before my own discovery of this intersection. While Zornberg's book focuses on the human side of the traditional stories and how the psychological issues are freshly relevant to each generation, other Jewish scholars have long taken a more mystical view of the sacred text, inferring a full cosmology by examining each passage, each word, and even each letter.
When I was discussing the lightning theme of Suddenness with my friend, Rachel, she smiled and explained the following meaning to me about the Tetragrammeton. This is the Greek version of one of the Hebrew names for God, spelled in Hebrew as yud, heh, vov, heh. It is commonly translated as Jehovah in English texts, but pronounced as Adonai (the Lord) in Hebrew since the word is considered to be unpronounceable in everyday usage because of its holiness and extreme power. I want to acknowledge that in the following discussion I have heavily relied on the work of Edward Hoffman in his book, "The Hebrew Alphabet."
If we look at the letters we see: Yud, Heh, Vov, Heh.
Edward Hoffman offers one set of meanings for these letters as follows:
Yud is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet and is the only one to float above the line on which the other letters march. It represents a tiny spark of light, with its implied speed of travel, and jumps the gap across the surrounding. A dot of energy with the power to change us, it takes on greater and greater force as it travels across the universe. Each letter has a numerical value, as well. Yud represents the number ten, and is therefore linked to the ten sefirot, which are different forms of energy or manifestations of God, together comprising the cosmic Tree of Life.
Heh occurs twice in the Tetragrammeton connoting divine revelation, exhalation, breathing, as in God breathing life into Adam Kadmon, the first human being.
Heh is the number five, referring to the five dimensions of the human soul, physical instincts, emotions, mind, bridge to transcendent awareness of a cosmic unity.
Vov connotes space, mass, physical wholeness. You can see that this is the spark with its stem extended down to this world. In other words, a lightning bolt. How do we bring light into our daily lives? It is also the prefix meaning "and" joining together words, sentences, and concepts, transliteratively Yud Heh Vov Heh...
Its numerical value is six as in the six days of creation.
Heh the second breath. Time for reflection, two breaths.
You can see that this is a very elementary dissection of the uppermost layer of meanings of the letters in one word, endlessly opening new doors for understanding on how the world is fit together.
When I think about creation, I think not only of the commencement of something new, but also I have a great sense of profusion, of overflowing energy, of great quantities of nourishment. When I read the verses about the creation of fish, I do not see a simple pair of fish set here and there but rather a sea full of fish, all types swimming in all directions. Abundance! Which brings us to the paintings on this wall.
If you recall, the work that I displayed and discussed last year was also related to water imagery but that had more to do with the nature of a state change, from ice to water and with images of breaking ice and melting ice. If that set of imagery originated in Maine, I suppose one could say that this set of work was set in motion by my travel in Oregon early last summer. The four paintings down at this end of the gallery are the earliest work in this exhibition. They spring from my looking at a fish hatchery near the city of Bend in eastern Oregon.
Now I like hatcheries because they offer me natural creatures in unnatural conditions that facilitate my watching them. The fish are very crowded, so I can see dozens at once instead of one at time as I might if I were actually fishing or simply observing a stream or lake. The nurture tanks are constructed to make it easy for the keepers to feed the fish, so I can get close to the fish without their quickly swimming out of my field of view. Still, the trout are active and present endlessly changing tableaux as the fish startle, regroup, and nearly collide. Finally, in the breeding tanks there are many extremely large specimens which makes it possible for me to see the details of the fish's anatomy and coloring. I visited the hatchery on a sunny day and the sunlight danced off the surface of the many tanks. As I stood admiring the changing light, I noticed something else about these tanks – their bottoms were painted a light gold in order to simulate the sandy bottom of the trout's natural habitat. As a result, the large bodies of the fish were backlit by the bottom of the pool and so, visually, the fish appeared to be interruptions to the light. In addition, the crowd of huge trout presented an undulating black mass, which in turn became the background for the surface reflections of the sunlight on the water. I took many photographs as notes and started these paintings when I returned to Los Angeles.
I've spoken about figure/field or negative space relationships before, but I'll take a brief tangent here to make it clear how this phenomenon is related to this set of work. As our eyes scan our environment, our brains are constantly trying to pull patterns from the vast array of data. One way of doing this is to distinguish important elements from less important, or foreground from background, the solid from the void. This kind of distinction is often described as figure/field figure/ground by cognitive psychologists and as negative and positive space by artists. In addition, we are more attracted to moving objects than to still ones, which has useful biological functions in terms of personal survival. As our eyes strain to make sense of the panorama, we are generally opting to recognize fish, something we can eat, over the background of plain sand or sand-colored concrete. There are several objective criteria for this choice of which is the figure and which is the ground, based on cognitive psychology?
First, in figure field/tests, we tend to identify the smaller areas in a frame as being the figure, and the larger areas as the field. Second, we also associate the darker areas as being the figure, and the white or lighter areas as being the field. But it is my job as an artist to make you see things differently, to see them in a fresh way. As William Gass paraphrases Rainer Maria Rilke in the introduction to his book on translation, "We are here to realize the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything… lies on a continuum, as colors do."
When I intentionally leave a relatively large proportion of the black paper untouched, this is somewhat disconcerting for a viewer. The black shapes are too large and too dominant to remain background, yet they lack the detailing which we associate with the foreground. Your eyes shift back and forth, trying to decide what is important. What is the figure; what is the field? Just as these marks of colored pencil depict abstract masses which resolve themselves into different objects or forms depending on the viewer's own state of mind. And I am inviting you to try looking at things in a slightly different way.
Penumbra, named for the edge of the shadow.
Refraction shows the non-mechanical breaking apart of the light on the water's surface.
Vortex refers to the whirling shape created by the fish as they school.
Allegory a drawing also about water, but without fish this time. It is more about the experience of watching tree branches reflected in a stream, so that this artwork may serve as a transition to the tree-based paintings that comprise most of the rest of this show.
The appearance of water alters continuously so that it becomes a primary and recurring metaphor for change, as Leonardo da Vinci remarked,
In rivers the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and first of that which comes: so with time present.
Now photography, by capturing a fraction of a second's time, makes us feel that we can perhaps stop the water in order to study it more carefully. I've brought along one photograph that I used as reference so you have a glimpse of how I use these photographic notes.
This whole drawing was triggered by this small section of this photograph. And the photograph captures an entirely different moment, that second when a fish broke the surface of the water with its tail, creating this reflected flare of sun.
In this drawing, the reflected tree branches divide the water into patches of color. I am aware of the stitch-like quality of the drawing marks themselves. They almost seem to be a form of embroidery on the black surface. Yet, the word "embroidery" has a connotation of superfluous decoration; I did not believe that I was finding a pretty way to add ornamentation to a natural subject. Rather, I felt that I was carving the trees into existence with my hatch-like marks. The color was necessary to convey the energy of the growth, of the force pushing through the trees.
It seemed that the combination of my drawing and my reading was taking me away from the general theme of creation to a more specific image of the “Tree of Life.” I reviewed some older work and found notes I had made about the coral tree in my front yard.
The coral tree, or Erythrina, is native to hot dry climates such Mexico and South Africa. The specimen in my front yard had grown in its own twisted fashion, undisturbed by pruning for many years before we had purchased our house. We have cleared it out a little from time to time but not done much to correct its essential internal disorder. It starts each winter season with its branches almost bare and sheds the remaining leaves in the winter rain. I have often drawn this tree when it is thus denuded and its structure is most clear. I place the viewer in a specific location, under the tree's branches, looking from the inside out. The tree offers a space that is both accessible and sheltering, like a childhood memory of a hiding place.
I decided to try a drawing, "working backwards" by starting with a dark field and drawing in the new light. And, somehow, in this scene which I have looked at through the seasons for seventeen years, there was a flash, an instant where it became clear to me how mutually dependent the light and dark parts were, and I struggled to convey this in the drawing. And, then I couldn't stop....
So, although the paintings themselves took only a few days each, the observations had taken place over many years. Like the Kansas landscape, it had been there but I hadn't known it until that moment when the light flashed.
This triptych shows the same tree in three seasons, Autumn, Winter, Spring. There are three slightly different views of the tree, showing the different light and foliage at each season. Yet, they seem to fit together.
Another writer who has been my frequent companion this year is Rainer Maria Rilke, who often uses arboreal imagery. Trees, with their open structure, are not only surrounded by space but also interpenetrated by it – their branches seem to draw in the space. Here I'd like to share with you, two fragments from Rilke, which I found quoted by Bachelard in The Poetics of Space,
Space, outside ourselves, invades and ravishes things: If you want to achieve the existence of a tree, Invest it with inner space, this space That has its being in you. Surround it with compulsions, It knows no bounds, and only really becomes a tree If it takes its place in the heart of your renunciation.
(... silently the birds Fly through us. O, I, who long to grow, I look outside myself, and the tree inside me grows.)
As the weeks pass, the nights shorten and the days start earlier, the coral tree starts to flower. It offers forth its spiky red blossoms mid-April. For the last three years we have been visited by a flock of parakeets that enthusiastically attack the red florets, nipping them off at the base and leaving a litter of broken red tubes on the lawn beneath the tree. This painting, April Evening, shows this phase in the twilight, when the late afternoon sky's deep blue has not yet been overtaken by the smoky grey of early evening.
Then, in early May its leaves start to reappear. First, only a few, then day by day, a few more here and there and suddenly the branches are covered with hundreds of leaves, all of them enlarging by the hour. The leaves stretch from a few centimeters to eight or ten inches in width. I stand in awe of this metabolism. I asked my friend, Sharon Long, who teaches Genetics at Stanford, just how trees "know" when to start this springtime process and also how they can accomplish it so rapidly. Sharon is a good teacher as well as researcher and she can clearly explain complicated concepts.
She wrote me,
"The most frequent way in which plants detect the change of seasons is ratio of light/dark. This is much more reliable (on an evolutionary scale) than temperature, moisture etc. The plants sense it by an amazing protein that can absorb both in red and far-red wavelengths of light, such that absorbance on either wavelength converts the protein into the form that absorbs the other wavelength. There is also a one-way degradation pathway, and some complexities I'm not going into, but this will give you the general idea: it can measure a ratio, almost as good as being able to do algebra with the set of rational numbers in my book.
About the expansion: there are at least two truly amazing things about this. First is the energy -- where is the sugar coming from? [In the] first phase, it draws from the root; then it starts photosynthesizing like crazy to make more than it needs, feeding itself to make new cell material, but second is the volume. Almost everything you see is a volume expansion due to water. It's as if the plant was a balloon and it just gets blown up to full volume with water once a year."
You can see that one of many reasons that Sharon and I have been friends for decades is that we share the capacity for amazement in everyday happenings, not to mention a strong affection for plants.
While I think that this is quite an expressive explanation, here is another one from a master observer, Francis Ponge, who specialized in detailed and highly personal descriptions of everyday objects and events. He starts his short prose piece, "The Cycle of Seasons" with...
Las de s'être contractés tout l'hiver les arbres tout a coup se flattent d'être dupes. Ils ne peuvent plus y tenir: ils lachent leurs paroles, un flot, un vomissement de vert.
As translated by C.K. Williams this becomes...
Tired of holding back all winter long, the trees suddenly feel they've been had. They can't stand it anymore: they release their verbiage.
A flood, a vomit of green.
Several people have asked me how I have drawn the tree in a number of seasons when all of these paintings were made this fall. As I said earlier, I often take photographic notes and mostly it's all from my imagination, anyway.
In contrast, this painting, Early October, shows one specific moment on one specific day at the beginning of fall, when the first leaves alter color, signalizing that the seasons are shifting. I've been reading W.S. Merwin for the last few months and he evokes this sensation delicately in this selection from the end of his poem, The Love for October,
my love is for lightness of touch foot father the day is yet one more yellow leaf and without turning I kiss the light by an old well on the last of the month gathering wild rose hips in the sun
To me, this painting, Ideogram, is the most clearly influenced by my ongoing interest in fabrics and textiles. I particularly enjoy looking at Japanese kimonos that are one-of-a-kind paintings and that create a single overall image when worn. The zigzag shape is a sort of black lightning bolt, which by its darkness makes us aware of the landscape that glows around it.
Here's another fragment from Merwin. This poem, called Vision.
What is unseen flows to what is unseen passing in part through what we partly see.
This study in pink and black is of the hibiscus hedge that grows near my house. The bushes are planted so close together that they have grown to be intertwined. The ladders are from Rilke's Fifth Duino Elegy near the end...
Angel! Suppose there's a place we don't know of, and there, on an indescribable carpet, lovers announced figures of their heartleaps through space, their towers of pure pleasure, their two ladders that stand leaning only against each other with no ground underneath, trembling...
This work seems to stand apart from the rest, perhaps in terms of its intensity. When I was drawing, it felt at first as if the scene were some sort of forest fire. Then I realized it was a different kind of sense memory. When we visited Hawaii we spent a few days at the Volcano National Park, which is particularly memorable at night when the landscape is silhouetted by the numerous small red fires. We stood and watched as a small stream of flowing rock hissed as it entered the ocean and increased the size the island by a few inches. As is my custom, I purchased these few books to look at the pictures, and to learn more about the volcanoes, and I started to read them when we returned home. One item that interested me was the phenomenon where lava is moving rapidly into a green field and may bank up and surround a tree. When the lava flows on, the shape of the tree is maintained by the now cooled stone. So, it seems that in this image I have combined the shape of a living object enclosed and transformed by the molten assassin with the field of the fiery glowing landscape that is unique to the volcanic experience.
One night over one hundred years ago, a well-known American writer walked out to observe the Kilauea Volcano and invoked a biblical metaphor to explain his sense of awe at the site:
"A colossal column of cloud towered to a great height in the air immediately above the crater, and the outer swell of every one of its vast folds was dyed with a rich crimson luster, which was subdued to a pale rose tint in the depressions between. It glowed like a muffled torch and stretched upward to a dizzy height toward the zenith. I thought it just possible that its like had not been seen since the children of Israel wandered on their long march through the desert so many centuries ago over a path illuminate by the mysterious "pillar of fire." And I was sure that I now had a vivid conception of what the majestic "pillar of fire" was like, which almost amounted to a revelation...."
That was Mark Twain writing in 1866.
So, as you see, this talk has indeed circled back to the bible, although we have skipped ahead a few thousand years to Exodus.
In my online study group of the Hebrew Bible it has taken us over a year to discuss the first six days of Creation, word by word. For me, this topic has just begun as well for as I understand more about the mutual interdependence of light and dark, a promising series of new images call me forward.
I'd like to end with a few more words from Rilke, this time from William Gass's translation of the Sonnets to Orpheus.
And if what's earthly no longer knows you, Say to the unmoving earth: I flow. To the rushing water speak: I stay.
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Clemens, Samuel, "Roughing It" quoted from Mark Twain At Kilauea Volcano, 1866 [Online]. Available at www.volcano-hawaii.com/mark-twain.htm, Jan 10, 2001.
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