The trail in this red canyon is long and dusty. At the furthest point, the red rock walls capture a warm, shallow pond, fed by a tiny spring. In the afternoon, we and the birds and dragonflies wade in. The water feeds willows and makes our air feel cool while our eyes are stunned with warm light. In the night, the coyotes drink here. They have run in from the desert, through a gap in the rocks, fresh from hunting jackrabbits.
Betty Woodman built a ceramic world where solid authority eased itself into graceful explorations of space. She stuck tables, walls, and vessels together in Baroque simultaneity. Copper green met Asian ladies and pitchers shaped like pillows. Betty Woodman was a reprimand to painters.
The heavy clouds at Cline’s Corners are reflecting down on us the orange of burning energy – the beacon of the venerable and garish tourist stop, and the lights of the traffic on Interstate 40. Snow has fallen on the dry, grassy hills, on the pinon and cedar. There is plenty of room out here to be quiet and safe. It is only that hot intersection of gas stations, souvenirs, snacks, and bright parking lots that reminds us we live in two worlds.
We are driving to that snowy white mountain range. We are careful to avoid the ice patches on the road. More storms will soon bury these pastures in white. Where, in spring, antelope and cattle saw a little green, and tasty seeds in August, there is sour brown grass, cold as the air. Under that ground, mice and hares and prairie dogs hide in burrows, and the coyotes watch.
On the skirt of the tablecloth appears a landscape like ones on Chinese porcelains, where islands dot a wide river. Each island is inhabited by houses or temples, scholars or laborers, as if it were a vision of existence. Everybody working at the business of life. Above the river world, on what might be the tabletop, freshly picked leaves stand in a glass jar. A pair of plums has been set down. They could be the dark, double moon high above the blue river. Around the table, a sturdy, green and ochre tangle clings to the table’s edges.
“Everything stays close to what keeps it
content, no idea what others may crave.”
From “Enjoying Pine and Bamboo” by Po-Chü-I, translated by David Hinton
A yellow tulip lies where it was thrown down on the table in this dim room. Someone, perhaps a gardener, has left pink jars, ochre-printed cloth, and handfuls of flowers on the table of dark wood. In this small house, the cloudy glass has a pattern of starflowers. The brown bird, whose portrait is painted on the pink jars, is a guide who says: “Things become apparent.” This bird comes from the notes of Kiki Smith, in her prose poem “The House.”
Garden House was a temporary, one-day installation in Kiki Smith’s exhibition Her Home, 2008, Museum Haus Esters, Krefeld, and 2008, Kunsthalle Nuremberg.
The small house held puppets, dolls, and wreaths.
In my half-imaginary studio, great works of art can loom above the table, where a dog from a Vuillard is allowed, and where the distance between near and far is a matter of scale and shape more than of color. At the edge of the table, the tonalist and the colorist touch and almost agree.
In the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth is Pierre Bonnard’s Landscape at Le Cannet, 1928. I am pretending, in my painting, that Bonnard’s grand, 109” work has come to my studio. While it is there, behind the table, I remember the Vuillard painting Studio Portrait of Pierre Bonnard, painted between 1930 and 1935. Vuillard painted his friend Bonnard standing in his studio gazing at Landscape at Le Cannet, the light behind him, and his shadow falling over his dog, who sits on a divan between Bonnard and his painting.
On the very large, pale terracotta bowl in the studio, the unknown ceramist has drawn, in thick gray lines, a shepherd. There is a shepherd like this by a follower of Brueghel in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He climbs up into a tangled wilderness; he looks back at his sheep grazing among the trees. Outside the bowl is the world that the shepherd could enter – the rough yellow grass, the curtain of green foliage, and the indigo sky.
In a sculpture garden, one comes around a corner and discovers a surprise. This time it is a memory of a Barry Flanagan, my own version, not a real Barry Flanagan. All his hares are wildly funny and biting, partly human. I like to think that this hare’s gaze is focused on some other sculpture, around that corner, beyond the pale chocolate grotto. Or is the hare twisting toward us, wanting to see the bright willow? The young willow hunches in its yellow sweep of branches. Closer, the spreading cedar has overgrown it soft, old stone planter.
Like most of my collages, Maun Elephant is cut from Yupo and stapled to Yupo. Because glue is not as lasting as a strong pin, I hold the collages together with stainless steel staples. I’m not hiding this process; the staples are undisguised. The colors in these collages come from oil, acrylic, ink, and graphite painted on sheets that were then sacrificed to the scissors. The method of cutting has to be straightforward – continuous and usually counterclockwise around the outside edge of the form. This is drawing rather than surface molding. The open and commonplace manufacture shows. It is not my tricks in performance that matter, it is the way we read the path of the line. If the raw nature of it annoys you, that’s the beginning of enjoying it.
Maun Elephant is in admiration of my friend Debra Stevens and her Elephant Havens project in Botswana.