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.
Isleta just means little island, but the place is like a knife. The Tewa word for this open place of sun and wind is Shiewhibak. At this pueblo on the Rio Grande, on a spit of ancient lava, light bleaches the fields to dry colors. Albuquerque is shouldering in from the north. The land is both bucolic and fierce. Rabbits and cattle love this place, and, nearby, there is a casino that supports it.
I was contemplating the water as we sailed on the Yangtze. I did this for hours there, and on the Li river. Every body of water has its own color. The Li seemed dark under its reflections, and the Yangtze a thick sage tea. It’s tempting to call it jade, but the Yangtze has more threat and promise than even the most beautiful stone. When we came to Wushan, the bittersweet red arc of the bridge appeared. At a distance it is fragile, nothing more than a mark. It carries a highway above the river. It seems the perfect red calligraphy commenting on the powerful hills.
Garden with Plaster Head
My friend, the polymath writer Bill Jack (MA, PhD, JD, MLIS), said to me recently:
“Your paintings are like Russian novels. So much is going on but yet not going on simultaneously. Easy things are made difficult, difficult things made easy. The painting is vexatious, as they might say down your way but not up my way.”
No one has called my work vexatious down my way yet, but it’s time. The word is apt. It may be vexatious to see things joined visually that are not joined conventionally. Or it may be vexatious to find the materials so blatantly showing off their material natures. I want to cooperate with materials to make images. The materials, older and wiser than I am, have their own demands and beauty, beyond what I know to concoct.
Drawing and painting are holding each other tightly, constantly interfering with each other. It’s not that drawing is first and painting is last. It is not exactly that drawing is the truth and painting is the lie that we prefer. It is not at all that drawing is the outline and painting is the coloring-in. The two acts, drawing and painting get in each other’s way at every moment. My paintings are the plays that drawing and painting put on in ideas and colored mud. The animal or the field or rock, like an actor on our stage, comes down to the footlights and tells us that drawing and painting have made this happen for a reason. These paintings tell the story of their own making.
detail from Albers House