Monday, December 31, 2012

Use Anything

This here is another bit of blog pilfering. I cooked it up for a website I used to write for. When I quit, it got caught in the gap - it never wound up getting posted. I was just back from Italy when I wrote it. I was thinking over what I learned, not as a human being, but as an artist.

You'll have to forgive the jarringly second-person, affirmative tone. House style. I cut some introductory fluff I've covered previously here.

--- many towns in Abruzzo, the one we stayed in was a jumble of centuries-old limestone houses, walkways, and staircases built into the side of a mountain. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Naturally I was inspired to make some pictures.

So I went to grab my pencils and fancy paper and, what do you know, I forgot to bring them. What did that leave me with? It left me with what I had in my pocket. Which was this:

A 59-cent blue ballpoint pen, and a Moleskine. Well, that's life. I started drawing. First I drew that which provides us with the will to live:

coffee maker, 8-20-2012

And then I started a series of drawings of the dazzling perspectives around me:

nested space, Calascio, 8-22-2012

I felt pretty good about the body of work I produced over the course of the week. I would have liked to have had better materials to work with. But I didn't, so I made the materials I had work for me. I hadn't used a blue ball point pen as a serious drawing tool in many years, and it took a few tries to relearn what it brings to the table. If you're patient with them, they really have excellent and unique properties, especially for rendering soft gradations and dark darks.

a pear, 8-24-2012

But they will also support the integrity of the flimsiest net of lines.

il toro, 8-22-2012

That's great news, but in the end, I could have had anything - a number two pencil, a crayon - one time I got stuck in Joshua Tree National Park with no drawing materials except some red wine and cigarette ashes. Fine - that's enough for art supplies.

using anything

The principle this demonstrates is that you do not need to wait on materials to start making work. And conversely, you mustn't use lack of materials as an excuse not to start your work. Wherever you have eyes to see, you will find things to look at, and you will more than likely find something to draw or paint with. Roll with the punches - use what you have handy - but above all, draw and paint. It doesn't have to be perfect, you just have to want to do it. Everything else falls into place on its own.

Happy drawing, all of you.


You can see why I would want to resuscitate this little snippet, right? I think it's a good sentiment for the end of the year. I hope to retain the spirit of it myself, next year and always, and I also hope it for you. I hope you'll have the most excellent of art supplies, but I also hope you'll use anything you can grab. Just so you're working. That's a day-to-day attitude that maintains a supple art, and one that prepares you to produce the most necessary work.

horse-cheese, so called not because it comes from horse milk, 
but because it is formed in roped sacks appropriate for slinging over the back of your horse

Sunday, December 30, 2012


I had a dream a couple nights ago which summarized a point I was trying to figure out how to make.

In the dream, I was at a book-release party for a bestselling fantasy novelist named Svévò. His new book had a devil on the cover, high-collared like The New Yorker's foppish mascot, and grinning at the viewer. The devil was based on a more serious rendition, in profile, on the cover of Svévò's family Bible - it was the devil's Bible, the version they use in Hell.

it was a bit - bit - bit like that
Jonah Freeman/Justin Lowe, Stray Light Grey, 2012

Svévò's name was an overlap of two words: "Zvuv," the Hebrew for "fly" - the devil's name is Ba'al Zvuv, "Lord of the Flies," and Svévò was one of his flies. But it was also "Sovev," the Hebrew for "rotate" - Svévò was familiar with the turning of things.

Svévò had always written fiction, but he spent much of his life making a living as an aircraft engineer. By the time his first book was published, he was in his late forties. The book was moderately successful; the next few performed unevenly; only the most recent series had hit the bestseller lists. He was in his fifties before he was able to devote himself full-time to writing novels. At the party, a journalist asked him what it was like, having his ambitions delayed so long.

Svévò said, "It was good, because it made my successes mean more to me, and my failures less."


Here's the point I was trying to figure out how to make. When I look at the online personae of other artists, I am often intimidated, not only by their work, but by its success in the world. I think: "Well, this person is obviously more talented than I am, and they know cooler people, and they're going to get all the things I would like for myself. There is no room for me..."

I am also aware that I've had a string of successful sorts of things lately - those of you who are friends of mine on Facebook have followed this process in the most detail.

Naturally, I have begun to worry that my own recent adventures are beginning to operate in a suppressive way on the ambitions of other artists, as the successes of other artists have acted on me in the past. This is the opposite of my purpose. If I thought I would be suppressing other artists, I would post my artwork and CV and call it a day. The main point of my writing, on this blog and elsewhere, is to make not only art, but life as an artist, more available, not less.

So I wanted to say, in case my worry is justified, that my failures dwarf my successes; that I have always wanted to accomplish more than I have been able to; that I am often disappointed and bitter; that I depend frequently on the people closest to me to remind me that career comes second, and art first; and that I continue not in the absence of difficulty, but in its face.

Like Svévò's, my successes are delayed. I aspire to the equanimity of this strange man, but I do not have it. My work is not a threat to yours.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


A while back, I mentioned that my first solo show, "Blue Leah," was opening soon at Dacia Gallery in Manhattan. Well, it opened, and it was wonderful. Here's a picture of  the creative principals behind the show:

Wait, let's dress us up for the show:

She dresses up better than I do.

Here's Lee Vasu, the more public of the two gallerists who constitute Dacia Gallery:

I am proud to call this man a friend. Lee hung the show, and did a staggeringly good job of arranging the work.

Dacia is an archaic name for Romania. Lee is from Romania; he was raised under Ceaușescu, in Transylvania, down the road from the actual Castle Dracula - Vlad the Impaler's old place. Under the communists, it was apparently an abandoned dump. Not the Vampire Disneyland it is now.

One oddity of Dacia, the gallery, not the country, is that if you're an artist, and you've got an opening there, Lee Vasu wants you to give a little talk. Fair enough. I'm no kind of a public speaker, though, so the prospect of this stunt scared the crap out of me. I was eventually corralled into giving the talk, to an assembly of family, friends, and artists (there was some overlap). I found that if I leaned against the wall, it steadied my nerves.

So that's me giving the talk, looking very nonchalant, because I'm leaning against a wall. But if I hadn't been leaning against the wall, I would have fallen silent, or over.

These are the notes I had in hand should I need to remember what I was talking about. I had carried them around the city for three days beforehand, mumbling bits of the talk to myself:

I'm not above scrounging up a free blog post wherever I can get one.

So here, to the best of my recollection, is what I said. Some of it I've told you before. I think it's worth saying it again. I called this post "Credo" because this is as good a summary of what I believe, for my own personal mode of figurative art-making, as I've attempted.

Don't get me wrong - there are many legitimate ways to make art. Some of them are even mutually exclusive. The world is very large, and there is room for many of us, and for us to love one another despite our many differences.

But this is the core of what I do when I do people, and I believe in it intensely:

"All of you - family, those who have come in from out of town, out of the country, my friends from the art world, and my friends from the rest of my life - thank you all for being here tonight. It means a great deal to me to have you here. Thank you.

Before we get going, let me clear up the art historical references. [I wasn't thinking of these works when I came up with mine, but I cannot deny they are in my blood.]



You might not have noticed it, but the David.

[not the first time I've ripped that one off]

And, of course, the lighting owes something to Caravaggio, although I've changed the spectrum.

So - this talk is supposed to be about why I paint, or what my paintings are about, or something like that. I'd like to tell you a favorite story of mine on this subject. It's from Pliny the Elder, and it's one of the Greek myths of the invention of drawing. In this myth, a young woman from Sicyon, near Corinth, is sitting with her boyfriend. He has to leave the next day, and she's going to miss him. They're sitting by the hearth fire, talking. Suddenly she turns and sees the shadow of his profile on the wall. So she grabs a piece of charcoal, and makes an outline of the shadow, to remember him by. And that's the invention of drawing.

Joseph Benoit Suvee, Invention of the Art of Drawing, 1793

The next story I know that is parallel to this is a medieval story about the crucifixion. Jesus is on the Via Dolorosa, hauling the cross toward Golgotha. He's sweating, he's bleeding. He's covered in mud, people have been spitting on him. And a woman in the crowd, a sympathizer, takes off her veil, and pats his face with it. When she takes it away - a miracle! There is an image of his face imprinted on the veil. This image is the true image of the face of Jesus, and in the middle ages, they even had a fakey Latin-Greek term for this concept of the True Image: the vera eikona. With a bit of folk etymology, the name of the True Image, the vera eikona, becomes the name of the woman - Veronica.

Hans Memling, The St. John and Veronica Diptych (right wing), circa 1483

Both of these stories, the woman from Sicyon, and Veronica, are stories about the True Image. They are myths based on the importance to us, as human beings, of making a True Image. But they have something else interesting in common: the means of producing the True Image is essentially mechanical in each case.

So the question arises - if the means of manufacturing the True Image is mechanical, why do we still feel a need to paint after the invention of the camera?

I think we can answer this question by drawing on a very interesting concept raised by Neal Stephenson in his recent novel Anathem.

In this novel, the main character is press-ganged into serving as an amanuensis. "Amanuensis" is a fancy word for a stenographer - somebody who writes down what somebody else says. The main character, very reasonably, asks why they don't just get a tape recorder and some voice recognition software. And his boss explains to him that what is needed isn't a record of the words alone, but also that the words should pass through consciousness on their way to the record. It is absolutely essential - for narrative reasons - that a consciousness parse the words.

It is necessary that a consciousness parse it. This pertains to our question:

It is necessary that a consciousness parse what is seen for a True Image to be produced.

The finger on the shutter, the hand that holds the brush, the arm that swings the chisel - these are extensions of consciousness. They are required to produce a True Image.

Why? To answer this, we have to answer: what is the True Image a true image of? It is entirely possibly to measure the density or volume or boiling point of iron, for example, by mechanical means, or to find out the color of a star. These are purely physical phenomena. Machines are good at representing physical things. But it is next to impossible for a scale, a telescope, a surveillance camera, to represent consciousness, or the soul, the spirit - whatever you want to call it. The True Image is an image of something that is not physical. It is of the same nature as consciousness, and this is why consciousness must parse it to represent it accurately.

Daniel Maidman, preparatory sketch for Blue Leah #2, pencil on paper, 15"x22", 2011

When we paint, we are making an image of a spiritual phenomenon. The image itself begins to partake of consciousness, owning itself and making person-like demands on the viewer. It is very difficult to make such an image. It is not hard for the artist alone. It is also hard for the model. Modeling as a practice is physically demanding, it is a form of athleticism. And more than that, the model must present themselves, make who they are available; their consciousness must, unhidden, interact with yours. It is very difficult to do, and I am very grateful for having worked with my model - can we all give a hand to Leah, who is here tonight?

[applause, Leah blushes]

Daniel Maidman, preparatory sketch #1 for Blue Leah #3 (rejected lighting), pencil on paper, 15"x22", 2011

Now, given how difficult it is, let's ask again: why would anyone bother? Why is the True Image so important to us? I think Plato addresses this problem with his distinction between Being and Becoming. Everything eternal - ideas, mathematics, things like that - is described as partaking of Being. Everything that changes, that comes to be and passes away, that lives and dies, is described as partaking of Becoming. And Plato says that that which is Becoming is an illusion. It doesn't really exist. Why does he say that? It's a radical rejectionism. He's rejecting death. He says, "It is impossible that death should exist."

Consider again the woman of Sicyon. She looks at things that are partaking of Becoming - her boyfriend, who will leave in the morning. The fire. The shadow. And she realizes she will miss these things. So she reaches for those objects closest to her which partake most of Being: the charcoal and the tiles of the wall. And she translates that which is Becoming into that which is Being.

We pursue the True Image as a less radical version of Plato's rejectionism. We say, "This thing, which exists now, is real. I see it now. I love it now. I don't want it to go away." So we reach for whatever we can reach that partakes of Being, and we make a True Image of the thing we see. We make an image using materials that will last longer than we will. That way we can remember, and not die, and we can go on telling the future what we thought was so precious and so important.

Thank you very much."


A more concise version of this talk appeared in the December, 2012 iPad edition of Poets and Artists, which is a marvelous magazine that you should check out, and this would be true even if I didn't have the good fortune to be in it sometimes.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ludvigsen at the Shore

Yes, this one is a Huffington piece. More, specifically for you guys, very soon.


Consider this painting, which I think is a very good painting. It is by British artist and scientist Malcolm Ludvigsen:

Malcolm Ludvigsen, Bridlington, Dec 11, 2012, oil on canvas, 24"x30"

What makes this one good?

Let me explain in a roundabout way. I was raised on classical music. My best friend used to be a rock critic. He would weep bitter tears because my ignorance of the music prevented me from appreciating the brilliance of Lester Bangs. I couldn't tell the Ramones from the Replacements.

Years later, I got my revenge. He got into classical music. At first, it seemed to him like a huge, sissified, undifferentiated mass. But he studied, until he could hear the difference between broad groupings like classical and baroque. And then between individual composers of a single style. And then between pieces by individual composers, and finally between performances of pieces. Now he knows more about classical than I do.

The moral of the story is that it's not always easy to appreciate art. If you don't know the aesthetics of a field, every instance of it appears the same. It's going to take some work to get into it. That's alright -- the rewards in any branch of the arts start almost immediately.

There are lots of paintings of beaches, and oceans, and clouds, and so forth. It's a good example of a kind of painting that if you're not into it, it all looks the same, and frankly, fairly tacky and insipid. 

A lot of beach-ocean-cloud painters working today are very skilled realists. They can really nail what things look like. A lot of others are extremely polished impressionists. They can dab the hell out of their paint, and nearly convince you that their well-rehearsed hash was one big happy accident. 

For all the tedious work in the genre, there's nothing innately wrong with the subject itself. I think Ludvigsen's painting is special, and special in a way that makes it easy to explain why it's good. So here we are.

Let's start with the only part of this painting that's deeply realist -- the color. The beige of the sand, the blue-grey shadow of the figure, the rich blues and startling darks of the sea, those clouds, so recognizably thrusting light yellow-white heads up from a murky tan haze, and finally the varied blue of the sky, darkening as it nears the zenith. This blue recalls Ruskin:

If you look intensely at the pure blue of a serene sky, you will see that there is a variety and fulness in its very repose. It is not a flat dead colour, but a deep, quivering, transparent body of penetrable air, in which you trace or imagine short falling spots of deceiving light, and dim shades, faint veiled vestiges of dark vapour...

- John Ruskin, Of Modern Painters, I (1843)

The realism of the color in this painting is such that if you blur your eye while looking at it, you will find it a convincing depiction of the raw nature of the scene. It will match what you see when you actually go to the beach on a day like this, and also blur your eye.

This realism is important, because it stands in such contrast with the actual orchestration of parts. The key elements of the scene are all just a little bit off. They all bear the traces of an intervention, of the processing of image through consciousness. The image does not come out uninflected, as it appears to a mechanical or electric eye. Rather, it has been transformed, made over as the expression of a consciousness.

Where are the details of the beach and the nearby water? They have been effaced.

This man, who is the darkest part of the composition, walking alone upon the strand, strikes me as a cipher, as comparable with de Chirico's metaphysical man, whose very faceless, stick-figure isolation informs us that the scene which dwarfs him reflects a philosophical concept, and not a physical event.

Consider the waves rolling in - they are not parallel with one another, and they are not straight lines. They all curve slightly; they lie on the circumferences of circles with the metaphysical man at their center. Look at the whitecaps, and the water curling under the breaking waves. The colors are true, from the whites down to the dark greens and blues. But the rendering is like a sophisticated version of a child's drawing. A child does not draw a car, but rather a box with four circles. A child reduces the real to a series of linguistic notes, of pictographic representations. So too does Ludvigsen reduce the waves, making not an image of a thing, but a symbolic representation -- dark blue-green dash, white streak, turquoise line...

These are not the waves, this is not the sea. The man's head turns to the right; he is considering the sea. This scene is not what he sees, but what he thinks. He seeks to place himself in the universe, and we observe not the universe but his process of mentation. He has forgotten himself and his immediate physical circumstances: the beach is reduced to nondescriptness. The sea advances upon him and menaces him, and he is the center of its attention. Some of the universe focuses on him, for good or ill. But the clouds proceed to the right, indifferent to him, lit by a light that is not his. This part of the universe does not focus on him. He struggles to place himself in a consistent picture, but the consistent picture eludes him.

The realism of the color, then, functions to induct us into the scene. It shouldn't be obviously expressionistic; it should, at a glance, look like reality. We are already inside the reverie by the time we realize our mistake. The painting snares us with its resemblance to ordinary representation.

Now, it would be reasonable for you to wonder -- does Ludvigsen really mean all of that? Isn't it more likely that he was just out on the beach, and he did this painting, and all the oddnesses are just because he was painting quickly, or the canvas is small, or some chance thing like that?

Well, I think that all of that could be true, but it doesn't matter. Ludvigsen the man holding the brush is not the same as Ludvigsen the artist. Ludvigsen the man may make mistakes or hurry through things. But he is lucky, because something much like alchemy occurs in him, transmuting his very shortcomings into the strengths of Ludvigsen the artist. Can the image support a reasonable interpretation of meaning? Yes. Then we throw out the impulse of the man, and rejoice in the manifestation of the artist - that is, in the art.

This painting adroitly mixes the tools of realism and expressionism to capture that sense of the infinite, alternately comforting and troubling, which we experience on the shore in solitary confrontation with the sea. It's an important mood in the lexicon of human awareness. It's common enough when we go to the shore, but rare and difficult to accomplish in painting. Ludvigsen catches it. That's what makes Bridlington, Dec 11, 2012 good.

Malcolm Ludvigsen online:

[Longtime readers of this blog will recognize the Ruskin quotation - apologies for deploying it again.]

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Juggler and the Witch

Now I'd like to share with you a passage from book II of The Iliad. In a general meeting of the Achaeans, the famously ugly and cantankerous Thersites makes a very reasonable argument that Agamemnon is being a jerk about this whole Troy thing, and maybe everyone should just pack up and go home.

Odysseus gets the feeling that Thersites might be swaying the crowd. So what does he do?

He cracked the scepter across his back and shoulders.
The rascal doubled over, tears streaking his face
and a bloody welt bulged up between his blades,
under the stroke of the golden scepter's studs.
He squatted low, cringing, stunned with pain,
blinking like some idiot
rubbing his tears off dumbly with a fist.
Their morale was low but the men laughed now,
good hearty laughter breaking over Thersites' head -
glancing at neighbors they would shout, "A terrific stroke!"

The Iliad, Fagles translation, II: 309-318

There's a very interesting lesson in that. We'll come back to it.

I made the last of those brutal tax payments in July. Not long after that, we went on our first vacation in a couple of years. We went to Abruzzo, in Italy, to spend a week hanging out with Piera and Emanuele and Lorenzo.

Abruzzo is a region northeast of Rome, in the Appenine mountain chain. The older villages there are essentially single articulated buildings, mazes of limestone paths and houses and staircases built into the sides of mountains. We stayed in one such village.

This region of Italy is absolutely beautiful: the craggy mountains, the green valleys, the Escher-like white villages. Of course, most of Italy is absolutely beautiful, but each area has a different thing going on.

Abruzzo's thing

For all this beauty, and all this company of people I love, I felt very lowly the first couple of days. I am not prone to existential depressions, but when I get one, I do it with my characteristic standard of excellence.

Thus, in Abruzzo, I thought, "Here is the maximum of beauty of place, and love of people, and relaxation and good food - and it still seems totally empty to me. It seems boring and irrelevant." I had a sense of the entire universe as an essentially tedious place, throwing up a great commotion without point, putting off the only defensible conclusion: emptiness, cold, and silence. There could be no alternative to these final negations attractive enough to justify itself.

Take poor Lorenzo here - two years old, staring down the cruel prospect of filling at least seventy more years with enough to do not to die of boredom. And yet boredom is lurking around the corner of every transient delight. What an enormous and irritating task! But it cannot be avoided, if only because suicide is dishonorable. We've got to suffer what we must before we earn some peace and quiet at last...

Be that as it may, I didn't die of boredom, or anything else really. I kept on going, and soon enough, I found some things of interest.


We were talking recently about the problem of poverty, and what one can make when one has nearly nothing to make it with. And this is a special case of the more general problem - how shall we live?

I met two people in Italy who were solving this problem in interesting ways.

The first was a juggler, a street performer whose itinerant show we stumbled upon in the plaza of one of the towns we visited.

This guy had the practiced hardness of a trained clown: a lean body, tendons that jumped in his neck, a dextrous patter to his motion.

He performed several feats of balance and risk, with a smooth familiarity that dampened the drama - to him there was clearly no challenge left in it. To substitute for challenge, he deployed tricks of performance: exaggerated expressions, cartoonish gestures, invitations to applaud.

You know what he looked like to me? He looked like an intellectual who went to clown school in Rome, and had been out traveling in the provinces long enough now that his initial aesthetic enthusiasm was becoming patinated by real experience with poverty, disappointment, and futility. Which is to say, he looked like someone who had fallen helplessly from assuming a persona to inhabiting it.

We were all sitting in plastic chairs arranged around the part of the plaza where he was performing his well-rehearsed act. Here are Piera and Lorenzo, watching the show.

This kind of show always involves some audience participation. The juggler called on various people to lie down and have bikes jumped over them - to toss things in the air - to hold flaming clubs - mild stunts.

He drew Lorenzo into his performance too. He came over to Lorenzo, and held out a card to him. Lorenzo was born in 2010. Somebody holds out a card to him, he assumes he's meant to take the card, and he gets excited. So he held out his hand for the card. And the smiling juggler pulled the card away.

Lorenzo has always been very extroverted, and sensitive to social cues. For an instant, he was puzzled at this inexplicable change in the juggler's behavior. But he immediately saw the crowd of forty or fifty people, many of them small children, looking at him, and seeing how he had failed to obtain the card. And he was completely crestfallen. Then they all started laughing. His eyes teared up. Piera was furious.


I have been considering that passage from The Iliad, book II, for many years now, because I felt that there was an important truth in it that I did not really understand. Or rather, I did not allow myself to understand it. But really it is very simple. We have always found the imposition of suffering by one person on another person funny. In the current period in the Anglosphere, we have mediated it by means of actors, just as we have mediated our unlaughing lust for battle by watching team sports.

Contemporary actors specialize in pretending. Before them, we have antique actors, and clowns and jugglers and street performers. They do not pretend, but rather stylize: they aestheticize the presentation of a real phenomenon. They may curlicue the sweep of the knife, but the blood they draw is real.

This procedure only works because it is in our nature to seek its barbaric rewards. It is not a good part of our nature, but it is an inalienable part of it. We are made of many things, and brutality is one of them, and we cannot help enjoying the spectacle of suffering imposed by men.

So the nature of this worthless son of a bitch is that he is a student of that bitter strain of human nature, and an exploiter of it. He makes a living off of humiliation and pain. Tears are his butter.

He has the hard look of a man pursued by demons, but demons only pursue their own. I am pursued by demons as well, and so, most likely, are you. The juggler is a noticeable satan; but if you look in the mirror, you'll see a little satan. That's the price of freedom: the capacity for evil.

So much for the juggler. Let me tell you about the witch.

In the village where we were staying, there was a band of inhabited buildings partway up the mountain. At the top of the mountain, there was a kind of fortification from which smoke signals or whatnot were passed to fortifications atop neighboring mountains, back in the swords-and-seiges era. OK, look, here's me at the fortification. It was badass.

Between the village and the mountaintop, there was a district of abandoned villas. A few years ago, a woman moved into this district, high up among the overgrown gardens and crumbling walls, well above the rest of the town. Piera knew her, a little, somehow. She introduced us to her at the cafe in the inhabited belt where we got coffee in the morning and checked our email over the free wifi.

Like the juggler, Valeria was small and wiry. She is an educated Roman who did the very thing we all kind of think about, and never actually do: she dropped off the grid. She decided she'd simply rather live in the wilderness, growing her own food, making her own clothes, free of the burdensome demands of urban life. She damn well pulled it off.

She lives in an ancient stone house near the top of the mountain. She has a garden in the valley where she grows vegetables. She cards, spins, and dyes yarn herself. She sells produce and crafts to tourists passing through.

She has two sons, with two different men, neither of whom she is attached to any longer. Most of the year-round inhabitants of the town are older, and among them, she is considered a scandalous character. Not long after I met her, it occurred to me that there were women just like Valeria three hundred years ago and more: cultural and sexual mavericks. Back then people didn't think they were eccentric hippies. They thought they were witches.

Well, you know, we were having a lazy week, and Valeria enjoys company, so we spent a lot of time with her, up at her house, especially in the low brick-domed kitchen where she cooked enormous meals. One of her sons, and her mom, were around too. She had a steady procession of guests. We were inadvertently part of a demographic group to whom she is intensely charismatic - cultured urbanites like herself. We were American newbies; the others were old college friends, now flung across the reaches of the EU - we met architects, costumers, lawyers, and a famous violinist. They all made the trek up the mountain to the dark kitchen where Valeria held court.

We had dinner with her a few times there.

There is nothing halfway about Valeria's choice; it is consistent down to the surprising, even repellent, details. She is tiny and vaguely simian, half feral and often barefoot. Her hands are red and rough from her work, and she eats messily with them.

An ex-boyfriend of hers brought his new girlfriend on his visit. We met up with the two of them at a cold clear stream in the valley where Valeria gardens. He was in his boxers, she was in a bikini - they were swimming. Valeria hadn't been planning to swim, but when she spotted the girlfriend, she stripped down to her panties and waded in. She hasn't got an ounce of fat on her. She's barely got hips, or a waist, or breasts. She is all hard flat muscles like strips of copper. But leaving aside what she looks like - what did this mean?

I think it was an expression of power, the same as guys showing off their pecs and biceps to one another. She was overpowering her ex's poor girlfriend, establishing her fitness to reclaim him if she chose. It was animalistic, and preverbal, and it remained so - in conversation, the two women got along fine. But all of their conversation occurred in the context of Valeria having asserted alpha status.

How is this kind of dominance game categorically different from the behavior of the juggler? It isn't - it emerges from the same set of ruthless animal dynamics which underlies our politenesses. Think about this - we have some situations where we are trained to be diplomatic and mild, like introductions to the new companions of exes; and others where we are more savage, such as when driving cars. People who go against these rules - and Italy is not so different from America that the rules are strongly different - have chosen to recognize and embrace deep and untamed parts of human nature. In this respect, Valeria and the juggler are the same. It is what they do with these structures which distinguishes them.

While the juggler, it seemed to me, committed right away to cruelty, and looked to make a living from it, Valeria followed on this encounter at the stream, for instance, to create a dreamy, erotized variant of ordinary social space. We were all in the valley to have a picnic. We set our blankets at the edge of her garden, beneath the trees, a bit out of the stunning light and heat, and set out vegetables and bread and shrimp and potatoes, and picked at them for hours, sleepily. We refilled our water bottles from the mossy 16th-century fountains by the road. The children ran around and played, some of the picnickers dozed. Here any number of near-strangers laughingly piled up their feet together:

I had the slightly disconcerting experience of not being the center of attention, for once. The ex-boyfriend with the new girlfriend was clearly attracted to Charlotte. Valeria had her own studly new boyfriend in tow, and yet she was, less obviously, attracted to Charlotte as well. There was a kind of lilting implication to everything, and yet nothing quite happened.

Later on, I compared notes with Charlotte; each of us came away with the impression that we were some kind of total yankee rubes. Only together could we verify that, indeed, it was a very weird scene.

Also later, we spent time with the various people there without Valeria's company. It was not the same. The strangeness was Valeria's spell.

The dinners she hosted had a different tenor. Those involved the sort of conviviality one wishes for and rarely gets a chance to settle into: good food, solid utensils, pleasing company. Dense living.

I realize this account descends into that yankee rubishness I wondered about - "hear my tale of the exotic foreigners I met!" - and all the time, it is nothing so exotic or foreign at all. I can't get around that, if I want to share with you the ideas I came here today to share. I have spent a long time reflecting on these narrow experiences, trying to learn what they had to teach.

Valeria speaks the language of civilization, and appeals to the sons and daughters of civilization, but she has gone out seeking what is wild, and found it, and lives in dynamic equilibrium with it. This makes her a citizen of two worlds. She appeals to those of us who live in the one because we have fantasies about the other. But the other is no easy world, and her life is a hard life. Her rational self is ambivalent about it, but the deep self she worked so hard to excavate is living in its natural home. Therefore she is profoundly content.

the witch

When you are very little, you believe in magic. Then you learn to be reasonable about things, and that magic is imaginary. And then if you are paying attention, you relearn what you knew at the beginning. Of course magic is real. Life is magic, and death is magic, and we are all animals living in a mobile universe, part of an active process which is magic top to bottom.

The juggler and the witch are both magicians; they both partake of the magic of human nature and the world. Both are strange and threatening and charismatic. Both are cruel and beautiful, because nature is not merciful or fair. The juggler, in my experience of him, is wicked, and uses his mesmerism to sell dismay. The witch, in my experience of her, is good, and uses her mesmerism to line her nest with love and its accessories - slow desire, fast desire, conversation, and eating together.

These are two solutions to the problem we discussed at the beginning: how shall we live? Or, more clearly, they are the same solution, presenting itself in its faces of evil and of good. They are not the only solution, but they provide much to think about with regard to the difficult art of living.

Monday, November 26, 2012


OK, here's one I just posted to Huffington;  I'm working on something specifically for you guys too.


Not so long ago - as late as 1988, in fact - we had a prophet walking among us. His name was William Gibson, and in his breathtaking Sprawl trilogy, he forecast the near future of technology and its social and cultural uses and impacts. For science fiction geeks my age, Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive were so dazzling that it took us maybe ten years to notice that they essentially came true. Gibson is alive and writing. He writes about the present, because the world is his world now.

Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe are two artists almost exactly my age, and their recent installation, Stray Light Grey, mounted at Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, New York, from September 13 to October 27th, is a kind of extended love poem to, among others, William Gibson's future. The name of the show is partly derived from the Villa Straylight, a house built into one end of the space station in which part of the Sprawl trilogy is set. A resident of the villa, named 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, writes an essay about it:

The Villa Straylight is a body grown in upon itself, a Gothic folly. Each space in Straylight is in some way secret, this endless series of chambers linked by passages, by stairwells vaulted like intestines, where the eye is trapped in narrow curves, carried past ornate screens, empty alcoves. ... In Straylight, the hull's inner surface is overgrown with a desperate proliferation of structures, forms flowing, interlocking, rising ... The semiotics of the Villa bespeak a turning in, a denial of the bright void beyond the hull. ... We have sealed ourselves away behind our money, growing inward, generating a seamless universe of self. The Villa Straylight knows no sky, recorded or otherwise.

- William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984
The Marlborough Gallery is, like many ground-level galleries in Chelsea, basically a large empty room with a concrete floor. It provides enough space for a fair mimicry of the structural conceit of the Villa Straylight, and that is what Freeman and Lowe used it for. They installed a bewildering series of rooms into the gallery. Most of the rooms are connected by holes punched raggedly through walls, which distracts from the troubling observation that many of them don't have doors. Each room is designed as a sealed planet, and the installation overall has the feeling of a pocket universe.

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

The first room is a small white-wall gallery, from which one enters a cluttered closet, a filthy office bathroom, a dingy home bathroom, an office corridor, an abandoned off-track betting outfit... slightly off-key details accumulate: a chunk of ginger depends from a soap dispenser, for instance -
Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

- as well as references to source texts: the OTB office is littered with Metro Holographix stickers, as if Gibson's engimatic Finn had just stepped out of his demimonde place of business:

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

Posters advertise SanSan, a futurist vision as obsolete and never-was as the concrete husk of Arcosanti.

This show has been assembled with an expert eye for shittiness. Consider the hallway:

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

Look at the grime streaking the walls:

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

Appreciate the stained fluorescent light panels:

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

Then remember that all of this is only a few weeks old. It's all new, all synthetic. There is no smell of decay in the horrible, decrepit spaces of the show:

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

Oddly smell-less, and yet finely detailed. One climbs the stairs to a plastic surgery clinic, in which the ceilings are just a little bit too low:

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

And then continues on to a lobby showcasing sleazy rental videos, and faded porn, and vague cosmetic products, and decorated cakes. The installation takes on the texture of a very particular type of nightmare: one of those tedious, pointless nightmares dreamt while already half-awake, their narratives complicated messes linked by dubious logic, their rooms stuffed with details that dissolve away even as the fingers of one's memory grasp at them. What is this?

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

It plays on the world of Gibson, but its metaphysics reaches back to Gibson's predecessor science fiction prophet, the mighty Philip K. Dick. Dick, who was one of those rare authors crazy enough to really understand madness, and sane enough to write clearly about it, was haunted by a concept which he variously referred to as gubble and kipple. His best explanation of it occurs in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, set in a depopulated future full of abandoned apartments:
Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's [newspaper]. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more. ... There's the First Law of Kipple, "Kipple drives out nonkipple." ... No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment... But eventually I'll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over... the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.

- Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968
Dick is a poet of the decay cycle of the universe, and Freeman and Lowe vigorously apply the kipple concept to their show. It is shitty, it is littered with shit nobody wants anymore, all of it from a hallucinatory alternate present, where the pictures of some celebrities are recognizable, and some are not, and some VHS boxes hold real movies, and others movies you could swear you vaguely remember, but do not. All of the dusty unwanted products on all the cheap shelves look slightly out of date, and serve purposes it is no longer possible exactly to determine.

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

Freeman and Lowe carefully populate their installation with those objects most prone to turning into useless crap: betting forms, posters, videotapes, pornography, cosmetic surgery technologies, beauty products, industrial electronics, public safety notices. The dreary heaviness of their microcosmos arises not only from the architecture, not only from the slightly underpowered lighting and low ceilings and confusing layout, but also from the props - those wretched, hateful props.


Now, why on earth would anybody want to spend even a couple of minutes in this claustrophobic anti-vision, this muttering account of dreams that were of questionable utility even before they were forgotten?

Let me try to unfold my own answer to this question.

In Stray Light Grey, I experienced a quintessence of one utterly specific state of mind, an intensity of this state of mind that one might call wakefulness-plus. This is a general category of mindfulness which art can induce, this wakefulness-plus. And we seek it from all of our art. The specific content of the experience is almost beside the point. All experiences are legitimate topics of concern and interest, because all experiences are part of our human nature. So the artist can pick anything, literally anything, and make art from it, so long as that artist has the insight and discipline to refine the medium into a wakefulness-plus-inducing artifact.

Freeman and Lowe have chosen a certain hallucinatory nightmare-state as their topic, and assembled a constellation of relevant narratives and concepts as the armature of their expression of it. They have redeemed the hopeless by returning it to us purified, so that seeing it, we have returned to us something of ourselves which we had lost. We lost it, this liminal, horrendously image-forming zone, because it is one of the things easiest to lose. But Freeman and Lowe scanned the dark horizon of our nature, and spotted it fleeing, and hunted it down, and pinned it to the wall.

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

This kind of presentation tends to engender in its receptive audience - and clearly I was extremely receptive - advances in thinking on long-standing problems. My own advance was with regard to the question of installation art itself. I just didn't really get installations before. I've seen them, and I've been open to them, but they haven't been open to me. Fine, that's fair. But seeing this show, I had a flash of insight: I've been looking at installations wrong.

I confused their medium for their nature. They are made from the materials of the plastic arts - matter - so I assumed they were a plastic art, like painting and sculpture. But they aren't. Installation art exists in time, in the time of its own rapid corruption (how long can this spray-on dust last? how many feet can walk these cheap carpets before they wear away?) and in the time of the viewer's immersion into the space of the installation. Installations are not part of the plastic arts. They are part of the performing arts.

Once I reached this conclusion, a body of hard-won skills came into play: those skills by which I can overcome my grief at the transitory nature of theater. I'm friends with a lot of theater people, and I've been involved in theater myself. I think that theater provides for some necessities of the soul. The theater, like music and dance, seems to me to partake of religion, of the active phase of the part of us which is transcendent. We are scarcely more than animals if we do not have the theater. But it goes away. No matter how good it is, it just vanishes. That's its nature. And it really, really hurts to recognize that. But at the same time, you learn to cope, and to celebrate the only-this-onceness of it.

That was the insight I had in Stray Light Grey: that installation art shares this nature with the performing arts. It will not survive. That - that - I can live with. It lets me out of my category error, of looking at installations and trying to see how they are actually sculptures.

But this insight leads to a more fundamental admission, something I have always been loathe to admit. Consider two kinds of thing. One of them is the most revelatory of mental states. And the other is the arts. These revelatory mental states connect us to the infinite, to eternity. And the arts are the conveyor belt to the revelatory states. Our intuition tells us that, like the things we glimpse during revelation, the arts themselves should be permanent. They should be marks made on the wall of the universe.

The thing one does not like to admit is that perishable things can trigger the most profound of revelations. It happens all the time - what else is love? - but we, or at least I, want art to last. Art is our best chance to roar "I am," and have the echoes go on forever. If we admit that art is subsiding into dust, then we admit that we too are dying, we are already launched on the fearful process of disappearance.

And what is Stray Light Grey made out of? Fiberboard and light bulbs - cardboard and foam - grime and plexiglass - and cultural references resonant for a very narrow wedge of individuals, emerging from a certain demographic, in a certain place, at a certain time. Stray Light Grey has already substantially ceased to exist in anything but our memory. And yet, for the few weeks of its installation, it was absolutely one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

So you take all that together - the actual subject of the show, and the materials that made it up, and what I realized while thinking it over - and it adds up to this:

It helped teach me how to die.

This is a lesson which is not even learned in the dying, for many of us, but it is an essential part of the skill of living.

Daniel Maidman at Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012

So what is apophenia? It is a mental disorder, defined as seeing meaning in meaningless data. It is the disorder that made Philip K. Dick's high sensitivity to kipple bearable. Because trash is data, a lot of data. Dick thought that Christ was going to announce his return in the patterns of trash by the side of the road. There was an immanence to Dick's kipple, a profound hopefulness.

Stray Light Grey was also a lot of data. It created a broad tapestry of data, and with the artistry of the masters, it nudged you in a particular direction without being pedantic about road signs. It induced an apopheniac state, and moreover, it fulfilled the mad promise of the disorder. There really was meaning hidden there.

Like any great art, it bled into the world around it. Stumbling out of the installation, New York was converted to the disarray of Freeman and Lowe's kippleized, Gibsonian space. Everywhere I looked, I was receptive to rooms inside of rooms, and heightened detail, and accumulations of trash. I had another show to see, on an upper floor of another building, and getting out of the elevator, I took a wrong turn, and opened a door, and here I was:

Right back inside of Stray Light Grey.


What now? quoth you. Now New York City has been through the hurricane. Sandy wrecked the very site of the installation; it burned homes, leveled neighborhoods, flooded shore and river, canal and street. People are still cold, and hungry, and crouching in the dark. Isn't it obscene to sing the praise of kipple when real life has intervened, and so much that meant so much has been turned into shit?

No, no, it isn't. That's what I have to say. It is not obscene at all. Look - it's bad timing. No doubt about it. But the two seas of wreckage - the fake one and the real one - are two different things. They merit two different responses.

The destruction wrought by Sandy is a real event, and it demands a certain type of response: pity, relief, sorrow, whatever you must, but above all, the extension of the helping hand. People were hurt here, and people ought to be our first concern in our response. That is not what this article is about.

Stray Light Grey was an artistic construct, by which I mean to say it was a spiritual phenomenon, or more precisely, it was Freeman and Lowe themselves, and by extension, we who saw it. It did not pertain to what the world is, but to who we are, beyond the world.

To deny Stray Light Grey is a kind of survivor's guilt. The guilty survivor has an impulse to negate himself, as if to say, "What was acceptable before is no longer legitimate; it's got to go - I've got to go." It is inevitable, but irrational. Once everybody calms down, hopefully we come to our senses and say, "No, of course, you must continue to live, you have a right to live and to be who you are."

This is the kind of legitimacy that Stray Light Grey has, and which cannot be stripped from it. The intervention of real kipple does not take away our right to make false kipple, in pursuit of getting at the truth of things. We must certainly step aside from our aesthetic preoccupations for a minute and see what we can do to help, but we ought also to return to these preoccupations, because they are a good chunk of the point of surviving at all.

Onward, Freeman and Lowe, and may your strength persist and increase.

Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012


Sprawl trilogy -
All installation photographs by the author, except the one of the author, which was taken by some very nice ladies who were passing through at the same time.