Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Arid and the Fertile

I've been meaning to share an interesting observation (of myself) which I made a few weeks ago. This was right after I got done writing the Damien Hirst post, which was rather a lot of work.

Many of you - at least the ones commenting - started reading me toward the very beginning of this blog, when we spent our time talking about Caravaggio and Rubens, and there was an abundance of humanism to be found. Around New Year's this year, I did swear a vow to you to engage in a more responsible and serious way with the art that's being made now. And next thing you know we find ourselves in a long discussion of Hirst's work as a formal system.

I'm not saying this is a worthless preoccupation. But it's awfully arid stuff, isn't it? It's a parched landscape. After all, we turned to art to nourish our souls, and here, we've spent hours and hours analyzing those spots, and what have we got to show for it? Ideas relevant to information theory - a meal of sand.

That was how I felt when I got done, anyway: thirsty, because I hadn't gotten what I need from art, and sickened, because I'd spent all this time perversely eating sand.

It just so happens that that very evening, I went to Spring Street Studio, my life-drawing haunt, to draw. And I had one of those revelations one has now and then. The model was Kate, who does not model frequently, and whom I have painted a few times:

Winter, oil on canvas, 40"x30", 2009

Kate's beautiful, but everybody's beautiful, so that's not what makes her interesting. One thing that makes her interesting - from my incomplete Bressonian perspective - is that, like mine, her personality appears to have a broad non-physical sector. Which is to say, a great deal of her sentience is occupied entirely with mentation, both reasoning and imagination. We all have this, but some of us have it more than others. It has always seemed to me pronounced in Kate.

This tendency converts physicality into an antagonistic force. I do not mean the flesh is the enemy, but rather that it acts in dramatic counterpoint to our ordinary understanding of the person. There is a shock, a transition, between "let us discuss critical theory" and "look what I can do with my arm." In many models, physicality and mentation act in concert, because modeling attracts people with a high degree of mind-body unity. In Kate, mentation is an independent primary process, a first personality. She has sentience as a corporeal entity, but it represents a second personality, and not an application of the first one. Or so it seems to me.

In real life, we would call this the Sexy Librarian Effect. But this is not real life, it's art, so it means something different; parallel, but different. What it means here is that Kate, modeling, strongly recalls the idea that be our thinking never so icily seraphic in its soaring majesty, we human entities are stuck inside of animals, bloody animals with hairs, and pores that sweat. This is presented, as a topic of meditation, and we make of it what we will: you might call it glorious, or tragic, or say that recognizing it is a step toward serenity.

It was a stroke of providence that Kate was modeling when I showed up at Spring Street, parched by my encounter with Hirst. As models tend to have high body-wide physical sentience, so I have a complimentary physical sentience, that of the eye and hand. Normally, I slip effortlessly into this zero-verbal zone. But confronted with Kate, her own disjunction opens a disjunction in the artist. When she goes from chatting to modeling, she passes through a gate, and the artist also passes through a gate, and notices the gate.

Resuming drawing Kate, I noticeably left the zone of thinking about formal logic. Thinking about formal logic is all that Hirst has to offer, and it is not nearly enough. A more cartesian monk than Hirst you never met: it is not a matter of industrial efficiency alone that he does not touch his own work, and that when he does, he fails. He is an ideas man. This is a part of art-making, but I don't think it should be all of art-making. Not for me, at least.

Drawing Kate was an experience of leaving the arid landscape of non-physical art, the desert of Hirstism, and returning to the fertile land, the fruited plain, of figurative art. Here were the rivers and oceans of light, the formfulness, the living breath that raises the ribs from the flesh, and hides them again, the minute vibrations of the fast-twitch muscle fibers, the sweat that shines as it runs down the gulley of the spine. These are the visible signs by means of which we recognize our empathy with the soul that is immured in the flesh, and our empathy with the flesh as well - it is not glorious or tragic, but both - it has such might, and pleasure, and vulnerability - and it lasts only a little while, then it goes down into the vast night of things.

Our art may circle the universe, but it returns to the face and the body, because that is where it begins, and where we begin, and we will die of thirst without them. Not to mention that we have a downright ridiculous amount of neurological hardware devoted to them, so we're not optimizing the use of our own cognitive architecture when we go too long without the figure in our art.

I don't have a very good picture of my favorite drawing of Kate from that particular session. It's not a very good drawing either - Kate is actually remarkably hard to draw because the proportions of her features are extremely unusual. Here's what I've got:

The reason I only have this picture is because as soon as I did the drawing, I handed it off to the appropriately-named Minerva. Minerva runs Spring Street, and I was past the deadline for giving her something for the 20th anniversary show she was hanging at the studio:

She collected 270 drawings from the artists - professionals, amateurs, and hobbyists alike - who draw and have drawn there over the many years she has sustained Spring Street Studio, one of the great underground institutions of New York City.


  1. Wonderfully written. Brilliant. I love it. I started collecting favorite bits, like "the artist also passes through a gate, and notices the gate." But then the favorite bits outnumbered the remaining bits and it seemed pointless to echo the whole thing back to you. And I don't have anything artistic to add or bring to the discussion, just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this.

  2. very beautifully felt and spoken, V

  3. Dispatches - I'm really glad you enjoyed this - thank you for reading it. And anyone else reading these comments, do check out his blog; it's in my blog roll, and it's amazing.

    V - I didn't even know you read this blog! Well, I did, but I forgot. Thank you, I'm happy you liked the sentiments.

  4. Like the painting. When will the show be at Spring Studios? It is on my list of places to go/do . . . (oddly, just found out my sister-in-law is taking part in a piece about art at Harvard at the end of May. She is a perfect example of an ideas person, as you describe Kate to be, above. I'm not. Hence, I paint and she does art stuff I can't even describe or name.)

  5. Jane - I'm sorry I missed this comment! The show is up right now, I have no idea for how long. I hope you'll have a chance to come there and draw while you're here. I keep forgetting when you're here - what are your dates? Your sister-in-law sounds fun, but I like what you do.

  6. What you refer to as passing through the gate is also known as getting into the zone. Some groups are chatty, and in classes the instructor often wanders around the room giving suggestions to the students. But in many open studios there is no verbal clutter, and that's when both the artists and the model can really get into the zone, especially on a longer pose.

  7. I absolutely know the trouble you describe with chatty workshops. I think what I'm describing is, indeed, the zone, but a very specific sub-section of it - a situation-specific type of zone. Of course, it'll be a huge part of your zone experience, as it is mine, since we do more or less the complimentary halves of a single thing.