Sunday, July 29, 2012


Take a painting like this:

Daniel Maidman, The Black and White War, 2011, oil on canvas, 60"x72"

Virtually the entire surface area of this painting required high-level mentation: constant analytic choices about how to represent both real things (the two versions of Alley) and imaginary things (the background). It was a wickedly large amount of work, and it took me months and months to do it.

You may remember that when I was working on that Damien Hirst painting, I endured (and duly bitched about to you) a kind of mind-numbing boredom, getting the edges of all those circles nearly inhumanly perfect.

The Alley painting was hi-mind. The Hirst procedure was lo-mind.

It is all very well to come up with some cool terms to describe things, but that doesn't take us so far as the meanings of these terms, or their significance, if any.

I have been reflecting on the lo-mind procedure a great deal lately, in the context of the one project I'm not telling you about yet, and in the context of the other one, the Inanna series.

I have undergone a large transformation in preparing Inanna #1. You will recall that the first inspiration for the series was this painting I wandered into a couple of years ago:

Daniel Maidman, La Mémoire, 2010, oil on canvas, 18"x14"

And you may further recall that, once I aimed for it,  I could not replicate the spontaneous integrity and energy of that scrubbed-on paint. Try as I might, all further efforts felt forced:

Daniel Maidman, Nursing, 2010, oil on canvas, 30"x24"

What happened was that I fell prey to a classic error with which actors particularly will be familiar: I was trying to reproduce the outward effect - rather than trying to reproduce the inward state which led, on its own, to that effect (this error is a massive bugaboo for Stanislavski).

Konstantin Stanislavski: I am large, I contain multitudes.

Once I recognized that problem, it dissolved. But I was left with a more difficult problem: how to reproduce, at will and on an ongoing basis, that initial state of mind. In this context, Stanislavsky prescribes the same thing the Buddhists are said to:

1. You begin by chopping wood and carrying water, instinctively; but you become alienated from this natural state.
2. You spend many years reasoning on the nature of things, and studying their forms, and devising and practicing various ways of chopping wood and carrying water.
3. One day, you simply resume chopping wood and carrying water. It appears as natural as it did in the beginning, but now it is a function, not of instinct, but of enlightenment.

Have I got that about right? I've never been entirely clear on it. If it's not right, let's just say it's the version I use, just as my version of Orpheus does not include any of the freaky sex stuff. It may not be the true myth, but it's the one I learned and I can reason on its meaning even so.

Orpheus: no freaky sex stuff

In this model of enlightenment, I would be aiming to reach step 3 by the time I put paint to Inanna, and to that end I need to get through step 2 before then. So what did I do, with my reasoning and studying and devising and practicing?

I reasoned the existence of lo-mind: of painting from a place of lack of intention, avowed indifference to goal, of pure physical connection between arm and - what? Not reasoning, not observation, not analysis.

This series of denials brought me to the edge of the precipice.

The next steps would be studying and devising. But you know me by now - I don't believe in studying, and my attitude toward devising is basically "measure once, cut twice" or, if possible, "measure never, cut three times." So I skipped the studying and devising and went straight to the practicing. I leapt over the precipice. Here's what I did:

I had ordered this huge fuck-off piece of gessoed Belgian linen canvas from Utrecht - a 7'x9' monstrosity. It showed up in this tube here:

After much negotiation with industrial staples, I pried the lid off, took out the canvas, and nailed it to the wall of my studio. Interesting observation: this linen smells like a goat.

note my ace stretching skills at work

Once I got it up there, I felt like the gesso they used was too dark, and too yellow. So, not thinking it over very clearly, I got out a big, half-used tube of Titanium White oil paint and just started painting it over the entire surface of the canvas. I ran out of the paint pretty fast, but I also realized that I was making the canvas too bright and bluish for my tastes anyway.

So I got out some of my rags:

oil painters - am I using the wrong kind of rags? put me some knowledge here

And I started wiping. This spread the uneven patches of dazzling, bluish-white Titanium White, and removed a lot of it. I just kept on wiping. It was a total wax-on, wax-off affair. I made circles. I worked that titanium white into the existing gesso over every square inch of the canvas. I produced a revised white of intermediate brightness and intermediate coldness. It took hours.

I let it take longer than it needed to take, because partway through, I noticed that I was practicing. I felt my mind draining out; I felt I was on the verge of finding out what the arm connects to, when it does not connect to reasoning, observation, or analysis. I made those nearly invisible white circles on a white surface, following an approximate most-efficient distribution of wipes, and my arm connected to these things:

- the shifting configuration of its own strength and fatigue
- my mood

That was all I could see about it. The point isn't even really to find out what the arm is connected to. The point is merely to do. And one does by practicing. I practiced, and I think I will be ready, when the time comes to paint, to paint.


Now, I am describing here a physical phenomenon, and it is very difficult to establish a direct correspondence between a verbal description, and a physical phenomenon. But it is not so hard to establish a correspondence between a verbal description and a logical sequence. And I had the good fortune, a couple nights ago, to watch the PBS show art:21, season 6, episode 2 ("Boundaries"), which featured David Altmejd, a fascinating youngish sculptor (I have a vested interest in calling him youngish, because he's a year older than me, and I'd prefer not to be oldish).

Apart from the work itself, Altmejd has a very engaging mode of wandering reasoning. He had this to say about his procedure for making his work:

95% of the relationship i have to my work
is through process
it's not as a distant object
it's a made object
i like the idea of trusting the work
trusting the material
and trusting that every little step is
gonna dictate the next one

This is very interesting, especially the last two lines. Because it is quite a clear description of what, in mathematics, you would call an iterative function. An iterative function is a function which is repeated, and which uses its own most recent output as the input for each successive step.

Iterative functions are used to describe many different types of systems (here is where I start to tread deeply in the bog of ignorance - math people, feel free to scornfully correct me). Among the systems described by iterative functions are linear dynamical systems and non-linear dynamical systems.

Linear and non-linear dynamical systems are distinguished in a way that is very important to us as artists.

The state of a linear system may be predicted by knowing:
a. what time it is in the system, and
b. performing a single computation.
The location of a planet in its orbit displays more or less linear dynamical properties. I give you the date, you tell me where to aim my spaceship.

Non-linear dynamical systems lack this property. Their iterative nature comes to the fore. They are deterministic, like linear dynamical systems, but you can't predict their state at any given time except by performing the iterative function that defines them, for each moment from the start to the specific time of the prediction. The weather, and most likely any other chaotic bullshit you can think of, is a non-linear dynamical system.

Altmejd makes very interesting sculptures. They have a kind of wistful majesty to them:

David Altmejd, The Swarm, 2011, plexiglass and whatnot

His description of his method stops at iteration, but I think what he's getting at is the concept of non-linear dynamics: he cannot predict the outcome of step 64 of his system without executing steps 1-63. His work takes on an orderliness which, in hindsight, looks like predictability. But in the process of making it, he cannot leap forward; he must walk each step.

David Altmejd, The Vessel, 2011, plexiglass and what-have-you

This struck me as a tremendously important revelation in respect to this elusive question of lo-mind.

Hi-mind is Newtonian; it is designed to integrate the manifold and various into the simple and true. It is adept at grasping the predictable qualities of linear dynamical systems, at planning an artwork from a bird's-eye view. A huge amount of analysis went into The Black and White War, but it was path-independent: I could think about, and solve, any part of it at any time, independent of other parts.

Lo-mind is down in the mud with the media themselves. It crawls along, seeing only the blades of grass and columns of ants in front of it, trusting that it will reach to its goal if only each step is faithfully executed. It is not aiming at a goal, it is aiming at each step. The goal executes itself in the context of each step being taken - or not. To truly embrace lo-mind is to give up on certainty of the nature of the goal, or of reaching it, or of its existence. It also requires a heightened immediate sensitivity of the arm: the arm must respond to what has already been made - it must respond truthfully - in order to take the next step; every single time, it must do this.


All of this is a very fancy way of describing the difference between product-oriented and process-oriented people. I have tended more toward product orientation. And I am not abandoning that. But I also find it insufficient for the nature of some of what I want to do. So I'm teaching myself to be process-oriented as well.

Rilke, a poet I know likes to remind me, wrote, at the end of Archaic Torso of Apollo, "You must change your life." Yes, yes, yes - we will not go on being what we were before.

1 comment:

  1. I love the painting you did of Alley, she was a wonderful model to work with especially at Spring Studios. She has a great physique very proportioned and she is one great model and very graceful and she has a lot of soul.