ART ABSTRACTS FROM WHATEVER THE F**** IT WANTS
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a line from a dorothea lasky poem, in which she says that she tries to say things in the simplest way possible and is still misunderstood. the line is from a poem she reads at a reading I have on my ipod. I listen to it when I reach the point of absolute exhaustion during the 10+ hour drives I make several times a year. I’ve been thinking a lot about it because I have never feared being misunderstood in poetry. I enjoy fragmenting language in order to obscure an object, thereby creating an indefinite multitude of simultaneous identities for a previously fixed entity. it was this impulse that first drew me to stein, braque, picasso, etc.
for a long time, I did not realize that not everyone perceived these artists as saying things in the simplest way possible; I felt that, by reducing the world to its most fundamental structural units, they were doing exactly that which they are sometimes accused of disavowing. the abstract does not attempt to be occlusive, it attempts to clarify, make visible that which is occluded by “interpretation.” naming, defining, interpreting, translating – all of these actions attempt to assign fixed meanings, and I do not believe in the singular, the fixed; the sublime, Nature, inspiration, Art, whatever you want to call it, is necessarily multiple and simultaneous.
what strikes me about picasso’s guitars, which I saw on exhibit at moma, is the way they embody simultaneity. although they are very clearly three-dimensional objects, there is a flatness to them that I don’t perceive in his two-dimensional works. the object appears to create the space in which it exists, while the sketches, paintings, and collages seem to be made of space itself. I’m thinking specifically of a particular charcoal sketch of a violin, which evokes the same relationship between the tangibility of the figure and its relationship to space as the realization that sound is made of the same essential components as silence. the aluminum and cardboard guitars are acutely aware of their own planes and angles; they disavow the constructs of space by their mere existence. flatness seems to rise up from the visible interior, the depths of the guitars, such that the sense of reality produced by the perception of a third dimension becomes a trompe-l’oeil, and the impression is one of an absolute “guitar-ness” which cannot be named. rather, naming is replaced by the vivisection of the inanimate object. the object becomes an organic body as a result of this process, which is both done to it and inherent in it. totality manifests only through fragmentation such that the figure becomes an entirely absorptive entity.
in the artifice of absorption, bernstein says “Identity seems to involve the refusal to be absorbed into a larger identity, yet the identity formed as a result of an antiabsorptive autonomism threatens to absorb differential groupings within it,” (20) which describes exactly what I mean about the thing-ness of picasso’s guitars and also what I like about dorothea lasky and stein and pollock and a lot of other artists who seem dissimilar but are grouped together in my mind because of this fundamental quality at the center of their work. identity is always threatened by itself, rather than by some outside mechanism, and yet identity is itself a kind of parasite which inhabits the work and eats away at the flesh until it is skeletal, pure; form.
to say things in the simplest way is to articulate their form. everything has form but form is not fixed. ten artists in a room working with different mediums given the same task – to articulate the form of a guitar at its most basic structural level – are likely to produce ten entirely different entities. I am generally interested in articulation rather than expression (not that the terms are mutually exclusive); I am generally interested in articulating that which is difficult or impossible to express because expression seems like a defunct concept, like I don’t want to fingerpaint my emotions on the page, I want to give form to that formless thing that overcomes me like a terrible sickness and I know I have to write. maybe Art is the one formless thing and because of that it is pure form, but it must be constructed out of its own space in order to achieve tangibility.
at some point, this kind of distillation becomes excessive.
I think that there is not a way to escape excess in Art and I don’t think it’s useful to try. I think the most restrained, “formal,” lyric meditations on nature or humanity are as excessive as a pollock which is just medium trying to ascend to its highest state of purity through form. I think this essay in which I say “I” and use declarative sentences is as excessive or more excessive than those that I write which may seem unintelligible. I think I would like to say something simply and decide to do it and become so overwhelmed by the capacity of language and its ability to create form and form’s own impossibility that what emerges from said desire can only be flawed.
in the jackson pollock biopic with ed harris and marcia gay harden, ed harris is painting something that is not allowed and marcia gay harden says to him, “you can’t abstract from nothing” and alludes to nature as a possible alternative to nothing and ed harris says, “I am nature.” when ed harris says I am nature the artist is the eye of nature. to abstract from nothing is to articulate the form inherent in everything, to articulate the natural structure.
real-life jackson pollock’s real-life wife, lee krasner, said that pollock numbered his paintings rather than titling them because numbers are neutral, and force the viewers to asses the work as “pure painting.” purity in art, then, seems to come from a desire to use a given medium to articulate “neutral” form, to engage with said medium at its most basic structural level. that is not to say that the work must be devoid of content, but that this interest must exist. many of the poets I would consider to be “purists” would be considered utterly “impure” by other readers: nick demske, chelsey minnis, sylvia plath, bernadette mayer, to name those that immediately come to mind. similarly, visual artists like paul shartis (whose work, “virus ray gun,” I will be writing about shortly) who seem to be working at a level of absolute abstraction are dealing with similar formally-interested aesthetics.
while a lot of people are quick to get camp-y & pick sides, I would like to assert that we can all find common ground if we look, literally, close enough; to the cellular units of language and metrics, the structure of a brush-stroke, the viscosity of paint, the speed of a colored flash on a film strip. it is in these moments that Art manifests, and through these means that the unintelligible is articulated.
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- June 3, 2011 / 4:40 am