Reality lurking inside spaces

koi leaping

A friend and I had a disagreement about what art is.  She said, “Art is not always about painting a pretty picture or giving people a pleasant tune. Art must be free to convey the gamut of emotions, including the ones that make us uncomfortable.”  We weren’t really disagreeing about art, it was something else.  But I was struck by this claim which one hears everywhere.

There is nothing controversial about what she said, so far as it goes.  I think of Rembrandt’s Blinding of Samson.  (Ouch.  That’s gotta hurt.)  But this oft repeated formula has morphed into something about which we should be very suspicious.  That art is sometimes about “uncomfortable things” has developed an equals sign.   It’s become serious art = edgy/shocking/uncomfortable/indecent/violent/fill in negative value here.

Umm, I just don’t think so.  True, nature is sometimes tooth and claw, but it’s also fields of daisies and sometimes it’s hamsters.  As I wrote in the previous post, mathematicians find that nature leans toward the aesthetic.  When it became fashionable to question whether beauty was necessary, somebody forgot to do the math — which is to say, no one said, “hold on there, not so fast, since when is creating beauty easy?  Indeed, are we sure we even know what beauty IS?”

I find that painting a pretty picture is so darned difficult — I want to ask what sort of thing beauty is — how does one recognize it?  You can respond to beauty in things and have beauty resist you to the nth degree when once you attempt to catch its likeness.  Beauty is still a high calling.  It’s still a hard gig to get.  Many try, few succeed.  It’s Everest.  It’s a mirage.  It’s a dream that fades upon waking.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again–

Caliban does himself fit perfectly into the art=ugliness formula but his cry, his dream, that’s all gauzy beauty-and-splendor floating in one’s gaze.  When I look at my koi, I am stalking beauty.  I know it’s out there in the world somewhere.  I intend to persist.  I will relentlessly search.  The fishes have hid it around the edges of their shapes and inside the spaces that separate them from each other.  Sometimes it peeks out from the corner where one shape intrudes upon another.  Sometimes it catches you between layers of paint, between this-that-was-a-mistake and this-that-I-painted-above.  In the lines, in the color patches, in the differences between big and little, in the topography of ideas and forms, beauty lives.

Like a hamster hidden inside a pile of wood shavings, like the most commonplace flower, like the plain daylight streaming, like the gnats hanging in the air, like so many other quite ordinary and decent and indifferent experiences, beauty lifts its head and gazes out into one’s face.  I’m still going out on a limb, and I’ll define “art” as the electric and ephemeral contact with reality that happens by chance and by desire.  Before I lumber off in search of edginess, I will stake my claim on ordinariness.

It’s hard to accept that somehow we trump reality.

Learning Beauty

alice at the easel

My kid had math homework this weekend that she didn’t know how to do, and since she hadn’t brought her textbook home, she lacked instructions and definitions to help guide her back toward the path.  Unfortunately, while being a rational enough gal, I have no talent for numbers or numerical relationships.  Dad is good at math, but he happened not to be available at the height of the crisis.  The homework consisted of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing positive and negative numbers.  I vaguely recalled that rules exist, but couldn’t remember what they are.  So I suggested to my daughter that she experiment — perform some different approaches and see what results she got, and from those results have a guess at which rule is “it.”

She wouldn’t.  And so I pulled Music of the Primes off the shelf and started reading.  Music of the Primes is Math, the Movie — or an elegant, suspense-filled heart-tugging page turner of a math adventure book.  Yes, I know that’s hard to believe but tis true.  Math made thrilling for folks like me and thee.  Math the dream.  Math the you-should-have-been-there experience.

Unfortunately, Music of the Primes wasn’t working for her.  Too grown-uppy.  And by sixth grade a certain sense of, shall I call it, false reality sets in and a child gets mislead into supposing that “the answers” are out there sitting on a drab shelf ready to be innocently “learned” at the public school house.  I cannot blame my kid for having internalized this sensibility; it’s been drummed into her for years now.

Given the data available at the start of the nineteenth century, Legendre’s function was much better than Gauss’s formula as an approximation to the number of primes up to some number N, but the appearance of the rather ugly correction term 1.08366 made mathematicians believe that something better and more natural must exist to capture the behaviour of the prime numbers.

Such ugly numbers may be commonplace in other sciences, but it is remarkable how often the mathematical world favours the most aesthetic possible construction.  As we shall see, Riemann’s Hypothesis can be interpreted as an example of a general philosophy among mathematicians that, given a choice between an ugly world and an aesthetic one, Nature always chooses the latter.  [my emphasis] It is a constrant source of amazement for most mathematicians that mathematics should be like this, and explains why they so often get wound up about the beauty of their subject.

Imagine that: choosing a mathematical order — a beautiful one over the ugly alternatives — that in math one can sketch out ideas and test them, and even choose among them using an intuition that surprisingly sometimes matches the visible natural order.  In so many spheres of life we are offered chances to choose, to act, to inquire boldly, to investigate, to discover.  Oh would that we could instill even a nano-quantity of that free-spiritedness into the school house!

Above, Alice has boldy chosen to paint a dog leaping.  She has no qualms at all about portraying her Public Enemy Number One.  And she even makes him beautiful.

Painting like I Play

alice's violin2

This is Alice’s violin, not mine, but I play a little.  I play “by ear” and “par coeur.”  As I grow in playing I find that I retrace steps I once took in becoming an artist.  Thus I learned where the notes are on my violin by trial and error.  I started playing at a rather late era for violin, so I felt there was no time to waste.  Couldn’t be bothered reading music — never have been very good at it anyway.  Plus jazz being the great love of my life, most every line I yearn to play hasn’t been written down in any interesting fashion, and if it were it’d be far beyond my meager sight-reading abilities.

So I learned awkwardly, making tons of mistakes, to locate pitches.  I reasoned to myself that it was similar to singing.  You don’t know what muscles you’re using to make a note — and usually don’t know what pitch you’re singing.  You just sing.  I told myself I would train my fingers to do what my throat muscles do.  Just go there.  And after a while they have begun, gradually more and more, to obey.

Now some of you know that a pitch can be played in more than one place on a violin.  Certain notes have locations on more than one string.  The same pitch has slightly different “coloring” depending upon where it’s played.  But it’s still fundamentally the same note.  And there’s the rub — here’s where your unconscious mind can do wonderful magic if you let it — if you are willing to play the fool — go out on a musical limb and jump!

You see, I — like any student violinist — am trying to learn to play faster!  And to do this requires a certain amount of letting go.  I listen to the music in my head, listen to it getting faster, and I try to keep up.  As a child when you jumped rope, once they began to swing the rope faster, you just had to jump faster!  And you stay in for as long as you stay in.  It’s kind of like that. 

But because you can play the same note in various places, and because I am improvising, I don’t know which location my hand is going to choose.  When I succeed (I’m getting better, more and more I succeed), I don’t afterwards know which location my hand chose.  Think about that for a minute.  My hand chose.  My fingers have learned where these notes are, and they find them.  But my conscious mind cannot keep up.

One really can do this, and the proof is in the listening.  And when you paint — because I was getting back to that you see — the same holds true.  You can paint without knowing what you are doing.  Sometimes it goes best when you don’t know.  You see, you choose.  It happens quickly.  Your hands move.  Presto chango.  The picture appears.

It can happen like that.  I like it when it happens like that.  Sometimes cluelessness is a virtue.

Finishing Fish

koi finishing

I have begun finishing koi paintings.  It’s a strange process finishing a painting because it’s such an open-ended and uncertain process.  Of course, in truth, finishing is nothing more than continuing to paint until one is “done.”  If you have a very specific notion of what the image should look like, arriving at “done” is mostly a matter of nose grind-stoning.  But it’s very possible for a picture to be elusive right until the very last minute, which is kind of what I’m up against with these koi — and this is all the more ironic since I’m painting some of them from preexisting images.  All I need really do is just copy my image (the painting’s are enlargements of something), but somehow mystery enters during the translation.  I don’t recognize the paintings being at all identical to their sources — indeed they are so different that I can honestly say I have no idea how they will turn out.

I get some sense of what novelists talk about when they describe their characters taking over a novel while it’s being written.  I knew I was making progress on a painting when the koi started swimming — and that’s a good thing.  I want them to swim.  But I don’t know where they are going.  And you’d think I would know.

Why is the artist always the last to know?

Above, still unresolved swimming going on.

Swimming up through the bounds

We need boundaries, and we need to defy rules also. No edges, no defiance. Yet one wants to be more than just defiant. One wants to create, and creation is sometimes all cooperation. Sometimes creating “goes with the flow” and resists nothing. It’s all very complicated.

Nous avons besoin de frontières et nous devons aussi defier les règles. Pas de limites, pas de défis. Et en même temps on veut être plus que simplement rebelle. On veut créer et quelquefois, créer c’est coopérer. Quelquefois créer c’est aller dans le sens du courant, se laisser aller sans résister. Tout ça, c’est très compliqué.   [translated by Bénédicte of Carnet de Dessins]

The image above comprises three paintings, as they would appear stacked one above the other.  Each canvas is 40 x 60 inches, so the overall dimensions would be 120 by 60 inches if they were displayed this way.  Alas, they never have been so far, but the fish and I are both hopeful.  These are the first koi I painted.  They have lots of friends now.  My studio looks like a fish tank.

The comment and its translation originally appeared at the end of a different post.  I made the comment, and Bénédicte was kind and adventurous enough to translate it.  Uttered in French my observations sound ever so wise!  Then it dawns on me (later) that the koi express this idea about boundaries.  The fish live in water and never leave it.  They can’t exist outside it (not for very long).  And so they are very bound, and yet within the confines of their pond they do amazing things.  They swim with the utmost freedom and beauty.

Joy of Being Lazy

princess dress2

I wrote yesterday about being a lazy draughtsman, how drawing from photos and searching for my inner Xerox machine lets me tune out everything except the color patches before my eyes.  It’s an uncomplicated kind of art in which I sometimes find refuge.  And, well, I went refuge seeking again today, having enjoyed it so much yesterday, and made a couple more drawings of my daughter in her “princess” dress.  She was playing with caterpillars. 

princess dress 3

Memories into Colored Criss-cross Lines

princesse dress

Sometimes I just want to draw, and I don’t want to have to think.  I want to look and copy.  I get lazy sometimes.  Working from photos can provide that kind of idea off the shelf, and I use photos sometimes to satisfy my craving to record and describe.  So today I browsed through some old photos of my daughter when she was young enough to dress up in gauzy princess dresses.  In the photo, she’s gazing at a caterpiller on her arm (less evident in my drawing). 

When she came home from school today and saw this sketch, she quizzed me about why the arms look “funny.”  It’s tough being an artist.  Everybody’s a critic — even your kid!  So I happened to have an out-of-focus photo taken on the same occasion, and I used it to show her how funny and “abstract-looking” things appear when they are less acutely seen.   Certainly my drawing introduces distortions too.  But distortion in art often has meaning, more so than artists typically realize, I think.  The drawing is, after all, a record of one’s visual thoughts.

I wasn’t able to “finish” this drawing.  We had to hop and be on our way, errands to run.  But the moment of suspension — ah, that too — often adds a telling something-or-other.  I liked how the edges of the picture angle in a raucous this way and that.  It has a bit of caterpiller zig-zag that befits my theme.

It’s also fun, as a mom, to use a photo to reconnect with memories of my daughter’s girlhood.  Childhood sweeps past us so quickly, too quickly.  And it’s important to catch whatever you can, when you can, and hold it, and amaze yourself with it. 

Like a caterpiller crawling on your arm.

Tapestry of the garden myrtles

crepe myrtles 3

I have a favorite painting at the National Gallery of Art, a dear old favorite friend of a painting.  Me and this painting go back years!  It’s Vermeer’s Girl with a Flute.  The tapestry in the background, in particular, amazes me.  The background alone contains some of the most astonishing bits of painting that I’ve ever seen.  In the softly articulated, indistinct shapes of the fabric behind the girl, you find much of the painting’s music.  Its flute notes are all piped in blending, meandering riverlets of color and tone.  They are so out-of-focus as to be completely unrecognizable, yet they are persuasively, pervasively “real.”  Whenever I see the painting I’m reminded that all of life is like this one scene.  The world is luminous and mysterious, indefinite and mutable, meaningful and inscrutable. 

And in something like this spirit of inscrutability I enter my garden of crepe myrtles.  I don’t of course own the garden.  I own the scribbles that establish the garden of my pencil.  Though I have to follow the park rules about when I can visit my trees, with my pencil they transform into personal, imaginative property.  I wander through them like the lady of the manor.  And I abstract them with all the freedom that Vermeer taught me to feel before nature.

My pencil lines are thoughts about form.  I say that the tree boughs shall grow to such height!  I will that the greens be bright!  I indulge all my whim for foliage and fond.  If I want significant swaths of bright white paper peeking through, so be it!  It’s my dream, my vague and transcendent fabric!

crepe myrtles 1

crepe myrtles