Monday, June 24, 2013

Hard Ecology: a photo exhibit opening in July

I will have a solo show at the Tamarack Studio & Gallery in Madison, WI during July/August, 2013:
Hard Ecology: Rethinking Nature in an Abstract Landscape

Tamarack Studio & Gallery is at 849 E. Washington Avenue, Suite 102, in Madison. (Corner of E. Washington and Paterson.)

Opening reception Friday, July 19 from 5:30 to 8:30 pm.

This exhibit features an updated selection from my Synecdoche Series plus two 8-foot long murals. Morning Light (Menomonee Valley), below, is one of those.

Synecdoche refers to a literary device in which the part represents the whole. My work uses the concept as a metaphor; the images are visual examples of synecdoche. My subject is the complex—often paradoxical—relationships I see between nature and architecture/human culture. My approach, using the part to represent the whole, is to symbolize the fragmentation we experience in our everyday environment. 

The title of the exhibit, Hard Ecology: Rethinking Nature in an Abstract Landscape, comes from the title of my latest book, which is both a selection from the larger Synecdoche Series and a fine art book in prototype form. The book design is carefully sequenced and the image plates are complemented with graphics and text that are intended to expand on the metaphorical character and content of the images. The book is available to preview and purchase at MagCloud.
The following is excerpted from the text of the book:
We are in a time of reckoning. Understanding our place in the world that we have wrought will be a hard lesson in ecology. We have tamed the wilderness, shaped nature, tried to design it into submission. Nature has been transformed, reduced, and abstracted. Nature is increasingly compromised or redeemed by our own actions. But nature is not—never has been—separate from us, from what is human. We have always been part of nature, inseparable except in our own minds.
Ecology is the study of relationships in the natural world. There can be no complete understanding of ecology without knowing where the human fits into the web of life.
To see more images from the Synecdoche Series, go to my website.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Wordsworth and the desert monastery

“The world is too much with us…,” the poet said.

If, as Wordsworth says, we “lay waste our powers” by “getting and spending” then one solution is to remove the temptation by retreating from society.

The impulse to escape the travails of the world, to disconnect the TV, avoid the news (if not “getting and spending”) is easy to understand. It is one reason I came to Ghost Ranch. But for me it is temporary, an interlude of rest and recuperation. Monastics make it a way of life.

By their nature and purpose monasteries are meant to be retreats from the world. In many cases the idea of “retreat” is to remove oneself physically from contact with the larger society. This can happen just about anywhere—behind walls.

I drove a long way down a desert canyon to visit the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. For those not faint of heart it is a popular side excursion while staying at Ghost Ranch. This place has got seclusion nailed (unless you count folks like me who are allowed to wander in from the world!)

The dead end dirt road is 13 miles long. While thirteen miles doesn’t sound far in our car culture, I averaged about 13 miles per hour (not counting stops to take pictures.) That should make it easy to calculate how long it took to get there!

I might have gone a little faster in a 4x4 pickup but my little rental Kia Rio was not too steady on the narrow, dusty and washboarded road. The little round pebbles didn’t improve traction any, either!

Much of the road also is only one lane wide, carved from the red clay cliffs along the Chama River, with no barrier on the riverside edge. There were occasional turnouts to allow opposing traffic to pass, but I discovered that guys in SUVs seldom wait at a turnout. Yes, there was traffic that had to pass. 12 miles of the road is forest service access to recreation points along the river. Several times I had to squeeze by huge SUVs with kayaks or rafts lashed on top. On one particularly harrowing occasion our rear view mirrors nearly touched. And I was on the river side of the road!

Once I passed the last boat launch at mile 12, it was just me and the monastery ahead.

There is some proverb, I think, about the silence of the desert. (I’ve been blessed with the sounds of the desert; that old truism, if it exists, must refer to the absence of human voices and the clamor of culture.) If there is anything more silent than the desert it is a remote canyon in the desert.

Furthermore, the monks at this monastery have taken vows of silence. Even their own human voices are absent from their secluded existence. I didn’t meet any of them. The person at the gift shop (there is a gift shop, of course!) will talk to you (and sell you Christian paraphernalia; I resisted spending and getting any of it.)

Seclusion is accompanied by self-sufficiency here. Solar technology allows the monastery to retreat from the grid as well as society.

It was truly a peaceful place. The interior is dark and enclosed, like a cave or a kiva. The silence felt like a presence rather than an absence. Some, perhaps the reclusive monks, might name that presence. I was content to feel it for a brief interlude.

When I stepped back outside it was the canyon itself that 
moved me, now that my attention wasn’t on the perilous 
drive to reach it. “Late and soon,” it is nature that I 
name and claim. 
Here is Wordsworth’s short poem in its entirety:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,           
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
 Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!           
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;           
The winds that will be howling at all hours,           
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;           
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;           
It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be           
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,           
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;           
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;           
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Georgia O’Keeffe and Ghost Ranch: the tour

The bus crunched to a stop on the gravel road. Our guide gestured towards a low, multicolored clay hill that hunched in front of the iconic cliff formations of Ghost Ranch. Fifteen heads craned to look out the right side windows. “These are what O’Keeffe called “the lavender hills,” she told us. Then she held up a reproduction of a painting in a plastic sheet protector. O’Keeffe had titled it Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills.

The painting depicted a leafless, twisted, tapering gray trunk, tilted at an angle that bisected the rectangular composition diagonally. The guide pointed again, this time to a thin, dark shape canted at the same angle as the trunk in the painting. “There’s the tree,” she said. There was a collective gasp as everyone simultaneously registered the exact shape that O’Keeffe had faithfully rendered in oil paint.

“She painted that tree in 1937,” the guide continued, “and it’s still there.” She explained that cedar wood doesn’t decay; it gradually, very slowly, erodes, like the lavender hills. Consequently, there it was, 76 years later, for us to see.

At the next stop we were allowed to get out of the bus (but be very careful to stay on the gravel path, we were told: “the land here is extremely fragile.”) Cameras ready, everyone eagerly spilled out and lined up along the gravel edge. This time the guide held up a reproduction of a painting entitled Hill, New Mexico. “Look over my shoulder,” she said. “There’s the hill, just as she painted it.  If you look closely you can see that even the trees are in the same positions. She was painting what she was seeing.” Cameras began snapping and iPhones clicking.

We were on the official “O’Keeffe Landscape Tour.” Its purpose was to visit the exact locations where Georgia O’Keeffe had made some of her famous paintings on Ghost Ranch, the place where she lived from 1936 until shortly before she died in 1986.

It is a place that also has been familiar to me for a very long time. When I first visited Ghost Ranch I was too young to know who Georgia O’Keeffe was. The ranch was and is owned and operated by the Presbyterian Church. My father, a Presbyterian minister, brought the family there several times. I grew to love the ranch logo, along with the place itself, long before I knew that O’Keeffe had drawn its now famous skull.

Eventually, the connection between O’Keeffe and Ghost Ranch became evident, of course. I developed a particular fondness for her paintings, so many of which were clearly done in places that I could identify.

My own connection to both the ranch and O’Keeffe expanded enormously when I was in college. I spent a memorable three months at Ghost Ranch working on their college summer staff. One of the (very) special things we got to do was to tour O’Keeffe’s adobe house. Back then O’Keeffe was still using the house, but she was not there at the time. In fact, because she was such a famously private person, ranch personnel took pains to respect her privacy. The public was not even told where her house was located.   

Not so today! The bus rolls to another stop next to a gate in the palisade fence surrounding that very house. Through the gate we were able to glimpse the characteristically low, adobe structure (which looks like innumerable such houses in northern New Mexico!) The house is still not open to the public. (O’Keeffe owned a second, winter, house in the nearby town of Abiquiu. That house has been open for tours for many years.)

The “O’Keeffe Landscape Tour” was begun eight years ago. It runs eight times a week year round. Our 15-passenger bus was filled to capacity, as it often is throughout the summer. In short, Georgia O’Keeffe means big business for Ghost Ranch.

Although I’d been revisiting the ranch off and on over the years, this is a new development. In retrospect, however, the surprise is that it took so long. Posters and notecards of her paintings and books about O’Keeffe have always been available in the gift shop. The tour seems a logical way to capitalize on the interest in one of our nation’s most famous and beloved artists that shows no signs of waning.

Still, it feels a bit quirky to me. We pile out of the bus for the last time. The now familiar routine is repeated. This time the guide brandishes two versions of paintings O’Keeffe made of the cliff face that we could see over her shoulder. She gamely tries to hold the two sheets aloft in the stiff breeze. Then, in a variation on a theme, she suggests that people pose in front of the scene, O’Keeffe’s subject, while holding the print of O’Keeffe’s painting. I wonder if I’ve wandered onto the set of a reality TV show by mistake.

I’ve no call to complain. The exclusivity of that long-ago visit inside her home—a memory I freely admit recounting whenever the occasion permits—is intact. And at one of the bus stops on the tour we stood before one of the dramatic chimney rock formations that everyone who visits—or even drives by—Ghost Ranch can’t help but see. These are the cliffs, visible up close from O’Keeffe’s patio, that she called her “backyard.” The guide held up a reproduction of The Cliff Chimneys, as I expected she would. The original of this painting is owned by the Milwaukee Art Museum and it is a rare visit to the museum when I don’t pay homage to it.

Here's my shot of those cliffs. We were not quite in the same position as she or they would look more remarkably similar.

Below are a few more shots from the tour. I posted a related story, about O'Keeffe's favorite mountain, Pedernal, on Urban Wilderness.

To see additional photos from Ghost Ranch (unrelated to the tour), go to my flickr set.

Full disclosure: In addition to having a long association with and appreciation for Ghost Ranch, I have been invited for the first time to teach a photography class there in the fall. I gladly confess I'm not an objective observer.

Addendum: A friend replied to me by email with a story of her own and gave me permission to reprint it here:

"About 6 or 7 yrs.ago my husband gifted me with the Ghost Ranch bus tour, which I relished. After the tour, we ventured to Abiquiu. When I could not resist touching the stone wall surrounding O'Keefe's house in Abiquiu, I was greeted by an unhappy guard from within the wall with a rifle pointed in my direction. Having ignored the no trespassing sign on the wall, I had to depart in a mad dash flurry with my husband yelling for me to hurry back to the car as if my life might depend upon the rate of my haste. We jetted out onto the highway. Thanks for reminding me of this wonderful adventure!"  Susan

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Art according to John Gossage

Review Santa Fe closed in overtime at about 1 pm. this afternoon. The final event was a panel discussion that included photographer John Gossage as featured artist.

Gossage, who eschews social media and proudly proclaims he doesn't have a website, made a number of pithy remarks that I jotted down and herewith share:

On art: its primary reason for being is to be viewed repeatedly.

On being an artist: keep your own counsel; do the work because it's what you love to do.

Corollary to above: get a day job to support your work so you are not indebted to anyone. (Although he proudly admitted that he'd never held a job in his life and was a high school drop out.)

On artistic integrity: if on first view the reaction of a viewer of your work is "huh?" then you've succeeded; pictures should not "empty out their information on first viewing."

On his own process: "I don't work in projects; I work with an ongoing sensibility."

Gossage went a bit against the prevailing notions, as he readily admitted, if not being downright iconoclastic - especially regarding his antipathy to social media. I need to let some of these ideas percolate a bit longer before I decide whether or not I agree with them. (Although I definitely like the first one about art deserving repeated viewing.)

To conclude on a more personal note, I believe I've been working with an ongoing sensibility myself. Here is an image I made in Albuquerque, before heading up here to Santa Fe.

Fire Danger Very High Today!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

New Mexico Museum of Art shows great stuff!

There are several good shows at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. I enjoyed their take on "14,000 years of art in NM." From arrowheads to atomic bombs and beyond.

Photographer William Clift has been a long-time favorite of mine, so it was especially nice to chance upon a show of his work that combines two curiously synchronous bodies of work: Shiprock and Mont St. Michel.

CliffWVolcanicDike.jpgShiprock, above, is a natural volcanic formation in New Mexico. Mont St. Michel, below, is the medieval monastery on an island off the coast of France. Fascinating how harmoniously the man-made structure mimics the rugged erosion of the volcano.

There's a small show of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, too. I enjoyed seeing a couple that were new to me.

However, of the 5 concurrent shows there my favorite was video art by Peter Sarkisian. Huge show, took up the entire second floor of the museum. One of the more unusual features of his work is the fact that the video is usually projected onto a three dimensional object or surface.

Some are fairly simple. An open dictionary lies on a pedestal (real, 3-D book). The video is of a little man who crawls out of the gutter of the open page and begins to edit and scribble comments on the text of the page.

Others are incredibly complex. One takes up an entire room and requires 5 projectors. A cube sits in the center of the room. Video is projected onto all 5 visible surfaces of the cube. It depicts a nude couple who seem to be contained within the cube. They crawl around each other in the confined space.

Video, of course, isn't as effective without the video (duh!), so I encourage you to go to Sarkisian's website and watch a few.Don't miss the one where the guy crawls out of the spilled ink and rolls around on the desktop. In the museum the ink bottle and pad of paper are real, but the video on the website does a good job of reproducing the effect.

Photo-Eye opening in Santa Fe

Photo-Eye is Santa Fe's premier venue for photography. In addition to a physical gallery they have a significant online presence and well-respected publications.

I went to the opening of their current show last night.

New York photographer John Delaney is showing Golden Eagle Nomads, portraits of Kazakh hunters in Mongolia. (Delaney explained that his subjects had been driven out of Kazakhstan by the soviets.)

LA photographer Svjetlana Tepavcevic is showing Means of Reproduction. She calls the images of seeds portraits to express her personal connection with the subjects. She captures the images directly on a flatbed scanner without using a camera.

I found both bodies of work fascinating as well as beautiful in their own ways. The prints are stunning and both photographers stressed the importance of the physicality of the printmaking for them, despite obvious differences. Delaney, who works as a darkroom technician and has printed for the likes of Richard Avedon, is using traditional wet darkroom methods. Tepavcevic whole process is digital, with archival ink jet prints as the final outcome.

To see more of their work and read their artist statements, go to Photo-Eye.