Just placing a marker for the next Blurb book projects, which I’ll gradually fledge out.
In the middle of the 2022 Joint Show I’m starting to wonder what comes next? A new desktop machine is on order for me (a Mac Studio), and I expect to be working on several Blurb books during the fall and winter. One subject that keeps nudging me is Surfaces, which are mostly abstract patterns of ambiguous scale, often manifesting as Landscapes of the Imagination. While rifling through the sprawl of desktop files I happened upon a collection of candidates I started several years ago, which I should augment with recent images.
The Song Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) was famous as an artist himself, and he had a special bent for collecting rocks. Here’s a cautionary tale, perhaps a bit overwrought in the telling, from Paul Prudence’s marvelous Figured Stones: Exploring the Lithic Imaginary:
His biomorphic rocks were so prized that they were given names and inscribed with gold calligraphy. Rocks resembling birds, animals, and demonic forms were collected from the furthest reaches of the province. Solemn figures stood in gardens, their countenances frozen within the cryptic seams of time—each a messenger from the earth’s unconscious underside. And, by some providential twist of fate, Huizong’s destiny was written in his amassed collection. In a desire to quench his unabated thirst for stones he dismantled bridges to allow boats to bring him increasing mounds of rocks and stones. So obsessed was he with such a seemingly surreal addiction that his eye was turned from the invading Jurchen nomads who set his fate by using his precious rocks as fodder for their catapults. In a twist that would seem to mock any fiction, poor Huizong’s collection was used against him. And not just his empire was lost but his entire rock collection, which to him was more precious than any universe… (pages 79-80)
Albrecht Dürer, 1493
How can I not have seen this before yesterday? Here’s AD imagining and then drawing faces in 6 pillows… 530 years ago. On the other side of the page there’s a marvelous self portrait, with a 7th pillow with a face:
Think of the fun he must have had…
This from my friends and co-conspirators Daniel and Tamara:
that all you need for inspiration
is to look at cracks on walls.
I decided to hunt down the background to that excellent precis, and found two nice versions as extracted from Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting:
Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to good integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicoloured stones, (which act) like the sound of bells, in whose pealing you can find every name and word that you can imagine.
Leonardo da Vinci advised the budding artist with creative block to leave behind his blank canvas and stare at the stains on walls: ‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.’ Leonardo’s technique, which encouraged the viewer to search for meaning in chaos, referred back to myths about the origin of art in accidental shapes.
(from Tate-etc Christopher Turner ‘The deliberate accident in art’)
As I begin to work on my Artist Statement for the mid-September Joint Show, I find myself trying to account for the whimsicality of most of my images. So here’s an preliminary summary of my take on Whimsy:
where things are built that cock snooks at
conventional boundaries of the factual.
The whimsical rests upon
and a fine sense for the absurd.
Visible manifestations of the whimsical
are frequently paredoliac (“…it looks like…”),
often grandiose (what can I conjure out of this rock?),
and are generally calculated to amuse
or sometimes to warn and admonish
The whimsical is likelier to elicit a snort than a guffaw.
But it is wise to remember
that some folk are annoyed by the whimsical,
and that the most literal-minded are often simply baffled.
So choose your audience mindfully
and avoid poking the bear.
July has been busy with summer stuff, including the arrival of [really quite magnificent] metal prints for our Joint Show in September. I’ve added a link to some other images from Flowers Cove to the page summarizing my part of the show.
And there’s been the usual daily pleasure of eclectic reading in the barn, and the garden is burgeoning. A visit from John and Laura and Kian will round out the month!
Yesterday the rain ended in the afternoon but the fog hung on until almost sundown. We made a quick trip (3 miles, practically the back yard) to the rocks at Marshall Point, hoping that the light would be magical.
By the time we got there the fog was lifting, but I wandered the ever-so-familiar rocks for half an hour or so and found lots of new beings to photograph, and as usual I learned new things about a place that I’ve visited scores of times. It’s truly inexhaustible as a photographic venue. A few examples:
(the full set is available)
Wednesday evening Convivium discussions often start hares that occupy me for hours or days. And of course each hare draws one to any number of interesting rabbit holes, and so it goes. Last night, the Question was, essentially, How’s It Going?. There was much talk of disappointments and rampant commodifications, so perhaps there’s an underlying Question: Can It Be Fixed?. The answer is (generally, and often resoundingly) No. And yet we keep wanting the answer to be Yes, <== granting us efficacy in the world, having our efforts and energies mean something, and not to have been somehow in vain… and so evoking rueful reflection on naïvetes of the past…
Or perhaps (I thought to myself) it’s a matter of thinking about which windmills we’ve chosen to tilt against. That Quixotic image keeps coming up, ever since Cervantes 1604, and wants looking into as a prevailing recurrent trope. It begins in a Tale of
…striving for visionary ideals…
It didn’t take too long (just 40 years) for the windmill-tilting trope to find its way into English as a fully-fledged metaphor. A bit of googlement discovered the first occurrence, in John Cleveland “The Character of London Diurnall” (1644), in which we find
The Quixotes of this Age fight with the Wind-mills of their owne heads; quell Monsters of their owne Creation; make Plots, and then discover them; as who fitter to unkennel the Fox, than the Tarryer, that is part of him.
The Windmills now stand for
…to waste time fighting enemies or trying to resolve issues that are imaginary, unimportant, or impossible to overcome…
…the pursuit of “an unrealistic, impractical or impossible goal”…
…an exercise in futility…
See also Lehua Parker’s take
After an intense week of thinking and reading and writing about entanglement with computers, I fell to wondering about my own history of writing about things that were on my mind, and Montaigne bubbled up: I wondered if his Essays had been written for himself [they started out that way] and if it was only later that he bethought to publish them for wider readership [yes, in 1580]… and didn’t I have a Kindle book that would remind me… and sure enough I’d bought Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in April 2011… so, worthwhile (a) to look at again, and (b) to consider the content and directions of that 11 years. It turned out to be a very interesting, worthwhile, and encouraging two days of re-reading Bakewell’s marvelous book. The structure of the book, limned by the subtitle, has chapters thusly:
- Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
- Q. How to live? A. Pay attention: Starting to write Stream of consciousness
- Q. How to live? A. Be born
- Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
- Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
- Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
- Q. How to live? A. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
- Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
- Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
- Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
- Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
- Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
- Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
- Q. How to live? A. See the world
- Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
- Q. How to live? A. Philosophize only by accident
- Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing: Je ne regrette rien
- Q. How to live? A. Give up control (Daughter and disciple; The editing wars Montaigne remixed and embabooned)
- Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect
- Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer
And those 20 questions are potential fodder for many Convivium Questions.
The iPad Notebook of my highlightings of passages in the Kindle version captures the excitement of this reading, though any number of other stretches of the text could have been included—it’s that provocative a text.
And yes, it feels that my own writings are of the same allusive and digressive (not to say wandering…) ilk, such that a Project of attending more closely to Montaigne seems delicious to contemplate. So I’ve queued up several resources to hear, read, and enjoy exploring:
Jane Kramer’s New Yorker profile (Sept 7, 2009 and I recall reading it at the time)
Cotton/Hazlitt 1685/1877 translation of the Essays
from the Preface:
He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences.
Montaigne’s times were in some ways not so very different from our own (France riven by religious conflict and inept government; physical danger from various marauders, including epidemic disease and the unpredictable thrashings of victims of structural inequalities, and uncertainties about the future), despite the vast gulf of differences in technologies that 440 years presents. The wonder of Montaigne’s essays [and it was he who coined the term ‘essai’…] is that they speak so clearly across that gulf, and have done so pretty continuously for all that time. Cotton’s translation of 1685 is still readable, and there’s a long-running Montaigne Industry, which charts a history of extremely varied readings and fashions and emphases (all ably and amusingly tracked by Bakewell).