Category Archives: ot

Another Rabbit Hole

A couple of days ago I was organizing books in the Auxiliary Library in the barn and happened on Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (which I had bought in 2008, on just what inspiration I can’t recover, 12 years later). Many of the 40 essays contained within are interesting to probe again, touching as they do on interests and enthusiasms and questions that have arisen during those dozen years. The last third of the eponymous and first (“The Geography of the Imagination”, originally a Distinguished Professor Lecture at University of Kentucky in 1978) is an extended riff on American Gothic, Grant Wood’s evocation of American essence:

(Art Institute of Chicago)
(see Wikipedia entry)

Davenport’s four pages of deconstruction of this eidetic image is a lovely mapping of implications, of allusions, of in-knottings. Some are explicit references by Grant Wood, others seem imbricated [an overlapping of successive layers], where the pointer is to bricolage, in the sense of ‘creation from a diverse range of available things’, rather than to an orderly pattern of overlapping, as with shingles (bricoler is “to tinker”). A similar unpacking can be visited upon other familiar images, to get at the question of how and why they come to be eidetic, and I’m tempted to try some of that myself (stay tuned…).

It’s no surprise that American Gothic has been praised as representing “steadfast American pioneer spirit”, derided as Norman Rockwellish cliché of a[n imaginary] small town America, and widely replicated in satire and parody (see a blog devoted to instances). Here’s an instance from my own archives:

Kent and Shel 1969
Shel and Kent Anderson, 1969

Dept. of Blinding Flash and Deafening Report

I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of Japanese paintings and woodcuts, but only really looked at a handful, and with even fewer have I had anything more than the shallowest understanding of what I was seeing. A couple of months ago I heard about an exhibit at the Harvard Museums, Painting Edo (mid-February through July), covering about 250 years (1615–1868) and seeming to be an opportunity to repair my ignorance. And then COVID-19 closed museums. So I looked to see if there would be a published catalog, and sure enough Painting Edo: Selections from the Feinberg Collection of Japanese Art appeared… Knowing that it was most unlikely that I’d be in Cambridge by July, I ordered it. Well. It’s a lovely book, and the text overflows with just the sort of explanations I was hoping for. Here’s part of what I read this morning, accompanying the first image in the book:

Tani Bunchō’s “Grasses and Moon” from 1817. (photographed by John Tsantes and Neil Greentree); © ROBERT FEINBERG/COURTESY HARVARD ART MUSEUMS

The Gallery Text is a good start, but Yukio Lippett’s text in the book is eye-opening, and this passage transfixed me:

Bunchō aimed to create a “true view” (shinkei), as stated in his inscription. This term in fact designates a literati concept of great complexity shared among advanced painters and intellectuals from the mid-Edo period onward. Rather than referring to any notion of optical truth or reality, it was rooted in the ability of the painter to capture the subjective experience of a site or scene through picture-making. Works in this tradition invariably involve some combination of motifs identifying the site and a discursive framework—typically provided through an inscription—that refracts the image through a particular emotion, interpersonal exchange, or sensory experience from the encounter. In many cases, the inscription incorporates a citation from classical literature, thus fashioning this moment of encounter as both contingent and eternal. The true view was a fundamentally interrelational concept that imbricated the singular, intimate experiences of an artist with those of earlier figures who had commemorated similar instances. (pg 15)

So much to admire here: an elegance and precision in the prose (discursive, refracts, imbricated), a lucid explication of shinkei, a generous nudge toward thinking differently about how and why text might accompany images.

Some more of the text accompanying this image:

The scene is conceived as if observed from a low vantage point among the river reeds, looking up and through them at the moon… The powerful sense of immediacy thus generated by the design is reinforced by the fact that Japan was a floor-sitting culture: viewing a painting from a standing position would have been highly irregular, and accordingly, Grasses and Moon anticipates the vantage point of a Yaozen patron looking up at the scroll from the tatami mat-covered floor. (pg 14)

The image on the book’s cover is a marvel itself:

the whole image:

and a detail:

Three enigmas

Some photographs resist simple interpretation, even when their ostensible subject matter (ice, sand, rock…) is clear. Sometimes it’s possible to imagine a figure or a face, but even the most fertile imagination runs up against limits now and again, and one is tugged into surreal territory. Here are three such that I’m puzzling over, from a trip to Drift Inn a few days ago:

almost Arcimboldoesque, a right-facing head ?


? a demonic cocktail shaker ? a flamingo executing a jeté ?

scale indeterminate: ? a view outward toward the Cosmos? satellite view of a caldera?

daunting graphic skills

Here’s an example of what I aspire to in clarity of line and presentation:

(Clemens Habicht, in Jan/Feb 2020 Atlantic, pg. 82)
(Ida Tarbell, pioneer of investigative journalism)

…but no idea how to get to such fluency. I have been working with Adobe Draw on the iPad, using the iPencil as a tracing tool with some success (see back at Drift Inn from a fortnight ago) but the next step to interpretive drawing is a high one. Two more examples, working from


And yesterday the Brown Truck brought Raymond Briggs’ absolutely brilliant Time For Lights Out (“an extraordinary exploration of old age in words and pictures”) and I ran across this illustration about halfway in:

I ought to know how to do this sort of digital collage, and I think I almost do, but once again getting to fluency is daunting.


Some of my most off-the-wall thinking happens as I’m waking up. A few days ago Therianthropes guard the bridge between the risible and the numinous bubbled to the surface and I managed to write it down before it went off into the stratosphere. This morning it occurred to me that there was a map to be drawn of the territory of the Risible and the Numinous, on either side of the Ot River (think: Buda and Pest…), having squares and streets and buildings associated with people and movements. The Surrealists surely inhabit the land of the Risible; William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg and Charles Peirce hang out in Numinous territory, along with Leonardo and Michelangelo (despite the questionable proclivities of the latter pair). Most Cubists are denizens of Risible (though Picasso has moved back and forth), and cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Kliban and Gahan Wilson are to be found in especially disreputable parts of Risible territory, where the tattoo parlors are and punk musicians hang. Some of my photographs definitely belong in one or the other:

3ii1812crop 1i1872adj
are obviously Risible, and

6xi1812 Wass066trac
might make it to Numinous. And what of
(the lattermost from Roger Caillois’ collection)?

I think these might be guardian therianthropes on the bridge:

Saltus beach hands up

So I’m starting to gather up waypoints and toponyms for this possible map, along the lines of (but of course less glorious than) maps of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork:

back at Drift Inn

It’s been cold enough for ice to begin to form on the ponds at Drift Inn, so we wandered by to start the winter’s ice photography. Here’s what the venue looks like:


There are several shallow ponds, which only hold water if the ground is frozen. The ice comes and goes with freeze and thaw, and from one hour to the next offers different possibilities as the light changes and the margins expand and contract. Our approaches to the material are quite different, and we see different things: Broot settles in with her kneeling pad and works over square inches of ice from a distance of 3-4 inches, while I wander around the edges and mostly photograph features from 1-2 feet distance. She looks for abstract patterns that I simply don’t see, and I look for creatures who have chosen to manifest in the ice. Often I only discover the creatures once I’m looking at the results of the day’s shooting on the computer. Here’s a case in point, a 90 degree rotation of the image above:


I was surprised to see a face appear, and I’ve made several attempts to capture its outlines. I’m still very clumsy with the iPencil:

13xii1931asketch 13xii1931aoutline

I did manage two shots that actually seem to me to be photographs, though I haven’t yet grasped what they portray or represent (and the answer might be: nothing at all, or maybe they’re conceptual enigmas):

13xii1920 13xii1923

And here’s another, from a series of Colloquys:




(There’s a Flickr album of ice photos from the two days)

A wander on the rocky beach at Drift Inn produced this line of six or more spectators:


and two portraits:



So the winter season’s explorations at Drift Inn have begun.

sculpture, masks, therianthropy

A couple of days ago I awoke with the question of just who is responsible for the idea that a sculptor liberates a figure from within a block of stone by removing material. It turns out to be Michelangelo:

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

(photo by Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons)

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

For Michelangelo, the idea was already there, inside the hunk of stone,
whether by divine providence or his own imagination.
His eyes and hands were merely the vessels by which that idea—the art—was brought forth
into the physical world as he or God (or both) originally intended.



And a few days ago I ordered Chris Rainier’s new book Mask, thinking that it would assist in threading together elements I’ve been juggling as I assemble materials for the next Blurb book. Pico Iyer’s Introduction has some very useful perspectives:

(of an owl mask he had bought in Bali) It wasn’t just a mask… It carried a whole universe, a swarm of roiling forces, within. I really couldn’t tell if the spell it cast was happy or malign… All I did know was that it belonged to the realm of the spirit, the world of transformation…

…an agent of transfiguration, which allowed whoever wore it to become something other, belonging to the sphere of angels and demons.

In Africa, I knew, different kinds of masks signified the ways in which another world could enter our own, liberating our minds from the conscious realm into something no less real but much less easily tamed.

Masks are not just a portal to another world, but a reminder of the fact that our lives are defined by amazement and terror and silence. Just to see a mask is to travel out of the everyday into another, a more secret realm.

I’m still trying to figure out in what way my life might be “defined by amazement and terror and silence”, but the rest is surely pure gold, and suggests to me some new ways to think about the rocks I’ve been photographing: they are in a sense sculptures, and they have some of the Powers that are built into masks.


A story in this morning’s New York Times, Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans, surfaced the word Therianthrope just when I needed it:

In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.


Therianthropy is the mythological ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals by means of shapeshifting. It is possible that cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, depict ancient beliefs in the concept. The most well known form of therianthropy is found in stories concerning werewolves.

Quite a few of my rock creatures occupy territory between human and creature, and it occurred to me that

Therianthropes guard the bridge
between the risible and the numinous

a formulation that is just too delicious as a description of part of the landscape I’m dealing with. So now I need to find some examples. And today being the first day it was cold enough for ice to form on the ponds at Drift Inn, we went to see if there were photographs to be made. Indeed:




and one from the recent Nova Scotia trip:

hands up

I won’t attempt to calculate the risibility and numinosity quotients of these, and only the lattermost seems to rise to the level of full-on therianthropy (and it’s probably a dryad anyway).

at play on a Monday morning

This post is a waypoint in the process of learning to use drawing tools to explicate mysteries.

I included this image in Elevenses but hadn’t parsed it for its content—for its component creatures:


Gradually I’ve discovered a variety of possibilities, beginning with a burro-like creature:

and an elephant:

and just yesterday a woman appeared:

and just maybe she’s holding a baby, though that’s not as clear… yet:

The imp on the shoulder suggests that this is a Sagrada Familia, where the part of Joseph is played by an elephant:

I’m not sure what the next steps are, but perhaps a refinement of my initial tracings would be worth attempting. The iPad/iPencil combo clearly works, but just as clearly I’m only beginning to explore the potentials of the tools. Stay tuned.

Descry: to see (something unclear or distant) by looking carefully; discern; espy

When I first processed this one

I saw the whole as a dog-like figure, but I completely missed seeing until today this marvelous face:

This sort of thing happens a lot, and is basically A Good Thing: there’s always more to be found in images and/or in one’s mind. The problem is often how to articulate, describe, convey what one descries. Another example from this morning, from the very same source material, in an unfolding I made a couple of days ago:

god of Spaniels

At first I saw the canine figure in the top third of the image, seemingly with forepaws raised in benediction, and the first thought was “ah! the God of Spaniels!”. And next I saw another and larger canine in the center of the image, and read that one as a fox. But this morning that central canine appeared as a spaniel in transports of delight, floppy ears flapping, smiling muzzle, and eyes expressing a degree of pleasure that I imagine for a young spaniel playing in surf. The figure I first saw, the God of, is a spectral presence, blessing the joy of the dog beneath.

Wholly imaginary, since the seed material was a stump, cut off flush with the ground:

spaniel precursor
and it may well be that nobody else sees what I see. And indeed, I had no idea there were spaniels to be descried when I snipped out a bit of the original image and mirrored it.