“Local” artists & genius loci

Recently, a friend and I visited our small, local art museum (Allentown Art Museum). The permanent collection there has a few real highlights, which for me include the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed library from the Francis Little House and a limited but fine collection of glass and ceramic decorative arts. Like many smaller US museums, the Allentown Art Museum hosts traveling exhibits that can be eye-opening (last year’s exhibit of Lautrec’s works on paper, currently at Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, SD, was one of these).

Currently, Allentown’s museum is featuring work by two artists who employ very different methods, and their styles are so different that it seems silly to compare them: Matthew Daub and Paul Harryn. Both of them live in the region, however, and both might be considered painters of place.

Harryn says he is enthralled by the concept of genius loci, and there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to his work (as well as a philosophical and poetic aspect; view his site for inklings of these). His “Changing Seasons” series stretched along one wall of the museum gallery, initially seeming like a seamless continuum, though more careful observation proved otherwise. The seasons series anchors the viewer in a temperate region in which the hues and moods of four distinct seasons are markedly obvious by color and light. In these works, the layering and erasing methods he employs are subtle, but some of the larger works depend upon a more visible shifting and experimental approach to media manipulation. The image of “Pacificus” on his website doesn’t begin to convey the experience of his assemblage paintings, which are textural, shifting, very large, and compellingly active. These three “Transcripts” were charming, if less powerful than some of the more layered works:

Transcript series by Paul Harryn

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The near-monochrome, panoramic watercolors of Matthew Daub’s Maiden Creek series also appealed to me because of place, specific–definite–“realistic” place, if not as obviously spirit of place. This is because I know the roads and streams he depicts very well, have traveled them often; but I have seldom considered them “beautiful” enough for plein air views or photographic compositions (without omitting, say, road signage, utilitarian concrete bridges, highway off-ramps, minivans, and the like).

Daub portrays those items in his photorealistic paintings. What I found revelatory in these works is how genuinely beautiful those familiar roads are when the view or frame changes. The thin horizontal rectangle of Daub’s place-paintings accentuates parts of the composition such as bare tree branches, shadows on the curved roads, the rough texture of municipal concrete next to embankments. Daub’s choice of subject matter reminds me a bit of the later paintings of Charles Demuth, but Daub’s paintings include more of the natural environment surrounding the silos, stairs, and industrial objects.

Aucassiu and Nicolette (1921) by Charles Demuth [public domain, Wikimedia Commons]

Next time I am driving Route 143 near Kempton, I will appreciate the scenery more for having acquired, through Daub, a new perspective on the dull, drab, too-familiar landscape. The aesthetics of road-building, New Jersey barriers, highway ramps, creekside roads, and galvanized silos blend surprisingly well with the brushy trees, gentle hills, and stone barns of Berks County.

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I’ll close with a poem by Maggie Anderson, from her now, alas, out-of-print book Cold Comfort (1986). Daub’s paintings made me think of this one, though the river is different.

Gray

Driving through the Monongahela Valley in winter
is like driving through the gray matter
of someone not too bright but conscientious,
a hard-working undergraduate who barely passes.
Everybody knows how hard he tries. I’m driving up
into gray mountains and there, it may be snowing
gray, little flecks like pigeon feathers, or what
used to sift down onto the now abandoned slag piles,
like what seems to sift across the faces
of the jobless in the gray afternoons.

At Johnstown I stop, look down the straight line
of the Incline, closed for repairs, to the gray heart
of the steel mills with For Sale signs on them. Behind me,
is the last street of disease-free Dutch elms in America,
below me, a city rebuilt three times after floods.
Gray is a lesson in the poise of affliction. Disaster
by disaster, we learn insouciance, begin to wear
colors bright as the red and yellow sashes on
elephants, whose gray hides cover, like this sky,
an enormity none of us can fathom, though we try.

(© 1986 Maggie Anderson)

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Psychobiology & art

Greg Dunn’s gold-leaf neuroscience art: “Gold Cortex”

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Howard Gardner once said aesthetics is considered the “dismal branch of philosophy” and that psychobiology, the scientific examination of art, might therefore be called the “dismal psychology.” This view derives from the difficulty of pinning down what qualifies as art, the artistic process, the artistic personality, and the like–especially the challenge of trying to categorize, measure, and in any genuine way evaluate art. Psychobiology as a discipline is new to me; is it merely an earlier form of behavioral neuroscience? How does aesthetics play a role? I went looking.

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Here is an excerpt from D.E. Berlyne’s abstract of his exploration into stimulus behavior and art (including humor), Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity, written in 1960:

The highly variegated human activities that are classed as art form a unique testing ground for hypotheses about stimulus selection. They consist of operations through which certain stimulus patterns are made available, and so they must unhesitatingly be placed in the category of exploratory behavior. The creative artist originates these patterns, the performing artist reproduces them, and the spectator, listener, or reader secures access to them and performs the perceptual and intellectual activities that will enable him to experience their full impact.

It’s intriguing to note the different ways a social scientist (Berlyne was a psychobiologist) uses language to write about a generally-considered subjective subject: art. Different in tone and terminology than the language a philosopher or artist would employ, the description characterizes yet another inquiry into the ontology and the exercise of art and the artistic process:

The content of art can range over virtually the whole scope of human communication. It may be used as a source of information about the appearances of objects, the course of historical events, the workings of human nature, as a means of effecting moral improvement, as a vehicle for propagating religious, political, or philosophical ideologies. Art is, however, distinguished from other forms of communication by …the communication of evaluation. While human beings may produce art and expose themselves to it for an endless variety of reasons, collative variables must play their part, as they do in all forms of exploratory behavior. They underlie, in fact, what is commonly called the “formal” or “structural” aspect of art.

The author is interested in whether psychosocial behaviors, culture-building, and communication all derive from exploratory behavior and stimulus-response and what role evaluation plays in the assessment of art, its social or moral value, artistic merit, “timeless” art, and to some extent the very making of art.

The psychology of aesthetics offers intriguing insights–if one can get past the jargon. From the little I have read about it so far, the science seems to share a few points with phenomenology: its task, according to Dr. William Blizer, is to “describe observable phenomena and to note associations and correlations among them which enable such phenomena to be predicted, controlled, and explained.” In psychobiology, the “observable phenomena” are “the behavior of the creative…artist and the appreciator.” Philosophy and psychology are strange bedfellows, though; throw aesthetics into the mix and the entire project begins to seem suspect. I am not at all sure that these inquiries end up explaining–certainly not predicting or controlling–anything about art.

I admit I prefer to read such musings when the makers themselves are doing the exploring. Nonetheless, this little intellectual excursion led to my discovery of Greg Dunn‘s amazing neuroscience designs, one of which appears above. Who knew the brain was so gorgeous?

Negotiating the storm

I have lived and driven vehicles in regions that receive a great deal of snow, but it has been awhile–and I am not as spry as I once was–and I don’t even own a pair of cross-country skis anymore (a favorite winter activity). Being responsible for keeping a house and property and cars and pets maintained while the ice comes down and the snow piles up and the heat stops working and the power goes off has also somewhat dampened my enthusiasm for snowy winters. Plowing and shoveling are no substitute for XC skiing, and harder on the back. Worries about possible frozen pipes or whether the oil truck can get down the driveway (which resembles a bobsled run) shove more leisurely, more inspired thinking out of mind.

iceimage~

Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the beauty of fields and trees in snow or branches rimmed with ice or–as tonight–the cold, bright moon above the cold, white earth. I remind myself that snow is the best mulch. I think of the crocus and narcissus bulbs snug and dormant below the deep drifts. The house we built does its job of upholding us and protecting us. The house, wearing its white hat…

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A poem from 2007, an experiment in sapphics, that seems appropriate.

Negotiating the Storm

Dawn. I curl away from the ice storm toward you,
your breath cools my face and my hair, the warm room;
Love, we’ve had too few of these moments lately—
other storms plague us.

Ice assaults the windows with droves of needles,
gusts shove over pines and flatten the birches.
I am glad for the weather’s impersonal aspect:
nothing to blame there.

Sleep. The sleet does not suffer indecision.
You don’t have to touch me, just breathing is plenty.
Walls and roof are stolidly doing their jobs,
power is on yet.

Let’s recuse ourselves from the task of judging
guilt or merits the past twelve moths have garnered,
forge a drowsy peace between us and also the
guileless brute outside.

~

© 2007 Ann E. Michael

Curiosities & stories

Here’s James Delbourgo’s recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education (I read the Chronicle regularly, if that’s not already obvious) about collections of oddities. While the article itself is sometimes a bit maddening (what is his main idea here?), it put me in mind of Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien and of collections my friends have accrued. Toshio Odate, for example, has some fascinating accumulations he keeps in clear acrylic boxes, and some of his art constructions feature curious things: a favorite of mine is a large frame displaying every pair of sneakers his son wore as a child.

Edmund de Waal wrote movingly about objects and collections in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes. Several months ago I promised myself I’d get back to the topic of objects and their stories, but it has taken me awhile to resume my meditations on the subject. As a child, I loved wandering slowly through the world, stopping and dawdling and picking  up acorns, buttons, marbles, leaves, whatnot. Sometimes I would arrange these found objects into tiny houses, or float them on puddles, or arrange them on my windowsill. I might imagine stories around them, drawing on Andersen’s “Thumbelina” or the song “Froggie Went A-Courting.”

"Swiss Shoot the Chutes" by Joseph Cornell

“Swiss Shoot the Chutes” by Joseph Cornell

Not too many years later, when I encountered Joseph Cornell’s work, I was enchanted. His boxes contained mysteries, stories, possibilities, and fears; and they were achingly beautiful to me. Not unsurprisingly, Cornell’s work gets a mention in Delbourgo’s piece, which is partly a review of Brian Dillon’s book Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing.

From the Chronicle essay:

Curiosity, Dillon proposes, is a way of knowing that looks askance. It draws attention to the unexplained or overlooked fragment, to invite us, if possible, to look sideways and look closely at the same time. As such, its promise of knowledge is ambiguous. Does curiosity seek to unmask the strangeness that absorbs its attention, or is it an invitation to luxuriate in that strangeness? Does it carry an inherent Baconian injunction to go further and illuminate, or does it recommend the alternative pleasures of not knowing?

I like those inquiries and feel they may inspire some poetry. Later, while considering the way some collectors, particularly wealthy or scientifically-minded ones, made detailed lists of the oddities, Delbourgo notes that

Dillon suggests that such lists also constituted “a kind of story,” but do they? The list is an open form, not a closed and completed one. Curiosity collections could absorb countless new objects precisely because they didn’t propose a coherent narrative about them. Unlike spoils that tell of conquest, curiosities don’t preach and don’t teach. What makes them curious is their oblique relation to the world in which they’re embedded. And yet, as a matter of historical fact, early-modern Europeans accumulated curiosities in no small part through trade, colonization, and war…

The 18th-2oth century ascendancy of science and the current trend of interdisciplinary art-tech-science aesthetics gets a mention in the article, too:

Curiosity and wonder—distinct terms but often used interchangeably—turned out to be interwoven with theology, civility, craftsmanship, nature’s playfulness…Curiosity thus helped dethrone the modern fact from its hegemony over the history of science.

Again a connection with de Waal, and also with the work my brother has been doing in reconsidering the skull collection of Samuel Morton (and other early modern anthropological collectors). In the case of many people who collect ‘curiosities,’ there are thorny questions of ethics vs. the ‘value’ of extending knowledge or awareness. The political, the legal, the ethical–these can conflict with curiosity in many forms it can take, from the problematic Rauschenberg  sculptural combine “Canyon” which features a stuffed bald eagle, to the superficial thrill that gets us to sit through an adventure movie even if we can guess the ending.

Curiosity is basically an exploratory response, as psychologists term it, which covers a vast arena of animal and human perceptions of the environment to orient us to potential situations and to prepare us for behavior/action. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, D.E. Berlyne studied what I call curiosity quite extensively, including some exploration into art and aesthetics though mainly concentrating on the reactive responses that make us susceptible to enjoyment or evaluation of art, humor, literature. (He published, in 1954, A Theory of Human Curiosity, which I think I must read after I read Dillon’s book).

But now I am drifting far from my topic of stories and objects. Probably that’s Delbourgo’s influence, as his essay wanders a bit, though the author cites some books I plan to add to my to-read list; for that, I am grateful, but I would prefer to look at how objects inspire stories, or make the need for stories. There’s the sun in the sky each day, and it leaves each night. We make up a story about that, or about why the leopard has spots or why there are stars in the sky.

Here’s something from my own collection of curiosities, a wooden ampersand from an antique type magazine. &&001And there’s a story I could tell about it which would be more or less ‘true,’ but there are better stories yet to be invented.

Or, tell the story of Cornell’s “Observatory Box.”

http://www.thisisnotacraft.com/

“Observatory Box,” Joseph Cornell