From Auschwitz to Honolulu. That sums up the journey that brought me to the Art Institute of Boston MFA program. The visceral dichotomy between Auschwitz and Honolulu has informed my work over the past ten years. But as Oliver Wasow so aptly asked in my first AIB group critique, “What is the connection?”
The first residency has helped me frame this question and to begin to formulate an answer, circling back to Valois, with many other circles in between. “Finding Valois” signifies a journey for me, one of finding direction, and internal circumambulations around ideas and process.
I experienced both how hard it is to articulate the core ideas in my work and the disconnect between what I think my work is about and what it actually delivers. My marching orders are apparent: clarify the message and refine the visual language to convey clear meaning.
To address these concerns, I have reviewed the many valuable critiques from advising and non-advising faculty, fellow students and visiting artists. These critics agreed that portraying the contradictions between the beautiful and the horrific is an ambitious goal, and that there are many ways to approach it.
Laurel Sparks suggested that experiences of beauty and horror can be overwhelming, but awe can emerge from both, thus addressing the complexity of human experience. The polarities of the circle of experience are not necessarily resolvable, but they are fertile ground for investigation.
Laurel and Tony Apesos suggested that I look at Alexis Rockman and Martha Rosler, who negotiate the contradiction between beauty and horror with unique styles. Rockman depicts apocalyptic natural disasters and Rosler juxtaposes opposing ideas in a visual dialectic using photomontage. Tony referred particularly to Rosler’s “Bringing the War Home” and “Beauty is Only Skin Deep” as examples of visualizing contradiction.
Hannah Barrett suggested I look at Anselm Kiefer, who represents the horrific without aestheticizing it by avoiding the depiction of actual place and objects. Instead he uses materials and process to signify the horrific. Hannah also mentioned Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, who create a visual discourse to explore the overlap of beauty and cruelty.
A couple of people suggested that I look at other artists who deal with beauty or horror to see what kind of visual language is employed. On the side of beauty, Luminist painter Martin Johnson Heade of the Hudson River School explored the transcendental landscape, illuminating utopia through scale and detail of natural forms. On the other hand, in the realm of the horrific, Michal Mazur’s black and white monotypes in Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno reflect the intense darkness and lifelessness of hell. The contrast between these two artists’ work is stark. Heade’s soft, painterliness and careful rendering of natural forms are sharply at odds with Mazur’s monochromatic, dark, mysterious abstractions with aggressive marks.
Critiques by Oliver Wasow, Rob Sullivan, Deborah Davidson, Kathleen Jacobs and Jarrod Staples added to the discussion about the element of process. For example, as a printmaker I am familiar with the idea of multiples, though I use multiplicity less for printing editions and more in the image-making process itself. Deborah suggested I further explore that approach by using Robert Morris’ Verb List, and generally exploring methodologies that stimulate new ways of finding marks and ideas for development.
But process has to influence the resulting image, and Kathleen questioned whether I have engaged process enough for that to happen. She suggests I err on the side of excess, exercise less control, be more cathartic, and seek a visual language that suits the message. As several critics mentioned, breaking away from one’s comfort zone, “getting in your own way”, can suggest new possibilities.
Another suggestion by some of the critics is for me to explore ideas without dependence on symbolic place-setters (i.e. orchids, Birkenau barracks) by finding a more abstracted language of “mark-making” and materials. For example, painter Peter Hoss uses large format drawing and collage with vigorous marks to convey a sense of violence, disconnection, volatility and agitated movement. Deborah suggested using frottage, made famous by Surrealist Max Ernst, as another kind of mark making. In fact, I plan to explore frottage in upcoming weeks, using rubbings from trees, rocks, grass, sticks, and other random pieces of natural debris.
Additionally, people suggested I look at a number of different artists: William Kentridge, Roni Horn, Gerhart Richter, Dorothea Rockburne, Barnett Newman, Michael Hizer, Chihara Shiota, Ann Wilson, Mona Hatoum, Lucio Fontana, Mark Tansey and Philip Taaffee, among others. Common threads of deep interest to me among these artists are how they make marks, present diametric juxtapositions, incorporate geometric and organic forms, embrace multiple perspectives, and imply natural processes and systems.
I am of course also interested in the role of historic memory and the landscape, and in what ways works on paper contribute to contemporary thinking in postmodernism. Several people recommended Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama, so I knew it was a “must read” and will certainly be an ongoing resource. I have ordered Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante with Mazur’s illustrations. Also waiting patiently on my bookshelf are the Whitechapel series on various topics including Beauty, the Sublime, the Archive, and Color, Dora Apel’s book, Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing, and The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. A colleague has lent me her hefty hardcover copy of Regarding Beauty, a catalogue of the amazing exhibit at the Hirshorn Museum that I missed in 1999. Slash: Paper Under the Knife edited by Martina D’Alton, recommended by Deborah Davidson, will inspire further exploration in cut paper; Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton; On Photography by Susan Sontag; and Bernice Cross’s Allegories of Modernism: Contemporary Drawing, will provide the groundwork for further investigations of the universal and personal in our experience of the landscape.
I have always felt the dynamism of our planet, this earth, and our relationship to it and that our identity and subjective reality are directly linked to the land. As Simon Schama argues, our very sense of self is rooted in the sense of place, “landscapes are culture before they are nature, constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.” Schama would agree with Roni Horn who “defines place not as a fixed location but as a ‘condensation of acts’.” These acts are the accrual of historic events and the landscape holds this memory in seen and unseen ways. With a broad stroke, both beauty and horror inhabit this spatial container of the land. I am inspired by this complexity, this inevitable contradiction. “Finding Valois”, then, is really a re-orientation to the land as a sacred vessel. The challenge is to find appropriate visual language to portray the complexity.
This is where the notion of audience enters. Running through the four faculty presentations on Art and Audience is the idea that the discursive space between artist and audience has changed over time. Deborah Todd Wheeler spoke about the ”circle of exchange” where the object of art is the focus, but also a “sacred mind space” that circles back to its source through the intermediary of the audience (as friend, family, or yourself.) We are complicit in this exchange, in fact integral to it; the act of looking is not innocent. In terms of historic memory and the cultural tropes we all carry, this discursive space is pregnant with meaning and memory. It is well worth the effort to find a visual language that evokes a response commensurate with the artists’ intention and completes the circle of meaningful exchange.
I found that the presentations by graduating students Theresa Bonillo and Susan Emmerson, with very different visual languages, imparted a compelling sense of the personal and the universal. Theresa invokes memory of her deceased husband through the re-stitching of cloth, following the traces of what was left behind, and thereby evokes new meaning through re-making. A personal loss for her becomes a collective metaphor of the human condition. Susan’s cut-piece re-constructions of bodily systems, a kind of topological mapping of the human body, are mimetic containers of meaning about her personal history of doctor/patient/artist, and art/science and self. For both these artists, the expression matches the message with heartfelt honesty and genuineness.
Circling back to my own journey, starting at my home base, I have begun to navigate the territories of self and landscape, mapping the process of discovery, traveling the paths and roads where I live to re-orient my direction artistically to true north. Simon Schama aptly notes, “For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.” My work of the mind is of memories of walks among the cathedral of the pines, of a pond full of mallard ducks fed throughout the winters, of ice-skating on a frozen pond and wild fires that kept my toes warm, of the vertiginous verticality of the Swiss Alps, of walks through dense Polish forests and hot Sinai deserts and Hawaiian rainforests, of the blood-soaked stones of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and of the burial mounds of my parents and in-laws. Finding Valois will not be easy, but a journey well worth the taking.