June 9, 2007

Collaboration, Intoxication and Vulnerability

When one travels and visits a friend, one normally does not want to arrive empty handed. And lo, I did just that. (I pause here to register the appropriate degree of shame.) So as Hiroshi and I were cruising Nagoya, I was delighted when we ducked into a art supply store. I realized that I would be able to score the materials to craft something that might become a painting enough to give him as a token of my appreciation before I returned to Los Angeles. I was delighted further still when Hiroshi indicated that he would like to paint along with me. I remembered that Hiroshi and Yoshitomo collaborated for a time in Germany, so he was primed for the occasion.

Little did I know how hardcore Hiroshi was. We arrived at his second studio (yes, he has multiple studios in Nagoya, a fact that simply amazes me still) around seven in the evening. At first, I thought we would hang out, tlak for a bit and Hiroshi would be off. But we painted through the night and into the morning as the sun began to brighten the sky, jet-lag and late-cycle bronchial infection be damned.

The whole experience was first rate.

I could relate the evening with a narration but the pictures you see here tell the story better and more eloquently than my craft with words can allow. Besides, I think that there is something vulgar or misleading in a literal description of the process of art creation. The thought pattern during painting is an avalanche of switchbacks, alternate strategy, simulated pass throughs, soul shredding doubt, all too brief moments of exhultation, bright ideas, dread, blank unscalable walls, fast gambits, the comfort of procedure and established protocol, wreckless trust in a muscle's twitch, the pleasure of the connection of head/eye/arm/hand. Instead, I would like to tell you about a thought pattern I had as I awoke that morning after, for what will follow is essentially a slightly shaped stream of consciousness flow, typed from a bed in a squinted shuttered morning twilight. Hiroshi used his studio as a guest quarters and I had the place to myself as he returned to own house/primary studio after the all nighter.

Hiroshi was a great host. His study above made a nice guest room and a bicycle can take me to the corner store. Coffee was here. Your breakfast is here. A bathroom was accessable from the outside, so sunglasses were at the ready as I recuperated late into the new day. It was nice to hang out alone in the outskirts of Nagoya in that morning after.

I was listening to podcasts in the morning on my laptop after a sleep made fitful by a combination of jet-lag, a bronchial hack and a habitual nap impulse that compels me to sleep for short intervals when I am painting. It was combat-traveller-protocol time as I bathed out of Hiroshi's studio sink, keeping the huge studio doors shut to the intense Japanese mid day summer light. As the computer played out my infotainment, a constellation of thoughts began to converge.... (by the way, I may write/speak/think in ways that seem like a series of digressions, but actually I think I do the opposite: I am instead a congressor).

First up in my iTunes library: Los Angeles radio talk show host Dennis Prager was talking about intoxication in his 5/24/07n podcast titled "Why Do People Get Drunk?". Dennis Prager is a supremely interesting personality, a kind of rabbi for me. (If you're interested, check out his transcripts here for example, his interview with Howard Zinn.) I believe that in our unfortunate culture wars in the USA, there are certain conservative thinkers who have mounted significant critiques of the cultural left that deserve serious consideration by those of us on this side of the political spectrum. It is unfortunate that our thinking has rigidified into an inability to listen to critique, especially since we have become incapable of mounting a proper auto-interrogation (I hate such jargon in our discourse, "interrogation", so I use the term with an ironic skepticism). There are several arenas in which we need examine our own worldview, not the least of which is the role that intoxication plays in the creative cultural left. Witness the recent unfortunate deaths of various artworld personalities (I started to list names, but an elision is necessary out of respect and proper circumspection). What is it about us that we are incapable of asking why we repeat the mistakes of the sixties/ seventies/ eighties. Why is it that self destruction by drugs is a recurring condition in our world, a culture that prides itself on possessing so much sophistication? Can't we learn about the nature of this particular cliff that we feel compelled to dance so near? Is it possible to parse that which we have found so valuable from what is essentially a wretchedly ugly form of suicide? Can we become moths who can come to know that the flame will kill us?

Dennis Prager himself is ruthless on the topic. As I have said, he is a rabbi of sorts for me, but here he and I part ways albeit in a small but important way. Prager takes the position that intoxication by drugs and alcohol is a reflection of a life which lacks meaning because there is no commitment to a superior being (G-d). Without G-d, life is absurd, as he is fond of saying. It is a powerful argument, to be sure. Let's follow the significance of this. Indeed, we in the creative-cultural-political left should heed his critique since there exists an argument that art requires meaning to exist; that it is the dialog throughout art history in the West that defines art as we know it, that nihilism obviates art itself; that once one has discovers oneself in a discussion with someone who has been found to be fundamentally nonsensical, then that dialog has ended. If a dialog has ended or never existed in the first place, there can be no artworld. The existence of an artworld itself presupposes meaning... therefore, G-d exists or is otherwise present... therefore nihilists can't be artists... Q.E.D.. That's quite a bee in our secular bonnet, isn't it?

But Prager and I don't differ in the belief in the presence of G-d. It is that he sees no role whatsoever in the validation of intoxication and obviously I do. Moths or Icarus, flying is satisfying so long as our wax doesn't melt. Now, a point of clarification is in order: I would hope that one might infer from the fourth paragraph of this missive that I am not an advocate of suicide by addictive intoxication. Like most politically controversial topics, there is a continuum in which people have staked out different positions and therefore we battle over which line should be drawn where. Abortion is a good example: where does life begin and when does a life have autonomy or when is it merely a tissue formation like any other? (Let's keep this as a passing example right now, I am a converger, not a digressor, remember?) I think it is interesting that Dennis Prager takes such a strident position since he is an avowed cigar smoker. Tobacco is a substance that I would place on the continuum of intoxicants. My father was a smoker to such a degree that he required oxygen bottles toward the end of his life.

I like to joke with my friend Bart Exposito in that I tell everyone that he taught me how to smoke. Now, I do smoke a cigarette now and then, and I usually do so for two reasons, the strongest is that I do it in rememberance of my father. The other is that once I am drinking alcohol socially, a drag on a cigarette is particularly interesting in that it completes the experience. I think also that there is something profound in the irony of toasting life with a cocktail and a drag on a cancer stick (or "coffin nails" as they were once called). But let me not yet jump to the conclusion of this argument too quickly. And for the record, Hiroshi doesn't believe in alcohol or drugs of any kind. He does smoke tobacco enthusiastically, however. I think such substances are in the world G-d provided for us, and as such there is a purpose with which we have a responsibility to manage. So far, so good as far as divulging my position on such a topic.

The next podcast that I listened to that morning after was the very interesting fruit from Chicago, "Bad at Sports". It was Bad at Sports' Episode 77's interview with painter Jose Lerma. I met Jose briefly in Texas back in 2003, a genial, low key and interesting guy with hidden depths. I was keen to see what he is up to nowadays. Midway through the interview hosted by Duncan MacEnzie and Amanda Browder, they kicked in with a discussion of the role of abstraction versus representation:

J.L.: "The reason why I stick with the figure and not go fully into abstraction uh, it has to do more with the fact that I can consider that kind of semi-representational painting to be more complex and a harder read for the viewer. What I mean by that is that, uh you know that abstract space for me is infinite space, there's no point of reference but once you have the body as a reference, you can kind of play off opposites. You can cancel sort of, by just knowing in that you can understand how a body works in space, you can sort of cancel the way it's painted. You can paint the projecting the projecting parts in a way that you feel like they are receding. That's what I mean, it's completely abstract, you don't have that kind of advantage."

D.M.: "You can use color and shade to kind of create that space, rather than...

J.L.: "Yea... and not just a purely optical space, but there's a kind of phenomenological thing that happens that you can sort of understand how an elbow projects and you can sort of use that as a, as a means of sort of making a complex painting. You might have thinner parts, thicker parts, you know, colors that project, colors that recede, warmer...you know, all those things, sort of playing opposites, of sort of the mental concepts you have of an object. And I think with.. and a I have a problem with doing that sort of in a purely abstract way that's not tied to anything. This is just like, painter..."

D.M.: "So you can take a, a figurative painting and wreck it so that it doesn't, doesn't work the way it is supposed to..."

J.L.: "You can wreck to the point where it almost doesn't work and then... bring it... I mean that I really sort of, like my painting, if I had to attach it to anything, it's probably more early modern in the way i approach the figure, you know, it's very much formal, and very much sort of the place where the loose conception of the figure, you know. I don't, I don't, you know, use that kind of projector or something like that...."

At this point with the mention of modernism, I imagine a kind of anxiety kicked in for Duncan. A signifying flag of post-modern awareness had to tossed out on the playing field, heavily ladened with the required sarcasm as ironic distance was reasserted:

D.M.: "Wow that was heavy painter talk. That was ah --sorry about that, wow. I just went all out technical. What the hell's going on?"

Personally, I think that abstraction and representation exist on a continuum, like the ordinates of north and south on a compass rose. A disavowal of one for the other seems kooky to me. Now, kookiness is not a blemish that I would assign to Jose's thinking. Sticking with figuration and countering abstraction is what he needs to construct a position that will support and extend his affinities. He's a remarkable painter and I look with interest to whatever he presents to the world. But ever since I read Gombrich's "Art an Illusion", I've been convinced that we are pattern seeking creatures. I do agree with Jose in that the patterns that we induce in our work can be made to conflict in degrees. Perhaps one ramification of what I am proposing is that abstraction can only exist in the most extreme or even an impossible or evanescent state. It is in this that I see the significance of the Didion quote, the phantasmagoria that adorns the colophon of this blog. Is abstraction another name for phantazmagoria? Phantasmagoria is literally a confusion of sensations, the state that precedes incipient cognition, Lao Tzu's "myriad creatures". It is an airless fundament, and like diving into the sea, we must eventually come up for air.

Abstraction is (along this line of thinking that is...) ultimately furtive and evasive and a glimpse is all we can take in at any moment. If abstraction is something that exists but for a moment for our pattern seeking eye/brains, then it should follow that figuration is always breaking down at the same time since negotiating the world is a constant reconfiguration. The gestalt of figuring the world is not a singular experience but multiple, spontaneous, cascading, forever in a state of becoming and unravelling. Paint itself is made of binders and solvents, countervailing complementaries, like a clutch-gas-brake in a motor vehicle. The play of one into the other, back and forth as one accelerates or decelerates takes us closer to the truth of the experience of art.*1

Abstraction also exists at the price of rupture and frustration, that comes with the grinding of the gears of sensation. And here is where collaboration becomes interesting. Remember Hiroshi's search for rupture in parallel albeit naive art worlds? (In the next blogpost, I will show pics from our visit to Hiroshi's students at Nagoya University's art program.) During our collaboration that night, we experimented with each other's moves. First, we worked on our own panels and as the evening turned to morning, we jumped back and forth between each other's work, importing discoveries into our own realm. To make anything, one has to congeal enough to take a stand and move forward. But most times, congealment loses innocence and petrifies into orthodoxy and this ossification has to be broken so that the real can bubble up through the crust, even as that too will crust up again. Art is how one makes the break and subsequently manages what oozes forth.

Collaboration as intoxication of sorts. It requires an empathic capacity, the ability to lay down one's guard, the willingness to rupture one's narrative. Intoxication brings vulnerability. It is not a coincidence that alcohol has a longstanding presence in art history since it lowers one's inhibition. And with or without alcohol, life seems to require a mixture of restraint and inhibition. In studio practice a personal narrative describing the integrity of one's vision/process becomes inevitable and against this, the exposure and intrusion of a competing narrative is necessary for growth to move past where one has been and proceed to where one is going.



*1 A second mind about this idea about an evanescent abstraction: one could say that abstraction itself is also another form of figuration, but on a conceptual realm, a reduction of the world into sign and formula, the way Carl Andre requires the configuration for his sculpture and all the mathematics it implies --spectral thought formation is enough in itself to be a figure. The extremities of semantics aside, I think that considering a conception of abstraction as that which is hard to see/hold because of our ever configuring minds (heavens to Dali!), is substantial enough work for a bright Japanese summer morning.

Posted by Dennis at June 9, 2007 1:07 PM

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