I think everyone must have at least one image that absolutely disgusts and yet fascinates them, which they cannot shake no matter how long has passed between the original sight (or thought) and the memory. Actually, if you only have one, you’re probably pretty lucky.
One of mine is just more strange than anything else; haunting, I guess. About four years ago, I was going for a run in Lincoln Park, which is across the street from our apartment in Jersey City. Nothing unusual about the day that I recall, other than the weather was nice and crisp so it was either spring or fall. As the path I was on sloped to go around a softball field, I noticed something on the ground that caught my eye and slowed down to take a look. There, among a pile of leaves, tree roots, and dirt laid a tiny sparrow with its heart perfectly cut out of its chest. I saw it and immediately looked away, totally repulsed by the sight. I continued on my path, wondering if I had indeed seen what I thought I had, and circled around to take another look. Yep, there it was – a bird with a tiny hole drilled in its chest and its heart removed.
I didn’t tell anyone about what I saw for weeks. I think it was a combination of not wanting to believe it and the whole thing just being so ridiculously, over-the-top metaphorical, like it was something that was from a David Lynch movie or a passage in the bible. What I’ve told myself over the years is that it was probably the work of some teenaged wanna-be satanists – nothing more, nothing less. Creepy and sad, but really: let’s not get too carried away. Kids shouldn’t be doing that, it’s fucked up that they did, but hopefully someone somewhere gets them some help or intervenes in some way, and soon all the birds of Jersey City are again free to fly with hearts beating in their chests. No reason to overthink this. Nope, none at all.
Except that overthinking is what I do best, and so I have stewed over this image ever since I stumbled across it. I’ve used allusions to it in several works (most recently in Phanta, which you can see images of if you click on the link on the right) but it’s always been a part of my personal iconography. Meaning, I haven’t really felt the need to tell the story up til now, nor have I felt the need to really explain it all away and make the interpretation of the symbol of the bird so personal – since it is such a loaded metaphor. It was a personal experience, it had its impact upon me, and I was curious as to how I could incorporate it into my work in a way that would be interesting to people other than myself.
But still, the picture of that poor thing just won’t go away. I go to the park several times a week, and every time I do I think of that little bird. And then of course, I think about the poor people who did this, how screwed up they must be, and so on… and then, before I really know it, I’ve drifted away to the point where I’m not really in the park anymore but purely in my own head, paying respects to the little bird and just sort of torturing myself with the memory.
So yesterday I set out to make some work specifically and explicitly about this memory to (hopefully) finally put it to rest. I meant for this to be merely a half-hour exercise at most, but it wound up eating up much of the day and then spilling over until today. Here’s what I’ve come up with (so far; I doubt this is the last of it):
On the bottom of the bird, I drilled a hole and made a plug for it, on which I wrote “I want you to be a metaphor of love and devotion,” which is my naive wish for the bird; that, if it had to give its life in such a horrific manner, that at least it died in the spirit of being an offering to or of something wonderful.
And so, I’m trying to revision the wound as being something else; sort of trying to trick myself into believing that the wound wasn’t a wound at all, but rather a passage for a live birth and that birds never gave birth to eggs after all.
I made this and was happy with it for about two seconds. Ultimately what bugged me about it is that the wound is in entirely the wrong place. I don’t know why I drilled it where I did, but it was all wrong compared to my memory of the real thing.
So I constructed another bird:
This one had the correct (or at least, similar) coloring to the real thing and the wound was in the proper place. It was regrettably much larger than the first, but given what I wanted to do with it, I thought that would be necessary.
I had, during the time I was working on this, a conversation via email with a guy named Steven, who is the boyfriend of a former student of mine. He had just discovered the word atavism and was very intrigued by this idea. We tossed emails back and forth a few times about atavism, and then that was the end of it.
But the word stuck in my head and kept swirling around. In the midst of this yesterday evening, I heard the news that the execution of Sadaam Hussein was imminent – something that I truly never thought would come to pass. I absolutely thought that his sentence would be in appeals forever or maybe it would at least be held off until right before the next election (there’s the conspiracy theorist in me talking). I couldn’t believe that the day of his execution was suddenly here or even, that I still live in a world that condones the execution of human beings. (My husband – who is brilliant and wonderful – upon being told that Hussein had been visited by his family who had come to say goodbye, responded, “Family? Oh I’d forgotten he had one of those.” This is what war does: It makes you forget that the other side is human too; that they have family and loved ones and so on. Of course Hussein was horrible. And of course the US never should have aided him so that he grew to such great heights and got away with murder and tyranny for so long. But he was – until about 10:15 last night – a human being, until he wasn’t anymore. And I have a hard time dealing with this.)
And so. This was all circling as I was working on this second bird last night and this morning, in between nervously checking headlines and feeling quite sick to my stomach about what was percolating up through the newswires.
… a silly cut-paper pterodactyl, a visual reminder to me that while we might seem really evolved, we’re mostly just living in the stone age and haven’t gone far at all. We still have these remnants alive in all of us; throw-backs to an earlier, grosser, less-evolved time. It never really dies off.
I’m still not 100% satisfied with this interpretation of the image, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about. For now, I’m off to go draw forests for a little while, and take a walk in the park.
These are drawings that are 7 x 10 inches and are watercolor, pencil, and gouache on paper with my personal writings incorporated. I’m thinking about movement and touch, about being alone and living in “ordinary time” (what the Church refers to as the space in between holy days; it was always my favorite time as a kid).
This is the first drawing I’ve ever made that I’ve shared with anyone in the last few years that doesn’t have figures in it. It was hard for me to make something without figures. I feel like the movement created by the white watercolor being piled up on the gouache (ie, the floor) is a stand-in for a figure; a surrogate.
‘Struggling’ and ‘hanging’ or ‘suspension’ are words I keep coming back to over and over in my work and have now for a few years. There is this tension for me between really wanting silence and stillness and really fearing it; between courting awkwardness and hesitation and also hating all that stuff. I think this is where this theme comes from.
I’ve been having a hard time keeping this thing up-to-date, and I’ve only barely gotten started.
One of the things I’ve been struggling with – and, in fact, have been struggling with this for the last few years – is how hard it is for me to say things about my work in the “This piece is about ____” format, where you state your neat little explanation in one quick blurb. I thought I would get more clarity in that department after I went back to teaching, but instead it’s only gotten more cloudy and difficult for me to do. I have learned so much about what it means to create and to make art through the experience of teaching, I can’t even begin to list the things I’ve gotten from it. Teaching is profound, spiritual, amazing – it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. But it also sure does complicate things for me.
I realize now that the “This piece is about ___” format (which art galleries/exhibitions/PR people/etc thrive on) is total bullshit. I tend to think that it’s necessary bullshit; after all, press releases can’t be ten pages long. As much as I would love to teach an entire year’s course (three hour lectures, once a week) on a single work of art, that’s never going to really happen. There are things that are of interest to the audience and things that are of interest to the artist. I get that.
I guess I just don’t care so much anymore. I understand now that we all draw our inspiration, our ideas, our creativity from so much more than just the insular little world that is art; that my cat lying on the bathroom floor can spark an idea just as easily as a trip to the museum, and that one type of information isn’t really superior over the other. These aren’t new revelations by any means, nor am I even close to being the first (or second, or third, or hundredth) person ever to think them. It just seems more real to me these days then ever before and I’m sick of talking about my work like it’s so hermetically sealed from everything that causes it to be.
On that note, here are some drawings I made for the installation in Miami. They’re tiny – 4 x 6 inches – and they use collage and watercolor with stream of consciousness writings on the theme of being in between. I had an amazing experience teaching figure drawing this semester, sitting in the back of the room and watching strangers take off their clothes and pose in front of a group of other strangers. The moment that the models would take off their clothes, a hush would fall upon the class, and this weird mix of awe and respect and fear and uncomfortableness would settle in and then be consciously ignored while everyone just tried to focus on the task at hand. The models’ whole lives were written on their bodies: what they thought of themselves reflected in their posture; the wear and tear of a lifetime reflected on their skin. It was uncomfortable in just the way that I like things to be.
So here are some from that series. My plan is to make it so that if you click on image it will bounce you to my website and a bigger version… doesn’t work yet, but fingers crossed for later this week.
This last one contains an image of a Vija Celmins painting with a gun firing – one of my favorite Celmins ever; a strange comment on the silence of a violent moment being like the sea or the sky… or so I think.
Here’s a light pencil sketch of my new drawing, before I colored it in or added text.
I’m working with this idea of the blur – kind of like Nude Descending a Staircase. I want their bodies to become less distinct. I want them to fade into one another.
Anyway, just some thoughts as I work through this.
Just started playing around a bit in the studio today and worked on this in my sketchbook… it’s not even half-done, but I like it so far.
About a month and a half ago, I started playing around with the lyrics to Phanta by Le Tigre as a possible source for inspiration for a new installation project. That song has been of interest to me since I first heard it some time ago. I love how it plays between pure hippie paranoia and actual fact, zipping back and forth between the two until you don’t know where you stand.
I started working on the installation, creating a series of small drawings that were combinations of collage and painting.
Then, as I was thinking about all of this, a student of mine recommended that I check out the story of Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago-based activist who set himself on fire to protest the war in Iraq. The awfully sad punchline to Ritscher’s life is that after making this enormous sacrifice, practically nobody noticed. His flaming body and suicide note were not the top story on the evening news as he had hoped, it didn’t provoke a response from the White House nor did it encourage a groundswell of activism against the war. Instead, it took the police over a week to identify his remains, and the story came out quietly except for in a few left-wing publications.
To me, this is the most compelling part of the story. His suicide was very likely the action of someone very sick or at least in incredible pain, but the reaction to his suicide was something much more. It was the perfect metaphor for activism in our present climate: It’s not that there’s not activism, it’s just that we instinctually turn away as if the latest protest we’ve bumped in somehow a distasteful event or something not even worth acknowledging. Petitions, candle-lit vigils, marches, and so on all seem totally useless, like a relic of another era. I do it too: When I see a group congregating at Union Square, I cross the street without giving it a second thought.
Thinking about this in the context of art-making lead me to think about the condition I was approaching as an artist in the midst of the madness that is Art Basel Miami Beach. There were fourteen art fairs happening at once, endless parties for collectors, nonstop back-to-back events sponsored by museums and non-profit spaces and… did anyone really want to hear my whining about how this wasn’t really the way to look at art? That, in fact, the sort of break-neck speed that one needed to take in order to cover fourteen fairs in four or five days involved looking at multiple works of art for only seconds, was my nightmare scenario as a person who makes art? That everything Art Basel Miami Beach is, is everything that I hate?
As much as I wanted to go and protest all that was around me, I didn’t. In fact, I dismissed the idea as soon as it occurred to me. Being a pill or a wet blanket only annoys those around me and scares them away, much like me crossing the street when I see protesters at Union Square; what’s more, it would have accomplished nothing at all. One lone annoying, ignorable, forgettable voice whining about artistic integrity while all around her is the sunshine and the beach and a great party is carrying on accomplishes nothing at all. And frankly, I was there to party, too. I had a great time.
As I try and explain to myself what my (and my work’s) relationship is to something like Art Basel Miami Beach, I’m coming up with nothing. I don’t want to act like what I do in my studio is somehow superior to all of that. I genuinely don’t believe it is and I’d be foolish to think otherwise. But I like what I do, and I like that I staged a little counter-protest to the art world in my scummy little hotel room, even if really no one noticed.
So, enough of that. Here’s some images.
Opposite this table and in between the beds was a nighstand, on which I placed a replica of Hopper’s painting, which I rendered in watercolors. Facing the painting is a row of disembodied eyes, staring at it.
This is a detail of the embroidered text:
I don’t want to be alone here. This is not the sort of place I do well in. Or am I alone already? Does anyone else feel this way? I’m not sure I want to be here. I don’t want to live in your fake world.
On the white table that can be seen in the second installation shot, I placed a small, white bird with an incision in its stomach which reveals a red felt inside. Trailing out of the bird is a row of white beads.
Here’s what I’m trying: An experiment in bringing together my more experimental ideas along with more finished drawings and paintings, and a fusion of my artist’s statement with images. I don’t know if it will work. But it’s a fun thing to try.