Finding Beauty

Sorry about the video not being in the last post. The preview looked fine, then the video disappeared when I published the post. Apparently I’m not the first person to have this happen looking at the help page.

This is another short clip from the whispered interview.

A few months ago the photographer Jakob de Boer, from thewhispered.com, asked me to answer some questions on authenticity. I wrote a book Creative Authenticity and he felt the ideas there were relevant to his website on mastery. We spoke, and he recorded, the conversation on Skype. He asked me several questions. I’ll post them all over the next few days. Each video is about a minute long.

Authenticity

James Turrell — Painter of Light

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A lot of representational painters describe themselves as painters of light. Wasn’t that Thomas Kincade’s logline? But let’s be honest, even though we know what they mean, the idea is a misnomer. All representational painters paint the effect of light. Otherwise what could they be painting?

But James Turrell actually does paint, or perhaps more correctly, although I’m not sure, sculpts with light. Literally.

Turrell’s masterwork will be Roden Crater. I wanted to visit it in 1988. But it cost $1000 and I didn’t have it. Whatever it costs now, and it’s a lot, I still can’t afford it.

He has turned an extinct volcanic cone in the desert north of Flagstaff, Arizona, into a spiritual/astronomical laboratory/sculpture that may go down as the most important artwork of the Twentieth century (hopefully beating out Duchamp’s Fountain, which I love by the way, but come on).

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) currently exhibits a number of Turrell’s paintings. I’ll call them paintings because when you first walk into the room, they look like paintings. Sort of. A large rectangle of light greets you, just like a painting would. But the surface glows and shifts with very subtle gradations of color. You get closer, staring at the image, trying to understand how and what makes the painting do what it does. But at LACMA you can only get so close before a guard tells you to step back.

I’m not sure how I would have understood and appreciated the show if I had not had the opportunity fifteen years ago to visit a Turrell piece in an insurance company’s collection in Des Moines.

I was with an artist friend and the woman who oversaw the collection. We entered a large dark room with only the one Turrell painting in it — a rectangle of shimmering light twenty feet by ten feet. Only here I could get as close as I liked. The surface became more lively with each step closer. The light seemed more tangible, and more ethereal at the same time. Nothing I knew of painting or paint could do this.

One step closer, perhaps two feet from the “surface” I had been looking at, and the surface dissolved and I felt myself lurch forward mentally into deep space. A large perfectly-crafted smooth white bubble perhaps twenty feet deep existed behind the frame. Light evenly distributed from in behind the frame lit the bubble.

Turrell crafted, sculpted, a scintillating skin of false surface.

What was interesting, even after I knew how he did it, after I understood the “trick”, if I stepped back the “surface” would reconfigure and I could again step forward to the point where again I was released from the illusionary surface into deep space.

Turrell’s exhibition at LACMA has several variations of that theme. One you can actually walk into. The interior of the piece and the light around the exterior of the frame both shift in color and intensity so the effect of the skin of the surface and the frame mutate  constantly before you.

One small variation, the shape and size of a 50’s television screen and with no guards in sight, allows you to get up close and pass your hand through the surface and better experience what he is doing.

A huge scale model of Roden Crater fills the last room of the exhibition. I’m not sure when Turrell will finish it. Or how I’m going to get to see it. But I don’t think anything else will hold a candle to it.

The Beauty of Alignment

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Yesterday on the Winter Solstice my wife took this photo. She happened into our bedroom at the very moment the evening sunlight shone at 90° across our room onto the Ganesh sculpture on my dresser. Like an ancient temple set to celebrate the moment of rebirth and awakening, our bedroom at that auspicious moment of transformation bathed the god of beginnings, the remover of obstacles and the patron saint of arts and letters, with a beautiful light of astrological alignment.

I bought the statue last month while in India. My statue of Ganesh appears almost comical in his bright enamel colors. He makes me happy each morning when I see him. In India a small Ganesh sits above the entrance to almost every building. Often people touch him when entering, so many of the statures are worn and almost formless from use and affection.

I was in India during Dewali, the festival of lights. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, in particular, but Ganesh also, are honored with a bindi, the red dot between the eyes. Everyone wants to honor the gods with that bindi, so the statues of Ganesh above the doorways were often a worn shape half covered in a great smear of red.

Mine is new and shiny with Shiva’s trident for a bindi. In saying he’s new and shiny I’m thinking next year on Dewali I might give him a bindi. Wear him in a bit. That seems the least I can do for the remover of obstacles.

Diebenkorn — the Berkeley years

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Cityscape #1, 1963, 60″ x 50″, Oil on Canvas, Collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Last weekend I went to San Francisco to see the Diebenkorn exhibit of the Berkeley years. I like Richard Diebenkorn. He kept experimenting and reinventing himself. And each reincarnation produced really good work.

The exhibition presents two parts: the earlier abstract expressionist work of 1953-55 and then what at the time seemed his wild leap into figuration from 1955 to the mid sixties when he started Ocean Park.

The Berkeley abstracts seem flawless.  Or rather Diebenkorn’s intuitive aesthetic sense feels flawless. The earlier Albuquerque and Urbana series show the same aesthetic but with the Berkeley series he embraced the bravado of abstract expressionism and lots of paint.  They erupt from a fountain of pure aesthetic sense: painterly, dense, inventive and new.

Then in 1955 he dropped the series. He called it a “stylistic straightjacket”. He wanted to work and rework something “out there”.

The exhibition doesn’t have all the best figurative paintings. But most of them. The paintings hover between a response to paint and a representational image.

Velasquez did it of course. And late Rembrandt. Look closely at a Velasquez portrait of a court figure in ornate dress up close. His brush dances in abstract arabesques and flourishes of paint. Step back and at eight or ten feet they coalesce into a strict representational image.

Deibenkorn creates that same sensation. Minus the strict representation of course but both the paint and the image hover together, both at viewing distance, playing off one another. This, I assume, is what he was after. He often played with letting the paint dominate. The most successful let the two wrestle, one shifting in and out of prominence with the other. Occasionally the image dominates. It pulls away and becomes primarily itself in a painterly way. I think these are my favorites, although I’m not sure he would feel the same about them.

Perhaps coming from complete abstraction allows for a looser arrangement between paint and image. I find coming from a stricter representational side I feel resistance to how far I can push the abstraction. I remain fixed somehow in the one camp and as the non-representation looms in, I back away. I fix things up. I tidy the chaos. Representation becomes its own “stylistic straightjacket” dictating terms and conditions.

In an interesting coincidence my wife Anne read me a quote by Fairfield Porter at breakfast this morning that addresses this. ““The realist thinks he knows ahead of time what reality is, and the abstract artist what art is, but it is in its formality that realist art excels, and the best abstract art communicates an overwhelming sense of reality.”

It’s finished!

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I am celebrating with a glass of champagne. Today I finished The Search for Beauty. I’ve sent the manuscript for the book off to my editor.

I have been writing the book since before Christmas after reading and making notes and thinking about it for years. I had originally planned on posting on The Search for Beauty blog regularly but the book took over. There’s something about writing all day that takes the edge of writing a blog post in the evening.

So now I wait to see what the editor thinks. “Ian, this is brilliant; don’t touch a thing.”  Or maybe “Ian, I think I have some idea of what you are trying to say here but really I’m not sure.” Response A means the book could be published by the fall. Response B would throw everything into a more freeform time schedule. But perhaps now I will get back to the blog

I leave tomorrow morning from LA to Heathrow and spend a week with Anne in Glastonbury and Bath and then into Wales and the Brecon Beacons. Then down to Provence for a month to teach this year’s workshops.

Beauty and Death

I just finished Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, a medical doctor.  Dr. Alexander caught some strange E. coli meningitis that put him in coma for a week and shut down his neocortex. The neocortex is what makes us human, gives us thoughts, ideas, insights, allows us to dream, both awake and asleep.  During that week he had a near-death experience (NDE).

 It’s a quick read. But for me the important part to it was the three main “lessons” he learned in heaven.

  1. You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.
  2. You have nothing to fear.
  3. There is nothing you can do wrong.

 He then goes on to say:

The message flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief. It was like being handed the rules to a game I’d been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.

 The realization touched him to his core.

 When he came out of his coma and readjusted to being back here he realized the absolute futility of the rational, materialistic mindset of the scientific community to understand his experience. What was interesting is before his NDE he would have dismissed his own experience as some delusion. But being a neurosurgeon and having spent decades studying the brain and later looking at his own neurological printouts while he was in the coma he realized all the rational explanations that the scientific world gives to explain away the NDE could not be possible in his case since his neocortex, the one part of the brain that would make the experience possible, was not functioning. He became his own unique test case.

 He believes now that the brain, rather than being the organ that creates conscious awareness, as he believed before, is in fact like a reducing valve or filter for the vastness of our own consciousness. We know the senses create very narrow bands of information for us to experience what we do. They filter huge masses of information out so we can function.  But what would be the reason for filtering out our true vast conscious nature?

 His point is, that is why we are here. To learn that vastness again while faced with the slow turgid pace of this compellingly real material existence. Dr. Alexander takes those three lessons I mentioned above and boils them down further into one. The entire Creation is love. The evil we see here, he says, from heaven is only a small disturbance in the unbounded love. What we see as negativity and evil allows our free will to function while here on earth so we can learn to re-experience that spiritual love while still here.

 Now the reason I wanted to write about this is, one, I think this is a really important insight to understanding why we are here. But also I think beauty is fundamentally tied to our ability to love. When we are angry and stressed, that is distracted by the “reality” of our existence here, we don’t see beauty. Beauty and love are intertwined. Without one we cannot have the other. The fear we have about not having enough money, about what other people will think, about working hard and on and on create disturbances in our awareness. A destructive interference to the limitless beauty that surrounds us.

 Reminding ourselves, through meditation or reading, whatever means we use, that our real and ultimate nature is a vast unbounded consciousness of love, and all the trials and hardships we experience are not the ultimate truth, apparently real but not actually true, that is the kind of realization more and more of us need to have to change the world.  And Lord knows, the world does need some changing.

The sense of limitation we see here, that we buy into, creates for us the fear and greed, that so ruin any hope of a community of mankind that lives in beauty and peace. The truth is available to us but most hold desperately to the obvious but limited vision of our material existence. 

GDP: an ugly measure of economic health

I’ve been watching the political “debate” the last couple of weeks. I’m in the US now. I have a green card. The election has caught my attention largely because in Canada, from the time a prime minister calls an election until the election itself, it takes 38 days. I also just finished a book, What’s the Economy for, Anyway?

 Sifting through all the posturing and bombast of the election, I couldn’t help feel the two, the elections and the book, were connected. The book points to the problem of having Gross Domestic Product (GDP) the all-mighty measure of economic health. That point orchestrates a lot of the rhetoric in both parties.

Looking at a list of a few things that are good for GDP ( a measure of the money spent in a country)  will clarify this:

  • Sale of 350 billion cigarettes plus the $10 billion in ensuing lung cancer (bad for our health but good for GDP)
  • Crime: police salaries, lawyers and 2.3 million behind bars, more per capita than any other country in the world
  • Deepwater Horizon oil spill: the billions spent in clean up and liabilities paid being much better for GDP than just selling the $490 million worth of lost oil
  • Military spending: $500 billion a year, more than the next 50 countries combined
  • Financial products: the $650 trillion derivative and swap markets, while providing no real product is like a main line fix for GDP, which is why politicians are so keen to not regulate banks

Looking at those figures in fact may clarify why on the surface the US seems to have this amazing per capita economy and this dreadful amount of poverty and unemployment. It depends what you measure.

The ideal is unlimited GDP growth. Economists assume if people can buy more stuff they will be happy. Ironically whether you actually are happy or not, as measured by GDP, is irrelevant.

Because GDP dominates economic policy it dominates government policy. It was created in the late 1930’s (called Gross National Product then) to create parameters to help get the economy moving again. At the time forests and water were considered wildly abundant and shirts and shoes scarce. Now the opposite is true. Forests and water are becoming scarce and shoes and shirts are abundant.

Forests and water are natural capital. GDP gives no value to natural capital. None. Not a dime. Nor to human capital. Or social capital.

Natural capital is also, minerals, wildlife, fish, air, soil, plus living systems like rainforests, wetlands, the ocean. All these are considered free and unlimited. If someone suggests the need to protect some aspect of natural capital it first must be proven it will not “hurt the economy”, that is slow GDP.

Human capital (our education, capabilities and talents) and social capital (our connection to family, friends and community) fare no better. Zero in terms of GDP.

Bobby Kennedy in a speech in 1968 said GNP “ measures everything in short except that which makes life worthwhile.”

It’s that “worthwhile” part we need to focus on. That’s where the beauty lies. Abraham Maslow spoke of the things we need as human beings after the basic needs of shelter and food are met. He had eight or nine parameters, including the need for beauty and the need for art and culture.  Interestingly I just noticed that Mitt Romney intends to cut all funding to PBS, the National Endowment to the Arts and the National Endowment to the Humanities. Simple (in the sense it isn’t your retirement money that would be gone, so the complaining won’t put people on the streets) and responsible (we must do something to reduce government spending) and useless (a drop-in-the-bucket solution).

The government serves a blind outdated economic machine. As the economist Robert Repetto said, we follow a system with “ illusory gains in income and permanent loss in wealth.”

Beauty and Transformation

 Last year Anne and I went to Arles, in Provence, to experience Jean-Luc Rabanel’s restaurant. He calls it his atelier. I liked that. And I like it had two Michelin stars (out of a possible three).

 We were offered two options, six courses or thirteen courses. It was noon, so we opted for six.

 By the second course, augmented by two amuse bouches, we wanted the thirteen. Too late. Once they start, it is all in progress and you can’t change. So we decided to come back again and do thirteen. Which we did this year, in June.

 I thought it would make a great blog post on beauty. I would take photos of each course and make detailed notes of what was in each course. A catalogue of the experience. But it didn’t turn out that way.

 First the photos didn’t in general look much better than those photos you see outside bad Thai restaurants. I took down the contents of each course, mostly in French, clarified in English when necessary. But that only gave the vaguest sense of what was on the plate. And they paired each course with a specifically chosen wine, so as the meal unfolded perhaps my focus lapsed.

 What was clear is I can not say beetroot tart with mushroom and goat cheese and do justice to what I had in front of me. I have had a dish of the same description at a neighborhood deli. It was fine. Tasty even. But Rabanel transformed it into something sublime. Like a painter using a few pigments and some canvas. The raw materials cannot explain the transformation. The dramatic transformation. The transcendent transformation (the transcendent part may be the wine talking- it was really good wine).

 It is clear why Rabanal refers to his restaurant as an atelier.

 This photo shows course seven — cod fillet, with verbena foam and shellfish stock. That gives you no idea how good it tasted. How nuanced the tastes were, some first strike,  others coming into focus next, some lingering.

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 But on top of the dish, when served, and not even mentioned, was that flat bread with the caramelized shallot.

 I ate that shallot in one glorious mouthful. It wasn’t very big. And of every bite I had in that gorgeous meal it was the most memorable. Not because it was the best taste. But because it was just a cooked shallot. I have no idea how he made it taste like that. Just a shallot. What did he cook it with? Perhaps it was the way it was grown or how fresh it was.

 But nothing prepared me for the beauty of that simple transformation. It was that mouthful that reminded me that art was about transformation. From the simple to the divine.

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André, the peasant

Between the two Provence workshops this year, my wife Anne, came over to France and we spent a week painting.

I had seen something during the first workshop that I wanted to come back to paint in early morning light. So I painted that and as I was finishing I noticed someone had stopped down the road next to Anne.

As I approached I saw Anne talking with an older man. He introduced himself as André. He was retired, he said, but had cared for the vineyards that surrounded us all his life. And the olives and apricots beyond.

He now lived in town, in Carpentras, but came each day to do a tour of his land. His son now cares for the grapes. André said: “Je suis paysan, pas agriculteur.” I am a peasant, not a farmer. I care for the land, not farm it.

Then he asked if I could paint the view for him. A view he said that was his favorite, that reminded him of his years of being here, that he could hang in his home since he now lived in town. As it happened I loved this view also. This very spot, I told him, I had photographed and used the photo as my promotional shot for the Provence workshops for years.

“How much,” he asked, “for a painting?”

I told him the price I would normally sell for an 8’ x 10” in the U.S., clearly in my mind more than he had for it, but I said since I loved this view also and since it was for him, 1 quoted a price about a fifth of my regular price. To that he agreed.

I went down the next morning and began around 8:30.

Because it was for André, a man who had lived and worked so intimately with this place I found myself unable to simplify as I normally would. It became like a family portrait. I felt I had to honor the custodian. Le Barroux, the village on the hill, I couldn’t just flatten into a simple blue shape. I found myself painting it. The hill behind the fields I painting in a red tree that I felt sure he must know. I painted the heavy rocks he had put on the roof of his abri, the toolshed, to protect the tiles from the harsh wind, the Mistral. I painted in the rusted metal cart beside the abri, which had been there for the five years I had been coming there. And I painted the foreground vines pulling me right down into (and probably out of) the bottom right of the painting. I had to paint André’s vines so he could see them properly.

I finished in a little less than two hours. It felt good working for a wage.

André arrived on his daily tour as I was packing up. I showed him. I could tell he loved it but he asked if I could change one thing.

With commissions this is always a sticky moment.

He wanted me to make the rusted metal wagon next to the abri smaller. André told us the story: when he first took over the fields from his father, he needed one of the metal wagons which they used for the prunings from the vines, so they could burn them safely in the field.

He advertised for one. Someone responded. They lived hours away but André decided he would take his truck and tow it home. Upon arriving he discovered the wagon had metal wheels and he couldn’t tow it so the seller suggested they cut the thing in two with a torch and he could load it on André’s truck so he could take it home. Which they did.

However when he arrived home both his father and uncle laughed at him because now cut in two it couldn’t function (for a reason I didn’t really understand since it looks like it was all in one piece) and so he dumped it next to the abri where it has stood since. Almost fifty years.

But it reminded him of one of his more foolish moments so I obliged him and cut it in half myself, but in paint.

I mounted the painting a few days later and delivered it to André’s son. Fortunately André was there himself. He took his painting, paid me, then took me to the small room where they sell their wine. He gave me a red, a rose and a white.

The rose I drank the next day at lunch with my landlord and his wife. The red and white are resting until May in the cave for when I return.