In the essay “The Madness of Art”, Joyce Carol Oates comments on Henry James’s novel “The Middle Years”. I stumble across this during my morning coffee and the winter seems somehow warmer. Oates quotes from one of James’s letters:
“This aloneness – what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else; deeper than my ‘genius,’ deeper than my ‘discipline,’ deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep counterminings of art”
I have tried so often to give up on painting. This time it lasted a good few months. But my discipline waxes and wanes as the New Zealand winter descends and like those geese of Bly that have an urge to travel long distances, I return again to that great glazed tank of art, a world of shapes and colors.
I dive once more into my story…
“He dived once more into his story and was drawn down, as by a siren’s hand, to where, in the dim underworld of fiction, the great glazed tank of art, strange silent subjects float”
Henry James – The Middle Years
I leave you with a poem. A letter actually, but in the hands of Emily Dickinson it outpaces most poetry:
Are you willing? I am so far from Land – to offer you the cup – it might some Sabbath come my turn – Of wine how solemn – full!
…While you are sick – we – are homesick – Do you look out tonight? The Moon rides like a Girl – through a Topaz Town – I don’t think we shall ever be merry again – you are ill so long-
Last week, one day after work I trudged into my studio – tired and anxious about something at work – I had little hope of painting anything I liked. But I know by now that getting that first dash of paint down is the key – after that, curiosity and magic takes over.
In this case, my lack of expectation helped me to bring a spontaneous energy to this rather complex scene. The result is one of my favorite paintings of this year. There is a certain tone of color, combined with near abstract mark-making, that makes this one special to me:
I have been fairly consistently turning out one painting a day. More and more, I paint simply but for the love of making marks – alone in my studio, a light awareness permeating the room.
Painting on a regular basis, even when my energy is low, has helped me to paint with more abandon, less expectation and less anxiety. I am sure some of you can relate to the value of just focusing on quantity – at least for some stages of your artistic journey. If you are interested in this theme, I recommend you read through points #4 and #8 on my Creativity Quotes page.
Apart from this little blog, I was never really a social media fan. I did a bit of Instagram, but watching how it influences my mind, self-image and anxiety, I have decided to step away from it. I am sure there is no need to motivate the move – you know already…
I fear the days are passing too fast. So often I forget myself for hours on end. Where was I yesterday, walking amidst the crowd?
When I come back to myself I am welcomed by a familiar sense of courage – in bright awareness, second by second, anything can be faced.
I hesitate so often, carving just one more figurine before returning home. Rumi wants me to stop this:
Say Yes Quickly (excerpt)
Forget your life. Say God is great. Get up.
You think you know what time it is. It's time to pray.
You've carved so many little figurines, too many...
Tomorrow you'll see what you've broken and torn tonight,
thrashing in the dark.
Inside you there is an artist you don't know about.
He's not interested in how things look different
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
It feels as if for the longest time I have been wrestling with the challenge of painting honest landscapes. Time and time again I fall into the clutches of the picturesque, the “pretty landscape”. The past week I have been back at work on this analysis.
The challenge I set myself was to dissolve the landscape I had in mind – a view of the mountains near my home with a semi-invented foreground composition – into something more abstract. My first effort came out like this:
I was pleased with the outcome, especially the warm, rich and juicy foreground. But that horizon line immediately cast the image as a traditional landscape. I set to the problem with pastels, this time using only blocks of color with little or no lines:
I liked this one a little more. But I am quite comfortable with pastel, so this felt like cheating.
I went back to oils, this time taking away the option of lines by using only the palette knife:
I felt I was getting somewhere, but was weary of the palette knife – it very easily becomes a gimmick or mannerism that an artist cannot escape from, like an actor associated with a certain role.
Finally, as the weekend approached, I resolved the idea with an image that I really love:
There is little left of the original concept, except color, rhythm, harmonies. Who knows how I will feel about this image in a week’s time? I know I felt good, relaxed and happy while doing it and after doing it. It is a good sign, but I know that art is an ever moving target, a mystery that deepens infinitely.
I have been reading The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett, by John Calder. Initially a somewhat dry read for my engineering brain, I started paying better attention in the chapter “The failure of art”. Calder quotes Beckett:
…to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.
By Beckett’s measure I guess I can say the past week I failed several times, and currently with attempt IV I am under the illusion of having succeeded. Slowly the truth about this journey dawns:
Slowly the Truth Dawns
To wake, and know
your heart sinks
dark and heavy,
hardening into stone...
Slowly the sea lifts its waves,
slowly the trees turn red in the gorge,
slowly the fires begin to lap in hell,
slowly the truth dawns...
Olav H. Hague, translated by Robert Hedin, inThe Dream We Carry
Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are happy and content!
Winter has come to New Zealand, and with it grey skies, moody days and biting cold on my morning walks. I have fallen into a steady meditation schedule, early morning in my studio, my light the glow of the gas heater. Sacred minutes. My cup runneth over.
The urge to paint is back – after almost half a year. My paintings make me happy. In the half light of the days I peer into the emptiness at which they point.
I have been vacillating about my blog forever. Not routine procrastination, just doubt about the need for this world to have one more blog post released onto it. Most of all I am stalled by the lack of a strong opinion about one side or another, having seen all sides have a backside, and the artificiality of the personality and its opinions.
Gearing up to write a blog post became for me almost an act of in-authenticity. In the words of T.S. Eliot, the action of one who prepares “a face to meet the faces that you meet”.
Not to imply anything, but my doubt about speaking or staying silent reminds me of the near silence of T.S. Eliot at the outset of his career as a poet and critic. Perhaps he too was stalled by the notion that any venturing out in the gesture of opinion was a move away from authenticity.
In the brilliant book, The Invisible Poet, T.S Eliot, author Hugh Kenner wrote that the study of the philosophy of F.H Bradley helped Eliot by freeing him:
“…from the posture of the ironist with his back to a wall, by affirming the artificiality of all personality including the one we intimately suppose to be our true one; not only the faces we prepare but the “we” that prepares; …A view of the past, a view of himself and other persons, a view of the nature of what we call statement and communication; these delivered Eliot from what might have been, after a brilliant beginning, a cul-de-sac and silence.”
On my walks I think about authenticity and its ghostly fragility. I am not surprised that the concept provided enough material for Lionel Trilling to write a fascinating book about Sincerity and Authenticity. In my reading, Trilling regards authenticity as a more mature cousin to Sincerity, which is dismissed as a social construct:
In short, we play the role of being ourselves, we sincerely act the part of the sincere person, with the result that a judgement may be passed upon our sincerity that it is not authentic. (Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity)
Authenticity takes us in a different direction:
A very considerable originative power had once been claimed for sincerity, but nothing to match the marvellous generative force that our modern judgement assigns to authenticity, which implies the downward movement through all the cultural superstructures to some place where all movement ends, and begins.
This is part of the same discussion in which Trilling quotes (again) Eliot:
‘The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality’.
Should we speak or remain in the authenticity of silence? As always, Rilke has the last word on this. In his poem, “We must die because we have known them”, he ends with:
But the grown man
shudders and is silent. The man who
has wandered pathless at night
in the mountain-range of his feelings:
As the old sailor is silent,
and the terrors that he has endured
play inside him as though in quivering cages.
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
Thanks for visiting my blog! Special thanks to all followers and supporters who have recently encouraged me with kind and thoughtful comments.
Those of you that have followed my blog for a while will have noted (perhaps with an eye roll 🙂 ) that I am very often plagued by doubts and fears about my art. It is not a depressing state – simply a part of the fruitful dark side of life. I share this personal stuff in the hope that it would resonate with some other artists out there.
Over the past weeks, I often pondered the two questions “what should I paint?” and “how should I paint?” For some people this would probably be a short deliberation. I wrote about it before in this post.
But for me, this time around, it went back all the way to the “what do you want from life?” question, which is just a hop-skip-and-jump away from the big one: “Who am I?” This sort of progression of questioning is just the way I am – I expect for some of you reading this it may be similar?
I often look at some of the hyper creative and/or skillful painters interviewed on the Painting Perceptions website. These rock stars of the art world generally spend several years drawing from life, studying color etc. before becoming a certified “Master in Fine Art”. The best of them take that skill set and hone it into something that can express their unique voice in new ways – and some of those are just mindbogglingly impressive.
Although in my earlier years as a painter I put in many hours of drawing from life (my poor wife!) and still have notebooks from more than 20 years ago in which I painted pots and pans or systematically copied all of Bridgman’s beautiful drawings.
Despite having some skills in the ‘drawing from life’ department, I am often perplexed about where this leaves me, as someone drawn more to landscapes in the middle and far distance, where quality of light and mood predominate, and focus and detailed drawing is less important.
I am interested in how can this type of composition be perpetually developed into something deeper – more unique, more inquiring? Or is there perhaps a limit to what can be done with this style of landscape:
Please don’t suggest practical answers to the above question! these are questions I long to solve myself! 🙂 There is lots more that can be said about this topic, and…
I think the debate deals with having something meaningful to say versus saying something not necessarily meaningful in a very skillful way. Both have their merits – I think am inclined toward the first – but in visual arts the second approach may just have more depth to be explored over a lifetime?
But in the meantime, as I try to develop my skills and experience as an artist, I will stick to the advice of the painter Thomas Aquinas Daly, which I also quoted in my earlier post referred to above:
…my deep emotional involvement in my subject matter is the essential ingredient that carries my work. For years I floundered in a quandary over what to paint, until I realized the most rudimentary fact: that I should paint what moves me, and if handled with some degree of facility, it should in turn move others. The mistake I feel a great many artists make is in labouring to render material that is totally devoid of feeling…
If a subject matter doesn’t incite my emotions and possess my full sensory attention, it simply doesn’t get painted…
By selecting my subject matter with sentiment, I feel I incorporate a spiritual dimension that is the essence and true strength of any vital art form.
I am sure some artists may disagree with this sentiment, but it just happens to resonate with me. One thing I know for sure – the artist who does not seriously consider these sorts of questions and solves them at a deep internal level will most likely eternally dwell in the forecourt of the arts and craft markets (I realize this is super OK for many artists!)
But for those of us interested in these matters, we have to consider this question deeply over many years. It is probably a way in which there is no ecstasy:
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
Two weekends ago I had my first solo exhibition at the David Lloyd Gallery in Hamilton, New Zealand. It was exciting if slightly nerve wracking and very rewarding to see so many of my works hanging together. Below is a collection of images from the exhibition opening:
As luck would have it, one of the most respected teachers in the USA, Martin Campos, was in New Zealand to teach and he also attended. Martin is an Adjunct Professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. You can find an interview with Martin Campos on Painting Perceptions.
I was quite thrilled to have roughly half of my paintings sold at this exhibition. I have reflected on the experience extensively. As a child, I was taught that “showing off” (i.e. exhibiting yourself!) was a bad thing. Something not done by people of character. So being there as a center of attention drawn to myself took adjustment. I tried to mindfully observe the experience as neutrally as possible.
At a solo exhibition I guess it is common for people to point out what paintings they like. Even though no one said what they don’t like, one senses somehow what is not so popular. This creates in me a huge risk of being diverted from what I believe is my true goal in painting – getting to know myself and my internal world better, and providing an outlet for things in me that I value deepest.
I recall reading about the dangers of having an audience in the book “Art & Fear“:
The risk is fearsome: in making your real work you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding you seek; you hand them the power to say, “you’re not like us; you’re weird; you’re crazy.”…catering to fears of being misunderstood leaves you dependent upon your audience. In the simplest yet most deadly scenario, ideas are diluted to what you imagine your audience can imagine, leading to work that is condescending, arrogant, or both. Worse yet, you discard your own highest vision in the process.
Bayles, David; Orland, Ted. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (pp. 39-40). Image Continuum
Naturally, this does not have to happen. But one becomes highly aware and sensitive to this danger. After all the excitement abated, I took time to reflect deeply on my art and what I wanted to achieve with it. This period of introspection was perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this exhibition experience. I feel I have since deepened in my mission as an artist and heeded the advice of Bayles and Orland in “Art & Fear“:
The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts — namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work.
Bayles, David; Orland, Ted. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (p. 48). Image Continuum Press. Kindle Edition.
Amiel said that a landscape is a state of feeling, but the phrase is a flawed gem of a feeble dreamer. As soon as the landscape is a landscape, it ceases to be a state of emotion. To objectify is to create, and no one would say that a finished poem is a state of thinking about writing one.
and something from one of my earlier posts:
Time and time again, a hurried pace, ambition and lack of self awareness takes me to the place of humble-making. There I find myself. Gold is found where I stumble and fall without hope.
I am not that steeply sloping hour that Rilke wrote of:
My life is not this steeply sloping hour
in which you see me hurrying.
I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death's note wants to climb over -
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly in
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke
Thanks for visiting my blog! I hope you are happy and content.
In my last post I was up to painting #258 (count started when I took up painting again last year). I am now up to #280, not counting smaller mixed media abstracts and pastel landscapes such as those shown below. I am painting faster than I can blog, I have found out!
So for the time being I will not attempt to post all of my paintings anymore, but perhaps just a selection of a few favorites. You can see more paintings at my web site, or if you are interested to see what I am up to on a more regular basis, please follow me on Instagram (#fritzjoosteartist).
Below are some of the paintings I have recently made:
Some of these will be on display in my upcoming exhibition at the David Lloyd Gallery in Hamilton, New Zealand this weekend (24-26 November). There will be an opening at 6 pm on Friday 24 November. Please come along if you happen to be in the area!
I wrote in an earlier post how, not too long ago, I picked up two books on TS Eliot in a dusty second hand bookstore in a small holiday town in Australia. One of these in particular has been very rewarding – this is The New Poetic, by C.K. Stead.
I have never been able to make sense of some of Eliot’s poetry, and ‘The Waste Land’, in particular, has been a challenge for me to warm to. Yet I could not help sensing there was something there – I felt it but did not understand it. Stead masterfully addresses this common response to Eliot’s poems:
‘The Waste Land’ is composed of a series of projections of ‘states of feeling’ having no fixed centre but their common origin in the depth’s of one man’s mind. The poem traces in its rhythms, in its music, and in the sequence of its images, the evens of that mind at a particular time and in relation to a particular set of external circumstances – circumstances of which we can only ever know a very little.
…it is the feeling, not the experience, which is the poem’s ‘subject’.
This resonates with me at this particular time – very seldom when I paint do I have a particular image in mind. Most of my landscapes are invented (my small sketches in particular). But at a certain point, while painting purely abstractly, something starts to emerge, as in the sequence below:
Often when I attempt something like this, it turns out to be nothing. Or something briefly appears but in my greed for it to be more, I take it past the magic moment. But when it works out, it is something quite special. I sit in my old leather chair in the corner of my studio and watch the painting dance into the darkness as the sun sets.
I found that the best results are those when I leave the world completely behind while working – especially spectators and invented critics. It seems TS Eliot had the same idea in mind when he wrote about the poet (as quoted by CK Stead):
…he is not concerned with making people understand anything. He is not concerned, at this stage, with other people at all: only with finding the right words, or, anyhow, the least wrong words. He is not concerned whether anybody else will ever listen to them or not, or whether anybody else will ever understand them if he does’. (TS Eliot – The Three Voices of Poetry).
I close off with a short poem – one of my favorites:
To Magistrate Zhang
Late, I love but quietness:
Things of this world are no more my concern
Looking back, I’ve known no better plan
Than this: returning to the grove
Pine breezes loosen my robe
Mountain moon beams play my lute.
What, you ask, is Final Truth?
The fisherman’s song strikes deep into the bank.
Original Poem by Wang Wei (translated by J.P. Seaton
in The Poetry of Zen, by J.P Seaton and Sam Hamill)
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This is one of my dearest paintings. There is a warm depth in the middle ground that came as a gift. Sadly, the photo does not really do it justice. In soft evening light it tends to glow.
For an artist to be interesting to us he must have been interesting to himself. He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound contemplation. He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject. Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.
The painting below is another effort which is quite special to me. It is the first painting I made in the first confused and sad weekend after my father passed away. It am quite happy with the emotional nuance conveyed by the painting:
Rollo May wrote:
Perhaps the most ubiquitous and ever-present form of the failure to confront non-being in our day is in conformism, the tendency of the individual to let himself be absorbed in the sea of collective responses and attitudes, to become swallowed up in das Mann, with the corresponding loss of his own awareness, potentialities, and whatever characterizes him as a unique and original being. The individual temporarily escapes the anxiety of non-being by this means, but at the price of forfeiting his own powers and sense of existence.
Clear things console me, and sunlit things console me. To see life passing by under a blue sky makes up for a lot. I forget myself indefinitely, forgetting more than I could ever remember. The sufficiency of things fills my weightless, translucent heart, and just to look is a sweet satisfaction. I’ve never been more than a bodiless gaze, whose only soul was a slight breeze that passed by and saw.
More and more these days the familiar face of my expectations and demands move me to take a refuge in meditation, calling out to the spacious infinite arms at the end of thought:
Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
(this copy from Poetry Foundation)
At times my meditation feels like it is going nowhere. I am awake, open, aware. But no direction or progress seems apparent to the thinking mind. I take comfort in the path that others have walked.
In his book “Novice to Master“, Soko Morinaga writes about his extensive meditation experience in a Zen monastery:
Despite my unrelenting persistence at sitting, every night I would grow hazy and doze off so that my zazen was far from strong and clear.
He continues to describe how he made matters worse by not eating enough as a means to keep him awake while meditating at night. He reached the end of his resources:
Then, one night, all of my ammunition was exhausted. I lost all sense of wanting enlightenment; to continue seeking satori was inconceivable. Gone was the physical and mental energy necessary to maintain a level of consciousness in which one tries to verify with the eyes and hear with the ears…My whole body was a mass of sheer pain…As if consciousness were lost in a fog, all was hazy.
Suddenly, under some impetus unknown to me, the fog lifted and vanished. And it is not that the pain in my own body disappeared, but rather that the body that is supposed to feel the pain disappeared. Everything was utterly clear. Even in the dimly lit darkness, things could be seen in a fine clarity. The faintest sound could be heard distinctly, but the hearing self was not there. this was, I believe, to die while alive….I only know that when I came to myself, I felt tremendously happy!
Morinaga goes on to write:
By meeting what you are faced with right now, though, in this very instant, completely without judgement of evaluation, you can transcend by far all question of cause and effect. You may be working in the kitchen or sweeping in the garden or cleaning the toilet or laboring for somebody else, but you do it without consideration of its relative merit. That means simply doing with all your might, becoming one with whatever situation in which you find yourself in this instant. I would like for you to clearly know that there is this other way of living your life.
In his poem “The Man Watching”, Rilke says: “When we win it is with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small”. Much food for thought there – what then, is worth really wanting? If I pursue the thought “what do I want?” all the way down the labyrinth to the place of not knowing, many certainties start unraveling.
Rilke’s letters make it clear that he needed to be alone in order to fall into such a condition, to exist solitary in an imagined cocoon so that he could come apart before coming together again. In this raw, naked, fragmentary state of mind he felt both too vulnerable and too repulsive to be near anyone, except a servant. [The beginning of Terror].
For a long time now I haven’t existed. I’m utterly calm. No one sees me differently from who I am. I just felt myself breathe as if I’d done something new, or done it late. I’m beginning to be conscious of being conscious. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll wake up to myself and resume my own existence. I don’t know if that will make me more happy or less. I don’t know anything.
Reaching a place of “not knowing” is good for me. It makes me “see deeper into paintings” (Rilke).
For me, my featured painting for this post (directly above) touches that sweet spot between image and emotion. The way the red peers through the more muted, dark colors suggest something poignant that I cannot quite put my finger on. It relates to what Robert Henri wrote:
That time we sat in the evening silence in the face
of the mesa
and heard the sudden howl of a pack of coyotes,
and had a thrill
and a dread which was not fear of the pack,
for we knew they were harmless.
Just what was that dread — what did it relate to?
Something ’way back in the race perhaps?
We have strange ways of seeing.
If we only knew — then we could tell.
If we knew what we saw, we could paint it.
Finally, I will end of with one of my favorite poems by Transtromer:
The man on a walk suddenly meets the old
giant oak like an elk turned to stone with
its enormous antlers against the dark green castle wall of the
Storm from the north. It's nearly time for the
rowanberries to ripen. Awake in the night he
hears the constellations far above the oak stamping in their stalls.
Tomas Transtromer, translated by Robert Bly in
The Half Finished Heaven.
Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are happy and content.