Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Monday, February 06, 2012

Precarious beauties

Over the years I have been friends with many visual artists and often found that what they said had a curious resonance for me--that it meant more about my own work in words that one might have assumed, and sometimes more than what other writers had to say.  I like what Andy Goldsworthy writes in Time (Henry N. Abrams, 2000) about moving along the edge of collapse, about beauty balanced above the ice:

The beauty of the red is its connection to life--underwritten by fragility, pain, and violence--words that I would have to use in describing beauty itself. This sense of life draws me to nature, but with it also comes an equally strong sense of death. I cannot walk far before seeing something dead and decaying. Uprooted trees, fallen rocks, landslides, flood damage... A grip on beauty is necessary for me to feel and make sense of its underlying precariousness. So many of my sculptures are within a hair's breadth of failure. I often see works--a balanced column of rocks, stacked icicles--looking stronger with each piece that is added, but also know that each addition takes it closer to the edge of collapse. Some of my most memorable works have been made in this way, and some of my worst failures could have produced some great pieces. Beauty does not avoid difficulty but hovers dangerously above it--like walking on thin ice.

10 comments:

  1. I understand what he means. Making anything involves struggle with the medium.

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  2. Yes, Goldsworthy's words ring very true, and I can see why you would feel a resonance. I need to revisit his work again, and that book too.

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  3. Resonance. Something not quite defined but evocative.

    I have three of his books now, and really like looking at them. And I like the whole idea of him, his attitude toward nature and his art.

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  4. Robbi,

    I am not sure I would call what I do struggle... And I hate "risk" applied to writing--too many comfy Western writers claim "risk."

    But I like the image of beauty over the dangerous ice, of beauty yoked to fragility and violence, etc.

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  5. As usual, I think of it in terms of yoga. A yoga pose consists of tension among opposing parts of the body. If one muscle contracts, the opposing one stretches. It is true of writing and other arts as well.
    Think of Hemingway, for instance, whose prose so often trims back any overt emotion or valuation. But in truth, it is by this apparent coldness that he communicates his judgments.
    And similarly, though I hardly identify with Hemingway as a writer, I sometimes feel I teeter on the edge of excessive emotion, but in successful pieces, never fall over. Sometimes it is humor that saves me, sometimes wit, sometimes cynicism, sometimes concreteness. That is the struggle, not a war, but more like adjustment.

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  6. Marly, have you seen "Rivers and Tides?" I have been enamored with (and fascinated by)Goldsworthy's work for a long time.

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  7. Beth,

    Oh, yes, now and then I feel the need to watch it again... Such a lovely unwinding film.

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  8. Robbi,

    I like the yoga comparison...

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  9. Oh yes. (And double yes to the solemn self-importance of "risking" writing something crummy!)

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  10. Dale,

    I have the great aggravation of not having been able to find your book, moved by some impertinent person at Christmas. You know, I think I shall have to order another if it does't give me a wave soon...

    Yes, self-importance is always sadly ridiculous in a writer. One ought to feel humility before the great monuments of the past.

    Not surprised you like that quote! It is good.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.