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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Listening to the visual

I'm going on something of a computer fast (for a reason that I'll talk about later) till near the end of this month.... Feel free to leave me a note; I will answer eventually! I also have some new book news that I may be able to talk about soon.

I have a good many friends who are painters, and a number of them live in the space that looks as if it exists after photography and its transformations, after Modernism and its shocks; they participate in the return to figuration, narrative, and realism, but they aren't fully realist in the sense of someone like Jacob Collins or Juliette Aristides. I have an interest in the how and why of the return to realism among so many artists, especially since it parallels the return to meter and rhyme and forms in poetry. Lately I have looked at or listened to videos and podcasts about that resurgence; many of the video/audio pieces below fall into that category but not all. 

In poetry and fiction, we have a sense of the materials, the sound and sense of words--yes, we can be carried beyond the work in some way. We can be lost in sound or story for a time. But art in words is both guide dream and little black marks on the page or, read, aloud, "a mouthful of air"; as readers, we're busy translating and so are in two places at once. Paint can go very far, can become photo-realistic, can fool the eye. Where is the line, how much finish ought there to be, how much should the viewer be aware of the medium? Is some pleasure lost when we lose that sense of brushstrokes and layerings of paint? I suppose the contrast with writing is more the difference between limpidity and roughness or an aureate style.

I'm especially fond of the Suggested Donation series with Tony Curanaj and Ted Minoff, all with the recording engineering (and sometimes co-comments) of musician Jay Braun. I have not found one that is not an interesting listen. Great coming-of-age stories, great turning-of-the-wheel of art toward the future by harnessing tradition, metaphysical flourishes, practical discussion of skills. The psychology of art video is also intriguing.

* * *

A short film by Alvaro Aro about Missouri artist Ali Cavanaugh. (Vimage Studios 2011.) Youtube. Watercolor on kaolin. People often ask me about how I have managed being a poet, novelist, and a mother of three--well, here's a modern-day painter of frescoes with a batch of lively children. Cavanaugh makes compromises, having to use fragments of time and also utilizing photographs of her models. (My version of this also involves bits of time. And concentration in what time I have.) The David Jon Kassan podcast also deals with this problem, as he took care of his son as a baby and has continued to be responsible for him. 

Burton Silverman. Suggested Donation. Episode 31. Ideas of the universal, painterly qualities to the work, self-indulgence in art, artists and family, curators and teachers who think arts started with Cezanne, work that is "halfway" between realism and Modernism, the illusion of self-expression as belonging to Modernism, annihilation of skills as important in Modernism, teachers' attempts to suppress his childhood skills, not becoming a slave to the past, transformation after WWI, declining roles of church and royalty, retrieval of the academic tradition, a type of cloying, retrogressive painting, "the more I know, the less I know," the importance of being unsure, the "itness" of things, etc. He talks about Modernism as exacerbating a feeling of public uncertainty--Modernism's paintings with a lack of story as bound to inhuman environments, corporate mentality, and inhuman environments, and more. Validation, patronage. Witnessing and recording history: illustrating seminal black protests in Alabama in the 60's. A little low in volume but well worth a listen.

Daniel Sprick. Suggested Donation. Episode 32. Daniel Sprick is widely considered one of the leading realist painters. His work is featured in numerous private and public collections including the Denver Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock.

David Kassan (KAS-san). Suggested Donation. Episode15. "Falling down the stairs and landing on your feet." Skills and weight in painting. (I really like the podcasts that try to grapple with what it is that takes a painting beyond realism to something more--the heft or freight of life, the energy of life.) Lots of interesting talk about contemporary painters outside North America, including various Israeli painters and Antonio López García. Discussion of the difficulties of being the at-home parent and trying to paint.

Exploring the Psychology of Creativity, 2017. "What is creativity? Can we develop it, or is it innate? Watch the conversation between Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, and Dr. Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, which took place March 9, 2017 at the National Gallery of Canada." Good conversation, in places closely related to Peterson's lectures on personality.

Suggested Donation: Jacob Collins. Podcast series. Episode 4. Major figure in the return to realist art. Founder of the Water Street Atelier, Grand Central Academy, and Hudson River Fellowship. For more about Jacob Collins, see Adam Gopnik's "Life Studies" in the New Yorker. Clip from "Life Studies":  Jacob was always trying to strike a decent mean between affirmation of his secret faith that art had been going wrong since the eighteen-sixties and his desire not to get caught up in the reactionary grievance-keeping that disfigured much of the revivalist world he lived in. “You’ll outgrow wanting to draw the world as it is, searching for this beauty, this place where light and the body meet—that was the attitude of most of the art teachers I had,” he went on. “So I had to re-create a world in which I could do the kind of drawing I wanted to do. I wasn’t alone in this. There were quite a few of us trying, and, bit by bit, and book by book, and practice by practice, we tried to remake the world of atelier realism that had been discarded and abandoned.” Over time, he assembled a group of teachers and students and enthusiasts, all given over to the practice of classical drawing from life and plaster casts, and from that nucleus came this studio and then the Grand Central Academy.

Suggested Donation: Juliette Aristides. Podcast series. Episode 20. Instructor of Aristides Classical Atelier at the Gage Academy of Art. Lovely, literate, thoughtful discussion of life, beauty, skills, brokenness, what lasts, and the nature of a life of making art. This one is a real discussion, interesting back and forth, and Aristides is wonderfully able to form her thoughts in words. "Juliette Aristides is a monumental figure in the classical art community. Her . . . books on painting have been hugely influential to a generation of artists . . . ." Issues of investment of self in a time without proper response, the online world as a response to the debased environment, the classical atelier and the narrative arc of education, truth and art, art and the feeling that life matters, a context for work that lasts and has meaning, the ability to think and go deep (vs. online life), the personal encounter with paintings, art as backdrop for real life in earlier times, drawing as meditation and connection with life and self--as an antidote to the remoteness of current life with its online hours, physical beings needing physical connections to a physical world, etc.

Michael Klein. Suggested Donation, Episode 9. Interesting podcast with a painter from rural Minnesota who found his way to New York and Argentina. It reminds me a bit of Makoto Fujimura because he talks about being troubled by beauty and what it is for and resolves the issue some time after he becomes a Christian.

Odd Nerdrum: The Self-portrait. Nerdrum Pictures, 2015.

Odd Nerdrum. Time Water Recollection. Norwegian documentary, 1992. Strange and beautiful, with lots of images of Iceland and Nerdrum's home in Norway. The sub-titles end part-way through, but it's still wonderful to see.

Patricia Watwood, Part 1. Suggested Donation. Podcast series, Episode 3. "We talk about her solo show "Venus Apocalypse", education, influences and her perspective as a female artist."

Peter Trippi on Alma-Tadema. Suggested Donation, Episode 35. This year I saw the beautiful show at The Clark Institute he talks about at one point. His curated Alma-Tadema traveling show (in the Netherlands and Venice and London) sounds wonderful. 

Sharon Sprung. Suggested Donation. Episode 26. Great story about Sharon Sprung at 19 and Harvey Dinnerstein. She says Dinnerstein taught her what it meant to be an artist. A purist. "I'd never seen anybody so immersed in anything." Dan Green taught her skills. Quirky coming-of-age story, with lots of talk about older writers and a keen understanding of her own nature and particular demands. I'm still listening to this one... She's a character, quite stubborn and particular in her desires in how to work. And she's one of many examples of how an early death in the family forges a path in the arts. I find it fascinating that her mother threw away every image of her dead father to protect herself, and later Sharon Sprung became a maker of figurative images. Lots of good talk about teaching, too, and the importance of working from life. She's funny! A real character.

The Nerdrum School. Interview w/ Luke Hillestad (2013)

Two Autumns. London: BBC. I'm fond of Thomas Reidelsheimer's lovely Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, a great documentary about Goldsworthy in the landscape. If you like that one, try this! Filmed in Scotland and Japan. If hobbits were less satisfied with home and good cooking went on adventures more often, I'm sure they could produce a visual artist like Andy Goldsworthy.

Vincent Desiderio. Suggested Donation, Episode 6. This one is quite good, particularly if you have an interest in art history. Very curious to look at the trajectory of Desiderio's own work. "Vincent Desiderio is one of the leading figurative painters of our time. His work is featured in collections including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim Museum, The Walker Art Center among many others. He is a senior critic at the New York Academy of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Vincent has a reputation as one of the leading intellects in figurative art, and he did not disappoint. We are honored to have him join us on Suggested Donation, at the Salmangundi Club in New York City for a fascinating conversation about his work and his deep love for art history, film and philosophy."

Year in Review. Episode 13, Suggested Donations. 2014. Tony Curanaj and Ted Minoff and Jay Braun talk about the podcast. Close attention to one of Tony Curanaj's paintings.


  1. I didn't realise there'd recently been a return to metre and rhyme in poetry. I came to poetry very late in life unaffected by the fact that my late mother was a published poet. Much as I admired Eliot I was never tempted to imitate him, it would have seemed like spitting in church; I needed hard and fast rules. Shakespearean sonnets seemed the way to go and I got flustered on the sole occasion (following pressure from the precious few who read me) I departed in a comparatively minor way and attempted a Miltonian sonnet - Oh no! it seemed positively broken-backed.

    After two or three years and some fifty sonnets behind me I briefly dropped rhyme (but not iambics) and did a piece which ended up in Beth's collection on the Annunciation, where we first met. Happy day! People were kind but I was not dissuaded. The experience was akin to embarking on a tight-rope having read a 250-word newspaper article on the subject; the uncertainty was agonising.

    And yet where I am not involved in the process - as with painting - I respond wholeheartedly to irrealism. (Does that word exist? Well, now it does.) For years those ascending the stairs at Chez RR faced a large Robert Motherwell print based on the sentence, Je t'aime. Greatly daring I turned an actual painting by the St Ives School painter, Paul Feiler, into a pivotal moment in my third novel and, exhilarated, added in an impressionistic portrait which played an even greater role in the story.

    Being a dabbler in verse, as I am, doesn't necessarily exclude discipline. Might a desire for imposed, exterior discipline be at the heart of the trend you mention? Or was visible discipline adopted simply because it was unfashionable?

    1. Well, I'm finally back in the states after a wild journey! Glad to have arrived, and to have just slept loglike for twelve hours...

      Never knew your mother was a poet. Put up a sample? The perpetually curious would like to see and read!

      I confess that I do like some odd sonnets. Terza rima sonnet, anyone? It doesn't have the energy or turn of the Shakespearean or Petrarchan, but it has an interesting dreaminess. And I like some other sonnet forms as well.

      Somehow I had forgotten that the Beth Adams anthology was how we met--some people just seem to have been around in one's life longer than the dates say, I suppose. That was an interesting project and a pretty book.

      "Irrealism" is a word I often use. I like it better than some of the other terms for such things.

      I don't know if it's exactly a trend. It's against the many aftershocks of Modernism. Some people (Richard Wilbur, for example) never gave up on rhyme and meter, but they certainly were not better regarded for doing so. In "The Castle of Indolence," Tom Disch argued that many who write free verse would "come a cropper" if they tried the discipline of form. I just think it's hard to let go of playing with sound and rhythm in form without losing a great deal. Eventually people figure out that doing the done thing is denying them much lost power and beauty. The laws of diminishing returns mean that a lot of recent free verse is just prose with line breaks. And sometimes not even good prose... It's hard to reach something like "tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life" or "for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me" without the metal of meter and the gold notes of rhyme. Why should we give up the resources that made poetry in English a glory in the world? Just because the supposed avant garde says it is so? But we have had no avant garde for decades. The most radical thing to do for a long time now is to jump into the deep end of the pool of tradition and make something new from the old.

  2. I'm so reassured by your generosity with time and with spirit. I will respond but after due deliberation, I mustn't rush things. My head's a clash of artforms. It's 06.45 and at 09.30 V will look up from the keyboard and ask for evidence that I've worked on Schumann's Im Rhein. I mustn't be pondering sonnets, even though - now - I want them as well.

  3. The iambic lines and the rhymes are not strait-jackets, simply vehicles for invention. Everyone was dead keen I should doff the old jerkin and don a bomber jacket but for me a sonnet was the way in and I was loth to discard this familiar doorway. What's more it was adaptable:

    Destroying patterns from which rules have flown
    Delighting in the molecules of chance.

    or the less serious:

    My written self takes to the boulevard,
    No dozing couch, no thick-thumbed oyster eye,
    No raddled failing sense of self-regard,
    It smiles, is welcomed, waved to, seen as fly

    and, occasionally, a partial success:

    Aldous saw paintings - live - through half-blind eyes
    Took dope that opened doors on newer views
    Entrapped the pulse of Razoumovsky’s sighs
    Rendered the latest vice as headline news.

    To lust and slander, filthy language, rage
    Our modern world, said A, has added speed
    A vice beyond the vision of this sage
    Reflective, gentle writer’s formal creed.

    But in a youthful, optimistic year,
    Unfettered by his cloudy mystery,
    I sat astride a source of whining power,
    Seeing the corner’s coming trajectory.

    Contained, uncertain, in a changing state
    Embracing, letting fear accelerate

    And here's my Mother (Dorothy Stringer) recalling a close-run thing with my younger brother.

    "Wait here."
    Yet there
    The white lights glare,
    Masked faces stare,
    In pinpoint honeycomb
    Poison beads bone,
    Bites chisel as on stone.

    "Wait here."
    By black-caparisoned phone
    With fulcrum-will lift fear,
    From heart drip blood unseen,
    From lungs give breath
    To drive back death,
    And by remote control
    Recall a soul.

  4. I think that's exactly right: a door. A door can be a way to truth and more life. And sonnets force us into new thoughts by the exigencies of rhyme!

    Sorry you were caught in the Gulf of Spam--must run to a meeting but will come back and read your poems.

  5. That's the thing, isn't it? The crazy flexibility of iambic pentameter and the sonnet. I've seen a number of yours now, and you seem to like putting all sorts of materials into the "pretty rooms" of sonnets--always a good sign. Crazy rhyme, "boulevard" and "self-regard"!

    Was your mother a sonneteer as well? If so, was she a bit loose with the form, as she is here with couplets? Interesting to see.

  6. The unpretty sonnet. I was going to say I was influenced by Auden, have casually claimed this for a year or two. But then bethought myself today and took down my mother's copy of his Collected Shorter Poems 1930 - 1944. It is not true. Nothing in this collection supports such an ambitious claim. Maybe I've been influenced by Auden imitators, by inadequate Auden imitators, by Japanese eighth-graders asked to do an Auden pastiche thereafter translated by the school accountant whose first language is Tagalog.

    How on earth did I find myself here? Isn't this a classical case of hubris? But which gods am I defying? While blogging I must have reached a bifurcation: turn left towards neuro-surgery, turn right for poetry (actually verse). Fatally I ignored the easier option. Prior to that my experience of verse was limited to Trade Winds and Ozymandias, committed to memory at school in the late forties because I had an unfortunate knack for that kind of thing. I must remind myself I am a hack, a pretty good hack if flashy; I'd like to say it's a honourable trade but George Gissing begs to differ. OK, quick decision, no more verse.

    But I appear to have traduced my mother by picking the whole of a short one, rather than an extract from something longer. How about:

    My high-wire tumbler, deft and neat
    Scrambling the wires with frail pink feet,
    Soft pulse of swansdown, marbled grey,
    Reflected light of snowy day...

  7. Yes, that is much more regular, and with one clear trochaic foot emphasizing budgie-movement. So now I have adjusted my picture of your mother as poet.

    And you can't get out of being called a poet so easily! A poet is someone who has written poems. Like you.

    But in fact, almost all poets are swept into the trash bin of literary history. The whole idea of the canon is a testament to the fact that continuous high competence and achievement is astonishingly rare and difficult. We ought all to put down our pens and run away if that is all we care for.

    But while on one hand I feel that we need to be as large as possible in our ambitions, on the other I find that poetry is good for many things other than lodging a poem or poems in some metaphysical anthology of poems. Writing poetry and fiction is the way I navigate and know my life. It is responsible for much of the size and shape of the inward me. I could credit poetry with other effects, but those two are huge for me. They are elements that anyone can find useable and transformative. Why would I not write, given those?

  8. I may well escape the need to write any more verse but it would be far harder to escape the unforeseen effects of versification on my prose. Nor would I want to. The final stage of revising a novel MS consists of modifying it typographically, sending it to the Kindle service at Amazon, and having it appear as a download on my Kindle. Thus I am able to check what I've written in a format that is as close to final publication (as a book) as I can get - ie, with minimal presentational distractions.

    I can read the Kindle version far faster - and more synoptically - than I can a WfW doc on the desktop. Reading faster is usually the enemy of revision but by this stage I'm concerned with broad structure (often over chapters) and, especially, with prose rhythm. I am trying to read the MS as if I were a reader unaware of the blood, sweat and tears that went into putting the MS together.

    I never save any of the evolutionary stages of a novel, whatever the risk of losing something that may subsequently be valuable. I am only interested in my freshest thoughts, the here and now. However I have saved all my verse however wretched. This gradual accumulation has a salutary effect, complementing your view about the unlikelihood of a consistent canon. Given the stored evidence, dare I write another sonnet? Certainly at this very moment the necessary audacity is in short supply.

  9. I suppose that I do what you do with novels in a different way. That is, I care about sound and rhythm, but I always read my manuscript aloud before I send it out. And I don't generally save prior versions, though generally I have a couple of printouts lying around, taking up space.

    Well, don't you stand on that stored evidence? Don't you try to be better than what you were before? Yes, I am sure you do! Dare. Be audacious!


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.