Join a free in-gallery artist talk with Artist Grant winner Papay Solomon at 6 p.m. on June 19 at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave.
Papay Solomon’s body of work aims to tell the stories of young refugees through a universal, visual medium. Solomon is active within Arizona’s refugee community, having moved to Phoenix with his family from Africa when he was a teenager. His paintings reject stereotypes and inaccurate depictions of immigrants and refugees in American culture, providing a more truthful, human experience instead. In order to effectively convey personality, emotion, and narrative, Solomon interviews each individual before painting them. His use of hyperrealism and the classical technique of non-finito (not finished) bring attention to the displacement that these individuals may feel and the hyper-sensitivity towards such sentiments. Solomon graduated from Arizona State University with a Bachelor’s in Fine Art. In addition to painting, he is also currently working on a documentary series.
For more information about this event, click here.
Fade the lights and turn up the music. Every third Saturday from October to June Mesa Art Center’s campus will be taken over by a new artist with a unique, crazy-fun theme–complete with live art, live music, great eats, and much more.
This month, create art with these amazing artists:
Melissa Waddell, Sierra Joy, Matt Dickson and Claire Worden
Projection art with Sylvia Frost and Bryn Corbett
Live painting with Tara Sharpe
Mural zone by Ciara Bernal and Kyllan Maney
Interactive large scale window coloring
DJs The Ladies of Wax (Victoria Aguilar and Karen Hartman)
This month’s spark! After Dark: Collective Kaleidoscope will be on Saturday, February 17 from 8pm to 11pm at the Mesa Arts Center (1 E Main St, Mesa, Arizona 85201).
Sunday August 13, the Heard Museum will host a live exhibition discussion on their Frida Kahlo exhibition. This exhibition has already received a ton of praise, and this may be the only North American stop for the traveling exhibition. The discussion will be moderated by Claudia Mesch, professor of Art History at ASU. She will explore the contemporary influences of the two legendary figures. The event runs from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and is included with museum admission to the Frida Kahlo exhibit.
As an artist, I am naturally drawn to literature depicting artists: historical or fictional, painters, sculptors, composers, writers, and craftsmen of all trades. I am drawn to their struggles for inspiration and perfection of execution, to their achievements or failures, and to their intriguing techniques.
Opening windows to fascinating worlds or processes of beloved artists, these fictions prove endlessly engaging; if there are any shortcomings, perhaps they lie in the authors’ attempts to present the broad historical fabric in which an artist was active, which sometimes interferes with dramatic arc or character development.
Those who seek more uninhibited imaginations might turn to novels on fictional creative characters, especially those engaged in unique and unforgettable trades; or even more fascinating, to books on well-known real-life or mythical figures not previously associated with any artistic ambitions or endeavors.
In Bauchau’s retelling, the exiled, blind Oedipus, accompanied by his daughter Antigone, embarks on a spiritual cleansing and a journey in pursuit of self-discovery. Oedipus launches an improbable career as a sculptor, culminating in sculpting a huge relief of wave on a cliff.
Oedipus started modestly by moulding clay figures or carving branches, giving his creations poetic names such as “The Stone’s First Smile” or “There is a Spring”. He soon fixated on a cliff and was determined to reveal the waves that he perceived, despite or perhaps because of his blindness, beneath the stone surface. He installed himself “at the top of the headland,” listened to “the waves crashing against the cliffs and the cry of the seabirds. … something has begun to open up inside him and periodically the sea appears in all its fullness, yearning for him to abandon himself to it or be consumed by it.”
“Sometimes he slips and cuts his hands. It is almost a pleasure to mark the cliff with his blood for the wave is there as well as within him.”
He carved one oarswoman, modeled on his daughter Antigone “how Oedipus sees her, how he wants her to see herself”, “a vibrant, determined beauty, suffused with confidence,” while Antigone carved another oarsman as Oedipus, “as he was before that time, the savage boy – conqueror and victor”, without blemish and relieved of his fate.
His struggle was mighty and meaningful.
On the overhanging rock the wave curves back, twisting under the pressure of its own weight and falls, as Oedipus wanted it to, plunging back into the sea.
The wave, dark at its base, becoming lighter as it rises, spring up out of the sea. … Nothing can stand up to it. It is about to fall back into the vast trough but the boat gets there first and uses the power of the wave and the gap it has created to project itself forwards … guided towards the port by the blind man of the sea, … sending out a message of hope to all sailors.
Kosztolányi’s Nero, soon after his ascendency to the Roman throne, suffered from a feeling of purposelessness in life. His mentor, the poet Seneca, unwisely turned his attention to poetry. Consequently, the talentless yet committed young emperor “himself had no idea how or why it happened, but suddenly he began to write. Line after line he wrote, Greek hexameters which flowed precisely. But upon reading them aloud, he began to feel less confident. He weighed the lines in his mind, tested them, made corrections. Now his mood was black and desperate like that of a murderer aiming himself for an ominous deed for which, should he fail, he must pay with his life.”
He wrote and re-wrote and invited critiques from Seneca, a seasoned courtier, who praised Nero’s efforts and cemented the emperor’s ambition and self-confidence, which outstripped his artistic self-doubt. Eventually, however, the populace came to see Nero’s banal efforts as buffoonery and travesty, the insecure poet-emperor became intolerant, and so commenced his downfall.
In contrast to the sculptor-king and the poet-emperor, the protagonist in Süskind’s Perfume was an orphan without status, but engaged in an unusual artistic career. The young Grenouille, endowed with extraordinary olfactory sense, installed himself in a struggling Parisian master-perfumer’s workshop, and invented countless superior perfumes for his master while perfecting his own skills.
The scent of his first perfume for the master, “was so heavenly fine that tears welled into Baldini’s eyes. He did not have to test it, he simply stood at the table in front of the mixing bottle and breathed. The perfume was glorious. … It was something completely new, capable of creating a whole world, a magical, rich world, and in an instant you forgot all the loathsomeness around you and felt so rich, as at ease, so free, so fine. …”
Grenouille’s dream was to capture and preserve a most glorious scent of a young girl he encountered. “But of course this unique scent could not be used in a raw state. He must set it like the most precious gemstone. He must design a diadem of scent, and at its sublime acme, intertwined with the other scents and yet ruling over them, his scent would gleam. He would make a perfume using all the precepts of the art, and the scent of the girl behind the wall would be the very soul of it.”
In his obsessive efforts to obtain similar scents, he would steal toward a series of muses/victims and hammer them to death, suddenly and instantaneously, before fear could interfere with their wondrous virginal scents.
Then, he would seal the body with scent-absorbing oiled-linen, “not a slit, not a hole, not one bulging pleat was left through which the girl’s scent could have escaped. She was perfectly packed. There was nothing to do but wait, for six hours, until the gray of dawn.”
Grenouille fulfilled his artistic dream, creating the most glorious scent out of his fine, gruesome collections. Yet, due to his personal flaw — he was without a scent himself, therefore, in his own mind, without any presence, and meaningless — he used the angelic scent he created to lure a crowd of people, in a fit of mad love, to consume him — literally, in a horrifying orgy of cannibalism.
These fables demonstrate artistic struggle in multiple ways, with successfully realized art or not. All point to the conclusion that abandonment, total commitment, obsession, and being possessed — even bleeding for one’s art — is the prerequisite for artistic fulfillment.
As a painter, I have experience many artistic struggles: for inspiration, to execute my ideas, to succeed in the frustrating business of marketing. I have also worked on pieces featuring creative characters — painters, musicians, dancers, or sculptors — finding myself drawn to sympathize with these characters, and to empathize with their struggle as my own. But to do justice to my figures’ inspirations and struggles has not been easy. Due to the limitations of painting and drawing media, my works were the visualization of only momentary snapshots of artistic processes, without the deep analyses and temporal unfolding that novels are able to render.
One of my paintings, titled Encounter, is an interesting case in point. It depicts a young man, in a nocturnal light, meeting a bronze bust of a young boy. A wave of emotions reveal themselves through the young man’s posture and facial expressions. The subject can be seen as a sculptor who unexpectedly sees his creation in a new light, or the Muse facing a creation he inspired. In the single moment depicted in the painting, the artist/muse was possessed by the creation.
Indeed, the key for an artist to succeed is to be possessed!
In Los Angeles, California the air has a certain quality to it. Light behaves differently here as well. Smog and moisture pair up each day in different quantities to determine the forecast. Sidewalks, concrete walls and highway overpasses show sign of human presence. Graffiti is a constant companion. The city is home to the largest homeless population in the United States. Watch out for scatological debris. Beautiful flowers and thick monstrous foliage line the interstate. From behind the steering wheel of a car, a traffic jam allows for much time viewing the ditch and searching for inner stillness.
One summer, I was granted an artist residency in Chinatown. This area is known as DTLA or Downtown Los Angeles. Miles of industrial buildings loom sleepily–warehouses of decommissioned factories begging for the downtown artist movement to breathe life back into them. After the three-month long residency was over, I decided to stay in L.A. Wanting to make a little history for myself, I sought exhibitions. Some of them hard earned, while others came as invitation.
I kept my studio downtown, but found a job on the Westside in Venice. The commute after work was a nightmare, and I was often too tired to make it happen. Day to day logistics can be tough in a city this size where almost everyone has a car and must use it. Not having much experience with big cities, I was in awe at the enormous population and constant activity. There is immeasurable human history compressed between seemingly endless layers of buildings, landforms, plants, cars and interstate systems. I was enjoying new friends and nurturing connections, but couldn’t shake the feeling of being caged in.
Commuting to Las Vegas nearly once a month, I enjoyed watching the city limits gradually give way to barren desert. It was a shift in thinking; a different state of mind. City life with its complex relationship to the natural world is swept up into the strict order of a new eco-system. The austere and beautiful design of the Mojave Desert appealed to me. When returning to L.A., an omnipresent heavy smog can be observed, looming eerily beyond the San Bernardino Mountains. Around this time, I had a breakthrough in the studio. As with any new movement comes uncertainty. ‘What’s up with the Sky?’ has proven successful on levels both aesthetic and as a true representation of my love-hate relationship with Western mega-cities.
The Phoenix Art Museum has an upcoming exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. The exhibition will run from October 7, 2016 to January 8, 2017. This exhibition will feature sixty paintings and sculptures by Wiley. Wiley has emerged as one of the leading American artists within the last decade. Known for his portraits, Wiley draws influence from traditional, aristocratic portraits to make his modern portraits. In doing so, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic raises questions about race, gender, and the politics of representation.
For more information, visit the Phoenix Art Museum’s website. More information about the exhibit can be found at Kehinde Wiley’s website.
Arizona-raised artist Marlena Robbins is known for her tactile, self-reflexive painting style and use of color and symbolism. Our Art Editor, Regan Henley was lucky enough to ask her a few questions on her work, style and process.
Regan Henley: You’ve said you haven’t been painting for very long, but you seem to spend a lot of time dedicated to it. Is painting your primary medium? Why or why not?
Marlena Robbins: Yes, painting is my primary medium. I use it more so as a therapeutic expressive outlet. I think the brush strokes and colors help me feel my reality. The simple act of the brush strokes help settle my mind, focus and zone into my present. The colors are psychological; reds are passionate; blues and greens are calming; white is pure, black is powerful; etc. I started painting about 3 years ago; it evolved from there and became my own form of therapy. It became a way for me make sense of my reality, my experiences and what I was going through in order to bring me back to the present.
RH: You’ve collected a very interesting group of pieces. What would you say is the overarching theme in this body of work?
MR: I don’t know that there is a theme to it all; I think each piece that I do reflects what I am experiencing at that particular time in my life. If I’m learning something new. For example, a lot of my earlier pieces were political because I was taking an American Indian Studies course; so whatever I was taking in through my course was being reflected through my paintings. Other paintings were an extension of my feelings, thoughts and circumstances of the moment. What I am trying to understand about my reality. My paintings are growing right along with me; they are a reflection of me and the times that I am in right now.
RH: What is your process for creating these works? Do you begin with concepts or images?
MR: I have the concept first; for example when I say that I am painting what I am experiencing and what I am trying to understand about my life, that’s the concept. That’s me thinking about what I am going through right now in order to create. For instance, we recently had a lot of loss in our family and to try to make sense of that all the only way I could was to paint about it and try to bring closure in order to move forward.
Another important concept to me is balance: balancing myself spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically and how I represent that in my art. Making sense of balance is a lifelong journey; to sustain, nurture and accept that it is a part of who we are as individuals, as human beings. It is very much a part of our purpose.
The concepts definitely do come first, but I take images from my surroundings, the environment and my creative environment. I am very blessed to know and work with amazing artists and have great mentors who put it all out there to be respected and to inspire the people to create.
Some paintings I do start out with a plan, I sketch it first. However, lately, I’ve been mostly experimenting with the mixtures of colors; being intuitive with it and going with the flow. Not really having a plan but giving the canvas my all and the paints their own direction and free will. It’s intimidating to not know what is going to happen or how it’s going to come out because I have this canvas in front of me and I don’t want to mess it up, but at the same time there’s beauty in the unknown. I believe that is parallel with life.
RH: You’ve mentioned that many people are drawn to the three-dimensional quality of your work. Do you ever work with collage or 3D materials when creating these paintings? Your paintings have a kind of texture and warmth that makes them read like textile and fiber arts. How are you influenced by textile arts when creating these pieces?
MR: My very first collage piece was done to pay homage to the women, grandmothers and mothers who came before us. It was pictures of Indigenous women and their children from the late 1800s to mid-1900s. It shows the love that we have for our children as mothers and how that is gifted from generation to generation; the connection we must maintain and nourish with our children. There is no perfect parent; we do our best with what we have.
When I was finished with it I felt as though something was missing. I saw the beads next to me and started beading the outfits in the pictures. My very first collage was my very first beaded painting. The beads add to it, they are unique, different, offer a new texture/effect and are beautiful because it’s like painting with beads. There are very few artists that I’ve seen who bead their paintings. I haven’t seen much on it or read much about it; I know that it is out there, it’s just very unique. I first started beading about 7 years ago; my auntie taught me a very simple stitch. I stopped beading for a long time and it came to back to me when it was supposed to.
RH: Many of these paintings reference spirituality in an abstract way, from the use of patterns, stained glass and geometry; they definitely evoke these thoughts to me, personally. Can you speak a little bit more to that (Are you directly interested in these ideas or are they themes that come up naturally? Are you a very spiritual person? Etc.)?
MR: Spirituality, to me, is an intricate and delicate thought process but very simple to appreciate. It’s not overruled by any written agenda or book. It’s not confined entirely to a religion. It’s how we cope with our reality, how we understand and see ourselves, see the people around us and the world we are in.
I grew up in Window Rock, AZ on the Navajo reservation. Our family didn’t lean towards any religion. There were a lot of traditional Navajo families and Catholic/Mormon families around us. Our mother chose not to excessively influence any one form of religion, she let us understand it for ourselves, and I really appreciated that because it was less confusing. I am not too traditional but I am not religious either. I understand both because I witnessed both. It’s hard for me to respect any Christian religion as a legitimate source of spirituality based on colonialism and the fact that it wasn’t a part of our Indigenous beliefs before colonization.
The flower of life painting, for example, is a reminder to mellow out. That while we strive for perfection, nothing is ever perfect, and while we try to control every situation in our lives, sometimes that choice is not ours to make. We may think that we are making it but in the grand scheme of things we are not; by going with the flow and letting it all evolve the way it’s supposed to, we let it unfold as we go. I can plan my life out 10 years from now but still need to be happy with who I am this very moment by taking care of myself before I go overanalyzing my future. Understanding my present and being grateful for it is a part of spirituality; forgiving my past, accepting my present for what it is and acknowledging my future for what it might become.
RH: What are your biggest influences right now, artistically or otherwise (Artists, movements, styles, book, philosophies, ideas, things you’ve seen or heard, etc.)?
MR: I’ve been very blessed to be able to surround myself with very artistic and influential people in the community and throughout the nation. My mentors Carmen and Zarco Guerrero, my sister Zarina Guerrero, my good friends and accomplished artists in their own mediums: Thosh Collins, Thomas Greyeyes, and Samuel La Fountain. These very genuine people are true to themselves, their art and the world we live in. They have been inspirations to everyone they meet. I draw from their work and ideas. It helps motivate me and drive myself.
RH: What have been the biggest challenges for you in making this work?
MR: Time is the biggest challenge for me. I am the mother to a very energetic three year old. I work for two incredible organizations. I am the Assistant Director of Cultural Coalition, Inc. and am the assistant to the COO and Directors of Community Bridges, Inc. I will be attending graduate school in the fall, pursuing my Master’s in American Indian Studies–Indigenous Rights and Social Justice. I am preparing for my upcoming solo-debut show “777” this May. I am building up my collection and portfolio for the Indigenous Fine Art Market in Santa Fe this August. I’m starting a therapeutic art program at Community Bridges for our clients. And most importantly, giving my son the attention he needs and deserves to make sure he is growing in a good way.
RH: I want to ask you about your art site name, “Mello out Mella.” What’s the story behind that?
MR: Mello out Mella is a reminder for me to “Mello Out.” My nickname growing up is Mella. At times I am a control freak, I want everything to go my way. I have assumptions and expectations of how I want things to play out it and if it doesn’t it can be almost shattering for me. I had to have everything in order, organized to the T, this is how it’s supposed to go, this is how it is going to go, if it doesn’t go this way then what was the point of it all? It took a very long time to let go of that control and understand that things are not always going to go the way I want them to and I have to go with the flow and let it evolve the way it’s supposed to. Mello Out Mella is a reminder for myself and every other control freak out there, that it is ok and there are worse things that could happen, but right now we are safe, strong, happy, healthy, living, breathing and are in the present, grateful for that breathe we are taking in.
RH: So I noticed you also screen print your pieces on shirts and the like, but you’re also showing your work in galleries. Some people would consider those things as conflicting, or even find it difficult to live in both those worlds (fine art and commercial), so to speak. What are your thoughts on this, as an artist doing both?
MR: That never occurred to me. I love these paintings and wanted to share them because know I am not going to recreate them. I wanted to build a design out of it and share via t-shirts and posters. That way the design and painting stay alive. The shirts and posters help relay a message that was embedded in the painting. A lot of symbolism goes into my work; there are stories behind every painting which is a big part of my art. There is always meaning behind them, it’s never just a painting; they have feelings, energy, thoughts, prayers, etc. that go into it. I pray before, during and after I complete a painting. While these paintings are helping to heal me, after I am finished with them they are meant to heal the viewer as well. As the viewer, take in what it is offering. I hope my paintings/designs offer good energy, good thoughts, good words, good feelings and good health. They helped heal me and my intention is for them to help heal others.
RH: These pieces mark a significant period of work. Have you learned anything new about yourself during this period of time?
MR: Yes I have, painting has definitely helped me understand my reality for what it is. And accept and acknowledge parts of myself that I could never really grasp or deal with. Before I started creating, I went through a very difficult time in my life, and I am grateful for how it has helped me move forward. I see a lot of myself in what I paint and a lot of my intuition that goes into it.
RH: If you had to explain your art in 5 words or less what would you say?
It was complicated. Isn’t it always? I know the daughter (Lynn Emanuel) of the painter (Akiba Emanuel) and I enjoy and admire her poetry. Beyond that I have envied her background because Lynn comes from a family of artists. She’s intense, accomplished and often identified as postmodern. If you know her work you know her images occupy the page with authority and the readers’ minds with staying power.
But when I read Lynn’s book, Then Suddenly, I was most taken by the poems at the center of the book, the poems about her father, Akiba. He died while she was writing Then Suddenly and the poems about his death split the book right down the spine. The forceful emotion those poems are built on – especially in a poet who is so keenly intelligent, so intellectual – provide a powerful base for the rest of the book. They give dimension and force to the postmodern imagery that has so often been called out when writers discuss her work. Because the poems are artful, filled with tour jetes’ and flashes of brilliance that stay with you, I started thinking about art and image against the background of actual life and loss. I wanted to explore what art can and cannot do, and of course, I wanted to know more about Lynn’s dad. Her father, her fellow artist. I decided I should see his work.
It’s not that easy to see Akiba Emanuel’s work. It’s not hanging in my local museum. Emanuel was an artist who did not quite become famous; he lived on the edge of fame. He knew famous artists, he sometimes worked with them and even posed for Matisse. He was in shows with many of them and he lived in New York where he was a contemporary of Rothko et al.
But the art world is cut-throat competitive – there’s actual money at stake. People who are most interested in you are usually those who think you can help them. Akiba was ardent about his work, but he probably didn’t qualify as help to other artists. Looking at his painting and reading about him, he seems fully occupied, compelled by both modern life and Jewish history to paint. At any rate, this man began to fascinate me – a puzzle, an enigma. An artist.
Luckily along the way Lynn and I became actual friends. Because that happened I got to see some of Akiba’s paintings in the flesh (the paint.) And they astonished me. Fable-like and furious, angular and gorgeously composed, more than a little disturbing Akiba’s paintings gripped me when I saw them and stayed with me when they were out of sight.
There’s too much variety in Akiba’s work, too much development and range for me to describe it adequately here, but fortunately there is a catalogue of his paintings that you can still get on Amazon (Akiba Emanuel 1912- 1993) – and I did. I got the book.
Right away I noticed that I could not put it down, and yet I could not keep looking at all his paintings. Many of them bother me. And not a little, but a lot.The night train poems I wrote responses to are among the ones that troubled me most. This series of paintings clearly reference the holocaust, but they do it with an abstract edge that creates an illusion of “no emotion.” There are trains, body parts, winter, and mechanical connections that terrify the imaginative. There are cold clocks, colder snow and the occasional distant moon, but mostly there is the hugely disfiguring heartlessness of the events he is portraying. Not the ghastly and horrific nature of the efficient murders the holocaust accomplished, but the mechanical meanness of machines and of people “just doing their jobs” and of others for whom “the jobs” provided an outlet for latent sociopathic impulses.
Akiba achieved this effect by using cranky lines, strange color manipulations, and almost no other editorial comment. He uses kindergarten hues, primary colors with a couple pastels thrown in. Looking at the bright yellows and reds you might think there’s something jolly, or at least jaunty, going on. The result is that these paintings of trains taking Jews and Gypsies to slaughter wake some memory you have in the back of your brain of a toy train set. A toy train set? No, your psyche wants to scream. This has nothing to do with me. But there it is, your half-remembered Christmas present somehow complicit with genocide.
I began my journey into Akiba’s art by looking at the catalogue for short periods of time. It hurt. I built up slowly to where I could spend significant time with some of the less painful paintings (some are simply gorgeous works but even they hold information about his inner thoughts.) I started to feel as if I knew Akiba – I mean, I found myself calling him Akiba. I could feel him trying to reconcile his life in New York or in Denver as a safe artistic Jew, while the disaster that was World War II in Europe played out in his head, as it had in his family. And I had to write about those poems. I had to grapple with Akiba’s demons because they are also mine. And they are also yours.
Consider this: each morning I turn on the computer and try to head safely to Facebook, because the headlines are, well, the headlines. Today “Sochi forces hunt for potential suicide bombers” while “ice storms plague homeless families.” Closer to home a 4 year old girl is shot by her 6 year old brother. This is all happening while I decide if the snow is so bad that the icy streets make a car trip unwise – but my car trip has nothing to do with potential terrorist attacks or gang fights or freezing to death in a storm. My trip is to a local art store so I can buy supplies for a class I’m taking at the local Art Center. This is the crazy world we are all living in – the world of the lucky and the unlucky.
Akiba found himself on the lucky side of the planet, but the grief from the other side bled into his, was also his. He had to paint it. He had to find a way to incorporate it into the western world where his family had taken refuge. – and he did. He found a way to do that. It works. Look at his Night Transport paintings. You are both intrigued and unhappy, aren’t you?
It’s a gift to be drawn this deeply into the art of another person. I have Charles Simic to thank for pointing me in this direction. In his 1992 book “Dimestore Alchemy: the art of Joseph Cornell” Simic makes prose poems in response to Cornell images, and in doing so he increases the magic of both Cornell’s boxes and prose poetry exponentially. Simic’s book is one I re-read regularly. I think about art that, instead of producing criticism and classwork, creates more art. What a good idea.
Being both a writer and an artist, I often get the question of how can you switch from one medium to the other? To be honest, I don’t consider that I’m switching. It’s all in your head (or mine, I suppose). There are so many elements that cross over from one medium to the other—metaphor, imagery, form, symbolism, etc. that I don’t think I need to belabor that point. And of course there are very narrative artists such as Magritte or Joseph Cornell. And there are many other artists who are also writers or actors or musicians (William Blake, Terry Allen, Tony Bennett, Patti Smith, to name a motley few). And when I lived in New York, it seemed that everyone was writing a screen play, sculpting and playing in a band or photographing, juggling and tap dancing or putting together dance, jazz, projected painting performances or some variation of any of the above. Doesn’t all creativity spring from the same source?
I suspect that I’m sounding a bit defensive, and I guess I am. I’ve sometimes felt the need to justify being a photographer who prints and hand colors her photos, a painter who works in almost every medium (I started to say except printmaking, and then I remembered that I did those mono-prints once) and a writer of both fiction and poetry. “When do you sleep?” I have translated in my own head into “What kind of freak are you?” or “Maybe you should just do one thing…” (“really well”, my ego defense system adds). And then there’s the “prolific” problem—the most commonly used adjective bounced around my studio by new visitors. I have grown to dislike the word, which I associate with weeds. And I hear myself sounding defensive when I answer that the studio contains years of shows with, yes, unsold works still lurking about, and let’s say you put up a show of thirty pieces and you sell two, and you have at least one show a year, well…you do the math. And of course there’s other work that you do that doesn’t go into a show. Other times I just say, “Yes, I’m productive” (a “p” word I can live with).
But I started out to write about the crossover, which I actually wasn’t that aware of until I had to do a presentation for the writing class of a colleague. I got together slides and poems and suddenly realized almost all of my poems and art pieces had some element that reverberated from one medium to the other. For example, I found paintings and photos with eggs and then discovered any number of poems also hatching eggs right and left. Which came first the painting or the egg, or the poem?
One of my most fun and challenging experiences involved a collaboration with a sound artist titled “Out of the Darkness”, inspired by Roethke’s poem of the same name, projecting double exposed slides of scraps of my paintings and other abstract images with a one to twenty second dissolve, triggered by a tape of new music composed on a (at the time) very sophisticated synthesizer. Part of the fun was setting small plastic figures on fire and photographing them and going on excursions to record the traffic or the wind. The final effect was very much like a film, with images overlapping and dissolving into each other at different speeds.
Maybe I should have gone into film, which combines all the elements: imagery, narrative, sound, metaphor, color. Instead, I’m on the board of Filmworks a local group that brings alternative, independent and foreign films to Fresno. Last year, as a fundraiser for our organization I dreamed up the idea of combining jazz (another love) and poetry and invited a local jazz saxophone artist, Ben Boone as part of a quartet to collaborate with Phil Levine and Peter Everwine. I called it THE JAZZ OF POETRY, THE POETRY OF JAZZ. Herding all the people and elements involved together was harder than herding cats, (even cool ones) but it all evolved as probably the best jazz or poetry does in a very casual, spontaneous, and improvisational way and was a huge success. In fact, Ben and Phil have gone on to other jazz/poetry collaborations.
I confess that sometimes when I’m dry in one medium, I just turn to another which maybe says more about my own obsessive/compulsive tendencies than I’d like. But I do think that dipping into another medium can really open up all kinds of possibilities for your primary medium. If you’re a poet, take up piano or painting or puppetry, not necessarily to start a new career, but to stir up the creative waters. Nothing is more exciting or scary or (scary exciting) than the new blank document. When will you find time to do all this? When will you sleep? I don’t know, but when you do, you might have some wild and crazy dreams.
For some people, “serious art” is a compound word. They say it with the most severe reverence that is usually reserved for funerals and graduation speeches. These are people who think that good art can’t be silly, or that silliness can’t be sincere or profound.
However, as any creator knows, art is entirely unpredictable and rule-breaking. Creating something good is like riding an endlessly bucking horse; if the artist wishes to ride any distance without falling off, they must learn to adapt to the horse’s movement.
Mediocre art is very easy to identify; it feels unnatural, restrained, sedated, in chains. A horse that doesn’t buck will never go anywhere interesting. It’s more like taking a pony in a circle at an amusement park.
For critics, there is little worse than making the wrong distinction between good and bad: mediocre art is sincere, however poorly executed; bad art is always insincere. While mediocre artists give us clichés and flat soda, they are not as dangerous as “serious art” snobs.
“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. Attend a wedding reception to see this in action; watch the bride and groom, hours after making “the most important decision of their lives,” get drunk. Watch their parents get drunk and start reminiscing about baby moments. Also, consider sex, one of the silliest acts. Intercourse is the only time when it is interesting and enjoyable to repeat the same motion hundreds of times, time and again. Yet this is what allows the human race to continue.
“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. When evaluating art, one must treat “silly” and “serious” as the primary colors of any good work. The mark of a brilliant artist is the ability to be both silly and serious.
This appears in all genres of art, and I’m going to take you through music, literature, and unframed art with such examples as Mozart, Lewis Carroll, YouTube, and Futurama.
I love Mozart. I love the calm-before-the-storm-iness of Mozart. I love the crystalline confidence of his scales. I love the catch of his melodies. I especially love how Mozart mixes silly and serious.
Mozart’s canon “Leck Mich Im Arsch” (literally, “lick me in the ass”), is one of my favorite examples of how silly and serious can work together to produce art that is unquestionably brilliant, even if it does make you giggle. Just think that without these lyrics, this would sound like a solemn ode to brotherhood.
Another of my favorite Mozart moments is from his final opera The Magic Flute. In one of Mozart’s most cheerful, upbeat, and memorable pieces, the Queen of Night asks her daughter to murder Sarastro, while exercising insane vocal techniques that singers have to dedicate their lives to attain. It’s a funny song, because the seriousness of the lyrics clash with the flowing lightness of the tune.
The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
It’s a scary song; listening to it, I get chills. And it’s a song that gets me through the day, one I love to sing over and over, under my breath, everywhere I go.
It’s not just the mixing of silly and sincere that makes these pieces great; it’s the undeniable humanity and sincerity of the music.
Now consider Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”Its linguistic brilliance and inventiveness is first class, as the beauty isn’t in the meaning so much as in the way the plot is actually understandable, despite the strangeness of its language. The atmospheric brilliance of the first stanza is inimitable:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Its specific nonspecific language allows us to imagine and feel anything, depending on how we enter the poem. Many would write this poem off as silly. Yes, it is silly, but I find serious and sincere qualities in its retelling of the hero’s journey. It is a metaphor for triumph over any conflict in our lives.
There is also the problem of unframed art. Some people tend to think that art must present itself as art, and that only certain kinds of art exist. Music, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, etc… What about TV shows? What about YouTube videos?
This YouTube video by user wendyvainity seems at first to be nothing but nightmare fuel, with dogs. Here is a full synopsis of the video: two dogs sing an auto-tuned song about being dogs while the hairs on their coats grow incredibly long and then shrink back into their body; they jump over each other, and then they jump over what is probably the River Styx. Even on the other side of the river, they keep singing, and their hairs keep growing and shrinking back. Yes, I’d say nightmare fuel with dogs is a pretty accurate term, but—wendyvainity’s video also engages the absurd and the nonsensical to speak about (or at least prime in our unconscious minds) mortality, change, identity, fate, self-consciousness, and the possibility of real connection. Oddly enough, it reminds me a lot of Beckett.
The animated sci-fi comedy show Futurama has proven itself capable of genius, but what really makes some of the episodes “art” is the show’s commitment to sincerity. Take for example my favorite episode, “Jurassic Bark.” The episode is a perfect blend of silliness and seriousness.
For those who are not familiar with Futurama, the premise of the show is that Fry, a loser pizza delivery boy living at the turn of the 21st century, accidentally gets cryonized until the year 3000, and must adapt to his new life. A common theme is Fry’s attempting to reconcile his past life with his current existence, and the possibility of his own insignificance.
Why is “Jurassic Bark” such a brilliant episode? Because it confronts cynicism with sincerity.
Here is a brief summary of “Jurassic Bark”: A museum in New New York digs up the remnants of the pizza restaurant that employed Fry in the 20th century. In the exhibit, Fry finds the fossilized body of his old dog, Seymour. After making a show of protesting in front of the museum, Fry gets to keep his fossilized dog. Fry’s mad scientist boss, Professor Farnsworth, says that he can bring the dog back to life. However, Fry’s best friend, Bender, gets jealous and upset with Fry for spending so much time preparing for the dog’s revival.
The episode alternates between Fry’s preparation for Seymour’s arrival in the present, and flashbacks of the history of Fry’s experience with his dog. The flashbacks start with their first meeting, when Fry gets a prank pizza order and shares the unpaid-for pizza with the starved dog in an alley, who follows Fry home. The flashbacks culminate in Fry’s cryonization and the dog’s subsequent search for Fry.
Fry: “I have a pizza here for Seymour Asses.”
Man at Delivery Address: “There isn’t anybody by that name here. Or anywhere. I hope in time you realize how stupid you are.”
Fry: “I wouldn’t count on it.”
At the end of the episode, learning that the dog lived for twelve years after Fry got cryonized, Fry succumbs to the contagious cynicism of his coworkers, and decides, for the first time in his life, to be ‘emotionally mature’ and to let his dog stay dead. The last lines of the episode (as given by IMDB) are:
Fry: I had Seymour ‘till he was three. That’s when I knew him, and that’s when I loved him… I’ll never forget him…
[Picks up the fossil and looks into its apparent eyes]
Fry: But he forgot me a long, long time ago…
But the episode doesn’t end there. The episode ends with a montage of the twelve years Seymour spent waiting in front of the pizzeria for Fry’s return, accompanied by a beautifully sung rendition of “I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Good writers are deliberate, and every detail in “Jurassic Bark” is necessary to the episode and has some poetic value. I am going to offer a few of the most striking motifs, and some parts of the episode that I think embody them. As a warning to the reader, many of these examples are extremely specific and require a familiarity with the tropes and characters of Futurama:
The buried past is still alive in some form: fossilized Seymour, flashbacks… False emotional showiness: Bender the magician, Leela dramatically stripping and running to the lava, Bender emerging from the floor like a volcano, Bender’s robot dog… Cynicism as a destructive force: Bender’s throwing the fossil into the lava, Fry’s parents ignoring Seymour’s barking at Fry’s cryonized body, Fry’s ultimate decision not to recover Seymour… Cynicism as learned behavior: Fry is Bender’s apprentice, Fry’s ultimate decision… Sincerity as something frowned upon: the crew’s lighthearted scorn of Fry’s three-day dance-protest to get his dog from the museum, Bender beating up Zoidberg after Zoidberg explains Bender’s magic trick to the audience, Bender choosing to believe that Fry’s emotions are fake and that Fry is only acting that way to make Bender feel bad… Sincere connection as a rare and valuable ideal: Seymour is weak at first but grows healthy when fed and given love, Fry is only happy when with Seymour, Fry and Seymour are lonely and outcast but fill a void in each other’s lives, symbolized by their ability to sing together “Walking on Sunshine”…
Many viewers, angered by their own emotional responses to the episode, have complained that the ending of “Jurassic Bark” is manipulative, and rightly so; like all great stories, we are tricked into feeling emotion for people that don’t exist and the decisions they make. Where the objectors are wrong, however, is in denouncing this manipulation. Yes, we are tricked, as many great writers have tricked us in the past. We are tricked into first believing that Fry is making the right decision (a triumph for cynicism), and then shown that his dog never stopped believing and just kept waiting. In the end, moved to tears and anger as many viewers are, we ourselves are the triumph of sincerity.
So. What’s the takeaway? Why is any of this important?
Silliness is the most underrated aspect of art.
More than anything, sincerity is what counts.
Art doesn’t have to be serious to make you a better person.