Animal Images and the Image as Animal: Tricia Cline’s Exiles in Lower Utopia

Exile of the Deer, Tricia Cline. Porcelain. 2008.

I recently stumbled upon Tricia Cline’s porcelain sculptures (thank you, art pinners on Pinterest!). Her work has a quality that I tend to (mostly subconsciously) seek out and appreciate in all art forms — an otherworldliness, often lovely, but a little strange, unsettling, maybe creepy, though not in any particularly obvious way. Which is, incidentally, how many of my stories have been described. I guess it’s my thing. Anyway, I went to her website and became even more fascinated by her work after reading the artist’s statement for her most recent series of sculptures, Exiles in Lower Utopia. It’s beautifully worded, so instead of paraphrasing, I’m providing it below in its entirety:

This body of work is an ode to the Animal, its ability to perceive, and our return to that perception. An animal is its very form. Its function is its form. A dog runs at full speed, a distinct scent or sound alters its direction. The legs, the nose, the ears of the dog are its function, its bliss. When an animal recognizes another animal it reads with an instinctual eye the character in the form- the essential nature in the form before it. Its text is not a concept about what it’s looking at but a full-bodied response to the shape, smell, movement, and stance of the image in front of it. The language of animals is the language of images. An image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal. 

This is the ode–to reconnect with our own animal perception is to clarify and heighten our perception of who and what we are in the moment… to go beyond the limited mental concepts of who we think we are… to an awareness of oneself that is infinitely more vast. The Exiles migrate between the human world and the animal world and carry this awareness on their backs. They are the silent embodiment of this Quest. They understand the language of animals and are self-appointed ambassadors from that world. They are firmly seated, in the language of animals, the language of imagery. They have succeeded by virtue of being.

The key points for me are: 1) to read something by its image is not necessarily to limit because “an image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal,” and 2) reconnecting with our animal selves is a task that, rather than taking us backward, moves us forward into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. By understanding an image (that is, one’s perception of a thing) as an animal itself — something complex, evasive and in constant movement — on its own terms, rather than trying to define and redefine it through static statements that ultimately fall short, we come closer to seeing things as they truly are. In this way, Cline’s Exiles function as envoys and icons to remind us of our secret, truer selves whose virtues are merely being and seeing.

Literature has its place on this path as well, in spite of its form being limited to words (which is what makes writing so difficult — it’s the least sensual medium of all). As with other art forms, the key to creating truthful literature is to create images, and to do this, one must avoid making direct statements about things. We have to beat around the bush, to talk around a subject — not to evade, but to more clearly illustrate the ineffable. Creating literature — stories, poetry, essays, plays — is not about making some single, absolute declaration; it’s about creating, out of nothing, those image-animals that breathe on their own, that have layers of secrets and truths. It is to create something that allows others to create their own image-animals.

Flannery O’Connor said in her speech-turned-essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks” because the truth of the clerk is best communicated by literal details like his wearing list slippers than any abstract and frankly stated “grand ideas and bristling emotions”  that a writer might thrust on him. We humans are sensual creatures, just like the other animals around us, and in spite of our impressive ability to think abstractly, we still (and have always and will always) respond most strongly to that which we perceive through our senses. And so it is through complex, free and living images liberated from vain abstractions (e.g. “bad,” “ugly,” “moral,” “beautiful”) that we perceive truth. Our labor is to see things as they are — in all their complexity — and then hold our tongues, rather than whittle them down to concrete, abstract terms.

You can view more of Cline’s images on her website (linked above). And you’re welcome to share your thoughts on her work (and my words) below.

Compassion and a Stevens Poem

My husband and I recently had a discussion/debate with a friend of ours who, on the subject of legislating compassion (or, more specifically, legislating in the name of compassion), pretty much said that without all of our elevated, civilized, moral compassion, we’d be “nothing more than animals.” While I’m a big proponent of compassion, I don’t think our morals necessarily make us more compassionate, and I think that there’s often as much compassion in non-action as there is in action, which is to say that sometimes not doing something is more compassionate and beneficial than blindly forging ahead (although, really, the best route is to combine the two with careful discernment).

I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to be more like animals, to get in touch with our animal sides. After all, animals aren’t the ones destroying our environment and each other on a species-wide level; they aren’t the ones enslaving each other (except for the slavemaker ants, of course); they aren’t afflicted by the overwhelming greed and viciousness that plagues humanity. If animals are greedy, it’s on a limited, usually reasonable level; if they are violent, it’s for survival — not spite. Animals are the innocent ones. And, really, whether we want to admit it or not, we are animals — complex, astoundingly creative animals, but still animals. I’m not saying that humanity is the lowest of the low in terms of animal virtues, but I do think it’s pompous to assume we’re that much more morally elevated above the rest of the natural world just because we can build complex tools and think in terms of the imaginary and intangible. I think art, which is arguably a uniquely human construct (although it depends on how you define art and whether or not the female bowerbird’s appreciation of her male’s bower can be considered artistic appreciation), is great; I think technology can be great. But I also think that what makes (human) art great is that it expresses and seeks to explore our deepest animal impulses; the best art gets us in touch with our animal selves and analyzes it, rather than denying it. And technology is really just a complex result of our basic animal survival instincts.

I think compassion is the greatest and most necessary quality a person could have, but I don’t like “morals” because they’re prescribed. It’s cold legislation rather than natural compassion, which comes from an organic and personal impulse. Compassion is simple and small and daily — not some elevated, authorized virtue. In its purest form, as in the animal world, compassion is unconscious and exhibited on an animal-to-animal basis. And while not all animals are compassionate in the way we define it, they’re not uncompassionate, either. As I’ve said above, they don’t hate; they aren’t (with few possible exceptions) unnecessarily cruel.

Anyway, the discussion reminded me of a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato’s ghost

Or Aristotle’s skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

The only thing I would add to Stevens’ argument is that we aren’t naturally alien — we’ve made ourselves so — and that we can get back to that wholeness and freedom of being as long as we’re willing to loosen the noose of our morals, let wordlessness stand in for language (not forever and always, but more so than it does) and forget our pompous attitudes about our own superiority. If we can let ourselves be smaller, more quiet and basic, we’ll be closer to and more a part of that unlimited god that Stevens describes.

But I don’t harbor any illusions about doing away with law, society and technology and living like squirrels or bears. As our friend correctly said during our conversation, “The change has happened. We can’t go back.” I just think that we’d more benefit ourselves and the rest of the world if we tried to emulate the plant and animal life around us a little more, rather than trying (in vain) to conquer nature both beyond and within ourselves. I think we’d all be better-off without legislating and politicizing compassion — that is, deciding in black-and-white terms who is deserving of understanding and compassion and who isn’t and using that to justify political action. Because if we select an object for compassion, we’re necessarily denying compassion to something else. If we bring compassion down from the moral pedestal, stopped flinging it at other people like a weapon, and considered it on a personal, daily level (asking ourselves if we’re being indiscriminately compassionate enough and how we can be more compassionate, especially to the people whom we feel least deserve it), then the world really would be a better place. It’ll build on its own, but we have to build from the bottom, beginning with ourselves.

I think I should also say that my friend, if he were to read this, might not actually disagree with me. Sometimes when the three of us (myself, my husband and our friend) sit in a car together for too long, we start to disagree for the sake of disagreement — either because we’re playing the devil’s advocate and testing each others’ convictions or because we just want to get the other’s goat — which is how the whole compassion-and-animals discussion began in the first place. But it makes for a good blog post, I think.

Feel free to leave your comments below!

The Magic of Creation: Remedios Varo

Okay, it’s been a while. The past couple of months or so have been pretty stressful emotionally and mentally, and I found it necessary to turn inward and shut the external world out for the most part. So I really wasn’t thinking at all about writing a new blog post (not that I post prolifically anyway) or spending much time communicating at all, except to my husband, family and a few close friends. Nevertheless, that old guilt about having a blog and not using it has been quietly building up inside me. So, in order to quell the guilt while expressing some of my current preoccupations, I’ve decided to showcase an artist who is a new (very) favorite mine.

Born in Spain in 1908, Remedios Varo (full name: María de los Remedios Varo Uranga) spent her early childhood traveling around Spain and North Africa, living wherever her father, a hydraulic engineer, found work. Her family finally settled in Madrid, and while there, she studied painting at the Academia de San Fernando. She left Spain for Paris in the early 1930s to immerse herself in Surrealism, but returned to Spain in 1935 to live in Barcelona and joined the art group Logicophobiste. Varo returned to Paris in 1937 to escape the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and in 1941, she was forced again to relocate, this time to Mexico to escape the Nazi occupation of France. She lived in Latin America for the rest of her life, becoming friends with fellow artists Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and others, especially fellow ex-pat Leonora Carrington. Varo’s beautifully haunting style matured throughout the 1950s and reached its height in the early 1960s. She died in 1963 of a heart attack. Despite having a well-developed, distinct style, Varo is not well known. Male Surrealists (and others in the art community) often considered the work of their female colleagues to be inferior, making it difficult for female artists to promote their work, and so many Surrealist and similarly aligned female artists like Varo suffered in obscurity. Only recently has an interest in their work begun to develop.

Varo’s paintings are highly allegorical with a wide range of influences, including pre-Columbian art, Surrealism, Sufism and the I-Ching as well as the theories of analyst Carl Jung, medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart and Russian theosophist Helena Blavatsky. Varo viewed all of these sources as avenues to self-realization and the transformation of consciousness. Her paintings portray fantastic, often female or ambiguously feminine characters in isolated, confined environments, usually in some act of creation, as in Creation of the Birds (1957). Much of her work is interpreted as an expression of her frustration at being marginalized as a woman and as a female artist — themes that are certainly expressed in paintings like Visit to the Plastic Surgeon (1960) and Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (1961).

But what interests me most about Varo’s paintings are not their social or political statements, but her emphasis on the mysteries and potential of the mind, especially as it finds expression in the arts. The creation of art is rendered as a kind of magic in her paintings, depicted as both a mechanical and supremely natural process. It is a way to both act on the external world and transform and nourish the self. It is a kind of alchemy, taking base materials (for Varo, masonite, oils, brushes, colors and shapes; or for me, leaves of paper and a pen, a laptop and combinations of letters that essentially mean nothing except whatever meaning we give them) and manipulating those elements to create something new and meaningful, to express the ineffable.

I discovered Varo’s work not too long ago (around the same time that the difficulties I mentioned above arose, or maybe a little before) and, in turning inward, I’ve been considering the same kinds of things that Varo depicts in her work. Many people are suspicious of fantasy, but it’s such a necessary tool for exploring ourselves, the world around us and the connections between the two.

Below are several examples of Remedios Varo’s work; click on the images to view them larger. For more information about Remedios Varo and her paintings, here’s a helpful link. And, as always, you’re welcome to leave comments at the bottom of the page.

Creation of the Birds - 1959

Visit to the Plastic Surgeon - 1960

Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst - 1960

Solar Music - 1961

The Life Acrylic: Alexa Meade’s Painted People

Rather than painting realistic images on canvas, taking surreal photographs, or painting renditions of well-known art on human bodies, 24-year-old Washington, D.C., artist Alexa Meade has brought the three together, painting her subjects as artistically rendered versions of themselves and then snapping photos of them in a variety of painted and unpainted settings. It’s a fresh mix of acrylic painting, performance art, and photography that asks us to reconsider the relationship between art and reality.

One piece, Transit (above), features an elderly man standing in a subway car, looking entirely convincing as a two-dimensional image, and I love the reactions of the unpainted people around him, who aren’t sure what’s going on but are trying to seem indifferent. The painted man, on the other hand, seems isolated, almost like a cardboard cut-out. The photo asks: “What if art really lived among us? Rode the subway with us, like anyone else?” It takes art off the wall and goes for a walk with it, just to see what happens: how it interacts with its environment, or doesn’t, and how its presence alters our perceptions of everything else.

Meade has also made several self-portraits. Of these, Alexa Split in Two (right) has perhaps the most to say about the give-and-take between art and reality as we compare the unpainted self with the painted self: there’s a kind of textural movement in the stillness of the image that we likely wouldn’t have noticed without the paint; we can better see the play of light and color on her skin and the contours of her bone structure. Visually, it’s the left half that has more life and it enriches our impression of reality. The image shows us how Meade views the world — with sharper, more sensitive and sensual eyes — through her versions of herself as both art and artist.

What do you think of Ms. Meade’s work? How does it affect your views of reality and art?

To see more of Alexa Meade’s work, visit her website or her Flickr page. And feel free to comment below.

Not the End of Solitude

I recently read a great blog article about solitude by artist Deborah Barlow, written in response to an article by critic William Deresiewicz (entitled “The End of Solitude”), who claims that the young people of today (i.e. my generation) are both solitude- and intimacy-phobic due to the prevalence of social media. Read Barlow’s article (and get the link to Deresiewicz’s article) here.

I think Deresiewicz would consider me one of those anomalies he briefly mentioned, as I’m in my mid-20s and require a large amount of actual solitude each day to be both happy and productive. Unlike the young people Deresiewicz referred to, I write alone and hardly keep my phone near enough to type 100 texts a day. My husband (a photographer, graphic designer and musician) and I aren’t afraid of turning off the computers, cell phones and TV, and we value the time we spend camping and hiking in the woods. And, like Thoreau, we tend to stand alone. But I don’t think we’re more anomalous in our generation than artists and writers of the past.

A large component of an artist’s or writer’s personality has always been the need to be heard; it’s why we exhibit and sell our work. Most of us don’t create in order to keep it to ourselves; even Thoreau wrote to be published. It’s just that the need to be heard takes a removed form for the creative person — that is, we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves in writing or art than schmoozing at parties. Social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, provide that same opportunity: to connect indirectly, to communicate within solitude. I don’t think the general proliferation of voices via social networking sites makes us more vapidly social or less solitude-loving as artists and writers of this generation than in previous generations. And it’s always been the small-numbered strangers — spiritual ascetics, writers, artists — who have been the solitude-seekers. Even Deresiewicz admitted that solitude “has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few.” So yes, we are few who seek out solitude, who don’t hide from “Thoreau’s darkness,” but I doubt that’s a new development owing to the general population’s greater access to venues where our voices can be heard.

But what do you think? Has social networking created a phobia of silence and solitude?

The Shared Loneliness of Edward Hopper

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but I’ve spent the past month preparing for my last residency and then attending the residency, and now I can say with pride that I have received my MFA in Creative Writing (not without literal blood, sweat and tears, mind). After a chaotic week of traveling, writing, revising, and holding/attending seminars and readings, this first post — written in my lingering post-MFA stupor — will return to an old series on visual art and look at the work of Edward Hopper.

In the past, I’ve written about other favorites of mine (Munch, Friedrich, Bacon, and Turner) and showcased particular paintings that inspire and inform my own work in fiction — not (just) their subject matter, but the ways in which they treat their subjects. Visual art (in attempting it myself and in viewing actual artists’ work) helps me to see and — more importantly — feel the world in new ways. What one learns in studying paintings is that two-dimensional color and form are not stationary things — they move and breathe. They pulse, even in stillness.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is one of the best known artists of the Ashcan School, a group of painters that sought, above all, not to romanticize their subjects, but to paint life as they knew it (gritty, rough, chaotic) in New York City in the early 19th century. As Robert Henri said, “Forget about art!…and paint pictures of what interests you in life.” The goal wasn’t to strive for perfection or beauty, but to get at the heart of the bleak, gritty spirit of city life they felt all around them.

Hopper’s work diverges slightly from the others in that it focuses on quiet, ordinary, usually solitary moments (as opposed to other Ashcan painters’ scenes of rushing street traffic, portraits and boxing matches). His most famous piece, Automat, is of a woman at a cafe table with a cup of coffee. It’s something that could (and, with a change of clothing, still can) be seen anywhere. But the way in which Hopper paints his subjects — heavily, darkly and in some form of isolation — expresses a somber, resigned solitude. Even when there are two or more human subjects, there’s a palpable loneliness. His paintings are so saturated and smoothly stroked that they look almost flat, but upon closer inspection — especially of the human subject’s skin — one finds a subtle, visual rippling (as in Morning in a City). It’s that sense of isolation and the juxtaposition of flat heaviness and richly undulating sensuality that gives the paintings a strange, voyeuristic intimacy. It’s as if the viewer is peering through a window at night, watching people in their houses and apartments or in public places, catching them in their most private, most vulnerable, and most true moments.

That’s what I love about Hopper’s work: the heavy vulnerability, the shared loneliness. Those characteristics are defining quirks of humanity,  I think, and to see them displayed so honestly, without the polite softening of the averted gaze, is to be pulled outward, to find core aspects of oneself in others and yet to recognize that, in spite of that sympathy and sensitivity, there are barriers that can never be crossed; we are essentially alone in our experience of life, but together in it.

At least, that’s the truth I find in his work. Take a good, long look at each of the following Hopper images and, in the comment box below, tell me what you see.

Automat - 1927

Room in New York - 1932

Morning in a City - 1944

Summer Evening - 1947

For more information about Edward Hopper and his work, check out this great site by the National Gallery of Art.