28 July 2010

Mystical Minimalism

I recently wrote a little article about English Change Ringing, English Country Dance, and Mystical Minimalism.

Before you read it, please listen to this recording of church bells in Oxford. It's supposed to be in the article, and somehow isn't, yet is essential to an understanding of my comparison between the bells and the music of Glass, Pärt, and Moody.

After you've listened to the bells, you can read the article. To experience the full effect, please listen to/watch the recordings that are mentioned therein. I'd love your responses here. Thanks!

~ Sørina

24 July 2010

Interview with Matthew Whitney, painter

This is the eighteenth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting. There are also questions for you, the reader, scattered throughout this post. Your answer to at least one of them would be an excellent footprint for you to leave behind you here.

Interview with Matthew Whitney
via email
19 July 2010

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student?

MW: I’m a studio painter most of the time, but also do some site-specific installation work. I live and work in Seattle and currently am working on an MFA degree through a low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

IA: Would you describe one particular piece of site-specific installation work you have done?

MW: In "Bridge," I collaborated with a group of musicians who call themselves The Opiate Mass (formerly Urban Hymnal). They put on a concert and performed music about the neighborhoods in North Seattle that surround Highway 99, which is a freeway that goes through Seattle and then crosses the Ship Canal via the iconic Aurora Bridge. Along that stretch of freeway there are several low-rent motels that are frequently used for drug dealing, drug use, and prostitution. The city has made a push to close them up, but the problem is that these same motels are one of the only places available to live for a lot of low-income people. For the performance, I created this sculpture, called "Bridge," which was an abstract wooden-framed structure. It was meant to resemble broken pieces of the Aurora Bridge. I projected floor lighting on it, and the shadow cast on the wall connected the bridge, made it whole, in a sense.

photo courtesy of Chris Wartes

IA: What topics tend to recur in your work?

MW: In my work I explore ideas of ethics, spirituality, and truth. In a way the work is my seeking answers to the ancient Socratic question, “How should one live?” The answers given by the institutional groupthink and social definitions of Truth today are not fulfilling to the current generation. Post-structuralism has forced us to reconsider our institutions of Church, Government, and Art. Instead of engaging humanity and creating commonwealth, these institutions have largely retreated into themselves, wrapping themselves in self-serving ideals of their glory days and in the process becoming more and more extremist and protectionist, and thus becoming caricatures of themselves. I recently heard Makoto Fujimura use that word 'commonwealth' in a talk he gave in Seattle, in a way which was profound to me. In my work, I am seeking a way forward, trying to piece together for myself elements of theology, political systems, and culture in building a foundation in which Truth can be recognized.

IA: Can you give us a concrete example of how you do that? Can you describe one painting in which your holistic mental system (your worldview, as it were) of theology, politics, and culture came together for you into a visual expression?

MW: "Sacred Cow" is my latest painting, and is a culmination of a lot of things I've been thinking about in the last few months. The title itself, "Sacred Cow," is a double entendre - being at once literal (cattle are sacred in several religions) and metaphorically ironic (an idea or thing that is supposedly ineffable, usually unreasonably so). And yet the metaphor itself shows a lack of understanding of the depth and meaning of another cultural perspective and an unwillingness to explore other points of view. I wonder if in living out faith and loving others, we might have to explore our own "sacred cows" and test the whole notion of individual worldview. For if one's worldview is found to have flaws, isn't that where faith is found? Perhaps Truth is bigger than can be defined in any one worldview. This is an interesting problem for me. So for this painting, I have attempted to make a sort of "iconoclastic icon" (for though there is this great renewal of visual art happening in the Church, iconoclasm is our heritage).

TO THE READER: Have you observed a renewal of the arts in your church? How?

IA: What specific techniques do you use?

MW: I make oil and acrylic paintings, using thick impasto technique with brush and palette knife to create highly textured, crusty layers of paint. I combine elements of figurative narrative and abstract shape and form, seeking to blur and disorient, but at the same time finding the “grey” area and allowing for mystery to be embraced.

IA: What theories inform your work?

MW: Roland Barthes has been helpful to me in his study of contemporary myth. I’m fascinated by recent scientific study of things like quantum physics, space, and time. We are able to discover that in the vast chaos, there is order (example: Stephen Hawking's new book is called The Grand Design). Yet we as humans are now running into limits to what we can really know about it (known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). What we are learning is that we are small, tiny creatures on a small, tiny planet, and every new discovery about the universe makes us smaller and smaller. Biblical theology helps me to reconcile that reality, which to me reveals that though we are small, humanity is significant, and there is great freedom in this.

IA: Do you think these topics, techniques, and theories are typical of those working in your genre?

MW: I think in terms of being informed by theology or philosophy, art still clings to Modernist ideas largely defined by Nietzche, Marx, and Freud. Even though we've been in a Postmodern period for over 50 years, it is seen (and I say this simplistically) that truth is relative, God is Dead, so let’s elevate a few among us to celebrity status to be our objects of worship, and party hard. That said, there is a lot to find in contemporary art that is meaningful and helpful. As far as painting goes, art critics and thinkers have been declaring the medium dead over and over for the last 150 years, and while they keep proclaiming that the painters keep painting.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

MW: I like to think of myself as part of a group of artists throughout civilization who, in their time, were seeking to show humanity the truth about the world and themselves, all in a spirit of empathy. I don’t really identify with any particular art movement, or maybe I just haven’t found the right club to throw my hat into. There are particular artists that I see this in their work, such as Mark Rothko, Leon Golub and Anselm Kiefer. I'm not sure an art historian would group artists like these together in any particular movement!

TO THE READER: Who is your favorite contemporary painter?

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts? Please talk specifically about individual musicians/painters/writers/etc. whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of American arts right now.

MW: This is far too nebulous a topic for me to adequately address! While artists like Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney get all the art-world attention, what I’ve personally observed in a general sense is a move away from some of the silliness of ego-driven conceptual “idea” artists and insane art market economics towards more earnest artmaking, where quality in the art object matters again. The Slow Art Movement has some resonance with me; it requires the artist to take care in making art while giving the viewer the freedom to approach the art that they are personally drawn to, but that also requires a responsibility of the viewer to be contemplative and to learn to appreciate art. I hope this holds because I hold to the idea that art is for everybody. Not that silliness doesn’t exist in art anymore, but it can at least be entertaining (see MOMA’s recent “acquisition” of the @ sign).

TO THE READER: Do you agree that art is for everybody?

IA: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

MW: As I am learning to bring the concept of Incarnation into my work, which is to believe the immanence of Christ in the material world is where we find transcendence, the line between what is considered sacred and secular becomes blurry to me. The best I can do right now is to say that I think art that is done in a spirit of self-awareness, discovery, and revelation can be sacred. That art can be found both in a church and in a museum. I think when people talk about sacred and secular art they think of art in a gallery or museum (secular) verses art that is shown in a church (sacred). I’ve personally found that to not be a very good distinction. Icon paintings point to the sacred, but to me so do Minimalist sculptures, which sought to strip away the conventional methods of visual communication, which the Minimalists believed had been largely hijacked by corporate mass-media and advertising, in order to get to something pure. Conversely, artists today produce a lot of bad art for the church; simple sign-making and illustration for a particular religion that lacks authenticity, or worse, portrays a religious fantasy disengaged from the world. Likewise I see art in galleries that is just mimicking whatever is considered trendy in the art world. But then again, it is difficult to know where to draw the line. This is also speaking from a Christian perspective, possibly projecting ideas of the sacred onto an object in which the artist had no intention of making anything remotely sacred. What do you do then?

TO THE READER: Is there any difference between sacred and secular art? Where can each be found?

IA: How do you think the arts are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

MW: I think that we need to recognize that we can’t just throw in with a particular ideology or worldview to define reality so that we can get on with things like raising a family and making money. Perhaps an “Eastward” orientation of economics and Christianity would be a proper correction to the way previous Christian institutions have done things, trying to simplify how the world was viewed in black and white dogma, and where that’s gotten us. I think in that sense, Postmodernism has been a good thing. We’re required as individuals to really evaluate and discern what it is we know (or don’t know) about the world, and I think that’s really important and ultimately creates a better appreciation of the immanent spirituality of the world.

In terms of a post-human phase, I know a lot of people fear our rapidly growing acceptance of technology in our lives, but I believe humanity draws the line on some things, and will continue to do so. The things I hear now from friends is that they know they spend too much time on Facebook, or are on the computer too much. I agree that people need to moderate their use of computers, smartphones, etc. But I think we’ll draw the line when it’s time to implant the chip in our heads! It’s similar to what I mentioned earlier here about painting. Each time some new technology came along, beginning with the camera, then moving on to the television, painting was declared a “dead” technology. Important art is being made with those technologies, and yet it seems most artists keep going back to the canvas on the easel to work out their feelings about the world.

TO THE READER: What did you enjoy most about this interview? Did you disagree with anything Matt said?

19 July 2010

Interview with Rosie Perera, photographer

This is the seventeenth interview in the “Where are we now?” series, and a very special one, because it's with the co-writer of Iambic Admonit!

Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting. There are also questions for you, the reader, scattered throughout this post. Your answer to at least one of them would be an excellent footprint for you to leave behind you here.

Interview with Rosie Perera, photographer
via email

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student? Please talk about yourself as an “artist,” student of the arts, and teacher of the arts.

RP: I am a photographer. I first discovered my eye for it after a trip to Europe in 1985. I took one photo which I felt was quite good, and from that time on I’ve been hooked on it as an art form. In the beginning, I just learned by trial and error. But I have been taking photography classes on and off for the past ten years to hone my skill and learn about the history of photography. I’ve also tutored a few people and taught a photography workshop at a church retreat once. In addition to learning the technical skills, I think to be a good photographer you need to learn the art of seeing. It’s a hard thing to teach to others, but you can develop it over time by slowing down and being open to what is out there, and what is in you that shapes how you see what is out there.

IA: What topics tend to recur in your work?

RP: I do a lot of nature photography because it’s easy to find beauty in nature. But I also enjoy depicting beauty in old and decrepit things: rustic fences, rusty cars, collapsing buildings from a bygone era. I like to show people things they might not otherwise see, so I shoot from interesting or unusual angles, close-ups of tiny creatures and details and patterns. I enjoy humorous juxtapositions as well. I am also doing more and more portraiture these days. I particularly like children as subjects because they are so unselfconscious. I prefer capturing people being themselves to doing posed shots.

IA: What specific techniques do you use?

RP: I switched to digital in 2005 and haven’t looked back. I use Photoshop extensively both for technical corrections and creative license. Unlike some non-photographer critics, I do not view Photoshop as “cheating” – it’s no different from the kind of manipulations photographers have been doing in the darkroom for decades. It’s just easier to do! No messy chemicals. I like that.

I often use selective focus in my work: shallow depth-of-field created by using a low f-stop number (which gives a large aperture). That way I can pick out one element in the photo to draw people’s attention to and intentionally throw background and foreground objects out of focus. It can create an almost painting-like impression sometimes. It’s funny: sometimes when people are complimenting a very precise representational painting they will say it looks almost like a photograph; and when they are complimenting a photograph they will say it looks almost like a painting! I wonder why that is? Why would fooling people about what medium you’re working in be a mark of quality?

TO THE READER: Have you ever said this about a painting or a photograph? Why do you think we have this urge to praise a work by saying it is like some other medium?

IA: What theories inform your work?

RP: No grand theories, really, but I use some of the common rules of thumb of photography. Compositional rules such as the “rule of thirds” which states that a photo is more aesthetically pleasing when the main elements in it align with the lines that divide the rectangle into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The intersections of these lines are particularly important points in the photo to place a key focal point in. I also use lines and curves and contrasting elements to draw the viewer’s eye into the work and maintain their gaze for as long as possible. But of course rules are made to be broken. Once you’ve mastered them, you are free to break them in your own unique ways. I’m still working at that.

TO THE READER: What rules in your own art have you learned and then intentionally broken for creative purposes? What was the result?

IA: Do you think these topics, techniques, and theories are typical of those working in your genre?

RP: I think they are typical for people who are still learning from the masters. There are all kinds of other techniques, especially in the digital age, that are allowing people to distinguish themselves. I have only experimented a little with finding some of my own. But I’m quite happy with the aesthetics that have been proven for a century or more. There is still a wide range of creative possibility available when working within the tried and true “rules” that make a good photo.

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts? Please talk specifically about individual musicians/painters/writers/etc. whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of North American arts right now.

RP: I am actually not very familiar with the bodies of work of many contemporary photographers, certainly not many who are stretching the boundaries of the medium. I’ve participated for the past two years in SoFoBoMo (Solo Photography Book Month). I’ve been watching the work of some of the regular participants in that via their blogs for a few years. They are all quite different in their subject matter, but they’re all using recognizable classic photography techniques. The few examples I’ve seen of people doing things very new and different have been jarring, and it would take a while for me to get used to them or understand what they are trying to do. Some whose work is vastly different from the norm seem to be quite depressed individuals and seem to be working out of that reality. Their depiction of the world is very dark indeed. Others seems to be sarcastic and snide about the possibility of finding meaning or beauty. I must not stand in judgment upon what I don’t understand, though. There is indeed ugliness in the world, and part of the photographer’s calling is to not shy away from it when it is there. But there are ways of portraying it that are compelling to look at and – dare I say – even beautiful. Take, for example, the award-winning photojournalists who have shown the horrors of 9/11, the devastation of Haiti after the earthquake, or the disappearance of the Aral Sea are doing something quite different from being cynical or nihilistic. They are showing “this is wrong and we should do something about it.” I have experimented with surrealism in photography, but it’s ultimately not sustainable because there is no point to it.

TO THE READER: Who is your favorite contemporary photographer?

IA: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

RP: I’ve been part of the Christian Photographer Fellowship on Flickr for the past couple of years. We often get into discussions about what is or should be different about being a Christian working in this medium from anyone else. Some will argue that we must be about spreading the kingdom of God with our work, whether it be primarily an evangelistic or social justice interpretation of the Gospel. Some would even prefer that there be an appropriate Bible verse slapped onto a photo to make it communicate better to the world. Others (myself included) do not see such a stark divide between sacred and secular. All of life is sacred, since it was created by God. So whatever we do in our art that gets people to stop and take notice of creation is sacred. And putting Bible verses on bad photography does not make it good Christian art. I think photographs speak more profoundly without words than with them most of the time.

My church has a rotating art exhibit at all times on our sanctuary walls, and pretty much any subject matter is considered suitable for hanging in that sacred space (except pornography or graphic violence, I’m sure, though the boundaries have never been pushed so we fortunately haven’t had to have the discussion about what would be inappropriate).

TO THE READER: Does your church use original visual art in the service?

IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

RP: In my thoughts and writing, I have become very postmodern. I respect other people’s differing perspectives and don’t try to persuade them to believe what I do. I can’t say I’ve made that shift in my art, though. I do have a particular perspective which is that the technological society we live in is draining to our humanity, and we need to have times to get away from it. So if I can give people a rest from the stress and busyness of life through my photography, I will have fulfilled part of my goal. Ironically, I more often use technology (blog, Flickr) to share my photography with others than hanging it in an exhibit space. But that’s more a comment on the reality of my own over-busy life. I don’t have time to get stuff printed and framed and hung.

One thing that digital photography has done has been to “democratize” the art. Now just about anybody can take pictures and there’s a lot more dross to weed out when looking for good quality. We live in a world that bombards us with images, through advertising, news, entertainment, graphical user interfaces on everything from our computers to our pocket devices to our cars. So people are jaded by it all, and don’t really care about a really good photographer. I don’t think there are necessarily any more or fewer truly fine art photographers of the caliber of Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange. But it is harder for them to position themselves among all the amateurs, because there really are some pretty good amateurs, and simply a huge volume of them at that. I consider myself one of them, in the true sense of the word. I do my work for the love of it not to make money. Many photographers find they have to sell out to commercial work in order to make a living.

IA: How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?

RP: I don’t have space here to write a whole essay on the history of Western thought which has all gone into shaping where we are now. But just going back about 30-40 years, I think we started to see a new renaissance among Christians in the arts that has gotten quite strong of late. Several things have contributed to it. First was the increasing openness between Christians of different traditions (thanks to Vatican II, the Ecumenical movement, etc.) so that dialogue and a shared artistic corpus could inform new work. Second was the intentional recovery of and fostering of the arts, particularly among evangelicals and other Protestants who’d been the inheritors of “throwing the baby [art] out with the bath water of the Reformation.” Third, I think there has been a growing willingness among Christians to engage with the culture around us (perhaps spearheaded by H. Richard Niebuhr with his Christ and Culture [1951]). There are still certain groups who will not watch movies or listen to contemporary music, but they are a small minority now.

My first awareness of consciously Christian arts conferences was one that my mother organized in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the 70s, which is also when Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) was founded. Image Journal came along in 1989, and started the annual Glen Workshop with CIVA in 1995. These sorts of things have really flowered in the last decade or so. Jeremy Begbie’s Theology Through the Arts project gave a big boost to the study of arts on Christian college and seminary campuses.

IA: Where are we going?

RP: I’m not much of a prognosticator. I like laughing at famous predictions that turned out to be wrong (IBM founder Thomas Watson once said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”). However, I’ll venture just this: I think we will begin to see machines developed that can “make art” – at a rudimentary level at first. I once wrote a computer program that made “Etch-a-Sketch”-like drawings by using random numbers to decide how wide to set the pen, when to change the width, how long to draw before making another turn, and which direction to turn in. I wish I’d saved some of its creations. They looked like some modern art done by humans! I recently saw an intriguing news video about a robot developed at Georgia Tech that can improvise jazz with a human collaborator.

I am intrigued to see where technology will takes us with the arts. I hope it never surpasses the ability of human beings to express emotion and touch other human hearts. Even so, I think the purpose for creating art goes way beyond the final product or marketability. Art is a process by which we learn about the world and come to know ourselves, clarify our thoughts and discover our feelings, and through which we can worship God and pray. No computer will ever be able to take that away from us.

TO THE READER: What did you like best in Rosie's interview? Was there anything with which you disagreed? Please share your thoughts via "post a comment" below.

Rosie took this photograph of Dunnottar Castle in Scotland and we used it on the cover of my first book of poetry, The Significance of Swans