Monthly Archives: February 2018

 

Deep in the Mountain Wilderness

by Wang Wei

Deep in the mountain wilderness
Where nobody ever comes
Only once in a great while
Something like the sound of a far off voice,
The low rays of the sun
Slip through the dark forest,
And gleam again on the shadowy moss.

Wang Wei, 701-761

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Haiku by Nissha

Cada vez que rompe la ola,

    el cuervo

da un pequeῆo salto

 

                                                 Nissha

Letter to any would-be terrorists from Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a “wandering poet.” She has spent 33 years traveling the country and the world to lead writing workshops and inspiring students of all ages. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her experiences traveling in Asia, Europe, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Middle East, Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity.

Letter from Naomi Shihab Nye, Arab-American Poet:

To Any Would-Be Terrorists

I am sorry I have to call you that, but I don’t know how else to get your attention.  I hate that word.  Do you know how hard some of us have worked to get rid of that word, to deny its instant connection to the Middle East? And now look.  Look what extra work we have.  Not only did your colleagues kill thousands of innocent, international people in those buildings and scar their families forever, they wounded a huge community of people in the Middle East, in the United States and all over the world.  If that’s what they wanted to do, please know the mission was a terrible success, and you can stop now.

Because I feel a little closer to you than many Americans could possibly feel, or ever want to feel, I insist that you listen to me.  Sit down and listen.  I know what kinds of foods you like. I would feed them to you if you were right here, because it is very very important that you listen.  I am humble in my country’s pain and I am furious.

My Palestinian father became a refugee in 1948. He came to the United States as a college student. He is 74 years old now and still homesick. He has planted fig trees. He has invited all the Ethiopians in his neighborhood to fill their little paper sacks with his figs. He has written columns and stories saying the Arabs are not terrorists, he has worked all his life to defy that word. Arabs are businessmen and students and kind neighbors.  There is no one like him and there are thousands like him – gentle Arab daddies who make everyone laugh around the dinner table, who have a hard time with headlines, who stand outside in the evenings with their hands in their pockets staring toward the far horizon.

I am sorry if you did not have a father like that.  I wish everyone could have a father like that.

My hard-working American mother has spent 50 years trying to convince her fellow teachers and choir mates not to believe stereotypes about the Middle East. She always told them, there is a much larger story. If you knew the story, you would not jump to conclusions from what you see in the news. But now look at the news. What a mess has been made.  Sometimes I wish everyone could have parents from different countries or ethnic groups so they would be forced to cross boundaries, to believe in mixtures, every day of their lives.   Because this is what the world calls us to do. WAKE UP!

The Palestinian grocer in my Mexican-American neighborhood paints pictures of the Palestinian flag on his empty cartons.  He paints trees and rivers. He gives his paintings away. He says, “Don’t insult me” when I try to pay him for a lemonade. Arabs have always been famous for their generosity. Remember? My half-Arab brother with an Arabic name looks more like an Arab than many full-blooded Arabs do and he has to fly every week.

My Palestinian cousins in Texas have beautiful brown little boys. Many of them haven’t gone to school yet. And now they have this heavy word to carry in their backpacks along with the weight of their papers and books. I repeat, the mission was a terrible success. But it was also a complete, total tragedy and I want you to think about a few things.

1. Many people, thousands of people, perhaps even millions of people, in the United States are very aware of the long unfairness of our country’s policies regarding Israel and Palestine. We talk about this all the time. It exhausts us and we keep talking. We write letters to newspapers, to politicians, to each other.  We speak out in public even when it is uncomfortable to do so, because that is our responsibility. Many of these people aren’t even Arabs. Many happen to be Jews who are equally troubled by the inequity. I promise you this is true. Because I am Arab-American, people always express these views to me and I am amazed how many understand the intricate situation and have strong, caring feelings for Arabs and Palestinians even when they don’t have to. Think of them, please: All those people who have been standing up for Arabs when they didn’t have to. But as ordinary citizens we don’t run the government and don’t get to make all our government’s policies, which makes us sad sometimes.  We believe in the power of the word and we keep using it, even when it seems no one large enough is listening. That is one of the best things about this country: the free power of free words. Maybe we take it for granted too much. Many of the people killed in the World Trade Center probably believed in a free Palestine and were probably talking about it all the time.

But this tragedy could never help the Palestinians. Somehow, miraculously, if other people won’t help them more, they are going to have to help themselves.  And it will be peace, not violence, that fixes things. You could ask any one of the kids in the Seeds of Peace organization and they would tell you that. Do you ever talk to kids? Please, please, talk to more kids.

2. Have you noticed how many roads there are? Sure you have. You must check out maps and highways and small alternate routes just like anyone else. There is no way everyone on earth could travel on the same road, or believe in exactly the same religion. It would be too crowded, it would be dumb. I don’t believe you want us all to be Muslims. My Palestinian grandmother lived to be 106 years old, and did not read or write, but even she was much smarter than that. The only place she ever went beyond Palestine and Jordan was to Mecca, by bus, and she was very proud to be called a Hajji and to wear white clothes afterwards. She worked very hard to get stains out of everyone’s dresses — scrubbing them with a stone.  I think she would consider the recent tragedies a terrible stain on her religion and her whole part of the world. She would weep. She was scared of airplanes anyway. She wanted people to worship God in whatever ways they felt comfortable. Just worship. Just remember God in every single day and doing. It didn’t matter what they called it.  When people asked her how she felt about the peace talks that were happening right before she died, she puffed up like a proud little bird and said, in Arabic, “I never lost my peace inside.” To her, Islam was a welcoming religion. After her home in Jerusalem was stolen from her, she lived in a small village that contained a Christian shrine. She felt very tender toward the people who would visit it.   A Jewish professor tracked me down a few years ago in Jerusalem to tell me she changed his life after he went to her village to do an oral history project on Arabs. “Don’t think she only mattered to you!” he said. “She gave me a whole different reality to imagine – yet it was amazing how close we became. Arabs could never be just a “project” after that.”

Did you have a grandmother or two?  Mine never wanted people to be pushed around. What did yours want?  Reading about Islam since my grandmother died, I note the “tolerance” that was “typical of Islam” even in the old days. The Muslim leader Khalid ibn al-Walid signed a Jerusalem treaty which declared, “in the name of God, you have complete security for your churches which shall not be occupied by the Muslims or destroyed.” It is the new millenium in which we should be even smarter than we used to be, right? But I think we have fallen behind.

3. Many Americans do not want to kill any more innocent people anywhere in the world. We are extremely worried about military actions killing innocent people. We didn’t like this in Iraq, we never liked it anywhere. We would like no more violence, from us as well as from you. HEAR US!  We would like to stop the terrifying wheel of violence, just stop it, right on the road, and find something more creative to do to fix these huge problems we have. Violence is not creative, it is stupid and scary and many of us hate all those terrible movies and TV shows made in our own country that try to pretend otherwise.  Don’t watch them. Everyone should stop watching them.  An appetite for explosive sounds and toppling buildings is not a healthy thing for anyone in any country. The USA should apologize to the whole world for sending this trash out into the air and for paying people to make it.

But here’s something good you may not know – one of the best-selling books of poetry in the United States in recent years is the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi, a mystical Sufi poet of the 13th century, and Sufism is Islam and doesn’t that make you glad?

Everyone is talking about the suffering that ethnic Americans are going through. Many will no doubt go through more of it, but I would like to thank everyone who has sent me a consolation card. Americans are usually very kind people. Didn’t your colleagues find that out during their time living here? It is hard to imagine they missed it. How could they do what they did, knowing that?

4. We will all die soon enough. Why not take the short time we have on this delicate planet and figure out some really interesting things we might do together?  I promise you, God would be happier. So many people are always trying to speak for God – I know it is a very dangerous thing to do. I tried my whole life not to do it. But this one time is an exception. Because there are so many people crying and scarred and confused and complicated and exhausted right now – it is as if we have all had a giant simultaneous break-down.  I beg you, as your distant Arab cousin, as your American neighbor, listen to me. Our hearts are broken, as yours may also feel broken in some ways we can’t understand, unless you tell us in words.  Killing people won’t tell us. We can’t read that message. Find another way to live.  Don’t expect others to be like you.  Read Rumi.  Read Arabic poetry. Poetry humanizes us in a way that news, or even religion, has a harder time doing. A great Arab scholar, Dr. Salma Jayyusi, said, “If we read one another, we won’t kill one another.”  Read American poetry.   Plant mint.  Find a friend who is so different from you, you can’t believe how much you have in common. Love them. Let them love you. Surprise people in gentle ways, as friends do. The rest of us will try harder too. Make our family proud.

 naomi shihab nye

Naomi 01

Naomi 02

What They’re Not: The Paintings of Christopher Wool by Ann Goldstein

 

 

What They’re Not: The Paintings of Christopher Wool

by Ann Goldstein

The one evolution of art forms unfolds in one straight logical line of negative actions and reactions, in one predestined, eternally recurrent stylistic cycle, in the same all-over pattern, in all times and places, taking different times in different places, always beginning with an “early” archaic schematization, achieving a climax with a “classic” formulation, and decaying with the “late” endless variety of illusionisms and expressionisms. When late stages wash away all lines of demarcation, framework, and fabric, with “anything can be art”, “anybody can be an artist”, “that’s life”, “why fight it”, “anything goes”, and “it makes no difference whether art is abstract or representational”, the artists’ world is a mannerist and primitivist art trade and suicide-vaudeville, venal, genial, contemptible, trifling.
Ad Reinhardt, “Art-as-Art” [1]
The symptoms were everywhere: in the work of painters themselves, all of whom seemed to be reiterating Ad Reinhardt’s claim that he was “just making the last paintings anyone could make” or allowing their paintings to be contaminated with such alien elements as photographic images; in minimal sculpture, which provided a definite rupture with painting’s unavoidable ties to a centuries-old idealism; in all other mediums to which artists turned, as one after another, they abandoned painting. The dimension that had always resisted even painting’s most dazzling feats of illusionism – time – now became the dimension in which artists staged their activities as they embraced film, video, and performance. And, after waiting out the entire era of modernism, photography reappeared, finally to claim its inheritance.
Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting” [2]

At the beginning of the 1980s, the conservative reinvestment in the authority and market value of painting of the moment was marked as a retrograde, if not necrophilic trajectory. In Douglas Crimp’s 1981 essay, he condemned the “belief” in painting and the investment in the human touch that was essential to the idea of a painting’s unique “aura”. Crimp’s argument is important both in terms of how it challenged the painting versus photography argument of critics such as Barbara Rose, and in how it went further, to articulate a theoretical position that questioned the continued viability of painting. Crimp cited the practice of Daniel Buren, who in 1965 limited his painting to alternating white and colored vertical stripes as a visual signifier within a specified space and context. Referring to Rose’s critique of Buren’s work as “vaguely resembling Stella’s stripe paintings” [3], Crimp focused his critique of painting on Frank Stella’s work of the late 1970s:

If we remember that it was Stella’s earliest paintings that signaled to his colleagues that the end of painting had finally come (I am thinking of such deserters of the ranks of painters as Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris), it seems fairly clear that Stella’s own career is a prolonged agony over the incontestable implications of those works, as he has retreated further and further from them, repudiating them more vociferously with each new series. The late 1970s paintings are truly hysterical in their defiance of the black paintings; each one looks like a tantrum, shrieking and sputtering that the end of painting has not come. [4]

Simultaneously with Crimp’s analysis, however, some artists began to reconsider painting as a vehicle for critique from within, specifically through strategies of appropriation. As the artist and critic Thomas Lawson wrote in his provocative text, “Last Exit: Painting” (also from 1981):

More compelling, because more perverse, is the idea of tackling the problem with what appears to be the least suitable vehicle available, painting. It is perfect camouflage, and it must be remembered that Picasso considered cubism and camouflage to be one and the same, a device of misrepresentation, a deconstrucrive tool designed to undermine the certainty of appearances. The appropriation of painting as a subversive method allows one to place critical aesthetic activity at the center of the marketplace, where it can cause the most trouble. [5]

It was in 1981 that Christopher Wool returned to work in painting after a two year hiatus. Wool’s work has followed a trajectory that is at once historically reflexive, very much of its own moment, and keenly self-critical. Wool’s work has drawn from a variety of experiences both inside and outside art, within a framework that is concerned with the history, conventions and problematics of making a painting in the 1980s and 90s – his work embodies and encourages its own contradictions. As Bruce W. Ferguson has written, “Wool accepts that he is and that his paintings are, at any moment, within what Richard Prince calls ‘wild history’, subject to the intertextual meeting of various discourses.” [6]

Besides the affinity that Ferguson describes with Prince, Wool has also shared his interest in aspects of mass culture (film, television, music) with other close colleagues of his generation, including Robert Gober, Cady Noland, Philip Taaffe, Albert Qehlen, Martin Kippenberger, Mike Kelley, and Stephen Prina. Wool was particularly affected by the attitude of the painters of his generation in Germany – especially Oehlen and Kippenberger – whose work, as Friedrich Petzel has written, “hailed the productivity of failure, claiming that the discrediting of painting’s effective capacity has opened yet another discursive field.” [7]

Wool’s early development as an artist reflects this multitude of influences. In 1972, at the age of sixteen, Wool graduated from high school and began two years of study, during which he had the opportunity to work with Richard Poussette-Dart and Jack Tworkov. At the time he ended his formal studies in 1975, at the age of nineteen, he was making allover abstract paintings of accumulated mark-making. In 1976, he moved into a Chinatown studio that remains his residence today.

Living and working in New York since the early 1970s, Wool saw a number of exhibitions that greatly impressed him – Joel Shapiro’s tiny cast iron sculpture of a chair in his 1974 exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Brice Marden’s four “Figure” paintings in 1974 at Bykert Gallery, and Malcolm Morley’s 1976 exhibition at the Clocktower. Of particular importance to Wool were the process works associated with Post-minimalism, especially the thrown lead works of Richard Serra. These sculptures of splashed lead are central to Wool’s ideas of process and covering-up in relation to painting, and specifically to picture making.

Wool was also exposed early on to the work of European artists including Richard Hamilton, Yves Klein, Arnulf Rainer, and, most importantly, the Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth, whose long-standing friendship with Wool’s father later resulted in a comprehensive collection of Roth’s production: books, drawings, paintings, graphics, sculptures, installations, and changing works-in-progress occupying his parents’ apartment in Chicago.

Music was also very important to Wool – his great interest in the Art Ensemble of Chicago led him to Ornette Coleman’s performance space in Soho, and he encountered the downtown punk music and club scene of the late 1970s, which also crossed over into film, specifically the films of artists, musicians, and filmmakers – James Nares, Eric Mitchell, John Lurie, Becky Johnston, Vivian Dick, and Michael McClard among them – known as the New Cinema. [8] Beginning in 1978, Wool stopped painting for two years in order to follow his interest in film, including a brief, unsuccessful period of study at New York University. Wool started painting again in 1981, and at the same time he became a studio assistant for Joel Shapiro, a position that he continued to hold part-time for the next four years.

In the early 1980s, Wool’s paintings featured semi-figurative imagery that often played with figures of speech, evident in such titles as The Bigger the Lie the Longer the Nose or Monkey Chase (the dog in me). Wool was working with a limited palette (red, white, and black) with a loose, drippy, wide brushstroke, often over-painting into wet paint, thus emphasizing the process. At this time, Wool was finding it increasingly difficult to identify meaningful imagery. Ultimately, it was the process of painting and the physical properties of paint that became most important to him. As he later reflected: “I became more interested in ‘how to paint it’ than ‘what to paint.'” [9]

In the “silver” paintings of 1984-85 and the “drip” paintings of 1985-86, Wool was trying to make traditional paintings that did not look like traditional paintings – in effect trying to push what might be seen as a painting in order to create a confusion between the act and the image: “Is it a painting or a process?” [10] With these and his subsequent allover works, he sought to define his work by the elimination of everything that seemed unnecessary, thus rejecting color, hierarchical composition, and internal form. Wool’s work is as much defined by its exclusions as its inclusions, as he has stated: “You take color out, you take gesture out – and then later you can put them in. But it’s easier to define things by what they’re not than by what they are.” [11]

The images of the “silver” and “drip” paintings were the product of an allover composition of enamel and aluminum paint poured and dripped onto surfaces of steel backed by wood. In these works, Wool was able to control the application of paint to such a degree that individual dots of paint retain their individual integrity while chemical interactions between the materials produce a secondary process of shadow or halo-like rings that echo them. As Jeff Perrone has described the results, “Wool produced a detailed, all-over field suggesting a chemical peel, a deep etching, some microscopic pitting that could also be read as cosmic, astronomical.” [12]

The drip paintings of Jackson Pollock are an obvious influence on Wool’s process at this time. As John CaIdwell wrote:

Standing before such paintings for the first time is a curious experience. One thinks naturally of Pollock because of the way the paint is dripped onto the metal support, but to remember Pollock is necessarily to experience a sense of loss. Instead of his looping whorls of paint, seemingly uncontrolled, but in fact highly disciplined, one faces in Wool’s work only the arbitrary order of carefully achieved randomness. Undeniably the work is beautiful; for many observers it resembles stars in a night sky. Yet, especially because of the inevitable recall of Pollock’s work, there is no secure sense of what Wool’s paintings mean. They are uniform, deliberate, absolute, and masterful, but entirely resistant to ones natural search for meaning, which they seem to deny.” [13]

In an untitled drip painting from 1986, Wool reduced his palette further, removing silver and white as the alternative to black and covering the surface with only black on black drips. The result was a shiny, mottled surface that gave the work a mirror-like quality as it reflected the contingencies of light and the changing position of the spectator. Wool’s interest in opening the paintings to a wide range of associations was further expanded in this pivotal work, not only by adding to his ongoing investigation of the relationship between process and painted imagery, but also by raising the possibility of a painting that would invite an active, physical engagement with the viewer.

However important the process of dripping paint was to Wool at this time, it was ultimately Pollock’s allover strategy of picture making that was most influential in these and the subsequent body of paintings (begun in 1986) that were produced with rubber rollers commonly used to apply a decorative “wallpaper” patterns to walls. These works mark a distinct break with the earlier drip paintings through their employment of recognizable, banal imagery – flowers, vines, clover, dots – that open the works to associative meanings derived from the particular patterns of the image. Wool selected images that he found the most “naturalistic” and least kitschy, and those that when rolled out made continuous patterns without beginning or end. Using the roller as a tool for both painting and printmaking, these works continue to operate, like the drip paintings, as allover patterns, albeit with a clear figure / ground relationship between the uninflected, chalky white surface of the alkyd on steel ground and the shiny blank enamel paint applied to it. Although he will occasionally substitute dark blue or red for black, or add yellow or pink, Wool’s “palette” remains almost exclusively black and white.

The repetitive patterns of these works are articulated by layering, skips in register, drips and scumbles, what Gary Indiana called “glitches.” [14] The imperfections imbue these works with fragility, as the seemingly empty decorative patterns ate rendered imperfect, and thus vulnerable. As Caldwell observed: “In many works the image is so faint at times that it almost fades away entirely. In fact, the eye does move across the paintings’ surface repeatedly because in ordinary life, outside of painting, variation implies change or development, and the viewer actually tries to read the imperfections of the process for meaning.” [15] Likening Wool’s use of rollers to Andy Warhol’s silk screened paintings of the 1960s, he continued,

In Warhol’s best works, the dead movie star or the electric chair seems to change, and the viewer experiences this with both relief and heightened interest, only to discover that the image is the same and that there is no escaping the harsh reality, or unreality, of the single image itself. Wool is more reticent, cooler even than Warhol. Since the repeated pattern has no inherent meaning and no strong association, we tend to view its variation largely in terms of abstraction, expecting to find in the changes of the pattern some of the meaning we associate with traditional abstract painting. [16]

The last group of roller paintings of this initial period were those using a dot pattern, a more neutral visual presence that refers to the Benday dot and the basic patterns of printing. [17]

In 1987, while Wool continued to make paintings with the roller images, he also began to use words as the imagery in his work. His interest in working with words was first manifested in concrete poems, as well as in titles for abstract paintings. Having seen a brand new, white truck with the words “SEX LUV” hand-painted on the side, he started to work with compositions derived from stenciled words, the first a small drawing alternating the words “sex” and “luv” in a stacked composition. The first painting was a play on the words “trojan horse”, dropping the “a” in trojan and the “e” in horse. These first so-called “word” paintings focused on words or expressions with multiple meanings, particularly as they are broken up in composition, repeated, or modified or abbreviated through the deletion of letters: “helter helter”, and longer texts drawn from expressions originating in popular culture, such as Muhammad Ali’s proclamation “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” His 1988 painting Apocalypse Now draws from Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the text comes from the chilling letter from Captain Colby: “sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids.” This work was included in a collaborative installation with Robert Gober at 303 Gallery in New York in 1988, which also included a wall sculpture consisting of three plaster urinals (by Gober), a full length mirror, a collaborative work by Wool and Gober consisting of a small black-and-white photograph of a sleeveless dress, made from cloth printed with the vine roller pattern Wool had used in his paintings; hanging on a tree, and a work of fiction by Gary Indiana in the accompanying publication. [18]

The origins or initial contexts of the texts that Wool used were less important than the possibility of opening them up through composition and their conversion into paintings. Wool extended his interest in layering imagery in the roller paintings to layering meaning in the word paintings through the selection of words or texts that are both common and open-ended. In a group of four-letter word paintings Wool portrays such words as “fear”, “amok”, “awol”, and “riot’, by stacking the letters two over two. In the case of the word “amok’, when stacked it reads an incongruous “am ok’, whereas in “trbl” and “drnk’, Wool has deleted vowels, thus opening up multiple readings.

In 1989-90, Wool made a series of paintings of nine-letter words that describe character traits, types, or roles, such as hypocrite, terrorist, comedian, spokesman, insomniac, paranoiac, adversary, prankster, chameleon, assassin, persuader, and pessimist. Stacking the letters in three rows of three, the words are “read” as an allover composition as well as meaningful text. These “Black Book” paintings – from the title of a 1990 artist’s book by Wool that reproduces all of the words he had assembled as potential subjects – together resonate as a cast of characters; or as the multiple facets of one.

Wool’s work with text recalls that of such artists as diverse as Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, all of whom influenced his use of text as image and as vehicle of address. Anticipated in the mirror-like engagement of the viewer in the untitled black-on-black drip painting from 1986, Wool’s text paintings speak out in loaded expressions of direct address and slang. Stumbling and misarticulated in their composition, they are often decipherable only by reading the text out loud.

This is the case in several untitled works of the early nineties that incorporate longer texts, including a series of works that work with different renditions of such expressions as “run dog run”, “cats in the bag”, and “fuck’em if they can’t take a joke.” In a 1988 collaboration with Richard Prince, Wool made two paintings using jokes supplied by Prince: “I didn’t have a penny to my name so I changed my name” and “I went to see a psychiatrist. He said tell me everything. I did, and now he’s doing my act.” In 1990-91, Wool made four untitled paintings using, without punctuation, a passage quoted in Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, a key Situationist text of 1967: “The show is over the audience get up to leave their seats time to collect their coats and go home they turn around no more coats and no more home.” [19]

In each of the paintings, Wool’s stenciled text is composed and painted in a different manner, varying in the composition of the letters and/or words across the surface, as well as in the physical rendering of the stenciled letters and the incorporation, or not, of irregularities, broken edges of the letters, and drips in the paint. For example, one version presents the text in an allover pattern of letters that do not break at words, instead filling the surface from edge to edge until the letters run out halfway across the bottom line. The letters themselves are re-outlined in white paint, which drips into the text. This text was also used in a billboard project and in a 1993 collaboration with Felix Gonzalez-Torres consisting of a stack of sheets of paper printed with the text.

In 1988 Wool added another technique of image/paint application, that of the rubber stamp. Like the rollers, the rubber stamp joined together painting and process. With it Wool was able to broaden his imagery beyond the “off-the-shelf” catalogue of the rollers. These new images included bouquets of flowers, wrought-iron gate patterns, running men, and birds. The “gate” imagery was particularly effective as a continuation of Wool’s involvement in allover pattern. He could construct a pattern with the repetition of the stamped image, in effect “interlocking” the individual stamped images like the links in a gate, as well as altering the integrity of the image through layering, overprinting, and register variation. Working with these rubber stamp images, chosen for the ability to convey a wide range of associations as compositions, Wool continued to consider the associative possibilities of decorative imagery. He also began to engage with the idea of a “generic” painting, an idea that was addressed by a number of artists in the 1980s, notably in the broad stripe paintings of Sherrie Levine.

In 1991-92, Wool concluded the rubber stamp paintings with a series of works using large blowups of the vine leaf roller pattern. These works were shown at Documenta IX in 1992, in a collaborative installation with Robert Gober, on walls covered with a fall forest wallpaper designed by Gober. Wool then began to work with silk screened imagery, which he continues to use to the present. Silkscreen opened up new possibilities of scale and process. Wool’s work of the 1990s began to shift through image construction towards erasure or destruction as a method of image production.

The first silkscreen paintings of 1993 used large blowups of flower images taken from the earlier wallpaper rollers, clip art, wallpaper and textile designs. Wool’s first silkscreen paintings layered black images upon black images in dense compositions with varying degrees of overprinting, clogging, slipping, and obviously dirty screens, all associated with mistakes in the silkscreen process. The banality that one associates with Andy Warhol’s silk screened flowers is overwhelmed by the grittiness of Wool’s intense and seemingly out-of-control compositions. The first silkscreen works continue the additive process by laying black flower images on top of each other. Wool later introduced white into the works, painting our certain areas, and then silk screening the black images again, wherein the process that produces the works becomes both additive and reductive. In these and such works as I Can’t Stand Myself When You Touch Me(1994) or Knee Deep (1995), in the process of “painting out” much of the image area with pink or blue-black paint, respectively, Wool is engaged in “a process of covering that became a picture.” [20] These works mark a shift from the allover or systematic approach to composition of the earlier roller and text paintings to more hierarchical compositions. The image area becomes more centralized and the structure more detached from the edges of the frame. The picture plane often seems to be divided horizontally, suggesting consecutive frames from a film.

In 1995, working on large sheets of paper and later on aluminum panels, Wool made works using a spray gun to apply black paint like a drawing. The initial works are simply a single sprayed tangled line on the surface, with the highly liquefied paint dripping down from the initial sprayed mark. Later the spray is used in conjunction with the silkscreen and painting-out techniques. In Maggie’s Brain (1995), a silk screen surface is over painted with white, then silk screened again, and topped with an explosive floral-like spray form in the center of the surface.

In the recent works of 1997, over painting with white becomes very specifically about erasure – erasure as a process of producing and articulating an image. The silkscreen patterns of these works are drawn from blow-ups of the earlier roller patterns, and the white paint that covers aspects of them reinforces the “negative space” of the picture plane as it echoes the original ground of the surface. In his most recent works, Wool has applied a black, spray painted, rectangular “frame” to the surface. Streaming with drips, these “frames” hover over the surface, reinforcing it while at the same time alluding to the convention of the painting as a “window.” Like a disembodied picture of a picture, they frame a painting within a painting.

In addition to his paintings, Wool has worked on paper consistently throughout his career, making both studies for paintings and discrete works specifically conceived for the medium. He has used both painted surfaces and unpainted rice paper for works using rollers, stamps, stencils, silk screens and sprays. These works enrich his oeuvre especially through the incorporation of the materiality of the surface of the paper and the degree of the absorption of the paint.

Wool has also worked in photography, and, since the time that he began to make the word paintings, he has produced a voluminous body of installation shots of his work in his studio, as well as in exhibitions and collections. A sequence of these images has been assembled by the artist for this publication. These casual images form striking parallels to the paintings and works on paper, both in terms of process and as picture. The blurred focus, grainy high contrast, and askew camera angles echo the skips, clogs, and slips of the wallpaper rollers, the distressed images of the silk screens, and the stunning provocations of the text paintings – AMOK, TRBL, PRANKSTER, FUCKEM IF THEY CAN’T TAKE A JOKE. Like the different bodies of paintings, they work with multiple variations; a single painting may be represented in half a dozen images. They incorporate the incidents of reflection and glare that obscure and compromise the subject with white light, nor unlike the over painting that obscures a printed image. As photographs, they function both as documents and as pictures. In one sequence they are in fact the documentation Wool made of the devastating damage to his studio and artwork (for an insurance claim) in the chaotic aftermath of a 1996 fire in his building. These eerie, crime scene-like images were reproduced by Wool in a booklet, Incident on 9th Street, and were published as an edition of photographs. As documentation, reproductions, or as works of art, these photographs, like his paintings, reflect Wool’s ongoing interest in multiple readings.

His work incorporates a steadfast criticality and welcomes contradictions. As one untitled painting states, “You Make Me.” Its speech is boldly directed to the spectator, and yet it remains surprisingly open to interpretation: you make me… you complete me. Through process, technique, scale, composition, and imagery, Wool’s work accentuates the tensions and contradictions between the act of painting, the construction of a picture, its physical attributes, the visual experience of looking at it, and the possibilities of playing with and pushing open the thresholds of its meanings. They are defined by what they’re not – and by what they hold back.

* Ann Goldstein, “What They’re Not: The Paintings of Christopher Wool” in Christopher Wool, exh. cat. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998): 255-264

[1] Ad Reinhardt, “Art-as-Art”, originally published in Art International (December 1962), as reprinted in Ad Reinhardt (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art; New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1991): 122.

[2] Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting”, in On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1993): 92-93.

[3] Barbara Rose, “Twighlight of the Superstars”, Partisan Review 41, no. 4 (Winter 1974): 569, as quoted in Crimp: 88.

[4] Crimp: 99.

[5] Thomas Lawson, “Last Exit: Painting”, as reprinted in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, in association with David R. Godine, Boston, 1984): 163-164.

[6] Bruce W. Ferguson, “Patterns of Intent”, Artforum (September 1991): 96.

[7] Petzel, “Psycho-sludge”, in Oehlen Williams 95 (Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1995): 141.

[8] In 1995, Wool assembled and remastered onto videotape a selected retrospective of these films.

[9] Conversation with the artist, October 17, 1997.

[10] Conversation with the artist, October 17, 1997.

[11] Christopher Wool in “Artists in Conversation I”, in Birth of the Cool (Zurich: Kunsthaus Zurich and Hamburg: Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 1997): 34.

[12] Jeff Perone, “In the Shadow of Painting”, Parkett 33 (Fall 1992): 103.

[13] John Caldwell, “New Work: Christopher Wool”, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998): unpag.

[14] Gary Indiana, “Chronicle in Black & White”, Village Voice (May 31, 1987): 89.

[15] John Caldwell, “New Work: Christopher Wool”, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat. (San Francisco Museum of ModernArt, 1989): unpag.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wool did return to the use of the roller in Groove I and II (1994), paintings that played with the title of Brice Marden’s “Grove Group” paintings.

[18] The text by Gary Indiana is reprinted in this book. Wool later collaborated with Gober on an installation in documenta IX in 1992 in Kassel, Germany. Wool showed vine “stamp” paintings on walls covered with “forest” wallpaper by Gober.

[19] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life (London: Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1983): 134.

[20] Conversation with the artist, December 9, 1997.

 

Hold out your arms  by Helen Dunmore

 

 

Hold out your arms

by Helen Dunmore

 

Death, hold out your arms for me
Embrace me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.

I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.

Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
Embarrass me,
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.

There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.

As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’

***

 

Idowu Omoyele says:

“Hold Out Your Arms” by the Beverley, Yorkshire-born British poet, novelist, short-story writer and children’s writer Helen Dunmore (12 December 1952 – 5 June 2017) is an elegy – a self-elegy. It is a beautiful piece of work which mediates its author’s stoicism, her quiet dignity, in the face of impending death (The poem is dated “25 May 2017”). The lyric’s seven stanzas eschew emotionalism, sentimentality and platitudes; instead, in their consummate command of meter and prosody, their astute alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, they reflect Dunmore’s sense of equanimity in the face of despair, her sense of tonal and temperamental control in engaging with death which amounts to a defiance every bit as palpable as the sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud” by the English Metaphysical poet John Donne. And yet and yet … her defiance is nowhere as brash or abrasive, and all the more affecting for being so subtle, so reflective:

Death, hold out your arms for me
Embrace me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.

In this first stanza, Dunmore offers a warm welcome to death, asking it to embrace and caress her, acknowledging that it has not forgotten her in her period of pain and anguish. Death is often perceived as a harbinger of doom, but the suffering poet has other ideas:

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.

I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.

The poet invokes death as sweet-smelling, attractive and beautiful. Through metaphor, she likens death to Sherbet, a fruit-flavoured food or drink, and to an old plant sporting attractive (purple or yellow) flowers and sword-shaped foliage (“bearded iris”; “Sherbet, pure iris”) which, by the wall, “bakes” its stem with dry heat (“rhizomes”). That the leaves of the iris are sword-shaped complicates and intensifies an otherwise exquisite portrait of death. Just as the rhizomes are baked by their iris, so is the funnily-dressed poet, in a memory from childhood of standing by the wall, baked or heated by the sun. Death is the common and certain denominator in the journey of life from cradle to grave.

Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
Embarrass me,
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.

The poet continues her engagement with death by direct address: in the opening line of the fourth stanza, she modulates the rhetorical device of apostrophe (“Death, you heap into my arms”) in relation to the opening line of the first (“Death, hold out your arms for me”). The poet reckons that that thing about to claim her is itself aware that she is shy of death, that death that would stoop over, and embarrass, her with its scent-filled essence. The fact of her impending and, now, untimely, death of cancer at 64 is evoked in another line which refers to fruit and the colour purple: “A basket of unripe damsons/ Red crisscross straps that button behind me.”

There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.

The poet returns to the images of iris and rhizomes and, significantly, to an earlier image from stanza 1 of death’s “motherly caress”; just as the wall gives back the heat generated by the bearded iris’s baking of its rhizomes, and just as a child would always be lifted by her or his mother as a rhizome would a flower, so would death embrace, caress, lift up the suffering poet: “So you settle me/ My arms twining,/ Thighs gripping your hips/ Where the swell of you is.” By the end of this moving poem, the poet has reached an accommodation with death that suggests more than mere familiarity: an intuitive, introspective but enlightened and philosophically reflective perspective about life and living, death and dying:

As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’