Thursday, September 15, 2016

Favorite little story about my mother, written long ago by my cousin

I'd like to start by telling you how much I admired your mother and how sad I am about her death. I was a really awkward teenager and she was always willing to listen to what I had to say and was very encouraging and inclusive. When I was in junior high school, my family was pretty poor and did not buy clothes for me or my sibs. I was painfully shy and dressed in an odd assortment of old clothes, so during one visit Susan went through her closet and gave me several pairs of her pants which I wore until they fell apart. Those pants gave me tremendous self esteem. It was such a kind act and I am so, so sorry that she died so young.

Very old poem I wrote for Frank Brunner (published in Abaton)



To understand a painter is to feel, at times, that they are more paint than person. The redolence clings, as does the slipperiness, and everything touched is left with painted fingertips—evidence of an indivisible character. The smell, sight and feel of paint commingle to become the one thought of oil and pigment. Honey, that sacred humectant form, exists always, even entombed, as its sugary self. Never drying completely, only crystallizing into more of what is. Though these substances address different senses, their ineffability results in synesthesia—honey is flowing everywhere, over eyelids, the scent of flowers and metamorphoses. Let them eat paint, the only cheap thing rich enough to mutate dumb surfaces into areas of pure thought. Alone it is just stuff, forever waiting to be given life.

Drenched in paint, dripping in honey—these are the messes we make, the substances of sensuous lives that, in the theatre of reality, can only play themselves.

Very old essay I wrote for Frank Brunner (published in Abaton)


What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Friedrich Nietzsche, on the concept of eternal return  

The allegorical themes of Frank Brunner’s paintings illustrate, mirror and reconsider the Nietzschean concept of eternal return. By depicting, time and again, historical narratives that are equally universal and personal, and by creating bodies of work that continually allude to one another, Brunner’s large-scale oil-on-canvas works act as the metaphysical retelling of an epic yet to be written.
If nothing happens twice, then nothing matters more than once. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera rescues the concept eternal return from Nietzsche’s weighty gravity by positioning that the opposite form of existence would be a life of unbearable lightness. If one lived bereft of recurrence, one would be doomed to an existence devoid of the all the profundities endemic to moments of repetition. Bees, which figure prominently in Brunner’s latest series of paintings, “Abaton,” are blessed with the eternal return as internal monologue. The lives of bees can be dismissed as those condemned to repetitious servitude, Maoist prisoners devoid of individualistic pleasure. And yet one finds, in their regimented devotion to nectar gathering and hive building, the absolute continuation of freedom. In its most exalted form, the eternal return of bees, and of humans, transcends a reenactment of the same. Recurrence instead becomes tied to the ritual of life itself, a noble form of action governed not by selfish seeking, but by an unbreakable connection to re-examination. There is beauty in repetition.
Honeybees have figured prominently in the life of Norwegian-born Brunner since he was a child. Brunner’s father is a hobbyist beekeeper in Norway, and has a quixotic and intensely empathetic relationship to the purpose of his bees—he feels such guilt at taking their honey that he must always leave some of it behind for them. In “Abaton,” Brunner has created a group of paintings, Hives, whose fictive narratives make the distinction between honeybees and humans almost inconsequential. The hooded beekeepers one finds within the works are both obscured and brought more into focus in a romantically ominous haze of mist and bees. These figures seem as much automaton cogs as the drones they seek to gather unseen honey from. The Abaton-like hives go through a series of transformations in the paintings, drifting off into the horizon line like New York’s endless skyline, and the bees, like humans, must temper their forays into the world with the eternal seeking of refuge and home. The pastel tones Brunner has used for the beehives aren’t nods to artifice—honeybees have the ability to discern color, and many beekeepers utilize the functionality of multi-hued beehives to allow their bees to more quickly orient themselves to their color-identified hives. Though this and other forms of human intervention may at times have helped the duty of bees, the impending tragedy of Colony Collapse Disorder tells us this is not always true. The story that threads these series of paintings becomes one of finality and destruction in Destroyed Hives #?, which depicts overturned and demolished hives, and a presumed annihilation of bees.
As the precursor to these pieces, an older series of paintings by Brunner, entitled “Plagues,” featured iterations of insects and animals whose decorative prettiness belied their biblical malice. Similarly, the swarms of bees that menace the picture plane of the Hives paintings point to an absorbing repetition that has defined much of Brunner’s past and present work. In Brunner’s paintings, thematic gestures have a way of signaling the cosmic ambition of eternal return. Touchstone elements reference past works and series, and there is a feeling of world without end that pervades all the paintings when taken together. There is also a certain heaviness of obsessive thought that lives within the paintings, but this weight willfully lightens when confronted time and again by a return to the enchantment of childhood. Stacks of suitcases crop up often and hint at the need for escape, though always with the comforts of home well in hand. Birch forests signal once again to the artist’s childhood landscape, and the trees underscore a fidelity to the natural world that is tacitly evident in Brunner’s eye and hand. In “Abaton,” there is also a nascent intrigue with fire as it reacts to both natural and humanistic constructions.
The perspective and depiction of reflection has also been a continued element in Brunner’s paintings—his previous series, 45˚, acted as a meditation on the human form as seen reflected from pools of water. One finds a return to this theme in another group of paintings within the “Abaton” series, Mirrors. In these works, Brunner connects his metaphysical forays into undiscovered worlds with an interest in the exacting empiricism of human technology. The content of the Mirrors paintings is based upon the “Heat Ray” experiment originally performed by Archimedes in 2nd century BC. As a forerunner to a weapon of mass destruction, the “Heat Ray” was created by Archimedes, who sought to use the power of reflected sunlight to set fire to a fleet of enemy ships. By using one large mirror, many small mirrors, or the polished shields of Roman troops (accounts differ), Archimedes and his fellow Greeks reportedly focused a ray of concentrated sunlight onto the prow of an enemy ship, which shortly thereafter burst into an inferno. 
There have been many disbelievers to the ship-sinking success of Archimedes’ endeavor—and of the veracity of the “Heat Ray” theory itself (mathematician René Descartes was an avid denouncer). The experiment has been re-enacted repeatedly by scholars intent on proving its feasibility or impossibility. In 1973, the Greek engineer Ioannis Sakkas used seventy men holding bronze-coated mirrors to re-stage the experiment. Within minutes, the target of Sakkas’ intentions was in flames, proving, perhaps, the legitimacy of Archimedes’ legacy. Brunner has used many of the archival images from the Sakkas experiment—artifacts of genuine aesthetic fascination in their own right—as reference materials for the Mirrors paintings. With Western society’s utter reliance on forward momentum technology, we will perhaps never know the true efficacy of setting ships ablaze using reflected sunlight, though the peaceful reinterpretations of Archimedes’ objective are not without the charm of both serendipity and ambition.
Experiments can reveal the truth, though some truths exist only on their own terms. What one feels one knows, in Brunner’s paintings, drifts forward and backward, forever returning, like bees to different flowers in the same field. The narratives within the works present a vision of nature and humanity that lives in troubled harmony, yet always gleams with a sense of duty and optimism. Filled with his work and thoughts, Brunner’s studio, which juts out into the East River from a quiet pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is something of its own Abaton. Caught between the city and the sea, the world created within it is the physical space of psychic return—though the true destination, the work itself, remains forever its own quietly unreachable universe.

And I dream of a different soul
Dressed in other clothes:
Burning as it runs
From timidity to hope,
Spiritous and shadowless
Like fire it travels the earth,
Leaves lilac behind on the table
To be remembered by.

From “Eurydice,” by Andrei Tarkovsky

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Life's Stain on the Mind: Essay for Detlef E. Aderhold

When I look at newly made contemporary art, I often feel nothing. I can pass by many galleries, distractedly eye what is being shown, and be left with the same absence of emotion I feel (or don’t feel) when looking at food displayed in a supermarket. Nothing stops me dead in my tracks, nothing catches me off-guard, nothing feels as though it is sincerely inviting me to care about it. I have considered what this art wants from me, the looker, if not an emotional response. Maybe it is asking me to admire it, like a nice piece of fresh fish behind glass. Maybe it wants me to think about it, the way I might ruminate on an offhand comment that was made with a smile but felt hollow. Maybe it wants me to note all its distinguished reference points and award it a good grade, like I would a student. Maybe it wants me to project something upon it, so that it can be my mirror, and I can hold it up and see what I love and hate in myself. Whatever the case, much contemporary artwork composed to communicate primarily through its own visuality does not immediately draw me in on an emotional or psychological level. The act of looking at it does not feel like a sacred experience.

When I encountered Detlef’s small and brightly hued abstract paintings, in an email, I felt differently. There was something in them that beckoned immediate emotion from me. In his painting “Null Komma Null” (2011) lips and eyes are strewn and scattered about as though they didn’t matter, as though no face could make them more or less whole. The lips beckoned in the way lips do, but I couldn’t imagine who or what had once stood in front of them and conjured them into reality—these certainly didn’t look like the paintings I had become accustomed to seeing in galleries in New York. Was it a man or woman? I had a compulsion to go and see these paintings in person, and when I did, I was not disappointed. It was a cold Sunday, and I couldn’t locate the entrance to the space where they were being exhibited. When I asked a stranger for help, the stranger turned out to be Detlef’s wife, Irina. This charming and seemingly fated-by-chance meeting made the event of viewing the work even more significant. I loved the paintings on sight—perhaps even sight-unseen—and felt an immediate connection with both Detlef and Irina.

Little did I know, until after I met him, that Detlef is a psychoanalyst—another connection. The examination of consciousness is something I have endeavored to explore for a long time. Maybe my whole life. It’s the most important thing to me, and the place where I locate all my value and substance as a human being. It’s also the guiding principle of my life. It seemed almost too fantastical to be true that an individual who was also impelled to explore consciousness would have made these paintings. In his artist’s statement, Aderhold describes himself as “curious mix of a young and an old artist.” He is German, and was born in the middle of the 20th century, and has only recently begun to make his paintings in earnest. Depth of character mixes together with freshness, making his paintings seem old, and new too. Looking at his work, I experience the same feeling I often feel when looking at paintings made in the past. They seem, for lack of a better phrase, breathed into—as though the artist has chosen to animate them into being, versus simply “make” them. Francis Picabia’s paintings feel like that to me. Finding work being made now that had reached that same spiritual proximity felt, and still feels, exciting to me.

After viewing Detlef’s work on two separate occasions in New York, I thought about Arnold Hauser’s writings on Paleolithic art in the first volume of his series The Social History of Art. In this volume, Hauser states, “The Paleolithic artist [doesn’t know] above all about the technique of composing a face from the silhouette in profile and the eyes en face.” Hauser believes that the distinction between art and reality did not exist for the Paleolithic artist—“When the Paleolithic artist painted an animal on the rock, he produced a real animal… He will have had the same attitude to art as Lévy-Bruhl’s Sioux Red Indian, who said of a research worker whom he saw preparing sketches: ‘I know that this man has put many of our bisons in his book. I was there when he did it, and since then we have had no bisons.’” It made me question how a person could create art that seemed so much in line with this arguably more eternal nature of representation. Could one re-acquire this modality of perception, this old consciousness? Could one paint within this consciousness? Could this consciousness paint itself?

The subconscious mind is a sort of junk drawer. The anachronism of the junk drawer is that everything inside of it is just valuable enough to not be considered actual junk. The items typically have a defined use value, but that use value is so diminished or misunderstood—compared to that of, say, books, which are on permanent display in most homes—that we can’t bring ourselves to look at these items. They have to be hidden. What was it, in my own subconscious junk drawer, that made me know—through nothing more than a thumbnail image in an email—that I would want to see these paintings, write on them, meet their maker, and explore their consciousness? Perhaps there was something beyond “features,” beyond both abstraction and representation that one could discern from the surfaces of Detlef’s paintings. Gazing into eyes, reading faces, understanding what lies above or behind or beyond the casual comments people make in their day-to-day lives. The beauty of psychoanalysis is its devotion to understanding the “who” that exists inside our flesh cocoons. The beauty of painting is that it makes us what we are—the cave paintings demonstrated that. No animal before or since has sought to render its own likeness, or the simulacrum of its own thought. How could I have known that Detlef was a psychoanalyst, mirroring my obsession with understanding consciousness? When I met Detlef and Irina, everything came together like puzzle pieces, a feeling of instant synchronicity and understanding.

The lines, smudges, smoky auras and scattershot in Detlef’s recent paintings appear to bleed up and out through the painting, creating a surface that seems to have somehow created itself. Geometric and organic forms—notably, in “Motherboard Square” (2012) the negative space of a quadrangle—hover on the paintings’ surfaces like submerged memories floating up from the subconscious. Through methods of transference and frottage on a wet canvas prepped with water or coffee, Detlef leave marks that seem involuntary, reflecting his interest in “how change occurs through interaction.” For his process, Detlef says, “I often incorporate impressions…made with everyday objects—bicycle chains, shards of glass, Lego pieces, or model-train tracks—or natural materials—sand, pine needles, and stones…These objects and materials leave their trace or impression in the wet ground and sometimes yield additional structures that I can work from. After preparing the ground of the painting…the colors selected beforehand are dripped, flung, and energetically scattered wet-on-wet across the canvas. This action-based element develops on the basis of preliminary plans and mental images recorded in sketches.”

In Aderhold’s The Motherboard Series (2012) paintings inhabit a realm both internalized and outer-dimensional, a cosmos both within and without. In the series’ hallmark image, “Force Motherboard,” a translucent, insectile figure with articulated limbs hovers above—or between—a galaxy formed by slashes, stains, interceded highways of negative space, and celestial pin drops of paint. Aderhold’s distinctive approach to layering, blending and segregating form and color, makes it appear as though the paint itself has chosen to spread like a stain, or collect like a puddle of rain. The artist’s tonal arrangements—which veer from bright magenta to a greying, dirtied blush—recall, in some moments, an evolving bruise. In others, a porous, pinkish-violet landscape appears struck through with the brutal optimism of yellow, or the challenged grace of blue. We could be inside the body or outside the universe—we are somewhere as yet unmapped.

Pliny the Elder recorded, in the first century AD, a poetic story about what could be considered one of the first abstract paintings. He included this story in his Naturalis Historiae—a multi-volume series widely considered to be the first form of the encyclopedia. The story recalls an incident that occurred when Apelles, one of the most well known painters in ancient Greece, visited the home of Protogenes, another famous painter. An old woman, who told him that Protogenes was out and asked to know who was calling on him, greeted Apelles. Seeing a blank canvas on an easel nearby, Appeles responded, according to Pliny the Elder, “‘Here he is’… seizing a brush, he traced with color upon the panel an outline of a singularly minute fineness.” When Protogenes returned, he knew it had to be Apelles who had touched the canvas, given the delicacy of the outline.

So saying, he traced within the same outline a still finer outline, but with another color, and then took his departure, with instructions to the woman to show it to the stranger, if he returned, and to let him know that this was the person whom he had come to see. It happened as he anticipated; Apelles returned, and vexed at finding himself thus surpassed, he took up another color and split both of the outlines, leaving no possibility of anything finer being executed. Upon seeing this, Protogenes admitted that he was defeated, and at once flew to the harbor to look for his guest…He thought proper, too, to transmit the panel to posterity, just as it was, and it always continued to be held in the highest admiration by all, artists in particular. I am told that it was burnt in the first fire which took place at Cæsar's palace on the Palatine Hill; but in former times I have often stopped to admire it.

The abstract gesture is the line that says, “I am here; I existed.” Writing on art has always been my clumsy attempt to draw the even more exquisite line—to compose the connection of two souls through the simplest and most direct strategy possible. When I regard the surface of Detlef’s paintings, I recall that psychological junk drawer being pulled open and momentarily exposed. Objects float to the surface or descend into the depths, but they are there to be looked at, to connect to, to engage with. In a final remark given to the exceptional painting made by Apelles and Protogenes, Pliny the Elder stated, “Upon its vast surface it contained nothing whatever except the three outlines, so remarkably fine as to escape the sight: among the most elaborate works of numerous other artists it had all the appearance of a blank space; and yet by that very fact it attracted the notice of every one, and was held in higher estimation than any other painting there.” Life is a substance that stains the mind. Friendship is the factotum that connects us, and does all the dirty work. The canvas, like the page, appears to us blank, and we fill it in with some form of meaning. The hand touches the canvas as the fingers tap against the keyboard, and both actions make our connections visible. The exhibition space and the publication then make these visible connections consumable to others. In the end, we are brought together to find meaning in these surfaces, each stained with the residue of consciousness.