Browsed by
Tag: Art

Only They Know What is Known

Only They Know What is Known

The Kiss (Lovers), oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1907–1908.

The eternal question(s): Does it matter what the artist intended? His or her background? His or her influences, research, working methods? Do these things matter when it comes to how an audience interprets or should interpret their work?

Yes and no and maybe and perhaps, in no particular order. As in, great works of art, at least, don’t require the acquisition of such knowledge (to be appreciated), though that knowledge may enhance the experience. It can also ruin it, or something in between. The continuum is there, with its myriad nuances and degrees. In short, only they know. The people on the canvas and in the museum. The encounter works for them or it doesn’t, typically.

Scholars and critics, of course, likely investigate all the whys and wherefores available, and draw inferences from that to make their judgments. Their biographies influence those inferences as well, and so it goes. It’s also likely that the longer they’re at it, the further and further they fall away from the initial gut reaction, the original impression — the first kick in the head, so to speak. And this saddens me. The jadedness at hand. The overthinking involved.

Some artists, writers, poets and musicians see those scholars and critics as their intended audience, so they expect this sort of thing. They actually crave it. But most don’t. Art history and tradition are filled with the sometimes angry dynamic, the occasional rage, the potential for brutal interplay between the opposing sides, resulting in a few ruined lives, more often than not on the artist’s side of the ledger.

“Everyone’s a critic!” is one of those old clichés that still has resonance, and its own sting from time to time. “My little sister could paint that!!” is another oldie but goodie. Actually, no. She probably couldn’t. The artist in question studied and practiced his or her art/craft for years or decades to arrive at that place that provokes the work in question. Your little sister, unless she, too, is an artistic genius/prodigy already, has yet to evolve in that direction. If for no other reason than to kill that particular cliché, deep knowledge of art history and the bio of the artist are welcomed additions.

But they should be used with care. As Goethe once said, roughly translated, “Know all philosophy, but keep it out of your writing.” This applies, I think, to audiences of the arts as well. A very tough trick to pull off, of course, but easier if one has a strong background in Taoism or Zen Buddhism, which brings in yet another layer or a thousand.

Prior to painting The Kiss, Gustav Klimt went to Ravenna, Italy (in 1903), where he studied the Byzantine mosaics of San Vitale. Gold, gold and more gold! Visions of the Sacred and Profane! Inside and outside the museum. Lovers there, lovers in his mind’s eye, then lovers on canvas. Sensuality where nothing like it had existed before. An eroticism all its own, provoking yet another continuum of presence and absence, anger and receptive joy, for this or that person, in this or that era. It amazes me to learn that some contemporaries saw this painting as “pornographic,” just as it amazes me still that James Joyce’s Ulysses caused such an uproar when it was set to print too.
All the wasted time!

There are other aspects to be discussed about this most unusual work of art. Until next time . . .

The Parable of the I

The Parable of the I

Tilted Gardens

Brains trick us. Not just those who use them, and use them carefully, creatively. Those who never use them are tricked too. We see things not as they are, but as our minds want us to see them. This provides a great deal of amusement for our brains, which is their sole reason for existing anyway. We seriously amuse them; they love this about us; and they tolerate us because of that. Take away our comedic efforts, and they’d shut us down in a heartbeat. For that matter, they’d shut down our hearts, too.

I love taking pictures of that exact moment in time when our brains are trying to pull a fast one on us, translating, as mentioned, what is into what they want us to see. Ironically, as amazing as our minds are, they’re not really as sophisticated as they’d like us to think, because we can — at least I can — catch them off guard with these photos, these splits in time and place destined for immortality, or the trash heap — which ever comes first. Of course, there are many other ways we can sneak around their backs and get the best of them. We can drug them, drown them in wine and whiskey, make them fall off tall buildings and hit our heads. There is more than one way to skin a cat, as they used to say before YouTube came along.

Tilted Gardens 2

It’s also quite possible to confuse the hell out of the brain by taking a photo of some tremendous panorama, some profoundly moving landscape, doing this close enough to one of a billion objects under the sun so everything else is shut out. The brain becomes frazzled beyond belief and asks, where did everyone go!! In other words, while the mind can actually see everything, across the entire globe and back again, into the furthest reaches of space, back in time, into the future, as a man, a woman, a brand new garden gnome, and as the Glorious Tiger King of Samarkand, it really can’t handle cropped images.

Tree On Edge

All of that said, on any average day, I’d have to admit my brain gets the better of me. And if I’m really honest, it’s fair to say I’ve tricked myself one too many times for my own good. Taking these photos in order to escape the faux-distortions wrought by the brain creates new distortions. Sneaking stealthily behind my own back just guarantees a pretzelized perspective toward the world and freaks out the orthopedist.

And we only have one, most likely. One mind, that is. There are at least a half dozen doctors waiting in the foyer and they always overbook.

The final answer to the Brain/Body conundrum is simple: Oh, never mind!!


Colors are Heroic.

Colors are Heroic.

Hieros Gamos, by Douglas Pinson. 1982/1983
Hieros Gamos, by Douglas Pinson. 1982/1983

When I was very young, I didn’t see this. I didn’t see the heroism of color, or the way we make colors ourselves, in our eyes, in our mind’s eye, or the bravery of Nature’s way, or its tremendous courage in painting as it does.

Yes, Nature paints, and that’s not just a Romantic notion. It’s not some pseudo-poetic way of describing the ineffable. It just paints. Nothing comes close to the skill set of Nature in regard to — well, everything, really. Especially shadows, colors, light, polarities of darkness and light. And nothing can reach its sublime power in making opposites cohere, mesh, harmonize, complement. In a sense, wash away. In Nature, they become one with the All. But for humans, they mean war.

For us, they mean conflict, battles and war. For Spinoza’s god, they meant the universal orchestra, the mother of all choirs, the pallet of the cosmos. And we don’t even know how many senses might be involved with the orchestra, the choir, the infinite color range — six, thirty, one thousand and one? We don’t know, and likely never will, because we’re human, all too human. It escapes us and our instruments, even after centuries of advancements.

Goethe's Symmetric Color Wheel. 1809
Goethe’s Symmetric Color Wheel. 1809

Goethe said, roughly translated, “Colors are the deeds of light.” Aside from being a great poet and novelist, he was a scientist who developed his own theories about color, the way we form and interpret them. Few men have tried so hard to merge the poetic with the rational, the rational with the poetic.
From his Theory of Color:

Let a small piece of bright-coloured paper or silk stuff be held before a moderately lighted white surface; let the observer look steadfastly on the small coloured object, and let it be taken away after a time while his eyes remain unmoved; the spectrum of another colour will then be visible on the white plane. The coloured paper may be also left in its place while the eye is directed to another part of the white plane; the same spectrum will be visible there too, for it arises from an image which now belongs to the-eye.
In order at once to see what colour will be evoked by this contrast, the chromatic circle may be referred to. The colours are here arranged in a general way according to the natural order, and the arrangement will be found to be directly applicable in the present case; for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands purple; orange, blue; red, green; and vice versâ: thus again all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa.

We demand certain things: structure, a certain kind of logical connection between elements surrounding us. We form beauty this way, in our eyes, in our mind’s eye. And beauty, the courageous collection of disparate things in context — this may be the highest height humans can reach. If something isn’t quite symmetrical, we strive to make it so, or, perhaps, get angry. And by pulling this and that out of context (sometimes violently) of what we may consider in that moment asymmetrical or not beautiful . . . we create turmoil, and that can be beautiful too. Or, it can destroy.

If that destruction is just on canvas, or in the dark room, or on a piano, or hammering rocks into certain shapes, if it is sectioned off and made functional for itself . . . But what happens when we take our projections of what should be just so about the world away from Art? What happens when we see our fellow human beings and our environment as definitely in need of sculpting and remaking?
There really is no universal answer. Taoism, thousands of years ago, had some answers that work and work still, but not in all cases, and not for all time. The realization that when we tear something out from its context, sever it from, separate it from, and say it’s “beautiful” — the revelation that this creates conflicts where none existed can take us a long way. Discrimination can be a hateful thing. But without it, we would be less than rocks, never noticing if the wind touching us were cold, warm, wet or dry. But desperately seeking this all the same.

Colors are heroic because they knew this before we knew them.

Neil Ellman: A Rose is a Phantom of a Rose

Neil Ellman: A Rose is a Phantom of a Rose

Some Roses and Their Phantoms

(after the painting by Dorothea Tanning)



When roses die their petals shed
like skin peeled from a snake
with nothing left but the phantom-coils
of yesterday’s blooms they shrivel
and spool, curl into shapeless knots
to live among the dead      
where the ghosts of roses go
to hide and be alone
with thoughts of might have been
springs that would never come.  

 — by Neil Ellman




Copyright © 2013, by Neil Ellman. All Rights Reserved


Twice nominated for Best of the Net, as well as for the Rhysling Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association, Neil Ellman writes from New Jersey.  Hundreds of his poems, many of which are ekphrastic and written in response to works of modern and contemporary art, appear in publication throughout the world.  His first full-length collection, Parallels, consists of more than 200 of his previously published ekphrastic works.


Happy New Year, 2013!

Happy New Year, 2013!

We have new fiction from Lara Dolphin and Donal Mahoney, an essay by Robert Mueller, and new poetry by John Saunders. 2013 is off to a very good start.

*     *     *     *     *

 Watched a flawed by still interesting movie last year, “The Words.” It’s about a writer’s dilemma upon discovering a truly brilliant novel, in an old briefcase. He reads the novel and is stunned. His own writing career has hit a wall, and he’s on the edge of desperation. No one will publish his own novel, though editors have nice things to say about it. The consensus among them is it’s just not marketable.  Too “interior.”
He takes the found novel to a publisher without telling him he didn’t write it. It’s published and becomes a huge best seller and critical success.
So, what would you do? Would you make the found novel your own? Would you take it to a publisher but tell them that someone else wrote it? Get them to help you track down the writer, publicize it as the work of an unknown?
The tough part of that setup is that if you did the right thing, you’d probably kill any chance of a movie being made about your choices. Literature and film generally need real conflict, pivotal mistakes and wrong turns to create drama. It’s a rare work of art that manages to do without serious conflict and a struggle toward resolution. Though, of course, in the above scenario, that could come in the course of trying to find the author. Perhaps that would be its own new wrong road. The author turns out to be his real father, Darth Vader, and they fight to the death.
The movie also uses a novel within a novel frame, beyond its novel within a briefcase. A bit of post-modernism that works for me primarily on just one track. I found only one set of characters and their stories interesting or compelling — the couple who finds the briefcase, and the original writer and his real story — which points to the risk of using that method. Instead of letting foreground and background work in harmony, the movie chose to run parallel tracks, which were supposed to reinforce each other. Instead, for me, one story made the other seem impoverished in comparison.
Fiction and the life of the mind. Can it change lives? Can it bring lovers together and throw them apart? Can the failure to live up to one’s own dreams destroy that person and drive them to commit immoral, unethical acts? “The Words” provokes such questions, but ultimately fails to match their potential depth with a sufficient artistic structure or foundation.

Robert Mueller: Anna Shukeylo’s Urban Diaries

Robert Mueller: Anna Shukeylo’s Urban Diaries

How to Do Urban, by New Yorker of Choice

Two young women, art students, funnel into the bleak and lead-like dreary light of the subway car grasping in their hands, by the frames on which they have been crafted, smallish paintings (maybe 12 by 16).  Apparitions they are, the young artists, and holdings of the imagination, their finished images that I may never have the opportunity to observe again.
In New York City one can still think of opportunities not as tearless moments to rebuild upon destruction and demolition, but rather as the unexpected and normal continuance of spirit, (perhaps still) unlike any emanation of spirit anywhere else in the world.  An assertion of this kind cries out hotly to be contested, but it more or less stands, if the current exhibition of Anna Shukeylo’s Urban Diaries, at the Morningside Heights Branch of the New York Public Library through January 3, 2013, gives its indication.
Special people like to feel special by taking note of their surroundings.  Commonly people riding the subway trains in New York City take no notice of anyone around them, are not concerned about their subterranean existence.  Special people, especially in the dullness of these surroundings, do take note, but again by common agreement not so far as to talk to strangers, as is well and good.  You could talk about one of the paintings, however, because it was indeed special.  It displayed not exactly ground and foreground, but rather, when backed by the subway’s dim disinterestedness, more foreground, being the sharp colors of a musical instrument depicted on the canvas, against less foreground, the different oranges and peaches and reds arranged in geometrical blocks, just as music itself takes geometrical form, and especially that of the instrument depicted in this one artist’s mind, and spectacularly the nature of its realization of the music in frames known succinctly as “bars”.  As was obvious, the painting was, and is (though I may never study it again), special.  Being special admitted of compliments, even in the subway-train environment.  These pleased, and even where people are total strangers they could please, the comment or two that also elicited mild, and to be sure politely concealed, annoyance.
Of such trimmings of contrast and guardedness, Anna Shukeylo’s scenes in New York City include riding in subway cars populated by effaced and remotely and abstractly noted passengers.  As such, her tributes to meaninglessness are hardly special.  On their facelessness, they are not special.  The impersonality of her figuring, perhaps its anti-personality, would seem ever more extensively to be bred of an insight about urban living tired enough to make it unremarkable.  
Yet this assessment does not entirely hold.  You could call it a strategy, for there is pleasure indeed, and it lies in the coloristic patterns, even though similarly ranged from piece to piece.  Something in them stands out persuasively, as an effect to be special and to feel special in amongst all the drabness and the no doubt oppressive spiritual exhaustion thereof.  In other words, the colors stand out by seeping through, enriching themselves into interest and specialness and into some measure of sought-after New York City joy.  
With a couple of exceptions, the artist uses acrylic on mylar, and hence by way of screening and trickling the known impressions down, by way of everywhere glopping, or if not that forming, she discovers her technique for charging the urban experience, in a way that could only be New York.  That New Yorker’s bearing may be a claim (Ms. Shukeylo is from St. Petersburg), only one of a few good claims, for this exhibition of artworks at a local branch library, a claim that even if open to dispute takes part in being special.
The paintings sport a filmy surface, aqueous in its texture, that is apparent and much noticeable though not immediately appealing for all that.  Thus “Momentum”, by way of offering its comment on urban depiction, has a downward pull, and is about as remote and silted and sickly as you can get picturing platform and entombing tunnel, with deep feel of mausoleum.  At the same time a yellow streak flashes excitedly through the awareness of dreary prospect.  Yellow, not known particularly for being lively and cheerful, can of course be so and manages that quality here, with grand sweep and arching, asserting point.
The remoteness in “Wednesday”, not so very different, falls upon huddled ghostly figures preparing for an undefined beyond.  Thus the patchwork of vague forms haunts, is fearful as it traps you towards the left side of the frame, though here too with a relieving touch of yellow.  Elsewhere spreading patches and pools of yellow, and yellow paint strokes scratched a little ineptly and therefore a little glaringly across the scene, provide impetus.  Further relief comes from the balancing against the yellow of complementary colors violet and pink, where they spurt quite beautifully into the upper-right corner.  Such vivid blocks of color, if you will, appear out of the way but prominently.  Along the same border of the frame streaky and watery blues in emphatic and various shades drop into a quieting extension of the pool effect still dominated by yellow.  All of this placing of pools of color with their complements and contrasts gives the painting spirit and even its own kind of panache, but not a specialness of the kind that emerges in “Tuesday Morning”, a companion piece where Ms. Shukeylo uses a similar range of colors and likewise makes use of quieting shapes along the floor of the panel.
As subway scenes generally do, “Tuesday Morning” retains some subterranean feel of a blackened and morbid atmosphere, although the train seems to be travelling at an elevated stage of its journey.  In daylight regardless, the figures are effaced, and not a little scary, so that much is conveyed in the way of oppressive urban depicting, but in the pool-shapes that support the flooring a shifting movement from a dirty, dark blue to comforting aqua helps to create a balance against the patches of contesting colors.  One of these is a surprising red.  Nevertheless, it is again yellow, resting in other parts of the scheme, that holds the balance, and these moments of odd brightness, whereas not nearly as obtrusive or flashy as in “Wednesday” and “Momentum”, are elegantly placed, and serve toward a shaping, not quite a pattern but an engaged placement of sufficiently inspired ordering as to achieve the special, as if that were what the painting was about; and that is what it is about if we feel it, if in and through observing it we sometimes want to be special and feel special.
Thus in “Wednesday” it is a striking overall compositional balance that delivers specialness in and amongst the drab and the dreary.  And it does so with great success.  The artist, in New York City, wanting to be special and to feel special, as it might seem in these paintings, accomplishes her task for us as her viewers, even as her select viewers.  She, the exhibition, the spirit that lights them up in our special place, our landmark that is the Morningside Heights Branch of the New York Public Library, all find pleasure and a kind of glory by means of form, by putting the form and the assertion into it, by undertaking with exuberance, however unlikely for those who are not New Yorkers (we think), to make it special.
                New York City        
            December 2012
Copyright© 2013, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.
Robert Mueller has been a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor of essays and poems to this web­site jour­nal.  His poetry appears also online in Blackbox Manifold, Mad Hatters’ Review, Ink Node, Moria and else­where.  Of major print pub­li­ca­tions, there are poems by Robert Mueller in First Intensity and American Letters & Commentary, the lat­ter also pub­lish­ing reviews of his.  Having earned a Ph.D. in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture from Brown University, he has con­tributed poetry reviews and essays to many pub­li­ca­tions, often bring­ing other lan­guages and thus also distantly-​​related texts and sources into the picture.

Conversations With the No-Self

Conversations With the No-Self

For December, welcome aboard new poetry, fiction and art from Uzodinma Okehi, Maurice Devitt, Eric Muller, and Dr. Ernest Williamson III.


*     *     *     *     *


Paintings from Cave Chauvet

So, I was thinking. Or the Not-I was positing. Or the far-be-it-from-me was asking . . . just who are we trying to reach when we make art? Who are we avoiding? Is it cut and dried, black and white and obviously obvious? Or is it all just a complex web of interdependent actors caught up in a systemic communication loop not of our own making? Do we own the dialogue at some point, or never? Or do we just rent this space?

And, yes, I know. Such questions are, at least on the surface, sophomoric, asked perennially by actual sophomores in college since the beginning of the first Neanderthal university. Of course, in those bygone days, Neanderthal college kids had better access to some serious mind-altering substances, finding them with ease out in the forests surrounding their caves whenever they ventured away from the campfire — thus enabling true free-form cloud or navel gazing. It also helped that there were virtually no talk show hosts or reality programs to distract and divide self from self. Though, it must be said, soap operas existed back then as well, and were a constant source of humor and intrigue. Popular shows like “As the Boar Spit Turns” and “General Hostility” delighted kids of all ages, and provided ample opportunity for campfire critics to say yea or nay when it came to sacrificing or saving the actors involved. As Sir James Frazer noted in The Golden Bough, these early soap operas set the stage for the transition from actual human sacrifice to symbolic acts without loss of life, though old-school Neanderthals never got over the change.

“Back in my day, we used to throw bad actors into the fire where they belonged!! Nowadays, they shower them with lavish gifts, pigs, cockleshells and wine, while they send in stunt doubles to run through the fire. Sissies!”

That said, Neanderthals, existing as they did far closer to the earth, literally and symbolically, simply did not face the alienation and separation anxieties built into the modern world. Their experience of life was far more direct, far less mediated by layer upon layer of commercial and civic herding and nagging machinery. They could dream closer to their own true selves than we can today, lost as we are in the White Noise of competing norms. Lost as we are among the thousands of potential selves fed to us over the airwaves or in theaters from coast to coast . . .

How to get back to that unmediated self? How to redefine ourselves free of societal markers, cultural norms and other straitjackets? If we can someday resolve these dilemmas, these conundrums, with or without help from alternative, natural substances, our quest will become clearer and closer. I can’t imagine a time when the quest will ever be a done deal — nor would I want that day to ever arrive. I do, however, long for a time when impediments are radically reduced and our true No-Selves appear in the clear light of day.


Scroll Up