Friday, March 7, 2008

Dog and Pony

One of the jobs an artist must perform from time to time involves lecturing about his/her artwork to fellow artists and persons with widely varying degrees of interest in the topic. That's what I did yesterday, and the job was hard. Wore me out, in fact.

The lecture was an attempt to use an early 19th century entrepreneur (name of Zadok Cramer), who each year between about 1803 and 1814 published a book called The Navigator, as a foil for writing about art and making paintings which incorporate snatches of text from critical writing I've done. Cramer's book provided maps, directions, advice, and a host of references to the political and economic ideology of his time to people in Pittsburgh, PA who wanted to get their produce (often whiskey) to New Orleans and from there to the great markets of the world. Here's one of his maps showing a stretch of the Ohio from Cincinnati to Louisville.

Between each map (they were woodcuts) Cramer provided descriptions of islands in the river, the locations of the various navigable channels, descriptions of the scenery, the location of farms where the reader could buy a good meal. He also opined about working hard and improving nature's gifts so that a man could enjoy the fruits of his labor and retire wealthy in a world he'd made better by clearing forests to plant crops.

I wanted to compare what he'd done to writing about art exhibitions for a readership which likely never sees the original exhibition. There are certain parallels, and the plot thickens when the fact that Cramer made his maps not from first-hand observation but from interviews with men who'd made the trip. The only time he went down the river was just before his death from tuberculosis. He was trying to get to a healthier climate.

Along the way, the lecture noted that Kandinsky's defense of abstraction made its case by asserting that his new paintings made visible what was invisible, like maps. (At the birth of abstraction, the concept of representation was conjured to its defense) That maps are indexical signs. That Umberto Eco wrote that signs are what we use in order to tell a lie, because they have the ability to refer to what is distant in time and space, making a lie more difficult to catch. That the inevitable rightness of westward expansion espoused by Cramer constituted a myth in the sense that Roland Barthes used that term.

And that I can't tell what myths I unknowingly incorporate into my work as a critic and as a painter. Seeing Cramer's mythologizing is a simple thing 200 years after it was published. And dismissing him as just wrong about what was to become of the Ohio Valley would only be bad faith. Or at least an egotistical sophomoric exercise. Honesty requires that I admit there are errors in what I write that I can't see because I am too close to detect the lies. The evidence is over the horizon.

The editing process gives one a hint, I suppose. It opens the internal dialog of the writer to the scrutiny of another. I used to fight with editors, but I've calmed down in recent years. And I've begun to use the editorial process as a seed for paintings. Once I wrote the phrase "painting is always," and it came back from an editor in New York canceled by a line through it. After some photocopying and digital printing and stenciling with map fragments, the erased, but still legible phrase became a painting that looked like this:

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