The History of the Body

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I spent last weekend on the Maine-Canada border, exploring forested land in Coburn Gore and trying to get my eyes on the “Slash.” The Slash is a literal cut through the forest that marks the divide between Canada and the United States. The International Boundary Commission tends the cut, which runs through 1349 miles of wooded land along the 5525 miles that make up the entire border between the two countries. It was an inspiring weekend which I’ll share more about in the future; in this post I want to describe the last stop on the journey: Amy Stacey Curtis’ 9th solo-biennial project, Memory, at the Bates Mill complex in Lewiston. When I arrived, I was exhausted from the weekend of border exploration, but I was determined to see the final installation in Curtis’ 18-year project. I’ve followed the solo-biennial work for years, and participated asc2(gathering and contributing soil for a previous biennial), but this was the first installation I was able to see in person.

The emotional impact of Curtis’ work sneaks up on you, given its analytical, ordered presence. Even the viewing process is controlled; the viewer is instructed on how to proceed step-by-step through the exhibition. These directions are one key to the installation’s success. I’ve often shared the film The Five Obstructions with my students. In the film, filmmakers Jorgan Leth and Lars von Trier are shown remaking Leth’s famous short film, The Perfect Human, 5 times with 5 sets of obstructions. The film provides an engaging example of how structure, with its implicit limitations, creates the space for creative work to take shape successfully. As I progressed through steps 1 – 9 in the Memory biennial, I noted the lean formal structure, but even more important, the control the artist exerted over my movements, as viewer. That control became an essential part of the content of the work.

There is no question, as the viewer takes a position in front of the video segment (step 2, as I recall), of how much time he or she will commit the video. The viewer’s interior question,”Will this be an exercise in dutiful patience or will it draw me in?” is replaced by simply following Amy’s directions and standing in front of the piece as instructed (until the voices in the video reach “100”). Amy’s instructions are unambiguous, and because the format is so clear, the viewer trusts the artist and stays put without the distraction of self consideration. The mind doesn’t bother with, “How does Lucinda view a video in an art installation?” (thinking of The Perfect Human: “Look, the perfect human moving in a room,” “How does she lie down? This is how she lies down, like this.”). Following Amy’s instructions feels necessary, as if the viewer will miss an opportunity if he/she disobeys.

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Part way through the exhibit, after reading instructions asking me to make a certain number of marks in a huge slab of clay, my emotions caught me off guard. I pressed my fingers into the clay, and found it to be harder and fleshier than I anticipated. Amy has written about her work as a means of processing traumatic experiences she’s lived through, asc4and that knowledge—just as a context, without awareness of any specifics—caused me to feel my body in the space in a conscious way. And given the current wave of people outing their stories of abuse, as a way to speak truth to the dark misogyny of the Republican Presidential candidate, I found the simple act of pressing my finger into clay to be emotionally difficult. And from that mid-point in the exhibition, I entered some liminal state where the history of my own body moved through the space with me.

The tears came as I entered a space filled with desks, each with a dated journal, where the viewer was asked to a pick plot point of memory, find the appropriate year/desk/book, and write that memory down. I sat down at 1972 and flipped to a blank page, skipping over others’ anonymous stories as I searched. I was surprised to catch: “The birth of my daughter–still an angel” and “The year I met the man of my dreams.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me to go to the brightest points of my life when asked to remember. Remembering the darker passages seemed to me to be the point, but of course, in that perception the work was showing me something about myself, as its participant.

In the 9th and final piece in the installation,  I stepped though 9 frames, going through a process of intentional remembering in each one. As I moved to the final square, I stood within the frame determined to slow down in a memory of excessive pleasure. I stayed there for a few minutes, letting my body linger in that space.

As I moved toward the exit, I realized I was still trying to stuff my sadness. I found Amy closing up the space and realized that I was trying to squelch my emotions because I didn’t want to burden her, or the carefully articulated space, with messy feelings. At the same time, I was aware that my very sadness was true to my participation, to the work Curtis created, and it represented my shared authorship of the work, as viewer. As we chatted about the impact of the installation, Amy shared that the piece had inspired a lot of emotion and that more than a few of the viewings had ended in hugs and tears. Memory is so clean and clear a piece, the sentiment so stripped away, that what is left is a large, open space for an authentic response. The response depends on what the viewer brings into the room.

Memory closes on October 28th. Until then it’s open every day, noon-5:00.  More Info

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Tracking Narrative

 

It became clear early this year that my current project, Tracking the Border, would become a tracking of narrative as much as a navigation of the Maine-Canada divide. When I began to share news that I’d won a Kindling Grant (part of the Warhol Foundation Re-Granting Program), every casual chat seemed to inspire a personal story about the border: childhoodamericasfirstmile memories of swimming across, horrible border crossing tales (lots of those), cultural experiences that question the border altogether, and family immigration stories, among many others. I quickly realized that rather than following the 611 mile map along the Maine-Canada border, I’d be jumping around from point to point, following people’s stories. The idea of privileging chance process over a pre-established order felt creatively right as well, and so I’ve spent the year engaging in dialogue with a wide range of people from around the state, all with very different understandings of border and boundary, both conceptually and in terms of the Maine border.  The spirit of the Kindling grant is collaborative, and the granting agency holds an expanded understanding of audience and venue; my shift in approach also seemed more deeply aligned with that vision. This approach to process continues to lead me into inspiring pockets of coincidence, and coincidence is what shows up when a creative project finds its roots.

My first trip to the border was in March of this year, to Presque Isle, Caribou, Van Buren, and Fort Kent. Though I’ve done most of my traveling solo, I was fortunate to have the company of friend and artist, Rebecca FitzPatrick, on the first adventure. The motivating structure for the trip was a story that artist Julie Poitras Santos had shared about her grandparents’ illegal crossing  from Canada to the U.S. in the 1930s. It turned out that Poitras Santos’  exhibition, O Time Your Pyramids, was opening at the Reed Gallery in Presque Isle in early March, and she invited us to join her for a celebratory dinner, where I’d have the chance to ask her father, Ron Poitras, about his parents’ experience. We decided, in preparation for the conversation, that we’d head up to the Van Buren – Saint Leonard crossing, which was the spot her grandparents had supposedly trekked into the States. As I’ve since come to expect, the discoveries began well before we arrived in Van Buren.

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Heading up Route 1, between Houlton and Presque Isle, Rebecca and I began to spot planet sculptures. We screeched to a halt on spotting the first, not noticing the cop behind us, who quickly pulled over behind us to make sure we were okay! From signage on the site, jupiter3we learned that all 9 planets were placed along Rt. 1 in a 40-mile scale model of the Solar System: one mile along Rt. 1 equalling one astronomical unit (the distance from the Earth to the Sun). I remembered hearing about a road race that coincided with NASA’s New Horizons’ Pluto mission, and realized that this was that stretch of road. I decided to read up on the race when we got to our bed and breakfast later in the day.

My plan had been to run along the border in Van Buren before dinner, so I could get a tactile sense, before meeting her father, of where Julie’s grandparents had crossed into the States. It was March, and there was still a fair amount of snow, which made the road the only option. I headed northwest along Rt. 1 borderrun3toward Madawasca, with the plan to have Rebecca scoop me up when I was finished. With unyielding trucks and slippery footing, it was a rough run, but I was able to witness the way the river creates a natural boundary between the two countries in that section of the border, and I could imagine people dreaming across the divide, in both directions.

After the run, we cruised back down to Caribou and checked into The Old Iron Inn Bed and Breakfast. We began chatting with owners Kate and Kevin McCartney. We mentioned the solar system models, and it turns out that Kevin was instrumental in the development of the project (from 2000-2003), in addition to being one of the organizers of the New Horizons road race. He told us about working with Evan Graves, an accomplished Maine runner, who symbolically travelled the speed of light by running an 8:20 pace over the 39 miles of the Rt. 1 Solar System, mirroring the New Horizons’ 3 billion mile, 9 1/2 year journey to Pluto!  MPBN and Runner’s World, among other sources, covered the event in detail. Using running to inspire community, education, and dialogue, Graves and McCartney’s project struck me an important reminder of why collaborative, cross disciplinary work can be so effective. It was time for Rebecca and I to head to Presque Isle for Julie’s exhibit, but before we could get out the door, Kate mentioned the Can-Am Crown, a 250 mile dog sled race that would start in Ft. Kent the next morning. Since the race would occur along the border, and I wanted to consider how the rules of the border are contextual, I determined we’d add that to the plan…that I’d continue to let each new story and question lead the journey.

jpsantosJulie’s exhibit was powerful, based on Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” I’ve loved Borges since I read Labyrinths in college, so this seemed another appropriate coincidence.  Julie’s work powerfully inspects language and meaning, storytelling and the experience of the body, the cerebral and the sensual, what is known and unknown (and the mysterious space in between). Truly multi-disciplinary, the exhibit incorporated text, performance, sculpture, and collaborative engagement, and provided another point of inspiration for my own project, particularly in thinking about how I would eventually represent my experiences in the form of art objects.

At dinner after the exhibit, I learned that Ron’s parents had come across the border in mid-April in the 1930s because Ron’s uncle had promised them work in CT. The couple walked across the river in water up to their knees, among ice flows. I thought back to my run in Van Buren–it’s a long walk across the water, and it must have been incredibly stressful. As Ron said, they were running “away from their lives” and toward the possibility of work. There were many Canadian immigrants coming to the United States in the early 20th century, largely because of a complex mix of economic and social factors, and the difficult balance of agriculture and industry in the two countries that lasted through the two World Wars and depression, until the explosion of new industry in the mid-twentieth century. The tense post-war relationship between Canada and Great Britain also contributed to a period of instability and high unemployment, and affected the emigration numbers.

Ron went on to say that his parents had come to the States wanting to farm, but that his father had ended up working in the logging industry, and after years of moving through different kinds of work, and back and forth between Canada and the States, he attained US citizenship and developed a successful career in the electrical business. In the midst of these experiences, Ron was born in Caribou, Maine, as an only child. As the evening wore on and more wine was poured, everyone around the table began to jump into the conversation, and we began talking about boundaries and edges in the abstract. Ron made the point that everything happens on the edges of things, and we talked about the nature of language and its relationship to borders and edges (the whole family is still bilingual in French and English). Julie mentioned port cities as centers of complex, important content because of their status as edges. Rebecca brought up the magic of nature–how where land meets the sea, nature’s dialogue is at its most rich, active, and magical. By the end of the meal, I was exhausted and amazed at what can emerge out of the simple structure of gathering a group of people together around a story.

The next morning Rebecca and I were tempted to call the adventure quits, but the possibility of seeing the dog sledding was too enticing. I wanted to explore the idea that depending on context, a border is more or less permeable. We spent the morning enjoying the dogs and their courageous mushers, and hit the road when the parade of vintage snowmobiles started spewing smoke. The parade was a high point for the crowd and the big cameras started coming out as the older rigs went by! The smell of a Skidoo always brings back memories of my childhood in the dairy farming culture of Northern Vermont, but my creative head was already over full, and it was time to head South and sift through everything we’d experienced.

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dogsled

 

 

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What If?

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November 14, 2015, the day after the terrorist attacks, Paris was locked down. I was sequestered in the Hotel Henriette, tracking the unfolding events on TV. Throughout the day, details of the attacks slowly emerged, with updates about the ongoing hunt for the remaining terrorists, and warnings about the threats in the metro and at tourist sites. Eventually, the news came out that French President, Francois Hollande, would be closing the borders of France in order to block the passage of violent extremists in or out. It didn’t occur to me at the time that closing the borders to a country in the European Union, which no longer maintains borders or border checks as it used to, would actually have been impossible to undertake that quickly, but at the time, I was struck by the narrow vision of that decision and the catastrophic effect it would have on refugees from Syria and Iraq. The news got me riled up, and since I couldn’t go into the city, I started writing.

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Luxembourg Gardens

On November 13th, the day of the attacks, my mother and I were wandering Paris. That morning, I’d run from our hotel around the Luxembourg Gardens and back. In the afternoon, wanting to explore a bit further afield, we walked northwest from the Seine up the Rue de Turbigo toward the Place de la République. About a block from the square, tired from a long day of exploring, we started looking for a café. We were disoriented, so I turned on my Endomondo app so we could track our route and get our bearings. We turned down the Rue du Temple, heading back toward the river and away from the events that would unfold.

Sitting in the hotel watching the news the next day, it was impossible not to think about Bataclanwhat might have happened if we’d gotten tired ten minutes later, or if I’d seen the marquis at the Bataclan and realized that the Eagles of Death Metal were playing (I’ve wanted to see them live for years and wouldn’t have missed it if I’d known). But I wasn’t there, and to fret about what if feels self-indulgent in the face of the hundreds of people who did stop for a glass of wine, or did see the marquis, and who were either killed or lived through horrors I can’t imagine. Nevertheless, the memory of that walk keeps showing up for me, and I’ve drawn the Endomondo map many times, incorporating it into multiple drawings–the simply looping line of our Paris walk signifying an unknowing turn away from horror.

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Paris II, 22″ x 30″, mixed media drawing (all lines represent movement through the city, and the dotted line is the “simply looping line” referred to above).

I wrote all day and into the night at the Hotel Henriette, and at midnight I submitted a grant Henrietteapplication. It seemed clear that my previous studio work focusing on the borders and boundaries of farms and watersheds would shift to a consideration of national borders. A month after my return to the States, I learned that I’d received a Kindling Grant through the Andy Warhol Foundation, to support my Tracking the Border project.  Throughout 2016, I’ll be exploring the 611 miles that represent the Canada/U.S. border in Maine. Dialogue and collaboration are the heart of this work, and in the conversations I’ve had so far, it’s evident that getting to know the border intimately requires following the unexpected narratives that come at me. Every conversation has led to another, and to a new location to explore. I’m beelining toward different sections of the border, finding conversations and exploring the dividing line on foot, by boat, by snowmobile, and more. The definition of a border varies dramatically based on each person’s perspective, and I’ll be blogging the insights and stories that emerge out of my conversations with a geologist, a native Passamaquoddy, a forester, and a border patrol officer, among the many other rippling conversations that are expanding my understanding of what defines, and disrupts, a border.

This post launches the written component of Tracking the Border, and I’ve decided to start at the chronological beginning, in Paris, since that was the point of the work’s genesis. Though I am interested in framing the ways that a border is sometimes a construct, the work for Tracking the Border is not overtly political. What brings me back to Paris as the first plot point is a desire to remember the power and narrative that a looping line can hold.

Before leaving Paris, I went to the sites of the attacks to pay my respects. I’ll close with those images, and will be back soon to share a bit about my first adventure to Ft. Kent, Maine.Cafe

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Vibrating Through the Body

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Lucinda Bliss, Paris I, graphite and gouache on paper

A week after returning home from Paris, I packed up the car for a three week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. On route down, I spontaneously veered off track to see the Antietam National Battlefield, in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Getting to know the land and the echoes it carries is part of my creative practice, and I drove south filled with questions about how the history of the country would feel different, and be held differently, from the southern perspective, particularly in a period in our history when we (once again) seem to be growing increasingly divisive.

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The Fields of Antietam

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The Bloody Lane

 

 

 

 

 

 

With 23,000 soldiers killed or wounded, Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. Though the September 17, 1862 battle was supposedly not won by either side (the guide at the welcome center was emphatic about this), it was claimed as a Union victory and inspired Lincoln’s strategic Emancipation Proclamation.

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Burnside Bridge and Witness Tree

I had just returned from Paris a few weeks before my trip to Virginia and hadn’t really begun to process my experience of the November 13 attacks (The  Runner’s Glance in Paris). As I navigated the Antietam grounds, it felt right to be reminded of the deeper history of human violence, particularly as I prepared to enter the protected creative space at VCCA that would allow me to begin to translate my recent experiences through creative process.

 

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After a few days of settling in and meeting the exceptional group of writers, composers, and artists at the residency, I set off to run the Monticello Holiday Classic 5k on the historic site where Thomas Jefferson built his home. I left on a frosty morning before dawn, arriving on the site as the sun was rising. Chatting up runners at local races is a great way to learn about a place, in addition to getting a tactile experience of the land. Since my days studying Art History at Skidmore College, I’d been curious about Thomas Jefferson, impressed with his inventions, progressive values, and commitment to creative enterprise, and disgusted by his lifelong racism and misogyny. I was eager to see how the complicated man would be represented at the national historic site.

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In the early hours of the morning, runners warmed up through the hilltop gardens, preparing for the starting gun. The race itself was rough–the air chilled my lungs and the course was filled with twists and turns. Still, I placed 2nd in my age group, which earned me a free ticket for a guided tour of the main house.

Thankfully, our guide spoke about the darker side of Jefferson’s narrative and incorporated stories of the lives of a few of the many slaves who worked at Monticello during the President’s lifetime. The architecture, design of the garden and grounds, and the natural site are spectacular. As our tour concluded, the guide instructed us to head over to the fish pond (where fish had been kept in “storage” during Jefferson’s time) for the iconic reflection shot.fishpond.jpgAs I continued to meander the grounds, I started thinking about classical models of architecture and design–how that application of proportion relative to the human body works, literally works, vibrating through the body with a balance of form, light, and negative space. At the same time, the authority signified by that very kind of structure points to the darker history of domination and oppression. I remain in awe of Monticello and fascinated by the contradictions it embodies. I’m holding in mind the more than 200 slaves that lived, worked, gave birth, and died in service of one man’s brilliant, complicated interpretation of classical and humanist ideals.

These are the kinds of contradictions that I try to hold onto when I return from a research exploration, and in the studio I attempt to build a mark-making vocabulary that can speak to multiple perceptions, in response to my experience of place.

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Lucinda Bliss, Paris III, graphite and gouache on paper

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The Runner’s Glance in Paris

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the Louvre, flag at Half Staff

Things in Paris have changed since I wrote a few days ago, since the attacks of November 13th. Though Parisians and foreigners are once again out eating, shopping, working, going to school, and visiting tourist sites, there’s an undercurrent of tension. On the Metro, waiting to cross a busy street, sitting in cafes, one spots stunned, introspective looks; nervous glances; weepy eyes; and we all scope out one another’s hands and bags for anything threatening.

The day after the attacks, everyone was advised to stay inside, and other than a quick trip out for food, we hunkered down in the hotel watching the newsEiffelTower.jpg. On day 2, people began to venture out, and I decided it was time to take a run and get a feel for state of the city. I left the hotel and made an 8-mile lollipop loop from the Latin Quarter to the Eiffel Tower, along the Seine, and back down by the Luxembourg Gardens. It felt good to see other runners out there and to share that runner’s glance as we crossed paths.  Those of us who made it out that morning, offered nods of acknowledgement as we passed: Yup, I’m out here too–pretty friggin’ scary but it feels good!

Dogs.jpgOn Monday afternoon, I ventured out with my mother to visit the Louvre, which, after three days closed for mourning (and security) had opened its doors. We waited in line as police and military with machine guns, fingers on triggers, strolled back and forth around us. The lines were huge, and organized in a big snaking coral. We’d been advised not to linger in large crowds but decided to queue up anyway, and spent an hour among the hushed crowd, inching toward the door. After making our way through security, the grand Louvre opened up before us. We spent the entire afternoon wandering through the museum, starting with the seemingly endless halls of paintings, stopping to linger in front of favorites. I could have spent all day in front of Vermeer’s  Lacemaker of 1670; the piece is so perfect, it’s hard for the eyes to get enough of it. I was also struck by one of the temporary exhibits, A Brief History of the Future, a show based on Jacques Attali’s book of the same name. It’s claimed as a “pluridisciplinary” exhibit and is brilliantly curated by Dominique de Font-Réaulx, Jean de Loisy, and Sandra Adam-Couralet. The theme of the show was the glue, and the curators cohesively combined works as disparate as Sumerian cuneiform, Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire cycle, Raoul Hausmann’s Mechanical Head: Spirit of Our Time (one of my favorite dada assemblages), and Foundation, an installation by contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, among many others. It’s a timely and poetic show, its concerns amplified by the events of November 13th and its tentatively hopeful message much needed.

Social media has been a source of love and strength during the last 4 days in Paris, and I’ve felt immense gratitude for the presence of my wide flung community of artists, runners, friends, and colleagues. It’s also been interesting to see the critical discourse emerging on the web. Though it’s heartening to see the engagement, I think it’s important to note that an expression of compassion for France does not, in my view, imply indifference to Beirut, and it certainly doesn’t indicate full alignment with the values expressed by the governments of the Western world or a lack of awareness of their complicity in the emergence of violent extremist ideologies in Syria. It also doesn’t mean that similar violence elsewhere is made invisible; actually, from where I sit, coverage of the French attacks seems to be shining a broader beam of light, which is thankfully beginning to illuminate the dark webs that link the global attacks, making clearer connections to the Syrian refugee crisis and to the role of climate change in the escalation of terror and war. I’d close with a note of thanks for those articulating the complex and difficult truths about the current state of the world and also to those sending messages of solidarity and compassion to France.

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Feeling Rakish

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I arrived in Paris a few days ago, stepped out of my taxi onto the cobblestone street outside of the Hotel Henriette, and looked up to see Doug Ashford! Doug was an influential teacher and friend during my years in grad school at VCFA, and though we’ve stayed in touch over the years, we hadn’t seen each other face to face in a while. He and his partner, Alice, were staying at the same hotel, catching exhibits in Paris on route to Doug’s show at Wilfried Lentz in Rotterdam. What a great way to start my Paris adventure!

I’m in France for two weeks with my mother, Alison H. Deming, doing research on my great, great grandmother, Louisa de Saint-Isle, and steeping ourselves in Parisian culture. Louisa and my great grandmother, Marie Bregny, were both dressmakers. In the late 19th century, Louisa worked for the Empress Eugenie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, and Louisa’s narrative has some fascinating, mysterious twists and turns. With the help of Jen, a fabulous research assistant, we’re mapping out some of the details of that mystery. I’ll be using the visual narrative in drawings and my mother will be writing about the history in an upcoming book. On our visit to Notre Dame, My mother lit a candle in Louisa’s honor.

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Notre Dame

I discovered a great little running loop around the Jardin du Luxembourg

I discovered a great little running loop around the Jardin du Luxembourg

As has become my pattern, when I travel, I explore by running, and I always check for races when I’m in a new city. When I arrived in Paris I discovered Les Bacchantes, a fundraiser for prostate cancer research, which would take place two days after my arrival. I decided to run up to the packet pick up at Planet Jogging to see if a late registration was possible. It was a longer trek than I’d realized, around 5 ½ miles, but after running up the Champs-Élysées and past the Arc de Triomphe, I found the store. The first few people I asked about the race spoke no English, but eventually I was directed to Karen Decter, an American living in Paris who is one of the organizers for International Triathalon Club. She raved about the race, mentioning that it’s still organized by the couple who founded it. Karen offered to help me through the process, starting with my medical release form. It turns out this is a requirement for every participant in European races. In the States, we simply sign a waiver–I’d never been asked for a medical form! Seeing the disappointment on my face, Karen suggested the possibility of running as a member of her Triathalon club, which would circumvent the need for the form! Done! There was one more obstacle: I needed cash for payment, which I didn’t have. Promising a quick return, I ran the 5 ½ miles back to the hotel, quickly changed, and took the Metro back to the store with cash in hand. I caught Karen just as she was walking out the door!

marchThe next morning, I got my jet-lagged self to the starting line by following orange shirts and painted mustaches through the streets. It was Armistice Day, and as I walked toward the park, military personnel marched in formation toward the Arc de Triomphe.

I eventually found the bag check, did a quick warm up, and then joined the sea of orange shirts. There was no indication of pace seeding, so I just squeezed into the crowd where I could. The crowd was hyped, chanting the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army intro and other call and response shouts that I couldn’t make sense of. I took a quick video to capture the crowd!

Mustaches were a requirement for participation!

Mustaches were a requirement for participation!

When the race actually started, I couldn’t move for several minutes. When we did start “running” I was stuck in a thicket of runners and there was no way to pick up the pace beyond 9:30 min/miles. After the first ½ mile, the pack charged into the wooded trails of Parc du Bois, making the pack denser. There were slippery leaves underfoot, hidden roots, chain link fences that were hard to spot, and runners of all abilities trying to drop back or get ahead. Eventually, there was a slow acceleration, but it wasn’t until the 3rd mile that I could really take a full stride and was able to get my pace into the 7:45-7:50 range. I realized pretty quickly this was going to be a casual run and not a race!

Post race chocolate

Post race chocolate

Still, the spirit of the event was inspiring. Runners sang and chanted as we navigated the woods (mostly in French, though there was a vigorous version of the YMCA). The post-race feast included fruit, coffee, hot chocolate, soup, pastries, and heaps of dark chocolate! It was a fun day.

Many of the runners made it clear that they were participating in honor of family and friends who had struggled with prostate cancer. I was able to remember my Uncle Rodney,

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who died from the disease several years ago–to bring him into my mother’s and my Parisian exploration of the family history.

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Focus on the Holes

Link and Sigve at Jack Shainman Gallery

Link and Sigve discussing The Beginning, oil and wax on canvas, 102″ x 124″, 2015

In 2012, I spent a week at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado, in an intensive workshop, which consisted of a week-long dialogue and critique with Enrique Martinez Celaya. This September, when I spent a month renting a studio space in Bushwick, I took great pleasure in being able to catch events and openings on a whim. I was surprised to discover that while I was there, Enrique would be having his first exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. During the Colorado workshop, Celaya had shared that he was contemplating shifting his gallery representation in New York, and Empires: Sea and Land, a body of work spanning painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and writing, was clearly the result of this move. The work in Empires was a thematic continuation of Celaya’s earlier work–each piece representing a location in a world that Celaya had been mapping for 10 years. On a busy September night in Chelsea, I had the pleasure of exploring that world with my son, Link, and his friend Sigve.

Mixed Media works by EMC

The opening of the show included an interview with Robin Cembalest, and as I sat listening, I was struck again by Enrique’s intentionality and presence. At one point in the interview, Enrique shared his goal of being a perpetual beginner and his related aversion to expertism. Staying open and hungry to learn is something I’ve thought about a lot, and have aspired to myself. Enrique made the point that one’s tendency when building a career is to be repetitious, covering holes with sand in order to appear more expert. His advice was to focus on the holes rather than covering them up. In the midst of my current nomadic season, where everything in my life seems in flux, I feel the value, challenge, and richness of this acutely. The conversation about expertism led to questions about the artist’s relationship to critical theory (questions about this have been abundant in recent social media feeds). As I see it, theory and theoretical discourse are just one way for an artist to become immersed in the conceptual worlds relevant to his or her artistic content. That’s it; there’s no one canon or lens that every artist needs to pack into his or her toolkit. And I agree that there are too many artists and artist-professors who use theory and jargon as a crutch—not as a way to zero in on the “holes” but as a way to cover them in sand.

Enrique is in a unique position. His well-publicized scientific background (BS in Applied & Engineering Physics at Cornell University; MS in Quantum Electronics at the University of California, Berkeley; MFA in Painting at University of California, Santa Barbara) gives him a rare kind of bedrock. During their dialogue, Robin Cembalest asked Celaya what that background has contributed to his life as an artist. He responded that it gives him a unique kind of freedom – he can take risks because he’s not worried about looking stupid. He added that, from his engagement with physics and math, he also knows that “If you understand something, you can say it simply.” I agree, with the one footnote. Historically, there are valid formal and conceptual reasons for dense, experimental writing. For example, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva used such methods in order to disrupt patriarchal language, to invent a feminine ecriture through which they could claim female subjecthood outside the patriarchal order. That work doesn’t undercut the underlying point, that language shouldn’t be used as a place to hide.

A related piece of the interview was a discussion of the important role of enigma in Enrique’s artwork. He related the presence of artworks to that of people, describing how some individuals draw immediate attention but are revealed quickly, while others roll out with complexity and depth over time. In Celaya’s framework, art is a movement from familiarity to the unfamiliar; not art is the opposite–it is limited to the shock of the unfamiliar, which quickly becomes completely knowable. Linking formal strategies to the conceptual enigma in his work, Enrique noted how tension comes from the fact that the works barely hold together formally—they balance in a tricky state of becoming.

unicorn

installation shot, The Innocent,oil and wax on canvas, 92″ x 118″, 2015

detail

detail, The Innocent

Enrique’s work dives fully into the dangerous territory of sentiment, risking thin interpretation. But with time spent in front of it, the work pays off with formal and conceptual discoveries, and it’s exciting to discover those moments when the paintings do threaten to disassemble. There are beautiful passages that speak a truth of representation without falling into deadening allegiance to representational accuracy.  Enrique’s work seems to maintain a state of motion. In assessing the difficulties of making something that works, Celaya mentioned the problem of “too beautiful”–calling it an issue in every direction one might choose, from minimalism to the fetishistic. He stated that one must give up unity for some portion of truth. Much has been said about the “wink” in contemporary art, and it would be a mistake to read that into this work. I was interested to hear Enrique state emphatically that, “Great art never winks.”

Enrique’s personal narrative comes up frequently in press about him–his birth in Cuba and subsequent exile to Spain in 1972, and place and belonging are persistent themes in his work. Though his personal narrative is clearly a part of his public image, in the interview he discussed his desire to distance the work from immediate associations with his own exile; rather, his intention is to address, in his work and writing, the commonality of exile. He intends his work to be about more universal losses and exiles. Relatedly, he sees the work not as narrative but as functioning like a series of poems.

There was a Q-n-A after the interview, which had some funny moments–for example, the straight-out-of-central-casting New York psychologist who offered Enrique some alternative language for thinking about exile. I had a question as well, which had seemed a communicable nugget, but as the question tumbled out of my mouth, it became increasingly complex. Enrique has a well-developed brand as an artist, and for some well known artists, this leads to disengagement and distancing-–this is not the case with Enrique, who seems to listen with his full being. He focuses in, and you can see him gathering your words and sorting them as you speak. Since many of the questions and themes in Enrique’s work and writing echo my own (the animal other, place and placelessness, narrative and the enigmatic, language and identity, etc.), I have found him to be an important mentor. As he listened to my question, a flood related material came to mind.

During my stay in New York, I met many assistants to famous artists, many of whom had fascinating tales to tell about the methods of production they were involved with. In one case, the well-known artist had become a choreographer of others’ marks, moving through the studio conducting a team of assistants busy drawing according to his direction. As a side note, this is not the case with Enrique. My understanding is that he uses assistants to support the logistical aspects of his work, which are significant at his level of production. Seeing Enrique’s work and thinking about the stories I’d been hearing from big city artist assistants, I wanted to ask Enrique about the meaning of the authentic original mark in the contemporary art world: how had that meaning changed (since the Abstract Expressionist period, for example) and how did that affect his conception of his own process and work. I was unable to get the question across clearly, but in retrospect, the process of stumbling through my thoughts and experiencing a brain flood of related questions, was a great reminder of the importance of mentors in one’s life and work, and how they continue to work on us internally for years after the face-to-face discourse.

Untitled (Two Goats), oil and wax on canvas, 66" x 72", 2013

Untitled (Two Goats), oil and wax on canvas, 66″ x 72″, 2013

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