There’s nothing for me here

in this world: the word, the hand, the gaze.

I’m a stone and they are stones to me.

Bring this empty air

to the cave,

my home.

What else to do but do it,

but burn, scratch

pictures on the walls.

Switch my skin for robes, for rags.

Switch my fur for skin, grind my teeth,

eat my lips, tear my limbs from limbs.

Bury my life, lift my face,

wail, wonder, wait

give and take,

lie, float, and say.

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Nude male

Question for the mens: When you see a male nude layed out in this kind of displayed for the viewer kind of way, how does it make you feel?

I ask because I always feel a little bad for men when I draw one like this. That is, unless I know him and we’re both playing the game of performance.

I draw women like this all the time, but I don’t feel bad because the performance of sexy girl is already a game to me. As a woman, I’m so used to seeing bodies like mine objectified, commodified, idealized and otherwise dehumanized, I long ago detached from identifying with those images. They are like cartoons that have nothing to do with me and everything to do with culture’s delusion. So when I draw women posed for the male gaze, I’m making fun of the gaze not the women. But when I draw men like this I feel like I’m making fun of the man.

How’s it feel, men?

Fuckit List

1. Cut off your arm at the shoulder.

2. Live on the streets for a year.

3. Kill someone while drunk driving or texting.

4. Give away all of your money.

5. Eat a piece of feces.

6. Turn a trick.

7. Get addicted to crack, heroin or just alcohol.

8. Do a sex act with an animal.

9. Binge and purge.

10. Attempt suicide and live.

Painting, power, provocation

When I, a white woman, make paintings of Rory, a black man from the streets of Oakland I’ve been intimately connected to for the last 5 years, I’m not trying to tell people what to think about race, class, power or anything else. It’s more like I’m trying to uncover unconscious conditioned beliefs about these things.  A painting is a mirror for projections.  To engage, viewers must be willing to recognize that what they see are their own projections, rather than blaming me for making them feel some type of way. In other words, is the painting saying something or are they seeing something? If they see Rory as powerless because I painted him, does that mean I’m the one saying Rory is powerless? Maybe they are just unable to see Rory’s skin color and power as compatible. Or maybe they are unable to see the relationship between a black person and a white person as equal.

Maybe that’s the way they see it, but it’s not the way I see it. I know Rory better than anyone and vice versa. He is the most powerful person I’ve ever met. He’s no chump. Not at all. He doesn’t need to be painted into a white man’s royal world on top of a horse a la Kehinde Wiley to claim his power. He doesn’t need to be granted power by me or anyone else.  He’s got it already. That’s why he decides to pose like a reclining nude, playing to my gaze. He doesn’t have to maneuver or hide or project an image of the version of power that colonized the world. Being a person who has struggled my whole life with maneuvering, hiding and projecting an image, I love and admire him for this powerful way of being in the world.

If we can only recognize power as winning, we are a supporters of the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist game in which, in the words of Beyonce, “paper is the best revenge.” I don’t buy that version of power and I don’t sell out for it. Why would I? It has nothing to offer me but isolation and despair.

Here’s what’s ironic: This work I’m making now, which comes out of genuine love and connection, is proving to be more provocative than past work that had a definite critical intent.  This tells us something about the power of love to destabilize power.

This is Real: Voids and the Art of Bridget Mullen

My thoughts on “Don’t Avoid Voids,” an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculptures by Bridget Mullen at the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

Let’s start with the army of mini-me artists: small clay figures of naked women on pedestals scattered throughout the space, all titled in variations of: Self Portrait Washing Brushes, Self Portrait Just About to Wash Brushes, Self Portrait Right After Washing Brushes, Self Portrait With Dirty Brushes, Self Portrait Thinking About Washing Brushes, Self Portrait As A Dream About Ruining My Brushes… you get the idea. In the lumpy bodies of unglazed clay, still looking like earth, I see contemporary fertility goddesses engaged in all the unglamorous tasks of the artist’s procreative act. I imagine these figures as a behind-the-scenes view of Bridget in her studio: moving, bending over, sitting down, picking things up, putting them together, eyes on her materials, mind tethered to the task at hand.

bridget butt
Self Portrait with Dirty Brushes

These ladies would be obscene if they were performing—ass in the air, legs spread—but they are deeply engaged in being. They use their bodies un-selfconsciously for play, work and rest, unconcerned with any outside gaze, so the responsibility for obscenity lies only in the eyes of the beholder. It’s like seeing a naked child playing, unaware of how exposed they are, and that uncomfortable feeling you get for seeing them as exposed and projecting something shameful onto innocence. (I hope this isn’t just me.) Like with my discomfort at naked children, looking down into the private cracks and crevices of these figures enjoying their physicality, throws my own controlled stiffness and self-consciousness into high relief. And I am made aware again of what I’m missing—I want to feel that free, too. This freedom—and my envy of it—extends into the rest of the work as well. These awkward, busy homunculi serve as a funny, slightly creepy (maybe only to creeps like me) take on “the artist is present.” They feel like the generating force for the rest of the work: drawings and paintings on paper and other found materials, some on stretched canvas, some cut-out of their rectangles, all hanging on the walls.

bridget 1
Self Portrait with New Brush and The Lightning Family, installation view

Much of the 2D work, a layered mash-up of gestural marks, figuration and expressionistic abstraction, suggests bodies in motion—walking, crawling, large leg-like forms entering and exiting the rectangle—and the artist’s own body in gestures and brushstrokes that seem to be made at a brisk, steady pace. I imagine the artist moving herself and her materials through time and space at the pace of thought, synchronized in an ever shifting present.

In his book, Devotional Cinema, filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky talks about inspired work needing to possess a quality of “nowness,” which he likens to walking on a treadmill where the treadmill is passing time and “nowness” is the presence of your body walking.1 Nowness is not still, but in synch with time. Bridget’s work has this inspired quality. It’s a  freedom earned not by removal from time, but by being in time, in change, in the body. I witness this freedom in a certain kind of conceptual restraint: her work could be called cryptic—her titles confuse rather than clarify, narratives fail to coalesce, qualities of absurdity and heartfeltness mingle but neither reigns—but cryptic suggests she is hiding something or she knows something we don’t. I don’t get that feeling. My sense is that she is simply refusing to stop her exploration to force her materials to coalesce into concept. In my own practice I am always making meaning, seeking meaning, clarifying meaning. I can’t let a mark stand undefined for long. Dorsky’s diagnosis—“It is the fear of direct contact with the uncontrollable present that motivates the flight into concept”—rings true here.

bridget4
Sunrise Management

Bridget, maybe a braver woman than I, resists my urge to stop and grab control by defining a concept or following a narrative, and yet the work is laden with language: symbolic, clip-art type bodies, pattern and repetition, forms and formats of language but without the words/meaning. I feel the pull of language in her work, or maybe just the presence of it. These traces of language are true to the in-the-trenches human struggle for spiritual freedom. This is no Rothko-esque transcendence where we become pure consciousness, bodies dissolved into light. Nor is it Agnes Martin with her claims of an empty mind (I don’t believe her) following the flow of consciousness with line after horizontal line. Bridget doesn’t even attempt to leave confusion behind. This is real: getting through a day, trying to connect with the now in spite of our fear of the now, longing for surrender of control yet terrified of surrender of control, constricted by language even as we cling to our thinking.

Bridget tells us in her title, “don’t avoid voids.” Her multiple layers of marks and erasures suggest an endless cycle of constructing and deconstructing, creation and decay, passing in and out of being. This tension I think is what the fear of a void, aka the uncontrollable present, is all about. Here, at the brink of the future, what is known must die. That is, if you leave your concepts behind and stay true to the mystery, which seems to be Bridget’s aspiration.

bridget5
WTF City

As Bridget tells us not to avoid voids, she shows us how to fill them with our presence. She shows us it’s alright. Maybe it’s even the ultimate freedom to allow our bodies to become vessels for flow, and maybe it’s even fun—there’s a light-heartedness and warm humor in pretty much all the figuration and the colors are nourishing and awkwardly beautiful. The show is filled with images of vessels, actual ceramic vessels and voids of vessels, evoking the paradoxical experience of being both a channel for this flow and being carried by this flow. We live by being willing to die.

I’ve framed Bridget’s work as something of a spiritual quest, and the “spiritual” is often seen as a tangent to a more pressing and serious cultural conversation. But what Bridget is up to is no frivolous or self-indulgent activity, removed from the serious concerns of contemporary social issues. She tells us not to avoid voids, while colonialism, capitalism and consumerism have been telling us to fill voids with anything we can grab: products, ideologies, bodies, continents.

Rather than stay put and reckon with some voids, this race of terrified dying bodies has marched out across the globe to construct civilizations of wealth and power to try to fortify ourselves in the face of horrifying absolutes: we can’t control nature, we will lose everything we love, we will die.

Bridget’s work is a material expression of the opposite of manifest destiny, that American belief that God wants us to keep taking what we think we want. The opposite of taking isn’t stagnation or disappearance or boredom. She shows us the opposite of taking and getting is being and relating, connecting and receiving. In her steady, fearless and unassuming way, Bridget counters the temptation to dominate every time she steps into her studio. (This is how I imagine her anyway.) She leaves traces of her experience to hang here in a museum, mapping the way through some terrifying fundamental truths about our impermanent existence. This is important work—if we make peace with these truths, we can let go of the comfort of our lies.

 

NOTES:

Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema, Tuumba Press; 2 Revised edition (March 1, 2005)

 

Painting Nature: West Oakland to New Mexico

In the modern human’s search for some kind of truth transcendent untainted by culture, power or falsity, we often look toward nature: Thoreau, the American West, the Romantic traditions, even in our restaurants that claim to bring to the table the rhythms of the farm. Having spent my childhood and 20s in the woods, my nervous system is tuned to these rhythms, and when I moved to the city at 30, my sense of dislocation was immediate and profound. However, I had come to know that freedom is elusive even in the wildest places, for we are culture as much as we are nature, and I needed to go to culture to fully know my own nature.

Before the move to the city, I had been graced with an awakening of my senses that felt like redemption after years of struggle in addiction and anguish. The visible world revealed itself to me, and, in what I guess you would call an ecstasy, I started painting. For the first time in my life, I had a purpose I could believe in—to bring my vision to the world. After the move to the city though, it was as if my spirit left my body. Painting became a tortuous struggle, made even more painful because I knew it was a gift I could never return, but doing it only revealed how far and fast I had fallen. I often thought of the phrase, “banished from the garden,” made even more relevant by the fact that I was now living away from my redwoods and meadows and at the intersection of Fell and Webster in San Francisco where the traffic never shuts up. I stuck it out because I sensed that my wholeness was not separate from society, but depended upon a reconciliation with, or a reshaping of, culture rather than a removal from it.

So there I was feeling wretched in loud restaurants among well-groomed people with resumes.  And after six years of miserably trying to inhabit urban spaces that felt disconnected from essences, constructed for commerce and a false comfort built on oppression and exploitation, I found myself in the hood, and life got real again.

Nothing is there that has been designed for any other purpose than what it’s really for: fences are meant not to charm with their novelty, but to keep danger out and the dogs in, liquor stores for quick fixes to insurmountable problems, cars being fixed in the street without concern for the aesthetics of oil spills on the sidewalks.  Beautification and ornamentation are reserved for what’s really important: the autonomous body, while the rest of it–the sidewalks, the walls under the control of the city—are littered with trash, the useless visibly useless in the gutter.

The chaos and despair that are the product of our wealth and so-called comfort and so-called meaning is undeniably visible. There are no businesses with walls of re-purposed wood meant to communicate sustainability and moral justification for spending $16 on a cocktail while people a few blocks away scrape together $1.25 for a can of OE. Billboards and their messages are diminished by the unstoppable waves of graffiti, marketing campaigns of the human hand and arm. There is no interest in well-designed beautification projects that involve inserting parklet nature into the concrete jungle. Nature isn’t cultivated, referenced or honored. In the words of Jack Pollock, the hood IS nature.

It’s the red in tooth and claw variety of nature that our designed world lets us forget until car accidents, illness, and nature’s strongest player—death—comes for the body. My body knows instinctively to hit the floor when gunshots crack right outside the window. My skin is sensitized and vulnerable, waiting to be punctured. In the morning, a long line of blood all the way down the block and around the corner, leaking from someone running.  I make myself cry with compulsive fantasies of imagining Rory lying bleeding in the street or me screaming at the police to stop, watching helplessly as his body is injured. I don’t know why I do this—preparing myself? I watch a gun come out of a man’s pants and I run in a zig zag path to be a harder target to hit. I rush in, jacked up on adrenaline, between a man with a knife and the woman he’s trying to stab before he knocks her unconscious, and watch them hug it out the next day, a bullet hole in my front door. Life is most immediate at this basic level: the preservation or the destruction of the body.

Let’s not forget, however, that the hood is the product of culture, its existence brought into being by ruthless colonial greed. The hood is a creation of a culture that has no use for it other than to pick off members of its population to feed its prisons and scapegoat fantasies. It’s what happens when a culture doesn’t want to face reality and so they pawn it off on someone else. We say we want nature but we want to contain nature, just as we say we want life, but only if we can contain it safely out of reach of death. Our legacy of manifest destiny keeps us believing there is more, that we can keep running, as we run over everyone else and over our own limited lives. Once in visceral contact with the truth of this limitation, my own chronic pain was healed. I had seen it for what it was: the pain of bourgeois attempts to distance ourselves from the nature of our suffering. My life-long alienation from culture was my self-preserving refusal to believe the lie that false comfort is better than real pain.

Living in this environment that reflected the real in me gave me a ground to stand on, and my painting came back to life: my paint roller backgrounds inspired by endless graffiti cover-ups, textures of cement, patterns of brick, cheap siding and chain link, piles of garbage like paint scribbles blotting out the sidewalks, the chaos of tree branches pruned with no aesthetic consideration and growing back with consideration only for the sun. Cultural neglect and disregard created a vacuum that was enlivened by the softness of human skin everywhere, hands touching, hands making transactions, bodies tensed against constant threat, then relieved in moments of oblivion or laughter. Gestures, facial expressions, movements the purest form of human expression not only visible but necessary to preserve the soul, human nature reigning, constructed culture a threat in the form of police, self-doubt, and hopelessness. I felt and saw all of this and I wanted all those bored, dead-eyed people eating in restaurants with their haircuts to see it too and push the plate back and give a shit.

So now here in New Mexico with none of this: no people outside on the street, no street, no neighborhood, no buildings but for postcard barns on the horizon, painting in the way I have been would be artificial, a grasping at the past and doing the disservice of turning a felt reality into an idea commodity. Nature here is expressed in sky and grass and light. It’s vague and without narrative. I don’t know how to translate it into paint or art or even if I want to. I don’t know what I want to do other than move around in it or simply absorb space into my skull through my eyes. I don’t feel compelled to translate it, honor it or represent my vision of it, the way I did my surroundings in Oakland. I think then I was motivated by wanting to attend to what has been denied—in myself and the dominant culture: the awareness that, when death is literally around the corner (as it always is), life is valuable in and of itself. With nothing added. Every single person’s life.

But this place feels empty. Do I seek out people to paint? Meh.  Nothing feels necessary. My perspective is so broad here. Everything is diminished under the sky. Nothing calls for attention. What does an artist make who has disappeared? Who has found her nature reflected in empty space?