Saturday, August 28, 2010

The labyrinth, revisited: Cherie Hacker’s abstract art

Occasionally an artist’s work sends the viewer into a rather delicious form of confusion. This confusion belongs not to the discomfiture of actually feeling confused, but rather to the curiosity and questioning born of this rarified state of mind.

A confession: I am predisposed to appreciate the terms of abstract painting. I consider abstraction itself (dare I say, in the abstract) to be a redemptive, formal answer to the explosive consciousness particular to our time. Abstract work like Cherie Hacker’s belongs within the central rift that began long ago (in what seems more remote a time than it actually is), in the Modernist era. Serious abstract work continues to explore the way we all think and see the world these days. Ms. Hacker’s work belongs to this category, I think, as part of this ongoing exploration in paint.

The layered nature of consciousness has been admirably articulated within the discipline of psychology. Meanwhile, the vast morphology of the mind itself continues to emerge with granular, non-verbal acuity in art (as painting continues to surface the unconscious, bringing its expression into focus).

I acknowledge that we live in a world flooded with messages of all kinds—many of these messages arriving through an onslaught of words. Such ideas or sets of ideas filter through our perception, compounding in a way that leaves us little room for whatever else might occur in the absence of such insistent clutter. We need such measures, (or perhaps countermeasures), to articulate this stream into a form that allows us some collective, contemporary take on what it means to be alive.

Ms. Hacker’s work seems to belong to such approaches. The aesthetic argument I perceive runs roughly as follows. We can choose to unify our fragmented perceptions into perception; into a composition; a whole of many parts; a waking dream-state married by necessity to Gestalt psychology precepts.

Cherie Hacker’s abstract paintings juxtapose imagery and tap into the unconscious mind. They do so elegantly, confidently, and with messages implied.

Consider the work “Over," (above title).

This painting conjures multiple readings that don’t quite pan out into any confident absolution (that is, of course, beside the point. We aren’t there to “get it” but rather to explore the terms of what we see before us). Is this painting a top-down map, a city seen from above, or some fetish of geographic logic? Not quite. However, much like a map, the composition works according to an internal logic where its tropes may be tossed like dice (or a salad) within a fixed space; conforming overall into a cohesive whole. Okay, there is no map. One is lost and directions are futile. So what does such a composition represent? It doesn’t represent anything (silly)—that is a job better left to the mimetic fidelity of a camera or the definition found in figurative work (where you have a figure, faces being so central to our reading of ourselves).

Instead these abstracts seem not to capture exactly into a narrative elaboration, but rather to collect and juxtapose as an end; to render an inclusive non-allegorical construct that will not easily unveil its mysteries to flat, referential labeling.

You may look at this work for a long time, only to find the eye drawn to the surface-tension of the imagery. It is almost as if Hacker is tired of (bored with?) “interpretation.” Maybe she would rather leave us to the Susan Rothenberg imperative (I’m assuming here) which solicits the viewer’s focus on the picture plane. We seem to be asked—again, by Rothenberg—to let painting be party to a rare cohesion that may be found only and precisely in paint.

Oy, vey.

And yet, if penguins created imagery of some kind, those who studied penguins would find that such images speak universally of the “penguin mind.” It is with this anthropocentric assumption that I move forward, considering painting of any era—directly or indirectly—a manifestation (or depiction) of human consciousness.

Are not all of us composed of light and dark, filled with agendas that gain or lose shape, wandering around without clear direction and focus? In rare moments of uncanny poise, we make sense to ourselves. The rest of the time, we can only marvel at what unseen forces engineer our decisions.

(Not so incidentally, all of these reflections arise from contemplation of abstract art such as Hacker’s work above. Without them, I might never happen upon such ideas. The imperative to explore at this level is reason enough to value such work, wherever it might be found).


In what arena of experience—beyond the contemplation of art—do we become aware of the piecework nature of our minds? What tools have we evolved for us to heal our wounds; to move into a better understanding of who we are (and where we are going)?

Hiking, poetry, music, books in general, conversations with friends. . .these are some of the tools I have found to dig into the larger conundrums of existence. Without the work of abstract painters like Cherie Hacker, however, we would all find it far more difficult to pull the pieces of contemporary consciousness together.

For the record, Cherie Hacker is engaged in other work that I do not relate to nor fully understand. That is fine by me. I think most artists do not produce work to be liked or disliked (beside the point) but instead to further the general conversation. The viewers’ affection for a work may be a path toward engagement, but is rather trivial beyond that. Let us be engaged by artwork, not hustled. Check out Cherie Hacker’s work. I trust you will find it engaging.

For more information on Cherie Hacker and her work, please visit:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Beethoven and the String Quartet

Occasionally I go over the moon, swooning, about certain pieces of music: they sort of take over the mind, esthetically speaking. In the case of Beethoven’s string quartets, I can say that my initial love affair has continued, rather loyally and unexpectedly, for years. This morning I listen to one of the later ones again.

Unlike a true music aficionado, I am rather cavalier (for the most part) about which quartets to play. I tried to pay attention, and know them somewhat, if not really by name. So the scholarship lags behind the enthusiasm for the goods. And they are all excellent, and rather straightforward in their musical organization. I mean that they tend to follow a familiar formal arrangement: the sonata form. There is the statement of a primary theme, a variation from that theme, and then a return, modified enough to surprise the ear while also ensuring its consist, internally rigorous identity.

Beethoven’s music for many (like my father) represents a fascinating historical shift from the Classical to the Romantic period. Beethoven’s Romantic era pieces still retain the rigorous formal structure and logic of the Classical era but also veer into programmatic or passionate departure—something you simply don’t hear in Haydn, for instance. Suddenly the complexities of the human spirit; the struggles and triumphs; the exposition of nature--in all its ferocity and tenderness--come to the surface. It’s thrilling, and very difficult to find elsewhere, a fact that makes Beethoven endure in the manner Shakespeare, Picasso and the Beatles do. There is always a new generation ready to discover, as if no one had before, just how relevant and magnificent this stuff is.

And at the same time, I love the string quartet form, and Beethoven’s string quartets in particular for other reasons.

First of all, the timing, harmonic and melodic elements in the string quartet are all pushed forward, nakedly exposed. There’s such a marked directness; a purity in how the ear receives such clear-cut information. You can distinguish changes in a flow that isn’t obscured by the complications of richer arrangements. In a symphony with many instruments vying for prominence, there is more room for the work to hide in its layering; more ways the frequencies of instruments (and even the changes themselves) can mask one another. I don’t mean to imply that symphonic arrangements are somehow compromised utterly by this; just that there is a noticeable difference in how we can see the architecture, if you like. Adding instruments to an arrangement complicates the experience sonically. Certain pieces (like say Mahler’s 5th) beg for that complication, to be sure.

In the string quartet form, there’s something else present that is almost too delicious for words: the singing quality of notes so ardently and clearly asserted in the “thin” mix of the arrangement. The melody and the harmony deliver such that you may hear any error, and conversely, the sweet breadth that mastery of instruments unfolds without errors. The Quartetto Italiano box-set that I have (a loving gift from my father for my birthday years ago—not getting paid to write this) lets you swim around in whole oceans of masterful playing. It’s the kind of playing, in fact, that allows you to relax utterly, knowing the performance will not compromise the work.

So beyond even all of this goodness, there is the heart of the matter for me. When I hear some of these string quartets, a broadening calm moves in. I can imagine, for a while, that life—even in its inherent dramas and awkwardness—can move gracefully forward (across its long body). I can claim the dignity, the strength, the faith in humanity and in nature, that inheres in Beethoven’s works. They suggest to my heart that we can all forgive each another and start over; that life is oddly perfect despite its flaws; that time unfolds before us with the enveloping quality of a river or a mountain range. To paraphrase Stravinsky on this, I feel like the music really is "clarifying man's relationship to time."

So thank you, Beethoven. You were perfect in your flaws and unafraid to weave them into the music. I know the muses spoke to you profoundly—why else would you have continued writing when you couldn’t “hear” it anymore.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Sense of Place: The Work of David Peterson

David Peterson’s work occupies an esthetic space where one may freely contemplate a sense of place, or, more specifically, how one feels about a particular place. His working process includes direct contact with the places he realizes in paint. The resulting images manage to induce a nostalgia that may not derive specifically to the scene depicted, but rather applies by association to how we feel about the places we love. This universalizing quality to the work trumps the simple sentimentality that can close down a regional work from a broader relevance.

It took me some time to sort out why I like Peterson’s work so much, until I could identify the terms of the regionalist approach he has adopted and the means by which it moves into a larger relevance.

David met me to discuss his work at a cafĂ© called Papayas, a lunch spot where he has been afforded the space for an ongoing and rotating exhibit. The work varies all the time according to David’s own wishes and made a great place to meet to discuss his work.

Peterson carried a notebook with him that I found fascinating—beyond the individual framed works on the walls.

In this book you can flip through the whole history of an engaged painter’s life—studies for larger paintings to be completed later; small sketches, more realized works, notes on process, form or some event he took in along the way. The notebook included lists of places he had been, dates, tickets from events he had seen—a fine collection of ephemera from a quotidian life that is centered on taking in the details of people and places. It strikes one as an artist’s take on the form and discipline of investigative journalism.

Over the years David has compiled several such pictorial journals; a painter’s study and, by extension, perhaps also the record of a man’s life. I immediately felt the urge to follow his lead, to keep a journal the old and more satisfying way—one written by hand. As we looked over his notebook together we discussed the books as artifacts themselves, and the difficulty in making them available for display. They simply cannot be exhibited easily, and so remain behind the scenes; studies that sometimes lead to larger, framed works.

Peterson has refined his craft and works in the water-color medium, with the ease and detachment of someone who has spent years refining his skills and approaches. He speaks about his work as if addressing some old friend he hasn’t seen for a while. And you get the impression that he can connect the dots of his entire adult life together through the paintings he has realized over his career.

Currently among the Blue Moon Gallery artists in Sacramento, Peterson has amassed a long list of shows and over 40 awards recognizing his work. He taught art at a private school until recently. David is deeply connected to others who enjoy the water color medium and always open to teaching others or recognizing the quality found in other artists’ work. It is refreshingly rare to meet an artist as curious about others’ work as he is in realizing or considering his own.

The earthy manner pervades in the character of the artwork and the character of the man. Consider this snippet from David’s web site:

“David Peterson, Sacramento artist, is in a hurry. Recently renewing himself with the passion to paint that he had as a 19-year-old, and in spite of a job, and volunteering for Sacramento Valley School and various art organizations, he finds time to paint hundreds of paintings a year, outdoors. Inspired by Henry Fukuhara, mentored by Woody Hansen, encouraged by family and friends, David's painting is maturing and he is making his artistic statement. The artist has paintings in private collections locally, in Southern California and the east coast. Since 2003, the artist has been accepted into dozens of state-wide juried shows and has won over three dozen awards. He is a past President of WASH, Inc., Sacramento’s only watercolor club. David’s work can be seen at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center, The Blue Moon Gallery and Papayas Cafe.”

David’s work occupies an aesthetic territory between a fully realized representation of a place and a minimalist approach whereby one employs the least possible details that may still convey a fully realized sense of place. The colors and minimally sketched figures may entice your eye in, but it is the composition keeps you engaged with the work. Much like a song in which you find yourself whistling a melody long after hearing it, Peterson’s works stick with you—and may even inspire you to reconsider the ordinary charms of where you live and work.
You might find David outside painting, either on location where a place inspires him, at an art store or teaching a workshop to others. See his web site for details on forthcoming events.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Review: “Petroglyph Americana” by Scott Ezell (Empty Bowl Press)

Disclosure: The author is a friend.

Scott Ezell’s Petroglyph Americana is a narrative poem that weaves together contemporary ephemera and deep ecology; marries history and politics to topography; projects the personal against the general, and challenges the simplicity of surface culture with the depth of intelligent observation. All of this is done with a sense of humor; with language that has a cadence and rhythm matching the subject matter; with efficiency and with love. It is no small task, but the author has risen to the challenge.

Blue ink petroglyphs
on a wall of pages, I am
anthropomorphic design
scored into the face of cities,
a mineral blank
extruded through a die of
freeways, factories, and conduits
into a myth of home.

America, like the poet Walt Whitman himself, is alive with contradictions and Ezell explores these, taking them as they come. Together, the imagery presents a compelling collage revealing how America’s depth, cultural heritage and history can become occluded by the surface tension of contemporary life and its rather constant plays for our attention. It is a story about freedom and how such a notion takes place in this country and the potential influence of our domestic dynamics elsewhere. Ezell chooses to look closer; to examine both the innocence and the ignorance of this place. What America is often hinges on our collective ability to ignore history and invest in the open-ended freedoms of the frontier, where consequences may be sorted out later—by those who care to do so—or perhaps just left to historians, to poets, or later, to God.

On the tv screen,
between hairspray ads,
a correspondent
with a microphone
stands between two piles
of rubble—

soldiers say
the greatest challenge
is to engage an enemy
indistinct among civilians—

the bargirl turns the channel
to a stock car race.

One can criticize American foreign policy without seeing the roots by which this stance has come to be. One can survey contemporary culture without seeing any connection between American values and how choices we make impact other people and places. Most of the time, anyway, Ezell chooses not to address the layers of this onion with an overtly critical voice, but rather to allow these larger questions to flow through personal experience, to let the contradictions speak for themselves. Ezell engages the texture and intimate nature of his own experience to create a larger space for these inquiries to be examined in the reader’s mind. This point of view is Taoist in nature, as it includes the non-divisive notion that so long as one burns oil one is part of the forces that extract and refine it and, thus, are married to its existence. As such, there is no cover; one cannot stand detached and fling arrows at The Beast if those arrows are instead boomerangs that return scathingly to the hand that threw them. Whether it’s reading Hamlet in a bar where football is playing on tv or recognizing the timelessness of bristlecone pines, even in the gloom of his disappointments, Ezell can sometimes manifest a small point of redemption, a hint of beauty to lift out of the superficialities:

American road motel,
Polyester blankets, microwave machine,
50 channels of tv,
Centrally located near casinos, restaurants, and department stores,
Piss bowl
Ringed with sediment
The color of horizons—

In the best segments of Petroglyph Americana, Ezell’s esthetic is a patchwork of blameless, constructive engagement and sharp observation. These passages recall some of Walt Whitman or Alan Ginsberg’s best work, where a perspective comprises details that derive from a painstaking observation that does not funnel its terms toward an end-game of judgment. I have long held that this is a fundamental difference between art and ideology. Poetry raises questions that identify a dynamic and explore it, without proffering an absolute conclusion or solution. At the same time, the juxtaposition may be strong enough to suggest imbalance or injustice, much as Ezell’s better passages resist these overt labels. The imagery does that, instead:

Doctors found a blue, bulging sack with a silent heart inside.

‘Into your hands O merciful savior, we commend your servant…
A sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock…’

Outside the tent, a Marine Sgt. Cocked his M-16
And stood guard beside the body.

The questions resonate from the page, always keeping in mind the larger conceit of how oil has shaped America and our approach to every aspect of our lives.

How can the same country produce jazz and Wal-Mart? How can such beauty coexist so seamlessly with such ugliness? In what ways do we lie to ourselves? How can we wrap our consciousness around how peaceful the high country feels with the higher proportion of rural soldiers dying in Iraq? Further, how can we reconcile the deep wound of unacknowledged genocide and whole ways of being which have been lost with the distracting (and comparatively empty) pleasures of golf courses, air-conditioning and Las Vegas? How did we get here, what do we do now, and what happened to the natives? What media forces limit our ability as Americans to see more clearly how our decisions affect the rest of the world? They are hard questions to answer, and ones worthy of our consideration.

Larger questions unfold rightfully in poetry, and the contradictions of our nation are given full play in Petroglyph Americana. Buy it. Read it. Send it to your friends as a gift. Scott Ezell has added his name and poetry to a tradition that includes Whitman, Twain, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Vonnegut: voices whose work we should read if we seek to understand America.