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Filtering by Category: Art

The Surrealist’s Storm

Jayne English

"I come into the peace of wild things." — Wendell Berry

Have you ever listened to an instrumental version of a song that’s familiar to you and realized, while you’re humming along, singing the words in your head, that a younger person, hearing the same version, would have no idea that there are words to it? You would be experiencing the same song, but at different levels.

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Out-Staring Stars

Robert Alan Rife

I am not the first, nor will I be the last to quake and quiver at the rather odd, inexplicable mixture of symptoms to which artists will point for their embryonic work—that most baffling conundrum otherwise known as “the creative process.” It is a rather stupefying concoction of mysteries perhaps best left to psychologists, philosophers, and theologians. When it arrives at one’s door, it does so unbidden and with an inconvenient sense of either timing or manners.

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Arrival

Jayne English

I went reluctantly to see Arrival, remembering my disappointment over The Martianhow its great sweeps of desolate landscape seemed squandered on themes of American ingenuity, determination, and victory over galactic odds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But placing one man alone on a vast planet far, far from home begged for a nuanced treatment of the larger ideas of isolation and longing.

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Heavy Gleam of Domesticity: The Seven Sacraments by Abigail O’Brien

Jessica Brown

communion Abigail O’Brien, an Irish artist, took a decade to complete her magnanimous series of installations The Seven Sacraments. A visual meditation using different mediums—photographs, found objects, needlepoint, sculpture—this series explores the interplay of domestic life and its tangible chores with the tangibility of the sacraments, and their concrete expressions of grace. Basin, water, linen, flour, bread, fish, goblet, lilies, grapes: this list conjures items both mundane and holy—daily tasks in the realm of home as well as those made vital to the public ministry of Jesus Christ and ecclesiastical rituals.

Photographs in O’Briens The Last Supper – Matrimony (1995) are composed so that the lit faces of women preparing for a wedding cannot help but remind us of the facial illuminations in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting. The richly hued lines utter a gleam of holiness in the human face and wine bottles, a wedding gown and wedding cake.

In Kitchen Pieces – Confession and Communion (1998) are photographs of bread, fish, and fruit on a black countertop again gleaming in such a way to reference Dutch and Spanish still lifes, brimming with sparkling fruit and shiny fish, themselves symbols of the sacraments. Photographs of women poised in the act of cooking are arranged in such a way to reference the beautiful comfort of Dutch interior paintings, women cooking or sewing by the glowing hearth.

What do we do, as our brains encounter such material as to make these connections between baking bread or cutting lemons with the grace of God as offered through the forgiveness of sins? I think the most uncomplicated response is one of affirmation: the sphere of domesticity is one that gleams with eternal meaning. The vita activa is not necessarily devoid of vita contemplativa, for our chores share the very tangibility that Christ treasured for his own ministry. The meaning of home can even inform how we enter the sacraments: God offers water for washing, warmth from a well-lit and enduring fire, and indeed, a place at the table set with the nourishing sustenance of wine and bread.

But there is an edge to O’Brien’s work. The Last Supper carries an undercurrent of bizarre but expected performativity, the pressure to carry out ritual in a certain way. The expression of the woman (supposedly the bride) getting her nails done is one of sober consternation. In Kitchen Pieces, the very paintings that refer to the domesticity of Dutch interiors are set in mock-up kitchens in a showroom, literally for show. The last two photographs feature a young girl in a kitchen baking bread; but the in second photo, the girl is gone, with only flour marking her place. Is this what happens when a person enters into the rituals of home-making or religion, that she loses herself?

There will always be a performative, and potentially destructive, side to rituals. The pressure to do things “right” churns within. We want our domestic tasks and the fruit of faith to be excellent, ripe, generous, lovely. And this is when the meaning of sacrament can inform how we enter ritual, domestic or religious. Sacrament is grace, and grace expects not performance but presence. Grace welcomes the transparency to admit our very inability to perform certain expectations.

The installations by Abigail O’Brien are stunning and disturbing. For me, they prompt a prayer. As we affirm the sacramental nature of daily chores—the holy gleam, as it were—may we remember to let grace affirm us, and free us from the burdensome threats of relentless perfectionism.

Imagination and Prayer

Jayne English

prayer-1999.jpg!Large

Imagination! who can sing thy force? Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?  —Phillis Wheatley

Mechanic and machinist Arthur Pirre spent 20 years restoring his 1937 “Baby Duesenberg” Cord. He worked on details with files and wrenches and hex keys. He measured and drilled to make precisely fitting parts. Then he broadened his imagination to more abstract uses: choosing fabric and colors, sanding, painting, polishing, until the sleek curves and inventive features were remastered to their original beauty.

The poet Wallace Stevens employed different tools to craft the details of his poems: punctuation, cadence, syntax, line breaks. Like Pirre, he created with elements of abstract and imaginative thought using not just the words but the space between the words. In “The Snow Man,” he changed the familiar concepts of cold, snow, and ice into something momentous, the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

As artists, both men saw the interrelationship of details and the big picture. These tangible works of art correspond to our work in the invisible realm of prayer. Just as they labored to transform rust and words into something creatively meaningful, we labor with the Spirit to see the creation of something profound in the lives and the world around us.

Detailed prayer is straight forward. We can pray for a new roof, a humble heart, the ability to comfort a grieving friend. Details seem almost tactile compared to entering the vast, nebulous “God bless the world” prayer of a child. This is abstract prayer. Just like the element we can’t quite put a finger on in Stevens’ poems that shrouds a meaning and delivers its mystery, so the workings of prayer can’t be completely clear to our finite minds. Its abstractness is part of its power. There are no limits to who our prayers can touch because we can invoke our imaginations to include people we don’t know, complex situations beyond our grasp that we are nonetheless moved to pray about.

Jesus set the precedent for this kind of abstract prayer when he taught us to pray. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins both reflect the details of our day, and are easy enough (in a way) to lift up for ourselves, loved ones, and neighbors. But may your kingdom come and may your will be done are weighty and cumbersome. This is where God who gave us abstract thought and imagination invites us to use them in prayer. It’s when we can speak to God in images—picturing in our minds rather than naming with words—those we don’t know personally, extended family members of loved ones, future generations, our neighbors’ families, churches, cities, judges, presidents, countries, 7 billion people and the complex social, economic, political issues that swirl around them like clouds around the globe. The God who knows each star by name doesn’t expect us to know them, or need us to pray with an attention to detail that only his mind can grasp.

Denise Levertov muses about how God speaks to us in images in her poem Immersion:

                                                                                          God is surely patiently trying to immerse us in a different language, events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history and the unearned retrieval of blessings lost for ever, the poor grass returning after drought, timid, persistent. God's abstention is only from human dialects. The holy voice utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents.

We can speak to God in this nonlinguistic language just as the Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” God invites us to pray like he invites artists to create, sometimes with detail, sometimes with abstract imagination. Pray for what you can name and what you can't. Pray with words and the spaces between words.

In a Handful of God         

Jean Hoefling

Chama al-Din Muhammad Hafiz (Public Domain)

In a handful of the sky and earth, In a handful of God, We cannot count All the ecstatic lovers who are dancing there Behind the mysterious veil.

True art reveals there is no void Or darkness.

There is no loneliness to the clear-eyed mystic In this luminous, brimming, Playful world.Hafiz, nineteenth century Persian poet

Artist Andrew Wyeth painted “Pentecost” in memory of a child in his Maine community who had been washed out to sea during a storm. “They couldn’t save her. I was thinking about the young girl’s body floating there underwater, and the nets became her spirit.”

Painting in the heyday of the mid-20th century fad of abstract expressionism, Wyeth was often criticized for the politically incorrect, dogged realism of his work. “More real than reality,” as one journalist of the day put it, referring to Wyeth’s intricate representations. The journalist is right without realizing it, for who can take in an exhibit of Wyeth’s paintings (which I had the privilege of doing on a white-white day last winter) and not be drawn in by the insistent expression of the unseen spirit breathing in all of them—whether tangled in the sparse grass of an ocean dunescape, glancing through diffused light on a stoic New England face, or coaxing our sense of wonder in the haunting way Christina on her hill leans upward toward… what, really?

“The wind blows where it pleases,” Jesus said. The Spirit is as real as anything we can see, swelling fishing nets and billowing through white curtains and drawing our eyes skyward for no reason at all. Its presence at our back can makes us turn around once again (compulsively and against our better judgment), to try to discover Who it is that persists in walking in silence at our elbow.

In a handful of God, all eternity resides, and the poet is right in saying that true art reveals there is no void or darkness. All the earth is a container for the divine, and Wyeth understood instinctively—as an artist though perhaps not a theologian—that for the innocent, drowned child, death had opened up to life. Ordinary, humble things are the first to fill up with the splendid, so that we might see and be reminded of what reality actually is.

Through the Window - Part 1: Looking into the World

Rebecca Spears

Mark Chagal, Window in the Dacha Outside my kitchen window, a gingko tree bursts gold, fan-shaped leaves shimmering in fresh air. I have thought all morning about what I want, and it’s nothing.       —Elizabeth Drewry, “Nothing Is Wanting”

I have a wall of windows in my classroom, and I keep the blinds wide open unless I am using media that requires a darkened room. As soon as the media presentation is over, I let the blinds blink open so that daylight can flood the room again.

Recently, I’d been exploring my penchant for light when I came across Charles Hebermann’s entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia on “Windows in Church Architecture.” He has this to say about church windows, especially for people who are accustomed to a whole lot of light: “The temperament of the people of the East and the South where Christian houses of worship first appeared, required the admission of much light by large openings in the walls.”

In an earlier post, “How the Light Gets In,” I wrote about the plain church style of using clear-paned glass and how much this style appealed to me, not only in churches but in just about every other structure. I’ve lived in the American Southwest most of my life where bright days are a force of nature all on their own.  I love the light.

Windows are also essential to connect to the larger world, and as Michael Pollan notes in A Place of My Own, windows frame the landscape and let us interpret it. Looking into the landscape, we not only reflect on it, but it leads us to consider our lives and work.

Outside my classroom windows, my students and I have seen coyote, deer, rabbits, plenty of squirrels, and too many birds to name them all—great blue heron, egrets, carrion crows, red-tailed hawk, mourning dove, and robins. We’ve also watched other students working on large art projects, like sculptures and murals. Or we see the science teacher and his students outside our window, collecting samples of water and soil. Sometimes the life outside the windows has led us into brief discussions that might be related to our task at hand, or not, but our contemplations are always worthwhile.  

This life outside my classroom inspires me to teach my students in ways that will help them see the wider world. So I’ve structured my literature and rhetoric classes around themes that will help students think about how to live in the community and on the planet. All of this from windows.

Read Part 2

“The Innocence of Trees,” the Generosity of a Grid

Jessica Brown

Agnes Martin. Falling Blue, detail. 1963. Agnes Martin (1912-2004) painted lines and grids and blocks of color. The exhibit of her work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an extensive retrospective spanning the decades of her career, offers visitors a chance to view such simple things as these lines and grids and blocks of color.

The exhibit is on the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art building. It’s spacious there, filtered light from the glass-covered roof filling the space with restrained luminosity. It’s a museum, so it’s a hushed space too, housing silent canvases and quiet spectators.

All of this—the quietness and light and the high ceilings and big white walls—works to present to us these strange, ineffable creations by Agnes Martin. Six by six foot canvases spread out and open before us. There’s The Rain, on which a gray-softly-smeared-with-grey background floats two blocks of mottled, emerging color—the top a dark blue, the bottom a brown-grey taupe. There’s Night Sea, a white grid of fragile, perfect half-inch rectangles over a muted sapphire blue. From her later work is Innocent Living, a gently stacked row of the softest hues in yellow, gray, blue.

June was a stressful month for me, for many reasons. But in any case, most of us don’t need “reasons” for stress—the rigmarole of upkeep can be exhausting in most seasons. So when I walked onto that third floor, there was a part of me that was frayed, nervous, elsewhere with my to-do’s.

And then, kind of like still ponds or warm pools of light, Agnes Martin’s paintings were waiting. But in using the metaphors of pond and pool, I do a disservice. It is really the paintings’ soft, profound emptiness of form that pours itself out into the viewer. The formlessness rolls across the room in soothing undulations, strange lullabies that catch a restless child off-guard. Martin herself wrote, in her famous poem “The Untroubled Mind”:

These paintings are about freedom from the cares of the world from worldliness

In her lack of form, in her deeply restrained palette of shape and color, it is as of she unearths deeper spaces for us to enter into. “My paintings have neither object nor space nor line,” she wrote, “nor anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness . . . You wouldn’t think of form by an ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything.”

We enter into the painting, and something is caught, ignited, remembered and recollected. The paintings somehow allow us to present ourselves, in the moment, with all the accumulated  moments pooled within us. The grid waits before us like a matrix of inner being, a delicate and endless structure designed for us to hang our moving, wrestling shapes of psyche onto.

The generosity of the grid—of the mind of Agnes Martin—is just that. These pieces have such restraint that they can become spaces for emptying and opening. Marin wrote, “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.”

Untitled #3 from 2003 waits for someone to approach it. The top section, a delicate shade of pale dove-wing gray with long, hand-painted lines going down, hovers over the bottom section, a soft, natural brown. The color is reminiscent of sand, wood, dirt, clay. It’s hard not to think of a horizon line. Shore and sky. Or a table in a quiet room, waiting for schoolwork and dinnertime. Or a desert, a long vista to travel, to travail, to mark with footsteps. Or a windowsill, looking out and out and out . . .

It fosters a deep gratitude, the painting does, for the scores of tracts inside of us, that we can meet such seeming emptiness with such rich play and recollection. It isn’t emptiness of course, but the kindness of an artist to make such an open space as it would seem so, one part of a two-way dynamic: the created locale waiting for the human counterpart to perch, enter, and perhaps, be restored.

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The exhibition Agnes Martin will be at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art until Sept 11, 2016. 

Sugar Man and the Children of God

Jean Hoefling

Sixto RodriguezI pretty much went back to work. Nothing beats reality.Sixto Rodriguez

It isn’t really his music, though to my mind, this talented musician holds his own against any modern artist, thanks to his potent lyrics and Dylanesque voice and aura. It isn’t even his unusual story, though the course of his life journey is the kind of Cinderella tale that just doesn’t happen in this calloused world, but only within the mythic cosmos of our wildest dreams.

It’s something else that makes me want to be like Sixto Diaz Rodriguez when I grow up, and that is his attitude after mysterious casts of fate prevented what should have been a rocket ride to stardom. Instead of the American dream, the Detroit native went back in his home city for the next thirty years, doing demolition work, living in relative poverty, and trying not to wonder too much what went wrong. The highs and lows of this magical tale are told in the award-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Though the film is not the full account, by any measurement except the most cynical this is still a refresher course in miracles.

The world is rumored to be full of celebrities. Attitude alone sets Rodriguez apart as a great man and genuine grownup. When all was obscured and shadowed, he had the grace to accept his reality as good and acceptable instead of growing bitter over what could have been. At some point, he went from “being the outcast to… who he really was,” and this is where his story becomes our own. Every human being knows instinctively that what he appears to be in this transient life is far from the whole truth. The Christian faith is crammed with compelling arguments about just why this is so, and the apostle John lifts us out of our finite grasp of ourselves to remind us of what lies beyond the shadowed present:

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2)

Until that appearing, I look to people like Sixto Rodriguez to remind me that the temporary struggle is as much a part of the Big Picture as any eternal outcome will prove to be.

Two Stories

Lou Kaloger

Raphael Raphael's last painting may very well be his greatest. It was completed in 1520 just before his death at the age of 37. In it we see Jesus hovering just above the surface of the earth. He is flanked by Moses and Elijah who join Him in His resplendent glory as Peter, James, and John look on. The setting is transcendent and beautiful and amazing and glorious. But it is only part of the painting. The lower half of this same painting depicts a scene of utter chaos. Toward the right is a demon-possessed boy. His eyes are rolled back and he is convulsing. He, too, is flanked by two figures, but they are not Moses and Elijah. Instead, they are the personifications of the oppressing spirits who defiantly stare down the other disciples. The followers of Jesus are flustered and unsure. They're looking at each other, and pointing at each other, and throwing up their hands in complete frustration.

According to St. Mark's account of this story, both events—the transfiguration and the failed exorcism—are occurring at nearly the same time. It is almost as if Mount Tabor itself stands as a character in the larger story, as Raphael moves us from Shekinah glory at the "top" of the mountain to the confusing chaotic mayhem at the "base" of the same mountain. And, if I'm honest, it is a tension I see often in my own life:

Sunday morning gives way to Monday morning. The sublime is overwhelmed by frustration. Glory is devoured by trial.

And yet there is grace.

You Must Change Your Life

Christina Lee

railway-station-1007167_1280 Naomi Shihab Nye describes poetry as “a conversation with the world, a conversation with those words on the page allowing them to speak back to you—a conversation with yourself.”A few weeks ago, at AWP, I heard Nye speak on a poetry-activism panel with Luis Rodriguez and Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Griffiths’ photography and poetry gives voice to the grief and rage she feels at the police brutality in America. Rodriguez, the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, has seen poetry unite his diverse, complicated city. All three poets spoke with a beautiful urgency, reminding us of the power in our art.  

This seemed to be the theme of AWP. Claudia Rankine was the keynote speaker. Her book, Citizen, is the perfect example of revolution-inciting poetry.

In fact, every session and panel seemed to be built on this same idea. Throughout the conference, I kept thinking of the last line of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” After contemplating the beauty and power of the statue, the speaker feels an edict: “You must change your life.”  

The Monday after the conference, I drove to work in a bit of a funk. I missed the urgency and energy and buzz of the conference. Then the story of Dagmar and Wali came on NPR and reminded me that returning to regular life was the whole point.  

The story concerns a very odd couple: Dagmar Nordberg is a 60-year-old Swedish museum director. Wali Hafiz is a 23-year-old Afghani engineer and refugee. Wali was brutally beaten and left for dead by the Taliban after he refused to support their efforts. He was forced to leave his wife and young daughter and flee to Sweden. This excerpt from the NPR transcript describes Wali and Dagmar’s first encounter:

They met on a train platform in a nearby village on a freezing cold day last November.

"He was standing there in a T-shirt, with his jeans and his cotton shoes," Nordberg recalls. "And I thought he was just one of these boys playing computer games all day long. And I've come to that age where I can say things, so I just passed him by and I said, 'It's winter!' "

Hafiz says he had so many problems he couldn't think about the weather. And besides, he didn't own a jacket. Nordberg remembers he was so stressed that he was sweating, but he replied politely.

"He said, 'I know, ma'am,'" she says. "That was the first time I heard Wali's voice."

Nordberg says she understood then that he was a lost refugee and she could either go on with her life or help him. "I just knew I had this choice here and now, and whatever I do will have consequences," she says.

So she took him in, taught him English, and secured him an apprenticeship. If you play the story to the end, you’ll hear them laughing together at her kitchen table…two unlikely kindred spirits.

I’m sure Dagmar, as a museum director, would have liked what Nye, Rodriguez, Griffiths and Rankin had to say at AWP, if she’d been able to hear it. I’m sure that when she curates the art in her museum, she looks for works that challenge and inspire change.

What amazes me is the way she altered her life in one moment, because of one encounter. Her story reminds me that it isn’t enough to listen to great speakers or to feel moved by great art. We must also be willing to take action.

I can’t get over that line she called out over the train platform— “It’s winter.”

Those words did what Nye says all poems should do. They connected strangers and moved them from hostility to understanding. They began a conversation. And ultimately, they transformed.

Printed out on a page, separated from their story, they might not look like much. 

It’s Winter.

Still, that’s the best poem I’ve heard in years. 

The Soul’s Tempo in Four Quartets - Part II

Rebecca Spears

St John's Church, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, UK, key in the inspiration for the poem Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot. Taken by uploader, February 4, 2006. Read Part I 

“The Dry Salvages,” the third poem in Eliot’s Four Quartets, thinks about time from the wilderness of rivers and oceans, drawing parallels to the cycles of life and to eternity. Rhythmically, this poem feels like water lapping at the shore: “Where is an end of it, the soundless wailing”; “where is there an end to the drifting wreckage”; “where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing”; “there is no end, but addition.”

“The Dry Salvages”  (1941) evokes Heraclitus’ most famous observation: “One cannot step twice into the same river.” Similarly, in time’s currents, humans are no longer the same travelers they were the moment before; nor will they be the same the next moment.  We are ever changing, but this signals our aging as well. Implicit in wilderness is the idea of an older time,  before clocks: “The tolling bell / Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried / Ground swell, a time / Older than the time of chronometers.” This is nature’s movement, something quite larger than ourselves, something we cannot control.

In nature, time is both destroyer and preserver, signified by “the river with its cargo of Dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops.” Here, Eliot wants us to know that agony is timeless; when we are in it, it seems eternal: “People change, and smile: but the agony abides.” Also, “time is no healer”; instead, time always kills the patient. The speaker seeks refuge from agony in prayer, and finally turns away from ancient remedies of magic and sorcery. He concludes that the only way to live timelessly is through prayer and through the saints. “Little Gidding" (1942), the most overtly religious quartet, moves the speaker from the human experience of time to the threshold of timelessness. Little Gidding is a chapel Eliot made pilgrimage to in 1936, when England was nearing war’s threshold. So too, readers enter the poem at a transitory time, “midwinter spring,” “suspended in time,” where “the brief sun flames the ice.” As in Heraclitus, this flash of light compares to insight. Yet this light is also a “pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year.” We should approach this moment of light prayerfully, Eliot tells us, ready to see our folly and be restored by “that refining fire.” In prayer, a person prepares to cross the threshold and be “transfigured in another pattern,” experiencing visionary detachment that goes beyond desire to love. While history is “a pattern / of timeless moments,” to be transformed people must “arrive where we started from / And know the place for the first time,” “through the unknown remembered gate” (l. 246), to a place and experience humans have only glimpsed on the cave walls.  

My afternoon at the Menil that long-ago September, experiencing Mineko Grimmer’s Remembering Plato, the ice melting, the pebbles dropping and producing a watery music, the projected patterns on the walls constantly changing, I think I felt myself approaching a gate that wasn’t yet open to me. I still carry a vivid memory of that day when the experience touched me so deeply. In Four Quartets, Eliot works his way through ideas of memory and its patterns, and suspended time, toward glimpses of eternal forms, and finally, to the gate of timelessness, or eternity. Following the soul’s tempo, the speaker will gain “complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.”

The Soul’s Tempo in Four Quartets - Part 1

Rebecca Spears

Plato On a Friday one long-ago September, after I’d toured several galleries at the Menil Collection with some fellow writers, I was anxious to get outside and enjoy a rare, cool afternoon. However, the guide had one more exhibit to show us, a room-sized sculpture, Mineko Grimmer’Remembering Plato.

As soon as I entered this simple, beautiful space, I forgot my urge to rush outdoors, astounded by the sculpture: At either end of the room, a shallow, rectangular pool rested on the hardwood floor. Stretched across the middle of each basin were two wires. Over each pool, an ice pendulum encrusted with pebbles hung. Spotlights projected the water’s light and shadows onto the walls. The ice was melting; pebbles were dropping onto the wires and into the basins, producing single, musical notes and watery sounds. Simultaneously, the projections on the walls changed, as pebbles falling faster over time disturbed the water. The effect, as Menil director Ned Rifkin aptly explained, is to animate “the internal mechanism of a clock we do not ordinarily see or use, one that corresponds to the soul’s tempo. ”

The patterns on the walls figure largely too in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, where Eliot examines the distance between the ideal form and a person’s changing perceptions of it over time. The quartets, “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding,” also show us that human limitations can become a means of transcendence. If we accept the limits, exercising a measure of humility, then we may be transformed and freed of time. The quartets can be read, too, for their political context and imagery of war, but it is its narrative reflecting the poet’s conversion to Christianity that I find particularly interesting.

While the elements of Four Quartets are wide ranging, and each reader will take something different from the poems, the speaker enacts what it is like to grapple with the sublime. What I love about the quartets is Eliot’s musing on how we may glimpse eternity, where the soul experiences timelessness, and how we may seek God. I think my astonishment upon seeing Mineko Grimmer’s Remembering Plato was an exalted moment for me: I was taken out of time for a few moments and had a glimpse of something greater than myself.

In the first quartet, “Burnt Norton” (1936), the speaker’s perplexity concerning time is at once apparent: “If all time is eternally present, / All time is unredeemable.” The speaker moves toward the memory of a manor and gardens and considers the disjunction between ideal forms and reality in a positive way, namely, that the saving grace of memory is its distance from actual events. For in memory, the speaker can reconsider life and make new patterns of it.

Yet Eliot’s speaker is also bewildered, knowing that humans cannot remove themselves from time. Even when he calls on memory, he must do so in real time. There are glorious moments that humans sometimes perceive, and in those moments, movement is suspended: “The pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of heart of light. ” Like my experience of Mineko Grimmer’s sculpture, such moments are the still point, just as the earth’s axis is its still point. Throughout “Burnt Norton,” the speaker tries to apprehend the still point where the soul can rest, while “desire itself is movement.” One reading of this quartet is the speaker’s striving for love beyond desire, a divine love, a salvation.

Eliot’s second quartet, “East Coker” (1940), moves through the seasons, which in turn give way to years, and years to ancestry and history. There is also motion toward acceptance of human limitations as well as geographic movement away from civilization toward wilderness. The movement of our time in this life is cyclical, and the speaker ponders how he might be released from it. “In my beginning is my end,” he says, recognizing that time is comprised of endless, cyclical occurrences. These are purposeless unless he—and we—begin to view them in timeless contexts.

Eliot also wants to remind us that movement through the seasons points to human frailty: though Plato’s cave-dwellers dance around the bonfire, the dance ends with the dancers. We humans fear the loss implicit in giving ourselves over to someone or something we may lose; fear of “belonging to another, or to others, or to God.” In order to acquire “the wisdom of humility,” we need to face our fears. And to gain abiding faith, hope, and love, apart from cyclical time, we must wade into the darkness. In doing this, the speaker indicates, it is possible to gain the insight of a refining fire.

Read Part II

Love Me Tender. Laugh Me True.

Chrysta Brown

Photo by Sara Reid - Flick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThe professor had this to say about my work, “Sometimes I get the feeling that you are sitting at your desk and just cracking yourself up.”  She was wrong. I didn’t have a desk. I sat on the bed, at a coffee table at Starbucks, on the train, or on the yoga mat that doubled as an accent rug. She was right about one thing, though. I make a habit of cracking myself up. I had to. I was working full time and in grad school so tears came easily and regularly. Laughter was a bit more elusive. The yoga teacher would begin class by having us set an intention for our work, something that would carry us through the convoluted poses, the unnatural stillness, the words I didn't know. As I sat before whatever surface that got the opportunity to hold the weight of my blank page, my intention was quite simple. It wore brown slacks, a grey shirt, and a tan hat. It contorted its face into funny shapes, it held wordless conversations with headless manikins, it tapped dance in the middle of movie set, and when the big moment came it belted out, “Make ‘em laugh.” My dance students look at me with wide eyes when I ask them if they know the combination well enough for me to turn the music on and stand off to the side. “It’s just hard,” one of them says. “We lift our left leg,” she pauses and performs a small, personal version of the combination. “Then the right and then the left again.”  I nod. “It’s so complicated!” she tells me again. “It really isn’t.” It isn’t like you are an octopus. You only have two legs.” I am serious, but they laugh. They foil my plans to be the “humorless dance teacher” and they laugh. Their eyebrows fall away from their hairlines, and they tell me they are ready to dance. We are rarely short on sources that encourage us to feel our feelings in the corners of dark places, especially in the arts. The goal of a lot of the “successful” works seems to be drama, conviction, introspection, berating self-reflection. It is far too easy to find failures and shortcomings to dwell on and to replay the never-ending movie of images things that we could have done better, or the millions of other choices we could have made. But we have other options. We can laugh. Not a snicker at something stupid, or an academic chuckle at an intelligent joke, but a full-bodied guffaw over something that is actually and simply hilarious. By doing this, we give ourselves a few seconds of love and relief. In the time it takes to squint the eyes, throw the head back, and forget that the world can be a sad and horrible place, we experience an appreciation for our lives and all of the twists, turns, and choices that brought us to the moment that invites us in to take a load off and have a drink. In the movie, the girl who took some creative writing classes in college tells the author that his narrator is narcissistic. The author, wearing khakis and a white t-shirt, both wrinkled, shrugs and says, “Well, somebody’s gotta love me.”

I laugh at this every time.

Breathe Lightning

Jayne English

tree-trunk-1082098_960_720 “Exile brings you overnight where it would normally take a lifetime to go.”     ― Joseph Brodsky

On days when the sun is shining across the oak outside my door, and colors I didn’t know it possessed bloom in the bark’s inscribed lines – gold, green, sage – I like to think about the concept of limits. The Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, spent 18 months in a labor camp in subzero temperatures along the Arctic Circle. Some have said of this time that “Brodsky’s exile was the best year of his life...because it gave him time to read and write.” Brodsky agrees, “Even sitting there between those walls, locked up, then being moved from place to place, I was writing poems.” Brodsky’s writing flourished in confinement.

This paradox has a parallel in the art world. Post-expressionism was a revolt against Expressionism; an attempt to put the rampaging genie back in the bottle. It countered Expressionism’s fluid and mainly angst-ridden style with one placed inside limits. As Carlo Carrà suggested, it put things “in the space allotted to them.” Consider Edvard Munch’s The Scream (Expressionism) and Anton Räderscheidt’s House Nr. 9 (Post-expressionism) side by side.

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The Scream seems to overflow the canvas in its intensity, while House Nr. 9  is rendered in parallels, angles, and is fixed within its borders. The painting’s strength comes from creating its essence within its limits. The overflow of emotion in The Scream plays on our senses, but so do the constraints of House Nr. 9. Its lines and muted colors present a stable backdrop for the mysterious couple. Who are they and what is their relationship to each other? Is one a door-to-door salesperson; are they lovers; is one an angel in human form? The window’s acute angles form a cross on a hill. Räderscheidt creates mood and room for imaginative interpretations within the stylistic constraints.

Don’t immovable lines seem counterproductive, and limitations seem to keep us from accomplishing our good work? Even in what might be considered an unfettered life, Emily Brontë’s prison imagery would have made the exiled Brodsky feel at home. Anne Carson’s poem, The Glass Essay, speaks about the poet and novelist:

Yet her poetry from beginning to end is concerned with prisons, vaults, cages, bars, curbs, bits, bolts, fetters, locked windows, narrow frames, aching walls.

Outwardly, Emily Brontë didn’t seem to have lines hemming her in; she was free to write and roam the moors. Whatever the constraining forces were that shaped her writing, Emily yielded to them. Carson’s poem continues from Charlotte Brontë’s perspective:

Charlotte talks firmly and calmly about…

         Emily’s total subjection to a creative project she could neither understand nor control, and for which she deserves no more praise nor blame than if she had opened her mouth

“to breathe lightning.”

What is God creating in the midst of your parallel lines, your locked windows and aching walls? Do you dare? Breathe lightning.

Unforgivable

Brad Fruhauff

Photo by Sara Reid - Flick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThere had to have been an episode of The Cosby Show where one of the kids meets a hero and is disappointed; I guess I’m not a big enough fan to remember clearly, despite the hours of it I watched growing up.

In my mind it’s Vanessa, who gets backstage tickets to a concert. When she and her friend get to the after party, the band just wants to drink, smoke, and generally carouse, and the good Huxtable child leaves early. I must have seen that story a hundred times as a kid. Celebrities, 80s TV taught us, were unpleasant people when the show ended.

Permit me to clear my throat archly.

Now that some 40 women have accused Cosby of raping them, it’s hard to pretend it’s not what it seems. The guy probably did some ugly stuff. Repeatedly.

Just like Vanessa at the backstage party, I feel hurt. A part of me that believed in the basic goodness of that show and the people who made it has been crushed.

Nobody (I hope) is saying that this hurt compares to that of the 40 women, but I can’t speak for them. I can only speak to the little corner of this scandal that really hits home for me.

As it happens, my wife and I were six seasons into rewatching The Cosby Show when all this started. And we were loving it. The humor holds up pretty well, but it’s also comfortably familiar, a reminder of our childhood when the world seemed smaller and simpler.

But what does it mean to put away childish things? It can’t mean the cynicism that more or less embraces the brokenness. And anyway, shall we really call the optimism of The Cosby Show childishness? Simplistic, perhaps, at times sentimental or trite, but surely also an admirable model of a family who tries to do right by one another, of parents who apply firm discipline with compassion, of a couple who love and respect one another.

I know some people will try to expunge Cosby from their lives, unable or unwilling to forgive his crimes—and I get that; rape is ugly and unconscionable. Emotionally, I won’t be ready to go back for some time, myself.

Analytically, however, I can imagine some future when we will click on the show in Hulu and begin the work of aesthetic healing. Art, for all its continuity with life, never bears a direct relationship with it. I’ve seen indignant bloggers impatiently insist that Bill Cosby is not the same as Cliff Huxtable. Fair enough, but then the reverse is true, too. What Bill Cosby did as Cliff Huxtable exists beyond the actor’s life in the realm of art.

Wayne Booth accounted for this discontinuity by positing an implied author between the real person and the work he or she created. He was well aware that real persons could be guilty of sins seemingly incompatible with writing your favorite book. In the act of creation, he thought, an author inhabits his or her best self, the parts of the self we all wish we could always be but can only sometimes actualize.

Scripture, too, as we are quick to forget, teaches that we have all sinned mortally and, by rights, should be beyond redemption. It doesn’t really matter that you didn’t do what that guy over there did. And it ought to teach us humility and grace rather than the politico-ideological purism that substitutes for moral thinking online.

Eventually, I think, to watch The Cosby Show will not feel like a tacit “pass” for his crimes. Eventually we’ll watch it and remember the good that those people did in creating that show. We will not forget or minimize the actor’s faults but maybe we will begin to forgive him for his deceptions. Like mature Christian adults, we’ll praise what is praiseworthy and mourn what is broken.

Resistance

William Coleman

By Masao Nakagami [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Masao Nakagami [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Jack White found the pulse of “Seven Nation Army” at a sound check in Australia. "What do you think of this?" he said to a friend who was passing by, before launching into what would become one of the most famous guitar riffs in history. ("It feels less like someone wrote it than it was unearthed. It's something that's always been there," Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine told the BBC in 2014, a decade after the song's release). The song that, in time, was to come of that riff has been blasted from stadium loudspeakers across the world, has stood atop Billboard's rock chart, and now holds a place in Rolling Stone's Top 500 Songs of All Time. "It's all right," White's friend said.

“It’s almost great when people say that,” White continued, "because it makes you get defensive in your brain and think, no, there’s something to this. You don't see it yet. It's gonna get there. You gotta have some imagination, you tell yourself."

White’s story, recounted in the documentary It Might Get Loud, brought to mind a passage from In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, by Walter Murch, in which the Oscar-winning editor of Apocalypse Now and The English Patient likens the dynamics at play between a director and his editor to those found within a certain kind of dream therapy:

“In dream therapy there is a technique that pairs the patient—the dreamer, in this case—with someone who is there to listen to the dream. As soon as possible after waking, the dreamer gets together with his listener to review the dreams of the previous night. Frequently there is nothing, or just a single disappointing image, but this is usually enough to begin the process.

“Once the image is described, the listener’s job is to propose an imaginary sequence of events based on that fragment. An airplane, for instance, is all that is remembered. The listener immediately proposes that it must have been an airliner flying over Tahiti filled with golf balls for a tournament in Indonesia. No sooner has this description been offered than the dreamer finds himself protesting: ‘No, it was a bi-plane, flying over the battlefields of France, and Hannibal was shooting arrows at it from his legion of elephants.’

“In other words, the dream itself, hidden in the memory, rises to its own defense when it hears itself being challenged by an alternate version, and so reveals itself. This revelation about bi-planes and elephants can in turn prompt the listener to elaborate another improvisation, which will coax out another aspect of the hidden dream, and so on, until as much of the dream is revealed as possible.”

“We are mysteries to ourselves,”poet Geoffrey Hill found himself saying when questioned by The Paris Review. What could be more true? If we knew ourselves as God is said to know us, we’d have no need of art. Negotiating resistant distance is central to the creative act.

When a poet like John Keats is composing, for example, as literary critic Sven Birkerts once observed, “it is not a case of the poet’s inventing lines, but rather of his finding sounds and rhythms in accordance with the promptings of the deeper psyche. The poet does not rest with a line until he has released a specific inner pressure.”

And perhaps because it is born of resistance, art can engender meaningful resistance in others. “Tyranny requires simplification,” Geoffrey Hill says in the same interview. “[A]ny complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.”

In 2011, White’s song became an anthem of the Arab Spring; it was featured on a Democracy Now! broadcast after Egyptian-born writer Mona Eltahawy opened an influential column this way:

“As the people of my homeland, Egypt, stage a popular uprising against the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, the White Stripes keep singing in my head: ‘I’m gonna fight ’em off /A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back!’

“I don’t know if Jack and Meg of the White Stripes are watching the breathtaking developments taking place in my country. However, their thumping, pumping ‘Seven Nation Army’ is a perfect anthem for the defiance and adrenaline-fueled determination that must be propelling the tens of thousands of courageous, protesting Egyptians.”

In It Might Get Loud, White is telling his story to Jimmy Page and The Edge. He was thankful for his friend’s resistance. It helped him find his song.

“I kept at it,” he said.

Into the Wounds

Jayne English

Feel it—but remember, millennia have felt it— the sea and the beasts and the mindless stars wrestle it down today as ever—   —Gottfried Benn

It took me three tries to finish Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I didn’t take to the descriptions of violence and bloodletting; the dusty, desolate scenery; the barren hearts that drove people to do the things they did. Harold Bloom calls it “the ultimate dark dramatization of violence.” (And he means that in the best way.)

I kept reading because McCarthy’s sense of language drew me in. Intermingled with scalpings, shootings, decapitations and the wastelands of “buckbrush and pricklypear and the little patches of twisted grass” were quieter descriptions like this:

“The mission occupied eight or ten ares of enclosed land, a barren purlieu that held a few goats and burros. In the mud walls of the enclosure were cribs inhabited by families of squatters and a few cookfires smoked thinly in the sun. He walked around the side of the church and entered the sacristy. Buzzards shuffled off through the chaff and plaster like enormous yardfowl. The domed vaults overhead were clotted with a dark furred mass that shifted and breathed and chittered. In the room was a wooden table with a few clay pots and along the back wall lay the remains of several bodies, one a child.”

With imagery of the crumbling church, a leftover table, and the sheltering squatters, McCarthy somehow evokes a feeling of Communion in this scene or, broken as it is, a longing for its nourishing graces. Passages like this are why, though I finished the book five years ago, I still think about it. Lately I’ve been wondering if Meridian shares impulses with Expressionism. In his book, Putting Modernism Together, Daniel Albright says “Art, according to the Expressionists, should be about cutting to the core of the human.” He explains that Expressionists favored woodcuts because they felt the physical effort required to make them parallels the aesthetic effort and is “a visible reminder of the sort of wound that the artwork seeks to inflict on the mind of the spectator.” Meridian wounds the reader, its descriptions easily convincing us that “all men are unremittingly bloodthirsty here.

Are there themes of redemption in Meridian and in the work of Expressionists? I didn’t see any transformation, for good, in McCarthy’s characters. Even a priest among the group is an expriest. What’s striking about Meridian and paintings like The Scream and Red Gaze, is their intensities; violence in Meridian, and vibrant colors, horrified and haunted expressions in the paintings. Meridian’s images jar us at a gut level just like Munch’s Scream. This was the intent of the Expressionists. With a nod to Nietzsche, Albright explains, “Expressionist art depicts the patient gaze of the abyss into the deformed gibbering thing at the core of your being, the ape within.”

Albright turns to Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” as a close relative to Expressionism. In the story, a machine is used to torture and execute “criminals.” It carves the condemned man’s sentence into his skin until he bleeds out and dies. Alluding to the complex diagrams that guide the machine, the eager officer explains, “You have seen it is not easy to decipher the script with your eyes; our man deciphers it with his wounds.” If there’s redemption in these works it's in the blood. They show us the heart and mind of (our) depravity until we feel it. Echoing the pattern of the Incarnation, they make us feel the wounds of the world, just as Jesus felt ours when he stepped into them.

Joy Williams and the Psalms

Christina Lee

Photo by Shane Adams on Flickr ? CC BY 2.0 Joy Williams’ recent release, VENUS, received lukewarm reviews. Rolling Stone claimed Williams’ voice couldn’t “hold the space" of her orchestration. NPR, not unkindly, labeled the album “Lilith Fair 90s'."

I can see where they’re coming from. But I’m still into it. It’s music that makes me want to scale a mountain in a glittery sports bra brandishing a fist and shouting “Womanhood!”

Or, you know, fold a giant pile of laundry on a Saturday morning.

I’d rolled about half my mountain of socks when I realized something was off. Spotify was shuffling through all of Joy Williams’ records, and not just VENUS.

That explained the Prozac-fueled ballad (“It’s all good/ask me to explain it and I could/ I’ve got the love of my Lord and I could/it’s all good”) next to the warbled lament (“I’m gonna stand here in the ache / until the levee of my heart breaks”).

On shuffle, Joy Williams’ canon is…unnerving. It’s odd to hear her so giddily sure of herself and then immediately so devastated. It made me think of the Psalms.

Her album covers reflect this tonal shift. Her three early albums all feature a toothy blond in a cute sweater, squinting at the camera through sun-rays. On VENUS? A naked brunette, hunched over and in shadow, face obscured.

Williams herself, of course, is aware of the changes. She left a blossoming career as a Christian artist because of its limiting nature. In 2009, she said, “Everyone sees life through a grid. Part of my grid is faith. When I was in CCM, I was just singing about the grid. I’ve come to a point where I want to sing about what I see through the grid. In CCM, I was always pushed to sing about faith from a “victorious” angle, when I feel like so much of faith is wrestling through questions.”

In Case for the Psalms, N.T. Wright echoes this, saying when we “invent non-Psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, we risk being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.”

Clearly, Williams knows her early records would benefit from a more emotional honesty. I’d argue, however, that she might have “filled that space” better in VENUS if she’d balanced those emotions with one less lament.

Balance is hard. Just a glance at Williams’ album covers show they are packaged to sell an image. Shorthand for “Christian artist” seems to be is soft-focus grinning blond who will breathily assure you that “it’s all good.”

This is a frustrating image to every Christian woman I know, but especially to artists. It’s natural to want distance from that. But I also know (from experience) that if my art is only created as a reaction against that “it’s all good” girl, I quickly veers into melodrama and navel-gazing.

Wright reminds us that the Psalms encourage us not only to write out of the “truthful, sincere outpourings of who and what we are” but also to “trust that we will be remade". This Advent, I’ll be reading them through again as a reminder that high highs and low lows—hatred and the contrition and ecstasy and shame—can all exist together, as sacred text no less.