Epic Journey: Paintings of Giovanna Cecchetti

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Detail of Cricket Song by Giovanna Cecchetti

“The Epic Journey: Paintings of Giovanna Cecchetti” originally appeared in a folio of prints published by West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park. The folio accompanied the exhibition “Giovanna Cecchetti: Shifting Frequencies” that ran February 10th to April 28th, 2007. Kadour spoke at the February 10th opening reception.

The Epic Journey: Paintings of Giovanna Cecchetti

By Ric Kasini Kadour

Circle Meditation with Yellow Distraction by Giovanna Cecchetti
Circle Meditation with Yellow Distraction by Giovanna Cecchetti

Paintings are like poems—carefully crafted things where visual words are placed in such a way as to lead the viewer first to an image then to an epiphany. A Pollock painting with all its chaotic rhythms and stringing drips is like a good jazz lyric. The bright colors and geometric shapes make a Mondrian painting read like a haiku. Kandinsky gave us ballads, Warhol gave us jingles, and Jasper Johns gave us stanza after stanza of beat.

Giovanna Cecchetti gives us epics: magical, mystical journeys where the hero traverses a dramatic terrain of shifting shapes and lines; hearty, earthy tones, and brilliant bursts of color. The hero of the painting, battered and world-weary, goes deep within and emerges robust and emboldened, as if the hero had looked into the eyes of God.

You will not find the hero in one of Cecchetti’s paintings. He is not a black dot surrounded by brown in Guided by Ruins 7, nor among the reed-like vertebrates of Winter Meditation. You will not find the hero in the red or blue mists of The Large Scroll because the hero of Cecchetti’s paintings is you, the viewer.

Cecchetti creates paintings through the brilliant application of technique and with a deliberate meditative process. She works with a variety of media: acrylic and washes, ink, pastel, pencil and gouache. In some work, she sands the paint, blending one layer into another. She is not shy about using new technology. “Scrollsketches” began as digitally-manipulated prints of drawings into which she works paint, ink, and pencil. Her paintings have an aged, mature quality like a well-cured piece of wood or the wind-softened façade of an ancient temple.

When she paints, Cecchetti starts by preparing her surface with traditional methods of sizing and coating with skin glue or oil-based primers; which she sands down. The composition starts with a feeling for color. She makes random marks on the surface until an interchange between herself and the image before her takes hold. “I don’t like to impose control or power over a piece,” she said. “I have no idea where the pieces actually are going to go until they’re there.” In the “Guided by Runes” series, Cecchetti selects a stone and contemplates the symbol while she works.

This process is not religious. “I don’t like imposing spirituality upon my work,” said Cecchetti. “I think the process becomes a way to transcend the material world in the macrocosmic sense. And to get into the microcosmic sense of what’s really going on.” The purpose of the process is not to restate dogma, but to use the experience of painting to learn, explore, and grow. The results are for us to enjoy.

Neither is the process automatism. Cecchetti is a formalist, and her work shows attention to line and color, balance and form. In Scrollsketch #8, for example, viewing the painting from right to left, one sees a group of lines, then a sea of bright cell-like shapes which go dark, then darker, then a cloud of red mist speckled with small bright shapes that twinkle from underneath. The piece has a beginning and an end, a top and a bottom, a climatic middle, and resolution that is conveyed by shifts in palette and shape of marks. The work resonates a delicate harmony.

A painting is done, Cecchetti explains, “when it feels like it can leave and go live a life of its own, that it’s become its own being. It’s got its own consciousness, it’s able to go out and do it. It doesn’t need me any more.” That is to say, when the painting is all grown up. Only then do we, as viewers, get to encounter it and have our epic journey.

About Giovanna Cecchetti

Giovanna Cecchetti was born in Suffern, New York in 1953. Cecchetti first studied art at SUNY Rockland under Edgar and David Levy, who influence brought her to NYC to study with Larry Rivers at Parsons. After graduating with a BFA in 1976, Cecchetti moved to a loft in Hoboken, New Jersey and then to Montclair, New Jersey. In 1995, Cecchetti moved into one of the old silk mills in Paterson, where she lives and works today. Since her move to Paterson, Cecchetti received an MFA from William Paterson University where she currently teaches as an adjunct professor. Giovanna Cecchetti received a 2006 Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She is also a 2003 recipient of the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper Residency Fellowship, as well as a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation funded residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2004. Cecchetti’s work is included in national and international collections, both public and private.

www.giovannacecchetti.com

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Craig Mooney: Forward Movement

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Sailor’s Delight II by Craig Mooney

This essay appears in the catalog Craig Mooney: Lore of the Sea for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, July 19-August 7, 2014.

Craig Mooney: Forward Movement

Spurred by an ascending Modernism, the pitter patter of art movements that rambled through the twentieth century left a mess at the art world’s door. If it could be painted, it had been painted; every conceivable style, approach, and method was exhausted. Painting has been declared dead and reincarnated so many times, that proclamations of its demise have become the stalwarts of lazy art critics and curators thirsty for attention. In reality, some painting movements have lost their utility. The white-on-white Minimalism that rocked the art world in 1951 no longer redefines our understanding of painting. We can no longer mine meaning from the dramatic application of paint to canvas which entertained the Lyrical Abstractionists of the 1970s. Post- and neo-revivals where artist’s attempt to resuscitate antiquated painting methods, while briefly entertaining, fail to sustain a meaningful approach to the medium. Where painting is moving forward is where artists are taking the lessons of past movements—the very best of visual strategy and technique—and putting those ideas in the service of new images. The collage of visual language expressed in paint is the future of painting and where some of the very best work is being done today. Craig Mooney is a case in point.

The bedrock of Mooney’s approach to painting starts, as all paintings do, with an abstraction of the subject to its most basic forms: land or water, horizon, sky or, in the case of figurative work, torso and head situated in the geometric forms of a scene. By under-developing aspects of his paintings, Mooney uses Minimalism to connect with the viewer who must fill in the blanks with his own experience. He builds intimacy between the viewer and the painting by using brush strokes and color work to highlight detail. For example, the dabs of orange and white in Inlet offer the viewer a visual scavenger hunt with which they can explore the painting. Lastly, Mooney combines a variety of styles—American Realism à la the Ashcan School, European Impressionism, and color and atmosphere catching pochades—with a contemporary use of blur that connects the viewer to a truth that transcends the subject, the viewer, and the painting itself.

Harbor Town by Craig Mooney
Harbor Town by Craig Mooney

In the collection of paintings presented in this catalog, one sees the evolution of Mooney’s practice. In his earlier cityscapes and figurative work, Mooney painted from the ground, from the viewpoint of a person merely feet away from the scene. This perspective can be seen in the figurative pieces Coastline Remembered and Call of the Sea and the landscape Day Sail, where the viewer looks out across the water to see sailboats dotting the horizon. But in Harbor Town or Day’s Catch, the perspective is that of someone hovering in the air. This compositional technique was pioneered by Andrew Wyeth in such seminal works as Soaring and continued by Andrew’s son Jamie in his paintings from Monhegan Island. Mooney’s use of this technique gives his paintings a mystical, fantastical quality as the viewer is asked to reference a point of view somewhere between aerial photography and a downward swooping cinematic shot. The result is a heightened sense of drama. This is particularly powerful in Harbor Town where, like the beginning of a movie, the viewer is poised to descend into a seaside village and the myriad of stories, secrets, and experiences found there. It is a gorgeous exposition with all the promise of climax and dénouement.

Recently, Mooney spent a few weeks in Paris with nothing to do but visit museums. He found himself returning to the Louvre and, in particular, to J.M.W. Turner’s Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Distance. The 1840s oil painting is a delicate work in beige, browns, and soft blues; though, because of the artist’s use of carmine, the colors seen today are most likely a faded version of what Turner originally painted. Nevertheless, the painting shows Turner’s remarkable ability to capture atmosphere. A mist descends onto the valley where the river meets the bay, gently obscuring the hills across the water as blue sky breaks through the top right corner. Turner was a romantic painter and a forerunner of Impressionism. For him, the subject was not the scene as he saw it, but the emotional dynamism as he experienced it. Mooney’s response was, “that was something I would like to do.”

Now Voyager by Craig Mooney
Now Voyager by Craig Mooney

The incorporation of Turner-inspired technique into Mooney’s blend of painting has yielded incredible results. Now Voyager is perhaps the closest to that style. A solitary ship moves into a vast fiery mist. Now Voyager is remarkable in that it has no horizon, no line that separates the water from the sky. The sailboat moves into the painting as if it is mid-ascension into the heavens. In Sailor’s Delight II, Mooney works from deep blues in the foreground to brilliant oranges, as the sky is reflected on the water. The clouds catch the sun in a radiant display of light. This masterful application of Turner-esque technique marries well with Mooney’s other visual strategies: the near abstraction of the land, the minimalist rendering of the boat, the dramatic perspective.

As he continues to evolve as a painter, as he continues to develop and add to his toolbox of techniques, Mooney will continue to make intense, dramatic paintings that deliver to the viewer the best of what painting can offer us. The works in this catalog are a wonderful beginning.

Jazz Is Playing

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Convergence: Jazz, Films and the Visual Arts” at Bates College through December 13, 2014 is the subject of Ric Kasini Kadour’s article in the July/August 2014 issue of Art New England.

ANE_JA14_cover2“Convergence” is the product of a collaboration between the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, an institution dedicated to the preservation and advancement of “America’s only indigenous art form”; and the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Nearly every work in “Convergence” is an example of how artists make visual art from music. Because that music is jazz, these works carry the extra weight of African American history and consciousness as it unfolded throughout the 20th century and continues today.

“Jazz Is Playing at Bates College”
by Ric Kasini Kadour
Art New England July/August 2014
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Musical Missionaries is a woodcut by Chicago-based video/performance artist Jefferson Pinder. It is an incredible reflection of jazz and African American history. Pinder’s video work deals with themes of blackness, Afro-Futurism, and physical endurance. You can see some HERE.

The Emotional Registry of American Art: Daniel J. Corey & Abbie Williams

Follow the Wind by Abbie Williams
Follow the Wind by Abbie Williams

This essay appears in the catalog “Daniel J. Corey & Abbie Williams: New Works” for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, June 28 – July 17, 2014.

The Emotional Registry of American Art

This catalog and accompanying exhibition of new work by Daniel J. Corey and Abbie Williams offers an opportunity to take in the work of two Maine artists whose paintings are deeply connected to the communities in which they live and work. Corey lives in Bristol and paints around the Midcoast of Maine. Williams’ studio is in a lush wood in Nobleboro and she paints regularly from Monhegan and in Taos, New Mexico. Not only do they offer an exemplary collection of paintings, they are remarkable examples of contemporary American artists.

Before the 20th century, America had no art it could truly call its own. Painters worked their craft. Sculptors built their works. But their skill and training was rooted in a European tradition, informed by the continent’s aesthetic whims. Careers rose and fell in the cities of London and Paris, far, far away from Upstate New York, the Heartland, or New England. New York City, the art capital of America, traded largely in European artists, or American artists who expatriated themselves to France to study with the masters. This is just how it was.

After World War I, as America’s stature began to rise on the international stage, its identity at home also evolved. A great debate took place between the champions of European art and those who argued for an idea of American art. As Grant Wood explained in his 1935 pamphlet, Revolt Against the City, “painting has declared its independence from Europe, and is retreating from the cities to the more American village and country life. Paris is no longer the Mecca of the American artist. The American public, which used to be interested solely in foreign and imitative work, has readily acquired a strong interest in the distinctly indigenous art of its own land.” And for a brief moment, American art reached across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, and included all the fields, prairies, and mountains in between.

This moment did not last long. At nearly the same time that America was finding its voice, a new kind of art was emerging, one that would redefine the viewer’s relationship to artwork and liberate the artist into a free zone of thinking and expression. Modernism was a philosophical, cross-media evolution in human culture that worked off the premise that traditional forms of culture were no longer capable of addressing modern, industrial life. New ways of thinking, a new culture, had to emerge. The discussion was no longer about how a painter could abstract his subject. Modernism negated the need for a subject all together, allowing the artist total freedom of expression. A great debate on the role of Modernism in American art took place between pro-Modernist critics and artists in New York and Regionalist, Social Realist painters from the Heartland, like Grant Wood. Backed by the economic and political power of New York City, the Modernists won the argument and American art would be forever synonymous with Modernism. As America rose to dominate international affairs, in light of the Cold War, Modern art—and its subsequent offspring: Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Lyrical Abstraction, etc.—would define Western civilization’s experience of art throughout the 20th century. American art, defined by the New York art scene, became indistinguishable from the global contemporary art found in the galleries of London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, and more recently, Beijing and Dubai.

But a distinct American art did not go away. In the rainy mountains of the Northwest, in the deserts of New Mexico, along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and New England, artists continued to make work that spoke about and to families and neighbors. They painted the world in which they lived, as they experienced it. They built sculpture with materials that came from the land around them. They photographed the people and places they called home. It is from this tradition of American art that Corey and Williams work.

Williams paints dramatic scenes of the rich landscapes she finds “while painting outdoors, painting in my studio or while I’m prowling around Maine’s uncommonly visited corners with my camera.” Blueberry Fields shows the fiery light of the setting sun blazing across a wild field. Williams renders this scene in fierce reds and oranges that show her fearless use of color. A soft ridge of green runs along the top, which is backlit by mauve mountains that fade into a blue-grey sky. One can see this delicate color play in the backgrounds of many of Williams’ paintings: the yellow and grey strokes above the trees in Clary Hill Farm; or in the soft magenta that appears like a cloud above the birds in Follow the Wind. These are not simply the colors observed by an astute artist; they are the subtle threads that make up the quilt of memories of those places we call home.

Yard Truck by Daniel J. Corey
Yard Truck by Daniel J. Corey

Corey’s paintings are a beautiful marriage of the Ashcan School of Social Realism and the Impressionism of the Cape Cod School of Art. Ashcan artists were concerned with showing daily life of real people and tended to skew what they saw as a “genteel tradition” in visual art. The Impressionism of the Cape Cod School of Art is informed by its founder, Charles Webster Hawthorne, who was, in turn, influenced by one of the great American Impressionists, William Merritt Chase. Steadfastly committed to painting en plein air, this particular tradition informs Corey’s use of luscious oils and rich colors, but when married with the Ashcan tradition, the result is work that teeters between romanticism and veracity while avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia. Yard Truck shows a classic rural moment: the neighbor who allows his dead truck to become a lawn ornament, overgrown with weed and shrub as it rusts away. Corey renders this scene with a classic impressionist technique of loose brush strokes and vibrant color, but he doesn’t shy away from the reality of the truck. He uses a quick stroke of black for the rear view mirror and three strokes of different reds for the tail lights. The result is beautiful rendition of a familiar scene, elevated and celebrated.

This sort of emotional registry only comes from culture made by the people with whom we share our lives and land.

This is American art.

Lunch: Paintings of Henry Isaacs and Craig Mooney

From the catalog “New Works by Craig Mooney and Henry Isaacs” for the exhibition of the same title, June 25 to July 21, 2011 at The Gallery on Chase Hill, Kennebunkport, Maine.

The pairing of Henry Isaacs and Craig Mooney is not an obvious one. It is like organizing a lunch for your sister-in-law’s second cousin from the countryside of New England with your brother’s wife’s first cousin once removed who lives the urban life of New York. They are roughly twenty years apart in age. They work in the same field and they may both show up wearing the same blue cardigan, but their presentations and personalities are fundamentally different. Despite their differences, they click perfectly and find they have much more in common than knowing you and your penchant for organizing lunches between strangers.

One of the things that makes the paintings of Isaacs and Mooney work together so beautifully is their common roots and the trajectory of the art traditions that inform their work. The paintings of Isaacs and Mooney each show a Fauvist influence, but the real story of this pair is how each has developed a unique style.

july-4-isleford-by-henry-isaacs

Isaacs’ paintings reflect André Derain’s emphasis of painterly qualities over representation. In July 4th, Islesford, Isaacs renders the scene with great detail: the American flag, the ramble of dock shacks, the line of boats on the shore, the trucks in the parking lot, and the bicycles waiting for the return of their riders. Boats sail in the background. Isaacs gives the viewer just enough of these elements to recognize them, and then takes the viewer on a fantastic escapade of paint and color: the goldenrod bottoms of the boats executed with single brush strokes, the patchwork of greens and blues of the shore, and the trucks painted in four shades of rusty red with some dots of blue for good measure. The painting is an explosion of the moment.

broad-beach-by-craig-mooney

By contrast, Mooney’s paintings are more akin to the work of Milton Avery, whose work moved away from Fauvism in the 1930s when he met Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko at New York’s Opportunity Gallery on 56th Street. Under Gottlieb and Rothko, Avery came to develop a restraint that underscored the emotionality of his paintings. Mooney has perfected it. Broad Beach shows four people walking along the shore at low tide. Mooney renders the expanse of sand in a series of tans and pinks and the sky in subtle blues and light grays. The two fields meet at a soft horizon. The people, whose presence allows the viewer to enter into the scene of the painting, are rendered with one, two, or three simple daubs of paint.

The arc of landscape (and seascape) painting leaves the 19th century on the solid ground of the Impressionists (and its post- and neo-impressionist progeny), who by 1901 are dominating the genre. So much happened in the 20th century and art took many a detour. The genre of landscape painting did not evolve as much as it absorbed the change that was swirling around it. The arc of 20th century landscape painting is a blur, but these two artists rise in this century with total clarity of style and solid execution. Landscape painting of the 21st century will be marked by a synthesis and refinement of approach and technique and these two artists are perfect examples of that phenomenon. Lunch with the two of them would make for a perfect afternoon.

What Is Contemporary Art & How Does It Matter?

authentic-contemporary-art

In its most basic sense, “contemporary art” refers to art dealing with themes and ideas of the present. But like any moment, it’s nearly impossible to have a historical view of the present. In that sense, contemporary art is more of a question than an answer. Here’s another way of thinking about it: Jackson Pollock is not a contemporary artist. For one thing, he’s dead. More importantly, however, his art making—the act of composing paintings by dripping paint onto a surface—is exemplary of art that is rejecting past traditions in favor of experimentation. That is to say that Jackson Pollock is a Modernist. If an artist were making drip paintings today, he would be making them in the tradition of Pollock.

artist as joke

Postmodernism is a rejection of or reaction to modernism and, in particular, to notions of universality, authenticity, originality, and, in many ways, the traditional mediums of Modernism. Postmodernism is a rejection of the avant-garde and the privileging of technology. (This is why there is so much bad Postmodern video.) One of the greatest contributions of Postmodern art, however, is the breakdown of distinctions between high art and low art; between fine art and popular culture.

I think we’re at the end of Postmodern art and a major theme of contemporary art is how artists are wrestling with what comes next. So many sub-movements of Postmodernism (deconstructive conceptual art; classical realism; electrical installation art; digital art; inter- and multi-media art) led down so many dead ends that artists struggle to be relevant. I-married-an-artistThe artist has become a self-referential joke. An image making the rounds on social media shows one girl whispering, “She’s an artist,” into the ear of another girl who replies, “Oh, I thought she was just weird.” In 2008, a c-print by Anne Collier and Matthew Higgs was the appropriation of a Billy Button book cover that showed a woman weeping with her head in her hands. The title of the book was I Married an Artist. Ask an artist what impact they want to have and what you often get is a scuffle of confusion, insecurity, and vagueness.

Transitions between cultural movements are often presented as a crisis and a response to that crisis. Our culture is in no great crisis. We haven’t had a World War in a generation. We are programmed now to digest new technology. Our world is known to us and new discoveries tend to fill in the gaps of our knowledge rather than completely altering our understanding of the world. Nothing is really that shocking. Most of us living in first world countries will never experience famine, displacement, large-scale disease outbreak, or the sort of oppression that defined generations of human history. That is not to say that we have achieved world peace and prosperity for all, but, chances are, if you are reading this, you live in a stable society. For those interested in the advancement of culture, the greatest cultural crisis is a lack of crisis. Artists have a unique ability to put the world back together when it is broken. Think of Anselm Kiefer and his work’s ability to confront the taboos of German history or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and its ability to convert the horrific carnage of the Spanish Civil War into a painting that champions peace. The most recent collective crisis seen in the Western World was the AIDS epidemic among gay men of the 1980s and 1990s. That experience generated the largest piece of public kitsch ever made, the AIDS Quilt, but it also created art like AA Bronson’s Felix, June 5th, 1994, a portrait of the artist’s partner on his death bed, after he had died, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), a 175-pound mound of individually-wrapped candies that corresponds to the artist’s deceased partner’s body weight. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy, and the diminishing amount parallels Ross’ weight loss and suffering prior to his death. These works play an important cultural role in affirming humanity at a time when humanity is questioning itself. They also advance ideas of painting, sculpture/installation art, and, in the case of AA Bronson, the diffusion of art and ideas.

The greatest challenge for today’s contemporary artist is relevancy. Without a collective crisis, artists seem to be milling about, goofing off. Perhaps this is why art seems so trivial. But what an opportunity! For the first time in millennia, artists have the opportunity to forge new ideas that are not simply a response to human tragedy, but a propulsion towards greater human capacity, meaning, and joy.

Can-Placard-Green-600x428

In October 2012, a number of high profile art writers, among them Sarah Thornton and Dave Hickey, declared they weren’t going to write about the art world any more. Hickey called contemporary art “nasty” and “stupid”. Hickey said“Thirty years in the art world and hundreds of biennials had not prepared me for… the conferences, committees, agendas, proposals, symposia, position papers, tourist boards, prize adjudications, directorial appointments and preening philanthropists.” Thornton complained that reporting on the art market, which she had made a name for herself doing, “implies money is the most important thing about art.” Complaining about money and art has been around forever. Andy Warhol found it amusing. In 1975, he declared, “I like money on the wall. Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.” Collector Charles Saatchi complained in The Guardian about contemporary collectors, “Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognized, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth.” But there is no real crisis in contemporary art. The people pretending there is one have a limited view of art. For them, the art world is a very small sliver of big-name, high-priced, globally-traded artists.

Art is incomplete until it is received by the viewer. Just as artists need to evolve, society needs to evolve as well.  Before the message of the contemporary artist is relevant, the audience has to be able to receive it. We need to learn how to read art again.

ltra

Lawrence Weiner created a poster in 1991 for Printed Matter that said just that: LEARN TO READ ART. He explained it to Marjorie Welish in BOMB magazine in 1996 this way, “That phrase is advertising a particular means with which you can go through life, it doesn’t tell you that if you don’t learn to read art you’re going to be fined, it just says: Learn to Read Art. I don’t see that as an imperative. All artists are attempting to communicate, in whatever form, and if you can learn to read that form then you can either accept it or reject it. If you can’t read it, then it doesn’t mean shit to you.”

Relevancy. Connection. Communication. The collective experience. Those are the themes and ideas of today. If artists can make art about those ideas and if we as a society can learn again to read them, then contemporary art will be that force that propels us to greater capacity, meaning, and joy.

This article connects with the project Authentic Contemporary Art. See more HERE.

Lost Grandmothers

lost-grandmothers

This year, I lost both my grandmothers.

They were formidable women with vintage names and steadiness like currency. They couldn’t have been more different from each other. Lucienne was a lesbian from the Gaspé who spent the Fifties in Paris, the Sixties in Washington, DC, and the rest of her life in Southern Florida. Her hair was short. She dressed like a man and wore men’s cologne. She was tough. Her humor was twisted. She once convinced my little sister to stare up at the sky through a tube of rolled newspapers while she secretly put the garden hose down the other end. During college, I would visit Lucienne and we would visit the magazine shop and then have breakfast at the Floridian on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. On one visit, she snuck a porn magazine I had bought into her menu. When the waitress asked for her order, she opened her menu, pointed to one of the naked men, and in her heavy French accent exclaimed, “I’ll have that.” Her senility kept us apart the past few years. She lost her ability to speak English and when I called, she thought I was a long dead friend or someone pretending to be him. What I saw as her humor, others saw as dementia-fueled cruelty. She pushed people away and she died very alone.

Rosemary was as quiet as Lucienne was outrageous. The child of German farmers in Pennsylvania, she was spared the Depression by growing up on a farm, but the experience made her simple and frugal. She met my grandfather at a cigar store, married him, had a son. The three of them became an impenetrable trilogy that no one—not my mother, not my sisters, nor I—could get past, but Rosemary was always warm and kind and feeding us. I don’t have a memory of her eating. She was rail thin. Her hair was teased and combed into a helmet à la Vivian Vance in early episodes of I Love Lucy. The only time I spent with her alone was when my parents were homesteading in the Ozarks. My grandparents lived down the road from us and I was dropped off at their house for the day while my parents worked the farm. My grandfather kept bees and would take long walks out to his apiaries across the field. I would sit under the kitchen table while Rosemary cooked. I was four. She taught me counting by saying a number and asking me what came next, a sing-song call and response game that went on for hours. In a short time, I learned that numbers were just patterns. I would count into the thousands before my grandfather came back with a chunk of honeycomb. If it was annoying to be working away in a kitchen while a four-year-old counted to infinity, Rosemary never showed it. She never showed anything. I never saw her happy or sad. Horrible things would happen around her and she would sigh and go back to cooking. When I was younger, I saw this as denial and delusion. I came to understand it as the resilience of a woman locked in a trilogy with two very stubborn men. In the end, her bones became too fragile for her body. She fell too many times. Two decades ago, I started a poem, “I woke this morning …feeling like I know too much for my body to hold onto, for my body to understand.” I image her death was like that.

This year, I became someone without a grandmother and like most times when you lose something, the thing lost becomes the most important thing to you.

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This essay is part of the project, Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts for Yoko Ono.

Twelve Days of Christmas for Yoko Ono

All-Objects

Many months ago, I was sitting with Kirsten McCrea at Second Cup and the conversation came around to Yoko Ono. No other public figure teeters between adoration and unfounded opprobrium. At some point in the conversation, I said that I would make Christmas Gifts for Yoko Ono: paper sculptures and odd little concept pieces. We laughed, but the idea stuck with me.

This year, I lost both my grandmothers and, like most times when you lose something, the thing lost becomes the most important thing to you. I have been thinking a lot about grandmotherness. And I started thinking about Yoko Ono as a cultural grandmother. Love her or hate her, every contemporary artist owes some gratitude to Yoko Ono. Painting to Be Stepped On taught us that art need not be on a wall. The concerts she hosted at 112 Chambers Street taught us that you can change music forever from a sparsely furnished apartment. Grapefruit taught us that all you have to do to make art is think. The Fluxus Film No. 4 taught us to be sexy. The performance of Cut Piece at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo taught us to trust each other. Painting to Hammer a Nail In taught us that we don’t make art alone. The tower of light that beams into the sky two months each year from an island off of Reykjavik and the 500,000 wishes buried underneath it taught us to think monumental. Yoko Ono embodies the avant-garde, but what makes her work and her life remarkable is this: In the face of ridicule, ignorance, and sometimes outright hatred, Yoko Ono makes art that is free of cynicism, bitterness, and irony. That’s amazing.

This year was a year of sorting things out, except I didn’t realize it until the very end. It was a good year. Things kept getting better and the better they got, the less satisfied I became. The less satisfied I got, the angrier I became. And when my grandmother died, I decided to drive from Montreal to Miami. A 2700-kilometer road trip is a great way to figure things out. One of the conclusions I came to was that I wasn’t writing and making art as much as I wanted.

“Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts for Yoko Ono” is an art making and writing project that pays homage to a cultural grandmother. Each day from December 25th to Epiphany on January 6th, I will share a Christmas gift for Yoko Ono and tell you a little about it. On January 6th, I will publish the collection of words and images as a book.

SEE THE GIFTS HERE

 

Cultural Grandmothers

cultural-grandmothers

This year, I lost both my grandmothers, and like most times when you lose something, the thing lost becomes the most important thing to you. I have been thinking a lot about grandmotherness. Grandmothers are almost exclusively a human anomaly. Only elephants, pilot whales, and rhesus monkeys have living, post-menopausal, female ancestors. Rachel Caspari’s research at Central Michigan University suggests the Neanderthals didn’t survive because they didn’t have grandmothers, as such things are useful as a sort of feretory of knowledge about where good grazing land is during that once-in-a-thirty-year drought. Biologist George C. Williams posits some evolutionary advantage to having someone in your life who stops having babies and starts taking care of everyone else. The whole Grandmother Hypothesis is debatable, but the idea of “grandmother” is a useful cultural archetype that helps me understand my origins and history. We tend to think about grandmothers as keepers of the past. This year, I learned more about my present-day family by losing my grandmothers than I did thrashing in anguish the last ten years. Grandmothers are formed by completely different times, but they exist in the contemporary moment. Their ability, by their mere existence, to reconcile the past and the present teaches volumes about who we are and where we came from.

I started thinking about metaphorical grandmothers: women of today, shaped by history, who shape the present. I thought about the poet Louise Glück and how the sublimity of her imagery tempered the moral brutality of her poems, how reading The Wild Iris used to break the 21-year-old boy I was, and how now her writing is a source of fortitude. I thought about the fire-engine-red haired Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon and how her organizational abilities and devoted affection helped make Christo the artist he is; and how lucky I am to have a partner in my own work. I thought about Betty White, who we laugh at now because she is an older woman who says dirty things, but really has been a fiercely talented comic for seven decades who always worked a little blue. I thought of the sculptor Louise Bourgeois and how much strength and resilience it must have taken to strong arm her way into New York’s art world with scrap metal and driftwood sculptures; how she blended childhood familial angst into her mature artistic voice; how her work was unabashedly feminist and treated maleness with compassion, love, and affection; and how gracefully she opened her home each Sunday to artists and then proceeded to treat people exactly as she thought they should be treated, for better or for worse.

And then I thought about Yoko Ono.

What came next…go here.

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This essay is part of the project, Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts for Yoko Ono.