The Art Assignment

S6 E26 | FULL EPISODE

Art That Brings Me Comfort

What art that brings you comfort right now? What art do you want to be thinking about? In this episode, we make a book of art by Alec Soth, Miyoko Ito, Giorgio Morandi, Vija Celmins, Sam Gilliam, Sheila Hicks, and Wayne Thiebaud.

AIRED: May 28, 2020 | 0:11:38
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TRANSCRIPT

I’m making a book today.

An art book.

One filled with poorly reproduced images of art that brings me comfort.

Or art that, when I think about it, brings me comfort.

Because even good digital images can’t come close to recreating what a real life art encounter

is like, in physical space, where you can sense its texture and dimensionality and changing

appearance, as light shifts and you shift around it.

Sigh…

I miss real life.

But even when there’s not a global pandemic, we often settle for these not-artworks to

remind us of the real artworks.

It’s why we have art books, museum instagram accounts, and this channel.

We like to be reminded of artworks even if we can’t experience them first hand, even

if we’ve never seen them before, or never will.

Robyn O’Neil gave me this idea.

She who makes painstakingly detailed, often monumental drawings of imagined landscapes.

She also makes these little low-fi books of art that inspires her practice--images she

wants to be thinking about as she goes about her work.

Robyn doesn’t copy the images, but uses them as jumping off points, reminders of the

inventiveness of others, and looks for ways their work might inform her own.

My book is going to serve a different purpose.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about the artworks that I want to be reminded of

right now, whose existence in the world gives me some sense of reassurance, of calm, reminding

me that, yes, there are whole other worlds out there, objects, histories, and other sensing,

feeling beings.

The first work I’m going to put in my book is a photograph by Alec Soth, titled Cammy's

View, Salt Lake City, taken in 2018.

It’s from his series “I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating”, a fantastic series

title if ever there was one, taken from a 1917 poem by Wallace Stevens titled The Gray

Room.

Each picture in the series is an interior shot, or a portrait in an interior, the result

of Soth’s interactions with individuals across the US and Europe, and his consideration

of the limits of what a photograph can convey about the inner life of its subject.

I liked this photo before, but it resonates even more strongly now.

There is an overwhelming quiet about the picture, its gauzy light and selective focus obscuring

what’s outside and drawing my attention to the stack of holy books on the windowsill

and, of course, the bird.

It’s a pet bird, I think a cockatiel?

Anyway, it’s a domesticated animal, one that has counterparts in the wild, but that

exists within the framework a human has constructed for it.

From the window, it can see out to the wider world of Salt Lake City, a climate it’s

no doubt not suited to, but inside here it’s safe.

The bird’s not in a cage, but it’s still caged.

Granted some freedoms, but not in charge of its destiny.

We are the bird.

We are always the bird to some extent, but we are really the bird right now.

Soth’s stated goal while making these pictures was “to simply spend time in the presence

of another beating heart.”

Here I’m not sure if that beating heart was Cammy’s--it’s her view, we’re told,

her space, her books, her pet-- or if it's the beating heart of the bird that we’re

spending time with.

Maybe it's both, or neither.

A photograph grants us certain access to a space, a subject, a moment, but it does not

and cannot recreate it fully.

I identify with the bird, but I also connect with the conundrum of representation the image

embodies.

We have our spaces, our lives, other people have theirs, and there is only so much we

can do to bridge that divide.

The next work is another window of sorts, this one a painting by Miyoko Ito titled Oracle,

made in 1967 and 68.

I learned about her work when I was in college in Chicago, where Ito was based for most of

her career, and her canvases have always fascinated and mesmerized me.

Like much or her work, this composition is grounded and solid, but the expert application

of carefully calibrated color makes it atmospheric and light.

It’s abstract, but with playful references to lumpy organic and human forms, like these

funny tongues right here, and this hair stuff over there.

It feels like we might be simultaneously inside and outside, this herringbone pattern reminding

me of floorboards, and a framed view out to a gradient of blue.

But then there are multiple horizon lines, a desert-like landscape view here, a sea-meets

sky view there.

Ito had a difficult life, which included narrowly escaping the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, and being

pulled from college in the US during World War II and sent to an internment camp for

Japanese Americans, and later living through breast cancer.

She was much admired and influenced many, but Ito was largely an outlier, carving her

own path and practice despite and alongside the trends and movements.

She struggled with her mental health throughout her life, but made her work seven days a week,

viewing her painting as a kind of therapy.

“I have no place to take myself except painting,” she said in 1978.

The precision and singularity of Ito’s vision both excites me and leaves me with a feeling

of profound calm.

Her paintings are places I want to take myself to all the time, and especially right now.

One of Ito’s favorite painters was Giorgio Morandi, who I’m including in the book next.

There is a lot written about this guy, an Italian artist very well known for his still

life paintings of pretty basic objects arranged on plain surfaces.

He started making still lifes in the 1910s and just kept on going, collecting bottles,

boxes, jars, pots, pitchers, and the like, and replaying them again and again in different

configurations.

This work, and all of his works are just so CAREFUL.

He’d sometimes take hours to arrange his objects, and you can feel that.

These things weren’t casually set down in this strangely aligned and ordered manner,

and they weren’t painted in a casual manner either.

The forms aren’t crisp, but you can tell that they’re exactly as the artist wanted

them to be.

The tones are precise, as is the light and shadow.

It’s abundantly clear that it was Morandi’s intensive looking that brought this work,

and all of his work, into the world.

I’m including it in my book because I want to give my own surroundings the kind of careful

attention Morandi gave his own.

He rarely left Italy and painted the same bottles and cans over and over again, but

his visual world was immense, infinite.

Another acute observer is Vija Celmins, and next I’m going to add an image from her

work beautifully titled To Fix the Image in Memory, created from 1977 to 1982.

What you’re seeing here is a rock, alongside Celmins’ recreation of that rock.

For the series, she found eleven rocks in nature, and then cast them in bronze and painted

them to resemble the original rocks as closely as possible.

They are displayed all together, so that it’s then left to you to work out which are the

real rocks, and which the recreations.

(And no, I’m not going to tell you which is which.)

What I love about this is that it forces close observation.

Not the kind of cursory looking we often do in a gallery or art book, but the kind of

intense, close-up, sustained scrutiny that enables us to appreciate Celmins’ remarkable

achievement in verisimilitude, as well as the intricacies and details of the specific

rocks she’s chosen for this exercise.

Something as common as a rock has become extraordinary because of the artist’s act of looking,

and the extreme care she took in reproducing it.

After all that exactitude, we really need to loosen up a little.

And to do that we’re going to include this work by Sam Gilliam, titled 10/27/69.

It’s one of Gilliam’s drape paintings, an approach the artist landed upon around

1965, inspired in part by the laundry hanging on clotheslines that he could see from the

window of his DC studio.

He had been experimenting with his materials in the lead up, pouring paint colors, folding

wet canvas to imprint lines and forms, working consciously in the language of the Washington

Color School.

But Gilliam’s drape paintings were the first to get rid of the stretcher bars completely,

taking paint stained canvas and draping and hanging it in arrangements on the wall or

floor, or suspending it from ceilings.

They can be arranged and rearranged, necessarily different every time they’re installed.

Painting had been a flat affair, and Gilliam made it sculpture.

The title, clearly a date, October 27, 1969, roots it firmly in time.

Much was happening in America and in particular DC--the civil rights movement, the black power

movement, anti-Vietnam war protests.

Gilliam had made another painting that same year titled April 4, which was the first anniversary

of the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr.

For me, the drape paintings both reference that time and are also their own world apart.

Embodying rupture and freedom and change, and also bringing me joy whenever I’ve encountered

them in a gallery and revelled in their tactility and resplendent color.

While we're revelling in tactility and color, let’s bring Sheila Hicks into the mix.

This is her monumental installation Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, created in 2016 and

17, which I lucked into seeing at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

This pathetic computer printout is about the opposite of an experience of this work, an

immersive environment of color, created through the placement of soft bales of fiber and hanging

tapestries.

You really want to lie down in this, but aren’t allowed to for reasonable safety concerns,

so in some ways it’s better to just see the work here, like this, without the overwhelming

temptation to take a nap in it.

Sheila Hicks herself can lie in them, though, and I’m happy to know at least someone can.

Hicks’ interest in the handmade is evident here and throughout her work, and it’s the

handmade that I find myself yearning for right now.

Not Zoom meetings and instagram stories, but texture and warmth and three dimensions.

Even the acoustics change when you enter a room with a work by Hicks in it.

I want to luxuriate in this environment as a fully sensing being, but for the now I’m

just going to transport myself there mentally, and try to appreciate the domestic environment

I find myself in right now.

This seems like a good place to stop, but I feel like maybe we need a snack?

Let’s add a Wayne Thiebaud painting in here, Dessert Tray frotm 1992-94.

It looks delicious.

I have a very uncomplicated relationship with this painting, not unlike my relationship

with dessert.

I love how the paint is applied thickly like frosting, and I find it very satisfying and

untroubling.

Well, that was easy.

I made a book, filled with art I want to think about right now.

I found this lovely little painting my daughter made and doesn’t care if I cut up that I’m

going to put on the cover, too.

What art do you want to think about right now, or wish you could see firsthand?

If you want, make your own art book in whatever way you like, using the materials you have

around, and share it using the hashtag #youareanartist.

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