Above image: Dillon DeWaters, from the series Ocean/Ocean, 2010
you are unsheltered,
cut with the weight of wind—
you shudder when it strikes,
then lift, swelled with the blast—
you sink as the tide sinks,
you shrill under hail, and sound
thunder when thunder sounds
– H.D. “The Shrine” from Sea Garden
The sea, the sea.
Perhaps it is because we are surrounded by water from the moment we emerge – is it a pop? a burst? a transformation? a transfiguration? – from non-existence to existence, from no-breath to breath, we all come into the world this way, surrounded by the waters, hearing echoing voices amid a rush of fluid, still, fast-flowing, gurgling with air.
I grew up near the sea, was rarely more that five miles away from it at any given time, and have never spent much time far inland. The sea is an ironic comfort – that sublime and terrifying body – but, nevertheless. The sea is hugely occupying for so many artists across time, visual artists, writers, dancers, musicians. The way the sea holds, reflects and carries light, its sounds, its relationship to memory. One summer, my husband, the artist Dillon DeWaters, carried his camera into the waves and let them wash away layers of film emulsion as he shot away – an existential exercise, to see what if anything would survive. Let’s even expand this idea to other bodies of water, to rivers, lakes, bays, harbors, even puddles. Some are still, some roiling, some rushing, some comforting, some a horror.
Virginia Woolf played the sea into her narratives as a player ever in the present. That is, the sea is so of the now, so happening exactly in time that it causes us to gasp in our realization of our own imminent future, of aging and death, the sea becomes an avatar for that particular nostalgia-for-the-present that seems to happen most particularly in the summertime, but also, even more harshly, perhaps, in the other seasons. The waves of the sea are a constant reminder of time’s unapologetic march into the future, driven by tides, guided by lunar cycles, high to low and back again. I think, too, of Woolf’s future (that is, once the future, then the present and quickly the past), filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse to create an ending. At the outset of The Waves she writes (in the present, as though she is always writing):
The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.
This slowly appearing and disappearing line of the horizon leads me to think of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes, a series that sets the concept of time in the foreground. Beyond the obvious aesthetic sensibility of the images – we can’t but help feel something in response, they are beautiful, serene, sublime, the silver gelatin prints themselves luscious in their perfection of whites and greys and blacks – there is also a clear connection to the pre- (or post-) history of humankind. These “landscapes” could represent the earth 200 million years ago or 5,000 years into the future. They truly present time – several hours of exposure – and yet also exist utterly outside of time, could be any time, any place, on this planet that is covered 71 percent by water.
I spend my July on an island which smells of sea and honeysuckle and privet – sweet and salt – and am continuously conscious of being surrounded by water. The sea plays a central role in daily life here, my days spent working punctuated by long swims in cold, salty water. This one-twelfth of my year – which combines intense work and daily negotiations of currents and fish, sand, stones and salt – somehow shapes the remaining eleven-twelfths. Without this, taking away this month of daily baptisms, I am a different person.
Roni Horn has a vibrant relationship to water. I think in particular of Still Water (The River Thames, for Example) and You Are the Weather. In her PBS Art21 segment (from Structures), she describes her relationship to her practice as one in which “I like to keep my feet in the moving water” and describes water itself as “everything and nothing,” going on to say, “I almost feel like I rediscover water again and again.” She discussed being drawn to the Thames (a river guided by tides, which rises and falls up to 24 feet in places), not just because of the “visual darkness” of the waters but also “a psychological darkness,” in the Thames’ role as the most appealing river to foreign suicides. You Are the Weather presents “a person as a multitude,” the same person, always partially immersed in water, confronting the viewer directly. This is an erotic gaze, full and yet ambiguous. Interestingly Horn describes her photographs of the Thames as portrait and the portraits of the subject in You Are the Weather in these terms: “I was curious to see if I could elicit a place from her face, almost as a landscape.” I find these contradictions exciting. As Horn concludes the interview: “You use metaphor to make yourself at home in the world. You use metaphor to extinguish the unknown.”
Roni Horn, detail of You Are the Weather, 1994-1995, 36 gelatin silver prints and 64 chromogenic prints, 10½ x 8½ each. Detail from the 2009-2010 exhibition Roni Horn aka Roni Horn at the Whitney Museum.
Finally, I was struck quite recently in the new Met Breuer’s exhibit, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, by J.M.W. Turner’s very late seascape paintings. These are unfinished or ambiguous, quiet or screaming. Something about these paintings – I cannot pinpoint quite what – seems out-of-time, more akin to avant garde music, perhaps, as they float between abstraction and pure perfect representation – the feeling of the sea.
In the recent weeks of endless springtime rain, I turned inward. I have been thinking about the process of how work gets made, and about the practice of making itself (these are two different things, though with many shared veins and intersections – conjoined twins that cannot be separated without killing one). With an active and consistent art practice, and teaching a variety of undergraduate students, I think about the act and the art of making often. Where do they come from, these bursts – blooms – of idea energy? And where and how do we create them when they are nowhere to be found, when we feel emptied out, hollow, raw?
There are obviously many ways to do this. Some artists might take a subject – an ink bottle, a landscape, an empty beer can, a rectangle – and draw/paint/photograph it over and over until it changes into something else. Some might give themselves assignments – research, making – because sometimes we like to be told what to do. Others might go to look or listen – to museums, to the movies, to a crowded street corner, to music. Still others read and write words. Simply, it is impossible to find one solution to a block, but I have found it is crucial for me not to go online, into the endless hum of distraction and mild entertainment. It deadens me and scrapes me clean of ideas. Obviously, there are some who find their ideas online. For me, the internet is a void. Making is key.
I made my first artist book last fall, from my recent series Waves. The work is full of repetition, of returning to images and seeing them again and again, slightly altered, echoing, as waves. The process of making a book came fluidly to me once I decided that there could be no white space. The negative space, instead, consisted of endpapers of old books I’ve found and collected. Endpapers with marks, library cards, doodles, arbitrary text (not by my own hand) – suddenly there was a reason for the images to be there, something for them to converse with. If I step backwards, I can see that I began to make this work as the images I have been making for the last four or five years have fit uneasily into the typical role of a photography project. Despite the work of so many artists over the years to break away from the typical “photo project,” that continues to be the way so many people, both within our medium and outside it, feel that photography should behave. Proper, organized, boxed and fitted neatly, these series are 15-25 images around a central theme with each image adding to and interacting with that theme. This is a simple and beautiful model for so much work, for documentary projects consisting of still images, or for longer term serious both inward- and outward-facing projects like Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi which emerges so neatly from post-war 20th century photography. My work, however, and the work of many with whom my work converses, does not function this way. I remember meeting a photo dealer at the last portfolio review I attended (or probably will ever attend) in 2010 who said, “But your pictures are all different from one another! What would I tell a client?” That was enough for me to hear. I retreated to the studio, happily, to diverge even further.
My most recent book, Sea Garden, which I just completed in April, flew out of me at a stunning pace. The negative space in this book is even less evident than in Waves, as it is composed of other photographs – it is negative space to me, but it’s unimportant if anyone else sees it. This book is, to me, the most exciting moment I have had in months – this thing I made or which made itself, unbidden but still here. Like so much of my work, Sea Garden came out of nowhere and now exists, on its own, outside of me. It is remarkable how these things occur. The work comes from Waves and follows a similar trajectory, but the subjects are further fractured, the echoes here are broken mirrors rather than the ocean.
I’m also interested in the fact that we, as makers of work, of images, as those who put the world into a rectangle or a sculpture or a form that doesn’t resemble form, go through periods both productive and fallow. Often my productive stretches hit me like a bomb mid-semester and I struggle to balancing making work – to get, wring, out of myself everything that needs to come – with the work of teaching, of preparing, reading, grading. Today, though, my first day with five barely interrupted weeks lying ahead of me, I am fallow – left unsown and idle. Twisting my fingers, setting up my camera, looking through the ground glass, looking at my email, painting, breathing, I wait for it to come.
In the meantime, I re-read. Essays and interviews, including Moyra Davey’s, “Notes on Photography & Accident,” from Long Life Cool White, which I have read many times. It is a set or a series of notes, of ideas, and moments. It touches on being, on blocks, on process and practice. On reading and illness, on the studio and friction, on connections and re-connections. It reminds me that when one cannot make, one must sit with oneself, exist, make space, and wait. It will come.
Thank you to Baxter St. for inviting me to come in as guest blogger for the next three months. I look forward to sharing some thoughts, musings, and artworks.
I was always a writer. That is, before I would ever have called myself an artist, I thought of myself as a writer. Writing came naturally for me. My father is a poet, my mother an architect and excellent writer. Somehow, though, I slipped into the visual realm and became frightened of writing. Frightened of how words would affect the images (I am always telling my students about how I believe viewers privilege text over image, how a photograph’s caption – even its title – becomes “truth” and the image almost an accessory, an illustration – but maybe it’s just me) and how explanation can make even the most sublime work seem banal. However, my yearning, my desire, for textual lyricism remains, an ultimate (likely impossible) goal of my own (visual) work. My artwork emerges (however obliquely) from “text” – that slippery word – and from poetry, most recently, H.D.’s 1916 book Sea Garden. I argue that there is a lyrical structure to my work overall, and a way of reading a particular work that might be similar to the reading of a poem. My most recent series, No Whiteness Lost and Waves, too, can be read as collections of poems, with threads, sometimes tenuous, going through the works, but with no answers given. One had better not try to read my work as prose, as it would be an exercise in frustration.
All of that said, I am pleased to be writing again. I hope to devote these posts to my muses, to larger ideas that I have been thinking about, and to exploring how they relate to my work and the work of other artists.
ABOVE: from my series Waves, this image is called Needles & Pins (Outs & Ins), 2015
I had quite long, blonde hair as a girl. Long, straight, smooth, thick-but-fine, whatever you want to call it, it went up-to-down with no detours, flaxen and waxen. I don’t remember loving or hating my hair, until just before my ninth birthday when it was lopped off – my entire braid, chop (I believe it exists, still, somewhere in that treasure trove of tiny drawers in my mother’s Tansu dresser). Whether the cut was my request or my mother’s didn’t matter – my hair was gone. I felt ugly, I felt like a boy. Even as a young girl (and not a girly girl), hair symbolized beauty, femininity, possibility to me. I did not cut my hair again, in any significant way, until I was a junior at Vassar, and we all cut our hair off. Whether in rebellion against beauty or the feminine or shampoo or straight culture (it was Vassar, it was the ’90s), it was gone, for so many women friends at that time. Some kept their hair short but I grew mine back out and now I have the (sometimes very) long hair for which many friends know me. Less blonde, some grays in there, but long. I get it cut twice a year. My son turns four tomorrow and refuses to get a haircut, loves to shake his wild blond mane. I guess it runs in the family.
I began making figurative work perhaps two years ago. My images had slowly evolved from landscape to photographs of objects to rephotographed and reconfigured photographs – self-portraits, portraits of friends and strangers, and found images, repurposed and rephotographed. Some men but mostly women. As I write in my artist statement for this series, Waves, “This is a a process of transformation, of transfiguration, an almost sacrilegious transubstantiation, the conversion of flesh and blood into image and that image back into sculpture, and the object back into a photograph.” Hair – my own and others’ – figures prominently in the work. Self portraits are inverted so the hair appears white, or lit so the hair appears black. Women’s hair obscures their faces, becomes a mask, overwriting/rewriting/concealing their identities. Hair is pulled through holes in photographs. Curled paper is arrayed over prints. I stress in my work that the images are not indexical – that is, they are not of what they represent; rather, they are meant to evoke feelings, to address reality in their removal from reality. This woman figure in all her iterations stands as avatar for the woman as artist, the woman as maker of life and object.
ABOVE: Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940, Oil on Canvas, 15 3/4 x 11″ (40 x 27.9 cm)
After she divorced Diego Rivera (following his tryst with her own sister), Frida Kahlo made this fantastic and compelling self-portrait, a renunciation of femininity. She swims in this massive suit (presumably his) and gazes with her characteristic intensity, at the viewer. One of my favorite parts of this painting is the sea of hair – like snakes – that fills the bottom half of the canvas.
ABOVE: Lorna Simpson, Wigs (Portfolio), 1994, Portfolio of twenty-one lithographs on felt, with seventeen lithographed felt text panels, 6′ x 13′ 6″
These wigs range from an afro, to braids, to blonde and waxen, to a merkin. By creating these lithographs on felt, Simpson builds a sensuous and luscious depth. In an oft-quoted interview of Simpson with Barbara Pollack in September 2002 ARTNews, “Turning Down the Stereotypes,” she says, “For me, the specter of race looms so large because this is a culture where using the black figure takes on very particular meanings, even stereotypes. But, if I were a white artist using Caucasian models, then the work would be read as completely universalist. It would be construed differently. I try to get viewers to realize … that it is all a matter of surfaces and façades.”
ABOVE: Hannah Wilke, Brushstrokes: January 19, 1992, no. 6, 1992 Artist’s hair on paper, 30″ x 22 1/4″
I recently came across these moving, simple sculptures or perhaps even drawings of Hannah Wilke’s, part of her work documenting her battle with cancer. As she lost her hair due to her cancer treatment, she created these “brushstrokes,” each dated with the day she lost the hair.
ABOVE: Mika Rottenberg, Still from: Cheese, 2008, Multi-channel video installation, Dimensions variable
I saw Mika Rottenberg’s Cheese at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. A narrative work, Rottenberg combines sculpture, video, and machinery within the framework of a crude shack (her video works often take place in confined spaces). Cheese is a fictionalized account of the Sutherland Sisters, famous for their cure for baldness, using women she had met through a long hair club. She tells Judith Hudson about her experience working with subjects/performers in a 2010 BOMB Magazine interview (BOMB 113): “I think these people who work for me empower themselves by renting out their oddities, like the long-haired ladies from Cheese. I usually use a verbal contract that is based on trust. I have a lot of respect for the people I hire; for example, the ladies from Cheese. But, on the second day of shooting, it was really hot and their hair got a little messed up. I thought it was still really beautiful, and mesmerizing, but they went on a strike, because they wanted to wash their hair. Which meant that we would have to stop shooting for 12 hours. That’s a lot when we only had five days. They formed a union against me, saying that they were ambassadors of the long-haired community. So we negotiated and in the end came up with an agreement, which was also a solution, on when exactly each one could wash her hair; another stipulation of the agreement was that every time I mention them to the press, I have to use the words beautiful and mesmerizing.”
ABOVE: Sula Fay, from her series Hair Embroideries, 2013-14
Finally, I came across, just this week, the work of a young artist, Sula Fay, currently a graduate student in sculpture at Yale, who made several years ago these simple embroideries of her own hair into vintage Victorian doilies. The works are delicate, sometimes text and othertimes drawings. I’m interested in this handwork (Fay’s) in conjunction with the handwork of the antique doilies. There’s a physicality and a delight in imperfection.
In this momentary space, we meet briefly, look, and move on. I look forward to bringing more of my thoughts and discoveries.