Reading ““Crow Mountain”” by Can Xue

Crow Mountain.” Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Asymptote, July 2015.


When you read Can Xue’’s story ““Crow Mountain,”” you’’re reading about a young girl who wishes to investigate a place. It’’s called Crow Mountain, but it’’s really a derelict building. Still, it holds some allure for her. Why is it called Crow Mountain when it’’s really something else? When her parents first show her the building, it’’s as if they are introducing her to the enigma, but they pull her away, perhaps because they know she is not ready for the experience.

Eventually, the girl, named Juhua, meets an older friend, Qinglian, who knows about Crow Mountain and offers to take her there. Qinglian tells Juhua that her uncle is actually the gatekeeper at Crow Mountain, so she has an in. Juhua admires her friend very much. Qinglian is older, more sophisticated, and quite beautiful. Beside her, Juhua feels very plain. There’’s also the matter of Qinglian’’s art form—–the embroidery that she practices in secret with her widowed mother. One day Juhua catches a glimpse of something that takes her breath away–—a double-sided embroidery with a waterfall on one side and the sea on the other. Qinglian quickly hides the piece in its basket, saying that it is not for Juhua’’s eyes.

Nevertheless, Qinglian makes good on her offer to take Juhua to Crow Mountain. They travel to the old building on a city bus. When they knock for the uncle, no one answers. The door is ajar, and Qinglian says that it is all right to go in. That’’s when all hell breaks loose. Nothing on Crow Mountain is as it seems. For Juhua, it’’s a complete loss of reference points. However, Qinglian seems to be having a completely different experience. She’’s comfortable on Crow Mountain and climbs confidently up a path. Juhua is terrified and yet intrigued by floors that aren’’t really floors; by a beam of light that, when pierced by a hand, causes a cawing of unseen crows; by small birds that fall in the beam of light; by a lizard-like thing that can float in the air, by an uncle who is a giant with legs as large as columns. She loses Qinglian, feels an electrical shock through her body, gets bitten by the lizard, and is even unconscious for a brief period of time.

At the end of the story, there is a return to the ordinary world. The uncle really is a gatekeeper with a small room where he sleeps beneath a mosquito net and reads ancient books at a table. Qinglian talks a little bit about her experience on Crow Mountain. She has picked and eaten cherries. She has, perhaps, been to the summit, whereas Juhua wandered around in darkness and saw something completely different. They return home by bus–—a return to ordinary life.

Despite her fear, Juhua feels that she now shares a profound secret with Quinglian, that something extraordinary actually happened to her, and that she is eager to explore more new things in spite of the danger. She also decides not to tell her parents about the outing. It’’s as if she fears that they would disapprove and forbid her ever going again. Qinglian warns her not to talk about it nor ask too many questions about what she saw there.

This story, like many of Can Xue’s stories, is about a character who takes off to investigate something intriguing or interesting, and then finds herself in a place where the usual rules of human life don’’t hold. There’’s a skewed strangeness in these situations. Yet there’’s also an upward striving toward another kind of knowledge. During these interludes when the individual ceases to engage in herd behavior, another order of experience always intervenes. The ordinary world falls away, and the characters catch a glimpse of their spiritual selves, the selves that haven’’t necessarily been conditioned by the use and wear of everyday life.

For me, the story is about the journey of the artist. In order to create, the artist must supersede both training and a priori ideas. She must purposely place herself into a situation in which the world is not solid, into a world that is as yet undefined and unmade. “Crow Mountain” is about human capacity, not so much about conscious imagination, but about the human capacity to receive, to make contact with that unmade place, and then to experience there things that are fresh, perhaps pleasant, perhaps frightening, maybe even oddly skewed. Certainly the authentic experience of Crow Mountain turns out to be unique–—nothing anyone else could have actually told or predicted ahead of time.

One characteristic of Juhua is that, unlike Qinglian, who is more adept and perhaps the true artist, Juhua is concerned about status. She compares herself to Qinglian. She tries to judge things. She doesn’’t understand why Qinglian doesn’’t show off her beautiful embroidery or brag about her uncle who is really a giant. She thinks these things would be worth telling everyone about, and the result would be that others would be jealous of her just as she is jealous of Qinglian. Yet in the end, she decides to keep her own secret and she doesn’’t tell anyone that she has gone to Crow Mountain. It feels too personal and almost sacred. She has gained an interior space that didn’’t exist before.

People would have a hard time trusting Qinglian. She just is this thing. She has the capability of guiding Juhua to Crow Mountain, but once there, Qinglian has no control over what Juhua experiences. We tend to want our literature grounded in the “real” world–—in a world that most people can understand. Stories have trajectories. There are rules to follow about plot and characterization. We want the offering of a scenario and a resolution that satisfies our need for order. We want a clear understanding of motive and a solid realization of the place where the events are occurring. This is not what Can Xue offers. Instead, the real story is hidden and can seem incomprehensible. But it is not completely hidden.

At the end, we know that while Juhua returns to the safety of her parents’ home, she still has a hunger for Crow Mountain and is probably already determined to return with or without Qinglian. Once the bird has left its cage, it’’s had a dizzying taste of freedom, and so Juhua i’s not likely to return to her old ways of dealing with the world.

In fact, all the characters in the story could be read as different aspects of a single character. After a striving upwards that seems to disorient our perceptions of every-day reality, there’’s a kind of balance that asserts itself in the end. Each division of the self is necessary–—the guide, the pilgrim, the uncle, the mother, the father. Each has a role to play in the life of a fully alive and creative human being. It’’s a lot to think about–—and that may be the point. Crow Mountain is not about our usual ways of thinking at all. To enter Crow Mountain is to open our selves to the unknown.

Qinglian guides people to Crow Mountain. She does not control what they experience there. She can’’t put limits on it or define it. They experience something that they might find pleasant or unpleasant—–something that is so personal that they probably cannot put it into words. In some sense, Qinglian is a bit of a bully. She refuses to answer any questions about Crow Mountain. She takes Juhua there but she doesn’’t even try to help Juhua make sense of her experience at Crow Mountain. In fact, she tells her not to talk about it. It is something that just needs to be lived.

Hokusai at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

With his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusai, whose prints are currently on exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, seems to reinvent the very idea of point of view over and over again. He must have traveled widely to have actually seen the fabled mountain from so many different vantage points. There’s no formula—each is a fresh take. Often the mountain is seen in terms of some human activity, as though watching over the people who fish, harvest, and make the things they need to live. In other images, Fuji is merely itself, framed by trees, overlooking water. The mountain can be close or very far away.

Most famous of the views is Hokusai’s iconic image Under the Wave Off Kanagawa, also known as The Great Wave. Fuji sits beneath the breaking wave, a massive wall of water turning on itself with white anthropomorphic fingers that seem to clutch at the small boats loaded with humans attempting a passage across a tempestuous ocean.

Most of the world is familiar with The Great Wave. Seen frequently in reproduction, in media, in advertising, and used on personal products from totes to umbrellas, the image has journeyed far from its source. This is a small work, measured in inches not feet. Here we have this massive rogue wave, possibly even a tsunami, spiraling, rising, threatening the small, precarious boats that seem to represent human endeavor in the face of huge natural forces.

Beneath the wave, in a circle framed by its curve, we see the perfect cone of Fuji, a sleeping volcano—implacable, unmovable, and holy—a form that, like the wave itself, suggests the purity of geometry and mathematical certainty. While the wave is ephemeral—we know that its presence is momentary: it will rise, crash, and return to the sea—the mountain hunkers down like a rounded pyramid.

Perhaps Hokusai deliberately planned this contrast, but I think it’s just as likely that, for him, it was simply one more view of the mountain, another inventive way of seeing his subject. The ideas about it probably came later. They are our ideas and not his.

Hokusai was a journeyman printmaker, a commercial artist really, bent on making a living in an era when these printed pictures sold for the equivalent of a bowl of noodles. Yet he lived in a time when the printed image was far less common than it is now. People were not inundated by images. In his massive output of prints, paintings, game boards, and banners, Hokusai manages to capture so much more than we can possibly take in—humans, animals, landscape, work, leisure, theater, story—few modern artists could claim to have so much breadth or humility.

A favorite image of mine from the exhibition is Carp That Climb the Waterfall. It has some of the qualities of The Great Wave—a sense of the force of the falling water and the fish struggling upward, fighting the current. We don’t know if the effort will result in success or failure, just as we can’t say whether the great wave will drown the tiny humans in the boats or allow them to survive. There is in these images a sense of the precariousness of life and also its liveliness and unpredictability. That takes us back to Fuji, the seemingly eternal rock, something dependable, out there in the distance, ineffable but perhaps reachable, if only one could find the right point of view!

Boston Museum of Fine Arts Hokusai Show

Girl in a Red Dress

(Link to Girl in a Red Dress by Paula Mondersohn-Becker in the Harvard Art Museums archive)

Sometimes a work of art finds its own context within us. Some paintings are felt so deeply and so personally that any sort of discussion about them as objects seems almost beside the point. I suspect that this is one way that many people experience paintings. They find something in the work that resonates inside them. It might be a color, a shape, or some aspect of the image itself, maybe even the subject of the work. A relationship is formed. There’s the potential for the painting to become a friend.

Paula Modersohn-Becker’s painting Girl in a Red Dress at the Harvard Art Museums has that kind of feeling for me. This painting of a small girl in a simplified northern landscape recalls something from my own childhood in Wisconsin. There are the birch trees. A solid trunk rises like a rough Greek column next to the seated child, while a wispy, leafless specimen in the background indicates that the season is not summer. The girl in the red dress sits passively with her pawlike hands resting on her lap. Her gray eyes are like two round holes punched into her head. She does not smile but seems very serious, as if the sheer weight of the life she must live is already pushing down on her.

The painting says a lot about that life. The child appears to be more resigned than expectant. In the paintings of Mary Cassatt or John Singer Sargent, little girls from well-off nineteenth-century families are cradled by young and beautiful mothers or dressed in white pinafores to be depicted in richly furnished rooms with Chinese vases and patterned Oriental rugs. They seem cared for, delighted in, loved. There is none of that sense with this painting. This image calls to mind the work of Käthe Kollwitz. It is a homely picture, a homily about a life that may not be lived all that well because of circumstances that are less than propitious.

That’s the incongruity in the painting. In a perfect world, children are not supposed to be hungry, alone, work-weary, or neglected, but that’s the feeling here. The outdoor scene lacks even the potential of a blue sky. Instead, the overcast sky is whitish, dense, opaque, and enclosed. Even the child’s “red” dress is more faded than cheerful. All is earth-toned, immanent, and scorched.

The painting feels purposely crudely done, just as the child’s life is and will be crudely made and perhaps crudely lived. The girl can’t be more than two or three years old. I empathize with the image because somehow I was that child and still am her on the inside—mute, dumb, and waiting. There might be a world beyond the picture frame, but it’s not clear whether she will ever come to know that place. The painting is about despair. It is a painting about growing up without money or advantage or joy in a northern rural landscape. There’s a sense of sheer resignation, isolation, and desolation. It is a very sad work, and yet, somehow, I return to look at it again and again as if I’m finding a truth that I require in order to know and remember something crucial and necessary. I could live with the painting and enjoy it every day for its honesty about a life that is just as it is with nothing put on for show. It is not a beautiful or a romantic picture. And that’s exactly why it moves me so much.

Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, Germany

Two Childhood Drawings

Winter Scene is shown, a childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith to illustrate her blog.

Winter Scene, childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith

The little shed where the skaters sit to lace up their skates seems precariously balanced on the edge of the pond, as if I couldn’t quite figure out how to orient it accurately. That is probably because, while the skating rink is seen head-on, the hill is depicted as if the viewer is looking down on it. In naïve art and in children’s art, disparate points of view aren’t necessarily contradictory. As far as I was concerned at the age of five, everything was in its place and exactly where it should be.

This drawing of child’s play in winter offers a tremendous amount of information. I probably began with the oval for the skating rink and moved on, adding elements as I thought of them. All of these activities would have been extremely familiar to me at that age. I skated, went sledding, and used the fiberglass “flying saucers” that appear in the drawing as well. I was making decisions about what was important, putting in elements as I went along, and happily covering the whole scene with snowflakes.

Childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith of an imaginary scene inside a museum

In the Museum, by Jeri Griffith

In the hallway picture, I was trying to demonstrate an understanding of the laws of perspective. In it, lines converge and things get smaller as they recede into the distance. Both drawings are filled with details that I considered important to include. I suspect that that museum hallway was an imaginary scene and not a real place. Even so, I’ve shown a water fountain, an EXIT sign, and artifacts in the display cases. As a child, I walked plowed fields with my father looking for flint arrowheads and pieces of broken pottery that tended to surface in the spring. I had a fascination with prehistoric life that continues today.

The child’s winter scene is lively and expressive, and depicts a spacious world of freedom and play. The empty hallway has a more ominous, empty feeling. The trajectory in the hallway is inescapable. I can either turn off to the left or walk toward that pair of closed gray doors. The choices have become much more limited. I could say that my life had become more institutionalized, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

Both drawings represent a legitimate approach to some understanding of the world and of pictorial space and possibly of the self. In the winter scene, there is freedom. The hallway represents constriction, but also the potential to be part of some larger world. It’s about the effort to articulate and to communicate accurately. Always in my work, I have swung between these two poles—that of infinite freedom of expression and then the hard task of saying what is really meant, what is really there. The hallway drawing represents a path of learning and words. The winter scene is about intuition and movement without being fettered. I believe a great artist needs both of these qualities.

I only have to look at a winter scene by the great Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel to find a kindred spirit here. In Hunters in the Snow or Return of the Hunters (1565), we have what seems to be an utterly realistic painting, but I’m sure that if I began a serious study of the work by drawing it, I would discover many disconnects. The pictorial space is credible, but if I deconstructed it, I would find that it doesn’t really make sense and that this could not possibly be a “realistic” depiction of a single scene. Just as I did in my much more primitive winter scene, Bruegel has included many details and vignettes to make the picture interesting.  And in doing so, he’s united the two points of view. He’s combined an appetite for life and the desire to show everything that is important with some semblance of a natural perspective that makes the viewer believe in his painting.


Russian Icons

Archangel Gabriel from Rostov Region, circa 1600

Archangel Gabriel from Rostov Region, circa 1600

The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, is housed in a building so beautifully constructed, largely of wood that I’d like to move into it. I feel I could live very well there. The rooms are spacious but not palatial. The place has a human scale. Even though their subject matter is meant to plumb the sacred and holy reality of Christianity on an almost cosmological scale, the icons also have a human scale and are extremely approachable. In fact, they invite me to come closer for a better look. Some paintings are provided with magnifying glasses so as to better view their exquisitely small details.This museum houses icons—religious images painted on wood—usually executed in egg tempera in which the ground pigments are bound together with the whites of eggs. It’s a delicate medium that yields a smooth glazed surface and has the potential for almost microscopic depiction. The layers of paint are semi-transparent and reflective. Some paintings executed in egg tempera almost seem to emit light.

Icon of Saint Luke painted circa 1530

Saint Luke, circa 1530

For the faithful, these images are sacred objects. Many icons, but not all, depict the Virgin and her precious Son. Some icons reputedly weep or bleed as a response to tragic events. Some have been carried into battle. The icon connects the worshiper with the larger realities of the faith. The painters who created these objects were expected to serve the perfection of God. Many remain anonymous and leave behind only the work, made lovingly, created with respect and perhaps even rapture. This is an alien concept in our art world where making a splash and being different is the norm. We value a kind of individualism that has no meaning in this environment where angels are moving forces and participate actively in human life.

These vignettes happen at a juncture between the visible and the invisible. Many references root them credibly in our concrete world, but the space behind the figures is often defined by gold leaf that urges the viewer toward a dimension that lies on the other side of the mundane. The communication of the spiritual is achieved partly through use of vibrant color. The brilliant cadmium reds and the cobalt blues in some of these works vibrate. I experience the deeply expressed hues in a visceral way. The characters in the paintings possess bodies and facial features idiosyncratic enough to represent real people. But they are also saints inviting me into another order of human experience—one where knowledge, faith, and belief meet up with ideals of supreme effort and sacrifice. Their gazes are always serious, and they look out at me as if in admonishment. It is hard to find contemporary works of art that exude this kind of power or confidence. That may be our loss.

Harriet Leavens (1802–1830) by Ammi Phillips

Ammi Phillips (1788–1865) was an itinerant portrait painter working his way across Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the state of New York in those earliest days of colonial New England. Though his work spans five decades, not much is known about him. He was probably self-taught, and chose to make a life as an artist for hire in communities where any kind of painting or even decorative object would have been a luxury item. Itinerant paints continually traveled or moved on in search of new clients. Phillips’ oeuvre was only revived when the folk art genre began to be taken more seriously by art historians, curators, and collectors. This is a painter who could take his place beside any serious artist.

Phillips’ portrait of Harriet Leavens, now hanging in the Harvard Art Museums, is a favorite work of mine at the museum. Painted when Harriet was just thirteen, and fifteen years before her death, the painting is simply done with all the elements perfectly assembled. Black is used as a color to focus and ground the composition. We see Harriet standing pertly on a dark floor with her small slipper sticking out from beneath her dress. The umbrella or parasol in her hand points like a dark, perpendicular arrow toward that same floor. Her dress, almost salmon in tone, becomes a smooth, tubular sculpture of cloth covering her body. She stands, almost incorporeal, except for the slight breasts protruding at the bodice. Her sense of being almost weightless makes the downward press of the black parasol take on some additional meaning. It might even be a serious reminder of mortality as it directs the eye of the viewer toward earth and perhaps even the grave.

Meanwhile, Harriet Leavens gazes directly out at us as she offers a small smile from her bright lips. The painting is calm, steady in a certain way, simplistic but also full of contradiction. The bright red at the base of the purse as well as the red necklace and ring almost seem to put words in Harriet’s mouth. I imagine she might be saying: “I am not much but at least I have this—my pretty purse full of coins and comb, and my necklace and this ring, all these were given to me by my father. He might be powerful, but I am still me, a separate person in my own right. I have my own eyes to see, and I’m looking out of this picture into a time when I will be no more.”

I enjoy images that make me feel like a witness, and this one does just that. Harriet Leavens has an erect quality and a certain gaze. We don’t know much about her, but we have her likeness, at least as Phillips recorded it, and this might say as much about the artist as it says about the subject. The painting’s minimalism and sheer clarity communicate something rather profound about a single human life.

Harriet Leavens (1802–1830) by Ammi Phillips, Harvard Art Museums


Mayan wood sculpture of a bat from the highlands of Guatemala

Rafael (front view)

It happened in the Guatemalan highlands almost ten years ago.

“¿Qué es eso?” I asked the Mayan shopkeeper. The wooden sculpture, obviously carved from the round trunk of a tree, seemed to me to have the face of a dog.

“Es un murciélago,” he replied in Spanish. “You hang it on your house, and it protects your animals from the flying things that come in the night to suck their blood.” He was referring to bats—vampire bats. There are no vampire bats in that region of Guatemala, but in the humid eastern jungles, it’s quite another matter. This creature’s red mouth curled up in a smile. With simple flattened feet and rounded arms crossed over its chest, this earthbound bat seems more given to hunkering than to flying.

Mayan wood sculpture of a bat from the highlands of Guatemala

Rafael #2

We bought the bat and named him Rafael. In our home, Rafael has become our dark angel. My husband, Jon, jokes about taking him along for protection when anticipating a contentious meeting at work. The vampires are out there, surely, and don’t we need protection?

Rafael remains in our living room, giving off some primitive aura that pleases me. He is one of my favorite objects in the whole world. Sometimes I cross my arms just like Rafael, especially when I feel defensive and want to say: “Well!! This is off-limits!” My own wings are sometimes dark wings, corporeal wings that block the light.

My little sculpture also tells me something about the nature of a work of art. The Mayan shopkeeper may have been pulling my leg. Rafael might have been a carving made simply for the tourist trade, and his authenticity as a protective talisman is certainly suspect. But all that doesn’t matter because we make his meaning every day.

As an icon, he is a perfect representative of the dark side of life but always with a touch of humor. Rafael seems to be licking his lips in anticipation. His expression is enigmatic, watching the parade of life before him, as if ready to choose his next meal.

“Seated Man” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

“Seated Man,” andesite, northwest Syria or southeastern Turkey, Neo-Hittite or Aramaean, mid-9th–8th centuries BC

“Seated Man,” andesite, northwest Syria or southeastern Turkey, Neo-Hittite or Aramaean, mid-9th–8th centuries BC

“Seated Man”–This man is a cube. He emerges from a block of stone in his display case at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He is pure shape. He has a pure face with wide-open eyes. He radiates the calm of the stone, the sense of presence and place of something that cannot be easily defaced or destroyed. His eyes might have been more unnerving if they were painted with dark, bright pupils and whites. Maybe, originally, they were painted. Maybe he was actually bright red with a gaze of turquoise, but here, that is all calmed by the texture of the stone and by its uniform color.

I like the fact that the human body is emerging from this cube looking like a piece of furniture, the lap perhaps a place for the placement of offerings or gifts. This man is pure compression. He is what art is about—the confinement or containment of the spirit in a physical material, in this case andesite, a very hard stone related to granite. It must have been a difficult job to carve him, to eke him out, to release him from the geology of his rock.

His disproportionately large head greets me, bringing some message from another time. It’s pure poetry. I don’t have to learn about it to understand it. I’m interested in its archaeology, but I’m also interested in what it communicates: directness, a solid, stolid sense that his culture was forever.

And as I walk through my suburban neighborhood at dusk, I realize that most people believe this. They think that our culture is forever. They believe that people will always be driving around in cars, mowing their lawns, and peering out their windows at birdfeeders that attract chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. My man tells me otherwise. This world will not last. It will change. My man admonishes me. But he also speaks of some great strength within human beings—the power to make art and ritual objects, the power to communicate through image and symbol. His culture has reached into mine. He’s in a museum, for God’s sake, halfway around the world from where he was unearthed. He got himself cleaned up and put into this glass case, and he makes me laugh. When I am gone, he’ll still be here. There’s great humor in that and also some insight.

“Horseman and Dog” at Boston’s MFA


Horseman and Dog

“Horseman and Dog,” terracotta, Italy (Sicily), Late archaic period (500 BC), The Museum of Fine Arts

Almost every time I visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I have a look at this small sculpture. It’s a favorite, and I often take guests to see the piece in the Greek galleries. The terracotta figurine is a funerary object made for a grave. Presumably, the young boy depicted with his horse and dog has already passed into another world. I go to this sculpture because it so captures some in-between place—a moment balanced between life and death—somehow found and preserved. It finds that exact place—an exuberant place—and it stays there telling me the truth: This is what life is. This is also about death.

My late thirties were characterized by loss. Three young people from my milieu died suddenly—two through unrelated murders and the other because of a heart arrhythmia that took him as a young man. It was a time of grief and also of rebellion against what had occurred. My feelings went beyond sadness or questioning. I felt rage. It seemed unfair. These things were not supposed to happen at all, and, certainly, they were not supposed to happen to anyone who was close to me!

Gradually, the anger and the sadness gave way and something else replaced it—the beginning of a new kind of vision—a new world seen through the tears of loss—a kind of hyper-vision infused with light. I saw in a way that could make a glass of water look like the loveliest thing in the world. I could look through a paned window at the branches of a tree and weep.

I’m not sure scholars would agree with me, but I identify the expression on the boy’s face as having something to do with the “archaic smile.” It is found on other Greek sculptures from this period, especially on the faces of highly stylized statues of young boys called kouroi. The meaning of the smile is both debatable and debated by those who speculate about cultural expression. I’m okay with that. For me, the archaic smile always represents the ultimate in serenity, a kind of confidence in both life and death. In the case of my horseman and his dog, the memory is about three beings who were once very alive and then were taken. That’s enough to give the piece its sad and joyous meaning.

Animal Imagery and Color—The Work of Franz Marc

“Your paintings remind me of the work of Franz Marc.” I received this comment (and, I think, compliment) some months ago from a young visitor to my website. It immediately reminded me of a 1912 painting of Marc’s entitled Deer in a Monastery Garden—a favorite of mine. I think of this work as having strong Cubist influence, but Marc’s is not the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, not the Cubism of fractured faces and figures, and certainly not the Cubism of cafés where people drank coffee and cognac and spread newspapers out on tabletops.

Marc’s Cubist tendencies are applied to nature, in this case to the monastery’s garden where a young deer hides among bits of light cracking through the leaf canopy. The fawn is nearly invisible, absorbed into the texture and colors of the environment. Though influenced by the genre (who wasn’t in the early twentieth century), Marc wasn’t really a Cubist painter. He believed deeply in the spirituality of a natural rather than a human-made world. He was part of a deeply felt movement of German Expressionism, something of a Romantic, and a bold colorist.

Marc had no trouble painting horses blue or conceiving of a bright yellow cow. In fact, the deer in the monastery painting is actually rendered in yellow, ochre, and green, as if the green of the light is being picked up by its dappled coat and somehow that energy is being stored there.

When I went back to explore reproductions of Marc’s paintings in a book I own, I recalled that his images of animals always moved me. I grew up in nature, observing wild animals. I have always felt a deep connection with animals. My earliest childhood drawings were often of birds, fish, and small mammals. People seemed complicated to me. Animals were always deeper and more interesting, certainly more mysterious. My father was a game warden, and we sometimes rehabilitated injured animals. We once cared for a fawn for several months. His back leg had been grazed, pierced by an arrow. He was very small, but I helped suckle him with a baby bottle filled with warm, watered-down cow’s milk. We kept him in our garage inside a fence made from bales of straw. Soon he could leap the fence. He survived and was later released on a game farm.

Those memories of a specific animal yield for me a particularly emotional connection to Deer in a Monastery Garden. I recall the soft liquid eyes of a small deer I passed many hours with. Marc indicates the eye of his fawn with a soft, dark mark, almost smeared but enough to indicate that this was a living being with its own vision.

Marc didn’t merely study animals. He related them to himself and to the human world. For him, they represented a spiritual sense of his world and a way toward what was best within himself. He wrote: “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings. But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that is good in me.”*

Under the influence of formal art training, I almost completely abandoned any iconography that referred to animals. Still, I’ve returned to drawing animals, birds, and fish throughout my life. It might be time to revisit that connection.

*Mark Rosenthal, Franz Marc, New York: Prestel Publishing, 2004,13

Image of  Marc’s Grazing Horses IV (The Red Horses), Harvard Art Museums

On Reading Black Elk Speaks and Seeing Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

For those who don’t know, Black Elk Speaks was written in 1932 by the poet John Neihardt, based on his translated conversations with Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man. Black Elk, who died in 1950, was a witness not only to the Battle at Wounded Knee but also to the end of the tragic transition, begun decades before, of his people from their traditional life to the circumscribed life of the reservation and cultural genocide.

I read this book after seeing Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, a magnificent exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The show was an impressive and beautiful presentation, conceived as an attempt to illuminate and give us entrance to a culture that thrived on the Great Plains. The exhibition was filled with carefully documented articles of decorated clothing as well as other personal and ritual objects that brought to life a way of being, a spiritual connection to the land, and a code of values.

Going through room after room, I knew this was a different way of seeing the world. Where in my culture does art deliver this level of meaning? How is our art integrated into the needs of people for recording history as well as for expressing a vision that impacts both the individual and the community? Do we surround ourselves with beautiful things that were made by us or for us as an expression of personality or relationship? And then do we take care of these things for a lifetime or even over many generations?

For Black Elk and his people, art was not something separate visited in a museum. It was intrinsic. Songs were ways of knowledge. Images offered a connection between the inner world of spirit and the exigencies of physical reality. As with most indigenous cultures, it is nearly impossible for us to enter into the state of mind in which these objects were created and used. That’s our loss. We have no way of melding reality, dreams, hopes, and history, and then somehow realizing our limited selves in terms of all these.

We might appreciate and appropriate the aesthetic qualities of so many things displayed here. A marvelous wooden horse is the signature piece. Wonderful imagery is painted on deerskin and buffalo robes that have survived, ostensibly, because someone valued them. But we do not enter so deeply into our lives that we might “see” what it would mean to be completely integrated into both an environment and a community as individuals.

Okay, I’m sure that we wouldn’t want to go back to that time with its challenges and privations. After all, we’re part of the culture that overcame the Plains people. We have everything that is meant to protect us from knowing some of the things they knew and from the many discomforts they must have suffered living closer to the land and the weather, but at what loss? I myself would not successfully return to that time nor would I wish to live in such a prescribed way as a member of a particular tribe. I am happy to benefit from a multicultural perspective and set of possibilities.

But there was something enlightened about this approach to the world that commands my respect. We don’t fast for days, sing for the spirits to come, or cry for a vision. But the consequence is that maybe as artists and as individuals, we don’t dig deep enough. We think life should be easy. We’re moving very quickly through both time and space. We don’t believe that we have the hours required to carve a beautiful object out of stone or wood without power tools. The sheer speed at which we live our lives can seem good, but it simply may not allow for the meditative, slow work that might lead us in a truly promising direction.

Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, opening March 2, 2015.

Read Sebastian Smee’s insightful review of the show, Plains Indians Saga Finds Artistic Expression at the Met, published March 28, 2015, in the The Boston Globe.

Louisa Matthiasdottir

I only became aware of this Icelandic artist a few years ago after seeing a review for a posthumous show of her work in New York City. Shortly afterward, I bought a book about her, and since then, I routinely leaf through it to explore reproductions of her brilliantly colored paintings. I feel deeply connected to her, and I think this is because we both understand and perhaps even love winter. We are both Nordic painters. The colors blue and white are important to us, and we both have a deep sense of incorporating color into our works.

I do have one other connection to Matthiasdottir. In the 1980s, I studied at the Kansas City Art Institute with painter Stanley Lewis for a couple of years. Stanley was a student of the New York painter Leland Bell, and Bell was married to Louisa Matthiasdottir. I knew nothing of this connection at that time, but I like to think now that there was an essence that Stanley brought to me from his deep connection with Bell, who in turn was deeply connected to and influenced by his wife. Getting to the essence is how you learned from Stanley. I would stand next to him making drawings of classical Indian sculptures at the Nelson Atkins Museum. During that period of time, I sensed that my strength as an artist lay somewhere in the involvement with the figure, with human movement, and with the dance of life.

What do I have in common with Matthiasdottir? Why do her works move me so much? On the surface, they are certainly very different from my own attempts. Where she strives for simplification and bold areas of color, I tend toward rich patterns and a singular lack of definition.

I particularly like the painting on the book jacket titled Self-Portrait in Landscape, 1991. Here is color I can relate to—deep, rich color—but almost no detail. I see an almost featureless woman wearing a red and black sweater with white armbands. Her hands are thrust downward into the pockets of her denim blue skirt as she faces directly outward as if to confront me. She is erect, white-haired, and without pretense. The slopes and curves of the landscape lead me into distances of water and then sky. Several simplified sheep graze behind the figure, marking the undulations of the earth with their forms.

The painting seems to me to be particularly Nordic and perhaps appeals to the Scandinavian part of my background. But I think what I like most about it is that it is somehow an in-between place. This landscape is both seen and imagined. Stripped of distracting detail, it is then imbued with the rich coloration of the artist’s mind.

Matthiasdottir applied this same sort of in-between aesthetic to other paintings, still lifes as well as unpretentious domestic scenes—rooms with people living in them—often renderings of those who were familiar and close to her. Without a lot of recognition, and not always in step with the artistic times, Matthiasdottir hammered out her visual remaking of the world over a lifetime of effort. The later paintings achieve the impact and simple joy of the Matisse cutouts and jazz series. I wish more people would look at her work.

Louisa Matthiasdottir, edited by Jed Perl (Reykjavík, Iceland: Nesútgáfan Publishing, 1999; distributed by Hudson Hills Press)

Website for Louisa Matthiasdottir’s estate


Winter Inspiration

I dream often of my maternal grandmother’s house. This has been going on for years. Often I’m trying to return there. Sometimes I’m fixing it up or planning to buy back the place. The house itself is long gone, probably torn down years ago. But in my dreams, it remains alive—a place that changes its guise often but always with a few features of the original place.

It was, to say the least, an unassuming house. My grandparents were poor. They lived from the garden and by my grandfather’s job as a worker at the local paper mill in a small town fifty miles south of Lake Superior. The northern winters were extremely cold. The house had no central heat nor even a fireplace or woodstove, only an oil-burning stove in the dining room between the kitchen and the small living room. Every morning, my grandfather would get up to light the stove. For me, in the dream world, that small flame at the center of the poor house has become symbolic.

Just two nights ago, the dream returned. I was working on fixing up the place because I planned to spend the winter there. I felt the challenge of surviving the cold. I felt very strongly that this was the only way to nurture my creativity. I would go there. Something would happen. I would paint. I would make images. But it would be more than this. The vision would come to me. It would be a form of fasting and waiting for that.

It may be true that the old oil burner is the inner source of my artistic fire—something you light every day, something you depend on but have to work at, nurture, and feed. There is something in my background, in my psyche, in my body, that is about poverty and then about that process—making things out of almost nothing, living close to the bone with whatever is available. I practice this frugality in my kitchen. I never throw anything away, as there is always the possibility for morphing it into something else, something better, something new.

I believe in making do with essentials and in crying for a vision in an environment that, for all its bleakness, is still lit by an inner fire. While some artists may seek out sunny climes, I’m a winter person. I need that sense of darkness, of silence, of whiteness. It’s the beginning for me. It’s the place where I make drawings in black and white. Winter also provides me with the blank canvas that literally imbues itself with the colors of my heart and my soul. Spring and sun always follow. It’s a rhythm that I need and crave.

Gauguin’s “The Spirit of the Dead Watching”

Gauguin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching” (1892)

The spirit in this painting reminds me of some of Rufino Tamayo’s human creatures. Here’s a large white eye and white lips etched into a dark face. The body is a hooded, cowl shape. We’re not sure exactly what this thing is, but it has an anthropomorphic nature. Yet, it’s not a person. It’s more of an entity, a dead spirit come back to haunt the living or perhaps to warn them. We cannot see all of its parts, can’t tell whether it’s male or female. Underneath the robe, it might even be an insect.

The spirit leans against the bed with a brown hand ominously touching the sheets. The spirit has been reduced to essentials while the beautiful young girl lying on the pale yellow bedding is definitely whole, alive, and naked. Her skin tones portray her as pulsing with life. Her workings are complex while those of the spirit seem somehow simple. We don’t know if the young woman can see the spirit or whether she simply senses its presence and is perhaps frightened by something she cannot actually see.

The story, as related by Gauguin, is that returning one evening he found his 14-year-old Tahitian wife Tehura lying face down on the bed terrified. The room itself, this confined space, becomes a portal. The night offers itself as a place where the boundaries between the physical world and the spirit’s world can be breached. The girl seems about to slip from her bed. The plane of her repose tilts forward as if to dump her out of the picture frame. It seems that, momentarily, she could fall from this frozen, painted moment either onto the floor or into some abyss where death awaits her. The spirit bides its time. In this way, I see this as a painting about inevitability—about that eventuality—presaging the thing that must transpire. Whether the young woman is aware of the threat, I am aware of it as I view the painting. While the young girl represents the known and solid physical world, the death figurine (and it might be seen as a statue) merely symbolizes what is not known.

A red pillow, offered almost centrally in the painting, brings a sense of carnality, the sense of flesh and blood. The young woman is captured sliding into and through time. The death figure lurks in readiness to claim the flesh that is its due. Three yellow shapes above the girl lighten the darkened room. These blurred swatches of energy suggest that there might be something going on here. Are these lights suggestive of some benevolent presence? I want to press on through the canvas to find out, but the surface doesn’t yield. This painting merges the corporeal with the non-corporeal. It does take me somewhere but it doesn’t take me all the way there. It leaves me on this side of the portal. I fall short. The image can’t yield any kind of complete knowledge about either reality or death.

And that’s because my knowledge falls short. Like the painter himself, I can conceive of death as an anthropomorphic figure, but beyond that symbol is a reality I can’t comprehend, a change that will require a completely different set of faculties, a place where my body life will be extinguished or yield to another larger being than myself.

Larry Rivers and the Fluid Nature of Seeing

Larry Rivers, “Self Figure” (1953)

Fractured energy plays across the surface of this work in oil on canvas. Ostensibly, it’s a painting of a single figure moving through space. To my mind, what’s represented here is not a person but an event. The character is insubstantial. The “self” depicted is not fixed in time. The face echoes itself as if yesterday has faded and a new face is now slowly emerging. The man’s moment is mutable. Small squalls everywhere make the canvas a study in transformation.

In “Self Figure” it’s impossible to distinguish between figure and the background. Both are painted in exactly the same manner. I view this painting as though it were the flickering screen of an old movie after the film has deteriorated. A detail emerges here or there—a carefully rendered hand or facial detail. These come forward only to melt back into the ground of the image.

For his paintings, Rivers often chose deeply personal subject matter. He made portraits of his sons, his mother-in-law, and his many friends active in the arts. He also chose historical moments and used his brand of pastiche and collage to comment on them and to suggest something new about our understanding of these events and the ways that they had previously been shown in iconic paintings.

Rivers’ “historical” painting,  “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” certainly contrasts with Thomas Sully’s depiction of this crucial event that marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War (“The Passage of the Delaware”). Sully’s work, painted in 1819, depicts General Washington elegantly and heroically posing on a white horse against the impending night. He is clearly the man of the hour. In Rivers’ work areas of thick paint give way to sketched-in places where we almost seem to lose the image all together. This “solid” piece of history has been made into a single fleeting and fairly insubstantial moment, a thing with frayed edges, a place where people merge with the landscape and then emerge once again.

Rivers visual language masterfully represents uncertainty, the fluid nature of our seeing and beyond this, and at a deeper level, the uncertainty of our knowledge. The historical issues in Rivers’ paintings—the very definitions of cause and effect—are lost in such atmospheric conditions that suggest a multi-dimensional geography of the mind—perhaps of the painter’s mind or maybe a collective mind in which we rewrite history on a moment by moment basis both remembering and forgetting.

Always Rivers’ paintings tell me not to believe too much in what I think I know. Each of them resembles a piece of music. Once heard, it disappears.

Lenore Tawney’s Mysterious Moments

 “A Dry Cry from the Desert” (sculpture 1970)
A wooden box—smooth and unfinished—perhaps of pine and still retaining the resinous smell of pitch. At the rear of the box—a drawing of a skeletal hand. In front of this—a three-dimensional skeletal hand—lightly grasping—barely touching—a pure white egg.

 “Time Trembling” (sculpture 1969)
A  small wooden cage. Inside, some scaffolding, a diminutive, wooden trough and a little  ceramic pot positioned opposite one another at either end. The centerpiece here is also a white egg that sits carefully balanced on two crossbars at the middle of the cage.

 I have always thought of these two pieces by the artist Lenore Tawney as deeply related to one another, and even now, it is hard for me to separate them. I imagine them juxtaposing life and death. The egg represents the potential for birth and the skeletal hand indicates the cessation of that potential, but also the desire for it.  They both tell me about a gossamer-thin membrane between the animate and the inanimate.

Perhaps the skeletal hand reaches back in time toward the life it once possessed.  Maybe the egg is waiting. But then why does the artist place it in a cage as if to confine? There is some powerful emotional knowledge here. All this white and cream without any color. The anatomically correct reality and certainty of bare bone. The fragility of the egg. The meaning of the hand. The hand’s potential to grasp wordlessly at numinous light and mysterious moment. These two moment of stasis are carried out, enacted even, by the simple, unadorned presentation.

The piece brings me to the frayed edge of a mystery, the mystery that is life and my knowledge about life. The two pieces bring to mind these lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses”—

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown.


Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Mangan, Kathleen, ed. Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective, American Craft Museum, New York.  New York, Rizzoli International Publications, 1990.


Tàpies and Discontinued Line

Línia discontínua (Discontinued Line), 1967
Mixed media on canvas
Link to image in the Fundación Juan March (scroll to middle of page)

All parts of this picture are white—not white exactly though, not the same white as new-fallen snow, not a winter white, but rather a cream color—like the cream rising to the top of the milk—before milk was pasteurized—when people still understood what such things were like. This painting is like that cream, but stained with a bit of red earth tone.

Across the upper edge—a line also of sienna—but broken—the brush has been lifted at intervals, a gesture perhaps meant to give the sense of time passing. The broken line pushes me as I read from left to right across the painting. I feel that I am reading the story of a life along that line. Some shadow haunts the far right side of the canvas. It might be a silhouette, but then again, it might not. It certainly suggests the head and shoulders of a man or of a woman. But of course, it is no such thing. It is all paint, and the painting is as much about the paint as anything else. That person, if it is a person, is embedded in this field of cream. The discontinued line seems to be leading me toward some uncertain future.

Am I the person or am I the line? If I am the person, I have almost been erased from the canvas. I have nearly been expunged from the picture. If I am the line, I am clearly segmented. The line is like music written into measures. It recalls hours, days, perhaps months or years. The line is more real than the person. The segments of time are substantial and incontrovertible. The rest is cream. In this painting dominated by white solidity, the line moves slowly across that background, as if it were pushing through some viscous substance ahead of itself. The canvas offers few clues to any meaning. Obviously, some event is being played out. The painting is about discontinuity. The line starts and the line stops. The line is broken. This painting is a picture of my life. It tells something about my experience of myself. I have the sense of displacement and of people and places that I have let go, experienced, and left behind.

Tàpies suggests. He leads without telling me where I might be going. In many of his works, he offers what might be a symbol or a narrative but it is up to the viewer to make an interpretation.

Though this Catalan painter is considered to be an abstract artist, I find many of his works to be anything but abstract. Almost always, they take me on some journey, through a door or window, perhaps into an architectural space that I’m forced to imagine, perhaps on a walk that has me passing by derelict buildings or a closed door that beckons. While Tàpies  invites me to look more deeply, it’s also true that many of his paintings deliberately shut me out. They tell me that I can’t go any farther, that I will be unable to penetrate this surface of material and weight. And in some sense, both things can even be true at the same time. The invitation is there but also the admonition that it might be dangerous to penetrate too far into the interior. He seems to be saying that some things need to left in a state of ambiguity or flux. He forces me to live in contradiction. He makes me deal with the very fine line between what I know and what I cannot know.

Rufino Tamayo—The Creatureness and Spirituality of “Seres Humanos”

In many of his figurative paintings, the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo makes human beings look strange. We have to look at them as if we’ve never seen such creatures before. He portrays human beings—in Spanish, seres humanos—as creatures and as the sum of their anatomical parts. A swath of red paint with four fingers at the end becomes an arm even when it is partially detached from the squared body, which (looked at as a separate detail) can actually appear to be a window.

In “Two Personages,” painted in 1961, the faces are mouthless ovals attached to shapes that might be torsos. We recognize the ovals as faces because of the white circles drawn into them that are obviously meant to suggest eyes. Sticks of red paint suggest arms, and that’s OK with me. These are paint people. They’re always missing some of their parts. And yet . . . I believe in them perhaps because, in some way, I am used to “seeing” some people who are missing some parts. None of us is truly whole.

This sense of play—of one thing morphing into another—or multiple or ambiguous meanings makes me go back to Tamayo again and again. By emphasizing the symbolic nature of anatomical parts and separating them—by making creatures of paint—he gives me a kind of anthropological distance on the human condition. I’m thrown off-center. I feel my own “creatureness” more deeply. I also feel some sense of the spiritual—the sense of a mysterious and great energy surrounding and enveloping these bodies. They become more than they might have been had Tamayo done a literal depiction of the human body.

He paints the purely physical, but pares it down and distorts it so that I might see it more clearly. Tamayo forces me through the canvas to see what is beyond. He makes me look hard for the situation/condition/circumstance that is whole and that is not merely a dismembered sum of parts.

In “Piano Virtuoso,” painted in 1984, the musician at the instrument possesses an oddly shaped skull-like head. It’s so wrong and impossible anatomically that it immediately draws my eye. It might very well belong to some extraterrestrial and not to an earthling sitting at the keyboard. The piano keys are a mere white strip splitting the canvas. They’re like a beam of light thrusting itself into the darkness rather than like anything solid. The blackness of the instrument occupies the whole lower left quarter of the painting.

Obviously, we’re witnessing a musical event. It happens in a room/space without furniture or other occupants. Who hears the tune or is an audience for the sonata? Relief in the dun-colored background is provided by hints of violet that show through as life from another place. The figure, with its strange head, is awkward and badly proportioned. The torso is ungainly; the arms are too long; the hands are insane with fingers splayed above the bar of light as though they’ve been broken or bent into shapes that might be hands but really might be “something else.”

It’s the “something else” that interests me. There is here some loss of control, some necessary skewing that yields more and more information. The action is made to appear odd. I’m forced to think about what is happening here. This creature—prehistoric in visage and almost reptilian—occupies this space and is engaged in this activity. He is pressing on the bar of light to create music. The result of the action is sound, but we can’t hear any sound.

I’m forced to consider something about the nature of reality. This thought process and need to look deeper and to pursue is what gives me pleasure when I look at my favorite Tamayo paintings. I’m knocked off a certain pedestal. I have to remake my world because he has offered to me this “made” thing, and while the scene is recognizable, still it does not look like anything I’ve ever seen before.

Tamayo’s “Flute Player” (1945) has a sort of pink keyhole at the center of an orange circle of “face.” Does this circle represent a small head? Is that mark an oddly shaped nose? Or a keyhole? The arms—again misshapen and too long—might be those of a monkey. And yet, this “animal” is engaged in a creative pursuit. There is, of course, no sound emanating from the picture and yet, I know that music is sound and not only is it sound but it marks time, as we mark time, as we understand ourselves. We “creatures” like Tamayo’s paint people live and measure time.

Find out more about Tamayo’s work:

Del Conde, Teresa, ed. Tamayo. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1999. [See the following:  “Two Personages” (1961), p. 164; “Piano Virtuoso” (1984), pp. 187–188; “Flute Player” (1945), p. 185.]

Some reproductions in Wikispaces

The painting “Children’s Games” from The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Painting entitled "Cathedral" by artist Jeri Griffith

“Cathedral,” acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 30″

Cathedral belongs to a series of paintings I’ve been working on for the last year or so. These 20 images on canvases measuring 30″ x 30″ had their genesis in sketches I made at the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore in 2013. As I’ve worked on them, the original images have either come forward or have been destroyed and transformed.

I always work on many paintings at one time—usually at least 10 or 12—because the solutions to different problems resonate and reverberate among them. Also, my method in acrylic is to achieve depth by layering patterns and transparent layers of color. The earliest renderings and markings recede and are gradually replaced. Sometimes I block out whole areas of a painting with either white or black, retaining only the parts that feel alive to me or somehow right. Then I move on from there.

In the end, each of the works is a synthesis of influences. I might marry one of Matisse’s color schemes with a sketch of an Indonesian shadow puppet and then touch the work with a scattering of New England maple leaves observed on my morning walk. Medieval cathedrals involved a similar synthesis of ideas. The architects’ intention was to create a sacred space that embodied spiritual tenets. On a less grand scale, Cathedral is also about sacred space, color, and light. The birds of the imagination are released to fly freely. The ghostly figure touches light and air with extended fingers. Something happens. There’s a juncture . . . a moment that connects the material world with something ineffable and mysterious that seems worth investigating.