How to Give a Shit No 4

Do yoga in a room with art installed. Insipid bourgeois cliché? Worry not, we’re all clichés. It’s only absurd when described, but beautiful in the moment.

In warrior one , I can see my own painting above our living room couch. It’s a four-by-four-foot abstract with muted greens and blues. It’s whatever.

In warrior two, I am facing the front door of our apartment, next to which is a small 11 x 14 inch painting of two small houses situated near a lake or pond, surrounded by trees. A boat and its floppy oars rest in the water. Though the work hangs in our apartment, all I know about the artist, Sharon, is that she is a former student at Hope Center for the arts in Anaheim. Hope is a school of the arts for adults with intellectual disabilities. Its students have Down Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, autism, etc.

The use of perspective is askew in a way I wouldn’t know how to fake; the water is as green as the grass, and the trees lean this way and that in a varied choreography of conversational movement. The overall effect is that everything in the picture seems to take on a kind of consciousness, alive and together and busy in ways conventional logic is unable to accommodate. I stand in a lunge, arms outstretched on either side and suddenly involved with this painting in a way I haven’t been before. I’m struck by a somewhat painful revelation: This painting is far more powerful than my own.

Visit the institution from which the artist hails.

My arrival at Hope seems to be a highly anticipated event. My partner Maja Ruznic, teaches art here, which is how we ended up with the painting, and why I’m permitted to join her class today. Many students flock to her; wanting her attention, hoping to meet me and to ask my age, and if Maja and I are married or just friends (the two choices) or whether I’ll see their drawings, hear their music, or come to class.

Everyone, teachers and students, meet in the morning in a central courtyard of the school and sit on picnic tables or mingle in the area. All who are able to see me clearly and are aware that I’m “new”, stare or approach me with questions. There might be thirty students out here.

​A man perhaps in his sixties sits grinning at me beneath his oversized baseball cap with the words, “Jesus is my homeboy” in gold glitter. All of the arts are celebrated here and I see that he has sheets of music on his lap and is writing a song. When I ask him what his song is about, he says in a gentle Mr. Rogers voice, “uh huh…angels.” His hands lay flat and large on the song as he says it and his smile broadens.

I should perhaps mention here that by the time I arrive to the school, I’m already aware the Sharon no longer attends Hope. She is older now and requires more specialized care than Hope can provide. But as a longtime Bay Area artist, I’m aware of institutions such as Creative Growth in Oakland that have a long and respected reputation for supporting and empowering artists, who, from time to time, emerge on the larger art world stage. Artists like Judith Scott, a famous sculptor with Down Syndrome who died in 2005. This kind of work is sometimes grouped with what’s known as outsider art for reasons both convenient and revealing.

So it’s not so much that I expect to find the answer to my question by meeting Sharon, but more by getting at least a taste of the culture and art that is fostered and supported everyday at Hope. And like so many non-profit institutions similar to it, Hope persists in many ways in spite of a lack of funding, a lack of outside awareness and sensitivity, and if I may, an all around fucked up valued system endemic in our society, which tends to support neither the arts nor those in need.

Suffice it to say, I don’t make the observations from a cool distance, but end up close and personal as I watch Maja come home three evenings per week, exhausted, underpaid, but staunchly believing in what she and Hope does for and with their students.

With barely enough time to meet the eight to ten students in Maja’s first class, I am recruited by one Dennis Harrison to assist with his paper maché trees. Dennis was in class before the rest of us working his trees in order to meet a deadline. He is working in collaboration with Diana Markessinis as part of a program that pairs a working contemporary artist with an artist from Hope. The duo will exhibit their installation at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana with support of an NEA grant.

By unanimous decision of the students, we are listening to Disney music. Dennis and I are pasting newspaper on cardboard trees. Dennis refers to everyone by what their roles are in his project. These include the “picture guy” (the photographer, Jeff, who comes around from time to time) and the “leg lady” (his own collaborator Diana, who makes the metal “legs” for the trees at a workshop where Dennis is not allowed to use the tools.) Though Diana is his equal, and guides the project in ways he isn’t able to see, I already have the sense that he sees himself as ringleader, and Diana is one among many who helps support this project. Shortly after she arrives and we meet, Dennis put his arm around her and asks me, “what do you think of us?” I look at her and grin and she all but shakes her head. Is he implying more?

Later he will tell me, “she thinks I’m important.”

I tell him he is. Then I ask, ” do you think she’s important?”

“She is when she’s making art with me,” he says.

I laugh out loud. He says I laugh a lot and I tell him that’s because I enjoy his company. And I do. But I wonder if I would enjoy it so much if I held him to a different standard. What if Diana had said it instead of Dennis?

I take my orders happily as studio assistant, but I am struck by how similar Dennis’s methodology might be to the most famous artists around, who run their studios as project managers, and delegate tasks to their many employees.

Maja later explains to me that Dennis had never aspired to be an exhibiting artist and this show is something far outside of his experience. Because the show is near, it’s useful to have a lot of people helping to keep Dennis on track and to keep him from getting bored. When he has help, for instance – to cover the trees in newspaper and glue – he enjoys the company and it keeps him involved. He’s quickly adjusted to so many people being involved and now assumes that is why people come to visit him. It’s a happy and welcome community event.

Periodically, Dennis will ask me, “Do you think we should transport the trees vertically or horizontally in the flatbed?” I can tell he loves the word “flatbed.”

Then, anytime I take a break to check in with the other students, there is Dennis: “You wanna help me some more?”

Then: “Maja’s a real cute lady isn’t she?”

Step 4

For every celebrated artist, there is one in his shadow, nervous, insecure, jealous and trying desperately to understand why he seems to be so invisible. Find this artist and complete the puzzle.

I am alone in a different classroom. On the wall is a selection of drawings of early movie stars, mostly beautiful bombshells, and mostly Betty Davis. The drawings are technically proficient and the style inventive. I am in the presence of drawings by a lifelong practitioner.

This artist has a gift for exaggerated sharpness of angles and a vocabulary of assorted shapes that achieve a sense of volume within the figure or object depicted. The artist hones in on tension, comedy, and drama between film characters and exaggerates it. There is a sophistication evident that betrays expectation. But then again, my expectations continue to say more about me than they do about the art or the artists.

​As if a message to the artist was transmitted (there might have been one) Julio enters the room. He might be in his forties. He wears a collared shirt and glasses, appears very proper and polite. His manner of speech highlights his disability more than his appearance, but like Dennis, is immediately likable. He wastes no time asking me if I think his drawings are beautiful. I’m obligated to say yes, but it’s not a lie, unless by saying yes I am telling him that I care about whether they could be described that way.

Julio doesn’t know that Maja has already told me all about his episode in her classroom in which he told Dennis that he hates him and confessed openly that he doesn’t know what to do with all of his jealousy of Dennis’s upcoming exhibition. At that point, as the situation was described to me, Dennis told Julio the truth: that he didn’t understand why he was getting an exhibition at all and that he doesn’t think he deserves it more than Julio.

I imagine most readers at this point in the How to Give a Shit series are artists. So if you’re an artist and you’re reading this, imagine: you and I each apply for an exhibition. I get it and you don’t. You think your work is better than mine. Maybe it is. But that doesn’t change the outcome. We’ve all been in this situation, usually on the side of lacking, only now and then on the side of having. Any of us with any ambition feel this lack like Julio does. Even if we learn to tolerate the regularity of that frustration, we’re always lying to ourselves at least a little bit if we say it doesn’t get to us.

Julio is looking at his work along with Dennis’s and he’s thinking, ” what’s better about this than my work?” Julio is ambitious. Did I know these students would be ambitious?

Julio says, “Do you think I’ll be famous someday?” He points at one of his drawings. “It couldn’t be better than that,” he proclaims.

Dennis refers to the opening of his upcoming exhibition as “The Big Night.” He used that phrase perhaps six or eight time in our hour together. This sense of anticipation matches the promise of this phrase. After the Big Night, Dennis thinks, all will be different.

I say to Julio that he’s already famous. This is not a lie, not because he’s known in the larger world, but because the word fame has very little meaning in contemporary art, and it never feels to the one who has it, the way they imagined it would feel. It’s always a mere fraction of the so-called fans who sincerely care about the work itself.

Here at Hope Center for the Arts, everyone knows Julio is the best drawer. Students rally behind each other here. They encourage each other. If I didn’t make it evident earlier, above all else, there is a palpable sense of love in every class. The students love each other, themselves and the teachers. Even Julio and Dennis love each other, but the feelings both are experiencing are new to them because, until recently, they were unfamiliar with the art world concept. And if there’s one thing I know from experience, the art world engenders anxiety unlike anything else.

“But you shouldn’t worry about fame,” I say to Julio.

“Why not?”

“Because it will never be enough. As soon as you have your first exhibition, the very next thing you’ll think is, ‘what’s next?'”

He looks me in the eye during this exchange and I’m half convinced he understands.

After our conversation ends, the first thing I do is brainstorm places Julio could show. It would be so easy. But I imagine this has been a conversation at Hope already. I consider his ambition and others’ responses to it.

“Why not me!” I imagine him screaming in front of a game show audience.

The audience merely chuckles and gives light applause to wrap his plea in a comfortable blanket of levity they can tolerate. “Your day will come,” they say. The audience thinks they’ve reassured Julio. They’ve merely lengthened the duration of his anxiety. They’ve alleviated themselves of the burden of evidence of their claims and given it to Julio to bear instead. He goes to bed and wakes up with it every morning. He goes to school and nothing has changed. He resorts to other tactics:

performing roles in front of classmates, singing show tunes and longer passages of goofing off in class. There are more immediate and direct ways to gain acknowledgment. Exuberance can be dizzying misdirection from the shame of invisibility.

Dennis and Julio are arguably Hope’s currently most gifted visual artists. After looking at Sharon’s painting in the living room and in Hope’s storage, and after reflecting on the work of Julio and Dennis, there’s only one difference I can see. It’s not ego, ambition, practice, competence, skill, insecurity, anxiety, shame or a need for acknowledgment, all of that is exactly the same. The difference seems only to be in one small area – intention.

The ability to hone and effectively situate this intention seems contingent on one really important ability that the worlds bests artists have in spades: the ability to think abstractly.

Dennis is alternately proud of and disappointed in his work. “I wish I could make it real,” he tells me. All of his sculptures, to his mind, are shallow imitations of real things. He once received help from an engineer to make the propeller on his helicopter sculpture spin. That made it real.

Until it didn’t.

A real helicopter, he soon sees, is something you can get inside of and fly around in. So now, each day, after Dennis and Leg Lady part ways and he goes home, his cardboard helicopter in progress awaits him in the backyard of his mother’s house, and his work begins again. But until the day he gets inside, puts his helmet on, pushes the buttons, pulls the lever, and takes off to explore the world, the sculpture will only be that — a sculpture — and a sculpture isn’t real.

Julio loves Betty Davis and and pretty much only Betty Davis.

​”Do you think she’s more beautiful in this one or in this one?” he asks me of two of the drawings on the wall.

“Well I think she’s beautiful in all of them. But you know what I like more than Betty Davis?” I ask him.

“Wha-at?” he asks in a singsong surprise.

“I like the way the man looks at her here. The way his eyebrows are arched. Or in this one, the way all three characters are together but lost in their own worlds. Or in this one, where the way you drew the figures is similar to the bushes behind them so that they seem almost camouflaged or nearly invisible.”

But I can see in his face that I’ve gone too far. I’m not seeing what he wants to me to see, the incomparable splendor and gorgeousness of Betty Davis. Am I disappointing him? I want to know how he decides which frame to draw, but he just tells me he finds them. His instinct for what to draw is much stronger than any rationale, giving the work some mystery, but of the many mysteries at hand, his intention is not. He commemorates Betty Davis. Perhaps this is a form of purity if we’re searching for such a thing.

Check in with the masters.

I have a shitty 2001 gas guzzling Ford Explorer with dents and a passenger side door that doesn’t open, which years ago, I traded a friend for with art. We drive it through the heat and traffic to get here. The Getty parking garage is too full to park in and we almost decided to go home to wait for a less crowded day. There is a valet guy in an overfill parking lot, but I’m always embarrassed to use valet services. Still, we’re too excited about the London Calling exhibition, so soon I’m pulling Maja out of the driver’s side while the valet stares at us, and probably up her skirt, and at the environment-ravaging SUV we clunk around in. Two broke-ass artists out to see their heroes.

But a thick crown can sometimes mysteriously thin when it comes to really looking at a painting on a wall. It can be surprisingly easy to stake out a position in front of a particular work and find no one around; no one even looking in your direction, simply passing by or trying to find a family member, or taking selfies in front of the things they want later to be seen on social media, or trying out the museum as a date idea and making the best of what passes for conversation.

I am standing in front of “Woman Ill in Bed Surrounded by Family” painted in 1965 by Leon Kossoff, and melting into it. Maja is somewhere else because the wilderness here has called out to her from other areas.

“Woman Ill” is actually two paintings: The one you see when you’re at a distance, and the other that blooms and envelops when in closer proximity. The paint is so thick, you can imagine pressing your hand into it farther and farther until your shoulder reaches its surface. The paint itself is mud and frosting. The handling of the paint is brutal, as if Kossoff had mittens on when he painted it.

​The subject is the artist’s wife. His wife becomes the paint. As you near the paint itself, the wife dissolves, absorbs light and becomes a kind of cocoon. Tragedy becomes object. The tragic transcends from its original lived moment in 1965 into the process of slathering the canvas with paint, and finally into the peaks and the valleys of paint so thick it becomes sculptural artifact. If it were music it would be an out-of-tune piano in which all keys go silent as you press harder and the only way to get more sound out of it is to open the lid and bang on the strings.

Most people will pass by dismissing it as ugly. They’re not wrong. It is ugly. The painting is not trying to pacify me cheaply; it’s trying to divorce me from myself so that I can start to become alert to a presence I’m not in the way of. And because I know this painting wasn’t made to please me, I know it was made for another reason. It is painting as prayer and that prayer lives in the material itself, along with the person who was once his wife.

But that’s not all.

​The painting isn’t what it seems. Although the painting is of his wife, it’s also of his brother’s wife. Both women were sick at the same time and he painted whomever happened to be available when they were needed.  The children  who surround the bed are his own and his brother’s. The painter got stuck somewhere along the way, so he looked to an old engraving by Durer and reconstructed some of the composition along the lines of Durer’s.

This is something he did in his work regularly. He was intentional about where he sought precedence and to whom the work responded because he conceptualized himself as a descendant of those who came before him. Without outside permission or approval, he placed his work in history.

What is going on here, if romantic, is not merely so, but also cold and calculating. Even objectifying, nearly sociopathic. The artist is never completely honest because there is no such thing as complete honesty, only shades of perception and an insistence on efficacy. The only way we can bring ourselves into existence as a self-contained historical fact is to rage against what we imagine wants us invisible. We insist. Kossoff doesn’t immortalize his wife or her illness; he immortalizes his own sense of aliveness in the time of her illness. He might have loved her, but this isn’t the proof of that love. It’s better than that. If the image belongs to his wife alone, then it isn’t useful to this ongoing war between the sacred and the profane that we encounter in all of our philosophy, politics, and day-to-day half-baked eruditions.

​The prayer described above is not a prayer for the health of his wife, but a prayer for the prodigious high familiar to intuitive painters resulting from strident passages of simultaneous thought and action. Hidden somewhere in the feeling of the sacred is the opposite, and because he can create the conditions necessary to make use of the profane through the process of painting, he can give us something better than sentimentality. He gives us a way out of the prison of conventional morality that keeps us mediocre. 

My interaction with it is form of voyeurism between the artist and his manifested God. The artist’s intention is borne from instinct and experience. It’s not cerebral or what we ​sometimes call “conceptual,” but it is an intention that is known and felt as fact in the artist’s hands. An intention of balances, of prohibiting ease, inviting constraint, of feeling free within these constraints, of casting away the shame of unmet expectation and instead surrendering to what is. A good painter struggles his or her entire life trying to align the balancing act with intentionality.

“I probably painted something that was happening,” he said, “rather than something that was there.”

Accept that you might never know. Allow the mystery.

“Let’s talk about lunch!” Maja proclaims, trying to bring order to a bit of overdose class exuberance. We go around in a circle and describe what everyone is having. Burrito. Potato chips. Salad. Apple. A taxi or bus. An answer meant for a different question.Then someone chimes in, “chin chow!” Uproarious laughter.”What is chin chow?” I ask Maja.”Food that ends up on your chin.””Ah.”Once we dismiss, I head into Maja’s boss’s office, where I was invited to look at more of Sharon’s artwork that she left behind. By this time it’s been explained to me that all of the drawings’ compositions come from magazine advertisements. My hair stands on end as I looked through them. They’re really really good.

What is the difference between a magazine advertisement and a Durer engraving?

Kossoff: “The [Durer] engraving encouraged me to reconstruct the composition moving the bed from the corner of the room where it actually was to an imagined position in the centre of the room under the window enabling me to surround the woman rather than push everything in the corner.”

The woman? His wife? Why does she sound like a piece of furniture? A Leg Lady?

Toward the end of the day, I grab my camera and shoot everything I can around the school. There are a number of paintings and drawings displayed in the hallways. I stumble on one that looks a little like Kossoff’s work, or perhaps more like a Guston during his abstract expressionist phase.

Does this unknown painter have Kossoff of Guston’s intentionality or capacity for abstract thought? Does it matter?

Looking at Sharon’s painting here at home, it occurs to me that the red-violet “trees” aren’t trees at all, but instead, smoke from the houses’ chimneys. I think I know at this point that if I ask “why this color,” it will not yield answers

The smoke embeds itself into the nature of the composition as easily as the trees and grass. There were no tools small enough, available to her to draw anything clearly in the windows, but I can see that an attempt was made. I try to make out what these things might be. Were they clear to her? Was she frustrated if they weren’t? Or does she know something secret about how to let the details give way to the whole and get lost in the formal arrangement of shapes and colors within the picture? Why, when I look at this, do I have the feeling of memory lost but kept safe for future retrieval? Why does it seem not so much like life is what goes on in the houses, but that the houses are the lived lives in and of themselves? Is it the scale? The awkward perspective? The lack of straight lines? What does Sharon know that I don’t? Why this yearning to visit the world she’s composed?

A student approaches me, class ending.
“What do you get when you cross a snowman with Dracula?” she asks.
​I really try but come up with nothing.

How did I not get that? The answer is so obvious. Right in front of me.
She lets out a big laugh, full body involvement, and leaves the room proud of having stumped me.​