Place in Art
Everybody is from somewhere. All our thoughts
and feelings, as we go about our lives, take their shape from
our surroundings. The places we live our lives create an indelible
imprint on our personalities, on our identities, just as we
leave our mark on them.
There is an illusion that it is easy to fall
prey to: the illusion that the person I am is entirely separate
and distinct from the physical world around me, that my inner
self and thoughts are in some other realm. The truth is that
the line between self and surroundings is indistinct at best.
I drink water from a bottle or a tap, sometimes in a form
flavored by some grapes and yeast. The water likely originated
in some watershed, whether in Texas, or in Europe, or in Arkansas,
or in whatever place I happen to be in at the moment. I become
a part of the flow of water from place to place as surely
as if it traveled through any aquifer. The food I eat comes
from a place. The minerals that make up my bones originate
in the rocky soil of some land. The nervous system I use to
idly dream up fanciful ideas about self and place is made
up of materials from some place. And I will again become an
indistinguishable part of the Earth after I die. As trade
brings us food and goods from ever further afield, our physical
unity becomes not only with our local land but with these
far-flung foreign lands as well.
As I look at visual art (confining myself to
the discipline I know best), holding this thought in mind,
a panorama is revealed that mirrors the physical presence
of place in the lives of its creators. The brilliantly colored
artworks emerging from creators living in tropical landscapes
undoubtedly reflect the colors of their surroundings. I think
here of Mexican masters such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,
or the master weavers of Guatemala. Picture, if you will,
the scrimshaw of more northerly climes, and imagine how not
only the colors in the surrounding landscape, but also the
durable materials available impact this art form. It can be
no accident that the Nordic preference for elegant simplicity
occurs in the context of a landscape that is often covered
with snow. And the dark woods and sophisticated angled forms
of African traditional masks and sculpture are brought forth
in a landscape marked by the shadowy rhythm of trees.
In Thomas McEvilley's wonderful essay, "On
The Manner of Addressing Clouds," (1) he discusses the
many levels of meaning created, not only by the conscious
iconography of an artwork, but also by unconscious factors.
These might include marketing, materials, size, duration,
or physical placement. Imagine a gigantic billboard of a painted
landscape which obscures the view of the actual landscape,
extolling the virtues of a mining corporation which is strip
mining the area. Or imagine a cheap poster representing an
idealized foreign landscape, badly framed and displayed high
up on the wall, lit by flickering fluorescent tubes, in an
extremely impersonal institution such as a hospital. What
connection with home and reality is offered to the poor patient
by this artwork? Those mall-based chain stores offering cheesy
partially handmade landscapes -every different additional
touch by a real human person racks up a higher fee, with a
slight touch by the putative artist going for yet more - always
nauseate me beyond belief, even more so inasmuch as their
marketing cynically exploits the unwary public's yearning
for something real. It is sadder still that the general public
has come to prefer the comfort and familiarity of this processed
artificiality. Irony is at its best as a conscious statement.
In contrast, look at the integrity of James
Turrell's skyscapes, including his current work in progress,
Roden Crater. The artist has, with immense effort and vision,
created elegantly simple environments that compel the participant
- viewer seems too two-dimensional a word - to gaze at and
savor the wonder of the actual sky, out of the actual earth.
It has ever been a comfort for distant lovers and family members
to remember that they look up at the same moon. Or consider
young children's art, which is often lovely, and is unmistakably
genuine. It can take a lot of maturing for a trained artist
to develop a complete range of skills and then return to that
authenticity, to the unaffected, secure awareness of self.
However, anyone can create something real.
Although I hesitate to place myself in such august
company, I must be true to my own experience or risk the appearance
of inauthenticity. Often appearing in my own artworks is a
map-like aerial view of Possum Kingdom Lake.(2) Or I might
use a fragment of an actual map featuring the lake. This is
a conceptual stand-in for the brief, formative period of my
early existence that I lived within its watershed. As I grow
in my awareness of the importance of place, I am beginning
to use other maps, expanding my reach in hopes of providing
artwork that will serve a larger community. An enjoyable aspect
of working with maps is the fact that they are a subject matter
comprehensible to a broad audience, yet respectable for their
conceptual content among my peers in contemporary art. The
maps lead me to have conversations with many people about
their fond connections with a place - people who would not
ordinarily be at all at home discussing a contemporary artwork.
Our shared experience of a place gives us common ground, and
leads a more general audience to feel included and respected.
I am thinking now of an artwork I made about
a year ago, following a trip to San Francisco. I saw a tank
filled with live fish in a Chinatown market, swimming in beautiful,
fascinating patterns as they awaited their selection for death.
The horror of imagining their eventual fate, and my compassion
for them in their current confinement in murky water, stood
in stark contrast to the experience of their collective beauty.
I was, luckily, not too overwhelmed with the poetry of the
moment to shoot a quick film documenting them and their surroundings.
In "Into Strange Waters," one of the artworks I
made based on this film, I cut out and collaged into a painting
pieces of two maps shaped like the bodies of the fish. The
maps are of Central and Southeast Asia and of Mineral Wells,
Texas, representing the contact between a Texan artist and
Asian culture. My own momentary experience in encountering
the foreign serves as a single facet reflecting the world's
experience of globalization.
It is a hope that we all, and artists in particular,
can retain a secure enough sense of our own place in the world
that we can learn to interact compassionately with people
from other places, and even other cultures within our own,
mindful of what kind of mark we make on the world.
1 The essay is included in his book Art and Discontent,
New York: McPherson & Company, 1991, and shares its title with
a poem by Wallace Stevens.
2 An actual lake in North Central Texas, near Mineral Wells,
with a funny, culturally relevant name and an attractive, dragon-like