Monthly Archives: January 2012

Join a big slice of Portland’s Alberta neighborhood this Thursday (26 Jan.) for Talisman Gallery’s open show, a salon-style hanging with free wine and beer, good food, and a huge crowd of people who know people who have stuff on the walls. I’ll have two BodyWeb paintings there.

Last Thursday, 26 Jan. 5:30 to 9pm. 1476 NE Alberta Street, Portland.

And next week here comes another: My painting Natural Causes (Spoon) has been juried into the first annual Oregon Artists Showcase in nearby Newberg, Oregon. The opening happens Feb. 3, and the show runs to the end of March. Come see good pictures by Oregon people.

Chehalem Cultural Center, 415 E. Sheridan Street in Newberg, Oregon, just southwest of Portland.

What’s the difference between “artist” and “theorist”? Is it who employs you, the product you put out, or something else?

When I went back to school six years ago, I enjoyed the chance to read criticism by scholars who eloquently caution us to beware the ways artists, politicians, journalists and consumers abuse images. Some have found such a secure home in the visual theory canon that a young guy cutting his teeth in this art world can’t avoid them—even if he doesn’t read them—because everyone else is using their terminology. To name a few off the top: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida have all become special places where we can learn to better navel gaze about what we see.

Errol Morris wasn’t really part of that visual theory canon. He was a documentary filmmaker, not a theorist to base a dissertation on. But both then and now I find Morris’s essays more special and more relevant than almost anything else I’ve read. He’s a devoted questioner of why and how we engage with pictures, and I admire the way he puts so much effort into both doubting his first assumptions and putting his doubts into pragmatic, useful practice. After all, he’s the director of The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that coupled a series of reenactments and some well-honed theories about the slipperiness of memory to get an innocent man off death row.

I just read Morris’s new book, Believing Is Seeing, a set of collected and reedited essays from his New York Times blog about the swirls of conviction we attach to photography. He writes, “What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photographs provide evidence, but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around” (93). Making meaning from a photo means situating it with what we know already. When we see a photo we decide which way is up in it, who is sad, maybe why they’re sad, what’s going on outside the frame, and whether the photo has been faked. To do all that we fit the photo to our own experiences of how the world works. We often confuse photos with the stories we bring to them.

Plenty of theorists of photography and painting have written similar cautions. It’s right to remind ourselves that photos aren’t the thing they depict and that people with competing agendas shoot photos, edit, distribute and interpret them. What makes Morris special is what he does with that caution.

Sontag, in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, writes about two of the first war photographs. Morris quotes her accurately: “Not surprisingly, many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with. After reaching the much-shelled valley approaching Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom Fenton made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photograph he was to call “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” … the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture—the one that is always reproduced—he oversaw the scattering of cannonballs on the road itself” (Sontag 53). It’s hard to doubt much of what she says here. Lots of evidence supports the notions that Roger Fenton, a British photographer, was sent to the Crimean front in 1855 and spent four months there taking photos, and that two of those depict a deserted road from the same point of view, one with cannon balls scattered all over the road and in the ditch, the other with the road clean and balls in the ditch. But how does she know he posed the second one? How does she know which one came second?

Like Sontag, Morris dwells in a space of incredulity about photos. “The concepts of naturalness, authenticity, and posing are all slippery slopes that when carefully examined become hopelessly vague” (58). But unlike Sontag, realizing these concepts are “hopelessly vague” doesn’t take away Morris’s hope that photos can be used as evidence to help us see beyond our own fog of cultural pressure and personal motivations and then as tools for making something new.

The way he sees it, Sontag is making a big mistake: “She resolves a mystery simply by declaring it a trick, a plan to deceive. The claim that a photograph is posed is a claim that the photographer intended to deceive the viewer. It’s not that photographers never set out to fool or trick us, it’s just that trickery is often a too simple and convenient explanation” (45). Sontag’s doubt about a photo’s authenticity leads her too quickly to a conclusion about the photographer’s psychology. Morris uses her conclusion as the beginning of a search instead of an end, and the spends the first chapter of his book describing his considerable forensic efforts to answer which of Fenton’s photos was taken first. I won’t spoil the ending.

My point is that by reading Morris, I learn not only about looking again—questioning my own motivations and standards of evidence as I view a photo or other image—but also about how he keeps himself stopping there. He uses his critical habits as starting points for films that change people’s lives, and this book shows some of his thought process along the way.

The book also contains one of the more open definitions of “art” I’ve seen lately. In an interview transcript Morris says, “the best I could come up with was: create an arbitrary set of rules, and then follow them slavishly. You set up an idea of what you should and should not do, and then you strictly adhere to it. You try to develop a worldview or an aesthetic, however you want to describe it. Maybe it’s even an idea of rectitude” (167). Here I read him as saying his “art” comes through trying to rectify other theorists’ thin explanations. With that in mind, I want to watch his documentaries again.

A classic novel has me thinking in new ways about veiled communication, illusion, and what happens when we dedicate our lives to mastering them.

My loving mother recently sent me John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, from 1974. It’s now out in Oscar-hunting movie form, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, the wizened old anti-James Bond. Before watching that version I zipped through the book, impressed with its restrained tensions. Le Carré seems to me like the Jane Austen of spy novelists, and I regret being such a latecomer to his stories.

Le Carré’s real name is David Cornwell, and he was actually an actual spy whose cover got blown by the famous British double agent Kim Philby. Cornwell said in a 2010 interview that he worked in Berlin at the start of the Cold War and that he loved interrogation, “the sweet kind,” befriending a subject in a “long, patient discussion.” He said, “I have complete contempt for the other sort of interrogation.”

In the novel the old man in charge sees little good in big, unearned gains. “He loved success, but he detested miracles if they put the rest of his endeavor out of focus” (98). Everything is suspect, especially intelligence that’s really topical. Big wins and lucky breaks always get reexamined as possible subterfuge. The initiated have a different standard of authenticity than we non-spooks. Illusions are everywhere, and le Carré does an impressive job using the illusion of his prose to describe how this spy community sorts them out. Like most fictional spies, his spies use what appears at first glance to be nonsense—like the old rhyme “tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor”—as codes to tease out and communicate secrets.

Unlike action heroes, though, these characters have to sort through all kinds of consequences for living like this. When someone gets shot, the event makes the news. Skirting the slippery boundaries between truth and cover takes its toll. They drink too much, fight with their wives, court bureaucrats, and dwell in cynicism. They’ve spent their lives slipping between identities, having worked hard, honed themselves to fit this job only to find their world changing around them. One old colleague of Smiley’s tells him, “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone” (80). In Smiley’s situation, I see the lack of an institution’s ability to care about him as much as he cares about it.

How much do we relate to Smiley? This character looks back on his career and sees days stacked up honing the craft of misdirection and artifice, trying not to ignore his family while he carries out orders in a world with changing norms and murky ethics. I don’t share Smiley’s cynicism. Perhaps I’m too young. I do find great things to consider in his appreciation of illusion, though.

Describing an interrogation he says, “Sitting is an eloquent business; any actor will tell you that. We sit according to our natures. We sprawl and straddle, we rest like boxers between rounds, we fidget, perch, cross and uncross our legs, lose patience, lose endurance” (142). In sitting we reveal ourselves. That’s the promise of portraiture, right? But I pose people. I add props and ask them to do uncomfortable things, to twist in ways they wouldn’t choose to, and I ask them to memorize these twists and find a way to come in and out of them.

Smiley goes on describing the interrogation, explaining that as his enemy spy sat motionless, as interrogator he filled in the silence with his own voice: “I exchanged my predicament for his, that is the point, and as I now realize I began to conduct an interrogation with myself” (143). Le Carré presents this as a major mistake. Smiley says he completely believed he was getting through to this man, who just went on sitting. “I believed, you see, that I had seen something in his face that was superior to mere dogma, not realising that it was my own reflection” (145). Can the eloquently sitting subject come out anyway or are we always seeing our reflections in others? I think the novel leaves that question open.

I’m showing 9 paintings in 2 lovely venues this month. Beaverton City Hall is showing 8 dance paintings, and Gallery 114, a contemporary art collective in Portland’s Pearl District, has one of my paintings in a themed show: Exit, Winter. Details below:

Beaverton City Hall, Second Floor, 4755 SW Griffith Drive, Beaverton, Oregon: Open during normal business hours. See the press release here.

Gallery 114, 1100 NW Glisan St., Portland, Oregon: Hours are Thursday to Sunday, 12-6pm. Check out the website here.