Short Pieces About Making

Talking About the New Series: Indifferent Garden

Working on Grey Pansy. On my monitor is a detail from the scan, and on my desk is the original in my notebook. Underneath it is a 13x19 proof.

I love a moody floral. With a couple of exceptions, the flowers in the current series, "Indifferent Gardens," I've harvested from old greeting cards. In addition to the gorgeous colors, liberal use of this delicious almost matte gold, and half-tone dots, the flowers are embossed, which presents a particular set of challenges -- first, capturing the extremely subtle depth and shadow in the scans, then rendering those critical characteristics in the prints.

Here are a couple of details. "Grey Pansy" is on the left, a detail from "If the Tiny Blue Flower" is on the right: 

Typically a lacquer coats the cards that is either cracked, or cracks the instant I start working with the paper. Terrifically pleasing to me in the original, though very difficult to see, I was curious how the cracking would scan and print. I'm thrilled to say, though I'm very early in the process, the cracks are coming up remarkably well, both in the scan, and printed at scale. 

The series title connects in my mind to Louise Gluck’s book The Wild Iris, but the connection may be pure association, I haven’t gone back through the book (both copies we own are still packed) to suss it out. The book is one of those lodged in my fundament, the poems are full of literally moody flowers and lines from them recite themselves in my mind — I tell you I could speak again: whatever / returns from oblivion returns / to find a voice. That's the titular Wild Iris speaking, by the way. And I happen to think Gluck's spareness and punctuation are exquisite. For instance, say that's not a beautiful colon — 

I tell you I could speak again: whatever

And the confluence of idea, language, and arrangement in the next line —

returns from oblivion returns

is poetry.

Gluck's lines as she made them, and as they exist in my life, and the phenomenon of intuitive, mostly unconscious connection over decades, speaks to me of the essential mystery to making: how, if anything interesting happens at all, it results from collaboration rather than control. It results from the independent life of the made thing reaching back to the vehicle of its making, and out into the world, and back again, to assemble itself. 

Which is to say, were I to go back to Wild Iris, I may not find the literal thread. But I'll insist it's there nonetheless.

The full scan, in process, working title Grey Pansy. Candidate for my new series, Indifferent Garden. Obviously, all rights reserved by me, Kimberly McClintock.

Sneak preview ... not mentioned elsewhere, this is an uncorrected scan of "onli" (working title), also a candidate for the Indifferent Garden series. In it, too, the embossing is visible. "onli" (or whatever its title ends up being) is a bridge piece between Indifferent Garden and the next series, Strange Maps. Again, all rights reserved by me, Kimberly McClintock.

Talking About Art: What's the Story?

Recently, I read an article on Artsy that mentioned "Whistler’s Mother." I didn't know until a few years ago that this was not Whistler's title for his painting. James Abbot McNeill Whistler spent a lot of time objecting to "meaning" in art, and he famously objected to the insistence that a painting be about more than what its surface indicated. Though he was a crank, his title, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” supports his claim that composition and color, not subject matter, were the impetus for the piece. Knowing this, I have nonetheless persisted in thinking of the painting by the popular title, rather than the artist's. 

When I got my BA in literature in the early 90's, the "New Critics" were at the end of their influence. A class called “Approaches to Literature” taught us to read from Freudian, Feminist and a few other perspectives, but the most respected professors still insisted a "text" be encountered independent of any biographical, cultural or historical context. That the most beloved story be Read as if you found it lying open on a table in an empty room. That image left an impression, though I believed then as I do now that the reduction of reading (and writing) this way is an understandable, but ultimately wrong-headed, attempt to get control of a made, so essentially wild, thing.

These days “reading like a writer” classes abound, the antithesis of New Criticism. I was reading like a writer then, because I wanted to be a writer, more curious as to why the writer made certain choices of emphasis and proportion than what her system of symbols might connote. The latter conversation, in the absence of biographical, cultural and other information, struck me as pointlessly subjective — exactly contrary to the intent of New Criticism. Think of Picasso’s use of blue. Or the tidbit I picked up recently that whatever his aesthetics, Picasso’s Cubism was also a convenient way to disguise portraits of his mistresses from his wife. That’s fascinating, plausible, human. The artist’s decisions are more objectively verifiable, too, because the artist may have stated his or her intention, as in the case of Whistler. 

It's true that makers are sometimes least aware of what they’re truly up to. That doesn't disqualify the story they tell themselves or others about their work, but it does argue for viewing the artist’s account as one resource among many. Before we assume Whistler’s tempestuous relationship with his mother influenced the palette in which he rendered her, we should consider that the fact that his model failed to show up that day. (But his mother did live with him, insinuate herself into his artistic life, was perhaps a bit overbearing ... coincidence?)

The point is, human beings obviously not only enjoy, but need story. If we don't know the story behind a thing, we'll guess at it. If the story we are told doesn't fit -- as with Whistler's title -- we won't remember it and we'll put another in its place, like a name that doesn't suit an acquaintance. You can bet I have a clearer sense of Cubism after that anecdote about Picasso. The human informs the critical. Whistler claims to have made one thing; and while we may see that clearly, our wiring may dictate that we also see another. 

I don’t think what I have to say about my own work is any more or less relevant than what Whistler said about his. All I can ever report is which decisions were conscious, and, for me, that is deliberately not many. All art is abstraction, the rendering of worldly things into "simpler, more evocative and organically final terms,” to quote John Graham. From three dimensions down to two; Whistler’s mother as an arrangement of white, grey and black blobs. This simplification has to do with clarity, not wishful thinking. This is where the meaning lies. 

And, here’s something else worth saying — more often than not, the answer the artist gives is disappointing. Read Jackson Pollack's interviews. The spectacle of what he made is so much more engaging than most of what he said about it. "Don't expect writers to be interesting people," Stephen Dunn told us, his students. I think this is exactly what he meant. The most eloquent version of what the maker has to say may well be what they struggled to say with paint, on the page, or with torn up postage stamps.