Altered Phonograph Album Page - Created by Lynn Henry, 2005
Location: Ft. Collins, Colorado
|Description: For Free White Bird Vinyl with Sunset|
When asked for an artistic explanation of this piece, Lynn Henry provided the followed words from her artist friend Michael deMeng who had presented this lecture at ArtFest in Port Townsend, Washington in March 2006.
Dreaming the Universe by Michael deMeng
I'm sure all of you would agree that artists are… what's the word I'm looking for? Weird. We are a bunch of freaks. We think a little differently, we do things a little differently, and more often than not our artwork accentuates our oddities. We are so odd that we speak in a language that is cryptic, metaphoric, and expressive. We speak in the language of Art, to relate our adventures to the world. There is no key or legend to the artist's expression; it is left to the viewers' interpretations. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes they don't. But that's okay. James Joyce once said about his somewhat indecipherable novel, Finnegan's Wake, that it took him seven years to write it, and it should take his readers at least that long to read it.
A number of years ago, I was at an exhibit of contemporary artists from Oaxaca, Mexico. I was familiar with many of the artists, because Oaxaca is one of those magical places I return to again and again and again and again and again. It's one of those places that art flows through the streets; a strange mix of traditional and contemporary art. And don't get me started on Dia de los Muertos. I will merely say it is one of the most colorful, moving events ever. The curator of this exhibit, who was also from Oaxaca, gave a talk about these fairly renowned artists; discussing their traditions, symbolism, influences and the like and she brought up an interesting point. She said that, as educated as these artists were, they would have great difficulty discussing their work (unlike American artists who are encouraged to blather on about this that and the other thing). It was her contention that these Oaxacan artists deal with ideas from a strange dream-like realm, and to discuss them in words would be difficult, if not impossible. The art was already saying everything that needed to be said. What more could words offer to the creations.
This idea hit me like a lightning bolt. After all I had just finished my Art degree and spent endless amounts of time determining meaning and significance, and defending my artistic intentions. At the time, I had absolutely no idea what my art was about. I never let my professors in on to this little secret. So I spent a lot of time using fancy smancy words as a smoke screen, (which more or less worked), but in truth, I guess I kind of knew what my work was about. I knew my aesthetic likes, I knew the artists that I respected, and I was aware of the general concepts that I was attempting convey. But to hone those ideas and put them into words that did the ideas justice was a tall order. So instead I spent more time putting those ideas into the art.
I have to admit I find Art openings difficult because not only is an artist faced with the inevitable comments such as: " I think your work is really…interesting". Which is code for: "Your work scares me a bit and I don't really like it, after all it clashes with the couch". Or there is this comment: " I really like your use of the color" . This is code for: "I really don't get this work but, man, that cobalt blue is one pretty color". And then, of course there is the inevitable question: "So what does this piece mean?" Yikes. This is that point where worlds collide, the rational and the intuitive. What do you say in twenty words or less? Certainly, at an art opening I can't spend 45 minutes giving someone a rundown on what my art means. I have other people to schmooze with, I have martinis to drink. This is by far the toughest question an artist faces. Now if an artist has enough gumption he or she can quote Jean Cocteau, the filmmaker/ poet/ artist extraordinaire and say:
"Asking an artist to talk about his work is like asking a plant to discuss horticulture."
Or you could quote the painter Edward Hopper and say,
"If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint."
It is amazing to me how easily it slips the mind that Art is mode of communication just as viable as linguistics or mathematics. It can say things that cannot be expressed in any other way. Each art form has its own unique methodology. Could you imagine Monet's Haystacks, "the novel", or Catcher in the Rye "the oil painting"? Casablanca, "the Haiku". Of course not, though it would be intriguing to see someone try the Casablanca/Haiku thing.
One of my favorite paintings is Marc Chagall's "Birthday" What a wonderful piece. It's hard to dispute that this has to be one of the most romantic paintings ever created. A couple floating in a room. The woman holds a bouquet of flowers, while the man hovers above her. His neck twists like a snake so that his lips can meet her's in a kiss. The man in the painting was Marc Chagall, and the woman in the painting was Bela Rosenfeld who later became his wife. Needless to say this painting is not meant to be taken literally, though I have heard that Chagall was very agile and flexible, especially in the neck region. But we all know this is not meant as an accurate depiction of reality. It is fantasy; one that speaks of love and joy and a million other things personal to Marc Chagall. It's not meant to depict an actual historic event. But hold on, perhaps this painting is, in fact, more accurate than reality. Perhaps this is more like the actual scene than any documentary could represent. Chagall manages to create a moment in time, not by showing the facts of the situation, but rather by revealing the magic and hidden world that governs that instant. Bella artistically describes the scene as she remembers it:
"You dip the brushes. Spurts of red, blue, white, black. You drag me into floods of color. Suddenly you tear me from the earth, you yourself take off from one foot, as if you were too restricted in your little room. You rise, you stretch your limbs, you float up to the ceiling. Your head turns about and you make mine turn…You brush my ear and murmur…I hear the melody of your sweet grave voice. Even in your eyes one hears that song, and both in unison slowly we rise above the bedecked room and we fly. At the window we want to go right on through it. Outside, clouds, a blue sky calls us".
Now this is a lovely description, giving a certain poetry to the scene. It's wonderful because it is not a grocery list of events. It is a interpretation using a different artform. Not diminishing the painting, but enhancing the scene. Adding to its magic. The Cubist Painter Georges Braque said,
"To explain away the mystery of a great painting - if such a feat were possible - would be irreparable harm. . . . If there is no mystery then there is no 'poetry.'
Art is a bewildering mode of communication because it searches for truth but not necessarily answers. I think Albert Einstein had it right when he said,
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."
I believe that Artists are on a perpetual search for the wonders of existence. They are passionate about question marks. And isn't it interesting that the fanciful question mark has the most intriguing artistic design of all the punctuation marks. Certainly better than the semi colon and the hyphen, ah, but that is another speech. Chagall, like most, if not all artists, see the universe as a vast, amazing, wonderment, to be explored, and this begins with the search for the mysterious doors inward. To quote Carl Jung,
"Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart . Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes."
And, when the artist awakes, then those discoveries must be revealed and related. And how do they find their way out? The answer, of course, is Art. Chagall said,
"Will God or someone give me the power to breathe my sigh into my canvases, the sigh of prayer and sadness, the prayer of salvation, of rebirth?"
Now, I have to admit I am a sucker for the art of Hinduism. It is surrealism at its best. Deities with beautiful blue skin, third eyes, elephant heads, oh, and all those arms. Think of what I could accomplish in the studio, if I had those arms. Yes Hinduism, manages to put Salvador Dali to shame. Thinking about this strange inward search and the role of art as a method of communication, I am reminded of a scene in Hindu mythology. The scene has the blue preserver god Vishnu reclining on the coils of a thousand-headed serpent, Shesha. His crowned cobra heads fan out over the sleeping deity. It's a great image. Now, Vishnu is dreaming, and what he is dreaming is the universe, and the universe exists because he dreams it. According to this myth we are all part of Vishnu's dream. All of the world would vanish if he were to wake. So keep on dreamin' Vishnu.
I bring this up because this is what we as artists do, in a sense. We dream the universe, specifically our universe. We reach inside and imagine, and then through our mind's eye, we make it manifest, make it a reality. We communicate our thoughts, but what art does is not mere language. Instead it invites the viewer into the world of its inventor. Chagall, produces the painting, Birthday, and suddenly we have entered his dream and his universe through the swirl of paint. Something inside him magically awakens something deep inside the hearts and minds of others. It is through this process that art achieves it's most amazing feat; showing people that we are not so separate, but rather, we are, indeed, connected. This is what a great artist achieves: the feeling that we are alive and part of something bigger than ourselves.
Behind every piece of art there is a story, or more appropriately, there are stories. There is the story that is the literal, historic story; the story that tells the why, how, and when, of an artist's creation. But there is another story. One that can't be explained; it merely is. It can only be experienced and wondered about. Both have there own points of validity, but I believe it is the second story that speaks more directly from the artist's heart, and more directly to the hearts of others. As the surrealist painter, Renee Magritte said,
"Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist."