Yesterday I visited an artist who lives on a neighboring island. There’s no point giving you her name because then you would look at her website and her real work looks nothing like the photographs. I stood facing the ferry’s wake, crossing the ocean under a sky that was stormy to my right and sunny to my left. Upon disembarking the ferry, I drove down country roads past farm houses and islanders who waved perfunctorily as I passed. The addresses on the mailboxes were not in any sort of logical numerical order, neither descending nor ascending evenly, so I drove up and down the road several times before I found my friend’s driveway.
As I pulled up, a black and white collie barked at me. My friend emerged wearing a blue plaid shirt and jeans, smiling and relaxed. We made green tea, then set out with mugs in hand to stroll around her huge orchard, on a path she had cut in the golden hay with a mower. As we passed green pears slowly ripening, I caught glimpses of the ocean glinting through the trees. I wanted to be silent and just take in the beauty around me but I was having too much fun talking with my friend. She has a sparkling mind and an ability to be totally present in the joyful, unselfconsciousness of a soul that will never grown old. I’ve known her for 18 years and she looks exactly the same—the only detectable changes are the length of her hair and the color of her glasses.
I was grateful for the meandering walk–our tea mugs sloshing as we hobbled over the uneven path–because it allowed me time to settle in after my drive and reconnect with my friend before seeing her work. Artists need a little warm up period before inviting you into their studio; the alternative is like inviting someone you just met into bed. Eventually the path brought us to her studio rising from the edge of a field, a simple affair made of corrugated metal with high ceilings and huge windows.
I walked into the studio thinking I knew what to expect based on my experience of photographs of her work—small sheets of paper with pinpricks in them. Instead, I beheld wallsize paper hung like rough skins pieced together. In even rows on the papers were large holes the size of dimes. My friend explained that she was trying to make a mark without making a mark, and that these holes were made using a magnifying glass in the sun.
I wanted to tell her about my rethinking of the history of art in terms of the apophatic and kataphatic way, a new thought that has illuminated art and life in a way that art historical terms like Minimalism and Baroque just don’t. Ironically, I couldn’t remember the word for the apophatic way. I explained that it is a mystical path that allows for no words, no symbols, no images, and no imagination. St. John of the Cross is the best example of the apophatic way, teaching fellow monastics to say nada or “no” to everything, even their peak spiritual experience. He warned them to cling to no-thing especially not their ideas because no idea or name is equivalent to the Real. It is all a shoddy substitute like a child clinging to a ragdoll. As St. John put it, “To reach satisfaction in all, desire its possession in nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing.” On the other hand, I am much more at home in the kataphatic, even as I struggle to embrace the apophatic way. St. Francis is the personification of the kataphatic way or via positiva, celebrating his communion with the divine through richly poetic language and a spirituality that is rooted in the Earth.
Coming back to my friend’s work, one could call it Minimalist and wouldn’t be wrong. But I like to see it as flowing out of the aphophatic way. No subject, no paint, no color except the natural tint of the handmade paper. No texture except the bumpy paper and the burnt edges of each hole. No marks of the hand except a trace of a line made with a ruler to mark the placement of the holes in a simple grid. No composition except the grid which is so universal that it has no emotional, expressive charge.
And yet, the odd thing is that while my friend had made a series of work through negation, the work itself was charged with meaning. It is difficult to make a meaningless void, maybe even impossible. Always something comes to fill the void that we create. But not necessarily a symbolic meaning, a meaning that pokes out of the work like metal springs from a broken couch as filmmaker Tarkovsky expressed it. Perhaps the meaning that I felt was a product of an overactive imagination, my kataphatic need to fill the void with language.
And yet, stripped down to almost nothing, I felt excited and drawn to contemplate this work perhaps for the very reason that there was almost nothing to hold on to. I started to notice the tiniest thing—the rumpled edge of a seam where the paper had been glued to another paper, the spaces between the rows of holes like breathing spaces in a poem. Some of the holes had gold leaf around them their singed edges. Presence/absence. Faith/Doubt. Void/Fullness. Scarred/Sacred. Thinking about it now, the work had a contained violence. But while I was in front of the work, I felt no violence only a stillness and an openness to what is. I felt as if I was gazing at an agnostic prayer book.
My artist friend recently lost her husband. Was this loss made visible? But a concentrated beam of light transmitted through a lens made these voids. Most painters attempt to capture or reveal light in their canvases. She leaves the viewer only a trace, a record of where light touched paper, burning it through to the other side. In metaphorical terms, aren’t all artists just magnifying glasses? Artist as medium and transmitter calling out to the world, “Pay attention! Look at this!” But what if what you are making burns up in the transmission? In the end, aren’t all of us burning, burning, burning towards our end? When we die, what will remain but a space where we once were?
We talked about the power of repetitive work that accumulates over time. Like all her work, this series is about time and labor. The time it takes to burn row upon row of little holes like marking time on a stick. Our lives are full of “meaningless” and repetitive actions like doing the dishes, writing emails, going to the bathroom. There is a deep satisfaction in performing the same actions over and over again and having something to show for it. Art as accumulation.
And yet, the work itself is what drives her, not any external goal, certainly not fame or money. She makes art to make art. I’m reminded of the story of the monk who lived in a cave in the wilderness. Every day he got up and wove baskets. However, he lived too far from from civilization to take his baskets to market. When his cave got full of baskets, he burnt them all and started again. The process is the prayer, the work’s value is the work. A more contemporary example of art practice is my brother who writes in his journal every day. One day he left his journal lying open on the kitchen table and I peeked at it. It was completely illegible because he had written each day’s entry on the same page! Each line is a thick palimpsest of scribbled lines, a messy cloud of blue words. It was one of the most beautiful and meaningful things I have ever seen.
It is not the subject that gives a work its power. And it is possible that a work of art could be a powerful experience one day, and hold almost no charge on another. Sometimes a work of art moves me profoundly in person, and all the emotion goes POOF when I try to take a photo of it. The photo is a souvenir of an embodied event. Art is pure enigma–ungraspable, maddening, as fleeting as breath. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know how to make it, and I most definitely don’t know how to teach it. And yet it persists. Am I even talking about art at this point? I don’t know.