Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Currently showing at the Belcourt, Meek's Cutoff is Kelly Reichardt's story of 3 families making their way to Oregon in 1845, among the first Americans settlers moving into the territory in large numbers. Their party is led by Stephen Meek, a mountain man type who dresses the part with buckskin jacket and long matted beard. You get the sense that even at this point in the West, he was self-conscious about image, marketing himself to these families by looking precisely what they would expect of a frontier guide. And he's gotten them lost taking a short cut to the Wilamette Valley from the main Oregon Trail. So they wander apparently aimlessly in the Eastern Oregon desert and before long have to turn their trek into a search for water.

Along the way they encounter and take captive a Native American man--unarmed, speaking a language none of them understand, which leaves them free to speculate about his motives--will he take them to water, lead them back to a larger band from his tribe, lead them on a suicide march. Or maybe he's as lost as they are. The encounter between settlers and the indigenous people starts with nearly complete incomprehension on both sides. Understanding derives from rudimentary gestures of interpersonal power--Michelle Williams' character helps their captive so he'll owe her something, and it forms the basis for a sliver of a connection between them that in the end dominates the group in which people otherwise fail to gain credibility with each other.

In the sermon in church last weekend my minister talked about moral and spiritual space. Space looms large in Meek's Cutoff. The spaces are open, dry, with the most minimal ground-hugging vegetation in a dormant state. The characters wander through it. The space itself threatens to overwhelm them and destroy them, putting too much distance between them and water, giving them no guideposts to lead their way. This space becomes a moral crucible, breaking them down but on the other side they don't build a new sense of direction in a moral universe, but just seem defeated. After a process of trying to sort out reality and truth from misperception and illusion, the characters resign themselves to not reaching truth or insight, just a political accommodation and a need to plow ahead in some direction. The movie ends without resolving what appears to be the main drama, whether they find water. In the end it doesn't matter, because of the moral space they've been through. The people who will or will not reach the Willamette Valley have been damaged by thsi time in the desert. They've shed so much, such as the expectation of comfort and connection as well as the fundamental idea that what matters is to arrive at a right decision.

I haven't seen Kelly Reichardt's earlier films, which were set in the more contemporary Northwest. I wish I had seen them, because it looks like she is making a more sustained argument about the moral character of the society that emerged from the frontier experience. Rather than ennoble the people who went through it and form the basis for an almost utopian society, the Frontier Experience damaged Americans, created trauma that had physical, epistemological, and moral dimensions. The frontier on some level defeated people, who today wander through a different kind of desolate landscape, where the economy threatens more than beckons and social connections break down.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obscure abstract

One roughly breaks the universe of art into people you’ve heard of and those you haven’t. You trust that this sorting represents a measure of relative importance. The names of the major painters of each era are easily accessible. When you run across an unfamiliar name, my first reaction is not “how did I miss this” but some assurance that the figure occupies a more esoteric place in art history. I don’t think I was familiar with Georges Lacombe before I ran across a distinctly Gauguin-esque painting at the Norton Simon Museum, African-mask like figures gathering chestnuts in a strange forest dominated by bright reds. I’m sure Lacombe’s name rolls readily off the tongue of a connoisseur of the Nabis, but I’m complacent enough to assume my ignorance doesn’t represent a serious gap—in fact, these little gaps allow me the pleasure of discovery even at my advanced age.

This certainty breaks down as you move closer to the present in history.  For contemporary artists, the prominence of artists in my consciousness, if you did one of those word maps that weight the frequency of terms in a document or other source, is to some extent and within certain bounds, a random process. While it may be impossible to avoid John Currin, I track on Jiha Moon, who is quite interesting, but there are undoubtedly a hundred others of comparable importance of whom I’m utterly ignorant.

On one hand the sorting process of historical significance has not started. 40 years from now maybe people will discuss Bob Durham rather than Currin. I can imagine a case where a “provincial” painter (not residing in New York, LA, Europe, or China) like Bob gets rediscovered, like someone from a small Dutch town in the 17th century.

We also will have to see if the end of a unifying art historical narrative means that artists from our day will always remain part of an undifferentiated blob of 1,000s of names.

I thought I had a reasonably good grasp on the post-war years, so I would know what to expect from Surface Truths: Abstract Painting in the Sixties. a show at the Norton Simon Museum. Instead, it made me feel quite stupid. The first room was dominated by names I did not recognize at all: Frank Lobdell, Harvey Quaytman, Takeshi Kawashima, Ray Parker, Thomas Downing, Ralph Humphrey, and Stephen Greene.  These guys  were all in the first of the two rooms. There were also names more familiar to me: Agnes Martin, Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Stella, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin. But I only reached them after a series of unfamiliar names that made me wonder if this was completely an alternative history of art in the 60s.

My parents are great about recognizing names like these.  They know more about art than I do by leaps and bounds. But I’m sure I’ll occasionally be able to pull the same trick 40 years from now. “Oh yes, Tara Donovan, she piled up mounds of uniform, mass-produced common objects—plastic cups, pencils—to create not so miniature worlds.”
Thomas Downing was DC-based, so I’ve probably heard his name. A grid of large circles in various shades of reds. They look machine made, but they were hand painted free-hand. The variety and sequence of colors has a pleasing rhythm, with a distinct but not over-bearing pulse. The painting goes well with Ralph Humphrey’s painting, which also deals with gradations of tonality, in this case a surface covered with green, mostly olive, but loose variations in hue and paint thickness that give this painting a complex texture.

One of the points of this exhibit is that even after Abstract Expressionism, as Pop was taking center stage, some people kept on in abstraction. It’s not a very interesting idea. Yes, people kept painting. Rackstraw Downs’ little book of remembrances describes his experience of art in New York consisting of a very different set of painters. 

The paintings in this show are very fine. The Downing and Humphreys paintings are satisfying.  The work by Ray Parker consists of two large patches of dark green hovering in an abstract ground. Again, they are painted loosely, the shapes not precisely the same or neatly trimmed off. The color of the two differs subtly, and some sections have been built up and worked over more.  Frank Lobdell’s work is a sea of vivid orange-red with chains of marks crossing it on diagonals, like some sort of track or a distorted rendering of some sort of figure.  The primary chain has thick dark outlines filled with yellows and oranges. The crossing chain consists mostly of faint outlines that look overpainted, partially eradicated. The colors, between the background and the yellows and others in the chain remind me of a stone I had as part of small rock collection I had as a kid, which had the most vivid oranges and yellows occurring together. I don’t remember what the mineral was. I don’t think it was anything precious, just pretty.

As I would expect, California and Western artists are well-represented—Lobdell was in California most of his career, as were Robert Irwin and Larry Bell, and I associate Martin with New Mexico. Of course, it seems true more often than not that shows about this period make an effort to acknowledge the West Coast scene. Several of them have the same story—grew up in the Midwest, served in the war moved to California. The exhibit includes a black and white photo from the period of each artist. These are pictures from that time before the 60s counter-culture started, the men with clean white shirts and short hair, serious and optimistic.

Many of the paintings in this show do connect in my mind with minimalism. There is the most subtle Agnes Martin I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. A grid of rectangles in an overlapping brick-wall pattern done in pencil. The lines are all light, but their thickness varies distinctly.  The piece by Robert Irwin is mostly a monochrome field of a subdued red.  The only features are two horizontal lines that run nearly but not quite border to border. One is in a contrasting slate blue color. The other echoes this line above, in the same color as the ground but distinguished by extra layers of paint, making it present through texture.

The paintings in this show are uniformly pretty large, which gives them the heft to stand alone and makes a show of about 20 or so objects sufficient. Each is sort of big gulp. The assessment might be unfair, but I left feeling these were as I said very fine paintings, paintings you can enjoy, but I don’t know if they are important.  The fact of these paintings and painters, and of Rackstraw Downes’ account of his New York, can lead you to question whether there really is a narrative for art history, or whether the confusion we experience today is all there really is.

Maybe that narrative isn’t really about art at all, but about cultural impact, and that’s something else.  What we end up writing about is not what’s good, but what makes and impression and has an impact, even a transitory impact. So what artists today have an impact? And on whom? Other artists? Or a broader society, though maybe limited to those engaged with elite culture. So who? Matthew Barney or Jeff Koons? Some subset of the Chinese. Ai Weiwei if things keep going the way they are.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Amendment 10-A

The Presbyterian Church in its inimitable way has found a way to wrap a passionate, critical and potentially divisive issue in the driest possible of coverings, a vote on a small change in wording to our Book of Order, a document organized in sections and subsections that lays out how to run the denomination and the churches within in. We are organized in a kind of federal structure, with local bodies (presbyteries) that are parts of regions (synods) that come together in the national General Assembly. When we change the rules, we have to get a majority of the presbyteries to agree.

Tonight the Twin Cities presbytery voted to change the standards for ordination, giving the amendment the majority vote it needed so it now reads

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates
That seems pretty straight-forward. The thing is that it replaces language that stated that anyone ordained (ministers, elders and deacons) needed to live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." In other words you couldn't be gay. But now that's gone. By taking out those words, we have decided to let gay men and women become ministers!

The denomination has been arguing about this for years, decades really. As a mainline denomination, we are pretty liberal but have conservative members and churches as well. We've been trying to avoid the collision of these two points of view for many reasons, but a practical one is that we've been losing members and one assumes that some people and congregations will bolt with this decision. We've already had some of the more conservative churches spin off in separate denominations. But every year that went by with this unresolved was more untenable to people like me. When I without question believe that gay people should be full members of my church, my society, my friendships, everything, how could I continue on in a church that wouldn't acknowledge that? Now we have. Some people had gotten frustrated waiting and had joined the Congregationalists, who are theologically similar to us. Now I feel good about sticking around.

One thing that's particularly heartening is that my Presbytery, Middle Tennessee, was expected to vote no but voted yes. It was kind of close, but it was a yes. Overall, the amendment has passed relatively easily. We seem really ready for this. It doesn't feel like an ambivalent endorsement.

As far as I'm concerned, this decision allows the Presbyterian Church (USA) to be who it truly is, and to realize the best things it has to offer the world. To manifest and live God's Kingdom more.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

bin Laden is dead

The TV's on with the coverage of bin Laden's death. Crowds have gathered outside the White House gates, at ground zero in New York and Times Square, maybe other places. After talk in church about peace, peace, peace, the celebrations seem unseemly. But inevitable. It's like the crowds on VE and VJ day. Spontaneous. The proportions seem off, crowds celebrating the death of one man (and in DC singing Na-Na Na Na, Hey Hey Good Bye like a playoff game), and it's not clear to what extent we are done. In WWII, there was the relief at knowing that the mass mobilizations of opposing sides had come to its cruel end. I do hope that this signals the end of something virulent in the world, and that rebellion becomes the new thing that pushes holy war off the stage. And that we now rapidly accelerate our disengagement as enforcers, and get out of Afghanistan.

Images of Lambert

As a younger man, but not quite young, I entered a new kind of life I never expected, part of the traditional, mainstream business world. A place where I could easily find myself eating lunch at a colleague's club listening while the others talk about golf. At that time, some time ago now, I became one of those men, mostly men, whose daily life involves familiarity with the airports across the country we pass through every day.

If you speak of the past, even past not so long past like when I stepped into this life, you speak of a time when there was more. In those spaces of the air transit system, more airlines, more flights, more seats. Antediluvian, before the World Trade Center attacks, the years of war, the mismanaged economy and the subsequent collapse.

I remember Lambert Airport in St. Louis when TWA existed and TWA had its central hub there. TWA used a strongly centralized hub and spoke system and every flight might have flown there, especially if you lived in the Central time zone. Arriving at Lambert you found chaos, everyone had connections and had to cover a lot of distance quickly because of the spread out layout.

The main terminal at Lambert was one of those temples of modernity airports like the TWA terminal at Kennedy and Dulles, all of them express a sense of air travel as exciting, all sweep and flow, not the bogged down tortuous experience we know today. Kennedy and Duller were designed by Saarinen. Lambert was designed by Minoru Yamasaki. Same guy who designed the World Trade Center.

Even the name Trans-World Airlines carried the strong scent of nostalgia for the recent past, like PanAm, If you picture an airplane in 1962, you probably picture the logo of one of those now defunct lines.

By the time I started my new life, before the Fall, terminals were becoming irrelevant to the flying experience, a place to run through quickly. I don't see why any airport authority would invest heavily in what travelers encounter before security.

In 2001 American swallowed TWA. This was good news for me, consolidated frequent flyer program into one I used all the time, more flight options in one place. Of course American didnt' need a hub in St. Louis since it had hubs in Dallas and Chicago, sandwiching St. Louis. Lambert withered. American cut back flights, shut down wings of the airport. Very little improvement occurred in those wings. It now feels rundown. Like lots of facilities, not just airports, in the mid-section of the country.

It was a nice surprise to see many scenes from Lambert in the film Up in the Air. There was George Clooney, in the Admiral's Club I know. People with mundane lives like mine feel a frisson when they see a glamorous star in our shoes. I can pretend he is me, I am him. Even if the film was off pitch about the details of the lives we lead, those men, mostly men, who pack the early morning weekday airport parking shuttles.

Lambert was an apt location for this movie about economic destruction, about the man who delivers the news of human obsolescence and feels left with nothing while he tries to remain the last one standing. Clooney's Ryan Bingham is completely without power and authority. As a man who sticks with the program he gets to have a level of comfort and security, but much else is stripped from him. The economy damages in more ways than one. Clooney's been here before with Michael Clayton.

Lambert today carries the physical scars of the economic processes that have broken down the promise of modernity. The great achievements, and the promise of happiness have been miniaturized, folded down into a small device screen.

I am convinced that in time we will see that the unraveling in more and more physical processes as we overuse, wear out and heat up the planet.

Last week Lambert appeared on screen, this time in the grainy, voyeuristic security camera that showed tornadoes hitting the facility and tearing up American's gates. Passengers and TSAs run through the councourse, then lights go out, the sealed spaces get punctured, and wind and air pressure effects suck signs and trashcans along the floor.

This summer promises to be one of steady destruction, brutal storms every week touching down here and there. You know we won't always be able to afford to rebuild. Eventially, we'll scrape the bottom of the barrel and will have to let some stuff go, like the houses on my block that are burned out and abandoned but no one--not the owners, not the city--have the money to tear them down.

What comes after modernity, with its slick, sweeping temples, is not post-modernism but ruins.