What I Saw at 81 Positos

The art show at Foro Cultural 81 (81 Positos, Guanajuato) featured two artists. Cati Gris’s main body of work centered on shades and variations of texture and line and shape – the geometrical building blocks of visual reality. These abstract geometrical compositions, however, are typically enmeshed in organic, textile materials.

    Castillo Moderno                     Elegancia del desierto      Paisajes para invocar a la lluvia
                                                                                                     Teclado de piel

             Vela amarilla              Vela rosa                    Series rotoplast versión #6

But something more. Also a sense of palimpsest layered in earth colors, more cool than warm, subdued, a sense of hidden details, hidden bytes and bits of information, patterns lying almost unconsciously beneath the visual surface and requiring a close-in look (“Catedral el llama desde internet”).

  Catedral en llamas desde internet

A few of Gris’s works leaned in along the gradient from the abstract toward the representational, without giving too much on the representations side. The jittery electronic universe that almost comes into focus in “Dispositivo para presenter colores básicos” struck me as such, as did the archetypal figures emerging in silhouette from the geometry of “Chalchiuhtlicue”.

                       Dispositivo para presentar colores básicos                    Chalchiuhtlicue

Phe Ruiz had two rooms in the exhibit with clearly demarcated themes – one room striking for its texture, one striking for its color.

The second room was full of bold colors with a childlike quality, albeit one haunted, in both style and affect, by the empty spaces of faces. The human-like figures were sometimes cast into elemental environments, either in nature (“El pino”) or in a stylized domestic set, e.g. in “El Mesero,” where we get a solitary figure learning to balance in a rudimentary social space.

                             El pino                                                           El mesero

Sometimes, the same figures found themselves wandering aimlessly in a more abstract setting, the child-appeal of the bold colors offset by the existentialist undertones of face and posture.

.                                                                    Una caminata    

Ruiz’s other room (the first in order of the gallery), full of rich, creamy textures and darker, warmer colors, was heavier in affect.
                                     Las llamas                                                  Pink and black

Finally, the venue itself at 81 Positos was elegant and well-lit, and did its part to highlight the power and peculiarities of the works included. And if you were lucky enough to be there on opening night, Alonso’s sangria wasn’t bad either.

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The sublime in art and self-actualization

Blogmate Paul Adkin recently posted about “purposiveness and becoming.” The simplified gist of it – I partly conjecture, as Paul is ahead of me on some things philosophical – is that purposiveness is teleological or end-oriented. We get a sense of purpose by directing our attention at something “out there/not here yet” toward which we can strive. Thus, purposiveness is wedded to our process of becoming, of transforming ourselves. And if that process of transforming ourselves is in a predetermined direction, we have “purpose” in life.

After a bit of free association, I started correlating Paul’s ideas to some art shows I’d seen recently. In the arts, there is the age-old distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, sometimes cast as the classical and the romantic. Beautiful/classical is associated with symmetry, framing, a delightful rational pleasure; the sublime/romantic is associated with excess, passion, feelings of awe or of being overwhelmed by something that cannot be adequately grasped or framed.

So my tie between Paul and the arts becomes this: Beauty relates to being, the sublime relates to becoming; beauty is static, the sublime is dynamic. The beautiful artwork or musical composition comes to us framed neatly, symmetrically; it is calming and delightful, not disruptive or disturbing. Indeed, it is calming and delightful specifically because it ratifies our sense that we can frame things neatly, symmetrically, rationally, hold them in our hands and view them in wonder.

Knowing nothing of musical history, I think of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as beautiful, the perfect expression of that delight that comes with rational pleasure. Then I think of his younger contemporary, Beethoven, composing his 5th symphony 20 years later. The 5th is sublime right from the 4-note opening, the “fate motif” that everyone knows. The ominous motif itself seems a warning shot that what is coming is not beautiful but sublime, not an invitation to relax in delight, but something disruptive, full of passion that is not easily confined or domesticated; indeed, something a little bit frightening, breaking the comfort zone of being and expanding it in a way that causes existential angst, as the listener goes beyond their capacity to keep the response within pre-ordained limits. The capacity falters, and one is overwhelmed.

Though my examples might be faulty from the viewpoint of music history, I can still take the point about beauty and the sublime and apply it to self-actualization. Beauty resonates with our stages along the path, it resonates with the pleasure we get when we can pause, look around us, and appreciate the wonderland we happen to be in at this stage of life or of reality. The sublime resonates with our moments of transformation, disruption, the struggle between stages, where one fixed stage is lost and the new not arrived. It is a period of angst – frightening, dizzying, and exhilarating at the same time. The self that has existed up to this moment is overwhelmed and swept aside and the new self not yet formed. It is not unlike what ancient civilizations must have felt at the winter solstice, when the old sun seems dying but the new sun uncertain. It is the breaking of the snakeskin as the old self is shed, its boundaries shattered, but the new self not yet secure.

I know that Slavoj Zizek, whom I admire for his politics, has had something to say about the sublime. (Full disclosure: I have not read Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, but I have read The Parallax View and a few other bits, and hey, as I said at the outset, this is free association time.) If I had to tie my thesis about the sublime to politics, the easiest point of entry would be in royal lineage. “The king is dead; long live the king.” In that paradox is the anxiety of the sublime in its political aspect. That moment between the death of one monarch and the coronation of the heir must have been one of tremendous anxiety for the body politic, the opening for bloody war and massive dislocation in the fragile civil society, the sublime moment of transformation is all its terrible possibility. Best to try close the gap to the single breath indicated by the semicolon: “The king is dead; long live the king.”

For Zizek, I know, it’s probably more of an ideological thing. Perhaps the self gets overwhelmed and lost in the totalizing ideology that swamps it. This seems especially relevant in totalitarian societies. But I like my king example for how it resonates with those transformative moments in self-actualization.

Just to finally touch on Zizek’s psychoanalytic (Freudian) angle on the sublime, as I am told that he goes there, too. Freud’s superego, of course, relates nicely to the sublime. Let’s briefly say that Freud’s tripartite schema consists of (1) the id, which refers to the dark, primitive drives; (2) the superego, which relates to the inscrutable, all-powerful (father-) figure to which the infant psyche is subjected (and which the infant psyche introjects), the enforcer of prohibitions but also the source of higher ideals for which to strive; and (3) the ego, where the rubber meets the road in terms of the id’s reckless drives and the superego’s controlling function. In Zizek (or so I’m told), ideology functions as a superego. This, to me, opens an interesting dichotomy in the sublime. In one variant, the subject is overwhelmed by the inscrutable power faced and is humbled into in state of awe by the objective power. The second variant comes with the exhilaration of resisting and thwarting the Law – “jouissance” Zizek calls it. To stick to the political framing, the first variant might the “conservative” variant (cp. Edmund Burke), insofar as the subject is humbled, resistance impossible, and the objective power source reaffirmed. The second variant might be the more “radical” variant (cp. Kant), in that the subject breaks down the objective formations of power and proclaims its own dominion.

Back to self-actualization. Beauty and the sublime. An endless series of steps, each step a pleasant resting place, with the movements between fraught with danger and transformation, fraught with the possibility that that self might be utterly lost, humbled, overwhelmed (Burke), or that the self might be exhilarated and transformed, ennobled into some entirely new being who can look back in wonder at all the steps below, enjoy the delight of the moment, and then feel the pull of purposiveness and turn the gaze back upward.

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Two on hummingbirds

Humming-bird (D. H. Lawrence)

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where humming-birds flashed ahead of creation
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of time,
Luckily for us.

 

A Route of Evanescence (Emily Dickinson)

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

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Impeaching Trump

It’s only a guess, but I suspect Trump’s campaign is fighting impeachment on two fronts: overtly condemning it and covertly doing everything they can to get it started. Impeachment allows Trump to put the spotlight where he likes it (personal fights instead of policy) and to control the narrative. When the Senate absolves him (which we all know will happen), he gets to say, “See, it was all a witch hunt. Democrats have now spent the last few years ignoring issues that concern average Americans to focus (unsuccessfully) on personally destroying me. Now that the Senate has proven me right on all of this, why vote for useless Democrats?” And his case is much more persuasive in the wake of a failed impeachment. Indeed, though I’m not a Trump supporter, I do think he may have a point. Besides hard-core activists, most commoners are probably not that excited about Trump’s taxes or which Playboy bunny he slept with. If they voted for Democrats, they probably did so in the hopes that they’d focus more on issues that affect average Americans. Impeachment is the golden goose for Trump’s narrative.

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