If I Only Knew Then Who I Was Now

The title is a line spoken by Peter O’Toole’s character in the film  The Ruling Class. O’Toole plays the 14th Earl of Gurney, probably schizophrenic, who believes himself to be Jesus Christ. His dialogue is just the loving, cosmic palaver you would imagine Jesus to speak, paralleling the mode of the new-age Aquarian Shamans: In 1971 there was a burgeoning industry of folks who sounded just like the 14th Earl. And, set in an English Manor house, with O’Toole sleeping on his installed cross—mayhem ensues. A lot of art-driven mayhem in school felt pretty similar. If transgression was the mode of the day and the social construct of modernism was transgression itself, then how to adapt this mode to art making—it was the Koan presented to an art student of that era. All modes of the social construct were being challenged: Work, Education, Science, Spirituality, Sexuality, Technology, Politics, Agriculture. The practice of the arts became a kind of nesting doll problem—to become a transgressive counter-culturite inside an inherently transgressive system of modernism. Political correctness flourished in a culture of “doing what’s cool” and at high risk of being disparaged for being a reactionary, like maybe painting a picture of something. After all, who’d want to “re-discover Renaissance Chiaroscuro?”

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I had applied to school on the wings of a vision. I was obsessed with the idea of the transition from one state to another—the gate and the path up to the gate. A worthy sculptural project, I truly believed—it got me into grad school, anyway. The gateway from wake to sleep, from grief-struck to awestruck, falling in love or a match struck in the heart to ignite a rage. The moment when you “get” the joke. As a kid, I would lie awake obsessed every night waiting for sleep, to feel that passage. People I was close to had “Passed away” What?!! Interest in biology had led me to that thin film of waxy green just under the bark—one cell thick—the tell of aliveness I learned from working at a tree nursery. The Cambium Layer was magic, the only part of the plant truly alive. One cell thick! And then the idea of surface tension, the way the surface of water has a bouncy film that will support a floating leaf, a water bug, even a steel needle if you place it carefully. The H2O molecule is shaped asymmetrically, looking like Mousekateer cap so that the H atoms kind of hold hands when they are free from solution at the surface. This film over the water was a fascination to me and seemed to hold the essence of passage from one place to another, from one state to another. But what was inside that film? Was there an inside? An inside of nothing? A gateway to nothing?

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The Artmaking Path—Wet Clay, glass shards and my own footprints. 1971

By the time I’d made my choice to go on ahead with the artmaking path, there was lots of drawing, clay modeling, design composition—the usual coursework for the late 60’s. Our little contingent of fellow art wannabe’s studying studio art at Washington, DC’s Corcoran School liked playing mind games, sometimes high on pot, like playing hide & seek in the formal gardens of the National Cathedral. Tall hedges, sculptures of saints and angels could give you the heebie-jeebies at night—fun & games and right around the corner was the “All-night Bakery” to drool over with the munchies—buttery pastries fresh out of the oven. The cathedral itself was spotlighted and being constantly under construction was covered with metal scaffolding. The parallax of light and shadow gave the feeling of a veil being lifted as my head moved. I could finally see space. With a congenitally misplaced fovea, I have never had true binocular 3D vision. My eyes don’t work as a unit of two. I  see dimension only by moving my head side-to-side. People have said watching me grooving this way I look like Stevie Wonder at the keyboard. Think of a spot on a window pane looking out to some trees. The spot and the trees appear as equidistant from my eye; not until my head moves does one thing find its place in space. This was a clue. Clue to the “What is inside the surface tension question, inside the cambium layer.” I was set to explore this light and shadow space. This was my vision, a series of gateways and pathways that stood for a mystery of moving from one state of mind to another. It was a kind of mental parallax.

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First Gate 1970  Pine 11feet high

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Bow to Pass 1970  Redwood and fir 6 feet high

I’d gotten into graduate school by making sculptures of gateways. They weren’t gateways per se but sculptures that stood for gateways. OK now, what?  Double Dog Gate was inspired by the 1950’s novelty “Tricky Dogs.” Using the push/pull of magnetism, the tiny toys offer a bit of amusement as they attract, repel and playfully scooch across the table until—smack! — together face to face. I had rescued a set of the dogs from my 8-month old’s mouth and hidden them in my shirt pocket. This is in 1971. I was sitting at my desk, drawing, I was both fretting and excited about my upcoming stint as a sculpture graduate student. I had been admitted to school positing an exploration of the idea of gateway. I reached for a pencil, pulling out the pups instead, and began fiddling with the little guys as a distraction.

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My collection of “Tricky Dogs”

As I scooted the dogs around, the meeting of their muzzles formed a toothy opening (in my mind anyway). A couple of years before I had seen the reflection of the Teton Mountains in Jenny Lake, Wyoming. Dogs? Mountain Lake? Gateway? It was the space between above and below. In a flash! It became a creation story, how—once upon a time, the earth and sky were a grey blur. A black dog, a white dog in an eternal dust-up. Then, their mouths met in a still kiss. A kind of cosmic eternal opening. The gateway that expressed this feeling was the horizon, that thinnest line between one and another, this and that. The gateway I was looking for was the horizon line. And, the space I wanted to express was that moment of inspiration, that toothy mouth standing for the tiniest space full of mystery, coming in an instant and winding into a whole lifetime of exploration.

Making sketches of these double dogs with the cosmic mouth, opening to an infinitely small, infinitely huge space helped settle my mind to continue working on this idea.

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The Teton Range reflected in Jenny Lake The Dog’s Mouth Gate

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As I wound into this exploration of the gate, the idea was the impossibility of passage— the guardians at the gate were invisible to the eye, but none the less ferocious. Fear of the dark in the deep woods, animal sounds all around.  Fear of pain. Fear of change. And to get through the fear gate you have to leave your fear with the demons, who in fact do you the service of bringing fear to the front of the mind. Give these demons your fear, they’ll be glad to hold onto it for you while you pass through. So many gates, like frame after frame, a multitude of window panes to break through one after another. I’d felt this feeling of really belonging on a planet of living things, connecting to the natural world in a mystic union—I mean feeling the oxygenated air fill your body and brain being active physically outside. It has happened enough times that I can reeadilly recall with a warmth of remembrance

It’s one of the great human thrills to have an idea pop into your head and then make it manifest. And knowing that this kind of enlightenment is possible by having had the shock of recognition, that yes, it’s all connected. Like as a 12-year-old seeing into that web in 1960. The WEB. That thing that John Muir saw, that Ludwig Boltzmann saw in this famous formula, I was lucky enough to see on a farm creek, a slough they called it, in flatland Illinois. Everything there came there all by itself. Sort of a “No, duh!” kind of thing, but when you actually prod the web and you feel the 1000 vibrations of everything you can see around you—everything you can touch and hear, you feel the warmth of realization. It’s what the mushroom eaters will tell you. It’s what mystics all through geography and time describe. It’s a feeling of profound relaxation knowing you are at the right time and in the right place. In that summer of 1960, collecting and cataloging we did pluck that string and later, plucking a single string over the bottomless sound hole of a D-28 Martin high on LSD  the world trips and falls down a rabbit hole deep as the Mariana trench; not A black hole but a hole deep as your heart, warm bubbling pulsing.

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War Dogs 12″x18″ W/C 1975

That summer biology class in 1960 really got to me. We had plucked at the web in a summer school project cataloging all the creatures we could find. Everything that’s in the world belongs here. Imbalances are rampant, but you can’t help but think human energy can rearrange those imbalances—a basic moral code of behavior. That’s why at the time the Vietnam War we felt such an urgency and the task was at hand—to right the wrong of it. War itself was not wrong (it may be stupid, but it’s not wrong).—War was here, and been here for a long time, after all—war is basic behavior, basic animal behavior—but something was out of kilter. The Vietnam War was wrong. The lying bullshit of that war established the structure of discourse that gave us our post-modern moment. Andy Warhol was right, it was an advertising world, still is for the time being. If you say it’s so enough times, it floats in the mind like a truth. Anything could stand for anything else, and so Piety of all flavors became cliché. Who can know what is real? Its what happens when you point out something as true when you know it’s a lie. 

Can we ever go back to a time when meaning could actually mean something? When art could fill you with a sense of wonderful marvel? I’d felt this sense at the Alberto Giacometti retrospective at Chicago’s Art Institute. This was in 1964. I had a hunger for this mystic connection between art and the natural world as a part of our deepest biology. There didn’t have to be a division between the world of culture and nature if you saw the “works of mankind” as the genetic imperative we tote around in every cell of our body. Giacometti with his burnt-crust people showed me the body as both becoming and disintegrating. Becoming and disintegrating. You could see both things at once. What a revelation. Every theme, essay or term paper in high school after seeing that exhibit was centered on Giacometti. I didn’t seem to get tired of talking about him.

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Judgment at Nurenberg had been released in 1962 complete with emaciated corpses bulldozed into ditches. How could you not think of Giacometti? Hiroshima by John Hershey was assigned reading in Lit. III the same year I saw Giacometti’s retrospective. The obvious response was these are the “burnt crusts of humanity” made visible. But the final response was that Giacometti had become a kind of mindfulness counselor helping me deal with cringing horror. Being, pure being was enough to help feel your way through the waking nightmare of 20th Century life. Alive was alive and Giacometti’s sculptures and paintings were alive,  as his working methods were brought to intimate life by James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait. Lord’s day by day account of the master’s struggle to simply “make it look real” ignited a fire in me that brought me to “I just want to say what it feels like here and now”

With all this cosmic thinking (something in me is embarrassed to admit to being attracted to such big picture ideas—somethting about being a “balloon-boy” floating unattached from real life), I found good humor guarded my personal holy-of-holies. So when reading about Boddhidarma, the progenitor of Zen, and how he achieved enlightenment by staring at a brick wall for nine years, I cast this aluminum “Bodhidharma Wall” as a hood ornament for my ’63 Valiant (push button drive on the dash BTW). I mounted it facing the driver—50,000 miles and you are one with everything. 

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Bodhidharma’s Wall, 1972 Cast Aluminum 6.5X8″ Hood Ornament for 1963 Valiant

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Horizon Mask 1972 Basswood 15″ high

I dived into the image of the mountains reflected in the lake. It was recommended that if you wanted to get anywhere in the art world, it was picking a theme and sticking to it. Skipping your stone across the aesthetic pond, making beautiful rings was fun—the tourist does this, but if you really want to be an artist, it was to develop a style and stick with it.

OK, I can go along with that, even if it seems a bit chaffing, but it’s a lot less in the thinking department if you have a single idea. Theme and variation would your give professors something easier on which to pass judgment. It was encouraged. So I began to “theme away and variate.” Cosmic thinking was all the rage and the ease with which it was trotted out, you had the feeling everyone was becoming a guru. Establishment Artist with this cosmic bent leaned to  Duchamp who was seen as some kind of Kabbalistic Wizard, powerful and influential. The intellectually minded found a home inside his white varnished chamber of thinking. Funny how romantic it all seemed when the thrust was just the opposite: cool and Gallic-ly aloof.  To live in a pure conceptual space, enclosed as it seemed to be, was actually full to the brim with its own possibilities. OK, but none the less I began to work on my “theme.” This idea of the cosmic dogs. The mixed feeling was the romance a la Giacometti against the air-conditioned spaciousness of art played like an equation, like a game Including all of art history laid out on a gameboard—your move, mister.

Herman Hesse had written his Nobel Prize-winning book The Glass Bead Game. In it, cultural elites, far in the future, sequestered from the roil of daily life, refine and refine a complex game. The game had some vague religious thrust and was important to the culture at large; the players living a monastic life. It was unclear whether, in this vision of the future, the dwellers in Hesse’s land, elite compounds, had any impact on the larger culture. Sort of how the art world felt.

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Sketch for a Monument to the Threshold, 1972 Fir and Redwood, 60″ high

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Sketch for A Monument to the Threshold 1972 Fir and Redwood 48″ high

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Flame Gate, 1972 Redwood and Fir

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Model for a Guardian at the Gate 1972 Fir and Steel 96″ high

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Dissolution Gate 120″ high 1973 Oak, fir, pine steel 120″ high

I had gotten bored with that mountain-lake reflection idea and the final piece was a welded aluminum job nine feet tall with the mountains-lake embedded in the slab. I had won a contest with a cash prize stipend and $’s to buy materials. I spent the dough and spent weeks crafting the thing. Though I was quite capable of constructing the thing and spent a couple of months at it, my craftsmanship was disappointing. Eight feet away it was perfect but the fastidiousness required was beyond my attention span—close-up the imperfections, though they were minor, were glaring to me, and besides I was more tuned onto ideas than achieving auto-body shop perfectionism. And the thing itself was so reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001 monolith, it was hard to shake the association. In addition, with the rise of the “eco-movement” there lingered a strange sense of taking up too much space on a

Monolith webcrowded “spaceship Earth”. I had spent a large portion of the stipend (my shared winnings of the contest that had given me the chance to strut my stuff) on the material. Wasn’t there enough stuff in the world already? I vowed after that I would make my work from found material. I began a practice that continues today, to use only what I could glean.

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