Do the Next Thing

Once Upon a Time, watercolor, pencil, colored paper, 50 years of pocketed rocks, sticks and pebbles, 34″ X 43″

For 200,000 years we humans made our living using only sticks and rocks. Sticks and rocks and the imagination. How to access that ancient part of ourselves, not the sticks and rocks thing—the imagination. This is what artists do, open that creaky old chest of wonders. The imagination can happen in the midst of a conversation (the ancient Greeks codified that mode in the Dialogues), in a brain-storming session at a corporate retreat, taking a walk. At night “in that vast ventriloquism of sleep’s faded papier-maché, or as I do letting the materials I’ve laid out have a voice. For me, it’s a little like paper dolls. Imagine a play with only one line and the cast comes onstage to deliver this line, each in their own voice.

“Do the Next Thing” became a working methodology when was I was a graduate student studying sculpture. This is based on an aphorism from Jasper Johns, who said “Take an object, do something to it, do something else to it.” You want to be a free spirit when making Art, right? And when writing poetry you want to have access to the fluorescence of a mind able and willing to pour out something of the collective humanity of people inhabiting this Planet. Right? If you assume that there is a common aquifer from which people draw inspiration, you want to figure out a method for drawing up this water, right? I mean, all you have to do is study a little history of humans making objects and you quickly see the threads spooling into a common mind. The Archetypes are evident to any one willing to look. Hero with a Thousand Faces was my primer as a college Freshman, 50-some years ago, and as I wind toward the end-game it has only become more clear, that we are truly in this together.

It is all “good stuff” to base a life work on. As I have adopted the working method of Do the Next Thing, henceforth DNT, I have found that when presented with the materials of my work, like the depicted collected rocks and pebbles, picked out for some bit of glimmer, they come alive with an almost Animist verve, spilling out meaning when placed in a context based on this DNT. This is not the land of Logos and Logic, but a reliance on a poetic intuition; dipping into the “well” you come out holding a dripping baton to hand off to the next thought and the next…this is what makes Art such a joy.

Plato had a different take on all this poetic folderol. He hated it and saw it as damaging to his Republic of Reasonable Citizens. I always had a bone to pick with Plato’s idea. But, he was right, poetics has no place in politics as a way of thinking through things.—”Just gimme the facts, ma’am” as Jack Webb was fond of saying in the 50’s TV show Dragnet. His character Joe Friday unraveled crimes like a cat with a ball of twine. Art with all it’s poetics only gums up the works when solving all the problems we face. Art and Politics are a corrosive formula. This is important! While knowing the facts is a general good—it helps us make choices. But the brick silos of “knowing the facts” can be stifling to life when you allow the Robots of the WWW to plate up your next meal of knowing. Witness the asphyxiating ruin to our political life. As in, those “in the know” who say “Well,…I did my research,” are going into the brick silos of the algorithm-provided knowing that is no knowing at all. A repeating loop from the robots in charge of information. Robot Lunch!! How else can you explain the beliefs that some hold: “John-John Kennedy is still alive or Jewish space lasers are beaming George Soros” propaganda and starting western wildfires, Trump Won, and “those were just normal tourists at the Capitol in January 6, 2022.” And while we’re at it defund the police is just as much Ca Ca from the other side of the divide. All you have to do is Google Q-Anon and you will be flooded with the Robot’s smorgasbord. You’ll be ready to deny vaccine effectiveness and be convinced Democrats are eating babies. Open your gullet for a Robot Lunch!! It’s killing us just when our politics has existential problems to face, thanks Plato, where is our Sgt. Joe Friday when we need him in office?

But I AM an artist/poet concerned with exactly what artists do—create metaphor to unspool meaning for the individual OR the collective and I’ve adopted a method to do that I call DNT. I spread around my studio objects that have caught my attention or I have created in previous work. They sift around on tables I’ve set out, or magneted up on walls made of sheet metal—I am especially attracted to things I have drawn or painted which in turn get cut out and re-configured. As these “things” sift around they come into a kind of aesthetic rightness; until they fit together into an humming eco-system of meaning. I have plenty of antecedents here for this rightness: I like the puzzle-pieces of Japanese Ukiyoe woodblock prints and Kandinsky’s later abstractions as antecedents.

Kunisada, Edo Period Japan and Kandinsky Tensions Calmées 1937

This visual “rightness” seems to have the hum of an eco-system. To do this I don’t try to tell a narrative. I have nothing in mind but making it look right to me. After 50 years of this, I’ve gained a trust in the process. When a group of cut-outs or objects come into this rightness, it’s only then that I allow myself to spool out a narrative. It is by allowing this eco-system of form and meaning, that I am able to dip into the “Well”, the universal aquifer. In the last post Phänomenologie für Enten.I acknowledged philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty as the inventor of this eco-phenomenology idea, though I only learned of this as of 5/28/22. I must also tip my hat to Joseph Cornell who was a master of putting together a bunch of junk to weave poetic tales of heartbreaking poignancy; he could “animate” a cracked old cue-ball into a full-moon love song.

Joseph Cornell Lunar Level 2 1939

This method formed the core of my Art teaching as well. It was always DNT. I was teaching Materials and Methods classes to Art instructors who would take a Summer-school class with me to keep on the up-escalator of a teacher’s salary. These were watercolor classes. I would start the week-long session by demonstrating watercolor’s main attributes—pure pigment suspended in water settling into the fibers of paper made of cotton rag. It’s beautiful when left alone. “Overworked” means you’ve scumbled the fibers by too much brush work and you’ve lost the fresh appeal of watercolor—mud.

A selection of watercolor class paintings—who is the artist?

I’d end up the first demonstration picture; lots of strokes and washes on a piece of paper—watercolor phenomenology. I would announce, “I will do to this picture whatever I hear the first voice say.” They were furtive at first, but then got into trying to make me do something impossible. “That guy needs a fish in his leg,” “that creature needs lipstick.” I wound up with a series of very strange pictures that didn’t look like anything I’d EVER done, but strangely like some coherent body of work by a stranger. I’d like to have a coffee with that gal/guy someday.

Do the Next Thing (detail) pencil, decorative paper, watercolor, rocks, 2022

The illustrating picture of this post Once Upon A Time came about first by the grey paper drawn with critters gleaned from various cave paintings. Having sat in those Paleolithic caves, quietly drawing, given access without other tourists; a realization bloomed of how free-of-mind those people must have been. Free-minded and constrained by their economic pattern of finding things to eat. And procuring food using only sticks and stones and their robust minds. Sticks and stones! To get the texture of rock, I crumpled the paper, hit it with a light spritz from black spray paint at a low angle. Then I ironed the paper flat. The watercolor of the leaves was from a failed painting cut out to find a new home here. The painting had some good passages, worth saving. The dancers were drawn on red paper with white pencil. I like drawing figures. The purple & white checks came in like a xylophone solo to help the dancers find their rhythm. Finally, I have bowls of rocks I’ve picked up along they way, I also like pocketing rocks I like. When the whole thing came together, it all seemed to fit. I like “doing the next thing.”

Detail, DNT

2 thoughts on “Do the Next Thing

  1. Pingback: Phänomenologie für Enten. – 90:ojime

  2. Pingback: Once You Learn. – 90:ojime

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