Friday, March 15, 2013

A Matter of Scale...

You'd think that, by now, I would have figured this out...

Every day, I swear I get at least twenty really great ideas for this blogue (as I insist on calling it); every day, I swear I get the time actually to write something, and it's as though I've never formed an idea with this brain, ever before, in my entire life... 

Oh, there's one.  I knew if I complained bitterly enough, something would turn up...

So, today John and I went into NYC, on purpose, to visit the Museum of Arts and Design, and the exhibit on the third floor, called 'Playing with Fire; Fifty Years on the American Studio Glass Movement".  Or something like that.  I may be making that part up.

But there's definitely a show, and it's definitely on the third floor (the indoor facilities being on the sixth floor, which I seem determined to forget every time I go into the building), and it's definitely a glass exhibit -- though whether it's all strictly American, or from the first 50 years of the American Studio Glass Movement are debatable points -- and a piece of my work is definitely on display there, along with... most of the bigger names in American glass  Plus work by other artists who probably don't know me either. 

I was there earlier this month (or was it late February?  It all bleeds together anymore), and I had more or less the same reaction today as I did the first time I visited the exhibit, after all the other work had been delivered and arranged.  I thought the space was too dark -- or there was no attention paid to redirecting whatever lights there are.  A couple of the pieces still had the dusty finger prints that I saw the first time -- I mentioned this to a guard today, who later came up to me to tell me she'd spoken with one of the curators, who promised to see that this was taken care of -- and that all the work was to be dusted once a week.  Someone's getting high on 58th street when they're supposed to be wielding a feather duster upstairs...

I also felt that strange dissociation I've mentioned -- the odd sensation of an incredibly intimate association with my piece -- knowing how much each glass shape weighs, how it was to create it, how I came to decide whether to use this piece, or something similar -- and this familiarity clashes head-on with a kind of eerie detachment, like being at my own funeral.  The work is what is visible here; the artist is incidental, and in many ways, irrelevant.  While I was standing around while John attempted to get some pictures of the work -- it's kind of big, and a challenge to document -- a couple probably my age got off the elevator and, talking rather loudly, began going through the show, exclaiming over the work of artists whose names were familiar to them ('Oh, we've got two Chihulys, and a piece by Mark Peiser...'  That kind of thing), wondering out loud, about how Toots Zynsky 'gets all that color in' the glass filaments she uses in her slumped bowl pieces.  I could have interrupted them, and given them a lesson, but I really didn't feel up to it. 

Then they went around the corner, to the space where my work is installed, and installed themselves on a low, short metal backless bench, so they could watch and listen to a video loop, done with great clarity and economy, by William Gudenrath, one of my first glass teachers.  So they sat, watching Bill create a length of blue, black and white murrine, slump a plate of murrine, and cut murrine and pick up chunks on the outside of a clear bubble.  The work of other artist was featured.  And when we'd finally learned the basics of yet another discipine, the tape simple and seamlessly began to repeat itself.  I love listening to Bil's voice, as a matter of fact, but again, it made me feel extra useless, as the living creator of arguably on of the biggest piece of work, featuring blown glass elements, in the show, standing behind a few of the few visitors, who might as well have been at home in their living rooms (on an unimaginably uncomfortable sofa) looking at a special on PBS. 

I ended up sitting on an empty bench at the other end of the gallery -- where there was no one else, possibly because there was no TV going on there -- and finishing today's NYTimes crossword puzzle, while John did as much documentation as he could, while the bench below the TV screen held first one butt and then another, but always someone's.  I did sneak another peek, while he was tinkering with the camera, and was tempted to suggest this shot or that, but decided against this intrusion. 

I think it was while I was again so near to my own piece, spread out as it is over a sizable portion of a low carpeted display shelf out of sight of the elevators, that I had a sliver of an art-related memory.

Years ago, after I'd visited State College PA for one arcane reason or another, I was driving back southward, to Philadelphia, I think, taking the only major route I know, winding down through a range of the soft outliers of the Appalachian Mountains.  It must have been summer, because the hillsides were lush and green, with no hint of the exhaustion of August in the foliage.  It was as I was taking one of the longer swooping curves, that had me driving in a south-bound clockwise turn, with the north-bound lanes down below me, to my left, that the unimpeded view of that one hillside struck me in a totally unexpected way.

There it was -- just a modest old mountain side, really -- clad in an almost unbroken expanse of leafery -- one of probably thousands of such expanses, reaching back through Pennsylvania, through West Virginia, and into Tennessee and Kentucky, hill after hill, one carpet of green blurring into the next.  And for some reason, I was trying to picture my art work -- all of it, drawings, paintings, three-dimensional work -- lying on that hillside, beneath those leafy branches.  And thinking of how negligible an impact my work would make -- a laughable little heap of oddments, some more colorful than others, but nothing really monumental, or probably, even visible, from this perspective across the valley floor.

And as if to make it worse, I went on to try to figure out how much space the entire output of Dale Chihuly, Glass God Extraordinaire, would take up on that same hillside.  Even now, years after this trip, I'm fairly sure that, although his heap would be exponentially larger than the one I could muster, the Chihuly accumulation of bright, colorful objects wouldn't make that much of a significant visual impact, if gathered on this one hillside.

And, of course, I felt smaller than ever, and more futile than ever, in my daydreams of making an impact, a name for myself in the world of glass art.  Such a puny 'body of work'.  Such a slender, insecure thread on which to hang a name.

I wonder, if the circumstances of my life had been radically different, and if I had grown up in the Bronx instead of McKeesport PA, whether or not I would have been drawn to the graffiti crowd, and how brazen and insistent I might have been, in trying to attract attention to myself, to stand out from an indifferent background that had every intention of sucking me back down into anonymity.  I wonder, too, whose work would make an impact on just that one hillside in Pennsylvania.

Probably those men whose art is hidden in plain sight, and probably from they themselves -- the guys in coveralls pouring concrete for the arching curves of highway interchanges.  The teams of men struggling to thread the gigantic turnbuckles that hold taut the cables holding, in their turn, the weight of one bridge or another.  The guys who build battleships.  Or football stadiums.  Airports.  All those visual and structural gems that, because of their scale, and the way we relate to them, practically disappear just because they are so monumental.

That was quite a drive, that one where I meditated, for a relatively short time, really, on where I fit, physically speaking, on a scale of creative magnitude.  Down at the shallow end of the sine curve, without a doubt.  In spite of what seems, at times, to be an inconceivable accumulation of crap, too vast and complex for me ever to sort or arrange...  To say nothing of actually using the stuff.

Then, at times, all I can do is shrug, and make up some justification for this paucity -- mass and expanse aren't what make art significant.  Look at the output of (fill in the name of any artist you choose.  Even Richard Serra), and there'll be the same diminution of scale, when compared with even an ordinary hillside.  It's about communication, and the redemption of materials, and the honoring of things I know to be true, that matter more than how many square feet of real estate I could claim, if all my work were laid end to end.  (Thinking of Dorothy Parker...)

So.  Why do I do anything at all, if I'm doomed to insignificance?  I guess I'm a firm believer in that aphorism of Gandhi's -- what you do, as a contribution to the world, is probably not important, but it is essential that you do it.  That's what I seem to need -- a kind of ennobled hopelessness.  A kingship denoted by a crown made of ice, certain, quickly, to melt.

And that's one of the things I thought about today, to write in this space.  So I did.  Maybe I'll recall the others in a while, and maybe I won't.  For the time being, this will have to do.

©     2013             Walter Zimmerman  



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