Saturday, December 29, 2012

Portland Japanese Garden and Lan Su Chinese Garden: Arts of Tranquillity

When it's forty-five degrees and raining outside, I'm sure to seek my pleasures indoors. Unless I'm in Portland, Oregon, that is. Recently visiting Portland in weather that would guarantee gloom elsewhere, I hardly wished to escape the rain and thereby miss the city's elfin palette of saturated greens; its blooming cyclamen and mysterious cypress trees spread over deep carpets of moss and lichens. My plans to visit the art museums went out the door with my umbrella and me. It may take me until spring to dry out in Columbus from the soakings I experienced in the Portland Japanese Garden and Lan Su Chinese Garden, but the memories are well worth any mortal mildew.
Neighborhood of Lan Su Chinese Garden. The Garden wall is the
low, white structure to the right, surrounded by trees.

Portland is a polyglot city. Its relationships to China and Japan are everywhere felt and nowhere as fluently articulated as in the traditional gardens. Both are renowned as the most authentic of their kind outside of their countries. The Portland Japanese Garden occupies five and a half acres on a high, piney hillside inside the City's spectacularly situated Washington Park. Lan Su Chinese Garden fills only one city block. It is surrounded by the tall buildings, traffic, and construction of the city, providing within its vine-covered walls an other-wordly peacefulness.

Parking lot entrance to Portland Japanese Garden. From here
it's a five-minute walk up a steep, forested hillside to the Garden. 
The Japanese Garden is a collection of gardens in five different styles, each of which invites a distinct way of contemplating nature—and the soul. On these grounds, free-standing architecture or sculpture feels like part of the garden, rather than like excuses for landscaping. The Chinese gardens too are many, but each defined as a "vista," or point of view with a specific, named purpose. Each is precisely integrated architecturally and thematically into the pavilioned home of a Ming Dynasty scholar-aristocrat.

There was a special peace as there was a certain romance about my visit to the Japanese garden. It poured rain for every minute of the over-two hours that I spent there. This landscape not only needs water, but it dresses up in moisture too, the milky white atmosphere offsetting the broad spectrum of greens. I came across several groundskeepers in the course of my solitary wanderings. They were removing every dead leaf, stem, and blossom to heighten the piquant effect of the garden's abundant life. 

The sense of occupying an enchanted zone was vivid for me: There appeared to be no fading, or decay; no loss or death there. The landscapes appeared both alive and permanent, conjuring serenity not only by the aesthetics of fine horticultural science and art, but also by the illusory banishment of temporality and of scale. In the view of the mounded bushes rising on the hillside across a pond, for instance, the blushes of color could suggest a scene from the spring in late December: While a plantsman would know the season precisely, it seems essentially unimportant for the enjoyment of the scene's beauty. And even more in person than in the photograph, one senses that the view could be of a far-away mountainside; of bonsai trees; or of the actual modest, human-scaled flora planted on a limited acreage. The mind can expand or contract to fill whatever space the scene suggests to the visitor.
Portland Japanese Garden, landscape across the Lower Pond

Each of the Japanese gardens provides unique pleasure. Because the fecundity of the Pacific Northwest environment captivates me, I especially enjoyed the large Natural Garden, in which native plants are not shaped, but grow naturally along the paths, the stream, and around the waterfall. The infrastructure is carefully prepared and dead leaves removed so that there is no view of decay. An elegant pagoda-style lantern provides a focal point from at least two places and underscores one of the particular beauties of this garden, the underlying comparison between artifice and nature. For even though it is the Natural Garden—especially in relation to the more stylized and symbolic gardens around it—one only need look up into the foggy hillside of towering pines surrounding to consider two competing concepts of "natural." Any garden, however natural, is a work of artifice; a Japanese garden is artifice on an extraordinary level. 
Natural Garden. Pagoda lantern, foreground;
waterfall, background.

Natural Garden, view of stream from stone
We are reminded that we are in a New World landscape at every stop, not only in the Natural Garden. Another highlight is the Sand and Stone or Dry Garden, often called a "Zen Garden" for the association of this style with Zen Buddhist monasteries. The only elements are sand and rocks; the design is symbolic of islands or continents in the ocean, or of the cosmos itself. The enjoyment is contemplative; benches are provided those better prepared to endure the wet and cold than I was at the moment. Each rock in the garden has been chosen with great care for its intrinsic character, and placed with skill and art—in this case, it's easy to see how they all tend toward the towering focal point, as if they move toward it, worshipfully, obediently, or gravitationally.

Sand and Stone Garden
Detail, Sand and Stone Garden.

This is a place unrelieved by green, however, save by some bamboo and a few companion shrubs in the corners of the approach. Here the background of the native, wild, and untended landscape loom over what is surely one of gardening's most austere presentations. Despite the darkness of the day and the gray setting, I found myself still and focused on the great, upright rock. Its hunched, figurative form struck me as wise and strong. It exerted a force that made the smaller ones seem to respect and follow. Respect, fealty, and trust are awkward concepts for me, but in that setting they rested lightly, like the fog on the treetops.

The Flat Garden is the vast, serene ornament outside the central pavilion, what would have been the dwelling on the Gardens' model estate. Where the "sand" of the Sand and Stone Garden is in fact small stones, it is indeed a sea of raked white sand in the Flat Garden, in the midst of which two islands arise. I learned later that the shapes of the islands are significant, the small one representing a round sake cup, and the large, irregular one a gourd vessel from which the sake would be poured: In effect, they symbolize pleasure and hospitality. 

The pavilion has a broad, covered porch extending from its paper sliding doors. On this one can stand or stroll to contemplate the beauties of the landscaped ocean. The far shores have many kinds of plants in many soothing groupings. Once more, the meticulously kept garden is surrounded by the flora of the Pacific Northwest's native terrain. One can also see in the distance several natural and man-made focal points situated among the peripheral plantings. 

Flat Garden, with cup and gourd islands.

Throughout the Japanese gardens, nature is interrupted by small, man-made ornaments. Modest as these lanterns, bridges, gates, and basins are, the stone and wood materials and the unambiguous presence of the man-made turn each one into an event—another form of focal point or place to pause in admiration or reflection. Indeed, one passes through these gardens almost literally conscious of every step, for the sequence of views is unending, yet never so dense that one tires. A walk through the grounds, even in a downpour, is like riding a paper boat down a gentle rivulet of peace and alert uncaring.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden downtown Portland offers the rainy-day visitor many more opportunities to enjoy the landscape from under a pavilion roof. This is because the gardens are much more closely integrated into the architecture and living space of the wealthy family who would have owned the 16th century property. The ultimate goal here is to integrate every element within the walls not only visual harmony, but by symbol and significance as well. 

Lan Su Chinese Garden, Courtyard of Tranquility.

The Courtyard of Tranquility, the entry point for the compound, is considered a garden, despite its comparative lack of botanical materials. The Lake Tai rock, like the many others in the Garden, was formed by the currents of a lake into which it was lowered for that purpose. It is to be viewed for pleasure as a mountain, from the bottom up. The stones are laid in the yin-yang pattern, representing the interconnectedness of the world; in the glazed pot is a small persimmon tree, that fruit being symbolic of good fortune. The triangles along the roofline of the house picture bats, symbolic of happiness (a homonym in Chinese) and prosperity. Is it plants, or the harmonious aggregation of meanings that make the garden—the vision of a blessed and beneficent place? 

Every non-botanical element of Lan Su was imported from China in 2000, along with the sixty-five artisans to assemble them. The stones on the courtyard floors; the panels of the buildings; the Lake Tai rocks are among the five hundred tons of imported materials. Plants, however, could not be imported, but everything in the Garden comes from Chinese stock found in the Pacific Northwest, in nurseries, or donated by individuals. Many large, mature trees came from the gardens of individuals, where they had thrived in some cases for over a hundred years.

Among the treasured plants at Lan Su are several penjing, similar to what we know through the Japanese as bonsai. Penjing, however, are intended not so much to be individual specimens as landscapes, sometimes decorated with tiny models of people and structures. These bear relationship to Chinese landscape painting and sometimes serve as models. 

In both the Japanese and Chinese gardens, the principle of compression is paramount, but at Lan Su, there is a prevailing sense that within the four walls and very little space, the effort is to create an entire universe apart; to build a paradise on a small earth rather than to provide a series of beautiful settings separated by distance for the traveler to rest in and pass through.

Of Lan Su's block, at least one-third is taken up by water, and a wide variety of opportunities are arranged for viewing the water from pavilions, porches, and bridges. The charming pavilion pictured here rests in the middle of a bridge and is named the Moon Locking Pavilion. It sits over the widest area of water and is intended as the spot for gazing at the moon's reflection in the water, ideally "locked in" by the pavilion's own shadow on a clear, still night. Like every other aspect of the garden, the observable beauty of the landscape and architecture are melded yet more tightly by the poetry of the conception.

The Scholar's Courtyard is based on poetic conception as well. This is as interior a space as it's possible to find within the compound, creating the seclusion and quiet the scholar desires. The stone paving leads the visitor across the courtyard between the alluring, round passages to the neighboring spaces, but its width and curve are also invitations to linger and enjoy the subtleties of the rocks and flora. 
The tall tree in the courtyard's corner is a plum, which has its own significance. The plum blossoms early and thus, as a harbinger of spring, is considered a symbol of endurance and hope, messages valued by the scholar. The paving pattern reinforces the symbolism of the tree. The plum blossom sits in an abstract, angular pattern with sharp edges, representing ice. The plum blossom on cracked ice is a traditional motif that induces the visitor to contemplate the determination of the blossom to flower despite the harshness of winter's end.

In the Japanese Garden, I felt little concern about the particular symbolism of any one plant or scene. At Lan Su, I was among a group under the care of a Chinese-American guide whose Chinese acculturation more than any docent training led me into a deeper acquaintance with the details of the place than I could have achieved on my own. On the other hand, I didn't linger where I would have liked to, and  though I was enriched by certain kinds of knowledge, I miss the dreams of my own first pass-through. On the other hand, I am waiting for a guide and history of the Japanese Garden to arrive in the mail. 

It seems that I cannot have too much information, nor too many first experiences. Gardens are perfect for this mind set, being the ever-changing, always renewing form of art.

Persimmon tree at Lan Su Chinese Garden.

All photography by the author.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Islamic Art at Indianapolis: "Beauty and Belief"

Tile panel. Polychrome painted under transparent glaze. TURKEY (Iznik), 16th century.
63.4 cm x 26.4 cm x 5.5 cm deep.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The subtitle for Beauty and Belief, showing through January 13, 2013 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is Crossing Bridges to the Arts of Islamic Culture. When I crossed that bridge, I left everything  behind for a truly enveloping experience. I was transported through eyes and understanding into a worldview of transcendent beauty in which every detail is an element of patterns both visible (Dhahir) and invisible or spiritual (Batin), all interconnected forever, through time past and to come. 

The art collected in this spectacular show by its curator, Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir, illustrates the vast spread of the Ummah—the traditional Islamic community. Al Khemir's point of the unity of expression is made through the inclusion of work not only from the Middle East and North Africa. An orienting graphic that greets the visitor is a huge map of the eastern hemisphere, marking regions and cities that are centers of Islamic culture. I was impressed to see this vast range laid out visually: It extends from Toledo and Valencia to Venice to Mogadishu; Aden to Ankara, Tashkent and New Delhi, to eastern China and south to Kuala Lumpur.
Qur'an Manuscript, Volume 16. Ink and color on burnished cream paper
with brown morocco binding. CHINA, 18th century. 22.2 x 29.2 x 2.5 cm.
Private collection

Beauty and Belief emphasizes visual consonance across socio-economic levels as well. It presents work from royal households—items of breathtaking craftsmanship made from precious materials. But there are just as many artifacts put to daily use from common homes, ceramics particularly.

The breadth and unity of Islamic culture is further illustrated by the variety of materials and processes in which one finds similar motifs. The show includes ceramics, textiles, many metals worked in forms as dainty as incense burners and as grand as doors; ivory; paper; wood; glass; and photographs of architecture. Across all media we see decorations based in endlessly elaborated calligraphy; flora and fauna; geometric patterns; and all of these nestled in patterns that blend elements in indistinguishable unity.

Incense Burner. Cast brass, pierced, engraved, and inlaid
with silver. SYRIA (Damascus), 15th century.
Diameter 13.4 cm. The British Museum, London.
A big surprise that flies in the face of long-accepted belief about Islamic art, is that the figure in fact appears regularly in Islamic art. Al Khemir demonstrates convincingly that though it is sacrilegious to introduce images into the mosque, people and animals are routinely and abundantly portrayed in all other sorts of art, both representational and fantastical. 

Art-making is always an act of devotion in Islam: The artist's actions and the results of his labor are suffused with spirituality. The tiniest mark is invested with the holy since, "God is the ultimate beholder." This does not mean that every decorated item assumes religious or sacred function—only the contents of the mosque have that—but it means that the spirit is omnipresent in a way the believers are conscious of and accustomed to. Moreover, a bowl decorated with an elaborate calligraphic expression like, "Great is his majesty," relates to the entire material universe of those words both written and on the breath of individuals who repeat them.

Tawhid is the Islamic idea of oneness with god—that everything comes from god and goes back to him, in a cycle. God passes through artist in the very acts that they dedicate to him. Every thing they make, then, and each detail of its decoration, has its own meaning but also has meaning congruent with the universal. Every piece of art is significant in itself and has significance greater than itself, as a drop in the eternal confluence of god's spirit. The Islamic worldview is thus charged with meaning in a way foreign to most Westerners, for whom most details of the material world are indifferent or negligible.

Detail proceeds infinitely in Islamic art. The incense burner, for instance is only 13.4 cm (about 5.15 inches), yet it contains a world of repeated, interlocking design. The patterns are a combination of abstract flowers and leaves intertwined with geometric elements knotted among one another: stars with many blunted points, circles and ellipses in clusters, and so on. Such combinations of patterns and design elements are familiar in the West as they were copied into Renaissance design. 
Three Finials, each with a Name of God. Steel, incised and overlaid in gold and backed with silver.
IRAN, probably early 18th century. 20.5 cm x 12 cm. x 0.3 cm. Private collection. Photo © Peter Savage, Visible Time, London

Tile with Twelve-pointed Star. Ceramic mosaic with
polychrome glaze. IRAN (Isfahan), 15th century.
Diameter, 62.23 cm. Seattle Art Museum,
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection.
The detail of these 8-inch high finials (probably from a grille in a mosque) is dazzling; they are from a set of ninety-nine, each bearing one of the ninety-nine names of god. Close inspection shows that not only the calligraphy differs between them; the floral background designs are, while similar, different enough to make me wonder if they were intentionally variant, or the accident of work by many hands. The finials themselves form a greater pattern, for the negative space between them mirrors, top to bottom, the shape of the objects themselves.

The mosaic tile illustrates on a much more complicated level the use of positive and negative shapes along with interwoven natural and geometric designs. Within the twelve points, the artist has created a golden square composed of four soft triangles meeting in a star. The gold star sits at right angles to its turquoise twin, which makes us aware of the turquoise floral "pillows"—soft rectangles—formed behind the gold frame. At the points of the turquoise star rest white, lotus-like flowers with strong triangular centers. The elements of the gold border are also joined by tri-partite gold elements. The integration of the mathematical with the illusions created by the use of positive and negative space and of color juxtapositions—and all within a design so flowing, natural, and elegant—seems to me an exemplary  expression of the Islamic aesthetic. Note, as well, how much occurs within a single tile that can be fit into a larger design: Just like its many patterns, the tile itself is related to many possible patterns that can extend forever beyond its borders.

Bowl with a Hare. Incised, white slipped and painted pottery, Aghkand type.
Northwest IRAN or the CAUCASUS, 12th-13th century. 11.5 cm high,
30 cm. diameter. The British Museum, London. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.
The combination of natural and geometric patterns takes on a new complexion when it becomes part of a picture with the introduction of an animal or a person. The colors of the bowl with a lively, leaping, ears-lifted hare, and the freshness of the drawing soften the symmetry to promote a sense of the scenic: a rabbit gambols across earth and verdure. There's a informality here that doesn't pertain to the tile, above, because the forms are not as precisely placed or outlined. Moreover, the alert, moving animal appears uninterested in the disposition of the environment: He is confident, it seems, of the world's beauty and order, the world the artist reflects as a devotion to a god who loves beauty. Al Khemir grounds us with a quote from the Prophet Muhammed, that "God is beautiful and loves beauty." Here is a hare who artlessly assumes beauty.
Griffin. Cast bronze with engraved decoration. SPAIN  (possibly
Cordoba), 11th century. 107 x 32 x 82 cm.
Opera della Primaziale Pisana, Pisa (copy in exhibition).

Figurative and pictorial art goes in many directions, though. Beauty and Belief assures us that fantastical animals in the form of figurines are not uncommon in Islamic art. Belief in an invisible world leaves plenty of latitude for such. Where Greco-Roman tradition tends to cast creatures with the qualities of several animals as monsters, in Islamic tradition they tend to be guardian figures. A griffin—combined eagle and lion—long topped the cathedral in Pisa, Italy. When the building was restored, the figure was lowered and inspected, only then discovered to be covered with Arabic writing. 

Another form of fantastical animal in Islamic art is the composite, an animal whose mass is composed of the forms of other animals, all fitted together to take the shape of the one. In a picture like the one shown, the exterior (pictured) animal proceeds in the scene as if it were  just like any normal animal of its species, allowing the viewer to speculate about not only the reality status of the story, but of the creature within the story's borders. Such composite drawings are apparently thought to be in a class unto themselves and more metaphysical in spirit than representations like the happy hare or the beneficent griffin, suggesting the ideas of transiency and ultimate unity, or the unity of the invisible spiritual world. 
Composite Elephant and Other Creatures. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. NORTHERN INDIA, circa 1600.
15.88 x 22.23 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection.
Interior composed of animals including bear, tigers, rabbits, fish, deer,peacock, leopard, oxen, antelope, boar, snakes, and a man.

Though I arrive at it last, calligraphic quotations form the the Qur'an and the Hadith (the reports of the Prophet Muhammad's deeds and sayings) are ubiquitous in Islamic art. Calligraphy not only presents holy texts but becomes, in itself, as aesthetic object. Calligraphy is the most noble art, the domain of the most scholarly and cultured persons. Styles of writing abound. Calligraphers succeed one another for generations in families as priests would, for calligraphy is seen as a particular form of devotion. Practitioners never identify their work, so selflessly do they dedicate it to god.
Bowl with Kufic Characters. Earthenware
with white slip and glaze. PERSIA (Nishapur),
9th-10th century. 9.8 x 26 cm. Seattle Art
Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection.
Photo: Paul Macapia.

Beauty and Belief astounds with its abundant examples of the written word; but then, it is clearly impossible to exhibit Islamic art without doing so. In a catalogue essay, Dr. Al Khemir reminds us that through the Qur'an, god manifested himself in the language of Arabic; all Muslims, regardless of their spoken language, learn to read Arabic. "In Islamic culture," she writes, "even a piece of paper with Arabic written on it becomes sacred and treading upon it is disapproved of." It stands to follow that scribes of Arabic are  honored, and that exquisite calligraphy would be the most highly valued art.

As with all manifestations of Islamic art, calligraphy is presented in every form and situation from the simple and common to the most elaborate and precious. The white earthenware bowl with a few black characters as border is enormously elegant in its design; it pleases the contemporary eye with the proportions of the calligraphy and and the overall relationship of black to white, enhanced by tracings of red. One need not recognize script at all to admire the bold, dynamic design.

Where the beauty of the calligraphy on a common bowl might be executed in relatively little time, many forms of calligraphy were painstaking in relation to the value thought to inhere in the message written. The gilded inscription within the fine net of a horse chestnut leaf says, "The best people are those who do good for other people," and reads from bottom to top. This painstaking art form preserved important cultural saying for the Sufi sect. The catalogue explains the technique, which involved stenciling the text and covering it with wax before laying the leaf  on top, soaked in chemicals that ate away nearly everything but the vein structure, to reveal the writing. The writing was further outlined with piercing to remove still more of the leaf surface. The fineness of the leaf's filigree enhances the bold lines of the calligraphy, enhancing the stature of the words both as marks and as message.

Natural Leaf with Calligraphy, Thuluth script. Horse chestnut leaf. TURKEY, 19th  century. 20.x 8.9 cm. Private collection, USA.

Even in an exhibition with very little that that fails to inspire excitement, wonder, or delight; to illuminate a culture that's been nothing but obscure to me; there are still two or three works that stop my heart with their beauty, with the purity of the artist's passionate expression, or with their power to grab and shake me. This sheet of calligraphy is one of these, a 19th century collection of sayings that refer to the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law. Written on black paper, each saying appears in a different color, and the whole is enhanced with gold paint.

Riqu' Script Referring to 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Possibly transcribed by
Zayn al-"Abidin al-Isfahani in 1802. Multi-colored text on black paper with gold flecks.
IRAN, 19th century. 15.7 x 18.5 cm. Wellcome Library, London.

With no knowledge of Arabic, and no natural inclination to think in religious terms, I find myself moving through this "backwards," if the goal is to understand it as Islamic art. Simply as an artistic document to experience, I am swept away by its beauty and brilliance. I love the balance and the layering of the color panels: It runs the gamut from deepest dark colors to bright white yet without graduated, marginal changes. The color juxtapositions have to be considered as events in themselves, yet in the context of the whole sheet, they create not only a surface pattern of stripes and boxes but they also create a sense of changing depths. For me, this has the feel of a replete forest or garden maintained in manicured condition, in perpetual bloom. The calligraphic strokes are so expressive of floral forms, of stems, leaves, and vines, that were I to propose words for this image, they would be erotic, following the flowing marks and the rich, warm depth of palette. 

I would hardly be the first, though, to align sacred text with the erotic —see the poetry of the Old Testament Bible. But I think I find this artwork especially appealing because of this. While so much of the work in this show shows the minutely detailed in larger patterns that can combine forever—as I think one senses happening here—there is often a geometric logic controlling the work. Through the evident formality of this sheet I feel an erupting passion: The layout is short of symmetrical, the colors are not symmetrically designed—there's an overall urgency of movement that seems to arise from a more urgent motive. If God beholds everything, and loves beauty, don't some things catch his eye more than others? Does his heart skip a beat every now and then? I imagine he'd have to pause and catch his breath for a celestial moment here.

This extremely significant show was spearheaded by the Brigham Young University Art Museum, along with the Indianapolis Art Museum, the Newark (New Jersey) Museum, and the Portland (Oregon) Museum. 

At any time of the world, Beauty and Belief would be a welcome, timely, and deeply instructive show. It would be easy to moralize that its value is particularly great in this, our era of extended war between the United States and militant Islamic terrorists. But Beauty and Belief is a show about enduring culture and vision. No war waged on any premise touches on either.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Navajo Weaving at the Palm Springs Art Museum

Navajo, Transitional Period Banded Wearing
circa 1890, handspun natural wool and
synthetic dyes, collection of Jan and
Mark Hilbert
Woven Together: Art and Design in Southwest Indian Textiles," presented by California's Palm Springs Art Museum, is an exemplary overview of a century of Navajo weaving. The show is abundant with examples of blankets and rungs from 1870 to 1970, elegantly installed in well-organized and warmly-painted galleries. 

Native American weaving is an art form about which I knew nothing, going in. I came out visually dazzled and enriched by the history of the art and of the complicated modern social context in which it developed.

The show's title refers to southwestern Indian textiles, but I'll refer to this as a show of Navajo work. The Navajo art is based on inherited traditions from the Pueblo people, who had been weaving with cotton since 700 AD. Spanish colonists introduced sheep to the Pueblo in the 16th century, and wool became the fiber of choice. This exhibition shows examples of late Spanish and Pueblo blankets that illustrate cultural influences. The focus, however, is on the development of Navajo weaving practice in light of its connection with Anglo commerce and aesthetics. What seems to be truly "woven together" here are the entrepreneurial desires of whites and Navajos' skillful adaptations as they worked to prosper within both the marketplace and their own traditions.
Navajo, Wearing Blanket (Possibly Zuni), Moki Style, circa
1860-1979, handspun natural wool, Saxony (red) and
raveled (red) yarnd, and indigo (blue) synthetic dyes,
collection of Jan and Mark Hilbert

The first big distinction for beginners like myself was that the Navajo were weavers of blankets, not rugs. Blankets had many purposes, all personal. Not the least of these was use as garments, which they either wrapped singly, or sewed together to be pulled over the head. The illustration below shows an installation of chief blankets. Their name doesn't indicate a particular connection to tribal chiefs, but recognition of the fineness of yarns, the clarity of colors and the bold, outstanding designs. The traditional Navajo "wearing blanket" has evenly-spaced bands across a plain field of background color. Chief blankets introduce outstanding designs like zigzags, diamonds, or chevrons.
Chief blanket installation at Woven Together, Palm
Springs Art Museum, December 2012

The world of the Navajo was devastated during the 1860s when it was determined that there were no independent Indian lands in New Mexico, and Kit Carson was instructed to beset the Navajo and undertake a scorched earth campaign that included killing all their sheep. The Long March took the Navajo in groups 350 miles to internment at Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River. They marched back in 1868 when mounting pressure on the federal government forced them to release the several tribes they had corralled there.

The effects on weaving would seem counter-intuitive, for the emergent style was more brilliant and lively than before. Because the Navajo had lost their sheep, the government supplied them with what was generically called Germantown yarn. This was wool yarn spun in the neighborhood of Germantown, Pennsylvania and dyed synthetically into many colors previously unknown in the Southwest. The Navajo weavers continued to produce banded wearing blankets, but in zigzag or dentil designs, and using unusual, new color combinations to produce "eye dazzlers."
Navajo, Early Ganado Rug, circa 1900, handspun
natural wool and synthetic dyes, gift of the
George Montgomery trust.

It wasn't until the 1890s and after that the complicated, geometric patterns that many of us associate with Navajo weaving appeared at all. The diamonds, windmills ("backwards swastikas"), crosses, diagonal stairways, and arrows were not generated by Native Americans, but by artists working for the Anglo trading posts, which became the major employers of Navajo weavers and purveyors of their products.
Navajo, Ganado or Klagetoh Rug,
circa 1920, natural handspun wool and
synthetic dyes, gift of Mrs. J. Beatty

Two fine rooms in this show highlight the world of artisans connected the Hubbell Trading Post and one called Two Grey Hills. Hubbell was built at Ganado, New Mexico by a magnate of stage and freight lines, who owned fourteen posts on Navajo territory. He made a deal with the Santa Fe Railroad to stock Ganado rugs at their tourist sites.

The rugs Ganado weavers produced followed the leads of   Hubbell's commissioned Anglo painters. Ganado rugs can be identified by the characteristic designs the weavers copied from painted designs that were hung in the workshops for them to emulate and imitate.

Navajo, Two Grey Hills Rug, circa 1940,
hanspun natural wool and synthetic
over-dye (black), gift of Mrs. J. Beatty
Two Grey Hill rugs have their own pallet and motifs. These are at first glance similar to oriental rugs—and this is no accident. Rugs were popular as floor and wall decoration during the Arts and Crafts period that spanned the turn of the century. Navajo rugs were highly desirable, to serve the same purpose as orientals. One notices on all trading post rugs, too, that the geometric, abstract designs are contained by borders. These were mandated by the Anglo designers, in imitation of oriental rugs. Borders were never present in Navajo blankets, which were woven from selvage to selvage in uninterrupted bands.

Isabel John (1933-2004), Navajo Pictorial Weaving,  circa 1975, handspun natural and commercial wool,
vegetal and syntheti dyes, gift of Joyce F. Klein

During the 20th century, independent Navajo weavers began to produce pictorial weavings. In Isabel John's 1975, "Navajo Pictorial Weaving," above, the artist blended handspun wools with commercial; vegetal with synthetic dyes to create a tableau intended for explaining  aspects of tribal culture to children. A charming scene of village life is also a didactic panel.
Blossom Nez Yeh, active 1920s, Navajo Windway Sandpainting Textile, Wind People Dressed (Clothed) in Snakes, 1920-'23,
handspun natural wool and synthetic dyes, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Seymour Lazar, A6-2004.

Yet "Navajo Windway Sandpainting Textile," by Blossom Nez Yeh, represents a sacred ceremony and is considered by some controversial for its content. This immense rug is the showstopper of the exhibition. Its size, quality, and dignity mesmerize. The notes tell us that it represents figures draped with snakes, as in a healing ceremony. In the ceremony, these figures would be painted in sand and then swept away afterwards: It's considered sacrilege to render them permanent. Yet here are the Wind People for any and all to see, in a rug commissioned by a tourist trading post that has become part of the Petrified National Forest in Arizona.

The story told by Woven Together is a moving one: Any reminder of the mistreatment of native peoples is a grave collective shame; the reminders of their resilience and creativity are inspiring.

The Navajo blankets and rugs by themselves are all "eye dazzlers" of color, design, and workmanship. I understand that this show, organized by the Palm Springs Art Museum from its own collection, will not travel. It's a pity.

But the excellent catalogue costs only ten dollars. It's beautifully printed, richly illustrated, with excellent text by Christine Giles, curator, and Katherine Hough, Chief Curator. It's well worth having.
Navajo, Germantown Pictorial Blanket (detail of cowboy, steer and bow and arrows),
circa 1880, handspun natural and Germantown commercial wool and synthetic dyes,
gift of Isabel White Chase from the Cornelia B. White Estate.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

DeWitt, DiCenzo, and Scott: This is Improvisation

Derek DiCenzo, Dave DeWitt, Aaron Scott
Dave DeWitt, piano. Derek DiCenzo, bass. Aaron Scott, drums. This jazz trio has been improvising around Columbus since the late '80s. Jazz; improvisation. Inseparable, right?

Yes and no. There's improvisation...and then there's improvisation.When a jazz ensemble begins a tune, they establish the melody first. Usually it's a widely recognized standard song from a great composer of the early-to-mid twentieth century, like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, or Jule Styne; songs you know, like "There Will Never Be Another You," "[Take the] A-Train," or "Skylark." Or, it may be a jazz tune derived directly from one of those great, standard songs. 

After the tune's first chorus is set down, the musicians trade improvised solos based on the progression of chords used in the melody. By "improvised," we mean, generally, that they wing it. Their muscle memory and their ear knowledge allow them spontaneously to invent variations on the tune while adhering to the structures that tie those variations, however bold or soaring, to the melody.

The ideas of improvisation, spontaneity, and uniqueness in jazz intertwine. But if a group has two or three gigs a week, how can those improvised solos continue to be genuinely spontaneous night after night? Isn't it inevitable that the musicians will develop "licks" or patterns they like, feel comfortable with, or wish to continue exploring? Does spontaneity have to imply uniqueness, the result of continual reinvention? Is non-repetition even a possibility for musical creativity? Wouldn't that be to invoke a god-like standard of conceptual fertility?

We who follow DeWitt, DiCenzo, and Scott—variously appearing as the ADD Trio, TRio, Aaron Scott Trio, Derek DiCenzo, or Dave DeWitt Trio—can make it our week's work to attend the two or three gigs that hard-working Scott books for them. We can hear them play "Moon River" many times over. So one might assume that sooner or later, we'd start to pay more attention to our drinks than to repertory we'd presumably heard before.

Dave DeWitt. Author photo.
This emphatically doesn't happen. Every performance by this trio starts in a galaxy far, far away, from which we witness the emergence of a new star. We in the audience arrive as musical newborns. We struggle even to grasp the tune, for even the musicians aren't sure, as they set out, where they are headed, let alone in what key. These are jazz improvisers in the radical sense. 

The trio is the house band for Becky Ogden's Jazz Bungalow. On November 4th they opened the first set for a Jazz Brunch with the following set up by Dave DeWitt on the piano. Put yourself in the shoes of the bassist and drummer, preparing yourself for the tune emerging HERE. What is it? I still don't know. Clearly, the first premises of the music are trust and anticipation.

Making music that coalesces into standard tunes, the trio depends on pianist DeWitt to let his hands and imagination wend their ways through rhythmic thickets and chordal tides for as long as it takes DiCenzo and Scott—and DeWitt himself—to figure out what they are playing. When everything falls together (it can take the audience even longer to figure out what the tune is), the band surges, often beyond the information of the moment. The ambiguous, novel puzzle of DeWitt's question—the antithesis of the normal "statement"—makes each performance of the same tune a unique event for musicians and listeners alike. Given this device the trio has chosen for setting up each tune, there simply is no possibility of repetition. As you watch as well as listen, you can see these guys literally sweating to pull it off; you can see and hear the hits and misses, the facial telegraphing of the hits and misses, the pleasure, panic, and pains of improvisation. And it is good.

I love this antic, all-out, seven-and-a-half-minute performance of a tune I didn't identify until several minutes along, the name of which you'll find with the following YouTube of its simple version. This tune gives ADD at its best: The statement-as-question, the headlong playing, the unity on-the-fly. I've decided not to excerpt this or the following tunes. I simply don't know how to interrupt such driving music, and my will to try is weak. So HERE it is. You can compare it to a simple rendition, the perfect material for a "tune with variations," copied from YouTube HERE.

Derek DiCenzo. Author photo.
The music this ensemble makes is molten, always hot and taking shape, but never solidified into a state of rest, even up to the last second. Only in retrospect can the listener, like the musicians, begin to analyze what happened; only when there's time to exhale and laugh off the tension can anyone begin sorting through all the musical quotations, key changes, and collective exhibition of forms, styles, and rhythms of Western music.

The gigs that this trio play are divided into sets. Unlike others', though, the sets are not exactly divided into tunes separated by time during which the crowd applauds and the musicians reset. Usually, there is barely a break between one number and the next. DeWitt is loath to let the energy lapse and keeps his hands on the keyboard, roiling the notes until the next tune unravels itself. In some groups, this would be the means of making a medley of tunes, but that's never what DeWitt is setting up. For these guys, the performance unit is the set, not the tune, so their energy is wave-like, increasing in pressure throughout the hour. The lack of space between the tunes gives the listener the heady sense of riding a wave that is gaining height and force until it exhausts itself in a crash—as these musicians literally come close  to doing by set's end.

To illustrate the persistence and push of a performance, on this 8-1/2 minute sample is the closing of "On Green Dolphin Street" and the full performance of the Latin classic, "Fungi Mama." Listen HERE.

How do DeWitt, DiCenzo, and Scott generate music of such size, energy, and originality? For one thing, by being nonpareil musicians. For another, by being playmates. One has a sense of them as being in an eternal clubhouse: At one minute they're the chess nerds, and the next they are covered in grease, taking apart car engines.

Aaron Scott. Author photo.
Scott is unstoppable both as drummer and impresario: He will get work for his phenomenal group, and he does, even in  tight times. He's been booking since his twenties, when he returned to town from North Texas State where he went on scholarship. Even then he began booking for himself and for the city's top jazz musicians with whom he was playing, including his father, pianist Bob Allen. Booking, and playing, Scott was also teaching at Columbus Percussion Center and enrolled at Capital University to complete his degree. He's a man whose excellence on his instrument is paralleled by his knowledge of talent and determination that it will not go empty-handed. He will also not let talent go without attracting it to his own.

DeWitt and DiCenzo are madmen; naturals, whose music wells up from inner springs. Both are self-taught musical polymaths. 

I first knew the mercurial DeWitt as a premier bassist when I came to Columbus ten years ago, and was surprised when I first heard him on the keyboards, making astonishing music. Yet, as it seems, many know him primarily as a drummer. DeWitt explains that he began playing piano at age 3, even before his musician father knew that he could; his parents thought he had been simply pecking at the instrument in the garage. He confesses to a lifelong "love/hate relationship" with piano, the hate side of which led him to give it up in his teens and to take up drums, again on his own.

DeWitt returned to piano for a decade but in his mid-thirties (during the '80s), he turned to the string bass. "I was seldom happy with the bassists I played with, so I decided I'd do it myself," he grins. "I really liked it. I like being in the middle of the rhythm section."
Dave DeWitt. Author photo.

Indeed, the relationship between piano and bass in this trio is arresting, for the two instruments occupy virtually equal positions—DeWitt cites the relationship between pianist Bill Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro as an admirable example. Although the piano "leads" in the sense of insuring that each tune becomes the strand picked from the knot, this is not at all a "piano trio." Actually, it's not a trio led by any voice: It's a three-part conversation. Even the pianist plays all three instruments.

As does the bassist. Derek DiCenzo, too, like his colleagues, has supported himself by his music in Columbus since the '80s. He, too, is largely self-taught. He reads music, as DeWitt does not, but he makes it clear that he is in another world from the great "technicians" of conservatory and college with whom he often plays in the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and on tours. 

I originally identified DiCenzo with guitar and electric bass. Then I heard him on upright bass, as in this group. But these are just the start: He also gigs on piano, Hammond B3 organ, drums, steel drums, and accordion. On special occasions, he can be convinced to bring and play his theremin.
Derek DiCenzo. Author photo.

On the occasion of this recording, the second of two sets ended with the musicians literally close to physical collapse, yet in a nervous state of exhausted euphoria. Scott threw down his sticks, laughing to DiCenzo, of the last tune, "All the Things You Are," "Man! We were swinging by the seat of our pants!" DiCenzo responded incredulously, "Where are the beats? What am I doing up here? This is crazy stuff!" Laughing, "You'd think we'd rehearse or something!"

Yet when I talked with DiCenzo a few minutes later, he assured me that of all the work he does, playing almost daily, this is "what makes me feel like a great musician." As he explains this, I know exactly what he means, because I've heard everything. He says that, "It's not just filling up the space with notes. It's crazily fresh," because the three of them have "a perfect hook-up" that allows "great accidents to happen." And, best of all, it is the most basic form of improvisation, the complete opposite of playing from scored music. "You don't practice at home to go play the same notes that you practiced. The music happens. I love it. It's unlike anything else." He nails his words with the hammer of his voice.

DiCenzo, Scott, and DeWitt play with love and abandon. They joke about calling themselves the ADD Trio (for Aaron, Derek and Dave) with the implications ("attention deficit disorder") of frantic, turn-on-a-dime energy. Maybe, given that each member is absolutely crucial to the existence of the music they make, they should try something like The Codependents, or Dave DeWitt and the Enablers. 

The intensity of their abandoned playing—the all out, sweaty, no-breaks and no-brakes leap—does indeed make me marvel at the energy they generate for work that leaves them at the end both exhausted and possessed. Coming down from a session like this would seem to be as difficult as playing it; the consequences of returning to earth after such a euphoria of ideas, adrenaline, and fiery creativity could require as much attention, balance, and management as making the music itself.

Those of us on the audience side of jazz enjoy the privilege of sitting at the table, knowing how richly we enjoy the feast. But we are as gourmets to cooks, savoring the dishes without having had to slit any throats. It seems so little to applaud musicians like these, who can take us to heights of joy as we simply listen, while they get there by sweating blood.

Listen HERE to DeWitt, DiCenzo and Scott play "My Funny Valentine."

Monday, November 26, 2012

From Tapestry Room into the Garden: New Oil Paintings by Elsie Sanchez

Elsie Sanchez, BREATHE, oil on canvas, 2011. 56 x 68." Courtesy of the artist.
The Keny Galleries in Columbus are showing Elsie Sanchez's work of the past two years. The show runs through December 7. 

Sanchez's medium is oil paint. Her canvases have a teeming, gnarly fluency; they feel as though the paint climbed and gathered itself onto the surfaces. Her paintings seem like acts of will and idea; of partnership with paint, rather than use of it. 

Any single piece in this highly sensual body of work exerts a powerful attraction. Sanchez does not stint on color nor does she dilute it. Since she works in small strokes and patches, her canvases define "teeming." BREATHE, from 2011, is what she would call a "tapestry," fascinated as she is with the process of weaving. It's an excellent metaphor for what she has made, a surface of great depth and texture, the warmth of which enfolds the viewer at first glance. It radiates into the room; it vibrates, pulsates. Yet it is stable; it is uniform, and its forms are clearly differentiated. From a distance, its "blue heart" is evident.

BREATHE detail. Author photo.
BREATHE is over 4-1/2 by 5-1/2 feet in size. Sanchez painted it—as she does everything—without more than a few marks—without prior drawing or guidelines—on the canvas. The even flow of the color units and outlinings are the result of her slow, contemplative process, which equally values each individual daub of paint. Close inspection of her canvases makes this radiantly clear, for every form has a unique and personal air; each stands out never as a rushed repetition, but as a deliberate and considered statement. If we, as viewers, put any amount of time at all into standing before this painting, we will find it difficult not to compare the inherent will and movement of our bodies with the highly colored regularity of the canvas; to feel a sense of the brilliant variety and depth available within the concept of patient regularity.

Elsie Sanchez, Sanctuary II, 2012. Oil on canvas, 20 x 18."
Courtesy of the artist.
Sanchez has been moving in a new direction, from the weaving model into work that both organically and logically extends it. Her work of 2012 continues the pods of color, but in a mixture of different sizes, shapes, and relationships; in new palettes; and, as a result, with new illusion of depth back and forth through the painting's surface. Had Van Gogh painted abstractly, would it have looked like this? It's a moot question, but Sanchez's forms and colors in Sanctuary II may remind viewers of the Dutch painter. There may even be an impulse to describe the writhing shapes as "tormented" or "tortured." 

I think this painting approaches the pictorial, though, in having sections that are defined by different colors (ochres and pinks of the top compared to lower greens and blues), shapes (the flames of yellow leaping up) and even the suggestion of foreground, as in the peaks that arise from the bottom edge of the canvas. Sanchez's color choices have eased into the pastel region from the highly saturated primary and secondary colors, making for a vernal palette. Rather than torment, I tend to feel in the image the dense violence of spring's growth, the riot of nature's forms and colors shoving and unfolding themselves into the light.

Elsie Sanchez, Response, 2012. Oil on canvas. 32 x 26." Courtesy of the artist.

Response detail. Author photo.
The two most recent paintings in the Keny show move even farther into suggestions of the botanical, or into that sensuous area where floral and sexual intertwine. In Glimpse and Response, a palette considerably reduced and refined to golden yellow and crimson is opulent, tactile, suggestive. The eyes travel the curves of these surfaces like a lover's over a concubine's; the hands wish to do the same, so thickly applied and rich is the paint. If the canvas reminds us a little of Klimt's golden opulence of lovers, this is, by contrast, all expression. No figures are present or required to convey the freedom, the intensity, or the artful control of the feeling of the botanical and sexual this painting conveys. 

I find Response a thrilling work. I love it for what Sanchez does extraordinarily well: She conveys the pinnacle of emotion and sensation; the sense of smoldering passion both fresh and studied— sustained just short of the consuming flame.
Elsie Sanchez, Glimpse, 2012. Oil on canvas. 32 x 28."
Courtesy of the artist.