Issue 8 :: Summer 2006
Avatar Review

Jacqueline May

Place in Art

Everybody is from somewhere. All our thoughts and feelings, as we go about our lives, take their shape from our surroundings. The places we live our lives create an indelible imprint on our personalities, on our identities, just as we leave our mark on them.

There is an illusion that it is easy to fall prey to: the illusion that the person I am is entirely separate and distinct from the physical world around me, that my inner self and thoughts are in some other realm. The truth is that the line between self and surroundings is indistinct at best. I drink water from a bottle or a tap, sometimes in a form flavored by some grapes and yeast. The water likely originated in some watershed, whether in Texas, or in Europe, or in Arkansas, or in whatever place I happen to be in at the moment. I become a part of the flow of water from place to place as surely as if it traveled through any aquifer. The food I eat comes from a place. The minerals that make up my bones originate in the rocky soil of some land. The nervous system I use to idly dream up fanciful ideas about self and place is made up of materials from some place. And I will again become an indistinguishable part of the Earth after I die. As trade brings us food and goods from ever further afield, our physical unity becomes not only with our local land but with these far-flung foreign lands as well.

As I look at visual art (confining myself to the discipline I know best), holding this thought in mind, a panorama is revealed that mirrors the physical presence of place in the lives of its creators. The brilliantly colored artworks emerging from creators living in tropical landscapes undoubtedly reflect the colors of their surroundings. I think here of Mexican masters such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, or the master weavers of Guatemala. Picture, if you will, the scrimshaw of more northerly climes, and imagine how not only the colors in the surrounding landscape, but also the durable materials available impact this art form. It can be no accident that the Nordic preference for elegant simplicity occurs in the context of a landscape that is often covered with snow. And the dark woods and sophisticated angled forms of African traditional masks and sculpture are brought forth in a landscape marked by the shadowy rhythm of trees.

In Thomas McEvilley's wonderful essay, "On The Manner of Addressing Clouds," (1) he discusses the many levels of meaning created, not only by the conscious iconography of an artwork, but also by unconscious factors. These might include marketing, materials, size, duration, or physical placement. Imagine a gigantic billboard of a painted landscape which obscures the view of the actual landscape, extolling the virtues of a mining corporation which is strip mining the area. Or imagine a cheap poster representing an idealized foreign landscape, badly framed and displayed high up on the wall, lit by flickering fluorescent tubes, in an extremely impersonal institution such as a hospital. What connection with home and reality is offered to the poor patient by this artwork? Those mall-based chain stores offering cheesy partially handmade landscapes -every different additional touch by a real human person racks up a higher fee, with a slight touch by the putative artist going for yet more - always nauseate me beyond belief, even more so inasmuch as their marketing cynically exploits the unwary public's yearning for something real. It is sadder still that the general public has come to prefer the comfort and familiarity of this processed artificiality. Irony is at its best as a conscious statement.

In contrast, look at the integrity of James Turrell's skyscapes, including his current work in progress, Roden Crater. The artist has, with immense effort and vision, created elegantly simple environments that compel the participant - viewer seems too two-dimensional a word - to gaze at and savor the wonder of the actual sky, out of the actual earth. It has ever been a comfort for distant lovers and family members to remember that they look up at the same moon. Or consider young children's art, which is often lovely, and is unmistakably genuine. It can take a lot of maturing for a trained artist to develop a complete range of skills and then return to that authenticity, to the unaffected, secure awareness of self. However, anyone can create something real.

Although I hesitate to place myself in such august company, I must be true to my own experience or risk the appearance of inauthenticity. Often appearing in my own artworks is a map-like aerial view of Possum Kingdom Lake.(2) Or I might use a fragment of an actual map featuring the lake. This is a conceptual stand-in for the brief, formative period of my early existence that I lived within its watershed. As I grow in my awareness of the importance of place, I am beginning to use other maps, expanding my reach in hopes of providing artwork that will serve a larger community. An enjoyable aspect of working with maps is the fact that they are a subject matter comprehensible to a broad audience, yet respectable for their conceptual content among my peers in contemporary art. The maps lead me to have conversations with many people about their fond connections with a place - people who would not ordinarily be at all at home discussing a contemporary artwork. Our shared experience of a place gives us common ground, and leads a more general audience to feel included and respected.

I am thinking now of an artwork I made about a year ago, following a trip to San Francisco. I saw a tank filled with live fish in a Chinatown market, swimming in beautiful, fascinating patterns as they awaited their selection for death. The horror of imagining their eventual fate, and my compassion for them in their current confinement in murky water, stood in stark contrast to the experience of their collective beauty. I was, luckily, not too overwhelmed with the poetry of the moment to shoot a quick film documenting them and their surroundings. In "Into Strange Waters," one of the artworks I made based on this film, I cut out and collaged into a painting pieces of two maps shaped like the bodies of the fish. The maps are of Central and Southeast Asia and of Mineral Wells, Texas, representing the contact between a Texan artist and Asian culture. My own momentary experience in encountering the foreign serves as a single facet reflecting the world's experience of globalization.

It is a hope that we all, and artists in particular, can retain a secure enough sense of our own place in the world that we can learn to interact compassionately with people from other places, and even other cultures within our own, mindful of what kind of mark we make on the world.

1 The essay is included in his book Art and Discontent, New York: McPherson & Company, 1991, and shares its title with a poem by Wallace Stevens.
2 An actual lake in North Central Texas, near Mineral Wells, with a funny, culturally relevant name and an attractive, dragon-like form.


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