Friday, January 31, 2014

"Her Story": Elizabeth Murray and Artistic Subversion

Elizabeth Murray "My Manhattan, January" Oil on Canvas 1987
I love the artwork of the painter, Elizabeth Murray. In fact her paintings and prints are my favorite of all artists. So you can imagine how delighted I was to view the exhibition of her artwork at Stanford University's Cantor Art Center. Murray has won numerous accolades for her art, including a MacArthur genius award. Although Murray has been proclaimed as a "female" artist based on her gender and the domestic nature of the themes in her art, I would venture to say that Murray's work goes way beyond the essentialization of gender roles: she subverts conventional female gender roles in a deeper analysis of her art. The above photo from her exhibition at the Cantor Art Center is a surreal integration of a fish form with interior biomorphic images, suggesting a womb, growth, and the rosiness of gestation. A stunning juxtaposition of scarlet and teal. The exhibit also features the poetry of the experimental-Beat-Buddhist poet, Anne Waldemann, who collaborated with Murray in a chapbook/art creation, entitled, "Her Story". One of the poems by Waldemann is as follows:
I saw the
rhythms inside
They were stark
& joyous
& I painted them 
All to see
I think that Murray and Waldemann express interior moods, rhythms that transcend the external boundaries of form, such as that of Murray's Manhattan fish. My dear friend who herself transcends the arbitrary culture-bound gender division of labor forms--she's an engineer/scientist in Silicon Valley-- reminds me that gender and ethnic classifications are merely convenient simplifications that, if subscribed to, conveniently oppress. Reality is a continuum of interesting internal rhythms, rhythms that frustrate generalities, rhythms that add a zest to experience and a resonant path to mutual understanding.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Mercurial Mediterranean Climate

 View of Wildcat Canyon  Berkeley, CA

In the San Francisco Bay area, we are longing for rain. We have had a scant 60 mm of rainfall this season and are on target for a record dessication. But we share with the Mediterranean a moody record of annual rainfall. Hills are dusty and gray; stream beds are dry. Perhaps the climate fluctuations from wet to dry are an organizing root metaphor for Mediterranean life--a stable instability, an unpredictable quality to survival. Water wars may have begun in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some have proposed that the repeated collapse of Mediterranean cosmopolitan cultures both at the beginning Middle Bronze Age around 2200 BCE and at the end of the Late Bronze Age at 1100 BCE may have resulted from random droughts and the consequent disruption of food and water supplies leading people to move into more fertile areas.
But drought alternating with drenching fosters in us an appreciation of change and flux and unpredictability. In the words of Archilochus, the archaic Greek poet from the island of Paros:

"But delight in things that are delightful and, in hard times, grieve
Not too much—appreciate the rhythm that controls men's lives."

(fragment 128, Douglas E. Gerber, Greek Iambic Poetry, Loeb (1999) pg 167)

In our culture, we have little appreciation of rhythm. We often try to contain it--witness the explosive increase in the diagnosis of mood disorders in American psychiatry and the market plethora of mood stabilizers aimed at constraining moodiness. Purportedly, unlike human emotions, we cannot constrain the vagaries of shifting weather; we can only influence the long term biases of climate. With global warming, we have destabilized the earth's climate. Most immediately, global warming leads to extreme and chaotic fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. A heightened appreciation of climatic rhythms would lead all of us to recognize how emotional and interpersonal rhythms also pervade our daily lives.