Dave Archer 2009
Once upon a time, in Nagoya, Japan, while touring Tokagawa Castle, a worldclass museum housing the finest of National art treasures, I passed through a dim hallway into a fresh viewing room to become riveted immediately upon a singular art piece, so perfect, so attractive, it simply stopped time for me.
A three tiered food box painted: Plum Blossom Design, Maki-e lacquer, Edo Period, 17th Century, no larger than a foot square, and for me that day, exact center of the known Universe.
Strange too, considering Maki-e lacquer pieces were produced for the general market, never as what we think of as Great Art. Yet, this box transcended mediocrity with finesse to render the term "general" obsolete. Every bloom more perfect than the next. The lacquer Master's brushwork stunned me with it's strong design, coupled with a sense of poetic understatement, a lightness in every part including the near black background, a visual literature perhaps, bowing to realism, yet coming from somewhere deep the realm of artistic alchemy. Salvador Dali would have loved this box so much he would have kept his sea urchin shells inside.
I believe we all know this feeling at times. And we know how using words to share ineffable experiences with friends usually goes. Indeed, how does one express in words, steam from a kettle disappearing almost instantly? Where is the language larder and word-stuff for in-between? Perhaps in Russian, Spanish, Yiddish, Chinese. Surely, knowing twelve languages would help. Or knowing my own language better, much better. English does have the words, surely, it does, some out of use. Well, by me, for sure. Please then, forgive my basic vocabulary.
While studying this box, observing it's complex simplicity if you will, somehow, my sense of "ordinary" passing time shifted into a place more akin to expanding. At rare times this experience had graced my life before. Therefore, I knew to go with it. It may be what American Indians mean when they describe time as a circle, especially, an expanding hoop. That feels right to me at least.
Here's the mushy part. This humble work of art simply filled me with hope. Mad hope. Like a child might express. I drank it in. That hyper-sense perhaps, parents and artist/creators know best, as it comes with the job description. While in the experience, one senses it as a universal "feeling" in all cultures during all times, ancient and modern. We almost always KNOW when this "feeling' is happening. We push it away, or promptly forget the joy, for sleep. Creators and parents feel it at times with flashes of worry, running to an almost paranoid angst. I believe now, at 69, that at it's highest, this time-warp experience is one sort of conscious love, one that even when we are spiritually unworthy on a given day, settles into the bones of us right-brained folk, especially Elders. A bit of wisdom in the face of: roses, thorns, roses, thorns.
I read this piece to painter friend one evening. He told me he had heard of something called Stendhal's Syndrome, and perhaps that explained my "art experience". He said I probably had a touch of "Hyperkulturemia".
Stendhal syndrome:, Hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome, is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world.
It is named after the famous 19th century French author Stendhal who described his experience with the phenomenon during his 1817 visit to Florence, Italy.
Although there are many descriptions of people becoming dizzy and fainting while taking in Florentine art, especially at the Uffizi, dating from the early 19th century on, the syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed and described more than 100 similar cases among tourists and visitors in Florence. The syndrome was first diagnosed in 1982.
I buy that. That day, "Stendhaling" before this masterpiece I felt as protective as a junk yard dog. As I do with my children and grandchildren, I wanted these exquisite plum blossoms to live happy lives for a very long time. Never to be stolen from the museum, marred, or wronged by any fool or criminal. To thrive, bringing hope to artists, parents, everyone, everywhere. All this came in flashes.
My Nagoya experience is clear to remember because of its sense of altered time, which delivered a gentle shock, and I am tuned to grasp psychic shocks and remember them, rare as they are, especially in the way of art and esthetics.
Depression ruled. I should have been happy, enjoying Nagoya, a Class-A city where American artists are treated as nothing less than Kings, not to mention Queens. Instead, I'd been off my game for months. Now I was fighting hard at just doing my job with any amount of grace I could muster, that is, appearing at various openings of my works --- signing autographs and smiling for photos. My long time agent Linda Rieger had dragged me from of the hotel that day, insisting we "see the Golden Dolphins" atop the Tokagawa Museum, working overtime to prod me into feeling better. Bless her heart, it worked. She roped me at breakfast, then "led her donkey" (me riding backwards) to the right place at the right time, insisting we "see" something while in Nagoya. With heavy hooves I clomped into a cab beside my art-witch, herself bubbling away as usual, thinking more of others than herself, finding humor in everything. I'm thinking, ah yes, the Tokagawa Museum gold-en...dol..phins. Ooooo. Nowhere I'd rather be headed except back to bed. The same bed of course, where I longed to be Shop Stewarding an endless (so to speak) butt-necklace of negativeness.
Forty minutes later, quite unexpectedly, in a few rare moments, in a well lighted place for art, one humble piece not only picked up my chin, it filled my dark spirit with plum blossoms.
We humans must have a "hope" gene in our DNA that whispers, "pssst! .... over here".
I think we build museums to create spaces for these very experiences to arise spontaneously, away from the hubbub of hypnotic life. To keep hope alive. The human way. Peeling experience to the core in search of the jewel in the eye of the lotus.
As a painter I know this: the artist who decorated that box in Plum Blossoms would have viewed his finished work in much the same museum manner I viewed it that day. On a revolving work-stand perhaps, in good light. The finished box would have been singled out for inspection, both esthetic and physical, with the same theatrical view as the museum case, by both master and apprentice. Then off into the "general market", aka: 1650's Walmart, it would travel.
Edo Period, over three hundred years old yet so alive in the moment I could fairly inhale the "scented" the blossoms. The curator had of course, presented Madame Box in her very own pristine showcase, don't be ridiculous. He may also have done the lights. Thank you Mr. Kinki.
When all else has failed, I have found hope in art. That is all I am saying here really.
In the fifties, we had junior high, and high school art classes, with good instructors. I was lucky that way. I had no idea about how to become an artist, yet I could not stop making art. Like Perseus, I carried a burnin' daylight torch for painting, right into the stinking face of Gogon Medusa (using a mirrored shield of course), the many headed monster also know as: Major DOUBT.
A completely cockeyed view of course. Because, looking back over 60 years of art making, living the artist's life has been, and still is, a wild yet satisfying ride. An absorbing, curious pleasure, filled with Major DOUBT. Bear with me. The overwhelming hope of my High School years, was simply of getting away from my home town. Escaping abuse to paint and draw. I was "whatever happened to the boy who liked to draw". Remember him? I did not know these thing then as realize, in sweet retrospection.
Looking back, I was driven by personal demons into serial creating, what Safeway would call: The Healthy Choice.
In the 60's, my North Beach teacher, Rick Barton --- rest his Bronx soul --- gave us a lot of hope, always preaching: CRAFT, every single day of his brutal life from his Bronx bullhorn mouth, to us San Francisco painter-pupae. We hated him. We loved him. Barton was our Sergeant Bilkohemian. "Where's your work? What are you working on? It's called WORK because ART is your JOB motherfucker!"
Who of our 1961's school of panhandling pranksters, piteous poets, dharma-queens, and small town pottery wino's --- save Rick Barton, Harold LaVigne and Byron Hunt --- really knew art? Rick Barton, our "teacher," (a designation he railed against), was in fact, nothing but. A bootcamp painting Master without a shred of mercy. Give me twenty five psychic pushups maggot! When our group walked any street, Barton called out, "a Chinese General always marches behind his Army!". And he did. Chinese, because he was a master of Chinese line painting.
That and, "The Academy is dead gentlemen! We are the only motherfuckers left!"
And later, "let's make our own book of paintings and call it: My Father Is A Whale and sell it ourselves?"
And we did. Like a flock of little Red Hens.
In scientific English: great painter, Harold LaVigne did much of the work, partly because Harold did work ... literally ... at St. Francis Hospital in the mental ward, therefore fully understood how we potential ear-cutters would probably not do much of anything except cough up a picture along with our cold germs. Well, we might actually work the stapler and fasten the pages into the covers, that would help.
Which we did. Staple. "My Father Is A Whale," sold at City Lights bookstore for years.
I have no idea what Rick's title meant. Once however, in the mid-60's, on Sandoz Laboratory LSD direct from Albert Hoffman in England, I realized, YES, indeed: my father IS a whale. Then, forgot why. It's hard to make notes while receiving ultimate truths from spirit entities. Anyway, later, no matter how profound they seemed at the time, I realized how most ultimate truths end up sounding like something from The Toilet Reader of World Truisms so I'm fairly certain it doesn't matter. Well, psychic fertilizer. That's good.
I will never forget the hope we got from making that little art book.
Thank you Rick for pushing the idea to the point of forcing us, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to actually DO something. Thank you for our "marching orders", and Harold for collecting the art from all us wanna-beatniks.
Harold took it to Charlie Plymell, a poet out of Witchita who had a printing business then, where he and Charlie worked on the photographs together, then Charlie printed from lithographe plates. We all chipped in around twenty bucks for the project. Where I got twenty bucks I'll never know.
Our "group" was seven or eight, and more, sitting around making new starts in Harold 's living room, or at a table in Fosters Cafeteria at Polk and Sutter, painting, making art together on small paper of course, conversing, Chinese line painting in ink, also, conté crayon, pencil, etc. Bach fugues playing on Harold's stereo or at Fosters, on what Barton called his pocket transistor.
Rick Barton was fond of yarping, "Artists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your brushes!" And we didn't. What? Our shower thongs? Barton always played the role of self-elected "Sisyphus," attempting to shove any particular argumentative boulder of the moment, up whatever mountain of truth he perceived advantageous for finally forcing us all to see how important it is for artists to work together, "like in the old days, when artists had their own Guilds!," he would harp. In that sense, Rick was like some absurdist French cowboy herding cats. In our case, cool cats. Funny, frustrating, a true master, never boring. "Discourse! he said, again and a thousand times.
"The Socratic Method goddamnit! Let the argument go where it will!"
Which is why Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlingetti, and other Beat big-shots avoided Rick. They knew all too well that Barton could never be beaten at Discourse, unless arguing with Harold LaVigne, willing to do just that, follow the argument wherever "it" went, and man, sometimes I wish I had recorded those blabbermouth nights. Always ending with both men gassed, laughing and painting together, even on the same pieces.
Now, if Rick could trick one of us wanna-beats to the point where we imagined we might play "classical Harold" to his sour Socrates, then our Master Bastard sank us every time, which was awful. Rick had a dark-gift, that of releasing these psychic-smart-torpedoes across a table, or room, underwater. Then boom! And you wanted to crawl into the toilet and hide there like that old poster, "Goodbye Cruel World ... "
By the way, to complement his role as Conan the Bastardarian, the man was also, literally. a bastard, and damn proud of it thank you. Anytime, anywhere (anyone) uttered the word, Rick answered, " ... you called?"
Discourse with the Master of Academia Vinciana? An artist born around 1927 and grew up tough as steel cable as a Dead End Kid, "down on the corner of Toidy-Toid-an-Toid," no grammar school, junior high or high school, he never knew his father, his mother "Rosy," a hooker working the New York docks, raised by an aged grandmother working fourteen hours a day seven days a week in a hand-scrub laundry, therefore, left completely to his own childhood devices. Which, lucky for American painting, just happened to be the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York Public Library, absorbing Classics like some atomic brain-sponge in a Godzilla movie. Well, he did "accidentally" blind the neighborhood bully boy with a railroad torpedo, (hum, torpedoes again). Everyone in the neighborhood said the kid deserved it. Well, except for his family. Rick didn't expect that to happen, just to scare him and felt a bit guilty about it, even though he pretended not to.
No way could I ever "win" an art argument with Rick Barton. I mean, when people asked his religion he said: "I am a Black Hat Bon Po Schismatic Lama", because he was a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, of that particular sect. That's why I listened a lot, took mental notes, and drew from life what was going on. Being around Rick was like swimming in a sea of box jellyfish tentacles.
We sat at his brogans. He stole our gold, silver, pipes, postage, Zippos, Winsor Newton's, best brushes and pens, sentimental charms, talismans and other trinkets, in that order, calling his thefts "reapportionment". To go with his metaphorical knives, Barton threw actual knives. Especially one block cutting knife he could flip out of a special brush holder allowing him to send it off straight as a bullet. When Barton lodged that thing in a door next to your head, it had to be pulled out with pliers.
Never hang "too close" to a paranoid-psychotic. That would be my advice. Knowing an older artist like Barton, a scheming puppeteer control freak SOB --- if a young artist could hack it, survive it, put up with it, or in someway avoid the worst --- you LEARNED much. Because his brilliant side was teeming with art teachings from a Classics trained, (Rick studied with Modern Master, Ozenfant), and much more.
With even half a painter's brainstem, you LEARNED, while living in your own studio. Guys like him are the equivalent of top chefs, screeching at junior cooks. Blazing banshee bullies. They do have heart all right. Three actually. Loving --- Angry -- Angrier. Never a dull moment. We accepted Barton's abuse, in part from our hunger to learn. And what the hell, in retrospect of say, a week, or month, finally funny. The humor of laughing at our own absurd hopes, actually gave us hope.
A ton of artists were influenced by Rick Barton, that's for sure. He was a consummate performer, ever pleading, "I, am not a performing monkey", loved by socialites, painters, sculptors, writers, musicians. The man had such friends as, Tibetan scholar, E. Evens Wentz and heiress to the Bissell carpet sweeper fortune, Cynthia. Rick was written up in papers. Collected in the "art section" of the Library of Congress. Published. Loved. Still, a fairly miserable man. We all survived on raw hope really, and one Chinatown dinner at a time.
Why all this hope? For what? That one day we might become rich and famous? Have the love and affection of beautiful people? Hang in the creative underground? Hell, we were the creative underground. Stars hung with us. Was it really hope for riches, fame, celebrity, the love of brilliant people? Frankly, yes. Not Rick or Harold as much as us, they were older artists, and didn't care that much. I on the other hand actually wanted to top Picasso. Oh god.
But it's true. Mainly though, we honored the hope that even cursed to live and paint through lifelong careers, as unknown as Van Gogh, we would at least enjoy recognition from friends and some sales in "picture" galleries of the day, and actually pay rent on our pee-in-sink hotel rooms. We were no devouring angels like Warhol.
Beat philosophy of the day abhorred success, unless it came to the artist, (the artist was not to go after it), becoming "recognized", in ways focused on the work itself, not what were thought of as popular potboilers and painting tricks of the day. We were on the road art hobos. I went to Mexico almost twenty times from the late 50's through the 60's, even holding a job there in San Miguel Allende at the college, running art films.
Harold and Barton followed arguments wherever they "went" on Plato, Socrates, Kant, Nietzche, Sartre, Baudelaire, et. al., the same for painting, Chinese, Japanese, European, ancient, Modern. We bearded boys mostly listened. Girls too. Lani Chamberlain for one. And no: Lani did not have a beard. She had pretty girl skin okay, and a strong working presence, with a fine "line" in brush painting, picked up from Rick's example. She painted what she saw, using brush and ink. That was our aim. Not to look, but to SEE. Not to paint like Rick, but to enjoy his abundant inspiration, to stay on the path of art, learning to "see deeper", while working and day.
When I was eighteen, studying with painter Phil Paradise, one day, Phil's friend, famous sculptor George Papashively, grabbed me by my lapels and yanked me into his fierce Russian face roaring, "So you vant to be an artist eh?! Vell, did you VORK today? Did you vork, vork, vork?" Like that.
The old saw is: artists are crazy. Well, la-tee-da. Everybody's crazy. The difference is, since us creator types VORK all the time, we must enjoy our fun on the fly. This can appear as quite mad from the outside. Actually, it is.
Vermeer was Rick Barton's painter God. Our Master reminded us frequently, of the time he painted a "Vermeer" himself, the size of a commemorative postage stamp, ("until some sideshow queen stole it to exhibit with 'her' two-headed baby in a jar") and how that tiny painting had given him quite a lot of hope.
I know art evokes hope in my heart, and whatever one finds in this world that does that, beside a dog of course, is definitely good in the long run. Oh, there's that evil curse part, but that's for another piece. I do not know if Barton's hope inspired him like mine did in Nagoya, Japan, when a hand-created lacquer box decorated in living plum blossoms stopped the world for me. Probably though, it did.
So lissen-up pilgrims, "Vat are you vorking on today!"
© 1997 - 2017 rinaldo rasa