PELL LUCY: INDELIBLES
BY DEBORAH BARLOW
Lao Tzu’s admonition, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day,” offers a useful place from which to view the past year of pandemic living. Shifting the focus away from what was acquired to what was left intact speaks to the provocative notion of antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s term for anything made stronger from stress. “The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” Living through a global pandemic is difficult, but it also offers its own revelatory lens for evaluating what is antifragile and what is not. The indelibles in a life are exposed, laid bare in a new way.
Artists have indelibles as well. These are harder to name and describe, but their presence is apparent and signatory. Confined to a wheelchair at the end of his life with nothing but scissors and paper, Matisse created cut outs that are elementally Matissian. Defying the hard edge one would expect from cut paper shapes, his forms became lyrical reenactments of the way he applied paint to canvas. And after dementia obscured any knowledge of who he had been, Willem De Kooning continued to paint large canvases that were elementally De Kooning-esque. (Oliver Sacks made the case that “'Style,’ neurologically, is the deepest part of one's being, and may be preserved, almost to the last.") “De Kooning's self-scavenging techniques led him not so much forward, from one thing to the next, as incessantly sideways, from one thing into another,” wrote Peter Schjeldahl. “Meanwhile, his hand never lost its cunning.”
Another hand that never lost its cunning belongs to the writer Jhumpa Lahiri. Following her success as an English language novelist, Lahiri felt compelled to teach herself Italian. Now she only writes in the language she chose for herself as an adult. In the words of fellow writer Sigrid Nunez, “Something told her to push past the barrier of her life…no matter what people say, ‘Write what you want to write’ is still the best advice.”
Wise words, but saying doesn’t make it so. Some things are easier said than done. “Painting is hard work,” artist Jack Whitten asserted. “When I am in my cave—that’s what I call my studio—I cannot see where I am going. It’s just blind man’s bluff in there.”
He continued, “We do what we do out of necessity, and it comes out of our own world. I can see a work in my brain, and making the painting is a reproduction of that concept. It is moving something from the inside to the outside. It is scary and it is hard.”
What moves from “the inside to the outside” usually does so without the guardrails of logic or explanation, and that makes the process challenging. Critic Dave Hickey describes how artists are “saddled with the tragi-comic injunction to talk about that which they cannot: their art—to discuss that practice, which, were it explicable, they should not be pursuing, to explain those objects which, had they known what they were making, they almost certainly should not have made. “
Those words couple well with the answer musician Philip Glass offered when asked how he views his work past and present:
“I don’t mean to give you a Zen koan, but the work I did is the work I know, and the work I do is the work I don’t know. That’s why I can’t tell you, I don’t know what I’m doing. And it’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.”
This is the state of things, though hard to describe, that is at the core of what every artist is working in, through, with, for. Finding a very particular and personal through line is fundamental.
The artists in this exhibit are seasoned art makers. They are deep into their singular journeys, each equipped with their own custom-built guidance system. Unlike popular mapping technologies, this is a navigational tool that does not provide directions to a predetermined destination. Instead it identifies resonances: pointing out a landscape that is particularly promising or flagging a hospitable spot to set up camp for a while. More Geiger counter than mapping app, it reveals what is indelible in each artist’s work. So one Pell Lucy artist is directed to the domain of dots, another to the mysteries of geometry, another to the zero gravity zone where forms can levitate. No two paths are the same.
The last word goes to William Stafford who describes the nature of the indelible so simply in his poem, The Way It Is:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.