Marvelous puddles.

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I do get a deep pleasure from looking. I mean, I can look at a little puddle on a road in Yorkshire and just have the rain falling on it and think it’s marvelous. … I see the world as very beautiful.

David Hockney on looking, from an NPR piece: Artist David Hockney Says the Drive to Create Pictures is ‘Deep Within Us.’

Image via Art News

Britta Marakatt-Labba’s embroidered scenes of Sami life.

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Tomorrow I arrive in Hammerfest to begin my residency in the Arctic. I will be studying Norwegian myths and stories, including legends from the Sami people. Traditionally a nomadic culture with an economy that centers around reindeer herding and harvesting, the Sami are the only indigenous people recognized and protected in Scandinavia. I’ll be staying in Lapland, where many Sami still make their living off the land.britta_2-1024x366

However, like Native Americans living in America, the Sami aren’t some ancient tribe that exists in a time capsule. Many Sami lead thoroughly modern lives, while others combine elements of twenty-first century technology with ancient customs, beliefs, and practices. Admittedly, I’m still learning about their culture (and I hope to learn a lot more) but from everything I’ve read, Sami society, literature, and art seems utterly fascinating.

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Today, I spent a few hours in Tromsø at the Center for Contemporary Art. There was an arresting exhibit of video art on view by Uzbek filmmaker Saodat Ismailova about the extermination of the Turkistan Tiger. While I was there, I also picked up a book on contemporary Sami art. This book featured works by Britta Marakatt-Laba, a Swedish artist who makes abstract yet precise images of her northern landscape. I love embroidery art (I love any “feminine” coded genre that transcends the purely decorative) and Britta’s pieces are so cool. Gestural. Tonal. She says a lot with thread and cloth.

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Over the next month, I hope to feature more Scandinavian and Sami artists on my blog. It’s one of my many goals for this writer’s residency. Since I won’t be sharing my fiction (yet), I’m going to use my site as a place to highlight works by artists that are entirely new to me, like Britta.

See more of Britta Marakatt-Labba’s work here.

Greetings from the Arctic Circle (and why animal sounds are just sublime).

polar bear jill greenberg

Today I am revisiting a book I haven’t read since college (though in college we called it a “text”), Edmund Burke’s On The Sublime and Beautiful. Despite it’s rather strange specificity (he devotes paragraphs to explaining why some colors evoke feelings of the sublime, while others do not, or why looking down from a great height feels more moving than gazing up at something equally tall) it feels appropriate for my current geographical situation.

A few hours ago, I crossed over the imaginary, human-delineated line into the arctic circle. I flew into Bodø and boarded an old 60’s cruise ship, which goes port-to-port all the way to Hammerfest. The weather is poor—rain, sleet, and some muculent snowflakes—and the waves are rough (I have fed myself enough dramamine to dizzy a whale) and the company is blue-haired and heavily accented, but I’m enjoying myself immensely despite all that. I’m reading a lot and staring at the ocean for extended stretches of time. I’ve thought about a lot of very stupid things but I’m trying my best to keep focused on more useful ideas or (gah, excuse the cliche) living in the moment. Sometimes, that second thing comes naturally, even for me, because certain emotions occupy the brain like hostile soldiers, leaving no room for dissent (or intrusive thoughts or niggling worries). Fear, even fear of vomiting from motion sickness, will do that. But so does astonishment, and I’ve felt a good deal of that in the past four hours. Burke explains the effects of astonishment like this:

The Passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

Mountains, whether I’m looking up at them or down from them, never fail to astonish me. Animals, too, can be astonishing. Later in his very thorough book, Burke grapples with four-legged things and the sounds they make:

Such sounds as imitate the natural inarticulate voices of men, or any animals in pain or danger, are capable of conveying great ideas; unless it be the well-known voice of some creature, on which we are used to look with contempt. The angry tones of wild beasts are equally capable of causing a great and awful sensation… It might seem that these modulations of sound carry some connexion with the nature of the things they represent, and are not merely arbitrary; because the natural cries of all animals, even of those animals with whom we have not been acquainted, never fail to make themselves sufficiently understood; this cannot be said of language. The modifications of sound, which may be productive of the sublime, are almost infinite. Those I have mentioned are only a few instances to show on what principles they are all built.

There haven’t been any polar bears in this part of Norway for a long time, but I still dream of seeing one. From a far distance, while I’m wearing an armored suit and holding a flare gun, just in case. Just look at these sexy beasts:

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Anyway, I have to go now. They’re serving warm fish soup (“varm fiske suppe”) on the outdoor deck and I’m going to try to sneak a second portion.

Images by Jill Greenberg, an amazing photographer who somehow makes every piece look like a silky, rich painting. See more of her series “Ursine” here. Read the full text of A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful for free on Bartleby.com. 

Everything she wants to say: Some paintings by Helen Lundeberg.

yas-queen-helen-lundeberg“My paintings and drawings say everything I want to say,” artist Helen Lundeberg once famously said. I’ve got a lot of thoughts about why her minimalist work is so visually appealing, but since she since she was a lady of few words, I’ll keep my commentary short, too.

Here is a dope landscape: helen-lundebergHere is a painting that made me go YAS QUEEN: here-for-it-helen-lundebergI’m HERE FOR IT, Helen Lundeberg! i-like-you-helen-lundebergIf you’re a New Yorker (which you probably aren’t since my blog is weirdly popular in Finland and Portugal but not NYC) go see her work at the Cristin Tierny gallery as part of an exhibit titled “Classic Attitude.”

Plus, here’s a NY Mag slideshow of her works. I have always liked Alex Katz, but I love Helen Lundeberg (they’ve got similar vibes going on). So flat! So minimal! Such colors!

Pretty dark: Star kicking.

mihoko-ogakiI learned a new term today, thanks to my favorite nighttime distraction, The Myths and Legends podcast, and I’m excited to share it with everyone (even though I suspect few people will want to hear it). Our history lesson of the week is the phrase “star kicking.” Though it sounds beautiful, it’s actually what famed Hungarian torturer, sadist, and murder Countess Elizabeth Bathory did to people she disliked. Well, it’s one of the many things that twisted bitch did—she also drained people of their blood, ate peasant girls, and murdered hundreds of people. (She preferred adolescent girls, because, let’s be real guys, even women hate women! That’s the real poison of the patriarchy.) But anyway, she also liked to stick pieces of parchment between her victims toes and light them on fire. They would then kick and flail in attempts to dislodge the flaming pieces of paper and animal skin. Thus: Star kicking.

Horrible, right? It sounds so pretty. Star kicking. It has a real rhythm to the syllables, a real swing to its iambic feet, those insolent i’s and careless k’s. But damn, Bathory was messed up.

The more you know, right?

Image: Sculpture by Mihoko Ogaki, part of an ongoing series of installations called “Milky Ways.”

For now we have parsley.

sadnessWhen I grieve, I feel it. Not feelings feel it, but I physically, literally, intensely feel it. This isn’t unusual, I know, but it never ceases to amaze me. When my emotions are too much for my head to handle, my body begins to ache. My chest hurts, a pain that feels heavy. Breathing becomes a burden. Tears do nothing to wash it away.

I’ve learned that there is no way to move beyond grief except by moving through it. By feeling it with my whole body. By letting my heart be a rock for a while. By letting my limbs be numb and heavy and my brain be clouded and fogged. I cry until my eyes hurt. I remind myself, “Drink water, sleep, take care of yourself.” I drink, I sleep. I eat strange meals of zucchini soggy with vinegar, bunches of parsley pulled from the fridge and balled up in my fist, pieces of dry, broken crackers that taste like ash in my mouth. I drink more water, and then it comes out in tears.

Healing will come eventually, but grief comes first.

For now, we have poetry (and water and parsley). Here are some good words:

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Barry 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Illustration by Willian Santiago. See more here. 

A perfect word for that good kind of melancholy.

andy_denzler_sad_pleasuresFrom an NPR piece on Brazilian music, a beautiful word that has no direct translation in English:

Perhaps my favorite of these elusive words is saudade, a Portuguese and Galician term that is a common fixture in the literature and music of Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and beyond. The concept has many definitions, including a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again. My favorite definition of saudade is by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

This is the perfect word for when a sad song gives you goosebumps and makes your throat ache but you still play it on repeat. It’s also the perfect word for so many artistic experiences, so many encounters with art and literature.

But is it bad to suffer a pleasure? The word saudade reminds me of the problem of sentimentally, particularly Leslie Jamison’s defense of the term  She grapples with the pleasure of sentimentality, with the dangers of feeling something too acutely or performing that feeling with too much flair. The New Yorker thinks the pangs of pathos that come from reading a sad story are fundamentally lazy. In an article about Humans of New York, the venerated magazine argues that storytelling has lost its teeth and become something less savage, more concerned with egos and sentimentality and branding than ripping away the veil:

In this way, [Humans of New York] joins organizations like ted and the Moth at the vanguard of a slow but certain lexical refashioning. Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away. “Storytelling,” in this parlance, is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests.

I agree that stories can be daggers, or as Kafka puts it, axes to hack away at the frozen sea inside. But I also agree with Jamison and de Melo—some ailments are too sweet not to enjoy. Some pains are pleasurable.

And I’ll take my pleasure where I can get it. I am lazy and I am very, very susceptible to saudade.

Image by Andy Denzler. See more of his glitchy paintings here. 

Current mood: Icarus

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“Antoine Josse’s suitcases are full of images and noises, desires to fly, to get to the moon, to be a trapeze artist, a human cannonball…. In his sculptures, as in his paintings, everything seems light: the material is light, the poetry and the desire for flight are ever present.” – Annabelle Cavallin

Image by French surrealist sculptor Antoine Josse.

Women & Art: We’ve got a long, long way to go.

louise_mamanHere’s a statistic that should make your blood boil: on average, only 5% of the pieces in permanent collections of museums around the globe were created by women. 95% of the art that has been purchased by museums—the very institutions that safeguard our culture—was created by men. While women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women. 

We’re over half the residents of the planet earth, but when it comes to culture, we’re still woefully underrepresented, undervalued, and underpaid.

I’m researching a piece right now about gender inequality in the gallery world. While part of me is overjoyed to be doing this kind of work, to be writing about a subject that’s so important to me, there’s another part of me that is just angry. Filled with rage at the injustice of it all.

A recent study from Lehigh University found that “artistic careers are subject to the same social forces that drive gender wage gap in other fields. ‘Though one might expect that the flexible nature of many artistic careers—well as research indicating that artists tend to possess more liberal ideologies than other professionals—would result in greater gender pay equity, our research shows that the difference between the incomes of female and male artists are about the same as you’d find in other fields,’” explains study co-author Danielle Lindemann. Not only is there a significant pay gap for women working in the arts, but there is also a “fatherhood premium” and a “marriage premium” that applies to men only. While women’s pay takes a plunge when they have children, men’s paychecks get a nice little bump. Fortunately, in the arts, women don’t experience the same motherhood penalty (but men do still receive a fatherhood premium).

Does this piss you off? It should. Whether you’re male, female, or don’t ascribe to gender binaries, this should really make you mad. Because it means we still don’t value women’s work. As a society, we place a higher value on art produced by men. Their work goes for far more at auction. Male museum directors and curators make more money than their female counterparts. Male writers are paid more, and their books sell more copies. It’s true across the board.

For years, I’ve been seeking to address this in small, quiet ways. I buy books written by women. Much of the art that hangs in my house was painted or photographed by women. I buy albums by female artists, rather than just listening for free on Spotify. When I want to read a great new book by a talented female author, I buy it. I get Melville from the library, but I pay full price for Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Zadie Smith, Emily St. John Mandel, and Eleanor Catton.

I believe in voting with my dollars. I also try, in this small, tiny, personal corner of the internet, to highlight female artists as often as I can. While men make great work, too, they don’t need my help. Not when their work comprises 92% of lots for sale at New York evening auctions. Not when there are men like Georg Baselitz arguing that “women don’t paint very well” in well-respected places like The Guardian.

Baselitz says, “the market does not lie.” But money doesn’t equal talent. We should all know that by now.

I’ll end this rant before I get too wound up and decide to quit working as a female writer and start selling my eggs instead (they’re worth more than my words, apparently). But I want to say this: If this subject is something you care about, you need to start voting with your dollars. Spend money on women artists. Pay women writers. Support women in the arts, because we still need it.

Image: Maman by Louise Bourgeois. This piece, which sold for $25 million, was the only one to make the top 100 lots sold at auction in 2015. All 99 other top-selling pieces were by men.

Big city lion.

big city lionWhile on assignment in Spain, photographer Julia Werner found a starving dog blonde dog. She fed the skinny little guy and rescued him. She loved his big spirit, and so she made him a mane to match. Then they went out exploring Hapsburg. The resulting photo series is wonderful—whimsical and sweet. Poking around her website, I saw that she also photographs kids in super hero costumes, which is just so damn happy it hurts.

And with that, have a nice weekend, you big city lions.