Posts Tagged ‘Museum of Modern Art’

Of Birds and Irony

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

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tracks photo by Max Greenstreet

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

We’ve had several hummingbird sightings in the garden these last few cold winter days, and these first visitations after two months of not seeing the brilliant little hovering blurs always remind me that spring will soon come creeping over the windowsill, to cop a phrase from a song from My Fair Lady.

Did you know that an adult hummingbird visits an average of 1500 flowers per day, and that same adult hummingbird will eat six to seven hundred bugs a day in order to survive? Most people don’t realize that hummers are such voracious insectivores, but they are, for which we should be immensely grateful and not spray our gardens with bug poison.

Decades ago on an early summer backpack trip on the Lost Coast, my five pals and I reached the beach at Little Jackass Creek at dusk after a long day of hiking up and down the coast range through heavy brush. We found a fine camping spot a couple hundred yards up the creek from the beach, and also found multitudes of mosquitoes—this concentration of mosquito bait, six humans where no other humans were, attracting thousands of hungry blood suckers to our camp.

We lathered up with repellant, but we needn’t have. As we sat by our nascent fire, recovering from our strenuous trek, a vast array of diminutive super heroes materialized around us to gobble the swarms of mosquitoes. There were swallows, dragonflies, tiny sparrow-like birds, bats, and hummingbirds harvesting the air with such thoroughness and efficiency that within twenty minutes there were virtually no mosquitoes left in our vicinity. If I hadn’t been in the midst of this blessed annihilation, I wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible.

Along with the hummingbird sightings, I recently had a communication from a hawk, though I didn’t see her. Walking to town through the woods west of our house, I heard her shrill cry and looked up into a thick tangle of pine boughs to determine where the sound was coming from, imagining a hungry Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the tangle, as eager for spring as I am.

You probably know that raptors have incredibly keen eyesight, but did you know that an eagle flying a thousand feet high can spot a rabbit on the ground three miles away, and that the eyes of birds of prey weigh more than their brains?

As I was reading and writing about birds, I got an email containing the text of a speech given by a famous actress at one of the women’s marches that took place on the anniversary of the current President of the United States being in office for one year, a march protesting all things anti-women, most especially the current president. This super-famous actress was decrying the male-sexual-power-over-women ethos of Hollywood and America and the entire world, and admitting, while decrying, that her success was the result of acquiescing sexually to powerful men who then gave her the chance to play sadistic murderous sex sirens in many movies for which she became incredibly rich and famous.

Perhaps because I was reading and thinking and writing about birds and the fantastic complexity of nature, this woman’s speech struck me as an account of a natural process rather than a description of something terrible and wrong. Male mountain lions, for instance, do battle for control of large territories within which female mountain lions have smaller territories they protect from other female mountain lions. When a new male mountain lion takes control of a large territory from another male mountain lion, his first order of business is to find the litters of kittens fathered by the previous male mountain lion, kill the kittens, and then impregnate the mothers of those now dead kittens with his own offspring.

Which is not to say I don’t deplore the sexual-power-over ethos of Hollywood and America and the entire world, but to say I think it behooves us to examine this long-standing reality in the context of the evolution of humans and human society, and not merely as something we find abhorrent today. How did this ethos get established? How did sexual power-over serve the evolution of the species? Does this seemingly unfair and yucky ethos still have an evolutionary purpose? Is this power-over way of relating to one another inherent to our species?

Meanwhile, my friend Max recently sent me some photos he took of tire tracks in the snow. I found these photos stupendous and wrote the following to Max.

“I love those tire-track snow pictures. If you were a famous artist, you could blow those up to six-foot by four-foot prints, or twelve-foot by nine-foot, and frame them in huge black frames and they would go nuts over them in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The New York Times would say they reveal the “genius of accidental movement of mass-with-treaded-tires colluding with the crystallization of nature’s communication modalities.” And The New Yorker would call them “brilliant calligraphic collaborations of mindless humanity and ironic natural positing.”

Think of a rabbit enjoying a tasty patch of freshly sprung grass on a sunny day in spring, little suspecting that three miles away and a thousand feet above the earth, an eagle has spotted the rabbit and is about to descend at a hundred-and-fifty-miles-per-hour to kill and eat the rabbit; neither the raptor nor the rabbit knowing that female humans are frequently the victims of predatory male humans or that Max’s photographs are not huge and hanging on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art—ironic positing of no consequence to eagles and rabbits doing what they were born to do.

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tires diptych by Max Greenstreet

 

Actual Abstract

Monday, August 29th, 2016

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Shall We Dance? painting by Todd

“The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” Iris Murdoch

An announcement came in the mail, and by mail I mean those actual paper things we find in our mailboxes. The announcement was from an old friend, Dan Nadaner, who is having a show of his paintings at an art gallery in Los Angeles, the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. Happily, I am still on Dan’s mailing list.

I’ve known Dan since we were in junior high school together at La Entrada in Menlo Park fifty-five years ago and at Woodside High thereafter. And though we have had little contact for many years, I consider him a present-tense friend. I was thrilled to get this actual announcement from him in the actual mail so I could hold it in my hands and carry it outside and sit in the garden and look at the little picture of his painting, turning it this way and that while thinking of Dan and remembering some of our shared experiences.

Thinking about Dan reminded me of my friend Mark Russell who lives in Nova Scotia. He and I became friends at La Entrada at the same time I got to know Dan, and because I am still in touch with Mark, I thought he might like to see the announcement of Dan’s show in Los Angeles. He would remember Dan and enjoy knowing our old friend grew up to be a successful artist.

For a moment I thought about asking Marcia to take a photograph of the announcement to send via email to Mark, but then I considered the richness of my experience of thinking about Dan with the actual announcement in my hand, so I decided to send the actual announcement in an envelope to Mark in Canada.

“We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that’s what writing is all about…not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” Paul Auster

Then I decided to write a letter to accompany Dan’s announcement and bring Mark up to date on the little I know about Dan’s life. So I found a card I like—a fanciful bird flirting with a flower—and handwrote a letter to Mark.

Writing longhand activates our brains in much different ways than does writing on a keyboard and watching letters and words appear on a screen. As I wrote to Mark about Dan, I was reminded of how very important Dan was to me at several crucial points in my life. I had forgotten many of our shared experiences, but writing to Mark awoke dozens of vivid memories of Dan.

When I finished writing the letter to Mark, I placed it in an envelope, got out my address book, and hunted for Mark’s address. And while writing his address on the envelope, an address that includes the descriptor “Head of St. Margaret’s Bay”, I had a vision of Mark driving a tractor on his farm overlooking that gorgeous bay; and the vision dissolved into memories of shooting hoops and throwing a football and going on bicycling adventures with Mark when we were boys.

“The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.” Eric Ransdell

Now we are all sixty-seven, Mark and Dan and I. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years and I haven’t seen Dan in twenty. But this experience of spending time with Dan’s announcement and then writing a letter to Mark about Dan made me feel connected to both of them again. What wonderful creations are the brain and the mind and our relationships, and how mysteriously and fantastically they collaborate to create our reality.

When I was twenty-seven, I took a break from being a landscaper in Oregon and flew to New Jersey where I stayed for a night with Dan and his wife Janka in their little apartment before moving my base of operations into Manhattan. Dan was doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum and making short films, while Janka was launching her career as a psychologist.

The purpose of my trip was to meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, she who had miraculously sold a handful of my short stories, and to lunch with those magazine editors who had bought and published my stories and thereby made me a professional writer. During my two weeks of exploring Manhattan, I visited Dan at the Met a couple times, and one day we went to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the vast Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

I was not a big Wyeth fan, nor was Dan, but the show was fascinating because alongside the finished Wyeth oil paintings were the artist’s preliminary charcoal sketches and watercolor studies for each of the famous paintings. After we had looked at several of these paintings and the accompanying sketches and watercolors, I said to Dan, “I prefer his watercolors to the finished pieces. They feel so much more fluid and alive and exciting.”

“Much more exciting,” said Dan, nodding in agreement. “And surprisingly abstract.”

We then made a quick tour of MOMA’s permanent collection, a tour that made Dan angry. When I asked what was so upsetting to him, he said that this most influential collection in the world had been assembled by a small clique of elitist academics and art curators and wealthy collectors to impose on the culture their extremely limited and already outdated notions of what should be considered important modern art—an art mafia severely constricting the free-flowing evolution of contemporary art.

Dan went on to become a professor of Art at Cal State Fresno and a prolific studio artist. One of the things I enjoyed about Dan’s painting on his announcement was seeing how gorgeously abstract his work has become. Long ago, in the days when I had more regular contact with him, he painted exquisite impressionist landscapes and unpeopled exteriors of beach houses—exciting and simply beautiful.