Persimmon

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Robert Rauschenberg, 1964

As I am writing on Cunningham, Cage and Rauschenberg this weekend it seems reasonable to be looking at a Rauschenberg whenever possible.  This project will end up in print eventually, but right now I am still reading, looking, thinking, turning over in my mind the overlapping and divergent aesthetics of these three artists and their legendary collaborations (the first of Bob’s “combines” was created as a set piece for a Cunningham dance in 1954)  during the early “pop art” era when John was making sound with prepared pianos and Merce was throwing yarrow sticks to determine aspects of his choreography and Bob was (as John was) wreaking havoc with the conventionally agreed-upon lines between “art” and the everyday.

Underneath thinking about their work I am thinking about my own work, which is to say teaching and writing and far too much administration.  And about relationships, and about how things hinge and unhinge, expectedly or not, and about the conundrum of trying to know when you are an asset in a situation and when you are best off getting out of the way. And what getting out of the way means, when you think you must do it but you also think it might mean you will become less relevant or worse yet forgotten because…you got out of the way.  I keep telling myself various things, such as, “I will still know everything and everyone I know now, the day after I get out of the way,” and “he still loves me even though he was perfectly fine with my getting out of the way.” So there.  When is the fullness of time?

Some facts about persimmons:  Persimmons, it turns out, are best eaten fully ripened.  With ripeness they lose their tannic quality and become, inside their skins, jelly-ish and pulpy and sweet and tangy.  They may be consumed cooked or raw, and are especially popular in Asia and Iran.  Don’t eat persimmons on an empty stomach.  When you slice a raw persimmon open, it looks like a star.

I wonder why Bob named this 1964 silkscreen Persimmon.  The central image reproduces a portion of Peter Paul Rubens’s Venus at a Mirror (c. 1615).  The goddess is considering herself.  The painter is considering the goddess.  Front, back.  Direct, indirect. Literal, reflective.  Ever the colorist, Rauschenberg plugs a big blood-red eye at the bottom of the image, looking directly at the viewer.

Duchamp posited that the viewer completes a work of art.  Today’s completion of Persimmon can be completely different from tomorrow’s.   The red eye feels to me like a warning, about the risks of getting out of the way.  But perhaps it is the eye of a creature that ate an unripe persimmon. Or the eye of a cat who just spied a preoccupied bird.  The ripe blonde goddess may be ready for consumption…but woe unto those who forget, she is a goddess.

“I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to encounter them for the sake of greater clarity.  I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.”  -Robert Rauschenberg, as quoted by John Cage in Silence.

Persimmon is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and is on display in the Modern Wing gallery covering 1960-present.

Starved Rock and Nodding Onion

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The problem with starting an entry and forgetting to finish it is, information and memory slippage sets in and without your notes (which mysteriously ended up in the trash on the day the cleaning ladies visited) you can’t make the considered entry you intended.  Oh well.  This is what I started, which I will now try to finish. It won’t be as good or detailed as it would have been if I’d managed to do this when I meant to.  Eh.

On Easter Sunday I went to the Cathedral of The Great Outdoors for a hike with my friend Susan, who is visiting from California on a teaching residency.  We drove 90 minutes southwest to Utica, IL, a town of 1,000 which sits, amongst grain elevators, on the Illinois River.  Across the Illinois is a large state park that runs for some miles along the river and inland, featuring a series of sandstone bluffs and outcroppings, small canyons and waterfalls, forested paths, tiny riverbank coves, and a lot of stairs.  Yes, stairs. It is a state park after all.  It being early spring, the forest floor was carpeted in some areas with new green growth and purple and white wildflowers. Susan dubbed the shade of pale dots of color on the tree branches “Early Green,” which we later revised to “Early Spring.”  We walked and climbed for two hours and covered close to four miles in the interior route (passing through canyons and gazing down steep, stony gullies) and the exterior river path.  Mud.  We spied a nuthatch, numerous squirrels, a hawk, and what we believe was a bald eagle in the distant sky, eagles having returned to the region to nest in the bluffs.  The park is dog-friendly, which afforded many canine encounters including Esther and Sylvia, a pair of enormous golden retrievers who loved climbing the hills about as much as we did.  Well.  Knees are knees, after all.

I recommend a post-hike immersion into local culture at The Nodding Onion in Utica.  We arrived as most of the after-church crowd was leaving and enjoyed dinner for $12.99 apiece.  Susan had the leg of lamb, I had the ham.  There were some carrots and roasted potatoes too, and as I recall salads that did not involve iceberg lettuce.  The culinary highlight of the meal was the apple crumb pie a la mode, which we split.  As we exited for the drive back to Chicago, large raindrops began to fall.  One of us said to the other, I forget who to whom, “good timing.”

On the Road: Definite and Indefinite Articles

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I spend time in southern California.  Yesterday morning (on a hot April Fool’s Day when Mother Nature was tricking us poor Chicagoans into believing the winter is over) I was thinking about regionalism and clarity and the phenomena particular to California regarding identifying highway routes with “the” in front of the number.  “Take the 405 to the 10 and go east to the 110, then north to Pasadena…” someone might tell you.  Always a definite article ahead of the route number.  Having grown up in the Washington DC area (were we might say, “take 395 south to the Beltway and then go on the outer loop to Maryland and until you get to Indian Head Highway and go south toward St. Mary’s”), I find this fixation on particularizing a route number (which is by its route number is already particularized) quite amusing.   I remember an episode of NCIS a few years ago (back when I was still watching that show, I loved Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E and was so thrilled to discover David McCallum still working and still utterly charming decades later).  Someone in the supposedly Virginia-based NCIS office was talking about a car being chased “down the 395” — a roadway locally known in DC as either 395 or Shirley Highway.  I laughed heartily at the writer in Los Angeles who had never lived anywhere else and in oblivious southern Californian fashion assumed that the rest of the country referred to route numbers with that definite article up front.  If I were to confront this writer with the problem…perhaps as he swills his chardonnay on the patio while his sprinklers are spinning water across his lawn, unaware that San Franciscans are on drought restriction…I daresay the response would be, “huh?”

The “the” leads me to consider the definite versus the indefinite article. Articles are considered determiners in English grammar.   The difference between definite and indefinite is particularity.  “The” is definite and particular. “A” is indefinite, not particularized, imprecise.  “A” friend is a general idea and could be any one of many.  “The” friend is quite particular.  Special. The vaguery of “I have a dog” is different from the specificity of  “I have the dog that ferociously ate the front bumper of a police car in Chattanooga.”  Ohhhh.  THAT dog. It was a police car, but it was THE dog.

Articles, whether definite or indefinite, are in fact adjectives that relate to (dare we say determine) nouns.  Angelinos have opted to determine and declare their freeways definitely.  The rest of us are in a zero article state as regards our freeways, for “freeway” is a non-count noun and the general rule is that you do not use an article with a non-count noun.

“Huh?”

Well, the real lesson from this foray into American English grammar is, next time you are in Los Angeles, make sure you stick with “the” in front of the freeway numbers or you will be exposed for the tourist that you are.  Really.

Choosing.

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Yesterday on the flight from LAX to Midway I finished this book.  I quite liked it. In fact I got into a very interesting discussion with my seatmates about it (one a grad student at UIC, the other a first grade teacher).  The first grade teacher saw the cover and thought it was about picking a mate.  She wanted to get it for a friend who “keeps picking the wrong girl.”   The UIC grad student responded to the title by asking if I’d ever been to tedtalk.com.  I replied that no I hadn’t been to tedtalk.com, and no it wasn’t about picking mates (although I suppose one could apply some of the ideas in the book to such an endeavor). It was about how we can become better choosers. Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia University professor who has made a career of studying choice, talks about how the brain has two different systems for processing information, one automatic and the other reflective.   When the two align themselves, choice is easy.  When they do not, dilemmas present themselves.  Through a variety of examples ranging from arranged marriage (individualistic versus collective societies and how choice works in these respective cultures) to fashion (how color trends emerge) to life-and-death medical decisions, she lays out research supporting a case for how we apply choice to create our lives.  Along the way she references Marshmallow Studies, choosing between barely-distinguishable pink nail polishes, Pepsi v. Coke, priming, Odysseus and Sisyphus, “Cake, or Death?” and the role of cultural and media context in the exertion of choice. She posits that becoming better choosers requires the willingness to  expand some of our areas of expertise, and to make ourselves uncomfortable.

“Managing our expectations is perhaps the most difficult challenge of choice, but one way to do so is to look to those who have shown how constraints create their own beauty and freedom.  Inventors and artists and musicians have long known the value of putting constraints on choice.  They work within forms and strictures and rues, many of which they break only to establish new boundaries, sometimes even tighter ones.  There is more than one story to tell about choice, and there should be more than one way to read and write choice in our culture.”   ~p. 213

“It is worth our while, I believe, to experiment with a structured approach to choosing, one that encourages us to pay close attention to the choosing process and to connect the power of choice not to what it is but to how we practice it.”  ~p. 214

These observations resonate for artists, precisely because whether in set practices or improvisational activity, form and content rarely produce meaning without shape and boundaries to guide the endeavor.   It is in the process of inquiry and choosing rather than from the final product or resulting choice, that we usually find our way.

Gazing over dozens of goblets and cups of fine metal, stone, and wood –one of these objects was the Holy Grail — the ancient knight Templar in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade warned Our Hero, “Choose wisely.”  In reflective fashion, Jones did just that…and through his process, achieved the Grail.

We hereby award pearls to Sheena Iyengar for her informative and provocative research, and the wonderful read from Los Angeles to Chicago.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida

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The Bougainvillea is Doing Nicely

The explosions of color in the California spring are blinding to those of us more accustomed to the unrelenting flat chill gray of a midwestern March…so it made peculiar sense to me this morning that I would think of Iron Butterfly’s epic song, with its mondegreen (look it up) title, while pondering the bougainvillea at the bottom of the steps.  As I have had a head cold for the last three days, everything makes sense.  The salmon in the refrigerator makes sense.  The creamy orange walls I painted on my last sabbatical make sense.  The trio of ficus trees in the courtyard make sense, as do the green and orange oregami birds dangling from the cord in the living room window. The visual acuities and dimwittedness of the last three days have allowed me to play a lot of “Angry Birds,” a ridiculous and addictive app on my iPhone, and to think about, well, Iron Butterfly.  I never really liked In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida but I appreciate its significance as a gateway into heavy metal (which I have also never much liked, unless you count a few of Trent Renzor’s more accessible tracks.. though I think Nine Inch Nails is more considered “industrial rock” than heavy metal…the genre labels mostly elude me anymore as they are infinite in number insofar as I can tell…a friend of mine once surveyed around 600 dance companies and discovered they had 139 different ways to describe themselves, genre-wise…who knew?)  And how did I get from the magenta bougainvillea at the bottom of the steps to Nine Inch Nails? Eh. Blame the Proustian logic of the head cold.

I added my first link, that being a food blog I recommend highly for delicious recipes and point of view. It is kept by an exceedingly marvelous woman who can dance and cook (most dancers can cook, I don’t know if the reverse holds true).

A Word About Mixed Metaphors

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As a once and future blogger, I resume in new form with a wide field of possibilities and no particular focus beyond experiencing and writing about the, my, world. As life has taken me in so many directions (a mix of chance and choice, the Great Choreographer would observe) themes may careen from cats one day to the Rayburn House Office Building the next, with a diversion into lemon writing or food blogs in between. It therefore seems perfectly appropriate to use a title that is not about lemons versus peaches or pearls versus swine. (the latter being a mixed metaphor anyway) Every day is an experiment, and our metaphors are rarely pure unless it is by happy accident or far too much effort. Of course, writing a poem one needs to pay attention to such things as the best poems do tend to hold together in some internally consistent way, metaphor being a primary resource…but I digress. Or not, given that this blog is about anything. And perhaps occasionally, in a Seinfeldian sort of way, about nothing. Definitely an indulgence of sorts, with no audience to speak of and an un-ending blank page before me. How daunting and how delicious. The constant quest to learn to write.
But off into the barricades, a friend has called and needs rescue owing to brake repairs being done on a car about to drive from Los Angeles to New York. By all means, fix those brakes. The hill down from Flagstaff is a long one.