Moby Dick

Recent Scribblings on Art by Chris Hall

Notebooks with sketches and writings with studio detritus...

Although I haven’t posted in this blog very much lately, it hasn’t been for a lack of want.  I am always thinking and writing on art.  Here are some fractured thoughts from my notebook and various Facebook postings…


1.  On attending Flux night in Atlanta:  So, I enjoyed going to Flux night yesterday.  I enjoyed the Fast Food Mascot Fight, the Disarm sound work made of old weapons, the Spelman College Choir, and the large drawing of Civil Rights Activists.  I was a bit disappointed by Yoko Ono's work.  Too frequently she relies on the good intentions of others to complete her work. I love and respect her idealism, but sometimes it comes across as hopelessly naive.  I saw this in the way many people were butchering the spirit of her work by smearing the ink and drawing inappropriate things on it.  I respect her never failing optimistic take on life - but it is a place I cannot go to and settle in for any length of time.  But Yoko Ono is a sacred cow in the art world - and I doubt anyone would criticize her art in print.  And maybe I'm fine with that.  Although I cannot make an art that is so blindly optimistic, I am glad someone is.  We definitely need more of that.


2.  I think I make more interesting work than great work, and by great I mean sublime and profound.  I want to make more great work.  More often I make an art for the now, though sometimes I want to make an art for a forever.


3.  Last night I wanted to be wild.  I knew I wanted to be wild.  No one would join me so I went out alone.  It paid off.  I had a drunken epiphany as to why my current painting isn’t working.  I can’t wait to work in a bit.  Didn’t Hemingway once say, “Compose drunk, but edit sober?”


4.  In response to the stabbing at the recent Art Basel Miami:  Hello art world, please think about this sentence pulled from the attached article: Some patrons thought the stabbing was a performance art presentation. Others believed the police tape cordoning off an area of the convention center was part of an art installation. ------ this statement speaks to - 1. the current over conflation of art and life in contemporary art - and 2. a kind of jaded attitude where nothing is genuine or sincere and everything is suspect or a performance or a facade of some kind.... time to wake up my friends, and learn some sincerity, some trust, some wonder, some belief . . . some empathy.


5.  I am king of the night!  Now, if I can only master the day.  Good night everyone!


6.  So, this is 40:  a good a time as any to take stock of one’s life, I guess.   For those of you who know me well, you must know that my life so far has been . . . challenging.   But despite these challenges, I have zero regrets.   I’ve always done what compels my heart, I’ve always done what needed to be done, and I’ve always tried to do the right thing.  Perhaps it is because of these things that my life has been so full of challenges.  I can honestly say without any exaggeration that I would not be here without you, my fantastic friends and family, who have given me support during the many, many, and many less than ideal times in my life. . . But the lesson here is not how many bad times there have been, but how many times you all have come to help me out!  And remembering these times, these are sweet, rich memories!  I will never forget this, and I am eternally grateful to you all!  Thank you! 

Ahab (1998), oil on wood panel, 24x48.


7.  I recently sold an old favorite of mine to a good friend and collector.  The work?  Ahab (1998).  Obviously it is referencing Moby Dick, one of my favorite books.  Looking at this painting I remember a line from a poem popular with 19th century American whalers... "Death to the living, long life to the killers." How metal is that!  This painting used to hang in my parent's house where it would scare the neighbor's kids.   I picked it up tonight and am giving this old friend a good bye.  It will be in good company with two other Moby Dick themed paintings.


8.  I use a lot humor in my work and it pleases me to make people laugh, but I also want to make art to move people spiritually with beauty, and also to challenge people to think.  Art is such a strange thing.  There are still other reasons why I make art, and some more altruistic than others.  Selfishly, I use art as a catharsis to help with assimilating pain, but also to confront my shadow side, the potential madman, killer, chauvinist, dictator in me.  I often manifest my darker self in my art so that it doesn’t manifest itself as much in my life.  I know that I can never be perfect.  It is silly to try.  But if I confront the darker aspects of myself and acknowledge it in my art, I can at least attempt to be whole.


9.  I’ve been working a lot on some older works lately, the earliest dating back to 1999.  I honestly thought this might be harder than it is.  I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do this out of sense of respect or sacredness to a moment long past.  I am finding destruction can be just as integral to the process of making art as creation.  I feel as though I am taking some great risks here.


10.  Work on the dictator series continues, but I am already planning ahead for a future body of work, strangely enough on Art and Art Making.  I am pretty excited about this.  Of course there are other sketches for works that don’t quite fit into this plan – I hope I can find time to actualize a few of them.  And then there is the backlog of over 100 topics I’d like to write about for this blog, reworking my book, etc… Time is a bastard-bitch.

 

Loneliness by Chris Hall

Vincent van Gogh,  Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate , 1890.

Vincent van Gogh, Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate, 1890.

“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”  Vincent van Gogh 

Sometimes being an artist can be quite lonely.  There are the hours spent alone in the studio working.  Working, because you love it and because you feel compelled to do it, true, but this work also comes with the sacrifice of not spending time with family and friends.  A true friend will stick by you, but fair weather friends will forget about you after a while.  There is also the whole being misunderstood thing (cliché as it might sound, it is still a hard fact that can lead to feelings of isolation from society).  If the conditions are right, inevitably loneliness will set in, and if you are particularly susceptible to darker moods, such as Van Gogh, or myself even, depression might take hold.

Being misunderstood and marginalized by society is the worse of the two.  It can lead to ugliness and bitter feelings.  Consider Van Gogh's words, though:

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.  All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.  That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.  Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.  I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners.  And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

How did he do it?  How did he not fall into bitterness and avoid misanthropy?  Many people, including myself, would be tempted to boycott beauty, to purposefully make a bad art, but not Van Gogh.  Instead, Van Gogh redoubled his efforts into producing beautiful art.  How unimaginable that is to me.  Van Gogh had the remarkable patience of a Saint!

I've read Melville's Moby Dick more times than any other book in my life.  It has had a huge impact on my art, and on other artist's work as well.  Robert Motherwell championed it, as did Jackson Pollock.  Laurie Anderson called it “the Expressionist's Bible.”  In Moby Dick, Melville, who was himself no stranger to darker moods, writes the following:  

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.  And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.  And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. 

Wise words.

"Art" by Herman Melville by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) , 1888.

Paul Gauguin, The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888.

Art

by Herman Melville

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.


Melville is, of course, referencing the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, a strange story found in Genesis 32: 22-32.  I’ve always loved Herman Melville’s writing.  Perhaps best known for his novel, Moby Dick, his writing is peppered with scatological and dark humor, only to suddenly shift to something highly philosophical or spiritually transcendent.  How right he is about art requiring the use of opposites . . .  humility and pride, instinct and study, love and hate, audacity and reverence.  The process of making art can be quite a struggle.  In the visual arts it can be reflected in physical technique (use of warm and cool colors, for example), studio practice thought and attitude, philosophy, and subject matter.  It might not be a full contact sport, but making art is definitely a form of wrestling.  Incidentally, did you know that Art was an Olympic sport for the seven games between 1912 and 1948?  

Revisiting the Moby Dick Paintings by Chris Hall

Between 1997 and 1998, and again in 2006, I made several paintings illustrating Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  I had just read Moby Dick for the first time in 1997, after reading that it was a favorite among the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Pollock and Motherwell.  Moby Dick had a dramatic effect on me, and it remains one of my all-time favorite books.  These are some behind the scenes commentary on the creation and meaning of some of the work:

1.  In the first one, Tashtego (2007), I discovered the whale and bird (which the character Tashtego nails to the mast of the sinking Pequod in the closing scene) by accident.  It was part of my Divination Series, a series of 16 collages where I tore up pieces of paper, photocopies of pages from a book on Marc Chagall, actually, and glued the pieces down randomly in order to discover subject matter and composition.  

2.  Confrontation (2007) came next.  It is pretty much a straight forward symbolist piece.  Like Tashtego, and many of my other works from this time, my subject matter and composition was not pre-determined.  Once again, I discovered the whale by accident.  I was painting the ground of the composition for the skinned horse to walk on, and somehow it transformed itself into the specter of the whale.  It is one of my many visionary pieces from this time, and the meaning of this work is an enigma, even to me.

3.  The portrait of Ahab (1998) follows. Ahab is presented as a contorted and painful figure, with the ever-present eye of the whale figuring behind him.  In my hot-blooded youthful ignorance, I had come to identify somewhat with Ahab and his madness.  After some meditation I realized that this was unhealthy.  If you identify with an archetype, your fate becomes a self fulfilled prophecy.  I would later decide that I did not want to go down like Ahab.

4.  The Whale (1998) is a straight up Expressionist painting.  It is a bloody revenge fantasy, from the point of view of Ahab, who wanted to revisit violence on the world for its evils and for mankind’s suffering, revenge on that nameless thing that the White Whale had come to symbolize for him.  On the tail of the whale, the Pequod makes its appearance, and foreshadowing the Pequod’s demise, the whale’s flipper transforms itself into a tombstone.  

5.  The Whale Hunt (1998) closes out the Moby Dick paintings of 1997-1998.  If The Whale is hot with subjective energy, the point of view of Ahab, then The Whale Hunt is the outsider, universal perspective.  The turbulent white sea brings forth notions of the universe as sublime, indifferent nihilism.  The churning sea is filled with seman (sperm and egg feature in the composition), milk, and blood . . . it is the source of life, and in the case of the Pequod’s crew, the source of death.  The Pequod makes its appearance in the upper left, and opposite the Pequod is the Sun (which doubles as the previously mentioned egg).  The Pequod is sinking; it is being consumed by the sea and the indifferent all devouring universe.  No one gets out alive.  But where is the whale?  The whale is there, because the whale symbolizes the universe, it makes up the entire painting.  The Sun/Egg serves as the all seeing eye of the whale.  

6.  For Ahab Monomaniac (2006) I thought I would once again revisit Ahab, from a more sober, mature perspective.  Somehow I lost my way, and the result is a bit of humor.  It is critical of Ahab (and by extension, my youthful self).  At the time I was learning how to deal with suffering and pain with a sense of humor.  If Ahab had developed a sense of humor, Moby Dick would have ended very differently.  

7.  Ocean #9 (2006) is another sober, mature look at the subject. I had wanted to illustrate Moby Dick, without illustrating its narrative elements.  What I decided on was to do a series of works illustrating the moods of some of the chapters, and have this reflected in psychological seascapes.  The composition of each of the works was pretty similar, the point of view forward from the masthead of the vast and open sea.