wet earth

Small Is Good

I’m still recovering from jet lag and the sinus infection I picked up my during last weekend in Paris, so this post will be brief.  Actually, brevity and smallness is what is on my mind this week as I reflect on my trip and what stands out in my mind as its highlights.

Wait: right now even the word “highlights” makes me think of a certain grandness, a tall, lofty summit overlooking lesser experiences or beings below.  In our attention-grabbing culture we are surrounded by the loudest voices, the biggest spectacles, the hugest successes.  Yet I wonder if I am alone in finding all that bigness bordering on tedious, on simply too much for our tender nervous systems to take in and absorb.  There can be a straining for significance in the grander efforts, a clenched-fist yearning to be #1, that makes it difficult for us to be anything other than overwhelmed in the presence of The Important.  Overwhelmed and, frankly, submissive, which is the opposite of free.

As a younger man, when I traveled to a big city with famous museums, I invariably spent many hours, both exhausted and enthralled, in the company of great works of art.  This time, I found I had little appetite for big crowds, big museums, big art.  At the modest Wallace Collection, in London, I stood enraptured before “Landscape with a Bare Tree,” by the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Wynants.  In this vibrant landscape you can absolutely smell and feel the dark moist earth and taste the freshness of the sky.  You can hear the sounds of people moving slowly, the clop-clop of their horses on the trodden ground.  The wind carries sounds that are sparse yet distinct.  I enjoyed losing myself for several minutes in Wynants’ world, alone in a gallery that was empty except for a bored museum guard who wandered in and out every few minutes.  Elsewhere, London was packed to the gills.  But at this small, beautifully organized art collection, there was the space, the freedom to truly enter into a work of art—which is a way of going within oneself.

In Paris, my favorite art object was a small writing table at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, in the Marais neighborhood, by the 18th-century furniture-maker Charles Topino.  In “Le Bonheur du jour” (I love that he gave his table a title), Topino uses inlaid wood to create gentle, sporting images of those small domestic objects that for some of us do indeed signify a kind of “happiness of the day”: a pot of tea, a vase of flowers, a book, a quill and paper for writing.  The table generates a spirit of well-being, the freedom of solitude and personal reflection.

An interesting point: unlike the grand museums with their hefty admission fees, which forcibly turn the visitor into a consumer and can make him feel almost obligated to spend a long time inside to get his money’s worth, checking off a list all the famous objects studied in Art History, admission to both the Wallace Collection and the Musée Cognacq-Jay is free.  You can come, you can go, you can pause, you can return.  You are free to enjoy what is inside on your own terms.

When I returned to Monterey I felt a sense of renewed gratitude for the small, quiet places we have around town to explore and experience art.  I haven’t been to either branch of the Monterey Museum of Art in awhile, so in the next few weeks I will post about what they are currently showing.  First, though, I must catch up on my sleep.

The Energy of Darkness

My computer program has very fixed ideas about what constitutes a portrait (taller than wide) and what constitutes a landscape (wider than tall).  In art, however, the application of such rigid categories is not helpful.  A Monterey exhibit of moonlight paintings by American artist Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932), for instance, would seem to fall under the category of landscape—lots of sky, lots of ocean, sometimes a few trees, always a moon—yet these enthralling, recently rediscovered works also possess certain qualities more commonly found in still lifes, abstractions, and even portraits.

These are exceedingly quiet paintings.  The ocean does not surge or even ripple; wind does not pass through the trees.  Even the blackest storm seems to unfurl in a state of hush.  De Forest suffered from hearing loss as a young man and he eventually grew deaf, which may have contributed to his decision to leave New York and its thriving gallery scene and settle in Santa Barbara.  He produced thousands of plein-air paintings, with over 400 moonlight paintings alone, and one gets the sense from the Museum of Monterey’s small, attractive exhibit that the isolation and the quiet felt in these paintings make them self-portraits—the inner self—as much as landscapes.  These are still lifes of the soul.

Some of the paintings move toward a form of raw abstraction that would not be seen in American art for over a generation.  In the undated “Storm Brewing in Moonlight,” the image is barely recognizable as landscape.  The sky is mottled with dark clouds, the earth is brown and black, a roiling swirl.  The moon is present in fragments.

In the 1905 “Moonlight on the Shore,” both sea and sky are a nearly identical gunmetal gray, looking ahead to the horizontal bands of Rothko.  “Montecito Peak in Moonlit Fog” (1909) is also constructed as a series of layers—a gray lowering sky, the gentle slopes of a pale mountain, a green meadow with a few trees and bushes—lending the work an Asian, meditative quality.

These paintings are also striking in their absolute absence of story.  In the placid and gauzy “Twilight Moon with Reddish Sky” (1902), the sea is as still as a lake, the peachy colors a kind of floating, drowsy veil.  Nothing happens, nothing moves.  All is calm.

Given the acute delicacy of these works and their special atmosphere of quiet, it was a bit jarring to be forced to listen to the cacophony of sound from an exhibit celebrating the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival on the museum’s lower level.  Also distracting are the identical frames that seem to entomb these sensitive images rather than support them.  Still, it is a testimony to the paintings’ subtle power that within a few minutes spent in their company I was able to tune out the sounds coming from below, ignore the streaky metallic frames, and just concentrate on the art.

For in such works as “Moonlight in Black Sky, York Harbor, Maine” (1907), de Forest has truly captured the energy of darkness, both gloomy and captivating, reflecting Romantic attitudes of the time but imbued with his own personal stamp.

“Collecting Moonlight” is but one of a generous cornucopia of exhibits, programs and activities associated with the Second Annual Art in the Adobes Festival, whose theme this year is “Rediscovery: Monterey Artists at Home and Abroad.”  The Festival will include weekend exhibitions in historic buildings in garden settings, art demonstrations, activities for children, plein-air artists competitions, and a parade of international dance costumes.  Of special note is the three-day only presentation of a long-lost WPA mural by M. Evelyn McCormick, which was discovered rolled up in a Sacramento warehouse and has been carefully restored.  “McCormick is famous for introducing French-style impressionism to Northern California in the 1890s,” says Julianne Burton-Carvajal, one of the festival’s principal organizers.  “In this bold mural, painted in her mid-sixties, she shows her modernist muscle.”

Art in the Adobes Festival Weekend, September 13-16.  For tickets and complete information visit the Festival website.

“Collecting Moonlight: The Night Paintings of Lockwood de Forest,” at the Museum of Monterey, 5 Custom House Plaza, through October 14, 2012.  A reception in conjunction with Art in the Adobes will be held on Friday, September 14, 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Note: I am publishing this blogpost, which I wrote two weeks ago, from Paris, France where I am on vacation; just this morning I learned the sad, bewildering news that the Museum of Monterey will no longer be headed by Lisa Coscino, who did so much to rescue MOM and transform it into a vital local institution.  Anyone who cares about the arts in Monterey can only be disappointed and even angry at this turn of events, and sorry to think of the stimulating exhibits, like the one reviewed above, that will no longer be scheduled.

An Anonymous Gift

One of my favorite artists died two months ago and I’m still thinking about it.  I never met John Rousseau, who peacefully passed away in his sleep on July 2 at the age of 64, but two of his performances still linger in my mind, nearly a decade after having seen them.  Rousseau was one of the mainstays of PacRep in Carmel, not only as an actor and director but also as a light and sound designer and a builder of stage sets.  I came to appreciate Rousseau’s brilliance over the course of two summers: in 2002, when he portrayed Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and in 2003’s beautiful production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a powerful piece of chamber theatre about ghosts, hidden wounds, and vulnerability.

The dictionary defines a weir as “a barrier or dam to restrain water,” and the metaphor is apt for McPherson’s 1997 play about characters who hold in their emotions in order to survive.  One night, at a small pub in rural Ireland, a boozy group of men try to impress Valerie, a newcomer from Dublin, with some neighborhood stories tinged with the supernatural.  As it turns out, she has a ghost story of her own, one considerably more serious, involving the death of a child.  The mood in the bar changes, and a man named Jack, played in that 2003 production by Rousseau, is prompted to share his own story.

Jack is a gruff mechanic, “an auldfella,” he calls himself, who lives alone on the outskirts of town.  Valerie asks him, do you wish you had married?  “Sure who’d have me?” he replies.  “A cantankerous old fucker like me.”  But beneath his rough exterior and all his talk about “freedom” and “independence,” Jack is a deeply lonely man, full of barely disguised hurt and yearning.  The story he tells to Valerie and the others involves a woman he was with as a youth; after they’d been together for awhile, she wanted to move to the city.  Jack chose to stay where he was.  She becomes engaged to another man, and as a guest at their wedding, Jack is struck by the realization that he no longer matters to her.

I can still remember, nearly a decade on, how meticulously Rousseau brought us into the character of Jack, whose layers of self-protection gradually disappear as he tells his story.  “And she just looked at me like I was only another guest at the wedding,” Jack says.  “And that was that.  And the future was all ahead of me.  Years and years of it.  I could feel it coming.  All those things you’ve got to face on your own.  All by yourself.  And you bear it ‘cause you’re showing everybody that you’re a great fella altogether.  But I left the church like a little boy.”

Jack goes to a nearby pub, where the barman senses Jack’s troubled mood.  “And the barman asked me if I was alright?  Simple little question.  And I said I was.  And he said he’d make me a sandwich.  And I said okay.  And I nearly started crying—because, you know, here was someone just ... and I watched him ... I’ll never forget it ... And, just someone doing this for me.  And putting it down in front of me ...  And I took this sandwich up and I could hardly swallow it, because of the lump in my throat.  But I ate it all down because someone I didn’t know had done this for me.”

In this, the play’s crucial scene, Rousseau conveyed with heartbreaking accuracy the looming gap between Jack’s self-isolation, his low opinion of himself, and his need, his burning hunger, for connection.  For all these years later, Jack, too, is haunted by a ghost: the ghost of his younger self who chose solitude over love and is still living with the consequences.

Rousseau bared the raw and broken heart of a broken man in that production, just as he did in Henry IV when Falstaff is spurned by Prince Hal and banished, their old friendship cast aside for the sake of ambition.  I still recall the tears in Rousseau’s eyes, glittering in the stage lights, when Falstaff realizes that his friend and companion, on his way to becoming king, no longer has room in his heart for him, for their old wild and rollicking ways.  It was more than acting, it was life, it was real, and it was thrilling.

I always assumed that some day I would find the opportunity to tell Rousseau just how much his performances meant to me.  Now that won’t happen.  Artists, writers, musicians, actors may never know how much their work has touched another.  Sometimes art is like that sandwich given to Jack: an anonymous gift that nourishes beyond all measure.  Rousseau’s deeply memorable performances manifested a rare alchemy of vulnerability and craft, sensitivity and skill—a model for all performers and creative artists.  I’m grateful to have witnessed his artistry.  Rest in peace, John Rousseau, and thank you.

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