The Life and Opinions of Nels A. Nelson

Listen in while I talk to myself

Month: March, 2012

I Need a Step-Mother Tongue

The last two books I’ve read are Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles. After I finished Love and Obstacles, I realized that both authors, coincidental to my reading their work, are 1) from the former Yugoslavia (Hemon is from Sarajevo, Obreht is from Belgrade), 2) both works deal with, in whole or in part, the war that resulted in the break-up of Yugoslavia into its component parts, and that both wrote beautifully done books in a language that is not their first.

I’ve felt like a writer since I was in the third grade, when I wrote a story about monsters for a class contest that I was pretty proud of (even though a totally flaccid hack who dealt in cliches and banalities was given the class prize). I wish I had that story so that I could go back to it like a talisman and coax some wordly magic out of it. But anyway, now and many years later, the vocation is still calling, has always been calling, but I can’t understand its mysterious voice. And that’s it. That is just it. Viola! The oh-shit realization that will end a lifetime of frustrated attempts and non-attempts and fits and starts and failures: I’m writing in the wrong language. English, the only language I have, is no good for me. I need to acquire a second language, and then this writing gig will take off. Do I reverse course on Obreht and Hemon (and other Slavs for whom English was not their first language – Nabokov and Conrad), and learn and write in a Slavic language? Maybe I’m naturally inclined towards expression via the Cyrillic alphabet?

Морам да се на посао.

Seeing New Things Seeing Things New

I wanted to go because it’s like going to a church but where I can believe and accept the service because it’s all about the expression and the search and the beauty of humans grasping and reaching. Like a library like a bookstore it is a perfect place. L wanted to go to get a better look at a few works that she saw briefly on a quick stop there a week or so ago, specifically At the Moulin Rouge, The Drinkers, and America Windows. So, this past Sunday, we visited the Art Institute in Chicago.

When we got back to the Chagall windows, a work I’ve seen any number of times, I’d never noticed something that my wife pointed out to me – that if you look hard and up-close at parts of the work, especially where red and blue glass are next to one another, the red glass seems to pop out of the work, floats out in 3D fashion. It’s so very cool to see something new in a work of art I’ve looked at a lot in the past. Seeing something new is the answer to how-come question of why I can never visit too many times. Even the permanent collection is never exhausted. I’m so grateful to my wife for showing me this!

I got some new favorites to add to my list of favorites in their collection, especially these three portraits by William Bonnell in the American Folk Art gallery, this sculpture by Lee Bontecou, The Collectors by David Hockney, and the paintings of Gerhard Richter.

After writing, visual arts appeal to me the strongest w/r/t how we express whatever it is we feel needs expression. What is it about something, mostly something static, often something made many years and many-many years ago, that reaches into my mind and starts throwing switches? Take the Bonnell portraits. Until yesterday’s visit, I didn’t know him, had never seen his work; the portraits were tucked into a pretty small gallery that included, along with some paintings, some examples of carpentry and wood-working and furniture-making. Maybe it’s the caricature-like quality? The heads are outsized for the bodies they rest upon, and each subject’s eyes are too big in his big head, giving the portraits a modern feel, something ironic and cartoon-ish. Bonnell painted these in 1825, well before the period of hipster irony, and so I doubt that he intended them to be funny or unflattering. And I like them despite and because of their off-ness, their serious amateur quality. Were all resources unlimited, I’d love to have one of these hanging in my home, and not because they’re funny though they are unintentionally funny, but because I’d like to look at them more closely and more often, because there is something beautiful in them.

This was my first trip to the new wing (new as of 2009) of the museum, and I don’t remember ever seeing the sculpture by Lee Bontecou before. The construction of it, canvas and burlap stretched over and onto a wire frame, sort of like a canvas and copper-wire translation of a stained glass work, is very tactile and because the canvas is worn and thin and in shades of brown/tan, it seems very earth-bound and man-made, and all that works out to the void in the middle (the inside is lined with black velvet so just blank and unreflective) and I stood there in front of it, staring into the void she made for us to look into, and while knowing that the artist Lee Bontecou constructed this void, that it was a finite, artificial thing, the effect, on me, was a controlled stare into a real void. I looked into the black and there was nothing there and something there. It was a finite artificial thing and I know this and when I looked into it I couldn’t help feeling, “Whoa.” And that’s art. The whoa. The what the fuck?

So here’s to everyone who has something to say and says it, who has something to show and shows it. To quote Robert Creeley, “You got a song, man, sing it./You got a bell, man, ring it.” (from “Old Story: from the Diary of Francis Kilvert“, in the book, On Earth)