Monday, October 12, 2020

Reflections on Visual Art

As I mature as a person, I am learning to integrate my disparities more fully. One way I'm doing this is giving up on specialization (a contrarian sensibility, in a world where I'm expected to specialize in order to compete). For instance, though I've adopted poetry as my primary outlet in the last few years, I've refused to let go of visual art. Here are a few of my current/recent visual art rituals:

  • I completed a series of drawings this summer for the Sketchbook Project, entitled Deck of Motifs.
  • I've been trying to push my interests in photography, experimenting more with compositing and abstraction. One accomplishment there: Orange Blush zine is going to publish a few of my photographs in their winter issue.
  • I'm currently entrenched in Inktober, which I'm completing this year in a tiny sketchbook, working for the first time ever directly in pen and ink (not every drawing, but the increasing majority)

I love that poetry is a fairly narrow field, a world of people who are very passionate: a tight-knit, extremely supportive community of nerd practitioners at the bleeding edges of language, culture, and experimental thought. But visual art is a whole different dimension, with its own scale and dynamic -- a panoramic spread of approaches, and an unimaginable volume of free-floating talent. The ocean for visual art is big, and even the small fish are breathtaking.

There is a vast universe of brilliant visual art out there, always one step away in Instagram or Pinterest. Amateurs and enthusiasts are doing magical things with line and color, using every medium imaginable. We are incredibly fortunate to live in the digital era, when these human capacities have been unlocked -- not the capacity to do the art itself, but the means to propagate it --

A time when the resources to create art (both the materials and the technical knowledge) is accessible enough that creative production is within reach for so many...

And a time when the contact surfaces for communication have blossomed so bountifully -- now that millions of aspirants can reach an audience, and the curious consumer has a million new venues for discovering the art that stirs them.

We live at the center of an explosion of creativity, an era that dwarfs the Renaissance. I think some people out there are still convinced that our age is somehow creatively impoverished -- that there are too many remakes of films, too many narrowly-scripted artistic movements, too tight a relationship between capitalist (and popular) market forces and availability of art. But I think these people are wrong. for reasons I can't quite pin down (too hung up on outdated modes of legitimacy, perhaps?).

Here are a couple of my favorites from my feed just now --

I can't really think about why I do visual art, without thinking more directly about why I do art in general. I am, essentially, an embodiment -- the fundamental thing I do is be in the world. (see also Dasein, the cogito, etc etc). This is what I do before any specific goal-oriented behavior -- it's the basis for the personal, the social, and the spiritual aspects. I can't really think of any more fundamental task for myself than refining my capacity to do this... to level up my being in the world, to make it more subtle and responsive, more conscious and intense. Everything I do is directed toward this, from parenting and home-building to watching action movies.

Art -- visual and literary -- is my most cherished form of self-refinement. It's a sense-assertion... the senses being the contact surface where my embodiment meets its environment. It combines two basic ways of being: perceiving, and actuating (or effecting... acting on the world... is there a good Theory word for that?).

And this task of being, as I understand it, has at least two facets (among many many others I'm sure) -- extroverted and introverted. It's two forms of exploration --- two dimensions of the unknown --- and here's where we get to the different ways of creating art.

Here I was, leading to a thesis about how visual art differs from literary art, and I'm watching my claims fracture on my own theory. I was going to say that poetry is (for me) an introspective art (which it is) and visual art is extroverted. But this doesn't entirely hold up. In particular, visual art feels very different when we talk about photography versus drawing.

Photography is certainly my most extroverted art form. I subscribe to the basic theory that a camera is a finger, used to point at something in the world and act on the viewer's attention. It's play with the extant, the boundaries and gestalts and patterns that are folded endlessly into nature, waiting to be found. I love the way time and space create spontaneous compositions on our sense-receptors, the way we respond to symmetry, the way the world is an endless play of boundaries and gestalt relationships and chiaroscuro.

Photography is, in a sense, an art of self-annihilation, a way of being the purest sort of consumer possible: a device that grafts reality onto my subjectivity. A way of instrumentalizing passivity.

But when I draw, I generally start in relative isolation -- I've practiced drawing from life, and I use references, but this isn't where my drawings emerge from. Like poetry, they are an exploration of an inner landscape. I'm doing my best to access something subconscious, only grazing reality as an occasional, incidental tool.

If there's anybody who I'd point to as an inspiration for this -- someone who embodies the potent kinship between drawing and poetry -- it's Bianca Stone. If you're curious, take a moment to poke around some of her work at

Bianca has reached deeper into the subconscious than I have. When it comes to visual art, I'm still stuck in grooves of narrative and semiotics and tropes. Still, if you're curious about my most recent project, here's some of it:

I've seen a fair amount of occult/divination posts recently, and I find it fascinating and intriguing on a pseudo-spiritual/deep-insight kind of level. Tarot has a lot of appeal for me, as a language of symbols with both a visual and a verbal component, and an expansive and ambiguous vocabulary for describing and structuring experience. My big hang-up: I don't really feel like investing the time it takes to learn these symbols, which seem to me (like all linguistic constructs) somewhat arbitrary in nature.

Wouldn't it be a better instrument if each person manifested their own tarot deck?

So I went about doing that, and called it the Deck of Motifs. It became the basis for my sketchbook project. The list of elements was basically spontaneous and intuitive, with a little curation and minimal editing. These then served as prompts for daily sketches and drawing exercises. It was a fun and fulfilling project, and I am happy to consign it to the Brooklyn Library Sketchbook Project, where, like the Arc of the Covenant, it probably won't ever be seen again.

Now that I'm done posting those, I'm moving on to Inktober. I'm still doing one specific thing, and I'll try my best to keep at it: for every drawing I post, I also post a photograph, so my Instagram feed is a checkerboard of photos and scrawls.

If you're interested at all in this side of my creative life, go ahead and check out my IG, and follow me: -- and send me your own IG name and story, if you're so inclined.

Thanks for reading.