Monday, November 7, 2011

Shape, stone, seeing: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Michael Ondaatje

On Friday afternoon I spent an hour at the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, a.k.a. Stanford University's art museum. We were in the neighborhood for an opening at the Pacific Art League in downtown Palo Alto, where my partner's painting Lake is being exhibited through November 23rd in a show titled Scapes: Land, Sea & City.

Of the many lovely and provocative pieces at the Cantor Center I continued to think about two over the weekend: Georgia Granite Circle, created by Richard Long; and Stone River, created by Andy Goldsworthy. Each of these is a stone sculpture.

Georgia Granite Circle is one of those pieces that a person could glance at and think, eh, a pile of rocks in a circle. But the piece bears long looking. Each of the uncut stones is rough, uniquely banded, particularly irregular. None are obviously shaped or even selected to fit beside its neighbors. And yet these coarsely beautiful rocks are set into a more-or-less perfect circle on a patio of the museum. There's artifice, certainly, in the proportions of the circle relative to its component stones, in the feel of the piece, its heft, its solid mass and sharp edges contained in smooth roundness.

Stone River is arranged with more readable intention: the stones were cut and fit in place by the artist and a crew of craftsmen under Goldsworthy's direction, and the sinuous wall is set in a trough dug into a field outside the museum. It is harder, I think, to dismiss, even by those inclined to sneer at modern, materials-centric art. That Goldsworthy was able to make 128 tons of sandstone seem to flow like water, and to evoke the eeriness of coming upon this weighty, hard, lovely, flowing stone thing set into the earth -- as though it had been dug up by archaeologists, or is sinking of its own massive weight into the earth -- there's artistry in the piece that can't be written off. If you don't know Goldsworthy's work and the photo of Stone River inspires curiosity, I recommend Rivers and Tides, a haunting documentary released in 2001.

Spending an afternoon and evening looking at works of art, sensitized by a new alertness to opportunity for casual photographs I can post to my Tumblr, had me staring the following afternoon at the pastry display at a café I particularly enjoy in Berkeley, from my favorite table tucked into a corner of the café's mezzanine. Round cookies and muffins and scones and cupcakes and cheesecakes.  Squarish slices of coffee cake; cinnamon buns rolled in spirals; filled oval-shaped croissants, and the crescent-shaped, buttery plain ones. The rail of Café Milano's mezzanine is made of square iron tubestock welded into a grid, painted and repainted a weathered sea-green. I stared down through a square iron frame at the stacks and slices of edible forms.

On Saturday at Cafe Milano I was reading Michael Ondaatje's new novel, The Cat's Table. Midway through, on page 132, the protagonist is visiting a London art gallery. The artist whose work is being shown is a friend not seen in many years, a friend made decades before during a three week journey by sea from Ceylon to England (the novel's principal focus). These many years later, Cassius is showing paintings inspired by the passage the boys, aged eleven and twelve, made through El Suweis, the Suez Canal. Here is Michael, the protagonist, narrating:

[...] I decided to walk through the gallery again, this time glad there was hardly anyone else there. And when I understood what it was that drew me, I circled the gallery once more, to make sure. I read somewhere that when people first celebrated the distinct point of view of Lartigue's early photographs, it took a while before someone pointed out that it was the natural angle of a small boy with a camera looking
up at the adults he was photographing. What I was seeing now in the gallery was the exact angle of vision Cassius and I had that night, from the railing, looking down at the men working in those pods of light. An angle of forty-five degrees, something like that. I was back on the railing, watching, which is where Cassius was emotionally, when he was doing these paintings. Good-bye, we were saying to all of them. Good-bye.

Shape, repetition, angle. The most ordinary things, be they stones or scones. There for the seeing.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is truly amazing! :D