Saturday, 30 August 2014

Archetype Cat Banishes Fear

I’ve been drawing and painting cougars a fair bit these past years but admit that I’ve never actually seen one.  When I was living in British Columbia I was terrified of seeing one but hardly anyone who wasn’t being attacked by one actually had.  That was the gist of it - cougars are shy animals and for the most part they leave us humans alone.  Yet as more of us enter their habitat, establishing our gardens and golf courses and attracting the local species of deer, mostly mule deer and white-tailed deer, it's become harder for the cougars to distinguish between deer and other fortuitous types of prey.  Especially if they're hungry.  A few days after I arrived on Vancouver Island, where the British Columbian capital of Victoria is situated, a cougar sprang from a rock ledge and gobbled up two corgis belonging to a woman who was taking them for their morning stroll along the Brentwood Bay beach.

Like most predators, cougars will go for the smallest and weakest, which was hardly reassuring to a shorty like me.  They are also liable to attack in the early morning hours or late in the afternoon, which is when I usually go walking after a day at the desk.  I was determined at the time, however, not to let my fear of them deprive me of this salutary recreation.  I walked and I watched.  But all the while with my heart doing cartwheels in my chest.

Long ago, when asked what I was like as a child, my mother paused and then provided one word.  Fearless, is what she said.  Of course, overhearing this, I was tremendously pleased.  Particularly as it wasn’t at all true.  Maybe I was good at hiding it, but I was fearful of a host of things.  A horde, you could say.  To begin with, I was afraid of fish (don’t ask why, that’s another story); of a boy who lived in our apartment building; of the red-haired chow dogs that prowled the street where my grandparents lived; of the murderers I read about; also painted-face clowns.  The sinister tones of the radio mysteries I listened to (because my mother acted in them) sent shock waves through me.  When I was seventeen, no less, I begged my parents not to go out and leave me alone with my two younger brothers after reading William March’s The Bad Seed.  (Believe me, as a means of sending terror ripping through you, the movie based on it doesn’t begin to compare.) 

Yet, it’s also true that I was capable then of feats of derring-do I couldn’t contemplate in my dotage.  I was sanguine driving, and I’m certainly not today.  I climbed tall trees without qualm and took off like a bird from high-diving boards – head first, with barely a ripple in the warmly receiving water.  I was totally, and foolishly, fearless in affairs of the heart.

But as I grew older I changed.  Motherhood, it has to be said, made me frightened in a way I never had been before.  All the things that could happen to a child overwhelmed me, so much so that I often found myself afraid to show my very deep love, lest something might happen to take a child away from me.  This, I imagine, is something akin to what parents felt in earlier times, when children’s mortality was the rule rather than the exception.  Perhaps it’s what makes them seem so harsh in our eyes today.  I became more anxious as well about what was happening in the world.  Inward- or outward-looking, I could scarcely control emotions so alarmingly intense.  We were deep in the midst of the Cold War when my first child arrived, and the sound of a low-flying airplane had me hugging him so hard it would surely startle him if I were to do so now, fifty odd years down the track.  Fifty years down the track I still worry about him, his siblings, and their children, and their children and children yet to be.  The older I get the crueller the world seems, and humans the cruellest creatures in it.

Age has set off its own battery of alarms.  I now have a fear of falling.  I fear I won’t manage when my partner dies or he won’t manage if I go before him.  I’m frightened by the prospect of not managing anything, and foisting the care of me onto overburdened others.  I see before me a bleak horizon of ever-increasing helplessness, unavoidable loneliness, and of course the end of it, the ineluctable fate of all of us, humans and animals alike.  Yet strangely and happily, the more I have to fear the less I do.  There are numerous reasons for this, but I'll narrow them down to three - love, laughs, and cougars.

We know about the importance of love, particularly in its agape mode, and no one would argue about the curative power of laughter.  But cougars?  That is something else.  I was confronted once, as said, with the fact of them without ever, mercifully, having been forced to face one.  But we all have to face our fears.  The big cats that haunt so many of my pictures, whose presence seems always to be with me, just below the scrambling surface of my quotidian consciousness, are a gift in that sense.  Cougar, puma, mountain lion, panther, jaguar, leopard, cheetah – whatever their names or habitats – have coalesced into a kind of archetype.  Bleached of their various distinguishing features, stripped of their distinctive markings, they offer themselves up as scapegoats, tabula rasas, blank screens – say what you will - onto which I’ve projected my anxieties.  Like a witch's familiar, the cats escort me.  And if they are big cats, that could be because they’re commensurate with my fears.  Big enough to carry the weight of them, and let me walk free.  

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Subverting the Linear Order

What, in the goddess's name, is this mysterious thing called style?
digitalised detail, mixed media 'bird hiding'
The wonder of it is that, at the tail of a writing career, I should be asking myself this question at all. But looking back over thirty years of writing and, latterly, painting, there’s the imprint of a picture that keeps recurring: Paul Cezanne’s ‘Route Tournante’ that I saw when works from London's Courtauld collection came to the Australian National Gallery many years ago.  

 Colm Toibin has spoken about this painting and of the importance of omission in Cezanne’s work.  There are things left unsaid on this canvas.  As for me, I was and continue to be spellbound not only by the gaps but by the lines between the spaces, the ones that if allowed to proceed would connect, but stop before doing so.  In response to this, one pesky word keeps popping up.  The word is ‘fragmentation’.
In trying to intellectualise all this, I’m obliged to pay homage to the writer John Berger, who in his many essays equated modernity with mass migration, its impact on ways of perception and how we translate those into art.  For Berger has contended that the twentieth century was ‘the century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.’ Here he also asserts that migrants are people who have lost the centre of their worlds and flounder in a world of fragments. (This is a paraphrase: I’ve lost the direct quote.)  These thoughts have stayed with me, a migrant myself from a family of migrants, ever since I first came across them.  They are still apposite today, arguably even more so, when increasing numbers of people are crossing national borders, either propelled by force or beckoned by wider opportunities.

There was another influence working on me and the two are indisputably connected, as they were in Berger’s mind.  Mass migration had its impact on mass media, the movies in particular.  America’s ‘melting pot’, so called, was in no small part stirred by the twentieth century’s dominant art form, when images overtook words because words had not yet been fully assimilated.  Too few migrants to America spoke English, but the movies helped them interpret, and then go on to fashion, their brand new world.  And while my immigrant family, largely self-educated, worshipped the word, they were also immersed in that boundless world of pictures.  Pictures that they put together in order to form a narrative.

The linear narrative has had a place in the human psyche that, for all the countervailing pressures, can’t be easily shifted. When we watch a well-made movie, it’s difficult to realise that the narrative is made up of frames, and next, of scenes, and that the transitions between the scenes are very often visual rather than strictly linear. This ‘way of seeing’ has wormed its way into our consciousness to such a degree that we can relinquish awareness of it; what we do instead is impose a sequential pattern on it, one that conforms to our expectations of how narratives should behave.  This, more often than not, is how we ‘read’ the movies.  But how has this affected the way that we happen to read?

In the early 1970s Frank Moorhouse adopted what he called the ‘discontinuous narrative’, a hybrid form that combines the short story with the novel.  Others have described it as ‘a novel in short stories’, and for a time nervous publishers were content with ‘linked stories’.  It’s a demanding form, in that the stories have to work on their own and at the same time work together as an overarching narrative.  But for that very reason it has its appeal, despite its detractors, who seem to be uneasy with the ambiguity.

I’ve been thinking about all this because while hunting for something altogether different, I’ve come across a clipping from a 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Review that I obviously kept with these inchoate thoughts in mind.  It’s a review of a book of interviews with 26 filmmakers by the multi-media artist Doug Aitken.  Called Broken Screen, its subtitle – Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative – alludes to the fact that we're taking the whole process further, when filmmakers themselves come celebrate the method of their madness.  As the critic Peter Lunenfeld writes in his review: 

‘Together the voices here explore new ways of telling stories that have emerged in the wake of avant-garde moving image experimentation and the relentless innovations in information technologies.’

The gist of the book is that, after over a century’s exposure to nonlinear narratives in the visual media, ‘linear story telling has become at once over-familiar and insufficient,’ and the more attuned we are to narrative fragmentation, the easier it is to put the bits together.  Robert Altman refers to the intercut, intertwined, ‘meshed’ stories he put to use in Nashville, while French artist Pierre Huyghe tells how he ‘carves up’ his video installations to open them up to what he calls the ‘exponential present’ – in other words, the dizzying range of WiFi, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the other feeds and platforms that a mere eight years down the track we’re heir to.  

But the message, though fractured, is nonetheless clear, and leads me to greater understanding of my own compulsion to chop up my narratives into component parts, and then reassemble them in a way that accords with my own altered consciousness and, more, my lived experience.  Though it’s taken me years to recognise, there’s hardly a book or a story or a painting of mine that hasn’t been so assembled.  And longer still to comprehend fully why.  Though, as said, I did have my inklings.

Let’s go back to Cezanne, his ‘Route Tournante’ and its ‘omissions’ - the gaps left unpainted between the broken planes of colour - that play such an integral part in the painting’s structure. The depth of the picture comes from extending the lines, or from filling in those spaces, or simply letting your eye follow either, in order to gain a sense of the artist’s perspective.  Reading, and seeing.  Seeing, and reading.   Always an interaction, always a conversation, always a challenge - if you’re game enough to take it. 

(P.S. I apologise for not having the techno-savvy to supply either the image of or the link to  'Route Tournante' or Colm Toibin's talk on it, but invite you to google them both.)