The Face of God
by Carol Es
The exchange of feelings and ideas between artists are never short of amazing to me. At times, it can be equivalent to witnessing a miracle, or seeing the face of God. It’s where art really starts to get interesting. You’ll never pick up the same unique content eavesdropping on a couple of stuffy businessmen. No way. And unless you too were a businessperson, there certainly wouldn’t be anything good to hi-jack from their conversation.
At the more creative levels of capitalism, advertisers steal from artists every day, and vice versa. Perhaps the truest, original example of shameless self-promotion, or targeted advertising, took place in the burning bush to get Moses’ attention. It worked like a charm for God then, but would that really cut through all the crap these days?
As synchronicity would have it, I received something of a prophecy when I purchased a book from A.R.T. Press. Editor in Chief, Alejandro Cesarco’s idea to publish exchanges between artists was a smart one, let me tell you. Between Artists is positively a must-read-twice! Amy Sillman and Gregg Bordowitz discuss everything from conceptual painting to social biology. It’s an intimate exploration of two very different minds leading each other into the center of the universe of interstellar space and time, and probably without intention. Together they uncover secret bits of artistic telepathy, while an intermittent, flirtatious, bisexual static peeks out from the pages. Was that the face of God? Are you my mother?
Objective yearning, fear, dread, and awe are all revisited topics here, as well as the anti-aesthetic, which I find interesting in regards to Amy Sillman. Apparently she’s not trying to be beautiful. I guess I believe it, but she has failed miserably. For me, her paintings are everything she’s going for in terms of the sublime with a capitol ‘S’. She makes pain, humor, memory, and ugly cartoon characters as pretty as godly possible, but here she reveals a lot in terms of her efforts, feelings and fears behind her approach, as well as her instinctual wrestling with what is absent, and teaches much about omnipotence. All hail Amy Sillman!
God, if only there were a “Sillman pill” I could take, I’d spend all my lunch money on keeping that prescription filled. I just gotta make sure I don’t OD on them pills. Although, losing myself in a state of Amy Sillman wouldn’t be such a bad eternity. Her injections have turned out to be my greatest medicine this week, putting me back on track to embrace my fragility. Her disclosure of her fear of being wrecked reminded me that there is no shame in revealing our vulnerabilities to each other. As a matter of fact it brings us closer together and unmistakably cuts through the crap.
Most empowering for me was her pointing out the importance of her studio practice as being a sacred, private space for the creative macrocosm to take place. Which means my Do Not Disturb sign is going back up on my studio door. She has a praiseworthy goal of erasing any traces of the heroic and consumerism, which can remind us of the dangers of having artist sensibilities and sensitivities in a world saturated in the progressive consumption of goods. She is pro-aesthetic and refreshingly anti-factory - hard to find in this very commercial market that art has become. It’s easy, and even popular, to lose sight of the truth and a love for painting, but I'm glad that Amy Sillman hasn't.
What motivates Sillman and Bordowitz to make art is very different, yet the deep affects and cultural psychoanalytic theories they discuss are intertwined. What drew me into their conversation is perhaps better known to Bordowitz than Sillman. He is extremely insightful, self aware, and wittingly challenges the conventions of the everyday right down to the most primal desires in human nature, thank God.
Questioning all aspects of societal life, Bordowitz’s concern is with determining what is queer, and what is unqueer. I love this mind-twist-you-up-in-knots kind of thinking about what attracts people to objects, mothers to their babies, and how babies “hail” attention from their mommies. Everyone is hailing, flirting, advertising, and in many ways, performing desperately to attain admiration. Exhausting.
Midway through the book, he brings up a significant childhood shaming when he was forced to stop hanging out with one of his friends merely because he’d held this boy’s face in his hands. It’s a sad and poignant story that really pissed me off. I began to reflect upon the disgraceful feelings of the person doing this shaming in the first place. I see it as a sickly contagious burden we wind up incorporating into our DNA and I can’t help but wonder whether the shameful, queer-paranoid state of people in this society will persist until all beauty is finally wiped away.
Bordowitz is an important filmmaker, artist, activist, lecturer and writer who has shown in such impressive structures as the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and MOMA to name a few. He has produced films, television shows, and has even appeared in one of my favorite films, Swoon. You may have seen his words in Artforum, The Village Voice, and various AIDS anthologies. He himself was diagnosed in 1988 when he was just 23 years old, while coming out to friends during a time when little was known about HIV. His deeply moving story is documented in his autobiographical film entitled, Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993). Inspiring and incredibly intelligent, I would’ve liked to have had a conversation with the guy my own damn self. I could have learned a thing or two about a thing or two, and asked him why the hell I couldn’t get my mother’s attention, even though I had plenty of shame oozing off me. Okay, what’s all this about?
It’s that Bordowitz is super well versed in the writings of Eve Sedgwick and personality theorist, Silvan Tomkins, who constituted shame as being the first affect. Infants learn to provoke interest from their mothers when they are not getting enough attention by initiating a downward glance. It comes from shame, and it’s a form of calling one to look by looking away. Bordowitz sees this as a flirtatious gesture, which it is! How interesting is that?
Isn’t it funny how so much more is revealed in the unsaid than what is spoken? Consider our silent communication with strangers - the occasional exaltation we evoke through mere glances. It seems we somehow psychically cope better with the unknown than we do the literal. Maybe we should all just shut up.
How on earth we got from cerebral shame to the burning bush that hailed Moses to God, I don’t know exactly, but I’ve been meditating on this idea about having my face held by another, and it seems nice. Who wouldn’t want to be perceived and adored? Jesus, even God wants that.
I love it how artists surreptitiously bring about these epiphanies, and even spiritual awakenings in others.
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Carol Es is an artist, musician and writer in Los Angeles. Her handmade Artists' books are part of the library collection at the Getty Museum, UCLA Special Collections, and the Jaffe Collection at Florida Atlantic University. She co-founded the online magazine Picklebird (1999-2002), and writes for the Huffington Post Blog and Life on The Edge. Other articles appear in Coagula Art Journal; Artesian Magazine, Brainchild, Tangent, and RiffRag. She has exhibited at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Torrance Art Museum, and the Riverside Museum of Art, and is also a grant recipient from the Durfee Foundation and The Artist's Fellowship in New York. She currently keeps a blog at http://esart.com/blog.