Above: “taste the emptiness“ (oil on paper collage, 2013) by Hildy Maze from her web site hildymaze.com
The conventional way of presenting artistic works involves a distancing between the audience and the creative. For example, works of art are hung on the walls of a gallery and the viewers file past the photographs or paintings. In most galleries there is nowhere to sit and just be with the pictures for half an hour, let alone share a coffee with the artist. Books are published and the audience browses through the shelves, picks out the odd volume here and there, thumbs through it, and perhaps takes it to the check-out till. A play is presented on the stage, and the audience passively sits (or stands in the case of the Groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe) watching the characters mark out their brief existence.
Occasionally there is a momentary connection with the artiste. At the vernissage, you might get to exchange a few minutes of chat with the artist over a glass of Cava (or a bottle of beer, depending on venue) before the noisy bustle pushes the artist into the next knot of admirers and inquirers. At a book signing, you might have a minute or two of social pleasantries while the author signs your copy of the book, and the queue of impatience lines up behind you. And, after you’ve watched a play at the theatre, it is unusual indeed to run into the actors or the playwright at the bar after the show.
Obviously this distancing of the creative from the audience becomes more inevitable as the audience swells. It is simply not possible for, say, Van Morrison to share a pint of Guiness with each of his millions of fans. And it can be draining for a very popular creative to try to respond in anything but a cursory way to all fans and interested persons. This, in the modern age of celebrities, is where the role of the journalist comes in. He can spend quality time with the creative individual, ask searching question, allowing time to ponder, backtrack, rephrase questions. And the journalist distils his insights into an article that we hope will be engaging, honest, and insightful.
Obviously, reading an interview in a magazine or web page, or watching a video interview, cannot match the fuller experience of a relaxed conversation with the artist. How often have you been changed in some way by talking with an accomplished artiste, or at least gone away with a lasting insight or image or thought that stays with you? A long conversation with an profound artiste can be a valuable thing, on a par with the work itself.
I first realised how insightful it can be to get under the skin of a painter when I spent several hours in a hotel bathroom with French painter Bénédicte Gimonnet. No, no, that sounds wrong! Let me explain. In 2008, the Red Dot Art Fair, London, was held in the Radisson Edwardian Grafton in Tottenham Court Road. Each gallery was allocated a hotel suite (which, for out-of-town exhibitors, doubled as accommodation at night). It was an ingenious cost-saving gimmick, but also created a more interesting space than the usual gigantic halls that art shows occupy. I gravitated to the hotel suite that was being used by one of my favourite galleries in London, Cynthia Corbett. As usual, there was wide variety of interesting new work, but I was intrigued by the biomorphically abstract paintings of Bénédicte Gimonnet. She happened to have been allocated the bathroom of this suite, and had made an effort to create a more salubrious atmosphere by constructing small wooden boxes around the toilet and the wash basin. As usual, I had arrived in the last hour of the last day of the exhibition, and I was hanging around in the bathroom talking with Bénédicte when Cynthia gave the order to pack up all the artworks and evacuate the suite, as the show was over. As I was there, I volunteered to help out with dismounting, packing up, and carrying out her paintings. This provided a great opportunity for an extended conversation about her paintings – her techniques, her inspirations, her thoughts, her interpretations. Her characteristic style of vertical streaks of acrylic paint on an aluminium sheet were suggestive of raw muscle fibres, or intertwining vegetation, or desert dunes, but never simply depicting any one thing.
I learned vastly more about her paintings over these two or three hours than I ever could by just looking at them or having the usual brief chat that is possible in an art show. I ended up buying one of the pieces, which had pride of place above my red sofa in my London Docklands flat. (This is the sofa, that four years later, became my sleeping quarters when I rented my bedroom on AirBnB.)
My point here is that having a long, relaxed conversation with an artist can provide a lot of insight into the work. Which is one of the two main premises of the Staying With Art project: that sharing the artist’s home for a number of days can give a unique access to the creative mind, as well financially supporting the artistic endeavour. And … the visitor is also more likely to purchase the creative work. (As I did!)
To be sure, not all creatives like talking about their work. But most welcome the opportunity.
I was reminded of this when I saw the paintings of Hildy Maze, who is an AirBnB host and member of the Staying With Art group on Facebook. When I first saw Hildy’s paintings, I must admit I found them rather inaccessible. But as I read up about her work on her web site (hildymaze.com), and online articles (e.g. The Awakened Eye, Investigating the Mind Through Art) I began to appreciate them. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Hildy, but through the vicarious medium of the internet, I have at least got a handle on the paintings and now I like them.
For ten years from 1978, Hildy studied under the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, and Buddhism remains at the core of her art practice. As I understand it, Buddhism is centrally a careful and systematic dismantling of illusions. We suffer illusions about physical reality, about our personal existence, about our thoughts and feelings. And we find ourselves in what Morpheus called a “prison for the mind”. The enlightenment that Buddhism teaches is a liberation through seeing the illusions for what they are, and hence releasing their grip. That’s what I get from reading around the subject, anyway.
Hildy writes, “Out habitual patterns of passion, aggression and ignorance like roots of a tree that reach deep into the earth, reach deep into our minds sustaining a false security of who we think we are. By engaging in these patterns mind’s true nature is obscured.” Chogyam Trungpa was the first major exponent of Vajrayāna Buddhism in the West. Also known as tantric Buddhism, this is a highly mystical tradition that defies simple explication in Western concepts. A key part of it is the empowering of the student by the overthrowing of illusory constraints. (It is often radically misunderstood in the West because of its antinomianism.) Anyway, when I looked again at the paintings knowing their roots in Vajrayāna – the so-called Thunderbolt Way or Diamond Path – then they began to acquire a coherence and meaning in my mind. Their fragmented surface forms spoke to me of the shattering of illusory concepts and revealed a deeper, trans-rational awareness.
I don’t know whether my reading of Hildy’s paintings connects with her own intentions in making them, but I certainly find that my personal appreciation of them is enhanced by knowing more about her life and her long experience of Buddhism. Hopefully, one day I shall stay with her on AirBnB and find out more.
Staying With Art
In part, the thinking behind Staying With Art is that engaging with creatives can make it easier to appreciate their work and to gain a deeper understanding of it. Of course, I realise that not everyone will want to see it this way. On the one hand, some art critics (for example, Gary Kennard – see his Open Letter to the Tate) believe we should be completely free to construct our readings and interpretations of creative works with being guided by curators or the original artists themselves. On the other hand, some creatives just want to isolate themselves from the audience and focus exclusively on the creative work. Therefore I would be very interested to hear people’s perspectives on this.
As a creative, do you welcome one-to-one engagement with your audience, or is this for you an annoying distraction? As a member of the audience, do you relish getting the artist’s insights, or do you prefer to formulate your unique personal reactions in your own space?