Creativity and Creative Process
A Conversation with Sandra Indig
Artist and Psychotherapist
However much we might protest, it is the exotic fruit, the inexplicable rare bird, both literally and figuratively, that is the most prized and cause for the greatest serotonin rush.
The more easily identifiable and familiar a two or three dimensional image is, the more readily it is accepted by the viewer. The further removed an image is from the familiar, the more bizarre, unacceptable or not “normal look-ing” it is judged to be. Marcia Tucker, founding director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in NYC, in her article, “Questing for New Definitions of Contemporary Art”, re-marked that there is nothing quite like unfamiliarity to build contempt. However ubiquitous prejudice against the unfamiliar is, it takes a discordant note, a divergence from the known to cause the excitation of the “little grey cells.”
Most of us are bored and numbed into inattentiveness by sameness, routine, and the totally predictable. However much we might protest, it is the exotic fruit, the inexplicable rare bird, both literally and figuratively, that is the most prized and cause for the greatest serotonin rush.
Once upon a time and not so very long ago at that Michael Mulhern, painter, could easily see from his large studio windows a wide portion of the Hudson River. Now, the goings on in that same studio are the focus of both casual and studied viewing by the nearby inhabitants of lower Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Just a window’s view apart and a whole other world moves as if it were in a different orbit and there really isn’t any reason to explain the difference. Or is there? The juxtaposition of this towering edifice to commerce next to a low-lying artist in residence studio could by a twist of thought reduce what is strange to what is familiar. The enigmatic yet somehow familiar images of Michael Mulhern’s most recent paintings invite the viewer to do just that: restore the familiar to the seemingly unfamiliar. At first viewing I was, like Mulhern’s World Trade Center neighbors, mystified, perhaps confused and then comforted.
Greys, near blacks and silvered grey-white aluminum based paint has been washed over large canvases creating nonrepresentational forms that swirl and touch, contract and expand perhaps in response to an inner dialogue more accessible to feeling states than spoken language. A calligraphic under painting – or linear drawing, sometimes barely visible, appears to both ground and trigger or generate the next layers of paint. The paint is layered leaving every mark made in-tact: nothing is removed or erased. For this viewer, the artist has recorded on canvas a correlative for the process of memory; a process of remembering. The result is not like something else or an “as if anything. The paintings are containers for the passage of time in space in which the experience of loss and retrieval of memory take place. Perhaps it is not an accident that due to the light reflecting properties of the aluminum based paint, the work is not very accessible to reproduction.
Mulhern’s recent powerful one-man-show at the Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art offered the work a fine venue in which to resonate with the thinking and feeling viewer. I told Michael, in reference to his work, that “good painting is like being at home with one’s heartbeat and by extension being at home with the heart beat of another.” The hook for the receptive and devoted viewer like the artist is to want to be in that special body/mind/spirit place not just once but over and over again.
How is it that in this time of the big sound, the colossal noise, the worship of speed and the demand for the totally accessible that some of us make art or containers for remembering that are silent, still and often difficult to replicate ? It is the visual artist that not only tolerates but revels and partakes in the limitations of a silent, non-verbal, and without significant movement drama.
For some not totally intelligible reason, the artist both remembers and invokes the significant markers of his/her past by creating containers or forms of expression in which to amplify, project, and gaze upon body/ mind/ spirit memories over and over again. And this he has done since he crawled out of the primordial mud of his collective past.
Awakening from a bloody nightmare or being held in a wish-fulfilling dream of reunion tends to discipline me into going to a museum, art gallery, visiting an artist’s studio or making art myself. But in the beginning there is always the shock that something is either too right or too wrong or is too present or too missing that propels me into action. Quite frankly it is the fear that I will die if I don’t make something more than it is or make something not what it appears to be. I can easily identify with artists like Mulhern who feel that that their drawings are meant to disturb them into taking the next step.
The unpleasant but quietly recognized truth is that artists and creative people in general are disturbed into or by their work. It seems that more of us than not are disturbed by or provoked into taking the next step by our initial drawings.
Sometimes the irritant or stimulant appears to come from outside the self and is taken into the self like a bad object. T.S. Eliot coined the term “objective correlative” to express the idea of an external dramatic situation justifying a character’s inner state. Mark Kuhn, sculptor, has been engaged in creating a series of work that resonates with both emotionally laden material from a time before he became a sculptor and from events in the present.A progression of sculptures carved from gigantic logs of over 14 feet in height to pedestal pieces of two feet in height narrate an odyssey of personal and historical concern with experiences of confinement, isolation and disillusionment.
Mythic references and stylistically so-called primitive characteristics of recording emotions are used to dramatize gestures and attitudes associated with discomfort, pain and oddly enough, serenity. There it is again, the discordant note that nudges the viewer into a more finely attuned state ofalertness. As opposed to Miilhern’s lower Manhattan loft surrounded by the glass, concrete and steel of skyscrapers, Kuhn sculpts outdoors on the grounds surrounding his home near Long Island Sound.
Like his work with its suggestion of both pain and pleasure his studio-in-open-air is both. The comforting songs of birds and whispering trees are predictably punctuated by the guttural and disturbing shouts of a nearby neighbor directed at Kuhn to chop down his work! I was both alarmed at this intrusion and also curious at to what could have provoked such a powerful negative transference An elderly man presumably riveted his attention on these carvings in wood with the result that he was angered and, I suppose, repulsed by what he saw. In perhaps equal measure, I was enchanted and stimulated by a view of a series of human size female mask/head sculptures. In one new piece, arms and hands stretch up from a base to a reach a head, that seen from the rear, is in actuality a mask. The works comment on and function as containers for the inner experiencing of an outer reality that things are larger disturbing historic reality as well.
Paradoxically, her eyes have been rounded to a half open position inducing in me a feeling of calm and serenity. I was left wondering if the neighbor was relieved or agitated by the sculptures being removed to the Gallery North in Setauket, New York. As opposed to the comfort of the known or the vicarious experience, it is often my preference to engage in what is unfamiliar, promisingly strange and likely to alter my thinking and feeling self. So I asked Michael Mulhern about that part of his series of aluminum-based paintings entitled, “Overcoat.” I wondered if the title was a suggestion addressed to the viewer to symbolically borrow his coat, live in his skin or covering, and thereby enable him/her to think and feel with him? As both an artist and therapist I really have to ask a question to get an answer and sometimes I have to wear, as Kuhn’s work suggest, another’s mask in order to make a new connection. Things are not what they appear to be. A woman cups her hands around her mouth to better amplify a scream. I wondered if his gesture was not on some level the silent scream of the artist directed at his intrusive neighbor or a comment on some…
Sandra Indig, CSW, ATR-BC works and maintains a private practice in New York, NY.
14 MANHATTAN ARTS INTERNATIONAL SUMMER 1998