nuggets of the cosmos

"The River's Edge," based loosely upon an anonymous scroll painting

I just dropped off fourteen new pieces that will join forces with the four prints from last Fall’s residency and the stunning work of Saya Moriyasu at G.Gibson Gallery for March and some of April. I have that strange combination of feeling bereft, relieved, worried and excited to see all of it hanging.

The body of work is called “Geology of Longing,” and takes cues from other artists, over time and the globe, who have looked at wilderness as a place of solace, testing or transformation. I looked at mostly Flemish, Italian and Chinese pieces for inspiration, keying in on works where rocks seemed to act as characters in themselves, or perhaps seemed to express the internal world of the human players in the scene. As I was involved with this process, I revisited the phenomenon of the scholar’s rock (I first heard about scholar’s rocks through a 1997 Cai Guo-Qiang installation called “Cultural Melting Bath,” in which large rocks loomed in a big open space in the midst of which museum-goers were invited to soak in a hot tub…). Here’s a quick description of scholar’s rocks from a 2000 article in the New York Times, in conjunction with an exhibit at the Met:

Although stones of various kinds had been revered in China from an early date, it was during the Song that scholars’ rocks were widely collected. The Song was the classical age of mountain-and-water landscape painting, in which a Daoist concept of nature as an organic play of interactive forces took definitive visual form. And rocks, harvested from riverbeds and caves, shaped by tides and rain, embodied this dynamic in miniature. The rocks were first domesticated for use in gardens, their natural contours manually altered and exaggerated to imitate the mountains that appeared in paintings. Eventually smaller rocks, set in basins or on trays and wooden stands, were adopted as indoor objects, to be placed on desks or shelves for contemplation, like little nuggets of the cosmos.

When I was referencing paintings and ideas and… well… rocks from ancient Asia or Europe, I was aware of a certain interior warning. There are historical tendencies for one culture to borrow from other cultures in ways that can reduce an idea to something thin or quaint… defined by style more than substance. Yet, it’s a vital part of the continuous discourse of culture, to borrow or find inspiration from approaches that vary from what is more local (in time or space or both). So when I was responding to these pieces, I tried to identify something as honest as possible as a foothold. Scholar’s Rocks are, on one hand, foreign to my experience of the world– I cannot get entirely inside a Confucian or Taoist view of the world, especially as experienced during the Song Dynasty. But the impulse to take something shaped by something other than human hands and bring it closer in order to study it and meditate on it… this is autobiography.


I have a two-headed pine cone that I found more than ten years ago that still sits on our windowsill inside a glass cone. I travelled from Indiana with it. I packed it. I also packed collections of stones and shells from Maine and Michigan and the shores of Lake George in upstate New York. These have been joined by fellows from Oregon and Washington– from the sound and the ocean and lakes. I packed butterflies and bees. I am so in love with certain seed forms that I could almost cry. I have to believe that this sort of rapture is related to the admiration of monks who devoted time to the contemplation of a rock’s surfaces.

I’d like to continue to explore another side of this process, though, as well. As I become more aware of the historical and contemporary versions of scholar’s rocks, I am introduced to more and more Chinese artists who are revisiting the form. Say, Zhan Wang, whose stainless steel rocks feel like an answer to Jeff Koons:

And, other contemporary Chinese artists who, like me, are responding to a canon that was shaped on the other side of the globe. Like Yue Minjun, who revisits heroic paintings from Communist China and Renaissance Europe:

The Annunciation, 2009 Yue Minjun (Pace Beijing)

Or Chinese-born American Zhang Hongtu, who is a master of mash-ups:

It all makes Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Cultural Melting Bath” droll and apropos… we are all attracted by our similarities and differences, and in the process of determining exactly what melts and what remains distinct when you toss us into a steamy bath.


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