… after Shahzia Sikander — Nemesis

In her interview at the beginning of her companion book to the show, Nemesis, Shahzia Sikander explains that one of her goals was to challenge what is beautiful. I’m not so ambitious. I think, where I am as an artist, is learning what is beautiful, and if I were to challenge this, it would have to be later when I had a better grasp of what I’m challenging.

With some irony, what draws me to Shahzia Sikander’s work is that I find it beautiful. I think only when you look more closely, after maybe first noticing formal elements, like borders, visual rhythm and bright color schemes, you notice that the story told by the smaller details can work against the mood the formal elements convey.

In Pleasure Pillars (2001), the pillars of beauty are being matched with the word pleasure. Being only 17” x 12,” the work is almost overwhelmed by all its details. You can easily miss the circle of fighter jets that resemble a group of birds dancing somehow in synchronized formation, wings overlapping and noses pointed toward a shared center. You might miss the lion tearing at a deer’s throat in the opposite corner. Images of the West challenge the images of the east. Venus de Milo with her head and arm missing is slightly left of center, separated from a eastern formal dress by two connected hearts displaced from a body. There is, at the heart of the work, a woman’s head with large and impressive ram horns.

The colors are beautiful. The polka dots, elements seen in many of Sikander’s works, create layers and dimension. There are multiple frames, which help a viewer focus on specific figures. I am drawn first to these formal elements and am made to look at figures, objects and acts of violence side by side and to interpret something that is beyond the formal elements.

For my own work…

I want to offer a view into a world that has a sort of mood, manifested out of the symbols and interactions of those symbols found in that world.

Symbols in a visual work of art can be more literal than words in a work of literature. Words representing an object can carry a variety meanings given a person’s unique set of experiences and the context in which they employ those words. For example, what bees might mean in a poem by Sylvia Plath. When you use pictures of objects with symbolic meaning, you begin with the meaning given to the object by a people and their culture and history, and it might not be how you feel about the objects, intuitively or personally.

So for an audience who might not be aware of what certain objects can symbolize, I want to offer at least something that is pretty; while for those who respond to those symbols, not just as a bystander looking in but somebody who responds emotionally to them, I want to make the story I’m telling cohesive and meaningful in some way.

Elephants (2021) 9″ x 12″ watercolor and gouache

For the above image, I’m borrowing the idea of elephants as symbols of wisdom. I don’t see this personally, but I like how they can be animated. I can use the image of an animal to convey an act or interaction, which can then be a metaphor for how wisdom can look while in action, despite it being abstract and difficult to define in words.

There’s an oak tree (also a symbol of wisdom) that a string of elephants are walking toward. They are coming from the horizon and the sun is setting. These are all within a red frame, while a baby elephant has its trunk outside the frame, the trunk being slightly transparent.

I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself, but I might be fearing ignorance or not knowing enough.

My mother used to tease me as a child and say that I have no common sense. I’m older now… and I’m hoping a little more wisdom can make up for this.

Value and Ego

Writers have the power to create meaning. Each word is a concept and the use of the word — on a communal level — helps us develop the concept by how we use the word.

Writers can elicit emotions and that has value for the emotion and its potential influence. Influence can have a bearing on the tangible, but looking at the value of the tangible, I wonder about  value itself.

Is value real?

Looking at the little things one day, I see value.

Looking at the same little things another day, I don’t see value, and the lack of value helps me see the role I had in what I saw before.

This feels like a matter of psychology.

I think I see what I want to see.

Most days I see the good.

Other days, it’s easier if I did not have the tangible in front of me. It’s easier if I could only imagine what it would feel like to have them. I could imagine that they or some other thing could bring me joy.

But that’s pessimistic. Why focus on the lack of something? Why not focus on the good?  If you see value in X, even if it’s only on some days, then X can have value. It is, then, a matter of psychology.

I feel like I am chasing a high, and when it’s gone, I feel like I am only looking for the next thing that can amuse me.

If this is a matter of psychology, then what I say might not have value to anyone else, and I want others to see what I see.

I want to see something that is true.

I wonder if I’m looking for something to believe in.

Or does the desire for others to see what I see stem from something else… validation? Verification? Some sense of unification or a desire for reliability… to know that not everything has to change so much and so often.  

Some days, my work will not leave me with a high but only the work itself.

The challenge is to continue with the work and seeing the value in the work.

It shouldn’t feel like work. No, it shouldn’t feel like a chore. If I say “work,” I can mean it is born out of or elicits a sense of discipline. Saying “X feels like a chore” is not like saying “while doing X I feel a sense of discipline”

Does “sense of discipline” go back to self-worth?

If you start taking pride in having a sense of discipline and it has become a way for you to see yourself, then it has become a matter of ego. If you are guided by a sense of discipline and  it’s just a feeling born out of the rhythm of the routine, then it is a part of one’s quality of life.

I sound like somebody consumed by her ego, and that’s sad given how little I have to show for it.

But why do I fault myself for this?

It’s a distraction.

So? What if I can still get the work done?

It’s not just about being productive or what I produce. I am also working on becoming a better human being.

But isn’t one’s concern over being a better human being a matter of ego?

I want to work on myself and do so not for the sake of feeling proud.

Hmm… maybe I have a problem with how chasing the feeling of pride can feel like chasing another high.

It feels superficial.

It feels like it’s only for the sake of how one feels and that can change day by day.

This is a part of a small series of posts, called Notes for a Younger Self. I’ve edited them to make them more cohesive.

On the Subject of Style

“The trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap…. Words exist because of the meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.”1 Chuang-tzu, Chinese philosopher

This used to be how I felt about writing. Even when I took up creative writing, I thought it was all about the content… and it’s not.

Getting to the meaning of one’s words is not the only reason why we listen.

We create to bring form to ideas, and this, I believe, is all about style.

I understand there’s a major difference between linguistic expression and visual expression. The first uses symbols (letters of the alphabet and the words they make) to guide you to conjuring up the ideas in mind, while the latter provides a physical structure to show you an idea at play.

But both can show how one sees the world.

I’m going to focus now on visual expression… and use a recent drawing to illustrate what I mean.

Initially, I got lost in the details and tried to copy this more precisely, but I stepped away for a day and when I looked at it again, I realized I had smoothed over all the nuances. It was static like a rock.

I often tell myself to “always know what you’re looking at,” but in this case, I decided to refer to a thumbnail of the original, so I could see again what initially made me decide to choose the image. I decided the goal is not to draw a poppy, per se, but to get ideas about what is a “good line.” Or, overall, when looking at a model, I am not drawing the model, I am making note of what makes the model pretty.

This approach is especially useful when thinking about auto-drawing, because with auto-drawing, the challenge is to maintain variation, to avoid making it look like patterns on wall paper. Looking all around me, I see “pretty lines” and beautiful color compositions everywhere and realize I can use almost everything as a resource. I just have to like what I see.

When I picked up drawing in 2008, I was mesmerized by a “pretty line.” It was a gateway into the visual arts, and a year later I wanted to utilize more color, but I couldn’t see where other artists were getting there ideas (color schemes) from.

Intuitively, I knew that you have to enjoy something to bring it into your work… or I should say you have to know what you like to gauge the progress of your work… to know that you’re achieving what you want to achieve.

Okay, it’s not simple. But creative work doesn’t need to be precise.

I made a sketchbook for the purpose of experimenting with color schemes, and discovered the joys of working with Marie’s watercolor tubes, particularly 511 (bright blue green) and 451 (looks like Prussian blue)

Here’s a picture of a poppy I painted.


1 This is from the introduction of Jerome Silbergeld’s Chinese Painting Style, and Silbergeld is using a translation taken from Burton Watson’s The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, published in 1970 by Columbia University Press, p 302.

Materials: Xuan paper

There were a couple of problems.

1. I thought my first problem was a lack of nifty, one-day projects. (I could only think of bigger projects, and for those I found myself procrastinating, while telling myself that I was waiting for the ideas to percolate.)

Believing this to be my first problem was a problem.

I finally picked up a brush when a “nifty” idea occured to me, and this had a lovely domino effect.

2. I wanted to make use of a set of Japanese watercolors.

I’d only made color cards, by applying a wash over individual sheets of cold press watercolor paper, each cut down to just larger than a playing card.

When they dried, they curled, and despite having them underneath heavy books for a month or so, they wouldn’t remain flat. (I’ve heard of “stretching paper,” but I’ve procrastinated on that too.)

Solution: xuan paper which dries very well.

3. I wanted to compile a “book” of my “sketches” on xuan paper but the material is very thin. Creating a traditionally designed book made only of xuan paper didn’t pan out even in my imagination.

Solution: I folded a sheet of xuan paper into a “book,” which allowed me to avoid stitching pages into signatures.

4. I hadn’t posted anything in a while.

5. I had stopped reading.

Solution: I would post something about the “book” I was making.

6. I applied a wash again of each color to each panel, but it wasn’t enough for a good post. (Yes, I let the idea of what others might think have an influence on my creative life.)

Solution: I browsed through the many books I own and looked for ideas.

7. I had a few books that had been waiting to be read for… well, a long time.

Solution: Peach Blossom Spring: Gardens and Flowers In Chinese Paintings by Richard Barnhart

(I have not really sat down with this, but from what I can tell, it looks anecdotal, which I think is the best way to write about art history.)

Below is the “book” unfolded. There are eight panels and the upper middle panels are each only attached on one side.

When you fold it in half, you see the first two panels (besides the “covers”) and the last panel.

The first two panels are based on a part of Plum Blossoms By Moonlight by Ma Yuan, who was actively painting 1190-1225. (p 21)

Here’s the “book” with the two upper middle panels folded in.

The lower bottom middle panels are the third and fourth panels. For the third panel, I was looking at the flowers in Carnations and Amaranthus by Yun Shou-p’ing (1633-1690) (p 84)

For the fourth panel, I was looking at Tree Peonies (1688) by Yun Shou-p’ing (p 87)

Here’s the book folded in half and the middle panels have been flipped to reveal the third, fourth and fifth panels.

For the fifth panel, I was looking at the leaves of One Hundred Flowers by Yun Shou-p’ing (p89)

For the sixth and final panel, I was looking at the rocks or depictions of mountainside in Peach Blossom Spring (1719) by Huan Chiang (active ca 1690 – 1746) (p 115)

I have to be more patient with waiting for the wash to finish drying before adding fine lines, so it got muddled there (and elsewhere), but hopefully I’ll improve with more practice.

Below is the book neatly folded.

Folded, it’s about 5″ x 6.” The paper didn’t exactly dry smooth, but it didn’t get warped either, with some parts more stretched than others. Instead, the pages are wrinkled and only because I creased them when applying the wash.