King of the Currumpaw

Art, Nature, Literature, Philosophy, and Wolves

Month: June, 2012

Bayonne as a Universe

For about five years I took photographs from the window of my apartment on Staten Island, NY of the Bayonne Bridge in all different weather conditions. Using my Pentax 35mm camera, I reached three-hundred after two years and thought I had surely exhausted the limits of what might appear out my window. How foolish an assumption that was. I went on for the three years and was still photographing when I moved away. Bayonne is one of the most toxically industrialized regions of the United States. So the idea that I was finding this bridge to nowhere a regular source of beauty seemed to be some kind of urban grace. The crimson sunsets made me appreciate the subtle foggy days all the more. The endless variety was more spectacular than any one moment. I hope to post all five-hundred here eventually. The photographic prints, some now five years old, have scratches, dust and flecks of wear. This doesn’t bother me though. It just reminds me that it’s all dust eventually. I am beginning with twenty.

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Dragon Tapestry Sequence

Please visit the full painting in the previous post.

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Dragon Tapestry

The Myth of Killing

By Ned Gannon

5/30/12

The Cloisters Museum in New York City houses much of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection. On a hill north of the Washington Bridge, the museum’s location secludes it from visitors with a more tourist mindset. The museum’s collection is renowned, housed in an impressive amalgamation of church fragments from Europe. The Unicorn Tapestries remain one of the museum’s highlights and one of its most popular attractions. Not long ago, I had occasion to re-visit the museum and view the tapestries in person again. I had been to the museum and seen the tapestries in person at least a dozen times before. But this time something was different.

Here were multiple depictions of a mythical animal, trapped, hunted and killed. What was the meaning of these scenes, painstakingly designed and elaborately woven over five hundred years ago? According the Metropolitan Museum, the unicorn, as depicted in the tapestries, has several purported meanings. The captive unicorn that looks complacent or even happy may represent a captured beloved. The museum has less to say about the meaning of other scenes, one in which the unicorn is clearly, unwillingly cornered. Educated guesses are offered about religious meanings, based upon inscriptions woven into the scabbard of one of the hunters, but there is no conclusion as to what the scene means. Unicorn horns were believed to possess magical properties, so much so that Narwhal tusks were harvested and sold as unicorn horns. (http://www.metmuseum.org/search-results?ft=Unicorn+Tapestries&x=0&y=0) In a tapestry depicting two scenes combined, the unicorn is slain and brought to the castle. It is inferred by art historians that this symbolized the death of Christ.

Political events in my resident state of Wisconsin, as well as the tapestries had me ruminating on hunting and its presence or presentation in the history of western culture. My grandfather on my mother’s side hunted birds. He ate what he hunted, though from what I understand he didn’t pluck it. I never knew him, but in the basement was a painting of some ducks taking flight from a marsh. I always felt as though the painting was frozen a moment before a shot rings out and one of them falls from the air. But I don’t know that my grandfather would have viewed the image this way. He never displayed any trophies. Another image that emerged from my memory bank was “The Hunt by Night” by Paolo Uccello. And this evoked the poem by Derek Mahon written about Uccello’s work.

The Hunt by Night

–Uccello, 1465

Derek Mahon

Flickering shades,

Stick figures, lithe game,

Swift flights of bison in a cave

Where man the maker killed to live;

But neolithic bush became

The midnight woods

 

Of nursery walls,

The ancient fears mutated

To play, horses to rocking-horses

Tamed and framed to courtly uses,

Crazed no more by foetid

Bestial howls

 

But rampant to

The pageantry they share

And echoes of the hunting horn

At once peremptory and forlorn.

The mild herbaceous air

Is lemon-blue,

 

The glade aglow

With pleasant mysteries,

Diuretic depots, pungent prey;

And midnight hints at break of day

Where, among sombre trees,

The slim dogs go

 

Wild with suspense

Leaping to left and right,

Their cries receding to a point

Masked by obscurities of paint–

As if our hunt by night,

So very tense,

 

 So long pursued,

In what dark cave begun

And not yet done, were not the great

Adventure we suppose but some elaborate

Spectacle put on for fun

And not for food.

The painting has always been a favorite of mine, not because I love to hunt. On the contrary, I will admit a distaste for it, despite having spent my most formative years in some of the biggest hunting states in the country. Uccello’s deep, dark, stylized space draws me into a world that is poised on the edge of the unknown. When I try to empathize with hunting or hunters, it is the unknown, the solitary quiet of the outdoors to which I can relate—a solitude I felt alone, for the most part, for two weeks on Isle Royale National Park.

The urge to hunt is buried deep in the human consciousness beyond the walls of Lascaux and the black unknown of Uccello’s woods, maybe too deep to be uprooted by scientific urgency. A primal urgency arises with the adrenaline of a kill. A recent National Geographic shows big cat numbers dropping beyond repair, even while places like Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy see men laying their lives on the line to protect the animals living there. White rhinos were brought from a Czech Republic zoo in an effort to prevent them from going extinct in the wild. One annual hunting season in Idaho, 2011-2012, killed nearly half of the wolf population nearly setting recovery efforts back to the turn-of-the-century.

I distinguish this kind of killing from hunting for food. Hunting is often tied to gun rights in this country, interpreted from the second amendment with all of the fundamentalist fervor of a pulpit-pounding literalist preacher insisting on the creation of the world in one hundred and sixty-eight hours. I don’t intend to demonize hunters, and I understand the arguments for deer population control and other similar rationales. I understand it is a way of life as much as it is a philosophy on life. In my own state, hunters harvested 347,711 white-tailed deer in the 2011 season (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).

But trophy hunting will likely, short of a reversal epiphany on my part, always seem distasteful because of the hubris involved. In her book, The Pine Island Paradox, Kathleen Dean Moore offers a perspective, “If people are going to imprison dolphins and transmogrify the gall bladders of bears into fortifying elixirs, if they are going to scrape the bottom of the ocean bare and grind the hindquarters of black-tailed deer into patties, if they are going to reduce owl nesting sites to toilet paper and convince themselves that this is not a problem, then they will need to believe that humans have minds but other animals do not. But this is a matter of convenience, not truth.”

In her book The Hunter, Julia Leigh describes with dark, visceral energy a hunter on the trail of an animal long thought extinct, the Tasmanian tiger. As he draws nearer to success in his hunt, his thoughts grow closer and closer to the conceit that he will be the only one to possess this kill. That he is alone in his level of success and achievement.

In two weeks, I covered sixty-five miles on Isle Royale and reclaimed the sound of my own footsteps on grass and ground. I recalled what solitude is—a solitude that Soren Kierkegaard said one must know in order to know God. I crossed wolf scat, heard loons, and spied a moose cow and calf. I understand the exhilaration of fresh air from the woods rushing into my lungs. But claiming to value life and then to take it for sport is something that doesn’t calculate in my head. Standing in awe in front of the Unicorn Tapestries, I found myself believing them to be true. Not that I believed unicorns existed, but I believed that if they did exist we would surely kill them for sport. And to prove our superiority.

What You See Is What You Get

What You See Is What You Get was created for Isle Royale National Park. It depicts a view from Scoville Point looking toward Edward’s Island. I hope that the inclusion of the cloud forms communicates the idea that so much of my experience there had to do with looking. I also wanted the wolf to look as though it grew out of the moose and the moose as if it grew out of the island. Finally, the painting might contain a nod to N.C. Wyeth’s Giant. I include an essay that is not about Isle Royale, but certainly pertains to it and my painting.

About Clouds and Ownership

By N. Gannon

 “We all know perfectly well that the man who lives out his life as a consumer, a sexual partner, an ‘other directed’ executive, who avoids boredom and anxiety by consuming tons of newsprint, miles of movie film, years of TV time; that such a man has somehow betrayed his destiny as a human being.”

Walker Percy

On a direct flight from New York City to Kansas City, I witnessed the most magnificent cloud I ever remember. Rising from a floor of other roiling clouds, it exploded into the sky as if the ocean had spontaneously decided it wanted to fly and had mustered enough force to try. The anvil of the cloud balanced asymmetrically with a large billow near the front and a sloping, thinner, longer passage behind—all of this blooming from a massive stem. I was dwarfed by its size, unable to tell exactly how large it was. About fifteen to twenty minutes passed from the time it first drew my attention on the horizon to when it vanished from my tiny window on the sky.

If you have been on a plane and watched the sky, you know how the upper atmosphere possesses a sterility of color due to the overwhelming presence of blue and white. So this cloud titan was made of every shade and tint of blue—Pthalo, Cerulean, Ultramarine, Indigo, Cobalt—it seemed they were all there, even with some tints of red-violet, remnants of the morning light. The cloud was so large and varied in its lower rungs of smaller sub-clouds that it cast much of its lower portions into a play of light and shadow. The dramatic lighting, coupled with its slow, almost imperceptible movement, made it seem like not just a titan but a titan rising from deep slumber.

I shot about sixteen pictures of this cloud that offered another world from every angle, especially moving from its lit side into its shadowed. But the results were ultimately disappointing. They had none of the awe, revelation, sense of scale, or energy that the experience had. Even a video, which would have captured some of the constant renewal of form, would omit the sense of presence and existence—an imminence of being and yet totally transitory.

As I tried to view the cloud as it passed and changed before my eyes, I was reminded of John Berger’s description in The Sense of Sight of painting and drawing as a condensation of multiple looks at something so that in the end, though a painting is static, it is a condensation of a multiplicity of experience.

I study clouds. They are one of the few remaining realms untouched by human industries. Nobody owns a cloud. It is its own or all of us.

That, of course, could change if what the Chinese did to clear their air for the Olympics is an indication of things to come. Clouds are always changing—sometimes scooting or racing across the sky, sometimes drifting in a herd, sometimes floating so that their pace is imperceptible to an impatient sky watcher. Clouds are vapor, part of a grand cycle, always moving.

As part of the Forum series, I heard Maude Barlow speak about water rights and encourage listeners to take steps, particularly political steps, toward establishing rights to water as a moral human right for all global citizens. As we walked away from the lecture hall, my wife and I discussed what had been suggested as a course of action. Sara commented that she felt as though Barlow had urged us to elect officials to pass meaningful legislation. Maybe my existential tendencies kicked in, but I argued for personal responsibility. But the more we discussed, the more I realized that changing for the better was a cyclical process, similar to the course water takes. Individual decisions and behaviors lead to convincing the public that right action is essential, which leads to electing officials who will respect the actions and behaviors of the individuals. But I started to feel that such issues are like massive transforming vapors, shifting, shrinking and swelling before our eyes. They appear completely different from one angle than from another.

Someday we may be able to control the weather. Can we claim ownership of the sky? Can we own a cloud? We already have established right to the sky in terms of “no fly zones” and vertical urban space. Owning clouds feels like a strange science fiction, but so did the idea of owning water at one time in the world’s recent history. We should no more be able to own water than clouds.

America’s twenty-first century’s obsession with rights-to-ownership needs to be reevaluated. Who owns the oil in the gulf? Who owns the oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge? Who owns the fresh water in the Great Lakes? Who should be responsible for over fishing in the Atlantic? Should some resources be shared by all people? Or is that the great, deceptive dream? Recent moves in Texas and Wisconsin to privatize hunting land are new examples of the rush to claim ownership of natural resources.

Even as China and other countries race ahead of the United States in green technologies, the industrial advertising machine in this country has separated the consumer from the knowledge of a product’s origin entirely. As artists, writers, and musicians struggle to maintain rights to their creative endeavors, corporations move in to claim land and fresh water and images on the internet. Can the sky be far behind? We seem hell-bent on relinquishing ownership that we should collectively keep and establishing ownership of resources no human should control. What does this reflect about how we are participating in the epic story of human justice? Notions of property, self-acquired wealth, and private power drive the political party system. Ownership of land, resources, and energy create a bottom line under which we are all forced to swim. What would it take for us to get our heads above the rising water?

Defiance of this trend toward a consolidation of power may require more than logic and rational argument; it may require a painting.

What this means for the political landscape is that we need to collaborate. We need to ask each other to look hard at the behemoth powers before us and paint a picture together made of a multitude of hard looks—to create an accurate picture of something changing before our eyes, like a massive human painting where a multitude of viewpoints converge to form a single purpose, or a vast human poem. But do we have the will or the patience to look that closely?

From the Annals of Contemporary Painting Techniques in Faculty Meetings