Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Art Gallery:

The Physics Of Creativity

The Hess Collection, Mount Veeder, California, USA

February 28, 2007

This essay, Art Gallery: The Physics Of Creativity, is the first in a sextology on Art:
  1. Art Gallery: The Physics Of Creativity
  2. Mona Lisa! Mona Lisa!
  3. Performance Artists
  4. Don't Regulate The Tate
  5. Bronze Buddha
  6. Erasing The Constraints: Robert Rauschenberg Works
in that order.

It is also the second in a group of fifteen on Creating: It was written at the same time as I am indebted to Donald Hess who inspired this conversation.

When I first experienced this art gallery in the hills of Mount Veeder I saw immediately here is the presence of something awesome. It's rare one place is so bursting, so bountiful, so rich with all the fruits of creativity.

The selection of this particular  environment to house this extraordinary art collection is unerring. It's outright uncanny. The bucolic setting amidst gently rolling hills covered with a tapestry of vineyards and lakes bears no evidence that city life is but a few miles away. The air here literally glows  with spirituality which not coincidentally also provides the context for a nearby working monastery and a winery.

On every level imaginable - the creative, the spiritual, the sensual - this place is a laboratory for the physics of creativity.

Hommage* by Leopoldo Maler
The Hess Collection, Mount Veeder, California, USA

Strolling up a rustic path lined with rockeries and ivy, gravel crunching underfoot, I'm surrounded by roughly finished clay sculptures cast in black concrete almost as tall as me. Reading through their abstract shapes I see impressions of war: battle axes and gun carriages. Calming, blessing, and forgiving, an iron buddha sits watching under an olive tree, his flesh adhering to his girder skeleton as if thrown  that way.

Bright sunlight splashes its walls (clearly the architect's intention) as I enter the tall gallery. Two opposite sides are rough hewn rock; the other two are wood and glass. On the rock walls hang canvases strewn with what I interpret as components of a voodoo ritual. I see impossibly stretched footprints in mud and feathers. It's very eclectic, a bit unsettling. Nearby a smaller work, simply the shape of a face, suggests the artist let the shadow of his head fall on the bristol  on his easel, outlined it with charcoal, then picked up soil and leaves from where he stood, blended them with ochre paint and smeared them on to fill in the work. It evokes the rising of Adam from the dirt.

Walking up stairs of impeccably sanded hardwood flooring polished to a bright shine, I'm drawn to what could best be described as hallucinations on parchment  which adorn the staircase walls. Imagine gently pressing the heels of your palms into your closed eyes until lights start to float and dance in your head. Then transcribe that  in oils, ink, or watercolor. That's what I'm seeing here.

Waiting for me at the top of the stairs on a narrow pedestal sits a bronzed casting of a rabbit. "So?" I muse, vaguely disinterested. I've almost walked by it, almost dismissed it when I turn for one last look ... and notice ... it's a turtle wearing a bowler hat. No! It can't be!

I retrace my steps. It's a rabbit. I walk by it again. It's a turtle wearing a bowler hat. When this study in perspective finally sinks in it blows me away. The conception is brilliant, the execution perfect. I'm inspired, getting an infusion of its sheer creativity directly by osmosis. A shiver of delight runs all the way up my spine.

Hanging near the rabbit turtle wearing a bowler hat is a large circular piece I don't quite get. I see thick jade and creamy marbled white oils on a plywood base. It's an abstract - that's for sure. But it has two large hinges dividing the work, allowing the piece to be folded into quarters. Why?

Then it dawns on me. The hinges aren't simply components of the collage. They're functional.

I confer with the gallery catalog, the first time I've consulted it so far. The piece was created by a freedom fighter in the French resistance. The large cumbersome to carry work could be displayed at street fairs then quickly folded into a more convenient travel size if a sudden getaway was required. Paul McCartney and Wings singing "Band On The Run" come into my mind, the soundtrack for the moment. This is art on the run.

That's when I see the monks on the wall, their simple beautifully full faces minimalistically sketched in gold. As I look closer the light seems to play tricks with my eyes. The sketch lines seem to raise. They stand away from the wall. Suddenly, as in the abracadabra  moment of a great magician's act, I see the eucalyptus leaves.

It's not gold. They're not sketched. Each monk's face is created from a dozen eucalyptus leaves mounted to the wall with two sewing pins per leaf. It's a group of monks sketched in gold ... it's a bunch of eucalyptus leaves ... it's a group of monks sketched in gold ... it's a ... bunch of eucalyptus leaves.

I'm nurtured in the presence of creativity. Among works of this caliber I'm more than nurtured: I'm rejuvenated  too. I've just gotten through the thought "it doesn't get any better than this" when my eyes lock on the burning typewriter* ... and I'm instantly  riveted. I see it and in the same split second I get it. There's no intermediate filter of understanding, no maze of explanation, no veil of interpretation. All that's bypassed. It's a direct shot to the heart and I'm smitten. Totally  smitten.

It's an Underwood typewriter. On fire. And I'm a writer. That's it. No further comment.

I pause in front of it, standing at an altar, paying homage.

Now the gallery opens into a vast room which occupies the entire second of three floors. Here's the largest canvas I've ever seen: thirty foot long, twelve foot high. To create this work the artist laid it down then walked on it, pouring rich primary color paint directly from cans in lines onto the medium. Here's another giant canvas at least a hundred square feet. Black and brown leafy lines suggest a rabbit's eye view (or a turtle's?) looking out from the protection of a bush onto a thicket. Now here's a series of works of modern art. They don't depict anything explicit. Modern art often doesn't. But their colors, lines, composition, and overall je ne sais quoi  are in cool stressless balance and please me.

As I turn away from the modern art I'm almost stopped in my tracks by the busiest  display I've ever seen in any gallery ahead of me. As I walk toward it I'm thinking: whirlpool?  ... tornado?  ... rollercoaster?  ... food blender?  Whatever it is, it has a lot  of movement.

It's another big piece mounted on a square with twelve foot sides. It must weigh a ton. Close up it's a collage of brightly colored metal pieces. Aluminum, I think, but maybe something else. They're cut (by arc torch?) into rough circles, esses, straights. It's ... well ... exciting, but I don't get what it's telling me.

For the second time I confer with the gallery catalog. Oh, Wow!  It's not a whirlpool, tornado, rollercoaster, or food blender. None of the above. It's a race track!  The artist is a NASCAR race driver. The "metal" is really cut from the shells of crashed race cars. The colorful paint paint is race car paint. And the movement  is obvious. I've watched motor racing up close. I was there when Werner drove a Formula Continental Argo Super Vee  to win the Gold Cup for the Breakthrough Racing team. I watch Formula One from time to time on TV. Amazingly this piece captures all that world perfectly - in the abstract.

I turn the corner, facing a long corridor down one entire side of the art gallery. The first notion I come up with of what's laid out along the path is: giant chocolate chips. They're all over the floor - whatever they are. I'm planning a route through: where to step, which line to take. I pause, standing among them, examining them closely. They do  resemble chocolate chips after being baked into cookies (except each is about a foot across): some of them are melted asymmetrically, some of them have cracked from the heat. They're rich, dark cocoa colored and textured. I have no idea what they are, how they're created, or what (if anything) they're supposed to represent. I'm fascinated.

A storyboard on the wall and a video let me in on the secret. They're melted rocks. Melted rocks? How?

The artist goes to the seashore, I read, wading into the ocean looking for appropriate rocks which he marks with colored rope. Then at low tide he returns to collect the bounty. Of course! He's a rock harvester, I think - both amused and enraptured, totally fascinated. He then melts the rocks in a kiln, a process requiring a temperature in excess of five thousand degrees.

The last time these rocks experienced heat like that was when they were magma, possibly millions of years ago.

The third floor of the art gallery houses a collection of digital works of art. Now there's  two concepts you don't often speak in the same sentence: "digital" and "works of art". One of them, a four foot by two foot LED screen oriented portrait  not landscape, simply displays, one at a time, changing every second, the endless digits of pi.

Opposite, a window built into a gable in the roof looks out on the world, onto the monastery nestled in the bucolic setting amidst the gently rolling hills covered with the tapestry of vineyards and lakes. I stroll over, rest my elbows on the sill, my chin on my fists, and gaze out. In a moment of sudden, deep insight it comes to me that the most fabulous  work of art of them all, the only truly priceless  one, the one whose creator I love and adore, is outside the window ...

The next exhibit takes my breath away. On a scale of one to big, the stylized spear is enormous. Its haft is a roughly dressed tree trunk, fifty foot long, two foot in diameter. Its business end  is a shiny welded metal tip about six foot long. The tip is bound to the trunk by a swath of hessian, as if bandaged. ("How interesting", my mind chatters, "the weapon has a bandage ..."). It's the quintessential instrument. For me it harkens to the bone in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey". Its sheer size confirms what the Pentagon's actions have already taught us: how off course  we've drifted now that weaponry is our largest expense with no other line item even coming close. It's the artist's gift to us that we can even begin to muster compassion for our lost priorities, within a context of art and creativity.

When I dream up the name "Crowd" for the next exhibit I'm attracted to, comprising a standing series of sixteen almost  lifelike and lifesize figures, it doesn't surprise me one iota when I consult the gallery catalog for the third and final time to discover "Crowd" is indeed its name. They're not quite statuettes. They're not quite sculptures. Not alarmingly they're headless. They're hollow. They're only the front  of the body (I can tell because I peek behind).

I love "Crowd" even though (unlike some of the other works) it's no mystery how it was created. Obviously someone very generously laid down nude on their back, allowing the artist to drape  them with a kind of burlap papier-mâché. Sixteen generous layings and gellings later (it's clear its the same model for each "Crowd" member) the stood upright work is complete.

This exhibit almost cries out "We're all the same!" and I love that about it.

When I first see Johanna** it's love at first sight. But it's not the kind of titillating puppy love tinged with lust for which only my body, not I, can take any credit. Johanna boldly enters, uninvited, my very soul. She's in me and she's in me so deep and so profound and so sudden that all I can do is gape. An eternity goes by in a moment before I begin to realize how much I want her in me, this at first uninvited intruder.

Johanna is in a large frame nine foot high by seven foot wide. She's more than simply real. She's super  real. She's so  real. She's a photograph. A huge photograph. But a photograph nonetheless. I have to get up to her as close as the STAND BACK gallery signs allow me in order to scrutinize her composition. And I'm rendered speechless when it slowly dawns on me she's not a photograph at all. She's a painting.

Every strand of her hair is perfectly painted. And Johanna has wavy long blond hair - lots  of hair. Every tuft of the peach fuzz  on her regal chin and neck is painted. Her eyes are so realistic there could be a human being behind the canvas peering out through them. I'm guessing it took this extraordinary artist five or six years of painstaking eighteen hour days to paint Johanna.

She's at the center of the top floor of the art gallery. She's the pièce de résistance  of these physics of creativity. Having the good fortune to lay my eyes on her, I know my life will never be the same again.

Johanna II** by Franz Gertsch
The Hess Collection, Mount Veeder, California, USA

I breathe deep the cool spring air as I, elated and inspired, turn my back on this extraordinary collection and walk away from the building, down the rustic path lined with rockeries and ivy, gravel again crunching underfoot. What I notice about this experience, about walking through this awesome art gallery, about walking through this crucible, this laboratory for the physics of creativity, is this: creativity isn't personal. The idea that some people are more creative than others, that some people have an access to creativity others don't have is simply fallacious.

Clearly it's true some have exercised their creativity muscle  more than others. But creativity isn't personal any more than arms or legs are personal. The question to ask is this: what's our access to creativity?

There's the pithy Zen tale about the novice monk visiting the Roshi, ostensibly to get  Zen. The Roshi offers tea. The novice accepts. The Roshi pours tea into a clay cup. He pours. He keeps on pouring. Soon the cup overflows. He keeps on pouring. Tea drenches the tablecloth, dripping on to the floor. He keeps on pouring.

Eventually the novice can't stand it anymore. "Stop pouring!" he implores the Roshi. "The cup is already full!".

"Like that", says the Roshi, "how can I give you Zen when you're already full?".

Substitute "creativity" for "Zen" in this delightfully eye opening exchange, and you may see our access to creativity ie our access to allowing something new  to come in is to create being empty.

Here in this bucolic setting amidst the gently rolling hills covered with the tapestry of the vineyards and the lakes, I pause, smiling, savoring the deliciousness of a freshly minted paradox:

You create fullness by creating being empty.

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© Laurence Platt - 2007 through 2023 Permission