Artist Among Other Things: The Natural History of My Social Position
By Christopher Stackhouse
——Indicative of something like a kind of residue, giving insight into the character of my social position, as it began to establish itself early on, on its own terms, toward its current stage, here is a text I received early last year from my brother, he wrote:
“O by the way uncle phil found
some old writing of ur’s when
moving shit out of trish’s crib.
He said it was from the 4th or 5th
grade. By accident he left it in
his yard and the dog tore up some of it.”
Here is a picture of me, and my brother Zane. He is an actor. (Fig 1)
Our father shared with us his love of staged theater, carpentry, reading for leisure, writing to remember, and baseball for competition among other sports and games, like table tennis and backgammon. He was once a close friend to the writer James Baldwin. He has lived in many places in the world, but he really loves Detroit. His name is Skip. (Fig 2)
There are other things that determine, where you were and where you’re at, like watching your babies grow, and grow, and grow (yes, x’s 3 for me). It seems like I may one day find myself with a big lot of them (I started at fatherhood very young). However, staying focused here, pictured is our family’s latest progeniture, my baby daughter Sabine. (Fig 3)
——Aside from kids, I’m into dogs. Here’s the last dog I owned, an American Bulldog Johnson line, a female named Baci. I got her when she was 6 months old. She was incredibly well trained. Her previous owner and I respectively put hours upon hours of time in with her. She was rather intelligent, loyal, and engaged with human life. She loved Haagen Das Butter Pecan ice cream and beef bones from the butcher. Her adopted mom (my ex) Catherine, eventually served her a dinner mix of homemade boiled free range chicken with diced organically grown fresh carrots, celery, and quinoa. This diet helped heal an injury Baci acquired during one of her exercise routines. The dietary change proved better than the general high-grade dog foods we tried, so we stayed with it. She lived to be only 9 years old, which is another story to tell altogether. I miss her. She died early summer of 2008. (Fig 4)
I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get another dog. I like a range of breeds and if the right mixed pup showed up, I’d be up for that too, but the last search about looking turned up this dude here named Remy who looks pretty cool. (Fig 5)
——Most people who know me, know that I really enjoy reading poetry. I like discussing poetry and writing, at home with people equally interested. The other night with my friend Geoffrey we talked about the verse form Strambotto, and found ourselves marveling again over Yeat’s “He Wishes For Cloths of Heaven.” He recited that poem and sections from Phillip Sydney’s “Astrophel and Stella.” Among other poets and writers, we discussed Amiri Baraka, Weldon Kees, Walter Pater, Ann Lauterbach, and work by a peer, poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. John K. and I talked later that evening about John Ashbery’s poem “Self Portrait in Convex Mirror”, reciting our favorite lines from it. We also revisited an old review by Adam Kirsch of Louise Gluck’s book “Averno”, and totally switched topic to attend the growing more prevalent phenomena in the contemporary scene of ‘poet/scholar’ while talking about the ideas in Geoffrey’s new book A Change in the Weather: Modernist Imagination, African American Imaginary which John and I both believe will prove over time to be a very important book regarding American poetry and poetics.
——Few things enhance these conversations more than the before and after a great meal with a glass of quality vino. Food and wine can be marvelously entertaining. I try to cook at home as often as possible, and eat others home cooking as much too. Lately lots of men friends (all writers) cook, and well- Ira makes killer Asian cuisine, Stuart makes hybrid American dishes with heavy broths and alternative cooking oils (like Goose fat), Michael has taken to preparing a rabbit and fennel dish; and though I’m all over the place too, the last dish I made I really enjoyed was Fettucine with mixed veggies in a very light cream sauce, topped with Artic Char pan fried in a homemade cornmeal mix and olive oil, and strips of thick sliced bacon. I think I liked that meal so much because everything came out just right. To accompany it, had a wine from one of my favorite places from which to drink – Burgundy. It’s rare (for me at least) to find one I really enjoy (bang for your buck ratio for Burgundy is generally narrow), but a recent dabble in Côte de Nuits did it. Michael gave me a bottle of chardonnay from Marsannay-la-Côte by Charles Audoin (It was a gift, but it retails around $30/bottle).
The bottle shown here is a 2007- I had a 2005 and it was quite good. (Fig 6) Prior that, the last chardonnay I found of similar interest, though a much different feel was from Bordeaux (probably my favorite region from which to regularly imbibe), it was St. Aubin De Branne 2003. (Fig 7)
I bought a half case a few years ago. I drank the last two this year one with Geoff (we had sautéed to brown, near medium well, center cut boneless pork chops with olive oil, sea salt, cracked peppercorn and thyme, rosemary potatoes with cremini, asparagus with basil, garlic and shallots); the other I sipped with Kelly the evening Michael Jackson died. I wonder how Roscoe Lee Browne would have liked it.
——What else complicates a perspective of one’s own social position as much as perhaps being an artist? The notion of responsibility – to what am I responsible necessarily in art – is a looming question. Lately I have thought about Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” (1840). (Fig 8 )
He painted this in part because of his preoccupation with the sea, as a powerful force in nature; but he made such a violent and striking painting to also make a statement about the slave trade, and to commemorate the victims of the Zong Massacre of 1781, where near a 150 African Slaves were tossed over board or died from starvation due to overcrowding on the ship. It is a reasonable assumption that this happened many times during the Middle Passage. So there then, a British man of 19th Century Art Academy honors, flexes his given skill to honor his fallen African brethren in a painting nearly 60 years after the event. Being a likely descendant of both groups of people, I find this moving. It recalls for me Derek Walcott’s essay “The Muse of History”, though I’m not sure I feel exactly the way Walcott feels about our respective blends of ethnically mixed heritage. And after that, the strength of contemplation in history, politics, one’s ‘present-day’ in art, exemplary in this work of Turner’s takes nothing from the pleasure I receive in reflecting for minutes at a time on the objects in my immediate environment which I’ve been wont to stare at and photograph, like the this marble mantelpiece in my apartment. (Fig 9)
It is as much of Western design as I am. The shape of it feminine and masculine, animated in its stasis, ballast by leaving sun and shadow. It is cut by and from the elements, as am I; and perhaps it feels, as it is certainly felt by hand and eye.
——The re-eventing of a past is a perpetually expansive opening for an artist/thinker. There is so much to capture and release, to witness. It is hardly an impartial place to be, to want to look at an aesthetic work, or at the various things in the/a world, or, to meet my own mutable body on any and every given morning. (Fig 10)
It is from this point of view, and potential others that I occasionally stare. I tried to explain this compulsion in a lecture I gave with John K. a couple of years ago. We discussed the persistence of abstraction in art and literature. We each discussed our favorite art books, paintings, and idea potential in certain artistic practices. At one point looking into a projected image of a painting by Gerhard Richter, I began to trace his brush strokes in the air while discoursing on the work before us. (Fig. 11)
It was an odd thing for me to do, given that I have seen the object painting before; I have always surmised it having been painted on the floor, obviously not in the same style as Ed Moses or Ed Clark, but with a similar dependency on gravity and the illusion of defiance of it (i.e. gravity).
——An image that perhaps suits my social situation and outlook best as I see it, metaphorically, is a photo attributed to photog John Mc Colgan. The photo is referred to as “The Elk Bath” and in my files as “Deer Caught in Forest Fire”. It is one of the most poignant pictures I’ve ever seen. When I look at and empathize with, think about, so many aspects of the content(s) and subject(s) of, the photo, I am not sure what living part of the photograph best represents my being- the trees, the deer, the fire, the photographer, the rocks, the forest floor, or the river. I can only stare with aesthetic pleasure. The anticipation forever suspended in the photo is restorative. From such distance, what is most powerful still, is such light, the pure energy in transfer caught in stasis. (Fig. 12)
“Artist Among Other Things: The Natural History of Social Position” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>
Christopher Stackhouse is the author of a collection of poetry, “Slip” (Corollary Press, 2005); and co-author of the collaborative book “Seismosis” (1913 Press, 2006), which features his drawings in philosophical discourse with text by co-author John Keene (Annotations).