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  • Linda Graves

Reflections on Reading-

An essay on our choice of books and information sharing- By Brian Keeler

Regarding paintings as an essay or a study with all the associations included in the reportage of a newspaper journalist or a novelist adds an intriguing entree into painting as a commentary. At least that's the way I regard these paintings of mine that accompany this text. Sometimes paintings are referred to as being authored by someone, which brings in an interesting corollary between the two arts. I am not sure if the reverse is ever used however, which is to say, I've not heard of writers using painterly means. Although the phrase, "the author uses broad brushstrokes to describe his subject" has been observed.

This painting- is a 36" x 40" oil on linen of a train station in Philadelphia, "Light on Readers- Philly Commuters"

These three oil paintings and one pastel shown here, were completed within a span of about 15 years and they document the habits of reading and how the act of reading has evolved in just a decade and a half. Reading while in public or in one's home has been a theme for many painters over the centuries with some iconic and famous examples which come to mind. Vermeer used the subject of letters being read in private or being delivered by a maid as a subject with an open ended approach that allows us to assign our own narratives. Rembrandt has a wonderful canvas of his elderly mother reading the Bible. And Edward Hopper as well, has several paintings of the theme, whether we view an office through the vantage of one of his second floor street windows or as Hopper portrayed a hotel room. His one title, "Excursion into Philosophy" always appealed to me as it suggested the way reading could transport us into other ideas and worlds or to take us on an intellectual and emotional journey. In that painting Hopper shows a couple, the woman reclining facing away on a bed, semi-nude and the man is fully clothed seated with a book placed still open on the sheets. The mood of the work is that of deep consideration, as if the couple had just finished a ponderous passage.

I am reminded also of Marshall McLuhan's seminal books like, The Medium is the Message, which documents the effects of changing global patterns of information exchange. This book fascinated an entire generation and still holds sway as relevant. The import of McLuhan’s work was that the very nature of the medium was the relevant message and the content or the meaning conveyed in the text was of secondary significance. So with these paintings, we can regard McLuhan's ideas afresh in regards to digital verses print media. Does this mean, that by extension, if we really subscribe to McLuhan’s thinking that , the message of painting is in the nature of the paint and canvas rather than in the illusion depicted? Well maybe. At least it gives us pause and maybe allows us to appreciate that wonderful term us painters have been bandying around; “Paint Quality,” This term encountered early in my art school days was curious at first, but soon thereafter appreciated as the inherent beauty of paint regardless of its use in depicting actual objects.

We can reflect upon our own reading as we look at these paintings. I know I am an avid reader and often have several books going at once. My reading lately has run toward ancient Roman History with a biography of Seneca, and one of Cicero that I found amazingly relevant. I also just finished a wonderful book by Stephen Greenblatt called Tyrant, that shows the correspondences between the current US Tyrant/buffoon in the Whitehouse and those despicable protagonists of the Bard’s work.

But the idea put forward by a recent meditative publication suggested that we consider fasting from our reading on occasion. This is because, in a Buddhist sense, reading can be construed as an aspect of an attachment. And attachment or clinging in the Buddhist sense is one side of the coin of suffering and dissatisfaction in general. The other side of the coin is aversion. As air is ubiquitous to us humans or water is pervasive to a fish, reading is such a natural part of our everyday lives that we rarely if ever notice it, let alone consider a removal, albeit temporarily. As the saying goes; "Its like a fish trying to discover water."

Buckminster Fuller, in one of his books caused us to look at reading as a process of linear logic that depends on piecing little glyphs and letters together to form concepts in the brain. I recall the distinct and weird impression of being aware while reading of the process of constructing significance from what had been an erstwhile automatic process. Fortunately reading is one of those “riding a bicycle-like activities” that we don’t have to think about each time we pick up a book or read an email.

Still, another favorite author of mine from the mid-1970’s, Jose Arguelles in his book The Transformative Vision comes down hard on the entire process required by Guttenberg’s movable type invention as it is part of this grand scheme of techne of psyche, in his mind. He goes further in railing against reading, as he uses Vermeer’s paintings that utilize mathematical perspective as an example, and Arguelles brings up Vermeer’s depiction of a woman in a Dutch 17thcentury interior privately reading a letter as an example of someone “stealing” time.

"Interior with Sunday NY Times" Oil on panel 26" x 30" - This painting depicts two friends enjoying coffee, reading the NY TImes and doing the crossword puzzle in the magazine section. The clear morning light streaming in was my main interest here as it illuminated the couple and furniture. However the interaction and implied dialogue or narrative of a shared activity was certainly important.

So you can tell where my interests and proclivities are by what I read. By the same token, judging by the New York Times best seller list we can see where the attention of others is drawn. This is somewhat discouraging, because as of yesterday, I noticed several titles by right-wing zealots at the top of the non-fiction list. So I suppose our reading reflects our biases as well. Propaganda in all its forms is meant to convert or sway those to a given viewpoint. Often though, with political agendas we can see incredible untruths foisted upon and believed by millions. One would hope that research and reportage is meant to reveal truth and not just bolster preconceived notions. With respect for Stephen Greenblatt and Madeleine Albright, I find their prose incredibly incisive and broad in scope with a penchant for the revelation of truth derived from lives in the trenches so to speak. Conversely, I find right wing pundits like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck risible at best and sometimes just ghastly and misinformed. You may recall Coulter's comment about the Latin American Children held at Texas detention centers as "child actors." Off the cuff blurts like these are what inspired one reviewer in the NY Times Book Review to associate Coulter with one of those dolls, where you pull a string, and they just spew out a litany of stuff. In other words, there is no dialogue, just a blathering of invective.

Several times I have heard people mention that when they read, they are not cognizant of what they have just read and suddenly they find that they’ve read entire passages or even several pages while thinking of other things. This seems pertinent in the meditative sense as the advice to practioners is;  when the discursive or automatic thinking or even monkey-mind is predominant, then just patiently return, thousands of times if necessary, to this moment or to the breath.

"Intermission Transmission" Oil on linen 26" x 30" This painting depicts the patrons at a theatre in NYC during intermission as they all reach for their cell phones. The painting is a reflection on our reading habits and communication methods. There is an implicit nod to Edward Hopper here in this work, as one of Hopper's paintings also portrays a movie theatre, with a lone, blond female usher, as is the case here.

Pennsylvania Avenue that disdain reading, even abbreviated notes of urgency when the fate of all Americans is on the line. As they say, imagine the next Presidential library, because you’ll have to.

But as with prayer, reading is not an automatic free pass into wisdom or even learning. Those who advocate prayer in schools or as a panacea, don’t seem to take stock in the fact that people sometimes pray for bad outcomes or harm. Likewise, we can observe those who read all kinds of trash and believe every hair-brained scheme proffered on the internet.

Censorship and control of our information periodically becomes a hot-button issue. Infamous instances of these coercive methods from history come to mind. For me as an artist, the first was the original bonfire of the vanities carried out by the firebrand penitential friar of Florence, Savonarolla in Italy of the late 1490's. In this event many books, paintings, drawings and personal effects were incinerated in front the Loggia dei Lanzi. the large outdoor sculpture area. Then the Papacy's index of prohibited books in the next century, where all books deemed unholy were banned. Many others like the Nazis doing the same to "degenerate" art and books in the twentieth century. Now oppressive regimes control the internet our own autocrat continually bellyaches about the press echoing the Nazi's label of lugenpresse.

Finally when portrayals of the act of reading are presented, we come to reflect on our many hours of reading for necessity such as studying for an exam or for most of us now for enjoyment. I have included these recent paintings of mine that depict reading as visual essays to support this commentary.

"In the Station- Readers" This large pastel triptych also portrays the same scene as the oil shown above. Commuters at a Philadelphia train station are passing the time reading newspapers and books.


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