Do what the clouds do…
Open Letters: Our cover art for this month is your beautiful “do what the clouds do (for Charles Wright).” Could you tell us a little about assembling the materials for the piece? Where did they come from? Was the the reflective paper something you’d had in mind specifically for this piece or was there a happy accident?
Charles Matson Lume: The sole material of this installation, besides light, was proofing paper, and each sheet was about 18” x 24”. It is a Kodak product similar to mylar paper, but its reflective properties surpass any mylar I have researched. In 2009, I found used proofing paper at a scarp store just down the street from my home in St. Paul, MN. The proofing paper was utilized in three prior solo exhibitions before using it to make this installation. However, “do what the clouds do (for Charles Wright)” was distinctive from the other installations by way of how the paper was organized on the floor. I decided I wanted the pattern of paper to be more chaotic than the other installations which were laid out in a more orderly fashion. This choice of disorder was based on Charles Wright’s poem, “Disjecta Membra” which is the last poem from his book, Black Zodiac. The poem is long and complex, and, frankly, I only understand fragments of it. “Do what the clouds do” is the last line of the poem and Wright qualifies the line’s meaning earlier to perhaps mean, “Take a loose rein and a deep seat” or “take it easy”. In making this installation, I challenged myself to let the piece come of its own accord. Perhaps that may sound cheezy to others, but I did not want to over manage making it. Indeed, by letting the process unfold gradually, there were many happy accidents along the way. There was a lot of trial and error during the four days of installing. Generally, I never know how an installation will look from the outset. It is only through a kind of play that I discover how the piece will resolve itself. Light and space are so complex that I cannot see the installation in my mind’s eye ⎯ I have to make it to see it.
OL: You write that light is capable of “releasing a kind of secret from the ordinary.” I recently moved from Boston to Colorado and I’ve been amazed by the difference in light: in Boston the humidity diffuses the light, evenly illuminating both edges and surfaces, but here in Colorado the glare creates shadows, so that everything is blurred, either through darkness or through glare. Where do you live and work at the moment and how do you feel you’re affected by the light there?
CML: I have lived in Minnesota, specifically the Twin Cities area, for the last twelve years, but I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago. There the light was unspectacular most of the time, but on rare occasions one could see the Sears Tower more than forty miles away. Some of that was because of the flatness of the Midwest, but in the upper Midwest, the light, especially in winter, is consistently distinctive. The whiteness of winter and its glare, are ever-present. For example, when driving east in the morning, a road’s asphalt should look black, but it’s utterly white from the light. Currently I am interested in researching light near the Arctic Circle. While at a residency in Norway in June, 2009, the light was relentless to the point of exhausting, and the sun’s arc was surprising. I hope to do more research in Iceland next summer. This research and my day-to-day experiences with light may not always translate neatly into my art. However, they do help me understand light’s potential, and they keep revealing the aliveness ⎯the quicksilver⎯ of the sun and other natural phenomena. After many years of researching light, it still has so much to reveal to me. I believe light has an endless capacity for awe and delight, not unlike William Blake’s thought, “energy is eternal delight”.
OL: A number of your pieces — I’m thinking of your series of objects stuck to the corners of walls — strike me as actively optimistic. The hearts-of-shadow they create seem to make a happy soul that hovers under some otherwise-unexamined reality. This is interesting to me in that I don’t associate many of your dedicatees with optimism! What sort of emotion inspires these creations/dedications?
CML: I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of them as such, but perhaps they are optimistic in the same way we all hope to love and be loved. The hearts are an on-going series of pieces I started in 2002. Much like Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, I sense I will continue to make them for many years to come. The emotions that have been the catalyst for this series are wide ranging. One piece I made for my sister who had gone through a divorce. Another was for a friend whose mother had died. Although they may appear at first flush sentimental or playfully ironic, I make them with straightforward sincerity. They require me to be vulnerable in ways I think are often absent, or at least not celebrated, in much of the contemporary art I experience. In the end, I follow the lead of William Bronk’s poem, “Yes: I Mean So OK—Love”. I think Bronk is pointing to how we think we know what love is, but really it is almost unknowable and always changing. Nonetheless, we all need love in some form or another. These heart-shaped pieces are paradoxical in that they appear easy, readily available, and even optimistic, but they are also subtle like our otherwise-unexamined reality.
CML: William Bronk and Gustaf Sobin are influential to my art. I couldn’t make what I do without them. Bronk is important for his fierce doubt, and Sobin for his delicate visual hoverings. Sobin was one of my major mentors as a young artist. My initial study with him began in France and followed with thirteen years of letter writing. He was incredibly generous and insightful. He set the bar high for what it meant to be an artist. He held high one’s obligation to one’s art and audience. For example, the door handle to his small writing hut was a horse’s bit.
Recently, I have been listening again to a tape I have of Muriel Rukeyser reading some of her poems. She seems brave and spirited in her words with a voice and delivery to match. I resonate with her willingness to take a stand. I also appreciate the patterns she makes with her word choices, and the visual complexities in many of her poems. I am especially drawn to her poem, “The Ballad of Orange and Grape”. The questions at the end of her poem require a reader to recalibrate one’s use of language and understand the consequences of those decisions. Although I do not try to illustrate what poets write, somehow they are a chorus of insights that keeps singing in my ear.
OL: your light shapes evoke so much: spider webs (as in We know that knowing is not the way I & II) or a deep tunnel (as in So much depends upon a circular argument (for W.C. Williams), also waves, dust, open doors, nets, star clusters, birds in flight….. one could go on forever. What kinds of reactions have surprised you? What kinds of reactions weren’t you expecting?
CML: My installation entitled, Desist in My Pursuit (for Beatrice (Canto XXX)) had many viewers feeling some vertigo as they walked through it. Those reactions were utterly unexpected yet it was in complete harmony with the direction of the piece. Generally, what I have found surprising is that so many people want to touch my work, and in touching it, they often destroy it or part of it. Viewers do not often know that by touching it they may do harm, so in some ways it is a back handed compliment. I usually don’t repair these viewer interventions. Once the installation is made, it has its own life to live.
By now, I am rarely surprised by viewers’ individual metaphoric connections they make with the installations. Although recently a friend, who had not viewed my work in-person for several years, surprised me with his reaction. Upon entering one of my installations he could not believe how alive the work was as compared to seeing them in photographs. Even now I still hear his astonishment.
Charles Matson Lume received a M.F.A. and M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a B.A. in Psychology from Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL. Charles was awarded artist fellowships from the Bush Foundation, Jerome Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. His art has been exhibited at institutions such as: the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland; Babel Gallery, Trondheim, Norway; The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland; and Hunter College’s Time Square Gallery, NYC. Charles lives with his wife, Sarah, and daughters, Helena & Babette in St. Paul, MN.