Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Martin Mugar makes difficult paintings. He doesn't ask a lot of the viewer, but what he does ask doesn't come easy. Of course if you are attracted to their physical nature, their color, their texture, to the way they are made, then this isn't a problem; you're in. But if you're not in, if you're not inclined toward the way they posture themselves, the way they attempt to tempt you, yes, if you're not seduced by the candy-colored, taffy pulling fact of them, then you aren't going to get past that, and you will never be in.

Martin Mugar's paintings are not about the candy-colored taffy pull. That is the road to what his paintings are about. It is the candy-colored taffy pull road. It is how he gets there, not where he goes, or where he is going; and it is the road to where the work takes us; but...but it is not its destination.

I've said this before and I'll say it again. Either you go or you don't go. If all you've gotten from Martin Mugar's paintings is the candy-colored taffy pull, then you haven't gone. Period. If that's all you got then you didn't get anything. If that's all you saw, then you didn't see jack.

So what is it that is going on? What is it that is so difficult? Well, it's easy; Martin Mugar wants us to listen. Listen as in look. Look and listen. For the record, this is all anyone wants, but Mugar demands that we listen harder because his work is the sound of a butterfly flapping its wings. It is the sound of a flower petal falling. It is the sound of the tide coming in. These are sounds nobody hears. We are all deaf from the noise.

Don't think that this is oooouuu...about subtlety. That is the common misconception. Quiet and subtle are not always the same. This is not a value war. This is about perception in the larger sense. Artists challenge perception; their own and everyone else's. Martin Mugar is in love with the quiet. It is why he lives in New Hampshire instead of New York. It is why he likes to sail. It is why he likes to paint. He wants us to listen to his paintings and he makes it hard if all we're going to see is candy-colored taffy pulls. We can pull all we like. Not going to happen. He says he just wants the viewer to be patient, but what that really means is for the viewer to give him the time of day, and then he wants them to listen to his paintings the way he likes to listen to the wind filling his sails. He is gambling that if and when we do listen, his paintings will carry across the water and fill our sails as well.

Dennis Cowley is making this same bet. It is why the work is so compatible with Mugar’s. He is putting all his money on those of us who can see a million shades of gray, and everyone else, well, they can just do whatever it is they aren’t doing. Dennis Cowley spreads a silk cloth before us and gives those who have the time, who give him the time of day, a dejeuner sur l’herbe that is a feast like no other. Because on this silk cloth he dances his amazing dance, a Fred Astaire across the surface as nimble and as inventive as a summer breeze. It is a picture of what photography is all about to him, why he loves it, why he uses a dark room like a great chef uses his kitchen. Dennis Cowley purports to being an unbeliever, but it is only by the standard of today’s religion. If we look at his photographs, they are not really pictures of anything so much, they read as abstract shapes, but if we listen to them, well, really listen, we can hear his god, we can hear what he loves.

Dennis Cowley doesn’t talk loudly or a lot. He’s betting that if he listens, then we will follow his lead, and that if he speaks quietly, well, with all the noise, he might have a better chance of getting his message across. Picasso said something about art being like birdsong, something about that hearing its beauty is not only enough, but it. What it’s all about and maybe only about. There are those who believe gratitude is all you need to be fulfilled. It is connected to this. If you hear the birdsong, and are grateful for that in that truest, simplest way possible, then that’s it. The rest is crap. Dennis Cowley gives us a chance to see what he sees through his eyes. Just what that is depends on the photograph.

These particular photographs were taken on the Cape. On the beaches of Wellfleet while he was a guest of the Fine Arts Workshop in Provincetown. They percolated in the camera but they came to life in his new dark room/studio in his new home town after New York, Marblehead. This is where he brings his magic to bear. This is where his lifetime of experience, his heart, his mind, his dancing feet fly across the stage. Yes, these are pictures of a beach, and they aren’t. If that is all we see, then we aren’t seeing much. We’re seeing the road sign, and not where it’s pointing. They are more like letting us roll in the sand, float on the air, the whisper of blade against blade, the smell of salt, and yes, the whoosh of moment in time and space. Dennis Cowley gives us a place to be where almost more than anything else, we can just be, be still, and hear whatever it is we need to hear. He doesn’t really ask that we listen, and if we don’t, well, it’s our loss. He provides the water. We drink at our own peril. What is fascinating is that he really doesn’t ask us to listen, invite us to listen, demand that we listen, or even tempt us to listen. No, what Dennis Cowley does is this: without being haranged, lectured, or courted, he gives us art that is that rare opportunity, the plain old basic once in a lifetime chance to just be ourselves, to be quiet, and relax, and listen, and yes, maybe stretch our legs a little.