Paintings > Squaring the Circle

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Collaborations with Timothy C. Ely


Over the past few years I have made several books and paintings in collaboration with Timothy C. Ely.  Here are examples from four series of paintings: Squaring the CircleAlchemical Quills, Crucible, and Recapitulations of Emptiness.



Squaring the Circle


One day, I tied several brushes together and made giant ensos until the entire floor of my studio was completely covered in paper.  I was exuberant; the ground was littered with percolations of the void.  I called Tim, but then I realized that all I could tell him was that I had tied brushes together and had made a bunch of marks.  After these marks dried, I selected about ten of my favorite ensos and sent them to him—one was not enough. Then, it was Tim's turn to be exuberant. We worked back and forth.  When we were finished, we found that several of them were visual manifestations of the classic mathematical question of squaring the circle (this is a question of producing a square and a circle that have either the same area or the same circumference using only a protractor and straightedge).  

To most questions there are processes by which one can arrive at an answer. Typically process is associated with the expectation of resolution.  However, squaring the circle has no resolution.  In fact, the search of its resolution is allied with the patient calculation of π, and the recognition of a class of numbers that are known as transcendental numbers. One of the reasons that Tim and I love to paint is that physical marks often shed light on the non-physical.  These are processes that are specifically set up to shed light on the ineffable. The series Squaring the Circle provides a rather intriguing response to this ancient question.



Alchemical Quills


One Monday, Timothy C. Ely arrived at my studio with a great satchel.  I asked him what it contained.  He answered: “Oh, my favorite drafting tools, dividers, compasses, some of my favorite technical pens.” Addressing the satchel, I asked it what dreams it had brought along inside of Tim. Tim pulled out a gleaming stylus. I asked Tim, if he ever felt like he was the pen's tool. What if the strange marks he loves to make are actually the language of the pen itself? Tim answered by pulling out a bottle of ink. In preparation for Tim's visit, I had been working on some images of feathers, archetypal images of writing.  Following our conversation, I invited Tim to fill some of these feathers with his writing. We titled this series Alchemical Quills.





During the spring of 2010, I experienced a remarkable string of dreams that were inspired by working with meteorites.  One evening, I had the following dream:


I am holding a large cabbage, but I sense that it is not a cabbage, and that it holds a secret. When I peel back the first leaf I find that it is hinged to the stalk. I can turn the leaf back and forth on the hinge. The hinge is made of a supple metal. When I push in at its base, the leaf is released. I carefully study how the hinge is made, moving several more leaves back on forth, seeing how they seamlessly interlock. My attention then turns to the leaves themselves. As I open my way further into the cabbage the leaves become smoother and I see that there is writing on them, perhaps musical inscription of some kind. I continue releasing leaves, but they become sharp, so I must turn with with a fork. They also become increasingly brittle, and I know that if I break them I will lose the secret. At this point I feel myself rush in to fill my own dreaming self, as if my self has been sucked here by the cabbage. Taking the stalk in one hand, I thrust the cabbage under a stream of water so that the top of it receives the full force of the flow. The rest of the leaves peel effortlessly back, exposing a single tiny seed. I know it is a mustard seed that is also a meteorite. This is yours, I tell myself. And I take the seed and put it in my mouth. I turn the cabbage upside down. The water closes the leaves again.


Timothy C. Ely arrived a few day after that dream and I recounted this dream to him, telling him that I thought the cabbage was some sort of oneiric crucible.  We set out to paint into this idea of the crucible and those first glimmering kernels of transmuted metal.



Recapitulations of Emptiness


In the fall of 2009, I invited the artist Timothy C. Ely to my studio to make a series of collaborative paintings.  We share interests in many things, including Zen and particle physics.  In one of our conversations that first day, I mentioned that I considered the Large Hadron Collider (the particle collider recently built near Geneva, Switzerland) to be the world's largest enso—the quintessential Zen circle.  An enso is produced to reveal the mental state of its maker and to shed light on the fundamental nature of being; the particle collider was built to understand the most fundamental nature of elementary particles, quantum mechanics, and the deep structure of time and space.  Both enso and particle collider are devises for measuring the Void and the underlying structures of emptiness.

Tim and I mused about how great it would be to place one of our paintings in a super collider and then present it as a painting with invisible particles: a pigment list including upquarks and strange antiquarks, leptons and antileptons, microscopic black holes, as well as the ever-elusive Higgs boson.  Alas, we did not have enough money to fly to Switzerland and, even if we had, the Large Hadron Collider was shut down because of some stray baguette crumbs.  This left us with my studio and paper and brushes and other tools and images of particle tracks through bubble chambers.  The link between Zen contemplation and images of elementary particles became the generative frame for these paintings.