Tau

In 1990, I began to sign my pictures with the mark I first used in clay, a capital M standing on a line. To be perfectly accurate, I signed the picture by signing an object in the picture, “etching” my M into the surface of a brick, the mark itself doing double duty as another element of the picture’s fictive world. Occasionally I did the same thing with Toshiko Takaezu’s mark in clay (a double “T” that looks like the Roman numeral II) whenever I wanted to strengthen an association between her and the content or theme of an image. At times I even toyed with the idea of enlarging these marks and using them as a structural framework for a whole composition, but I was never able to come up with a satisfying solution to that visual problem, at least by force of will.

Ultimately, the path to the solution was indirect. When the idea for “Tau” presented itself in the fall of 2006, I was consciously thinking about the letter “T”, a St. Anthony’s cross, as a design grid for a structure of bricks or stones, which expanded quickly in a thumbnail sketch into a post and lintel arrangement with a narrow pitch-black niche in the middle, a primitive doorway sitting on the bottom edge of the image. Suddenly, there it was, Takaezu’s mark. And that shift in thinking just as suddenly made me wonder if I could use - or at least imply - my own mark in the selection and arrangement of the objects I had already begun to aggregate on top of the bricks: a radiant green-ivory gourd with a long curved stem; two of Takaezu’s tea bowls, white and ochre, nesting, with a scarlet crabapple in front of them; and behind all four a tin berry bucket, its handle arc- ing up into the black like a trace of the lunar orbit. I tucked a tall thin hammered copper vase in back, on the left, and poised two sticks in the bucket on either side, pointing NW and NE, and eureka! - my “M” resting on a double “II”, incomplete but discoverable for the viewer-as-archaeologist.

A hymn to the moon, I kept thinking, Shakespeare’s “watery star”, Isaiah’s “levanah”, Great Nature’s own enso, flooding when full, on clear nights, every Zen garden. Adding an enso to the brick surface, as if with a burnt stick, did two things: it reinforced thematically the moon connection, and it added more broken arcs to the bottom half of an eerily calm, symmetrical composition already alive in the center with circles and ellipses. The enso’s arcs seemed to call out for more arcs, and mid-September peony leaves were both ready at hand and to the point: I first fell in love with peonies in Takaezu’s garden, and these particular leaves were already cycling past ripeness into dryness. At this point, the whole image in place, I got seriously playful. The enso became the “0” in “07”. The cracks in the top brick turned into an outline of the upper half of New Jersey, Takaezu’s “II”, with my “M” joining it, marking the location of her studio. Other shapes found their way into the brick surface, most of them copies of figural pieces from Par and Pastime jigsaw puzzles, a great passion of mine: a quarter moon, a baying dog, a woman’s shoe, a piece of cheese, a mouse, a cat, a profile bust, a dancing man with a moon for a heart: a moon in the man in the moon. And because the Japanese traditionally see a rabbit in the moon, not a man, sharp holes in the upper left portion of the top brick pick out the constellation of the Rabbit. I considered and then rejected the idea of mapping the surface of the moon, the enso as its circumference, in favor of ghosting onto the brick surface the Japanese character for moon, and levanah in Hebrew. In the original version of my preliminary drawing, a small cluster of nuts sat bathed in light on the front edge of the central niche, a narrow contained darkness within the overall darkness of the picture, but in the end I pushed that secondary still-life back into the niche’s shadow, where it waits for the patient eye to find it.

In my mind, explanations of this sort have the potential for preventing any eye, patient or not, from finding anything on its own. And building into the structure or surface of a picture data that might seem extraneous to its primary subject, barely or frivolously related, has the potential for distracting the viewer from my own primary goal: the whole image. The whole image, my sine qua non, which first emerges in my mind’s eye, and which will elude (I always hope) every attempt to pin it down, including my own. Whatever “Tau” is, I trust that it’s even more than my reading of it: an altar, solid and glowing in a dark world, heaped with simple offerings to Great Nature’s cycles of abundance and dearth, fullness and emptiness, rich with referents to the unstable moon, whose metamorphoses might well evoke that old Heraclitean revelation of life’s one constant: change.

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