On the Beach

By Kay Larson


I hadn’t thought about the American luminists for a long time, but there I was, one day recently, admiring orange-soda mists in the atmospheric new reinstallation of the Hudson River School at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Cole. Church. Bierstadt. Twachtman. When Church painted Coast Scene, Mount Desert (Sunrise off the Maine Coast) in 1863, he picked a moment of high drama. The tossed sea was fiercely foaming, showing off its inner liveliness: glassy greens, blues, whites, yellows, all lit up by the celestial torchlight of a golden sun that stares straight at us like a  Third Eye. It’s a painterly tour-de-force, but I remember thinking that it’s also pure dress-up. To the luminists, the sublime was beautiful, in part because it was so easy for a painter to manipulate it to his wishes. Church’s heaving sea is saturated with operatic human emotion—put there by the artist. Strip off the frame, however, and what do you have? Nothing that the gray northern ocean would recognize.

A century and a half later, we don’t frame artworks. Instead, we put ourselves in the middle of something and notice what happens next. Then—after an interval that might be short or long—a camera appears and a finger presses the shutter button. We know the world is seamless, and we accept that our finger on the shutter is the device that divides it up. The camera’s eye opens to absorb an image that looks just like the image in the viewfinder. This seeming honesty would appear to prevent the sort of melodramatic emphasis that Church managed in Coast Scene. Something else happens instead. Each photograph is a decision, and each decision is a single frame capturing one person’s state of mind and being. Put enough of these moments together and you begin to feel the presence of consciousness: deliberate or unintentional, personal and universal, momentary and infinite. So we don’t need the painting’s frame, because we now realize that every instance of seamlessness is framed at all times by the human mind.

I have thought about Deborah’s art for some time, ever since she lived in the Hudson Valley. Visiting Cape Elizabeth—and now living there, on the edge of the sea—she has experienced the coast and its vegetal lifeforms and recognized a material interest. Moving to the severe coastline of Maine has changed her. Always attuned to where she is, she is now facing elemental realities, including those that crash on the rocks along the shore, bringing life and oxygen, shredding the kelp beds, undermining the ground with terrifying ceaselessness. A kind of somber honesty is obligatory in such situations. The luminosity is still present, but it’s harsher: literally colder and harder; tinted in turquoise compressed from frozen seawater; waves now turned to ice that chews great valleys through bedrock.

Deborah has imported her own inner narrative, while opening her ears and eyes to what’s around her. To step inside an artist’s mind is to join the narrative in progress. So what does this narrative tell us? She is interested in seaweed, a word that compounds two apparently contradictory qualities: the sea and a weed. The first is boundaryless; the second is rooted in one spot. She tells us that the seaweed on her shore grows along certain coastlines from Maine through Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland—along the cold upper reaches of the North Atlantic. This continuity is important to her, and so she has created a decision to go where the idea and the actuality collaborate.

There are three typologies in her response. The first is to use seaweed for the ordinary qualities it possesses. Her startling reaction to its ordinariness is to knit these flexible strands into garments, or shape them into utensils, or put them on a loom and weave them. People have been doing such things for millennia, although with more of an interest in actually using them. Deborah in photos can be seen with her hands in the midst of threading strips of kelp as though they were strands of wool. So what’s the difference between sheep’s wool and kelp? One will keep you warm; the other will remind you of where you’ll end—in the less comfortable aspects of the continuity.

The second typology consists of a kind of self-portraiture. She puts herself into the scene, literally, and brings her camera with her. Here’s where the artist’s self-narrative takes on qualities that correspond to the explorer’s. Why do human beings leave their comfortable nests and do something difficult, like mushing dog sleds to the North Pole, or ice-axing their way up a snowfield, or clinging to the top of Everest in air so thin it boils the oxygen in their blood? Because there is a story they are telling themselves. The story is more important than their physical difficulties—or perhaps the physicality is an essential part of the story. 

In Deborah’s case, she has decided to put herself (as I said) in the scene, and she means it literally. She finds a site along the North Atlantic continuum she has created—she says the kelp has created it, but the continuum exists only because she has named it as one—and she sits down on a rock in the middle of this elemental landscape. An accomplice with a video camera films her in this position, back turned to us, for an hour. As she tells the story, these expeditions are always uncomfortable—requiring lots of money, time, attention, resourcefulness, and intuition about the site—and sometimes are actually dangerous. On her second day in Greenland she slipped down the side of a fjord and caught her hip on the point of a rock, just barely halting a slide into the tidal zone. She was lucky to be only bruised and in shock. Yet she sat for an hour to be filmed on her boulder, in great pain, on the last day before flying to Iceland to continue the work. 

So the third typology is the one that reveals the Deborah-mind-and-being in its unreflective and unconscious act of living. Who is she in these filmic images? I think of her as an Ur-mother facing down the ocean. Her head is shorn like a Buddhist monk’s, evoking a monk-like seriousness. (It’s her usual haircut, by the way). Her back is turned to us, as though assuming—like moms do—that we will come along with her and share her viewpoint. Her body-form faces the gray emptiness. When she does dip her hand in the ocean, she comes up with the stuff to make sea-cloth. Mom is furnishing the igloo. A baby blanket of kelpweave. Slippers of tidal floss. A strip of knitted algae. Cups and bowls of dried broad-leaf seaplants with the scruffy bronzed patina of Arctic expedition artifacts. An “edition” of exclamation-point spoons. One very airy lattice-vest crafted from the seaweed Laminaria, not likely to keep out the wind. I think—forgive me—of the sea goddess Calypso in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, who hides herself in human form, can shape-shift in an instant when she wants to, and is usually dripping.

Wherever we are, each of us brings the kindled glow of our own being into the scenery. It’s interesting, then, to think of other artists who put their bodies out into the landscape so they can watch how they manifest. Andy Goldsworthy has been wandering a cold northern terrain for decades, building improbable and
evanescent sculptures out of autumnal-yellow leaves, rocks, treeforms, ice, mud. In his case he’s like a mischievous boy out in the backyard, inventing things. The beauty of his pieces arises out of muck and—in most cases—returns to muck. 

Another is Kimsooja, born in Korea and a wanderer since. She was impressed early on with an exilic pattern of difference and aloneness, and she makes art now as though she is a cipher even to herself. She calls herself “needle woman”—she who passes through the cloth, carrying the thread that binds—and places her black-clad body immobile in the center of the camera’s eye while the world flows around her and doesn’t notice her. In her video A Laundry Woman–Yamuna River, India (2000) she stands (with her back turned to us) on the bank of one of India’s great watercourses. Only a few strands of her hair idly lift in an invisible breeze as we see—looking past her silent shoulders—the paraphernalia of death floating downstream from the burning ghats. 

Making art (and culture) is a fragile activity, likely to melt into seafoam in the next long rain—as Deborah’s
objects will also do. The delicacy of Deborah’s works is very much a characteristic of their maker. The willingness to put herself in hard places is, too. The appearance of austerity, on the other hand, is a sleight of mind: her work is actually lush and sensual, in a careful and restrained way. She says she grew up in cold environs. We all do, in a certain sense. Culture and beauty arise out of an inhospitable and yet also beautiful—but hard—reality. As she faces down the ocean, Deborah is bearing witness to the seawater that runs in our collective bloodstream. 


Kay Larson has been making a living as an art critic for more than three decades and has written for New York magazine (1980-1994), the New York Times, and many other publications of all types. She is finishing a book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, for Penguin Press.

© 2009, Kay Larson