Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Below the Surface

A few hours on my hands and knees, blood rushing into my head, reminded me of the virtues of looking at what's underfoot. And then, listening to Sonic Youth's Washing Machine, which may be my favorite album of theirs as an album -- Daydream Nation and Sister start stronger but end less impressively -- I remembered how I'd wanted to share with you this shot of a mundane surface illuminated by the pale light of a late fall afternoon:

Even though my inner narcissist may be leading me astray, it seems important to me to declare that this is the sort of image in which I love to lose myself. As a teenager captivated by the spare paintings of Andrew Wyeth, who does such a wonderful job of capturing the look of the rural southeastern Pennsylvania landscape where I spent my first decade, I was incensed to read the condescending statements of art critics who dismissed his work as decorative kitsch. I still am, come to think of it. Because what makes Wyeth a great artist, much like Edward Hopper, with whom he has a lot in common, is his ability to present a realism that doubles as abstraction. Look at what's underfoot in one of the fields he depicted again and again and you will find a field every bit as Modernist as the sort Clement Greenberg thrilled to discern in the work of Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock. The difference, I think, is that Wyeth gives viewers the option of looking elsewhere, not because he is pandering to the backward tastes of Middle America, but because even the most rigorously pure art emerges from the messy spaces of the everyday.

That's why, if I may take this point into the realm of metaphor, I love Sonic Youth so much. Since music is far less mimetic than painting, the opposition between realism and abstraction plays out on a different plane. But I still think it proves useful, even if those two terms only function figuratively. The great thing about a record like Washing Machine is the tension between the moments of pop songcraft, exemplified by the simple tunefulness of "Trouble Girl" and the fields of sound that throw them into sharp relief, stretches filled with the rubble of melody that remind me, yes, of the way the fields of my childhood looked at this time of day on a late fall afternoon.
Tags: art, everyday, music, theory

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