This morning, I'd like to begin by saying a few words about the paintings of Albert York, which are currently on exhibit here in town. York's work is deceptively simple: small scale landscapes - his canvases usually measure about one foot square - and still lifes: a few trees, a pot of flowers, perhaps a cow. The subject matter would seem to be that of a thousand amateur Sunday painters. But York's work is different, and can perhaps offer us some insight into what we mean by "ordinary." So often, when an amateur paints a landscape, what we end up with is a cliche - a picture of some standard idea of what a pretty landscape ought to look like, and the amateur not only fails to be technically able to reproduce in authentic detail what's in front of him or her, but is unable to bring any genuine originality to the composition, to bring anything unique about themselves into the picture. With York's pictures however, there is something idiosyncratic going on, some unexpected detail or perspective or massing of the forms that immediately let's you recognize it as a York. The paint is laid on thick; the brushwork is very visible and often the edges of the painting have a rough or unfinished look. Everything reminds you that this is a painting, a made thing that has form, color, texture in its own right and is not just a simulacrum of Nature.
There's a story told about the early Modernist painter Alan Hartpence - once during an exhibit of his work, an indignant viewer, unused to this new way of painting, pointed to one of his canvases and huffily demanded to know what THAT was supposed to be?! Hartpence leaned over and peered at the painting in question. "That madam," he replied, "is PAINT."
There is a famous saying that goes,
"Before I began to practice Zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. After I practiced for a few years, suddenly mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. But now, after many, many years of practice, mountains are again mountains, and rivers are again rivers."
There are thousands of mountains in the world, in every imaginable form, climate and landscape, a tiny number of which we may have actually seen ourselves. But we all "know" what a mountain is, we immediately form an image in response to the word, and stuff a myriad of worlds into a conceptual box. It's that box, that cliched image of "mountain" that the amateur paints. Practice helps us see things afresh, first of all by making us aware of our conceptual boxes, labeling over and over again the processes by which we constrict our world. Art also can help us see things afresh, to see the ordinary in a new light, which is in part how I would describe Albert York's genius. One day, whether all of a sudden , or subtly so that we are hardly aware of the change, we may find that this vast world of mountains and rivers no longer fits within any of our little boxes. We may simply stand dumbstruck, no words will do, and "not knowing" what we see simply stand in silence and awe We may experience the oneness of the wide world, feel for a moment not the least separation between ourselves and the mountains and rivers. The old Teachers and poets, to express the total interpenetration and interconnectedness of things, sometimes would interchange the characteristics of one thing with another, so then the mountains dance and flow, and herds of caribou migrate across the ocean floor. But after many more years of practice, we no longer are infatuated with having had this vision of things and we live the awakened life of mountains and rivers just as they are. Thoughts, feelings, concepts don't disappear, they remain part of the landscape. Like the ants and the wolves, they are part of our world and our goal is not to exterminate them in the name of safety or serenity. But they no longer are the "frames" of our experience, simply one of its ever-changing contents. This is what is properly called "ordinary mind."
In an interview published in "The New Yorker" some years ago, Calvin Tomkins asked York the most basic of questions, "Why do you paint.?" You can imagine all the usual answers one might get to that question. But York replied, "I think we live in a paradise. This is the Garden of Eden, really it is. It might be the only paradise we ever know, and it's just so beautiful, with the trees and everything here, and you feel you want to paint it. Put it into a design. That's all I can say."