Merriam-Webster’s defines conundrum as an intricate and difficult problem, or a question having only a conjectural answer. Here’s one: Growing up, I was either painfully shy or thrilled to be on display. Some people thought I was “a snob.” But, really, I was just afraid to talk to them. On the other hand, as the preacher’s kid, I was highly visible and didn’t mind being in the spotlight at all.
I remember sitting at a table with my family in front of hundreds of Boy Scouts in the church gym for a dinner. I was probably 10 or 11, so it’s the mid-1960s. The scene was about as straight as you can get, which, of course means it was totally twisted. They had a hypnotist for entertainment and I volunteered and pretended to be hypnotized. Sat on a metal folding chair, closed my eyes, and did whatever he prompted. Though I don’t recall what that actually was, it resulted in the proverbial thunderous cheering and applause.
Later, when I tried to perform – flute in a grade-school talent show, auditioning for a high school band that wanted an Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) stand-in, singing solo with a local “Up with People” knock-off – I was petrified. I didn’t get in the band. My singing debut was not repeated. I did get second prize in the talent show. I think they felt sorry for me.
Then somewhere in the late 1980s, I started hanging out with poets. The Unbearables. It was great. I made art for their Assembling Magazine, then wrote and read a poem. My hands and voice were shaking. But I loved it, and did it again, and again. Eventually memorizing all my pieces and having a pretty good run at readings around New York up until the early 2000s.
There are few things more exciting than being on stage. Really. I love it. Couldn’t tell you why I stopped. That is, until a hot summer night in Connecticut, July 2014, when spontaneously drawn into the lights and fire you see in these photographs, snapped by Tom Burnett. It was brief, silent, and it didn’t occur to me that there would be documentation. Though that’s the current nature of life, when almost everyone always carries a device that records images. Still freaks me out, and gets totally meta in 09 Night Red Cat (the seventh image below), where another hand with another phone appears at stage right.
The conundrum here is that the moment was delightful, but the photos scared me. Nearly two years later, on May 12, 2016, I set them up for a post and started writing the performance story. And thought that would be it. Because they’re night shots in only ambient light, the data was thin, I didn’t think there was enough to work with to create further transformations. But the next day, that assumption proved to be wrong, and the abstractions evolved with surprising variation and strength.
They strike me as very different from the colorfields and folds that have been my focus for the past year or so. Which brings us to this question: Does the artist’s personality drive the work, or does the art take control of the persona?
Original photos © Tom Burnett, 2014. Images and text by Catherine Rutgers © 2016