Jean Hess
Barbara Taylor
Laura Marsico
Patricia Bailey
Rebecca Caldwell
Connie Bostic
Sara Jenkins
Cathryn Griffin
Ken Leslie
Alice Sebrell
Patrick Morris
Linda Larsen
Debra Drees
Tim Jacobs
The List
Bronwyn Vincent
Norma Smith
Lisa Jablow
Chuck Sikora
Lidia Morris
Jean Hess
Matt Liddle
Brenda Coates
Wendy Robbins
Karen Boeger
M. Roland

Return to Sisyphus

Sisyphus Shrugged?

“Witness,” on leave from a project with Helen and Newton Harrison, is visiting us for a while. As per usual, Witness is asking questions [in the tradition of Socrates] that help us focus in our search for understanding…..

Witness: So what exactly is the difference between “ceaseless” and “useless,” or are they the same thing?

Jean: Well, I think Sisyphus’ labors may be ceaseless, and they may be useless in terms of energy output being turned into something concrete – his labors cannot be called “work,” I suppose. But his energy expenditure is also useful as the signifier of a general human condition. And that is beneficial.

Witness: So does that mean that Sisyphus would not be expected to shrug? That is, Sisyphus will actually continue to labor into eternity?

Jean: Yes. His tedium is a form of prayer. It is repetitious and focused – I’m sure he experiences that sense of “stopped time” – what Eliade would call the “Eternal Moment.” And so his labors transmit to us the possibility of stopped time as well.

You know, I’ve been thinking about this whole issue for quite a while, and for a time even thought that “tedium” had something to do with God – “Te Deum.” Make sense?

W: But – what will we DO with that information? Surely it is of no benefit to us unless we have a means to achieve the same state of grace?

J: I think you must be asking me that question as a fellow artist – am I right? Aren’t you wondering how an artist might tap into the ethos of ceaseless labor, thus achieving the epiphany of stop-time?

I suppose each of us has to find our own personal means to that end. But if we assume there is a “benefit,” don’t we also assume a moment of completion? I think what we really seek is fulfillment, not closure. I guess fulfillment is beneficial……..

W: I may have been thinking about Jay DeFeo – that congealed mass of paint that she worked on for so many years, and which may never have been finished. Didn’t she die without declaring it finished?

J: I’m not sure about that last part, but I do know she worked on it for years – endlessly or ceaselessly!

W: So what would be your own particular version of what DeFeo was doing?

J: I’m not at all certain that DeFeo had voiced any kind of conceptual agenda – that she had any particular vision for the process. I’d need to go further into that.

Oddly, Peter Scheldahl recently suggested that there is a trend toward working in small scale and in tedious increments – I think he refers to those artists as “Termites”! DeFeo’s canvas may have been monumental, but the engagement was the same – termite work….. And this all fits with how I envision a game for myself.

W: What do you mean by “game”?

J: As an alternative to a finished product. More as a kind of state of eternal playing and imagining. I think about Borges a lot – his fantastic imaginary libraries that stretch on into infinity and eternity – and I try to live in my own ongoing Borgesian fantasy. In fact, that’s why I hate that whole current art crit riff about end games……

Here are two examples.

I construct collages from hundreds of tiny, inch squares, which are cut out of very old textbooks. In these textbooks, which I have collected for years, I started to notice that the children who had used them made marks – what you might call “doodles” or “graffiti.” Funny little figures, strange scrawls and hackneyed pronouncements [“Roses are red”] are found throughout these books. One boy even did graphite rubbings from coins in his pocket – he must really have been bored! So I imagine that these marks were made out of a sense of – oh – eternal tedium as only children experience it. Stuck in a classroom while birds are singing outside! And the books are also stained – fingerprints, grease stains, little bits of food, ink blots – even pressed flowers and the stains they leave. The books have been touched.

When I cut out a square, I only do so from those parts of a book that have been marked or stained. The collages I make with them, then, are reconstructed records of thousands of children and thousands of hours they spent in a kind of suspension state. I, in turn, share in that through my process of snipping and re-arranging the squares. Too, I feel very close those distant children – so time is compressed and halted.

So far I’m only making fairly small grid pieces of these materials – ranging from 8x8” to 24x24” mostly. But I imagine much, much larger works – panel after panel, say 40x40”-- that stretch on into infinity, each one consisting of thousands of these tiny squares – each 40 x 40 panel would contain 6400 separate squares. So that, eventually, all of the graffiti and stains in the world for all time are preserved.

W: That does indeed sound like a good example of useless, or at least ceaseless, tedium.

J: That is the whole idea, of course. I like the thought that I could have a project that never ended – that would carry me forward into the unknown future.

W: So how can you show me what you mean?

J: Only in fragments. Here is one small piece with a lot of wonderful doodles and stains. I think of it as being evidence – a small specimen – of what I can only imagine.


J: And here are others, this time with a sort of extra “gift” – the flower. This is leaving flowers for the children who owned these school books. But I’m still trying to decide if putting the flower in there invalidates the whole idea of no closure…..


J: My second type of project also involves endlessness, and it is even more playful to the extent that it involves the juxtaposition of old maps and books with imagery from popular media as well. For several years now I’ve been cutting out anything circular that I see in the popular printed material I come across. Why? Because I have always had flying spheres somewhere in my work – always. For me they exemplify the sublime state – the feeling of Eden. Lately I’ve added gems to the circles – gifts again. The magazines I look at range from Parade Magazine and the Enquirer to Town and Country! I have probably cut out thousands of circles by now – and the ideal piece would involve continuing that obsessive practice into eternity.

I start a canvas by drawing maps of parts of Appalachia with an interesting history, and the place names I put on those maps serves as the coordinates for a kind of plaid infrastructure because I draw a vertical and a horizontal through each place. And then cross-cutting all that are the roads and rivers and mountains that flesh out the map. I like to fill in tiny individual squares in the grid with different colors, too, so the surface is already buzzing when I apply the circles. The circles can run in the hundreds – all sizes – so they also appear to be receding or jumping forth in space. All of this just adds to the fullness of the repetition and termite work….. Like the cutout squares in the mosaic-like grids, panels of these circle patterns could go on ad infinitum.

W: I’m almost afraid to ask for another example!

J: Well, there are plenty! Here is one of the Matewan area in West Virginia,


W:You would almost have to see that up close…..

J: Well, here is a closeup of Matewan ! On this particular canvas, I even drew all of the old railroad tracks that would just end at a mine in a far-off mountain…..


J: Exactly! So that brings me to my third, totally imaginary project.

In all of these old books, I notice that there are pages where the children have made single bold gestures with pencil or pen – big, loopy scribbles -- long lines slashing through and kind of canceling whole paragraphs, and lines underlining important passages. I would like to start a series of large canvases on which these lines are cut out as fragments and joined end-to-end. They might spiral around on the canvases, and they may also overlap. Who knows where these joined lines would lead? Because of course there would never be a final destination as we know it – the whole point would be to just keep connecting the lines and moving along…..

W: So of course one wonders – Why?

J: Like we discussed earlier, it is the process itself – the idea of an all-consuming eternity of facture that just keeps repeating itself. Prayer, if you will. The end product is only partly the point, because technically there is never an end. My imagination sees a row of canvases kind of disintegrating on the horizon. But I know they are not disappearing, only disappearing from view!