WALKING THE LINE BETWEEN PEACE AND WAR

WALKING THE LINE BETWEEN PEACE AND WAR

“All the matter and difficulty of being alive in a place of peace and a place of war.”

Sebastian Barry*

A note by the editor.
John Eden’s art is human life condensed in forms as clean as an ideal. And the light they reflect will never depart. Eternity is the challenge of any art. My blog’s reality is the opposite: based on moments, moods, displacements, coincidences, it “traces and contains something unruly, energetic, improbable.” My friend Fiona Connor just sent me these words about her most recent art piece. They also work for The Kite. I would only add that the tail of my Kite has become a long string of collaborations, fragments recalling each other. They often oddly crack like pomegranates and the red bloody juice of an artist melts into the veins of another artist. There is no explanation, my gratitude is the glue. RA

 

CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL

By John Eden

JOHN EDEN, Vietnam,

JOHN EDEN, Vietnam 1950-1962 (Fuselage & Wing), from the Roundel (Military Aircraft Insignias) Series 2013. Automotive metal flake paint on a 28″ diameter fiberglass disc. Courtesy of the artist.

 At the end of WWII, my father accompanied the first group of American scientists into Hiroshima just days after the atomic bomb blast to measure that city’s unimaginable devastation, seeing firsthand, the burn victims and the phantom human forms that were seared onto its city walls. Similar to what I saw displayed secondhand, thirty-five years later when I visited Hiroshima’s Peace Museum at ground zero.

Like Saving Private Ryan, my mother’s oldest brother waded onto France’s bloodstained Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion as a ‘replacement soldier’ and then fought his way throughout Western Europe. He said that he walked all the way to Germany with a M-1 rifle in his hand.

He’s gone now, but every time he tried to talk about those horrific experiences (the smells & images), he would choke up and say something like ‘I’m no hero, I was lucky, and that’s all. The ones who didn’t make it are the real heroes and I can’t get those ghosts out of my head. I just tried to stay alive.’ He believed his success in staying alive grew out of his boyhood hunting experiences that might appear counter-intuitive. His Oklahoma country-boy father taught him to always target the animals that were bunched together, because the odds of ‘bagging your dinner’ were mathematically higher. He figured that German soldier would have learned the same basic hunting skills, so his thoughts were always to ‘stay apart and not to bunch up.’

To Examine Critically: Stay Apart, Don’t Bunch Up and Question Everything

To observe, to live inside oneself, apart and separate; it’s what I believe writers and artists need to do, and that has been my calling for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a small Southern California town that skirts the extreme northern fringes of the San Fernando Valley, just north of where the Interstates 5 and 14 meet. The Newhall-Saugus area has now been eclipsed by major development projects within the Santa Clarita Valley and the art world knows it as the unlikely location for Cal Arts. It had been a quiet farming community until the never-ending real estate boom that started there in earnest in the mid ‘40s, but during my early childhood it was still mostly open farmland surrounded by hills that were riddled with mining caves dug by Chinese migrants searching for their American dream.

JOHN EDEN, Black-Hole

JOHN EDEN, Black Sphere AKA The Black Hole, 2011-2012. From the Sightless Installation Series, slate black nickel plated SLA Epoxy resin, steel and glass, 54.25″ x 12″ x 12.” Courtesy of the artist.

Escape, Escape, Escape

Up until the age of 16, most of my weekends were spent exploring our valley’s arid surrounds, but with a driver’s license, wheels and a few bucks for gas my life changed forever. Roads out to the city and the beach became El Camino Real, points of teenage interests connected together by circuitous routes washed down, first with bland AM radio that soon gave way to Madman Muntz’s audio tape cartridge players that poured out more dangerous FM album sounds by The Animals, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones at will, and like Kerouac, I was ‘On The Road,’ moving forward and yet compulsively glancing backwards too.

JOHN EDEN, Eye for an Eye,

JOHN EDEN, Eye To Eye, 2010. Glass eye, red enamel and lacquered aluminum, 1″ x 1″ x 3.625.” Courtesy of the artist.

If I were asked what defining moments in my formative years put me on the road less-traveled, I would have to say it was the archery accident that took place when I was twelve and my time spent in the U. S. Air Force during the Vietnam war.

I had been given an archery set for Christmas and during the following holiday weeks I would spend most of my time roaming ‘Indian-style’ around a nearby dry riverbed that snaked its way through our valley mostly shooting at imaginary targets. My mother’s family connection with Eastern Oklahoma’s Choctaw tribe has instilled a lifelong interest in Native American culture and at age twelve I was all about being Ishi, ‘the last wild Indian’ in America.

On one occasion an older neighbor boy came along hoping to try archery for the first time. Early on, he suggested we play a game where the boy holding the bow would yell ‘look out’ and the other boy would duck down to let the shooter fire the arrow over his head at an imaginary bad guy. The major problem with that suggestion, besides just being a really bad idea, was that neither one of us were skilled enough with the bow to perform the maneuverer safely.

It was my bow; therefore I went first, after yelling the warning he ducked as planned, so I pulled back the arrow to release, but the arrow’s tip fell off my bow hand. I had to reset the arrow and go again. In the confusion, he must have thought that I had already released the arrow, because he stood up just as I let go of the shaft, it thrusting point blank into his eye. His doctor said later that he was ‘lucky to be alive,’ but having lost one eye, he would go through life visually impaired, with no depth perception.

From that moment on, I carried the hidden indelible stain of that boy holding his bloody hand over his punctured eye, permanently etched into my mind’s eye and all the gut-wrenching anguish associated with doing such a terrible thing. There was nothing I could do or say that would undo the pain and damage that I had caused him and his family. Looking back, I’m sure we both suffered from PTSD syndrome, but at the time, therapy for such things were nonexistent. This traumatic experience made me a natural pacifist, not wanting any more virulent images in my head, like the ones I knew my uncles and father brought back from World War II. Perhaps, they were heroes —I knew, I was not.

JOHN EDEN, I Walk the Line

JOHN EDEN, I Walk the Line, 2014. Photo collage. Courtesy of the artist.

Will we be heroes of our own lives, or will we merely be swept along by our own particular circumstances?

That to me is the primary question that I had to come to terms with. We can’t control what life throws at us, but we can control how we respond to those adversities. During the Vietnam War, all young men of draft age had to register with the Selective Service for possible military duty selection. Some made the decision to evade the draft and others were granted various deferments thereby avoiding military service all together.

Shortly after graduating high school, my father suggested I join the Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Army or Marines, which certainly meant fighting in Vietnam. Having taken an Aviation Science class in school that stoked my interest in flight, I mistakenly assumed that by enlisting in the Air Force proactively, I would be trained in a non-combative air support role with skills that could be used later in civilian life. But like my ‘Auld Da,’ Murphy’s Law mandated that my initial duty was to be a Military Air Policeman.

My first stateside assignment was to guard SR-71 Spy Planes and the B52 Strategic Air Command long-range bombers. These B52 aircraft were somewhere in the air over the United States 24/7, armed with nuclear bombs and were missioned to destroy whole cities in the case of a nuclear war. This policy was known as Mutually Assured Destruction (or M.A.D.). Before being cross-trained into my final job as a base photographer, I walked a mosquito-ridden flight line in the rice-paddies of Northern California as an M-16 toting “AP” waiting to be cycled on through to Vietnam while guarding those deceptively beautiful nuclear-armed aircraft, all when the end of the world seemed so palpable and real.

JOHN EDEN, India 1943-1945,

JOHN EDEN, India 1943-1945, (Fuselage & Wings), from the Roundel (Military Aircraft Insignias) Series, 2015.  Metal flake paint on fiberglass disc, 46″ x 46″ x 12.” Courtesy of the artist.

Breakdown And Conversion
Working the nightshift on the flight line was grueling; exposure to the elements for 8-hour shifts took their toll, especially on cold winter nights. I kept wondering about which city the aircraft I was guarding was designated to target. I was haunted by what the devastation might look like and if I was in any way culpable. On one hand, I was not a fan of anti-democratic hegemonies around the world, but conversely, I really hated how our politicians and their military counterparts allowed so many of our young soldiers to die without any long-term goals or endgame plans in mind. It all seemed so unconscionable.

My fear of becoming part of some dark historical event was looming large and my psyche was compelled to push back by way of exhibiting extremely erratic behavior on the flight line in a nuclear weapon zone. The behavior was noticed, a breakdown really, and I was sent to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Truly, I could have just gone along with the program, but I sensed it would have been the end of me, as I was.

I was diagnosed with manic-depressive tendencies, but not severe enough to be discharged. It was then, that I was cross-trained into photography and my future path was clear. I think I had learned from my archery accident a micro truth: if something feels wrong, don’t give into the impulse to go along just to get along. More recently, a macro truism has presented itself: one generation’s truths do not necessarily transfer on to the next.

JOHN EDEN, Nor are we afraid

JOHN EDEN, Nor Are We Afraid, 2009-2010. Three primary colors cast resin skulls with acrylic pedestal, from the Memento Mori Series, each skull is 6.5″ x 5.125″ x 9.5.” Courtesy of the artist.

  • Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way, Penguin Books, 2005

WHEN I WAS A BOY

Los Angeles artist John Eden, his grandfather W.M. Burgess of Gilmore, Oklahoma, and fathers and mothers and children before them and after them.

by Rosanna Albertini

Let’s go backwards, “from the adult to the open-eared attentiveness of the child: expanses, solitude; being led; letting reason grow out of things and into man [and women]; a more universal, more conciliatory, but less precise mode of thought.” (Robert Musil, 1922)

Johnny on poarch

Johnny on The Porch

As we grow up, the child never disappears although we couldn’t say where it is; inside the body, or looking at us from afar?

JOHN EDEN, "Hell's bells" 2006. Bronze bells on lacquered aluminum 7.5" x 54" x 8"

JOHN EDEN, “Hell’s Bells” 2006   Bronze bells on lacquered aluminum   7.5″ x 54″ x 8″ Courtesy of the artist.

Johnny looks at John Eden working in his studio from a photograph that was shot by grandmother, who is the shadow on the left. He doesn’t seem comfortable, nor is he aware he is looking toward the future. “What are those forms he is making?” – Johnny wonders, “so perfectly shaped and covered with a skin of color that keeps eating images of passers by as if hungry for living. They are reflexions, sure, but how could I know what’s happening inside those forms? Likely, the same as in human bodies, what’s contained by the skin is a surprise, a gush of blood scares me. Is art alive? I want to be sure that John is always Johnny. In a sense, I’m him.”

Johnny’s physical existence blocked in his image won’t ever be replicated: his corpus is what we see and nothing beyond: but his nature guided his limbs and neurons into an adult life, and genealogical history, instead of lingering  near him in fading images printed on paper, migrated into John Eden’s art: forms charged with meaning, quality and feeling: “Embodiment is the central effort in art, the way it gets made, very much something out of nothing. It’s impossible to express a feeling without a form. It couldn’t be said or seen.” Donald Judd 1983. Luminous surfaces are calls for thinking, reflections bring my perception close to the artist’s, become evocations. Some of his sculptures introduce into our time simplified forms of irons, and a washboard on which mothers and grandmothers in the 20’s and 30’s consumed their fingers by hand washing: they are votive objects to honor incommunicable lives erased by history but not in our memory or feelings, temporary as they are.

WillPBurgessTouchedupCroppedW.M. Burgess (John Eden’s grandfather): I was given away just as one would give a dog away. I was taken by the Indians to Talihina [Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma].  They were full-blood Choctaw. We had good feather beds and lived very comfortably. … I was very anxious to learn the white man’s ways and when I got to be 18, I worked for a man and earned $1. With this money, I got all the schooling I ever got. I attended the sessions at Postoak Grove school for 20 days. I learned to read myself.

Oreste Albertini (my own grandfather) did worse: he went to school only one day, and decided he was going to learn to read and write by himself. Which he did, and became a painter.

Rosanna Albertini: I was myself given away at age 10, to blue-blood aristocratic ladies in Milan, who changed the fearless countryside savage I was into a refined young lady. In 1955 the post war conditions of life in Italy were not very far from the American Great Depression for those who were poor and jobless. My bed wasn’t as comfortable as the Indian bed.

William and Annie Burgess, my mother's parents just before he died. Early to mid '30s

John Eden: William and Annie Burgess, my mother’s parents just before he died. Early to mid ’30s.

John Eden: Flora Mae Burgess-Eden, my mother, was born in Eastern Oklahoma, into a sharecropper’s family of seven children. Her father was raised speaking Choctaw and only learned English later as a second language. My mother was just shy of twelve when he died in 1934 from blood poisoning, leaving his widow and their seven kids to fend for themselves during the height of the Great Depression. One year later, FDR’s “New Deal” administration decided that ‘excess’ livestock across the nation should be destroyed for whatever political reason, ‘they came out and shot the cow’ leaving my grandmother’s family without their only source of milk. This was the major contributing factor for their ‘Okie Diaspora’  journey to California.

1934 around the world: The night of long knives in Germany -June 30-  officially began Hitler’s attempt at the massacre of European democracies. In China the Red Army marched for 370 days to rewrite in name of Mao thousands years of history. Several dictators surfaced in South and Central America, Stalin was already dominating in Russia. In the U.S. Albert Einstein visited the White House, Bonny and Clyde were killed in Louisiana, and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes premiered in New York City, November 21. It was the worst year of the Great Depression and the world economy hit rock bottom.

Rosa Maserati Albertini (my grandmother): I was fourteen when they put me on a big boat, all by myself, to cross the Atlantic and go to Pittsburgh to work in my uncle’s drugstore. One year after I was sent back to Italy because business wasn’t good, worked in a factory’s night shift, the four fingers of my right hands were completely cut off in a factory accident.

These are not really ‘facts.’ They form a texture of family mythologies, in a mysterious way circulate in our blood, they are our humus. Why do I still hold my right hand with the left, as if I were covering the missing fingers? If young readers are patient enough to read these stories, they should know they all had positive endings, despite (or because?) of hard beginnings. Our present time, so strongly based on fulfillment, seems to rush away from the personal face of our days.

John Eden’s art will not change the general trend, but gives to us silent bodies so filled with feelings that emotions spill from them and spread in the room, and become matches turning other emotions on, from our own personal stories. Try to see the sculptures for real, images are not them.

JOHN EDEN, Stupa AKA Larry's Bell, 2008-2009 Heavy chromed solid aluminum rod 12" x 12"

JOHN EDEN, Stupa AKA Larry’s Bell, 2008-2009  Heavy chromed solid aluminum rod   12″ x 12″ Courtesy of the artist.

JOHN EDEN, Flora Mae's Magic Circles, 2010-2011 High-polish solid brass 24" x 12.5" x 1.5"

JOHN EDEN, Flora Mae’s Magic Circles, 2010-2011
High-polish solid brass 24″ x 12.5″ x 1.5″ Courtesy of the artist

JAMES AGEE, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1934:

“All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it even quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicable tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining for while, without defense, the enormous assault of the universe:

A man and a woman are drawn together upon a bed and there is a child and there are children:

First they are mouths, then they become auxiliary instruments of labor: later they are drawn away, and become the fathers and mothers of children, who shall become the fathers and mothers of children:

This has been happening for a long while: its beginning was before stars:

It will continue for a long while: no one knows when it will end:”

Post scriptum:

Sometimes when a peasant moves with the plough and the oxen
Over the broad surface of the field,
It is as if the vault of the sky might take

Up into itself the peasant, the plough, and the oxen.

Animals lead silence through the world of man.
The cattle: the broad surface of their backs…
It is as if they were carrying silence.

Two cows in a field moving with a man beside them:
It is as if the man were pouring down silence
From the backs of the animals on to the fields.

MAX PICARD, The World of Silence, 1948 (in Annie Dillard Mornings Like This, found poems, 1995).

Besano 1939 plow002

1065 foto eseguite da OA

Besano, Italy, in the 30’s – Two photos by Oreste Albertini

Post post scriptum: The text of this post was inspired by the many days spent reading Orham Pamuk’s novel A Strangeness in My Mind, 2015