Robert Kelly on Brian Wood's Paintings (from forthcoming book "Camera Obscura" by Robert Kelly)

Then there’s Brian Wood. He’s a problem here. A voluptuary Cistercian. I don’t know. A stalking cathedral. Something like that. A cathedral with a beautiful girlfriend. That’s more like it. I look at his paintings, I’ve seen only a few of them, but they strike me as very very peculiar. And what’s peculiar about them is that unlike almost every other picture I can think of, or I’ve seen, they do not invite me to look at them, instead they invite me… what do they invite me to? Almost the opposite of Duchamp. Think of Duchamp’s last work, that famous gas-jet down in the Philadelphia Museum. A knothole, through which we peer, into a very fustily ordinary kind of landscape, with a nude and this and that, and the whole point of it is to say you cannot come in. This is a private paradise. Second rate, bourgoise, but a paradise still, naked girls, a flame, what more could you want. A paradise but you can’t come in. Now when I look at a Brian Wood painting I get just the opposite feeling. The feeling is of a huge abundance of color shaped, shaped color, that’s better – inviting me in. It doesn’t want to be looked at, it doesn’t want to be seen at all. It wants to be inside me. 

So I fancy myself sometimes, when I’m brave, because I am not always brave, no writer is always brave, or not for long. When I’m feeling courageous, I sometimes imagine letting the picture slip in, as so proposed. There’ll be a darkness on the right. Always a darkness on the right, and there’ll be some sort of vivid color the upper left — will it be a heart? — and that will serve as the sun or the moon or the light or whatever it may be, that opens a place in me where I’ve never been before. It’s not like anything else in here. No more cathedrals, no more girls, no more landscapes, no more wars, no more knotholes, no more lagoon, no more ocean, no more sky. Something different, something caught inside me. Not trapped, not that way, not that. It’s not frightening. Or is it. There’s an otherness. The way in which the two dimensions of color, the two dimensions of shape, have combined to produce a more than three dimensional problem. That’s what they’re like, they’re problems. I feel inside me as once upon a time I might have felt confronting a problem in calculus, or a problem, more pointedly perhaps, in geometry. What have I become, and where am I, exactly now? The geometer always assumes himself somewhere, and yet that is the big problem with geometry isn’t it, where are we? We can measure the moon, the sun, the stars, this shadow, the tree, the height of the mountain peak, the guesswork, the guesswork, the guesswork, all of that but where are we. 

Brian Wood’s paintings take all those away, and say in this particular one that I’m looking at, I’m overswept by a kind of ruddy hood of pure speculation. Stand here and think, the painting is saying. Stand clear of the outerworld. Stand inside this space, your own space I give you, sacred enough for you to occupy an hour or two. Stand here, the way I once, I the painter, once stood in the abandoned chapel somewhere in France that I keep telling you the name of and you forget, as I stood once in the medieval chapel, made into a studio and it made me into a chapel, so that I too could produce everywhere I went, out of simple colors, and a box of brushes, and a place on the wall, and a friend at my side, I too could present a world with chapels, hidden, mysterious chapels in those who dared to look. Visible there. All you need to do is stop looking, and let it come in. 

But how do you come in without looking? That’s the problem Brian Wood sets me. I’ve written poems about his work, trying to define what it is that happens in the interspace, the space between his inside-seeking painting and my outside -seeking eye, this absolute duel going on, what if I do win? Will I have anything to say? And if painting silences me, is that not a good thing? Is that not part of the age rule of the Cistercians, the Cistercians of the strict observance as we call them, or OCSO. We have a simpler name for them, Trappists, the Priests of Silence. Could his paintings be teaching me silence?

- Robert Kelly


Ann Lauterbach on Brian Wood

                     Brian Wood,  Swarm , Ink and photo on mylar                       Collection: The Museum of Modern Art, NYC

                   Brian Wood, Swarm, Ink and photo on mylar

                   Collection: The Museum of Modern Art, NYC


 The Gods of the earth and sea, 
 Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree
 But their search was all in vain:
 There grows one in the Human Brain
                                                   -William Blake

                             There are two ways of knowing things, knowing
                                      them immediately or intuitively, and knowing
                                      them conceptually or representatively.

                                                                                       -William James 

CATEGORIES DEFY THEIR IMPERATIVES; edges are uneasy in new light: woodsmoke in air, smokey air, scent, cloud and, on the evening screen, video flames. This moves to the place of that as subjects come unbound from their syntax; names for things arc dismantled from their objects like so many ribbons, wrappings, strewn on the floor of history. Into this attenuated breach come questions of authenticity, belief: what is real? what true? We are implored: look again.

Look at what? We are asked to reconsider the nature of a frame, that it might be arbitrary, fugitive, less than full because closed. Or, more positively, chosen: this riddle of fingers, that ancient vessel, this scrap of tree. Or something we cannot quite identify because it has been pulled up close into our perceptual field to be re-construed, interpreted. The way an event, say, becomes a memory belonging to you, only yours. We know someone's body was present, braiding elsewhere with now. So the frame narrates space.

An event. An eventuality. What is evident.

Or to revise our notion of speed. Hand, eye. The hand is quicker than the eye, whispers the alchemist. Whose? Where? When? The camera's shameless blink, or the wrist, poised like a hummingbird above the blank page?  Blur of foliage against some sky, the cast and flick of a brush on watery ground:  stillness,  motion, flatness, depth, opacity, luminosity: coordinates of perception test what is and what is not  yet.

Delay throws a shadow across the instant, curiosity couples with patience:  waiting to find out what will emerge from the emulsion's uncertain fluidity. Seeing as a form of touch, touch as a way of seeing. The gaze as an act of intimacy, projecting the body into space (there), taking it in as the body is extended into the sensual persuasion of drawing (here).  The body's signature in the marvelous exposure of singular attention.

Coming to the place of doubt. We feel insecure, abandoned, too much relinquished to what is already (t)here. Fatigued with choices we seek coherence, but it will not suffice if it is merely in the service of known limits.  Possibilities arise when one code (drawing) invades another (photography), rupturing expectations, thwarting our assumptions. What to risk, what cherish? Psyche awakes to embrace Eros, illuminating her tasks, revealing what has been accomplished, and proceeds to the next place, neither coerced nor anticipated. As certain logics might lead ineluctably to what we know but do not yet understand: send our instruments into the heavens to find out what the angels are wearing today.

The visual resembles and dissembles. Abstraction is a human enchantment, a language. And facts glide down like so many ashes, like wet snow falling from a branch into icy waters. So the real is pried loose at last, leaving the nude stain of meaning on the slippery rock. What mediates in this wash of incommensurates are forms that arise from particulars (seeing, touching) in trajectories of applied response. The interior erupts onto the exterior;  recognitions blur and focus.  Now I am inside it, not looking at it but at its entanglement. Inherently deferential, the image is fathomed as a gesture toward, as if magic were structure.

Ann Lauterbach

"Five Tableaux Vivants," Robert Kelly's response to five paintings by Brian Wood (published by "The Doris")



We do not see her but she pours

diverse waters into one small bowl.

Skull craft of Byzantine alchemy

remembered by a drunk Venetian

whose box of chalks ran out of sidewalks

and he sleeps, dreaming of her again

as he always has.  Marco Nolo, ‘I do not

want,’ Carlo Crivelli, most secret of all

painters, I set foot in that lagoon

at my peril.  Alchemy, not art, he said

and I said tauromachy, as in Krete,

slim girl swings over bull horns

by natural dexterity.  Alchemy is water,

art is wine.  O stop trying to sway me,

memory is propaganda enough. She

has heard this stuff for years, likes it

a little, sound the rippling water says

echoing from the cave behind.  Strange

how few birds there are in alchemy,

mummy of a crocodile hung in the roof.

The magpie and the robin and the eagle,

they came along with her and flew away

so now they are ours. And we are hers.




Moses was able to do what he did

because he was Egyptian and still is.

They know such tricks, water

is just another word for them, sounds

like mmmm, looks like an owl,

the Reed Sea parts before his logic

and the soon-to-be Jews slosh across.

Year after year they try the same trick

to no avail.  Moses was Egypt was magic

and still is.  There can only be one

Egypt at a time, and ours got lost.

Oil wells yes, and lakes of naphtha,

and blue lessive that whites our sheets.

Because we sleep, and sleep compels

sacramental dreams and new hi-tech,

tongues of plenty, arrows that come home.

Moses shouts with his trumpet, sings

with his shoulders, it’s clear the painter

here spent time with him, a long time,

a Merovingian time, shared water with

a ghostly white man near Trois-Frères—

now else could he know and show all this?




How can we help?  

From the magician’s tall steep hat

a green mamba remembers

the lean lianas of his jungle.

No.  That’s no help at all.

Once in Staten Island

where the Italians, and the zoo

specialized in reptiles cheap

to buy and cheap to keep. Stop.

That’s the same road, the same

venomous streak across the path—

resemblances are the death of art,

bring wars, divorces, coronaries.

No hat no snake.  The magician

has vanished himself the way

smoke drifts through the trees.

Not smoke, mist.  Not mist either,

light taking on body from the air.




Ah, she spread herself just this way

for Monsieur Matisse, was pissed

when he was more into his white doves

than her pink expanses, but that’s art.

She remembered childhood, the farm

in Picardy, flat, flat as a painting,

the umber fields of winter, a cabbage leaf

dried in the cellar, still green. Steeples

here and there but church was not for her.

This was:  the propagation of iconic

beauty, the crusade against the colorless,

the enemy the all-invasive line.  And line

is what that whiskery old painter had,

line that confutes the poor colors every time.




It resembles us to life again

after the black hole of seeing

not with the eye  it rises

from what is seen until

it veers into invisibility

to hover at our right shoulders

(see its golden thread

its hollow needle (  eye

of the needle ) it sews

our wings on, connects

by way of vegetative matter

the heart to the wing and both

to the wind, the wind

is what you hear when a hand

pours water into a glass,

the truth of human identity

hiding behind the human face.

O hand with no face

erase the mistakes of vision

so I can actually see.

--Robert Kelly

Full Stop

Beginning at four or five years of age, I often experienced the following event before sleep. It visited me very frequently throughout childhood, almost nightly, into my early twenties then did not return.

In bed, in a hypnagogic state, neither fully awake nor fully asleep, huge blisters of color burst forth at high velocity into vast space. Each explosive pulse blows out in vivid color, scattering its profusion, revealing yet another form different in colors and roiling complexity, rushing out from its core. Burst after burst then slowly the center opens, wider with each radiant pulse until the hole becomes all and I’m deep inside, or rather I am, an infinite black space filled with light. The boundless space is utterly black, the deepest possible black, but is also the most radiant, brilliant light. Words are inadequate to describe this phenomenon except to say that it was so true that it formed my most fundamental knowledge of being.

Everywhere present in the black are millions of tiny motes, each separated by vast reaches of distance. Brilliantly white, illuminated from every direction as if lit by a vast sun surrounding all space, each is a tiny homunculus - a miniature human form, perfect in every detail. All are identical.

They do not tumble in space. Their axes are fixed. All are moving but each figure, held by the void, floats in unique orientation to all others: arms like this, feet are there, body over, head turned down, that way another, skin under arm here, ear there. In an infinitude of combinations, there is terrible beauty in the geometry of relations as each figure’s gesture subtends that of every other. The loci of differences form a vast, infinitely complex crystalline structure coincident with all of space. Like silent music, this faceted completeness is present but not visible.

I am each of these complete, distinct, miniscule beings. Not limited to some part or aspect of myself, each is entire, and I am all. I am full in each being, yet I’ve lost myself, my separate identity, completely. My awareness has no location but is everywhere at once. Yet I am, in my multiplicity, alone in this universe.

Then I notice that each tiny body, each me, is getting larger. I can’t actually see or feel the expansion because the process is so slow as to be imperceptible, but the figures are changing. It’s as if the bodies are inflating from the inside, not growing, but ballooning. The beings retain all their features and figural detail yet seem to be losing mass as they expand. The bigger they become the less they are. Increasingly, they seem to be all surface with nothing inside: a thin, delicate surface, like very fine, just fired, porcelain. As the figures get larger and larger, my anxiety grows concomitantly at being unable to perceive or track the movement of expansion.

As the distance between each figure shrinks, I realize, to my horror, that they will expand until they occupy all of space. Fear rising, I hold my breath, attempting to retard them. As each figure approaches its multiple twins, I see how each form, all surface, every differing shape, must interlock everywhere, all at once. Precisely conjunctive, their fit will be complete, unnaturally perfect, and inalterable.

The immense ballooning figures, squeezing away all space, leave me nowhere to go, nowhere to breathe, nowhere to survive. With dread worse than fear of death, I’m certain that even though I am all of these beings, once they expand to infinity, I will be annihilated. As the huge figures close the last distance to interlocking, my terror becomes insupportable. No matter how many times this vision comes, I experience the same fear, sometimes crying out and weeping.

In one vast silence sounding once the figures lock. Every surface seals, all senses one. Infinity leaps as immeasurable differences join. Utterly and irrevocably all motion stops in every place. No fear.

All ceases.

I am in, or am, an existence of space without qualities. No description holds, words fail. I’m inside all figures, but there are no figures. There is no I yet all is in me. But none of this tells of no differentiation, no existence, yet nothing lost. Space is neither black nor not-black, light nor not-light, and it is not space; platinum, dense but neither of these and nothing; no movement, no stillness, no point, no vastness, no being, no not-being; no differentiating qualities but nothing is denied, nothing excluded, nothing included. Nothing proceeds, nothing stops, nothing seen, all seen.

Terror is now peace and becomes sleep.

Brian Wood, Red Rock, NY 4/2010

The Silence

The hen cocks its head, levels its eye, curls its ancient foot against a rising breast and stands immobile. Glawks and struts on. Shits. Gluts a hopper. Furls and flutes in stone.


Manic pinballs in a towering head, the hail casts up into frozen light, tops like breath then falls again to the warming fog. Whispering down through blackened clouds, the hailstones brake, then rise again on summer’s bellied heat. Hurtled back up ripping out to frigid blue, so donning another glacial rind, they arc and fall. Down fall the growing orbs of ice, weighting hail to deepening wet, spinning slow and up again to meet their twin.

In Birch Hill’s Community Hall, the boy’s Nocturne falls away to roaring heavy hailstones down and crashing on our hall’s zinc roof. Staccato hammering to thundering tide the immensity deepens, pulls up into its silent core, then goes. Riven and held, the silence bears: no word, no sigh, no twisting chair, no crop this year. Pulped and threshed, stripped and stoned in swallowing muck: no crops this year yet piano trickles in the swollen hall. Gnarled hands, tractor grease buried in cracks and whorls, clap, and return to laps for Girl’s Chorus. After the final act, relatives and parents file onto the crystal prairie, silent and luminous, so clarified it burns the throat, and witness their loss.


No time. No fear. Just still.

In shrieking rend of crashing steel, tongued-out from silent bearing stone (this motorcycle)(that spinning Jeep) each crawled to each across the Jersey Pike at rushing speed and melded in this last, this final act. Die into screeching single bright, through gem-stoned glass, a distant hole, the tumbling car in scarlet flames, a vast complete unaltered roar. Blistering orbs, the crusted bone and twisting flesh loft up in clear stone light: a stillness vast and all is seen, in luminous endless detailed all. Spun through a vortex deepening black of sucking radiant colored ribs till blue near Exit 5.

Brian Wood, Red Rock, NY, 09/09

 Brian Wood. "Near Exit 5", 2006, Oil on canvas

Brian Wood. "Near Exit 5", 2006, Oil on canvas

A Man on Fire and Meditation in the Making of Rolling-Out.

In June of 1996, I was asked to write a piece about my recently published folio of eight lithographs, Rolling-Out. The inquirer was curious about the source of my imagery and its sequencing. One stream of my work had been generated, for a number of years, by a very disturbing experience I’d had in New York in 1980. At that time, I was very involved in meditation practice. The attention to consciousness – what it is, how it works, how it feels, its changes and tastes, what alters and transforms it – intuitions about, experiences of, and attempts to be open to the ground of awareness had always been the source of my work. This particular sequence of images explored the way in which an image/thought flashes up into consciousness, flowers, and dies. However, being the ego-structured self that I am, the transparently arising reality is usually extruded and informed by my memory, wishes, lusts, meaning, fear, chemistry, and discursive vectors of various kinds. One could imagine that the evolution of form in the phenomenal world is constrained and birthed by analogous limits…


A Man on Fire and Meditation in the Making of “Rolling-Out,” 1996 (June 20, 1996)

One fall day in 1980, walking in Manhattan, I turned west from Seventh Avenue onto 17th Street. The air was cold and clear – brilliant light, intense shadows, with a cold blue sky pressed low and hard into the empty street. I was alone. Then I wasn’t. An immense speed, frozen in masses of orange flames, a writhing torrent of fire rushed toward me, reached at me – curling gently, black elbows smashed through, clawed hands, knees, feet and fingers grasping, as if torn from separate bodies.

Facing that terrible beauty and horror I stood naked. No separation. No likeness.

After calling for the trucks that put out his fire, I walked down the other side of the street, past this man’s broken body – a black smear under a mound of white foam now surrounded by police and firemen, television cameras and crowds of the curious. We had never spoken, knew nothing of each other’s lives, and yet each had forever altered the existence of the other. The evening news reported that, distraught over lost love, he had soaked himself in kerosene and set his body on fire.

I had recently returned from making a film in Bhutan – my first direct contact with Buddhist Dharma.


An image arises in the mind, reaches full display, then decays – followed by another and another and another. Rolling-Out, a folio of eight lithographic images, is analogous to this process of mind.

When the attention is deeply focused in meditation practice, one can see the birth of a thought, its momentary flash of being, its disappearance – rising from nowhere and returning to nothing. It’s as if the eye of the universe were seeing itself, each image full, radiant, and empty of purpose.

With yet closer attention, one sees the infinity of parts making up each arising thought. Just like every thing in the world, every object in the mind is composite. Even what appears whole is just a part of another whole which is part of another whole and so it goes forever – no independent parts, no independent wholes. Nothing solid or fixed anywhere.

Attachment to the discursive drama of these thoughts, the leading or chasing after their trajectory, solidifies the mental flux into desired meanings, stories, and fantasies. These are then projected back onto the thought stream to make sense of it all, which generate more thoughts, more desire, more craving, and on it goes. My stories and my making sense take on the utmost importance – they become perceived reality.

In the normal mode of day-to-day thought and actions, ego is very attached to this “cement” of meaning, since it serves the necessary purpose of helping us make our way through the world. However, by exclusively maintaining this solid sense of “me”, spontaneous thought and experience and being are constricted into patterns that have their source in limited personal histories of pain and pleasure, wishes and desires, personalities, psychologies, cultural patterns, etc. This entire process is mostly unconscious and the deeper reality rarely even rises to awareness through all the emotional clutter, habit, and mental chatter. Thus we are very attached to, and centered on, ourselves. The world, instead of being seen through our selves, cannot be seen as anything but our selves.

Meditation offers the possible freedom to experience the mind/world directly, without duality, without the constraints of sense, censor, or ego functioning. This does not discredit conventional consciousness in daily life, or in meditation, but the meditative experience slowly softens the fearful craving for a solid, unchanging, and thereby isolated me. The huge gulf between being a man burning and witnessing a man burning is bridged in a flash of experience that does not deny the difference. Perhaps the possibility for true compassion lies in actually experiencing and living the simultaneity of non-duality and ordinary awareness, nirvana/samsara.


The beauty of images (and illusions) is that they seem fully whole, self-sufficient, immanent – full of blood and fire, cold as rain, and as difficult to hold. However, when experienced within contexts, linked in continuity, or viewed as composites, images can offer up new meanings.

Rolling-Out operates on two levels of consciousness simultaneously – that of the non-conceptual witnessing of phenomena, internal and external, and that of the discursive consciousness that generates meaning. The individual pictures stand alone, yet within the context of the group they take on shifting meanings. All are linked in an ongoing transformation – images and structures evolve as consciousness evolves.



The first image of Rolling-Out is generated from a photograph of a burned-out campfire – that moment in a fire’s life when it stops pulling oxygen and matter into itself and is in a quiet state radiating great warmth and light. The image is an end yet also a beginning – like the expanding energy of the just-formed, or the radiation of the almost-stopped.


Next the flame erupts into full expression, flows like water, fire as body – body on fire. Crystallizations, like stones, come through flames but are not of them.


Stone transforms in the third image into rock mass, a cliff of stone or a cave’s interior dissolving into flesh.


Image four. Matter is infinite in its multiplicity. Cellular and microcosmic or macrocosmic and vast, the edge cuts the image from mass that could extend forever. Mitosis and self-generation.


The evolution of consciousness leads to living beings – the universe senses itself. The fifth image moves toward the animal worlds of reptiles and birds, water and air, living in the heart, the chest, the thorax.


Reaching down into deep water, these two hands are really one hand twice. This is the duality that allows meaning, that makes sense, that speaks, that looks at itself, that severs us from the world and yet requires us to rediscover presence. The universe that splits from itself to know itself. From the repetition, just twice, of the monosyllable “ma,” springs our human joy and suffering, syntax in all forms, language, technology, culture, love and hate, and Dharma. The Dharma to both repair the split and retain its knowledge. One becomes two is one.


The seventh image is the display of that which has come before. It contains the information that we have seen and transforms it all. The stone is now stacked as a nimbus – the impossibly fixed physical sign for a nameless and indescribable spiritual condition. The world as display, a wonderful, mind-bending display yet empty of any solidity. In even the short distance traveled through these seven images, everything is changeable, transforming, evolving, and capable of reversals and tricks.



As a boy, in the field of my grandmother’s farm in Saskatchewan, I would often lie and gaze at the empty sky. What a blue it was. Nothing for the eye and mind to grasp — infinite depth yet flat, spherical and pressing down. The more I looked the more it confounded any sense, the infinite swirling of tiny lights, each moving into the next and over and under and away, each held in colorless space, or was it blue? The deeper and longer I looked the more golden it became until that blue was a pulsating vast infinity of golden light.


The last image dissolves all back into a formless state. The concrete images are gone and what is left is pure potentiality and cessation, after and before. When one is deep inside a cave under the earth where there is no light, no light at all – it seems impossible to find the darkness. Wherever you look is a swirling, heaving field of light and it’s as if you have to imagine the darkness in between.

Brian Wood 6/20/96