J.W. Mahoney

“Water is an in-between element... It almost enjoys the invisibility of the air, in being colorless and without a fixed shape.. Water reaches the stability and obvious endurance of the earth element when it becomes ice... In its fluency, it is reminiscent of fire...”
— John O'Donohue, "Four Elements" (2010)

What are water's urgencies...? Water is paradoxical in its urgencies.  Because it seeks a state of stillness, of being entirely level with itself, it can murmur quietly as a meandering stream, seeking a finally silent centrality in a pond, or joining the greater, more forceful flow of a river. As a breaking wave, its power and ferocity, whether meeting a shore as a boat's wake or as a tsunami, represents an urgent passion for calm, for stasis. A finally-spent wave touches the earth with an eventually absolute gentleness.

But water also reliably provides an agency of flow for whatever's traveling in its substance - from blood cells to nutrients to warships, it usually allows and facilitates the passage of whatever's capable of entering it. (As long as they can swim).  

Water comprises 85% of our brain tissues, and 60 to 70% of our bodies, and we basically need about two liters of water every day - if we can get them - another of water's urgencies... Right along with almost all living things on earth, a lack of water is killing.  

So to the visions...


J.W. - WATER LILIES (1).jpg

One of the very first, still enduring, monuments of early modernism is in Paris, at the Orangerie, a building that George Clemenceau, then President of France, had the French nation use, in 1927, to install eight paintings, some very long, by his childhood friend, Claude Monet. The paintings are meditations on water - on the ponds and flowers in Monet's home outside Paris. This was late work by a venerated Impressionist, so his validation, aesthetic and commercial, had been guaranteed for a few decades.

The Waterlilies are openly insubstantial, however beautiful. The paintings are radically open, in both in composition and intent. We see a lot of water, and the presence of beautifully-painted natural forms, but what may they signify, metaphorically, with regard to water?  

Maybe that water promotes the presence of imaginative possibilities, as well as reflecting the clearly transitive nature of our imaginations. Only water paintings could suggest this paradox - of a resplendent urgency to concretize our visions, but to accept that, as more visions await, we need to let our current ones flow out, beyond us.

The Waterlilies are as much about dissolutions and boundlessness as they are about the life forms that water supports - since they were painted in and for contemporary times... Very much like dreams, these waterplants are as vibrantly real as they are radically temporary.


James Lee Byars, "The Palace of Good Luck" (1989)

James Lee Byars was an American conceptual artist - and sculptor - who died in 1997 in Cairo, in sight of the pyramids at Giza and also the Nile... This was a one-page statement in one of his books, which were intended as artworks, necessarily. And this is a poem, and a paradox, since he means to set this passage up as a question. You read the words, and the language is a declaration of certainty, so you'll have to ask, a) how water can be the "highest good?" b) is this intended to be a truth-statement, or a sly, aesthetic gesture? and c) could it be both?

If Byars means it sincerely, how might water be the highest good? John O'Donohue speaks, later in his book, of water's "generosity and humility," that it "takes on the shape of whatever contains it, jug, stream, well, river, lake, ocean, tears, rain, mist, or moisture."  And also clouds...

So, as a primal element, it has very specific values - along with its urgencies - but all of them point to an existentially necessary flow that water engenders and embodies. Flow is water's identity, and if flow represents the "highest good," then Byars may be speaking of an honest metaphysical truth he believes in.  

(And water is always the highest good, in a desert - as the American Southwest is becoming, as its drought persists. Or in cities in South America, most desperately Sao Paolo, Brazil, whose drinking water comes from severely-depleted glacial melts. And, as climate patterns change, so many more places on earth). 


      Swim as far as you can in your dream. Away from:
      your home
      your mate
      your children
      your pets
      your belongings
      your work place
      your colleagues

      See if you drown or survive.

Yoko Ono, “Acorn” (2013)

Yoko is asking us another kind of question here, and setting up a darker, greater number of questions behind it.  One of the greatest and least examined functions of an artist is to be a sibyl, a visionary whose visions, if they're to be authentic, are often as mysterious to the artist (poet, actress, film-maker, &c.) as they are to any audience or viewer.  This piece is certainly about the nature of our human attachments - and our basic identity. But it's also about water.

There are as many people living in Bangladesh as live in Russia, and, like the residents of Miami, Florida, or living on the Danube, in Europe, the threat of drowning - or surviving, is becoming very real. As it is to any of us living near coasts, as the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are currently and very quickly unstoppably melting.

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So what does contemporary culture have to say about all this? From alternative music to what's most expensive at Miami-Basel this year, what Cultural Evolutions are actually evident, and being validated by a collective, significantly creative imagination in the Art World?... What's being imagined? What's urgently flowing?

Some bad news, to some extent... Ever since the mid-1990's there haven't been any "ism"s in contemporary art, the last being the Saatchi-funded neo-dadaists, the YBAs, young British artists coming from Goldsmith's College in London. Is the answer, then, that, well, uh, there haven't been any "ism's," only a relatively clear disbelief in any such ideas? Has art stopped, or entered an infinite feedback loop, art-historically? 

The answers are already with us - maybe secretly, actually "locally", and necessarily - potentially - evolutionarily - in such places as Oslo, Lima, Cairo, Nairobi, Washington, Seoul, Mumbai, St. Petersburg, Cape Town, Shanghai, Lisbon, Seattle, Montevideo - where artists continue to create open newness in the face of, and sometimes directly referent to, what's happening, and what may be ahead, globally. We're engaging in an urgent dialogue with an unfolding and quietly apparent transformation of natural conditions...  And the urgencies of water, quietly or violently, will not wait - they never have.  


Stillness  - the Potomac river, Alexandria, Virginia

Stillness - the Potomac river, Alexandria, Virginia

Ice  - Donaldson's Run, Arlington, Virginia

Ice - Donaldson's Run, Arlington, Virginia

Cloud  - (Cumulus Undulatus), Mclean, Virginia

Cloud - (Cumulus Undulatus), Mclean, Virginia


      Imagine water coming down a dry riverbed.

Yoko Ono, "Acorn" (2013)

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J.W. Mahoney, Washington D.C., March 2015

J.W. MAHONEY is Washington-based artist, writer, and independent curator. He received his BA in Fine Arts in 1972 at Harvard University, and has served as Washington D.C.'s corresponding editor for Art in America, as Assistant Registrar for the permanent collection at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and as curator of the comprehensive - and retrospective - exhibition "Catalyst: 35 Years of the Washington Project for the Arts" at the American University Museum in 2010. He has been writing and curating on the idea of transmodernity since 1992, and is currently Affiliate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Maryland in Baltimore; this semester he has just started teaching on the history and theories of 21st century art, a topic which remains challengingly open.