Visual Art: Chess Days

Photo: © S.V. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

Chess Days, a body of work that is autobiographical in nature, is a visual record and diary of the artist’s daily game of chess with her spouse. One hundred and seventy five pages in total, each acts as a record of individual games and where they paused. As a whole, the work reads as a chess novel, with scribbles of poetry and pillow talk, a visual diary drawn in watercolor and scribed with an dip pen. Architectural in composition, the work is an abstraction of the chess game. Chess Days celebrates inconsistency; some pages executed meticulously while others are marked with splatter, some only which the artist can read.”

—from the Khorasheh Grunert exhibit introduction by Mitra Khorasheh

Chess Days 

Medium: watercolor on diverse, mainly handmade papers ranging from 5” x 8” to 7” x 11.3”



May 3, 2011


May 15, 2011




June 14, 2011.jpeg


Chess Days—A Manifesto

My chess partner, Ron, hardly falls short of camping out in the line for the first iPhone, but I resist for years. It’s only after my hand-scrawled records of where we stop the game each day melt into an art project that he breaks it to me: that he can just snap the game in progress on his iPhone; no need for me to bother. I pretend not to hear him. Maybe he has one of those things, but I’m still resisting. After we live for years steeped in the fumes of our adjoining studios, and I’ve soaked him for all he’s worth, the obvious envy (of course that’s what it is!) of “Old Master Ron”—who admittedly after conquering this vice, offers as much encouragement as old stonewall could ever conjure up—will not deter me! To see if I can actually stick with one format for that long, as an exercise, I’ve already committed to this project for a year.

The breakfast chess games I record that first year transpire, if weather permits, in the cordoned-off part of the backyard allotted to the unit we rent, that part a noble little garden crawling with climbing hydrangea and honeysuckle and overshadowed, beyond the holly sprawling over a low brick wall that marks the end of our dominion, by a century-old mulberry tree housing the general assembly, where delegates of every species of bird in the neighborhood, most notably cardinal and mocking bird, gather to dispute, sometimes break out in brawls, and sing a hymn to universal brotherhood. The stoop where Joe’s clan, really no more species-centric than the majority sparrows, gathers next door serves similarly. As our white-breasted, black shepherd chow, Bear—later to assume the Greek form “Callisto” inspired by the eponymous Venetian opera performed around the corner on the fire escape of a brick warehouse on the Gowanus Canal, as Venice, the invisible city of so many masks, slips into another warp in the space-time continuum—bolts after squirrels, or lies on our feet, we sip (or Ron slugs) his famously strong sweet home roasted coffee and spoon up his equally famous crunchy/chewy, un-mushy oatmeal, which he figures out how to cook that way after years of experiment in pursuit of the distinct qualities his father attributes to his grandmother’s. Gently blissed out, doting on distractions, we hang onto the chess board for ballast, only playing at playing, warning each other of attacks and taking our blunders back to avoid a total fiasco.

In truth, I would renege and break the one year contract, but it turns out that I like this novel art practice. The slowly shifting pieces focusing thought, which we’ve relieved of all pressure in the quietly chirping garden, breed a philosophical mood; I can muse on the meanings—the extremes of order and chaos reflecting other contrapuntal terms that multiply on reflection and resonate musically in the mind, implying the repleteness we intuit, though it echoes back muffled and erratic, fleetingly felt—just as my frequently fumbling hand and haphazard thoughts and memories find themselves sneaking up on it, not trying too hard, hardly trying at all, as trying is so trying, not a nice thing and bound to scare this skittish zeit-scorning geist away.

Though I’m only now finding words to describe it, I like the way the inked and painted surfaces fade in and out of language and what eludes it, fluctuating between presence and memory, anchored to a grid and a game with rules, that being what the world does to appear a world at all, leave it at that, and let it go—now now now, the holy lowly how of happening coming going, before being clocked moving forward backward sideways, the jangle of everything there in the beginning—though on a day the game ends with nothing to record but Ron’s beautiful green glass teapot, I do tighten up the drawing hoping to fish that teapot out of the flowing river of it all and own it.

Though possibly chipped, often a bit dusty, some smaller pieces from another set replacing lost ones, like Ron and I, these aging, endlessly patient icons luck into a player ready to reinvent them, ever young. Or rather that player plays a cipher to something else, the same thing that obliterates them along with everything else in thrusting the last instant it all appears into the black void of the past. My pen and brush, casting a cold eye on the scientific fact of this dire removal, then finds them in the act of beaming in from nowhere, still limited to tentative outlines and imprecisely calculated shadows, but there they are, ready for roll call—hovering in space? check, in a geometric order? check, assuming a past arrangement ready to pounce into a novel one? check, washed with colors in the air, or colors out of nowhere? check.

All there, just all there, the rare spare there-ness the gravy for redeeming the mishmash that always over or underdoes just being there. Savoring the gravy sometimes splashing over to the side swirled over, like the dome of a mosque shrinking and melting into a breast tattooed with symbolic scrawl commemorating sacred everyday life, words of wisdom from the patriarch, with constant affirmations of the credo of Ibn Arabi—I believe in the religion of love…—my pen and brush dance with the rhythmic melodic curvaceous contours of the chess pieces, repeated like songs—simply being as a kind of music, both pregnant and sexy (where it almost seems like somebody intelligently designs this kit of parts to fit the stretching schedule that comes with my scheme). Such music melts the difference between art and life into almost ineffable as the story of the game meanwhile unfolds on its own thoughtful, but always surprising melodic line, the contrapuntal gazes of the players hopping from spot to spot on the board, slowing to follow a line of logic, then leaping from here to there, but always aware of the larger order. Each player projects (or tries to) herself into the other’s perspective, such that the two, opposing autonomous views, as in baroque counterpoint, unfold interactively. Still, to make it music, you must be Bach and fall passionately in love with the logic, the colors pouring over and seeping into the chess board; actually, with Bach it’s the chess board that’s blushing or otherwise showing its colors. In cold weather, when we stay in, we often listen to Bach during breakfast, and we sometimes bring a speaker outside and listen to Bach there, too.

So in a way, as it gesticulates like the peg of writhing water, a little three inch molten crystal kabuki dancer, in the makeshift fish tank pump fountain in the garden, Bach’s music—it’s a stretch, but I’m Elastispider Person! Here gulp down this potion to achieve my powers of remote association to maximize the reach of my world-wide web—serves as my model for a gesture drawing, where you catch and freeze the gesture with a few fast strokes. It’s just an exercise, and if the drawing fails, that’s perfectly okay. Though most throw up their arms in despair when they don’t seem to be getting anywhere, I say it’s better to fail at playing Bach than to succeed at anything else. You should treasure forever one almost credible measure, for when consumption has given way to production, the quantity of production might be too small to measure, and neither can the change in quality be measured, but to become a producer just to create more consumption effectively dissolves the difference between them, turning us all into machines. Resist!

Plus while failing at nailing Bach, one inadvertently succeeds at other things, like in this case documenting and sustaining—as I slip into the same space every time I add another page to the book still in progress years beyond my one-year commitment—the last traces of the last breaths of life as one precious little flame, before the iPhone multiplies it into a mountain of them that one day merge, and now pretty much all we iPhone idiots tend to do is aim our little iPhone water pistols at the raging conflagration.

My friend Nora hears a Buddhist at the Jung Center report that Jung held that God is chance.  Well, in truth the poor excuse for chess—though now that I know it’s singing Bach, I resolve to do better—that Ron and I play to keep from arguing about the meaning of words or compulsively repeating gory terrifying news items, represents not much more than a game of chance. So perchance in this record of random thoughts reflecting the arbitrary moods of the weather coloring each day’s chanced permutations of the pieces, you chance on a kind of oracle that might point the way to a world of waterfalls for our water pistols. And by chance, on a stroke of luck, some other oracles sniff it out and divert the plan just to bury it in an earthenware jar or shoot it off into outer space. Cracking the code, though, will be a challenge.



I Jan 4 Image

I jan 4 2018 text

About the Artist

Veronica has practiced architecture, taught at Cooper Union, lectured at Washington University, published in The Brooklyn Rail, and exhibited paintings in New York City and elsewhere. To date, though, Veronica mainly tweaks, trashes, or frets over written or painted unfinished symphonies and ditties. The exception is Chess Days, which follows the credo of Allen Ginsberg, “first word…best word,” yet Veronica did not conceive this work for exhibition or publication. A gallerist uncovered it, and an exhibition of 175 pages of Chess Days appeared at Khorasheh Grunert in New York City in 2017, along with an early version of the Manifesto.

Appears In

Issue 3

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