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June 23, 2009

At a Second Remove

After having seen countless iconic Ansel Adams photographs of Yosemite all my life, seeing the iconic forms of Yosemite in real life made me feel as if I were betraying Ansel Adams. Seeing the place in living color also felt off -- as if these enormous tongues of granite should be stark black and white, and not their actual mottled greys and blues.

There are jagged spires in the park (of rocks and of evergreens) that remind you of the drip-castle forms of Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia, and the flattened bald peaks look like the so pale and so high forehead of the patriarch in Grant Wood's American Gothic.

Driving through Death Valley, you can see Henry Moore sculptures in the shadows on the sand dunes. And out in Red Rocks, in Pine Creek Canyon, the striations in the hills echo the intricate patterns of quilts.

How persistently images usurp other images in the privacy of one's own head.

This mental categorizing and referencing seems so automatic. And though it is a pleasure to have a rich visual inventory to choose from, this is a mental governor as well. Because what are you left with after identifying the recognizable in the formerly unseen other than some minimal sense of comfort or control? What comes after the identifying?

A viewer once saw the image of train tracks in one of my paintings, and insisted to me that they were there. Because they were, for him. Watching him create that recognizable image of train tracks and verbally inject the image into an abstract painting was both agonizing and reassuring, for me. He was being exactly who he is by doing so, by seeking (unconsciously) both comfort and control in the interaction with my canvas. But he was also identifying intention and form that were completely absent. And telling him otherwise would not undo the image he had fastened onto in his mind's eye, or dissipate the reasons his mind did so.

And that is the water's edge, in abstraction; once the painting is done, every other eye makes of it what it will. And at that edge is the viewer's unconscious need, that unceasing wave that hisses "make it familiar to me, make it familiar to me, calm my discomfort."

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