February 19, 2009

Upon Entering the Temple

"Most people just look to the left when they come in" said the security guard quietly, "and then they get up close to the Eakins and look at all the faces. Some of those faces are bored! Some of them are asleep, you know? People don't even really look at what's on the other wall. That's a shame." 
He pointed to the right, toward where I had been looking -- at H. O. Tanner's The Annunciation. "I see a lot in that painting. I like being in this room with it. I see a cross. Do you see that? Mary is so young but I think she is ready. People don't look." I agreed with him. And I felt a strong jolt of jealousy that he gets to look at Tanner's brilliant painting (which was the first subject I wrote about for this blog, on March 24, 2008) every day as he guards the galleries in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
On this visit I saw more than I ever have before on the canvas. I saw Tanner's use of color differently; the section on the right of the painting, of a low shelf covered with a blanket, is a painting in itself -- an abstract color field. The blaze of light from the angel/heavenly idea on the left seems to transmute the blanket on the bed into thick curves and waves of yellow and white. Up close, the shape and tones of that light seem to actually generate the blanket, the bed, and the figure of Mary. Where Tanner has placed you as the viewer is also mesmerizing; this is a large canvas, and you are situated looking out of the darkness and up at the action. There is more abstraction and more action in the painting than I had remembered. Seeing it in person again changed both my thinking and my eyes.  
Talking with the guard made me also think on what is interesting to viewers about the Eakins painting The Agnew Clinic, beyond its historical significance to Philadelphia and Eakins' brilliant reputation as a portraitist. Of course, people do like to look at faces. And the viewer is situated in the stands of the operating theater, right there with everyone else. But the subject matter (for those of us who are not in medicine) could make one queasy; the female patient is having a mastectomy. And it evoked in me a very strange feeling, standing there in the center of the gallery, standing between two such powerful paintings of powerless women. 
The guard's observation about the standard mode of seeing in his gallery stayed with me for a long time. Like so many people, I search in my own past for inspiration, and this requires some willful revisiting. When this goes well, it too changes both my eyes and my thinking. When it does not, nothing changes, and the dull thump of the past just recurs, like a wet bath mat thumping around in the dryer. 
But I feel the thrill of consciousness when I can re-encounter a painting (or a piece of music, or a piece of writing) and it presents itself seemingly anew. Something is engaged, more space is made in my mind, and a habit of seeing or knowing is broken. 
That is a blissful moment. 


February 11, 2009

Strange Behavior, Imaginary Lives

The New York Times published an article today on the stresses and constraints felt by the suddenly less-wealthy wealthy, many of whom are apparently having "a psychological crisis over wealth and self-image." They are, according to the article, fearful of what may come, and are going to great (and paranoid) lengths to protect what they still have. They have lost resources, and also a sense of identity. 
As summed up in the article: "Talk to enough people who work with the wealthy and the picture that emerges of the upper echelon of American society is borderline feudal: the haves are ensconced in their castles and the have-nots are barbarians to be kept at bay. Yet even though civil society is still functioning and the have-nots are not storming the McMansions, the haves are still struggling to come to grips with the new realities." 
I cannot for the life of me think of one respectful or compassionate thing to say about these "haves" sudden descent from the imaginary into the real, because I have always had such a hard time believing that they believe they, I just have to offer up a quote (from 1956) by the writer and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon: "The imaginary life cannot be isolated from real life. The concrete and the objective world constantly feed, permit, legitimate, and found the imaginary. The imaginary consciousness is obviously unreal, but it feeds the concrete world." 

February 9, 2009

Images, Part 3: When You Weren't Looking

The photograph on the left is from the collection/sociological experiment, published by Richard Avedon in 1985, titled In the American West, and the subject of the photograph is Carol Crittendon, a bartender. 
In response to critics of the collection, who thought the images of working people classist, unsparing, and possibly intentionally demeaning, Avedon said: "All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth." 
No doubt a perusal of the family holiday card images on your refrigerator (or all of the faces on Facebook) likely confirms that sentiment...but what is to be made of that distinction between accuracy and truth? 
Many years before Avedon's visual experiment on the rodeo circuit in Texas, German photographer August Sander applied himself to a similar sociological task. He shot thousands of images of German people in the first few decades of the 1900's, and about 140 of these were collected for his 1929 book Face of Our Time.  The image below is from that book, and the subject of the photograph is a pastrycook.
The book was advertised as a collection that documented the "seven known groups" in the German social structure at the time, and was undertaken by Sander not "from an academic standpoint, nor with scientific aids...He has approached this task as a photographer...of the human environment, with an infallible instinct for what is genuine and essential. And he has brought the task to completion with the fanaticism of a seeker after truth..." The "truth" Sander was intending to reveal was that people look like what they do, and that class distinctions or types are immediately recognizable. 
But what Sander actually presented was an accurate representation of the remarkable diversity of human features among a particular regional group, regardless of what they wore or where they stood. And Avedon actually wound up (through his choice to shoot all of the subjects in front of a white sheet instead of in their own surroundings) presenting the same; whenever I look through In the American West, I am astonished and engaged by how he captured the weird and wide variety of human features that coexist in just one region of one nation. 
I would guess the choices made about self-presentation in holiday cards and on social networking sites are an endless subject for a whole range of social scientists, but even for the layman it is an interesting subject. And what fascinates me about both Avedon's and Sander's work is the idea that one was intending to seek after truth, and the other intended to capture accuracy, and yet the subjects had no say in their presentation, other than how they stood or sat for the camera. Does self-presentation, in contrast, make the image "truer"? 
Or is there a reason I keep having the same Freudian slip and mistakenly say "Fakebook"?

February 6, 2009

Images, Part 2: Going Down the Ladder

Creating images of things that can't be seen is a construction achieved without tools. Painters of abstraction rid themselves of the standard tools used to convey the seen, or communicate through recognizable forms, as they dig into a painting. 
As art historian and critic James Elkins describes this, in his new book Six Stories from the End of Representation, he names the process: going down the ladder of disorder. "Rung by rung you go down, feeling your way, " he writes, "and with each step the techniques and skills used to represent the visible world become more distant...painting that is skeptical of realism works by subtracting strategies until nearly nothing remains."  With each step down, you discard. You go down the rungs, to maybe pure geometry, or color fields, and then -- down farther, into perhaps what memory looks like, but there is nothing of the seen world. Nothing of the world at all.
The piece at the top of this post, a painting of mine called Tethys, is named for the moon of Saturn of which we've only recently gotten close photographs. The photograph below is actually a mosaic image of the surface of Tethys, altered and enhanced by NASA in a variety of ways. What is the distinction between the two? Both are abstractions, true, but one is a manipulated image (created from a series of images) of an actual place and time. To me, seeing the surface of Tethys is a breathtaking and a beautiful thing, even if the real object has been enhanced. And by that I mean the idea of being able to see this distant moon is beautiful, not necessarily the image itself; this is the product of a great act of imagination. 
Images of Tethys present new, provable and true facts (Tethys is pock-marked, and is a known size, and has a crater) to us, and these are to be taken as true, even though no human has ever been to Tethys, and the images are spliced, colorized, etc. The "taken as true" part is the beam that supports representation in art, even when it veers slightly into abstraction, as do these images of Tethys. As Elkins puts it, "The history of Christian representations of the divine is adequate testimony to that. The vestments God wears in heaven, the scrolls of the heavenly vault...the iridescent wings of angels..." People have always painted things they cannot have actually seen, but representational work claims that the content can and should be taken as true.
What was I considering when I painted Tethys? At the moment I painted it, several years ago, I had just read about the images of the place, and had not seen any. So I know I was not informed by the visual. I read about the act of imagination that got the Cassini-Huygens probe out into space and on its journey to take images of all the moons around Saturn, and thought about what that means, and the hopefulness of that act. 
I thought about places no one alive will ever see, including the incomprehensible past, which we know happened nonetheless, and of endless space, which is holding us here. And I wondered about what the thoughts must be like for those scientists and engineers involved in this exploration -- how they must have a sense of connection to the places the probe goes, though they are only connected to here. Only a flying camera is connected to there. And isn't that a strange abstraction...
I did not think about the place, but rather, about imagining the place. I can never know what it really looks like, no more than I can know how the scrolls of the heavenly vault read...or what my parents felt the moment they met, though I am a provable and true fact of that union.
A childhood friend of mine jumped off a bridge when she was 15 years old. What do we fasten onto? Memories of her, objects, ideas about what she meant, felt like, to others? What if the real act of knowing is that very act of imagining what her mind was doing at the moment she jumped? Not the moment she chose to, but the moment of falling, and knowing she was falling. 
Nothing in what I paint -- about a distant moon or about another person's very last idea -- can be taken as true other than my intention to paint. Perhaps that is an unimaginable abstraction? Or is the terrain of the mind as mundane and knowable as the oxidizing surface of Mars?