December 12, 2018

Solid Universe Theory and being an abstract painter

Notes from Abstraction and Solid Universe Theory: An Artist Talk given at DaVinci Art Alliance, Philadelphia, PA by artist Martha Hope Carey / November 28, 2018

I wondered about what you need to have in place in your mind to believe that the universe is solid rather than what it is - which is pretty much empty space and things we can’t fully describe yet. I read a science fiction short story a few years ago that explores the impact of this belief being shattered. The beings in this story discover, using technology they developed, that the universe they believed or “knew” was solid (which they based their philosophies, their physics, their predictions on) was, in fact, not. They actually existed in a pocket of space within a solid sphere which was afloat in our universe. Which, mostly empty space and mysteries.

Both ends of that are fascinating to me: the systems and strategies we use to define and refine the universes we exist in, mentally and emotionally; the changes that happen when perception changes; reactions to traumatic change; what kinds of things push accepted thinking to new levels; how resistant we can often be to stark realities.

And it made me think about seeing. I mean, before glass was ground and used in eyeglasses, every person on earth who had any visual impairment short of blindness saw the objects in the real world around us as reality. The way they saw things, however distorted by nearsightedness or astigmatism, was the way those things were. For them. Before the microscope showed otherwise, there was, in the Western world, a belief that each thing in the natural world was symmetrical – had been made that way, in fact. But, nope.

The moment we are living in now, in the U.S., we are being led by a person who sees solidity where there it in fact empty space, and whose nearsightedness has him continually describing objects of all kinds in a distorted manner. And this is disconcerting and enraging and absolutely a call to anyone who can see clearly to challenge this.

Those were some of the thoughts I’ve been having, putting together the paintings in my recent show Solid Universe Theory.

Because abstraction itself is a challenge to any solid universe thinking.

I have been painting for 17 years now. Always abstraction, no “phases.” Canvasses are resilient planes onto and into which I extend my ideas, reactions, history, body, feelings, mind. It comes naturally to me to do this. And it feels like the opposite of many other things. By which I mean, much of life is figuring out strategies that gain one a sense of satisfaction or clarity in relation to others. Encounters with new people, for example: we “place” them, they remind us, they sound or look like, we go along with or against their identity or energy. All the time. We take in knowledge using strategies that satisfy, too. Ways of learning.

During the last 17 years of painting, I also got a PhD – not in art. My dissertation work was ethnographic research in a school, where I was learning how a group of teachers made shared meaning of an experience. The work they did to make sense of things, and the work I did to make sense of their processes, involved lots of strategies, to get to a point of satisfaction. This is common sensical, since we are all contingent, and knowledge is as well.

Abstraction, to me, is…not that.

When I paint, I get to the edge of that plane in front of me and my brain must open, and suspend, in a way. I must get to a tense and aware place – or I am in that place and then grab a canvas – where it’s as if the unconscious habits of mind are like big airport automatic doors, but intentionally stalled open.

What does that do?

I stop having strategies. I stop seeking for something that is contingent to be satisfied. I am not social or engaged or thinking about another person. I barely think about my body.

That tension is fuel. I work and shift and move and drag and pull and grab tools and work and work. There is no representational aim, since I am not thinking about strategies that may make things recognizable for anyone (including brush strokes or styles). There is no recognition. My mind is the stalled-open door for as long as I am in the work, and frankly, every time I look at the work from there on.

Which is abstraction.

When one looks at an abstract painting, the viewer is pulled in, sometimes by color as a trigger or a feeling, but the viewer uses strategies to immediately find the familiar and…finds none, and so creates some, and tries to apply them, but there is no place for anything to rest.

So, you try again – is that an object in there? I see a window! Maybe a train track. An aerial map? But those things are not there.

And if you stay in engagement with abstraction, you wear out your strategies, eventually. Which means the possibility is there for you to bust through the solid universe, and out into the real one, which is lots of empty space and things we don’t have words for yet.

In that moment, you get a view of the capacity of your own mind.

For some people this can be very uncomfortable. After all, there is a lot of space and unknowable stuff in there, too. And in my opinion as a human and an artist, that is glorious.

The titles of my paintings are markers, for me, markers of what the thing was that activated the weird tension, that made the doors stall open. And it is never a question that does this. 

Questions are strategies to get to satisfaction. It is, rather, just a moment of comprehension about things I can never fully understand or even imagine clearly – like what thoughts and visions one would have, to get to the point where you could conceive of sending a probe into space to take photos of the moons of Saturn. This has been done, which is fantastic, but holy shit, the creative thought and acts of imagination that went into making that happen. To strive and build and plan a way to capture images of objects which reside so far out in space that no human in our lifetime will ever see with their own eyes.

That is an achievement of mind that awes me. The vast leaps of thought that had to be taken to even imagine maybe, and then if, and then yes, and then how. And to take those leaps for the sole reason of expanding the known, for the benefit of all of us. Remarkable.

Abstraction allows me to stay in that tense, aware, and in this case, amazed moment of awe.

It is glorious. It works my mind. And I paint.

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