“We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye…”
I have been fascinated with Bernini’s sculptures since my first trip to Rome. Winding ’round Scipione’s old house and coming upon this vision had my heart in my throat. Truth be told, I could care less about its narrative structures, the textual histories that the figures are acting out – that stuff mostly feels like annoying background noise. I’m always looking for the HOW and the WHY things come together. Real visual moments, as many of us know, are very hard to accomplish, and when they do come together, it’s always a compelling experience. In Bernini’s work, if one engages visually and looks deeper, what one always comes to see is the moment when reason degenerates into a swell of physical passion. There’s always an onslaught of difficult and tough emotions wrapped up in the carving. Many great artists have created compelling work about this very subject, and quite frankly, many have lived it in their lives. Even the wondrous Bernini, beloved genius that he was, had his out-of-control, Gibsonish moments. Ah, but Bernini…well he was a master, No?
What I look for are the realities in a visual moment – something specific that creates a deeper visual connection and understanding of the rising subject. I want to get stuck in with the give and the blur so that I might be able to feel that physical, involving, thickness that only happens when one finally does come to actually “see” something. All the other stuff, the storyline, the text, or the narrative falls back into the ground. What let me in to this carving was the hand grasping the flesh of that thigh. The strong fingers digging into that flexing leg. They are trying to hold on to and control what is straining to get away, what doesn’t acquiesce. That’s where the meaning is focused, and to achieve that focus, one has to move in, to be close to the action. The screaming face, the flowing beard, the flying cloth, or the finely carved tears – though those things are great to look at and comment about – they’re theatrical embellishments. But with those few small, thick parts, as seen in the photo, we can understand exactly what Bernini had in mind. Over time this particular lesson on visual economy has grown larger in my memory. And it’s lead me to a different idea of what abstraction can accomplish in the 21st Century.
I want to explain again a particularly overlooked reality in our new visual culture, the idea of being in close. First of all, and I should be quite clear about this, we are not talking about the blow-up. Increasing the size of an image/object while maintaining its proportions is something we are familiar with just as we’re familiar with the fact that lenses are now ingrained into nearly every aspect of our everyday realities. With the replicating lens we can take any image, any object, and blow it up (or reduce it for that matter) into any size, into any medium, without diminishing our accepted cultural understanding of that particular image or thing. For instance, Angelina Jolie is the same in a thumbnail, as a poster girl or on a billboard. The larger than life image/object doesn’t actually change our relationship to the meaning of the image – we accept the mediated sign and regard the text or context as its meaning. What this proportioned event does do is create a sense of distance, a nebulous consumerist desire, and a sense of the surreal. Inflation is used as a contextual adjustment – the image/object as symbol can be appropriated, replicated and manipulated because it has become a program, a construct rather than a thing in itself. This particular photo is not a blow up in that sense. In this image there is something older at work. Rather than increasing the proportions of the sculpture or replicating the image/object, we viewers have moved into the action, we are a part of the action within the grouping. We are in close – our vision is intimate.
There have been a lot of photographers through the years that have moved in close to create a kind of abstraction in their work, and it’s produced some wonderful pictures. It’s a visceral way of seeing. We also experience this type of viewing in movies, TV shows and especially pornography, because, when done well, it can create an instantaneous physical visual connection to our tactile natures. The truth is it’s a quick and easy way to emotion. The idea of moving in close, of being a part of the action is something a lot of theorists talk about when they discuss Caravaggio’s work and the radical innovation that his work proposes. Their claim is that by putting the scene into our space, by making the viewer intimate, we visually become a part of what is happening in front of us. And it’s true. It’s a kind of visual reality that we encounter in our lives. For instance when we are in an elevator we can be pretty sure that the folks around us have not only a front and back, but sides, tops and bottoms as well. We are also aware of the way they move, they way the smell, the way they exist, but mostly, our relationship to them whatever that might be. We are seeing and feeling all at once and that actively alters our perceptions. We have an instant understanding of what I call the thickness of reality. We see more fully and create a deeper, more connected kind of vision. Now this kind of thickness is a very rare occurrence in photographs, and to be honest, in a lot of painting as well. In Simon Schama’s Power of Art episode on Caravaggio he’s discussing the painting The Lute Players and he puts it like this –
“Now there were lots of paintings of young boys with lutes in Baroque Rome. But never anything like this. Nothing this close up. Nothing this fleshy and close to us. It’s like this – four youths in a closet. “Excuse me. So sorry. Don’t mean to intrude. Oh No! Come on in darling, pull up a cushion. We’re just rehearsing.” The claustrophobia has a point, and it’s not erotic. What he’s doing is demolishing the safety barrier between the viewer and the painting. Carravaggio’s art crashes the safety barrier of the frame. It tears away the separation. It reaches you.”
This idea of painting “reaching you” is a very old one, and one tied up to ideas of illusion, space and time. (But we’ll save those ideas for the part II.) Modernism in all its permutations has been all about removing the safety barrier between you and the art. And just think, it all started in the 17th Century. Well, maybe even before if we really look hard. And that was Hockney’s point in Secret Knowledge – the lens, so obvious in so much of our history of painting, was used and could be used differently by painters in order to change our relationship to our own vision. We’ve used the lens to enhance, to make specific certain relationships to life and reality, to make us sharper and more economical painters. We have lied to tell the truth. And time and time again we’ve carved out reality from a flat surface. All in the attempt to convince us that what we are seeing IS real. And it’s that intimate reality that many of us struggling with abstraction are looking for. Delacroix said as much as he looked into the Modernist future from his drawing room in the early 19th century. However, here in the 21st century, the lens tool is now the reality, not the way to a reality. And that is our problem, and very few of us seem to be asking the question – How do we see?
Susan Sontag talks of the democratization of the image through photography in her book On Photography. Her essays were written at the end of a long experimental arch and the beginning of the institutionalization of that experiment. Today, the democracy is finished and we live with the fascism of the image – an optical world militarized with corporate texts, programmed contexts and the imagery of the New New. And all of it, ALL of it is done through the programmed lens.
“Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a letdown. Photographs make normative an experience of art that is mediated, second-hand, intense in a different way. (To deplore that photographs of paintings have become substitutes for the paintings for many people is not to support any mystique of “the original” that addresses the viewer without mediation. Seeing is a complex act, and no great painting communicates its value and quality without some form of preparation and instruction. Moreover, the people who have a harder time seeing the original work of art after seeing the photographic copy are generally those who would have seen very little in the original.)” Susan Sontag On Photography
So many of my friends think that I’ve gone ’round the bend with this “lens obsession.” And it’s a fair cop – I do go on. But what they don’t understand is that I love many works made with the lens, made through the machine. And why not? I was raised looking at that imagery, through that lens. I understand it. But there’s more to making a painting than transferring the image, replicating in paint what the lens has already replicated. Painters must find a way to actually SEE differently, to understand their involvement in what they are painting differently. We have a long history of painters who pushed the boundaries of HOW & WHY they made paintings, challenging the accepted versions, the institutional mandates of seeing. To do that in our age I believe that we must define again what our intimate lives are all about. Like Bernini, we must struggle with what is trying to get away from us. And for me, that seems to be where painting is – both in abstraction or realism. We don’t push our images into the lineage of our painted history or really use our visual inheritance. We are not thinking and translating our thoughts and feelings into vision. We remain cool and distant, replicating imagery just as the lens separates and flattens. Can abstract painting, any painting, give us the same visual thrill that we may have in front of the best works of Titian, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Picasso or Matisse? Can we take our flat surfaces, our processes, our mania for materials and translate that into something THICK, palpable and visceral in its way? Like Georgina we have to confront our “own devils” and we have to risk that confrontation in our paintings. We must rethink the way Caravaggio’s figures emerged not only from the darkness but from his hand, from the paint. Or we have to see the way “reality” forced its way through the mythology, the text in Bernini’s sculpture. We have to use the mechanics behind our lens saturated world and push it through our own physical visual involvement, mixing it up with our own lives. What has been missing in so much paint is not technique, not accepted standards, not professionalism or competence, but visual intimacy.
We’ll discuss this further in part II ….