The Art of Seeing
I remember very clearly from when I was in the 5th grade: I had been shipped off to camp for a week in some picturesque Norwegian mountain hamlet with my class; we lived in an old boarding school where lambs would graze and bleet next to us as we played football.
Our room overlooked a majestic valley and though I can no longer remember the particular details, I remember climbing out on the ledge with a friend and stating something like: “It’s really pretty, isn’t it?” My friend, by way of reply, shrugged and said nothing. I was not offended or riled; after all, I had to admit that I only said it because it seemed appropriate at the time, as something that should me remarked upon in a suitably adult fashion.
During the summer of 2001, I took the train from Oslo to Bergen for the first time in my life. It is said to be one of the most beautiful trips in the world, but I know my countrymen well enough not to take immediate pride in a pile of rubble or a stretch of gray water placed conveniently between to cliffs. I also came equipped with three years of art education and would observe and appreciate whatever lay ahead in an appropriate manner.
Some two and a half hours outside Oslo, my eyes grew wide and my chin dropped precipitously; never had I come across something quite so wonderful; as we rolled into the actual mountainlands, the landscape seemed so majestic, so copious in its beauty as to become almost tedious. It was relentlessly pretty and I sat wide-eyed, mouth agape with wonder and it was all I could do to attempt to take everything in. Nature had worked here with a limited palette, perhaps, granite grays, moss greens, a deep blue sky and ponds and brooks of liquid darkness and ominous reflections.
There was a calm beauty to the landscape, but harsh, with none of the tenderness or good cheer of an ocean sunset; it was like looking at a piece of eternity and feeling dismissed as something transient, ephemeral; indeed, I felt altogether insignificant.
Arriving finally in Bergen, I strayed into some of the alleys of the city, part of the city’s trademark Hanseatic architecture which makes it seem lie a city leaning on itself, jumbled and cozy, but always precipitously close to collapsing upon itself. When at last I found my friend’s apartment, I was blubbering; he patted me on the back with a knowing nod, and we did the only thing seemingly logical at the time, which was to get uproariously drunk.
I suppose this anecdote is just to illustrate that there has been some progress, natural or otherwise, over the past 13 years. I have responded to all manner of artwork; some I have understood and some, I haven’t. Some hold endless fascination, despite, or possibly because of their banality and some, in their complexity. The first painting I remember seeing, or if you will, seeing beyond, was a triptych entitled ‘”Time” ( or so I believe); each was roughly the same pattern, a corridor of sorts, but with different colours. I believed it to represent the shifting of night and day, of the seasons. It was at the same time that Munch’s work became anguish, as much as intense colours and poor draftsmanship. Coincidentally, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” also started making sense at this time. (Sort of.)
It was not until I was actively studying art that I came to see the world through different filters and angles. The first piece to really move me was Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, then, perhaps oddly, Scheeler’s abandoned cityscapes. These were the first I connected with, perhaps finding in their works a similar mindset to my own; as a happy midnight wanderer and (however occasionally) morning explorer, it’s the temporarily abandoned scenes that fascinate me the most. The hidden things uncovered during sunrise, the fatigue of the lazy subway car and so on.
Scheeler had a big impact on my photographic work, and to this day, I don’t know whether to feel pride or consternation at a friend’s remark that I “make even NY seem empty”. To each his own, I suppose, and it’s a theme recurrent in much of my favourite poetry as well.
I think what I react to the most are the privacies caught on canvas or even conceptually. Hopper’s work reflects this, like I said, but I also prefer something like David’s “Death of Marat” to a battlescene. It’s the aftermath, the wake of things, the calm of the storm I prefer. Perhaps this is why my own work reveals a fascination with ruins and decaying structures as well as pattern and lines. For me, there is an intriguing duality about the decaying rather than the spotless; in ruins, there is an inherent narrative and often a sense of a history, by which I mean that there is a tangible present, but also a certain past.
I rarely respond to confrontational art with more than a shrug. Upon seeing the infamous “Sensation” show in London, I was forced to admit that it was a curiously impotent affair; repelling? Certainly. Provocative? Not really, more than the actions of a petulant child. In a separate setting, the pieces were probably far more effective, but I couldn’t see anything beyond a certain smug crossing the border of good taste. Excepting the paintings of Rachel White(?), my most vivid memory of the show is my friend, once a butcher’s apprentice, standing in a Damien Hirst piece, pointing to the flank, remarking where “the good meat is”.
Responding to art is not the same as responding to the world, in my opinion. Responding to art is responding to an idea, to a point of view. In both instances, it is a deeply personal experience. I have for the most part seen art and the world as two separate instances. Through what may perhaps be called prejudice, the world as a whole is best represented through “truthful” media (a self-contradiction, to be sure). I see these at the very east aspiring to some objective truth, whereas art becomes subjective, a message beyond what is seen and understood instantly.
Reporting presents us that which portrays itself as an objective, raw and untarnished truth, while art in this manner, is a far more honest endeavour, aspiring to nothing greater than one point of view among many.
But I digress. Or do I? All perception is subjective by its very nature and no matter how objectively a line or a picture may be presented, the receiver will always impose his or her own point of view upon it, coloured by whatever particular emotional or historical luggage he or she carries with. So fucnctions art, in my opinion.
More than ‘fine’ art, it is movies and comic books that shaped my outlook, as well as photography. I suppose to a certain degree, it is this which has led me to the field of graphic design; the single, narrative image. A narrative image, rather than a singular scene, a narratve. I don’t mean to say that I don’t appreciate this. Far from it, and again, I point to Hopper, Scheeler and Munch. It is just that I have always preferred the power of a comic book to a static landscape. Catching a moment, in an image, however, is the greatest visual achievment to me.
When my grandfather died, we found a series of old photographs of him from his younger days; he was in full captain’s uniform on the bridge of his ship. I had never known this aspect of him and I came to realize at this time that the moment is always flawed; as it doesn’t or indeed can, include the temporal aspect. This again goes back to my fascination wih the decaying of things. There is history there, and one must see the whole in oreder to recognize it.
I am not sure if art has had an impact on my perception of the world. This I believe to be a direct result of growing up in the world, through interaction and generalisation. Art is obviously part of the world, most often a comment upon it. I believe that art can be of its time, but not necessary to it. It can help find converts, but it is essentially powerless on its own. This applies to a great many things, but particularly today, with art being so far removed from the general public as it is.
Art can give you an understanding of the world, but is is certainly a long-winded process. I see things intuitively, rather than intrellectually. If anything, I see the world as photographs of sorts, a series of single moments.
I can see how the light falls or sense the mystery of a foggy marshland, but I never view the world as an abstract,as some people do. I always approach the real world intuitively, then intellectually. Abstraction to me is solely an intellectual endeavour, a result based on analysis andmeditation; although I am often able to see patterns, it is again not through an abstraction in my mind, but rather through a feeling that there is something underlying there.
My one skill in seeing, I suppose, is to see things simeltanously in black & white and colour, knowing fairly instinctly when a particular setting would fit either colour scheme. Other than that, I always find what I am looking for later after the fact; for example, in some photos I have done, I have unwittingly been playing with scale, as in the instance of a somewhat awkward small cabin at the foot of a mountain, for example. It might be a chiascuro effect (which fascinated me long before I knew that there was a term for it) and so on. Hence, my perception of the world, the act of seeing this, is for the most part only intuitive.
Conversely, I approach art intellectually from the very first moment, which might be why I am never truly bowled over by a given piece: emotionally, I am removed and I approach art with the assumption that it is to be immediately analysed, understood, before I can be appreciated. Hence, I am guilty of a surgeon’s lack of passion for his work. Of course, there are exceptions, and again, this is photography and graphic design. Good work in both fields can connect with me suddenly. It is perhaps an overly cynical approach, and I admit I sometimes wish I could give myself over and just experience. This may, or probably will, happen in the future, as I internalize the analytical processes.
I must admit that while I have respect for the intellectualism of modern art, the fact that it has so moved purely into the realm of ideas makes it less tangible for me, for natural reasons. The idea is so pure, so throroughly intellectual, that the form of the resulting piece essentially is rendered meaningless. I miss the playfulness of Magritte or Dali, who made tangible both dreamworlds and the surreal. The surreal has an abstract element to it, a nonsensical flavour I appreciate. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I have swalloved a lot of art theory at this point that I wish for something simpler.
I am uncertain of how I wish for people to see my own work. I have no aspirations of greatness; I strive for skill and professionalism, and the blending of this with whatever talent I have in myself. I obviously wish to do work that will move people, and emotionally, not intellectually. The message must obviously come across, otherwise, I have failed in my professsion, in which the message is all. I must try not to get caught up in simple artifice, rather than art. Also, the fact that a commercial artist speaks to a greater audience than a fine artist, one must be careful not to forego doing conscientus work, out of simple resonsibility. However, this is currently an entirely hypothetic point of argument for me, as I currenly have no audience beyond my immediate peers. Still, I hope I will not be seen through my art. I am not sure if I always appreciate feeeling intimate with an artist throuigh his or her work partly because it usually feels contrived and false. All in all, I will be happy as long as I can add something subtle to the world and possibly make someone else think about what they are seeing.