Friday, September 23, 2016

Arty Farty Friday Guest Post

Guest Post by "JD" who lives in the UK.
Thank you for this JD!

I first saw this painting two or three years ago. It is hanging in The Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle [UK]. The reproductions of it on the net are poor and do not reflect the subtlety of the colours nor the depth nor the mysterious shadowy details upper left. The paint is very thickly applied over most of the surface, especially the whites of the dress which seem to have been almost plastered onto the surface.

A very interesting picture, very visceral and with layers of unknown meanings within it. When I then walked forward to read the label, I was rather surprised to see the name Lizzie Rowe. Surprised because I had previously seen some of her paintings in The Biscuit Factory and they did not engage me at all. I was more impressed by other paintings by Paul Harvey (one of The Stuckists) on display in the same show.

I have not met Lizzie Rowe but I know several people who have and who know her extremely well. On her web page she and others make no secret of the artist's journey from married heterosexual man (and father) to transgendered woman. Knowing the story, or most of it from those who know her, it is obvious that the change was traumatic and very difficult psychologically and this is reflected in part in her paintings. One hundred years from now such biographical details will be but a footnote of little consequence, it is the paintings themselves which are, or should be, the focus of attention.

I went back this morning to have another look at the painting just to see if it still evoked the same response in me. It does. The thickness of the paint is a very striking feature of it. The white semi-circle looks as though it has been applied directly from the tube. The record player, the TV and the ironing board on the right are more vibrant than in the reproductions and the strange ambiguity of the top left is even more mysterious than I remember. Thickly applied paint may suggest a slapdash approach but, in fact, it is very carefully done and the various details are clearly defined.

Last night I was looking through a book called "What Painting Is" by James Elkins. This is one of the best books about painting that I have ever read.

Elkins says that painting is the act of 'smearing coloured mud onto paper or linen' and that is the cold analytical definition but '... it is also liquid thought.'

That is a very profound statement. He goes on to quote the painter Frank Auerbach who wrote, "As soon as I become consciously aware of what the paint is doing my involvement with the painting is weakened. Paint is at its most eloquent when it is a by-product of some corporeal, spatial, developing imaginative concept, a creative identification with the subject."

What he is trying to say there is that painting, or any creative activity, is not a product of the conscious mind but is an unconscious process. Just like walking - learning to walk requires great concentration and much effort but the more you do it the less you need to think about how you do it.

Elkins continues the theme of the difficulty of explaining the thought processes involved in creating a painting- "Things only get harder to articulate when the religious meanings come into focus, and it begins to appear that the studio work - the labour - really is about redemption."

That may sound grandiose but art and religion are inseparable. They have been intertwined since the dawn of time. There is no religion or belief system in history that does not have its artistic expression.

Elkins uses the word 'religious' but I would suggest that 'spiritual' would be a better word. As I said above, any creative activity is an unconscious process which is what Auerbach was suggesting. The artist or the craftsman, and to a lesser extent the artisan and the tradesman, is involved in a strange synthesis of hand/eye/brain with the thing being created. It involves a physical effort in the act of creation and often produces a spiritual elation. The mundane, secular world calls that 'job satisfaction' but that is to trivialise it with its hint of smug self-gratification. It is not that at all, it is the calm or 'inner peace' which is the result of deep concentration and, as Auerbach notes, identification with the subject.

In the painting, the figure at the centre is deep in concentration in the act of gathering together the pearls from the broken string and that gives a stillness to the picture; a moment of calm between the activity depicted on the right and the strange ethereal quality coming from the top left of the picture. Others may have a different interpretation but that is my own reading of it.

With the reference to religion made by Elkins, we reach a point where the modern secular world closes its mind. It is not the done thing to discuss religion. The case is closed - there is no ghost in the machine!

But art is a perfect link between science and religion, between the secular and the spiritual. As the painter, the late Iain Carstairs says-

'Art is that endeavour in which consciousness imposes an otherwise intangible element of itself onto matter in such a way that it can be decoded by others: it is an alchemy which maths can never analyse or create.'

And the physicist Richard Feynman had this to say-

"I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion.

"It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is.It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe."

Art is the gateway to the world of spirit, to heaven. If you prefer a scientific explanation you could say it is the gateway to what the physicist David Bohm calls 'the implicate order' from which the material world flows and to which it returns.

"Vita brevis, ars longa."


mike said...

Interesting essay, JD! I enjoyed reading it and your introduction of Lizzie Rowe. I'm not familiar with her. Like you, "Dysphoria" appeals to me...quirky, involving, quizzical, sublime allure. You mention the upper left corner, but you don't describe it. I see the steam from the iron creating a haze in that section of the painting, but I can't decipher the under-score.

Your post is centered on Rowe, yet segues into spirituality, religion, and universality. I read Rowe's web page and her description of her work as spiritual and quasi-religious. Wiki states, "...In contrast to religion, spirituality has often been associated with the interior life of the individual." [ ]. I view Rowe's artistic expression as her higher-mind's (the portion of the mind that formulates ideologies) interpretation of her mental and emotional qualities...her interior life.

I partially agree with you that art can infuse the viewer with awe, but I've viewed a lot of art that instills negative feelings in me. I've previously read that a decent piece of art or literature will leave the viewer or reader with a strong reaction, whether good or bad...the worst reaction is to be left feeling indifferent and blase.

JD said...

It was Feynman who was in awe of what he discovered in science and felt he could communicate via drawing. The quote comes from here-

I don't think the purpose of art is to provoke a reaction, which would be to provoke an emotional response. Art, real art, points to the 'invisible' and thus fires the imagination.
As William Blake observed-
"The world of imagination is the world of eternity. It is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation is finite and temporal."

The BBC this week have shown three programmes about modern art: firstly 'conceptual art', second one about Cart Andre's pile of bricks in the Tate gallery, the third about Dadaism.

The first two were about works of 'art' which could not possibly fire the imagination because they are superficial, without content. Attempts to 'explain' these works all fail because there is nothing to explain.
Dada, on the other hand, fires the imagination and didn't really claim to be an art movement. The artist Martin Creed in the programme said "Dada is about being stupid" Very accurate observation as Dada began during the First World War; what is the point of being sane in a world gone mad?

You ask about the upper left of the painting. It is a lot clearer in reality but still ambiguous. It appears to be an arched window and a vague landscape beyond. If I meet her I shall ask; she uses the same framer that I do so it is possible that our paths will cross.

Here are the three BBC programmes, two of them are on YouTube but can't find the second one(about the bricks) yet-


mike (again) said...

JD, you said, "I don't think the purpose of art is to provoke a reaction, which would be to provoke an emotional response. Art, real art, points to the 'invisible' and thus fires the imagination." Does that mean you don't consider hyperrealism or superrealism paintings to be art? Photography? Ceramics and weaving?

Wiki defines art as, "Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author's imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power."

If you scroll down that Wiki page, under "Purpose of Art", "Non-motivated functions of art", you'll find "Experience of the mysterious" and "Expression of the imagination". Your definition of "real art" seems to be of this subset.

Twilight said...

JD and mike ~ I'm thinking it'll be best for me to stay quiet on this topic.

I enjoyed looking at the Dysphoria painting, have no idea exactly what the painter is saying - but that's for her to know and for us to guess. I could imagine a short story or novel being written using this painting as a starting point.

As for art in general - we each appreciate it differently, just as each artist creates from different visions, enthusiasms, levels of talent and inspirations - and in some cases simply to sooth some inner pain of their own.

Retreats, stage left. :-)

LB said...

JD ~ Interesting post.:) Something about the painting reminds me of Richard Rohr's idea of the "cosmic egg", symbolized by one large sphere in which two other smaller spheres (eggs/domes) are nestled. The first and smallest egg has to do with our personal story, the second our tribal awareness and community affiliations, while the third and largest dome has to do with bigger truths and patterns ~ those which are always true for everyone. My explanation may not be so great, so here's a better one:

Though Richard Rohr, being a Franciscan priest, is speaking from a spiritual/religious perspective (as is the author of the linked article), I think from a secular one, the largest sphere could easily symbolize our connection to and awareness of something nobler and more inclusive, something transcendent, bigger than self and tribe.

In this particular painting, the first 'egg' would be the small place on the floor where the subject is seated. The action helps tell her 'story'. The next larger one would be the area just outside the boundaries of the circle on the floor, which is pretty much the rest of the room ~ while the final and largest sphere is only suggested, being beyond the viewer's field of vision outside what appears to be a window in the corner of the room.

As mentioned in your post, I agree that creativity involves an unconscious process ~ which means all art (or most), no matter how silly or dark or unsophisticated, says *something* about the artist and/or the human condition. The artist either reveals aspects of themselves and who they are, *or* what it is they care (or don't care) about. Some art doesn't appeal to me at all, mostly because I don't relate to what it is the artist seems to value. Or maybe it's because our experiences are too different and we don't speak the same metaphorical language.

Using the cosmic egg example, art meets us where we are at any given moment within one of the three spheres. The very best art, IMO, affects us on a visceral level by connecting us to something we may have forgotten but recognize and remember when we see it, or hear/read it in the case of music/poetry ~ which doesn't mean art can't also be evocative and meaningful when it's conveying something about smaller concerns, especially ones we identify with.:) Sometimes art is therapeutic, primarily for us, in which case it doesn't really matter if anyone else gets it or not.

The creative process can be very healing. Like Twilight said, it can "soothe some inner pain". Bring it out of the dark and give it a voice.

Thanks, JD.:)

LB said...

Adding how when it comes to my own art, I love it when someone sees something different than what it was I intended. If it captivates, or makes someone think about or look at something more closely, I'm pleased.

JD said...

Cosmic egg? I must admit I hadn't thought of that but.........
I did another post elsewhere recently about Bosch's painting "The garden of earthly delights" and in that there is reference, by art critic Kelly Grovier, to an egg at the very centre of the picture-
To which I added - "There are many instances of ostrich eggs hanging from the ceilings of cathedrals as well as in Mosques or Temples of other religions both east and west. There were still two hanging in Durham Cathedral as late as 1780." That information comes from a book called "Architecture, Mysticism and Myth" by W.R. Lethaby, [1892]

Shakespeare got it right, as usual - "there are more things in heaven and earth... than are dreamt of in your philosophy"

Twilight said...

LB and JD ~ Talking of eggs - and this could be way off topic, but maybe not: I saw a Charles Bragg cartoon the other day at Truthdig website - liked it, but puzzled over the eggs in the cartoon -

LB said...

Twilight ~ Yes, there's a lot of detail in the cartoon to puzzle over. Did you notice the 'goo' on some of the heads beside the eggs/broken eggs? It brought to mind variations of the expression about sometimes having to "crack a few eggs to make an omelette."

I'm thinking it could be saying something about how we sometimes justify/rationalize certain injustices or consider some members of society more disposable than others. Or maybe it's about the necessity of breaking away from and sacrificing some of our old ways and attitudes for the sake of all.

More likely it's about both extremes as well as all points of view in between. But that's just what I see!

JD ~ Eggs, spheres, circles . . . all common repeating images in spiritual and religious art. Thanks for the links, will check them out.

Twilight said...

LB ~ The omelette idea's a good one! As the illustration comes from the cartoonist's book "Asylum Earth", and appears to be its key illustration, maybe these eggs represent seminal ideas that didn't come to fruition due to obstruction (some eggs broken or stabbed through) or apathy - left in shell for ever - ideas which the artist considered important and their non-fulfillment seemed mad enough to deserve presence in the Asylum - hmmm....but only if this asylum = mad-house. But maybe he means asylum as in refugees fleeing from danger, with Earth as sanctuary. That doesn't really work though. As you say, there's a lot to ponder over in the cartoon. I'll look for more info on his book, maybe a clue will emerge.

Sackerson said...

I looked again (again) at the top left corner. It's a dressing table, but the way it's painted it could also be an archway, just as the steam from the iron appears to have acquired some meaning. When I first glimpsed the painting it looked as though the person was playing some strange game, and the power lead (I didn't recognise that at first, either) looked like some kind of protective magic circle. Perhaps the genius of "Dysphoria" is that reality is both seen as it is, and yet also seen differently, since the flavour of mood permeates all perception. A friend told me that he asked his wife why her mood changed when the reality around her had not, and she replied that the reality inside her changed. And so back to Blake.

Twilight said...

Sackerson ~ Hi there! Thank you for your visit. :-)

I hadn't realised that it is a power lead forming the circle - I thought the woman had drawn a chalk circle. I mentioned to JD in an e-mail that when I originally looked at the image, the first thing I noticed were the several circles - the white one on the floor, the TV antenna, the record on the player, the beads the woman is arranging on the floor, within the white circle, and the string of beads around her neck. Contrasting to these are the angles formed by the items and furniture in the room. I couldn't come up with a theory of what the artist had in mind though - or whether the circles and angles were mere coincidence. In a picture such as this though, I doubt coincidence. Every single item will have had meaning to the painter.

LB said...

Sackerson and Twilight ~ I love that the window I saw may not be a window at all, but instead a mirror through which, if willing, the woman might view not only herself and who she's becoming as she works through and moves beyond all of the smaller circles (selves), but also all that she's leaving behind, metaphorically speaking.

When I looked again, I also picked up on the significance of the electrical cord you mentioned, Sackerson. Thank you.:) I hadn't caught what it was the first time around.

In exploring her lost feminine identity (the lovely dress and fragility of broken pearls), it's as if Lizzie also recognized how 'tuned-in' she'd been to outside cultural influences and voices, represented by the TV, stereo and ironing board, the latter a symbol of a mundane household chore, one often, but not always, performed by women. Just a guess, but it's what *I* get from it.

Maybe she realized it was the internal voices, the ones in her head, that limited her the most. The mist from the iron only temporarily obscured her bigger vision of self, the one beyond gender and all of the smaller selves she wanted to leave behind.

The more I look at Dysphoria, the deeper and more layered it seems:) I appreciate it when artists share their vulnerability so honestly.

Again, great post by JD.

Twilight said...

LB ~ You are probably not far off the mark with this!
Her watch seems to be a deliberate and meaningful addition too (it's also circular and not very decorative).

Sackerson said...

Thanks, LB, your comment adds further depth to my understanding of this work. And Twilight, the watch does catch the eye with its masculine design.