The Gallery at ARTWORKS
HOW WE SEE WHAT WE SEE
SEEING: A Lecture and Demonstration
“No group sets out to create a landscape, of course. What it sets out to do is to create a community, and the landscape as its visible manifestation is simply the by-product of people working and living, sometimes coming together, sometimes staying apart, but always recognizing their interdependence.
There is invariably tension between the two points of view, the two identities, always debate as to which is the more important, and we do well to recognize that this tension is not confined to the group; it is also within each of us. None of us is ever entirely political animal or entirely inhabitant; we are unpredictable mixtures of the two. We enjoy the dense vitality of the city only to complain that there are not enough green spaces where we can be alone with nature… It follows that no landscape can be exclusively devoted to the fostering of only one identity. “ – John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape
In putting together the various elements for this show, each of the eight artists created new work that relates specifically to the show’s title: How we see what we see. Ricardo Barros made a series of twenty images that document a small percentage of his neighbors’ extensive lifelong collection. As curator, my right to refuse any but the most iconic of the images, if enacted would have deprived the viewer of an essential point of this work. It takes a liminal perspective; the resonance and texture of the images are as much at the edges as in the central subject. Your mind tells you eyes to focus, to find the subject, but they are engaged in something like peripheral vision- the subjects of these images are deliberately obscured and blurred, manipulated in places to allow your own senses to fill in the voids.
“At first, it appears that nothing could be easier than seeing. We just point our eyes to where we want them to go, and gather in whatever there is to see. Nothing could be less in need of explanation. The world is flooded with light, and everything is available to be seen. We can see people, pictures, landscapes, and whatever else we need to see, and with the help of science we can see galaxies and viruses and the insides of our own bodies. Seeing does not interfere with the world or take anything from it, and it does not hurt or damage anything. Seeing is detached and efficient and rational. Unlike the stomach or the heart, eyes are our own to command: they obey every desire and thought.
Each one of those ideas is completely wrong. The truth is more difficult: seeing is irrational, inconsistent, and undependable. It is immensely troubled, cousin to blindness and sexuality, and caught up in the threads of the unconscious. Our eyes are not ours to command; they roam where they will and then tell us they have only been where we have sent them. No matter how hard we look, we see very little of what we look at. If we imagine the eyes as navigational devices, we do so in order not to come to terms with what seeing really is. Seeing is like hunting and like dreaming, and even like falling in love. It is entangled in the passions- jealousy, violence, possessiveness; and it is soaked in affect- in pleasure and displeasure, and in pain. Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism.
…the eyes never merely accept light. Instead, there is force to the light: it pushes its way into our eyes; and conversely, there is force to the eyes: they push their way into the world.” –James Elkins, The Object Stares Back
Andrew Wilkinson’s Holganimals hold live subjects captured in light: crinkly, imperfect light that shows spectral images of fissures and textures in the atmosphere around them. These are, essentially, ghosts- their moment of capture so fleeting and ephemeral, but fixed here and now in his portraits. This is a way letting light play with the photographic process, allowing it to decide how it wants to reveal the subject.
Strangely, Sarah Stengle’s sculpture also uses light to lure us in. Each sculptural element is a carefully considered mix: she culls from a long standing collection of hardware and fixtures, porcelain drawer pulls and various small casters combined with hand carved mahogany for a body, or a shape laminated in text. These are emissaries from lands that time forgot, small creatures encrusted with elegant detritus collected from abandoned accretions strung along the Rust Belt we inhabit here. Their lights draw us in, they tell us a bedtime story of the decline and fall of Industrial America.
“The threads that tie us to objects are invisibly fine, and normally we scarcely notice their little tugs and pulls. But the webs of vision are there nonetheless…Thinking of things this way, I begin to wonder if shopping isn’t like being hunted. Instead of saying I am the one doing the looking it seems better to say that the objects are all trying to catch my eye, and their gleams and glints are the hooks that snare me. A harmless display case of watches becomes a forest of traps, a dangerous place for my eyes. Every shining dial and silver band is a barb, a tiny catch just the size of my eye. Perhaps shoppers are like fish who like to swim in waters full of hooks.” –James Elkins, The Object Stares Back
In Rory Mahon’s image of his model’s navel ring being pulled by a rogue tendril of invasive wisteria vine, the eye is certainly hooked, much as the jewelry stretches her skin- in a way that makes us flinch, or wince. Rory makes art in an incredible variety of media, and this selection comes exclusively from his photographs. Well versed in old-school methods of printing from film, Rory has embraced the relative ease of manipulating and printing images digitally. A long-standing spirit of collaboration with his models has allowed him to explore viewpoints and perspectives that few of us have, of others or ourselves. His images can go beyond being nude figures in a natural setting: they imitate or allude to something else. Tricking the eye is one of the most impressive accomplishments of art, but the practice can be found in every day life as well.
“Then she sat down on the ditchbank, with her feet in the shallow ditch, and removed the shoes. After a while she began to hear the wagon. She heard it for some time. Then it came into sight, mounting the hill.
The sharp and brittle crack and clatter of its weathered and ungreased wood and metal is slow and terrific: a series of dry sluggish reports carrying for half a mile across the hot still pinewiney silence of the August afternoon. Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and ever, so infinitesimal is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road. So much is this so that in the watching of it the eye loses it as sight and sense drowsily merge and blend, like the road itself, with all the peaceful and monotonous changes between darkness and day, like already measured thread being rewound onto a spool. So that at last, as though out of some trivial and unimportant region beyond even distance, the sound of it seems to come slow and terrific and without meaning, as though it were a ghost traveling a half mile ahead of its own shape. ‘That far within my hearing before my seeing,’ Lena thinks. She thinks of herself as already moving, riding again, thinking then it will be as if I were riding for half a mile before I even got into the wagon, before the wagon even got to where I was waiting, and that when the wagon is empty of me again it will go on for half a mile with me still in it” –William Faulkner,Light in August
This description of the way a wagon moves slowly down a road reminds me of the lazy yet measured progress made while paddling a kayak. Lauren Otis’ photographs of the Delaware river, taken afloat, capture some of what is most compelling about being on the water. The familiar scenery- bridges, boats, riverbank and clouds all become merged and diffused, broken into fractal sections of reflection on the water.
The woven photographs also included are a juxtaposition- a way of working things out that requires sorting through fertile compost of discarded corporate headshots to select candidates ripe for personality reassignment surgery. Cutting and weaving disparate elements into a newly cohesive whole, these images read differently depending on how close or far you are from them. Again, the images are fooling the eye, making a hybrid form out of numbingly familiar normalcy.
This propensity to turn the “real world” on its ear is shared by Cie Stroud. A photojournalist, she captures things exactly as she sees them- no subtle distortion or manipulation of light here- just a clear, direct transmission that invites the viewer to join her in looking slightly askance at the world. The contrast of “Pepsi vs. Coke” reminds me of the concluding passage from Ways of Seeing: “Publicity is the life of this culture- in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive- and at the same time publicity is its dream. Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.” Cie’s work here can almost be viewed as a Buddhist koan (like ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?‘) - it refuses to answer the question it is asking.
“And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman… Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another… Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain and interiorize it. That part of a woman’s self which is the surveyor treats the part which is the surveyed so as to demonstrate to others how her whole self would like to be treated. And this exemplary treatment of herself by herself constitutes her presence. Every woman’s presence regulates what is and is not ‘permissible’ within her presence.
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” –John Berger,Ways of Seeing
What I find compelling about this passage is that it articulates an internal process. It may not be true only for or by all women, but it points out the mechanics of a certain kind of perception. The four photographs by Monika Broz invite us into a world that is clearly familiar to her. Food, family members, and the inside and outside of their apartment in Poland seem to give us a tremendous amount of information, and a sense of the pleasure involved in picking each picture. Through examination, a sense of the maker’s presence- her elusive light touch- comes to imbue the images, enhanced by their being printed on a subtle metallic paper.
“The self, or the transpersonal Witness, is not- like the ego or the soul- a “personality,” since it has no specific characteristics whatsoever (it is pure Emptiness and the great Unborn), except for the fact that it is an Emptiness still separate from Form, a Witness still divorced from that which is witnessed. As such, the Self or Witness is the seat of attention, the root of separate self-sense, and the home of the last and subtlest duality, namely, that between the Seer and the seen. It is both the highest Self, and the final barrier, to nondual One Taste.” –Ken Wilber,One Taste
Ayami Aoyama has made the paintings shown in this exhibit, and the only stone sculptures. The paintings are products of her extensive training in the medium- the bold and graphic quality of these abstract canvases assert a confidence, through the circle and the square, that acts as a mandala does to focus concentration. Considering that she painted in Japan for years prior to moving to America and sculpting with stone, her work in this seemingly forbidding medium pays respect to the origins of the material: “I like to think about how the stones existed in the weather. Then my stones go from nature to man — like the people who excavated them and shipped them here. Finally, the stone touches me, touches my life". Ayami senses the geologic process that brought the stone to her, and she respects the history and intent of the material. Her sculpture does not seem forced or awkward in any way- it is beautifully revealed as the ripest, most succulent form that particular stone could possibly have.
It is this ability, to recognize and evoke- in film, on paper, in found objects and on canvas- the world
the way it reveals itself to each artist that brought each one to this show. With this noble effort in
mind, possibly you will see things from a new perspective, and will bring a stronger identity with this
group from seeing the show.