Friday, December 24, 2010

Time Out

You now possess all the tools necessary to uncover the art in art.

Mastery takes practice, practice, and more practice.

During late December and through January, I suggest you visit at least one museum.  Bring someone with you.  Do not accept the offered headphones. 

Try this instead: go through one of the exhibits I list in this post.  Go through it quickly. Briefly look at all the work exhibited.  Take notes.  Jot down your reaction, if you have one, to any of the pictures in the exhibit.  Don’t obsess over this.  Here is a possible set of notes:

1.     I hate it.
2.     I love it.
3.     YIKES! What is that about?

Include next to each entry the title and/or the number of the picture so you can find it again.

After you have visited the entire exhibit, select from your notes one or two pictures you really want to get to know.  You may have hated or loved the picture.  That does not matter.  Your goal is to get to know why you hated it or why you loved it.  You want to know what, in the picture, elicited that reaction. 

Then return to each of them, use the tools you have learned, and look at each of them carefully.  This will take some time and a lot of effort.  If you have brought a companion with you, explain to him/her what you see.  Involve him/her in the process.  Again, take notes.

After scrutinizing at least two works, and if you still have time and energy, return to some of the other pictures you listed in your initial “tour.”

If you feel exhausted and satisfied, leave and get something to eat.  If the exhibit intrigued you and you want to experience more of it, plan to go back.

In other words, trust your perceptions and work with your feelings as you move toward the aesthetic goal post: the delicious satisfaction attached to understanding the visual meaning in a work of art. 

Here is a short list of exhibits closing soon in the mid-Atlantic area.  Any one of them will provide excellent practice. 

If you visit an exhibit and you wish to share your experience, please do so by writing a comment here.  Ask any questions your exploration aroused.  I’d love to know your reactions.

I have already visited a few of these exhibits, and I intend to go to a few more in the next several weeks.  I also will be traveling to Nice in mid-January and visiting: the Musée Matisse in Cimiez; the Musée du Message Biblique Marc-Chagall; the Musée Picasso, Antibes; the Musée Renoir (formerly Les Collettes, Renoir’s home for the last 12 years of his life); the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence (its black-on-white tile drawings, stained glass windows, chasubles and alter designed by Matisse); and as many others as I can get to in a week.

I should be ready to add new posts by early February.  These posts will fine-tune the concepts I have already explained and give you more practice in using the tools of discovery.

Washington, DC


National Gallery of Art

Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy

September 19, 2010-January 9, 2011

From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection

January 31, 2010-January 9, 2011

Phillips Collection

Side by Side: Oberlin’s Masterworks at the Phillips

September 11, 2010-January 16, 2011
This one deserves some explanation.  The exhibition showcases an unconventional hallmark of The Phillips Collection, the mixing of works of different periods and nationalities in changing installations to reveal new affinities between works of art. This approach reflects the views of museum founder, Duncan Phillips (1886–1966), who saw the history of art as a conversation through the ages among artists and works of art. In his collection of contemporary art, Phillips included several old masters, including Giorgione, El Greco, and Goya, and an early wish list included the names of others.
Going to the heart of Phillips’s claim, among Side by Side’s loosely themed groupings is one that brings together artists who copied paintings by their predecessors in the Louvre. The Allen’s Rubens appears with Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who is known to have copied works by Rubens. In the second half of his career, after abandoning impressionism, Renoir again looked to Rubens for inspiration. Related works in this section of the exhibition are from the Phillips, by Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, and Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix.

New York City


Museum of Modern Art

Abstract Expressionist New York

October 3, 2010-April 25, 2011

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance

October 6, 2010-January 17, 2011

Miró: The Dutch Interiors

October 5, 2010-January 17, 2011

Cézanne’s Card Players

February 9, 2011-May 8, 2011

The Frick Collection

The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya

October 5, 2010-January 9, 2011

The King at War: Velázquez’s Portrait of Philip IV

October 26, 2010-Janauary 9, 2011

Baltimore


Baltimore Museum of Art

Andy Warhol: The Last Decade

October 17, 2010-January 9, 2011





Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's the Matter?

I asked this question at the end of the last post. 

You know the answer.

I’ve said the subject does not determine what the picture will be.  I’ve said the subject dies as the picture is born. 

Subject matter, then, refers to the “new matter” every artist invents during the process of transforming a subject’s visual meaning into a picture.

Here is how it works:

The diagram shows you an artist confronting a subject.  The subject acts on the artist and the artist acts back on the subject.  In other words, at the first interested look, the artist subjects the subject to an idea (the intent, the design, the purpose) and, at that moment, he transforms the “real” world into a CSI (a color scene investigation).  He invents subject matter, orchestrates relationships among his means (light, line, color, space), and paints the picture. 

To appreciate the work of art, we come into this equation at the end: at the picture.  We study the picture, describe the relationships, see what new matter the artist created, and state the intent: the picture idea.  When we reach that point, we understand the visual aesthetic experience the artist has recorded in the picture.  We understand the picture.

Let’s try it.

Here is a digital image of a subject I used: a vase of flowers.
Here is a digital image of my painting:
Bauman, oil on canvas, 24 x 36, 2000

I realize I transformed the subject from our real world into a photograph, a medium of expression with its own characteristics—as much color on a flat surface as a painting, but with light as the dominant means.  We will have to live with this.

Look at both images for a few minutes.

Then answer this question: what’s the new matter in the picture? What matter did I invent based on the visual meaning I discovered as I explored this subject?

Or, more simply, how does my painting differ from the subject I used?

1.     Color: the color in the painting is softer, more pastel-like, and chorded.
2.     The space in the painting is shallow and the background unit acts as a projector, pushing the vase of flowers forward.  Subtle spatial recessions occur between flower petals and the vase’s decorative black container.  The patterning and light areas in the background curve backwards and up, creating a push back and up of the space.
3.     The light in the painting infuses the color with a subtle glow, moves the eye in and out and up and down in the shallow space.  The color shapes quiver like aspen-tree leaves.
4.     Line in the painting swirls, is patterned, separates petals from background, is color made (including white), and assists the vibration of the entire surface.
5.     Composition: I cut off the tabletop, halved the vase, centered the main color units, and filled a horizontal format with curlicues and faceted triangular color units that shoot upwards and descend downwards while overlapping and sparkling into shudders of color.

I transformed a simple vase of flowers into a dramatic, upward thrusting, bursting out, rush of multiple color units pulsing in and out and up and down in subtle variations of space.  Like fireworks.  In fact, I titled my painting Fireworks.

Nothing in the original subject accounts for the decorative patterning I invented.  I found those ideas in cubism, in Delaunay, in van Gogh, in Rousseau.  I transferred visual ideas, in other words, from relevant traditions of art.

Which brings me to another point: the idea that fueled my work attached qualities from fireworks to this very still vase of flowers.  I saw into the subject and expressed: (1) upward burst of small color units; (2) dramatic and pulsing activity of small color units; (3) small, intricate, moving patterns of color. 

The qualities of things, situations, and experiences transfer from life to the picture via the subject.  The subject acts like a catalyst, propelling an idea into an artist’s consciousness.  And that idea, informed by everything that artist has experienced, guides every brushstroke.

Or, as Matisse has said: “The object [subject] is an actor, . . . it must act powerfully on the
imagination. . . . The artist’s feelings, expressing themselves through it, must make it worthy of interest; it says only what one makes it say.”   (quoted by de Mazia, in “Subject and Subject Matter,” Vistas, Spring-Summer 1980, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 48)

Or, as Dewey has said: “the work is formed matter.” (Art as Experience, p. 114).

Compare the next painting to Fireworks. Carolyn Wonderly, a friend and artist, used the same subject as I did.  How does her picture differ from my picture? Why?
Wonderly, Christine's Flowers, oil on canvas, 16 x 20, 2000 
 Please share your responses.









                                     

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The CSI Transfer


What do our eyes register when we look at a canvas? 

We have been exploring the answer to this question since my first post.

Now we can answer it.  Consider CSI not the Crime Scene Investigation you know from television shows, but the Color Scene Investigation you have been doing as you have read and practiced the exercises in these posts.

If you ponder everything I have said so far, you will probably come up with the following responses:

  1. Areas of color—that is all that is there, whether the picture is representational or non-objective.
  2. The areas of color occur on a flat surface.
  3. Relationships ensue among the light, line, color, and space and things happen. 
  4. Sense registration leads to the discovery of plastic qualities.  We recognize—know anew what we have known previously—three dimensionality, for instance, the volume-ness of color units that are actually two dimensional. We transfer this knowing onto the color areas.
  5. We also transfer recognition of what the subject was (the illustrative aspect) from our lives and the category of things: figure, lemon, table, sky.  Neither the plastic nor the illustrative transferred values are of a strictly personal nature.
  6. Expressive transferred values are personal.  These stem from our own background experience and thus endow the plastic and illustrative transferred values with precise significance.
  7. Transferred values occur according to each person’s makeup, with imagination being the star performer. 
You may be thinking two questions now: (1) what are transferred values? (2) what are expressive transferred values?

Miss de Mazia defines transferred values or qualities this way: “transferred” means “having been caused to pass from one thing to another”; “value” means “something intrinsically significant”; “quality” means “of a distinguishing attribute.” (“Transferred Values: Part I—Introduction,” p. 4)

Expressive transferred values, then, come to life through you, through your experience, sensitivity and imagination.  Essentially, you are bringing together two perceptions: the quality of the color shape and something you associate with that quality that makes your perception clearer. 

Try it:  Look at the picture of the Still below.  This is a real piece of equipment used to distill alcohol.  Describe its visual qualities.


Still, Winterthur, 1990.0028
                                                                                                               
                                                                                                                                         

One of my West Chester University students said, “The Still looks like a large, rotund, aroused male bird with a long beak and curly tail standing on three spindly legs.”

That nails it, doesn’t it?  He described how it looked to him based on his interest (he was about 20 years old). 

You may have attached its qualities to something else.

The point is to combine its qualities with its expressive transferred values.  You start by saying what it is (that was its subject): this Still, displayed at Winterthur, expresses visual qualities of delicately balanced heavy roundness and sharp and curly projections, like a large male bird lusting after his mate.

It’s a simile: “like a large male bird lusting after his mate.”  That was the WCU student’s simile.  For you, it could be something else.

The point is to describe what you see based on your life experience and interest so your “listener” or “reader” is better able to grasp what you discovered and, consequently, understand it.

You think and see, therefore, like a poet.

Yes, this is subjective (I bet you were thinking this: what about being objective, you may be arguing right now, huh?)

Out of your subjective experience you connect what you know with the qualities of the “thing” you are trying to describe.  As long as you make a relevant connection, we can verify your perception. 

We either say: “yes, it looks just like that, I can see what you are saying,” or we say, “I don’t get it.”  Then you have to try again.

The major point, however, is this: everything we see in a picture is “transferred” from our experience.  The subject is not there.  Only color is there. 

You know how to read color. 

We transfer everything else.  We “recognize” what the subject was from our life experience.  We transfer what we know of three-dimensionality, space recession, weight, solidity, or lightness of color volumes, glow of color, rhythms of color units, from what we experience every day.  We even, if we are prepared and have acquired a rich background of visual ideas, understand how this picture re-presents visual ideas of previous artists’ discoveries—a k a The Traditions of Art.

We do it all.

We have been doing it all along.

For example, remember my analysis of Renoir’s Woman Tying her Shoe?

I said, “The figure becomes a central solid but light- in-weight mass of linear light-in-color strokes, glowing rosy (skin) tones, and golden (hair) highlights.  The hair swirls into at least three concentric circles establishing a donut-like mound, and this circularity repeats and becomes balanced by the figure’s backside—donut rounded again and planted on the small chair.
Similarly, the mass to the figure’s right, the mass behind her head, and the cushion on the floor repeat the theme.  In the unit to the left, the color units fan out and encircle the head creating internal clover patterns, then subdue on the floor unit and background wall into muted strokes of syrupy pastel tones.” 
Donuts, clovers, and syrup:  my connections that make more specific the color shapes I wanted to describe for you so you could see them.
I said, “In my picture, you can see distortions of scale: the looming, craggy, pyramidal color mass that was a mountain dwarfs the brightly colored grouping of structures below.  Those structures “float” on a raised platform that was a street and road. 
Skewers, like those barbecue tools that hold the meat and vegetables on a stick, stitch together the color masses with a geometric underpinning.  The rectilinear color shapes (in the sky) in the blocks of color shapes defining the buildings and the street, create both a flattening of volume and a profusion of decorative pattern.”

Float, raised platform, skewers, stitch, blocks: the word choices themselves help you share my experience.  Word choice matters. 

Remember the work you did to understand David Hockney’s Garrowby Hill?


Susan Weiss, one of the readers of this blog, wrote: “With its smooth and sweeping curve, the blue-violet accentuated road in the forefront of the canvas catches my eye, and by repeating this same shape in the brown plowed earth on one side, (repeated also in the near distance), and again in the full and leafy dark green descending trees on the other side, I am quickly brought over the sunny, yellow-green mountaintop above, arriving with great speed and depth into the wonderful hazy, bright green, orange, yellow sunny opening expanse of the countryside. The straight-lined geometric shapes of the fields continue to fan outward, becoming smaller and smaller, with hazier and darker blue, violet, green coloring again. A sprinkling of texture in the cultivated fields, a scattering of trees here and there, all together give a sensation of great distance and space. Visually I experience a wonderful sense of journey, freedom and escape, not unlike the exhilarating feeling I have whenever I am riding on our motorcycle, riding through the open Pennsylvania countryside.”

In this case, while the “subject words” (trees, road, earth, mountaintop) are not converted into “picture words” (red vertical bands, red and green curved lines, yellow dots, pink, blue, and green rectangles), Susan connects the “exhilaration” of her motorcycle rides through the hilly Pennsylvania countryside into this visual statement of a dramatic sweep into deep space. 

What’s the matter?

No, I am not asking you if you are OK, or if you understand what I just said.

In the next post, I will answer this question.



Monday, November 22, 2010

Putting it Together


At this point in your mastery of this method, you have learned to focus on the work of art and read it for what it is: color on a flat surface.  You have learned to examine the plastic means an artist uses to make a picture: light, line, color, space, subject, and tradition.  You have learned to look for aesthetic qualities: balance, symmetry, rhythm, etc.  You have learned to put the pieces together and articulate how it all means. 

You are ready now to use another tool:  to see the work of art as an orchestration of three aspects: the illustrative, the expressive, and the decorative.  While I am separating them for the sake of simplicity, they function together.  Like a well-coordinated team, each member has a role to play.  Once you learn what those roles reveal, you will be able to see more clearly and state more accurately, the picture’s visual idea.

I will demonstrate this by examining the following painting, Bridal Party, by Harry Sefarbi:

Sefarbi, Bridal Party, Oil on Masonite, 2001
Harry Sefarbi taught at The Barnes Foundation for more than 50 years. In 1950, at the annual exhibit of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Dr. Barnes purchased one of his paintings. It hangs in Room IX of The Barnes Foundation. Sefarbi said about the purchase, “I felt like I had been touched by God.”

I knew Harry when I studied and he taught at the Barnes Foundation in the 1970’s.  Many of my friends were students in his classes as well.  He inspired all of us with his love of art, his brilliant analytical skill, and his sense of humor.  He died last year.

I also attended Harry’s exhibits at the Woodmere Art Museum, and about nine years ago, I felt compelled to purchase this picture and feel fortunate to own it.  It is a small picture. Because of its size (15 7/8 inches x 7 inches), I take it to the classes I teach for the Violette de Mazia Foundation, and my students study it. 

When I purchased it, I’m embarrassed to admit, I had a non-aesthetic reason for doing so: I liked the subject, the reluctance of parents to “let go” of their daughter on her wedding day.

It hit home. 

I have one daughter.  She married two years before I purchased the picture. 


Bauman Bridal Party 1999
Sefarbi's painting expressed for me my own unrealistic desire to stay glued to my daughter.  The narrow format, the squeeze of three figures pasted together in a small doorway, the simplification of detail, and the rich, chorded color—all expressed what I felt.

Dr. Barnes calls this reaction one of two sets of qualities: the human values part of the equation, what we bring to an image by way of our life experience.  In my case, the picture documented the impending loss of connection to a child I love.

Then I started looking at it.

Yes, the illustrative aspect visually describes the facts of what the subject was: simplified, flattened, and elongated, three figures dressed for a wedding are about to walk down the aisle.  They are squashed into a very narrow space. That space, further confined by the vertical gray-tan bands on each side, feels claustrophobic.  Banded strips of red provide the background.  Rendered so close to the figures, the red further closes off any space recession and serves to push the figures forward. At the bottom of the picture, the red creates triangles: on the left, by the bending to the right of the knee and leg of the “mother”; in the center, between the “father’s” legs.  The red strips on the lower right, the wedge of red on the upper right, and the rectangle of red on the upper left not only pin the three figures into the frontal plane, they also contrast with the more subtle and muted color chords, creating a vibrant color drama.

The illustrative aspect gives us information about what the subject was, the starting point of the artist’s adventure in perception.  In this case, Sefarbi rendered the figures in strokes of color.   The “head” on the figure to our left wears a “hat” made of strokes of peach.  Her “face” is built out of tan, pink, and red strips of pulled color. A descending curve of ochre describes the left “cheek,” while a smear of dark pink says “nose.”  Darker tan, pulled and interwoven with red sinks the right “cheek.”  The lighter tans pulse forward, creating small, shallow pockets of space—this makes the entire “head” float, seemingly detached from its body.


The peach “dress,” strips of pulled pigment, create a bowed curve to the right as the “leg,” an ochre triangle lined with stitches of black, bends to the right, sliding behind the vertical blue-white-gray “dress” of the “bride.”  Notice how the peachy color turns ochre as it emerges to the right of the “bride.”  It curves around the bride’s right side and becomes pasted to the “father’s” chest.  It slides behind the “bride’s” back and pulses slightly in front of the “father’s” leg. 



The “bride,” that entire central vertical unit, elegantly torpedo-like in shape, fits slightly in front of the two flanking “figures.”   She rises up, slim and tall, with strips of color chords overlapping like bark on a tree except where small, circular dabs of white indicate what were “flowers.” Her “head” sinks down; her “shoulders” hunch; her “arms” separate from her body only because of scratchy black lines descending to the poof of “flowers” that float forward. 






The right “figure,” legs looking like an elongated clothespin and shirt “ruffled” by curvilinear and slightly bulging smears of green-white color, closes off the right side of the picture.  His “head,” seemingly featureless describes, with an economy of means:  a smear of pink “ear,” a pointed “chin,” a prominent bulge of “nose” that pushes back two dark “eyes,” and fuzzy strands of “hair” set beneath the small “black hat.” 





Like the other two “faces,” just enough individuality manifests itself: the sharp, narrow shape of the “father’s” head, his prominent, hooked nose, and round button eyes; the richer, pinker, equally “pointed face” of the bride, “eyes” squinting into linear arcs, and a sweet “smile” rendered by short, side by side, vertical red lines; the fuller, more twisted “face” of the “mother” with pursed lips, described by two, small, red lines bending left, and a sharp “nose” projecting right.  By themselves, the three “heads” create the same spatial drama as the bodies: they line up, three diamond shapes, pasted to each other and pushed firmly together and held down by their “hats.”



The illustrative message of a bridal party standing in a narrow doorway becomes a picture statement of vertical, richly chorded, overlapping, banded color units wedged in very shallow space expressing closeness, attachment, and connection.   That is the picture’s expressive aspect. 

The expressive aspect transforms what the subject was into what the picture is. 

At first, I found this picture relevant to my life experience.  I also could not resist its color and its smooth, silky surface.  My eyes kept finding subtle, intricately built color units of seemingly random smears of color that ultimately coalesced into surprising spatial adventures.  The color itself, the red, the peach, the cerulean blue, the pink—all clear, bright, and juicy, seduced me.

That is this picture’s decorative aspect. 

The decorative gives us what we are thirsty for, what our eye craves: entertainment.  Miss de Mazia argues “No bait, no bite.” Without sufficient eye-appeal, the expression would be cold and repelling.

Each aspect works with the other two to transform the subject into the picture.

In the next post, I will review the CSI.  Curious?  I hope so.


   





















Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Making the Invisible Visible



At the end of the last post, I left you with question: How do the distortions in the picture Truffle Pigs Café “inform” your perception?

Huh, you may be thinking, inform my perception?  What’s that about?

That’s the point.

Here’s the picture again:




Before I describe how distortion sharpens perception, I will tell you another story.

As I was working on this picture, a woman stopped and watched what I was doing.

She asked me this question: “I love your painting, but can you tell me why you are making up all those colors in the mountain?”

I told her I was not making up the colors; I saw them.

“No one sees colors like that,” she said.

I showed her the color shapes by pointing to the exact spot in my picture and then guiding her to look at that exact spot on the mountaintop.  I waited.

“Oh,” she exclaimed, “they are there. I never would have seen them if you had not showed them to me.”

What is real?

That is the question.

My point here is that we see what we want to see, or we are trained to see, or we know what to look for. 

Think of it this way: did anyone know about gravity before Newton described it?  No.  It was invisible to humankind even though we lived with its effects every day.  We no longer think the earth is flat, and we continue to learn about the vastness and intricacies of our solar system because we have perfected the tools and acquired the knowledge that enables us to do so.  We, quite literally, see what was once invisible.

I see color shapes because I had a teacher, Edward Loper, Sr., who showed them to me.  He taught himself to see color shapes because he studied the work of Cezanne, Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro.  I have taught children to see color shapes by insisting they are there; by telling them the colors will hide and stay hidden unless they look for them and uncover them by seeing them; and I show them artists’ work who make them visible.  Then they see them.

Each artist shows us new ways to see.  This is what informed perception means: new ways of seeing.  This is what art teaches. And we miss most of what is in front of us because we don’t know how to see or we don’t take time to see.

In my picture, you can see distortions of scale: the looming, craggy, pyramidal color mass that was a mountain dwarfs the brightly colored grouping of structures below.  Those structures “float” on a raised platform that was a street and road.  None of this could occur in our real world, and it certainly did not occur in my subject.  I made it happen.

I subjected this subject to my interest, and I saw what I wanted to see.

What does the picture give us, then, that our ordinary experience of this scene cannot?

Make a list:

1.     Rhythms: short and long stripes, bands, and color lines are repeated in the sidewalk, the rooftops, the mountain, and the trees.  Some are vertical, some diagonal, some curvilinear.  All are decorative (eye catching) in effect. 
2.     The color is bold, vivid, and bright.  The yellow of the roof contrasts sharply with the dark of the lower mountain, creating a dramatic picture statement. 
3.     The buoyancy of the lower half of the painting contrasts powerfully with the monumental stability of the upper half of the picture.  In fact, that mountain mass sits in space so close to the lower half of the picture, it aids in projecting that entire unit up and forward—creating that “floating” effect.
4.     Skewers: like those barbecue tools that hold the meat and vegetables on a stick, they stitch together the color masses with a geometric underpinning.  The rectilinear color shapes (in the sky) in the blocks of color shapes defining the buildings and the street, create both a flattening of volume and a profusion of decorative pattern.

In other words, the subject was a street consisting of a café and other buildings with a mountain behind.  The picture is a decorative statement expressing monumentality, stability, and heaviness contrasted with buoyancy and lightness.  The vivid, rich color, the repeated banded color units, and the pyramidal and geometric underpinnings balance all the contrasts.  

As you continue to scrutinize pictures to discover how they mean, you gain the ability to look at anything in your everyday world and transform that ordinary visual experience into an adventure in perception.

You need merely to use the tools you already possess (and a few more I will introduce in the next few posts).  As you examine more and more works of art, you will build a relevant background of what other artists have contributed (a k a the traditions of art).  I adapted the following traditions in this picture: cubism, Impressionism, the decorative patterning of van Gogh, the color drama of Matisse, among others. 

In the next post, I will explain how the expressive, illustrative, and decorative aspects work together to help you understand how the picture means.










Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How Does a Lie Tell the Truth?

As usual, I will start with a story to describe the relationship between an experience and expression:

Ten years ago, when I worked in Wilmington High School, I entered the building by a side door.  This led me down a corridor and past the main office.  That office had a side door opening out into the hall.  The door did not have a window to allow for viewing the hallway and seeing someone walking by.  Since this could cause an accident, a sign read: “Open this door SLOWLY”.

As I reached the door, a 12 year old, middle-school student rushed through it, and I jumped back to avoid the door.  I exclaimed with irritation, “Your rushing through the door could have knocked me out.  Please be more careful.”

Several months later, I approached the same door, but this time a secret service agent and Hillary Rodman Clinton rushed through the door.  In that instant, I remembered she was there to give a speech about charter school funding, a bill that had passed in Congress.  This time, I jumped back and said, with surprise and humor, “I am so glad your rushing through the door did not knock me out because I am looking forward to your speech, which I am sure WILL be a knock out!”

Both are my reactions to two incidents.  Both restore my equilibrium.  And then I forgot all about these events; they were merely trivial incidents in my busy life.

The relationship goes like this:

Something strikes us (not necessarily literally like my door analogy) and we feel moved, pushed into dis-equilibrium. We react (do something back to the original stimulus).  I lecture the boy; I say, “I am looking forward to your speech” to Hillary Clinton.  If we use a medium of expression, however, we fuel our awareness of what “struck us” with the relevant experiences stored in memory and we “see” into our subject (because we now have subjected the incident, the stimulus, to our interest) and we go to work expressing (pressing out) the meaning we have perceived, thereby creating a whole new thing—not what the subject was—not just our reaction to it, but a whole new experience enriched with new matter imaginatively perceived.

Miss de Mazia sums this up this way:  “The results that impel both us and the artist to expression are the same:  (1) we feel better by being adjusted; (2) we communicate, share; (3) in the process of selecting, of making an expression clear to others, we clarify the meaning of our feelings for ourselves.”  (“Expression,” 13)

Assuming we feel enthusiasm, assuming something moves us, we feel struck.  You can call it excitement or dis-equilibrium. The encounter begins here.  We experience the meaning in an event, a sound, a sight, an incident.  The artist wishes to make sense out of it, figure out why he/she feels so excited.  To share the experience, the artist must translate it into a medium of expression.  And he/she wants to get to it:  the stimulus creates tension and anxiety.  To restore equilibrium, the work must start, the problems created worked out, and the end reached. 

I had an experience, the door swinging open. I reacted:  I lectured the boy. I said, “Oh, so glad your rushing through the door did not knock me out,” to Hillary Clinton. More importantly, from that point on, I walked down the center of the hall to avoid the door.  I changed my behavior.  I grew in awareness of the safe way to navigate the halls of Wilmington High School.  

The artist, however, takes another step.  He/she acts back on the event, changing it, distorting it, bringing to bear past experiences to help give form to this new idea, and translating the event into a medium of expression thereby giving it new matter it did not have before. 

In my case, when I started thinking about this topic and wondered how I could make clear to you how this works, I went running, and halfway through the 4-mile run, I remembered the door episodes. I realized how I could use those incidents to make this point clear. I started playing with them, fleshing them out, providing dialog, different people who could have (they really did not) come through that door and how that would change my reaction.  I used it; I creatively distorted it.  In other words, I lied.

Hillary Clinton did visit Wilmington High School to make a speech about charter school funding because a charter school, The Charter School of Wilmington, a math and science academy, was housed in Wilmington High School. 

But not that day, nor did she come through that door.

I wanted to impress you so you would understand the power of distortion.

That is what creative distortion is: a lie to tell the truth.  I “saw into” my subject, because I had “subjected” that stimulus to my interest. To express (press out the meaning we perceive to create a new thing) definitely requires work.  We create a new experience:  not what the subject was, not just our reaction to it, or what we felt about it, but a new experience enriched with new matter imaginatively perceived.

Let’s look for distortions in a picture.

Look at the following painting.  This time, along with listing the plastic means, the qualities expressed, and the rhythms, list what I “distorted.”  Describe the picture facts that do not look like what you would see in your everyday world.  How do those distortions “inform” your perception?
                                                 


                                                         Bauman, Truffle Pigs Café, oil, 2007

In the next post, I will show you how those distortions contribute to your understanding of the picture idea.