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.

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