Sunday, October 30, 2011

What's Feeling Got To Do With It?

This is the post you expected to read, and I expected to write.

At the end of “The Heart of the Matter,” I asked you some questions. 

Here they are:

Have you felt a sense of union with something not yourself?  Have you felt something to be intensely real and felt your individuality absorbed and carried along like a drop of water in a stream?  Have you felt everything or anything to be full of life?  Have you perceived something beneath appearances to the reality underlying them? 

Some of you responded to these questions.  I wrote “Mysticism in Art,” the previous post, as my response to Edward L. Loper, Sr.’s death, and this included my answers to those questions.

Now I will add a postscript. 

As practitioners of the objective method, we tend to be suspicious or even hostile to feelings. 

The “feeling” question comes up repeatedly in the classes I teach.  “Why,” I am asked, “can’t I just like a painting?” a student wants to know.  “What is so wrong with having a strong feeling about a painting’s subject?” a student will ask. 

We’re human, after all.

Feelings happen.  The emotions of everyday life (i.e. love, hate, fear, anger, grief, loneliness) bubble up when we see a picture that moves us.  If we were to look at what “causes” those feelings, however, we would admit we have strong feelings about the subject depicted, or to say this more accurately, we have strong feelings about what the subject WAS.

You learned a long time ago as you read the posts in this blog that what the subject WAS is not IN the picture.  Colors on a flat surface make a picture.  Nothing else is there.

Now that you can read color, you see spatial intervals, rhythms, contours, shadows, lights and darks, etc.  The visual qualities created by the relationships of color, light, line, and space speak a different language, and this language is just as “real” as the original subject WAS, and produces a very different kind of feeling—aesthetic understanding that feels like a revelation, a gift, or a surprise—a mystical feeling.

Look at the following pictures:

                         Follower of Tintoretto, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Barnes                             
             Tintoretto, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Courtauld Institute of Art, UK              
Tintoretto, The Finding of Moses, Met

Pippin, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Barnes    

The artist of three of the four paintings used the same subject: Christ and the Woman of Samaria.

Tintoretto, however, in the third picture, used a different subject: The Finding of Moses.  But the picture orchestrates plastic means similar to the first one.

No matter how you “feel” about the biblical stories of Christ and the Woman of Samaria or the Finding of Moses, no matter how each artist felt about those stories, each picture has its own picture idea, its own expressive message.  That visual idea, expressive message, or color statement, when we understand it, produces a sense of satisfaction far more resonant, moving, and sustaining than transient “feelings”—what we call the emotions of everyday life, and what Dr. Barnes calls “human values” as opposed to “plastic values.”

If all you do is react to the subject, you miss the aesthetic adventure, the art in the painting.

Let’s try to make sense of this with a non-representational picture.

Look and study the following clay print by Mitch Lyons:

Lyons, Medicine Man, 19 x 13 inches, Clay Print

No problem with the subject here, is there?

No need to turn the picture upside down.

What do you see?

1.      Swirls and squiggles of vivid, dry, floating color ribbons actively moving over receding space (top half) and shallow space (bottom half).

2.     Anchoring the activity, skewers move the eye in geometric patterns throughout the space:

a.      On the top right, the light-yellow “forked” shape moves the eye up and slightly to the left

b.     On the left, the light band moves the eye across the picture plane as it also pushes back into space

c.      That light band, backed by blue, and overlaid by horizontal orange and purple lines establishes the spatial theme: colorful lineal activity creating subtle back and forth, in and out, spatial rhythms.

3.     Now that you see the clues, you can explore the picture and enjoy the intricacy of the multiple rhythms created.

a.      Look at the bottom half:  here, some of the squiggles float just slightly above the riot of color units setting them off. 

(1)  You must look carefully to see the spatial drama: look at the light blue line rising from the right of the center bottom edge.  It goes up as it moves slightly to the right, then bends back to the left where it threads under and over a muted, green-blue, footprint-like shape.  That shape wraps around and clings to it like toes on a bar.  The blue line then joins a broken orange-edged, yellow band that goes under another muted green-blue arc and then over a muted green-blue line, then under a muted green-ochre blob.  It ends on the left edge as a yellow band sliding under another blue-green stripe. That entire unit becomes a boxy shape projecting in the lower left.  Within it, all sorts of squiggles, lines, geometric shapes, and active color units float and dance like confetti.

As I see and write this, I experience a feeling of delight.  I can think of no other word to describe such a delicious, warm, feeling of excitement—akin to a sense of wonder or amazement. Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, said in the New York Times this kind of concentrated scrutiny is fueled by “the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.” It melds aesthetic appreciation with objective perception and experiential learning. 

I have shown you how to begin. As you explore this picture on your own, you will understand, as Dr. Barnes argues, that aesthetic appreciation ultimately depends “on something that must be felt and cannot simply be abstractly formulated.”

That’s what feeling has to do with it.

This begs the next question: what’s the subject got to do with it?  Mitch Lyons’ clay print does not have a recognizable subject.  Do you miss it? 

Please study the following picture: Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of his Children.  What role does the subject play in this picture?  Does the subject relate to the picture idea?  How?

That’s the topic of the next post.

Goya, Saturn Devouring One of his Children, 1819-23, Plaster mounted on canvas, Museo del Prado

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Edward L. Loper, Sr. April 7, 1916-October 9, 2011: Mysticism in Art

This is not the post I expected to write or the one you expected to read.

I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning not at all happy about it.  I did not go to bed until 1 a.m., and I anticipated sleeping in. 

I knew why I woke up when my phone rang at 8 a.m.

Janet Loper told me Ed had died.

His spirit, as it passed, woke me up to say goodbye.

Sound crazy?  I think so too, but I believe it. 

That’s mystical.

Last night I heard Herbie Hancock play acoustic and electronic jazz at the Kimmel Center.

At one point, he told the audience he called Chic Corea to ask him to listen to a piece he had composed.  Herbie told us, “When I wrote it, I said to myself, 'Chic could have written this.'  I had to be sure I had not heard it before.”

Chic said he had not written it.  “It’s one that must have gotten away from me,” he told Herbie.

Herbie channeled Chic’s musical ideas as well as others.  Miles Davis said in his autobiography, “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.”

Dr. Barnes says, “Mysticism is a sense of union with something not ourselves.  It is felt to be intensely real even though any one lacking the mystic’s sensibility cannot be compelled to share it.”

I have argued repeatedly in these posts artists channel ideas, musical ideas if they are composers, and visual ideas if they are painters.

Ordinary experience offers clues to the mystical experience.  In my case, I enrolled in Ed Loper’s class at the Delaware Art Museum more than 40 years ago because his was the only one that had a space left.  I wanted to continue my painting “hobby.”  Despite his telling me I did not know anything about art, how to paint, or what I was doing, I stayed.  Despite his badgering, his insistent criticism, his relentless demands, I stayed.  I wanted to “see” what he said was possible to see even though I thought he was crazy and/or I was blind to it. 

When I saw color for the first time, it was a revelation.  I felt “born again.”  He made the invisible visible.

That’s mystical.

The world of art Ed Loper opened to me is a world of concentrated, informed vision.  When I paint, I see what I need and want to see.  Everything else disappears, becomes invisible.  Herbie channels Chic.  I channel Renoir, Delaunay, and Matisse.

In my head, despite the fact I have not studied with Ed for more than 25 years, I still hear him hollering: “how light is that?” “put color next to color; you’re skipping”; “you’re not seeing color; you’re making mud.”  His words continue to challenge me to see more, not so I paint pictures that are like his, because they are not, but to paint pictures that, as he has said, “may be rotten, but not ordinary.” 

When I study his pictures, I understand his achievement:  his adaptation of Venetian luminosity with CĂ©zanne’s power and, in his late work, with Renoir’s warmth.  He talks to me through his work.

When I remember his early struggles and persistence to be taken seriously in a society hostile to black people, to keep at it despite everything stacked against him, to insist his students stop complaining, or as he eloquently put it, to just “shut up and paint,” I feel a connection to something meaningful and profoundly motivating—“a seeing beneath appearances to the reality underlying them,” Barnes calls it. 

That’s mystical.

Here’s the summary: (1) An accident: I enrolled in the one class at the Delaware Art Museum that had a space left; (2) I survived a torturous apprenticeship; (3) I received a gift: a vision that intrigued me and I wanted, and needed, to pursue; (4) My teacher demonstrated through his own struggle that ordinary people could live an extraordinary life by making art. 

That’s mystical.

At the end of The Velveteen Rabbit, the Skin Horse tells the Rabbit, "The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Ed Loper made me Real.  He created an extended family of Real.  We, as the Dan Fogelberg song “Leader of the Band” goes, have his blood running through our instruments and his song in our soul.

Some of us continue to teach others, to pass on what Ed taught us.  Others do it through their paintings. 

My 12-year-old grandson Josh just completed a pastel of a stuffed animal, a sloth, he purchased from the gift shop at the zoo.  Ed would have given him hell for not “seeing” more color, but Josh, intrigued by the process, happily joins me each week to make pictures.  And I don’t give him hell for anything.
Josh and Ed a Few Months Ago

Mary Oliver writes In Blackwater Woods:

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

At 5 a.m. this  morning, I let Ed go.