Archive for September, 2010

Doing the galleries on a Wednesday morning is like walking on the beach when it’s raining.  You have the place to yourself. Ahh.  Just you and the great non-verbal mysterious IT.  You don’t have to explain anything to anybody, you don’t have to listen to anyone explaining anything to you, you don’t have to be smart and you don’t have to listen to anybody being smart. Or artsy, or sensitive, or cool, or post-modern, or sincere, or authentic, or outsider-ish,  or judgmental, on non-judgmental, or edgy, or evolved, or enlightened… nothing.   The West Loop galleries are good for that. They’re spread out.  You step into one gallery and then maybe the one next door, but after that you hike.  To get to your next gallery, you step over cracked sidewalks, circle around construction sites, take a detour to find the Metra underpass and all this gives you time to calm your mind.  By the time you get to your fifth gallery, you’re blissful.  The cracks in the cement look profound, the peeling paint resonates with secrets, and the graffiti melts your heart  when in another context you might only have thought “sociopath.”

I started at the Carrie Secrist Gallery on Washington at Green Street. I don’t know how much time I spent with Carolyn Ottmer’s “Splice” series, but I know that my sense of time had already gone out the window with Megan Greene’s Audobon collages in the entrance gallery. Then, in the “Splice” space,  I was looking at huge models of plants cast in stainless steel suspended from the ceiling.  Only later, consulting the web, did I read that these were “studies of plants that thrive in urban environments, such as those that are seen breaking through cracks in city sidewalks …” At the Secrist Gallery I was also drawn into the vortex of Angelo Mosco’s photographs, but for this post I will limit myself to showing Carolyn Ottmer’s work.  This work will be up til October 16.  Go see.

When I do the galleries, I don’t read the literature about the artists and their work.  I turn off the verbal faculty and become visual and experiential.  Then a funny thing happens.  My brain starts processing the art in the galleries and the urban compositions outside  with the same neurons.  It’s a trip.

As Alan Watts used to say, “This is IT.”

(Chicago galleries tend to change shows mid month.  Parking in the West Loop, or any lively part of the city for that matter, is iffy.  I took the Metra to Ogylvie and then the #20 bus West on Madison.  Got off at Halsted and walked .)

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The Moment of Cubism

“The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art.  The incongruity of that moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it, is the secret of art.  What is the meaning of that incongruity and the shock which accompanies it? It is to be found in the distinction between the actual and the desirable.  All art is an attempt to define and make unnatural this distinction.

For a long time it was thought that art was the imitation and celebration of nature.  The confusion arose because the concept of nature itself was a projection of the desired.  Now that we have cleansed our view of nature, we see that art is an expression of our sense of the inadequacy of the given—which we are not obliged to accept with gratitude.  Art mediates between our good fortune and our disappointment.  Sometimes it mounts to a pitch of horror.  Sometimes it gives permanent value and meaning to the ephemeral.  Sometimes it describes the desired.

Thus art, however free or anarchic its mode of expression, is always a plea for greater control and an example, within the artificial limits of a “medium”, of the advantages of such control.  Theories about the artist’s inspiration are all projections back on to the artist of the effect which his work has upon us.

The only inspiration which exists is the intimation of our own potential.  Inspiration is the mirror image of history:  by means of it we can see our past, while turning our back upon it.  And it is precisely this which happens at the instant when a piece of music begins.  We suddenly become aware of the previous silence at the same moment as our attention is concentrated upon following sequences and resolutions which will contain the desired.

The Cubist moment was such a beginning, defining desires which are still unmet.”

–John Berger quoted from his essay “The Moment of Cubism,” 1969.

Georges Braques. “Le Sacré-Coeur,” Paris, winter 1909-10

Pablo Picasso. “Woman with a Mandolin,”  Cadaqués, summer 1910

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When a figure is foreshortened you can’t believe what you’re seeing.  Literally.  You deny the reality in front of your eyes.  It’s just too weird, too funny.  That’s because the forms are compressed and overlapping.  So, instead of drawing what you see, you “fix it.”  You stretch everything out.  When you do that, you ruin the magic.  But you do it anyway, most of the time.

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) tried and failed.  He posed his model and then he went into denial.  Can’t be, he said to himself.  Not only did it look weird and funny—not allowed in 1490—but he had to contend with certain cultural values, which were also his own:  the head is the seat of reason, it’s where kings and popes wear their crowns, it’s where the “windows to the soul” are, important people sit at the “head of the table,”  and therefore the head had to be big; the feet are at the opposite extreme from the head, are down there, are filthy, are base and therefore have to be shown to be unimportant, small.  The basic assumption here is that big = important,  small = unimportant.  The Christ figure should look very much like the guy napping in Millenium Park (above), but Mantegna couldn’t overcome his big-small value system.

Even when the napping figure in the park is shot from a higher vantage point, the feet are still large and the head is still so tiny that the umbrella on the chest obscures it.

A contemporary of Mantegna’s, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) left us an illustration of a device that artists could use to force themselves to see what’s actually there in front of their eyes.  Basically it’s a piece of glass positioned vertically, so that the artist can just trace what’s on the other side of the glass.  Not so easy.  The work presumes that you hold your head steady.  To this end, you have a vertical column that reminds you where your eye has to be at all times.  This device was, no doubt, an excellent pedagogical tool for learning how to overcome the weird cultural bias that kept you from SEEING.  I don’t know anyone who uses it today.  Today we just go to class and LOOK and remind ourselves that weird is wonderful.

In this student drawing we can see that the torso is compresses and the limbs really are drawn as overlapping forms.  The resulting drawing by Cheryl B. is schematic, but honest.  Here the head, being closer to the viewer, is drawn large and the feet, being far away, have to be quite small. It’s easy to say all this, but drawing a figure in this pose is difficult. Everyone should draw foreshortening… accountants, pilots, radiologists , lawyers, et al.  I recommend it highly because this exercise confronts you with the challenge of seeing WHAT’S REALLY THERE.

Again, Millenium Park offers the lesson from reality.

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“Virtually all patients with prosopagnosia…have lesions in the right visual-association cortex, in particular on the underside of the occipitotemporal cortex.  There is nearly always damage in a structure called the fusiform gyrus…” The face is a universe onto itself, it seems.  No, not “seems,”  but IS.  That’s what the quote from Olver Sachs is about.  (prosop =  face, agnosia =not knowing)   If the cluster of gray matter called your fusiform gyrus is malformed or damaged, you will not be able to recognize faces.  Not your mother’s,  not you child’s, not your own.  Nothing wrong with your eyes, you’ll be able to see the components of the face, the eye, the nose, the mouth, but you won’t be able to perceive them as a unit, as a face.  That’s like being able to see individual letters, but not being able to read the word.  According to Dr. Sachs, six to eight million Americans are afflicted with this handicap, himself included.  That’s one in fifty.

I walked down Michigan Ave yesterday afternoon and got a little depressed as I tried to imagine what life must be like for those—who were statistically in this stream of people coming towards me—who didn’t see faces, only disembodied noses, eyes, mouths, chins.  Can’t imagine it.  I’m a face person.  I’ll stand in line at a check out counter and have a ball looking at the faces around me. The clerk goofs and has to call for the manager and I still think her face is fascinating.  There’s a special thrill that comes from a brief glance at a face in a city crowd and then being able to trace it back to some ballroom or some company picnic.  I draw hundreds of people every year, very quickly, very intensely.  (See links below)  The likeness is there within the first few seconds.  This is possible only because I read the face at a glance, not one feature at a time, but as this special Gestalt called a “face.”  People who stand around and watch me draw sometimes talk about talent and how you have to be born with it.  I used to be irritated by that word, because I put in so many years of practice to get to the point where I could draw fast, but now I’m beginning to suspect that  “talent”  may be the same as “a super-wired fusiform gyrus.”  Whatever the initial disposition of the new-born’s  fusiform gyrus, neurologists like Dr. Sachs are sure that it can be developed.  As a drawing teacher I believe that.  By drawing the face, however badly at first and however fragmented, you stimulate your fusiform gyrus; you make it grow more neurons, you heat it up with more blood, you pump it up with more oxygen.  A neurologist I’m clearly not, but I can attest to the effects of practice.

I’ve actually used these weird words in my drawing class when we’re working on faces.  Studies conducted by neurologists at the University of Thübelein-Kotzenhaufen have shown that knowing the words will not help you draw, only practice will.




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