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Archive for November, 2013

13ArleneTallRedWhiteMy painting class is full of surprises.

This painting started as a collage, or rather as a little window (about 2” x 1”)  chosen from a large 11”x17”  collage.  The painting, done in acrylic on two canvases joined in the middle for a total of 48” x 24”, takes its composition and color drama from the collage.  In the first layer, the red was red, but then it became black and then red again, but this time with the black under-painting showing through. (Click to enlarge.)
The decisive turn of events in the painting process was the drip.  There was, of course, no drip in the collage. But the painting seemed to need a linear element.  The artist, Arlene Tarpey, dislikes hard edges in her work.  What to do? Let the linear element create itself!  The drip, therefore, was not a result of a messy painting style, à la Jackson Pollock, but was deliberately engineered right there in the middle of the canvas.

Or rather, canvases.  The horizontal divide between the two canvases now became disturbing because the drip refused to ignore the break and emphasized the gap by oozing into it.  What to do?  Fussing with the drip would un-drip it and thereby highlight the awkward spot even more.

13ArleneTallRedTopSolution: take the thing apart and treat each panel as an independent painting.

This sort of thing happens only when you’re working in the abstract mode.  You’re not committed to representing an image and you’re not hemmed in by preconceived notions about what this thing is supposed to look like.  You are IN the process and responding to what happens brush-stroke by brush-stoke and, yes, drip by drip. You’re not even committed to the original size of your work.  You can just take it apart.

Surprise!

13ArleneTallRedBottomAll contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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13EdithAltman“Reclaiming the Symbol,” the exhibit by Edith Altman at the State of Illinois Building drew in a large crowd for the panel discussion.  This was many years ago.  I have been puzzling over it ever since.

The panel consisted of professors from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and, most impressively,  Wendy Doniger, the American Indologist and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee on Social Thought. I had been reading her “Other People’s Myths,” one of several books on symbols, mythology and poetry that I was trying to decipher at the time.  These were  my big interests and still are.  Why do we do this?  How do symbols work?  Why do people create gods?  How does the brain function when it’s playing with metaphors?

Imagine my excitement when Doniger was at the dais taking questions from the audience.  I was so engrossed and felt so much on this author’s wavelength that I simply asked, “what is a metaphor?’   She looked out at me over her reading glasses and got a little flustered.  In her helplessness, she turned to her fellow panelists, left and right, as if to say, “what’s this person doing here? How am I supposed to answer this question when this person is obviously barely literate, at best a high school drop-out? Every eighth grader knows the definition of a metaphor.”  Right.  I know the definition, thank you.  What I wanted to get into was the boiler room of the imagination,  the depth of the messy, noisy gray matter where things get connected when they seem  logically and rationally so far apart.  How does the mind do this metaphor business?  I did not defend my question by adding the context in which I asked it. I was momentarily shocked by Doniger’s shallowness and realized that she collected honorary degrees because she knows a lot of definitions.  I went home and took her book, not to a used book store, but to the alley where I dumped it in the garbage.

This fall I was reading Stephen Pinker’s “How the Mind Works.”  Finally!  Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, does get into the boiler room of the imagination. But it’s a demanding book.  Even though it’s written in clear prose and with abundant wit, I found myself resisting his findings, probably because of my lingering romantic ideas about free will.

As the brain evolved over eons, so did the brain’s “machinery” of induction and deduction.

Here’s Pinker:  “Why do we make …analogies?  It is not just to co-opt words but to co-opt their inferential machinery.  Some deductions that apply to motion and space also apply nicely to possession, circumstance, and time.  That allows the deductive machinery for space to be borrowed from reasoning about other subjects.”  (p.353)

“Space and force pervade language.  Many cognitive scientists (including me) have concluded from their research on language that a handful of concepts about places, paths, motions, agency, and causation underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words and constructions, not only in English but in every other language that has been studies.” (p. 355)

“Location in space is one of the fundamental metaphors in language, used for thousands of meanings.  The other is force, agency, and causation.” (p.354)

In other words, in other metaphors:  The brain of our distant ancestors had to figure out how to navigate the body through space and time in the context of evolving notions of causation.  Ideas come much later, when the inferential machinery of the brain is already in place.  The Athenians of 500 BCE were hanging out in the agora to discuss truth and beauty.  But they did this with brains that had evolved to make certain causal and spatial inferences.  The boiler room of their imagination and rationality was already running smoothly, so to speak, as in a metaphor.

“The mind couches abstract concepts in concrete terms.” (p. 353) This is how we write about ideas.  We try to talk about the mind and find ourselves talking about furniture and gravel soup.  The mind is endlessly funny.

I read Pinker on the mostly deserted beach, while bundled up next to a large sturdy umbrella to shield against forceful and shifting winds. The lake threw up high roaring waves.  Almost every afternoon, as it was getting late in the day, a woman named Denise would spend a half hour throwing a day-glow green ball way out  over the waves and a black lab retriever named Kiva would hurl herself into this absurdity, snap up the ball and rush it back to her human.  The dog couldn’t take her eyes off the day-glow throwing stick, ready for more absurdity.

On the beach, Pinker’s analysis of the mind became readable. Well, no, it was still hard to take, all this talk about “inferential machinery.”  I recommend reading “How the Mind Works” in turbulent weather. I, for one, found some consolation camped there in the sand with the lake coming at me.

Of course, the lake is doing no such thing.  “Coming at” is a spatial and intentional metaphor.  And so forth.

13BeachSunset

http://www.chgs.umn.edu/museum/exhibitions/witnessLeg/survivorsRefs/altman/

http://reclaimtheswastika.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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13AnatomyYesterday was the ninth of twelve classes in this fall term.  We had been working on all sorts of topics:  drapery, still life, shading, three-dimensionality, hands, faces, contrapposto, composition, upside-down drawing, the works.  All difficult issues.  Why not add more difficulty, I thought, and give them the difficulty of choosing what to work from.  I set up a still life and brought in images of faces & hands to struggle with.  And then one more thing:  pages from Barcsay’s anatomy book.  To my surprise, most of the class went for the challenges of anatomy.  It’s the driest of topics, but there they were, eagerly gathering around the table where the xerox copies of the muscles and bones were spread out.

You get a work out when you try to draw all these muscles in their right place. It’s an accomplishment in itself and a valuable exercise that helps you draw more loosely and with more confidence when you face the live mode.

When the anatomical studies are placed on the same page, crammed together and made to partially overlap, the result is greater than the sum of its parts.  The page (above, by Gaby Edgerton) is clearly about studying anatomy, but the rhythm created by these dense forms nudges the composition out of mere academia and into the category “art.”

13BarcsayMusclesJenö Barcsay’s (1900-1988) anatomy book has been around for about forty years.  I like to use it in class, because the illustrations lack flair and heroism.  It’s actually a little boring (just the facts, ma’m)   and that spurs a more advanced student on to invent a way of drawing and a way of putting the body parts on the page that perks us up because it feels a lot like art.  Killing two birds with one femur.

(There’s some glare on the photo of Gaby’s drawing because I use a little instant camera in a room with rows of ceiling lights.)

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

www.khilden.com 

http://facefame.wordpress.com

http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com

http://www.katherinehilden.com

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