Posts Tagged ‘semiotics’


From our Evanston Art Center mansion by the lighthouse, we have a view of the lake and the 14MayPlugByTheSeaStartbeach. The lake and sky always play with color effects for us to gasp at. We get horizontal stripes, basically, and you might think those would make for a boring, too restful, composition. Well, yes, relentless horizontality can be challenging, but a challenge like that gets you thinking about your assumptions.
Bruce Boyer started with this recognizable sky-water-beach composition. Nice, low horizon, very comfortable and serene. Just for kicks we 14MayPlugByTheSeaStartUSDturned the canvas around. Now we have a high horizon with a yellow sky and a sunset-colored beach. Too weird, not realistic at all. Your mind then tries to see this thing as pure stripes: yellow, blue, pink-ish. You try. But the texture in the blue stripe is unmistakably watery and your imagination can’t let go of that association. That association overrides all the color weirdness of the yellow sky and pink beach because the mind really is attached to realism and is desperate to identify something with a name. Ah, lake! The lake is still there. From that assumption, all else falls into place.
14MayPlugByTheSea2But Bruce Boyer does not let it rest there. He needs a twist of irony, some semiotic double-coding, something to jab at your assumptions. Let’s play in the semiotics sandbox and put something on that beach. Something totally disassociated, something not from nature, something rectilinear, mechanical, man-made…the plug appears from nowhere and, behold, it’s just right.

Well, it’s just right if you get Magritte and have a few brain cells that conduct surrealism for you. If you do, stay tuned. If you don’t, ditto.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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I went to the mall.

Last Sunday I drew twelve people at Maggianos at Old Orchard. We were celebrating the first birthday  of the first born son of a couple that had flown in from Florida to be with the rest of the family who still lives in the Chicago area.  When the gig was done, I packed up, pulled on my self-made hat, wheeled my drawing supplies back to the car and headed for Nordstrom.  One of the women at the party had told me, in English instead of the ambient Bosnian,  that she worked at Nordstrom’s in Schaumburg, in a department called Narrative.  “Narrative” is a word I sometimes use in my drawing class, apprehensively scanning my students’ faces for signs that this literary reference might snatch their minds out of the visual state and plunk them back into the quotidian verbal.  (My students are all over-educated readers.)  What, I was eager to learn, has the word “narrative” got to do with shopping?

There it was, a whole section of women’s clothing with the word “Narrative” on the wall over the alcove with the three manikins.  The urgency to make sense of the word in this context faded at the sight of the manikins’ faces that reminded me of André Carrillo’s caricatures.  I made a mental note that I needed to write about this comparison in a future blog and immediately got distracted by another display in an adjacent department, though the sartorial subtleties that justified the expense of putting different names on the walls in such close proximity did not catch my eye.

What caught my eye was the skull.  Where am I?  What’s the meaning of this skull in the context of shopping for clothes? My mind goes into free-association.

The skull became the central prop in still lifes painted by Dutch artists around 1600.  This genre of still life was called “momento mori.”   The skull would be surrounded by symbols of cultural achievement, such as books, silver, violins, and other luxurious or pleasurable goods and fragile things like soap bubbles and glassware,  to make the statement that none of these will matter at the inevitable moment of death.  There are yards and yards of these paintings, all exquisitely executed as if in self-contradiction:  making a fine painting really did matter even though you knew it was all ephemeral.  Doing something well really does give one pleasure in existing and a baker or brewer might possibly use his money-scheming mind to decipher the meta-text of his life’s narrative  at the sight of such a fine work of art, momento mori be damned.

This is what goes through my mind as I’m trying to understand that skull hovering over the clothes rack.  What could possibly go through the mind of a marketing expert at Nordstrom as she looks for ways to entice shoppers into buying this merchandise?  A light bulb goes off in her brain, “aha, we need a skull there, that’s what we need.”   Actually, there were two skulls.   So, this was a deliberate statement, a motif for this line of clothing.  Could that be?  Yes, it could.  I moved in closer to examine the craftsmanship in this pricy merchandise and discovered that the “momento mori” was all over this stuff.  The seams were raggedy, the fabric was raggedy, the cut was clearly intended to say “I just pulled this out from under my bed, what’re you lookin’ at, go get a life, I have more important things to think about.”  Here I’m tempted to add, “like, totally, dude” except these were large sizes.

At this point you’re expecting some insight.  Sorry, not yet.

I walked around some more and looked at more banal, poorly crafted artifacts and hyper-illuminated grotesqueries.  The skull, the skull.  Where else have we seen the skull?

The words “banal, hyper-illuminated and grotesque” just came to me now as I’m writing, but during my puzzled, non-verbal wanderings through the depressed looking crowds of Holiday shoppers, these associations must have been forming in my visual brain because the image that came to my mind was the diamond studded skull that brought Damien Hirst yet another burst of fame and a fist-full of banknotes.  I recall, something like a hundred million dollars.  Damien Hirst, he of the pickled shark and the decaying cow’s head fame, had hired craftsmen and jewelers to produce a skull cast out of platinum and covered with diamonds.

It will be at the Tate in London next year.  Art critics and curators are linking it to the “momento mori” genre.

Here, again, you’re expecting some insight.  Not yet, sorry.  I’ll keep working on this.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to give those French guys another reading, you know, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, those unreadable books you threw across the room a few years ago.  Even Richard Dawkins has admitted that he can’t make heads or tails of their writings and I suspect it’s not a problem of translations.  But I am currently reading “The Moment of Complexity” by Mark C. Taylor and that’s got me thinking, again,  about semiotics and the desperate state of images in our time.

One thing is clear.  There’s some major messing with our brains going on.  And we’re doing the messing.   If you spend $68 for a shapeless, tattered t-shirt, you’ve had your brain messed with. If you hold the title of Curator at a major museum and you promote Damien Hirst as an artist, then you are messing with our brains.

Oh, please, everybody, send me your thoughts on this.  A tattered scrap of insight will be welcome.

Still life with skull by Peter Claesz, 1597-1660


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




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