Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mystery and Poetic Painting

Emil Carlsen, Still Life with Brass and Oysters
A post on "Mystery" over at oil painter Stapleton Kearns' blog has me thinking about the importance of indeterminacy in my own work and its role in what's often called "poetic" painting.

As Stape points out, by the subtle use of soft edges and careful value adjustments a painter can suggest what's in the picture (and even what isn't!) without having to fully describe it. 

If "prosaic painting" describes, poetic painting evokes. A refreshing sense of control comes in simply realizing that one needn't (and probably shouldn't) delineate every part of a picture with equal clarity (a hallmark, by the way, of so-called primitive painting; selective detail is learned from the history of painting). 

George Inness, Georgia Pines
When it's done properly, "leaving something for the viewer's imagination" (the way George Inness does in the landscape above) invites a deeper engagement. Look how vague (or "suggestive," I should say) the details are throughout, even where the action is, in the middleground and at the horizon. On a surface level, the viewer must participate to "complete" the picture, filling in details where none are given. Such a painting discloses itself in stages, unfolding gradually as elements assemble before the viewer. The result is a vital, animated work of art that offers an experience full of freshness and life.

Taken a step further into metaphysics, however, the use of indeterminacy in painting can correlate with the unspoken, if not the unsayable - the ineffable in poetry and in human experience. 

George Inness, Green Marches
For me, indeterminacy functions in much of Inness's "visionary" work by evoking what I'd call the unknowable quality of felt experience. Hence: mystery. In Inness's "Green Marshes," the entire painting takes on the indistinct, shimmering quality of an emotion, a memory, or a dream.

The material world in Inness's later paintings often borders on insubstantial because for Inness, painting increasingly became a way to explore the dual nature of the world as simultaneously "material" and divine. The late works function as expressions of (or analogues for) spiritual experience. 

William James noted that one of the defining characteristics of mystical experience is that it cannot adequately be put into words. The painter interested in mystery paints that which "cannot be pictured," that is, things that can only be suggested and evoked yet never fully defined.

George Inness, In the Orchard, Milton
Innes's In the Orchard, Milton contains very little that is clearly delineated besides the sinuous tree trunk in the middle of the composition (which itself has the quality of semi-transparency). The rest is so suggested that at first I thought the lighter vertical element to the right of the curvy trunk was the sunlit trunk of a larger tree. Suddenly the figure of the woman coming toward us on the path vaporously emerged. The entire work comes to resemble a translucent tapestry, a lacy, gossamer veil swaying between one world and the next.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger described truth itself as aletheia, as an opening up, a "poetic revealing." In Being and Time, he describes meaning as a bringing-forth, rather than something we impose on the world. For Heidegger, meaning is a process of unconcealment, illuminating the essence of Being. By way of example, he writes about how Van Gogh's painting of a pair of old shoes conveys elements essential to humanity's relationship to the earth and, by extension, nature as a whole.

Vincent Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886)

By virtue of how suggestive these shoes are - not what the painting shows but what it alludes to, what such an image evokes about the life that has been lived in them - Heidegger  (and other philosophers, more or less) see an artist conceptualizing and presenting the essence of "shoeness."

For Heidegger, too, there's a "shining" quality to art's revelation of essential Being, something not unlike the "radiance" in Joyce's translation of Aquinas's model of beauty as wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Heidegger writes, "this shining (the "shining" of illuminated Being) joined in the work, is the beautiful. Beauty is one way in which truth essentially occurs as unconcealedness" (Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art). If any true work of art would have this quality of showing forth essence or Being, the indeterminacy and "mystery" in Inness functions both as a visual metaphor for, as well as the enactment of it.

But this is mere description, and utterly subjective. A painting just is. As my friend Dermot O'Brien recently reminded me, certain strangely emotive and vital works of art and literature magnificently and simply "refuse to permit reductive explication, much like life and love."


  1. Your 'mere description' has a touch of 'radiance' in it- very nice Chris.

  2. I think these shoes best represent the artist's life as hard, worn and fraught with pain, as he was. I confess, he's never been my favorite artist. His troubled mind made his work hard to get through for me. It left me with a feeling of hopelessness for the man, himself, as I felt when first reading of his life and untimely method of his self-inflicted death. However, I feel that viewing and respecting his work now, honors the man in his portrayal of himself.

  3. Innes? I am reading about his work and life, and cannot still make a particular comment any one piece of his work. It's all very mysterious, as was the man. I feel that his work (in whole) speaks to the very soul of the depth of our feelings, both the joy and the fear of life, as portrayed by the lights and the darks in his paintings. I feel that Innes was seeking that balance for himself and for us.

  4. I agree about Inness, Pat- "both the joy and the fear of life" - isn't that a profound project for any artist to set oneself upon. on van Gogh's shoes, Meyer Schapiro tracked down some letters that show that they weren't his - he purchased them at a Paris fleamarket, and though he tried them on when he got home, they didn't fit! Make of that what you will - I have no idea how much that kind of information should or should not color one's interpretation of the painting.

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    1. Van Gogh was attracted to these shoes enough to paint them for a reason, and I believe he felt "akin" to them.

  6. Nice post, Chris. You touch on so many things--the use of "Veil" makes me think of the Hindu "Samsara"--all the layers of illusion between the most obvious qualities of a thing and its essence. After several decades as a puppeteer, it became part of our core philosophy that one of the great features of our art was the way puppets eliminated inessential details of the thing they were representing--requiring the viewer to "fill in the blanks"--that active participation you wrote of. In this way, some of the most successful puppets are little more than bits of flowing cloth, or a hand in a colored glove. As for the shoes…aren't they always emotionally freighted? They function as symbols, as metaphors, but also synecdochically--the boot stands for the man, boots on the ground for an army. We don't really have as strong an association with belts, say, or monocles. Or maybe that's just me. One thing the director Peter Sellars learned from his early years of doing street theatre was that he didn't need to "spell things out for the audience," that they were always way ahead of the storyteller. For me, it boils down to the artist having respect for the intelligence of his/her viewer. This is the whole difference between art and illustration,right? Not that it's so clear cut a division--more like one of those spectrum disorders. I've been pleasantly surprised that even our most abstract puppet work (even one that involved no more than a sequence of shoes in different spatial orientations to each other) has failed to confuse our audience--quite the contrary. Thanks again.