Informing Form notes on the Invisible University
Notes on Recent Work
My Practice has always been concerned with the ontological: What does it mean to exist? What constitutes the identity of an object? What is matter and what defines a form?
Recent research and developments in neurology as well as the popularization of quantum physics have created a new popular mythology and a way of looking at ourselves. What is this non-narrative, non-linguistic experience? Yungen is a Japanese word meaning an awareness of the universe that triggers an emotional response too deep and mysterious for words. I believe this is what visual artists have been struggling with throughout history.
A major influence in my life has been the writings of Alan Watts. Through his writings I began to see a relationship between scientific views of the universe, or perhaps universes, and the fundamental truths of ancient, predominantly eastern viewpoints. For instance, the Hindu view that all is God playing hide and seek with itself seems a beautiful metaphor for contemporary scientific viewpoints. All matter when magnified becomes vibration.
In Henri Focillon's book The Life of Forms the author presents the idea of a natural or organic, biological root to artistic expression that remains intact even though molded by social and political constructs as well as material and technical demands.
We construct our view of the world through an integration of mind/body that reflects our cognitive patterns and methods and the structure of our brains. Perception is not as simple as we might suppose. The work of neurologist Vilayanur S Ramachandran has shown us that our sense of perception is a complicated dance of neural networks. A major amount of our brain is dedicated to processing faces and it’s no surprise we easily experience pareidolia, the phenomenon of perceiving faces in clouds and trees. Ramachandran also speaks of the “Form Primitives”, essential tools in the working of the brain that start neural firings; this is cause for a reconsideration of the perception of platonic shapes.
The history of painting has been as much about this search for meaning through a meditation on form, and its attendant colour, as it has been about image or narrative.
The Italian Mannerist Jacopo Pontormo has always been central to my aesthetic development. I see in him one of the truly first modern painters. As an orphan his first master was DaVinci and then Andrea del Sarto. As one of the first inheritors of the high renaissance and steeped in a through knowledge of its painterly techniques he moved immediately to abstraction. In the words of Ramachandran, “art is not realism but hyperbole”. Pontormo flattened and compressed space creating an emblematic presentation of the world through a decorative approach to form but always maintained a profound human psychological presence.
Our brains are wired to perceive ourselves, our own presence and we constantly anthropomorphize our surroundings. As a figurative painter who has also been a dancer, I became very concerned that depicting the body was one thing and experiencing it as the vehicle of the performative was another.
I found a strange similarity to Pontormo’s work, particularly his drawings, and Butoh, a form of modern Japanese dance I trained in beginning in 1996. Its internalization of worldly forces, a sense of being moved from within and a modern expressionist sense of posture all echoed what I was seeing and began researching in Butoh.
Ultimately both are arts of designing figures in space and time and both are dependant on creating that sense of rasa, a Sanskrit word meaning a contemplative abstraction in which the inwardness of human feelings suffuses the surrounding world of embodied forms. We can translate this into art parlance as “getting the feel of the thing.”
Butoh, with its use of the shaved head and blank white body, also became a site for research into emotional contagion. One projects ones’ own emotions onto a good Butoh performer, or more precisely, a union between performer and watcher takes place during a successful performance. I first noticed this emotional transference while doing paintings of “dummies”, stuffed blank white canvas figures, whose simplification allowed for a quick and deep sense of empathy. This became clear to me again as I did a series of sock monkey paintings, where their simple stylized faces have the uncanny power to transfix us.
The nature of my career path is like DNA where the various forms and practices weave around themselves creating a larger and stronger strand. In 2006 I was invited by daevid allen of Gong and Soft Machine fame to perform at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. What resonated most deeply for me was the total commitment to being himself that daevid radiated. This is also true of my mentor, west coast master Maurice Spira. I have been influenced by these artists whose commitment is to their vision. To be honest with yourself despite its effects on popularity or career takes courage and a deep political commitment.
I have begun thinking about how and why I drew as a child, how I draw when I “doodle” and what the simple forms are that we relate to. How the placement and deportment of a simple form constitutes and expresses emotion. How we internalize external forces and what shapes and forms we use to re-externalize them in a work of art. I am also fascinated with our own personal art histories, including when and how we first encountered artworks. For me it was Beatrix Potter and Eh Sheppard followed by Big Daddy Roth and Chuck Jones well before Michelangelo and Matisse. I am curious about how this affects our programming and ultimately our perception of form.
In my newest paintings I seek an integration of object and environment, a reference to the cognitive history of images and a visual trace of our perpetual becoming, our perpetual unfolding.
Constructed from simplified organic forms we are presented with these spirit-encapsulating structures that trigger a performative impulse as we attempt to find meaning, piecing different stimuli together. We attempt to read as social constructs the interactions of this odd and strange cast of personalities and personae performing a type of theatre where forms that reference cartoons, surrealism, supermatism, futurism, cubism and modern design conjure a profound human presence through an interior mimesis.
But this work is painting and the technical control required to create form is illusory, these are forms that are part of Maya, this parietal convention, this veil between us and the spirit world. But they are and must remain physical. A photo of a painting holds many aesthetic pleasures but it is not the physical object, it doesn’t function the same in the way it radiates. As McLuhan says, the medium is the message. This work seeks integration both within its own structure and as a social tool but also raises questions of saliency: what causes things to stand out and why, to stand up and be noticed.
In Pontormo’s letter to Varchi, questioning the superiority of painting to sculpture he comments “But what I call too daring is that importance placed on out-doing nature in wanting to give life to a figure, to make it seem alive and yet place it on a flat surface, because if the painter had considered at all that when God created man he sculpted him in the round which makes it easier to give life to a figure, then he would not have taken up a discipline so full of artifice so miraculous and divine.”