Saturday, November 12, 2011

Artist's Statement IV: "...into the midst of the heretofore rejected (non-beautiful, un-interesting, clichéd, etc.)..."

There are two kinds of artist's statements; the first presents the artist's general approach, developed over time (Cézanne's claim that "I don't think of anything when I paint") and then the artist's specific preoccupations of the moment (Constable's "I have done a good deal of skying -- for I am determined to conquer all difficulties").  At the moment, I am considering the specifics as I work on my odalisques.  And, in the main, I have a foreground/background (also known as figure/ground) question.

Richard Foreman gives me the place to start. He says he writes plays that he would like to see onstage, and he also has said that he does not want very much "story" in his work, because people fall asleep: "What this amounts to is a DECISION to view non-beautiful material in such a way that what was foreground is now background .... and the desired beauty is then projected, as the creative act, into the midst of the heretofore rejected (non-beautiful, un-interesting, clichéd, etc. ..."  So we reverse figure and ground. And we do not fall asleep!

Here is the simplest foregrounded subject, a detail from "The Blue Crab," by Ferdinand Bauer, from approximately 1810:

We have nothing else to look at but the subject, the figure; the crab is laid out upon a totally white ground. It is a specimen. The background is irrelevant; in fact, there is nothing there, which is too bad, because if we replaced the crab in its context, the seashore's sands and rocks and seaweeds would be beautiful to see.

Francis Bacon believes in the figure and the foreground, and in pushing away the background almost entirely. Against the most passive and pale -- or un-identifiably bland -- backgrounds, his figures twist and turn, the faces are contorted, pained, unstable.  Look at this center panel from the triptych "Three Portraits," 1973, apparently a self-portrait:

Bacon worked from photographs that had sometimes already been mangled; the faces, and the bodies, were the thing for him, the only thing. I think he believed that the viewer might stand long enough before the painting to put the sitter's face back into some recognizable form, and that, in the process, we might see our confrontation with these distortions as the point.  He was a "foreground" man.

But, I really love Foreman's idea. Why can't we switch the foreground and background, and bring the viewer's gaze to a new place? I think that emotion can not always be seen in a person's face or demeanor, but instead we can sense it in the surrounding air, the sidewalks, the windowsill, the forest ... wherever the setting might be.  The figure -- the blue crab, or Bacon's self-portrait -- may not be the thing we should concentrate on.  Let's imagine, with Foreman, that it's the context that is important.

So here is an unlikely co-conspirator: Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).  Friedrich's figures are inside the sublime. In this painting, called "The Wanderer above the Mists," the man, were we to cut him out and place him in the library of a club of his time in London, would be totally at home; he is impeccably dressed and unremarkable in himself. The man, the "figure" does not matter as much as the "ground," his context here; the painter has focused on the ice, the mist, the rocks, the mountains ... the "background" is here the foreground, the real subject:

The mountains in the distance are impossibly far and forbidding, as is the abyss before our lone figure.  The abyss matters. This is, of course, the forbidding Romantic idea of the Sublime, before which the poets and painters stood in awe. (See Wordsworth's "The Prelude" for more!). The place, the indifferent powerful world of Nature, the "ground," was the point, and not the "figure" standing before it.

Artists and their audiences "see" better when they pick up the figure's context and use it. I think that blank, open figures in a complicated space might allow us to project and imagine, particularly if we are looking at odalisques. The pale odalisque that Gerome painted in "The Moorish Bath" (my November 11 post) is in a context that matters... can we think our way inside?

So, "to illustrate my last remark," here is a detail of my painting "The River," a nude in a new context:

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