monday, august 08, 2022

Seeing Stella

On the beach today again, with the girls. Their little bodies are such a wonder to me. The light was raking across the water near sunset. They were taking turns climbing up a driftwood log, and jumping down. “Mommy!” My eldest daughter, Stellamaris, kept shouting. “Look at me! Mommy! Look!” I was drawing her, of course. Technically, I was looking, looking right at her, but not in the way she wanted.


I was in fact, looking at the way her silhouette appeared almost black against the absolute brilliance of the sun reflecting off the distant water. The water was transformed into this kind of sustained lightening, like the face of an angel, almost blinding. And Stella’s shapely little legs were outlined by this glow. I was attempting to make a note of it in charcoal, but it seemed impossible to reproduce the impression. If it had been photography, I’m not sure that the camera lens would have done a much better job. Of course thinking about what a camera would do with a situation like this, was helpful in imagining an approach to recreating the atmosphere. With confidence, I drew my brilliant little pale skinned daughter as a pitch black figure of uncertain parameters, knowing from experience of looking at photographs that only the highest possible contrast would invoke the brilliance of that surrounding light. 


And the thought occurred to me: this is why ‘The Impressionists,’ but not just them--everyone who painted and drew from around 1870 onward began to do crazy things like make their figures look black in the sunlight, let murky blue shadows tear across the integrity of a lovely face so as to flatten it; to disfigure a body in the same manner--because this is the closest thing to they could get to capturing certain optical effects with tones of pigment. And they were acutely aware of these effects because everyone now had begun to look at photographs. The cat was out of the back. The camera really did cause this visual revolution in art. New boldness came from new visual experiences, mediated by light, and strangely, by technology. 


To all my fellow sighing moralists who would love to turn back the clock on modernity to the point of excluding modern and postmodern visual art and its unruly, crude and rash innovations, reductions and experiments, I’m afraid it's too late. You, too, have seen photographs. Your brain is full of them; formed by them. You, by virtue of having lived and learned in this world, have a modern mind and a modern eye, whether you like it or not. 


To the machine-minded workmen; the get-it-done engineers looking for pat answers and quick fixes and formulae for art: there's your answer, right? Problems of drawing and painting solved now and forever: just get yourself to imitate a camera lens and you now have all possible knowledge of what it takes to make a likeness, and therefore, a picture. A work of art. But is that all? Certainly not! The camera, whether it be the cool, metallic machine or the flesh and blood eye, is neither the beginning, nor the end of art. Even visual art transcends these material parameters, if you believe in art as a spiritual good, and I do. Setting aside the delicious questions of craft, materials, subject and technique, all of which are a great deal of what painting and drawing is about, there is so much complexity in the phenomenon of seeing that an artist can (and usually does) spend a whole lifetime muddling through it.


In the end it's like grasping at so much straw. Tantalizing, dazzling, majestic, fugitive straw. One moment on the beach brought an overwhelming complexity of shifting contingencies, of changing relationships. My daughter was only a ‘black phantom’ for a split second, then the tonal values changed again and she was a ‘brilliant angel,’ and back again, and so on. The light source was gradually changing all the while as I chased the gesture of her dynamic little figure with my charcoal. As the given shape changed, the perspective changed constantly too, and not only that, my focus kept changing: first looking here and then there, squinting, adjusting, my irises opening and closing against the brilliant light.


And then there’s memory; what I already know about her figure; what I’ve already experienced of being in these kinds of situations; what I’ve recently learned about the shape of my current surroundings, the scale and distance and potential of objects all around me; unfathomable complexity that my mind and eye are somehow pulling together at an amazing speed to deliver to me a visual theory of reality that is consistent and reasonable and plausible; a synthesis of a countless number of mental “photographs,” combined with conceptual images, maps and unconscious schema learned from countless millions of moments of living and perceiving objects in this world. 


And then there's even more sensory information: my sense of touch; my haptic sense whispering to me of the physical presence of things. The senses, maps and memories yield fugitive impressions, but they come together to make a whole, a gestalt, and that’s what the artist is trying to capture, for a start. But then, there is meaning. The meaning of this dancing, flickering angel before me; her countenance alternating between dark and light…my daughter, Stellamaris…four years ago her body came out of my body…flesh of my flesh…I sense the dull ache between my legs as the memory of birth brings phantom pangs…where did she come from? Where will she go? And I’m just drawing...drawing on the beach. 


“Mommy!” My daughter kept shouting. “Look at me! Mommy! Look!” Technically I was looking, looking right at her, but not in the way she wanted. Perhaps I should stop for now.



Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, pray for us!