almost like we know
A wander through ideas exploring identity and art.
'“The uncreated light of the spirit reflected in the sphere of the fiery firmament as in a mirror, and the reflections in their turn, are the first manifestations of created light".”
R. Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi, Vol. 1, Oppenheim, 1617
Referring to the painting ‘West of the Sun and East of the Moonface’, which has become the front piece of the exhibit:
The name comes from a Nordic Fable - 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon’.
The fable came to mind after I painted the image, (I generally approach artwork in this way with the image being primary) but for this essay I will begin with the fable.
First, the named describes a place to which we have seemingly no access, it is beyond us both in distance and conception, internally and without. In the story it is a distant enchanted place, the woodland fairyland, the mist strewn mountains, Ultima Thule etc… It is the place where happy endings end and spell-casting witches intrude. It is a place that signifies the boundary of our understanding and consequently it is a place of judgment – are we enough at the world's edge? Will we return ourselves? (Does anyone?)
I am especially fond of the poetics. It is provocative to imagine how one might exist in or travel to that real beyond and I find the imagery is humanist in scale. Even in its rational impossibility, it suggest possibility since we know the boundaries - we can see the sun and the moon - and as such we have a place to start. We can hold both places in our imaginations and feel something in doing. It is like art in this way, it doesn’t require special knowledge, it's right there in front of you. What you see and what it provokes in you is a reflection of you as much as it is the artist. (it can be thought of as an interaction) Art implicitly ask what we are when confronted with an item of the world. Our ability to respond ( our “response-ability”) defines our personal boundaries. This is the oldest story. It is the story about how to live given how it is to live. In this context, we can more easily see how these boundaries are moral in form.
I've been subject to the quite flippant thought, that attention is the first principle of organization. We can comprehend our position by objects like the sun or moon and by them we can organize and move ourselves. We can travel relative to their direction, or celebrate in their cycles; they are foundational to the structure of our lives.
There are similar examples that are not as open to the individual – ancient orthodox Christian theologians appropriated the Greeks suggesting we imagine a circle without radius or center in order to conceive God, big G. This is intended to illustrate our limitation, and relative insignificance. It fixes us and that's the point, to be fixed. There is tremendous power in this maneuver because the questions or the ability to question is crushed by establishing intractable premises. We can no longer conceive of adjustments to our own boundaries in the reflection of the inconceivable. We can only be supplicant to the authority.
Issues that begin to confront the valence of our understanding, the deep wood and vast oceans are insignificant in comparison to the impossible, which is ultimately invisible to us. If you shift your boundaries you shift what makes you. We are not only mostly water physically but from another perspective we behave as water does: we find our level, we carve out the environment around us and we are changing and changed along the shape of the world around us. When we consider the world in this more arcane paradigm our options follow very different paths. In this context the limitations produce options, they allow for us to be creative agents.
We are the product of our premises.
The austere orthodox example is far removed from the more common illustration in the fable, which contemplates a place that is richly sensual. We know the sun in many more ways than we can conceive of circles. (Though one symbolizes the other.) Sensuality is the channel through which we meet the world and the spout of experience. We feel the sun or its absence with such commonality we dismiss the marvel of it. We are extensions of it, literally and figuratively embodying its influence. So for me, by this, the Norse fable takes a positive stance and encourages exploration in the face of mystery and the unknown. It acknowledges that the place beyond the boundary is always present and it’s only a matter of whether we choose to pay it our attention. When we do, what do we see, dangers or opportunities? It is about asking where we define the world and because in doing so we define ourselves. Perhaps somewhere in this nugget is a glimpse of our desire for freedom. (don't hold your breath though)
So there is that. So more on.
The image is a portrait, but not of anyone in particular. It has many qualities of a formal image and was conceived as part of a series intended to explore the variations that affect the way we recognize the face. Much, if not most, of what Picasso does in his career is explore this idea. He does this primarily through the elements of drawing and I thought it would be a challenge to see how it could be done in painting. In many ways this is simply a basic question in the history of representation. The big question: How do the changes in what we make affect us? The difficulties this presents are fundamental to the way in which entire cultures develop. Should we make the bomb or no? Continue with Artificial Intelligence, do we have a choice, can we kept our creations corralled, is it already too late? No one knows the answers. But enough know that once we start, there is no going back. There is only growth and destruction.
A basic philosophic premise: consider that all perception is theory laden. This idea is an analogue to the uncertainty in the metaphor of the title. Almost is not ‘Knowing’, but to come to grips with this we would have to live very differently. It is more practical to just know, then we can BE and most seductively we can BE ourselves, whatever we think that is. There are edges to this consideration, which are reflected in the way we feel about what we see and how we judge. Certainty is a conviction to action. Doubt is the opposite end of the spectrum. In this, considering what we would do begins to fade to what we can do. This is a process of maturation; age is the creeping massacre of potential. We have to believe we can to do.
It may be we have gone a far way from the considerations in art but these thoughts are always present for me. What art is made is made of some conviction to a viewpoint. How can we trust what we see if we can't trust how we see it. These are very serious issues in politics - how can we form true or believable conclusions if the premises' are dubious? If we can't, we are fixed again, a mass neutering in the neuter of the masses. Remove the why and you remove what for.
The image is a portrait that faces us directly. We can say it asks if that recognition is reflective. It’s worth noticing that this is a cliché but, in the mirror, do we see ourselves truly and if not what are we not seeing? At what definition does this consideration become crude or elucidating? Clichés are often truths denuded of their novel impacts. It takes attention beyond our commonplace day to appreciate their nuance. It takes the labor of looking at the world as if without having already defined it, as if you didn’t know what you were looking at. We have to be humble and vulnerable in this posture and so it is an affront to our egos, which prefer to have the comfort of knowing.
What is the power that lets Alice into the looking glass? To paint something is to make a translation, it cannot and never will be the thing itself. This is why we call the materials a medium, they are the channel through which our sense experience is converted via our interpretations (conceptions and mental models) and then reproduced back into the world for us to see again. It is truly magical. A way to change the way we see ourselves and others, but the process creates distortions and makes us feel strange, in the way that the prince is turned into a frog or a bear and the story is framed by its ending, the writer deciding when and where, happy or not.
In most myths, religions and folk tales, creation comes from the beyond, through the hero or trickster, maiden or wizard, that has by virtue of their attention (calling, visions or special sight), access to beyond the status quo, the normal, the assumed. Their power for us resides in the way in which they communicate their experiences and understandings and we then know the world by their editing. As such they become the makers of the world.
I enjoy that there is research in neurology (at least research I am familiar with) that supports my preferred interpretations of the mythologies since it puts the possibility of this kind of authority into everyone's hands. It suggests that our every experience is an act of creation. When we see or remember we are not drawing from a perfect copy of the world, we are constructing after the lens of our understanding. The memory is an editorial, the seeing an unconscious choosing and prioritizing. Memory and imagination occur within our 'mind's eye', from our ‘point of view’, and are framed by our biases, biology and history.
At first the metaphors would appear to suggest that only special people can do these things, the 'Workmanship Ideal' which was an important concept during the Renaissance suggesting that proof of one's knowledge would be found by what that person can produce. Though less formal, this is still a powerful lever in our thinking and society. In my view it is fundamental to our ideals and laws, like private property and the meritocracy. We bridle when these standards are questioned or undermined. When they are we think it unfair or binding to our freedom and moral agency. The consequent of this loss is severe, without agency how can we be held accountable? These assumptions run deeply in our culture and manifest much of our strife and discord.
It’s here we come back to the issue of questioning those boundaries that define. So to look at this image (or any image really) is in some meager way a taste of asking what it would be to go east of the sun and west of the moon. There is much more that I can say about this strain of considerations but I'm sure I'm already well over … the moon!?...ha!, limits you see…
I'll end on this; I didn't design any of my paintings to be explications or allegories or didactic statements in any way. All of these considerations come after and often enough while I'm painting just like many of the poems that accompany these images. (Those in the accompanying exhibit) They are found in and after reflection and on principle I seek to find rather than assert. Who the hell am I to make any assertion anyhow? The world acts upon us and by that we act in the world and so we cycle, we turn, becoming through what we find and finding from what we become.
Here is an image to conclude (and then start) our imagination’s jaunt: An event in the world cherished by nearly every ancient culture: There are rare times when the moon and sun exactly align across from one another to either horizon. If one looks east they see the sun rising, and west the moon setting. For an ephemeral but grasping moment, they are matched by distance and intensity in seemingly perfect synchronicity and balance. The viewer from the ground is easily tricked by their eyes, unable to tell which orb is the sun and which the moon. Becoming identical, they move beyond themselves, seeing themselves in the other, no longer the objects as distinctions, nor actors with duties; they become a single entity and expand to encompass the infinite like the conversation between mirrors. Some have called this the eyes of the heavens. What do they see? Where do they look? It’s at these events in the turning of the world we might get the feeling that its almost like we could know too.