Art Thoughts, Week 45: Seurat & Stability

Anyone who’s stood at the edge of a skyscraper, dam or cliff and peered down, feeling that queer liquidity occur between their ears, knows firsthand of the connectedness between the physical and the psychological. As a youngster at the shore with my family, I often felt that same fear from a pier’s edge, accentuated by the mysterious, murky bay water, where one could see more of their reflection, than the bottom. The instinct was, as it usually is, to step back, and if even that is difficult, to find something to hold on to; something rooted and stable which will impart some anchoring. 

In Seurat’s Port of Honfleur, he plays with this tendency to search for stability, and also questions the actual effectiveness of that ostensible security. A first look at this painting might raise the question, what is this form in the front of the sublime harbor scene, seemingly muddling the view? At least this was among my initial reactions, and until recently, this vaguely humanoid pier post consistently puzzled me, both as a form, and as a tactic by Seurat: why this, and why there? 

One possible explanation might be related to that very human tendency to seek out stability in the face of an unfamiliar situation. At first glance, Seurat is giving us something to “hold onto” while approaching the obviously beautiful scene, with its simultaneously threatening depths. This post’s weirdly humanoid shape gives us a point of identification as we look into this scene from a vantage point outside it; it’s the liaison between us and the painted scene. And indeed, an anchoring hold is what we need, because at the same time Seurat is helping us identify with the scene, he is “clarifying” the diffusion of actual space. 

We must remember the radical newness that this technique of pointillism represented: even a dedicated nineteenth-century viewer might be forgiven for confusion, distaste or vertigo. But the beauty of the scene assisted them, as it does us: Seurat, even while fiddling with the microscope lens as he did, does not sacrifice beauty to the god of novelty. He has entered into a severe irony, clarifying the reality of confusion. That is, we are really at the heart of it a collection of molecules – small, individual components – which maintain viability and structure through elaborate, mysterious chemical and physical attractions. Seurat is presenting to us our innate instability; including the very device he’s given us to hold onto while gazing out onto the water.

Of course, at the same time that pointillism was emerging as a new artistic technique, scientific discoveries were confirming those very things which pointillism reveals. This is typical of a brilliant artistic mind: when science bounds ahead, art is often not far behind and occasionally pushing. Vice versa, art pushing science is often also the case. Not only were color experiments being propounded, such as the interrelationship of adjacent colors, but also molecular discovery was burgeoning. And at the same time doubt began increasing about our long-held beliefs about human souls; the spirit: all simply a deus ex machina? If we really are just a collection of smaller pieces, albeit highly logical, where does this supposed wellspring reside? And so the familiar platonic division of spirit versus body reached another level. Yet…the beauty of even such a persistently questioning artwork points back to an even more original question. From whence does our attraction to the numinous arise, if not somewhere between these tiny components we are made from? Is it simply electrical impulses, arcing from one grain to the next? The calm of the boats on the water; the hazy glow of the colors; the highly intelligent composition of shapes: all this seems to suggest that, whether in the gap between parts, or the parcel, there is something which needs both a law of beauty, and the resulting stability possible from a strategic discomfort.


Three from Friday

My time for visiting local shows (not to mention out of the city) has been limited recently, so I relished having some extra time this Friday to investigate several venues, some opening that evening. To keep this more succinct, as I tend to ramble and occasionally rhapsodize, I will allot a paragraph to one artist at each place. Let's begin, shall we?

1. Mary Judge, in Elemental/Ornamental, Moore College, 20th and Parkway.
I've actually written about Mary Judge here before, but had not been aware previous to this exhibit that she was a Moore graduate, circa '75. Regardless, I remain in my thinking that her work edges on timelessness and universality (despite the reticence to such assignations in academic circles). This is a tall order, of course, and was admittedly challenged by my own immediate thoughts. Various associations began spinning along with the work: cookies; lace doilies; compasses, crackers and clocks. Thus I was almost as quickly mildly ashamed by my first associations being largely domestic and feminized: I try to avoid this when knowingly approaching a female artist's work, as a male! But these images soon morphed and enriched under the great acuity of Judge's hand, and upon remembering her delicately rendered visual textures, and the quiet, ticking movements of her prints. The insistent circles roll like time, wall to wall, changing from piece to piece, much like the silent progress of a life; a life with a core interest, but with wandering eyes which glean from the available world like-entities, images and concepts. The circling is insistent, but the wide-ranging alacrity of Judge's associations are admirable, and keep it sane. Not approaching OCD insanity such as On Kawara's calendar paintings, but lovingly compiled, like a lifetime's collection of seashells; one genre with myriad possibilities, gathered with care in a lifelong walk behind the tide.

2. David Dunn, eReader, at Copy Gallery, 319 North 11th, 3rd floor.
Vox Populi, just next door, was boring, and I have to admit, I don't always expect a lot from Copy Gallery. David Dunn, however, caught me off guard, and got a hook in me with eReader. A thumping, oddly mesmerizing soundtrack pulsated along with an accompanying video track on back-to-back TV tubes, and the counterpoint offbeats of scanning lights, shadows of human forms, and suggestions of hidden or just-departed persons. Various mysterious and threatening elements created a sense of menace, and appealed to my love of the murder-mystery genre. Though, this was more Brave New World or Blade Runner than Agatha Christie. I kept having a sense of being watched, and actually found myself looking over my shoulder, not sure I hadn't seen a slip of a shoe or an eye in the blinds. A vaguely science-experiment-type installation in the corner facing the doorway was spotlit, and upon inspection looked to be ransom notes pulped up and reconstituted, and submerged into a formaldehyde tank, suggesting a further layer of threat and menace. Kudos, David Dunn; you made me stay for more than five minutes, and there's something to be said for that.

3. Robert Scobey and Yevgeniya S. Baras, at Grizzly Grizzly, 319 North 11th Street, 2nd floor.
A relative newbie among all the other upstarts in 319 North 11th Street, Grizzly Grizzly has until the 28th of February a video and installation by Scobey, and several paintings on canvas by Yevgeniya S. Baras; Baras being a New York transplant from the Russian community of Philadelphia (her comment). I scanned Scobey's video on my way out, and liked what I saw in a few seconds, but must admit I was (having the painter's bias) captivated by Baras's paintings right away. Her edges seemed almost high-school fare, with their exposed staples and unconsidered qualities, but the faces of the paintings demanded the most attention, and largely silenced the edges. They were all either shallow and dark, or shallow and bright; not forgetting their birth from the prosody of layers. The faceted and lozenged play of sheen variations in many of them were arresting; especially the darkest ones, eliciting thoughts of a smoky quartz twisted in the hand, or the mussed-up stepchildren of Constructivism. And I don't use that term lightly, since Baras is after all Russian: there is indeed a stalwart, ornery sense of betterment, even thought it has a more internalized logic, as opposed to the movement's original agit-prop aesthetic. It's as if the movement has been wrested by a self-aware female painter...which it has. Constructivism as a mode now hangs on with a fragile and cold grace, but it once was hot, powerful and poignant. Baras has revived some of that, funkily.


Clash of the blahgs

"Imitation is the sincerest of flattery"
-Charles Caleb Colton

Blogs, that relatively new form of free communication, come in many different forms. Some of those are valuable commentary; personal online diaries; cultural critiques and reviews, and jeremiads of varying effectiveness.

When first came on the scene, through a titillating email sent out to various arts-related people in Philadelphia, I first wrote it off as being childish, shrill and the anonymous rantings of a severely disenfranchised person. In order to allow it some credence, I did go back fairly far in the archival postings recently, and managed to find some sincere and valuable advice to artists who wanted to get noticed, and what they might try doing (search for We Listen to Our Critics, January 12th, on the site). All the vitriol (couched in pseudonyms and obscenities) against what artists such as myself and the co-op gallery I'm part of are trying to do in this city aside, there may be some value to what this blog and the person(s) behind it are doing. Even though I find the medium personally distasteful, since I stand behind civility and professionalism as being ultimately more effective, I'll still allow that there may be some value to what they are trying to communicate...along with their free speech rights, and all that. Hopefully, personal attacks will motivate those of us pilloried by this blog on to even more and better work. So, kudos when that is accomplished.

But then came along, and in a somewhat ham-handed attempt at an expose (I think? I'm still not sure) risked making even more of a mockery of the whole ridiculous thing. Pointless? Perhaps...but it has made me think, and for that I thank them, with a caveat. Taking up a pseudonym for yours truly (among other artists and writers) such as Wim Gershits, and then writing false comments and posting them with a link to this actual blog which attempts a stab at seriousness and will always remain open, not anonymous? This is clumsy, if it is an attempt to get back at the original blog, and pisses me off somewhat...but I'm still hoping that all of this leads to something better, for all of us and for the city's art scene. Granted, having grown up in a small town milieu, it comes off as being another example of an insider quibbling over crumbs, a pattern that one may find in many small towns. (Of course, if I get a flood of comments on this, it might give me an indication if anyone actually reads this blog!)

Still, I'll repeat, if it spurs us all on to better things and better work (and maybe even some adult dialogue), then I suppose I'll see it as a stone in the oyster. It remains to be seen if the pearl produced is worth anything, though.

Related Posts with Thumbnails