Learning to Un-see

Ellsworth Kelly

 If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, especially on the pabulum-pushing, top-ten type sites like Buzzfeed, et al, you’ve likely come across a version of this phrase: “you won’t be able to un-see this!” This usually refers to a visual double entendre, or unfortunately candid celebrity snapshot. This is supposed to be a bad thing – perhaps in the “so good it’s bad” sense – but nevertheless, bad; a thing you’d like kind of like to “un-see” once you’ve seen it.

Several things that I’ve seen recently caused me to wish that I could un-see things – in the sense of retaining a mystery of unknowing; of not recognizing – and subsequently, taking in the formal elements alone, without social, cultural, art historical, religious, or even corporate or institutional reference, or definitiveness. I suppose my question became: can this tendency be undone – can things, definitions – be un-seen? Do I already un-see things without knowing it?

Robert Irwin: Light and Space White Cube, London, UK, MINUS SPACE
Robert Irwin, Black, 2008.
Two twentieth-century artists quickly came to mind, when I considered this question. One of them was Ellsworth Kelly – mostly because he is never far from my consciousness, being someone I consider an artistic soul mate. And of course, because I believe he is uniquely prescient in being able to “un-see” things, nearly at will – and then being able to see them anew. And that’s when Robert Irwin came to mind. Several years ago, I read the book Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, and though I remember few specifics from the reading, a few lessons burnt their way into me, one of which was, you need to relearn your seeing, and reeducate your eyes, and thus your brain (or is that vice-versa?). Kelly was an Irwinite seemingly at birth; I’m a disciple; yet I’m positive that all of us need to get better at 1) un-seeing, and 2) re-seeing.

I’ll give you a very specific and recent example of what is meant here. This week, while driving to the studio, I was studying a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It was a longish, purple blob – landscape-like; horizontal – above which a white, grass-like shape popped up – like a “Kilroy wuz here”, but with only his flattop haircut showing. Puzzling over these shapes, and why they were an appropriate sticker for a car bumper, I noticed the text “Do It Twice Daily!” and still it remained puzzling. Finally, I realized it was a stylized toothbrush: beautiful bubble broken. (It’s likely the text is what pierced the bubble finally; text has a powerful way of doing that). And immediately I wished I could un-see the toothbrush. 

Here’s where the average, normal person would have lost interest – unless he hadn’t yet brushed his teeth that day, or he was a dentist nodding in agreement. But the purple blob and weird white grass shape were intriguing, and I wanted to return to the mystery that had popped and been lost. This is the re-seeing of a seasoned artist interested in formal elements: what artistic plant might this seed develop into? Once these basic materials (line, color, shape, etc.) are taken back to the studio, or sketchbook, and reworked over and over (as long as they seem useful or interesting) then the action starts reversing: returning to another sense of un-seeing; divesting these basic elements of all, or most, or one of the references listed before. This is the re-seeing as un-seeing. And it’s partly out of a desire to return to the pure state before the realization; an almost child-like mystery of a before-unseen thing: the “what is that -” question without the adult judgment of accumulated references, encapsulated in “-supposed to be?” This is also a crucial part of an artistic education which assists all artists, even those interested in “realist” or literal interpretations of the world. Even a portraitist needs to un-see the sitter before she can re-see or reassemble the picture before her; the piece-to-be. Recall those middle-school drawing lessons preaching the logic of breaking the world into cubes, spheres, pyramids, and cylinders. Paradise regained after paradise lost. 

Once this skill is developed, I’m positive one can begin seeing immediately past “toothbrush” and “text” directly to the basic shapes and other formal elements in everything around them – without losing the ability to avoid walking into trees or signposts – and know everything is potential, vigorous seed for inspiration, rumination, and perhaps eventually, finished work. This is related to what I’ve come to value about being an artist: that “polyglot” ability to take absolutely anything, and use it to feed one’s inspiration. The skill of un-seeing is an important component of that ability. And suddenly not only does a toothbrush become a landscape, but a landscape might become a toothbrush. The bubble has been broken, but who wants to stay locked inside the tension of a bubble, no matter how beautiful? Learn to reproduce it; since art is artifice, after all. 

Related Posts with Thumbnails