Monday, May 03, 2010

when a painting slows you down...





while i was in madrid working on my installation, i managed to find three free days to visit the prado (twice) and the renia sofia (once). i saw a lot of incredible things, some of which i will try to post about over the next few weeks or so, but if i had to choose a single object that stood out from the rest, it would definitely be the fra angelico painting pictured above - retablo de la anunciacion, 1426-28.

going to a museum like the prado, the louvre, or the met, i always feel i want to wander without specific goals, so that i can enter some rooms without any idea of what i will see there. fortunately the prado's poor design allows a visitor to become disorientated quite often, and getting lost was not a problem. while i did map my way to goya's black paintings, and the room of bosch's work; everything else was pretty much a random discovery - which is a really beautiful way to experience a museum if you have the time.

when i first entered the room containing the fra angelico i was immediately struck by its size (it is easily 4 or 5 times larger than i had expected), as well as its placement - it is flanked by two incredible works, a small painting by mantegna (el transisto de la virgin, 1462-92) and antonello de messina's christo muerto sastenido por un angel, from 1476.

i should tell you that, as an artist who received a graduate degree in 1989, the last time i studied art of this period was probably in 1982, and whatever information i received then - during slide lectures of course - has certainly vanished. while i do love this period of painting, all i really "know" about it at this point is only what i can see and intuit in the presence of such things - indeed a different kind of research or learning than the kind that occurs in art history class.

while i was installing my own work, i ended up having a number of conversations with both older and younger artists who were also participating in the arte sonoro exhibition. as usual a number of those conversations were related to definitions of sound art, various approaches to performance, and how one experiences sound in various contexts. of course, most of these conversations ended up hovering around the idea of primary experience - with the usual discussions revolving around the qualities of listening to certain works in mp3 form, the relationship of the object of a CD or LP to the activity of listening and downloading.

while i have no interest in following such threads here, the experience of not only seeing the fra angelico on two different days, but also being able to sit beneath it on my second visit for over an hour, was a deeply profound experience. that hour spent in the presence of the original was as good as any illustration about why, in many cases, an mp3 is not a primary experience; but roughly the equivalent of experiencing the fra angelico painting through the postcard i purchased of it in the gift shop.

a primary experience is not only about receiving an image. it is about the experience of that image in relation to the object's physical presence - confronted by the all of the things that do not survive the process of translation, and which influence the process of "absorption" - things like harshness, subtlety, surface, patina, light, color, tone, etc. when one is present with a source, rather than a reproduction, an object is able to speak in its primary voice. a reproduction is simply a tool for the transfer of information, and usually it's source is degraded and veiled... for research or as a memory trigger it is fine, but it isn't the equivalent of being with the thing as it was made.

the next step towards deeper immersion, of course, is time and repetition. to be able to look at a painting for over an hour is certainly a luxury, but it is also a kind of commitment towards conversation and reflection. because of my own inability to process hundreds of artworks in a day with any substance, i am also an advocate of seeing fewer things in a visit, and spending as much time with each thing as possible.

as i sat on a bench facing this fra angelico painting, things began to come into focus that i never would've seen nor thought, had i stood there for 10 minutes and moved on to the next thing. i'm not sure that my notes here are perceptive or interesting, but i share them with you just the same. here they are presented as jotted down upon a small piece of paper between the lookings - words that do not come from memory, nor from looking at the postcard now leaning against my monitor, but scrawled with a pen in hand, in the presence of the object, while conversing through that primary experience:

"the angel in red, with blue robe peeking through/the woman in pink but covered in blue - they are opposites but equal. their hands both in the same gesture - as if an american indian hand signal for bird, angel, spirit, or flight. symmetrically broken up into three - 3/2/1. 1=mary, 2=angel, 3= natural world/eden. (trinity). the interior of her "cell" / "portico" - a blue sky with gold dot stars (is there a constellation hidden?) - behind is a simple "cell"/fantastic bench. the beam of light "the message" coming from beyond/the sun/a beam from two hands. the "eden" seems painted by rousseau - there's a bird in the beam and a bird on a beam - the swirling mist of color of stone, like a hallucination - the beam is the only element present in all 3 sections - uniting the human, the "touched" and the divine. the three flowers at adam and eve's feet. the perspective and architectural scale resembles johnson's folly at glass house. there are no words to describe the angel's wings."

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Blogger Christine White said...

what a fantastic experience - and a reminder of the degrees of 'listening' possible

5:08 PM  
Anonymous david mc said...

beautiful piece of writing steve. Some of my great experiences with art have been when I'm to tired to walk and I just camp out in front of a piece to rest.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent rumination, Steve.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Seth Nehil said...

Thanks for this - I agree that time, repetition and commitment are key to diving under the surface of any work. I wonder though about the concept of "primary experience"... Or rather, I would say that it's the experience which is primary, not the object. Once we start looking for a "firstness" in the object, where do we stop? I'm sure this painting was intended for a different context, a different frame, a different kind of light. Not to mention the slippage or loss of cultural understandings. Similarly, I think that primary experience is possible with any object, "degraded" or otherwise. This all becomes increasingly problematic when there's no single "object" to pin down, no authentic auratic thing.

The other day, I was deeply moved by re-listening to Costin Miereanu's Luna Cinese (Cramps, 1975). I was listening to an mp3 that I made from a CD that I made from a cassette that I recorded from a friend's LP years ago...

2:09 PM  
Blogger sroden said...

hey seth,

thanks for the comment. i was specifically trying to speak of one's experience - perhaps first, perhaps not - with the actual object. (i have no doubts about, nor was i discounting, the possibility of fantastic primary experiences with reproductions, some of which in my own experience have trumped the experience of the original). nor was i trying to speak about firstness in terms of cultural firstness, but firstness in relation to my own self being confronted with this thing. (like hearing a record for the first time...). i was not attempting in any way to access the painting's relationship to then - the history, context, cultural understanding, or physical conditions from when it was made and seen; but more so attempting to simply stand and look at the thing over a longer period of time than i am usually able to do so. i don't claim to "understand" the painting on its own terms (with all the context/framing/light/culture/etc. you mention), as much as simply trying to "read" it based on what i was seeing and how i thought about what i was seeing - as well as how that experience was happening in a room, in a public space, with a sound-scape, and other people. i do believe that a painting is indeed the "single object"(although certainly one could argue towards a reproduction also being the single object, but i'm not so interested in semantics...); but pinning it down is never really my goal as much as the idea of opening it up - even if at the expense of logical resolve... i was simply looking at the way in which i felt able to converse with the object as opposed to a reproduction of it. the beauty of such situations, at least in my own wanderings, is that being in a room with the thing allows the cultural and historical discourse to fall away, and i can simply look without worrying about what it is i'm supposed to be looking for. if a painting kills me as much as this one did, i don't feel i have to think twice about letting it take me wherever it might want to go. i don't feel the need, or burden, to corral it into a place of my own (or any one else's) expectations, nor does it have to fulfill some purpose i have previously determined for it, particularly when, as in this case, i happened upon it without looking for it.i actually believe that the reason i found myself so immersed in this painting was exactly because i did NOT know much about its history, and being raised from another religion, i didn't really know much about what is pictured. hence i was able to stand before it with little or no baggage, and the slippage and loss of cultural understanding allowed me to see what was hanging before me, with little distraction. (unfortunately, i don't have a magic mind empty-er :-)

see next comment for rest as blogger won't let me write too large of a comment...

10:42 PM  
Blogger sroden said...

here's the rest:

i remember a teacher in life drawing class always saying "draw what you see not what you know" and i think in situations like this, i am trying to look at what i'm seeing rather than seeing through what i know about the object through previous study. i don't know if this is entirely possible, but there are many situations where i am interested in trying. while the painting did get me to a place of thinking about mp3s, etc. i think it is a very different situation in relation to primary and reproductions with regards to a painting and a recording. a painting was not made to be reproduced, and a recording, at least in the last 100 years or so, is generally considered as a master for a desired reproduction (generally unlimited). a painting is generally meant to hang in a space so that one would have to see it in "person" to experience it. nonetheless, something mastered for cd sounds very different in mp3 form, something mastered for LP sounds very different on cassette, etc. if an artist or composer or rock band, mixed and mastered their work for a specific medium, then i would consider that desired medium to offer something closer to the idea of the primary object, than a dub to a different medium (i'm not saying it's bad or worse, just that the new object is different than the primary object). certainly one's relationship to lo-fi or hi-fi, is personal, and decided by temperament and preference. any re-recording where loss, shift, or change occurs is a second (or fourth in your case with the miereanu) generation of the original - obviously one can still have profound experiences with either, but a primary object in my mind would be the object the soundwork was created for by the artist or composer. i'm sure some would say your lp to cassette to cd to mp3 is a pale copy of the original, while others would say there are gains in the losses, and the mp3 sounds better because of those differences from the original. it makes me think about iggy pop remixing and remastering raw power, which was one of my favorite LPs as a kid. when i first heard the remix for cd with the guitar pumped up in the mix i hated it (and still do). in that situation i can't really have a "new" primary experience, as it's a record i'd been listening to my whole life and, of course, i never wanted it to change. maybe i could re-record the cd onto a an old cassette with the dolby cutting into the hi end, so that it started to muffle enough of the bright guitar sound to sound like what i remember... or better yet, i could just dig out the box of childhood records and listen to the LP...

10:42 PM  
Blogger Seth Nehil said...

Thanks for the extended response. My sense is that this conversation could continue endlessly - that's the pleasure of it. I don't think we would ever reach the "primary"...

2:23 PM  
Blogger sroden said...

hey seth,
indeed at some point over a beer or two we can resolve our semantic differences and most likely get to a place of "primary" agreement :-)

6:50 AM  
Anonymous trish said...

Having just returned from a 3 month stint in Florence at a studio that was around the corner from San Marco, the monastary where Fra Angelico painted frescos in each monk's cell- I was so pleased to read your post on Fra Angelico - and noted it was posted in May -how appropriate, the month of Mary.

Amongst other things, I believe Fra Angelica is considered a Metaphysicist.

2:21 PM  
Blogger sroden said...

thanks for the note. indeed the metaphysical is certainly present in his work... thinking de chirico must've also been a fan...

3:57 PM  

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