Joe Wardwell’s Party

 

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One could make the argument that: the view of abstract expressionism that prized its bigness, its coaxing of sublime feelings, is rooted in the 19th century Hudson River School of landscape painting, with its embrace of the bigness of America, and especially the policy of Manifest Destiny that conveniently excused power from its abuses during the American westward expansion.

And, one could further suggest that Rock and Roll’s ascension from its humble country blues and rural folk roots to hard rock anthems played in stadiums filled with adoring crowds, also finds its touchstone in that same craving for bigness, for power and dominion over all.

That’s a lot to take in, but that’s where Joe Wardwell begins, in an exhibition entitled Party Over, at LaMontagne Gallery (555 East 2nd St, South Boston, MA) through July 2014. In his new paintings Wardwell explores the formal and philosophical interrelationships among Hudson River School landscape strategies, the familiar tropes of abstract expressionism, and rock and roll poetics, in order to deflate the pretensions to power of all three, and to return them, with us, to a humbler and more peaceful origin, rooted in the simple here and now of the painted object and our immediate and unfolding encounter with it.

Wardwell accomplishes this via a visual interlacing of the three elements, that defies any hierarchical or figure/ground arranging of the parts. His strategy is consistent and familiar: a stenciled, large block-lettered rock lyric, filling the picture plane, both connects and divides the formal painted languages. At once bound together and defiantly separate, they resist easy ironic or bracketing strategies in their relations. Hovering on an edge of arbitrariness, they call to each other across a void, or whisper in each other’s ear, continually refreshing and renewing our ideas about the similarities and differences among them.

In one modestly scaled work in the show, entitled Getting Nowhere, Wardwell extends and gently complicates his political critique. The manifest content seems clear: the promise of blue-sky transport offered above this chalky, barren autumnal Upstate New York hill, and the promise of flight from the self offered by Wardwell’s passable rendition of an early de Kooning’s spontaneous brushwork, both deliver us to the same dead end: to the illusion of flight and transport, and the ineffectiveness of transcendence. Getting Nowhere. The eye continually moves from one to the other, and to the consideration of the block letters, never allowing any one of them to dominate and co-opt our ideas, never a resting point that could serve as a launching pad for ideology. Getting Nowhere.

But Wardwell isn’t done, and isn’t content with a simplistic critique, as he sneaks in a double meaning: the letters comprising Getting Nowhere morph in the eye to Getting Now Here. For as we cognize the failure of transcendent strategies of art making, we also find ourselves face to face with the emptiness at the very core of transcendence; the emptiness, seemingly, of promise itself of something other, better, more. Getting Now Here: Wardwell lands us with a thud back here and now, in the presence of the painted object and our relating to it.

And this is exactly what Wardwell’s work understands: that the accession of the ideal into power begins with transcendence – the thought that the beyond has more realness or validity than the here and now, and the rejection and violence of what is that follows. Think Manifest Destiny. What the artist attacks and looks to terminate is exactly this type of transcendental yearning, the seed and underpinning of power. This is the party Wardwell hopes to end – the party of transcendence – to replace it with a different sort of party, one content in the present, in the material fact of the painting and our immediate encounter with it. This party lets us play in the uncertain muck of the encounter itself, where meaning is happily trapped in the simple play of disparate yet related elements, never resting too long in any idea that removes us from our circumstance, the real. In this way, the Getting Now Here earns us some comfort in the Getting Nowhere, in the changeable immediacy of who we are in relation to the object, and in the peace that’s perhaps the underlying original promise of Hudson River and Abstract Expressionist painting – and certainly Rock and Roll.

 

Photo: JoeWardwell, Getting Nowhere, 2014, Oil on canvas, 20″ x 30″.  Courtesy LaMontagne Gallery, South Boston.  Photo credit: James Hull

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The Third Thing

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My friend Wes sent a thoughtful reply to my last post that prompted some speculative (and very raw) thought on the real encounter.  In his reply Wes mentioned Paul Ricoeur’s “Hermeneutics of Suspicion” – which suggested the idea that in every encounter we must bring with us a deep suspicion of our motives and aspirations for the encounter, for it disrupts everything we want to take for granted.  We should ask, in other words: what am I bringing to this encounter?  I would argue that what I call the conceptual regime in art is a form of consciousness that not only wants meaning from the encounter, but also wants meaning of a certain kind – and for me.  We tend to not just ask what an art object means, and sublimate the real encounter in our thinking outside of that encounter about ‘what it means’ – we also want to know what it means for US.  There’s always a self-seeking motive in our encounter, that is tied in with some ego idea about our identity: who and what we take ourselves to be, what we think gives US meaning and status and significance in the world.

That seems natural, but rarely acknowledged.  And its acknowledgement is the first step in a real encounter with the art object – admitting: what do I want here?  We praise or reject objects based on these unthought prejudices, and in the process, we not only reject the encounter – placing ‘meaning’ back squarely in what it means for me – but we further reject the ontological status of the art object (or other) and so cut ourselves off from any encounter.  In effect, our usual approach to the object is an encounter with ourselves: a search for affirmation and support for the selves we think we are, or whatever identity we take ourselves to be.  In large part, the art object gets used and discarded in this type of interaction – it’s what it means for us that counts.

Wes’ thought brought me around to the encounter itself, for where else does my self-motivation get seen and exposed but there?  If I miss the encounter in my search for meaning, I miss my motivation.  So I want to name the encounter itself as the third thing in relationality – neither subject (viewer) nor (art) object, but rather the entity that gets produced as the encounter unfolds in realtime – a kind of living, breathing, dynamic, developing relationality.  A kind of relation-thing.  It is not something discovered as a result of relationality but experienced is/as the encounter itself, which both includes and consumes ‘subject’ and ‘object’ – and everything else there – in its capacity to bring to light all aspects of the encounter – especially the ones that would prefer to stay hidden, like my motivation.

Now, I happen to be re-reading Nicolas Bourriard’s seminal 1999 book Relational Aesthetics (http://amzn.to/1jd3FCu) at the moment.  It’s a brilliant, direct, and articulate description of the millenial move into artforms that provoked and sustained situations of intensified human relatedness – that moved the static art object into the role of a decisive activator of such relatedness.  What’s at stake in Bourriard’s text is human relatedness — art objects are the set and décor for the privileged human drama at center stage.  But Bourriard’s genius is to recognize the objecthood of relationality – although he doesn’t name it as such: he instead renders it as a kind of transparent field that joins (human) subjects with art objects across its field.  To me this version of relationality is an extension of the way all meaning is usually conceived, as a transparent connector between a privileged and knowing subject and the meaning, seen as the deeper truth or reality of the object, hidden beneath its veils of materiality and facticity.

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Much of Bourriard’s analysis, though, points to a real encounter.  It destabilizes the subject-object relationship, relocating meaning in the third thing – relatedness itself.  But the real encounter goes further.  It renders plain the material facticity of the (viewer) subject and the (art) object, because it doesn’t spare itself – relationality and all that it contains – from objecthood.  In other words, it knows itself as the interested and all-inclusive and messy thing that it is.  And, it includes the subject and object (they cannot stand outside of it – they in part produce it) in all their untidy reality, with all their warts, all their motivations, given all the contingent histories and subconscious factors and influences and conditions that form them – these things that become the very substance of the encounter.  Its very messiness is the contact, the intermingling and cross-breeding, of those contingent factors, shifting and changing and morphing as they do, in real time.  Nothing is transparent.  Everything is murky.

So the real encounter cannot be a transparent or neutral connector for the subject to its self-motivated desire for meaning (it other words, it will disrupt and expose that desire).  In the first place, it happens in real time, as the dynamic relation unfolds – an object encounters in the midst of itself, as I encounter in the midst of myself (‘encounter’ as a verb here, to demonstrate this active and temporal quality) – there are no landing spots for ego identity in the encounter; they get bracketed outside of it.  Secondly, the real encounter resists the will of the knowing subject to know – both because of that dynamic and unfolding quality, and because of its own continual withdrawal from view: experience in/of the encounter is always partial and provisional, always changing and temporal.  Any attempt to nail it down is futile.  Most importantly, in the real encounter everything is included,  and no exception granted – so there is nowhere for the subject to hide its will to power.  Rendered as just another player in the drama, just another object among objects, it is stuck in the facts of its own materiality, swimming in the thick and mucky soup of relationality itself, with all the manifest contingency, chance, unknowableness, and provisionalness there.  The subject will not find the transcendence it seeks in the real encounter.

And why should the relational field (either as a structure of meaning or a structure of meaningful interactivity) transcend objecthood, anyway?  The real encounter renders the situation democratic – it flattens the traditional hierarchy of subject > object > relational field, seeking to reestablish the material reality of relationality.  In doing so it seeks to avoid magical thinking, power plays of meaning, and transcendence (for what the conceptual regime attempts to produce is, after all, transcendence out of the brutishness of the real encounter).  It attempts to land us back in the real of art, in what is really here, and divorce us from the transfixing appeal of transcendence.  Perhaps the deeper question is, why do we continue to be transfixed by the possibility of transcendence, and look to exploit the encounter to achieve it?  Because if the conceptual regime wants anything, it wants to maintain access to transcendence. And this brings me back full circle to Wes, Ricoeur, and self-suspicion: only a pretense to transcend the material truth, to impose a self-motivated meaning over it, needs access to transcendence.  Mucking about in the real encounter, with all its contingency, messes, and misses, exposes and renders plain that motivation, as it simply renders clear all that it is.

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Now, these are raw and provisional and temporal thoughts, to be sure, rendered in the relational field encountered here, now – as this post is written, revised, posted, read, responded to, etc.  And, back of these words is a desire for something – a motivation to see something as deficient and limiting (the conceptual regime and its meaning structures) and something else as potentially liberating (the real encounter and the experience of meaning it proposes).  And the entire structure of this encounter (writing, reading the blog, responding) is at best only partially and provisionally available even to me.  There is no transparency between my intention or desire and the ‘meaning’ – which would only be some vain idea that my intention will transparently transcend its material facticity (the arbitrariness of language combined with the astonishing contingency of infinitely varied senses of that language, combined further with the real time slippage of that language, and given all the contingent factors surrounding any encounter [what we had for breakfast, who’s shouting in the other room, etc] and so on…) and reach your brain intact.  I am not trying to throw off self-motivation and replace it with something better; this would be futile, and just a different sort of desire for transcendence.  In fact, the real encounter just sees self-motivation and names it as such; it doesn’t let it hide.  And the real encounter doesn’t point to different kind of art or different ideas – our motivations and intentions are part and parcel of every encounter, included in the contingent stuff that is always here.

The real encounter points instead to a different approach, a lighter step, curiosity, a more open and unknowing and allowing sensibility – a humility and acceptance of the partial and provisional real of the encounter we always already find ourselves in, and an allowance of everything that is there – not just the things we want or expect to be there.  We are not getting rid of ‘meaning’ – we are just relocating it in the real.  I would put it this way: there is no ‘meaning’ as such in any encounter – there is only the real soup of encounter itself, which can’t produce meaning as such,  for it produces what it produces.  More of itself.  More real.  More of what is there.  It’s an acknowledgment of, and a willingness to participate in, the absurd irony of the need to synthesize, to render meaning, to reduce, in the face of the infinite expansion and movement of what is, of meaning’s fundamental deficiency, its willful transcendence and abdication of the real encounter it sources itself from.  That’s a mouthful.  Let’s just say, we embrace the third thing, we dive into the real encounter, making meaning (like this post) knowing meaning will always be missing the real.

A long and windy post.  Thanks, for being here, to the end.

Images: End, 2006, 5-channel video installation with sculptural elements.  Collaboration with Environmental Services (Doug Weathersby).  Top: video still. Middle: installation detail.  Bottom: installation view, Morgan Lehman Gallery, New York.

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Some Basic Thoughts on the Real Encounter

So what is a real encounter with art?

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In past posts I named the real encounter as a counterpoint to the conceptual regime in art – or the mode of consciousness that wants to see art largely as what we think about it, rather than what it is. The point, however, was not to set up a dualism between the two, or to suggest that meaning, concept, and (really?) thinking don’t have a place in our encounter with art.  That would be unproductive, and – well, unreal (not to mention stupid).  We think.  We want to know what something’s all about.  We want to use our history and experience and (some of us anyway) expertise in the service of a clear and legible exegesis.  Plus, we have agendas – good ones.  The liberation ideal behind much thought about and positioning of art – that the purpose and goal of art is to expose modes of power, prejudice, and limiting beliefs and structures (both in the world at large and within the world of art) — works, in my view, as a progressive and enlightening mode of production and meaning.  So I have no truck with ideas or ideation – the liberation ideal, for example, has ushered viewers to deeper realizations about their political and social circumstances, has exposed political structures to scrutiny and change, and has pushed artists to continually question the foundations and assumptions of their craft, spurring an ever-widening scope and production of objects (and non-objects) for our consideration.

But what I have noticed, over the past 20 years as a working artist (and this of course, is me engaging what I hope is a novel line of liberation thought) is a widening gap between what we say and write and think and talk about in art, on the one hand, and what the thing – the art object – is, on the other hand.  For all the liberation of human potential, the art object itself has been held largely captive to the human imaginations that make this liberation possible.  The truth is often the art object is seen as little more than a caption to our ideas about it. 

There is much to be explored here.  But I want to keep it simple, for now, and focus on the basics of the real encounter.

So what do I mean by real? My use has nothing to do with colloquial realism, and little to do with Michael Fried’s realism – although what he discusses is relevant.  The real here refers to the current and developing corpus of philosophical realism – or the odd (for us) idea that things – art objects and otherwise – are not simply constructions of our minds, but are: they exist in and of themselves, with and without us.  It seems to me that much recent (last 20 years) writing and talk and thinking on art (to me, the conceptual regime) reflects a different position – one more in line with philosophical idealism, or the notion that objects exist only for us and by us, in our beholding and consideration of them, and not otherwise.  In my view, the art criticism of the past 20 years, if nothing else, has focused on our ideas about art and artworks, and has made little room for a consideration of the art object as real in itself, and what that might mean for our interaction with it, and the outcomes of that interaction. 

And what do I mean by encounter?  I am using this word, and not experience, because the latter simply extends the human experience, with no allowance for a notion of interaction between viewer and art object.  So an encounter is an interaction between two objects – or, better put, the field that is developed between the two.  We typically assume that the bargain is one-sided – that the artwork is an empty vessel until we arrive with our ideas about it.  It may be differentiated from other artworks, but we still hold its meaning – its soul.

And so what is different about the real encounter?  Well, it doesn’t look much different than any encounter with art.  The difference is internal, in the approach and attitude we take, and in the willingness and openness to allow an uncertain outcome, wrought in the crucible of the field of the encounter.  Basically, we agree to put down our preconceptions and prejudices willfully, and allow (it sounds too simple and brute) what is there to motivate thought and meaning.  A real encounter doesn’t mean that we fill in what we think the object is doing or wants, nor assume nor project any agency of the object.  No: the quality of interaction in the real encounter is rendered, rather, by our restraint in such projections and assumptions, as well as our restraint in our will to blanket the field with limiting, flattening ideas and thoughts about what the meaning of the thing might be.

In short, in the real encounter we are willing to let meaning be real – to announce itself to us through the unfolding realtime interaction, rather than looking in the encounter for affirmation of our ideas about it. 

The real encounter is much simpler than what we are used to – and harder.  Allowing what is, is the simplest action.  But giving up the security, confidence, knowingness, power, the bolstered identity and sense of self – that’s the hard part.  Engaging the field of the real encounter, after all, means stepping into the interaction in vulnerability, with a willingness to be impacted and changed by that field and to be touched – here, touched by art.

Image: Jeff Perrott, Souvenir, 2005, 3 1/2″ x 4″ x 4″, bronze, two parts.  Edition of 3.

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Andrew Mowbray: Another Utopia – at LaMontagne Gallery through December 21, 2013

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We come upon a scene: simple, useful structures comprised of modular component parts, each part a four-inch bullnose-edged cube with nodes or receptacles adorning its 6 faces, allowing it to be joined to others in various and simple ways.  These modules are crafted of wood, but also of random, seemingly scavenged materials: post-industrial matter such as packing foam and cardboard. 

And, most surprisingly, they are made of natural matter as well: greenish-tan pods, quickly identifiable as gourds, grown inside molds of the repeatable modular unit—the sustainable interplay of the restrictive form and the gourd’s natural mechanism of expansion, growth, and expression.

These living modules, it becomes evident, can be infinitely related to one another, forming architectural components, furniture, birdhouses, and myriad hybrids born of necessity, imaginative construction, expressive value, and/or ritual intent.  The scene contains a healthy variety of the possibilities, in varying modes of completion, manufacture, and development: experimental bits of an unfolding assemblage, a work in progress discovered in medias res

The goal, plan, and purpose of the scene and its objects and its makers seem more than opaque: they seem absent.  We are left alone in the encounter.  The modules and structures themselves offer few clues, preferring to maintain a universal posture, a Lego-like simplicity, ease of use and re-use, staging and re-staging, that suggests a nomadic and provisional consciousness.  When we linger too long outside the scene, waiting for some embedded meaning to arise, we miss its true nature: the utopian nature of this scene.

This nature is established and sustained by our immersion in the scene: this is not a theatrical scene, staged and set up and meticulously bracketed to secure and transmit a particular message – it’s no diorama, and we are not spectators outside of the scene, safely perched apart in our critical distance.  No, we are here and now, embedded in what erases the stage/audience split: in the real.  And Andy Mowbray – the tireless bricoleur, the anti-engineer – is here with us.

It’s useful to bring Andy in now, after the scene is set.  His is a collectivist, Modernist utopian ethos, one that flattens things in the horizontal dimension, in order to gain depth and weight in the vertical one.  His is an all-in belief in the universal possibility of simple, use-driven form to effect and drive creative invention.  That, of course, sounds a lot like a very Modernist version of emancipation: freedom happens when the field is leveled and the parts are universally accessible and useful and open to all.  But Mowbray leaves off Modernism where it failed: instead of providing some overarching vision (think Fuller’s Geodesic Dome here) of what to do with the parts – that might end up policing production and creativity (think Wright, Corbu here) and/or forcing a wholesale revolutionary overthrow of our current life for the utopian one (imagine climbing inside the Dome now…), Mowbray provides no instructions or visions, choosing to meet us where we are, in our real, and to allow a local, primal and intuitive creative intervention.

What makes his own participation in this local intervention so authentic is his clear relinquishing of his authorship–not by allowing others to play with the parts (the actor become director), but by surrendering to his own play, his own sheer madness and forgetting, his own total immersion in his process and making, and the realtime unfolding of the units into the useful, playful, ritualistic objects that comprise the scene.  In other words, this scene isn’t finished, and neither is Mowbray.  In fact, a full half of the scene—toward the back of the gallery— is devoted to the bricoleur’s modes of production.  The machine with the mold is there, the remnants and detritus of recent labor, half-formed, failed, and rotten gourds, as well as experimental five-sided shapes (a nascent evolutionary development?), and casually pinned cultural gatherings, notes, inspirations, ideas, photos – a kind of thought-parlor qua workshop found in the flowering of a never-beginning and never-ending process of continual development. 

In the end Mowbray doesn’t give us something to ponder about Utopia or universality or locality or immediacy or creativity.  He gives us the real thing, and lets us muck about uncertainly in and among its sheer materiality—it’s realness.  So what we get are not monuments to this or that hero or ideal, or manifestos, or a revolutionary trumpet call.  What we get, are a bench, a child-sized totem, a collection of broken gourds swept into the corner, Tyvek branding reorganized as an quasi-mandala, photos and musings, additions and subtractions by the day….what we get is a creative scene, one ultimately about art and its possibility for universal – which, in Mowbray’s hands, means local, immediate, and provisional – transformation; what we get is inclusion in the unfolding and burgeoning of possibility and life; what we get, finally, is immersion in the scene of our own immediate potential and creativity.

Andrew Mowbray: Another Utopia is on view at LaMontagne Gallery, 555 East 2nd Street, South Boston. http://www.lamontagnegallery.com/

For more on Andy’s work visit http://andrewmowbray.com/home.html

Photo: Stewart Clements

 

 

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A Real Encounter (Provisional)

On my desk I have a card, given to me a few years ago, with a John Cage quotation:

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“Begin Anywhere.”

I confess I don’t know where to begin with this blog.  It’s a conscious decision, after all, to begin anywhere, and not from a known beginning point. Cage’s suggestion seems to be that where to begin need not be conditioned.  Or perhaps what Cage is getting at is that this choice has nothing to do with the content of ‘anywhere’ or ‘beginning.’  Or maybe he believes that, even a chosen and conditioned beginning is anywhere.  I don’t need to get it right or know more to begin, I don’t need to locate myself better, or even know where I am headed.  A very Cagey quote.

The deeper meaning of the Charles Ives quote at the head of this blog is that much knowledge and discovery is contingent and provisional – that many times wrong turns out be right – and vice versa.  In art we see this over and again – the work that is roundly dismissed and ridiculed in the moment (Duchamp’s Fountain and Large Glass come to mind, for different reasons) simply abides in its reality over time, and in new encounters something new happens.  One can never tell.  What is limiting to new encounters is an attitude that superimposes a set of fixed beliefs on an experience, like Ives’ publisher assuming he wished to compose in standard Western harmony.

The vastness and contingency of history, though, and the truth of the uncertain unfolding of things, can seem overwhelming and humbling when encountered in the simplicity of my experience, especially when I need it to mean something specific.  But I find comfort in this uncertainty.  I have headed out on the journey this blog with some partial knowledge in many areas, and a passion for experiencing art – an electric, dynamic, compelling constantly changing experience that has held my attention since I was 5.  If my experience shows me something, it shows me that art, like life and truth, is never fixed—but it can be encountered really, in the simple straightforward and changing reality of what is in my experience here and now; that, (and as part of nature, as all is nature), it is never a known or knowable quantity, but unfolds in real time, as one component of the unpredictable evolutionary movement of nature, not discovered but encountered, merely encountered.

I have faced criticism in this blog for my misunderstandings of philosophy (true), for a supposed attack on meaning (false), and for trying to take away expertise from the experts (really false).  So I thought I would restate things – not necessarily responding to criticism, but simply presenting the thoughts in the real time of their unfolding.  Thoughts are, after all, objects too.

What I am proposing is simple, and based on a fact: the art object is, in fact, an object, with its own life, activity, relations, and freedom. It does not exist for me anymore than my wife or daughters exist for me.  It is radically available and unavailable (in the same way that all objects are) to all, equally.  This flattens my assumption that my view of the object – no matter how learned, experienced, subtle, nuanced, clever, etc. – is privileged above others.  But let’s be clear: what I am saying is not that all views are the same, nor that we can’t value some views, but that our valuing isn’t ever final – it is always provisional and contingent, momentary, fleeting, and subject to revision. The philosopher Levi Bryant calls this ‘ontological flattening’: the being status of all things human and non-human, imagined and here and there, is the same, but this doesn’t preclude provisional and contingent judgments about value, or an acknowledgment that things are very different from one another, with vastly different functions, abilities, power, and force.  My contention, though, is that this ontological flattening, when realized, has a powerful effect on the way we encounter objects, first, and the way we encounter ourselves, second.

What is striking to me in the tone of most writing and spoken discussions about art are that they seem anything but provisional, contingent, or (gasp) possibly wrong.  (Of course that wrongness is provisional too, it could turn out to be right!).  We seem, in our discussions about art, to need to be right, final, decisive, and exclusive.  And I don’t believe this is a function of the structure of language: the argument that, at least in most modern languages, the economy of subject-object linguistic structure, and even the dialectical form of argumentation, predisposes communication to reduction, certainty, power, dominance, and privilege.  No, as poetic uses of language have shown since Homer, language need not be as strident as all this – it can be suggestive and open and allowing of its own limitations, fallibility and contingency.  But this is only part of the point: language can be precise and economical – like this writing, here in this blog – while acknowledging (and actually building on) its own failure, impermanence, loss, in its very structure.

For example, the notion about the need for permanence in language has spurred a series of questions: where did that arise?  Is it a function of nature or culture?  Do I know, or even have a guess?  As many have observed, the structure of communication may be more related to early man’s survival need to quickly identify and mitigate potential threats to survival – it may have nothing at all to do with any macro or ‘cultural’ decision, but may be concurrent with needs driven by biologically necessity.  But is that true?  Perhaps the degree of nature and culture in the mix has varied by micro-degrees over time in a way that would be impossible to retrace.  Or maybe the function of language is purely cultural, a concept of ‘language’ emerging with the rise of a sustained release from biological necessity that allows mental reflection.  This is a new thread, a new line of inquiry, growing and emerging here and now.  And I don’t know the end or even the means of it right now.  It can be disconcerting, as a reader, to be led down a new path, to be shown a new thought, especially when that thought remains raw and untethered.  But this is the difference between an attitude that seeks finality, and one that seeks to discover, experiment, and respond to what’s happening – really, right now.

This is what we’ve forgotten in our encounters with art: how to be real – how to allow the flow and uncertainty and continual newness of discovery that is currently happening in the encounter, to exist and breathe itself into that encounter, rather than choking it off at the source with a set of preconceptions about the way things need to mean, how they mean, and what they mean.

The strident tone of our descriptions, I think, emerges from the same basic, syntonic assumption about the status of the object and our relation to it that is pervasive in culture: we assume we are above it, and it is there for our use (and abuse!).  The way we look at objects is selfish, in more colloquial words, in that we see the object as co-extensive with our experience, a passive actor in our play, and one that we direct at will.  In fact there’s no real awareness of directing these actors at all, for our attitude about objects reflects a total reification – it goes unconsidered, and our view of the object goes unexamined, the same way assumptions about the shape of the world went unexamined for centuries, and the way assumptions about racial and sexual inequality continue to go unexamined currently.  Language, in the hands of this selfishness, merely confirms existing beliefs, looks for evidence to support known positions, or (at worst) invents its own evidence (think of climate change deniers).

By contrast, what I am calling a real encounter would include in its experience and language a deep sense of its permanent changeability.  A real encounter would be, as Adam Miller in his recent book Speculative Grace quotes Bruno Latour, “partial and modest.” A real encounter could not support such invented evidence – that evidence would appear immediately as so provisional as to be unconvincing.  Real encounters get us to the doorstep of confronting our assumptions, examining our prejudices, and refocusing our attention on the truth of the encounter – truth not with a final capital ‘T’, but the provisional, contingent truth of what is happening in front of us, given all the limitations of our thinking and experiencing apparatus, given the failure and fallibility of our real status, given the contingent facts of our immediate environment, given the always-changing and slippery elements of all of these factors.

A real encounter means letting go of our positions and beliefs about art – not in the relativistic sense of abdicating what seems to be real and true to us, now, but rather, in fact, by engaging MY experience more fully, AS real to ME here and now, and NOT to any other, anywhere else.  Letting go means holding my immediate experience with a kind of provisional grace, humility, irony, and openness, that allows it the full breadth of its encounter, while not letting it kill the art object in the process, nor hamper its ability to experience the continued unfolding reality of the encounter, nor truncate its openness to revision and growth.  Letting go seems to mean I embrace the anywhere that is the real encounter, here and now.  At least that’s the way it appears right now, subject to revision.

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A View From Nowhere

RW47_(IWannaBeAdored)_2011_72x60_oilcanvas

I’m not a professional philosopher.  But, as an artist, I am interested in ideas – all kinds, but particularly those that claim something about objects.  So, like many artists, I find myself attracted to the thought of Object Oriented Ontology (Levi Bryant, his excellent blog HERE), Object Oriented Philosophy (see Graham Harman’s blog HERE), and Speculative Realism (which takes its name from a 2007 conference at Goldsmith’s College and was chronicled in the journal Collapse HERE).

As a non-professional, I don’t know if I am doing SR, OOO, or OOP (as a friend and blog author poiynted out to me once), but the resonance of the thought and its seeming promise to the encounter with contemporary art are unshakable. In fact these philosophies (despite the brand names, there are as many new philosophies in this new ‘Realist’ school as there are writers) have initiated a shift in my art making and my encounters with art. This shift seems to have five main features:

1. Flatness.  The art object, while certainly identifiable as such, is no longer a special case of object – it may be different in degree, but not in kind from other objects; Duchamp knew this in 1913, and this idea has echoed in art production since then, but without the second, deeper aspect of flatness (#2 below), it gets easily sublimated by the reified status of the viewer. This flatness renders my encounter lighter, less freighted with the limiting weight of the object’s status as art.

2. Deeper Flatness: My status in the encounter with the art object is no longer privileged, nor (more importantly) is it different in kind than that of the object; I no longer experience the art object as a passive and empty receptacle for the life-giving touch of my thought – in terms of what-it-means-for-me. There is new respect and openness and curiosity in the inquiry at the center of the encounter.

3. Decentering: Because the habitual forms of making and valuing and exhibiting art objects has no bearing on this flatness of the encounter (note especially that no particular mode of making or valuing or exhibiting of objects is rendered more real, or more object-oriented, than any other mode), my sense of my participation in these activities is radically decentered – I experience myself as a cog in a vast assemblage, the macro-workings and outer limits of which are completely withdrawn from my experience. My universe suddenly encounters a universe of universes.

4. Have At It: The truth of the contingent nature of the object, my own objecthood, and the status and valuing of my participation in art is not opposed to my continued participation. To my knowledge, SR, OOO, and OOP have nothing to say about what we do or how we do it; there are no manifestos, movements, or ‘painting is dead’ slogans. In fact, what I see these theorists doing is enthusiastically encountering objects in rich new ways.  What these philosophies do suggest, however, is that we continue to examine the ways we reduce objects to figments of thought, and nothing else. When the encounter, for example, is untethered from my compulsive desire to know what the art object means-for-me, it gains a kind of enthusiasm, bouyancy, openness, and possibility.

5. New Value: As the object withdraws, the encounter opens, and my need for redemption recedes with my need to know the object, I reclaim value.  I am aware that there is something deeply personal, intimate, and truly unique (irreducible) about what’s happening here in the encounter; my experience is no longer limited to conditioned thought, but opens to that something Graham Harman seems to point to (maybe I’m wrong) a recent blog post (here):

Aesthetic judgment is not about replacing the manifest image with the scientific image, but about proceeding by way of images to get at something that isn’t an ‘image’ at all.

The encounter, in this shift, is perhaps this something, this third thing, that is neither me nor the object (nor even, by name, the encounter?), but something that is happening as the result of the shift in orientation.  Again, I am no professional, this is just what’s happening for me.

The post title here refers to a old book by Thomas Nagel, called The View From Nowhere, (switching the THE to an A) that’s been resonating recently – maybe something about Nagel’s early view of contingency and irony seems appropriate here.

Image above is called I Wanna Be Adored, 2011, 72″ x 60″, oil on canvas.

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