Thursday, December 2, 2010

Never Mind the Jackson Pollocks, The Abstract Expressionists Were Here

While we were out of town and staying in a different locale for a few days I decided to pass some time by strolling behind our lodgings to see what might be available to photograph. At first it didn't look promising.

There was a wooden deck and a barbecue grill. Beyond that, the most interesting trees were stripped of their autumn color. True, someone had hung a rusted, valveless coronet from a branch, but as photogenic as this venerable musical instrument sounds, every way I framed it turned out unsatisfying. I might as well have been photographing a giant paperclip.

I lowered my view. I started looking at the ground which was covered with the following:

                           - Leaves
                           - Twigs
                           - Acorns
                           - Deer droppings
                           - Rocks

Hmm. Interesting. I bent lower. The camera shutter began making the satisfying ka-chik sound. At that moment an odd thought occurred to me about nature. On this day and in this place it looked like modern art.

The Importance of Being Wilde: A Brief Digression

In "The Decay of Lying," an 1889 essay cast in the form of a humorous dialogue between two slightly bored young gentlemen (Vivian and Cyril), Oscar Wilde offers to the world his, at the time, revolutionary views on art. Using Vivian as his mouthpiece, Wilde contends for the absolute superiority of art over every form of reality. He's tired of people saying, "Oh, that's just art," as if art in all its forms is a harmless and not particularly useful child's play or mere ornamentation.

Wilde claims (through Vivian) that art is so powerful that it influences life and how we live. And he contends for an ideal vision of life that art can give us to compensate for the "defective" offerings of nature, about which Vivian loudly complains:

"But Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects. Why, even Morris's poorest workman could make you a more comfortable seat than the whole of Nature can...[but] I don't complain. If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air."

Haven't you noticed all
the Turner sunsets lately?
According to Wilde, art does even more than turn out nice William Morris chairs or lovely houses. He says that nature is actually influenced by art and improves itself thereby. How so? How can a sunset be affected by a painter, for example? Because, as Wilde points out, we only know nature through our senses and perceptions and these can be shaped and informed by art.

Vivian/Wilde considers the case of the English artist J. M. W. Turner, renowned for his blasts of chrome yellow and orange over a maritime horizon. Vivian says that Turner sunsets are everywhere in nature these days. However, before Turner painted his sunsets, no one ever saw one.

Vivian makes a similar pronouncement about fog, a favorite subject of impressionist painters who were then the rage.

"At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them."

The principle is not so hard to understand. If we encounter something in art, we may start to notice it outside of art. It might be a certain way a garden of flowers reminds me of a Renoir. Or I watch Jersey Shore and later I see a woman in the checkout line who sounds like Snooki. Or everyone around me  starts peppering their conversation with a phrase popularized on YouTube or in a commercial. It's a paradox: Life and nature imitate art, Wilde says, not the other way around.

Enter the Abstract Expressionists
Until I went looking for subjects for my photos it had never occurred to me that modern art, especially the ultra-famous group called the "abstract expressionists," could prove the truth of Oscar Wilde's insight. These men, and a few women, who painted in the 1950s and 1960s were known for finding ways of applying paint to canvases so that it resembled nothing recognizable, much less the beauties of nature.
Rothko painting

Those who were dismissive of this school of painting, including the general public, were quick to fault it for its nonfigurative aspect. They said the painter had created in a random fashion and even a child could do that...or an elephant holding a paintbrush in its trunk! Please tell us, just what is that red Rothko supposed to resemble

Mark Rothko had his own justification for painting something that did not look like anything recognizable. He was painting an emotion.

"...the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point."

But a strange thing was happening to me during my photo shoot. Rothko was right, but at the same time he was wrong. Yes, much of the work of abstract expressionism was emotional, I'd always granted that, but for the first time it seemed to me that these paintings might have something to do with nature as well...because just as Oscar Wilde contended, nature had set out to imitate art.

No filtering or Photoshopping was required. As I strolled around the property I could clearly see the phenomenon through my viewfinder.

It was crazy, but the camera didn't lie.  Nature had "conspired" to look like an abstract expressionist painting.

Example No. 1
I was looking at this propane tank outside the house.

It's fairly nondescript until one goes in close and seeks out
Nature's "imitation" of abstract art.

Mark Tobey painting

Propane tank moss streaks

Example No. 2:
The bark on the trees was interesting. It seemed to be unwinding itself from the tree trunk and in some cases it hung down like a beard.

Barnett Newman painting
  If I zoomed in on the bark, I saw this...

Example No. 3:
The rocks in this area are pockmarked limestone. They resemble solidified sponges or frozen gray sea anemones.

Of course, one can collect rocks and build a wall and end up with something like this...

Jane Frank painting

Or it might look like this...

Or here's the same wall zoomed in...

Example No. 4:
The most famous of the abstract expressionist is Jackson Pollock, called by his detractors "Jack the Dripper." Pollack laid out a large canvas on the floor of a garage converted to studio and he flung and rained down paint as he moved around the painting in progress, being careful not to step into the wet paint, of course.

Jackson Pollock painting

I tipped my head to the ground and noticed the way the leaves and twigs had covered a backdrop of dark earth.

"Outdoor Floor No. 1"-  Action Painting by Mother Nature

My Favorite Photos:
At this point I was seeing the "abstract" almost everywhere. Nature didn't conform to plans, designs. It was wild and free and energetic. I no longer needed an analogue from the world of modern art to discover, frame, and shoot nature's explosive expression.

Thrilling Conclusion
At the end of the day, as the sun set (behind the hills so I could not be sure if it was a Turner sunset or not), I was left with the powerful realization that without art I'm less aware and, therefore, less alive. If I had never seen an abstract painting, my photo shoot might have ended in minutes with me grumping, "Nothing to take a picture of here!" Instead, art had opened my eyes.

The point of art isn't to fetishize it and hang it on a wall and worship it or oo! and ah! at it in the museum. The value of art is that it gives me a way to see more deeply into the everyday world. It helps me realize that I'm surrounded by wonders and it leads me to override my habit of shrugging my shoulders and failing to notice any of it.

At its best, art helps wake up ol' Rip V.W. to another kind of "news," the kind that's surely worth being awake for. I must try to step lightly from now on because, believe it or not, for as long as I reside on Planet Earth, I seem to be walking on art. - V.W.


1 comment:

  1. My favourite of your van winkle blog posts to date! Love this!!