Worlds Within Worlds

 

A mirror reflects not the self but the image of the self.  Painting's function as mirror has served to reflect attitudes toward the self, the natural world, and society in changing permutations since the beginning of self-awareness.  The mind, like painting, has also been compared to a mirror reflecting reality. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the construction of the ego begins with the recognition of a self in the mirror.  It is the point at which the world separates into the me/not me. The me can be extrapolated to include the persistence of humans and the construction of the human realm, the protrusions of ego into the world at large. By extension, the not me can be categorized as the natural other, all things outside the purview of the self of human ego.  This allocates a large portion of the world to outsider status, one to be described through language, image, and representation.  From the Renaissance, (and arguably, earlier points) onward, painting functioned as a mirror to the world, a mirror to nature, as a device for clarifying the mind-numbing incomprehensibility of nature and external reality.  As our experience of the world becomes increasingly mediated, does the world recognize itself in contemporary painting's mirror?   Amid the shifting panes of the real, painting for the moment has settled into a new permutation of mirroring the world. Emerging from a reawakened interest in depictions of the natural world, some contemporary painting seeks a revisiting of the function of picturing nature.  This picturing is less involved with realistic representation as it is with the fantastic, less reality than dream, more expansionist then reductionist.  This personal perspective on the aforementioned ideas will be explored through a particular attitude toward the depiction of nature in paintings of a non-centralized group of contemporary artists.

 

Collecting

The urge to collect and arrange nature in painting may find its origins in the same impulse that led the Victorian collector to create "cabinets of curiosities."  These cabinets contained collections of oddities that were a delight to the eye and an attempt to create a world of perfection and completeness to shield from the oppression of their external realities. Patrick Mauries writes: "The 'republic of collectors' shared the single aim of pinning down the universe" [1] as a projection of the human ego and the will to ownership.  These collections represented not only the will to own the natural world, but also to construct the prevailing representation of nature at the time. This further affirmed the wisdom and taste of the collector himself, in securing the vast treasures represented by the cabinet. "A certain school of psychological thought recognizes in this craving for the unique the basic impulse that drives all collectors:  the need to see reflected in the objects of their collections an exhilarating, narcissistic projection of their own self-image." [2]   So visually appealing were these cabinets that exquisitely detailed representations in the form of paintings and engravings of them survived the dismantling of the actual collection. 

 

A related development of the 20th c. in picturing nature emerged with the growth of the natural history museum diorama [3] , the well-known display tableaux featuring a painted ground fitted with a three-dimensional foregrounding of actual elements. Nature in these paintings depicts a constructed environment, an illusion furthered by the unique continuous curved painted surface without edges and the inclusion of actual fragments from nature:  sticks, leaves, branches, rocks and animal taxidermies.  These painted environments simulate a perfectly comprehensible world:  predator meets prey in a grand illusion, a theater of the "natural."  With the creation of the Hall of Biodiversity in the American Museum of Natural History in NY, the marvelous illusion is amped-up several notches to include a vaster and more convincing world representing our final outpost of wildness: the simulated rainforest.  This display, which attempts to map all of the history of life on the planet and place it in juxtaposition to the ultimate representation of 21st century consciousness of the wild (the rainforest,) interjects a new contemporary concern into our perusal of our planet, that of eco-consciousness. D. Scott Gregory, formerly Senior Museum Preparator of Exhibits at this museum writes,  "The American Museum of Natural History is one of the most important sites of the 'official story' of what gets to stand for 'Nature' at a particular time for a particular group of people." [4] We are forced to ask "what gets to stand for nature in the Hall of Biodiversity?" and thereby create the social construction of Nature at this point in time.

 

Painting itself can function as a diorama.  It is a container for the history of representation of Nature, a marker for culture's understanding of its relationship to the natural "other," staggered in space and time. From Roland Barthes' "Plates of the Encyclopedia," where to know the world is to fragment it into self-contained encyclopedic images, [5] to Cezanne's geometries, what in painting gets to stand for nature? Roy Ascott in "Telematic Embrace" describes this: "... Landscape and figure painting (as) the faithfully and naturalistic painting of Western culture, have kept us separated from (nature.)  Painting produced a cultural membrane that kept us distanced from the processes of nature, thereby affecting our relationship to it on more than the purely aesthetic level.  That membrane was the window, the proscenium arch within which the artist "staged" nature, framing it in a timeless immobility." [6]   What in painting now gets to stand for the world outside of human invention and intervention?  We can look at possible sources of influence and confluence.

 

Technology

A new point of reference for painting resides in a locus where the world-constructing capabilities of the computer have intersected with that of the painter's hand. The unique pleasure of the painter in the creation of worlds is now available in a heightened technological form through computer animation games such as SimCity. [7]   SimCity is an interactive computer game that allows you to create a virtual world, a "natural" environment from scratch, by sculpting landforms, digging lakes, gouging valleys, and seeding forests.  These landforms are affected by seasons, weather and diurnal/nocturnal cycles.  With the "GOD" button, you as controller decide all of these features, and then begin to populate your world with herds of grazing and stampeding animals, fauna from the temperate woodland to the African veldt. Into this "wild" nature of your own creation, you can begin to build a town, invite inhabitants, which may stay or leave according to available amenities and civic protections. You can also decide when and how to destroy your creation, by causing a tornado, inducing a volcanic eruption, a meteor, or an earthquake.  The official website declares "You'll never be alone once you join the SimCity community." [8]   The simulation represented here depicts the overriding dogma of late capitalist society in its attitudes toward the natural world - that we are capable of creating a better reality for ourselves by manipulating the environment and people of the earth and that all resources are expendable and available for our consumption.

 

As we find ourselves further removed from nature itself and suspended in cultures' parallel universe, painting now reflects this hybridization of the real and the artificial, history and the future, in its ability to simultaneously flatten realities. "The transformations in our models of the world and the accelerated increase in our technological powers of manipulation in recent years suggest that a cardinal question for artists in the 21st century will instead be," What might nature become?" [9]

 

Escape

Because painting has long dealt with the world of illusion, it can provide a window or keyhole through which we can travel, not unlike Alice's fall through the rabbit hole, into an alternate reality for ourselves.  This reality exists not as a reflection of the exterior world, but as a picture of the interior of the mind, a totalizing fantasy vision.

 

Escape is a conceptual desire produced in the mind that is numbed from overuse of the fright/flight/fight response.  Constant fear level elevation by the color-coded terror alerts over the past three years has created a plethora of escapist responses.  Recent ads for products ranging from toothpaste to insurance are picturing the self-contained universe as a triggering mechanism to sell these products.  Tiny worlds exist within a protective bubble as a depiction of a desire for both escape and security. Consider also the predominance of "island escape" themes on reality TV shows, from "Survivor/Vanuatu" to "GilliganÕs Island" (the so-called "Real Gilligan's Island".) These shows feature fully invested Westerners encamped upon lush tropical islands, where their wits and physical prowess are matched against fabricated challenge feats in a simulation and parody of the original human relationship to nature:  the jungle is full of terrors and gifts but the crafty human primate can survive and thrive by pitting their wits against nature and each other.  The resulting manufactured displacement of the real known as "reality TV" becomes the surrogate for our interaction with nature, a nature that is not threatening in the least but merely an inconvenience, like dandelions in a suburban lawn.

 

Alternate Realities

Painting has always constructed an alternate reality.  The alternate reality now being constructed in certain realms of painting depicts a parallel universe more consciously connected, more complete than our own. 

 

One attributing factor could be the psychedelic generation coming of age and bringing along an expanded conscious awareness to include the consciousness of animals and all beings. (Tomaselli) In most aspects of Western society, higher consciousness is denied and ignored as an illusion [10] , but painting itself revels in illusion and dualities - it it thrives in the double world of illusion and fact – the reality of the painted or collaged chunk of pigmented matter and its double life as an image.  Indeed, some eastern philosophers consider that "consciousness is a substance." [11]   Is paint a substantive vehicle for the representation of consciousness?

 

The late Terence McKenna, philosopher and ethno botanist, talks of "the provisional nature of reality - that the world can come completely unglued at any moment and then can float down and come back to this... rooms full of people sitting and listening."  He describes our state of human development as "tribes of territorial apes with fully loaded nuclear arsenals pointed at each other" and attributes this to a need to have a "shift from scientific certitude to the complete embracing of non-closure."  He goes on... "Now there is a tremendous imbalance between the technological and descriptive power of the culture and its moral and ethical understanding... When this happens in a society, you get "compensatory phenomenon"...eruptions of material from the unconscious that is organized like a message, like an attention-claiming thing.  In a scientific society it takes the form of the irrational appearing in strange forms." [12]

 

This impulse was reflected in the past year's Whitney Biennial with the inclusion of artists' whose work represented "the construction of fantastical alternative realities, in which myth-making becomes a way to understand a world that has become increasingly dangerous and alien." [13] Is painting functioning as "compensatory phenomenon", a message from the unconscious to pay attention? Seeking a sense of being at home in the cosmosphere as our realities on earth become less and less appealing, some painters seek a world hidden within/around/beyond/ the reality of a dying earth.

 

 

For me, this change happened on September 12, 2001.  My previous work was a critical indictment of Western civilization's denial of our connection to animals, nature and each other. As terrorists knocked tall buildings to the ground, I felt the ultimate criticism had been made, and my work instantly became redundant.  I sought to seek an alternate vision, by looking inward, and elsewhere.

 

The copper paintings begin as tondos, or oval shapes, suggestive of a mirror. These paintings depict nature both as record or document, and as library.  The surfaces are covered with copper and washed with chemical patinas, which undergo developmental changes.  The raw materials of copper metal and acids act as a stand-in for wild nature, on which I paint with oil and pigment the human interpretation of nature as pictures. These paintings serve as "worlds" that model our prevailing experience with nature.  Patina fields create a raw, wild environment that is inhabited by pictures of nature, cultural imprints that claim the space, pave it over, civilize it.  

 

Details of human presence such as small suburban homes, or tiny faces create an entry point, a locus of comfort in a vast realm. They populate the space as an analogy to humanity's need to put our face on the world; the paintings then work as a kind of mapping of painting space as a domination of the universe, a transformation of nature to the fulfillment of ego and pleasure.  Scale is subverted as microscopic forms loom gigantic.  A system or network of fine strands and webs connects elements and defines the depth of the space.  The voids are filled with particles and vapors.  They are not empty.

 

The crystallization of the patinas form a kind of fractal pattern which contains the phenomenology of nature in miniature:  landslides, erosion, sedimentation, and streambed formations arise at the suprascopic level, at the visibility limits of the naked eye. These formations teach me about painting, actually how to paint it, by revealing the invisible and underlying structure of trails, forms, and web like patterns.

 

"After Math" has a post-apocryphal and psychedelic quality.  It reveals the invisible world that holds things together, the world not subject to rational numbers. "Following Language Through the Forest of the Unknown", dedicated to the late Terrence McKenna, falls deeper into the rabbit hole of an alternate reality that exists just slightly below the surface of visible reality, even as we try to name it.

 

Conclusion

Richard Rorty in "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" writes, "It is pictures, rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements, which determine most of our philosophical convictions.  The picture which holds traditional philosophy captive is that of the mind as a great mirror, containing various representations, some accurate, some not... the historical phenomenon of mirror-imagery [is] the story of domination of the mind of the West by ocular metaphors..." [14]

 

The collapse of form allows for the creation of self-contained universes.  The heat-seeking missile of desire to look in has played out in paintings that reject modernist surface flatness to create realms of visual penetration.  Perhaps this mirror of the constructed world echoes the fractal nature of our existence, where chaos reigns in toppling the Cartesian geometry of an earlier worldview captured by painting. Perhaps the new reign of mind reveals a worldview in painting where Nature is alive and well and infinitely powerful and mysterious.



[1]   "Cabinets of Curiosities," Patrick Mauries, p. 23

[2] ibid, p.73

[3] "Concrete Jungle," edited by Alexis Rockman and Mark Dion, "Magic In Plain Sight:  The Art and Science of Diorama Display," J. Willard Whitson, p. 203

[4] . Ibid, "You Want a Spotted Owl With That?" D. Scott Gregory, p. 200

[5] "Plates of the Encyclopedia," from "A Barthes Reader", Roland Barthes, ed. by

[6] "Telematic Embrace:  visionary theories of Art, Technology and Consciousness," Roy Ascott, 2003, p. 329

[7] SimCity, copyright of Aspyr Media Inc., 2003

[8] http://www.simcity.ea.com

[9] "Telematic Embrace," Roy Ascott, p 329

[10] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "Ours is Not a Dead Universe," Parabola,  summer 2004, p. 9

[11] Ibid., p. 6

 

[12] Terrence McKenna, "History Ends in Green," audiotapes recorded at Esalen, Mystic Fire Audio, tapes 4, 5.

[13] Whitney Museum of American Art, press release for 2004 Whitney Biennial, from website www.whitney.org

 

[14] Richard Rorty, "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," Princeton University Press, p. 12-3.