Unreal Nature

November 30, 2015

A Powerful Rival, Intent on Controlling the Ground

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… these may nourish the new in exactly the same ways that they betray the familiar.

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… advertising has spoken in a broad variety of dialects, not just waxing grandiloquent, but also offering the laconic propositions of object displays, the tiny, crowded chatter of mail-order catalogs, and the sly persuasions of magazine pictorials. Where did that pervasive, multifaceted language come from, what has it had to do with art … ?

… Advertising, after all, is not an upstart poor neighbor of painting and sculpture, one that annoys like graffiti or amuses like comics. It is a powerful rival, intent on controlling the ground.

… Apologists like to argue that advertising is universal and ageless — that the Christian cross, for example, was essentially a forerunner of the corporate logo, and that the Olympian gods were products of the same strategy of personification that brought us Speedy Alka-Seltzer and the Frito Bandito. But in fact modern art and modern advertising were born together in the late nineteenth century.

Jules Chéret, Les Girard: L’Horloge Champs-Élysées, 1879

[ … ]

… Trying to portray a woman of Arles as a secular madonna who would comfort sailors on the sea, he [van Gogh] described the colors he had chosen (” … discordant sharps of crude pink, crude orange, and crude green … softened by flats of red and green”) as making the work “like a chromolithograph from a cheap shop.” In another corner of the same domain of public, commercial imagery where Seurat found the seed of something specifically urban, frivolous, and mechanistic, van Gogh found a useful analogy for the look he was seeking, of the rural, pious and irrational.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] And where Seurat responded to an individual commercial talent [Jules Chéret] as bearing the spirit of the city and the age, van Gogh saw the general anonymous character of a mass-production process as appropriate to his efforts to express the quality of an individual. But in both cases, they saw vulgarity and kitsch — simplified sentiments or crude means that were outside the decorums of painting — as routes to embodying new kinds of emotional power in their work.

Vincent van Gogh, La Berceuse (Madame Roulin), 1889

The relationship between Seurat and Chéret inaugurates the specific dialog between the imagery of advertising and the development of modern painting; and with the story of van Gogh’s colors, it also belongs to a broader history, in which advertising has been a prime participant, of the effects of modern mechanical reproduction on art in our era. In that larger field of inquiry, this first case of the poster-maker and the painter stands witness to an interesting principle of give and take.

[line break added] We can easily see how the advent of mechanical reproduction can coarsen our view of the high tradition of painting, and put modern commerce into a parasitic relationship with the individual creativity of the past. But Seurat’s and van Gogh’s initial brushes with chromolithography suggest two quite different lessons: that modern reproductive techniques may open up, by individual innovations as well as inadvertent side effects, an independent gamut of possibilities; and that these may nourish the new in exactly the same ways that they betray the familiar.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




November 29, 2015

Disappearing in Its Use

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… each living man, really, does not yet have any resemblance.

This is from the essay ‘Two Versions of the Imaginary’ found in The Gaze of Orpheus and other essays by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Lydia Davis (1981):

… The fortunate thing about the image is that it is a limit next to the indefinite. A thin ring, but one which does not keep us at such a remove. Through it, that remove is available to us.

… when we confront things themselves, if we stare at a face, a corner of a room, doesn’t it also sometimes happen that we abandon ourselves to what we see, that we are at its mercy, powerless before this presence that is suddenly strangely mute and passive?

… Here the distancing is at the heart of the thing. The thing was there, we grasped it in the living motion of a comprehensive action — and once it has become an image it instantly becomes ungraspable, noncontemporary, impassive, not the same thing distanced, but that thing as distancing, the present thing in its absence.

… Nevertheless, doesn’t the reflection always seem more spiritual than the object reflected? Isn’t it the ideal expression of that object, its presence freed of existence, its form without matter? And artists who exile themselves in the illusion of images, isn’t their task to idealize beings, to elevate them to their disembodied resemblance?

… each living man, really, does not yet have any resemblance. Each man, in the rare moments when he shows a similarity to himself, seems to be only more distant, close to a dangerous neutral region, astray in himself, and in some sense his own ghost, already having no other life than that of the return.

By analogy, we can also recall that a utensil, once it has been damaged, becomes its own image (and sometimes an esthetic object: “those outmoded, fragmented, unusable, almost incomprehensible, perverse objects” that André Breton loved). In this case, the utensil, no longer disappearing in its use, appears. … Only what has surrendered itself to the image appears, and everything that appears is, in this sense, imaginary.

… psychoanalysis says that the image, far from leaving us outside of things and making us live in the mode of gratuitous fantasy, seems to surrender us profoundly to ourselves. The image is intimate, because it makes our intimacy an exterior power that we passively submit to: outside of us, in the background motion of the world that the image provokes, the depth of our passion trails along, astray and brilliant.

My most recent previous post from Blanchot’s book is here.




November 28, 2015

The Line Between the Stage and the Street

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… The figures … will appear in other performances …

What you read and what you experience in life are not two separate worlds, but one single cosmos. Every life-experience, in order to be interpreted properly, evokes certain things you have read and blends into them. — Italo Calvino

The following is from the essay ‘Processions and Public Rituals’ by Ari Sitas, found in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago’s catalog William Kentridge (2001):

… The kinetic expressivity of these “performance pieces” arrests their form and line, and creates in the viewer a desire for the next moment, the about-to-come, the anticipation, the final realization of the gesture, so the story, the parable can be told. … There is a fluidity of borrowings between his artworks as gestures and drawings move freely from one medium to another in endless recastings.


… The act of drawing — that specific craft of figuration on a piece of paper — in Kentridge’s work is primary: the theatricality of performance genres and public rituals get their significance from the process of drawing itself. If there is a dialectical relationship between them, it is a biased one: the act of delineating performances is ever dominant; the performances are part of the visual languages from which the eye, the mind, the hand, and the charcoal set to work with a mixture of discipline and spontaneity.

… Whereas the political eye is trained on the distinctions between stage, performance, and the “real,” Kentridge’s eye dissolves them into a continuum in which the line between the stage and the street, the stage and the stadium, and the stage and the rundown hall becomes blurred.


… The parade is led by an iron madam with attitude and bust and a brooding fat man, followed by what seems like a fish head/totem man and a scissors lady made of twigs; an urban hunter-gatherer as a heroic Agonistes; what seems like a domestic worker leaping into dance; a victim in a shower/boat; a poor man carrying an unspeakable load; a kudulike creature with human legs; an “inqola” man dragging a cart; a smarty-pants with attitude; a Moloch junior quite uncertain; a man gesturing aggressively with sticks; a solemn runaway monk; a Mayakovsky-like exalter; more totemlike creatures with legs; a Giacometti-like rural refugee with firewood as a burden; a proletarian engrossed in a book, slowly tilting ahead; and a megaphone-man.


… The figures, like all others in the Kentridge collection, will appear in other performances, their gestures hinting at parables we will have to construct for ourselves.





November 27, 2015

We Walked Our Road Together

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:24 am

… It seemed as though the dawn would last all of our lives.

This is from Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar by Viktor Shklovsky; translated by Shushan Avagyan (1970; 2011):

… Every person has a vivid picture at the bottom of his memory, like golden sand washed in a sieve.

… Occasionally, the mind retains color, as if it were a flag on the shore that one has left, or as if it were an oath.

… A person returns to his cradle and tries to rock it, wanting to hear the old squeak.

[ … ]

… Still young and restless, we worked and went on strolls together. We walked our road together — Boris Eichenbaum, Yuri Tynjanov, and I — the only one alive today.

We strolled in the squares and along the banks of the Neva.

They had cut off the Senate Square with a small park a long time ago, blocking out the memory of the Decembrist revolt and disconnecting the buildings that were once interconnected.

Kyukhlya had walked through here, and probably Pushkin, too. The St. Isaac’s Cathedral hadn’t been built yet. Instead there were warehouses, piles of planks and stones, and the crowd — from behind the fences, hurled stones at the Tsar’s loyal cavalry that had been sent to suppress the revolt.

The silent equestrian — Peter the Great — galloped in the square, his outstretched arm pointing toward the West. We could see our university’s narrow side reddening behind the Neva, which wasn’t gray or blue that night, but pink.

The night never came and it never passed.

It seemed as though the dawn would last all of our lives.

The young Pushkin, who had already authored numerous works and who was guilty of nothing, during such a night reproached himself for accomplishing too little, for not having lived right.

Responsibility has no boundaries.

Art resolves things differently.

In the light of the white night we reread the past without justifying ourselves.

The city of revolution, the city of Russian book printing, the city of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, the city of Blok, Mayakovsky, the city of Gorky, the city of quarrelling quarters, palaces and factories, the city of a river, the ice of which has been drenched in blood so many times — Petersburg, we love you as Leningrad in our lifetime, we love you till death! We swear by you in our books!

The world was young then. The ships stood on the wide Neva, ready to discover new planets. Everything was ready for sailing and for change.

Everything was in the future. Everything was half written and unfinished.

Everything was exciting.

The heavy St. Isaac’s Cathedral was raising its glinting cupola above the city.

The years passed like the days of creation.


My most recent previous post from Shklovsky’s book is here.




November 26, 2015

Sensation, Perception, Emotion

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 4:42 am

… It’s not about text; it’s about texture.

This is from the author’s interview with Godfrey Reggio in Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema by Scott MacDonald (2015):

[ … ]

MacDonald: In Visitors there seem to be at least two different kinds of facial close-ups … At the beginning the faces seem to be looking at us; they seem to be conscious of the project they’re part of.

Reggio: Those portraits are what I call “from the inside-out”; the people were consciously sitting for portraits. All my effort involves getting organized in the hope that spontaneity is going to take over. And it does, usually. As a crew we discovered the virtue of an inhumanly slow move into the face so that the face you see at the beginning of the shot is not the face you see at the end.

… [elsewhere in the film] All these young people knew they were being filmed, but they weren’t sitting for portraits. As soon as that [video game’s] digital screen came on, it was like a tractor beam; each person went out of a self-conscious state and became entranced by the virulent presence and demands of the game. … I call these portraits “from the outside-in.”


[ … ]

Reggio: … The meaning, in this case, the subject of this film, is the person watching the film. I wanted to avoid a didactic piece, but I came to realize that what I was making was an autodidactic film. Visitors has no intrinsic meaning, all meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Each member of the audience must become the storyteller, must become the character and plot of the film.

[ … ]

Reggio: … A lot of words go into creating the shooting script of a film like this, deciding on the point of view, getting everybody on the same page and into one breath, one heartbeat — but at the end of the day we’re making a pictorial composition, a syntax for the eye. It’s not about text; it’s about texture. Until the film is shot, it’s just words on paper; once the film is shot, the paper goes out the window and we’re left with the material qua material of the medium — the image-in-time — and that’s what we have to work with.

Essentially, the people in Visitors, be they humans looking “at you” or people playing games, are the proverbial doubles of who we are. In daily life we see ourselves as doubles through shadows, reflections, through spirits, but we can also see ourselves through other people. Their gaze brings us into a dialogue with ourselves, but the specific nature of the dialogue is up to the viewer. My films may not offer the kind of clarity text can provide, but they do offer the aesthetic triplets of sensation, perception, and emotion. The film becomes a meta-language that is not dependent on textual metaphor.

My most recent previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.




November 25, 2015

Is There Warning?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… And now, a dress, Louise, and a yellow chair.

This first is from Gerry Badger’s essay in Peter Fraser (2006):

… I once attended a dinner party where Peter Fraser stated that he was trying to make ‘four-dimensional photographs.’

… To photograph an object — say a paper aeroplane — and in so doing label it as such, goes only so far.

… From the contradictory union of opposites derives the notion that things can be known only through their association with other things. A tree, for example, is known as a tree because there are other things — plants, animals, timber products — to differentiate and define it. If there were only large trees, one would not know small tree and so on. And from the basic concept of ‘tree’ derives a matrix of complex relationships that eventually would encompass the whole world.


The following is from the ‘Afterword’ by Maureen O. Paley (with Fraser) in Two Blue Buckets: Photographs by Peter Fraser (1988):

Two blue buckets. What actually happens?

What happens is not seeing, it’s like being punched.
It’s a moment when everything stands still.

It’s a moment?

A precise sense of being in a certain place at a certain time.

Is there warning?

Yes. As enveloping as a smell in the air.

And now?

And now, a dress, Louise, and a yellow chair.




November 24, 2015

To Inhabit Them

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

Ladder, 1978

… There are twenty crucial minutes in the evolution of each of my paintings. The closer I get to that time — those twenty minutes — the more intensely subjective I become — but the more objective too. Your eye gets sharper; you become continuously more and more critical.

There is no measure I can hold on to except this scant half-hour of making.

… Human consciousness moves, but it is not a leap: it is one inch. One inch is a small jump, but that jump is everything. You can go way out, and then you have to come back — to see if you can move that inch. — Philip Guston, 1965


… Yes — I too puzzle over “meanings” — I mean the linkage of images when they are together in a certain way and then how all changes, when in another combination on the wall. Last month, trying to select nine or ten paintings from about forty for [the] McKee show, I shifted pictures around for days and nights, reeling from the diverse possible meanings the pictures possess when in different image relationships.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] But that is the potency of image making — it’s as if we are dense — swamped — image-ridden — we teem with meanings “constantly.” So the “WHAT” is never settled. Of course never can be. There are days when in a kind of half-awake state, the images of one painting move into another. I don’t myself know what is where — nothing to do with separate pictures anymore but a sort of confused swarm where everything can become everything else — in a split second.

[line break added] I “panic” and hate it and desire it to stop fully as much as I love and need it and want to continue endlessly. The “curse” of image making — as if one wants to gorge and eat up the world — a hunger — but then also deep down is another hunger — for some “peace” — detachment — for a single form which might “contain” so much multiplicity. Is that possible? — Philip Guston, 1976


… It’s a long, long preparation for a few moments of innocence. — Philop Guston, 1978

Pyramid and Shoe, 1977

The following, and the Guston quotes, above, are found in Philip Guston by Robert Storr (1986):

… In his brief essay The Eye and the Mind, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote, “Science manipulates things but refuses to inhabit them.” To the degree that much postwar art has distanced itself from its sources or sought to emulate the objectivity of science by confining itself to the task of isolating painting’s essential properties, the same might be said of it, that it “manipulates things but refuses to inhabit them.”

[line break added] Guston, however, did not conceive of painting as an essentially formal enterprise, nor did he simply “borrow” ideas and images from the various traditions on which he drew. For Guston, painting was not so much made as lived; it was a process of perpetual metamorphosis that revealed and transformed the identity of the artist as he confronted the mutable reality of his materials and of the world that surrounded him.

Couple in Bed, 1977




November 23, 2015

Links in the Light-Bulb Chain

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… “It is the adjustment of impurities …” … both an image of the familiar, and a vision of the unknown.

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… [Guston’s] moment of crisis in the mid-sixties is often interpreted as a desire to reattach art to life — a move toward “realism” and the “figure” over “abstraction,” but the truth seems very different. What Guston needed, like so many damaged and visionary old men, was above all a private style. And by then abstraction had become irrevocably public: the official style of a staggeringly successful art culture.

… Two motifs in particular came to be of supreme importance for Guston: the naked light bulb, dangling from its segmented metal chain — a light and a noose at once — and the insect like assemblage of naked, hairy legs with oversized feet turned up to reveal the cobbled, nailed sole.

Sleeping, 1977

… Almost all of the catalog of symbols that possessed him in the last decade — the light bulb, the big, upturned sole, the hairy leg — derive from comic-book sources; the oversize upturned cobbled sole first appears in Fisher’s comics, the bare bulb and the stubbled faces each with a cigarette butt planted dumbly in the mouth appear regularly in the work of Ahern and Wolverton; the Cyclops, as we have seen, derives from Capp, while, as Robert Storr had observed, the clown-like gloved hands and skinny legs with big shoes derive from Gottfredson’s version of Mickey Mouse.

Guston put on the mask of Bud Fisher for the same reason that Beckett put on the deadpan of Buster Keaton. Both artists had the insight to see in a popular style an undercurrent of dread which could be magnified, cultivated, reimagined, and expanded, and still remain strangely comic, tender, and unpretentious.

In this sense, Guston’s work is closer in spirit to the Johns of Alley Oop than it is to anything in Lichtenstein or Oldenburg. The language of American comics becomes a diction for private poetry. Johns and Guston both emerge in the aftermath of achievement, from an acute consciousness of the greatness, at once liberating and imprisoning, of American abstract painting. Yet the dialogue between private and public which Johns expressed as a muted koan becomes in Guston an absurd expressionist tragedy.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Guston never forsook his gift for pure painting, or his control over “epic” size canvases. In fact, his late paintings, far from having the flat or impersonal surfaces of Pop, have an impassioned richness of surface, a mix of butter-cream and blood, as luxurious as anything in his delicate abstract pictures. For all the suggestive relationship between Crumb and Guston, it is here that they are most different. In Crumb’s art, the tension is between Kurtzman and Superman. Guston’s art is built around an argument between Ahern and Goya. (And, in this way, Guston’s art resembles Goya’s, for Goya’s art, after all, was structured by a dialog between Gillray and Velasquez.)

[line break added] In paintings, like the late Pull, the comic book images have been isolated, reduced, purified, and made into heralds of death. They display at once a death-knell feeling for the pathos of the small, repeated, and segmented stroke — the nails on the sole, the links in the light-bulb chain struck like a tolling bell — and also for the grand organ peal, the big, melodramatic gesture. Very little art in this century has been so intensely polarized, but few modern pictures have made so operatic a case that painting, as Guston put it prophetically, long before he abandoned abstraction, “is impure. It is the adjustment of impurities which forces its continuity.”

[line break added] Lichtenstein and Warhol had still had an odd residual and not quite conscious faith in a kind of purity, and had invented imaginary pop universes of clean, unmediated gestures. The intensity of Guston’s faith in the power of impurity produced paintings that have some of the concentration of great religious art. Looking at Guston’s work, as Robert Storr has written, “We confront them now with the same puzzlement that Guston himself felt each morning looking at the accomplishment of the night before, seeing both an image of the familiar, and a vision of the unknown.

Pull, 1979

… The greatness of Pollock and de Kooning had lain in the dialog in their art between existential angst and decorative luxuriance. Guston rejected the decorative swoon altogether. Only by pushing his essentially literal gift all the way into the most banal kind of illustration could he find an original style.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




November 22, 2015

Through My Silent Mediation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… has nevertheless maintained within his effacement the authority of a power, the decision to be silent, so that in this silence what speaks without beginning or end can take on form, coherence and meaning.

This is from the essay ‘The Essential Solitude’ found in The Gaze of Orpheus and other essays by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Lydia Davis (1981):

… When Rilke writes … ” … at last my solitude has closed in and I am in my work like a pit in its fruit,” the solitude he speaks of is not essentially solitude: it is self-communion.

In the solitude of the work — the work of art, the literary work — we see a more essential solitude. It excludes the self-satisfied isolation of individualism, it is unacquainted with the search for difference; it is not dissipated by the fact of sustaining a virile relationship in a task that covers the mastered extent of the day. The person who is writing the work is thrust to one side, the person who has written the work is dismissed. What is more, the person who is dismissed does not know it. This ignorance saves him, diverts him and allows him to go on. The writer never knows if the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he begins again or destroys in another.

… the work of art, the literary work — is neither finished, nor unfinished; it is. What it says is exclusively that: that it is — and nothing more.

… The work can have no proof, just as it can have no use. It cannot be verified — truth can lay hold of it, renown illuminate it: this existence concerns it not at all, this obviousness makes it neither certain nor real, nor does it make it manifest.

… To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot stop talking — and because of this, in order to become its echo, I must to a certain extent impose silence on it. To this incessant speech I bring the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence. Through my silent mediation, I make perceptible the uninterrupted affirmation, the giant murmur in which language, by opening, becomes image, becomes imaginary, an eloquent depth, an indistinct fullness that is empty. The source of this silence is the self-effacement to which the person who writes is invited.

… When we admire the tone of a work, responding to the tone as what is most authentic about it, what are we referring to? Not the style, and not the interest and the quality of the language, but precisely the silence, the virile force through which the person who writes, having deprived himself of himself, having renounced himself, has nevertheless maintained within his effacement the authority of a power, the decision to be silent, so that in this silence what speaks without beginning or end can take on form, coherence and meaning.

Tone is not the voice of the writer, but the intimacy of the silence he imposes on speech, which makes this silence still his own, what remains of himself in the discretion that sets him to one side. Tone makes the great writers, but perhaps the work is not concerned about what makes them great.

In the effacement to which he is invited, the “great writer” still restrains himself: what speaks is no longer himself, but it is not the pure slipping of the speech of no one. Of the effaced “I,” it retains the authoritarian, though silent affirmation. It retains the cutting edge, the violent rapidity of active time, of the instant. This is how he is preserved inside the work, is contained where there is no more restraint. But because of this the work, too, retains a content; it is not completely interior to itself.

My most recent previous post from Blanchot’s book is here.




November 21, 2015

Acts of Disremembering

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… the images begin to transform into others, showing the actual consumption of one memory or totem by the next.

This is from the essay ‘The Process of Change: Landscape, Memory, Animation, and Felix in Exile’ by Staci Boris, found in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago’s catalog William Kentridge (2001):

Pierneef’s landscapes of the 1950s illustrate the “myth born of a naturalized connection between Afrikaner volk and their land. The deep V-perspective of Pierneef’s landscapes, the simplification of form, the stark monumentality suggesting a comprehensible order are the very means and metaphor of a Calvinist fundamentalism.” Pierneef’s palette of lavenders, pinks, and yellows, as well as his artificial stylization of the topography, literally and metaphorically mold the land into a form compatible with nationalistic attitudes, letting desire and fantasy (read: entitlement) appear as fact.

early (1928) Pierneef

Kentridge believed these works to be “deliberate acts of disremembering” as they bore no traces of history nor any resemblance to the South African landscape of his own experience: “I had not seen, and in many ways feel I have not yet seen, a picture that corresponds to what the South African landscape feels like. I suppose my understanding of the countryside is an essentially urban one. It has to do with visions from the roadside, with landscape that is articulated, or given a meaning by incidents across it, pieces of civil engineering, the lines of pipes, culverts, fences.”

[line break added to make this easier to read online] He adopted a strategy of driving prescribed distances into the countryside and drawing that which presented itself. This experiment proved to him that wherever he went, whichever direction he followed, the traces of human intervention were inescapable and were, in fact, the most compelling and relevant parts of his environs. The South Africa of his drawings and films resists the consummate “Africa as Eden” of his artistic predecessors …


Kentridge’s landscapes not only represent the disorderliness of a person’s thoughts but also recall a theoretical model of forgetting in which each bit of memory is stored, until it is eventually displaced by another. This concept suggests that memories are not categorized, they are stored in a place that has no boundaries where document freely intermingles with diary. This approach is taken even further in Kentridge’s animated work in which, given the nature of animation, the images begin to transform into others, showing the actual consumption of one memory or totem by the next.





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