Unreal Nature

February 13, 2016

No Matter What That Is

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:31 am

… art moves us when the point of view, no matter what that is — provided, as Orwell says, it is not insane — is strongly, finely, richly, subtly, poignantly or in whatever way, embodied in the piece.

This is from the essay ‘The Tenses of Landscape’ found in Nature and Art Are Physical: Writings on Art, 1967-2008 by Rackstraw Downes (2014):

… My paintings are executed from start to finish on site in the landscape ant take months. When you work outdoors, you surrender a lot of control over your subject and that is what I like about it. It is the opposite of starting with a clear-cut idea and projecting that into the work. You learn about the site as you proceed; no matter what thoughts or opinions I may have about what is there when I begin, what comes to concern me as I work are the things themselves, not any sense I make of them.

[line break added] I made an oil sketch one April in response to the huge scale of a scrap metal pile towering over the fence in front of it. When I returned to the site with a large canvas made to proportions that would give me room for those two leading players, the pile was gone, sold to the Japanese. Did that mean I no longer had a subject? Well, no: it meant I followed what was now actually offered in the site (A Fence at the Periphery of a Jersey City Scrap-Metal Yard, 1993).

[line break added] The ground, bare in spring, produced a fine crop of weeds as summer wore on, and the fence became a subject in itself; perforated by tiny holes that let the wind through, it allowed you to sense mysteriously the semi-visible operations going on inside it. So, working from nature is not a technical issue; it has to do with letting the realities of the outside world impinge on and steer the activities of your own artistic world.

Downes_ScrapmetalYard
Rackstraw Downes, A Fence at the Periphery of a Jersey City Scrap-Metal Yard, 1993

I’ve talked a lot about “imagery.” This term, like its sibling “narrative,” is almost unavoidable in aesthetic discussions today. That’s okay, provided we recognize these words for what they are: x-ray terms. They look through or past the artwork’s body. But in art it is often the body more than the imagery that really signifies.

[line break added] In his essay about Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels called ‘Politics vs. Literature,’ George Orwell deals with the role of “imagery” or “narrative” in works of art, and the question of our endorsing, or not, the point of view expressed by them. He says Gulliver’s Travels has always been one of his favorite books, he’s read it eight or ten times, and he believes his taste in this is not aberrant because the book has never been out of print since its first publication and has been translated into some twenty languages.

[line break added] But, he says, the point of view of this book, its attitude to life, could not be more antithetical to his own. He hates its know-nothing attitude to science and knowledge, its disgust with the human body, its belief in an over-organized state based on a kind of slave population. So how can he love it? In his answer he does not praise its formal beauties; he says, rather, that the point of view it represents is something that is a component, even though only a small or partial one, of what we all feel, sometimes.

[line break added] There are days when any of us might wake up having thoughts like that about life. I would extrapolate from this and say that nothing could be more disappointing to me than to go to a show and find that it contained nothing but works expressing a point of view about landscape similar to my own; and that art moves us when the point of view, no matter what that is — provided, as Orwell says, it is not insane — is strongly, finely, richly, subtly, poignantly or in whatever way, embodied in the piece.

-Julie

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