Unreal Nature

September 23, 2015

What You Might Believe

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

In the picture, you have the object. But you have in the object, or superimposed on it, a thing I would call the image, which contains my idea. And these things are present at one and the same time and there is a business going on, a conflict, a tension. — Aaron Siskind (1963)

This (with the exception of the above quote) is from the essay ‘Aaron Siskind: A Demanding New Photographic Order by Gilles Mora found in Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality (2014):

… A kind of third way between illusory, distanced documentary verism and a vainly mannered hankering for art, Siskind’s intense, difficult expressionism helped guide American photography toward an experiment-inflected visual mastery with a unique, specific language, increasingly receptive to other art forms, of which he was one of the founding fathers.

Gloucester, 1944

Siskind … was aiming at something other than the approximate expression of moods through photography. It is now a commonplace that Stieglitz’s nebulous, intentionally abstract series [his Equivalents] made metaphor — a concept taken from linguistics — a more or less happy stylistic device within American photographic modernity. With its help, the photographer — Edward Weston, for example, or Minor White — could try to infuse the inherent objectivity of his medium with an extra dash of soul, a guarantee of subjectivity that would seem highly unlikely to any believer in the expressive muteness of the photographic recording process. In photography, metaphor — proceeding by free association, often highly formalized, concentrated in a single image rather than a series, and resorting to a symbolist vocabulary that borrows as readily from painting, music, or poetry — had been the key to all sorts of more or less successful visual solutions.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Walker Evans was the first to abjure this pseudo-poetic language, with its exaggeratedly artistic and inevitably limited effects. In its place he offered a documentary style just as capable, if not more so, of successfully investing areas that hitherto only literature had seemed able to address: meditation on time, history, the breakdown of capacity for resistance of the individual faced with collective anonymity, the status of the object — the vernacular object in particular — in the modern social environment, the archiving of such objects, etc. These were the exigencies that linked Siskind to Evans, who, apart from Frederick Sommer and Harry Callahan, was the only photographic influence Siskind ever acknowledged. But while Evans denied all artistic pretensions, Siskind made his claim frankly and openly.

New York, 1951

… “I think a picture is a kind of result of a conjunction of circumstances of which you are one. A picture is basically not a statement of what you believe but rather a kind of indication of what you might believe, or what you might be believing, or what you didn’t know you believed.”

We have lost the habit of this kind of credo: it belongs to a modernist past which, nonetheless, for two decades engaged American photography in a venture of revelation of the self and the world, taking it down trails as different as those blazed by Siskind, [Harry] Callahan, Minor White, Emmet Gowin, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus.

New York, W1, 1947

Siskind begins by freeing things from their weight of space and time and, thus allowing them to transcend their material condition, sets them communicating among themselves inside a new system of references, a parallel world of interacting signs within the contained flat space of the print. He calls this “conversation,” that is to say, dialogue between fields of tension …




September 22, 2015

Such as We Trap Occasionally in Revery and Dreams

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… before it has been hatched into the recognizable coordinates of everyday experience.

Continuing through Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present at The Museum of Modern Art, edited by John Elderfield (2004). This book uses extracts from other books to comment on the featured artists (I’m extracting from those extracts… ) If that text does not refer specifically to the MoMA art that is shown in the parent book, I may choose to use some other work by the artist to illustrate my post. Today’s first is from Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage by William S. Rubin (1968):

… [Magritte] sought an almost total prosaism in the things he represented. … In his greater closeness to de Chirico, Magritte distinguishes himself from the other Surrealists by the technical devices — frottage — and aesthetic formulation — biomorphism — he eschews.

… The paintings produced during the first three years of Magritte’s maturity were dark in mood and in color. The … frustrating isolation of The Lovers [is] more intense than the impersonality, irony, and dead-pan humor his later painting allowed.

René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928

Next is from Miró in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (1973) by William S. Rubin:

… An extraordinary challenge to the conception of easel painting that obtained at the time, The Birth of the World was to enjoy an underground reputation among a handful of the artists and critics who saw it in the studio in 1925-26. However, the response of most viewers — even of those interested in Miró’s work — was negative, and until after World War II this was the prevailing attitude toward all of Miró’s paintings in this style. René Gaffé, the pioneer Belgian collector who purchased The Birth of the World the year following its execution, spoke of the reactions of his collector and critic acquaintances: “It goes without saying that they took Miró for a madman, a hoaxer, or both. But they took me for an even greater fool for having bought the picture. The informed opinion of the day was that I had been taken.”

Joan Miró, The Birth of the World, 1925

Last, this is from Matta by William S. Rubin (1957):

… The title, The Vertigo of Eros (Le Vertige d’Éros), a pun on the phrase “Le Vert-Tige des Roses” (The Green Stem of the Roses), relates to a passage in which Freud located all consciousness as falling between Eros and the death wish — the life force and its antithesis. Afloat in a mystical light which emanates from the deepest recesses of space, an inscrutable morphology of shapes suggesting liquid, fire, roots and sexual parts stimulates an awareness of inner consciousness such as we trap occasionally in revery and dreams. Yet this imagery is wholly opposed to Dali’s “handpainted dream photographs” or Magritte’s dreamlike mutations and confrontations of objects in external reality.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The components of everything we “see” in a dream, whatever their juxtaposition or distortion, are present in waking life. The flames and giraffes of Dali’s noted enigma are in themselves visually commonplace. But Matta’s language transcends this ultimately prosaic level of imagery. His invented shapes constitute a new morphology that reaches back behind the level of dream activity to the central and latent source of life, forming an iconography of consciousness before it has been hatched into the recognizable coordinates of everyday experience.

Matta, The Vertigo of Eros, 1944

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




September 21, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… the painterly gestures of the artist have connotations of an assault on the legibility and integrity of the assembled materials — a kind of vandalism.

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

… Most important, for all of them [poster artists Hains, Villeglé, and Rotella], the writing on the wall did not consist of gouged-in markings that harked back to Pompeii and the caves, but of the daily accretion of mass-produced contemporary ephemera — bold and sensationally up-to-the-minute, but at the same time thin, fragile, and almost instantly tattered and replaced. These poster-tearers became annexed to Pop art after 1960, and were touted for their precocious embrace of popular culture. But seen in the context of the 1950s, their interleaving of paper dreams of abundance with physical realities of transience and decay seems less than wholeheartedly optimistic …

by Raymond Hains

… the work of the affichistes abandoned the idea of “raw” street culture that had surrounded previous approaches to graffiti. The walls from which they extracted their work were not shaped by isolated “street artists” but by an anonymous collective of forces, including chance. The artist, in turn, acted as a collector or commentator rather than as an individual generator of meaning. The model of linguistic activity within which graffiti was seen as operating had shifted from one emphasizing innate creativity to one emphasizing social interaction and the manipulation of culturally determined conventions. These artists wanted to disrupt established language, rather than revert, as the Surrealists hoped to do, to pre-verbal “handwriting.”

[ … ]

Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus, 1955

… In an image such as [Rebus], however, the artist as rag-picker and riddler is joined with the artist as defacer. The element of paint is itself double-edged in Rebus. The inclusion of strips of color samples refers both to the commercial, pre-prepared nature of the medium of painting itself and, in a subversive and deflating way, to the notion of purely abstract art; while the prominent, seemingly spontaneous and gestural brushwork, like the improvisatory nature of the work as a whole, honors the lessons of Abstract Expressionist painting.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] But here as in other related Rauschenberg works, the painterly gestures of the artist have connotations of an assault on the legibility and integrity of the assembled materials — a kind of vandalism. That use of painted marks and scumbled lines as cancellations or negations was intentionally contrary to the Abstract Expressionists’ will to invest the calligraphy of brushstrokes with autonomous meaning; and it was entirely consistent with Rauschenberg’s earlier, infamous stunt of erasing a drawing by Willem de Kooning.

Rebus evokes the look of a posted urban wall, and involves somewhat the same combination seen in the affichistes, of an interest in dealing with impersonal, found material and an aesthetic attuned to the full-field, painterly abstraction of the postwar years.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




September 20, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… the answer regenerates the question, and possession engenders an increasing appetite for the thing possessed. And that is art.

This is from the essay ‘Poetics’ found in Faux Pas by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Charlotte Mandell (2001):

… by “poetics” Paul Valéry understands not the exposition of rules concerning the composition of poems or the construction of lines but the study of the mind, insofar as it makes something, to the extent that it expresses itself, in a work and in the creation of this work.

… it is uncertain whether consciousness can itself form an idea of what it is without order and without law, since it is itself in perpetual unbalance and in the constant process of destroying itself in order to reform itself.

That which gives the general problem of the creation of intellectual works an almost insurmountable breadth and complexity is that it calls into question the whole mind; there is at first nothing to see the difference between the “I” that is not given over to any gaze in its pure and simple existence and the “I” that poses as a child of itself in a complete act, that is to say in a work.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The poverty of a mind that is distanced from any capacity to create is equal to and forms the basis for the richness of the greatest creator; the nudity of awareness, reduced to being nothing but possibility stripped of everything, contains all the abilities that will allow it to realize an incomparable work. And at the same time the artist represents, in relation to the man of practical life and even in relation to the man of objective knowledge, an absolutely original form.

… To a certain extent, the artist can be considered the most utilitarian of persons, for he uses even unusable things; he is the one who uses insignificant perceptions and arbitrary acts to invent, outside of practical interest, a background interest, a secondary necessity. The unique quality of artistic invention is to lend these useless impressions such a value that not only do they become as indispensable as any direct perception, but as they are given to us we feel even more the need to find them again and to enjoy them.

[line break added] That is what Paul Valéry calls the “aesthetic infinite.” Whereas in the world of practical life satisfaction suppresses desire (I am thirsty, I drink; the matter is done with, classified), in the universe of sensibility satisfaction causes need to be reborn indefinitely; the answer regenerates the question, and possession engenders an increasing appetite for the thing possessed. And that is art.

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




September 19, 2015

This Necessary Stupidity

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

… Through the spaces opened by the stupidities themselves … we enact, and see …

Continuing through Six Drawing Lessons: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 2012 by William Kentridge (2014):

… There is the bed of the printing press, covered by blankets (thick felt) to protect the sheet (the sheet of paper under the blanket). Under the blanket, on top of the sheet, we make sense of the open bite, the foul bite, the spit bite, the drypoint, the hard ground. An entire erotics of etching, a process that has an essential physical sensuousness: the gentle wiping of the hand, the soft ground, the open bite. The bubbles of the acid are feathered off, the soft ground is gently dabbed on, the ink is wiped off with the palm of the hand, the dampness of the sheet judged with the back of the hand.

… the pressure at the center of the process, the meeting of the two rollers, one above the bed and one below the plate, in felt and paper and blankets — is an invisible moment, hidden by the blankets themselves. The artist as maker on one side, the artist as observer on the other side of the roller.

… The etching and other prints are essentially about multiplicity: the private impulse becomes a public opinion.

[ … ]

… we are in the studio, trying to parse the specific nature and activity of the studio, which can be characterized as making a safe place for stupidity.

This necessary stupidity is not the same as foolishness, or the innocence of the pure fool made wise through compassion. It is not the fool with license to talk truth to power. It is not a simple naïveté elevated. Rather it is making a space for uncertainty, for giving an impulse, an object, a material, the benefit of the doubt.

… To make a space for the inauthentic starting point. The foolish work of the six degrees of tension are there. A film is started without script or storyboard, a day is spent walking backward, throwing encyclopedias over your shoulder. Not in celebration of the stupidity itself, but believing in it more than in a studio of good ideas, of things worked out in advance and then shot and executed.

Understanding, hoping, believing, not out of conviction, but from physical experience, that from the physical making, from the very imperfections of technique — our bad backward walking — parts of the world, and parts of us, are revealed, that we neither expressed nor knew, until we saw them — when we realized we always did know them. Through the spaces opened by the stupidities themselves — the randomly torn pages, the line and the parabola — we enact, and see, and celebrate our construction of our world.

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




September 18, 2015

See the Grey Come Through the Window

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… One can sigh and, dropping back against the pillow, feel for a moment the house and all its sleeping occupants, like a good ship driving on through time.

This is from The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley edited by Kenneth Heuer (2002, 1987):

… I write this record with a sense of haste. I write it as shipwrecked men on islands toss messages into the current and stand and watch the bottles bob away and vanish into unknown seas. I am marooned on a sandspit in time at the far end of an obscure and brutal century. I shall never escape.

… Over me when I build my campfire on the beach is the enormous unplumbed night of space. In my head is another darkness where bog lights glow in forgotten marshes and the sleeper writhes and cries out in his sleep.

… the wish strikes me to leave a record, the record of a castaway’s thoughts: of the stones he lifted up and flung down, of the things hiding under the stones, of the world island, of bones and searches, of great rivers and difficult crossings, of the shifting of shapes in the forests, of the waiting for ships, of hope in bad years and despair in good …

… it is this story of the world island, its emergence into time and space through the medium of a single brain — as it dawns once, and only once, for every man and is alike and yet different for all men. To each his island: mine is here under the lamp. One can always, starting from sleep, lift up one’s hands to the nightlight and assure oneself there is no fur black upon them. One can sigh and, dropping back against the pillow, feel for a moment the house and all its sleeping occupants, like a good ship driving on through time. No trouble there. The clock ticks in the hall, and if you occasionally see the grey come through the window, no one will know. A little coffee at breakfast will efface the marks of the night.

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




September 17, 2015

Modulated by the Shadows

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… Those are words shadowed on a mirror bounced off the wall through a lens, modulated by the shadows of leaves blowing in the wind …

This is from the author’s interview with David Gatten in Adventures of Perception: Cinema as Exploration by Scott MacDonald (2009):

[ … ]

Gatten: … [at a film retreat north of Toronto in his student days] What we were doing at the farm was shooting six rolls and processing them ourselves in buckets and spraying the film with a garden hose. In the process the film might fall on the rough floor and you might step on it; the dog might come over and chew on it.

… when my film was projected, I was excited because I could see not only what I’d photographed, which was one kind of record, but also that many of the marks on the surface of the film were legible.

… So two layers of experience were recorded: the photographic record and the inscription on the surface of the film of that object’s passage through the world — a completely new idea for me. At some point during the trip, when Weena [Weena Perry] and I were unpacking the car, I’d cut my hand and was being careful about putting my hand in the chemicals, thinking a lot about the scar that was forming, and talking about it too. I started to think about the surface of the film and the emulsion as very much like the skin on one’s body: we have marks on our body that are legible; there are stories we can tell about them.

[ … ]

MacDonald: Why ‘Hardwood’? [Hardwood Process (1996)]

Gatten: Weena and I had this really old apartment; the floors were in terrible shape, really scratched up. My first impulse was to get a rug down, but then I got interested in the floor. I thought, “Okay, here’s a third surface; this floor has been here for a hundred and fifty years and chairs have been moved, things have fallen; a whole history, which is completely il legible to me, is inscribed into the hardwood floor.” I could imagine into that space.

[ … ]

MacDonald: Near the end [of The Great Art of Knowing (2004)], we get this one particular kind of reflection, quite gorgeous; it suggests birds in various stages of flight caught within a single image. Do you mean to evoke Marey’s chronophotography?

Gatten: Those are words shadowed on a mirror bounced off the wall through a lens, modulated by the shadows of leaves blowing in the wind, also being put through an apparatus — so it’s words that suggest birds in flight. I spent three hours every afternoon for ten or twelve weeks sitting in the studio waiting for the light to arrive and looking through the camera. I probably only filmed every third day, but I spent hours waiting for the wind to be right, for the shadows of leaves to be the right size.

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




September 16, 2015

Wherever in the World the Playground Is

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… children are smiling, and very often not for mean reasons.

This is from the Foreword, by Jon Ronson, to Playground by James Mollison (2015):

… He tells me how the photographs were a bureaucratic nightmare to pull off. Most of the schools he approached said no. One (British) school had a security guard accompany him everywhere. The children aimed footballs at James’s head, and cheered when one missed him and scored a direct hit on the security guard. They wobbled James’s tripod and called him a pervert. Why else would he want to photograph children, if he wasn’t a pervert?

Personally, I’m happy to hear these terrible stories. It’s always nice to know that someone has worked ridiculously hard on a project, gone to crazy lengths. If we expect people to pay good money for our books, our discomfort is the least we can offer in return.

Manera Primary School, Naivasha, Kenya

… Playground experiences can mold a lifetime.

This is why I don’t see this book as a record of adorable rough-and-tumble and hijinks. Other people will see it that way, but not me. I see it as a book of horror photographs. Wherever in the world the playground is, you notice it: little flashes of violence and cruelty. My eyes skip past the comfortable little cliques and the best friends holding hands to the outcasts, the pariahs, the ones protecting their faces from the blows.

Bhakta Vidyashram, Kathmandu, Nepal

[ … ]

… I feel bad about how much of the introduction to this beautiful book has focused on the sad, painful, angry moments captured in James’s photographs, when in fact there’s an awful lot of happiness here. The hula hooping and skipping girls in LA and Tokyo, the Bedouin boys climbing in the West Bank; all over the world, children are smiling, and very often not for mean reasons.

Seishin Joshi Gakun School, Tokyo

And in fact I know right away what my favorite photograph of all is here. It’s the leaf-throwing contest taking place in the field at Thornton College in Buckinghamshire. It’s so familiar and so lovely, so British and autumnal. Those faces!

“They organized it themselves,” James says. “They’d spent fifteen minutes collecting leaves, and they just suddenly broke out into this moment. It was brilliant.”
“I forgot that playgrounds were that fun,” I said.
“That moment when the lesson is over and you just run,” James says.
“The sheer excitement of it. The lesson ends. And you just explode out into the playground, and you’re just running … “




September 15, 2015

He Handles the Wind

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… no seeking for graciousness, no painterly references, but self-invented realism …

This is from Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present at The Museum of Modern Art, edited by John Elderfield (2004). This book uses extracts from other books to comment on the featured artists (I’m extracting from those extracts… ) If that text does not refer specifically to the MoMA art that is shown in the parent book, I may choose to use some other work by the artist to illustrate my post. Today’s first is an essay by William Carlos Williams in Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs (1939):

… The difficulty is to know the valuable from the impost and to paint that only. … It is the measurable disproportion between what a man sees and knows that gives the artist his opportunity. He is the watcher and surveyor of that world where the past is always occurring contemporaneously and the present always dead needing a miracle of resuscitation to revive it.

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930

… Any picture worth hanging is of this world — under our noses often — which amazes us, into which we can walk upon real grass. It’s no “fabrication,” we realize that at once, but what we have always sought against that shrunken pulp (from which everyone is running faster nowadays than ever) called, monstrously, “the real.”

The next is from Edward Hopper by Charles Burchfield (1933):

… It is my conviction, anyhow, that the bridge to international appreciation is the national bias, providing, of course, it is subconscious. An artist to gain a world audience must belong to his own peculiar time and place; the self-conscious internationalists, no less than the self-conscious nationalist, generally achieve nothing but sterility. But more than being American, Hopper is — just Hopper, thoroughly and completely himself.

The following is from Contemporary Painters by James Thrall Soby (1948):

… If Hopper describes light with rare skill, he also records the density of air like the most delicate of barometers. A subtle gradation of atmospheric values is common to many of his finest works. In Gas, for example, the air seems to thin out as the eye moves from the bright areas of the service station toward the thick woods across the road, light and the breeze waning together. The extremes of his atmospheric control are to be found in his depiction of absolute calm and the medium wind, and it is typical of his restraint that he should reject [Winslow] Homer’s northeasters as too plainly dramatic. But he can bring the summer air to a dead halt — a far more difficult task than might be supposed — and he handles the wind with knowledgeable stagecraft.

Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940

… his strength lies in the fact that he is so inartistic in the European sense of the term; no formalism, no seeking for graciousness, no painterly references, but self-invented realism, warm, convinced, romantic in overtone through its very bluntness of statement.




September 14, 2015

Second Identity

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… Schwitters’s art tears, fold by fold and scrap by scrap, the words of a private, intimate dialogue from the mundane registers of the public word.

This is from High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990). I’m skipping past his recital of early Picasso-Braque, Futurists, and Russian Constructivists:

Schwitters’s frugal, twine-saver’s art trafficked not in words for cognacs, cafés and concerts, but in tiny tram tickets, wrappers from much-loved chocolates, and labels from small, torn packages. It had less to do with sociability than with solitary wanderings, real and imagined, and diaristic fantasies; instead of savoring hot headlines and crude humor, it aimed to wrest more uncertain meanings from thoroughly perfunctory public notices (DOGS MUST BE KEPT ON LEASH), the most weary clichés, and snippets of refuse, by displacing them from their original contexts into new, illogical relationships. His intimately scaled collages, like his poetry, cherished the genteel disorientation of these used, wholly banal things, or words, or phrases. The tender form of art that results is at once sentimental and ironic, tidy and trashy, commonplace and intensely personal.

Kurt Schwitters, Miss Blanche, 1923

If this is remote from Parisian sociability, it seems further still from Futurist clamor, and Russian propaganda. Schwitters’s art tears, fold by fold and scrap by scrap, the words of a private, intimate dialogue from the mundane registers of the public word. Yet, surprisingly, he also had a “second identity,” which belongs firmly within the story of modernization and reform encountered in Soviet propaganda and advertising. One of Schwitters’s close associates and occasional collaborators was El Lissitzky; and Schwitters’s writings on typography show he understood Lissitzky’s lessons well: simple, clear typefaces, composed in a way that suggested machine-like impersonality, with nothing ornamental, and detached letters used as independent abstract symbols.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] With these precepts in mind, Schwitters opened his own graphic design business in Hannover in 1924. He enjoyed notable success in devising sleekly modern ads and packaging for the manufacturer of Pelikan inks, and eventually won — in a poignant irony that put the ragman in charge of the cloth mill — the contract for production of the city of Hannover’s official printed matter.

Kurt Schwitters, Santa Claus, 1922

My previous post from this book is here.




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