Tuesday, December 06, 2022

WHEN IS A TREE THE SAME AS A DOG?


The Transversal Law of Pictures says: a log can serve the same function as a dog. 

Andrew Wyeth began this painting featuring a dog....

 
... but changed his mind and started over, substituting a log.  Wyeth explained that the log performed the same function: "the dog disappeared, though the animal is in the ragged, chopped, sharp sliver part of the log."  


Whether a dog or a log, Wyeth introduces a contrasting element which opens a dialogue in both form and content.  

The big change in the final version is not that the dog turned into a log.  The big change is that the dog / log has been moved outside.  That really alters the dialogue.

The sharp, gray, contrasting element now sits outside the window, jagged and ominous, with other asperous symbols: barbed wire, a rusty chain, dead grass.  

Compare the world outside with the civilized tableau indoors.  One critic wrote that the final version of Wyeth's painting is "richly symbolic: outside there is violence and death: inside a sacramental order and the light of an austere divinity."  The window glass is invisible yet it transforms the meaning of an object to be painted inside or out. 

Gary Kelley put his own version of the wildness outside the window...



... but this time the window doesn't appear to offer much protection.  The howl of the feral beast seems to have penetrated the window and undermined the civilization inside.

Look at all the ways Tomer Hanuka's window separates winter's wild chill from a steamy interior: cool colors vs. warm, hard geometric building materials vs. tender human flesh, tone vs. line, foreground vs. background:



What role does a window play in these dialogues?  A window offers less protection than a solid wall, but more protection than a blue sky-- a compromise somewhere between nothing and everything.  This range of possibilities makes a window a marvelous artistic device.  For example, an open window leaves a person vulnerable to their "love awakening." 



Sometimes your love awakening arrives wearing a top hat but packing a pistol.  How much wildness can you handle?


Other times a window thrills by merely implying what's outside.  A shadow can be more effective than the dangers we actually see.





Of course, not all the savagery takes place outside the window.  Sometimes it's more savage inside:


Gustave Dore illustrates the age old custom of defenestration
 
As we've all heard, if you leave an open window in your heart, everything you wanted may enter.



However, what you wanted may not be in your best interest. 

Windows can free you from the tyranny of perspective or anatomy:



Windows also thwart our appetite for too much information, forcing us to infer situations.  

Subtle clues

Creativity comes from constrained circumstances.  If you find yourself in a closed space, there are three ways to enlarge your vision. You can look at a picture.  You can look in a mirror.  Or you can look out a window.  The artist's choices about the size of the window, how to crop it, what features from the world to see through it,  determines where the rest of the world ends and the art begins.

80 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have that Tomer Hanuka NYer cover framed on my studio wall. One of my all time favourites.

Anonymous said...

~ Jason Chatfield

David Apatoff said...

Jason Chatfield-- I love that cover too; Hanuka is quite a talent. I can't remember when the New Yorker last had such an evocative mood piece on the cover. They seem to have strayed from their previous high standards.

Anonymous said...

The perspective and lighting of the Wyeth resonates with the Detective Comics cover. It oscillates, boringly flat in one moment and Picassoesque(?) in the next.

…and the «rich symbolism» is present only via backstory and curatorial framing. Strangely (well not really), the backstory also explains the cut-and-pasted-in quality of the table and its flying saucers.

kev ferrara said...
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Kristopher said...

I believe that only in the strict, formal, compositional sense can a dog be the same as a log-- because though a log can lead the viewer's eye just as well as a dog, and it can perform the functions of shape, value, rhythm, etc. the same as a dog, the split second you replace the log with the dog, ... BAM! you've got an entirely different work. The narrative is INSTANTLY different, and most likely much more engaging to the viewer, I would wager.
Even with Wyeth's dog in that picture (which is, funny enough, lying like a log... "sawing logs?") the painting is a totally different "animal."

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- The art critic in question was Ken Johnson of the NYT who was reviewing a Wyeth exhibition in Philadelphia years ago. It may have been unfair of me to select the most extreme phrase from what I think is a generally well written review so here is his full paragraph about the Wyeth painting, which is called Groundhog Day:

"Groundhog Day, from 1959, shows Andrew Wyeth at the height of his powers. In the foreground is a table set with a white plate, cup and saucer and knife on a flat table. Wintry light spills through a window just behind, and through the window you see brown grass, a barbed-wire fence and a huge log with a jagged end and a chain wrapped around it. A remarkable orchestration of light, space and texture, it is also richly symbolic: outside there is violence and death; inside a sacramental order and the light of an austere divinity. The window, a recurrent motif in Wyeth, both connects and separates the realms of inner culture and outer wildness."

I agree with you that there are severe limits to what words can contribute to our appreciation of a picture but it's certainly more than nothing. The fact that words are a different, linear medium both adds to and subtracts from their potential contribution; for example, a raking light on a picture illuminates features that wouldn't otherwise be apparent, even though it cannot contribute to our understanding of the totality of all elements.

I also agree that Wyeth was mischievous to the bone, but I found his comparison of the dog and the log to be marvelous. The notion that he could compare those two elements in that way-- as similar compositional devices, similar in palette, both with sharp teeth and the potential to do harm, both as alien or "other" ingredients in the psychology of the picture-- I thought was a rare and worthy insight into the mind of the painter (and also a devastating refutation of those who missed the point and thought Wyeth was a boring photo-realistic painter).

Laurence John said...


I don't know if Wyeth intended a symbolic meaning to do with domesticity vs the wildness of nature in the painting (if we go that route we have to notice that the 'beast' has been chained, so the metaphor could be about man's taming of nature), however... if you relax your eyes and let them wander around it, it's almost impossible for them not to be drawn to the jagged splinters on the chopped edge of the log. They're the most high contrast spot and yes, they resemble pointed teeth (to me, the whole end of the tree trunk resembles the head of a great white shark opening its mouth, rather than a dog).

Was that Wyeth's intention ? I don't know. But visual analogies like that are very difficult to un-see once you've seen them in a painting.

David Apatoff said...

Kristopher-- I agree that we see a different work when Wyeth substitutes a log, but I would take issue with whether it's an "entirely different work." In addition to "the functions of shape, value, rhythm, etc." which you describe, the dog/log element is similar because both create a contrast which opens a dialogue in the picture. I think that in both pictures, the dog/log adds a rough edge-- something apart from what might otherwise be a placid, bland still life. That sunlit room without the dog would be very much like the sunlit room without the log: lacking a theme.

Personally, I find the greater difference to be the fact that the dog/log element has been moved outside the window, sealing the off the sunlit room with its delicate porcelain. To me, the table setting is a token of civilization the way the typewriter is a token of civilization in the Kelley painting. The only difference is that the plates in the Wyeth picture are safe, while the typewriter has been wrecked.

Laurence John-- I had the exact same reaction to the jagged splinters on the chopped edge of the log, and for the very same reasons you describe.

Did Wyeth consciously intend the visual analogy? We'll never know for sure but I'd make two points: first, Wyeth spent many slow hours working on his paintings during which his mind roamed free and made all sorts of connections, so it wouldn't be improbable that he made this one. Second, the mere fact that Wyeth could draw the connection between the two elements out loud is very interesting to me. Whether that represents the ultimate truth about the painting, it certainly reveals something about the way Wyeth worked and thought.

kev ferrara said...
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Laurence John said...


Anon: "…and the «rich symbolism» is present only via backstory and curatorial framing"

I agree, if you mean the backstory of the dog that became a log. But, as mentioned above, the pointy teeth are there to see (and never un-see) even if you've never heard the dog backstory (I hadn't the first time I saw the painting years ago).

"Strangely (well not really), the backstory also explains the cut-and-pasted-in quality of the table and its flying saucers"

I think the odd photo-montaged look of the painting is mainly due to the unnatural interior - exterior lighting balance.

al mcluckie said...

On a visit to the Brandywine museum , on a tour bus to N C 's studio , I overheard a conversation between a couple who had run into A.W. at a restaurant and spoke to him about the Omen painting which had just been hung , late 90's . It floored me seeing it .
What I could make out they said when his sister Carolyn died she wanted her ashes shot out in a firework missile - and the painting symbolized his sisters spirit running free and seeing the trail of her ashes in the night sky . Maybe he was putting them on , I know the painting was of a neighbor , but I love the story regardless .

I like learning what an artist had in mind story, meaning wise , but I like to absorb the image first .

Richard said...

> What you just received was a worthy insight into the mind of Howard Pyle, my dear sir. You've been given one of the keys into The Brandywine Tradition and American Imagism generally.

Could you please elaborate?

chris bennett said...
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chris bennett said...

Just to add a general point to some some of the excellent comments contributed here:

Pictures worth their salt are fashioned by relationships across all domains between their largest to their tiniest discernible elements. Like music it is not the individual notes or phrases that carry meaning but the relationships between them, and the contexts created thereby, to the whole and visa versa.

Slicing up a picture (or music or drama) into 'things' that can be given symbolic labels to be phrased together in handy aphorisms for the intellect to bite on is of little use outside of cocktail parties for impressing the impressionable.

To appreciate the worth of a picture one must enter into the flow of it, just as the artist themselves entered the flow of the spiritual intent that was foundational in summoning forth all the aesthetic and technical means required to fashion it.

Laurence John said...

Chris: "Slicing up a picture (or music or drama) into 'things' that can be given symbolic labels to be phrased together in handy aphorisms for the intellect to bite on is of little use outside of cocktail parties for impressing the impressionable"

But what if the artist did that deliberately - included an obvious thing-symbol in the image, such as hooded figure = 'death'. Would you view such an image as being compromised by a cheap effect ?

kev ferrara said...
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chris bennett said...

But what if the artist did that deliberately - included an obvious thing-symbol in the image, such as hooded figure = 'death'. Would you view such an image as being compromised by a cheap effect ?

Yes Laurence, and the compromise would be in approximate proportion to its function in the image as a whole. The deliberateness of such a move is key to why it compromises. I say this because things like paint cracks in an old master or a missing arm off a statue, because they are recognisably manifestations outside the intent of the author, do not disrupt the meaning of the work at all.

Laurence John said...


Chris, and how do you feel about the Wyeth image ?

The log that looks like an aggressive mouth is not an off the shelf symbol in the same way as a hooded figure, but it feels very obviously placed to me. If it is indeed an attempt at visual metaphor it seems heavy handed.

I find it so forceful an eye-magnet that it disrupts the whole painting for me.

kev ferrara said...
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Laurence John said...

Kev: "This very discussion is overweighting those logs compositionally. It is up to you to pull your focus back..."

I promise you, I felt the same way about the shark-log the first time I saw this painting, which was years ago, with no discussion / preamble.

kev ferrara said...
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chris bennett said...

Chris, and how do you feel about the Wyeth image ?

Well, like you, the shark-log was apparent to me when I first encountered this picture along with the rhyming of the slanting sunlight shapes with the splintered log-teeth. I also remember becoming aware of the lack of a fork on the table. But the primary sense of the picture, for me, is, as with much of Wyeth's work, one of disquiet and in this particular case, something of a hidden malevolence, a sense of lurking poisonousness.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the lighting certainly adds to the weirdness. The angle of the sunlight does not match in the exterior and interior scenes, the cast shados do not correspond. It’s all a broken mess of flatness, ghost dogs, missing forks and flying saucers. The centre cannot hold. The log slouches towards Betlehem.

kev ferrara said...
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Anonymous said...

Unless there’s some hitherto unknown curatorial content about the primary light source, the rays of light (from what I’ll otherwise take to by the sun) hit the logs and window at different angles. It’s either earlier or later in the day outside than in. Also, sticks and logs may break my bones etc etc

kev ferrara said...

Unless there’s some hitherto unknown curatorial content about the primary light source, the rays of light (from what I’ll otherwise take to by the sun) hit the logs and window at different angles. It’s either earlier or later in the day outside than in.

The world can really use somebody like you to go around and fix all the paintings.

Laurence John said...


Kev: "So it seems to me you are clearly being affected in your interpretation of the picture by the exigencies of this discussion and your personality."

To reiterate the previous comment: I saw the resemblance to a sharks head the first time I saw the painting (years ago) without any knowledge of the making of the painting being discussed here. This comment section has not altered my opinion of it.

(p.s. to anyone interested) there's a better, more muted colour version here. Spoiler alert: don't read the accompanying notes if you're easily swayed by literary analysis:

https://philamuseum.org/collection/object/57405

kev ferrara said...
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kev ferrara said...
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Anonymous said...

I’m not the one insisting on fixing values and meanings to art. I think it’s a fine painting. It destabilizes the viewer and encourages engagement, on both a material and mimetic level. It is a balancing act, drawing attention to the mechanics of its operation. It revels in its painted self-awareness, freed from the tyranny of perspective and anatomy. Or maybe its just an ideosynchratic smearing of mud on canvas. Or a floating signinfier, whose elevated value is entirely created by curatorial circumstance and market functions. Either way, I’m all for it. I wouldn’t fix a thing.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "If your wider right brain was actually feeling the full picture, living in the context, it could not have come up with the nonsensical 'shark on the lawn' solution; the picture is set in a dry, crisp backyard of a farm house."

Pareidolia isn't dependent on the context / setting for the misperceived image being appropriate. If you see a face in some burnt toast, in a stain on the wall or in rocks on Mars the context is irrelevant. And I didn't 'decide' that it reminded me of a shark, any more than I 'decide' that a yellow smiley face on a badge looks a bit like a yellow smiley face. It doesn't look anything like a smiley face really, but it looks enough like a smiley face that your brain instantly 'sees' the illusion.

"But let's be honest here. It reminded you of a photo of a shark, of some video footage of a shark, or maybe the movie Jaws."

Not sure what your point is here. Lots of things we see in paintings, comic books and movies are things we won't have encountered in the real world.

Also, since Wyeth actually wanted the log to have something violent and animalistic about it - "the dog disappeared, though the animal is in the ragged, chopped, sharp sliver part of the log." (which I hadn't read until this post) - surely he's been successful ? The fact that i think it looks a bit too much like a gaping shark mouth is a pretty minor point no ?

btw, I can't think of another example of a painting where the focal point is dominated by something which looks distractingly like something else, in the way it is in this picture (for me)... so it's a one off in that sense.

Laurence John said...


p.s. David ... Edward Hopper called. He wants to know why he wasn't included in a post about windows.

chris bennett said...

Apart from window itself, I notice the element that remains in both the study and the finished picture is the wooden post and wire fence. I find myself wondering if this is significant and the left hemisphere of my brain rushes in with answers such as; 'barbed wire like light splinters, sharp as a knife, the fence's rectangular divisions are barriers and openings like the window panes, glass can be shattered, a wooden post is an upright log, an upright shark, like a man, with a fork...' etc.

But curiously enough I find this leads me further from the sensed meaning of what I'm looking at - like the way in which following some signposted route through a forest can distract you from the chance of deeply appreciating it. In fact, I'd say one is closer to what a forest can 'mean' when you are actually lost in it! (And instructive to bear in mind that it is the left brain that will work towards finding a way out.)

The function of the left brain is to seek utility by measure and control of what it apprehends. The pursuit of this when beholding a work of art is, at best, a fruitless act of barking up the wrong tree (excruciating pun, I know) at worst, misleading. (For understanding the recent discoveries concerning the divided nature of the brain see the work of Iain McGilchrist)

kev ferrara said...
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Wes said...

The painting seems to me to more about the difference between the bleaker yellow of winter outside and the warmer yellow of the winter sun inside. In that respect, in seems more about triggering hope than triggering danger and violence. Seems like the whole point of the painting was to see if the artist could contrast the multiple yellows accurately. I see at least four different values of yellow, maybe more. He made the upper right and the lower left the warmest parts of the painting, suggesting the early pre-Spring sun will warm the world outside and in but not completely – and not today. The yellow on the molding seems the clue to the painting being about the effect of the sun on the world. The setting on the table is mostly as cold as the upper left glimpse of the woods, suggesting only the promise of warmth. There’s a distinct “X” of warm and cold across the painting.

The left brain/right brain theorizing and shark/dog talk does trigger HL Mencken's wry observation that the human brain can’t help but “connect the dots”, especially where a sense of danger was triggered:

“. . . perhaps for many thousands of years (Man) had been finding life increasingly unpleasant, for the cells of his cortex had been gradually proliferating, and the more they proliferated the more he was afflicted by a new curse: the power to think. . . (M)an suffered under the stealthy, insidious assaults of this awakening brain, now bulging and busy like a bulb in Spring. It not only caused him to remember the tree that came near falling upon him last week; it also enabled him to picture the tree that might actually fetch him tomorrow. He began to live in a world of multiplied hazards and accidents, some of them objectively real and some residing in the spooky shades of his burgeoning consciousness.”

So perhaps the jagged log was designed to give the viewer a Santayanan “shock” of reality, but the rest of the painting was to say: “Calm down!”

Ha!

Sean Farrell said...

All true Kev, but having experienced the unsettling nature of the picture in total, it warrants some right side meanderings to try and see how the artist created such an effect. There are very interesting tensions in this dynamic painting regarding its nearly but not quite flat presentation of the window and the parallel top of the table, giving the wainscoting the appearance of rising slightly on our right side when the wall is simply falling back slightly into space. The reflective light under the fork side of plate and on the upper opposite side of the same plate have a similar lifting effect, as do some modulations of light coming forward on the vertical molding on our left side. The cutting angles of light and shadow in and outside the window across the hill adds a generous sense of movement in relation to the angles of light inside the house as well. A suggested visual movement outside with the logs is formed with marks in the hill acting as if they were tails of oncoming logs. The same movement is angles off by light striking the teeth on the wood and through a highlight in grass and on the inside of the window by a coinciding edges of light and shadows on the window frame and wall. The vertical post, barbed wire, hanging metal ring acting in unison with the nearly horizontal shadow of the log countering the rise of the window sill forms a type of barrier repeated in the pains of glass to the parallel table. Almost everything in this painting has a counterpart of relational tension. The ethereal washing winter light from the right upper side of the window is part of the the pushing and pulling effects throughout the picture and adds suggestion to the unsettled sense of austerity of the unfinished lonely table setting that while in this arrangement the two worlds are in a kind of uneasy balance, that the oncoming force of nature will inevitably arrive.

Thanks for the many observations regarding the painting. Yes, there's a lot going on as you suggested.

kev ferrara said...

. . perhaps for many thousands of years (Man) had been finding life increasingly unpleasant, for the cells of his cortex had been gradually proliferating, and the more they proliferated the more he was afflicted by a new curse: the power to think.(...)He began to live in a world of multiplied hazards and accidents, some of them objectively real and some residing in the spooky shades of his burgeoning consciousness.”

I would think new neurotic fears simply replaced older superstitious fears.

Which suggests that the unspoken undercurrent behind much of modern intellectual culture is a belief that insoluble fears and the vast unknown are better dealt with through chatter than ritual.

chris bennett said...

Which suggests that the unspoken undercurrent behind much of modern intellectual culture is a belief that insoluble fears and the vast unknown are better dealt with through chatter than ritual.

Indeed Kev. What we choose to worship (in the secular sense that that draws us together, in the profound sense that that gives us meaningful context) we become. So it cannot be arbitrary. There has to be the sense that it rests upon the foundations of something deeper than our understanding.

A topical example of this would be the seasonal piped musak in the shops at the moment. The secular Christmas songs just don't cut it, all of them boil down to sentimental nostalgia for something missing. One is dragged down by it, a soundtrack behind the empty show of tinsel and reindeer jumpers.
But then the relief upon hearing a carol being sung from inside a church, to enter and see the singers beside the nativity awaiting the arrival of the child...

chris bennett said...

Wes,

I liked your take on the yellows in the Wyeth painting. I wish I could agree with you on their signifying a coming warmth. I guess I must be a lemonade glass half full kinda guy...

kev ferrara said...
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Wes said...

"I wish I could agree with you on their signifying a coming warmth. I guess I must be a lemonade glass half full kinda guy..."

That's good! After all, he titled it "Groundhog Day", meaning the promise of the day is only that the critter would come out -- not what he would decide about Winter. Might easily been a day that says 6 more weeks of Winter. You are right - the painting doesn't tell us.

Sean Farrell said...

The painting has my head spinning. Loaded it is. I appreciate the comment on each pane of glass as its own sub-composition.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "Edward Hopper called. He wants to know why he wasn't included in a post about windows."

Actually, I wrote an entire post about Hopper's windows years ago. (https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2007/10/edward-hoppers-version-of-internet.html) I was afraid that if I dared to mention him again, I'd be accused of selling retreads here.

I just left Manhattan this morning, where I've been running around for the past 3 days. I saw the excellent Hopper exhibit at the Whitney, which I highly recommend. It is a superb collection of his paintings, etchings and drawings, including about 30 of his illustrations. But I advise you to skip the tour; our docent explained that Hopper's wife was a gifted artist who could've been great if the patriarchy and her husband's career hadn't kept her down. The Whitney then shattered the illusion by displaying three of her paintings, which were hilariously bad-- the kind of work a mildly talented high school freshman might produce.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- just before I left town I read your comment about how the psychological nexus between the dog and the log was "a worthy insight into the mind of Howard Pyle, my dear sir. You've been given one of the keys into The Brandywine Tradition and American Imagism generally." I agree that Andrew Wyeth mainlined Pyle's teachings through Pyle's prize student, N.C. Wyeth (and speaking of symbolism, those were Pyle's boots that Andrew was wearing in his famous painting, "Trodden weed.") But when you look at the number of Pyle students whose paintings were devoid of this type of psychological dialogue, it seems to me that a large part of the credit for what we admire in Wyeth's symbolism has to go to Wyeth's poetic soul.

Artists have created symbolic representations of deities and spiritual forces going back at least 6,000 years, when reed ring bundles were used to signify Inanna, the Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love. With all due respect to Pyle and the imagists, artists have recognized, and played games with, the secret language and psychological connotations of symbols for a long time.

But I think our largest difference, as in the past, remains our disagreement over how much deliberate control an artist can/should consciously exercise over the dialogues within a painting. You quote Pyle as saying, "Make a man think that what he finds in your picture is merely a reflection of what is in his mind – By the same token that a man will do what you want of him willingly if only you can make him think that he is obeying his own will." I agree with that as far it goes. But in my view the notion of an intentional secret roadmap created by the artist presumes too much about the powers of the artist and acknowledges too little about the powers and diverse roles of the viewer. Artists can orchestrate many visual elements such as shapes and colors in a painting to lead the eye in particular sequences, etc. but the more artists imagine themselves in a position to script the psychological content of a painting, the more heavy handed and limited the art becomes.

kev ferrara said...

But when you look at the number of Pyle students whose paintings were devoid of this type of psychological dialogue, it seems to me that a large part of the credit for what we admire in Wyeth's symbolism has to go to Wyeth's poetic soul.

Sorry, I didn't mean in any way to diminish Andrew Wyeth's peculiar poetic genius in order to credit Pyle's.

Many of Pyle's students were poor, yes. But at least twenty were damn good, and about ten or so were great.

What Pyle gave his students depended on the student. If the acolyte couldn't even paint a nose, they weren't given the keys to the Maserati, so to speak. If they were given the keys and couldn't demonstrate that they were worthy of the car, just the same the speedster wouldn't get out of the garage.

But the champion racers jumped behind the wheel, stepped on the gas, tore down the road, and never looked back.

Artists can orchestrate many visual elements such as shapes and colors in a painting to lead the eye in particular sequences, etc. but the more artists imagine themselves in a position to script the psychological content of a painting, the more heavy handed and limited the art becomes.

Imagine saying this about a film director and his screenwriter and AD. And then reconsider whether you should apply it to great artists in how they compose.

Richard said...

“Painting to me is a matter of truth and maybe your memory of what it is, and finally if a painting is good it’ll be mostly memory”

Laurence John said...

Kev: "In other words, it is not Andrew Wyeth's fault that you screwed up the interpretation of an isolated aspect of the image."

I had no control over whether I saw a monster-shark-log in the image or not, since the phenomena of pareidolia happens so quickly, before the conscious mind has had time to ruminate over what it has seen or not. Which is why I said above that I didn't 'decide' that I saw the shark likeness. I just saw it. Immediately. Chris saw the likeness too, and David said "I had the exact same reaction to the jagged splinters on the chopped edge of the log, and for the very same reasons you describe" (David, maybe you can confirm whether it was a shark-like appearance that you saw ?).

"That is just why it gets fixated on solutions that 'connect the dots' without actually having sufficient dots in view to complete the closure task."

Again, that is WAY downstream of the pareidolia phenomena, which happens almost instantly. And I've argued many times on this blog, that backstory should NOT influence our reading of a painting (see the Daniel Schwartz 'magnum opus' thread less than two months ago). I can't think of an instance where the knowledge of an artists life, the making of a particular work or reading someone else's interpretation of a work has swayed my own feelings about the work. I really am not a 'reader into-er' of paintings. Whenever I hear a sentence beginning "this image is about..." I brace myself for the inevitable cringe inducing over-read that is about to follow.

Laurence John said...


Chris: "I find myself wondering if this is significant and the left hemisphere of my brain rushes in with answers such as; 'barbed wire like light splinters .... etc."

You'll notice that this tendency usually gets ramped up in people when they're viewing very spare narrative paintings, or non-narrative paintings such as those by Vilhelm Hammershoi or Lucian Freud.

It's as if the brain can't cope with the lack of story and/or obvious symbolic content and starts placing it everywhere until it's satisfied. 'Look, there's a phallic symbol ! ... there's a feminine ellipse !" etc.

Laurence John said...

David: "Artists can orchestrate many visual elements such as shapes and colors in a painting to lead the eye in particular sequences, etc. but the more artists imagine themselves in a position to script the psychological content of a painting, the more heavy handed and limited the art becomes"

One word David (picture it 100 feet tall and carved out of granite) : DEPENDS.

Yes, if the psychological content is revealed in too obvious a way ('signposted') then it can feel almost likes it's insulting your intelligence and induces a groan. But if it's incorporated into the work subtly, the audience submits to the manipulation willingly.

Stanley Kubrick on this topic: " The essence of the dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves"

Of course, the viewer only feels like 'they've discovered it for themselves'... in fact they've been lead there very deliberately by the artist.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- "DEPENDS" could easily be the name of this blog. Nietzsche wrote that "truth has never yet hung on the arm of the absolute."

If you haven't already seen the documentary "Room 237" which purports to analyze Kubrick's film, "The Shining," I'd recommend it as a tonic for those who believe that an artist's meaning is deliberately conveyed in subliminal messages. Huge elements of The Shining are left ambiguous and unexplained-- that's a large part of its artistry-- but the authors of Room 237 are convinced that Kubrick has sent us coded messages in the configuration of canned goods momentarily glimpsed on a shelf in the refrigerator, or that a ski poster is intended to convey a minotaur. Kubrick's personal assistant on The Shining said, "[Kubrick] didn’t tell an audience what to think or how to think and if everyone came out thinking something differently that was fine with him. That said, I’m certain that he wouldn’t have wanted to listen to about 70, or maybe 80 percent [of Room 237]... Because it’s pure gibberish."

Laurence John said...


David, I don't see how it's possible to prevent a certain amount of people from reading too much into artworks such as paintings or films. It seems inevitable. That doesn't alter the fact that the artworks were deliberately crafted to achieve the narrative effects they set out to, on the vast majority of people.

It's true that there are some artists who produce deliberately ambiguous artworks, where they essentially hand the work over to the public and say 'make of this what you will' (what Kev calls 'projection tests'). Kubrick, I would say, deliberately leaves ambiguous areas within an overall meticulously orchestrated whole.

kev ferrara said...
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Laurence John said...

David: "For those who eschew all attempts to analyze content and learn surrounding facts about an image: do you think you'd experience as much from the painting without this knowledge?"

Knowing some backstory to an image inevitably colours your interpretation of it. For me, the problem is that it often functions as an 'appeal to emotion' and if the backstory is poignant enough, it might actually dominate your interpretation of a work (to the point where you're imagining the backstory-events in your head rather than what is being suggested by the image).

Personally (and maybe I'm just weird) I'd like to know as little as possible about a work before I view it. I can honestly say that I knew literally nothing of the biographical details of most of my favourite painters when I first discovered their work. If I find out more later because I bought a book on a certain artist, that's ok, but (as already mentioned above) I can't think of an instance where new information altered or enhanced my initial impression of a painting.

kev ferrara said...

For those who eschew all attempts to analyze content and learn surrounding facts about an image: do you think you'd experience as much from the painting without this knowledge?

I've always loved that painting. It does a tremendous job telling the story of that dog aesthetically. So there is tremendous feeling to it for me.

That you like the literary to be added - from without - to the aesthetic experience, so that you can know specifically what you are getting weepy about is a matter of temperament and habit I suppose.

I see it compromising one's ability to feel the full measure of the aesthetic communication; it throws a lifejacket to somebody learning to swim. Which is annoying as hell to those with pride and self-possession.

In other words, I see such additional content as diminishing the power of the Art to affect you as Art. Because it substitutes literary specificity for your ability to sustain aesthetic contemplation.

Anonymous said...

Meaning isn’t extricated, it is produced. And such production is always a communal matter. No one ever sees a work of art for the first time.

…but there’s a risk of transforming the artwork into mere illustration if the actual art work in question is no longer a major ingredient in this process. The fate of all great art is death. Once elevated into the hall of mirrors that is a canon, once something becomes Great, it instantaneously also becomes a dead metaphor.

kev ferrara said...

Meaning isn’t extricated, it is produced. And such production is always a communal matter. No one ever sees a work of art for the first time.

Code meaning is extricated.
Aesthetic meaning is felt.

Communication is a commune between spellcaster and spellbound.

I saw 6 works of art for the first time yesterday.

but there’s a risk of transforming the artwork into mere illustration

On this blog 'Mere illustration' is trolling.

What you probably mean is that it is bad if a work of art only has value as an assistant to some other literary work upon which it depends for its worth, meaning, and vitality; that the artwork has no independent aesthetic existence or world.

kev ferrara said...

I had no control over whether I saw a monster-shark-log in the image or not, since the phenomena of pareidolia happens so quickly, before the conscious mind has had time to ruminate over what it has seen or not. Which is why I said above that I didn't 'decide' that I saw the shark likeness. I just saw it. Immediately. (...) Again, that is WAY downstream of the pareidolia phenomena, which happens almost instantly.

Just because it happened 'instantly' doesn't mean it wasn't a left-brain-heavy processing error. The left brain is the guy who's already got it figured out; poised to pounce with ready-to-hand symbols, ready-to-hand paradigms, and rote answers. It doesn't like context and mystery.

The whole point of getting into the meditative or contemplative state when preparing to experience (or actually experiencing) a work of art is to elbow the left brain off the stage, and labels like words (particularly nouns) and other 'intellectualisms' along with it.

It seems like a lot of people - a lot more than there once was - are so indoctrinated into words as a way of life, so steeped in text, they simply don't have experience with experience uncolored by literary interposition.

It is the same people often who can't appreciate that the world doesn't actually look like photographs.

The most text-embedded people are often face-blind or have difficulty reading facial expressions. Which we now know is because the text part of the brain was originally meant for reading facial cues. And that faculty has been occupied by the dictionary and symbols, symbols, symbols.

Anonymous said...

What you probably mean is that it is bad if a work of art only has value as an assistant to some other literary work upon which it depends for its worth, meaning, and vitality; that the artwork has no independent aesthetic existence or world.

What I mean is that all meaning is produced within language, and language is a property of the commune. Appealing to some outside-textual «independent aesthetic existence» isn’t even Kantian, it’s simply religious.

You come to art laden with the notion of art. It cannot be seen until you have been given the eyes with which to see it and the words with which to speak to it. Only then can then the laborious production of meaning begin to occur.

kev ferrara said...
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Anonymous said...

FYI, you are repeating the cant of talentless collegiate sophists who have never investigated the structure of artistic effects, are faking knowledge of visual science, and have never created a work of art worth the name in their lives.

If you have actual original thinking that isn't parroting fake cultural intellectuals, that would be great to hear. But this fashionable culture vulture dogma you're regurgitating is just annoying.


Still at 3, it seems.

kev ferrara said...

Still at 3, it seems.

The right to rage against fraudulent dicta is reserved for all ages.

Anonymous said...

Meaning does not reside in the world, it resides in language. Fire burns, but not meaningfully so - unless one subscribes to teleology and/or theology. The sensation of fire does not produce meaning in the pyrophytic plant or the insects scurrying away from the forest fire flame. It only produces action, or re-action. When you burn your hand, the fire neither mediates nor contains any constructive instruction. It just burns. The incident can only be made meaningful after the fact, as meaning is produced and attached to it.

In a mechanical sense, the process of creation is contained in every painting done in traditional media. Every decision, every mistake, every action of the hand and stroke of the brush is there, its past recapitulated and encapsulated in the present of its presence. It documents the time and effort of its own creation. If animation is an illusion of movement, the singular painting is an illusion of non-movement.

But this chronology of layered large and small strokes, intentionally arranged pigments, and glazed-in motes and insects, cannot meaningfully be said to have any meaning beyond that which is given to it. There’s no hidden secret or sacred soul in the mystery box, it’s just an empty box. But, when well wrought, it encourages fulfillment of those willing to engage.

Obviously, the production of such meaning is an act of metaphorization. And as the multiplying metaphors of culture do swarm, the inciting incident is inevitably devoured. Meaning is eventually no longer produced by direct engagement, it occurs epiphenomenally. The artwork now sparks nothing new, it only signifies (or illustrates) the destructive and creative processes devouring it. In its end state, the great artwork is a dead metaphor. The Mona Lisa. The Scream. Christina’s World.

Curatorial content does not merely aid in the production of meaning - it is production of meaning, and must be regarded as such.

(Of course, the precession of curation over creation as today's prime artistic standard, well, it complicates things - but that’s a different topic, although certainly tangentially relevant.)

…and all this happens entirely within language. The pigments and yolk and dead bugs on the canvas remain unchanged by this process.

kev ferrara said...

Meaning does not reside in the world, it resides in language. Fire burns, but not meaningfully so - unless one subscribes to teleology and/or theology.

Relations are the basic structure of all language, of all meaning. Languages self-relate, but until they relate to the world in all its inter-relation, the 'language' at hand is just a solipsistic game played according to fiat rules with simplistic game-like pieces. Which is not at all how experience, in all its complexity, teaches.

If fire burns your hand, it causes a broad moment of learning that obtains for a lifetime. The recording it makes in your brain consists of a complex of cybernetic (feedback looped) associations; relations between physical being and its frailty, the psychological reaction, the feeling of searing pain, the instinctive physical reaction, a recognition of the environment as distinct-yet-connected to one's self, energy release as a kind of consequential physical action, emotional associations with danger and threat, an appreciation of the limits of personal control, predictive aptitude, the stages of healing from injury, and so on.

All of which fall under the heading of understanding. And all of which retain their meaning-power going forward because of the thereafter-aestheticized memory of the full suite of physically, psychologically, and intellectually consequential experience components involved with the burning moment, the moments leading up to it, and the effects cascading out from it into the future.

If that aesthetic memory were to fade away - over time and completely - why not stick your hand back in the fire?

Anonymous said...


If that aesthetic memory were to fade away - over time and completely - why not stick your hand back in the fire?</br

Some certainly do, having attached a particular meaning to the experience that encourages such behaviour. Beetles and dogs, being unable to produce meaning, do not.

As an aside, as your ideological influences seem clear:

It was never that there is nothing outside of the text, it was always that there is no outside-text.

kev ferrara said...

Some certainly do, having attached a particular meaning to the experience that encourages such behaviour. Beetles and dogs, being unable to produce meaning, do not.

Mentally ill people might intentionally burn themselves. Sometimes a daredevil. That's about it.

Beetles and dogs don't have the luxury of believing nonsense or taking unnecessary risks.

If you think Beetles and dogs don't react to signification - particularly indexes - I don't know what to tell you.

As an aside, as your ideological influences seem clear:

The beliefs reality forces us to embody are axiomatic not ideological.

It was never that there is nothing outside of the text, it was always that there is no outside-text.

Once Wittgenstein met up with Ramsay - who was heavily influenced by Peirce - even he abandoned linguistic solipsism. Nobody actually embodies solipsism except schizophrenics. It is an ideology without true believers.

Those who continue to assert that one's language limits one's world do not understand Aesthetics. Nor Cybernetics, sense-making, stress-testing... Nor, frankly, basic sensory experience or sensory being.

Partially this is not their fault because the academic world - from which abstruse drivel dribbles - is rife with ineptitude, fraud, politics, autists, personality cults, and groupthink. (See Heidegger for all six.) So good information is, not coincidentally, as scarce as pragmatic application.

kev ferrara said...

Testing if this comment section goes all bolded too.

kev ferrara said...
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Laurence John said...


Richard: "Art and music can do many of the things that language can also do -- create moods, invoke emotions, and tell stories, but the similarities end there. They are not languages (...) art and music don't employ codes to convey messages. This is the essential distinction"

Kev: "Well said, Richard."

Kev, I argued several years ago with you and Chris that visual art - specifically representational painting - was not a 'language'. You and Chris disagreed and said it was (you deleted your posts: June 03, 2017). I'm glad you've come to acknowledge the distinction you mention above ('Aesthetic Language' vs 'Coded Language').

I do of course know what someone is talking about when they say the 'language of paint' even though the phrase irritates me (paint is a medium). They are using the term in a casual way. The problem with that is where do we stop ? If all a thing requires to be a 'language' is that it communicates some sort of emotion (however vague or difficult to define) then architecture, furniture, fashion, hairstyles, make up, pottery, and twerking are also 'languages'.

For this reason I argued, and still think, that it's useful to only talk about 'languages' that require the learning of a specific code, grammar and/or vocabulary before they make any sense, as true 'languages'. If no rule book is required to decipher the image then it's not a 'language'. A likeness of a thing can't be a 'language'. Caveat below:

Richard: "This is because Art and music, unlike languages, communicate through direct sensation. Pictures don't symbolically reference things outside themselves, the way a language does"

Unless, as mentioned earlier, a hooded figure symbolises death, or a winged baby symbolises romantic love. An entire image could be built out of such symbols, and only be decipherable with the symbol rule book. Also, it's possible that an artist could invent their own abtstract visual language of esoteric symbolism known only to themselves and devotees. Piet Mondrian and Hilma af Klint are examples.

kev ferrara said...
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Laurence John said...


Kev: "...the whole image is that New Symbol." "...art forms a symbol of an aesthetic thought-drama through its nonlinear as well as linea linguistic organization"

Can you clarify how you're using the word 'symbol' here ?

Richard said...

> Unless, as mentioned earlier, a hooded figure symbolises death, or a winged baby symbolises romantic love. An entire image could be built out of such symbols, and only be decipherable with the symbol rule book. Also, it's possible that an artist could invent their own abtstract visual language of esoteric symbolism known only to themselves and devotees.

Hooded figures and winged babies are like comic books, hybrid-art forms.

The meaning relies on textual/language content. One has to be told what the hooded death means, it is not contained in the picture. That's not pure art, the way that a sung song is not pure music.

Richard said...

> In fact, in great Imagism, the "music" and aestheticized narrative information are essentially one and the same. They are synthesized.

Imagism is Opera. Opera is awesome. Opera is not pure music.

kev ferrara said...
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kev ferrara said...
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Richard said...

> No, Opera uses words.

As do many Imagist works. See, for example, Pyle’s A Wounded Enemy or Wyeths Blind Pew. Neither function narratively without the text, whether it’s the title in the former or the novel in the latter.

kev ferrara said...
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Richard said...

Apologies, I’m writing on my phone today, so I don’t have time to give this the full attention it deserves, but…

> I was very flattered when you repeated to Laurence earlier one of the very first things I ever said to you here, about comics being a hybrid artform.

I don’t doubt you’ve made that argument, and plenty of your observations have stuck with me, but in that instance I was thinking about Scott Mccloud.

Still, flattery is warranted. There are many other areas of my perspective informed by you, and as I’ve noted before I agree with your model of aesthetics in the large, but your insistence on trying to provide continuity between in-image aesthetic narrative and illustrative outside-of-image narrative seems to me completely unworkable. At risk of repeating myself—

> When I post great Brandywine work on Howard Pyle & Co I never include any titles or story.

Opera can also be, and among English speakers most often is, appreciated sans context. Without knowing the title, we can’t know the other man in the boat is a wounded enemy. Yet, A Wounded Enemy is still a masterpiece, even when we do not know the plot line it illustrates. We can’t know who Pew is from Wyeth’s picture alone, even if his pure art still shines. Nessun Dorma is a masterpiece even if we don’t speak Italian, and don’t know Turandot from Tannhauser.

These are the same. Illustration Art is what we call picture books when we chop off the words.

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