Friday, March 29, 2013

Atmosphere in Art revisited

Thomas Cole: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
There are some discussions that I am always trying to avoid, but sometimes fail. One is about the psychology of pictures. A lot of people know a lot about this and it bores me to reconstruct it all on my own for merely polemical purposes. Another one is arguments for and against different strains in surrealist art. It's just not the point. One suggests: Matta? Another says: Magritte. The former says: Matta! The latter insists: Magritte. The former claims: Matta. The latter endures: Magritte. So what?

But I can make one more attempt to avoid those question by addressing the actual interesting questions connected under the heading of atm

How does atmosphere in art work? You can't just draw an atmosphere. Whoever wants to bring in atmosphere into art has to find a way, and at first glance there seems to be two very different ways of bringing that about (later it will turn out that there wasn't just two).

 The most traditionally obvious is to construct an atmosphere, by depicting an imaginary scene where an atmosphere is likely to emerge (or may seem to have already emerged if originally imagined in a visionary manner). By well-known conventions of representation one recreates a three-dimensional scene, which is filled by this tangible absence of rational calming order, an absence that gives rise to this electrical invisible poison gas of the enigmatic, the taste of the unknown. We all know this as the Chirico method, which has been exploited in surrealism for longer than surrealism itself, and has proven strangely inexhaustible. Well, not strangely, since the scene created by the painter is not the major point, but the sense of the unknown that it manages to conjure up within it. But then of course, there is also a whole lot of bad fakes in the genre, all those "standard" surrealist painters that repeat certain supposedly fetishistic objects in different constellations, or paint completely uninteresting scenes where certain objects are out of scale or there is a female breast exposed, or orchestrate some simple puns of sexual or not even sexual character by juxtaposition or transformation, creating scenes that merely reveal recipe or appeal to key stimuli rather than invoke something (but of course also the opposite, all these inadvertently created atmospheres...)

The twodimensional surface with a picture of an atmospheric scene in accordance with this is obviously analogous with a "window" towards this scene (a "window towards the unknown"), and we "read" the picture with the spontaneous skills acquired of translating homogenously coloured areas as distinct surfaces, brightness and order of overlap as distance, lines as delineations of objects, of presupposing a certain perspective, a certain order, as long as anything suggests it. The more it conforms to traditional representation with ordinary clues the easier it becomes for us to trust this flat visual image as an unproblematic representation of a section of a visual field of the rest of the world, with the "solid middle-sized objects" available (and not covered by other objects) within a certain distance within that sector of vision. We go to certain lengths to make up for inadequacies, missing things, or even to fill out that which is merely sketched. No, I didn't want to go into all this standard babble of looking at images, I have to switch track...

Ok, the most logically obvious way to get atmosphere into art, on the other hand, is to address this atmosphere directly, and try to translate it into something visual. In this case you don't need specifically the traditional skills to depict a scene, but you need to seduce the spectator into seeing. If the picture is a window, it is a window not miniaturising the surfaces of middle-size objects to form an image, but something else. We have to somehow suspend the everyday reading of an image and wait for some other reading to emerge. Something subatomical, fourthdimensional, synaesthetical... But for people with no particular synaesthetical capabilities, or no advanced training in reading image parameters not as proportional spatial parameters but as something else, this is usually done by a scale displacement or a simulation of synaesthesia. If it doesn't look like the world as we know it, it might very well depict the microscopic world. Or the vast macroscopic worlds of outer space. Or it may be usually invisible fields rendered visible by some weird staining process: we could be seeing the form of sounds, of thoughts, of smells, of feelings, or of actual atmosphere. Or a mixture of all this. And usually it is through this desperate superimposition of spatial interpretation onto an image which does not give us the traditional clues to be read this way that we co-create this image, and co-create, or are seduced into seeing, its representation of atmosphere itself, with or without the auxiliary fictions of mental entities as part of the translations. This is of course the Matta method.

It was quite revolutionary when the surrealist painters discovered and explored it through the second half of the 30s and during the war (often under the name of "psychological morphologies"), but then it proved remarkably attractive to use this point of departure as an excuse to abandon the fundamental curiosity for the unknown... Several age groups of painters used it as an excuse to revive classic abstraction of one or the other kind, again denying that the picture is a window and depicts the imaginary and instead seeing it as a mere twodimensional surface with a certain distribution of form and colour. Without the discipline of occultism or madness which could ascribe an intense metaphysical meaning to such form and colour, and which made good old abstractionism take part in the quest for the unknown, these new "abstract expressionist" strands, most notably as "action painting" or "New York school" in the US and "tachisme" in France, often struggled to attain a complete absence of spiritual content. Why would anyone be interested? On the other hand, the decidedly surrealist half of "lyrical abstraction" kept it closer to the imaginary sources and kept redirecting it back to them whenever it went astray into those pastures where all cows are equally grey.

(Since the surrealist movement has always been non-doctrinary in stylistic terms and never has been circumscribed in pictorial terms, which by the way again is why things are so difficult for those who insist on regarding surrealism as an art movement, the surrealist movement has welcomed and encouraged those who undertake poetic explorations of the unknown with artistic means regardless of their stylistic choices. And thus, it is always surprising and frustrating when some want to make a big fuss over contradictions in stylistic terms.

Several have insisted that representational art is obsolete and we must abandon the conventions of perspective etc. Well, why? Just because it's old? No, who wants the new for its own sake! Or because the fact that it's old suggests that it is connected with traditional and repressive structures of the mind that we could attain new freedoms by abandoning? Oh, could be, but it is a bit of a far stretch, and so far it seems empirically like the surrealist use of old picture conventions still opens up for more new horizons of the mind than its voluntary abandonment does. Because advertising, pop culture and academic art took over many of the surrealist lessons in this field? Well, if they did, did they immediately acquire the full rights to everything produced through these routes? Yes, this line of thought is suggestive to the radical mind, and over and over again the urge to abandon everything that one can come up with an argument against has proven quite sterile...

On the other hand, others have grumpily insisted that they hate "abstract art", and there was a splinter group (Tendance Populaire Surréaliste) for several decades in France that kept insisting that Breton had betrayed surrealism and that the French surrealist group effectively become antisurrealists just because Breton and others explored lyrical abstraction in the 50s! The TPS have rarely been acknowledged at all in the movements own historiography, mainly because it seemed so far-fetched, beside-the-point and so utterly non-surrealist to have a battle of styles. Because any arguments for a particular style against another might possibly be valid for a particular exploration, or even for an extended exploration in the form of an oeuvre, but as arguments they prove to play on a completely different arena than that of surrealism – it becomes aestheticism or sensation-seeking or fashion strategy or political strategy, but not surrealism.)

Though the two routes I have described are not the only routes. Since the methodology of surrealism is very often about gathering random or apparently insignificant material and seeing meaning emerge from them (emergent properties), a lot of artistic practice within surrealism focus not on the manipulation of evoking atmospheres, but merely on the patient or impatient waiting for them to arise by their own accord. Many of the basic surrealist strains, for one: the immediate, naive figuration, and two: the organic-type morphological fantasy, and three: the ceaseless collaging of more or less random elements, are practices that just go on and on without caring, and that will see atmospheres emerging by chance and overdetermination, just like in reality, only increasing the possibilities, both merely statistically and with automatic sensibility....


No comments: