Art as Illusion
The history of painting is a history of illusion, illusion created on the flat two-dimensional picture plane. The medium of fine-art painting contains its own phenomenal vista––not unlike the Grand Canyon––with its own unique dynamic and expressive form, what's a visual language. Beyond the obvious potential for a realist painting of the canyon to resemble the actual canyon––containing an expansive landscape image––the painting medium itself is phenomenal, on many different levels. Whether abstract or realistic (representational), the painting medium presents a spectrum of phenomena to be experienced by a viewer. However, there is a conditional caveat to be considered: most painting fine-art phenomena requires a prepared viewer––someone with experience, knowledge and sensitivity––for access and subsequent experience with painting phenomena, that is, beyond realist appearances.
Realist imagery in paint is not necessarily an art form; the broad spectrum of realist painting may be thought to include representational painting that is purely technical, sometimes with subject matter that is designed to appeal to anyone, for the marketplace. Some realist subject matter caters to patriotic and religious interests or sentimental sympathies: a child with a tear in their eye, a cottage with a light burning in the window and a child trying to talk to a pet, are specific examples. “Can’t you talk?” A child looking into the eyes of a young Collie dog––was one of my mother’s favorite paintings, when she was a child. There’s no accounting for what makes people feel good, but images that simply pull heart strings, have little to offer as art, that is, beyond the obvious––although that “little” may mean a lot to some people.
Fine-art painting––apart from painting that’s limited to descriptions and narratives––provides expression on many levels, beyond what is obvious. Beneath appearances––subject matter, design, color, pattern and illusionistic space––painting addresses human experience; in looking at paintings throughout art history, we see masterworks that recreate phenomenal moments that may recreate––as phenomena––what artists and other viewers may have experienced hundreds of years ago. As phenomenal expression, painting embodies and communicates what people from other times may have seen and felt. This is quite different from historical records that document events and perspectives through written language, language that describes feelings in words; a written-language accounting is quite apart from a visual language that triggers actual feelings and experience with perceptual phenomena.
Although some may see a bright line difference between abstract and representational paintings, representational work that is not purely descriptive––work that incorporates design, color and pattern as expressive means––has strong connections to abstract paintings. Referencing the Grand Canyon photo postcard example, a postcard of the Grand Canyon has more in common with other photo postcards than it has in common with the physical Grand Canyon. So it is with painting. Comparing a realist and abstract painting would show obvious differences; however, a realist painting of the Grand Canyon would have more in common with an abstract painting than it would have in common with the Grand Canyon, itself. Painting, after all, is its own language; it’s performed on a flat surface and the shapes, patterns and colors are organized for a coherent 2D image. For both realist and abstract paintings, there is a top and bottom and a left and right; gravity is projected into shapes by the viewer causing shapes at the top to appear precarious and potentially falling, while shapes at the bottom appear settled, like a rock on the bottom of a lake. Both abstract and realist paintings are generally organized is similar ways, even without a conscious plan by the artist; paintings usually read from left to right, with openings on the left for entrance and a closed border on the right that contains the viewer’s eye, redirecting the viewers eye away from the margin, back into the painting––this among many other common-ground features. Although photographs seem easy to decipher as they resemble the appearance of things in real-world 3D space, we have learned––since infancy––the language of 2D images that allows photographs to be processed by the mind as they stand as an ever-present proxy for real-world appearances.
The expressive language of painting––beyond technical craft required for realism––is a language that is not so easily accessed and understood. This inaccessibility is compounded by avant-garde art forms that push aesthetic boundaries beyond what broad audiences can usually handle. There is much that is beyond the notice of most viewers as paintings offer aesthetic and phenomenal experience.
Although some people may have difficulty in accessing various abstract paintings, that difficulty may be an indication that full access to the visual language in realist painting is missing as well, even as the realism is acknowledged and appreciated for representational techniques. Much abstract painting––at least, abstract painting that’s not purely decorative––can remain inaccessible, without experience and knowledge of the visual language and knowledge of art history.
But given preparedness of the viewer, painting can present highly articulated phenomenal illusions––stirring illusions––of things felt, felt very deeply. While a photographer of the Grand Canyon presents a precise one-to-one visual analogy, a painter of the Grand Canyon manipulates its appearance toward expressive ends, the painting presenting a phenomenal and expressive proxy––and a personal vision––with space, scale and volume. In its essence, fine-art painting processes the artist’s experience through a creative mind, the painting directed and performed through a creative process that can produce a personal, inventive and one-of-a-kind painting image. But the fine-art painter is not painting in a vacuum; great painting emerges within elaborate historical contexts of world views and painting traditions. These contexts influence both the creative process and the experience realized by the prepared viewer. (Of course, photographers can so arrange their vantage point, choose from various long and short lenses and, additionally, manipulate lights and darks for emphasis, in the dark room or digitally with Photoshop; but their involvement in shaping an image––as well as their skill in managing light and shadow––is significantly more limited than that of a competent painter. Photographs are photographs and paintings are paintings.)
Through my study and experience with great paintings and in creating hundreds of paintings with visual arts language––what is a metaphysical and expressive language––the workings of that language were slowly revealed, and I began to see a language that gave form to the deepest of human emotions, in me. Some masterwork paintings expressed what seemed inexpressible, far beyond what could be expressed in narrative painting. Beneath obvious realist content, there was a larger and less-pedestrian expression presented in a language more felt than seen––again, by the prepared viewer. Through orchestrated visual elements––in color, pattern, shape and form (form being a holistic configuration of various visual elements, including shape)––I saw realist masterworks to be highly articulated forms with unique compositional devices that captured and gave form to the depths of human experience.
Here, I was confronting the duality of human experience in art form: between pseudo experience in thought and memory, on one hand, and phenomenal experience with visual language on the other––between “experience” that is described and narrated with descriptive and written language (a non-perceptual language), on one hand, and experience that is sensory, felt and dynamic through perceptual means, on the other. But, at the time, I didn’t fully appreciate these two separate dimensions. It turned out that this duality––in a way––paralleled the duality in our lives: a thought reality and an experiential reality.
I sought to decode masterworks––including works of van der Weyden, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Degas, among others––for further understanding; I wanted to have a better understanding for what was knowable and expressible with the visual language. Although insightful and profound explanations of masterworks were written by art historians––some of them quite helpful––I found that they didn’t decode the language sufficiently, for me, as a painter; some art historians––limited by pure academic study––seem to miss the place of the creative process and they miss the way genius works in using facility with an expressive language––often unconsciously––to create original form, that process a key to invention in masterworks. Similarly, in creative jazz, people have little understanding of the creative process––how it works––performers making up their performance “on the fly.” Academic thought is often blind to the creative process.
The language of painting uses visual elements presented on a flat surface, but this language is far and above common descriptive and narrative realist imagery. This visual language is not a codified nor notational (codified in written and spoken language nor notational as in music language), as with symbols that has this stand for that; rather, painting language presents a relational language of perceptual dynamics––of tension, movement, structure and balance among color, shapes and patterns––that elicit feeling in visual form. Although the language is seen at work in great paintings, it is not a language through which great paintings were consciously crafted, like writing a story––a narrative. As right-brained creations, painting masterworks are the result of much spontaneity and intuition applied through the creative process. In the creative process, the artist sees an expressive visual field emerging, and they may respond with coordinated paint strokes from feeling, spontaneously and unconsciously; the most original painting forms may come from spontaneous acts. (My experience as a painter clarified that this language was the consequence of genius at work, of both conscious and unconscious acts, not a language that is commonly applied or understood from thought and logic, as one may use the English language to write a letter or a story.)
Writers, poets and critics articulate phenomena with descriptive language. Their creative interpretations may resonate with feelings we experience, amplifying and validating what had been personally amorphous and without clear expression. As much experience eludes description, much can be accounted for and embodied in art forms. Art forms create their own one-of-a-kind experience. Many art forms apply spatial language in providing some equivalence to real-life experience, not simply describing or representing experience but, in providing experience in real space. Specifically, painting uses spatial dynamics––with movement and tension––to create real experience, experience felt; without attempting to mimic, replicate or mirror the visual world––as in strict realist painting––fine-art painting can provide experience in spatial terms that is elicits feeling and emotions that embody the depths of human experience. Artists perform this language in painting space. Similarly, other art forms apply language based on space, as in dance, theater, film and music; each these art forms embody the articulation of space and time––as space.
In painting masterworks, we experience language that uses spatial form to tap human feelings and emotions, to the prepared viewer. Unfortunately, many people are not prepared to process and experience a spatial language as their education has emphasized materialist thinking and the scientific method, rather than an education that processes experience and feeling, using languages bases on the senses. Living in a world of words––thinking literally or figuratively––there are no meanings to be gleaned from the appearance of words; meanings for words are assigned and learned. Although there are Eastern and Western traditions in art, the language of painting is largely universal, unlike written language. The words Grand Canyon, for example, contain no reference to the canyon beyond an assigned meaning; neither the shape of the words nor the sound of the words has any semblance to the Grand Canyon. Whereas elements of spatial language can evoke feelings and emotions as painting phenomena engage our spatial sensing mechanisms and cause spatial experience.
Some art analysts have shown important parts of the language at work beneath great paintings, but it’s the masterworks themselves that show the language fully applied within specific holistic forms. Attempts to copy compositional devices in masterworks by academic painters (contemporary followers of masters) usually falls short, this because the intricate integrated systems, with infinite variables within single paintings, were simply not translatable (unless they were straight-out copied); attempts to reapply unique compositional systems from masterworks were doomed to failure because the reapplication––a mimic––lacked authenticity that could only to be sourced by the creator, in an authentic creative process.
A critical fine-tuned eye could see the visual language come to life in masterworks while, at the same time, broader audiences have gravitated to masterworks without necessarily seeing compositional wizardry. Masterworks become masterworks through consensus, over time.
From an approach that analyzed perceptual dynamics, psychologist Rudolf Arnheim best explained the mechanics of visual language––how the brain and eye perceive and organize visual fields––through Gestalt psychological theory. Arnheim, neither an artist nor art historian, brought an analytical approach into understanding art and design in his book, Art and Visual Perception; however, his view offered little depth in revealing art's deeper meanings and in understanding the creative process. (Leonard B. Meyer wrote a parallel Gestaltist book on music: Emotion and Meaning in Music.) Arnheim applied Gestalt psychology to perception and art with terms like figure and ground and closure, terms that became part of a critical language used by artists and art teachers. Art conversations regularly apply Gestalt terms––like positive and negative space, and closure––in art classes and art criticism.
Further, I saw that ground––that which distinguishes the perceived figure––to be a concept much larger in scope than simply a background to be perceived in a visual field, and I used the word context to describe, not only a distinguishing ground but, what any viewer brings to art experience; context then––as a more comprehensive version of ground––includes all that a viewer may bring to art experience, knowledge of art history and the creative process, everything that may influence how imagery is perceived, interpreted and felt. From knowledge, experience and insight––along with a keen eye––the viewer brings a broad context to viewing a painting that expands phenomenal experience. For example, with knowledge and experience of the history of figure painting––with its various treatments and stylistic innovations from Egyptian and Greek figures to Rodin and then 20th-century figure painting––a context is set that would distinguish a particular figure painting for its uniqueness and connectedness to figure painting traditions.
But try as we may to understand painting through analysis and art criticism, masterworks and their workings exceed objective analysis, the whole of the painting (its form) greater than the sum of its parts. In considering the Gestaltist concept of closure, there’s an accounting for an interconnected whole––the aesthetic form––that is greater than the various components and intricacies comprising the art form.
From decades of experience with phenomena in painting and applying art theory to the creative process, I quite naturally leveraged this “understanding” (for lack of a better word) into an encounter with the whole of my life, a whole that also was greater than the sum of its parts. That whole was consciousness. I saw––or rather experienced––a self among its array of parts, but that self eluded description or understanding. It was from consciousness that I experience myself as an enduring entity.
In my study of the language of art, and from phenomenal experience with masterworks, I had insinuated a glimpse of life itself––my life, in particular––as phenomenal. From that glimpse, a foundation took shape from which I would engage phenomena and consciousness across my life into all manner of experience, apart from art. From there, I began to more fully realize my life and my reality as phenomenal. But conversely, at the same time, I also came to realize and objectify interference and obfuscations within an illusionistic and material reality that had concealed the human circumstance within a larger phenomenal reality.
So, experience with the phenomenal language of painting was a precursor for engaging with phenomena across broader experience, what we perceive and sense through sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. As painting may present us with a proxy for the depth of human experience, similarly the world around us is there to be engaged and actively perceived as a live phenomenal dynamic, not limited to a material dimension of thought and reason. Within the act of perception, we can be aware of perception itself as a dynamic––aware of the act of seeing and sensing––this act beyond and apart from what is seen. As we observe, feel and sense ourselves in that act, in the act of sensing, we may become aware of ourselves––in its essence-––as a phenomenal state of consciousness.
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