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BECAUSE IT IS THERE:

SOME OBSERVATIONS
ON LOOKING,
VIEWING
AND SEEING

 

"The purpose of a painting is to be a feast for the eyes."
--Eugene Delacroix

MARGARITA NIETO


Yes. We go to feast. To satiate our senses, to savor color and form. To imbibe space within a space, imagery, lines, planes that magically elicit a longing for.....? What? The known, perhaps the unknown? To seek something for an infinitesimal second, beyond ourselves. But how do we do it? What is involved in the physical act of going to see 1) an exhibition; 2) a painting in the exhibition?

In an essay entitled Transfigurations, from the book, Essays on Mexican Art (the original Spanish, Los privilegios de la vista [The Privileges of Sight] is much more succinct and meaningful), Octavio Paz describes the postures that viewers assume in approaching a painting. First, the direct approach, a kind of straight line walk that zeros in on the target ending in a face to face encounter with the work itself, questioning it, defying it or admiring it. Then the cautious approach, as if there were some kind of conspiracy between the work and the viewer. There’s the zig, zag, a to and fro dance as if the viewer were involved in a game of chess with the work, measuring and sensing, feeling it with one’s sight, “like a greedy guest in front of a spread.” And then there are those who circle and circle, somewhat like a buzzard about to descend on the carrion, according to Paz.

To Paz’ list we add the audio listener who enters the gallery attached to wires and earphones and who stands, head hanging down, eyes closed or downcast, listening earnestly to a disembodied voice informing him/her about the work that he/she is not looking at and blocking access to the work on the wall for everyone else. And there is finally, of course, the spectator--not to be confused with the viewer--who strikes a pose four to five feet in front of the work, stands and contemplates, and then moves diagonally, thrusting out the other hip and foot, always keeping a distance, never daring to approach the work.

These postures interest me because they reveal not only what we are viewing, but how we see (I am using this word in its fullest sense, to discern, observe understand, contemplate, ascertain etc.). Beginning with our last example, how many of us have been frustrated by confronting the dark immutable mass of a being enclosed in the electronic bubble of an audio tour? Please don’t think that I’m condemning audio tours. They have the capacity to fulfill a marvelous task by informing the viewer about what to look for (I did say capacity). But what if the viewer becomes involved in listening to a verbal explanation instead of interpreting that information into a filter to see? The perception of seeing becomes twisted. The viewer shifts gears and listens in and to a the world of verbal narrative, a wonderful world in itself, but in direct conflict with the exercise of seeing. A linear, temporal experience. The work, the painting disappears.

The conspirator, the dancer, and the ‘buzzard’ all share a certain reticence, a self-consciousness, the result of a feeling of inadequacy nurtured by an odious comparison. Perhaps these viewers compare themselves to those illuminated beings who deign to know and who lecture in loud tones on and about and for and against the value and the importance of this or that work. The murky realms of snobbery, of elitism descend upon us dividing the initiated and the novices. We are overwhelmed, humbled. What do we know? Under these conditions, wouldn’t you, the novice, also become a audio tour junkie? .

The direct line approach however, reflects a certain assurance. By heading directly toward the work, the viewer is manifesting some knowledge about what they want to see in the work. As Paz says, they are going to question, defy or admire it. Perhaps they have some understanding of the rest, of the circumstances that surround the work. Who the painter is. What materials he uses. The technique. Or then perhaps, they are drawn by something as obvious as the image itself. They may be involved in questioning all of these aspects.

To reiterate: they may disdain, defy or admire the work. But they are already involved with it. Unlike their self-conscious cohorts, they have broken through the invisible barrier of worrying about what the other viewers think of them. And by encroaching on the space in front of the work, they have the advantage over fellow viewers (How can you really see Vincent van Gogh, Jan Breugal the Elder, David Alfaro Siqueiros to cite a few examples, without seeing the work up close?) .

They are up against the object, the target if you will. Consciously or unconsciously, they observe the ground, the support or surface of the work, the preparation that brings life and light to the work itself. Then the eye roams across the surface. Craquelure? Smoothness? Texture? The brush strokes combine with the layering of color. How is the color applied? What type of brush, knife, hand went into the creation of the work? The signature catches our attention. The eye feasts on the making of the work.

Now the eye roams the surface drinking in color, light, composition but the labels are absent. The mind is still. Only the senses are at work. The work reaches out to the viewer as if its very elements were energetic tentacles. Walter Benjamin’s aura. We stand bathed in the power of the work.

After these moments of contemplation, we slowly move back and away and take in the totality of what we’ve seen up close. The space within a space becomes our space. We contemplate the work, our minds at rest, aware of a sense of completeness which in turn, makes us complete.

And secretly, we ponder on the forbidden pleasures. Proximity awakens temptation. Oh, to touch, to feel, to see the work through our fingers, our hands. We wonder if the artist might have wanted that. Why produce such attractive textures, thickness, pigment if not to invite our touch? We can become obsessed, wanting to enter the work, become part of it.

Perhaps no one has created that experience more clearly than Akiro Kurosawa. We too are the young man in the gallery, contemplating the van Goghs. We too suddenly break the perceptual barrier between the work and ourselves. We too, dream ourselves into Vincent’s works. For one brief moment we are him. The washerwomen by the river are alive. The windmills turn. The sun is high in the blue, infinite eternal and immemorable sky of Provence.