Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The art of illusions

The Innocent Eye Test 1981, Mark Tansy.
 I am not a realist painter. In the nineteenth century, photography co-opted the traditional function of realist painters, which was to make faithful renditions of “reality.” Then the realist project was taken over by Modernist abstraction, as later evidenced in the title of Hans Hofmann’s book Search for the Real. Minimalism tried to eliminate the gap between the artwork and the real. After that, the project itself dematerialized. But the problem for representation is to find the other functions beside capturing the real.
In my work, I’m searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional. I’m not doing pictures of things that actually exist in the world. The narratives never actually occurred. In contrast to the assertion of one reality, my work investigates how different realities interact and abrade. And the understanding is that the abrasions start within the medium itself.
I think of the painted picture as an embodiment of the very problem that we face with the notion “reality.” The problem or question is, which reality? In a painted picture, is it the depicted reality, or the reality of the picture plane, or the multidimensional reality the artist and viewer exist in? That all three are involved points to the fact that pictures are inherently problematic. This problem is not one that can or ought to be eradicated by reductionist or purist solutions. We know that to successfully achieve the real is to destroy the medium; there is more to be achieved by using it than through its destruction. 

Mark Tansey, quoted in Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C. Dante
In the history of paintings of paintings, pictures that are 'self aware' so to speak, Velasquez' 'Las Meninas' is undoubtably the greatest piece of visual rhetoric concerned with the problematic multidimensional realities of pictorial illusion, time and space, and the relationships between artist, subject/s and viewer/s ever explored through the medium of paint on a flat surface. The painting seems to transcend the limits of its own frame by knowing and understanding them so well. When we study it carefully we see that the perceptual reality which the artist has constructed so convincingly is merely an illusion caught between the mirrored gazes of our own eyes and those of the artist and his subjects, a trick of light and shadows, a game of 'smoke and mirrors' and the alchemy of medium itself - paint.  

When we see the illusion for what it is we know that the pictorial 'reality' is only as deep as the surface of the paint, the context of the frame and gallery is another parallel reality, and our own moment of interaction with the picture, through a variety of digital reproductions acting as intermediaries, another parallel world colliding with these coordinates through time and space.

Things in their true nature and illusions are of the same basic substance ........... (Thich Nhat Hahn) 

In the Satipatthana Sutta in the section on 'mental objects', the five 'khandas' or aggregates which we confuse and grasp at as 'me' and 'mine' are compared to various illusions.  'rupa' or material form is compared to  foam;  'vedanna' or feeling to bubbles;  'sanna', cognition or perception, to a mirage; and 'sankara' or volitional formations, physical or psychological forces that fashion things, to a plantain tree with no heart wood, and finally 'vinanna' or consciousness to a magician's illusion. By seeing clearly into the nature of the arising and cessation of these various phenomena we can discern that they are impermanent and not-self, and that there is no lasting satisfaction in conditioned phenomena which are inherently unstable. 

When we consider that the constructed reality of the painting has long outlasted the artist, his subjects and most of the people who have viewed it since 1656, we can appreciate the singular power of art as a focus for contemplation of both conditional and ultimate realities. 

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