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Second Week at Playa

February 27, 2012

Everything in the west is expanded in contrast to the compression of life as we know it back east. Distances are stretched out by the flatness, the clear airs informs atmospheric perspective with different rules of scale. Distance can only be understood through the mechanics of motion and time. The 110 mile drive to the Bend Orthopedic Center yesterday felt a lot longer on the way home, as the sun was setting and the Elk, lurking beside the road, were blending perfectly with the Jeffrey Pines. Slowing down felt prudent, especially since my right hand was bound in a newly acquired soft cast, preventing me from making deft maneuvers. The torn ligament in my right hand will be slowing me down in other ways as well.

It takes an hour by car to get to “town”, by which the locals mean Lakeview, 60 miles to the south. Yet, that hour that passes a lot easier than 20 minutes of driving through downtown traffic back home. The open vistas massage your vision while perfectly conical mountain peaks on the distant horizon linger in your view, giving one the sense that movement is irrelevant. You are trapped in each broad valley until you are released through a narrow pass to the next.

For centuries artists have been dealing with how we can create an illusion of space on a flat surface. Even modernist painters who use geometric abstraction deal with a kind of narrow, closeted space. Masters of illusion, like the Dutch painters of the Northern Renaissance, set the bar for creating the illusion of depth by capturing of the tiniest minutia on the distant, broad horizon and using a system of perspective that included a logical progression of scale and lines that receded to established vanishing points. But standing in front of one of these masterpieces, one is still keenly aware that it is not space being peered into, but a flat painted surface.

This tension is a form of disconnect between the brain and the eyes. What our eyes see does not jibe with what the brains makes of that information We artist think of this conflict as being good, exciting, stimulating. Like sweet dark chocolate with bits of hot spice in it. We enjoy the buzz we get as our brain tries to figure out what we are seeing. The left and right side of the brain are having an entertaining volley. Looking at a vista with distant details that are amazingly clear to eye -but almost impossible to capture with a camera-creates this kind of dis-connect; as does a road that reaches towards a vanishing point but has a slight uphill grade at the far range of our vision, distorting our instinctual understanding of perspective. In these cases what we see does not give us reliable information about the space around us. In Upstate NY, where life is contained in tight little glacial valleys, there is a sense of containment that creates a feeling of comfort and security. The space of our existence is knowable. Here, the space is so wide open that I have to accept that I will never come to know much of it. It will simply remain a  postcard perfect vista.

In the work I have started here I am dealing with the inherent failure of the devices used in drawing to create the illusion of space. Perspective, when taught, is a logical, mathematical system of approximating our comprehension of space- there is nothing subjective to argue about. Yet, it is difficult to get some students to believe that parallel lines do, in fact, indeed recede to a single vanishing point and that vanishing point, for level objects, is equal to your eye level, which we consider to be the horizon. While perspective does create a logical illusion, our understanding of space has to do with more than what we can see with one eye in a fixed position. As we move through a space, listen to the way sound bounces around it, sense the wind moving, or view it from different vantage points we come to a more complete understanding of it. We judge a landscape by travel time, by shifting orientation and by using maps. Moving point to point, our experience of space is mostly linear. A drawing or painting on a flat surface can create nothing more than a momentary gimmick.

The first large piece I’ve done here is titled  Lessons in Perspective: Drawing Devices. It is 12 feet wide by 8 ft high and has elements that project off of the wall: a wedge of veneer wood suggesting a road, varying dowels and nails suggest towers in a progression of scale and a line of diminishing nails, from 16d to 1/2 inch brads, connected by wires making a tongue in cheek play on the classic receding telephone poles. It is done directly on the wall, thus a temporary work which will last only until I paint it over.

For a second piece, which I am still working on, I have created an abnormally straight line of stones set in the mud flat leading to the lake, oriented to the North Star. Thus the title: True North. The stones get larger in the middle of the line so that a skewed sense of distance is created. It is deceptively longer than it looks (about 1500 feet).Walking it, distance is also distorted as the mud increasingly slows you down the closer you get to the water. It is fun to slog around on the mud, pretending I have a purpose, like an engineer for an absurd roadway. The piece and other playful lines on the mud flats are informed by all of the work I did laying out the run, bike and swim course for the Cayuga Lake Triathlon; the bright orange swim buoys stretched out for one half mile in the early morning light on the lake was as about surreal an experience as any art installation I’ve seen.

I have other works in progress; drawings from photos taken from the road, small landscape models set at eye level and a wall hanging piece that will play with the concept  of moving through the landscape  by means of a mechanized foreground. I have limited myself here to simple materials- scrap wood, drawings on paper, stones in mud. In part due to the practical constrains of hauling tools and material across the country but also in part in shake things up, to work quickly and loosely and not worry so much about execution and salabilty (and now, I have the additional limit of my right hand being injured). My goal here is to focus on exploration and discovery.



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One Comment
  1. you have brought tears to the cheeks, quite literally, in response to such beauty. thank you for your quest and perception and gifts that you share back with such seeming ease.

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