Another look at Emma Smith (five notes on an experiment)
1. In a review I posted on Thursday, I talked about the way that many of Emma Smith's paintings seem to exist on the border between abstraction and figuration. In a lot of Smith's works, one or more shadowy figures seem about to emerge from or fall back into an abstract maelstrom of paint. I suggested that Smith's 'borderline' paintings reprise an important but half-forgotten moment in the history of modernist art, when masters like Pollock and Malevich stood on the edge of a commitment to complete abstraction, yet struggled to abandon the delights and perils of figuration.
My review argued that there is a psychic intensity implicit in a style which hovers between figuration and abstraction. Like the portraits of his family Pollock vandalised with broad abstract brushstrokes, or Malevich's pictures of peasants and soldiers slowly dissolving into an abstract landscape of primary colours, Smith's semi-abstract, semi-figurative works suggested to me some radical uncertainty about the nature and stability of reality. The intensity of Smith's paintings seemed to me to resonate with their exhibition on the site of an old mental hospital that once housed intense and troubled writers like Maurice Duggan.
There have been both positive and negative responses to my interpretation of Smith's work. In a series of e mails which also featured anxious enquiries about my progress on Smithyland and boasts about the number of eels he was catching in the stream near his new home, Brett Cross made some interesting remarks on my review:
Emma has probably received a lot of commentary on her work that mentions trauma and mental issues, just due to its style, so probably has very little patience with getting reviewed in that way - and you have been known to romanticise mental illness a little...You used the obvious approach critics might use towards art done in Emma's style - and one she might be sick of...The style of painting she's doing invites that sort of interpretation, sure, but could that be taken as an incentive to find another way to critique it? That might be all the more interesting because it's not taking the obvious path, and could turn up other more interesting analysis. It might be good to do something more.
If I understand him rightly, Brett is suggesting that, along with other commentators, I have too quick to pin hoary labels like 'intense' and 'expressionist' on Smith, and have ignored less obvious ways of dealing with her. Perhaps Brett is also suggesting that I have used allusions to famous painters like Pollock and Malevich and asides about history as ways of setting aside the difficult task of discussing the experience - the immediate, physical experience which is in some ways anterior to art historical commentary and literary allusion - of Smith's turbulent and enigmatic paintings.
What I'd like to do in this post is not to repudiate my review of Smith so much as try to complement it, by returning to her paintings and looking more steadily and closely at them, without drawing attention away to long-dead painters or Auckland history. For a notorious digressor like myself, this will be no easy task! These notes are, then, a sort of experiment rather than a linear argument.
2. I want to consider, as an example of the works by Emma Smith which seem to me to hover on the border between figuration and abstraction, the small black painting called Untitled (Woman), which was produced this year and featured in the recent exhibition at Unitec (I have reproduced the painting at the top of this post). This work is clearly, in some senses, a portrait, yet it seems, on first glance at least, disturbingly incomplete. The legs and torso of Smith's subject can be identified fairly easily, but the head has been obliterated by a flurry of brushstrokes. These strokes form an abstract block of black that contrasts with the expanse of white in the lower half of the painting.
I find myself struggling to 'complete' Smith's portrait by extricating a face and an expression from the darkness that have, seemingly, engulfed them. If I relax my attention, the face recedes into darkness, as the abstract features of the painting predominate. I find that I cannot view Untitled (Woman) as a figurative and an abstract work at the same time - I seem to have to choose one or the other option. I find the work's dynamism - its refusal to resolve itself, to present itself to me as a stable, easily-knowable entity - both troubling and strangely exciting.
I feel a temptation to look away from Untitled (Woman) - from the black paint on white paper that comprises the work - towards the safety, or relative safety, of reference and allusion. It would be possible, surely, to write a whole essay about the place of Untitled (Woman) in the tradition of black paintings, dropping distinguished names like Goya and Hotere along the way. The artist's decision to obscure the face of her subject could be examined, and references could be made to novelists like Kafka and Robbe-Grillet, who denied their characters full names, or painters like Michael Illingworth who preferred masks to faces. The artist's decision to work on a small sheet of thin paper, rather than on something sturdier like canvas, could be discussed at length, with reference to painters like Clairmont who condemned much of their work to a slow death by working on unstable materials. Each of these discussions might be interesting, but each would lead me inexorably away from a direct encounter with the black brushstrokes on that small piece of paper.
What can I say about Untitled (Woman), if I abjure, for the time being at least, detours into the worlds of art and literary history, and other exegetical manoeuvres? I might try to describe the work in front of me in great detail - to measure it precisely, to count its brushstrokes, to compare the quantities of marked and unmarked paper - but this sort of exercise would, surely, become pedantic.
What am I to do, then? I want to try to describe the peculiar effects Untitled (Woman) has on me by turning to a couple of philosophers who have tried to get to grips with the ways humans perceive and interpret images. I don't want to use these philosophers to escape from Untitled (Woman), but to help me appreciate what is going on when I view the work.
3. In his biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ray Monk describes the way the philosopher would stoop, fascinated, with a stick in his hand, over a piece of dirt near the house in Ireland where he lived for some years. As Wittgenstein puzzled over the image he had scratched into the dirt with his stick, his landlady would gaze out the window and shake her head at the strange ways of her guest. The image Wittgenstein drew and examined so obsessively has become famous to philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists as the 'duck-rabbit' composite portrait. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that we can see the image either as either a duck or a rabbit, but not as a duck and a rabbit at the same time. Whether we see a duck or a rabbit may depend upon the culture we live in, on our worldview, or simply on our mood at the moment we look at the drawing.
The 'duck-rabbit' was important to Wittgenstein because it proved to him that no image is self-disclosing. We do not encounter images without preconceptions, and then passively receive them: to a greater or lesser extent, our minds help shape them.
Wittgenstein's discussion of the duck-rabbit image helps me to understand the sometimes-disturbing dynamism of Untitled (Woman) and some of Emma Smith's other works. Just as I cannot look at Wittgenstein's famous image and see it as a duck and a rabbit at the same time, I find I cannot 'stabilise' Untitled (Woman) by viewing it as both an abstract and a figurative work. I see a figure emerging from and transcending an abstract chaos, or I see the chaos swallowing the figure. And whether I see Untitled (Woman) as figurative or abstract depends importantly upon my state of mind while I view the work.
4. If Wittgenstein's lesson about the nature of perception helps me understand the instability I find in Untitled (Woman), what can account for the curious mixture of excitement and unease I invariably feel, whether I view the painting as either a figurative or an abstract work? I have turned to another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, to help me to grapple with this question.
The University of Auckland's Julian Young is one of the key Heidegger scholars in the English-speaking world, partly because he has the rare ability to explain and discuss the German thinker's gnomically provocative formulations in lucid prose. In his 2002 book Heidegger's Philosophy of Art, Young argues that Heidegger eventually abandoned his early, deeply reactionary belief that art was impossible in the age of modernity, and began to write enthusiastically about modernist poets like Rilke, Trakl, and Celan and about modernist painters like Cezanne and Klee.
Young argues that the distinction between the concepts 'world' and 'earth' is central to Heidegger's philosophy of art. Heidegger uses the term 'world' to describe the reality we inhabit in our everyday lives - a reality whose parameters are set by our technology, our language and our cultural practices. Beneath or beyond our world of houses and buses and shampoo and budget forecasts and scientific hypotheses lies 'earth', a vast, partly-incomprehensible latent reality which is capable of generating very different 'worlds' to our own.
Although our modern 'world' is only one of many different constructions of reality that have existed - Heidegger is fond of harking back to the 'world' of the ancient Greeks, which he considers was very different from, and very much superior to, our own - we tend to forget the partial, contingent nature of the reality we inhabit, and treat it as the only and ultimate 'world'. In doing so, we forget the existence of the mysterious latent reality Heidegger calls 'earth'. (It is important to realise that Heidegger's 'earth' is not supposed to be understood as some supernatural entity created or maintained by a God somewhere outside the universe. 'Earth' is simply the parts of reality our concepts and practices make us unable to perceive.)
Heidegger believes that authentic art can help lead us out of the mental maze within which we live. Although art must, by its very nature, be made up of the perceivable things of our 'world', it can gesture towards the mysterious 'earth' that lies beyond our world, and in doing so remind us of the contingency of our reality, and the possibility of other realities.
Heidegger's concepts of 'world' and 'earth' might seem obscure and mystical, and his belief in the power of art to lead us toward some sort of radically transformative experience might seem, at best, romantic, but Julian Young helps us to unpack the philosopher's arguments by showing that they were products of Heidegger's love of art and the dialogues he conducted with a series of writers and artists.
In a particularly fascinating section of Heidegger's Philosophy of Art, Young discusses the philosopher's admiration for, and unique interpretation of, the paintings of Cezanne. In his last decades, Heidegger often travelled to Provence, the setting for many of Cezanne's paintings, to meet friends and give seminars. Heidegger became fascinated with the dozens of paintings Cezanne had made of Provence's Mt Sainte Victoire, and made several pilgrimages to the peak.
Julian Young notes the way that Cezanne's paintings of Sainte-Victoire often seem to hover on the boundary between figuration and abstraction. Cezanne was always a figurative artist, but as he painted Sainte-Victoire again and again he began to appreciate the abstract quality of the mountain's rocky slopes. Cezanne began to use semi-abstract blocks of colour to express the solidity and depth that the mountain's surfaces sometimes concealed. The stylised, semi-abstract nature of some of Cezanne's paintings of Sainte-Victoire means that, when we turn our gaze toward one of them, our eyes may take a short time to 'recognise' the painter's subject matter. For a moment or two we may see, not a mountain in the south of France, but a tangle of lines and colours - a sort of pre-composition, out of which our minds 'construct' Sainte-Victoire. In the precious, disconcerting moments before we 'see' the mountain, we may notice something analogous to the mysterious 'earth' underlying our limited, constructed 'world'. We may realise that the reality we know is not the only or ultimate reality, but one of an infinite number of possible expressions of the 'earth' which is its ground. This realisation can fill us with terror, because it seems to undermine the certainties by which we have become accustomed to living. It can fill us with wonder and excitement for the same reason. Heidegger was obsessed with Cezanne's paintings of Sainte-Victoire because he saw, in these arrangements of paint on canvas, a more profound exploration of the limits of reality than anything that could be achieved by a theoretical physicist or a rocket-probe aimed into outer space.
Heidegger's interpretation of Cezanne helps me to understand both the excitement and the unease I feel when I view Untitled (Woman) and many other paintings by Emma Smith. Untitled (Woman) achieves a troubling dynamism by combining but not reconciling figurative and abstract elements, and by therefore forcing us to choose, again and again, to treat it as either figurative or abstract. Because we have to choose to see paintings like Untitled (Woman) as figurative works - as depictions of aspects of our 'world' - we are reminded of the contingent nature of our 'world', and of the mysterious latent reality - the 'earth' - that lies beyond our 'world'. This knowledge can be both disconcerting and strangely exciting. When we look at Smith's paintings, we may see a new, higher horizon, or a burgeoning abyss.
5. These notes were intended as an experiment, and I am not sure the experiment has been entirely successful. I began by saying I wanted to look closely at Emma Smith's paintings, and to avoid digressing into the sanctuaries of art history and literary scholarship and other exegetical disciplines, and yet, looking back, I find I have spent much of these notes digressing. Weren't my detours through Wittgenstein's philosophy of perception and Heidegger's philosophy of art simply ways of avoiding engagement with paintings like Untitled (Woman)?
In my defence I'd like to argue that when I turned my thoughts to Heidegger and Wittgenstein I was trying, not to set aside the experience of viewing Emma Smith's work, but to find a way of explaining this experience. Whether I have been successful or not I don't know. I hope, though, that the seriousness of my engagement with Emma Smith's work, both in this post and in the one that preceded it, indicates the esteem in which I hold that work. I hope that other readers of this blog will conduct their own experiments with Smith's beguiling and disturbing oeuvre.