I was looking through Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols and found this description of Alchemy:
Alchemy is a symbolic technique which seeks to materialize spiritual truths. It is a poetic, religious, and scientific endeavor. The goal is to experience material phenomena as symbols which point to a complete theory of the universe and the destiny of the soul (the secret of discovering gold would be a mark of divine favor and thus success). [paraphrased from my notes and memory rather than quoted word for word]
While it’s not a perfect metaphor, the notion of Alchemy is a helpful model for my own artistic process.
I’ve discovered I like applying paint by dabbing masked-off areas with a sponge. This creates a flat, slightly textured area of color with no brushstrokes. Once the paint dries I will flip the frosted mylar over and you will be able to see the color through the layers of drawing.
These minimal drawings made with white ink on black paper were inspired by Andrea Zittel’s Dynamic Essay About the Panel. In this short video she describes various conventions and notions connected to the plane and panel. She also outlines the differences between horizontal and vertical planes. A horizontal field is an energetic accumulator–it receives action. A vertical field is an ideological resonator–it communicates ideas. I wanted explore these functions by depicting traditionally horizontal planes in a vertical panel.
Limitations are what makes things relevant and useful. A plane or panel can constitute an individual field of reality which uses limitations to inspire creativity. I define creativity as the imposition of some kind of order within a system. A person most successfully plays a game when they restructure the limitations within the system more effectively than their opponent.
“Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at the resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.) In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.”
…The newer myth, derived from a post-psychological conception of consciousness, installs within the activity of art many of the paradoxes involved in attaining an absolute state of being described by the great religious mystics. As the activity of the mystic must end in a via negative, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the “subject” (the “object,” the “image”), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.
…no longer a confession, art is more than ever a deliverance, an exercise in asceticism. Through it, the artist becomes purified — of himself and, eventually, of his art, The artist (if not art itself) is still engaged in a progress toward “the good.” But formerly, the artist’s good was mastery of and fulfillment in his art. Now it’s suggested that the highest good for the artist is to reach that point where those goals of excellence become insignificant to him, emotionally and ethically, and he is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a voice in art.
…Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence… And none of the aggressions committed intentionally or inadvertently by modern artists have succeeded in either abolishing the audience or transforming it into something else. (A community engaged in a common activity?) They cannot. As long as art is understood and valued as an “absolute” activity, it will be a separate, elitist one. Elites presuppose masses. So far as the best art defines itself by essentially “priestly” aims, it presupposes and confirms the existence of a relatively passive, never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity which is regularly convoked to watch, listen, read, or hear — and then sent away.
…But these programs for art’s impoverishment must not be understood simply as terroristic admonitions to audiences, but as strategies for improving the audience’s experience. The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc. — specifically, either for having a more immediate, sensuous experience of art or for confronting the art work in a more conscious, conceptual way.
…Contemporary art, no matter how much it’s defined itself by a taste for negation, can still be analyzed as a set of assertions, of a formal kind. For instance, each work of art gives us a form or paradigm or model of knowing something, an epistemology.”
“We derive the impression that the artist is trying to regulate by conscious intent the nature of the emotion aroused. We are irritated by a feeling that he is manipulating materials to secure an effect decided upon in advance. The facets of the work are held together by some external force. The author, not the subject matter, is the arbiter.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that I make art. Aesthetically, I find order and structure fascinating. A problem arises when that interest in order expands into a desire for control over every facet of the creative process and the subsequent experience of my work. I want to know ahead of time how a piece will turn out how my viewer’s will “read” it. When an artist starts with a message and stays on task, analyzing every element to be in as much control as possible over his audience, that is propaganda. Good art is made by those who are looking for truth and meaning, not those who already have all the answers. I want to have a posture of openness and humility as I work. In an undergraduate paper I once wrote, “art-making is a process of discovery and response,” a sentiment I’d like to hold on to. I could just make pretty pictures from a place of comfortable control, but the whole reason I make art is to learn and discover.
The above image is the second of Julie Mehretu’s Mogamma, A Painting in Four Parts. These four paintings were created around the time of the Arab Spring and consist of a complex web of gestural marks and vector lines overlaying technical wireframe drawings of Al-Mogamma (a government building in Tahir Square, Cairo). Mogamma is also the Arab word for “collective.”
Like most art, Mehretu’s paintings diminish when not seen in person. Much of the meaning of her work lies in experiencing these complex images at their massive scale and being unable to take in their entirety at once. They read one way from a distance, but as the viewer approaches they must select a portion of the image to examine more closely. Because it is physically impossible to see everything at once, the viewer must slow down and allow their eye to explore and discover the painting. Each person will see something slightly different as no two people will examine it in quite the same way. As Mark Godfrey said, “viewers have to abandon the desire to fully master what they see.”
In writing about Mehretu’s work Richard Shiff said, “The culture is complex, contradictory, and commodious; for better or worse, it tolerates extremes of opposition, assimilating diverse impulses, nevertheless avoiding collapse. To navigate a hyperculture of this sort requires a hyperimage, a perspective far more complex than a map of eighteenth-century trade routes…” I think what I find so fascinating about Mehretu’s work is the way in which her paintings function as hyperimages that juxtapose our perspective of chaotic experience with the suggestion of an underlying order. Her paintings are models and metaphors for a way of thinking about culture and reality.
“I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.” – Julie Mehretu