Vision and Touch - Objective and Subjective?

Reading Daniel Butterly's The Architecture of Vision, an argument for painting as composing with spaces rather than rendering objects, I'm fascinated by how it runs counter to the dominant anti-opticality of most twentieth-century art. Using a method of geometric projection that expands on Renaissance perspective by introducing a separate space for each eye, Butterly grounds vision in mathematical objectivity, endowing it with rational authority - a notion of visual truth opposed to the subjective procedures of Pollock or the irony of Duchamp.

My own intuitive procedure has increasingly relied on touch - applying pieces of paper to drawings and acrylics, and modeling in clay, as though sensing some inadequacy in the methods of impressionistic painting; I struggle with an awareness of the visual field as immersive and mostly out of focus. I rely on relations of contiguity, as though feeling my way through the spaces around me. I turn to translating my collages into oil paintings, as though to reaffirm their structure by touching the colored patches again.

It's in this context that Butterly's geometric projection opens new possibilities. Just as Peter Campus found the video camera a "surrogate eye", offering an objective monitor to the roving vision of corporeal perception, his "reference form" offers a dialogue between rational construction and intuitive exploration. It has the additional advantage of being highly compatible with Photoshop, which I've also utilized to lend abstract structure to my landscape collages by extracting selected colors.

In a similar way, Cezanne struggled to establish a broader framework for Impressionism, which rooted the painter in his local subject, in the intimate tactility of paint on canvas -  just as American poet Charles Olson believed his deep engagement with local history, in the network of contiguous places in Gloucester, would lead to a poetry of larger scale. Such ambitious visions may not be within our grasp, but we can gesture towards them by creating a dialogue between objective and subjective fields - between the overall objective view we need to orient ourselves and the more intimate one we explore with shifting attention.

Classical Vernacular, acrylic collage edited in Photoshop, dimensions variable, 2016

Classical Vernacular, acrylic collage edited in Photoshop, dimensions variable, 2016

Daylight

Photographers like Robert Adams have stripped away the grandiosity of the American West, avoiding the rhetoric of the American landscape tradition. Adams eschews the grandiose and spectacular in favor of the modest and mundane. He abandons the urge to dominate and accepts what is, trusting to the democratic virtue of everyday light to redeem the landscape for art. He quotes cinematographer Raoul Coutard: "Daylight has an inhuman faculty for always being perfect."

Adams accepts on his own terms the challenge of developing new forms for new landscapes - and its corollary, the process of defining himself as an American.

Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, Colorado,  1969

Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, Colorado,  1969

American-Pacific Spaces

 Java's volcanoes have shaped global climate for millennia, but this year it's the island's extreme fire season that portends drastic effects, a new geopolitical era.

In Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson coins the term "Pacific man" to express the American push to the West. Olson talks of American space, or SPACE as he writes it, and all the economic and social tensions it entails, as encapsulated in Herman Melville's whaling ship. Some "ride" this space, he notes, while others "dig in".

Meridel Rubenstein, a photographer based in Santa Fe, who teaches in Singapore while working to reclaim marshes in Iraq, is one who rides. Her photos of Indonesian volcanoes link global conditions to an American tradition of landscape documentation that extends back to nineteenth-century geological surveys, incorporating along the way the "local" as envisioned by  Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, like Olson himself, seem to both "ride" and "dig in."

Like them, Rubenstein endows her photo documentation with an urgent sense of mission. She engages physically with her subjects, from printing on aluminum or on paper made from tree bark,  to managing water resources on the Euphrates. Rubenstein wrestles with the ideological energy of American space - aiming to harness its expansive impulse to a global vision of spirituality. There's both white and black magic in the mirror-like surfaces of her prints.

Stieglitz inspired artists to define America and themselves by immersion in the "local", appealing to an innocent embrace of the New World and its promise of fresh vision through the new medium of photography. But the "local", which Rubenstein extends to her work in Iraq, demands a grounding in the troubled history of the land, as writers like Olson and William Carlos Williams understood.

Olson observes that, for Melville, the root of our ambitions lies not in democracy but in the will to overwhelm nature. For him, the White Whale is more accurate than Whitman's Leaves of Grass -  "Because it is America, all her space, the malice, the root."

Meridel Rubenstein, Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash, 74,000 years old, found in Malaysia, 2010, archival pigment on aluminum

Meridel Rubenstein, Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash, 74,000 years old, found in Malaysia, 2010, archival pigment on aluminum

Visual Field

"Visual field" calls up the idea of a camera viewfinder, a rectangular format, but the visual field is all around us.

I like poet Charles Olson's "composition by field", which applies his sense of new American painting to the linear convention of poetry. Painting is no longer just the depiction of a subject but an organization of the overall space before us.

The Impressionists broke up the enclosed contours of objects. The Bauhaus School developed the grid as a field for invention, and Hans Hofmann opened up the field to rhythmic improvisation, to the emergence of new configurations.

Henri Matisse, Red Studio, 1910

Henri Matisse, Red Studio, 1910