Archive for the ‘ Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees ’ Category

On Affirmed Knowing

Why would I believe in what I believe in? Why affirm my own values?

Henry Thaggert and I went to the Hirshhorn and saw Robert Irwin’s All the Rules Will Change. We looked and talked. I kept telling him I needed to go home and re-think my life. And I kept saying it was because I was seeing so many affirmations of my own values. Irwin’s work seemed too familiar, like I could have made it. His ideas felt like my own.

I have never seen his work in person. I have never seen the body of work that comprised much of the content of Lawrence Weschler’s book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. The show at the Hirshhorn seems to have been curated by almost copy and pasting directly form the book.

That book made the rounds in American art programs. At least on the east coast. From New York to Boston to Washington D.C., it seems to have made an impact. I know people who read it. I plan to assign it when the proper class presents itself. The book is used in art programs because Weschler’s interrogative writing method chugs along like a steam engine. Pages turn. It reads easily. Chug-a-chuga-a, it ends.

And the content is like a mind being read. Irwin laid bare. From being a dickhead, hot rod douche bag, to a number crunching horse racing gambler, and to being a considerate thinker, that text functions like a film of Irwin’s mind, and the reader has a front row seat.

The book was influential for me because Irwin began looking deeply. He began empathizing with objects, reducing what he needed, and tossing everything else out the window.

There are show spoilers below, so if you haven’t seen it, you might read the rest later. 

The show started with a mid-late object, the disks. A good place to start, a good place to draw the visitors in. This was the first time I had seen one. It actually felt like a let down, because I had only seen it in the text or online. The object had too much canonical sacredness in my mind. It was really just thought, until I had to address looking at the thing in person. I’ve encountered this let down before.

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Next was the hand held paintings, breaking up the passive looking and turning looking into an active thing.

Pick it up, look. Touch. Observe. Multiple senses at work.

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That active looking seemed to resonate with me. The act seemed deeply political. Art becoming a spatial thing. Like a sculpture you must interact with. Asking the viewer to not merely view disrupted the history of merely looking at painting. The painting had to enter into the issues of sculpture, the thing in the round. Further, it was intended to be picked up. To be smelled at close distance, to cover in hand oil, to be interrogated with blood and bones, not just wet distant drippy eyes.

From there the show followed the book to the larger messy line paintings. The mark was still there, the hand, the impasto gloppy gloop mark.

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But Irwin started removing that hand thing and just held onto the line. Pushing variables further and further afield, looking deeply at “one” thing.

Beyond the hand held paintings there were a few dot paintings. I didn’t photograph them. What I didn’t realize is the present opposing grids pushed back against each other creating subtle pattern. In the first one, there was a sort of circle created with opposing horizontal/vertical grid and the diamond shaped grid. The second dot painting’s edges flicked like fire, but barely perceptual. The dots dappled as they neared the edge, creating a sort of heliosphere of solar flares.

But the show went on and Irwin kept removing variables. From the dot to the line. Why have the hand? Why not just the line?

And so next, we saw the line paintings. Depthless yet misty, the painted lines were staples for holding down distances. Slightly raised off the canvas, resonating with the more neutralized neighboring colors; the lines wavered sometimes, glowing yet still sitting quite still. What I hadn’t remembered form the book (or perhaps was not present) was the ground treatment. The ground of these was actually quite “hand-present.” They were painterly painted. Not with big brushes for a real mechanical covering, but many small gestures with a single three-finger scale brush. Scritch scratch coverage, all over. Then the lines. Henry said he thought there was color under the ground; seeping through and pushing the ground around. I saw it sometimes, but wasn’t sure what I was seeing. But the ground was still quite mechanically executed. The smaller brush was used in a single direction, each time. Observe:

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See the mechanical execution of the ground? More examples:

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As an aside, you can see the luminosity and color relationships with this particular close view. Painting under the painting.

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So you can see that the grounds of each one of these paintings is pretty painterly, yet still quite mechanical in execution. That seemed very odd to me. It seemed that Irwin had not tossed out the hand variable. The Line paintings still had that painter painting thing present.

Next we came to the more environmental, large line paintings. We stood there and let the thing overtake us. Wingtip to wingtip it was supposed to envelop. The red, meant to burn the retina, creating fatigue and a real sense of…redness. A red world, a potentially dangerous utopian/dystopian red world. We talked about Rothko with these.

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The book talked about all these things and there were more objects but the scrim needs to be discussed.

We reached an uncanny room, the anticipation for this was building. I knew it was coming. The skrim room, like other Irwin skrim instillations utilized the location’s architecture to create its form. The skrim held back some curving walls. The place was all breath.

The previous variables of line and hand removed. It was all light and fog. It was astounding to see it. It was difficult to look at, because the eye kept wanting to penetrate. Maybe it functioned similarly to Agnes Martin or Chuck Close. Distance and nearness changing the experience contextually. If close, X, if far, Y. But with the skrim, X and Y played together. Becoming a shifty third letter. Essentially an X with a dangling dick.

But the skrim had depth but no depth. It was flat yet deep. It wanted to be touched, because the eye wasn’t sure of what it was seeing. I talked to guards in each section and the guard in this section said he was frustrated by people constantly touching the thing.

The book laid all these things bare. It was like reading the book through seeing the things. And with each seeing I was reminded of my own content, my own inquiry. That book affected me, the ideas pushed me around.

The book was influential for me because I could see a way through some of the complex issues of art and life. I came from a theist background. A small town in Texas wherein the second question anyone asks you is, “What church do you attend?” This was disruptive. It seemed there was only one way to think, anything outside that method was flawed and would produce ostracism. At the age of fifteen I decided to be an atheist and I always felt tense and unwanted. This background made me doubt an affirming a world view. The people around me seemed to affirm each other’s values. One set of values. But I doubted the core premises of those values. It was/is all disruptive to my ability to think.

With this background I came to Weschler’s book and the MFA. The important core concept of Irwin’s work is looking deeply. To look deeply and  remove what is unnecessary. To interrogate an idea to its conclusion and beyond. This approach allows for mistakes and play. Potentially, this approach doesn’t favor any other approach over another. Irwin allows for plural possibilities. And this resonated with me because I grew up with what felt like a singular possibility. One method. One holy text.

But Irwin offered multiple possibilities. The book laid this all bare. The show laid this all bare.

Looking deeply engenders empathy. To accord a thing such weight is a substantial learning opportunity. This situation can enter into life, allow for accordance of weight to another person, to their values, to their world view. To look deeply allows for a willingness to empathize and thusly to treat other things and beings with dignity. This is why Irwin is important to me. This is why that book and the show are meaningful.

As we walked through the show I kept feeling an unease. As I walked through the show, I saw my aesthetic history on display right next to each object. Each object was a bookmark in my thought. To hold the painting, to be active rather than passive, this is the clarion call and exit ramp out of moderinist solipsism. To remove the hand. To only have lines. To reduce to a disk of light and glass. To create an environment of mist. And each work thereafter seemed to resonate with my work. The setting aside of unnecessary variables resonated with my Average Color of One-Hundred Paintings. To squish it all together. Compact paintings, compact mist. Compact history. Compact values.


The removal of variables resonated with 100 Paintings. 100 potentials. 100 world views. 100 paintings.


But as I walked through the show, each work showed me that I might have been affirming Irwin’s values. I might have been affirming some values at all. To affirm itself continues to feel dangerous. But of course interrogative thinking requires challenge and affirmation. It seems to function just like painting. Play, make mistakes, learn, fall down the stairs and break every bone. Then rethink the thing and repeat in some way.

But I thought I should go home and re-think my life.

It has been several days since seeing the show. And after writing this I think the issue is really that, no matter what, I am a doubter. I remain skeptical. Weschler’s book isn’t a holy text. It is useful but not any more sacred to me than the dangerous Bible. But I honestly got quite a lot from both sources. From my hometown I learned to be wary yet my home town created me, created the situation wherein I would be willing to analyze my situation. From Irwin I learned to look deeply. Or more precisely, I was allowed to look more deeply. Irwin made me think I could slide art and life together.