Tuesday, April 18, 2017

How to read a painting

This is an interesting idea--to read a painting.  A story exists in time, and a painting exists in space. So how can we translate between the visual and the verbal in a way that heightens our understanding? My reflections  in this  blog are prompted by the book, Reading Pictures, by Alberto Manguel.
Here are some of his thoughts and questions that helped me read my own paintings in interesting ways.

Is the image part of a story?  Or is it a moment pulled from time--not in a narrative we can follow.

Photo-realist painting relies on the conviction that what we see was once actually there in a place at a precise time.  And yet photography allows for manipulation and censorship more than any other art. So what is this?

The tension in this painting is created, I think, by how we see a painting as a metaphorical translation of our own experience.  We can only see what in some shape or form we have already seen. If we cannot translate the image into something similar to what we know, we cannot "see" it.  And if we do recognize this as a bear skull, what is it doing beneath a cascade of water? What narrative could possibly contain this?


Perhaps in another context altogether we read that it is an act of kindness and remembering to give the spirit of a killed animal a drink of water....

Does the title create a shared vocabulary?

This question brought insight into my most recent large acrylic painting on matte board titled, How do you like the Underworld?  The subject is a most ordinary view of a roadside verge, filled with a tangle of ferns, standing and downed trees. A very typical coastal forest scene on Cortes Island.  And yet "the Underworld" conjures up a very different landscape filled with all manner of other-than-human-creatures.

This shared vocabulary acts as a spark to illumine a darker view--and suddenly there they are.  The dragons, snakes and alien faces.

We find ourselves reading a very different story.

Are we confronted by the subject confronting us?

I have always enjoyed other people's reactions to this portrait of my sister.  She didn't want me to paint it because its context was not the sunny scene as first appears, but rather the residue of an argument just moved beyond.  But I took the photograph anyway.  And to my surprise discovered another being in the meadow--gazing at my sister just as intently as she was gazing out at me.  The triangle thus formed puts the viewer on both sides of the painted surface at the same time--we are watching ourselves being watched. But if the painting disturbs, does it also illuminate?  Who is watching us?

Reading a painting is like reading oracle cards because although our translation may give a glimpse into the artist's intention, there is no sure way to know what was meant.  We just have to believe that we are seeing what is there to see.

The title of this painting, Finding Alice, brings startlingly clear a quote in Reading Pictures.  "Confronted with Alice, a human child, in Wonderland, the Unicorn suggests to her, "Well, now that we have seen each other, if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you.  Is that a bargain?