Feats Of Representation – or, Seeing What The Artist Painted What It Saw – Lawrence Chin
Abstract – Carefully construed line, form, volume, drawn across – almost dragging and emphasising the physicality of its own material – and over a belaboured surface re-worked from prior deliberations deflected on purpose as a thought experiment. After which, one asks: “What does it mean?”
The thing about seeing
“Seeing is believing”, or rephrasing that, the act of “seeing” understood as a dominant mode of perceiving, comprehending and responding to reality – as a concrete occurrence.
The privileging of sight over other sensorial inputs is perhaps rooted in evolution – that of being able to “take in” an entire scene quickly and extracting relevant visual cues (consciously or involuntarily) as information, forming the basis for subsequent action. Other modes of perceiving the world – touch, sound, smell, taste, thought – somehow requires a temporal lapse as information is being gathered and accumulated for a coherent mental image (or representation) to form.
The seemingly concreteness of seeing is also predicated upon the peculiarity of binocular vision that allows for objects to be perceived fairly quickly within a three-dimensional space, although the retinal images formed at the back of our eyes (and head) are, of course, not formed in the round.
But we are all too familiar with optical illusions which short-circuit such visual cues that are otherwise useful and certainly advantageous. And overcoming such illusions would point to the idea that some visual cues are somehow learnt – as disseminated and sustained social conventions – and not entirely rooted in unmediated biology, if that is ever possible.
Today’s scientific understanding has concluded that the brain does not “see” an entire image like that of a photograph. Instead, specialised nerve cells are activated which carry nerve signals to differentiated parts of the brain to be synthesised as a complete image at a higher cognitive level – or, at a more macro level. Motion, form, colours, contrast are all processed separately before being put together as an active thought process in the act of perception.
Therefore, we arrive at an understanding of “seeing” as simultaneously rooted in an evolutionary / biological processes, and at the same time being the enactment of thought, and being influenced by an accepted and prevailing social norm or ideology.
Figuring (out) the ground
As the visual system takes on prominence, we tend to forget another aspect of looking which is vitally important – that of orientation. We are able to differentiate left from right, front from back because of our innate, always-on sensing of the ground (or the direction of where it should be). And this no small feat is achieved by the variation of pressure on very minute and sensitive hairs within our inner ear which give us our sense of balance.
The issue (and problem) of the figure and ground can be considered to be the quintessential preoccupation of the plastic arts throughout the centuries. We see the development of the various modes of visual representation and their subsequent refinement, all striving to achieve a meaningful resolution of putting the figure (convincingly) into a pictorial space.
Even what had been called abstract art and its aftermath were attempts to grapple with the relationship between the figure and the ground – to the extend that it is not only confined to within the pictorial realm or space, but also expanded outwards to include the actual space that the viewer is in. Film and photographs are also clear examples of creative media that capitalised on the relationship of the figure to the ground – both within the frame, as well as outside of this frame.
A curious counter-effect to figuring out where one is standing is that of habituation, in which one forgets that the scene before oneself is a very particular and non-universal point-of-view. Indeed, the tendency to generalise from this vantage point, as if it is a common norm, becomes prevalent – in the sense of being widely accepted, and subsequently being dominant.
Out of body experiences: myriad views, inside out
Strategies to counter such a dominant structure would include ideas such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. Another strategy that artists (and architects) had adopted was one of implosion and extreme self-referentiality – or, postmodernism. But strategies as they were, we are still constrained by biology and the imprint of the evolutionary process.
The body, as a physical entity, confines the act of seeing to a singular node in a four-dimensional space (volume and time). At the same time, the body, as a thought entity, confines the act of perceiving to neurological processes that are at best unconscious (blind spots, illusions, pathologies). Then how does one begin to disengage the body in order to see afresh?
Ian Woo’s latest series of paintings completed in 2007-8 offer a glimpse of such an approach – one of turning inner thoughts inside out, figuratively speaking. Such acts of laying down, in plain view, one’s particular and specific thought processes had also been employed as strategies of disrupting the dominant narrative, by placing equal emphasis on “small narratives”.
One might be reminded of stream-of-consciousness type of literary work (such as that by Joyce and Beckett). However, Woo’s strategy and work differ in a fundamental way in that the element of time had been telescoped into the pictorial plane – which is not so much as a snapshot but as a record of traces.
Object lessons, or, what else it could not see
While attempting to elucidate and translate the turns of inner thoughts into painterly passages, a deliberate grounding of the pictorial composition would be introduced – such as with the inclusion of a horizon line, a receding perspective or a subtle rendering of shadows. This would invariably orientate the pictorial plane, allowing it to be “grasped” as a suspended yet spatially located entity – as if, “real”. In achieving such a spatial resolution, a reflex question then arises: “So what is the meaning of this?”
Yet, this spatial definition would immediately dissolve and become visually ambiguous – because reference to any actual thing that one might be familiar with is absent. In the midst of such ambiguity, then the question would morph into: “What is this (thing)?”
This alternating tension in Woo’s work – between the seemingly concrete and its illusion, between the familiar and the strange, and between meaning and non-meaning – invariantly challenges one’s confidence in arriving at a “correct reading” of the work just by looking. Woo’s titles are also “red herrings” – promising resolution but confounding in actual effect, Such vacillations between meaning and non-meaning reminds one that knowing something is always a process – never really complete and always deferred. It is also a reminder that, though “seeing is believing”, there are still things which we might have overlooked or just did not see – consciously or unconsciously.
A short conversation
Why title (your works)?
It is a combination of colour and spatial engagement that produces a monologue between the painting and myself. This usually ends up being the title. They say that painting is like some exercise in solitude, but I think you are basically having a relationship with it. Distributing spaces and voids, making up some inherant strange gravities!
‘Naming’ a painting, is a way of taking the viewer to a certain head space. Its my way of maping out some sort of pictorial fiction. I take the naming of each painting seriously, with much deliberation, in order that the viewer experiences its character. The title, no matter how descriptive it is, has really a life of its own, it does not represent. It cannot represent.
Titles cannot represent – in the fullest sense of the word. But what goes through your mind when someone refers to one of your paintings by its title, e.g. “Hypothetical draft with added flowers”, 2008?
That started off as a painting of an imaginary bouquet. Its structure is made from disjunct (inability to retain memory) attempts at represention. The fluid bouquet is a thing that owes its presence to the accumalative processes of a painting exercise that objectifies this question; What are our limitations to cognitively sense the appearance of matter and language in the phenomena of painting? To elaborate this point, one can say that I am constantly seeking the exchange between the ambiguity of a mark and that of momentary recognition. Representation dissappears before you can put your finger to describe it. So in my search for painting’s closure, (Reference to “Hypothetical draft”) flowers are obviously the only attempts (at painting) that found its appearance.
Which sounds like the recollection of each painting cannot be separated from its unique and individual process of being created. While at the same time, you obviously allow the viewer to form a free response to your works. How do you reconcile the two – on the one hand a deeply specific meaning of each work to you, but on the other, the exact same physical painting signifying something totally different (and probably alien) to someone else?
Let me start by saying that the two points between representation and abstraction fluctuates in my work. I see it like a control knob that sweeps to and fro, tweaking the painting’s vulnaribilty to come into being. Its representations are only momentary.
I think the notion of the ‘freedom to recognise’ that you mentioned is an illusion. Actually, every mark is thought through, built with attention to how the next withers or sways … it’s painted / put together to resemble natural phenomena. It’s pretty evident upon looking at my paintings that there is its own physics at play. Yet, there is always a sense of relationship to the human embodiment. In that sense, I have to truly believe in the space I am making so that when it’s done, it has enough fantastical credibilty to draw to the viewer into its void. But I believe there are certain gravitational forces in each painting that does things to the viewer. For example, my paintings have always been complex and multidirectional, whether it’s all over, or bunch together like a clove. The basic language of multiplicity remains a key point in the work. Either, you are drawn to its blooming random clutter or you simply have no time for such observations. If you don’t, then you are simply uninterested in my paintings, or you find it too much to bother with. It’s a choice the viewer makes. So there is no reconciliation.
I think this question also touches on the aspect of language. If names were not given to things, one would begin to take notice of the metaphysical equations of our surroundings. Naming names in some ways screens out the benefits of enquiring the possibilities of mere detail.
I could talk about my love for Umberto Eco’s landmark text ‘Open Work’ as inspirations to making art that is porous and interactive. But in essence, I am a control freak. That’s what I think I am when I make my art. It just seems ‘open’ when you see the end result. I believe there are buried traps in my paintings, like how they set up those mines in the battlefield!
By the way, I love the sense of alienation when confronting a painting, it does not conotate a negative here. In fact the word associates an initial unease when confronting a foreign situation. But on closer introspection, nothing is that different. At some point of engagement, it always has some sense of semblance to this life of ours’.
Just to tease out further the notion of “embodiment” that you mentioned. Do you feel that in making implicit reference to the human “body”, in the broadest sense of the word – such as dimensional and spatial scales, visual stimuli and psychological drives – it helps to hold a universal notion of the body in mind as you resolve your paintings? Or does a universal body impede closure as we are inherently different, after all?
We are different only in the way matter and sound shapes our experience. However, there are certain aspects of innocent memory that could be shared, that which is associated with our first encounter. An example could be the sound of water when we are in our mother’s womb. I did proposed a public art project with a set of drawings based on this pataphyical (imaginary possibilty) phenomena. Its in an earlier work of mine, fragmentedly located at the Harbourfront North East Train line station. Its about attempting to revisit, to re-encounter the first sound, the first image.
This element of sensing a universal embodiment is a layer that needs to be awakened. It is in all of us, just whether it has been put to sleep too long. I think everyone who decides to become an artist has that inkling – it’s like a conversation I had with some students; we were talking about, how the body behaves at another level once we are able to ‘see’ the possibilities of juxtaposition around us. This ability allows the body to behave like a matrix, enabling it to realise inherent tensions within the everyday things that we take for granted. So something which otherwise seems mundane / ordinary is not at all to an artist, they will always find something interesting, no matter what. On the otherhand, it can be a nuisance … like being distracted with the patterns of the loose treads of your socks while trying to put them on!
So yes, I make paintings with strong feelings about embodiment as shared psychological entities. But its pumped through a filter, shaken, stirred and re distributed.
Lawrence Chin is a freelance writer and artist with research interests in notions of identity and representation. Chin is currently a Paintings Conservator at The Conservation Studio to be located at the National University of Singapore Museum.