Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Arrangements and Patterns

My last post concerned the rise of abstract art, and defended the abstract artist from the charge of artistic nihilism. Here I wish to pontificate about how this applies to my own halting attempts to produce art. Let me begin with visual art.

My aspiration in high school was to be a fantasy artist like Frank Frazetta. When I wasn't doing figure studies and still-lifes, I was painting and drawing scenes from Greek mythology, Arthurian legend, and The Lord of the Rings; my senior thesis was "Pagan Gods and Goddesses," or something to that effect. Left to myself, I generally drew woodland scenes with fairy rings, sorcerous vixens, rustic fountains, and swords-in-the-stone. My teacher always pressed me to use a large format, but my autism spectrum disorder made filling this amount of space quite a daunting task. I coped by dividing the paper into a grid and drawing each square in obsessive detail before proceeding to the next, row after row after row. Each blade of grass and dead leaf was meticulously drawn in.

I went to college as a painting and drawing major, where the rigorous drawing and design courses did me great good. But my brief career as an art student was tumultuous as well. I was continually purging my oeuvre and torturing myself for my inadequacies. The weak central coherence associated with my disorder gives me a very bad sense of proportion. This was a definite obstacle because, unless I'm extremely careful, the body parts of my figures all come out to wildly different scales.

One of the painters I most admire is Henri Rousseau. There's a story that when Rousseau painted his friend, the poet Apollinaire, he would go back and forth between model and canvas, measuring (say) the length of a hand or an arm, and slavishly reproducing the proportions on canvas. He is also known to have used a pantograph to enlarge pictures of animals from postcards. Do you see? He didn't trust himself with the proportions. But he was a meticulous detailer. When he painted vegetation, he either painted each and every leaf, or else reduced to the foliage to a vague blob. Because of this and numerous idiosyncrasies in his social behavior, I'm convinced that we share the same disorder.

Anyway, a geometry video in a design class turned me on to mathematics, but I continued to produce illustrations now and then while I finished my degree and went to grad school. Then, at some point – I suppose because my brain was so tightly wound – I had an abstractionist breakthrough. In a singular burst of energy, I produced paintings of insects inspired by Japanese prints; religious and nature scenes inspired Samuel Palmer and William Blake; oil paintings of flowers, insects, and adobe structures inspired by the post-Impressionists and Georgia O'Keefe. They all had this in common: an exclusive attention to the plane surface of the picture. No longer was I concerned with illustrating. Even when I painted (say) the entombment of Christ, my eye was on color and pattern.

My interest in art history had a lot to do with this. When people talk about the "good old days" of art, they generally mean the Renaissance. But the art of the Gothic period, which lies beyond the Renaissance watershed, was in many ways closer to us in its ideals.
In medieval painting methods…the separate pigments tend to be exhibited with emphasis, almost like jewels in a complicated setting. Fine colors were so hard to come by in the Middle Ages that the painter would not willingly degrade them by indiscriminate mixing. The palette was treated almost like a collection of precious stones, to be grouped in the painting with as much regard for their intrinsic beauty as possible… The medieval painter was as aware of the special qualities of his particular colors as a musician of the special qualities of instruments and voices.*
The nineteenth-century interest in Gothic art (the Nazarenes, Blake, Palmer, the Pre-Raphaelites), the abstract ornament of non-Western cultures (Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament), and Japanese wood block prints (Van Gogh, Gauguin) signaled the rise of nonobjective art, and my own art mirrors this development. My new attention to pattern and geometrical arrangement allowed me to turn a weakness into a strength. My paintings continue to grow more and more abstract. I'm also approaching the omega point from the other direction with my mathematical art. But, as Klee says, nothing can be rushed.

All of which makes me sound quite important; in reality, I am little more than a dabbler, though I do take my dabbling very seriously.

My previous post should suffice to explain what my thinking has evolved to as regards painting. This blog is chiefly about my halting attempts to be a writer, though, so let me explain how this applies to my stories.

The situation with fiction is a bit different, of course. In my last post I complained about how critics try to reduce painting to a form of communication. Well, writing is a form of communication, is it not? To this I reply, yes and no. A short story is not the same as an essay, and the critic who attempts to figure out what each story "says" is just as bad as our philistine art critic. C. S. Lewis spoke of a mythopoeic art, and I think there's something to be said for that, though I have some reservations (see here, here, and here) regarding how style plays into this. Appropriate word choice is assuredly crucial to a good fantasy.

In his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler, after describing in acerbic detail the murderously corrupt world he depicts in his stories, makes this observation:
It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.
We write in different veins, he and I, but this describes my own process precisely: I am trying to make an interesting pattern. An arrangement that will make someone say Ah!, but in their heart, not their mind; an ornate tableau, a structure with a certain dynamic symmetry, a strange hidden logic that makes the ending both surprising and inevitable. That's my goal.

To my mind, Clark Ashton Smith exemplifies this kind of construction. He was a poet, and many of his stories are really prose poems. Their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. "The Demon of the Flower" is, for some strange reason I don't care to look into, one of my favorite pieces. "The Coming of the White Worm" is another. His stories' strange denouements give me a thrill of aesthetic pleasure, much as the arrangement of forms and colors on a Paul Klee canvas do. This, or something like it, is something I'm always striving for in my own work. A few reviewers have found my stories "cruel" or "disturbing," but that's just a result of my materials and technique: I prefer chiaroscuro to pastel arrangements.

I'm still very much trying to find my way. At any rate, never let it be said of me that I'm trying to say something. This isn't nihilism. It's just art.

UPDATE: Addendum.

* Daniel Thompson, The Practice of Tempera Painting.

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