Why don’t artists show us exactly what they see? Why translate? Why play tricks? Why obscure? Why set traps?
It’s not only visual artists I am talking about. A playwright plants information about a character and then waters it, a little bit at a time, until there is a new plot line to follow, which we never saw growing. A musician adds layers of distortion, reverb, dissonance, covering up a melody until it is barely audible. Or, as in the image for this submission, a photographer conceals and manipulates the original source-images, until they are unrecognizable. Why?
Well, one reason is to play with form for the sheer interest in it. Our brains play with rhythm and movement on their own, at least when we leave them to their own devices. Close your eyes and you will almost immediately begin to see moving patterns, specks against the dark (mine are yellow, green, white, just now — how about yours?). You will never see stasis, however hard you try. Why not consciously imitate the brain’s proclivity to abstraction? What pleasures can be found in form!
Another reason is to break our habits. We often perceive in preordained categories: That’s a bunny, how cute! That’s a sun, so it must be hot and orange or yellow or red! Water is peaceful, and how peaceful that lake appears in the evening light! Sometimes it takes breaking these habits to see that this particular bunny, despite the anthropomorphic quiver to its nose, like a young teenager trying to listen to a favorite teacher, is decidedly not cute… This particular sun is not hot; it looks like a hole… This particular water is sad and washes the dark mud on the banks as if it is bored…
A final reason that I will cite (this is not exhaustive of all the many reasons for diverging from standard modes of representation) is to get away with coding an image that contains something otherwise illicit. Remember those analog TV channels, back in the 80s and 90s, that delivered “adult” fare but scattered the image and blurred it, so you could see only an occasional thigh, or the nape of a neck — or was it an elbow — or was it…? They were teasing our imaginations, and coding their content. So too do writers such as Václav Havel translate their political concerns into allegory (e.g. Havel’s The Garden Party) under totalitarian regimes. So too do we all when speaking about a friend’s behavior at last night’s party, while trying to maintain the illusion that we are forgiving.
Is the image above, entitled Landscape / Obscura II, intended to play with form, break our habits, or conceal content? I think it is doing all three.
Certainly it is playing with form. The rectangular frame at the center of the image is striated by vertical panels with blurry focus, of various widths. These are suggestive of something that our mind does anyway, when, say, we look through green leaves at other clusters of leaves on trees farther away: we screen, we blur, we filter. This image controls our focus and gets us to look past the foreground (whether through a conscious act of will or not). Indeed, in an entirely unpremeditated way I found myself wanting to crane my neck and see around these blurry panels to the clearer image behind them.
Additionally, though, the image in the background, which has more contrast, suggests a human form. Perhaps we see a chest? Perhaps a neckline, a ligament? I sense containment, imprisonment, yet perhaps not for long… There is the sense of a monster, about to break loose. I am looking at a monster, but not of a kind I have ever dreamed up myself — my habits are broken, momentarily.
But what about concealing content?
This too, I believe, is achieved with this image. I took a tour (very worthwhile) of Jessie Thatcher’s website, Abstract Appropriation, and two images caught my eye in relation to the one submitted:
This first one shows what appears to be a human body in the upper frame. There is the dark crevice which spreads its darkness outward in shadow on the sides of the limbs which form it. There is even possibly hair, a faint tracing of hair or veins, on the surface of the these limbs.
But in the lower rectangle we see, horizontally shattered like a broken mirror, an image that is not fleshy at all. It echoes the shape of the upper frame, the upward curve of the skin becoming, below, the downward curve of some membrane or something of the kind. The lower frame looks like biology, but microscopic, elemental, with geometries too complex for the macro-level.
Here we see the play of form, as in the Landscape / Obscura II above, but we also see the suggestion of coded content (a crevice, a place for waste or sexual stimulation or secretion — all triggering limbic responses that our society fears). This content is represented in a way so as to evade certainty.
The other image is equally concerned with content:
Four depictions of the body. Aligned with a manufactured symmetry. Abstract, yes, but only in their overall arrangement, since they are, in and of themselves, anything but abstract; they are almost tactile.
Jessie Thatcher’s Landscape / Obscura II, above all, seems to be dedicated to an experiment of sorts: what are the most basic visual elements that will stir the pleasure-centers of the brain? Can we drain an image of all color, and all recognizable, naturalistic qualities, and still create a jolt of recognition? How far can you go to circumnavigate the censoring, classifying, habitual ways by which we see, before you reduce an image (expand it?) into mere chaos? It is an interesting project. And in this case the lab animals (you and I) are not harmed but improved.