Art and Reality

Review of the exhibition, Entre Fusiones, by Celes Orozco, Cuarto Cresciente Galeria (https://www.facebook.com/CuartoCrecienteGaleria/). Guanajuato, Mexico: May 3-June 13, 2019.

Reviewed by Gary Gautier

The relationship between art and reality has percolated through the history of ideas since Plato (well, probably since the cave paintings of Lascaux, but I can’t vouch for anything before Plato). Some bright-eyed theorists identify four angles: (1) mimetic (art imitates reality), (2) affective (art may or may not mimic reality, but the value lies in how it affects its viewers), (3) expressive (art projects the subjective experience of the artist into objective form), and (4) objective (art builds value through its internal design and composition, irrespective of how it may or may not correspond to the minds of artist or audience or to physical reality).

Each of these angles is to some extent at play in Celes Orozco’s exhibition, Entre Fusiones, at Cuarto Cresciente Galeria. The collection strikes immediately, visually, at the question of art’s relationship to reality, but it does so through different styles. The first style I might call “the cosmic flux.” It is abstract, but not in the manner of Joan Miró’s abstract geometrical lines or Mark Rothko’s solid color zones. Miró and Rothko are working with the abstract building blocks of line and color, but Orozco’s works seem more concrete.

   

                 Untitled 1                                                                 Untitled 2

These paintings, although they do not depict anything in particular, project, more than Miró or Rothko, some concrete, almost totalizing view of reality as a swirling potentiality of form and color. This is the primal flux that undergirds the reality of discrete objects as we know it. The strokes, too, as Orozco variously applies paint to the canvas with finger or hand as well as brush, suggest something concrete and organic, but still in potential form. The only narrowing of potential that I see comes in some of the color choices, as in Untitled 2 the sunburnt coloring conjures up (for me at least) the Mexican roots of the artist, which we see in patches or hints as we move through the exhibition.

The Mexican roots appear more strongly in the second style. If the first style emphasized a primal cosmic flux, the second shades into representations of “primal culture.”

Chaos

This painting, Chaos, overflows with the fundamentals of nature, with a close-in view of quasi-archetypal figures rather than on the Gestalt or expansiveness of the landscape (as we might see, e.g., in a Romantic-era European landscape). This, the masterpiece of the exhibit in my view, is not about the space of nature and culture from which we came, but about the things that populate that space. And rather than the gradient of space and color, light and shade, that you might get in Renaissance verisimilitude, here the arrangement is relatively flat, with bold colors, each figure presented in its full integrity. The presentation seems fundamentally native American, although my vocabulary is insufficient to expand upon why.

Finally, Orozco throws a few pop culture images onto the canvas – the bottle, the car, the McDonald’s balloon, the casino. It is difficult to say whether this encroachment by the artifacts of modern culture is a corruption of or an extension of the primitive layout. The bottle in the foreground and car at the center seem harmless enough. The casino atop the primitive pyramid seems a little sinister, but Orozco does not highlight the sinister. This is not the hellish 3rd panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Even the McDonald’s balloon is not accompanied by anything overtly negative. Perhaps Orozco just needed the pop culture items to show that the primitive space is not to be too idealized, not removed from time, is already flowing into the vicissitudes that come after.

Whether the second style, the “primal culture” style, encompasses the paintings below or spawns them as separate styles may be the viewer’s choice.

Protecting the infant is the clearest merging of the “cosmic flux” style with representational forms.

.                                                      Protecting the infant

Whereas Chaos had only a hint of the cosmic flux style in the brush strokes of the river, more than half the canvas here is covered in cosmic flux style. The represented images are fragmented, iconographic, not holistic scenarios as in Chaos. If there is a hybrid style in Orozco’s repertoire, this is its clearest expression.

El desierto, on the other hand, is holistic, but doesn’t strike the emotional register the same way as Chaos.

                                                             El desierto

Chaos gave a sense of temporal projection across eons of time, reaching back to some primeval culture in the archetypes of nature. El desierto has more the sense of a contemporary psychedelic experience of space, not unlike the sense of space experienced by your correspondent on some of his hippie-era LSD trips, with the sky thick and close, not thin and distant, with the cacti that seem to sparkle, the long smooth flowing strokes of the land, the stones themselves flowing to show hidden figures that had always been there waiting to be made manifest by the ready viewer. Here, one could almost say it is the subjective effusion into the space and its objects that defines the experience. This to me is a style all its own – I’ll call it the “spatial flux” (or “psychedelic spaces”).

Finally, El niño y la serpiente expands the pop culture idea from the periphery of Chaos, gives it center stage, and takes it in a new direction.

                                                    El niño y la serpiente

This is the closest Orozco comes to the traditional surrealism of Salvador Dalí or to pop art collage style, depending on how you look at it. The scene is holistic and quite modern, and we suspect full of political and social symbols, unlike Chaos, in which any symbols with overt political weight were kept to the margins. In fact, there are only the vaguest traces of the cosmic flux or the primal culture here, although the relative flatness of the brush strokes and representation aligns it more with the primal culture style, and also gives it a mural-like effect that keeps Orozco’s eclectic work at least tenuously grounded in the cultural coordinates of Mexican art.

Detail from El niño y la serpiente

It is not for me but for you to determine how much of this response is my own  idiosyncrasy and how much intrinsic to the compositional markings on the canvas. Either way, if it provides food for thought about this fine artist and this fine show, that will be enough done.

x x x

Bonus picture (Soñando): a holistic scenario in the true “primal culture” style of Chaos, complete with archetypal Mesoamerican fauna and flora, the close view, the pressed bold color zones, and the sense (enhanced by the title idea, “Dreaming”) that we are moving through the field of what Carl Jung calls “the primitive roots of consciousness.”

Soñando

x x x

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 (Click images for links)

A Digression on Abstract Art

With a secret preference for Renaissance and Impressionist styles, I don’t know if I can do this. Let’s start with language. Language is a conceptual mapping of the world.  It breaks the raw, unintelligible flux of experience into intelligible chunks (conceptually, not physically).  We first access the world conceptually not in simple chunks, but in complex but finite experiences, just as physically we see a table, not the atoms that make it up.  To see a table on its atomic level is more difficult.  We see the complex immediately, but to see the simples, perhaps ironically, requires some subjective mediation on our part.

In the visual arts, some works give us a holistic, complex scenario – a mother and daughter walking in the park.  This is immediately intelligible.  Thus, it almost guarantees some affect in the viewer.  We may or may not find it aesthetically pleasing or thought-provoking, but the artist has pretty much stacked the deck in terms of having the viewer process it on some affective level.  The amount of aesthetic value it has is not contingent upon its intelligibility, which is a given, but falls upon other matters of style, content, and cultural context.

Abstract art, on the other hand, “abstracts” the simpler, hidden building blocks of visual experience and recombines them.  There are of course many levels of abstraction between complex, holistic lived experience and absolute simples.  A Picasso painting may go one step deeper and depict a face with an eye on the chin and a breast hanging off the left ear (like a sheet of stained glass that’s been shattered and had the shards put back together in the wrong places).  An eyeball is still a complex, but is nonetheless not something we apprehend in the abstract in ordinary experience.  When we see someone, we don’t see an eyeball, an ear, and a breast.  So that painting has broken lived experience into smaller building blocks.  Part of the value of such a work will probably lie in how well it exposes for the viewer the abstract building blocks that are always already embedded (though not immediately recognized as such) in his/her lived experience.

A more abstract painting may go deeper toward even simpler, more abstract units of lived experience. Take Joan Miro’s compositions of straight or squiggly lines and half-formed figures, the archetypal fragments of geometry, or Rothko’s non-referential color patches, returning us all the way to the archaic building blocks of visual reality.

Bottom line: When the composition corresponds to a holistic unit of lived experience – a traditional representational painting – it is immediately intelligible (whether or not it has much aesthetic value).  The closer the compositional markings get to simple abstractions (i.e., the further from holistic, as-lived experience), the more subjective mediation is required for the work to be intelligible.

I think we will agree that it is silly to pronounce art at either extreme generically “good” or “bad.”  Great aesthetic value can be generated by art that deals in the holistic sequences of lived experience as well as by art that seeks to uncover and “make conscious” the hidden building blocks within lived experience.

20th-century poetry shows, generally but not universally, a much greater interest in the 2nd kind of art.  Call it the influence of a remarkable set of contemporaries – Einstein, Freud, Picasso, Joyce, Pound, etc.  This interest may take the form of imagist poetry, which isolates smaller and smaller chunks of lived experience, each of which remains holistic.  Take William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

so much depends                                                                                                                     upon

a red wheel                                                                                                                        barrow

glazed with rain                                                                                                                water

beside the white                                                                                                                 chickens

Because this backyard scene remains holistic, it is immediately intelligible – we know what is being said/depicted.  But because it so deliberately chips off such a small chunk of experience, we are unsure of the value/meaning of such a work.  I can tell you from having taught it repeatedly that despite anything Williams thinks or says, to see this poem as valuable or meaningful requires mediation.  Most readers immediately find it intelligible but do not immediately see any value or meaning in it.  To see it as valuable means rethinking your orientation.  The best imagist poems succeed in getting the reader to rethink his/her orientation; the worst fail to do so.  So this, tentatively, would be an important standard of value for an imagist poem.  And this standard of value – whether the poem succeeds in getting you to rethink your orientation toward smaller and less immediately meaningful chunks of lived experience– is more prominent in relation to 20th century imagist poetry than to other historical bodies of poetry.  It puts a different kind of pressure on the reader, and it also runs a different kind of risk – the risk of being too mundane to matter.  Naturally, some such poems succumb to the risk and some rise above.

Other poetry in the formative modernist years, say T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” or “Waste Land,” respond to the same changing world view (precipitated by Einstein, Freud, Picasso, the trench warfare of World War I, etc.) but respond differently.  Here the scene is larger but less holistic.  They strike the reader not as simple, digestible fragments whose meaning is in jeopardy (as in Williams), but as collections of incongruous fragments whose intelligibility is in jeopardy.  To take the simpler Prufrock, the path from line 1 to line 17 seems fraught with discontinuity.

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…

Each phrase, image, concept, is clearly a meaningful fragment – a building block – of language, but the fragments at first reading don’t add up.  We’re not even sure who is doing what in the landscape of the poem.  The intelligibility of the poem is in jeopardy, and it requires much mediation for the reader to render the compositional markings intelligible enough to be valuable.  The poem’s success or failure in achieving aesthetic value is contingent upon whether or not it can reach that threshold of intelligibility for a given reader.  And this contingency is at the heart of much 20th century poetry.  The best of such poetry reaches that threshold, leaving the reader with the feeling that we’ve just juggled the building blocks of conceptual experience and come up with an expanded conceptual register of the world.  The worst of such leaves the reader feeling that it was just a silly, self-indulgent word game that didn’t pan out.