by Michael Pearce, Ph.D
want to share an experiment I’ve been working on for the last month:
After an evening of quiet conversation, I asked my dear friend. the painter Michael Adams, to lend me one of his paintings of a peeled orange, so I could look at it every morning when I sit to write. We had spoken of beauty, how cloud-like beauty comforts us and reveals the peace of simply being.
Michael paints lovely little still life images in oil.
There must be hundreds of paintings of oranges and lemons in the world – all lovely, all beautifully made, all bringing peace to the hearts of those who own and love them. I have been critical of these small works because I didn’t find glory in them that could be powerful enough to stand as ideology. Now I want to understand their power.
Mike brought his painting over to my home. It’s just a painting of an orange. Where’s the glorious allegory, the rich meaning in this little thing? I sat it on a metal easel in front of my comfortable chair, my favorite spot, my reading, writing and window-gazing nest.
A painting of a Satsuma orange, half peeled, resting upon a wooden box. By Michael Lynn Adams.
[quote]After contemplating it, I decided that it was simplicity that slipped from this painting to my soul. I enjoyed the glow from within the segments of orange that made me think of the miracles of oil that allows these three dimensional tricks of the light to be captured and rendered onto a surface. Pretty, pretty paint, belied by the chemical names of the pigments that make it: cadmium, cobalt, carbazole. The orange is rich and bright and sits so well against a dark background.[/quote]
And when you look closely, you discover that this orange isn’t only orange. It’s yellow, white, and grey. And in the deep shadows, the peel is red, dropping off into a brown shadow, while in the pith, there are subtle brown-greys and blue-greys and fluffy white pulls of pigment where the fruit’s comfortable bed has been torn away from the flesh.
This pure, high-lit white pith within the peel reminded me of the froth of the breaking ocean. “Aha – that’s good,” I thought, still looking for grandeur. “I could write a passage about the power of the ocean, the deep currents and the foam of broken waves, I could compare the force of tides and the magnetic pull of the moon to the irresistible strength of quiet beauty, speaking of works of art cast as the mighty waves that tear down giant cliffs, reducing boulders to grit. Perhaps this giant tide can bring down the post-modern tower of Babel?”
But then I looked at the painting again, and it sat so simply before me: an image of a half-peeled orange. Is this my feeble strategy? I imagined myself throwing oranges at Duchamp.
Then the keyhole in the leather box made me think about the project itself: to quietly look at the painting each morning for a month, to contemplate the piece, and by looking at the painting with slow attention, to allow it to unlock itself to me. I felt a little like a suitor, hoping for a promise from this little painting.
I woke early, to foggy skies and clammy air drifting in through a window left carelessly open throughout a cold night. The half-grey morning, not quite light, makes the painting appear more mysterious, letting the color reach out from deepened shadows, softly blending form into form; the almost liquid air itself covering the image with a unifying, but dark gaussian filter.
Here, beside the window where I sit to write, overlooking roses and a lemon tree, as clouds cling to light when the night moves aside for morning, this frozen movement of pigment smeared and dragged over cloth and frame competes with real branches bending under the weight of real citrus, crowned with real leaves. [quote]How strange then that standing against these real things, the painted color vibrates with the energy of life more than that of the living fruit. There’s more brightness in the painting: in this little painted world, the colors are richer and kinder than in that windowed nature, where insects eat, and full fruits fall and rot. Here in this small, pigmented world, the orange will always be ready for eating, always tender, always juicy and glowing under steady, even light.[/quote]
The second Tuesday
That seductive darkness of the keyhole whispers, asking me to open the secret questions of the box. The painting is a box, hiding in it the answer to how to tear into the walls of post-modernism. Within this painting: the dark mystery of destruction that opens the sky.
I worried about all this while staggering through the half-conscious motions of early morning, trying to make sense of the fermenting mixtures of green and brown teas and breakfast treats with that black, bloody tower looming in my mind like a pagan god, all fear and darkness.
There’s an answer in this box that tells us how the Babel tower can be brought low by small paintings.
Keys give us entrance and access to the private interior; releasing the prisoner, revealing secrets, giving freedom to the enslaved. But as much as a key embodies these thoughts of liberty, it also indicates an opposite range of concealment, secrecy, closings, privacy, sanctity and safety.
In fact, it’s not the key, it’s what the box has kept.
What if the secret of the box is not about opening, but closing? [quote]What if the secret is that the box has held small light-bearing things and protected them from the darkness, the missing parts that have been left out, ignored for a hundred years? What are these glowing things that the secret bearers have kept protected? [/quote]Could it be that sincerity, beauty and skill glow within the light-tight box?
It’s the attic box of hidden things that have waited for a hundred years in solitude.
Patient things that the shadow stretched out to touch but couldn’t reach. All the studio secrets we have known. All the writings and dreams of the heights that the human heart, through skill, can reach. All our memories of old methodologies, the atelier tricks of panel, pencil, brush and paint. The mysteries of making bright magic light glow behind the picture plane. All these things lie within, kept safely for a century.
The third Tuesday
I imagined Mike’s painting placed besides a drawing by a child, all naïve lines and simple tones, but nonetheless an orange. Is the difference only a matter of how well the fruit is rendered ~ the skill of the hand? Is it the degree to which the image deceives us?
But if skill is all representational art has to offer, then it deservedly flounders against the strength of the philosophical tower of ideology that has been constructed on Descartes, Kant and Hegel, with Nietzsche, Adorno and the nihilistic Marxists of the 20th Century balanced on high.
On the other hand, if emergent art expresses an ideology that is fundamentally different to this, then it truly offers something of great power and authority. Ahhh, but what exactly?
Perhaps it’s love.
[quote]What are the characteristics of love, after all? Attention, care, affection, eros, mystery, joy, comfort, fear, unity, possession, passion, sincerity. And yes, these are all characteristics of the emergent experience of great art. And the artist’s hand which shapes with care shares all these things.[/quote]
But all these individual qualities can be found in postmodern art, too. Tracy Emin’s sincerity is as raw as steaming meat. Her desire for love is a wound.
The fourth Tuesday
And skill isn’t a powerful enough weapon to demolish the tower, because skill is in the service of artists of all kinds, from Koons to Kincade. [quote]Technique becomes a matter of subjective taste according to the pluralists, who deliberately seek out “de-skilled” art as a way to destroy any claim to beauty that might be made.[/quote] Will we claim quality? Quality is irrelevant in an effort to undermine postmodernity, because it is evident in many postmodern artworks in the same way that it is in the output of traditional studios, which produce more than their share of dreadful rubbish, too.
The answer lies in ideology. There is no response to postmodernity more powerful than attacking its core ideology. Concept is king in Adorno’s art, but whose concept, which ideology? At its heart, postmodernism is an ideological drum beaten by Marxists with a nihilistic outlook – here’s one of the weaknesses of postmodernity.
It’s not that the child’s painting is so cleverly rendered that it deceives us into believing that it’s a real orange – there’s a subtler descriptive process going on: [quote]We admire the painting not for being a duplication of an orange, but for expressing a truthful idea of what an orange might be. [/quote]The success of the image lies in its role as a vehicle for the ideas that the image offers; for all images express mind, regardless of their simplicity.
When we move the stuff of reality around, shaping these ground stone pigments, dyes and oils, breaking rocks and melting metals, we shape materials to fit the way we think about the things we make, pushing forward the work of mind into form. All these acts of making material things are acts of expressing consciousness, whether they’re building a wall, or digging a hole, or painting the Sistine Chapel.
But are all material expressions of consciousness art? Including architecture, all manufactured goods, and so forth, what distinguishes art from other material things? Will you make a case for making a table being qualitatively different to making a painting in some way? It’s been designed, materials have been gathered and shaped, skilled craftsmanship has been applied.
The inescapable difference between art objects and everyday objects is that only this small part of material culture is deliberately produced for the single purpose of stimulating the emergent experience.
Nowadays, many of us hesitate even to call these “works of Art” because of the pejorative associations that the word “Art” has gathered to itself after a hundred years of artists exploiting the idea of ready-mades as Duchamp understood them when he announced that all expressions of consciousness were art, but that only humans make things that are not useful for anything except for offering the emergent experience. The emergent experience is the difference between art and other man-made material.
Airplanes and chairs are made for practical reasons: the necessities of flying to Switzerland, or having something to sit on when I eat lunch with my daughter. But art objects are things that are deliberately crafted as manifestations of the artist’s consciousness in reality, specifically for the purpose of providing others with an affirmation of their consciousness.
What is a work of art? [quote]A work of art is a manifestation of consciousness made present in reality by shaping material, deliberately crafted to allow an emergent experience. What is an emergent experience? An affirmation of a viewer’s consciousness.[/quote]
And this is the weakness of the giant tower; because its philosophical foundations are based upon skepticism, nihilism and negativity. The ideas it shares are its own downfall. It can’t stand up to the admirable qualities of skill, harmony, balance, beauty or goodness. Because these fall outside the range of its ideology. Nor can it speak to simple pleasures, like this crafted painting of an orange that reminds us of the fresh scent of freshly peeled citrus, the delicious breaking of an orange’s juicy flesh in our mouths, the waxy feel of the skin, the fluffy softness of the pith within the peel and the glow of light within those transparent cells, bound delicately in these crescent membranes.
Now Mike’s painting has melted into being. I have thought through its questions. They have tumbled in my consciousness and changed me. This gentle painting has become a part of me. I look at it now with quiet satisfaction, affirmation and appreciation as a beautiful thing.
And after all the shuffling analysis of theme is through, and when further subtleties escape inquiry, the painting is quieted, and I enjoy the making of the work, the clever motions from color to color, all subtle variations of hue and light, the surprising blues in the shadowed peel softly dancing with the edges of the sunlit skin.
In countless homes around the world, we pause to feel the grace that paintings like this bring, finding comfort there. We stop before them as we begin the day, remembering that small beauty is always there, even in the chaos.
And at the end, home again after the swirling storms of business, study and work, a gentle invitation to put aside these things, to pause again. We form soft places within our hearts where we can enjoy the comfort these paintings offer – these painted gestures are gathered as a nest for the refuge of our souls – this is a place for the resting mind, for life’s quietest moments.
And here we might end, content that we find hope and love in gentle things. Except. Except that these slender moments of contemplation, where we find the soft peace that beautiful art brings, aren’t thin like romantic sheets floating in the air. They’re thin like razors, sliding between those close-set stones of the nihilists’ babel tower; and every delicate painting, or sanded sculpture, each crafted drawing that briefly captures the grace of quiet moments, slips a stiletto’s blade between its blocks, making space for the water to slip and drip into the cracks, where over time it will freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, until the racked stones break and the nihilists’ tower falls; reduced to a tumbled ruin fit for retrospective contemplation by minds that see the world with transcendent wonder.
Michael Pearce PhD MFA is Associate Professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California, where he teaches figurative painting and drawing. Pearce also organizes the Representational Art Conferences.
His first column for Combustus was the widely-read, “What’s On Dino Vall’s Mind?“
But Dr. Pearce was first introduced to Combustus readers when he was interviewed along with British philosopher, Roger Scruton for the three-part series, “Why Beauty Matters.”
Michael Lynn Adams is a contemporary realist painter. “My goal is to show that commonplace objects are anything but ordinary.” says Adams, “Using light, texture and composition, I hope to create work that is full of warmth and spirit.”
Adams’ works are in private collections throughout the United States. Maggie Kruger, owner of M Gallery of Fine Art in Charleston, SC, noted in American Art Collector Magazine that his work “has a luminous quality; emanating a quiet glow on the gallery wall. Collectors are mesmerized and drawn to each of the works, moving from each jewel-like painting, basking in the reflected light.”
The Los Angeles, California resident is a member of the International Guild of Realism and an associate member of the Oil Painters of America (OPA). His paintings have been exhibited in national and international shows, including Salon International, OPA National and OPA Western Regional shows.
To enjoy more of his work, please visit his website.