Through the Looking Glass:
The Next Step in Art?
By Katherine Yurica I. The State of Modern Art Regeneration by Katherine Yurica
Acrylic on Masonite
Art is a mirror not because it is the same as the object, but because it is different A mirror is a vision of things, not a working model of them. And the silver seen in a mirror is not for sale.
G. K. Chesterton
in The Uses of Diversity
Sir Herbert Read, one of the most influential art critics of the twentieth century, described the end of twentieth century art: The modern painter has reached the end of his voyage of discovery, and stares into the unknown, the unnamed. To render back to others that sense of vacuity is not to create a work of art, which everywhere and at all times has depended on the presentation of a concrete image. (Art and Alienation 1967.) The philosopher Ortega y Gasset described the path of art:
The artist, starting from the world about him, ends by withdrawing into himself. (The Dehumanization of Art, Point of View in the Arts, 1948.)
Both men let it be known that there is no going back. The evolution of art is forward and the artist must move from this time and place, to an unknown vista, to create images again for the sake of civilization. If there are no images, Read wrote, there are no ideas, and if there are no ideas, a civilization slowly but inevitably dies.
The question then becomes not, wither goes art? but rather, what kind of images should an artist now bring forth? Read tells us that artists must create new myths and new legends to take the place of those soiled by sentiment and degraded by familiarity: Our images must be at once universal and concrete, as were the images of past myth and legend. Read then quotes an amazing statement by a philosopher (James Feibleman). The artist must bring forth the mythology:
of a vision that has explored the physical nature of the universe
Although Read does not give us a defined idea of the new images, he quotes Feibleman: the fully concrete work of art should combine the individuality of representation with the universality of abstraction in a unity made possible through the exploration of spatial occupancy.
II. New Angles of Vision
The artist must not only have the intellectual power to examine the physical nature of the universe, he must have certain attributes; that is, he or she must be more than an intellectual, the artist must be alienated from those around him.
Every man of genius, Havelock Ellis said, is a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth, unlike other men, seeing everything as it were at a different angle. Biologist Garret Hardin concurred in his book Nature and Mans Fate, (1959), To be a man of genius one must have the opportunity to see things from a different angle, to be alone, to be alienated from the crowd. For the visual arts, seeing things from a different angle can be taken quite literally. In fact, it may be the road to a new and vital art, one that is in love with life and with images, one that envisions art playing an essential role in our world again.
Ive learned that in life anyone can teach me something, and its possible for even my old cat, Picasso, to teach me new laws of nature. One morning I noticed that he was standing in front of a mirror that reached to the floor. But instead of looking at himself or trying to decipher whether or not there was another animal inside the mirror, as Ive observed other cats do, he was clearly studying the angles of the images he saw reflected. Since I was at an angle to the mirror, he turned to verify exactly where I was standing, and then turned to look at my image in the mirror. I cannot say what new insights my cat gained, but it made me think about the uses of a mirror. For many years, I developed the routine of using a mirror as a tool in my work as an artist.
I was not yet ten years old when I learned that a mirror could be used to correct the image I was painting. If the images in my painting leaned to the right or leftand my mind could not discern that factthe mirror would tell me the truth about it. Mirrors achieve their magic as truth tellers by reversing the image and thereby forcing the viewer to see something that did not exist without the aid of the mirror. Familiarity has a blindness of its own that conceals facts about nature and commonplace objects. But a mirrors reverse images can help uncloud the artists vision. Mirrors cause us to see things fresh and help us to revise our perceptions, and revised vision is in the realm of the artists calling.
The idea that a mirror could help me overcome blind spots in my work traveled with me throughout life and finally in 1966 caused me to invent an adjustable artists mirror; it was really a contraption of sorts. I was studying art and painting vigorously with discipline in my studio in Guanajuato, Mexico, when I conceived the idea of doing a still life motif but instead of painting from the actual scene I set up, I would paint the scene that was reflected in a mirror and the mirror would both reverse the image and turn it upside down. A workman constructed the mirror rack. Then the challenge became whether I had the drafting skills to carry it all off. Never before had I seen objects on a table hanging in midair. The concept of gravity was behind every brush stroke. What power kept the oranges and apple and flower jar glued to the table? How did that power work? And how and why should the artist even care about such a thing?
The truth is that the artist must be aware of every law of nature. A still life with pre-Columbian pieces should appear to a viewer so planted upon the table that neither wind nor earthquake could make them fall. Paul Cézanne anchors his apples and oranges as no other artist has ever done. One feels that even the tablecloth constitutes a mountain of mass, unmovable by a mere hand. Turn a Cézanne still life upside down and youll see and feel the weighty hand of gravity holding objects with a tenacious grip. That was my goalto paint against the power of gravity and root the objects to the table with such force they would appear to have grown out from it. This time, in order to test whether my objects were true or notI simply turned the canvass upside downwhich of course is the way it would be hungand the results showed the entire painting as a single unit of harmony.
As we analyze how we see, it becomes clear that each of us sees things with our minds rather than our eyes. It is this mystery that the artist must explore in the twenty-first century. Consider the fact that light travels in a straight line. Yet what exactly does that mean to us? To me it means that light itself reverses images as a rule of nature. If we look at a tree for example, the light from the crown of the tree enters the pupil, or the contracted aperture in the iris of the eye, and strikes and imprints itself upon the dark wall on the back of the eyeball. But instead of appearing at the top, the crown now appears at the bottom and the trunk of the tree appears at the top. Why? Because light travels in a straight line. I have myself constructed camera-like boxes, built with a pinpoint hole at one end and a sheet of paper on the other end to represent the dark wall of a room or the chamber of our eyes. When I aimed my box at a candle, the image that emerged on the paper was upside down! Then why arent we disorientated? The simple answer is that our minds reverse the images we see so that our world is right side up.
This manipulation of reality is a fact of nature that holds enormous consequences for artists. But that is only the beginning of how our minds produce our vision of things. We see things in perspective simply because we have two eyes that are set a certain distance apart. This disparity gives us the illusion of depththe idea that a particular object is closer to us than others. If one looks at something with one eye closed and then switches to the other eye, the image jumps a little. In fact I see two distinct images with slightly different coloring and different shapes. One eye produces an image more elongated than the other. The mind notes the disparity and reconciles the two images into one clear, harmonious appearance, which grants stability to my sighted world. Those unfortunates who have lost their vision in one eye lose their ability to see depth. Even stepping off a curb is risky for them.
Color too, only exists in our minds, and a definition of it is no easy task. Perception of color is a subjective experience. The wavelengths referred to by two people using the same color name almost always differ. The human visual system also has the ability to adjust itself in response to varying illuminant conditions. Its called chromatic adaptation. It means, for example that if a sheet of white paper is viewed under an incandescent light, the paper will have a decidedly yellow cast to it. However, our brains (or our minds) have the ability to automatically account for the yellowish appearance, and we perceive the paper as white.
Thus everyones mind is engaged in editing images, making sense of groups of photons striking the back wall of our eyes (the retina), here a dark shadow may appear, there a face in the clouds, a ghost in the forest, but logic and analysis at the speed of light bend and edit and change what we see to make consistency and logical sense. Once while painting a background, I unconsciously created a portrait of a man that stunned me. I was surprised to find him there in the first place, looking straight at me. But when I looked at him through a mirror, his face turned abruptly to the right, into a three-quarters profile in which he was clearly looking at the figure sitting in the painting. I believe I was seeing an optical illusionmy mind interpreted the vague shapes differently at one angle of vision than it did at another.
If our vision itself appears to be subjective, there is another principle to consider: Twentieth century physics produced discoveries on the nature of reality that should change our understanding of not only how we see, but how our looking at nature affects nature. For instance, Werner Heisenberg taught us that even the act of observation changes reality (drawn from his indeterminacy principle.) Our vision, as St. Paul put it, seems to be only approximate: we see nature through a glass darkly. And when we truly observe, we change what we see. Nevertheless, in spite of all the difficulties and handicaps hindering us from truly seeing, artists through the centuries have produced vital paintingseven mystical ones that altered the world-view (Weltanschauung) of whole civilizations and thereby enlarged civilization.
III. Image Reversal and Distortion
It appears the artist has been granted the divine right to tamper with what he/she sees, in a prophetic sense. The artist, through the images produced on canvass, tells us who we are and where we are going. And if we listen to the voice of the artist, if we see what the artist sees, hear what the artist says, we can correct our misapprehensions. We can change our course. In short, we can repent. The true role of the artist is to give the world a prophetic vision of its destiny, but the picture produced must be vital and have all the elements of beauty if it is to hang on the walls of our homes, galleries, or museums for scores of years!
There is a second task: the artist must seek to discover the hidden truths of our existence. Like the physicist, the artist finds that reality is distorted and he must reflect that distortion if he or she is committed to telling the truth. Einstein showed us in 1912 that the spacetime continuum, (both space and time), are warped. He showed a gravitational field is not a field of force at all, but a curvature in the geometry of spacetime. These very terms affect the artist to the core.
This brings me to the Nabis of the first few years of the twentieth century. Why should we return to them after one hundred years? The answer to that question is this: the Nabis mined one vein in a mountain of gold. All of twentieth century art went down the same mining shafts in the same mine. The ore dried up. The miners went home. But there is still a mountain of gold ore that has been overlooked. We need to return to the mountain and dig a new shaft.
The Nabis were anticipators of Einsteinian physicsafter a fashionfor they believed that when an artist strove merely for resemblance of the objects he sees, he or she necessarily used tricks to deceive the eye, and most often, left mere descriptionnot artas the product. Trickery, fraud and deceit were anathema to the Nabis. The alternative road was offered: the Nabis drove the artist toward the inward journey, where the artist engaged in making a map of his unconscious, of the collective unconscious, and of the universal forms from within. The Nabis art was an art of the imagination and dreams. What counted was the mental image imagined by the artist, which necessarily embraced distortion and caricature if it were honest.
The Nabis embrace of distortion is a key to their modernity. If the main characteristics of expressionism are vibrant colors, emotional intensity and rhythmically distorted formsthen distortion is a chief characteristic of art since the mid 1800s. One need only think about the expressionism of Vincent Van Gogh to verify that those characteristics abound in his work. But other artists used distortion and color to achieve milestone works. Paul Cézanne, who is most often thought of as an impressionist, used distortion to great effect: his Still-Life with Apples and a Vase of Flowers, reveals that the table is seen from above, but the flowers are viewed from the side. The two views are not physically possible; nevertheless, Cézanne achieved a monumental sense of power in his work by subtly distorting.
The distortion of colors can add power to a painting. Claude Monet thought of himself as a naturalist, but Paul Signac caught him out in a journal entry:
But no, M. Monet, you are not a naturalist . Trees in nature are not blue, people are not violet and your great merit is precisely that you painted them like this, as you feel them, and not just as they are.
Modernity means the exploration of color to please, calm, excite, and even heal the viewer. Vincent Van Gogh wrote of his desire to endow the models of his pictures with peace and calm, by using the power of the vibrations of his colors to create what used to be signified by the simple act of painting a symbol: the halo that established the connection with the eternal. Vincent understood that the halo as a symbol was no longer meaningful in his time, so he established the concept of transcendence by the power of radiant color alone.
IV. Through the Looking Glass
Each artist must find his voice, his mode of creating concrete works of art that combine recognizable representation with abstraction; works of art that reflect not only the inner chambers of the artists soul, but the view of the everyday world around him as seen through his eyes. His eyes are the windows to the world. For me, the symbol of the soul is found in the houses and apartments, and even the cars and trucks we live in. The windows and the windshields are the artists eyes viewing the outside world. The inner rooms, the galleries, the halls, the salons, the cabins, the drivers seats are all the places where the protected soul resides and the secrets of our civilization are revealed.
The artists job is to edit, to order, and interpret what is perceived. In the editing, the artist changes what he or she sees by adding to and taking away. In other words, artists distort. I regard distortion to be such an important element in a painting that I use a looking glass with a wide-angle-lens and other tools as aids to my vision and my compositions. I paint reversed and curved images. Since space is curved and I cannot see that curvature, a 180-degree-convex-mirror will not only curve the universe before meit will carry me to the next mine shaft, where concrete images take evolutionary leaps; and where my vision is extended by tools that help me see what no one else has beheld.
David Douglas Duncan reports in Picassos Picasso that he saw a similar mirror crowded into a corner of Jacquelines sitting room in La Californie [Picassos estate]. Duncan described it as a circus distorting mirror. Theres no indication that Picasso used it in the manner I am suggesting, but no artist has taken distortion to higher levels of understanding than Picasso.
During the process of painting, some works have emerged over the centuries, enhanced with beauty and with a spiritual power, witnessed by an unusual vitality, bearing both the mystery and the mantle of the eternal. It is only when a painting has vitality or a spiritual power that the artist succeeds as an artist.
Today modernity means creating new myths that are anchored in concrete images and aided by new ways of seeing the common, the familiar, and the ordinary. The artist paints with light: a bit of red here, a blob of blue, and stunning yellows spilling over like an aria from Verdi, like lean lines from Emily Dickinson, like the sun at noon day, and the viewer whispers of the work, Thou art here and here forever!
Katherine Yurica has been painting all her life. She was educated at East Los Angeles College, the University of Southern California and the USC school of law. She studied art in Mexico where she worked in her studio in Marfil, just outside of Guanajuato. She returned to Los Angeles in 1967 bringing back over 80 paintings and drawings. She says of her art, "Henry Miller, the novelist, wrote a wonderful little book titled, To Paint Is to Love Again. Miller said that he wrote when he couldn't paint and he painted when he couldn't write." She says that she adopted that practice. She is the author of three books. And she is also the publisher of the Yurica Report.
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