Photo: Box Elder Bug on a painting
It is the difference between observing and noticing that makes for everyday poetry. In the mode of observation we absorb the world around us being more or less astute. This is the eating and digestion of our surroundings while noticing accounts for flavor. The face of one noticing flexes and reveals the churning of mental gears. Noticing engages the novelty of a scene and starts asking questions that determine quality and significance.
The eyes of a newborn roll around unfocused and guideless. Their world is everything and nothing, a graph without points. Then time passes—they are dragged along by instincts and automatic processes accumulating a basic set of initial experiences. The first act of noticing establishes from experience that things change and stay the same. From that introduction onward, consciousness cleaves reality into the known and unknown, deepening value through associations between the two.
This winter my home and studio has been host to substantial population of insects. Over the years, the increase of these Box Elder Bugs and Marmolated Stink Bugs has been notable and no amount of abolishing, vacuuming, trapping, or flushing has daunted their proliferation. I’m well past the point of human indignation for having my space invaded. We cohabitate and I accept that. It does not mean that I’m grateful when a bug surfs from my water glass into my mouth, or flies into my forehead, or complicates the face of an actor on television, or defecates on a painting. I don’t like those daily encounters, but they are less and less surprising.
My six legged roommates are no longer very novel to me and I don’t notice them with any great marvel but I’ve begun to consider an unexpected value in their existence. They bring motion to an otherwise static environment. At any given moment I can stare at portion of the interior and have my eye drawn to a little fleck of movement. It is in fact difficult to ignore their habits.
Since to them my accommodations are just surfaces on which to roam, their routes and stations curiously rename or unname all my stuff. They trace the geography of the room and call my attention to notice things that I would otherwise not have the predilection to focus upon. They are constantly reminding me of things in the house I’ve overlooked and bringing new consideration for how things are arranged. They force me to look a new way.
When you are painting from observation you are trying to see the world anew, stripped of labels. You have to slow down and describe or react to what you see as it is in that space and moment. This replaces the shorthand universal concept of an apple with an actual individual apple that has its own unique way. This is when we notice wordless beauty in the specificity of form, light and color; in the relationships between objects. I don’t want to think of these pests as being sensuous but when a little orange and black carapace scales a bottleneck I can feel that form the way it would be in a Dutch still life. The bugs appear to be on patrol keeping symbolic labels from sticking and making sure that the painted world is always in reach.
Complacency is the enemy of novelty, and thus complacency reduces the opportunity to notice. Yet it is also the byproduct of protecting what we love. You arrange a smattering of cherished ephemera or lay out the furniture in an agreeable design and after a while you’ve forgotten that it was a choice. It saddens me when something loved is forgotten precisely because it was loved. This is most evident to me in the case of artwork. Naturally, my walls are strewn with prints and paintings; both my own and by other artists. Hopefully a piece of artwork has the ingredients to maintain interest and to keep drawing the eye back for subsequent consideration but even the most interesting piece can eventually feel lost in familiarity or conjure a predictable set of associations.
There is no alarm that goes off when artwork has gone stale and it is a good habit to establish regular shuffling of the wall contents. Even changing a few pieces renegotiates relationships and creates a whole new scenario of appreciation. I’ve been impressed with the collection of the Philadelphia artist Bill Scott, whose walls never appeared the same between two visits. Just as it shows affection for artwork to set it in a revered spot, it shows affection by keeping them from calcifying in one place.
I have legions of passive curators whose transit over the ledges of my artwork has an appraising touch. Their little motions beget my larger ones as I follow behind and rehang the paintings.