It was said that Nicola Tesla could design prototypes of his inventions completely in his mind and then set them up to run in real time in the background of his other thoughts. Periodically he would check in on the instrument and see how it was handling the task, making the mental adjustments until he was ready to make the physical incarnation in ideal form. Most of us don’t have the caliber of brain functionality for such precise thought experiments but none-the-less our mental laboratories are creating thoughts that take on lives of their own. There are thoughts that flit through consciousness before evaporating and others that are dismantled after their point is made, but some are equipped with the vitality to endure. I don’t mean they endure as meaningful concepts, but as actual things outside of any linguistic validation, that have form and propulsion.
That might be a tall order and a vague one, but it’s the sort of thing that painting can readily exemplify. Paintings are a sort of manifest thought that can make visible our deeper machinations. When a painter gets into the flow of the process the hand becomes like the stylus that engraves audio vibrations into vinyl records. This needn’t be intentioned thought and perhaps the less intention the better—just as it is superfluous to write about an earthquake tremor atop a seismograph.
Subject matter, in this case is only the vehicle that gets one to a sense of the actual mental landscape. It is how the subject matter is handled that is key. Puvais de Chevanes’s paintings are quite demonstrative of this. The tranquil neoclassic landscapes of Chevaness-land are populated be lithe bodies doing jack squat. Beautifully posed in space, it is almost comical how irrelevant or non-existent are their tasks; he chronicles loitering if nothing else. They are like the observations an alien would make looking down at society—these humans just sort of cluster about and move things around. And yet, how evocative are these scenes—how shrewdly they illuminate that mental space that is emotionally driven— how distinctly they exist as paintings!
In the heyday of alchemical research, there wasn’t the clear distinction between mind and matter. The substances bubbling away in their retorts and alembics were regarded as the same as the cogitation going on in the alchemists’ head. Cognitive sciences were still to come. To toil with the transmutation of ingredients was to probe at the personal psyche and understand oneself through proxy. Of course this occasionally led to a lab going up in flames or the alchemist being thrown out into the streets, but so goes the labor of risk-takers. I see painting as very much a continuation or extension of that kind of research where the external painted surface has a reciprocal experience with the internal world.
What begins to happen when one continually dips into the well of consciousness and ladles it onto a canvas is that the interior world becomes clearer. The geography and its denizens become more thoroughly charted and seem less like arbitrary whims of the artist and more like a puzzle being fitted together. Consequently one finds that those realms and inhabitants of the mind are not in stasis, they are moving and changing just like Tesla’s mental machines.
We tend to think of paintings as monuments or declarations; flags to mark where solid cultural ground has been conquered. Mona Lisa is regarded like a mosquito entrapped in amber, but in truth she lives! While it could also be said that paintings live on and change in reflection of our changing cultural perspective, I mean that these things actually live on their own terms. They may have been set in motion or revealed by the artist, but they carry on burning their fuel. From a materialist point of view they are in fact in motion, paint slowly migrating with gravity, slowly disintegrating and changing chemically.
The wear of a painting, however is part of its visual life cycle and should not be only considered as what they looked like in their prime, but what they have looked like at any state and the arc in which they’ve traveled. Look at a fresco, the image dissolved here and there, moldering moirés spreading through their plaster—aren’t they ever as fascinating or more than at their conception? Indeed, the underlying mystery, that visual spirit seems to reveal itself more truly and humbly as time ravages. I only wish I could see those Puvis de Chevannes paintings when they are going to tatters, their cavorting figures casually amputated, their placid pool blistering and once-azure skies corroded. Gradually these products of the mind sail off to shores far distant from their creators and far stranger.