When we are young our parents tell each of us not to look at the sun. We are told that it will damage your eyes to stare directly at it. This thing that hovers over us, that fills the world with light and life is also to be feared. It’s one of the first serious paradoxes we encounter. Curiosity usually wins out over caution and we eventually all take a painful peek. We see for a damaging instant the searing yellow disk turning pink and blue, shimmering like a hypnotists’ pendant. We feel both enamored and full of dread realizing that beauty really can injure.
Then during an eclipse we are shown how to poke a hole in a box and observe the crescent shape of the light that hits the floor. We can behold the force of the sun whittled down to a safe nub and ponder that strange alignment which can only be looked upon through projection.
Perseus figured out this trick of deflection a long time ago. When tasked with slaying the Gorgon, Medusa, he couldn’t very well attack her directly since to look upon her face was known to terrify one into stone. Cleverly, Perseus held his polished shield up and observed Medusa’s reflection wreathed in snakes. Using this indirect technique Perseus was able to advance and decapitate the monstrous Gorgon.
Metaphor is essential in art, not merely to make something sound pretty or shrewd, but to better understand these wordless realities. Perseus’ shield couldn’t be a better metaphor of painting. Just as his shield is a device to reflect the image of something that is too intense to look upon directly, so too is a painting. It allows the painter and subsequently the viewer to get closer and consider these things with which we are forbidden to commune.
Last summer I had a model pose in the woods between two torches at twilight. Both the smoky blue, leaf-filtered twilight and the lashing orange of the torch coalesced on the girl’s face. The pose was dangerously simple with the girl looking straight at me and through me to the painting, the ultimately through the painting to the viewer. All I had was a puny 10 by 10 inch board to defend myself against the smoldering beauty of it all.
Beautiful subjects invite the painter, but though beauty may seem harmless it can be a painter’s downfall. The greater the beauty is at hand, the quicker the seduction of the artist and the mystery is lost. If the image resolves too easily, as beautiful things do, nothing is won and nothing is added in translation. Too often foolhardy or naive painters doesn’t realize the potency of their subject and fix their gaze on it directly and casually. Under the spell of beauty, painters become enamored or complacent with their subject and the results can be sickeningly saccharine or painfully political, lacking mystery. What might seem too beautiful to fail might soon become another garish landscape cluttering a yard-sale. Artists must do battle with their subject and raise their paintings like Perseus’ shield if they are to stand a chance against the pitfalls of beauty.
So there I was in the woods with this torch-and-twilight-lit model staring me down. I knew I was in trouble. If I weren’t careful, the glaring beauty of the scene would race the painting to a quick death. I had to employ the safety of deferment provided by the painting. A painting cannot hope to be more beautiful than the subject but it can get the artist closer to that beauty without being burned. Like Perseus’ shield the painting is an indifferent participant that bares witness. In this spirit I tried to focus on the curious elements found on the fringes of obvious beauty. Distortions and transient apparitions were suggested on the models’ face by the flickering torchlight and waning twilight. Since the painting accepted these images I let them play out and steer the decision-making. The result was something honest but strange, which I could continue to develop back in the studio. I don’t know if the painting succeeded but I saw something through it that would have eluded me otherwise.
That indirect approach is not cowardice but prudence. The raw experience without buffer is overwhelming—the eye goes blind, the hero turns to stone and the blushing painter scratches his head. By avoiding direct confrontation the viewer can contemplate the subject with greater depth. From the safely buffered position the subject can retain some mystery and the viewer is free to interpret the vision and ponder how he or she relates to it.