[Image: Max Beckmann’s “Self Portrait with Fish” with reflection through my glasses.]
Few are the observers who pause to daub mud on their spectacles, or squeeze lemon pulp in their eyes before taking a second look. Vision is largely a device to orient ourselves in space, therefore it is something we define and improve with clarity. Regard a freshly hatched baby, softly twitching with a stunned impression. For this creature the eyes are great vacuums, indiscriminately sucking up everything in the vicinity. The game at this stage is merely trying to cleave that vast amount of visual information into this and that. It is a great success for this baby to discern daddy from the wallpaper behind him. Yet from this earliest struggle with the visual world onward we are continually working from general to specific, clarifying.
By that native index of ocular quality, my eyes are imperfect. I wore my first pair of glasses at age seven-teen, staring at a distant line of trees with amazement at the infinite articulation I could newly make out. The eyeglasses I have worn for the past year are rounded wire frames with completely flat lenses. Having always been accustomed to convex lenses with some sort of reflection controlling film, I was alarmed at the shimmering distractions appearing in my periphery with this pair. A good pair of glasses, one supposes, do their job without being noticeable to the eyes looking through them. These, however, were like a chatty usher.
At first this seemed like an unacceptable irritant and I intended to get them coated and curved so that they wouldn’t distract my gaze. But after some deliberation I found that I rather enjoyed this occasional rear-view overlay on my forward experience. They recalled the novelty glasses I had tried on as a kid, with mirrors hinged on the outer edges to aid the subtle reconnaissance of young spies. Even now as I type, I’m occasionally made aware of birds flying past the window behind me— how sweet!
What occurs in the bulls-eye of our field of view is most known, and deviating from that mark the information is increasingly obscure. That obscure territory is presided over by suspicion and imagination, keeping things in check until direct attention can be paid. Filtering on the sidelines, that which is suspected or imagined to be familiar will be gently dismissed or inconspicuously filed away, and that which is strange will give the eyes a nudge to prompt a more thorough ogling.
While the central cone of vision appeals more to a standard of popular logic, the suspicious and imaginative mind, looking to the peripheries, tends to reflect more about the lookers personality. Irrationality is more idiosyncratic than rationality, so when you momentarily wonder if you didn’t just see a dragon fly amongst a flock of geese, it says more about you than when you reconcile that, no dragons do not exist as far as we all know.
Art at its most sincere is insubordinate. It questions that which is directly in front of us and tends to advocate for that which we have perceived only in the periphery. Art shuffles the priorities in our field of vision. In part, the process of making art slows down the rate at which we observe our subject. It is the labor of translating and transcribing what we see that puts speed bumps before the inherent quickness of the eye. With such delays, our assumptions cannot readily get the better of us and we are forced to consider our subjects anew. The imagination can have its say without being immediately railroaded by conventional wisdom.
I have directed students to look away from the model and paint the scene they see entirely from the corner of their eye. Many will struggle trying to seize the bits they glimpse and correct them into a likeness of what they might see straight on. If all goes well they acquiesce to beauty of uncertainty. It shifts them from depicting what they see to what they think they see. Such a conceit suppresses the subject enough to bring the possibilities of the paint forward.
Having glasses that don’t simply enhance my clarity but toss in some extraneous information along with it seems to encourage indirect looking. They offer some humility by reminding me every time I’m blinded by a ricocheted glare that my eyes, like my glasses, are just another set of tools. They also keep me vaguely aware of all that I am unaware of going on outside of my vantage point. In my flat lenses I will see silhouettes pass ghostly across the fringe of the room, or I will see my own eyeballs blinking back at me. Sure it makes driving at night a bit more challenging but it is visually interesting.