Photo: Lake Swim by Alex Cohen
In Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film, Dreams, there is a scenario in which a museum-goer, staring thoughtfully at a Van Gogh painting, puts on his cap, tucks his kit under his arm and steps intrepidly into the painting. This fantastical cinematic rendering sprouts from the uncanny feeling that paintings contain separate worlds. Would that they were, says the voice of childlike curiosity in the background of our intellect, I should like to cross over into them, not just in mind but bodily! This simple wish is a shared irrational desire teased by the illusion of depth conjured in painting.
Painters feel the push and tug between the flat surface of a painting and the illusion of depth. It is a tension between what you know to be there and what you want to be there. Both can consume the imagination but it is the later that is transportive.
Generating a sensation of transportive depth is not a game of hard and fast rules. Certainly there are perceptual predilections that can be exploited; warmer colors and sharper edges coming forward and cooler colors, soft edges receding—but there is more to the escapade of depth-finding whose route is very intuitive.
In academic traditions of teaching perspective the illusion of space is constructed against a grid. Forms diminish with predictable regularity towards vanishing points along invisible rays. The Euclidean dissection of optical perception into geometric principles is indeed profound, but mathematics can only govern part of the riddle of depicted realism. After all, the experience of driving is only distantly related to the lines on a map. I appreciate how the grid can be a reminder of the surface—linear breadcrumbs that lead a painter back to the painted artifact after descending into their invented world. For my own painting, however, using grids and drawing rabatments can have the sort of sobering voice that keeps me from exploring the more remote outposts of sensibility.
Because paint is fluid and formless I don’t think it naturally likes being hung upon sharp angles conforming to flat constructions. Sure, paint can be a servant to rigid tasks and do a fine job, but I bet if you ask an opinion from the medium it would prefer to be employed in a Soutine than a Mondrian, kinetically speaking.
It’s easy to think about the rectangle as a window but consider it instead as a sluice gate from which the paint pours inward. As more paint is fed through the sluice picking up momentum, it washes over metaphysical surfaces and splashes up against metaphysical walls. The sensuous sentience of the paint likes to tell an emotional story about what it touches and where it travels. That is the playfulness that creates active forms and a sense of depth that is more than just trickery. The result needn’t be a frothy torrent like Freud or Auerbach, but can seep and gently lap at the canvas.
This rampant paint play poses a problem for the desire of a preconceived composition. The place inside the painting is hard to know before you open the sluice gate and lettin’ ‘er rip. So there are two forces—the force of the paint (responsible for depth) and the force of the composition (beholden to the surface). The paint is full of energy and ambition while the composition is some hidden truth revealed by the successes and failures of the paint.
The rectangle in which a picture sits (where an oval is not being experimented upon) could be seen as the arbiter of composition—it setting geographic limits of design. But perhaps there is a supernatural composing force independent of even the rectangle. We say that a story is only over because we stop telling it and likewise the painting is made singular by putting edges on it. Really the rectangle is only an expression of a grander composition, an aspect of something larger.
The rectangle is a sort of compromise between the divine and the human. It is a signifier both of an endless and harmonious composition laterally along the picture plane and a signifier of the eternal depth into another world. Where we can’t exactly transport through the picture plane, we send paint as an emissary. Just as water will find its way to the oceans and aquifers—paint, allowed to behave according to its innate liquidity, will discover the composition, all the while sharing the tingle of exploration.
I would like to hear the refutation of this mindset by an artist with more expertise in foresight.
An impulse to step forth into the painted landscape may seem like juvenile whimsy but the lure of illusionary depth is a powerful force that holds attention. Antagonized and in collaboration with the surface composition there is potential for a real experience and a transportive conversation with mystery.