The Elephant in the Room
By Alex Cohen
Printed in the Bucks County Herald 5/09
There are two things consistently in the field of view for everyone reading this column. The first is the text of this essay in the Bucks County Herald. The other, I predict would be omitted from mind when describing what you see— yourself! There is rarely a time when we are absent from our vision; our hands, arms, legs, stomach and even bridge of the nose are there before us connected to the rest of our visual world. Yet we scrub our visual memory free of ourselves. We keep our image disconnected from the subject matter around us except when we appear in a reflected surface or visual record.
I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning is for this self-discrimination. We certainly spend a lot of time looking at ourselves and thinking about ourselves, why edit ourselves out of the picture? Perhaps it is because the distortion of our body is difficult to read (there is dramatic foreshortening from our chest to our feet). Perhaps it is because we have an ideal of how we look separate from what we actually see, or because we imagine ourselves outside of our bodies. From the perspective that we see our bodies we appear upside-down and awkward. Our bodies appear like the frames on a painting— on the periphery, contiguous but wholly separate from the subject matter.
The development of perspective in art sheds an interesting light on what we see and what we think we see. In much of Eastern artwork the notion of the observer was severed from the ego and the viewpoint reflects an omniscient eye— there are no vanishing points, no relationship between the subject and the gaze. Prior to the renaissance much of Western art was also flattened in space or else suggestive of perspective without really conveying how we see. During the renaissance artists like Giotto, Brunelleshchi and Alberti experimented with different mathematical and aesthetic systems to arrive at the illusion of depth in a painting. This, combined with advances in observational methods established a current of realism in Western art that hinged on the idea of the artist’s single viewpoint. The painting became a window into space.
In an odd parallel I believe that the development of video games is an excellent illustration of these same developments in visual and metaphysical perspective. The first video games were flattened without a relationship to an individual viewer. Then some games began to feature avatars (characters controlled by the player) moving through a landscape that scrolled either horizontally or top to bottom. These avatars then began to move towards a vanishing point central to the screen and perspective was introduced. The TV screen, like the renaissance paintings became a window into space with the gamer sharing the perspective of the avatar. All ethics aside, the greatest gaming development in terms of perspective was with first-person shooter. In this fascinating format the viewpoint of the player is exactly the same as the character in the game, whose arms and legs enter the viewing space, usually wielding some ghastly weapon. The player becomes responsible for the power with which this avatar has been programmed. The player shares a personal relationship with the graphic environment as they inhabit the avatar’s body. I struggle to find many other examples of a visual medium that include the body of the viewer in this way.
I have been experimenting with the device of this first person perspective in my paintings, where the peripheral effects of the body enter the picture plane. There is a realist truth in revealing the body that is often in our field of vision. The frame in this case does not impose or edit the vision, but locates where the limits of seeing are. I am attracted to the idea that a painting can not only simulate a vision, but also simulate experience with its illusion. With the body present, the viewer becomes complicit and strange things start to occur. The viewpoint is simultaneously that of the artist’s, the spectator’s and the avatar. The body is narrator—giving both a formal and psychological entry into the painting, but it is also the actor in the scene. The figure is an attractive subject in paintings because we can identify with them. This empathy for the figure is even more extreme when the perspective of the body suggests that it actually is us. The very real sense of being there in the painting, makes the painting seem present—makes it seem like the scene is occurring as we see it and thus makes it seem like experience instead of just image.
My naïve entry into this territory was several paintings of my feet. My Philadelphia apartment was very cold in the winter and made the bathtub an ideal place to paint. I set the palette across my chest, the easel outside the tub, and gazed at my own feet for the subject. In an odd way I found this to be a more honest self-portrait because it did not rely on a mirror. Carrying this idea further I later painted a dream I had of piloting a plane. In the painting, my hands and legs extend into the cockpit of a plane soaring over a darkened valley. There was such liberation in this painting. At once it felt very real and quite fantastical. One’s eye is drawn so easily into the depth of the painting, traveling through the body and plane into the environment.
I think of these paintings as simulations. They allow a depiction of experience that would be hard to access without the viewing body. Suddenly experiences and surroundings that were otherwise not relatable can be relevant with the first-person perspective. Existential events that often feel imageless are thus given a visible context by human subject that is at once connected and disconnected. Like planting a flag on the moon, simple acts like taking a shower or picking a flower with the image of self there as witness can say, “I was here, I experienced this.”