Friday, March 26, 2010

Go to Barnes and Noble

Hello, happy few! Let me share this with you:

Maidman, you say, what is this?

Allow me to answer in several parts:

Background: a quilted wall-hanging Charlotte made for me, using the loose "rooftop pattern" pioneered by the quilting savants of Gee's Bend.
Middle ground: me, painting.
Forward middle ground: a painting.
Foreground: Leah, the subject of a painting.
Context: printed in the "about the artist" section of my article in the April-May issue of International Artist.
Additional consideration: They put another picture of me working on the cover of the magazine.
Conclusion: Go to Barnes and Noble and buy yourself a copy.

My piece is on page 80. It's got a bunch of my paintings and some more of that deathless prose you've grown to tolerate. I hope you like it! And if you've got any questions or comments, don't hesitate to let me know and I'll try to answer.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Edges and Edge Detection Part 3: The Funny Pages

Well, it's been a while since we talked about lines and edges. The first two posts are here and here. But the discussion was not yet complete. Let's turn now to an incredibly rich resource for consideration of line and edges: comic books.

There are a few reasons the comics are such a fantastic resource. The obvious reason is that they generally consist of line drawings. So a distinct typology of styles has emerged, within which individual variations provide further material for thought. The less-obvious reason is this: when you look at a single picture, you can look at it for a while, and then you go away and look at something else. Sure, you can stick around for a long time, but usually you won't - although my friend Shawn apparently once spent a couple days with his jaw on the floor in front of Las Meninas, a thoroughly understandable response:


But that's an unusual case. Generally, you don't spend that long looking at a painting or a single drawing. But when you read a comic book, you have to spend a longer time with the visual idiom of the artist who did the drawings. And that lets you test the effect of their visual idiom on your brain - is it satisfying? Does it annoy? Only when serious time and energy demands are made on your attention can these qualities of experience emerge. And in turn, analyzing these qualities of experience can help to tell you how you understand line and edge.

By my lights, there is a broad divide in comic book drawings, between consistent-line-weight artists and variable-line-weight artists. On the consistent-line-weight side of the room we have Dave Gibbons, who drew Watchmen:


We also have the mighty Jean-Giraud Moebius:


I'm sorry, I can't resist - here's some more Moebius. You can't eat just one...


And increasingly over the course of his career, we have Jaime Hernandez:

I could include others - Adrian Tomine, Fran├žois Schuiten, Milo Manara - but as you know by now, I am nothing if not obsessed with brevity.

These artists do vary their line weight sometimes, but it is always a considered process, a conscious and willed alteration of their natural inclination to use an unvarying line weight throughout their work. It does not emerge organically, but as an outcome of choice. Contrast them with such artists as Jaime's brother Gilbert:

If you haven't read the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets), I cannot recommend them highly enough, by the way. Here's a little more Gilbert:
As you can see, his line weight is fluid - it varies throughout his images, spontaneously and intuitively reflecting the emphasis he sees at any given time. The same is true of R. Crumb's drawing, although within a narrower range:


More Crumb:

(An aside - those of you familiar with Crumb will know that he always crowds the hell out of his compositions. I see this overgrown horror vacui as a variant of the graphomaniac impulse which claimed his brother Charles:
But enough about that.)

Beyond other artists, however, we have the interesting case of Frank Miller. Miller is a strong follower of the expressionistic line. Sometimes he goes so far with it that he approaches the woodcut:

Other times he remains tighter, although still using wide line-weight variation within a single image:
Here's another panel from the same epic comic, The Dark Knight Returns, so you can get more of an idea of what I mean:
Because Miller's line is so organic and emotional, you can also tell when he just does not give a damn - particularly in DK2, the rather catastrophic sequel which, I assume, he was argued into doing by means of dumpsters full of cash:


Again, in a single panel, it's tough to get the feeling of it, but if you read the whole comic, you form a powerful impression of not trying hard.

Now, we've established that there exist in the comics two broad veins of line aesthetics: the line of unvarying weight, and the line of varying weight.

This in itself is interesting. But as I mentioned before, a topic of real utility to the artist is studying the brain's response to sustained exposure to each type of line. For my part, I have the following experience:

I find it incredibly irritating to read a long stretch of Watchmen. The writing is very good, and on first glance, the art is just delightful - so crisp, so clean, so clear. When I first read it, I was struck by the counter-intuitive experience of being frustrated with its look after enjoying it so much at first. To a lesser extent, this is true of the other uniform-line-weight artists I have mentioned, particularly Moebius, the other purist apart from Gibbons. No matter what narrative topic these artists treat, there is something airless to their drawings after a while, something without vitality.

On the other hand, the most visually comfortable experience I have ever had reading a comic book was Dark Knight Returns. There is a wild variation in line weight throughout the book, and yet on the whole, it seems to poise within a nearly perfect balance of control and chaos, clarity and occlusion. No other book of Miller's comes close - he rarely shows the discipline to keep his line as controlled as he does in Dark Knight - check Sin City or DK2 or even Ronin.

However, this comfort that I describe distinctly fails to apply to the other expressionists I have mentioned here. I find it really, really difficult to look at Crumb for any length of time. I find it easier to look at Jaime's thin-line drawings than Gilbert's variable-line drawings over the course of a story.

What gives?

Here's my theory. My theory is this. When the brain reduces the world to perceived line, it gives lines variable weights over the entire visual field. I'm sure Margaret Livingstone and her neuroscience cabal will, at some point, figure out a way to actually reproduce this line-reduced visual field.

So when you look at a drawing of uniform line-weight, it is unnatural. If you look at something drawn in this idiom for any length of time, it will produce fatigue, because your brain is looking for something that isn't there - the same way that looking at a computer monitor for a long time produces fatigue, because your brain is seeking image resolution that doesn't exist. It is difficult to become conscious of this fatigue directly, because a well-drawn single-weight line drawing has everything in the right place, as Gibbons and Moebius have everything in the right place. So your conscious marker for cognitive legitimacy is met. But your unconscious need for variability of line weight goes hungry.

The only chance you have of experiencing a "natural" - that is, cognitively accurate - line drawing is if the line drawing has variable weight. However, not all variable-weight line drawings are equal. Why not? Because the cognitive process has a set of rules for the weight it assigns to each line segment it uses in reducing the visual field to information.

What are the rules? I have no fucking clue. I will tell you this - in life drawing class, they nag you a lot to make the lines thicker where weight is resting on the edge (say, the underside line of the butt of someone sitting). So there's an idea - mass and line weight go together. I personally have always tended to ignore this rule, and I suspect that the real rules are much more complex.

My contention, then, is that once in a blue moon, a Frank Miller intuitively grasps something very like the brain's own native set of line-weight rules and produces a sustained passage, such as Dark Knight Returns, in which he matches those rules and produces a comic that is visually effortless to read. Well, visually effortless for me, anyway. Let's not forget that brains are different from one another.

On the other hand, a Crumb or a Gilbert is deploying a set of line-weight rules that goes contrary to the brain's (my brain's) sense of where line weight should go. And this produces a different sensation than the no-variation-line fatigue. It produces a kind of recoil, a sense not of the unnaturally affectless, but the anti-naturally perverse.

(Another aside: my comments on the interaction of line with the brain are not meant to be taken as "Miller good/Gibbon bad." Good and bad do not depend on conformity with certain cognitive properties of the human mind.)

So what's the point of all this? The point is that this thinking about line in comics gives us a wide-ranging insight into the qualities of line that help to define our work as artists. Do we want to produce the subliminal effects of the uniform line weight, the naturally variable line weight, or the unnaturally variable line weight? Before art is an art, art is a craft. And any good craftsman will tell you - know your tools and master your tools. So when we try to understand what line means, we are trying to master one of the main tools of art.

More soon - or more likely, not so soon.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

No Answers

There's a pair of paintings by Picasso that I've been fascinated with for years. He painted both of them on the same day, January 21, 1939. They portray the same pose as performed by two different models - Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar, both of whom he was involved with at the time:
Marie-Therese Walter

Dora Maar

I think that Picasso was trying to figure out which one to dump. He set up a single-variable experiment, in which the constants were time, composition, and pose, and the independent variable was the woman. Picasso the Man asked Picasso the Artist to tell him what to do. And these two paintings were what Picasso the Artist said.

Picasso the Artist didn't answer the question. He simply restated the question more clearly: he said that for Picasso the Man, Marie-Therese had more simplicity, more harmony, more beauty. And that Dora had more vitality, more excitement, and more conflict. The Artist simply threw the question, in more detail, back into the Man's court. The Artist said, "Here's how you see them. I can't tell you which one to choose - the answer to that lies in what kind of a man you are yourself, and what you want out of your life."

I have this feeling because, in completely different circumstances, I have had art fail to answer my questions as well. So naturally, I assume that what happened with me is directly applicable to Picasso. That's the limitation of individual perspective for you. I concluded this, from my own experience and from the evidence of Picasso's experiment:

Art's no good at answering questions, but it's very good at stating questions more clearly. It's good at increasing the crushing burden of choice, by clarifying the irreconcilable divergence of the options available. Art will prevent you from hiding from yourself what you are rejecting, and what you are accepting. But it has no answers. It cannot choose for you.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Minoan, and the missing Arazu

First a little good news - I sold a painting! I finished this on Thursday, and Chicago super-collector Howard Tullman bought it on Friday:

The Minoan

The name derives from its inspiration, a striking sculpture found at the Palace at Knossos on Crete:

I'm excited and honored to join Howard's collection, which is a lot of fun to page through if you follow the link above.

As long as I'm doing a little news-digest here, Claudia wrote an interesting post touching on this drawing of her at her wonderful blog:

Claudia models at Spring St., where I've had the pleasure of drawing her many times - this was from a recent 80-minute pose. Incidentally, she has the comparatively unusual Buffy eye shape we were discussing recently.

Enough of this real-world stuff though. Let's get back to some considerations of ideas. I was going to reply to Arazu's comment about the unquantifiability of soulfulness in painting, but when I went to find it, it was missing. My reply to it in the comment thread was still there, but the source comment itself disappeared. Weird.

Arazu; and let me be frank with you, I know Arazu in the corporeal world, where he is quite an excellent guy - this Arazu, was saying something along the lines that unquantifiability doesn't really exist, and if a painting has a quality of soulfulness, and this quality is not quantified, that only means we haven't found or applied the relevant metric yet. I think I'm fairly summarizing the gist of his argument. Arazu, you see, is an arch-materialist, and he delights in winging a spanner into the works whenever any idle talk of souls comes up.

Let me address the argument in two ways, from a materialist perspective and an epistemological perspective.

1. The Materialist Argument

This is the less compelling and ultimately less interesting argument. Let's say that we have some quality in a painting which we denominate "soul." It will be sufficient for the time being to treat one particular aspect of this quality: ambiguity.

People are ambiguous - it is nearly impossible to formulate a final statement about any among them. And in fully-realized paintings of people, this ambiguity persists. One particularly effective way to render this sense of ambiguity is to make the eyes difficult to read. Even within this sub-topic of a sub-topic, there is a huge range of modes, including the famous "each half of the face has a different expression" technique. But I'd like to talk about pictorial vagueness as a means of rendering difficult-to-read eyes. Consider Velazquez's painting of Mars:

You cannot see exactly what is going on with his eyes, because they're in shadow, and the shadow is treated softly. You know pretty much where they are, but not their exact shape or disposition. There is an air of menace to them, but perhaps there is an air of melancholy as well, or grief. Who can say? The ambiguity of the representation produces what the science-for-poets among us might call a Schrodinger-esque probability waveform. Clarity of perception of the eyes would collapse the waveform: they would be one place or another, they would mean one thing or another.

So in what sense is this unquantifiable? In the sense that a particular set of spatial eye-values (direction, size, shape, &c.) cannot be assigned. A range can be generated, however, which amounts to partial quantization. So long as the range is maintained as the most specific possible statement about the eyes, then the ambiguity finds room to persist. Keep in mind, the range can be very small, and still set up a vibrating field of possibilities. Consider a better-lit Velazquez portrait:

Now, her eyes are well-lit and specified in their spatial characteristics. Sure, they're looking in inconsistent directions, but with regard to the properties we were talking about, there's a lot of information. But if you were looking at this much closer up (and I'm sorry I couldn't find you a super-high-resolution image), you'd see that actually, there's still a lot of incompleteness. Before you can resolve all your questions about the eyes, you reach the point where the image dissolves into meaningless brushstrokes. The specificity slips through the cracks. The ambiguity remains.

There are many, many ways, in this microscopic instance, to produce and maintain an ambiguity range. You can use brushstroke size; you can use indistinct color separation; you can paint one layer incompletely over another layer, so that both layers inform perception but the represented object cannot be firmly assigned to either. All these qualities can be quantized, even if they are fiendishly complicated: but they can only be quantized within a range, not to an accurate specific value.

Nonetheless, this is the weak argument. Quantization-within-a-range is not categorically dissimilar from total quantization. If you're looking for soul in a "+/- 3%," you've already conceded the point. And I have no intention of conceding the point. I just wanted to clarify to Arazu the limits of this quantifiability that he is so on about.

2. The Epistemological Argument

Now I will turn to an argument I have been having with Arazu for years, in which he can never remember or account for my main point, because it makes no sense to him. My point is introduced quite well in a comment I first read in a book by Robert Anton Wilson that my old roommate Mike had, to the effect that the map is not the territory. A little Wikipedia surfing suggests that this observation originates with a fellow named Alfred Korzybski, so there you go.

Arazu thinks that total quantization of a material phenomenon is logically equivalent to elimination of an unquantifiable spiritual entity arising from that phenomenon, which for the sake of argument we are calling "soul."

I contend that Arazu is looking in the wrong place.

The material phenomenon is a map. The spiritual entity attached to it is the territory. Look - I dissected a bunch of human brains when I was working in gross anatomy. There's no soul in there. The brain is the map. The soul is the territory.

Phrasing this another way: at some point, there will be a complete neural and chemical description of the emotion of, for instance, anger. This description will not be anger itself. It will be the physical substrate in which the emotion resides. A complete understanding of this description will provide no clue at all of the experience of anger. Anger itself cannot be quantified.

Currently, one can find photographs, if one thinks of the correct Google Image keyword combination (which I have not) of an X-pattern of activated neurons in the brain of a monkey looking at an image of an X. That's pretty cool! But comprehending this pattern of neurons is not the same as comprehending something even as simple as the monkey's perception of the X.

The subjective experience of these various states - the X, the emotion of anger, the ambiguity of the eye - are categorically unquantifiable. All quantifiable properties - the pattern of neural activation, the neuro-chemical apparatus, the range of spatial properties of the painted eye - are simply irrelevant to the argument. These are all physical traces of spiritual phenomena.

How can we say that something with no direct physical embodiment, such as seeing an X, being angry, or evaluating an eye, exists? This is simple. Because we have experiences all of these states. We are not free to say they do not exist, because we have direct evidence of their existence using the only apparatus available to us - our own consciousness.

So when I say that a painting has a spiritual property, that it has soul, what I mean more specifically is that a painting has a set of properties which reliably trigger an awareness of soulfulness in the viewer when the painting is viewed.

Is the painting a map or a territory? I would argue that it is a map. Anything that can be quantized with regard to the properties that are being discussed, is a map. Anything that has the properties themselves, is a territory.

By what means is the map converted to the territory? By means of the process of viewing it. The calipers examine a painting and see a map; the mind examines a painting and sees a territory. The objectively existing map irresistably triggers an impression of territory.

The process of becoming a good painter is a process of learning and mastering the "irresistable trigger." There need be nothing mysterious about the triggering process. Some of it is mysterious to most of us, but ultimately, all of it is knowable (even if unpredictable). This blog spends a lot of time covering neurology, and a lot of time covering the mechanics of paint. Mastering the interaction of visual objects with neurological mechanisms, and mastering the painting medium itself, are among the tools available to the artist in seeking to trigger perception of territory when presenting a map.

But just because the territory we are pursuing - the garden of the soul - is linked in so many and such complex ways with maps, does not mean that we should expect the properties of maps to apply to the soul itself. The soul is not a map; the soul cannot be quantized. The soul resides in paintings to the extent that the paintings trigger an awakening of the soul that resides in us. That the soul resides in us - call it what you will - is beyond dispute, because we are making use of it right now to think all this over.

QED, Arazu, my materialist friend.

P.S. I apologize for immoderate use of the term "quantize" when "quantify" would likely do. I am a rather ardent fan of the letter Z, and use words that contain it whenever possible.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Eye-Mouth; Mouth-Eye

So a while back, as you most likely no longer remember, I said that I had something interesting to say about the face of sadly-deceased* character actor Randall Tex Cobb:


and its relationship with the paintings of Francis Bacon (also sadly deceased):

*Randall Tex Cobb, it turns out, is alive and well. I must have been thinking of some other guy. Bacon remains dead.

Well, I've been meaning to let you know my thinking on the resemblance. It is this: in both Bacon's version of Pope Innocent X, and Cobb, the mouth is much more prominent than the eyes - in fact, the eyes are nearly eliminated. This effect is more striking in Cobb's most famous role, in Raising Arizona:
His eyes, squinting, are nearly hidden in the folds of his face, while his mouth is framed by the beard and moustache and enlarged by the omnipresent cigar.

There is something horrific about both figures - Cobb's apocalyptic bounty hunter, and Bacon's pope. Let me introduce a different thought to try to explain this quality of the horrific.

As you most likely have also forgotten by now, I wrote at one point that I suspected that Margaret Livingstone's research would eventually reveal a prioritization of neural recognition of facial features, with eyes ranking above mouths. Score! She kindly sent me a paper that included this fascinating graph, derived from studies of facial recognition neurons in macaques:

You will notice that eyes get a lot more neural firepower than mouths. My contention, therefore, is this: since when we "see" a face, a large proportion of our processing capability goes into understanding the eyes, and a much smaller proportion into understanding the mouth, there is something horrific about a condition where the eyes are minimized or eliminated. Let's go hunting for examples - it's not hard, once you think about it:

Yes, there's Giger's immortal design for the alien in Alien. Giger, an artist possessed, like Bacon, of a natural sense of the horrific, seems to have single-handedly spawned a tradition of eyeless monsters with his design. This hideous thing turns up again in Lord of the Rings:

Disclaimer: I haven't read the books, so I don't know if the Mouth of Sauron is described that way there too. But now that Peter Jackson has gotten the ball rolling again, it's a short leap to the latest deployment, in Clash of the Titans:


Look, you might say, a face that's all mouth - be it Jaws or the Sarlacc - is always horrific, because it's going to bite you. I'm not arguing that that's not true; I'm arguing that there is a neurological component to the fearfulness of the image. After all, a rabid dog is going to bite you too, but why is this the cover of Cujo?

The biting is scary; the face without eyes is horrific. When we stumble across stimuli that provoke a non-linear response, it is always a good idea to check the machinery receiving the stimuli, which is to say, ourselves. So this is the basis of my contention that there's a processing issue involved in the horrific property of the eyeless face.

And I've thought of a tricky and exciting bit of evidence in favor of this proposition! Consider the reverse instance: a mouthless face. The first instance I became aware of was the cover of an old edition of Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream:


I am not the only one to note the thematic and visual resemblance of this image to a memorable scene in The Matrix:

The only other instance of this image that I can think of in pop culture is the poster for the underrated movie of Silent Hill (a film lousy with eyeless mouth-monsters, by the way):

Now, I would not describe these images as horrific - would you? The term uncanny comes more to mind. Thinking about it this way, I think the topic has something interesting to teach us about the always-elusive distinction between the horrific and the uncanny. Consider this:

When we see the eyeless face, we immediately know something is wrong, because our brains are looking for eyes first, and mouth second.

When we see the mouthless face, there is a tiny, tiny delay before we realize something is wrong, because our brains go through the following steps: 1. Recognize outline of head 2. Search for eyes 3. Search for mouth.

So what this teaches us is that the horrific corresponds with an immediately apparent breaking of the ordinary laws of nature. The uncanny corresponds with a subtle breaking of the same laws. The uncanny inspires terror because we first achieve comfort with the image, and then suddenly we realize the image is, in fact, unnatural. The horrific inspires immediate revulsion, but the uncanny inspires deep fear: fear that either the reality we thought we could trust, or our own rationality that we thought we could trust, are in fact untrustworthy.

Let me give you a really good example of this difference which comes to mind. It has to do with two nightmares a friend of mine once had:

1. She found herself beside a highway where there had been a massive multi-car pileup. Everybody involved in the accident had been mutilated and killed. There were bodies, blood, and gore everywhere.

2. Two weeks later, she dreamt that she came to the same place. But now it smelled terrible, because the bodies hadn't been removed, and they were rotting on the ground.

The first nightmare is horrifying: it is a scene of ghastly violence.

The second nightmare is uncanny: certainly, it is natural for a dead body left in the open to rot. But a tiny fraction of a moment later, one realizes it is profoundly unnatural for time to pass in a continuous dream-world during the period that the dreamer is not dreaming it. Two weeks passed in the dream - but where was this dream during that time? What parallel world did the dream inhabit? This second nightmare, this profoundly unnerving nightmare, breaks the rules of nature as we understand them. Either nature is mad, or we are.

This proposition about the nature of the uncanny also helps to explain why we have so many more uncanny experiences as children than we do as adults. When we are children, we really do encounter many more subtle, delayed-awareness mistakes about the laws of reality - because we're still learning those laws. The sudden revelation that something we thought happened one way, in fact is happening another way, is more frequent in childhood, and it is often accompanied by a twinge of fear: fear of the uncanny.

I'm not sure what, if anything, this little essay has to do with art, but I hope it has at least provided some interesting material to mull over.