THE VISUAL ARTIST AS PERFORMER                                                

 © Roberta Faulhaber 1993

 

 

“She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and singing, made.”

 

-         Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

 

 

It has taken me some time and considerable “experimentation” with my own style of performance to arrive at an approach to this problem in written form (something of a performance in itself).  Ultimately, I have chosen an approach based on the observation that a performance is not a monologue, where the mind gives orders to the body to execute its desires, but invariably implies a dialogue, a conversation of sorts, between body and spirit, between perception and mind, between the sensory-motor apparatus and the brain, and, why not, between ourselves and the cosmos.

 

This is a tall order, particularly for one who approaches the problem from the perspective of a living experience of performance.   But I believe we can legitimately say that we are all performers, in whatever medium, taking the word’s original Latin sense of performare, “thoroughly forming”.  Whenever we pay full attention to anything in our lives, we are thoroughly forming a rapport with the object or subject of our attention.  This notion of rapport can provide one avenue towards a more complete understanding, in an interdisciplinary venue such as this one, of the phenomenon of “virtuoso” performance, a “subjective” expression of a specific type of performance in which I have some experience – the rapport embodied in a painting.

 

Although it is a well-known fact that performers are notoriously bad at performing, observing, and analyzing their performance simultaneously (in fact the quality of their performance tends to fall off mysteriously when they enter this mindset), I suspect that this may be a question of degree.  What gives me hope is that as far as my own painting performance is concerned, I seem to be able to detect an ongoing dialogic loop constantly spinning between what I do physically and what I see as a result.  I can constantly exercise judgment, in time, to allow the process to go forward in a direction that is not unilateral but the result of this dialogue.  Thus, any blow-by-blow account of the process should contain hints and specifics that may enrich our multi-disciplinary endeavor.

 

But before I plunge into an exhaustive account of the act of painting, I feel I must devote a few paragraphs to investigate similarities and differences between performance in the two realms of painting and music – the one spatial, the other quintessentially temporal, as received wisdom would have it.  To begin with, both can be seen as spatial, and both are temporal.  Without wanting to beg the question, the temporality of painting is clear.  A painting is not produced instantaneously like a photograph, and further, is not seen in an instant.  The whole problem of painting is to entice the eye into a space that can be wandered in, and to wander you need to have time on your hands.  Music, on the other hand, can be “seen” as spatial. T he whole notion of “timbre” has been analyzed in terms of a spatial structure.  Harmonic progressions have a distinct quality of movement, and movement can be seen as the synthesis of space and time.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that both music and painting are primarily about movement, and as such both eminently participate in this dual spatial-temporal complex.

 

The point of all this being that performance of music and drawing, say, a portrait, are radically similar processes.

 

Another curious point to note is that music and the visual arts share a great many “technical terms”.  Hue, color, harmony, composition, rhythm, tone, line – all are used to talk about both music and painting, and to those arts that relate directly to one or the other.

 

How is it that these very different mediums share so much vocabulary?  Part of the answer may lie in looking at the question from the point of view of modern physics.  Both color and sound are wave functions, although on widely different scales and at different speeds.  The sense organs of eye and ear are of course adapted to pick up these vibrations and to transform them, in time and through a complex looping process[1] into food for the soul.  This at first glance somewhat reductionist concept may potentially open some doors to a more holistic approach to the problem of how a “subjective” experience of art and performance can connect with the discoveries of contemporary physics, in which the subject/object distinction is not only a question of scale, but also of essence[2].

 

But that particular problem is beyond the scope of this preliminary reflection.  Let us narrow things down to consider time, and through time, the bodily experience of performing art.  Based on my personal experience, and the writings of a number of artists, critics, and philosophers in recent years, it would seem that painting has the power to slow time.  In order to properly experience a painting, an almost a-temporal state of mind is necessary, one in which movement approaches an infinite regression towards the spatial.  Such an experience resembles the contemplative or meditational state, in which vast reaches of inner space are explored through concentration on the relations expressed by the pigments and medium arranged on the canvas.

 

In this respect, visual arts can, and do, once again, mirror the musical experience.  Listening to music, and a fortiori performing it, also seems to involve a kind of transcendence of time, where movement again becomes the expression of a kind of virtual space.  Here, too, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic relations are transmuted into an exploration of inner worlds, in that vast space-time continuum we call the brain where feeling, thinking, intuition, and sensation blend into a mysterious whole.

 

How does this connection between atemporality and awareness of inner space connect with the act of performing?  For me, it would seem essential that a painter develop the ability to enter a state where movement becomes expression, that is to say, where a “feedback loop”, or, as I prefer to call it, a dialogue, that involves hand, eye, brain, and the product (the drawing, painting, sculpture, installation,…) becomes second  nature.  The future is now – a visual performer has to be in constant interaction within an atemporal space in order to be able to know where to go with the pencil or brush.

 

There have been a good many ways to approach the process of learning to move expressively, and this pretty pedagogical problem has engendered legions of solutions over the centuries.  This is not the place to describe them all, and in any case I am no expert in the history of art education.  However, I do have some familiarity on a hands-on basis with a few of these.

 

My personal experience in acquiring the movement skill known as drawing was essential based on “The Natural Way to Draw”[3], in which the author, Nicolaides, suggests a wide range of exercises, all designed to connect the sense of “touch” and volume with the movements of the hand, mediated through the eye.  Let me add here that these “exercises” are not just the visual artist’s equivalent of scales to be practiced for greater dexterity, but simply what visual artists throughout the world have been doing for centuries when they draw.

 

One excellent example is the exercise he calls “gesture drawing”.  Here the artist is called upon to express the way an object is moving in space.  The importance of this becomes clear if we look at something as simple as signatures.  Sign your name, and compare your signature with someone else’s.  A graphologist would be able to read personality in a signature – a signature carries a very individual charge of energy coming from the physical act of signing, which is why signatures are important as signs that can validate legal acts.  Following this lead, Nicolaides revived the old art of loosening up.  Instead of drawing what something looks like, he recommends drawing what is it doing, with very free movements, taking full advantage of the expressive potential of the medium in terms of pressure, size, speed, and so forth.

 

Diametrically opposed to the gesture drawing is the so-called blind contour drawing, wherein the artist explores space, slowly, searchingly, through touch.  This involves an awareness of the difference between outline, which the eye applies arbitrarily to objects in a culturally and linguistically determined order, and contour, which involves a kind of virtual touching, and has a three dimensional quality that adds movement in space to length and width for a given form.

 

Nicolaides recommends beginning with the blind contour drawing, where the artist relies entirely on touch without looking at the drawing.  She must synchronize the movement of the eye as it caresses the form with the movement of the pencil caressing the paper, such that tracing a line becomes a physical voyage along the surface of the object.

 

Using these exercises, and many others, it is possible to learn to draw where the learning process is identical with the process of making art.  While intensive practice is absolutely indispensable, the point is not to develop the ability to mechanically repeat certain movements, but through attention-based interaction with the environment in that complex dialogue we call drawing, to eventually achieve a quantum leap to a state where drawing can becomes something as simple and direct as breathing.

 

What happens when the artist uses color, in oil painting for example?  The situation immediately becomes more complex, both from a technical point of view of handling paint effectively, and because a new element enters the picture – color.

 

Goethe, Itten, and other theorists have examined color dynamics at great, and often contradictory, lengths.  Itten analyzed color contrasts into seven categories (a somewhat artificial division, but with a certain pedagogical potential) – color in itself, light-dark, hot-cold, complementary, simultaneous, qualitative and quantitative contrasts[4].   He then presents a series of exercises to learn to handle the different contrasts and explore their expressive possibilities.  Playing with these various color contrasts sensitizes the eye to relationships between colors, and of course familiarizes you with the existing pigments and the way they combine (ultramine blue and vermilion will give you a kind of muddy brown, while ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson combine in a deep purple…).

 

Itten also briefly addresses the question of what to do with all this sensitivity and practical skill.  He points out[5] that disharmony lies at the origin of expressive power.  An analogy to music comes immediately to mind, where the imbalance of a dominant chord pulls towards the tonic.  In other words, once again a sort of virtual movement is generated by a kind of imbalance between certain contrasts, which can be used in any number of ways.

 

Each painter makes her own choices of what contrasts to play with, and how to direct the imbalances.  I do not mean to imply that this direction involves some kind of balancing act where a neutral state of balance is sought.  Rather, the artist has to “have something to say”, and the task at hand is to express whatever we may have to say in the medium of our choice.

 

As a visual artist working primarily with paint, my own choices lean towards the use of color as a spatial entity through warm/cold contrasts, which I combine with transparency effects resulting from the use of an ancient oil painting technique I have adapted to my own arcane purposes.  The transparency/opaque alternation made possible by this technique offers a coloristic and hence spatial potential related neither to color nor drawing, but rather to a record of process and physical movement, since everything I do remains visible.  Somewhat in the spirit of the Chinese ink on paper paintings, where every stroke is essential and always visible.

 

What happens as I work my way through the painting process?  Let’s take the example of a still life, roughly painted from life (roughly because my spaces are always “abstract” in the sense that I treat the space “unrealistically” by doing away with the figure-ground opposition).  Let’s say we’re painting a group of pomegranates sitting on a white surface.  I begin with a contour drawing of the fruit which will already suggest volume.  Thus I am already sensing the movement of the brush on the canvas as it traces the contour, and the movement of the eye on the surface of the fruit. 

 

Immediately a three-way conversation begins between hand, eye, and the world out there.  The anxiety generated by the blank canvas is resolved through an intimate physical connection with the “other” out there.  Positioning, or composition, arises out of the drawing process and is not something imposed on the surface in a two-dimensional pattern.  It’s as if my body is installing itself comfortably in the little canvas, and it “knows” when it is comfortable and centered. 

 

When I feel comfortable in my little virtual body, I begin to develop a consciousness of the surface variations in color as expressive of the dynamic form the fruit.  By dynamic form, I mean the way the shape of the fruit is an outgrowth of its organic geometry, the genetic forces that shape it as it grows larger and larger on the tree.

 

Then comes the mysterious process known as mixing a color.  Clearly alizarin crimson, cadmim red light, and ultramarine blue in little pats on my palette have little to do with the reddish wavelengths emanating from the fruit and striking my retina on their way to my cortex.  But after many years of practice, I “know” what I need to use to get a certain color sensation, enabling me to create a sensation on the canvas that is related to what the fruit is making me feel when I look at it.

 

Having mixed a color, I apply it to the canvas such that a dynamic form can be sensed.  I repeat the process many times with different colors, and slowly the pomegranate on the canvas takes on a life of its own, always guided by bodily sensations that arise from a total identification with the thing painted and the painting.  The brushstrokes contribute to the movement of the form in that I allow them to remain visible, as a concrete trace of movement.  An attentive look at a Chinese ink painting will reveal that there are many, many ways to use a brush to convey the sensation of movement in a static medium.

 

The various colors placed on the canvas have a distinct spatial value.  A “cold” red will recede from the viewer, while a “warmer” red will advance.  In this way the spatial continuum of the painting is enhanced.  Another aspect of the use of color is an awareness of a highly personal sense of color completeness.  When interacting with the object in real space, a certain sense of balance is present, and this same balance has to come to be also in the virtual space of the canvas.  I suspect this sensation is grounded in a psycho-physical phenomenon described by Itten[6] .

 

There comes a point when a qualitative “leap” occurs, and the painting is resolved.  This is where I stop, raising the extremely interesting question of how the performer knows when he or she has reached a satisfactory level of performance.  From my personal experience, I suspect that, once again, this sense of satisfaction is related to bodily sensations.

 

I am suggesting that painting, music, arts generally, are an exploration of the space-time continuum through movement in a virtual space.  What is importance for me, however, is that the space of the continuum is highly individual, as individual as an individual body.

 

I once had occasion to purchase a skull.  I went off to the store in Paris that sells skulls and settled down to contemplate several shelves of bony faces, each one with a completely individual shape and identity.  In the same way, I suspect every artist and performer also has their own somatype that combines both nature and nurture, extending throughout the mind-body continuum.  When a work of art is created, a unique spatio-temporal experience is being expressed, and thus each artist and performer who feels this sense of satisfaction feels this sense of satisfaction does so because they comfortably inhabit a space created in their chosen medium.  Another reason why the art-historical dichotomy between abstract and figurative art is misleading.  Both are products of a soma projecting itself into another soma.

 

This brings us in a full circle back to the initial discussion of performare, thoroughly forming.  In any medium, the thoroughgoing rapport we establish between ourselves and the world becomes an occasion to explore sensations and feelings that we, as performers and viewers and listeners, could not encounter any other way.  Thus the universe once again finds a way to continue a dialogue with “itself”


 


[1] Harth, E.  The Creative Loop, pp. 66-60

[2] Heisenberg, W.  Physics and Philosophy, Chapter 3

[3] Nicolaides, K., The Natural Way to Draw, Houghton-Mifflin Company

[4] Itten, J.  L’art de la couleur, Dessain et Tolra, Edition abrégée, p. 33

[5] Ibid., p. 18.  « Si la réalité d’une couleur ne correspond pas à son effet, on obtient une expression non harmonique, dynamiquement expressive, irréelle et flottante.  La possibilité de transformer les formes et les couleurs réelles de la matière en vibrations irréelles permet à l’artiste de donner une expression à ce qui ne peut se dire. »

[6] Ibid., p. 21.  « Dans notre appareil sensitif optique, l’harmonie correspond donc à un état psycho-psychique d’équilibre où dissimulation et assimilation de la substance visuelle sont d’égale importance… »