Sunday, 8 December 2013

Edward Hopper, Summer Interior (1909)






It is all about displaying the interior. I sometimes wonder if a writer were building a house in his head when he is gestating stories. If house-building sounds too stupendous and quixotic a task, at least the writer would be envisioning a room of his imaginary house, and adding furniture or adornments here and there as he plods away his writing. Day and night, the room expands and shrinks. Day and night the writer is flushed with excitement as he bustles about the room, but before long such childlike enthusiasm will flag, and here comes the writer storming out in distress. Time and motion do not desert the room. It is steadily yet soundlessly growing in size, like flowers that suddenly blossom on an arid land.

Words are redundant when a story is already narrated by pictures. Pictures are inconsequential when everything is already visualised by words. Edward Hopper did nothing to solve the ongoing dilemma, but further complicated it. Whenever one feels compelled to apply words to one of Hopper’s paintings, he unwittingly puts the painting under the risk of morphing into something it is not- some melodrama, some mystery, some sleazy, hardboiled noir. On the other hand, should such painting be chosen to serve as the pictorial accompaniment to any story, be it subtly written or frustratingly opaque, these two will rarely advance in convoy, with the painting being the most conspicuous laggard. Possessing within itself still many enigmas waiting to be unraveled, the painting’s role to illustrate or complement a story ultimately founders.

Hopper depicted a world that is bound to be chastened by the pictorial reality. Time does not stand motionless in Hopper’s paintings, nor are the subjects and objects thus endowed with an aura of immortality. Once the painter introduces a character into his painting, willingly or not he will witness his beloved Creation grows, rebels and transgresses, until one day when this fearless child sets up a commotion in her environs, the meaning and appearance of the painting are altered forever. The painter will then find himself merely a photographer, taking snapshots of the lives of his child on the periphery.

That is what happens every time a stranger wanders into your territory unbidden. Reality should be like that and every one’s life is more or less punctuated with people one never knows. But it is to the painter always a vexation when his Creation develops into someone he never knows, namely someone that speaks and acts contrary to the painter’s expectations because somehow she gradually acquires her own independence and soul. And what’s next? Maybe the house will have its soul, too, and so will every flotsam and jetsam that scatter about the room. Because the character has magic tinkling about her fingers, and everything she touches turns into something like her, so every wooden heart suddenly starts pumping blood.

The biggest difference between a photographer and a painter lies here. A photographer longs to be “shocked,” having no compunction of dishing out images that succeed more in traumatising than revealing. Such things a painter abhors and shuns. Every unpleasant or astonishing matter should be well hidden away, insofar as the painter forgets that painting is like walking on a bridge, that every bridge has its underside that is invisible to its pedestrian.

Art convinces us that our world has its reversal that most of the times we wilfully ignore. Even when, as the horrific tale goes, the irate painter tries to efface the painting with his paint-knife, tries to stop the noise of myriads heartbeats that whirl about his ears day and night, there is another facet of the painting he fails to notice and thus fails to annihilate. And that remaining side of the painting lives on, even in the least perceptible way.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Berenice Abbott, Newsstand, 32nd Street and Third Avenue, New York (1935)





It is all about peopling the void. Crowdedness dispels the paranoia when one is puzzling over a blank canvas. Regardless of how the result will be it is often an accomplishment if every corner of the picture is filled. I can also hear music drifting out of the cluttered image I just finished: the music that is not too uproarious, but loud enough to warrant me a restful night of sleep. An open, empty space and a gaping chasm are enough to introduce disquietude into my otherwise orderly life. My orderly life mainly consists carrying out my role as a paltry nonentity, namely, “filling up the corner.” Every one of us is like a grain of sand who is always at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of sea. Crowdedness is peace, is stateliness, is life.

Architecture fuels Berenice Abbott’s passion for photography. Every building is a man-made monster- a monster that is impregnably armoured, a monster that is impossible to tame. At least, we can imagine Abbott thinking, I can pierce the skin of that monster, or chop off one of its limbs with my camera. Nothing better to face the invasion of Industrialism than arming yourself with the right weapons. In Abbott’s case it is to expose the magnificence and most of the times extreme ugliness of a bourgeoning city with her camera. This accounts for the reason why she favoured New York as her main prey.

Unlike Paul Strand’s photographs of the city, Abbott’s retain the unrelenting chaos New York is often associated with. People are rendered ant-like and running pell-mell. Ungainly but forbidding buildings, like swords in a tumultuous fight, sticking out here and there. I can now imagine Abbott as a paltry nonentity, trundling through the city like an innocuous animal in a hazardous forest, and every time when confronted by a fabulous beast, she defends it with her camera as if it is her white flag. A camera can be everything- it can be a dangerous weapon, it can be a desperate call of help.

But camera can never be an effective remedy. At least in the case of a crowd, the camera can only observe it from a distance but never possesses the power to scotch it from expanding. The anxiety is common with every inexperienced photographer whenever tackling the subject of a restive crowd. To try to encompass the entirety of the crowd with a panoramic view from afar is nothing but an example of unavowed cowardice. A seasoned photographer will approach the crowd audaciously, kill off as many objects as possible. The rest of the crowd he will let it flow away like the irrevocable departure of the migrating birds, because he knows there will be more entering from the other aside of the lens. The entering and the departing- this is the moment when the photographer makes time visible.

Today the void might be filled. Tomorrow, the collective intelligence drives the crowd to form its own void. What eventually emerges is a crying abyss, shrieking hideous curses and expletives that threaten away the sweet dreams. Still quite peacefully I sleep, when my dreams are no more than a continuous series of voids. How wonderful is the notion when you are something that is like everything else.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait Laughing (1907)





It is all about putting your best face forward. Photographer captures the fugitive moment before it flees. Painter, like an envious sister of Photograher’s, constantly resents the ephemeral existence of a mesmerising smile, which often freezes into a stiff, twitchy line even before she applies onto the canvas a tentative stroke. But one day as Painter is doing half-heartedly another portrait and racking her brain trying to recall what ingenious sparks of spirit that just seconds before flash across the sitter’s otherwise stoical face, her paintbrush takes a sudden and willful sweep over the canvas, leaving a faint but perceptible line on the person’s forehead. Disgruntled at first when Painter sees what a careless mistake she has compounded with her clumsy toil, but then, after assessing the screwed portrait at several different angles, a mischievous smile plays upon her lips.

The sitter remains the same throughout the process of painting but the authority belongs to the painter, who holds the destiny of the sitter’s effigy firmly in his hands. How joyful it is to paint an unappealing portrait of your nemesis! Painter savours the inexpressive elation when one day she does a portrait of her aloof sister, Photographer, on the sly and successfully renders her an unprepossessing snob. In the end of the day Painter has a fitful night of sleep, incessantly disturbed by her own uncontrollable laughter.

But it is hardly a laughing matter when you are doing your own portrait. The experience often leaves an uncanny effect, as though the painter was virtually creating his twin sibling. You are staring into the mirror at yourself when doing the portrait and afterward you will see your own creation staring back at you, solitary on a canvas still devoid of a background. The photographer will most likely associate the connection of the gazes, the painter’s and his creation’s, with some sights that never fail to incite his curiosity- room within room, door opening to yet another door, a maze of corridors promising no imminent exit. “I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors, and that the eyesight has another eyesight,” so says Walt Whitman quite literally.

The painter, Richard Gerstl, was one of the many Austrian artists whose portraits are noted for their psychological insights and expressiveness. Psychology, like sociology, is all about engagement. But rather of a more intimate engagement, psychology plumps for a one-on-one conversation invariably conducted in a muted, wordless manner. Therefore even when there is an expanding throng of viewers standing before an Austrian painting, the figures in which deal with one at a time, broodingly and patiently. Their gaze, instead of emitting shafts of blinding light that intent on poking holes in the viewers’ eyes, breathe a cold air that envelopes the little innocent crowd, like a lion appraising his wounded and writhing prey from afar, before making the fatal spring.

The same coldness permeates Richard Gerstl’s Self-Portrait Laughing (1907), but a more expressive and menacing coldness, as the painter is shown having a laugh, a mad and hearty laugh. The background is composed by golden and brown daubs, as though the sky is ablaze with flying flints. There are fires, too, burning in the painter’s eyes, but those flames do not assume a confident ferocity. They are rather like the candles that intermittently gutter, and spew out wax that moisten the eyes like tears that refuse to drop.

The smile is certainly not victorious, nor does it seem to me glorious. If this is what Gerstl reckoned as his “best face,” or at least, the face that he found the most impressive, then he surely made no bones about his madness, or illness. But by no means is the painter trying to elicit the viewers’ empathy and kindness for his dismal situation. He is simply having his good, and possibly, last laugh- at the fortune he is futile to change, at his unstable mentality he is too disdained to seek any remedies, or at any unnamed enemies he is next bent on destroying. The smile as all there is.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

William Eggleston





It is all about defamiliarising the familiar. When our eyes are, by no means in any negative way, trained to take for granted a world glutted with colours, hardly we will conceive of something normal as anomalous. But if we now take our unfettered imagination a bit further and let us envisage a world that is essentially monochrome, that every shade and hue are bled out of every object and every entity, gradually and consequently, we will be beholding a fantastical sight that used to leave us sniggering when we were exhuming our parents’ family album. Everything suddenly looks so archaic, and it inspires in us a peculiar feeling that our existence will no sooner be whizzing to an untimely termination. Black and white invariably impart a vague sense of an impending death.

William Eggleston’s photography looks like colours that erupt from the hearts of the monochrome figures, like mummies suddenly coming to life. The feeling is electrifying, but not without tinges of fear and apprehension. Colours denote progress, advancement, modernity, technology, and we, who were hitherto so cosy with our old days’ simplicity, recoil from this formidable monster who wields his sceptre as he heralds change. The beauty of colourful nature is an elusive knowledge we are yet conversant with. Our eyes instead linger on a squalid corner where we used to brook with admirable magnanimity. The place is now deluged with ghastly green light. And we are disgusted.

Green car, green building, set against a purple sky scattered with strands of wispy, orange afterglow. Nature’s composition can be so capricious and indecipherable that we cannot help sensing something portentous coming. With what purpose is the car pulling over beside the building? Whose car is it? Is the person an old friend of the resident(s) of the house? Or is the car also a property belonging to the owner of the house? Is the car unoccupied? Or is someone still in the car?

Anyone endowing with a febrile imagination can take a step too far when assessing this mysterious photo. Almost every piece of Eggleston’s oeuvre is like that, it is constantly veiled with a film of enigma, and therefore breeds numerous stories. But what ultimately engenders the unnerving feel is the colour- the colour that looks so unnatural, so deliberate, and in some cases, so incongruous with the object it represents and illumines.

Before the advent of photoshop or any other graphic editing programmes, a photographer is one who is essentially impassive and staying detached from the object he captures. Even when transposing the object into a subject the photographer is still expected to behold his artwork with a pair of cold eyes. A photographer is no more than a mere recorder, but a recorder who possesses the autonomy of selecting. If there is any flicker of sympathy left underneath the callous nature of a photographer, that is perhaps it- the life of every existing object is at the mercy of the photographer, who presses away the shutter like that formidable monster who wields the sceptre. Life barely trembles when it is immortalised in a photograph.

A photographer might not always be the aloof onlooker of the scene he captures. His presence might also be found in the photo. As in the case of Eggleston’s I feel he is dwelling in that coruscating window adjacent to the green building. His halo is burning but all he knows is that being there he is seeing the world as a ten-year-old, and he is his only friend.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Jan Steen, Woman At Her Toilet (1660)





It is about putting on the stocking like ripping off the flesh on the leg. The elastic material clings onto her leg, like pesterer that refuses to give up his pursuing, however much obstacles he has encountered along his difficult journey. Maybe a mosquito is happened to be entrapped in that stocking, and suddenly, when waking up from his momentary daze, he finds himself landed on this foreign terrain, which is populated with nothing special but occasional cracks and sparse bushes. The mosquito has no more the driving urge of bloodthirstiness left in him. He is no longer young, no, and his wings are wilting and losing its youthful spark. So he trudges on with much difficulty on this vast terrain, burning with this sole intent of his final pilgrimage: that to find a cosy place so he can lie down his wearied body. It is every elder’s ultimate desire to enter the Big Sleep, and to luxuriate in that sweet stupefaction, which is growing more and more intense every counting second, as he smiles a wan smile and sees line between land and sea gradually blur.

The little dog knows nothing about the aged mosquito as he sleeps soundly on the mistress’s bed. Maybe he possess within him some parts of the mistress’s psyche. Even likelier the little dog is the mistress, after one unaccountable and confusing transposition, but still retaining the features and habits of a fluffy creature. She enjoys surveying her poky room through the eyes of the little dog, which are placid and uncontaminated like the lake when the world is yet populated. She knows nothing beyond the four walls and she wants to see no other rooms beside hers. Contentment comes easy. The curtains are imbued with different shades of green which appeal to her, yet at the same time she is tickled by something so amusing that she unleashes an uncontrollable fit of laughter. What she discovers is a shadow, presumably an imprint of hers, which leaps in accordance with the ripples of the curtains. Silhouette. Every living thing is no more but a silhouette.

The chair stands like a lonely warden on a distant planet who waits daily and patiently for someone to take him home. He can still recall, faint though his memory has become, the day when he was pronounced his first death. Never once in his life would he dream of becoming the subject of some unnamed painter’s masterpiece. The painter stopped his heartbeat by rendering him a goblet of blinding yellow against the background of scarlet forest. From that day on whoever sees the abstruse painting talks of a heated contest between those two fires, both threatening to engulf the other, and neither is that easily subjugated by another’s imminent victory. Being revived years later, when, after countless futile attempts that attested to his failure of rekindling the painter’s exceptional artistry, the chair is again back to his familiar earthiness. Often he will comfort himself, his philosophical mind travels far out of the bounds of this shabby room.

And so an arch is appearing, sooner followed by a wall, all built by bricks materialising like drops of rain that leak from the roof. Henceforth the lady decides to sing, to sing a song with a melody that meanders like white smoke in a dark night. Positioning the last brick on its niche I can still hear her singing, thrumming like the drone of a drum, like a nameless creature prisoned in a room cordoned off by numerous labyrinthine corridors, forgotten by time and people. Distantly but distinctly I can still hear her sing.