Our eyes are our hands.
One thing that Arte Povera artists were very good at was finding out how a material can express itself in a most basic way, whilst also hosting an external realisation. I’m thinking mostly of Giovanni Anselmo whose concrete was concrete, whose lettuce was lettuce, whose gravity was gravity and whose nature was not simulated but self-evident. These are lessons that are perhaps now not exemplary but are part of an understanding of the fabric of the word art. Nonetheless I believe the benefits of this awareness stretch beyond sculptural understanding to encompass an understanding of represented form as well.
At a molecular level, there are no boundaries to materials, atoms hold hands until they don’t. Like chemistry between a circle of friends. This way, though a material may have a concise form, there is always the option for the chain to be extended or reduced – size is a relatively arbitrary and primitive unit of measurement. A lettuce is lettuce-size because that size is effective to the propagation of the species, marble and granite can be any size because there is plenty of room under a mountain.
Giovanni Anselmo knew that in the material world, scale is function, and he used this to generate his particular brand of affect. Though I am far from a scholar on the period I suspect that to Anselmo making art was a philosophical position, not in that there was a particular doctrine to follow, but that the manipulation of materials and the loading of potential meaning into these new configurations is an act of philosophy. An applied philosophy, where the word philosophy becomes material, like clay, or like coal; full of individual units holding hands or pulling the finger. Because when you invest meaning into material you are dealing with molecules rather than surfaces, relationships amongst distinctions.
In thinking about a lot of contemporary art it seems that one large focus of concern is how we receive images rather than the images themselves. The figure is superceded by the field in a sort of claustrophobic sublime. As a believer in images this abandon into ether strikes a discord because I don’t believe that images are quintessentially flat signifying planes, instead they can be more akin to the material world of Povera, where an acknowledgement of form is based upon the complicity of molecules. This mode of knowledge generates a three-dimensional model of meaning, where a material carries a haecceity-like weight through it’s being, concurrent to the weight ascribed to it’s surface appearance.
I believe a drawing can carry weight as a philosophical undertaking. A drawing can be a commitment to an understanding of materiality in that it can share a common organ of reception; the eyes. When we look at something we are seeing molecules, but we can’t understand a world where we swim amongst a trillion individual points of information so our eyes trace out finite distinctions between things. At a molecular level the boundaries between objects are far more porous and open to interaction than we can really comprehend so our eyes make things easier for us by describing boundaries and creating planes upon which we can operate. Graphically, this information is traditionally represented by lines, which become a substitute for the eyes, fulfilling the function of dividing form into understandable portions.
I think about Matisse and how his cut-outs and line-drawings operate. I think as his eyes wandered so did his lines, but regardless of the accuracy of these marks to their subject they still manage to describe an amazing idea of form. Then I think about Gabriel Orozco, who is completely different, but whose eyes are the central character in his creation of meaning, whose work allows us to describe meaning into chance encounters with form.
In a period that seems obsessed to describe the outermost limits of art as a form, I think an understanding of what Matisse, Anselmo and Orozco offer is an important undertaking. While Matisse described form graphically, what he offered was open spaces into which the eye pours form and depth and substance. What Anselmo offers is a chance to encounter form as function, the chance to let the eyes rest momentarily from describing form and to let his objects achieve this description autonomously, without assistance and by using their own inherent properties. What Orozco offers is another thing again; what he offers is an update of the old Beuys adage that ‘everyone is an artist’ by expanding the notion of art as what people physically make to art defined as how their eyes describe the world.
Operating with an awareness of the world inspired by the work of Orozco, it is possible that the eyes are the central character in the creation of form. The hands are the heart, and the eyes are the hands. It is this understanding which allows us to fill the vacuous void left by arts rapidly expanding outline with three-dimensional meaning. Because I believe we need depth to survive, and depth comes about by having a commitment to the things you see, to seeing things as objects whose surface is an indicator of a far greater volume beneath.
Essay and image by John Ward Knox. from Matters a Newcall Publication