Between image and object

by Michael Odum

The obsession's in the chasing and not the apprehending,

The pursuit, you see, and never the arrest.

Tom Waits


I was interested to read the email dialogue among the artists Tracy Hicks asked to participate in this show; their messages to each other clearly indicate what Hicks has called the "organic" process of defining meaning(s) for the work. The discussion presents the artists' inevitable coming to terms with the responses of others where individual vision meets public reception--a special public in the case of the BIO group which now has been replaced with the rest of us who see the show. Their communication also nicely reflects the form of some of the early Platonic dialogues in which the investigation doesn't yield an accepted truth at the end, but becomes a kind of truth in itself--the truth of sharp minds grappling with tough questions, reasoning their way through a landscape of related and often conflicting ideas. Wrestling with the meanings of art in this way can be very important, which is not to say that it changes what and specific artwork looks like (and looking is always the point), but that the information one gleans from it affects the way one looks at the art. Vision, like art making, is never unpolluted by thought.

So what did they say to each other, and what is it that lives between image and object? I'd like to address two enticing groups of ideas which emerged from the artists' discussion: the "in-itselfness" of an object, and the concept of a reflected gaze.

Objects are insistent, touchable, kinesthetically evident, steadfastly other than me. They present me their surfaces, but withhold their innermost being, always somehow maintaining a difference from my understanding of them. In this context, Proust enters the artists' dialogue to provide an eloquent example of the limits of the senses as he confesses his desire "to penetrate with my mind beyond the thing seen or smelt." Something, said Proust, is concealed "beneath what my eyes could see, something which they [objects of his perception] invited me to approach and seize from them." This desire for what lies beyond appearances is a profoundly modern idea, both in science (biochemistry and particle physics come to mind) and in art (Gauguin, Kandinsky, and Mondrain, for example). Historically, it's what put the "post" in Post Impressionism; that is, the Impressionists' concern for the moment's play of light and atmosphere was subsumed into a concept of painting that tried to engage a deeper, more spiritual reality.

Likely, the progenitor of Proust's desire for this something more than he could see is Kant's metaphysics of the "thing-in-itself." The details of Kant's reasoning on the matter are not relevant to the subject at hand, but his general conception of our sensory understanding of the world led him to ascribe all that we see, hear, feel and know to a cognitive apparatus he located within the human mind (which, by the way, it was the philosopher's job to critique). Thus, an object's color, weight, spatial dimensions, location in time and so on are in this system only imaginable within our mental faculties. The facts of a thing are data processed through what Kant called the categories of the understanding. And yet there is always some unknown--Kant said unknowable--residue in this system of knowing: the thing as it is in itself, regardless of my knowledge of it. Beyond our understanding exists something independent of us.

A generation after Kant, Schopenhauer identified this internal thingness of things with the ancient concept of the Platonic Idea, arguing that what is ineffable about an object is its true essence. For Schopenhauer, the knowable qualities of any object "seen and smelt" are part of a practical culture which manipulates the objects of our environment to satisfy our needs. This is the stuff of engineering and housekeeping, of chemistry and cooking, of problem solving in general. And yet, he said, every problem solved only leads to more problems. Our appetites can only be sated for the moment; we're certain to get hungry again. For the sake of our spiritual health we must not seek happiness in the realm of things "seen and smelt." That way lies only disappointment. We must turn instead to the inner thing, the truth of what lies "beneath what my eyes could see." The quasi-Buddhist cycle of desire Schopenhauer identified in the realm of practical understanding derives from a gap inherent in Kant's metaphysics, an intellectually insurmountable wall between the knowing person and the ultimate object of his/her knowledge. One path out of this bind he said is art because art does not approach the things of the world in the same way as practical understanding. A work of art allows us to experience objects without concern for utility; when art works its magic, it suggests a glimmering of the essential Idea at the heart of the object. Setting aside practical concerns makes room for the object to appear outside our understanding, which I take to be next of kin to Proust's "something beneath."

I believe that it is in this tradition that the low row of stone and concrete cylinders Cam Schoepp presents in this exhibition steadfastly maintain their objectness. Mute and solid and heavy, they nonetheless embody something of a referential dimension, too, at least to the extent that they participate in a minimalist aesthetic. But I'm getting ahead of myself a little. Operating against practicality in a sense, Chris Powell's elegant chair and table have been snatched from the realm of the useful to become objects of contemplation, and yet the fact that the chair bears a human imprint refuses to let functionality leave the form entirely. Its elegance invites us to look for the pleasure it can offer, while it also participates in a complex of representation.

Proust's concern is not only for an object; he clearly addresses a kind of seeing or perceiving in general, a contemplative gaze in which the subject becomes immersed and which is associated with pleasure. The BIO artists' attention to this gaze is complex and important to the work in this exhibition, I believe. For example, they discussed the idea that gazing can be voyeuristic--somehow improper, sexualized (note Proust's verb " to penetrate"), aggressive against its object ("seize" writes Proust). There is desire in such a gaze as well as the interpretive framework described by Kant and decried by Schopenhauer, but the here desire seems too unruly for practical considerations in the philosophers' sense.

Terri Thornton's "wall wounds" suggest a complex reading of objectness dissolving into the visual surround, as Proust's desire to penetrate the object is literally enacted via the artist's salvaging holes left over from a previous museum installation. Her small smudges and marks on the lips of these "wounds" offer sexual associations, and the reference to what once was in this place parallels the memory-like function of photography. Image and object are simply combined in Lisa Ehrich's anthropomorphic ceramic tree forms. A variety of visual pun is in operation here which makes the material presence of her "limbs" oscillate between an in-itself framework and a verbal, referential mode of understanding. Working in both two and three dimensions, Terrell James moves between image and object, and in a sense establishes herself as the site of their contact. Her organic forms on paper hint at landscape at times and her small, freely invented bronze forms could be biological specimens. Yet after such comparisons are made, the inert matter of the bronzes and the biomorphs in her paintings remain only themselves, resistant to verbal reduction. The brittle, scratchy lines of Julie Broberg's images hover on the cusp of referring to furniture forms and metonymically to Matisse's idea of luxury, if in a vocabulary that suggests luxury's loss in the tensions of the current time. By calling attention to their fracture in glass, these same lines also carry a fragile materiality, and so assert a kinship with objects in themselves. In Tom Sime's paintings, the wax surface contains and partially conceals the webs and forms beneath. The artist's mark is only secondarily referential here; a material presence remains fundamental to the experience they evoke. David McManaway's intimate assemblages draft found objects to the cause of a complex interplay between referring and being. His sculptures are both objects in themselves and image-like evocations of other ideas.

Turning our attention from the object of one's gaze to the one who gazes also introduces another level of understanding to the project--the making of meaning, which is also a part of the general alienation of subject from object. As something presents us with a meaning it also cloaks itself, so to speak; in the act of referring, it effaces itself in deference to its referent. This is one way to characterize an image: it is an object about something else, i.e., a semiotic sign, or more properly a set of signs. Such considerations appear to operate in Tracy Hicks's glass vessels which hold casts of reptiles and amphibians from the Guatemalan rain forest. The binary opposition between clinical research and the naturally occurring animals which flickers in the pairing of these two distinct sets of signs finds a hard unity on the level of the sculptural object.

Eric Gecas asserts the objectness of his photographs by applying them skin-like to the surfaces of his wood forms. The fact that the overt subject of his images is itself skin resonates with the sensuality of the forms. Paul Greenberg's wide angle photographs of city street corners make present an "absent" wedge of urban space on the plane of the photo paper. Although very realistically represented, the places and times he records for us are necessarily distorted by the camera, a fact which serves to foreground the material reality of the image-making process. David Gibson's dream-like, atmospheric photographs of wild, natural areas record specific places and times to be sure, but they also embody the photographer's desires--and ours. Dreams are like that. Next to digital information (What does it mean to us that this show has a web page?), video is the ultimate mode of representation today. Brian Fridge's video of swirling ice crystals in a freezer, however, references its subject so obliquely that the connection between original object and its reproduction is rendered almost meaningless, affirming along the way the primacy of the video itself. Can a video image be an object? It certainly is a possible object of my experience and like the photographic works in this exhibition can be contemplated as it is in itself.

Our habits of thought regarding images necessarily include considerations of the "absent" objects to which they refer, and so we actively participate in a species of alienation in the subjective experience of looking at artworks, very possibly failing to see them as they are in themselves. Combining systems of interpretation with our faculties of practical understanding (in Kant's and Schopenhauer's sense), we cloak and recloak the object before us in veils of meaning and utility, and so insulate the thing in itself from our awareness. One of the tasks modern Western art has assumed for itself has been to establish the conditions under which this cloaking can be momentarily arrested, even reversed. That is why John Cage directed his systematic randomness against meaningful compositions and why Robert Irwin constructed his light and space environments. The idea might be modern, but it isn't entirely new: Chardin's still lifes were identified as the source of an analogous meaning-reversal by Schopenhauer.

Apparently, Western aesthetic and epistemological thought met a conceptual limit in the dialectic of seeing and being, a limit that could not be surmounted without going outside itself. Cage's Buddhism is famous, and Schopenhauer, too, studied Eastern philosophy. Similarly, the great culture critic and semiotician Roland Barthes found welcome respite from Western meaningfulness in various elements of Japanese culture--tempura, chop sticks, gift wrapping and such, he argued, do not rationally fit into Western ideas of analysis. Appropriately enough for this show and for the artists' discussion that hovers behind it, Barthes discovered in haiku a poetic form which intended to use words and meanings in such a way that language itself comes to a stop. Something like that stopping informs the spirit of Between Image and Object. In the material poetics of images and objects a proper response is sometimes to shut up and simply see.