Thursday, September 29, 2011

Material Dimension

This is a detail of a brand new drawing I started in 2009. Graphite and paper with two layers of duralar.
It's now on display in the Faculty Show in MICA's Decker Gallery until October 16.

The Appeal of Symmetry

Recently NPR reported a new study that looked at babies’ preferences for different artists. Given the choice of Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, and Picasso, they consistently preferred Picasso. When it comes to taking interest in the outside world, nothing is more important to babies than facial expression. A balloon with a smiley face will hold their attention until the face is turned away. Other recent research showed that caricatures that emphasize certain features elicit a stronger response than the face itself. The exaggerated expressions in Picasso would obviously be most appealing. The information given by a face is the most important early information we learn because it enables us to see how others are feeling. Mirror neurons fire in simulation of the expression inside so we feel the state we see. A contempt face on another person will make our heart race whether acknowledged or not. It may be that the appeal of symmetry in the human face has more to do with the expression than the features. We’re all pretty symmetrical in the arrangement of our features when we’re relaxed or happy, content and focused. Negative emotions tend to twist the face out of shape, the sneer that raises one side of the mouth, disgust that pulls one side down. Faces that are critical, skeptical, angry or sad each twist the natural symmetry of our features. Thich Nhat Hnan wrote, “Whenever anger comes up, take out a mirror and look at yourself. When you are angry you are not very beautiful…Hundreds of muscles in your face look very tense”. He advises us to breathe and smile mindfully to return to natural beauty. Often when I talk with a class about this, pointing out that negative emotions are what make people unattractive because the tension in those muscles pulls the face out of symmetry, someone knows a person with the features to be beautiful, but isn’t, because the person was mean or paranoid or some other unpleasant characteristic that pinched up the face. Pain also distorts our symmetry. I was intrigued to read in a “Scientific American-Mind” magazine that early pleasure in symmetry connected to health. What is too much off symmetry and out of balance is associated with disease.
The approach to symmetry underlying my recent work begins with the intersection of wave fronts that create interference patterns. Thinking about vibrations and formative influences as much as I have over many years I’ve come to think of matter as a very condensed and complex interference pattern. A picture of a swimming pool during the earthquake showed waves that form at the sides meeting in the middle and becoming an interference pattern of standing waves where they appeared to hold still, frozen until the energy pattern that stimulated it changed. Like the eye of Jupiter maintains its shape even though it’s a clot of churning gases, so we humans could be a constant flow of energy not as solid as we think, a density in the continuous field of energy that includes everything.
We humans and most organic life are slightly off symmetry, but balanced around an axis that holds its shape until the supporting systems break down. If something is too ordered it stops moving. Excess in any area will throw off the balance. Playing with that tension is a way of exploring what may be a primary principle of visual philosophy. The symmetry in our bodies is a model for the mirroring of external expression. Accurate internal mirroring of what we see is the essence of understanding and foundation of communication.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Spatial Intelligence

Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia discussed a syndrome some are born with where even with fully developed frontal and temporal lobes, considered primary to intelligence, and often with extensive vocabularies or outstanding musical skills, were unable to take care of themselves, to perform simple actions like tying shoes. The undeveloped part of the brain was the parietal lobe, home of our understanding of ourselves in space, our sense of where we are, our position and direction in our surroundings. Parietal intelligence is the intelligence of Einstein. (That was the part of his brain that was discovered to be bigger than other people’s.) He said his ideas came to him as images and indeed, much of our own use of language depends on metaphors based on moving in space. I think of parietal intelligence as “deer consciousness”; precisely aware of distance and speed, the vectors of movement, that when abstracted and symbolized at the human level become higher mathematics. At the visual level, a broad awareness is attuned to every shift and change in the surroundings. Assessments of ongoing change are the business of daily life.
Spatial intelligence reaches its pinnacle in tennis. The level of focus combined with alert awareness, heighten by anticipation, application of everything observed and known, into spontaneous response crafted by years of dedicated effort is a heartening thing to witness.
Listening to the TV commentators I started to realize how much of the language they were using was also the language you might hear from a coach in the practice of Zen. They talk about the virtues of taking it one point at a time, use phrases like “Staying in the Moment” that illustrate the present-centeredness true of a genuine spiritual state. And it’s easy to see how the mental chatter in the mind of any player is what defeats them and not usually a failing of the body. Throughout the game the unreturnable shot is called a “winner”. Winning is not something reserved for the result but happens throughout the game. Perfect placement and execution is a triumph in every instance it’s achieved. Attention to the moment, acting at the height of personal capability is the state of involvement we call flow. In the language of sports, to be in the Zone is to be continuous with the game, purified of the self-doubt and inner narration that keep us from doing what we can.
Watching Donald Young, a player I’d never seen before, I had so many opportunities to say “Wow!” and “Yesssss!” I was feeling really good, what with all the dopamine and endorphins flowing; when another outstanding shot was hit it left me laughing with pleasure. Our mirror neurons, following high quality action, stimulate the same brain chemistry ( to a lesser extent but still, we’re sitting on the couch). David Foster Wallace put it this way in one of his essays on tennis. “Great athletes are profoundly in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate, but televisable.” I can’t help thinking about Roger Federer when Wallace writes, “There is, about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man.”
The embodiment of ideals and the privilege of being able to watch their peak moments is an elevating experience. I don’t think Wallace overstates it. Incarnation is manifest spirit. There can be no charlatans. You can’t get there unless your dedication is genuine. All the training and hard work, perseverance and focus culminate in the championship moments that we get to share. Human beings need these models of human possibility to remind us of the power of attention to whatever our being in space is doing. It is this full attention that makes an activity autotelic, a pleasure in the doing itself. Pursuing excellence in anything feels good because we’re increasing our power, focusing on the action in the world through our embodied being. Emulating what we admire is how we become what we want to be. The qualities that make a great tennis player demonstrate virtues useful to any attainment.