Thursday, October 31, 2013

Controlling Flaps

In response to a request from my friend Phyllis Plattner, I'm going to start describing my technique and materials. This image started as a watercolor. Duralar was then sewed to the watercolor and the drawing was finished in graphite.

Evolving Minds

Looking at the persistence of illusionistic art throughout history,
regardless of what was fashionable, suggests it had a useful
evolutionary purpose, that it strengthened powers good for survival.
Reward chemicals come into play, a sure sign of evolution’s
encouragement. From elaborate murals in mansions to street art,
illusionistic graffiti and the Chalk Guy (Julian Beever) people like
to wonder at what catches them by surprise. There’s something
satisfying about being fooled. Even when we’re mildly chagrined or
embarrassed about being wrong, evolution adds a dose of pleasure with
discovery of something new. Our interest quickens. Our prefrontal
cortex comes to life. How else could we learn a better theory or new
way to a better result? We count on our inner idea of reality, might
never let go of a theory that worked for us, were it not for the
intrigue and the neurochemicals urging us to investigate. One of the
best feelings we have available is the “Eureka” sense of the new
theory falling into place.

The power of drawing and painting to create a perceptual reality that
contradicts what’s expected somehow feels more true to life, opens
settled terrain up for questioning. We’re always making up theories
based on available information then revising them as new facts arrive.
Protecting a particular mindset keeps new information out. One of the
things that has been pointed out  by people like philosopher Jack
Flynn is that, not only is the information we deal with daily more
extensive than ever before, each generation gets smarter, is capable
of more sophisticated mental reasoning that shows on IQ tests. In his
Ted talk, Flynn points out that not so long ago people couldn’t think
with hypotheticals. If something did not occur, it made no sense to
imagine that it did. This made it hard to see life from another
person’s perspective, to imagine being in another’s place. So moral
responsibility evolves as well. Life includes multiple perspectives
and changing conditions. Like the cubism of Picasso that felt true
because it was not limited by one perspective, looking at art can
extend the scope of perception on many fronts. The contradictions of
M.C. Escher feel like an intellectual truth. An impossible space stirs
the right frontal cortex, stimulating pleasure chemicals designed to
make us investigate, look closer. The brain rewards our recognition of
mistakes. Illusionistic art creates the conditions for both the
mistake and the realization of the mistake.

Researchers have suggested the pleasure we feel at trompe l’oeil
painting and visual illusion is a phenomenon of  humor. Humor, like
magic, is about defying expectations. Often the method of humor
involves a shift of contexts. We start out thinking we’re talking
about one thing that then flips into something else.  It involves
regions primarily in the right frontal lobes that manifest uniquely
human qualities, particularly the ability to step back from our
prevailing mindset. Humor is said to build flexibility in thinking.
The similarity in sense of humor is most often cited as key to
successful relationships.

Though the increase in intelligence may be natural to each generation
growing up within such complexity, developing the right hemisphere’s
capacity for insight is available to all of us. Seeking out what is
funny and what we love best in art is a joyful route to building
visual intelligence and big picture thinking.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Beyond Critique- The Book
The image is a detail of a painting by Chrissy Howland. The book was designed by Skye McNeill and includes essays by MICA faculty Nancy Roeder, Ken Krafchek, John Peacock, Dan Dudrow, Margee Morrison, Whitney Sherman, Fletcher Mackey, Jane Elkinton, Dennis Farber, Joe Basile, Maren Hassinger, Mina Cheon and myself.

Beyond Critique

When I started teaching and faced the prospect of having a class discuss their work I wanted to find a way to offer something concrete while not imposing my aesthetic on them. Long an admirer of tennis I used a tennis coach as my model. Vic Braden said that the secret to coaching stars like Tracy Austin was to give them lots of encouragement, and “knowledge of the physical processes involved”. For athletes this means learning the anatomy and mechanics of their movements. For artists, it can mean learning the science of perception to apply to their work. This is something artists have always done, using whatever was discovered about vision to heighten their effectiveness. Instead of prescribing certain standards of what art is the focus shifts to what the individual artist is expressing. To be an athlete requires training, and the amount of training and practice, maximizing individual strengths, figures into how well the athlete does. Commitment and growth are what needs to be fostered for excellence. A coach can reflect back what the player is doing, making them more aware of their movements. When a group talks about the various ways that a work of art affects them without making judgments, it aids the artist’s awareness of the effects of their decisions, the expressive implications of their choices.

The research done by the gestalt psychologists of the forties and fifties studied how the mind organized visual sensation into the stable world we see. Rudolf Arnheim applied what they learned to composition in art and in parallel with philosopher Susanne Langer began to explain what was going on in visual expression, and how art sensitized perception of feeling. Gestalt refers to the sense of the whole, the mode of processing characteristic of the right hemisphere. The researchers used to term “isomorphism” (same shape) for that similarity of structure between brain states and what stimulated them, that the form made in the brain is the same as the form that triggered it. If you look up the word in wikipedia, the first five of the ten definitions have to do with math, then come the biological sociological and cybernetic uses of the word. What artists see as proportions, mathematicians see as ratios. As far as the brain’s concerned, it’s all about the relationship between shapes and how multiple shapes map. Structure creates response. This is why science is discovering the importance of art. Numerous studies are emerging that examine these correlations of form and response. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki sees art as illuminating essential abstractions in the brain. Looking at art triggers a pattern of inner structures that represent the personal experience of that pattern. This underlies what psychologists call “mood congruity”. The brain calls to mind memories that have the same mood as the painting, thus developing its meaning for the viewer.

Discussion serves as a launching point for creative thinking. The artist learns the expressive implications of their choices. The responder learns about their own psychology by how the formal structures trigger bits of their own story. It’s an opportunity to generate new ideas and use the prefrontal cortex, one area of the brain far more developed in humans than other primates. Our brain evolved by rewarding what was good for survival and growth. Humans are meant to use their creative and imaginative powers. At its best, critique is an improvisational collaboration between all involved. Over and over I see students come to class tired or stressed and leave energized and exhilarated. I can’t remember where I first heard the maxim, “Communication is healing” but it’s a phrase that’s popped to mind many times. Talking about art may well be the best way to make use of what brain science is showing us.

(This is an abridged version of my remarks on critique at the NASAD conference in St. Louis and relate to my essay in the upcoming book “Beyond Critique”)