Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Focus and Layers

I saw a painting a couple of weeks ago in New York, at the MOMA. I didn’t note the artist’s name; I didn’t take a snapshot with my phone. If I’d known how much it would linger in my consciousness, I probably would have, but I did not and so, I did not. I have spent too much time the past couple of days googling and perusing MOMA’s online directory of exhibits for the image. After contemplation, I think maybe it’s best I don’t see it again. But I’ll describe it for you (or at least, my sketchy memory of it).
It is a realistic painting, like a still life or a portrait. The subject is a single sheath of paper, an advertisement for a bird feeder (or something related to gardening?!?). So there is the newsprint, top to bottom, different fonts for the heading and the text, inserted blurbs with exclamatory selling points. There are some pictures—drawn or graphic, not photographic (I think). Basically, it’s an ad like you’d see in a magazine. Lots of detail, countless painstaking brushstrokes.
And yet. There are also some sections the artist has chosen NOT to show in focus. There are circular sections that give the impression of a drop of water—whatever is beneath is blurred—and sections that are sharply focused, so that the exercise of “reading” the painting requires that you mentally fill in pieces, here and there. My eyes traveled from section to section, here picking up a fragment of print, there ingesting a dark-smudged image, my mind piecing it all together as I went along. It was like a symphony of visual input, all building to a complete message.
I’ve been contemplating the layers of this painting, from its start as (perhaps) a single page ripped from a magazine to the impression it made on me, a visitor to MOMA. The artist translated her impressions of the initial image into the painting. She made certain choices as to which parts she’d put in sharp focus and which ones she’d blur. I took away my impressions, further complicated by weeks of distance, the frivolity of memory (and forgetting), supplemented by my occasional musings on the painting, and the topic of artistic layers and focus.
So. Isn’t it a frustration and yet, an ecstatic joy, that each visitor to the MOMA will see this painting, brand new and with their own lens, that they will choose, as the artist chose, what to focus on and what to pass over, that they will leave with their own version of the piece (also: the story, the song, the poem, etc.)? And these layers are a communication we can share, and the focus is our individual light in this sometimes dark world. All because of an advertisement for a bird feeder, in the pages (perhaps) of a magazine.


Post a Comment

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka