November 30, 2006

Figuratively Speaking

Although I cannot fully endorse the “resurrection of the figurative” heralded by many since the rise of Neo-Expression, as my own proclivities lean toward the conceptual, linguistic and interactive in art making, I will take issue with Peter Halley’s assessment that “these artists, and the art they produce, fail to recognize the complexity of the transformations that have taken place within the social.”(1)

On the contrary, I suggest that certain contemporary artists working with the figure have been informed by the eruption of investigative knowledge on the “social order,” including but not limited to the construction of the subject (Saville) and cognitive perception (Baselitz). These artists continue to make figurative painting relevant because of the supplemental and extraneous “fields of knowledge” they bring to the studio and their work bears a much more concise examination, possibly using the general parameters which I will outline here in this limited essay.

The approach to “upside-down” figures in the paintings of Georg Baselitz generally takes the tack of “gimmickry over talent.” I fundamentally disagree with this critique, partially because “talent” has meant so very little in art making since Modernism, but chiefly because I feel that his working methods are genuinely obsessed with distancing his cognitive perception from his art making. That is to say, recognizing that the human eye initially perceives reality as an inverted one and that “we know no other reality” (2), then we have to at least consider one possible entry into Baselitz’s work ought to be the supposition that he may be attempting representations of pre-conscious cognition, which has a very rich tradition in historic art theory. Then again, we might also surmise that his inverted paintings may in fact be an attempt to reproduce the “bracketing” of reality proposed by Edmund Husserl in his phenomenology, wherein:

empirical subjectivity is suspended, so that pure consciousness may be defined in its essential and absolute Being. This is accomplished by a method of ‘bracketing’ empirical data away from consideration. ‘Bracketing’ empirical data away from further investigation leaves pure consciousness, pure phenomena, and the pure Ego as the residue of phenomenological reduction.(3)

Jenny Saville’s figuration, however, revolves around representations of the “ideal self,” an image perpetuated certainly by the “social order,” and specifically by the idealized images of women’s bodies projected by the advertising industry. Saville’s paintings of herself are brutal, topological mappings of obesity in her consideration of the imperfect form supplemented by the critical guise of a post-feminist outlook. She comes armed with the writings of Luce Irigaray to deflect and reject the “male gaze,” fully prepared to further encode the French author’s words in mirror reverse text written in her Propped (1992) as she paints “a staged contemplation of the role played by gender in authoring, viewing and critiquing the body of woman.”(4)

Whether it is emergent cognition and pre-conscious perception of retroactive figuration, or a conflation of identity construction with Lacanian psychoanalysis, the human figure holds the keen interest of a scant few painters of vision. In any case, the “cost of the romantic return they advocate”(5) may well be worth a reprisal of this kind of figurative work.

Reading for 6 December: Suzi Gablik’s “Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom” in Has Modernism Failed? (on reserve).


1. Peter Halley, "The Crisis in Geometry", Arts Magazine, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984.



4. Isabelle Wallace, "The Looking Glass from the Other Side: Reflections on Jenny Saville's Propped", Journal: Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Winter 2004.

5. Halley, op. cit.


mm said...

Baselitz'swork seems awfully gimicky to me, but i can except that in art if i feel the artist is truly obbsessed and dedicated. not only is he trying to make his figure painting relavant, he is also challenging his own perception by altering the way he makes marks because our vision is unchangable. jenny saville's work is not only desireable because of it's impressive size and skill but to me its value lies in context. when i see the painting of saville's called plan i feel sympathy for the figure and then relate to myself in a culture where you can never feel good enough. this painting makes reference to mark ups for plastic surgury as well as a topigraphical map which make me think of how unimportant the quality of life has become to our culture because we will torture ourselves just to look a bit better.

emily said...

i have been thinking about your artist's statement and now about the essays by the artists mentioned on this blog and the words seem to apply everywhere.

i was excited to find similarity between the artists' essays and passages I read by scientists of quantum physics (Shimon Malin: Nature Loves to Hide).

The way one perceives, whatever combination of nervous reaction to light impinging on the eye and the formation of mental concepts that one may "bracket" away (.....I am not quite sure how to Husserl's term..I take it to mean 'select'..) completely changes the equations a physicist chooses to consider.

contemplating the human figure makes practically everyone conscious of mental processing that normally occurs quietly (Baselitz clarifies that reality is hazy and based on emotions that occur upon seeing).

please correct or skim over words I have misused.

Marcus Silverthorne said...

I would like to point out that if Baselitz is really aiming to represent pre-conscious cognition, then he has surely misunderstood the concept. After all, the very idea that our vision is "inverted" is the result of the kind of reasoning that Husserl means to bracket out in the epoche. In pre-reflective experience, the distinction between "the way things appear" and the "way things are" has not yet arisen, which is the insight which grounds the very project of phenomenology. It is only with the advent of the complex theory of optics that we were able to remove ourselves twice over from pre-reflective experience (once to distinguish between seeing and the organ that "sees" and a second time to distinguish between the image that is detected and the image that is perceived) and conclude that an inversion "takes place" before perception. Of course, from the point of view of phenomenology, it makes no sense to speak of something "taking place" outside of or before cognition. What this implies, so long as we are maintaining the phenomenological perspective espoused for its methodological value by Husserl and his followers, is that the recognition that our cognitive perception somehow differs from what is to be perceived is itself grounded in a certain cognitive act, the quite complex reductive strategy of modern scientific reasoning. "Pre-conscious perception" is thus a problematic concept and it would be interesting to consider what role art might play in making sense of the idea, if it makes sense at all.

Anonymous said...

thank you for explaining the phenomenological perspective of Husserl. What does Husserl mean by 'cognition'? Is that the point where the distinction between 'how things appear' and 'what things are' vanishes?

I don't know what I said in my last paragraph. All I meant to say was that people are not distant observers.

I glossed over the way that Baselitz inverts the pictures and referred to the unnatural use of color and shaky lines when I said that his portrayal of the human figure was hazy and emotional rather than based on the observation of a detached human eye. The paintings of Baselitz seems like a joke directed towards science.... "see what we can believe?" I did not mean to say that Baselitz was discussing pre-concious cognition, but only some sort of interaction between the observer and observed.

What do you mean when you say that it makes no sense to speak of something occuring outside of or before cognition? Do you mean that as soon as something is detected, it is perceived under the influence of our assumptions?

Marcus Silverthorne said...

Husserl's idea, at least if we look at the Crisis, is that the very distinction between "how things appear" and "how things are" is a philosophical development, but one that can obscure the phenomenological truths of pre-reflective experience, which is always somehow primary. Cognition does not necessarily involve the bracketing of this distinction, but since Husserl is interested in pursuing a rigorous phenomenology as a counterweight to objective natural science, he will attempt to address the question of cognition within a phenomenological framework. This is why, for Husserl, it would make no sense to speak of something "occuring" outside of or before cognition, since any such occurance is itself, insofar as it is cognized, involved in a cognitive act. In order to speak of an "objective" event, we must first draw the distinction between phenomenological experience and an objective realm of independently existing things, the latter being typically associated with certain mathematical laws. The point is not that this approach is in error (as the fruits of natural science clearly demonstrate) but that it might be grossly inadequate as a method of studying human experience itself.