To Be Looked At

At the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, the American artist Roni Horn is one of twelve artists– and one of two women– whom Donald Judd selected to have a permanent work installed.  The works of these twelve artists span 340 acres of the former army base, Fort D.A. Russell, which was established in the 1930s as a cavalry base and as an encampment for German prisoners-of-war up through the end of World War II, and which Judd transformed in 1971 into a contemporary art foundation. Judd’s mission was to create a place unlike other art museums where works are constantly being installed and de-installed. He created a space in the immense West Texas landscape where art exists permanently, forming an inextricable relationship with its environment – the space itself and the work of art are given equal attention.

At Chinati, the profundity of being there comes when you realize the interconnectedness of everything.  The works, which include Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum: one hundred aluminum boxes installed in two former artillery sheds, are ever changing with the light of day, with the presence or absence of people.  The viewers transform the space by their presence in it, their reflection in the work of art makes it a different piece, and they themselves are transformed by the awareness that this experience invokes. Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas in their new book Learning Mind; Experience into Art, cite John Dewey: “A work of art…[is] a work of art only when it lives in some individualized experience…as a work of art, it is re-created every time it is esthetically experienced.” (Jacob, 19)  The nature of Chinati is to allow you to become aware enough of the space so that you are able to experience the work, and this process allows the piece to transcend the state of static object, to become artwork.

Roni Horn, Things That Happen Again: For a This and a That, 1986
Roni Horn, Things That Happen Again: For a This and a That, 1986

The work that Roni Horn has installed was fabricated in 1986, and is one part of a three part series entitled Things That Happen Again; the title of the work at Chinati is For a This and a That.  The piece inhabits a former army canteen: a rectangular space that maintains vestiges of its previous life with traces of old walls on the floor and paint still flaking from the walls. The door is positioned slightly off center, and when you enter, Horn’s first piece is presented to you: a solid gleaming copper cylinder.  One circular face is about twice the diameter of the other face, so that the piece has a conical form, with the larger face confronting the door.  With every movement the piece reflects the light differently, each reflection bringing you to a new awareness of the outward appearance of the work.  These changes focus you on the materiality of the form while at once rendering it an ephemeral, ever-changing structure.

Turning to the other side of the room the artist presents you with the exact same sculpture, fabricated to the same specifications, but installed at a different angle.  Yet the state of being at Chinati does not allow you to simply dismiss this repetition – the second piece reflects the light in a completely different way, it has its own presence and impact on you and on the room. Yes the form is the same, but the experience of it is completely new, because everything is inextricable from its context. The perception of it is new and that makes it a different piece.

In Roni Horn’s show Roni Horn aka Roni Horn that was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art and closed January 24, duplicity is again the theme.  Consistent with the Minimalist framework of using manufactured and repetitive form, the show is replete with sequences, doubles and industrial materials. Horn places the same portrait photograph next to itself, documents the same subject at different moments, positions the same sculpture in different rooms, and allows us to realize that nothing can in fact be the same, that seeing is a unique experience.

I saw this show after working on the Charlie Rose Brain Series episode on perception.  One of the major themes brought up during the roundtable discussion was that the eye is not a camera. The eye integrates incomplete sensory information with past experience, with contextual cues and expectations, to form an internal representation of the outside world. This reinforces the fundamental principle of the Gestalt School of Psychology: the whole is more than the sum of its parts – visual perception is more than just putting together the stimuli that the retina receives.  It is in the brain that we construct what we see, and so our perception is a completely subjective and personal experience. For me, Horn’s work accents this biological fact.  By creating work that forces us to reexamine our perception through repetition, Horn allows the realization that nothing is the same, that our perception is fundamentally subject to a variety of factors both internal and external.

In his book Proust was a Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer cites Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist painter: “The eye is not enough. One needs to see as well.” (as cited by Lehrer, 97) Cézanne’s canvasses that emphasize brush stroke and texture, which leave white space, and shift from moments of light and dark, make room for the fundamentally creative process of seeing.  We fill in empty spaces, creating a complete impression from his renderings that allows us to perceive the image as a whole.  That Cézanne’s work necessitates this active, though unconscious and automatic, participation by the beholder may be one of the keys as to why we have a reaction to the work. It feels closer to the way that we actually see the world – our brain when perceiving the painting integrates the contrast, the brightness, the angles, the impressions of the artist to construct a meaningful picture – what it does with all sensory cues be they in a painting or in the real world.

David Hockney, Don and Christopher, 1982
David Hockney, Don and Christopher, 1982

This parallels what the critic Lawrence Weschler discusses in his book True to Life about the contemporary artist David Hockney. He cites Hockney as an artist who is exploring through his work ways to most accurately represent how we see the world.  Hockney began these experimentations in the 1980s with photography, finding no movement, no equivalent to his experience of the world in the process of looking at photographs.  And so he began to make photomontages; amalgamations of snapshots that he found better evoked our experience of seeing the world which happens “‘…not all at once but rather in discrete, separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world.’” (Weschler, 10)  Hockney is commenting on our process of seeing, how we take in the bits and pieces that our limited focal range allows out of which our brain, the artist, completes the picture.

In his most recent landscape paintings set in the Yorkshire countryside and exhibited at Pace Gallery this past fall, Hockney remains faithful to what he discovered about our visual processes.  His new paintings require the same activity on the part of the viewer that his photo-collages mandated: “…our heads are moving, swiveling on their neck joints…Time, at any rate, is passing: true to life and the living. And one thing’s for sure: We are no longer experiencing the world from the point of view of that paralyzed cyclops for a split second.” (Weschler, 221)

Hockney, tapping into his own perceptual process and realizing the complicated and fragmentary nature of our vision, is incorporating this understanding into his paintings, which are often combines of multiple canvases.  These paintings are shockingly colorful and often split into parts that show different angles, different times of day, providing a multitude of widened perspectives of one scene.  He is bringing the viewer back into the painting, letting his paintings be “…an account of the experience of that looking.” (Weschler, 66) Taking in each part separately becomes a necessity because Hockney has moved away from one-point perspective. Viewers can realize for themselves, maybe with surprise, that when they are in front of Hockney’s work they are capable of merging these disparate parts into a coherent story.  As with Cézanne, seeing these works may feel truer to our experience of being in the world.

David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 6&9, 2006
David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 6&9, 2006

For me, considering Roni Horn’s show and encountering Hockney’s paintings with knowledge in mind of how our perception functions, I find artists whose work is highlighting the biological reality of seeing, providing the context for me to experience what I know. I have always believed in the transformative power of art, in its capacity to make you aware, to touch something in you and open you up, but at Chinati was the first time in my life that I honestly experienced this power for myself.  Since then I have found a way to follow what it was that moved me, that resonated with me intuitively, biologically.  With artists such as Roni Horn and David Hockney, I can see the point at which I find an intersection between science and art: where awareness of both brings you to an understanding that can change the way you experience the world.

Contributor Sonia Epstein graduated from Middlebury College in 2009 and is currently working for neuroscientist Eric Kandel.

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