Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was reprinted on May 25, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author and the Frye Art Museum. The essay is included in a fully illustrated and annotated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition The Perception of Appearance: A Decade of Contemporary American Figure Drawing, being held at the Museum June 29 - Sept. 22, 2002 If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Frye Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Perception of Appearance
by Norman Lundin
"We talk far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches," said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Renouncing speech may be going a bit far, but the sentiment Goethe expressed has considerable appeal. As a form of communication, drawing, especially of the human figure, is singularly effective. There is nothing we know so well as the human figure -- we know it a thousand times better than any other thing. A gesture, however slight, is noticed. One that convinces us of something important is noticed; one that fails to convince is noticed. We are remarkably aware even of minor gestures. In this way, every day of our lives, we engage in unspoken communication. It is that communication, not always at the conscious level, by face and body, that tells us much about what is said by word and informs us when no word is said at all.
Drawing communicates without the need for written or spoken commentary. In selecting the drawings for this show I worked with no predetermined categories such as narrative, portraiture, or studies of the figure. I assumed that the drawings would fall, as they have, into these categories as a matter of course. In making selections my sole consideration was to choose those works that first engaged my eye and then my mind. I am an "eye-first" painter, teacher, and (in this instance) curator. My approach is first to respond visually, then take a closer look. If a work engages my eye I hope it will engage my mind, but first it must get my eye.
All the works in this show demonstrate the artists grasp of eye-to-hand skills associated with traditional drawing. The works are "perceptual" in that they are drawn from direct observation or call upon those skills we associate with observation. They are drawn from a fixed point of view and deal with appearances from that angle of vision. It is a tenet of this traditionalist approach that the image so drawn should be "convincing" to the viewer.
To leave it there, however, even if the drawings were particularly skillful, would be insufficient for the purposes that drive my curatorial interest. Artists who can draw convincingly are not uncommon. Those who can draw and express a sense of humanity are much scarcer. After an artist reaches a certain level of competence, he or she will find that drawing the human figure, when one considers only eye-to-hand cooperation, is not especially difficult. Adequate skill, of course, is necessary, just as it is for a musician. If a musician is performing no one in the audience will leave remarking that he or she "hit all the right notes". Hitting the notes is necessary; it is assumed, but it is not the point. The point lies in interpretation. With drawing, after one has hit all the right "notes," what remains is interpretation and that is what counts.
Of all the sources available to artists there is none so effective as the human figure in expressing emotional significance. In non-representational art there is no counter-balance to the emotional weight the human figure carries in representational art. That there is no visual equivalent to the human image in non-objective art or, for that matter, in any other art, makes the human figure both the easiest and most difficult of all subject-matter. It is easiest because we pay attention to the figure it is a representation of ourselves and we will always pay attention to things of immediate concern. The difficulty is that we know the nuances of gesture and proportion so well that they play the central role in our understanding of what is conveyed. The difference between conveying insight or, in the same drawing, conveying indigestion can depend on a very few strokes. These strokes inevitably involve the eyes and mouth. When dealing with the face, tolerance for misplaced emphasis is low indeed If the artist can get the face right, the face will carry almost all the artistic weight. I remember hearing a radio interview with a writer who had been doing some research for a novel that included scenes in a strip-tease joint. He talked to many of the dancers and watched their acts. One, in her early fifties and not the most attractive dancer, was easily most popular with the patrons. This intrigued the writer; he asked her why. She replied: "Its all in the face, baby."
The more one knows an object, the human face in this case, the less information is needed to convey its characteristics. A few years ago, in the same building in which I had my studio, a friend was working on a portrait of someone we both knew. He was trying to eliminate as much factual information as possible and still have the portrait be recognizably of the same person. He was able to eliminate about ninety percent of the information and anyone who knew the sitter would agree that a recognizable likeness remained. This remaining information involved the eyes, nose, mouth and a bit of hairline. My friend went on to eliminate the nose; still the likeness remained. He then removed the hairline; still the subject was recognizable. Then he removed the mouth. With this the likeness tended to disappear; but maybe, just maybe, one might recognize the sitter. My friend put the mouth back and took out the eyes - the likeness disappeared, although if you knew the person well, you might just see, in an Alice in Wonderland Cheshire-cat sort of way, a bit of likeness. We concluded that if we were going to rob a bank, wearing earmuffs would not provide an effective disguise.
To an artist dealing with the face, representing eye contact can be a powerful compositional and expressive factor. Eye contact enlarges the illusion of space between the work and the viewer because it includes the viewer as a participant. The individual whose image you see posed for the drawing. You are now standing where the artist stood, taking his or her place. The person now makes eye contact with you. This is a remarkable method of communication: that individual is now communicating with you. The facial expression tells you all that is needed, and it can communicate across centuries. (Think of the Fayum portraits). That you, as a viewer, acknowledge this communication, even at a subliminal level, is a considerable factor in your appreciation of the work.
It is axiomatic that if we find in the art of another era values we appreciate in our own, we will admire that art of the other era. In our time it is a compliment of the highest order to say to an artist that his or her work expresses insight into the human condition. Today's culture values psychological insight as a component of art. We find relevance in Rembrandt, for example, and we place his work among the highest in Western art, not solely because it is so wonderfully well painted (which alone would cause us to pay attention) but because, in addition, it reflects our sense of what is important.. We value Fragonard too (he was a superb painter), but nevertheless we put him a step down from Rembrandt because the values of Rococo society, expressed in his paintings, reflected attributes of social standing and satire more than they did the psychological insight so valued in our times. Both were as gifted as artists can be, but that edge of psychological insight, mirroring our contemporary concerns, inclines us more towards Rembrandt.
That quality of psychological insight is present in the work of Alberto Giacometti. Were I to say that I believe he is the foremost artist of the twentieth century, this would tell you a good deal about my tastes. The figures of Giacometti express a peculiarly modern sensibility, inward looking and solitary. They do not acknowledge the presence of anyone. That they are isolated and absorbed in their own thoughts is part of their existential appeal. Even when he does figures in groups they do not acknowledge one another. I believe his figures have an internal life, that they express a fundamental awareness of their individual humanity. It is that believability that draws me to them. I realize that, if I were to look for this approach in all the drawings I considered, it could lead to an exhibition solely of subjects caught up in the angst of existential awareness, which might not be a bad idea. For this show, though, I have cast a wider net
When viewing an exhibition of art that is anchored in a traditional approach (which this exhibition most certainly is), the criteria for excellence are known and generally agreed upon: known and agreed upon, that is, in regard to formal relationships. I use the term formal here to indicate those objective relationships of line, color, chiaroscuro, paint, charcoal, etc. that artists utilize to create art. These are relationships that can be objectively observed and, on the whole, rather easily defined. These criteria have been with us for a long time. We invoke much the same criteria to discuss the excellence of a figure drawn on a Greek vase as we do for a contemporary figure drawn on paper.
Formal relationships are traditional and amazingly persistent. However, there is another component to this equation: expression. This term refers to the subjective qualities of art, which do not always easily lend themselves to interpretation. It is the expressive component that changes as the values of society change, and it is the evolution of this change that allows the interpretation of the human figure to be continuously renewed. Artists are not isolated from society. They are a working component of it. As such, they are aware of society's values and through their art they can express those values. When values change, interpretation changes. The constant revision of interpretation of the human image is what makes figure drawing contemporary even though the techniques of drawing remain traditional. It is this changing "perception of appearance" that intrigues me.
In addition to their expressive presence, what I find compelling in these drawings is the excellence of historic traditional means used to create them. To use a traditional approach in today's art world is to be almost radical. The avant-garde is a crowded place these days. In this arena, the pressure for novelty and shock is enormous. If you walk into a room and drop a pile of dishes you will get attention. Much of contemporary art involves dropping dishes on the floor. It grabs attention but, unless the artist can get beyond that initial moment, the attention will not last. Some artists drop huge piles of dishes, so to speak; they get and keep our attention. Francis Bacon dropped dishes and he surely got my attention. He kept it too, because he delivered value. I'm not against dropping artistic dishes; but one must deliver after wards. Getting attention by loud noise alone will not do. To have lasting appeal, one needs more.
To be obligated (as one so often is in contemporary art) to read several typewritten pages before engaging the visual aspects of a work is not an effective means of getting attention either. Even if that work purports to have content of significant social value. If one wishes to write, there is literature (or philosophy or criticism). Visual art, among all other things, is first of all, visual. This engage-the-eye-first approach applies to conceptual art as well. I would include Walter de Maria's Lightning Field and practically all of Andy Goldsworthy's outdoor pieces in this category. You get the idea by looking at them. A few sentences about the work of these artists are all that is needed, a few sentences to point the way. Like signposts, however, they wont get you to your destination; they indicate intended direction. You should be able to get the rest of the way on your own. After the work engages your eye, read all you want. The work has already achieved its primary goal: you are looking at it and it interests you. Cerebral processes are not merely intellectual, they are visual as well. The best conceptual work appeals to the intellect; this appeal may be intense, but the work gets your eye first.
I believe it is a mistake for artists to try to make art and an even greater mistake to try to make significant art. Artists are better off making drawings, paintings, installations etc. and hope that art is a by-product of their efforts. It is for others, for society, to call it art. Artists are wise to keep in mind that most bad art comes from good intentions. They frequently mistake their own involvement for accomplishment; this is, perhaps, the biggest trap into which artists can fall. Serious intent and involvement are not accomplishment -- to confuse them is a delusion. Involvement, of course, is important, but there is no direct ratio between effort and accomplishment. Picasso said, "In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing." Sometimes a very casual piece can be extremely successful; to the artist this is as surprising as it is gratifying. On the other hand, great seriousness may result in work that is simply appalling. A high level of accomplishment and work of the most pedestrian sort have no direct relationship to the effort involved. Of course effort can pay off, not always, though, where or when one would like.
I hope I recognize accomplishment where I have seen it. Whether or not the artist had serious intent was not my concern nor part of my selection process. The drawings in this show do not grab our attention by an initial dramatic act; they gain our attention because, by their use of the human figure, they rather quietly express values we find important. They do so by employing means that we intrinsically understand to be part of our cultural consciousness, and they do this exquisitely well.
About the Author
Editor's note: For the benefit of RL readers, following is additional information about the catalogue The Perception of Appearance: A Decade of Contemporary American Figure Drawing by Norman Lundin, including an image of the cover of the catalogue, courtesy of Amazon.com:
The book contains 144 pages ISBN: 0295982829
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Frye Art Museum in Resource Library..
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