PAYING ATTENTION to SINKS and SUCH

Matthew Ballou, Associate Teaching Professor

Perspectives on The Lasting World Symposium

Saturday, September 23, 2017 – 9:00am to 12:00pm

Thanks to Simon Dinnerstein – we had such a wonderful chat this past Wednesday – and Dr. Mehroff, who always pursues my participation in events such as these.

This morning I’m going to try to turn our collective attention to sinks and windows, to see if we can think along with two great artists who have found remarkable ways to span the strange distances between spaces, centuries, and experiences.

ATTENTION

Simon Dinnerstein and Antonio Lopez Garcia have built their careers on tenacious attention. People, places, objects – as well as their overlapping associations and meanings – have come alive under the gaze of these two artists. In a time when our attention is called away incessantly, the work of Dinnerstein and Garcia stand as exemplars of the great value our focused minds may create.

There is far too much material between these two artists (and the constellation of artists who surround them) to really give the subject of attention in their work its full due. So I want to let my distinguished fellow presenters tackle The Fulbright Triptych and instead start us off with a cross section of just a few works that demonstrate the evocative affinities these two artists share. So let’s take a brief look at sinks and windows…

SINKS

Wyeth, Freud, Diebenkorn, Matt Klos, Murphy, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Dinnerstein.

WINDOWS

Ellen Altfest, Stephanie Pierce, Matt Klos, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Dinnerstein

In their eyes, darkened windows and dirty sinks become embodiments of profound understanding. How is this? How do banal, everyday objects and spaces take on trans-mundane importance?

The Sink is a place where artifacts of our consumption are purged. It is a site where we return certain tools to an original state, a zone of physical renewal or reconstitution. Where cleanliness reigns. The Window. It’s a place where we dream. Where we find a stable site from which to take in the rushing spaces beyond. Through windows we can experience the daydream reverie or the notational fact – sometimes simultaneously. We look out to see if the mail has come and – sometimes, like happened to me recently – are instantly reminded of childhood.

These are liminal zones. Thresholds. These are membranes. Transitions happen here, just as they do in paintings.

Is it oxymoronic to suggest that pragmatism can function as an entrance to poetical understanding? No – it’s in use that we find the resonance of meaning that accrues over time. It isn’t contradictory to suggest that distilled attention in the service of translating a four-dimensional experience into a two dimensional format results in poetry. Dinnerstein USED those tools in The Fulbright Triptych. Garcia USED that bathroom sink – for decades. And we USE their paintings – much as an adept might use a mandala or other contemplative form – to focus our own minds. Like all great wisdom, artworks crafted from acts of observation and translation cause the banalities that surround us to blaze with transformative power. Through attention they transcend the facts and move toward an associative, constructive truth.

Attention is act of radical presence. We live in an era – one that started around 2006 especially – the Pew Research Center began tracking social media usage in 2005. At that time they estimated that 7% of adults in the US used social media. By 2015 that estimate was up to 65% . There has been a cosmic shift in how we attend to our surroundings, the manner in which we engage with them, and the quality of the experiences we have in them. Certainly this is not all bad, but it ought to give us pause.

“Art making is, at its core, about paying attention. Likewise, good viewing of artworks – regardless of their form – requires contemplation of that to which artists have paid attention. The modern proliferation of images and information and the layers of technology between our knowledge and our physical experiences can be avenues through which we may choose intense, attention-demanding engagement” but all too often they are not.

That is why works such as these are so important. They challenge us. They posit a connection between representational attention and symbolic – and very real – intent. That is, they suggest that the gaze of an individual can catalyze into transcendent, meaningful vision, crafting an image that is more than the sum of its parts. It can be more iconographic and designed – Giotto, van Eyck, van der Weyden – or it can be more perceptual – Giorgione, Ribera, or Freud. I see Dinnerstein and Garcia bridging the distance between these two groups. Garcia defaults to observation, Dinnerstein to design, yet both operate with powerful meaning-making attention.

To what end, we might ask? Why all of this obvious effort?

Painter and educator Roberto Rosenman, in his wonderful essay about Antonio Lopez Garcia, talks about the necessary fiction inherent in representational art. It’s a fiction done in order to “make the unstable world stable.” Garcia and Dinnerstein have both engaged in this stabilizing action through their attention, but they also undertake what Werner Herzog calls “the ecstatic truth.” That is, they go beyond simple reportage, beyond documentation, and present a fiction that is, in a sense, truer than true.

That’s what I want to leave you with today. The sink is more than a sink. The window is more than a window. The attention of the artist evokes the attention of the viewer, and their shared attention results in a powerful, resonant poetry of experience.

Thank you.

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