Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ilya Repin

I love how the realist painters always ended up veering into a world not altogether "real". What was intended to shake a person out of their dream, with vividness of detail and rawness of emotion ends up charming a person into a dream with the magic of an illustration from a fairy tale. This is particularity notable in the work of Russian artist Ilya Repin. The quality of his work is masterful, colors, compositions, atmosphere, all perfect. His works were created slowly and carefully, perfectionism is evident in all of them, even the more relaxed portraits. His religious paintings have a character that is otherworldly, while the historical ones are as interesting and complex as more acclaimed paintings of the time. Despite the pastel colors much of his work is dark and he doesn't shy away from sinister themes, or fantastical ones.


I never heard of Nowruz before I went to a little celebration yesterday, for the last day of the Persian Holiday. It starts on the day of the spring equinox. It's the Persian New Year. Since this is a new beginning it's a good time to announce that I made an instagram account so that I can purge myself of my frivolities on a regular basis and not have to take this blog in a glib direction. I just need a place to post mundane things with one liners, I don't want it to be here, but it is still a part of my life so mention of it still has a place here, I guess. You can see all my poor attempts at selfies at xvladimire.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Creepy even if it isn't: Gregory Crewdson

(note: source is of the last listed source for images without source)

For me, photography in general is like abstract art, but even more abstract. Photographs reach a whole other level of abstraction. The reason is that what is in the photo, is generally partially real, even when it isn't what it seems. It is as if making something a little more tangible, actually makes it much more strange and more distant from reality than something that is 100% fantasy like a painting or drawing, even if it is perfectly realistic.

 Man in the Woods source

This might be the most recognizable thing in a David Lynch film. Putting something mundane in, something you know is real, like a cup of coffee, makes one more credulous. It is as if a springboard is provided, a springboard which allows a person's abstract projections to leap farther, into a more distant unknown. Without the "real" object the projection starts with whatever willingness a viewer is willing to suspend their judgement and just go along with whatever is going on.

The photographic quality of Lynch's films are undeniable, especially since there are so many stills of seemingly innocent objects and situations. The suggestion of something "else" going on doesn't even need to be there. Essentially, you do all the work yourself, while watching, lets say, Blue Velvet. The movie fashions together all those moments you have throughout the day, when you pause and wonder about something that is truly absurd, but all you see in front of you is a cup of coffee, nothing special. Lynch being an avid coffee drinker, realized consciously or unconsciously, that for some reason, people have more of these moments at certain times and one of those times is when they are waiting for their coffee to cool down. There is little to do in that moment other than let your mind wander and when it wanders, sometimes, it goes to strange places. Of course, not everyone drinks coffee, but there are certain times when people just let their mind go for a minute more than others, mostly while completing mundane tasks and starring intently at the texture of something they are so familiar with that the mind doesn't need to exert any energy processing it, and so, for a moment the mind lets go of the real world altogether, and goes elsewhere. 

No matter what a photograph is of, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar the subject, inherent reality in photography makes every single photograph abstract at the very least. Since we see hundreds of them, and are accustomed to the standard level of abstraction, adding another level immediately make an image arresting, enchanting or otherworldly. Remarkable images are a dime a dozen.

Untitled, 2001. source

I remember when I saw my first Gregory Crewdson, actually there were two. It was at the Metropolitan Museum in a white box with a bunch of other random photographers. I guess there were united by the theme that they were all "Photography". I had already gone through the decorative arts part of the museum, my favorite part that is, and I was tired. I just wanted somewhere quiet to sit. I accidentally sat before the one above and felt an immediate sense of familiarity with it. I definitely didn't see it before but I felt like I had. There was something about the buildings, ubiquitous New England buildings. I didn't need to read the description to know that it was one of those towns, up north. One of those towns I would wander around alone as a teenager, when I lived in New Hampshire. 

These places were once vivacious and industrious but now there is only one way to describe them all; haunted. Not by ghosts exactly, though maybe a few. But by the emptiness itself the people who were once there are instantly evoked. One cannot help but to contemplate their presence because the absence is so pronounced. The appropriate aphorism would be "you don't  know what you have until its gone". That which is gone, is almost more noticeable than what is there because there is so much more missing than what is present. Your puzzle pieces are few.

Dusk in New England was also the subject of one of my other favorite artists Maxfield Parrish. Crewdson talks in the documentary about dusk and about a moment between moments. What exactly happens between moments? Many photographers chase moments, but not everyone sees any pauses between them. The pauses are simply the parts you don't notice. One would think that life would just be a continuous stream of moments. In fact it is, but that is not how the mind really sees life. The mind remembers specific moments but there are gaps, it's never smooth. One is not conscious the entire time of every single moment that it is happening. But something happens between every conscious moment. A pause. Something happens in that pause, you think. More specifically, you connect what is going on inside your head with what is going on in front of you. The moment when the connection happens, when the inner world and outer world meet, is what is "between" moments. The thing is, we can never observe or be conscious of these moments because we are processing. It's like what happens when one is actually blinking. We never experience these moments in between moments when we are in them.

On some level we are conscious of not being able to see everything that is before us. Maybe these pauses are so small that nothing of consequence can happen without our notice. Still, there is a space for all kinds of conjectures to live. How exactly do we connect to the reality before us? How exactly do we think?

The doors in his photos might symbolize something to this end. Note that if a closet or bathroom door can be open, it will be. Often there is a reflection of a toilette in a mirror. I think toilets were first seen on TV in "I Love Lucy", their symbolism is often of the less pleasant things in life. In some of these images there is a sentiment of low esteem. "What you see in the mirror is sh**". Similar thing with closets, skeletons of the closet are out, or at least not fully hidden.

Another prominent symbol is cars. Often cars represent freedom (like horses used to in the old days, there is overlap in the symbolism of the Ford Mustang), or at least they are supposed to. However, they represent suburbs more than anything else. The whole institution of the suburb couldn't even exist without cars. People would just live in cities if they didn't have a car to commute to a remote suburb. Cars, highways, suburbs all grew up parallel to each other. Any car commercial of some shiny new model exceeding the speed limit on some scenic pristine curvy road, in what looks like Nova Scotia will have you believe that the car frees you to go wherever you want. Crewdson's cars are rarely going anywhere. If they are, it's sluggishly and our view is of break lights. The "back end" of freedom? The opposite of freedom? Entrapment? It is also significant that the cars are old. This might suggest something along the lines of; aging ideals, outdated yet stubbornly present moral/ideals/mantras/lifestyles/expectations. None of the characters in his pictures seem like they "chose" to be in the situation they find themselves. It is just that, they simply find themselves there. The car was supposed to stand for freedom, individualism (sharing transportation is for socialists), and personal choice. Now everyone is living with that "choice", and they don't seem happy about it. I put choice in quotes because the illusion of choice is part of what the car ends up representing in the end.

If another building can be seen through the window of the room pictured, Crewdson doesn't  miss the chance. Windows and doors both symbolize, traditionally, as well as in these images, points of contact; what goes in and out, what can be seen, attained, realized, achieved, holes in barriers and so on.

Another thing is that Crewdson grew up in New York City, but he has this fixation on the suburbs. The suburbs (and country) have long attracted the eyes and brains of artists (from cities, where artists like to live). For all the criticism  of "normalcy", it can be sort of enchanting if you feel like you never had "true" normalcy. I think it started during the industrial revolution, when people began to feel like life outside the city resembled life as it was meant to be much more than the man-made squalor of the cities of that time.

Men are often immobile, never virile, passive, sleeping or, I will go as far as saying, shadows of their former selves, or maybe just remnants of that which never was, wasted potential. You were given a life and you squandered it. The pointlessness is piercing.While the men sleep, the women are up. Vaguely witch-like, they engage in twilight activities that cannot possibly be "good", yet are invariably mundane.

Many of the isolated, lonely women are pregnant. The idea that this might be a comment on single mothers bores me. However, the disintegration of the nuclear family unit is definitely a part of it. It's not so much that families just fell apart, it's more that family life turned out to be, not great, so then families fell apart. People are realizing it wasn't great, en mass. Yet, there really aren't too many alternative models, so people go along with something they no longer really believe, for lack of anything else to do.

The relationships between the men and women are typically unhappy. Both feel isolated, in their own way, living in "quiet desperation" in the best cases. Otherwise, if there was desperation it expired. Like two old zoo animals, they resigned themselves to their cage completely.

The children are troubled, forlorn and few. Their notable absence further underscores the lack of hope. The suburbs were a children's world at one point. As late as the nineties, suburbs were depicted as safe havens for families with kids, where kids can have the kind of childhood one can look back on fondly. There was a postwar obsession with repopulating the earth (I wonder if this is possibly a component of all wars? It seems to be present in the aftermath of every mortal conflict). Now the job has been done. There are strands of Malthusian ideas in almost every apocalyptic fantasy and these images might be representations of the general sentiment. While the outcomes might not be catastrophic, the disillusion is real.

Some part of any empire, at any given time is crumbling, the suburbs are it in our time. There are always those areas where the gleam of affluence doesn't reach, and indeed wants to forget, if it hasn't already.

The word surreal gets a lot of use, the word is in danger of loosing its meaning. Crewdson's father was a psychiatrist and also a big influence on Crewdson's life (and work). It's likely that the focus on people's inner world, experienced in Crewdson's world, is a direct result of the residue of the study of the people who were Crewdson's Father's clients. In the documentary "Brief Encounter", Crewdson recounts a memorable story. His father's office was in their basement and young Gregory would attempt to listen in on the sessions to find out what kinds of secrets were being told. Breach of privacy aside, this sneaky curiosity that makes one want to get to the bottom of what's going on in each of these photographs. People love secrets, especially if they are dirty, and the secrets presented here are every one's favorite flavor. It is the very nosiness of the (uncoincidental) photographer protagonist in Rear Window, a movie that also greatly influenced Crewdson.

I think that the discovery of the subconscious, led to the discovery of the surreal. It did not exist before. We paint all kinds of things as surreal that came before the discovery of the surreal but this is anachronistic. The surreal is beyond real. This beyond is the subconscious, a thing that was not widely known to exist before a certain time and had qualities we widely dismiss (even if you are religious the reality of Demons is not a prominent focus of religion today).

I can go on and on about these images, it has taken me many months to wrote this post because every time I want to publish it, I see something new and worth noting or I want to further discus some seemingly innocuous aspect further to show that it's actually quite important. To me this Pandora's Box element is what really makes these worthwhile.

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