What we mean is not, clearly, a third physical dimension. Nor, necessarily, the pleasant falsities of perspective. Instead, depth in painting, in any form of art, is expressed along the measure of emotion.
Which we should not be ashamed to acknowledge. Rather, we should wander at the fact that op artists like Bridget Riley and Carmen Herrera, or chromatic aberrationists, such as the “cool” Frank Stella, or even Barnett Newman, were able to attract and sustain a following, and largely because they were relying on visual effects. For them the piece was not to point beyond itself. Because we swim in emotion’s currents, like fish in a stream, and we appreciate it every day. So why did these hard-edged pieces become known as art, why should we care?
Because they are not “emotionless.” Of course, nothing is, we are embodied, we are not automatons. What made these paintings attractive to some when they were first shown? Why do we still look at them?
In part these were a reaction to the hot house of the expressionists. Too much emotion can be as difficult as too little. These were “cool” works. Note that cool doesn’t just mean temperature, it’s a metaphor for damping down. Why?
Because the world is harsh, cruel, unfeeling. We’re looking at paintings painted in the era of atomic testing, the conflict for Civil Rights, the Vietnam War. Incoherence reigns. How easy to avoid such, and just practice on optical effects that confuse and excite the eye. How safe. By solely challenging sight, the artist dismisses the spirit.
For the eye is not merely a gate, but a passageway to the soul. By merely attending to perception we dismiss longing, which is a central tenet not merely of art, but of our lives. We are drawn to the “other,” and in its finest form, find that we have created ourselves anew through this passion. It helps us escape ourselves into something finer; with it we not only perceive, we (re)create a universe. We yearn to believe that there is an interconnectedness of things, invisible webs that tie us together, and do so in a bodily sense.
Great art provides and supports this belief, if we so permit it. It is more than just sense impressions, it is their translation by the viewer into an evolved sense of self, their transmigration into something new, which permits us to see the world according to the art work. This was expressed more elegantly by Merleau Ponty. Here I mean specifically that which is implied and evocative, not explicit and a manifesto.
That’s where depth comes in. The piece itself has communicative abilities – it “means” more than it is, but this meaning must be teased out, and because it is created in partnership by each viewer, is unique to her experience. There lies the frustration with “op art,” or more generally, with the “surface” of so much that is painting and other less classifiable pieces since the 1930’s, works that rely on effect and eschew meaning. We cannot help ourselves. We stare at these pieces until we freight them with sense – it is an explicit human trait. But because they disdain such, it is only ourselves that we are seeing, and we see into, not the other, but a mirror of our selves. Without a governor to correct, without escape.
By no means am I espousing only a return to narrative, although there is plenty of fine painting that permits the easy telling of a story. The finest pieces tell something more, be they be figurative or abstract, hung on a wall, or free standing, canvas and paint, iron, or neon.
What? A story ends. Happily ever after, or not, full stop. A finer story ends but the listener propels herself beyond it. “And then what happened?” An emotional connection to narrative, or to character has occurred; a merging of identity, be it with heroine, community, object, or landscape. The search for story, that is, a search for understanding, and hence the engendering of a sort of ease, is important. Indeed it is critical; as we search for meaning and try to embue our surroundings with understanding. Thus we possess a world.
And thus we are led to emotions that lead us to others. Pity, empathy, affection, and delight. They open up the world to us, and we find ourselves inserted, rooted in place and comforted in time.
This sense of comfort, that paradoxically is a companion of longing, is absent from “flat” painting. By comfort I deliberately mean a copacetic, not a codependent relationship with the object. Comfort comes from knowing that there is a “tradition,” and that the work lies within, acts within this. It may be breaking the “rules,” but it recognizes them, and so is able to “read” and to “speak,” even if it is speech without a tongue.
In contrast to working within the canon, there are those who seek originality – “thought” pieces. But this is not art. At best it’s an illustrative statement, a unidirectional, impoverished polemic which requires an earnest explanation by a gallerina or curatorial assistant, standing in front of the work, privileged in knowledge. Admittedly these pieces are without the awful weight of the past, but what their maker thought (if they thought at all) would be to their advantage actually shows to their detriment, and illustrates their shallowness. To what advantage is a roll of torn tissue paper and barbed wire sitting on a gallery floor? A dead animal submerged in a vat of liquid? A performance artist who declares her act of staying in bed for 48 hours straight a “work of art?” How should it be approached by the viewer? What does it serve? Why should anyone bother with it? And by extension, bother with anything? Exposure to these artifacts exhausts and deadens the viewer, they signal an end to compassion.
The counter could be that this “incomprehensibility,” though difficult, is worthwhile, of significance for it serves to engage the mind. We viewers, if we have the patience, “work” through the piece, and any transformation makes us more human, all thanks to the exposure. Indeed, roots of art come from the mind, but not only. We must also acknowledge the body, and its heritage is intuitive, implicit, one that cannot be found in “thoughtworks,” Work that ignores the spirit does so at peril. This way lies the triviality of ordinariness or worse, of incomprehension. A tree may be lovely, but it is not a poem, which is something else entirely.
That poem shows not “what” something is, but “how” something is. It invests emotional memory, it provides a “presence.” Great art reminds us that we are not condemned to always be alone. Far too often we neglect our commonality in favor of singleness, we forget that our feelings are not only ours any more than our thoughts are only ours. This alienation, an aspect of our life today, seems ever more obvious: who are we without our cell phones, for example? But we are with our phones ignoring the world as it is, for one that, again, reflects largely upon only ourselves.
Togetherness, its possibility, is not subject to explicit explanation, but we know and seek it, as we seek felt relationships with another, while at the same time, knowing that such is difficult, transient, impermanent. Yet we keep on trying. It is this necessary dimension to life that depth in painting supports, fosters, and through its example, allows for us a belief in its possibility. This dimension of longing, this search for union, and for timelessness, may be the only way for us to be in the presence of truth.