To imagine the object of one’s attention
attempting to sustain
an independent view.
When objects and the spaces that they occupy change places, what is the “place” that this exchange takes place in? Answer: Our place. To explain this will take some telling.
The question of place arises in looking at these five new canvases by Terry Winters, because in each of them spaces themselves become objects (even objects with quasi-mathematical identities) and the objects that are positioned in proximity to them or problematically ensconced within them—are not only objects, but spaces too. Object and space approach each other, become each other, deform each other. One thinks immediately of the famous bon mot of cosmologist John Wheeler, “Mass grips space by telling it how to curve; space grips mass by telling it how to move.” But more than that, objects are themselves deformations of space, and space itself, qua this deformability, is a kind of object.
For the physicist and for the painter, the meta-space (if there is one) that contains both space and object must seem a kind of ontological mystery: a space not susceptible to mathematicization, something like “Being in the rough,” prior to representation or conceptualization. Not that such a space appears, but its pertinence is intimated.
In Terry Winters’ pictures, the turning of space into object and object into space throws the relationship between paint and image into a remarkable and productive crisis. For if objects are spaces and spaces are objects in the order of representation, the relation between paint and image is drawn into a parallel inversion in the order of material presence. Clumps and swashes of paint relate to each other spatially apart from and in addition to the spaces developed by representational function; and the local distribution of paint on the material canvas yields spatially entangled and complexly layered quasi-entities, which in turn may suggest more or less evanescent images. The two orders, representation and materiality, enter into a rich and gritty self-transforming dialogue, the suggestive implications of the one, resonating, entraining, repelling, contrasting with the other.
A similarly productive clutch of dualities obtains in Winters’ work in regard to the forever vexed question of optical symmetry and compositional balance. Because the images and spaces in Winters’ canvases directly invoke objects whose essential existence is mathematical, some reflection on the meaning of symmetry in mathematics is perhaps in order.
We perceive in these canvases what seem to be arrays, lattices, matrices of almost well-defined objects–spheres, boxes, knots–in rows and columns that are being broken up by other presences and forces, or else that are being hung or smashed or suspended in grids, that are themselves warped, broken, or interfered with by other grids, matrices, or fields. These highly organized objects and, lets call them “fields,” show powerful bi-lateral symmetries. Their unsettled placement on the canvas and the many ways in which they are disrupted, bespeak anti-symmetrical exigencies. Further, if one’s eye foregrounds these objects and fields in one’s experience of the painting, there is a disturbing sense that the canons of compositional balance for objects in their spaces are being abandoned or disrupted with some violence, at the same time that a very frontal and obvious sense of spatial order is being aggressively asserted.
Many of Winters’ “objects”–spheroids, stellate configurations, cubes, nodes–in a sense reflect the interface and distortion between two modes of analysis: geometry with its fully determined metric and capacity to specify visual symmetries precisely; and topology with its discovery of invariances beyond the metrical, optical balances of geometry. In mathematics, symmetry is invariance; optical symmetry, its visually perceptible avatar. Material contingency rips at or cajoles physical objects away from the symmetrical forms they theoretically embody. So the struggle between symmetrical and disrupted forces in Winters’ paintings, because of the suggested geometrical and topological references in their imagery, calls to mind the very tussle between ideal, mathematical objects (and spaces) and the perceptual/optical entities (and spaces) that painting mediates from visual experience, and that mathematics curiously relates to and in some manner determines.
Step back from the detail of the mathematics, and one cannot say whether the dialectic between contingency and symmetry itself isn’t the product of a certain profound human desire. Something in the very being of the mathematician–and many would not only admit but insist upon this–craves to find in material existence or in Being itself, the solace and harmony of symmetrical structures. Winters’ pictures seem to expose this desire to the very contingencies it wishes to dispel, forcing representations of mathematical and physical objects to confront the conditions of visual experience, the materiality of paint and canvas, and the socio-historical conditions of the artistic traditions that have in the past and continue to reflect upon them.
* * *
In speaking of the object-character of the representation of space in Winters’ canvases, it should be clear that I am not referring to so-called “negative space,” or at least not primarily so.
If the objecthood of negative space is already quite mature in Cézanne and Matisse, then the (Euclidean) geometricization of the picture plane is absolute in Mondrian. In Winters, both of these directions are reflected further: objectified space exhibits geometrical features wildly beyond the Euclidean grid. We see in these new works hyper-dimensional, warped, and interpenetrating manifolds and quasi-objects, whose geometrical identities share in the characteristics of these mathematically advanced spaces—and even develop properties mathematics might still have some difficulty representing; i.e., the disintegration or fragmentation of such spaces and objects, or their even being confronted by sentient presences.
Further. The space of our experience on earth violates symmetry largely because we are placed in a gravitational field. Thus, in conventional pictorial space, the bottom of the canvas is down, and objects, to the degree that they are identifiable, or even if they are just represented with a volumetric characteristic, possess “weight” and are thus oriented to a gravitational distribution of space. But for the astrophysicist space is only oriented gravitationally in the presence of massive objects like the planet earth. Beyond the gravitational field, as we know, objects float free, and space is up/down symmetrical. (Left or right is another matter.)
Winters’ images of object-like forms are frequently distributed over the canvas in ways that suggest symmetrical arrays that are themselves being subject to partially hidden, highly organized forces: symmetrical lattices; warped or buckled or partially occluded grids; reticulated networks and patterns interfering and interacting with each other. These forms seem to cover the canvases globally and serve as matrices for most if not all the pictures. The degree of occultation, torquing, distortion and the suggested means by which this occurs, varies from canvas to canvas. But the pictorial spaces are not particularly oriented gravitationally. The bottom of the canvas is not necessarily, spatially, “down.” One could be looking into extraterrestrial regions where gravity does not function to orient the objects. I am not suggesting the images look like outer space: their closeness, frontality, density, and upfront agitation in the foreground have nothing of the vast emptiness of the sublime images of space on a galactic scale promoted by NASA. But the deflected webs of Winters’ canvases do prevent spatial orientation. Absence of orientation, roughly, equals symmetry. The distribution of forms seems to say, “You may, if not exactly turn us every which way, still you can look down on us, up at us, through to us.”
In spite of this gravity-less tendency towards symmetry, the quasi-symmetric arrays of objects and the matrices of spaces are everywhere disrupted. Everything is in incipient or perhaps partially arrested flight or scatter; in motion or commotion that comes close to disorganizing the geometry through which things move. Symmetry is represented only to stand off against highly contingent and asymmetrical forces.
* * *
In some of the pictures–Arcade, for instance, or Tessellation, or Folding, the disruptive forces threaten or even positively refuse the traditional compositional balance. The eye of the viewer–or possibly something more than the eye, although deeply informing the visual–is forced to enter into a kind of altered state, to allow the optical material to act upon one in a more penetrating way.
There are forms of meditation, for instance, that do not aim to resolve cognitive and sensuous dissonance in favor of an ideal tranquility, but rather open to dynamic qualities and to integrate inchoate or only partially determinate forms. A multiplicity of sensuous sources and even mental activities are tolerated and embraced, while the presence of awareness is maintained through whatever arises in mind or sensorium. What follows within such a practice has an order that is decidedly not limited to symmetrical or otherwise soothing aesthetic forms, but achieves a certain brilliance and positivity through the unimpeded operation of awareness itself. In terms of painting, such awareness may discover terms of aesthetic achievement, delectation, and reflection that transcends the centrality of order itself. Compositional issues themselves then become objects of reflection while at the same time advancing the principle of visual creativity and the generation of nuanced innovation. There is something at work here that seems other than composition; other than the arrangement of image within a rectangular field.
For instance, the compositional resolution of the surface is replaced by a certain compactness and density. There is an intimate contiguity of blocks and swatches of paint, formed into shape-like entities. Such forms displace or at least complement, offset, and disrupt the very contrast/conflict between symmetrical and asymmetrical aspects of the painting from central pictorial concern. They impart to the work an active and activating sense of fullness. It is almost as if, mysteriously, there is no “space” at all–no open areas surrounding and containing images of objects. It is not even that attention is being paid to “negative space,” where the shapes and qualities of the distance between things are taken up into the composition. There are no such negative spaces, unless they be the quite unvisualized distances between the counteracting spatial fields. What in one instant seems a space between, instantly becomes an objective form in its own right. Every form abuts another; every surface/object passes to another, edge to edge, surface to surface; edge overwriting edge, surface covering surface. Finally the only space available to contain the entire painterly dynamism is the space that I myself as viewer also occupy.
The compact space itself is in dynamic agitation; it visually swells, circulates, folds. The space–and here it is the optical surface, not only the represented space as object–that spins, swirls, circulates, jitters (or stands still), sparkles (or dampens), bristles, amuses, delights and, in spite of everything, even soothes. Though Terry Winters’ aesthetic universe shares nothing obviously with the op(tical) art of the late 1960s, the visceral, i.e. retinal activity set in motion by the interpenetrating lattices and systems of spots and squares is an indelible aspect of the energy of the canvases.
This series of contrasts/conflicts becomes a kind of ontological laboratory for the generation of pictorial events that do not resolve within the painting itself but project beyond to the viewer. “Reality,” says poet Charles Olson, “is unfinished business.” The painting itself is projected into the concrete space of the viewer, so that the picture’s object-hood is released or relieved, and a dynamic circuit between act of painting, painted canvas, and act of viewing is set in motion and never broken. One in a sense cannot speak of the formal character or closure of the painting as such, for paradoxically, this very character, were one to spell it out, would break the system that makes its pictorial dynamism possible. The life of the work requires its own further life–its dynamic extension into the space and participation of the viewer.