This is a commentary “About Seeing.” As an artist, it is one of my principle actions in life—to look. And what is it I see? As a painter this involves a translation into a very specific and rarefied picture plane, using paint or charcoal or what have you, onto a window of expression of what I am seeing, which records some message, some picture that others will look at and “see what I saw,” and more. Hopefully they will “see” something in themselves that they had not seen before, and the whole experience of seeing will be enhanced and enriched. They will walk away having seen something inspiring, and will be transformed into a more sensitive human being. They will walk away better “seers.”
What Do You See?
Maha Avatar Babaji painted some watercolors. He was actually pretty good at it. This one below is of a temple, typical of Shiva, with the trident at the crest of the pinnacle. Like most steeples and pinnacles, this one feels like some kind of reaching up, or drawing down from above, unseen forces that we want to show up and move us somehow, to bolster our faith and give us some real connection to a feeling of well being transcendent of our everyday routines.
What are we actually seeing? Colors, shapes, and lines. We put them together in our mind’s eye with another association we have had before. I know who Babaji is, and I have seen temples at his ashrams with pinnacles and tridents and forms along these lines of aspiration. But what if a person knew none of that? What would he see? A mountain in the background? A vertical string of 10 beadlike forms, which seem to be rising or falling, with a pointy thing at the top, like a vector? Two pathways that lead up to what appears to be two doorways, reminding them of garage doors? A post and lintel structure of some kind? Beyond that, a kind of building in the mountains, what else could you say you see? Do you glean an element of spiritual ascendency? That may be stretching it. Does it have a deeper vision because Babaji painted it? Could I have painted it? Could you?
So Much Stuff to See
There is so much stuff around us. Endless stuff it seems. Some of it is quite remarkable and beautiful in it own terms. About a week ago I got up early and went on a walk in our neighborhood at about 5AM. I walked down to the Anacostia River and headed west on the boardwalk toward the baseball stadium. At the end of the boardwalk there is a great view of the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge that was just completed earlier this year. At this time when it is still completely dark, one gets the benefit of the colored lights that illuminate the bridge in the wee hours of the morning. I was mesmerized. I stood there gawking and appreciating my good fortune to see the bridge in this pre dawn moment.
The darkness enhanced the scene. The reflections on the water of the ultramarine blue lights; the materials of the wooden boardwalk forming parallel lines of perspective; the beauty of the massive arches transversing the murky black water; the convergence of the metal and wire railing running off into the vanishing point of almost nothing. These are the elements that compose the scene, and we put them together to be inspired by a remarkable beauty or not. What do I see? What do you see? And what is the difference? Where do we see such a thing?
An Artist’s Vision
I was in art school at the Cleveland Institute of Art and I had a remarkable painting professor. Julian Stanczak was his name. He taught me how to see. Seeing was the subject of one lecture he gave us. I remember him asking us, “What is the difference between what you see and what I see?” I was stopped in my tracks to think about it. Then he said, “I see more. That is why I am here teaching you how to see.” Indeed he did see more—more into the depth of things. The sensitivity of things. The subtlety of things. The color of things. The meaning of things. The balance and harmony of things. The beauty of things. Indeed at that time in my life, he did “see more.”
He taught me how to look without preconceived notions of what I was looking at. His work had stripped away all other mental triggers of association, using geometric abstraction to give the eye an experience of pure forms and colors. Mind you, Julian had escaped war torn Europe during WWII and in the process lost the use of his right arm. He did not want to make any of that struggle part of his subject matter. In a way of transcendence, he endeavored to make his painting about only color, shape and light, as he used geometry and color to explore the pure relationships of these elements we see in everyday life.
Seeing Is Feeling
The order created in the painting by Stanczak is highly controlled and deliberate. Clear parameters of geometric shapes, color fields and precise masking tape layers form his process of arriving at these highly intricate and optical experiences. Concerned only with the way the eye perceives color, line and shape, the artist is focused on the feeling one gets from observing these overlapping fields of complexly constructed shapes and colors. For me it is one of transcendental awe. I feel the beauty of the mere order of it, and the color relationships shift in accordance with their immediate neighbor. Orange squares on a yellow field appear totally different than the same orange squares on a yellow-green field. Gathered all together, this cohesive “color experience” is one that I have probably never seen before. I am moved. I feel the love put into the work, and this alone is a revelation of “seeing.”
There is another way one feels in looking at a slice of life from our normal everyday scenes. This is a corner of my world, at my “work station” consisting of of my MAC, my calendar, my notebook in which I keep numbers and website addresses, my Apple earphones, a USB stick, and a plastic tooth pick. The cloth is a hand-sewn and embroidered textile from India. That is probably the most interesting item in this mixture. How does a person feel looking at this scene as opposed to a more structured “window of art?”
Would “Looking” without any preconceived notions of what you are looking at render the same open possibilities of feeling beauty, wonder, awe, appreciation, inspiration? My work station gives a lot of elements to consider. Are these elements consolidated into a whole, like Mr. Stanczak’s painting? The Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge picture has more orderly geometry and simplicity of elements: boardwalk, railing, water, bridge, sky. That’s about it—if it were not for that blue. Where have you seen a blue like that? Did you notice it? Go back and look again. That blue mesmerizes the soul. In this picture the forms are very pure and elemental. The form is the story. The picture can be seen just for the quality of its formal elements.
My work station could be reduced to pure forms, but probably in the middle of that “Looking” one would wonder who is Ghazal? Why is he seeing her at 10 AM on the 16th? What hands patiently attended to that intricate stitchery on the textile from India? Why does he use a MAC? Are the earphones in an infinity sign on purpose? What stuff is on that USB stick? The embossed tree on the leather cover of the journal is handsome—wish he would show more of that. Why does that green plastic toothpick seem to pop out of the picture?
Looking Comes From Stillness
If you really want to look and see you have to stop your mind from chattering. You also have to slow down. And attention has to be extended to more time than you may be used to giving something. When we look at a great piece of art, the attention given by the artist could have been weeks and months, even years. There is the time invested, then there is something time cannot add to the work, and that is the vision and genius of the artist. No one could paint with the tenderness of Raphael. It is as if the Divine Mother flowed through him and he became the Mother of Christ. Attention and the quality of it is everything when it comes to “Looking and Seeing.”
The Alba Madonna
This is the Alba Madonna. I have walked many-a-time to our National Gallery of Art to pay my respects to this masterpiece by Raphael. I can hardly believe our good fortune (and mine for that matter) as Americans to have such a work that transcends time from this great Italian High Renaissance Master. A trillion dollars could not buy it. More perfect a painting hardly exists. Mary, Jesus and John. The tenderness is more than palpable. The beauty is a crescendo that builds louder than a Legion of Angels singing the highest Hosanna. And this song all happens in the most resonate forte of absolute silence. Words are not even needed. Anything I could say would be superfluous. Just gaze at the thing for about a minute. Sixty seconds. Just LOOK at it. It has the same Divine Order of Stanczak’s geometry. Not only a formal order, but an interpersonal order of relationships. Mother and Children in Absolute Perfection.
Even if you knew nothing about Christianity and the Holy Story of Mary and Jesus, and the cousin John who accompanied Jesus to manifest His mission, you would tap into the transcendental nature of this painting. The anatomy of it is perfect. The light is sublime. The colors are harmony incarnate. The mood is penetrating. The image holds us transfixed in a moment outside of time. Perfection of the cosmos would bow to this painting, and rightfully so. Stars would take direction from this Divine Incarnation of Paint, even if they knew nothing about the Jesus Story. Raphael touched upon and struck a visual chord that the music of the spheres would all but envy.
But This is About Seeing
I am not trying to make a point about great art here, although I use great art in the demonstration of my thoughts “About Seeing.” The seeing is your responsibility for anything you look at. No one can tell you what to look at, nor how you are going to look at it. No one can really coach you on the “Art of Looking” until you want to master that in yourself. And this “Looking” is a faculty you already have. You just may not have honed it to the sharpness of another who has dedicated his life to Looking and Seeing. When Mr. Stanczak told me, ” I see more, and that’s why I’m here teaching you,” he was telling the truth. He was a master of seeing. He had compassion for me who did not see.
Fifty years later I am still Looking. And now I am “seeing more,” thanks to him and others I had in my life who opened my eyes. Life is About Seeing. Love is what we are looking for. Love is it. Love is what we are looking at, and what we ultimately see. To the degree we have something to give to that Love is the mark of whether or not we got this important life lesson, “About Seeing.”