The act of staring

painting study by andrew conti

I had the thought the other day that paintings are like pools of water. You can glance at them and see their surface – letting your mind fill with ideas about the coolness of their water, the still silence of their surfaces, and the potential of their depth. Move closer, stare deeper, focus, and you see more. You see a second surface below, see the movements of creatures underneath, the sway and wobble of their deep environment.

Then you blink, and your back at the surface. Once you do this you can let your eyes wander and focus, focus and wander, moving from surface to depths, and all strata in between. As our eyes move between these layers the painting can take on multiple appearances, multiple images, multiple worlds.

One is never wrong to simply see the surface, but certainly that isn’t all that’s there.

And then of course you can reach your finger in, and start to see the ripples.

I’ve been spending a lot of time simply staring into some paintings lately. (Most notably moving through works by Joanne Greenbaum, Elizabeth Gilfilen, Brett Baker, and Kamisaka Sekka). I spend afternoons laying around, just allowing my eyes to drift all over the place, up and down in the layers of their paintings. Tracing their forms, and doodling a bit of what I see and experience. I think of it as a bit of studying.

Somewhere though, I still hold on to the idea that serious study or learning comes from sitting up straight at a desk reading through a text. But, I love just staring at pictures slowly, soaking them in and all the twists and turn of their brushwork, lines, and forms. A terribly un-serious form of studying.

Yet, when I say ‘serious,’ I realize I am allowing myself to buy into a dominant way of thinking about study and learning that I don’t necessarily agree with. On the one hand, I battle the sense that this isn’t a productive use of my limited time, and on the other, I feel there is an underlying sense of knowledge, plunged into me shortly after birth – or arrival at a school– that serious study involves the reading of text.

Yet, if I stop and think. What I am doing is a kind of study, and not an unimportant one in terms of painting and art. But I think it goes a bit deeper than that.

We over-value words in understanding the world. Things aren’t serious, aren’t important, or of value until they are written out and written down. God being in the beginning ‘the word’ and all. We make textual narrative the center of everything, but it isn’t the center of everything.

Writing seems to have a lot more in common with math than painting. All these abstract little shapes and lines, forced together in straight marches across the page. Dutiful soldiers full of their own ideas, but giving them up for the imagined mission of writing.

When you stare at a painting though, you realize that every little line, every little curve and jut, form and emptiness is a mind thinking and transmitting those thoughts. The layers of a painting emerge from the thoughts of a mind in the world and thinking about the world. They aren’t as neat or clean as the words of a text or narrative, and that is what makes them so worthy of really, truly, longingly, lazily being stared at.

The notion that not all thought fits or needs words, that somethings are better revealed slowly in forms you don’t quite understand but can, rather than the simply regimented and clear – this is what makes painting and drawing so valuable and fascinating.

Images maintain a ton of information about what they portray, and not the half of it reveals itself in the quick little glances the internet trains us for. Depth comes with time and attention, inviting a different kind of thought – like little pools to rest by.