Thursday, January 21, 2010

curated pictures #1

Leave a comment if you want the image sources-JB

here's a painting you folks have never seen before.

Thesis part 2: Umwelts

This is the second part of my thesis. To read the first part, keep scrolling down.


2. Umwelts

Shed Your Husk (2009) watercolor on paper, 12”x 7”

In 1934, the writer and biologist Jacob Von Uexkull wrote a small monograph entitled A Stroll Through The World of Animals and Men. In it, Uexkull develops a simple and poetic way of conceiving how humans can best understand the way that an animal perceives and interacts with its world. The subjective “soap bubble” world of an animal’s conscious or unconscious zone of interaction is what Uexkull calls the Umwelt. Critical theorist Giorgio Agamben describes Uexkull’s Umwelt as such:

Where classical science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered from the most elementary forms up to the higher organisms, Uexkull instead supposes an infinite variety of perceptual worlds that, though they are uncommunicating and reciprocally exclusive, are all equally perfect and linked together as if in a gigantic musical score. (Agamben 40)

The Umwelt cannot be synonymous with the animal’s life in an exterior environment. Conceiving of the animal within this exterior world would only be another way of describing a human’s conception of an animal within a human’s conception of the animal’s place. Uexkull’s Umwelt is different from this in that the way that the animal’s world looks is determined by the limits of the animal’s perceptions and range of action in response to it. Uexkull writes:
The Umwelt only acquires its admirable surety for animals if we include the functional tones in our contemplation of it. We may say that the number of objects which an animal can distinguish in its own world equals the number of functions it can carry out. If, along with few functions, it possesses few functional images, its world, too, will consist of few objects. As a result its world is indeed poorer, but all the more secure. For orientation is much easier among few objects than among many.” (49)

There is no objective reality in Uexkull’s science. We can draw conclusions regarding the borders of an animal’s Umwelt by analyzing how an animal is physiologically adapted or built to receive and respond to stimuli. Many anthropomorphic perils lie in the way of us honestly and accurately engaging an animal on its own terms. We cannot take even the most rudimentary aspects of our own world (depth or motor perception, for example) as fulfilling the same exact purpose within an animal who may see things very differently.

Jacob Von Uexkull (Belgian), two illustrations for A Stroll Through The Worlds of Animals and Men (58)

One of the most compelling questions which pops up in the study of the animal Umwelt is the relationship of an animal to other beings. In The Open, Giorgio Agamben relates Uexkull’s Umwelt to existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of “poverty in world.” “Poverty in world” refers to an animal’s inability to conceive of other beings due to a complete captivation by its set of relations (Agamben 52). In trying to understand this concept, we should remember Uexkull’s description of the boundaries of an Umwelt, the number of objects which appear in an animal’s world is closely related to the range of functions that animal is able to perform (Uexkull 49). An animal which lacks a basic self-awareness (being unable to recognize its own reflection in a mirror, for example) thus also lacks the capacity to recognize the potential for selfhood in any of the objects which could drift into its Umwelt. Different animals only interact with each other through channels built to fulfill certain selfish needs for the individual animal. Agamben describes it in this fashion:

The two perceptual worlds of the fly and the spider are absolutely uncommunicating, and yet so perfectly in tune that we might say that the original score of the fly, which we can also call its original image or archetype, acts on that of the spider in such a way that the web the spider weaves can be described as fly-like. (42)

With similar implications, Heidegger describes “poverty in world” as a kind of captivation or enthrallment-- an inability to conceive of an object as something beyond the need or needs it may fulfill. He writes, for example, that, “It is precisely being taken by its food that prevents the animal from taking up a position over and against this food” (Agamben 53). It is then perhaps, in considering both Uexkull and Heidegger, that the self-awareness animal perceives other objects in the world as subjects in and of themselves. “Investigations of a dog”, a short story by early 20th century German author Franz Kafka could be read as a story in which the primary conflict pivots around the main character’s “poverty in world”. Though conveyed with the voice of a human man, Kafka strains to tell the story of a hybrid being-- one who, for our purposes could be describes as being caught between Umwelts. The investigating dog is both aware of a broader horizon beyond what he sees and is also still very much ensnared by it. The protagonist becomes unsatisfied with his ‘dogness’ after witnessing an inexplicable event which the reader could only surmise to be a performance of circus dogs. Afterwards, the investigating dog tries to find meaning in the select stimuli that come to make up its environment. Unaware of the existence of humans, the investigator tries to gain understanding through a science that is very much based on a world defined by function. Kafka writes,

My personal observation tells me that the earth, when it is watered and scratched according to the rules of science, extrudes nourishment, and moreover in such quality, in such abundance, in such ways, in such places, at such hours as the laws partially or completely established by science demand. I accept all this; my question, however, is the following: ’Whence does the earth procure this food?’ A question which people in general pretend not to understand, and to which the best answer they can give is: ‘If you haven’t enough to eat we’ll give you some of ours’.” (288)

In both the science which the investigating dog accepts and the way his question is received, the limitations of the dog’s Umwelt become painfully clear. “Dog science” is not based on objective, observable phenomena. Rather, it focuses on the development of a more efficient satisfaction of the need for food. Similarly, despite how much the investigating dog longs to see an answer in the eyes of his comrades, their response to his questions are either inconceivable or ludicrous. The culminating scientific trial, which the investigating dog uses to test the limitations of his worldview, is a hunger strike. The dog says that, “The highest, if it is attainable, is attainable only by the highest effort, and the highest effort among us is voluntary fasting” (Kafka 309). This trial, though, does not result in a widening of the horizon, or any kind of eureka moment of understanding. Instead, it reveals the investigating dog’s inability to transcend its Umwelt. Kafka writes,

Here and now was the hour of deadly earnest, here my inquiries should have shown their value, but where had they vanished? Only a dog lay here helplessly snapping at the empty air, a dog who, though he still watered the ground with convulsive haste at short intervals and without being aware of it, could not remember even the shortest of the countless incantations stored in his memory. ( 31)

Ultimately, the dog fails in his mission to transcend his own limited perceptual state. What the dog can know and what the dog can make of its world is necessarily limited by what it has the capacity to perceive.


I like to imagine the viewer of one of my own paintings as taking an “excursion into an unknowable world”, suspending whatever limitation there are for a brief moment and venturing into another animal’s perceived Umwelt (Agamben 41). Any subjects that materialize within this field of vision would then lack the sense of cohesion or definition that the human brain may ascribe it. Like the jackdaw and the bathing trunks, what matters in the eyes of an animal may not be the definition of another living being, but instead the impression of one.
The formal pairing which was this essays point of departure-- a living presence alongside evident, material paint -- is compelling as a part of this framework because of the way that the former is drawn into question by the later. Unlike the results of our first inquiry in which the material mark and the illusion of presence were both defined by movement, material paint and the illusion of presence are in this case antagonistic. Evident paint obscures any attempt at definition and therefore relating to a unified subject within these paintings. The painted objects, both illusionistic and material, take on a hidden significance-- a meaning which can never be entirely known to us. It may instead only be available in fragments.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When it rains, it pours......

The Following is the introduction and first chapter of the thesis draft I wrote last semester. I will probably keep the ideas in this first section largely intact.... I may radically revise the introduction and the final part of section one in which I relate these ideas to my own process.
I'm a posting machine today, what can I say?


I am a painter who is fascinated by pictures which allow for the coexistence of two incongruous attributes- the impression of a living presence and evident paint. Living presence refers to the sensation of viewing a form that looks back at you; something which seems to possess its own subjecthood. Evident paint, on the other hand, is paint which is never completely submerged in illusion. It is always more or less honest about its physicality and unremarkable nature. The coexistence of the two in a single image is not impossible, but it often inspires a complicated or nuanced emotional experience for the viewer. It is also a prevalent trend in the world of contemporary painting. There is a strong precedent for it in the late paintings of Philip Guston and in the painted photographs of Gerhard Richter. My passion for the Paintings of Cecily Brown, Elizabeth Neel, and Katy Moran is likely one of the primary reasons that my own practice has engaged in this same realm of ambiguity. But now that I am involved in it and am so interested in it, I want to try to determine what this ambiguity can mean for me and how I can define it in such a way that I can own it as my own.
In this essay, I will present three different ways of conceiving of and explaining how this ambiguity effects interpretations of my paintings. I do not see the three of them as different points in the same argument, but instead as potential points of departure that have cumulatively influenced the trajectory of my studio process. I chose them because they reflect one of the other lasting aspects of my studio process: a love for and fascination with the animal. I have found that through the course of this research, the animal and the ambiguity in my artwork are closely linked together.


1. Consciousness is Hesitation

The first means of understanding the tension in my paintings sprang from a close reading of the philosopher Henri Bergson’s seminal work Creative Evolution. In it, Bergson attempts to reconsider the relationship between the natural sciences and philosophy from the ground up. Creative Evolution is rooted in a belief that life is a “current of creative energy”. It is a zone of continual play, motivated not by efficiency alone but also by the incorporation of chance and irrationality (62). Bergson notes this when he writes, “Nature is more and better than a plan in the course of realization. A plan is a term assigned to labor: it closes the future whose form it indicates. Before the evolution of life, on the contrary, the portals remain wide open” (Pearson 67). Life does more than just sustain itself within a predetermined set of conditions-- life bubbles over its container. It not only sustains itself, but exceeds the parameters placed around it.

This is how Bergson makes sense of the animal in relation to the plant. The animal and plant are both alive, obviously, but they respond to slightly different environmental constraints. The plant needs to sustain itself by somehow developing a process in which its immediate environment can provide it with everything it needs. The plant uses the nutrients and energy of the sun, soil, and air to equalize the energy it uses with the energy it is provided with. The animal, however, is life’s answer to a slightly more complicated question: Can something be alive and have to seek out its own food source? For Bergson, every type of animal has to answer to this “seeking out”, this need to move, in its own way. Over time the animal has developed limbs, muscles and a central nervous system in order to better coordinate and propel itself through space (Bergson 155). Animal scientist and author Temple Grandin discusses exactly this difference in her book Animals In Translation. To illustrate her point, Grandin describes an animal called a sea squirt, an organism which starts out its life as a tiny mobile animal with a cluster of only 300 or so brain cells (Grandin 121). It spends the first phase of its life searching for the perfect spot to plant itself. The sea squirt then roots there permanently, turning from an animal into a plant and actually eating its own brain and tail muscles in the process (Grandin 121). The animal is intimately related to the plant. What differences there are between them are a function of the animal’s need for speed.

The Sea Squirt

We can follow the implications of this difference between plant and animal one step further. Consciousness, according to Bergson, has also developed as a function of the animal’s need for mobility. In other words, the same force which gave rise to opposable thumbs is behind the tools of consciousness which we use to perceive and manage our world. The conscious animal’s horizon has broadened exponentially: it can retain memories, it can build mental pictures to help it manipulate or predict its environment, and it can weigh these different pictures against one another in order to come to more informed decisions on how to act. Pearson writes that, “With the human animal the life of consciousness reaches its highest state of emancipation from the restricted movement of matter” (68). In the conscious animal, then, life is best characterized as a more or less consistent hesitation between realms of sensory input and mental projection as much as it is a navigation of physical environments.

It may prove productive to reach out with this idea of conscious life as hesitation to other less expected places. Take this statement by the painter Leon Golub, speaking more than twenty five years ago:

The very fact that the ads and the nightly news and all those things were on together bombarding people in their homes made it all the more horrific. All this atomized chaos, all the controlled and uncontrolled verbal and imagistic garbage jitters in the skulls of the onlookers even as it jitters in the skulls of the media manipulators. We’re up against simultaneous bombardments from a range of media sources.
(Newman 6)

What is of interest to me here is Golub’s choice of the word “jitteriness” to describe the way he feels watching TV. What he describes is a change in the pace of media to the point where individual images and stories are no longer consciously separated, but flow together in one stream of information. It is a shift from something which requires part of one’s attention to something which requires all of one’s attention. Not only is conscious life hesitation, but the way that life is represented in the modern media landscape can be described along exactly the same lines. Both Bergson’s hesitating life and Golub’s jittering media do the same thing-- the jitteriness of both result from the subject’s attempt to turn this scattered array of information into a coherent sense of identity and world. There are other ways of representing the subject which relate to this kind of unceasing movement. In his discussion of the early daguerreotype, Jalal Toufic offers a new way of conceiving this represented life in terms of hesitation. He writes,

The first thing that one notices in many nineteenth century photographs is the blurriness of the living. Since the early daguerreotypes and calotypes required long, multi minute exposures, at first photography best preserved the dead, not
the living, the quick (quick. 6. Archaic a. Alive. [American Heritage Dictionary])... To belong to nature whether as an object or as a living entity is to be restless. (161)

For Toufic, blurriness is the most accurate way of picturing the living subject. It is subtle enough that it describes a cerebral or conscious movement just as much as it seems related to a direct physical action.

Jasquith, Nathanial. Mother (circa 1860) Photograph, 1/4 plate daguerreotype.


The ambiguity which defines my painting practice may be attractive to me for some of the same reasons. In this case, the impression of presence and the gestural mark could harmoniously coincide through a shared connection to movement. If we follow the leads of Golub and Toufic, it may be that the most convincing representation of the subject is also the moving subject, perhaps even more so than the confirmation associated with a recognizable form. The evident paint mark can also emphasize movement through the trace of the artist hand. When he briefly discusses the artist in Creative Evolution, Bergson implies exactly this. Pearson writes, “The eye... perceives the features of the living in terms of an assembling and not as something involving mutual organization and reciprocal interpenetration... it is in Creative Evolution that Bergson poses the question: what is the time of a work of art, that is, what is the time of its creation of form?” (67). Apparent individual marks can counteract the unifying tendencies of the eye and contribute to the perceived hesitation of the whole figure. Like the rings of a tree trunk, the evident mark can act to demonstrate its own rate of growth within that of the whole. A short dash conveys a completely different type of time than a slow drip, for example, and when the two are juxtaposed together, the painted subject begins to jitter and move subtly. In this way, the movement of the individual strokes can work in concert to produce a jittering, painted subject.

tune in next week for Section 2: Umwelts

New, as in like months old.

I've been making drawings. These are made by rubbing some snake and lizard skins. And just by drawing, too.

This painting is finished. I really like it. Like, maybe thesis show like it.

This is a painting I am making. I think of it like I am growing a "garden of paint," if I want to be billowy and silly sounding. Or maybe better: accumulating a compost heap of paint. This photo is blurry. Sorry!

This is a big animal I am painting. It's paw still isn't finished.

I don't know, I just made this.


From The Wonderful World of Nature, Roedelberger,F.A. London: Constable and Philips, 1960


From The Wonderful World of Nature, Roedelberger,F.A. London: Constable and Philips, 1960


From The Wonderful World of Nature, Roedelberger,F.A. London: Constable and Philips, 1960