a commentary on a comment

Some friends of mine have been having a hard time understanding the comments I made about Jeff Jahn’s review of Bryan Schellinger’s show at Quality Pictures in Portland, Oregon. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to retrace my steps and provide an overview of the discussion, such as it is.

What it all boils down to was that, firstly, I was observing that Jeff’s comments about the state of “abstraction” at the present moment could apply to another artist (Abts) that I’d seen recently. Jeff replied that although he had omitted to mention her in his post, he definitely had her in mind on top of the other artists mentioned.

Jeff had used the phrase “sitting on the fence” in his first post to describe the activities of contemporary artists who cannot be seen to be strict abstractionists—in a Modernist sense of the term. Stemming from this particular term’s negative overtones I imagined that Jeff was suggesting that these artists had muddied the clear waters of their work with elements which in the past would have been anathema to this style. My second point was that this phrase sounded too negative in the context and that rather than seeing it as an unresolved state (neither one side of the fence nor the other), one can equally see it as a successful (but inevitably contingent) resolution in a piece of work of the continuing battle each artist wages with the history of art. But Jeff corrected my impression of his words, agreeing:

. . . in most cases riding a fence just means the artist is hedging but in my Schellinger review I was indicating that those additional complications actually worked in this case.1

I find the idea of art using “impurities” as a method of “complicating” their meaning and effects really interesting in terms of what that means for the viewer’s understanding of the work and whether in so doing we get a stronger connection to that meaning – the idea that clarity of purpose and meaning is perhaps less effective in the context of art than the alternative. Put simplistically, one aspect of this is that something that makes you think is more valuable than something that thinks for you.

I would have to relate this to my own particular interests in the field of philosophy. There is writing that is straightforward – and that is valuable and worthwhile in it’s own way. But there is also writing that is difficult, and intentionally so because it is forcing the reader to second-guess the writing, to continually try to recreate its meaning and by so doing gain a new understanding of that meaning. Anyone who knows me will be unsurprised that I am thinking in particular here of the work of Deleuze and Guattari, which I doubt anyone would claim to be easy to understand. The point is not that this work should be simple, that it should be a manual that you can follow, step by step. The point is that it is difficult and by being difficult tries to avoid proscribing thinking, but leads to what D&G I think would call “lines of flight,” points at which the understanding jumps out of habitual modes of thinking and proceeds tangentially, to some alternative insight.

At the risk of muddying my own waters, I’ll quote a definition of “lines of flight”:

A ‘line of flight’ is a path of mutation precipitated through the actualisation of connections among bodies that were previously only implicit (or ‘virtual’) that releases new powers in the capacities of those bodies to act and respond.2

This discussion demonstrates, I think, that from small starting points one can gain some big effects, which is one reason I love art!

  1. JAHN, Jeff (2007). Interesting combinations & feedback. PORT [Internet] 10 July 2007. Available from <http://www.portlandart.net/archives/2007/07/interesting_com.html> [Accessed 14 July 2007]
  2. LORRAINE, Tamsin (2005). Lines of Flight. In PARR, Adrian. The Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 144–146.
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