I’m maundering around Robert Irwin and the concept of perception. It was the Oct 14 NY Times article on Irwin that got me thinking — again — about what and how and why we perceive.

Irwin, in one of his exhibits, made a small but significant change to a San Diego Museum room that overlooked a wide view of the Pacific ocean. His exhibit consisted of cutting three rectangles into the existing windows. The Times quotes Irwin, “At first I didn’t realize the glass was tinted….So not only did my holes let in air and sound, adding another dimension to the experience, but they made everything seen through them appear in greater focus.” The reporter adds that Irwin “opened the window, that age-old pictorial device, letting in a cool rush of reality.”

Alternatively, I think I spend much of my time in reality. So, to reverse Irwin, I’ve been painting “stuff” around my neighborhood base. No sweeping views of vales and rivers, of volcanoes and archaic structures. Instead, I’m trying to perceive, in a painterly fashion, the place I spend most of my time. As usual for me, it consists of much that is “natural,” that is, growing things.

As usual, it’s outside, where I can enjoy the sun (when it shines) and the air and light.

paintingsvwtree.jpg Volkswagen and Horse Chestnut tree, 12 x 16, Pleine aire

In some ways, it feels to me like I’m going through Irwin to the other side — his concern is art “as a vehicle for attuning or returning individual patterns of attention and perception.” Mine is to stop seeing the world as full of my visual life and to see it as a painting.

I’m paying attention to my world, not just familiar, comforting, as city, full of interesting characters, Pacific northwest, foliage eating houses, but as containing appropriate scenes for painting. And painting as I can perceive it as well as the way it normally confronts me.

This is, of course, the traditional task of painters. And yet, thinking this way — what to paint, why to paint, how to paint — about my quotidian world, cuts open that window and makes me perceive more attentively and quite differently. The contemplation of painting the scenes opens them up.

irwin says “In a way it’s a simple thing. For the next week, try the best you can to pay attention to sounds. You will start hearing all these sounds coming in. Once you let them in, you’ve already done the first and most critical thing, you’ve honored that information by including it. And by doing that you’ve actually changed the world. It’s nothing mystical but you’ve redefined the world for yourself.”

So today, in keeping with the idea of furthering my education as an attentive eye, I put on a sound-deadening headset (meant for chain saw operators, I think), to see if cutting out one of the senses might sharpen another. You remember I said it was easier to listen to sounds if I closed my eyes. So I closed my ears to check out the view. But, it didn’t work that way. Neither looking at the view nor painting it was changed by my headset. I think it’s because viewing is so primary to the human consciousness that it takes precedence. So we already have a kind of sound-deadening mechanism when we pay full attention to seeing. And in painting a further attribute of the activity is physical — if I’m not paying attention to seeing, I’m paying attention to moving the brush as I want it to move.


Strange tree with houses 7 x 10, pleine aire

Irwin’s charge to himself is to alter the site in order to break the viewer’s preconceptions and bring new perceptions. My charge to myself was to stop looking, smelling, enjoying, strolling, conversing, checking out the neighborhood, and look at it solely as providing painting opportunities. It was a whole new view of where I live.


Ash Tree at Sunset, 12 x 16, pleine aire

So, the question I pose to you is, how do you break through your preconceptions and normal perceptions. If you are accustomed to seeing everything as potential for some art — what might break that perception. And vice-versa, when what you see is too quotidian, too daily, to be art, what can you do to see it otherwise. Or is it wise to even try?

paintingash3.jpg Ash Tree, Looking Up (in Process) 36 x 48, studio