I have been skimming James Elkin’s How to Use Your Eyes and The Object Stares Back, Joseph Alber’s Interaction of Color, Martin Kemp’s Visualizations, and Katherine Harmon’s You Are Here, while I have begun to read The Power of Maps by Denis Wood. If I were to focus on a single thread these books have in common, it would be a “sense of awareness.” An awareness of the unnoticed, the hidden, or information we usually don’t take the time to think about; and perhaps more importantly, an awareness of the past as it manifests itself in the present. The past is revealed when one takes the time to notice and/or learn about its physical evidence. In other words, if we take the time to truly look, there is narrative in everything we see.
James Elkin’s book How to Use Your Eyes was instrumental in bringing me to this conclusion. I was first drawn to the chapter How to Look at a Map and was mildly interested in Elkin’s observations on the European influences apparent in the map maker’ efforts. However, it was his chapters on cracks in pavement (of all things!) and paintings that really caught my attention. Cracks are fairly common elements and are easy to overlook. The map-like quality of the chapters’ photos caused me to pause and Elkin’s text urged me to look closer. He explained how crack formations are indicative of specific events or conditions (material, weather, etc.) and in each case, the physical appearance of the cracks tells the informed viewer what those events or conditions were. So in a way, cracks are maps of the past. Maps that tell a story.
In my last post I talked about how we carry a sense of space derived from our birth house with us for our entire life. Now I am looking at cracks in paint and wondering what story they have to tell. While seemingly divergent, these thoughts do share a commonality: both require an awareness of the past.
Allow me to expand on my reverie by referring to the exercise in Joseph Alber’s book where you stare at a page of yellow circles and then focus on a blank white paper and see an after-image of yellow diamonds. The exercise is meant to demonstrate the interdependence of color (and does so quite nicely), but for the sake of my line of reasoning, let’s use it as an example of the physical manifestation of the past in the present. Although we are no longer looking at the yellow circles, their evidence remains. However, unless we are specifically doing this exercise and looking at white paper, we are not likely to notice the after-image. A “sense of awareness” is highly dependent on the act of observing.
Which brings me to another point (or the same point, but more so!) In his book Visualizations, Martin Kemp uses the power of observation to create a hinge between Art and Science. Both scientists and artists study an object in order to gain understanding, and sometimes their observations enable them to see things in a different way.
In Visualizations I was attracted to Susan Derge’s Taw series where she treats the surface of a river as a photographic transparency. The resulting patterns offer the viewer a new way of seeing the rivulets on the water’s surface. The topographic quality of the images is striking and I can’t help but think of Elkin’s cracks and wonder what stories Derge’s rivulets have to tell.