Phenomenology....

An Artscape 2004 Exhibit in the Meyerhoff Gallery
On the Maryland Institute College of Art campus
Baltimore, Maryland
July 9 to July 31, 2005

Curators: Chezia Thompson Cager & Maren Hassinger

America why are your libraries [museums/galleries] full of tears."
Allen Ginsberg- 1956

 
Phenomenology - Caged Heuristics
Phenomenology - River Jacks
Phenomenology - Sacred Geometry
Phenomenology - Various Artists
Phenomenology - Various Artists 2

Phenomenology Artists Reception Photos
 

 
 
I. Prologue

Even as it evolved within late 20th century vocabulary of ambiguous abstraction, sculpture's primary reason for existence was and is to be experienced as phenomena: experienced as the corporal integration of organic manner observing its own process of being. One way to see the abstraction strategy is to see it as a way to activate the phenomenal eye of the artist over their realist vision. The purposeful selection of objects to sculpt is a kind of physical obsession. There is a certain actuality to composing either real or imagined 3-dimensional objects.

Many Americans believe that there are no "great" post-modern artists; that post- modern artists flounder in the sea of reproducible art, that has technology as its mother and modern commercialism as a father. For many, this is a kind of truth with which we have learned to live. The question is how does it help us see the truth of our humanity more clearly? How does it enhance our ability to function collaboratively in a world of different kinds of organic matter?

Due to the real fluctuation of all things within our visual/sensual purview, Pyrrho of Elea (365-275 B.C. - a contemporary of Epicurus) is famous for having advocated a suspension of judgment on all affirmative claims of cosmic truths. This process reduces what he called absolute truths to merely relative opinions. Pyrrho is also said to believe that the only truth attainable is the perception of phenomena of our everyday world, which can be said to be relative to each person. Some philosophers believe that these 2 statements contradict each other but we think that they corroborate each other as methodologies for examining art objects.

The average museum/gallery visitor would certainly agree that what they see and how they feel about a piece of art work is a matter of personal opinion.  Nevertheless, in the process of protecting, extolling, creating a culture to under gird our attempts to live humane human lives, is the museum/gallery responsible for creating/delineating authentic aesthetic standards connected to their viewer? How is the visitor connected to the artist at the level of consciousness and symbiotic cultural elements? What can advocating viewing our existence phenomenologically through visual art teach us about the world around us- the world inside of us?

II. Contact

What is beauty?

We experience beauty as a sensation. Merleau-Ponty says," . . .Conversely, normal functioning [of the sensory and motor system in a variable physiological constellation] must be understood as a process of integration in which the text of the external world is not so much copied, as composed." (Merleau-Ponty 9) We hold within us an "idea" of beauty that seeks verification in the external world. When we find models of that idea, we label them beautiful.

The 2004 two feet tall, with 2 feet twig arms wrapped in tree bark, clay head with green fabric leaves hair, acrylic paint, seed cone breasts, antique silver brooch breast plated "Daphne," is the feminine found-wood and metal doll of Oletha DeVane. She resembles a Miles Davis fusion dance: the beautiful in motion. Her upturned face is illuminated by her prayer, spewing forth as gray wire water energy spirals from her mouth and hands as she begins to move between voluptuous be-jeweled breast-plated woman to tree.  The victim of the Greek god Eros' cruel revenge on Apollo for insulting his archery prowess, Daphne (the daughter of a Greek river god) tries to escape the ardor of Apollo. Close to being captured, she prays for deliverance and is turned into a Laurel Tree- which then becomes sacred to Apollo; who forever after wears a crown of Laurel leaves. The elegant collision of style in form with some momentous power that welds the beautiful head and breast to the austere tree limb, ( 2 unlikely elements together in an unusual metaphorical body) characterizes this sculpture and much of DeVane's work. Like Regina Silveira's "Monudentro" ability to use shadow to strictly divine form, DeVane's "Mixed Media" uses the difference in elements, shadow and light to talk to the viewer about grace and power.
The 2001 "Sacred Geometry"- The Book mixes media on canvas and vinyl pages that read like a would-be, Galileo or Da Vinci notebook of remembrances in images of man's relationship to his creator and his organic world. She connects "gold man" to "black man" to Africa to history in 18 pages of collaged imagery and historic quotes and poems by Donna Denize.
Nevertheless, the artist's brief hand written statement is the most illuminating. DeVane herself says, " Graven upon the tablet of man the secrets and pre-existence taught him from the mysteries of divine utterance
that which he knew not, made him a Luminous Book."

DeVane imitates man's physicality in "Sacred Geometry" and "Daphne."  Much of the formal history of sculpture details artists creating human or animal bodies. As with the "Moon Gourds" and other works, John Ruppert parts with that history in his 2004 "River Jacks" to recreate rocks big enough to "jack up" a boat on a river and beautiful enough to stop traffic with their color and form. Courtsey of Grimaldis Gallery, the four oblong 3.5 feet long graceful triangular forged rock molds made from Cast Iron, Cast Copper, Cast Bronze and Cast Aluminum each weight more than 3 people. The actual model River Jack of Granite weights about a quarter of a ton and it's indentations and swirls are a virtual map of what life must have been like some where for something alive. The burnt orange, turquoise blue & black, gray black with bronze seams, gray & sparkling silver rocks herald the strength and presence of nature in an urban environment where it is wantonly beset. With the original and duplicate side by side, is there a difference in their beauty- their realness: can you tell which is which? For Ruppert, the art object is the thing itself- strength and beauty copied: no sign, no symbol. Pure power.

Ruppert's sculpture takes us back to nature and makes a connection between how different kinds of organic matter facilitates each other's existence. We believe humans have forgotten that they are an amalgamated
mammal. Our evolutionary stages, replicated in the stages of pregnancy, are biological markers to help us remember the creation journey to where we stand now. As we once could in our evolutionary process, Mary Ann Mears'
1997 five feet tall, forged steel painted "Caged Heuristics"
can swim/crawl/fly through space. It is plant, animal and intelligent as it glides in the wind moved by intuition, grounded by an elevated snail/moon disk. (Remember how the Earth is affected by lunar movement.) It's a reason d'etre for the ferocity of life's struggle to continue toward an unknown heuristic using a freer discovery methodology: a heuristic without bars in the greater universe.

Meleau-Ponty in the chapter "The Body As Object and Mechanistic Physiology" says, " . . .But in fact it attributed to the nervous systems the occult power of creating the different structures of our experience, and whereas sight, touch and hearing are so many ways of gaining access to the object, these structures found themselves transformed into compact qualities derived from the local distinction between the organs used. Thus the relationship between stimulus and perception could remain clear and objective, and the psycho-physical event was of the same kind as the causal relations obtaining 'in the world'." (Merleau-Ponty 73) In other words the qualities that we box together to understand a process do not necessarily exist as we label them from our understanding. It is simply the best we can do at the moment. Laura Amuseen's hanging 6 feet tall black Bamboo stalks with glittering red sand below, "Seep," is a process mapping of the physical property of regeneration, that can be seen as a derivative of a Merleau-Ponty-esque stimulated transformation of compact organic qualities.  Organic functions are alluded to in the movement between the black Bamboo stalks and the chroma of its lit red sand seed bed below. It's nervous system richness is hypnotic, mobile. It's brown beauty looks fertile, nourishing and primordial. The black Bamboo sings a forest melody as the wind moves through and around it.

Created in the guise of the kind of ships that brought the Pilgrim Fathers and Free African indentured servants to the New World, Schroeder Cherry's 2002 "No Prescription For Watermelon Blues" presents a metaphorical re-envisioning of Free Blacks' (look at the clothes) dreams of escape to a place where fulfillment was possible. He encodes a message about how to survive in the wood sculpture asking the question, "Have you seen us?" or are we still invisible in America? Will we be, "Wave or Ocean" the text asks. More words cut out of white paper tell us, " The wave in the ocean will never be a wave by itself. It will be the ocean as a wave." The Ghanaian sculpture at the prow of boat (protecting it on its journey) and its gecko-like extension on the top of the sail whispering to the captain steering the boat repeats the engraving on the boat's side, "There is no Prescription for The Watermelon Blues." The quote functions as a an emotional marker - a genetic memory that knows that though all Africans did not come here in chains, we all face the inescapable dilemma of being stereotyped as southern-fried-chicken-loving, watermelon-eating-to-the-rind, smiling darkies. It still hurts in the 21st century. The limitations imposed systemically upon Africana life and personality is a reaction to an undeniable beauty that finds its way into everything American." No Prescription." makes us see history's need to re-define the phenomena of inaccurate, nonobjective historical fact. Given the lack of correction, Africana people must realize that they have the keys (in the sculpture) of knowledge and wealth (buttons in the sculpture) to move themselves to a different time and place in history. (Look at who is steering the boat.) If we were dreaming and the 3 African-American men and 1 African-American woman in the boat were us as our ancestors, we would have to re-examine our strategies for success, visa vie the wave fable, in the post-modern world.
Watermelon Blues - like Ma Rainey's "Deep Moaning Blues" or Peter Green and Mick Green's "Chinese White Boy" Blues is ripe watermelon sweet, lyrical at the heart of the song and lethally rough at the end, as it reveals the challenge of the truth.


III. Engagement:

What is Form?

"Divorcing External Want" sounds like a modern mantra. However, it is a 4.5ft tall marbled white polished limestone form by Brendan Hughes, which (like Magdalena Abakancwicz's standing bronze sculptures in the "About Human Condition" collection) suggests the modern global citizen's struggle to attain purity through the setting aside of desire and the embracing of spirit. "Divorcing External Want" is neither male nor female in its cloaked form and whether the externalized want was transferred to it as a talisman - to protect - or as a mojo - to curse- the viewer can only wonder. "It is true that it [the transcendental Ego] provides itself with symbols of itself in both succession and multiplicity, and that these symbols are it, since without them it would, like an inarticulate cry, fail to achieve self-consciousness." (Merleau-Ponty 427) Hughes says, the essence of my process is to reveal the viscera of the stone's life. To accelerate the process of its shedding its external layers - much in the same way as humans shed their layers of being in the pursuit of growth. The sculpture is an idea that forms itself through my intuitive handling of the limestone. It is not for worship but for contemplation."

Senga Nengudi 's "It Had To Be You" mixed media - including curled and straight strips of masking tape, red document i.d. dots, vanilla-colored tissue paper garland, red multiple strand beaded necklace, spiral tubed electric wire coil, harvest corn, 2 brown paper bags, beige sand and a gold colored luminous 1 ft by 1.5 ft shiny reflective square- engages the spiritual stripping process in a different way from Hughes. She relays her perception through stretching lines to make new language connections in work that portrays body allusions in the process of magical transformation. The installation asks how artificial are our definitions of gender as a single species? What elements form our attraction to a mate for life (in past eras) and how is our ability to really see the person to whom we are mated, related to how we see form and beauty? Elemental, emotional, exotic, erotic, exercising and exorcising, Nengudi's work focuses on the body as subject creating new insignia for its relationships over time and space. More than 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, "It Had To Be You" premieres in this exhibit.

Nengudi uses non-precious materials to suggest the ways in which we should reconsider value. Courtesy of Grimaldis Gallery, Chul Hyun-Ahn's Mixed media sculpture - including two 2ft x 2ft wood box frames, clear glass plate fronts with florescent light rods arranged vertically and horizontally - uses colored light to portray a concept of time, that makes the viewer re-evaluate their values in the question, "What is infinity and where do I fit in it?" Using light, Chul-Hyun Ahn's art of temporality speaks in so many ways to Merleau-Ponty's images of the time and space of human life. He says, " I do not pass through a series of instances of now, the images of which I preserve and which, placed end to end, make a line.
With the arrival of every moment, its predecessor undergoes a change."  (Merleau-Ponty 416) The changes in the register of light (as in light years) and its use to refine vector and understand distance is evident in this walk into the darkness of the future - of death - of transition in Ahn's 2004 "Purple and Red" and "Infinite Yellow."

If the viewer remembers flight in Mears "Caged Heuristic," Laura Shults' duck-shaped Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose replica " Plug In Plane" suggests that flight is dead, even with a 8 feet wing span. As a mixed media sculpture - including lead, steel rivets, wheels and propeller blades - the 5 foot long 1 foot wide model plane is a metaphor of the human spirit that is too lead laden. The meticulously riveted plane exemplifies our stuck, grounded fear of terrorism, anchored to a specific place by a connected plug. It's a dysfunctional propeller plane with blades that turn backwards - it would fly backwards, if it could fly at all- and a lead body grounded (if not by its own weight) the plug in the electrical outlet turning the propellers: no juice, no power. As a nation we are danger of being grounded by the perspective of people who do not believe that a real "shared global peace" has ever been a viable economic strategy. For those people having maximum control of juice as oil is power.


IV. Epiphany

What is Reality?

Shults, Ahn, Nengudi and Hughes use form to challenge the definition of reality, wherever they are standing. "How is this possible? How is it that the temporal ek-stase [ the Active Transcendence of the subject in relation to the world] is not an absolute disintegration in which the individuality of the moments disappears. . . The past, therefore is not past, nor the future future. It exists only when a subjectivity is there to disrupt the plenitude of being in itself, to adumbrate a perspective and introduce a non-being into it. "( Merleau-Ponty 420 - 421) Here Merleau-Ponty clarifies what African Americans call "witnessing." This idea beyond any cultural proclivities toward "remembering," suggests re-making time in referenced use of elements, such as light and dirt.

Earth drawings in the dirt on the ground in the Caribbean are often a prelude to critical rites. The dirt mixed with flour or sand etc. remind the adept to tell us that our bodies are composed of the same elements as dirt.  We should treat the Earth kindly. We are just dirt and water. So the ground we walk on is both ourselves (as humans) and our history. Unlike prevailing urban mythologies, dirt is not the exact same color or proportional composition everywhere; nor is it inherently nasty. Jessica Lehson's bright orange iron rich soil collected between 1995-1998, tree bark brown soil collected between 2002-2003, walnut brown soil collected between 2000-2004 and chestnut brown soil collected during 2003 to make a Parkay-like "Dirt Floor" is composed of unaltered dirt from 4 fairly close places in Maryland and Washington, D.C. As a painter, she originally used the dirt to make paint for her work; until hypnotized by the feel of sifting it her body engaged the body of the dirt and understood its real connection to her life and spirit.

Lehson reminds us that we are surrounded by dirt. It's elements feed us.  Ecology in the 21st century is a critical survival strategy for us now and the hope of human societies in the future. Like Chul Hunh Ah's light sculptures, dirt measures space and time (through the science of archeology) to tell us about ourselves in the past. Lehson says, "There was something that inherently . . . suggested a rich history and folklore. By putting it on the floor somehow it also referenced my need for stability in my life. As an anemic, my attraction for the bright orange soil full of iron was a kind of lesson. Using the traditional idea of the bride's responsibility to take soil from her parents' home to her husbands' to celebrate her ritual passage into being a wife, each of the 4 quarters in this exhibit is soil from ex-boyfriends' yards. It was cathartic in a way to lay them all out on the floor and finally be done with those relationships and that time in my life. I will use the dirt and those experiences to make something beautiful in life."

"We must try to understand how vision can be brought into being from somewhere without being enclosed in its perspective. ( Merleau-Ponty 67) Mark Winicov 's approximately 1 inch wide 2 feet tall triangular wooden rods held together by tension wire at the top and bottom of 1.5 x 2 feet wide cut mirrors facing each other at the top and bottom of the wooden post with a glass plate the size of the mirrors 1 foot from the top of the installation and a wooden box with an actual camera in it at the top and pictures of its process in 4 flaps at the bottom of box in the middle of the glass plate, forms an ancient "Box Camera." It replicates the high technology of our era by reducing the picture taking process to its basic elements in a more theatrical modality. The camera is proof that our civilization has evolved to be an intelligent, technological society.
However, a newer, higher tech camera does not guarantee better pictures (that are contained images processed through a box attempting to capture visual essence : which is why many Native Americans forgo picture taking).  Of course, the photo image never replicates the reality of what it sees. It always skews that reality to fit the dimensional reality of the camera box's eye - not the human one looking. The camera helps us to claim the world - to make it our possession in an exercise of control in our personal presentations of it. Because we sense, "The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making: it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions.
(Merleau-Ponty xi) The world is as we are. Winicov says, " This piece considers photography's relationship to mechanical reproduction its ability to describe that which is and that which is not seen. It also comments on the infinite possibilities of the reproducible image, while questioning the perceptual value of the extended edition."

The art/science of Photography assumes the actuality of real space and objects with molecules in them. Merleau-Ponty says, "Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the positing of things becomes possible."( Merleau-Ponty 243) One way to see Merleau-Ponty's discourse about space is as an attempt to help us see the fallacy of our dependency upon scientific objectivity, that often puts our state of being at the center of the visual/intellectual universe: making it more difficult for us to see the myriad options for visual/intellectual interpretations and linguistic variety that are in front of us.

No painting of still life objects but the objects themselves, John Penny's "Stillness" experiments with how we perceive space when we are oriented by the objects in it from different positional/geographical points of view. The 9 feet tall piece of dark brown masonite mounted on wood leaning on the wall has a 3.5 ft tall series of 3 gray polished concrete blocks stacked with a wood brace inserted to support 1 one inch square wood rod with 48 one inch Black painted markings going up and down its length and around its width, standing in front of it. As you move around the installation, the objects appear to change without really changing at all. This kind of art is so much a part of our daily lives that we rarely comment on its existence or its environmental impact on us.

Temporality is the space that we inhabit. Space is the constant- not us; it does move, though its motion is much slower than our organic flux. "Our perception ends in objects, and the objects once constituted appears as the reason for all the experiences of it which we have had or could have. For example, I see the next door house from a certain angle, but it would be seen differently from the right bank of the Seine, or from inside, or again from an aeroplane: the house itself is none of these appearances; it is. . .the house seen from nowhere." (Merleau-Ponty 67) Penny says, " Wittgenstein talks about a network of ideas, such that inferences can be made about things based upon a single instance, if it is understood that there is a system in place. Artworks are propositions, and they belong to a network of ideas about the world in general and artworks in particular."

Merleau-Ponty is pointing at space in an attempt to get us to look at ourselves. It is the predicament of a language that avoids its own convoluted logic about who it is describing. Notice when viewed phenomenologically none of this art work appears to speak about the body's sexuality; when in fact all of this art work uses the body's sensuality to convey messages. Perhaps part of the past fascination with "outsider art" has been this idea of a purity of expression: the untamed phenomenal eye acting without having to struggle against its linear cognitive box. "We shall no longer hold that perception is incipient science but conversely that classical science is a form of perception which loses sight of its origins and believes itself complete." (Merleau-Ponty 57) Moreover, this exhibit celebrates the eye of the artist as a gateway to work which depicts the truth as we stand in the phenomenal field.


Chezia Thompson Cager  Maren Hassinger


M.Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception first published 1945 (translated from French-Colin Smith), London and Henley Routledge & Kegan Paul - The Humanities Press, New Jersey, as part of International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method, 1962