Thursday, December 22, 2016

Incidents of Travel in the Fourth Dimension: Phenomenological Drawings by Patricia Salen

All pieces imaged on this page are from an untitled drawing series by Patricia Salen, 2010.

“We must return to the Lebenswelt [life-world], the world in which we meet in the lived-in experience, our immediate experience of the world.” Maurice Merleau Ponty
It is entirely possible for drawings to explore time. In fact, time may be their primary content. The relationship between the cognitive and perceptual realms may also best be investigated through a conversation between the eye and the hand, mediated by the mind, as evidenced in the drawings of Quebec-born artist Patricia Salen. Following its inception by Edmund Husserl, the notions inherent to the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty are perhaps an ideal vehicle for examining the artmaking impulse. Especially the Salen drawing impulse.

It was Merleau-Ponty who expanded upon the cognitive domain’s grasp of the aesthetic act and suggested art as a gesture which produces meaning. He called art “the act of bringing truth into being,” and it is also he who best encapsulates for me the immediacy of visual and visceral sensation as depicted in Salen’s urgent and insistent drawings. They chart a stormy graphic course towards and away from the human body that both makes them and sees them. We are witnesses to their transmutations of light.

Like Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about the primal link between cognition and perception, Salen’s drawings offer a definition of the body as a vehicle or a medium of transmission, one which appropriates an indefinite series of non-continuous acts, her “lines,” as centers of meaning which go beyond the natural powers of the body and transform it. Meaning also mutates darkness.

Salen’s drawings remind us that perception both precedes cognition and performs a structural operation on it, one which transforms our world into a lived world: a visual act which makes us know that virtually all human issues are reducible to the molten crucible of perception. Her drawings come from and also celebrate our condition of being present.

Elsewhere I have suggested that they signify dances with a primordial language: one which is both pre-linguistic and pre-cognitive and which, on the surface, seem to resonate with the classical surrealist automatic writing and drawing experiments of the 1920’s. But beneath the surface, they are all throbbing gristle and they continually remind us, or at least they remind me, of the phenomenological stance or posture. They are diagrams of being becoming being. Each one is a unique bookmark integrating the visual and haptic.

Quantum-like in form, with occasional forays into both words and numbers obliterated by sheer linearity, they convey something to me which belongs in the substratum: paradoxically implicit and explicit at the same time, the truth they transmit does not “inhabit” the inner person, but more accurately demonstrates that there is no inner person, that the person is the world and only in that world does she knows herself. As a result, our world is uncertain and often ambiguous, and these drawings manage to capture and portray that very essence. Their free- flowing form is elusive but steady.

Each drawing is therefore “situated” in an environment which encompasses us and which we also manufacture by viewing it. This is not a case of reducing human experience to sensation alone, far from it, but rather of elaborating a zone within which our senses become sensible. Salen explores the theatre of human nature by explicitly placing her drawings in the context of the non-human, the universal, within the energy of praxis itself.

One can “read” these drawings as if they were short stories; some of them are even novels, and all of them comprise a complex meditation on mediation. As such, her drawings appear to depict a domain of intimate encounters with vast fields of perception, capturing in a manner similar to frozen music the hidden trajectories of mind and matter, of consciousness and nature.

I’m not sure why, but Salen’s drawings strike me as elegiac, as elegies to energy. They also feel like eulogies to ourselves, images we might see just before we fall into a dream, or just after we wake up from one. And if they are about energy and our perception of it, just as we are about to engage our cognitive equipment, they might also be about entropy, the slow dance at the end of the night. These drawings colonize the void: they suggest procedures for a well-timed ending. They exhaust themselves in elegance.

I’m fairly certain that the drawings should be experienced physically and not intellectually, however, and that too much rumination causes in us a humorous sadness. Musing on works before and after the physical, the haptic and metaphysical, induces an amusing melancholy: for me these phenomenological drawings by Patricia Salen are the national anthem of that lived-in melancholy.

To say they are active is an understatement: they are wild collisions among the organic, the psychological and the social layers of our being. As gestural actions, they are always in the process of becoming. Right before our eyes: right behind our eyes.

Each drawing by Patricia Salen is also a poem. But this is not poetry expressed in any human language. This is a much more exotic and esoteric poetry expressed in the language of lines, and perhaps in the language of the pulse of heartbeats or the rhythms of invisible sub-atomic music. Before language in words even existed, all ideas and feeling were communicated in images, pictures, symbols and shapes. Yet we can still read these drawings and we can listen to the active stories they tell us. Each visual poem tells us the story of the artist’s state of mind when the gestures emerged through her hands. The hand is a tool so second nature to us that we often forget its primal magic.

The relationship between the head and the heart is sometimes mediated by the hand. The hand that does the drawing tells the story of the heart to the listening head. Every picture tells a story, but not necessarily in the way we are accustomed to hearing it told. By momentarily ending the mind’s hold over the heart (as Quasimodo suggested) the drawing invites us inside its immense interior world and offers us proof that life is far bigger and more mysterious than we first assumed. Once we learn this lesson it is impossible to forget it, and the drawing stands close by, just in case we do. The drawings are traces of a memory which perhaps has yet to happen.

Long before there were words used as symbols for things, long before language was invented to represent our feelings, drawings were the emperors of a kingdom of visual symbols. Only much later did words dethrone images and assume the control over our lives that has been the hallmark of our recent history. One of my favourite poet-philosophers, Gaston Bachelard, once remarked, “What fragments thought is not the handling of solids in space but the dispersal of decisions in time.” What he meant in his Dialectic of Duration was that time always commands our coherence and our consciousness, and it strikes me that Salen’s images, her drawn stories, are thus all about la durĂ©e: the structure of time and history, captured in the lines of her drawings solely for the duration of each line’s individual and temporary passage through space.

Thinking about drawings in this manner provides the opportunity to examine the most important element inherent to any personal dialogue with any visual poem: reverie. This is an open space in time during which daydreams can occur and the drawn image can perform its principal function as a ritual object inducing and populating those daydreams with a meaningful narrative and a symbolic anchor. Thinking about these drawings by this versatile artist reminds us of the whole point of non-mimetic art in the first place: liberation from the tyranny of reproduction and the freedom to express unconscious emotions graphically, without the boundaries of academic aesthetics to encumber or mediate those emotions. The drawings only appear to be abstract; for me they are representations of natural forces. This is precisely why, when Jackson Pollock was asked why his drawings or paintings contained no references to nature, he responded, “I am nature… ”

What becomes abundantly clear upon much closer study, and the detailed viewing for which the timeless state of reverie is a required ingredient, is that our emotional content as human beings is so diverse and varied that sometimes it needs to break out of the bounds that even a seemingly limitless abstract motif might impose over time. Hence this artist’s insistence upon going out of bounds: refusing to stay within the hierarchical territories of traditional realism, biomorphic abstraction, natural representation or even the transcendental idealism of an all out conceptual rigour. Thus her drawings allow us to overhear what they are thinking. If we listen carefully enough and read them as visual poems.

The almost retinal shock of these images soothes the eye with more ambiguity about the inside and the outside, and more uncertainty about abundance or absence. This visual shock carries with it a secret handshake not only to Franz Kline or Mark Tobey, forbears of this artist’s pictorial traditions, but also to the abrupt clarity of certain Zen master calligraphers. It, more than any other impulse, bears the brand of the interstitial, the in-between state that Salen seems to be documenting, moment by moment. These drawings are abstraction driven with the brakes off, full-tilt subliminal abandonment of conscious control over linear forces and trajectories. They are therefore oblique trajectories par excellence, demonstrating once again Bachelard’s seminal notion that for us “matter is dreamed, not perceived.”

Each drawing leaves a mental tattoo behind, an afterimage that will morph extravagantly, if we look closely and long enough, into the next image in the continuum. Yet, in a most pleasant surprise, what it morphs into is its polar opposite in terms of tone and hue: the acidic looping swirls, with their surfaces scalded by sheer photo-synthetic dark energy. A still life that isn’t quite so still at all. How could they be still lifes, when they are veritable diagrams of pure energy? These elegant emblems of an invisible world achieve perfect balance by accepting their unbalanced state of flux and change: often they are asymmetrical graphically while being poised and orderly emotionally. This is their charming paradox. They are palpable physical gestures, each meticulously prepared and crafted according to a fabrication method which accentuates their skeletal graphic qualities, amplifies their sculptural surfaces, and renders the flow of energy visible for a frozen moment.

“Form is content and content is form,” Samuel Beckett – whose writing reminds me of these drawings (elegant, sparse, minimal, charming) once remarked as a way of defining what modernism and abstraction were really all about. Like most writers, I also have a few choice sentences that I’ve been waiting for some ten years to use, and this is the ideal opportunity to use one of them, a quote from the philosopher Roger Housden: "The heart, like the grape, is prone to delivering its harvest in the same moment that it appears to be crushed." So too, these drawings appear to have been crushed somehow, and yet also deeply compressed, crystallized into the momentary shapes they assume before our gaze. Bachelard also pointed out in his study of reverie that “[p]oetic images condense infinite meanings in elliptical associations.” That’s more like it: the ideal way to describe these meandering and wandering drawings. Elliptical condensations.

We all need alternate spaces such as these drawings; if not, we’d be content to stare out the same window forever. As a result, and as early as the so-called Renaissance, we have all to some degree or another coveted that absolute elsewhere which the craftsmanship of fine drawing is so well equipped to transmit. Better than novels for showing us our thoughts and feelings, slower than music at eliciting emotion but faster at depicting its resolution, drawing is still the best way to chart and map the course of our conscious and especially our unconscious minds. Indeed, each drawing here may actually be a map of a singularly unique location, whether physical or metaphysical. It is also unavoidable, for me at least, not to imagine that I am high above the ground looking down from an lofty aerial view at the tracks left by birds, animals or people, moving across a landscape covered in snow.

Since a palimpsest is a manuscript that has been written upon by more than one author, sometimes with the original obscured, and sometimes allowing it to emerge simultaneously, we can likewise enjoy the multiple layers that the history of drawing, and over-drawing, has embedded in Salen’s dazzling graphic works. This does not mean that they are derived from the classical abstraction of the last century, but rather, just as a new piece of music may occur within the string quartet tradition and yet still be utterly inventive, Salen’s work allows for a welcome re-reading between the lines, literally, of modernist art.

But are these simultaneously dynamic and tranquil drawings effigies, engrams or emblems of energy? All three. Effigies because they represent something in a form suggesting a positive monument; engrams because they offer neural traces of a code for the persistence of memory; and emblems because they serve as symbols for a quality or state, of an object and its representation. In short, they are personal portraits of invisible forces that can easily be perceived as mirror images of our own emotions, thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. But all without showing or indicating the content of those forces, only their forms. They achieve this simply and effortlessly, through a striking combination of unafraid beauty and tongue in cheek charm. If there is a fourth dimension, as her drawn pieces seem to surmise, even if it consisted only of time’s own structure, or of an intersection of our bodies with invisible planes of matter, then this dimension is only an invisible shadow of us.

The essential elements of change, flux, evolution, and even entropy are explored and depicted with considerable grace and charm. For me, one special quality these works also appear to possess is a working knowledge of the unique natural state known as “dinergy”: the harmonizing balance of two opposing forms of energy whose conflict and collision creates a new pattern that did not formerly exist. All natural growth and evolution, including our own, depends on this invisible force of dinergy, where opposition triggers pattern and conflict creates expansion, usually in new and unexpected directions. Each work seems to portray a titanic struggle between the forces of form itself and the energies of the formless realm beneath the surface. Thus they give us a pictorial reference for both the invisible world of quantum mechanics and the science of seeing. Their patterns suggest visual paths that we follow in a kind of meditative trance.

In the darkly dramatic setting of these drawings (especially this last one, where the high statistical density suggests that the drawing may eventually continue on until the surface itself is utterly black and without any lines at all) we witness a dynamic yet static choreography devoted to the theatre of process in action. We are once again reminded, almost against our will, of something we all too easily forget (since we are usually so busy surviving in the quotidian sense): that we are all incredibly beautiful bags of fluid, that we live in a breathtakingly beautiful world of fluids all around us, and that the space around us is slowly filling up with drawings we ourselves have imagined.

Salen’s works are shining gestures in the dark, obscure visual signals that seem to evoke one of Frank Stella’s favourite adages: what you see is what you see. And like all sophisticated seeing, they invite us to forget the name of what we see, period. We are fortunate indeed that Patricia Salen shares her dreams of matter with us. She helps us understand that while we are busy dreaming matter, matter is also busy dreaming us.
– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008. His latest work in progress is a new book on the soul music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, slated for publication in Spring 2018. 

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