A Testimony of Ordinary Things
If significance can be equated to how much attention we pay to a thing, then in our choice of subject matter as artists, we act as moralists, pointing out what is significant in our world view and prompting others to view it through ‘borrowed’ eyes. The decisions made by an artist in choice of subject matter and how it is embodied in their artwork via formal, phenomenological, and conceptual means, bear testimony of what is important in that artist’s life and worldview. Somerset Maugham wrote that “by the incidents he chooses to relate, the characters he selects and his attitude towards them, the author offers you a criticism of life. It may not be a very original one, or very profound, but it is there; and consequently, though he may not know of it, he is in his own modest way a moralist.” While Maugham was writing specifically about authors, his comment is just as applicable to artists. The many forms and layers of content in a piece of art provide systems and structures of meaning to be teased out and puzzled by a willing viewer. These systems of meaning in turn reflect something of the artist’s beliefs, and offer to the viewer the chance to see the world with new eyes, to see what the artist cares about, and how another person makes meaning out of the stuff of life.
If all artists are in some small way moralists, then in extension we can conclude that all artwork is to some extent a moral and philosophical endeavor of visual communication between one person and another over the boundaries of space and time. If this is also true, then we can look for spiritual meaning and insight in paintings which are not necessarily religious in content. The artist’s world-view is manifested both in overtly religious or spiritual subject-matter, but also in artwork which may on the surface have little to do with a testimony of Christ or of God, but which can also offer us profound spiritual insights, as testimonies are meant to do. All art bears witness to the beliefs of its creator. Mundane subjects can then be understood as a subtle testimony of spiritual humility and modesty. Ordinary subjects can offer an art which in its awareness of beauty and pain becomes an honest exploration of the process of living and acquiring understanding.
Simple subjects can carry multiple meanings with varying levels of complexity. Even a subject as simple as a still life can evoke philosophical and spiritual considerations. For example, this bowl of cherries, painted in 2005 by Rob Spruijt, also known as Gershom, a Los Angeles based artist, scientist and teacher. The painting is relatively small, measuring 16 by 20 inches, in the tradition of Dutch and Flemish still life paintings. This is a humble, even a domestic scale, from which we can infer the artist’s interest in the ordinary and everyday as subject matter, and the intimate context of a one-on-one viewing experience. The choice to paint an ordinary, everyday vision of cherries in a white bowl awash with light on a white counter instead of another subject which might be considered more unusual, ‘contemporary,’ pop-cultural, or technological reveals an interest in tradition, and I believe it also reveals a belief in continuity: that ordinary, non-exciting moments are the stuff of life as it has always been and as it always will be, hovering beneath the surface of most conscious experiences. Still life is a relatively constant genre in painting. Though centuries may pass, forks, glasses, plates, fruit, shells and flowers change relatively little and slowly. This is the concept of rhopography outlined by Norman Bryson in his masterpiece of writing on the still life genre, Looking at the Overlooked. Bryson explains that rhopography is “the depiction of those things which lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that ‘importance’ constantly overlooks. . . The concept of importance can arise only by separating itself from what it declares to be trivial and insignificant. . . Still life takes on the exploration of what ‘importance’ tramples underfoot” (Looking at the Overlooked, 61). While Bryson continues on to explore how at its root still life painting threatens a historical idea of what is important, or megalographic, I would contend that still life painting attempts to create a new concept of what could be considered ‘important,’ expanding the definition of importance beyond historical events and the extraordinary or unusual to events which are small, intimate, humble, everyday. This is the basis of an ordinary testimony: an understanding of ordinary, small things, the little events that make up our daily life and our daily relationship with God, the originator of all these things. Things which are lasting, created by God’s hand, things which reflect and tell us about our own humanity---things both ordinary and every day, things which will teach us to see life anew with better appreciation---these are important things. These are the things that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes of when he talks of the objects that are “in God’s heart; they have never left him” (Book of Pilgrimage, II, 16). By attending to the importance of the things God has made, we are giving significance to Him, the creator.
Still Life has had lasting influence as a subject at least partly because it is able to evoke thoughts of importance through attending to seemingly unimportant subjects. Because most objects that still life paintings depict last far beyond the life spans of most artists and viewers, still life as a genre is well suited to evoking thoughts of time, stillness, death and eternity. These are topics which all paintings address to some extent, since most paintings are meant to last well beyond both the artist’s and the viewer’s lifetime. Paintings are a legacy, an enduring testament to a vision, idea, or image. Representational paintings delve even deeper into our relationship with the things of this world by presenting the viewer with a proposal on the nature of sight, illusion, meaning, reality, history and experience. We can say of representational paintings the same that Thorkild Hansen wrote of the Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi: “when we look at these pictures we sense. . . that time has stopped, the world has been brought to silence, and eternity has commenced---without our having died first” (‘The Black and White Colorist,’ Hammershoi: Painter of Stillness and Light). These paintings offer us a stilled moment, a piece of life to contemplate, and an opportunity for reflection and private introspection and inquiry.
The previous points I made about still life and representational paintings are applicable to most humble and ordinary subjects. The landscape genre also offers us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of change, and how paintings are able to briefly stop the onrushing progress of time so that the viewer might experience things as they were, or as they were imagined to be, without time’s presence dismantling and dwindling the image before our eyes. In this oil on multiple canvases by the British-American artist David Hockney, we are given the experience of a moment of time stopped for reflection. We stand as though at the branching of the purple paths in the woods, and reflect upon our own position in the world physically, spiritually and emotionally. Even though we are not able to walk physically into the painting, our eyes traverse it, travelling down the paths into sunlight and shade and the far edges of paint. In this painting the substantial size of the multi-part canvases give it a different kind of intimacy from that of the still life we just encountered. This particular intimacy is one of enfolding, encircling and embracing. The canvases fill up much of the viewer’s physical space, giving the image of the woods a stronger physical presence, almost to the point where you desire to enter into the painting. There is nothing overtly spiritual about this painting either in its subject-matter. But as we have previously learned, that does not stop it from acting as a conduit for our spiritual questions, or as a powerful tool of communicating the experience of being human from one person to another. Art itself is a sort of religion, and most great artists recognize a spiritual and philosophical basis to art which does not rely on religious themes or subjects, but is inherent in the devotion and discipline of work and regard which makes up an artist’s daily life. Van Gogh described it this way in one of his letters: “Now, I equally believe that everything that is truly good and beautiful in Man and Man’s works, everything of a moral, inner, spiritual, sublime beauty, all derives from God. . . Try to understand what the great artists, the serious masters, are ultimately saying in their finest works---God is in it. One will have expressed it in a book, another in a painting. So Art is worship, or divine service, inasmuch as it places Beauty (which is the same thing as Goodness) in the heart of Man” (Van Gogh, the Complete Paintings by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger).
To return to the landscape painting: the subject, once again, is simple: a three-pronged pathway leading through a grove of tall, thin trees with dotted, almost pointillist leaves providing a canopy across the top of the canvases. The very simplicity of the subject encourages us to have a deeper interaction with the experience of the artistic alchemy: the world transformed into paint on canvas. We can relate to this subject, since most people have been in a similar landscape at some point in their lives, and perhaps have paused, like Hockney, to watch the sunlight dapple the shade and to look off into the green distance. The play between the representation of experience in the painting and the world of which it is an image teaches us, the viewers, to pay deeper attention to the way we look at the things around us, what catches our eye, what becomes memorable, what, when we look back to remember our lives, is important.
It is my belief that by paying attention to the things of this world, we can better understand the One who made it, similar to the way that art historians learn about an artist: they do not simply read the artist’s journal and letters and believe that they know him or her; no, they search deeply for artists among their life’s work, family history, the history of their time-periods, their writings, and the writings and research by others about the same person, place, work and history. Likewise, any serious student of art knows better than to judge an artist by reproductions alone. It is by studying the creations of the artist’s hands that we reach a deeper understanding of the artist. Having further knowledge about him or her rounds out that personal and intimate connection we have already made by attending to the things he or she has made.
As viewers, students and historians of art, we look at artwork not only as a source of pleasure and thoughtful reflection, but also as a puzzle, something which will tell us about its maker and his or her ideas about the world. Part of what we find interesting in paintings is what physically lies outside the painting: the person who made it. By connecting our understanding, knowledge and experiences in front of the paintings by the artist with what that artist wrote and what we know about their lives, we assume that we can understand something about that person—that what we make reflects who we are.
If this is so, (and I believe it is), and the meanings embedded into a painting reflect their maker in more ways than one, and from this we can learn something about how to regard the world outside of the museum and gallery, because we have learned something of how another person regards that world. Let us extrapolate: from the theories we just discussed we can then infer that learning about sight and the process of understanding teaches us to go out into the world looking for insight, which will then teach us about God, allowing us to strengthen our testimony of who He is and what our relationship is to him. Why then would we study only God’s writings and teachings if we desire to understand Him and draw closer to Him? We are constantly surrounded by the works of His hands. Surely the world itself has things to reveal to us about the nature of its creator.
Shouldn’t we then look to the world? Study it carefully? Look everywhere for the influence of a divine artist who has layered meaning into his works on an eternal and infinite scale? Jesus was quite fond of parables. He is the originator of the idea that to deliver truth, you should “tell it slant--,” as Emily Dickinson put it, because meaning is multiple and personal, individualized to our own experiences, “wisdom. . .large” and “manifold,” to borrow another phrase from Dickinson. Because we are each separate and unique individuals, we will need separate and uniquely individualized experiences and meanings to help us understand God’s works and his words. In one of his poems, Rilke described how God “creates (himself) in ever-changing shapes / that rise from the stuff of our days-- / unsung, unmourned, undescribed. . . To each other us (He) reveals (Himself) differently. . .” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Pilgrimage, II, 22). Until we all share all knowledge and feelings, we will always be in the position of guessing at the experience of others, wading through a complex and rich world towards our goal of gaining understanding and knowledge of God and ourselves. We must study everything to understand Him, ourselves included, since we also are his creations. In some way, we reflect him, just like the world reflects him.
When we paint we imitate Christ’s first worldly role as creator. He created a world filled both with everyday objects and miraculous emotions and experiences. In our creations we must be aware of similar subtleties and paradoxes: how ordinariness can in fact be extraordinary, and how paintings without overt spiritual subject matter can carry strong spiritual content. When painters choose to explore the ordinary subjects of the visual world in their paintings, they are giving significance to Christ.
Perhaps then, artists may have some knowledge of creativity and creation which can be helpful to others. In art we can learn how to engage with God’s world more deeply, how to be more aware and to look at the world with new intensity and regard, how to be more grateful for beauty, how to puzzle out meanings from the everyday and the ordinary, and how to be able to form complex and holistic visions which will help us as we try to understand ourselves and our maker better, and which show us how spiritual meanings are enacted in the material, visual world. An interest in looking, in attention, and in the everyday and the ordinary seem to me a good prerequisite for a stronger testimony of Jesus Christ and of our Heavenly Father, the source of this world, these experiences, and all things which we might see or feel. Can we claim to know or understand God without involving ourselves in the deepest study of his creations? As artists, we imitate his creation of the world each time we involve ourselves with the creation of a work. I have always believed that it is one of the main tasks of the artist to bring the world to the viewer’s attention, especially things which they might not otherwise notice, think about or see. I also firmly believe that by spending time looking into paintings, we understand better how to see, and are able to bring that sincere attention with us into the rest of the world, looking at the details of all of creation around us in new, surprising, beautiful, meaningful, emotional, thoughtful, and sometimes even frightening or overwhelming ways.
As a painter who represents the things of this world on canvas, paper and panel, I am deeply involved in the study of things, people, and places. I consider myself a follower of Walt Whitman who exclaimed: “I hear and behold God in every object. . . I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, / in the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass. . .” (Song of Myself). This is one of my own paintings, an 8 by 10 inch oil on panel called Kitchen, painted last year. I paint the domestic because that is what I know---a domestic, interior life, quiet and solitary. By studying what I know and see, I hope to expand and deepen my knowledge of the world. I am interested in a kind of emotional realism, paintings which may not be direct observations of life as it is, but as it is felt, based out of a tradition of representation and art history.
Representational painting suggests that by study of the surface we can understand something of what lies beneath; in other words, that there is a connection between interior and exterior---that in some way they are connected. If this is so, then neither the ‘ideal’ or imaginary form nor the ‘realist’ subject drawn from life in all its particularity should be ignored or de-emphasized at the other’s expense. It is perhaps in the way the illusion of representation and that which is not illusionistic, (like feeling, tactility, thought, and experience) are melded in paintings that make them so infinitely interesting to us. Not only do they imitate the way we see, but they are the way we see---in a representational painting, we are seeing briefly through another person’s eyes, in the most direct way possible---which is by the work of their hands.
This is the basis of love: attention. This is the basis of art: first, paying attention, then drawing attention through visual communication. Art is an exquisite medium to portray subtle and varied ideas mostly because art is also one of the most indefinite, variable, changeable, malleable, variously interpreted mediums. Mark Doty describes painting in his book Still Life With Oysters and Lemon: “It is an art that points to the human. . . It is an art that points to meaning through wordlessness, that points to timelessness through things permanently caught in time. That points to immensity through intimacy. . .” With all the possibilities left in painting and in representation, I think we can agree with the great philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who said that “for painters the world will always be yet to be painted; even if it lasts millions of years. . . It will all end without being completed” (Eye and Mind). With so much work to do, so much to be seen and investigated either as painters or viewers, I hope we will go out into the world more willing to look and to ponder, remembering art’s ability to teach us of eternity, and of the things of this world, and above all, of God.
Gershom Bowl of Cherries Oil on Panel 2005
David Hockney oil on multiple canvases
Eowyn Wilcox McComb Kitchen oil on panel 2010