‘The Ceremony of Looking’
by Della Gooden
‘No. 948’ 2019
paint on powder-coated aluminium 125 x 95 x 5cm
I am grateful to the mechanical workings of bone, tendon and muscle that enable me to move my head and look up at the world. I am in awe of the way my eyes can process a scene and it's interesting to see that biologists and physicists can explain, so competently, how this is possible. Looking up, however, isn’t just an accomplishment of moving parts. My body is not a machine, it is unpredictable, soft and restless. My eyes don’t collect data like a camera, for a specified outcome or project; the purpose is mysterious, the process chaotic, messy – and it is a wonder.
All the disciplined artistry of the most talented filmmakers are obliged to filter their visions through a hard lens. And then, all the tilting angles, all the sweeping vistas and collaged perspectives must, in the end, endure the constraints imposed by the fixed view of a static, rectangular screen. This is second-hand, compromised vision, but my eyes get the virgin view, the ‘live feed’; an uncut, 360-degree, surround-sound spectacle.
In an essay a few years ago I noted: ‘Perception and the imagination attend to the vertical, visual field with hope, anticipation and curiosity. The rewards (and disappointments) can be immense, and consequently, looking down isn’t half so exciting as looking up.’ 1
I am reminded that when I wrote that, I was musing on the idea that Painting is an inevitable consequence of being alive, of being human. I reasoned that if looking up is as functionally inseparable from being, as my foot feels functionally inseparable from my leg, then paintings will get made, just as steps will get taken.
I might look up on a whim or because of a need; sometimes there is no reason I can truthfully provide, and once the decision is made, there‘s a distinct lack of awareness of a plan for how to go about it. A lot is hidden by instinct and the speed at which things occur.
What I do know, is that I am built to look up/down/around/in - choose your own adverbial preposition. I most willingly absorb the panoramas and the peripherals, the foci and all the haze there is to be had. Human ‘on-auto’, I suppose, but a dispassionate experience is inconceivable. As long as I have this moving, feeling, thinking body, all my senses will collaborate to explore a material and labyrinthine world. The never-ending task of calculating it, making sense of it, is made more difficult by the inheritances of culture and convention, of habit and personal judgement.
It seems inevitable that looking up will generate yet more reason to look up. New ‘objects’ for our attention will get made, whether we profit from the bounty or not. Look up and you might speak to a stranger on the bus. Look up and you may have a fight with your boss, give money to a busker, perhaps, make a baby... Sometimes looking up results in the making of a painting.
When making anything in the material sense, it is worth remembering that the Earth weighs exactly the same as it always did (minus the space-station and all the satellites; plus the odd meteorite and the moon rocks collected in the 60’s) so our only option is to re-arrange what is already here. It is therefore quite a striking thought that Tess Jaray has re-arranged paint, wood and canvas to make ‘One Hundred Years Purple’ (page 23) and that Morrissey & Hancock re-arranged what is already here, to make such a thing as ‘Rotational Drawing’ (page 21). These paintings don’t cause the Earth to be heavier, but our world is enlarged none-the-less.
Morrissey & Hancock
‘Rotational Drawing’ 2019
pen and ink on panel 50 x 50 cm
‘One Hundred Years Purple’ 2017
acrylic on linen 151 x 142 cm
Once made, a painting is another thing amongst many, but it can acquire status. It can get singled out as something worthy of our special attention, from what is an already crowded visual field. Whether pinned to the fridge or hung in a museum the intention generally, is for it to be seen free of distraction; to be clear of the cluttered world in which it was made. Thus, viewing a painting becomes ceremony. A ‘Private View’ could even be called ritual – and the emphasis, even in the language used to describe such an event, is on the eyes.
Vision it seems, of all my senses, is the super-sense. It explores the greatest distances, brings me the tops of mountains, the horizon and the stars. It shows me things that are way out of reach, and places that I will possibly never go. But it is because of the things that are in my reach and because of the places I have been, that I am able to make sense of the faraway images my eyes show me. Vision is surely a dependent, and it is an oversight (no pun intended) to assume that a painting ‘only needs a pair of eyes.’
‘Untitled’ (page 17) by Stig Evans is an apt title because it is a painting in a state of ‘becoming’. It is form in fermentation. Voluminous, cloud-like shapes are materialising, attempting to grow edges. I detect that the right-hand shape floats forward of the other, by just a little bit. I don’t believe the nature of this painting and the subtleties I experience could be appreciated if I wasn’t obliged to look with more than just my eyes. I look with everything I have available to me; I move, I think, I listen, I talk, I remember.
acrylic on polyester 110 x 110 cm
There are ways of looking according to what is being looked at, so consequently there are different experiences to be had. When looking at a book, I usually sit or lay down and I wouldn’t move much beyond keeping a comfortable position to turn the page – I am in control, it is solitary, and it is intimate. At the cinema I sit in the dark with other people, silently looking up at a static, rectangular screen. I’m predominantly immobile and must look straight ahead as a stream of information is projected toward me. Moving images jump from one person’s point of view to another’s: an impossible experience in reality.
Compare that with the ‘uncut’, ‘360-degree spectacle’ of lived, dependent vision. The first time I saw ‘No. 948’ (page 5) by Rana Begum, I was conscious of how much I was moving to seek out colour transitions; stepping from one side to the other, back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes I stood still… only to lean my upper body or head to the left or the right.
Put simply, if you don’t move, you won’t see it, and so the work dictates how you must behave. If the curators were to position a camera overhead to record over time the movements of all visitors looking at just this one work, a pattern would emerge. Plotted onto graph paper these movements would translate into multiple, arcing lines radiating out from a central point (where the work is situated) and there would be smaller, zig-zagging lines representing sharp changes of direction back and forth... it would reveal a choreographed experience: a ceremony of looking.
© Della Gooden, 2020
1 2018, essay ‘Surface-Things’ for ‘Transforming Surfaces’ published by Arthouse1, London ISBN number
‘The Ceremony of Looking’ was first printed in the exhibition catalogue that accompanied ‘Hard Paintingx2’ at Phoenix Art Space, Brighton (ISBN 978-1-5272-5538-8).
The exhibition ‘Hard Paintingx2’ was curated by Della Gooden, Philip Cole, Patrick O’Donnell, Ian Boutell and Stig Evans. Featured artists were: Richard Bell, Katrina Blannin, John Carter, Catherine Ferguson, Della Gooden, Richard Graville, Morrissey & Hancock, Tess Jaray, Jo McGonigal, Lars Wolter, Jessie Yates, Rana Begum, Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Biggs & Collings, Deb Covell, Stig Evans, Jane Harris, Mali Morris, Jost Münster, Patrick O’Donnell , Carol Robertson and Daniel Sturgis.
Della Gooden is an artist, writer and curator. She was the Director and Owner of the project space VINEspace London and Gooden Gallery, London.