Monday, April 14, 2008


The thought that now begins to occupy me concerns the question of how art advertises life here and now. Because our culture has met up with nihilism again in an old form—the form of religious renunciation of life and its happiness—there is a need to revisit the meaning of religion.

Religious narratives of history and being seem to follow the Romantic notion of a lost Eden of Joy, which reappears after death. This literal interpretation is a mistaken hope. What seems more likely is that human perception begins in a form of bliss, matures into a drama of conflicts and ends in an armistice of hope. All of these can be seen as worthwhile stages of life, and it is the celebration of this life to which they add their intimations of immortality. Eden and Heaven are here and now. One can live in them or Hell, as the Buddhist reminds us. And it is in the conscious choice to live fulfilled lives of civilization, cultivation and enjoyment that make immortality present. The ancient Greeks would even consider such people to have become like gods, implying by that the notion of true living.

It is in this sense of art as an advertisement for life that we can make sense of all the partial efforts of consumer advertising, of pop art and op art and expressionism, of abstraction, surrealism and realism, of impressionism or the Baroque or the Renaissance. What the consumer is always being promised—taste, beauty, style, wit—are tools for the ages-old consolations and celebrations of life. Except as they promise to substitute buying for living, they contribute to the herd instinct which is looking for something called happiness. Be it found at the remove of a vacation purchased via Southwest Air or at a restaurant table for two at an expensive venue, it finally comes to the thing for which art has always been creating access—from cuisine to couture to truth and beauty. Art is a means to bring us close to life, but life is in the living of it. Henry Miller essentially said the same. Living and happiness are what the fuss is all about, even to the point that a person can find happiness in truth or the beauty of difficult things.

Experience in art is also less material, by the very nature of art’s simulacrum, by its reduction or abstraction of the world into a two-dimensional vision prepared for the cave of the retina and the deeper cave of consciousness, itself. This has some effect in making art nearer to spiritual ideals, and less the material world it reflects or uses. Because it operates on our sensation so directly, it is tantamount to thoughts and dreams. These are the fields of immortal reflections, the constancy of principles, the repeatable experiment. We hold truth to be self-evident, so also art. It is there or not. We may hold the higher consciousness of ourselves and the world in our hands and not perceive it in a contemporary artwork. It may be there or we may mistake it to be there. Later in life we may understand it all as what our time needed to see. It is a message from the light of day—a Platonic ideal of the Mediterranean climate. The shared vision, the shared meal, the climate whose temperature and pleasure makes people feel intimate with themselves, each other, the day itself, the sun. All of this keeps calling us to live as best we can in the interval allowed us on earth.

Elementary Particles

“Honey, I shrunk the universe,” I could have said to my wife after writing a previous blog entry here (The Fallibility of Perception). I treat my physics speculations as light humor, because my experience in science was brief and long ago. I once studied astronomy with a real hope of a life in that science, but somehow was lured into art.

By coincidence, some aspects of art and science – perhaps the most interesting to us as people – are similar. Both arise out of an interest to describe the universe to ourselves and each other. While a description may satisfy me alone, it cannot be acceptable to others if it seems inconsistent with reality or is disprovable by previously ascertained knowledge.

In painting, if the artist neglects the volume of space in which the still life resides, there is a flatness to the painting which lacks the compelling authority of, say, a Paul Chardin, or a Cezanne still life. We are thus familiar in art with the inference of reality. After all, we can see by inspection that the canvas is a flat surface. But stepping back we experience depth in the best paintings. How have we inferred this illusion? It is by the artist’s knowledge of how the eye reads reality. To test this, you can view a good painting with one eye only, and still experience depth. Do this in looking at the world and the world will go flat.

In science, there are many cases in which our unaided senses cannot make the correct inference about the universe. Without a prism, we cannot know light is made of colors, although long ago people attempted to deduce this knowledge from the appearance of rainbows.

Back to the artist. If the artist combines all the colors in paint, he does not get white light. How come? And so much for artists having anything to say about science, you may add.

But it is in the nature of inference that science and art are kindred spirits. Science proposes a model, with an experiment as demonstration, and invites the public to its carnival tent for the entertainment of understanding the magician that is nature.

Similarly, the artist shows a concept of the world – admittedly one immediately accessible to the eyes – and says, come in and be dazzled by nature. The audience, always on a quest for entertainment and knowledge, is happy to be awoken by science or art to a sense of its world.

The audience has seen apples before, of course, but Cezanne’s apples wake them to the notion of admiration, even love, of apples. The audience has seen the moon before, but after Newton they think of gravity and the tides and the nature of orbital motion. They can envision a human being in orbit around the earth and they can infer the nature of the earth’s travel during a year.

In this sense art is specific and science leads to generalization. The audience of a month is enjoying a rather abstract reality. But what is not abstract about a painting? Only because we wish to enjoy illusion and because we wish to enjoy understanding, do we succumb to art and science.

Now it is the question of perception that I raised before on this blog, which is the bedrock of both science and art, and which also gives rise to the nature of inference and illusion. In science, perception is aided by experimental instruments (the prism, the Geiger counter), whereas in art it is still the eye itself, once our primary instrument of science. It is the eye that still attempts to imagine concepts like the particle-wave of physics, and the nuclear structure of atoms. It infers these matters by its power of illusion only, because we are assured these elementary particles are not objectively visible – even though vision itself operates on account of the autonomous properties of light.

Where science would like to boil things down to a simple explanation, art accepts many explanations, and the notion of local conditions and nuances of perception. (Think of Monet’s haystacks paintings in their many different lights, or the many views of Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cezanne.) And yet science gets more complicated the longer it studies the world. The very concept of an elementary particle, which began long ago in Greek philosophy, has devolved by experiments into a plethora of elementary particles. And it is due to this multitude of elementary particles that the very philosophy of an elementary particle stands to be undone.

Not only is the elementary particle a quaint notion by now, the single universe is much in doubt, as well. Once, not so long ago, we had the single sun, the single galaxy, the only solar system, the only earth. Science, by its dogged scrutiny, approaches the perception art has long enjoyed – that the universe is not simplified, it can only be elaborated.

The turn in science was not entirely necessary. The photon is considered one of the early elementary particles. After centuries of thought and analysis, science conceded to a sort of binary description of the photon – that particle which conveys a quantum of light, and which is also a wave. Try constructing or imagining an irreducible element (a point) as a wave. Or, try imagining a wave as a single particle. It does not work in our normal way of thinking, but we infer it as a reality, the way we infer love in a Watteau painting – because we see the players in a love story.

It is in accepting the description of the photon that physics was on the right path, and in ascribing more and more elements to individual characteristics that it lost its powers of description. It is as though physics has gone ahead and decoupled the photon. Ie., in this experiment we show the wave decay and give off a particle, in the next, the particle decays and gives off a frequency of light energy.

Besides the likelihood that there is no ultimate particle, there is the likelihood that there is an elementary particle – already known – that can change identities under differing conditions.

Take as a metaphor people. If a human being speaks Russian, and another speaks Chinese, does an extraterrestrial scientist classify them as two distinct species? Then if the Russian immigrated to China, and after some years spoke Chinese, would he have had added to him the C-particle of Chinese and lost the R-particle of Russian? We here know that he was a person in both cases, and that that was his elementary identity, not to be confused with his language behavior, important though that is.

What I am trying to describe is a Universe that, even in its most basic sense, demonstrates behavior that is individualistic. True, it can be predicted by polls and quantum dynamics, but so can the likelihood that a Russian will try to learn Chinese while living in China. Being and context may be maintaining freedom and limits across the entire spectrum of existence, not only in the field of human action, or human thought.

I am free to think this blog. It is limited to what survives the test of reality. But where reality remains in a fluid state of description we may need to think fresh thoughts. The artist tries the world on through his particular lense. We grow to consider that particular sensibility as one we can share. The way of seeing is also a way of feeling and a way of conceiving the relationship between the human being and the world. That it is subjective makes it no less true.

It is possible the electron, the photon, the proton, each has a subjective relationship – subject to the contingencies of its existence – the way a bee moves to the next flower suggested by the breeze, or in opposition to it. We should not expect we are made of rocks, nor that matter is inanimate. Even rock has a fluid past, and nothing about the Universe seems inanimate to an artist. To an artist the moon and earth and sun are dancers, family members, even gods – but certainly not inanimate matter.

Spirit is in the very fiber of being. Freedom is the elementary particle. Art exists to celebrate this, and science to discover it.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Reflections on my show

English Channel (Night) was the image I chose for the postcard. It was based on a small oil sketch I made in Paris in June, 1994, from memory and a drawing made the night before while crossing the channel. I had in my mind the distinct and troubling experience of sensing, during part of that trip, the effort of so many of my father's generation to liberate Europe during D-Day. It struck me how powerful a feeling resides in certain places, and of course I could say this is only my subjective experience projected upon the world, because of a certain knowledge . . . and yet . . .

Knowing I was going to Prague later that summer for the first time to see relatives there, and that my father had just gone there before me, was bringing our family's history to a unique sort of closure. The cold war had continued to separate my father from the land he had fought to free, and this one trip he was taking was to be his only return to the land of his birth. I think I was quite conscious of him and his struggle on that crossing.

One experience I have of art is the effort to convey my empathy with those who have gone before. Landscape evinces the passing of some moment, like a stage after drama. We know a place can often serve as memorial -- and so it felt to me.

The following was a statement I wrote for the show, under the show's title:

Myth and Landscape

The paintings based on the Greek myth of Hero and Leander owe a debt to the Veronese painting of Diana at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, due to the sequential events narrated in that painting. This in turn is retrieved by Veronese from earlier Medieval examples.

The myth of Hero and Leander relates the love story of Leander and Hero (a priestess at the temple of Aphrodite). Leander swims nightly across the Hellespont to be with her, guided by a fire she lights for him. One night a storm puts out the light and Leander perishes. When Hero finds him washed ashore, she kills herself as well.

One might think of landscape as stage, and myth as the actors, but as we know, the environment is not passive. Everything from the weather on the night before D-Day, to the storm that puts out Hero’s beacon to her lover, there is another actor in human affairs – the all-encompassing universe of which we are, even in the art we make.

How well does an artist grapple with, and get down on canvas, the awesome and soul searching all, the infinite in the moment, the very worth and work of our obsessive living and reflection? Art is life’s own advertisement to itself – a broadcast by which we may communicate the deepest things, of which we cannot tire, and that ride with us, even on a painted canvas, homage to the life of life.

January 9, 2008

Here is Hero meets Leander

And Apotheosis (Leander and Hero)

After Apotheosis, the last painting in the show was called Exile, which one viewer thought showed Hero and Leander banished by death from earthly existence. And there is exile in my father's story. I think there is something to this -- the sense of the world as separate from its history. I certainly feel a separation akin to exile since my father died two years ago.

And so, here is Exile

And here is another painting from the show, The overturned Boat

I would like to go on and explain all the background material concerning water, my father, my own experiences, only to show how art funnels many influences into each painting.

The practice of reflection on a show, or a body of work in the studio, is a requisite of the artist's journey. I have demonstrated part of that here, and showed that even in a relatively small show of ten works done in six months there are loose threads, ideas for other ideas. And how to gather these matters together for the eyes, by narrative painting?. . . by landscape. . . ? remains a question, too.

Art itself is a struggle for the proper means, for a means commensurate with ends. How and what attempt to become one. The artist cannot be satisfied until he finds a way to achieve that.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The fallibility of perception

Horizon Event, one of the paintings in my show at Fleisher

This is a response to Richard Di Dio's post on fractalog, art and the event horizon effect.

Richard, thanks for the interesting reflections about horizons. While I was familiar with the concept of an event horizon, I hadn't heard of horizon effect, but then I haven't been reading your blog that long. I'm sure it will all come into view with further study.

What I had been referring to, on one level, was the relativity of perception. Becoming an artist, and teaching art, has made me very aware of the process of perception.

Art students often see what they think, instead of what they see, just as a novice actor will editorialize instead of act. But that is just part of a more interesting phenomenon.

In Horizon Event I was trying to show how the eye sees near and far in a slightly paradoxical manner. Only a considerable swelling of the sea on the lefthand side of the painting could explain the proximity of that sharp edge, whereas the softer edge on the right side appears farther away.

The eye reads reality in both a summary fashion, which is quick and based on samples and assumptions, and in a detailed fashion, which is localized to the small central focus of our vision.
Artists like De Chirico and Giacometti recommended the primacy of illusion in art, but not a simple trompe l'oil illusion which only results in a literal account of nature. The reason for illusion in painting resides in one of the things photography doesn't provide -- the experience of volumetric space -- and in its ability to create an entire world as a coherent sensation (much as music creates an aural world of coherent sensation entirely new in the world).

With students, I often refer to the inner experience of perception as the dreamspace. It is on that stage that the mind's eye operates, and the physics of the real eye has to collaborate with the conceptions of vision that we learn, or which are native to its organization. I differentiate between these last two, because it seems clear that some of our visual cues may be learned, others may be hard-wired.

For instance, the interpretation of hard and soft edges by the eye can deny or allow space between an object and its background. It also, based on the degree of contrast or color difference, can make one area of a painting precede another in our timeline of noticing. A painting is read according to a hierarchy of "what stands out," and that is indirectly related to how near or far we estimate an object to be. Our evolutionary experience may have selected us, based on whether we noticed the lion or tiger in the grass. And the evolution of the lion and tiger was to become less and less noticed in the same grass. I am not talking here about whether early hominids needed glasses. You can have acute vision, but not notice cues. We learn cues for our survival. For instance, for many years drivers became skilled at navigating by turnpike signage (which is still cued to help us). But all of us know how it feels to not have noticed a sign, because we were talking. Talking, it turns out, is almost impossible while drawing or painting. You would think we would have been an inchoate species, but obviously communication between people is more beneficial than reading highway signs.

"What where," Samuel Beckett might ask, and that is the crux of our dilemma, not only as artists, audiences, and physicists, but also political species, and mere deciders. It is why the ancient Greeks considered tragedy such a good explanation of the perils of judgment. It was not only judgment, however, that was imperfect, it was perception.

We remember how many tragedies begin with an oracle that can be read in two ways. The ambiguity of perception here lies in the "I thought it was like this coin with two sides." In a way, it showed that the ancient world considered itself subject to the ambiguity of conceptual views. I don't think perception, per se, was understood as one source of the dilemma, although Oedipus certainly suffered from a horizon effect, created by his parents, who, of course, were trying to escape the fate of an oracle. In other words, what Oedipus didn't know was as important to the story as what he did know, and the lifting of that veil represents a basic, if classical, view of perception. In other words, perception is trusted as unequivocal evidence, in combination with memory, the perception of others, their memory, and truth telling. (Say, if Tiresias lies, or can't remember, the case doesn't come to a close.) There is much of our modern idea of justice in this conception, but we know modern justice is hobbled by simple problems of perception. Eye witnesses are not reliable, especially when identifying strangers seen only once.

In our day there is much talk about a universe that seems not massive enough to hold together. We have devised a concept (without direct perception) of dark matter, and with the assistance of Einstein's equation about matter and energy, enlarged the concept to include dark energy.

I suggest these are convenient myths based on human problems, not on physics. For instance, in the same ancient world of Greek tragedy, people were easily convinced by Ptolemy and other astronomers that the planets in our sky behave like wandering stars. On a dry level that is an irrefutable description, although we know now they are not stars; but they do seem to wander. But how do they wander? They wander in a very pictorial way, familiar to civilized people of that time -- they follow a path, and now and then they double back before proceding again, as if they had dropped something, or were pausing to talk with another "planet." Well, this is a manner of conceptual vision, based on the familiar life of people. Meteors, by the way, were called "messengers," to reflect their similarity in the scene to runners carrying letters -- a form later repeated by the pony express.

I don't know why this comment should venture so far afield, but I think you can see where I am heading by now. Since physics is lead by people generally associated with a superpower center of civilization (the United States, the European Union, the Soviet Union in its day), they like to think big. You say "no, no," but big is favored as an estimation of the universe.

Given a perception that the universe seems too large, wouldn't objectivity suggest it is in fact smaller? Is it logical to invent another unseen universe that is "dark," has "dark energy," seems threatening somehow?

Perhaps the concept of dark matter, which has grown into an almost engulfing notion of otherness in our concept of the universe, is a sort of projection of dangers people feel on earth, and need to express in some way.

The possibility exists that science can be a form of mythology, even though its history suggests it leads away from that. And yet, there is Ptolemy, as well as Lamarck, as well as Newton, who thought the universe was like a large room that stands still on the rock of God. You can see that some caution should be excercised, especially when something appears too pictorial, or seems too welcome as a metaphor.

There may be something wrong with the distance estimates to the Magellanic clouds, or with the intervening space between us and the Andromeda Galaxy M 31. Perhaps the local atmosphere of the Milky Way (another, bovine, concept) gives one distance to the cepheid variable stars nearby, and another, out-of-scale one, to distant galaxies. So much of our perception of size of the universe is built up on one or two experiments of astronomical perception, which may themselves be flawed.

And then, is it not possible that the gravity effect of the universe as a whole bends or slows light down enough to make the universe appear larger than it is? When you think the glass is only half full, do you fill it with imaginary water? When you look in a convex mirror, do you think the room is actually much larger, and bent like a bowl?

Perhaps we need to realize that we are first of all attempting to perceive with difficult instruments difficult distances through an unknown medium. If scientists could study art as part of their curriculum, they would come to know the fallibilities and operations of perception, even their everyday perceptions, done by eye, of a world they can walk through and confirm, but which they really only assume to know.

Long before judgment, long before "why" is uttered, there is the simple fallibility of perception.

February 1, 2008

Thursday, January 31, 2008

My current art show at Fleisher

Here I am in front of two paintings -- Horizon Event on the left, and Hero Meets Leander on the right.

The show is called Myth and Landscape, and it runs until February 9, 2008, at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catharine Street, Philadelphia, PA. The gallery is on the second floor. For hours and directions you can call 215-922-3456

Here's a photo taken at the opening. On the left is Allison Whittenberg, and on the right is Barbara Torode, two Philadelphia poets.

Here is my wife, the painter Lynne Campbell, at my show.

Both my and my wife's art can be viewed at

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Art of Michael Carr

                                                                         Beach Radio by Michael Carr

Sunday, November 11, 2007 Saw the Absolutely Abstract 2007 show at The Philadelphia Sketch Club, where Don Brewer won first prize for his photograph of a concrete sidewalk/patio. Bill Scott and Barbara Zucker juried. While Bill Scott is an abstract artist, Barbara Zucker paints landscapes. Each of the artists picked 50 pieces separately, and Don’s was the one and only overlap.

Mike Carr explained his beautiful piece, vertical, green, clean. It looks like the new Comcast building, but is divided into a frequency, like waves coming to shore, as seen from an airplane. It is about some giant wave in Fiji that kills surfers, or did, until surfboard technology caught up to it somehow. The wave in question has an explosive forward blow that knocks surfers over. Here the new surfboard is an orange rectangle dipped deep into the painting. In little squares at the top there is a gray and white sampling of storm clouds, and squares sampling shore buildings. It is symbolic, sculptural neo-cubism, related closely to hip-hop or Dj inspired sampling, as well as to Pop Romanticism of life in the new age, as well as a kind of futurism – one which displays a faith in the minimal yet colored architecture we are beginning to see in the city.

He seems to be saying that an activity like surfing, or an experience like hearing the radio at the beach (the beach radio painting of a couple years ago) is as constructed and mighty a purpose as the tallest building built. This indicates how buildings are an outgrowth of some primal life-force all human activity shares in, or originates, and not something lowered into our midst that makes everyday recreations and reveries less important. He takes the large for something large-living in us. And he is the template of all these celebrations he shows us. Like a writer writing what he knows, he shows us a painter painting what he knows and how deeply he knows it is present and of its time. He shows how the human spirit – which he has in abundance – creates all the manifestations of these times. He elevates what most would regard as the lesser epics of life (an hour, six hours, of surfing) to the status and statues of, corporate and civic life. No one else has this civilization so clearly marked out in its best terms, nor so well understood as an almost Mediterranean ideal, although here the civilizing sea is either the Atlantic or Pacific. Shouldn’t this work come to be understood and appreciated quickly in California and the islands of Hawaii? No less so right here.