Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Visualizing Wisdom

December 22, 2015 by Susan Weinberg Our session actually began a few days ago with an assignment. We were asked to send in an image of someone's artwork that represented wisdom. Not so simple. First we had to think about how we visualized wisdom, then find an image that represented it. If you are a believer in "I'll know it when I see it" you likely spent some time scanning the universe of artwork in search of wisdom.

I began my search in the figurative and symbolist world looking at artwork by William Blake and Gustav Moreau. Interesting work, but nothing that said wisdom to me. Then I thought back to a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that I went on last week. The visit was prompted by one of their book based tours on the book Rez Life that took me to the Native American galleries.

Ah ha! I knew which piece I wanted to share but had a dilemma. I didn't remember the artist. Thus began my search through mediums until I quite by accident stumbled upon my selection, a piece by Ernest Whiteman based on petroglyphs and embodying the heart-line, a red neon line running from throat to heart, a plumb line of sorts. Whiteman talks of the heart-line as a life force that takes one on a path or journey and provides the balance between what we are given by nature and what we take from the earth. The traditions speak to harmony between man, animal and nature. "Clearly a wisdom based piece" I thought.
When we gathered this evening Lynda Monick-Isenberg and Jay Isenberg took us through a slide show of the images that had been submitted. They then broke the artwork into four groups, those that were more abstract, figurative, nature derived and other. We were asked to form groups according to our artwork. My selection was placed in the abstract group along with images of the Rothko chapel, Onement IV (blue rectangles) by Barnett Newman, Black Square by Malevich, Blue Nude by Matisse and tapestries on Exile and Yiddish Wisdom by Berit Engen.
We were asked to employ a process of critical response by identifying what we noticed, what it reminded us of, emotions it generated, questions it raised and the meaning or understanding that was conveyed by the work. For example for Matisse's Blue Nude we noted the ocean-like blue, a mood of contemplation and serenity and the negative space of the image. We were especially intrigued with Matisse's resilience in reinventing his approach in the face of physical limitations, certainly an element of wisdom. Rothko's work generated words such as radiance, reverence and enveloping and reminded us of eggs and shells. We were curious about the differences in creating work for a chapel rather than a museum.

Although all of the work we selected was composed of simplified forms, not all of it spoke to everyone in our group. The simplicity of the Malevich and the Barnett Newman eluded some of us in terms of meaning. Overall the gathering of work seemed to speak to both space and negative space.
We were then asked to move to another group of images, those of the natural world, and found that we struggled a bit. In our time discussing abstraction we all seemed to have turned into minimalists, finding the photographs less to our taste. The questions we asked included such queries as how do you convey grandeur without presenting it on a silver platter? How do you have wisdom without sounding trite? It is a delicate line to walk.

It occurred to me that perhaps our response was a function of the work we had originally selected and I wondered how those who selected the natural world images would respond to our more abstract choices.
When we considered the two groups our preference for minimalist and more abstract work was based on the idea that it allowed room for the viewer to enter. It was more subtle and asked the question, allowing room for contemplation and interpretation. Some of the natural world images illustrated the idea and were more familiar to us and hence we felt were less likely to engage the viewer to do some of the work. Our take-away was that we perceive wisdom in many different ways and perhaps have some innate preferences.

For the last portion of our session we were given a creative assignment, the forced connection. We were instructed to select our original image as well as one other that spoke to us. First we were to list the conceptual, emotional, intellectual, technical and design content of each work and then create new connections visually.
I was intrigued to discover that the work that I gravitated to outside of my own selection was that of James Turrell, a physical space at the University of Texas. Interestingly it echoed many of the themes of my original selection. Both made use of negative space through a cut out form and addressed concepts of duality, inside/outside, people/nature. Both presented a theme of balance and made use of circular forms as focal points. It was an exercise that made conscious some subconscious expressions.

We were then asked to create a visual representation that expressed new connections out of this process. Many chose to work with collage, often selecting Malevich's simple space to introduce another contrasting image. So often we struggle with how to express a somewhat abstract concept. This exercise not only identified imagery that we associate with wisdom, but allowed us to begin to recognize the themes that reside within our subconscious.
If you'd like to see the images we submitted please click here.

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