Unbounded: To See and Not Look Away From [Brian Hitselberger]
I have been teaching art for 10 years. I’ve taught children, teenagers, special needs students, at-risk adolescents, hobbyist retiree students, incarcerated students, public college students, private college students, non-traditional college students, first-generation college students, and so on. It’s been a rewarding way to earn a living and not without its challenges, as anyone who has ever taught anything will tell you. I have made myself willing and available to teach anything pertaining to art, particularly during leaner times. More than anything else, I’ve taught the art of seeing to people who want to learn to draw.
Seeing is a complex act, and learning to see is more challenging than one might initially believe. Often, this process involves creating scenarios that confront students with something they that they previously thought they knew and make them aware that they don’t. And just as often, this experience is uncomfortable for them. When working through these moments I remind my students of the following: The gifts of our lessons are not always immediately apparent.
I begin brightly one August afternoon at the small liberal arts school where I am currently teaching college students to see.
A big part of my job is teaching you skills. Measuring, determining proportional relationships, perceiving local value. These are the nuts and bolts of drawing, the hidden realities of vision. But these are also doorways, access points, into the really good stuff.
I am referring to skills that are more difficult to measure, or speak of, the type of lessons best learned through metaphor.
There’s what I’m teaching you, and then there's what the seeing is teaching you.
I conclude cryptically. My first-day students, so eager to please, hastily scrawl this koan into the margins of their syllabi.
One of the earliest exercises in most drawing classes is creating a blind contour drawing. It’s consistent use in classrooms everywhere is due largely to its simplicity. All one needs is a pencil, a piece of paper, and a willingness to actively look at one’s own vision. Using a continuous line, the student traces the edges of an object, paying particular attention to the slight shifts and turns. It is against the rules to look at the drawing while working. Because of this, the student is forced to let go of a desired outcome and must turn their entire, continuous attention to the object. The results, by my lights, always possess a strange kind of beauty that I find – even after all these years – difficult to name. A line used to render the edge of a leaf, viewed on the page in isolation, becomes a jagged and craggy faultline of perceived information. We begin as a group with one-minute drawings, then increase to five-minutes, ten-minutes, and ultimately twenty-five. The works grow more and more beautiful; my students grow more and more frustrated.
Resistance to this process generally springs from a preconceived expectation of what a finished drawing should look like . The sinuous abstract lines they dutifully created are far from the highly polished, photo-like graphite pictures they have come to characterize as a lofty ideal. They balk, and I am sympathetic. But making such highly mannered work is resolutely not the point here. The point is to become more attentive. But more attentive to what?
My historical answer: “More attentive to the details and edges of overlapping forms and separations between shapes.” A more truthful answer: “More attentive to the details and edges of forms as they appear at this moment in time and in this position in space.” We are training our eyes to see things that we know, but we do not notice.
Your position in space is a foundational prerequisite to your optical reality.
What you see and how you see it depends entirely upon where you stand.
Alter your stance, even slightly, and you alter your reality.
And it is at this point that I ask them to get up, move one foot to the side, and begin again. The whole game changes. The edges that the students perceived have shifted entirely, and what they formerly understood to be “correct” has been annulled through a shift in their physical orientation. They listen. They look. They see what I mean. We congratulate ourselves on a successful day in the classroom; and in leaving, go back to the rest of our lives. But it is here that I begin to wonder: what is it the seeing teaching them?
Both as an artist and educator, I distrust borders between types of knowledge. However I’m aware that I structure much of my pedagogy around them. When I approach the divisions that dominate our shared lived experience, it gives me pause. Undoubtedly, we have a basic human need to categorize, to separate into distinct areas of identification. Alas, we are hard-wired to do this. My students, however, are coming of age in a time when borders are vigorously debated, disregarded, contested and demolished more than ever before. A partial but incomplete list could include the following: gender identities, sexualities and sexual expressions, political parties, racial identities, borders of nations, distinctions between the public and private, school zones, housing regulations, craft versus fine arts, graphic design versus illustration, illustration versus painting.
One can and should make an argument that successfully navigating these territories depends upon an awareness of their outer boundaries. I would hypothesize that progress can only be made when the lines between bordered parties are recognized as inherently provisional, dependent upon a personal context. To phrase it another way: it depends upon one’s position in space in relation to them. These fluid and most contested borders are indeed the ripest of fruits and the most instructive experiences. Contour drawing, with its apparent simplicity, is an opportunity to experience this reality optically and physically. This shifting before our very eyes expresses the times in which we live. This exercise renders our vision spurious, a sensation we record through haptic means.
In contour drawings, blind or otherwise, the lines between elements form the lines of the drawing itself . These lines dictate the separations between distinct bodies perceptually experienced. However, these separations are understood as non-fluid realities, indivisible truths. When put on the page, they create arrangements of shapes that are resolutely one thing and not another. In short, every line makes an argument for what it contains and what it does not. The most beautiful examples I know of this phenomenon are the late Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawings, which were organized into an exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012.
Formally, they are archetypal models of economy. Their sparseness and elegance leave no room for guesswork on the part of the artist or uncertainty on the part of the viewer. My primary pleasure in looking at them comes from the simple joy of “rightness” and “wholeness” that the works represent. They capture none of the shifting incoherence that comprises so much of visual experience, and for this reason they are fictions of the highest order. I need this work the way I need sleep – as a rest to the nervous system, as distraction from the unkempt reality which composes the majority of my life. But I’m fascinated by the possibilities of an art that does communicate these shifting realities.
The drawings of Swiss Post-Impressionist artist Alberto Giacometti have always struck me as not only beautiful but merciless. In looking at them, I’m aware of the physicality of the marks themselves and the intense gaze that the artist brings to his subject matter. Make no mistake, he was really looking at these people. The first time I really looked at these drawings, it was at a 2001 retrospective of Giacometti’s sculpture and painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I shuddered at the intensity of the mark-making. I wondered if I could survive being stared at so fiercely. In their relentless, nervous, desperate search for an edge, in the visible process of losing and finding it, each piece contained a struggle to not only see a subject, but to truly see the Subject.
The Subject being a human being. And with that comes all the attendant baggage of a human being. In this sense, these drawings are more real than objective reality because they render the inner life of the artist and his attempt to rectify that life with the outward appearance of his subject. They also describe what a fantastically difficult job this is to do. One of Giacometti’s models, the American author James Lord, observes this difficulty in his excellent 1965 memoir of posing for the artist, A Giacometti Portrait.
We went back to the studio. He at once began to work on the bust again. I placed the easel, the stools, the chair in position, put the canvas on the easel, and sat down to wait. He murmured irritably to himself. Ten minutes passed. At last, with obvious reluctance, he turned away from the bust and sat on his stool. “It’s impossible,” he declared, “particularly at this distance. It’s impossible.” But he began to [draw] nevertheless.
“The funny thing is,” he remarked after a time, “that I simply can’t seem to reproduce what I see. To be able to do that, one would have to die of it.”
To him the predicament was not at all amusing. When he spoke of dying, it seemed that he actually believed it. And yet he worked on. This is the essential unbearable duality of his life.
“There,” he murmured presently, “the nose is in place now. That’s some progress.”
Giacometti’s own feelings (and grief) around this incapacity do little to buck the longstanding myth of the tortured artist. In my mind, they also represent a particular truth, one that simultaneously honors and interrogates the process of representation itself. This paradox of failure illustrates a sophisticated undermining of what is seen and what is known. This is a territorial knowledge that comes only from a sustained engagement with a territory’s margins. His process and his sight are so rigorously questioned that he no longer trusts them. Thus he sees the provisionality in all things. His edges remain indistinct, his uncertainty trumpeted.
The “building cut” projects of artist Gordon Matta-Clark further this collapse between what is seen and what is known. Matta-Clark’s practice of “anarchitecture” (a term invented by the artist by combining the words “anarchy” and “architecture”) extended to the large-scale and technically baffling deconstruction of public buildings. His 1975 work Day’s End features an astonishingly large half-moon shape cut into the exterior of an abandoned building on the Hudson River Piers on New York City’s West Side. The piece was executed without municipal permission or the aid of assistants.
The scale and formal beauty of the work, not to mention what one critic called its “outrageous illegality”, threaten to obscure the marvel of spatial transgression that is really happening here. Matta-Clark’s piece annihilates any meaningful distinctions between exterior facade and interior space, between structural integrity and blinding illumination, between outer and inner. Day’s End creates a lacunae of darkness on the horizon of New York Harbor, and fills the darkness of an empty warehouse with unremitting light. That it accomplishes all of this by simple act of removal is only slightly less remarkable than the fact that it doesn’t destroy the structure entirely.
Let me amend this: it does not physically destroy the structure. But Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture” razes our intellectual notions of a building’s most basic functions: it fills them with holes. The work orients us to see new possibilities for negotiating the interiors and exteriors of life. By extension, and by metaphor, it shocks us into considering what we let out versus what we let in. This disregard for conventional separations between outer and inner – foundational to so many of Matta-Clark’s projects – proposes a new conception for transgressing not only space, but separateness itself. In cutting a hole, he literally lets the light in.
This permeability may be most acutely felt when national borders are drawn or disputed. Occupation, annexation, invasion, defense – these are words used to describe territory-based negotiations. At the end of the day, these are disputes over a line drawn in the sand as seen from above. Francis Alys’ Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political, and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic, was first enacted in June of 2005 in the city of Jerusalem. This incredible performance work explores these tensions with characteristic levity and lyricism. In the piece, the artist walked from one end of Jerusalem to the other carrying a can filled with green paint, the bottom of which was perforated with a small hole so that the paint dripped as a continuous squiggly line on the ground as he walked.
Alys’ choice of route and color alludes to the green line drawn on a map as part of the armistice after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, indicating land under the control of the new state of Israel. The original Green Line has since been considerably altered on the ground, each time with cataclysmic consequences for persons on both sides. The artist makes physically visible a political contour, using a medium that underscores the arbitrary details of such a line as well as the ephemerality of its demarcation. Alys’ line was of course washed away completely as soon as it began raining; the Green Line to which the piece refers was not. I have written several times here about the “provisionality” of any boundary, between self and other, between one category of life and another. As Alys’ work makes clear, this provisionality is often established through a set of conditions, and those conditions (seen from above) can be as ephemeral, or as arbitrary, as the borders they engender.
I believe it is the act of drawing that is a physical reminder, an object lesson, that leads to the perception and awareness of the provisionality of boundaries between forms. Furthermore, I believe we owe it to our students and ourselves to see and not look away from these conditional boundaries. Our drawings, our works of art, can and must communicate these slippages if they are to describe in any meaningful way that world in which we are living and making them. Can our drawings ever truly match our vision? Of course not. The very act of linear description is always an exercise in reaching for something just beyond our grasp, and representation in art will never operate with the same level of description that our eyes will. It’s a hard concession to make, but there you have it. Yet I maintain that this cannot be the goal of drawing.
Our drawings are incontrovertible documents of the limits of our own perceived experience when describing our realities. When you turn the leaf a quarter inch, all the rules change. Observational drawing can open a space for understanding the limitations of our own perceptual and cognitive experiences. Approaching it this way shifts the practice from an exercise in finality, correctness, a search for the “right.” Instead, it creates an opportunity to understand our own perceptual experience of the world and remind us of our provisional position within it. An emphasis on understanding the lived perspectives of others, as well as the cognitive limitations of our own, makes clear a path for expanding the possibilities of human empathy. In this sense, it can transgress and eliminate distinctions between the conceptual correctness of our own realities and the foreignness of another’s. It cuts a hole in the wall and it lets the light in. “In brief,” I remind my students, “it is what the seeing is teaching you.”
[A note: These ideas and much of this text comes materials I prepared for a panel discussion on drawing, from the 2015 FATE Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. I have made some adjustments to the original.]
Brian Hitselberger (b. 1982) is an artist living and working in Athens, Georgia. His installations, paintings and works on paper explore a variety of themes that shift between subjects and perspectives alternately intimate and immense – occasionally within the same piece.
His work has most recently been exhibited at ATHICA in Athens, Georgia, Dalton Gallery of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, Barbara Archer Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, The Contemporary in Atlanta, Georgia, and Cabinet in Brooklyn, New York. He has held residencies at the Elsewhere Artists Collaborative, the HUB-BUB Arts Initiative, and the Hambidge Center for the Arts. He has received funding from the Georgia Council for the Arts, the Willson Center for the Humanities, and the Andy Warhol Foundation. He received a BFA in Printmaking from Tulane University in 2005, and an MFA in Painting from the University of Georgia in 2010. He is currently Assistant Professor of Painting and Printmaking in the Art Department of Piedmont College.
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