Space and Place, First Thoughts

 The Amargosa Panorama

from Fra Lippo Lippi,
by Robert Browning

…We’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out…
This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

Having spent 6 weeks in February and March 2009 at the Goldwell Open Air Museum’s Red Barn (near Beatty Nevada) as a Workspace Resident, I returned in November to paint a full panorama of the space seen from the Barn doors. I had played at working the space in oils on small panels earlier, but this time I wanted to try large linen panels. I also did a small scale set of studies for the larger panels. The set above, called The Amargosa is 5 feet high and 28 feet long. The image above, photograph by David Lancaster, is the way the linen panels looked on November 30, exactly 30 days after I began cutting the rolls of linen to size.

Here are images of the individual panels:

The Amargosa, Panel 1 (east),¬† 4 x 5′,¬†
Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 2 (east),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 3 (east),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 4 (central),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 5 (west),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 6 (west),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The Amargosa, Panel 7 (west),¬† 4 x 5′,¬† Oil on linen, 2009

The ¬† Amargosa, 28′ x 5′, Oil on linen, 2009

“Dancing, which is always accompanied by music or a beat of some kind, dramatically abrogates historical time and oriented space. Music and dance free people from the demands of purposeful goal-directed life….” Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place.

“The desert has no middle ground. It lacks the natural features or built structures that allow us to focus on that part of the landscape where normally our vision, hence our imagination, spends most of its time. It’s [an] example of our dissonance with the Great Basin…. the emptier the space, the less history we perceive. Without evidence of events, save those of geological occurrences mostly eons ago, we are…temporally unanchored.” William L. Fox, The Void, the Grid,& the Sign

For a couple of years now, I have been pondering, maundering, circling and scribing about space and place. These words came to the forefront of my brain with with my forays into desert “space,” attempting to render it in landscape paintings. More recently I was painting at the coast during wild winter storms and present at a trifling yet startling effect from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, an effect that set off more contemplations of the wild unknowable, implacable nature of Nature.

This post is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series that will examine, from my point of view and, through comments, from yours, the dilemmas and questions the artist faces.

Peter Schjeldahl says “We now know, from brain science, that seeing is not a direct register of what meets our eyes but a fast mental construction that squares sensation with memory and desire: what we believe and wish reality to be.”

Looking at the two photos above, it’s clear we can name them “Desert” and “Ocean.” Some in the know might be able to further clarify: “Mojave desert” or even “North American Range and Basin.” And perhaps an oceanographer, or knowledgeable traveler might be able to say “West coast” or “Pacific Ocean.” [This last I’m not so sure of, not being an ocean aficionado; nor do I know if geographers could identify the Mojave from the information in the first photos, although it seems to me to have more information than the one of waves].

But — and this is a big but — these spaces — desert and ocean — are enormous. They cover miles of territory, disorienting territory. They can easily be without landmarks, particularly if you aren’t a “local.” We have memory and desire about the ocean and the desert, but they tend to be about a particular ocean — Atlantic City, Cannon Beach — or a particular desert scene — the sand dunes of the Sahara or the Sonoran Joshua Trees. We name these things and tame them. We see photos of them and we identify them as gorgeous or sublime:

But with that naming and familiarity comes the artist’s dilemma: how to indicate “space” without it turning into an ordinary, banal “place.”

Yi-Fu Tuan, in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience says:

…it is doubtful whether human beings can naively apprehend the [sense of calm of the sea at rest, the exuberant energy of the primeval forest or the vastness of the endless sweep of the plains] without prior experience in the sensible forms and scale created by man. Nature is too diffuse, its stimuli too powerful and conflicting, to be directly accessible to the human mind and sensibility.

Thus the task of the landscape artist is two-fold:¬† to see something — something different, something more, something less — than that fast mental construction of convention, hope,and desire. When seeing at her best,¬† the artist may perhaps come closer to directly accessing nature — or at least the visual space — with something like “naive apprehension.”

And then, the second task, equally difficult,  is to render that seeing, render it for the viewer in a vision that  communicates the naive view, yet with some landmarks,  something to key off of, something making sense of the pigments of light and color:

JOU, Nye Beach,March 10, 2011, 12 x 16″¬† Oil on board

“Space” says Yi-Fu Tuan “is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning.”¬†¬† But for the artist, there’s a particular spot of visioning that, as I am understanding it, is neither Space nor Place, is neither incomprehensible nor tamed by naming and use, by memory and desire. The visioning I hope for is both startling and true to my own naivet√©.

At the same time I am contemplating Space and Place, I am also thinking about Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton and the use of of time and movement in delimiting Space. But that’s to be left for another post.


7 thoughts on “Space and Place, First Thoughts

  1. June- having just read the momogram by Patrick McCaughey on Fred Williams I can highly recommend it as an artist who grappled with exactly these concepts and came to an articulate and highly individual encapsulation and sadly died too soon to see where else he could bring it too.However in reaching his vision he was concerned with form- gotta go kidn taxi….

  2. Alison, what a great phrase: “wrap up the sense of space, place, sound, smell and its colurs or mevement and take a bit home to unroll, look at abd keep there?”


    But I don’t find color as the jogging point of inspiration when I’m outside — I think I find the chaos, the riot, of sensation that captures me. But then I always was a bit gluttonous.

    thanks for checking in.

  3. Don’t you wish you could wrap up the sense of space, place, sound, smell and its colurs or mevement and take a bit home to unroll, look at abd keep there? I think of space and place in terms of colour and have found that a satisfying way to explore some of my experience in a particular environment. A short hand link to other aspects of place, if you like.

  4. Karoda,

    I think the danger of portraying the unknown, the “mysterious” is that it can become merely another exotic place for the viewer — the penguins of the Antarctic, the blue men of an African country, the wild placement of color on a tree branch. Engaging the viewer in your own comprehension of your emotional feel of space and place might be more fresh. But of course, as a poet you know the difficulty is two-fold — to identify clearly what you experience –“memory, discovery, the unknown” — and then to render it, in this case, visually.

    One reason I like the art residencies is that they bring me to fresh spaces and force me to look hard again and again and again, and then to render what I am seeing — often without knowing what I am seeing. That is, I don’t have “memory” of the space, and my desire is to see, so what I hope I am recording is that desire.

    Ah, I blither. Sorry. I’m obviously still maundering as well as meandering. Thanks for checking in, both of you.

  5. Sheila,

    We are exploring from the same starting place, although maybe we’ll go in different directions eventually. The book you refer to (that you referred me to) is one of three that I hope to envelope into the conversation soon.
    The fog you experienced is what Yi-Fu Tuan calls “unoriented space.” And that intersection of what you knew was there but unseen and what you were seeing — that “space/place” between is precisely where I think artists have to find their vision.

    If you only have (as a viewer) the view of the long bridge, it’s a pretty long bridge in a pretty landscape. If you only have the fog, you only have an undifferentiated swirl. But somehow, the artist has to make what we know and what we see and what is out there come together.

    Of course, you aren’t to ask me how — I’m just the talker here

  6. Hello June, for me, landscapes which seek to be highly representational are strongest when the artist’s gaze is about what is unknown…the mystery and yet undiscovered spaces for the viewer. I’m interested in portraying in my own art the emotional and feel (personally) of space and place…the texture of it.

    When I was engaged in writing poetry, much of my work as interested in pinpointing a geographical location and fusing it with memory, a discovery, and the unknown. I wanted my readers to feel some familiarity, a jolt, and then ponder their own futures/histories. I would be thrilled if I ever come close to making this happen visually!

  7. This should be an interesting exploration. I got a bit of this in the Modern Landscape book. My own haunted memory of space and place that I have not figured out how to portray artistically came one morning looking out over the lake toward the long bridge. We were totally fogged in – the mountain backdrop, the lake itself – all I could see was the bridge itself in the distance, suspended in this swirl of white. The effect was mesmerizing, but to translate it to fabric or canvas, well, I realized that my own knowledge of what lay all around that floating bridge but hidden from view was part of the appeal. I still cannot fathom how to contain that wide wide landscape and make it interesting to someone who had not experienced both the before and after the fog. Does this make sense?

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