Reading Diary: Walking Out of Circles (Pazarbasl)

The Eyes of the Skin

It seems that Juhani Pallasma’s writing, “The Eyes of the Skin”—in its discussion of the “dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses” (17)—is in direct opposition to John Berger’s opening statement in his book,Ways of Seeing, wherein he asserts that “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (7). In his opening remarks, Berger seems to imply that seeing is the body’s first active sense and that it “establishes our place in the surrounding world” (7).

In contrast, Pallasma appears to suggest that the “dominance” or the “hegemony” of vision is an “ocular bias” developed by man over time suggesting that the suppression of the other senses over vision (and, in particular, images) is not only an act of man but a transgression from what should be—a reliance on the other senses because of how vision “tends to push us into detachment, isolation, and exteriority” (19).

It is safe to say that Pallama’s theory is more relevant now than ever with the proliferation of images on social media. It is not a stretch to see how people are using social media images to promote their “ego-consciousness” thereby resulting in the “separation of the self and the world” (25). If you can post a picture or a video of a work of art or a performance, why actually travel to the site to see it? If you can “see” all of your friends through selfies and keep up with their lives through posts, why travel to meet up?

And this is where Pallasma and Berger agree. Both writers appear to feel that, with the proliferation and vast availability of images, something is lost.

To Pallasma, this ready, chronic, duplication and proliferation of the image “makes the world feel more available than it really is” (36). She laments, I believe, the idea of someone reading about a beautiful landscape and then “visiting” that landscape online and being satisfied with the virtual visitation versus having a need to travel to the landscape and be in it, breathe in it, feel your weight upon it.

For Berger, the lamentation also comes in the form of travel to a site; “the visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve”, he proclaims. “This preserve was magical or sacred. But it was also physical: it was the place, the cave, the building in which the work was made. The experience of art was set apart from the rest of life. Later, the preserve of art became a social one. What the modern means of reproduction has done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it from any preserve” (32).

The image, or art in general, becomes a “commodity” (Pallasma 34). The reverence is lost. I wonder, however, to what extent this is true and to what extent this is biased against class.

Despite the proliferation of the image, museums are still packed. Indeed, when I visited the Louvre in Paris, the crowd around the (alarmingly mall) “Mona Lisa” somewhat disproves the theory that people are removed from reality. The “Mona Lisa” has to be one of the most prolific images in the history of mankind. Yet, here was this swarm of people angling to get close to it.

(I do have to admit here that many in the crowd were angling for a good position to get a selfie with the “Mona Lisa”—thus “commodifying” the artwork to continue their own, social media, existential narrative).

Still, I think that the idea that art work should be revered, traveled to, and seen in person (despite the proliferation of its image) is a good point. Only there are many people in the world who cannot afford to travel to these places, caves, and buildings where these artworks are made. And even when it is made affordable, here in the United States we have created an aura around these sacred places so that they feel, to many minorities, as spaces for white people only. Thanks to images, anyone who wants to see these works and either cannot afford the trip, the admission ticket, or simply feel unwelcomed can study in the sanctity of their own space.

Reading Diary: Walking Practices and Cyclical Journeys (Mendollcchio)

Decolonizing Nature

“The work of ‘political artists’ usually harms no one and I would defend their right to make it”, artist, Victor Burgin, once said, “what I cannot support is their self-serving assumption that it ‘somehow’ has a political effect in the real world”.

This quote appears in a chapter on political art in Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class wherein Davis is attempting to posit the idea that political art is not only not useful (with “too little to say about the complexities of the political questions” at hand) but can actually be a self-serving, “static” form of hero worship (42).

Conversely, in T.J. Demos’ “Decolonizing Nature, Contemporary Art and the Politics of the Ecology”, there is a call to arms of the artist to engage in a political discourse about the environment in order to aid in its (our) salvation.

The two opposing positions posits an interesting debate: Is art and the creation of the visual too self-serving to serve as a force against destructive capitalist practices? Or is art and the visual a necessary tool (even despite the validity of the opposing idea) to fight destructive capitalism because it aims at a point of perception: the visual that we, as humans, use prolifically to message ideas and receive ideas?

I am reminded of the controversy surrounding the graphic artist, Shepard Fairey, whose Obama “Hope” poster sparked controversies around copyright infringement and the artist’s exploitation of political causes for notoriety and profit. Despite (?) his success, his work aided in the mass ocular consumption of the hero-image of then Senator Barack Obama and those on the left-side of politics are appreciative of its success and aid in getting the gentleman elected. I think, currently, of the visual of immigrant children in detention centers that have ignited movement and (hopefully at this writing) forced the hand of the current administration to reunite families. Lastly, I recall how television (something included in Demos’ concept of “the image complex” (11)) and its visuals of young American men coming home in caskets was one of the larger factors in ending the war in Vietnam.

My conclusion is that art and the visual and all things that fall under the umbrella of Demos’ image complex do, in fact, have a place and are integral to the fight against lobbyists who act in corporate interest over the interests of both people and the survival of the planet we inhabit.

Yet I do agree with the example given in Demos’ writing, Kimberly Tall Bear, who voices the concern that colonial-originated artists cannot (?) be at the forefront of the artistic front against colonialism of the environment. If we are looking for a new global contract with nature so as to halt colonizing and destroying it, should we not, as Tall Bear advises, look to the practices, philosophies, and art of indigenous people who have already established such contracts with nature?

Further, is it the responsibility of good-natured, well-intentioned, colonial-originated artists to research the practices, philosophies and art of nature-revering indigenous communities before engaging in the work to ensure that they are not, inadvertently, colonizing the practices, philosophies, and art of these communities?

Personally, my views about saving the planet lean more towards the “enforced narratives of disaster capitalism” and the idea that we are, ultimately, doomed as a result of corporate greed (13). As long as rich old, white men remain in power, protests, art, and the whole of the image complex seems to me as throwing a glass of water at a forest fire. Political protests (including art) feels futile against the wall of White Corporation.

Yet, In a recent NPR program, a caller explained that she was not concerned about the political environment, its attacks against women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, gay rights, minority rights because, she stated, by 2060 (at least in the Unites States) the minorities will outnumber the current majority. Though, she lamented, anyone in earshot will not be around, it is heartening to know the tide will turn.

Maybe, in that moment, the true decolonization of nature can make headway. If it is not too late.

Reading Diary: Silence/Silenced (Marchevska)

Aesthetics of Silence

Years ago, when I began my dalliance with painting, I began by just painting self-portraits and then portraits of friends and family. When I developed enough confidence, I showed these first few naïve pieces to an artist friend of mine named Sherry Kerlin. “You need to add things”, she advised me. “Symbols, artifacts, you’re just painting these static portraits of people; you have to devise a way to allow the audience in”. My next painting was a self-portrait of me, on a couch, embracing a skeleton who had its bony fingers down the front of my underwear. “Ah!”, Sherry exclaimed, “much better”. I had thought long and hard about this first symbolic piece: I had thought about sexual abuse, oppression, repression, and sexual death. I had found a stream of consciousness that allowed the audience in.

Yet, Susan Sontag, in her writing, “Aesthetics of Silence”, describes how the modern artist is looking to turn away from her audience and the idea of the consciousness—a “self-estrangement” that is actually an “antidote” to the consciousness (that thing which artists of yesteryear sought to tap into and speak to) (2).

What’s interesting is the idea that, no matter how discordant to the audience and the consciousness the artist’s attempts to be, in time, his art (or silence) connects with the masses, is understood by them, and can even begin to reshape the way they think or see or conceptualize communication. I am thinking of artists like Picasso and his move to cubism. To the masses, it must have seemed bold, yes. And new. And exciting. But strange and discordant. It must have been a lot of work to connect to the first waves of abstraction outside of its exterior, aesthetically pleasing qualities.

Yet, in time, we see cubism, abstraction, and less-figurative works as connected to how we think. Where once, through art, our minds thought through concrete, figurative images, it is no stretch to say that the more modern art enthusiast can just as easily think in terms of shapes, overlap, splashes of paint (indeed, this relative chaos may be more akin to how the human mind works than actual, neat, photo-real figuration).

Either way, the question that comes to mind is, does the silence and attempts at discord from the consciousness actually matter when your art is at the mercy of interpretation? I am reminded of a Literary Theory class I took in grad school; the professor was promoting the idea that once an author has published a work, the interpretation of that work is no longer in his sole possession. It is at the mercy of queer theory, feminist theory, Conceivably straight characters can be (with shockingly apt textual evidence) proven gay. Heroes can be proven misogynists.

This said, the artist’s attempt at negation of the consciousness and silence and severance cannot, ultimately work. Sontag states that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech and an element in a dialogue” and I argue that silence is, in fact—because of the very workings and interpretations of the viewer—never actually silence (10). The silence is filled by interpretation.

Further along, Sontag states that “in silent art, there is no release from attention, because there has never been any soliciting of it (15)”. So, is this the goal of modern art? An attempt at creating a work without meaning? To create with the intention of not wanting attention? An attempt to create a work that asks the audience to add nothing and only stare?

Currently, I have gone back to painting static portraits. I paint people live and truly believe that something in our exchange can be interpreted through the finished piece. But it is nothing I am forcing. As such, I am working as the modern artist (according to Sontag) should; I am working without the goal of interpretation or solicitation of attention (to symbols of the consciousness or visual statements on the human condition).

The other night, I had a friend in my home sitting for me. She was situated in a way where she was forced to stare at the portrait with the skeleton and the underwear. After some time, she broke down and asked, “Peter, what does that painting mean?” “Sexual abuse, sexual oppression, sexual repression, sexual death”, I replied.

“No”, she stated, “it’s a man who lost his lover and wants him back”.

When she left, I thought about her interpretation, looked at the piece, and wept.



Reading Diary: Infinite Play (Schoen)

 “Language to Infinity”. M Foucault

In Ridley Scott’s last installment of his Alien films, “The Covenant”, an android named David goes rogue for the sake of creation. David’s existential crisis stems from his self-produced belief that existence means the freedom to create (even and especially for androids who are forbidden to engage in creation). Despite the injunction against his kind, David believes in creation, he admires the act of creation, he has memorized poetry and composed music. Anything short of the freedom to create, for David, is death.

In Foucault’s essay titled, “Language to Infinity”, we understand that Foucault’s view of language is that it has the “power to keep death at a distance” (94). This concept of the staving off of death is figurative in that, naturally, death is not literally staved off by words, stories, retellings, or prophecy but rather that our conceptualization of the limits of life is reshaped by our ability to re-navigate time, space, and ideas through language.

The essay relies heavily on the tale of Odysseus to illustrate the point of language’s ability to throw a mirror up (refract?) death, but I am more keen to think about Homer’s The Iliad and the choice of its hero, Achilles.

In the epic poem, Achilles is given a choice: stay away from the war at Troy, marry, have children and then grandchildren and watch his name die after two or three generations (after the language, the voices, of his great grandchildren have forgotten him). Or, join in the Trojan War and know his name will live in myth forever through the language of the bards. Death, in this story, is not mirrored away, or kept at a distance; in either choice, Achilles dies. Rather, it is life and how that life is shaped that is at stake through Achilles’ choice of his storytellers (his great-grandchildren or the bards).

As such, it feels to me that we use language (and art/creation) as a way of purposefully and actively shaping life rather than “subvert[ing] death” (95).

Foucault contends that the completion of something “in a beautifully closed form” is a way in which writers, artists, creators get around death but it seems to me that the creation of things that are closed (ended, finished, framed or published) is actually more akin to death—like caskets that the creators hand craft in order to control or shape (like Achilles) the perception of how we end and not subverting the fact that we all must end.

One of the most famous examples of this angst against the ability to lengthen our mythology and control how our lives are perceived is John Keats who went to his grave under the notion that his name is “writ on water”. Keats, of course, knew that he was doomed (as are we all) but he also counted on language to control the perception of his name: as a poet of worth.

In “The Covenant”, David is given pause when a fellow android calls him out on misremembering the creator of the poem, “Ozymandias” as Byron instead of Shelley. The creation-worshipping android cannot, for a brief moment, understand how he could possibly have made such a mistake. More than that, the mistake, now realized publicly—spoken—now had the ability to shape the perception of how he lived (was he a god-like creator, above the mere mortals that created him or was he a blundering fool?).

For those of us who create, I think the staving off of death through refraction is a large motivation but I also think we should more closely pay attention to what it is we are attempting to communicate about our lives in these, the moments that we breathe, while we still can.


Project Plan

I imagine walking into a gallery and seeing painted portraits of people: ordinary people hung beside interesting-looking people hung beside a writer beside an entertainer beside a child. After a moment, one notices that many of the subjects are sitting on the same wine-colored futon and beneath their feet is the same geometrically-patterned rug. The portraits alone are interesting in execution and style but seen all together they seem to accomplish something, show something, prove something, about us. The gallery becomes a city or a society.

I was fascinated by this image when I read the idea into an art critic's description of Alice Neel's Spanish Harlem apartment--its painted citizens stacked up against her walls: Andy Warhol stacked between Neel's neighbors, friends, lovers, and child.

When I began painting, I was only interested in exploring composition and color and the idea that I could say something with an image and with symbols. In short, I was only interested in me; what I could do; my depth and my artistic self. But that has evolved (or distilled) into simple portraiture.

The portrait is an equalizer. I have painted the portrait of a grand transgendered entertainer and she looks quite ordinary while the portrait of my social-worker neighbor has the bearing of royalty. Neither results were purposeful.

The concept of peopling the ordinary alongside the extraordinary also brings to mind the work of Lucian Freud who can spend a year on the portrait of both a local waitress and a year on a portrait of the Queen of England. 

Being half-Mexican, raised in a predominately Black neighborhood, and currently teaching high school English in Harlem, New York, an added imperative in peopling my project is the representation of people of color. Kerry James Marshall, in the beginnings of his pursuit of an artistic career, lamented that the art world announced the death of realism with the emergence of abstraction. Marshall’s reaction to abstraction and the end of representational painting regardless of the fact of “how marginal Black figure images are in the archive of art history” before Black artists began to be considered is represented in his hyper-black figurative work . To Marshall's point, our museums are filled with the representation of white skin, white history, white mythology and white people. In my project of collective (or collecting) people, I am looking to keep the population unbalanced favoring brown skin. I am not intending to make an overt statement, but rather, I feel the collection--the visual representation--will speak for itself.

Like much of the world today, representation has become a predominant concern in America; Black people have sought representation since the country's inception, transgendered and gay people seek the same, women seek a new level of representation, and the middle and lower classes have elected an unfit president in their desperation for it. The attention economy that engines social media is the every-man, woman, and child screaming for it.

My project of collected portraits is a collective of representation that I hope speaks more about people, about the people presented, than it does about me as an artist. I imagine the gallery walls would be a space for each subject to have their requisite level of representational space but also, seen together, would become a space to imagine something greater.


I am a native New Yorker. As with all native New Yorkers, my life is shaped by the chronic, close proximity of people. Masses of people. People walking the streets and packing the city's subways. We New Yorkers are, at the same time, the rudest people on the planet but also the most helpful, the most passionate, the most caring. I have taken an interest in these people and exploring them through portraits, each individually. Then, on canvas, stacking those people against the walls of my work space or hanging them close to each other in galleries. It is a universal idea that we are stronger together. And though the portraits I paint are distinct, individual pieces with a clear focus on the person before me, they are designed to be, somehow, somewhere, hung all together.