Friday, January 7, 2011

Art and Perception

Last weekend, a friend and I went to an art museum.  One of the exhibits there was watercolors from the children's book painter Chris Raschka.

The exhibit gave me a headache.  Everything about the paintings was just wrong.  They were an insane riot of misshapen forms pretending to be human, in bizarre alien dreamscapes.  I am reminded of H.P. Lovecraft description of an image of Cthulhu:

Above these apparent hieroglyphics was a figure of evident pictorial intent, though its impressionistic execution forbade a very clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing

and his descriptions of the alien geometries where the cosmic horrors live:

the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. 

... the geometry of the place was all wrong. One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable.

Raschka's paintings flout all rational rules of shapes, borders, and geometry.  Often it is hard to tell where a character ends and the environment ends; there are no clear lines or boundaries between objects.  I feel that looking at this art for any extended period of time would reduce me to gibbering lunacy.

This painting is typical of his work.  Just looking at it on a computer screen for a few seconds gives me a headache.

I cannot imagine why anyone would want to subject a young child to this.  It seems to me that a young mind faced with this art would either be damaged permanently or mercifully ignore it.

And yet, he seems to be a popular and successful artist.  People seem to like and to identify with his work.  Perhaps they see nothing unnatural in it.  Perhaps he accurately captures how many people, including children, look at the world.  I am forced to conclude that it is my mind that is bizarre and alien.

Whenever I look at the world, my mind focuses on lines, borders, shapes, and geometry.  I instinctively construct a 3-D mental map of what I see.  Colors and textures are of secondary importance.  My mental image of the world resembles a monochrome 3-D wireframe much more than it resembles Raschka's work.  Whenever I see any kind of art that I cannot transform into such a wireframe, my mind throws an exception and freezes up.

Here's an example of how I perceive the world.  Over the holidays, they replaced the flooring in our building.  I honestly cannot remember what it looked like before.  I think it may have been white.  My brain never remembers such things.  But if someone has moved a couch three inches to the left, I will know.

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