I don't know about you, but I am always worried about receiving too narrow a stream of information. When I started painting, I looked at Sargent a lot:
Then I needed more, so I settled on the Big Three, and studied them for many years:
Titian - for beauty. Velazquez - for psychology and brushwork. Rubens - for energy and joie-de-vivre. No doubt I'll have more to write about them as this blog unfolds.
But even the wonderful worlds of these three painters were not enough. I needed to turn to more artists; voraciously more. I was forced to be catholic in my tastes. I started with a few artists I had once flirted with, and then avoided.
And I started catching up on what's going on in the world today. Let me say it plainly: abstract expressionism, and every single movement since then, have done nothing for me. But that doesn't mean I don't look at them. I need shock treatment - I need my boundaries to be attacked and breached all the time. I need to see what possible things other people have thought of...
Lately, I've been watching PBS's Art:21 a fair bit. This documentary series on contemporary artists in many ways encapsulates everything I hate about PBS: its would-be hipness, its snobbery convinced it is populism, its self-righteousness, its tedium, and all with a dash of sucking thrown in for good measure. But they do stumble on some good stuff sometimes - heck, it's a good premise - and I learn even from the bad parts. So I keep watching it.
I saw an episode the other evening which included a section on artist Allan McCollum. This was a fascinating look at a body of work that resonated very strongly with me, even though it's in a mode I do not identify with at all.
Let's look at one of his pieces a bit, and hear what he has to say about it. Then I'll explain what I'm on about:
Individual Works...series begun in 1987.Now, why is this so interesting to me? Let me tell you about a couple of dreams I had when I was very little.
To produce the Individual Works hundreds of small shapes are casually collected from peoples' homes, supermarkets, hardware stores, and sometimes from the sidewalks: bottle-caps, jar-lids, drawer-pulls, salt-shakers, flashlights, measuring spoons, cosmetics containers, yogurt cups, earrings, push-buttons, candy-molds, garden-hose connectors, paper-weights, shade-pulls, Chinese tea-cups, cat toys, pencil sharpeners, etc. From this collection of shapes many rubber molds are produced from which replicas of these shapes can be hand-cast in plaster in large quantities, thus creating a vocabulary of shapes which can be combined to produce new shapes, and so forth. A simple numerical system is used during the production process to insure that no two finished Individual Works will ever be alike. Each unique Individual Work is hand-cast in gypsum, and hand-painted with an enamel paint. The Individual Works are usually gathered into collections of over 10,000 per collection.
In one dream, I was in a flat landscape. There was nothing superflat about it: it was a village, with trees, small hills, widely spaced houses on farms. Some of the ground had been replaced with checked red-and-white tablecloth fabric. There was a road through the town - it was a sunny day. What was flat about this landscape was that there were no mountains or oceans nearby. In fact, I was aware that this particular region retained this character - houses, streams, trees, thoroughfares, grass, tablecloth - for hundreds of thousands of miles. The extension of this landscape in space was unfathomably vast. It never strongly changed, but it never repeated either. Every point in this land was unique.
A second dream. There was a closet, with a number of shelves. Each shelf was stuffed with a variety of dolls: dolls of animals and people. If you closed this closet, and opened the door again, you would find that the dolls had been replaced with different dolls, arranged differently. A second closing and opening would produce a new set of changes - but the changes would be slightly less significant. Repeating the closing and opening action gradually reduced the changes until they were incredibly slight; a single arm of a single doll would have shifted slightly, perhaps, or a doll would rest at a mildly shifted angle. But the changes, while diminishing in degree, never ceased. There was no logical end-point to the closing and opening of this horrible door. You could keep producing changes, trivial changes growing more trivial, forever.
I have a deep and queasy connection with the concept of an unbounded set of objects which are all unique and yet have no meaningful differences. Consider the trilobites:
Or Stephen Wolfram's cellular automatic plane:
Or the monstrous invasive dream-parade in the movie Paprika:
Or my own fascination, documented here previously, with the sequence of the prime numbers. My friend and model Vadim, considering fashion magazines, once referred to the images they contain as "the endless procession of beautiful but meaningless forms." Perhaps I am not describing something like fashion here, but I like Vadim's phrasing very much - don't you? It is a wonderful phrasing.
It is this very topic, this hideous thing that has no start and no end, which is the subject of much of McCollum's work. In the Art:21 interview, he described his interest in using an industrial process to make unique objects. The objects should have the feel of industrial mass-production, and yet no two should be alike. To that end, he has contrived extremely clever techniques, culminating in a very ingenious computerized graphical procedure (basically sophisticated copy-pasting) which underlies his Shapes project. Here's a bit of what he writes about the project:
And here's a photograph of some of its horrifying scale:
Allan McCollum. The SHAPES Project, 2005/06. 7,056 SHAPES Monoprints, each unique. Framed digital prints, 4.25 x 5.5 inches each. Installation: Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, 2006.
McCollum adds a clarification of the difference between the physical implementation of the project, and its vastly larger conceptual space:
The Shapes Project is a system to create a large quantity of unique shapes, one for every person on the planet when the world population peaks in the middle of the twenty-first century. To make certain that the system will be able to accommodate everyone, it has been organized to produce over 31,000,000,000 different Shapes.There is a stark inhumanity and terror to McCollum's work. This is work that not only has no meaning; by mimicking many of the structures of meaning - variation, distinctness of shape - it tricks the mind into partaking of it from the perspective of meaning, which it perplexes, confounds, and ultimately undoes. It makes meaning appear meaningless. It renders thought and hope and humanity futile. It makes Sol Lewitt's comparatively finite combinatorial systems look downright quaint:
McCollum has figured out how to particularize a functionally unlimited space, and in so doing, to destroy the mind that attempts to take it seriously.
I think I've been speaking a lot of hyperbole here, and I'd like to back up for a second before I get to the moral of the story. What do I mean "destroy the mind"? What kind of a claim is this?
Well, let's consider a common feature of the Ptolemaic and Copernican universes for a minute.
Sure, they're at each others' throats about the Earth and the Sun, but they both agree that the imperfect world we see around us progresses outward in space toward perfection. This model, to the extent that it permits the infinite, sees stability in the infinite. Its infinite is infinite in extent, not detail.
This is not the universe we now conceive: a universe of varying background radiation, of galactic superclusters, of twisty little garlic knots of spacetime. This universe, too, may prove infinite in extension, although we don't think so. But if it is infinite, it is not uniform. It is thick with detail.
This detail, we abhor. We have a different and more subtle form of the stabilization feature of the Ptolemaic-Copernican infinite: the second law of thermodynamics.
Second Law of Thermodynamics: In any cyclic process the entropy will either increase or remain the same.Entropy is disorder. The second law informs us that the universe as a whole is tending toward disorder. Total disorder is heat, aimless vibration, crap. The universe is tending toward crap. This crappiness does for time what Ptolemy and Copernicus do for space: without setting an outer boundary, it assures uniformity. It is infinite, but without detail.
The Stephen Wolfram referenced above, a very interesting guy, has referred to the second law as "the so-called second law of thermodynamics." This is kind of a funny line. Wolfram thinks that entropy is not necessarily as straightforward as all that. If you scroll back up and look at that weird triangle pattern, you can see where Wolfram is coming from. This pattern, which never repeats itself and never settles into a quiet uniformity, emerges from the repeated application of some very simple mathematical rules. Wolfram has used this type of rule-set to simulate all sorts of interesting things, such as the patterns on seashells. This work has convinced him, and he's not a stupid individual, that the universe itself is the outcome of some similar repeated execution of simple rules of the type he is studying.
Now, this is not worth much as science, so far, because it doesn't predict anything and can't be tested.
However, one feature of Wolfram's systems is that, while broad areas tend toward entropic crappiness over time, new nuggets of order spontaneously arise and spread out as well. So if the universe is a Wolfram system, then it is not tending toward total entropic disorder. Wolfram's derision about the second law results from his belief that we are extrapolating the law from a small scale, where it works, to the ultimate scale, where it fails.
A Wolfram universe is a universe of infinite extent and infinite variation. It is thick with detail from here to eternity. And this induces the same terror that I am seeing in McCollum's projects. I think I can explain this terror better, having presented the situation at a universal scope.
We are accustomed to thinking of all the things we see as having some meaning. A tree - this means something. A cat, a dog, a man, a woman, a child - all these mean things. A cloud, a brook, a house, a road. All of them are part of a world, sometimes gentle and sometimes rough, but always meaningful. Those parts that are not meaningful in themselves, are meaningful to us, as we behold and consider them.
But how many things can we consider? Ten? Twenty? A hundred - a thousand?
What if there were no end to these things, all of them having distinct and serious human import? Can we stand to admire the beauty of a million clouds? A billion rivers? A trillion men and women? But a trillion is hardly even the foothill of the infinite.
So we have learned to cope with the infinite - with the grains of sand, the waves of the sea, the stars of the sky - by means of the concept of repetition. Repetition collapses the infinite. One grain of sand may be said to be functionally just like the rest of them. The waves of the sea - alike. The stars - alike. We have bounded the infinite prospect with Ptolemy's EMPIREUM or Copernicus's STELLARUM FIXARUM SPHAERA IMMOBILIS. Perhaps we can about choke down infinity if it doesn't really mean anything.
But an infinity consisting of an infinite and non-repeating number of elements just like the elements we know and care about blows us apart. Not only is it impossible for the finite mind to comprehend it, but its very existence forces the finite mind to consider that everything it knows, being alike in kind with so much more that it cannot know, is in fact a useless fraction, a meaningless fraction.
We cannot abide a finite universe, and we cannot abide an infinite but meaningful universe. We need a finite number of meaningful elements and a vast and empty cold surrounding them, a cold we can safely ignore apart from your occasional moment of wonder or dread.
Wolfram's universe, McCollum's universe, by contrast, is a mind-splitting, soul-mocking, terrifying universe.
So why on earth do I like this man and his project, which combines fecundity and sterility in the most unholy of ways? For this very terror I have been trying to convey. It is a specific kind of terror, a very particular formulation of terror, and it has haunted me in the most personal and visceral way my entire life. By some weird chance, it has manifested itself to McCollum as well. For him, it does not seem terrifying. For me, it was so terrifying that I stopped thinking about it, and then forgot about it. Looking at McCollum's work was part of my artistic shock treatment. When I saw his work, I remembered this thing, my own personal terror. McCollum restored to me a part of myself that I had lost.
In many regards, life is a process of forgetting and loss. Art, on precisely the same topics, is often a process of remembering and restoration. In art, we are all moving toward being as whole as we were when we began. I needed something I was missing, and McCollum gave it back to me.