Ed Clark’s recent show at Tilton Gallery, entitled “Big Bang,” was full of resonant and rapturous paintings.
Paris, 2009, Acrylic on canvas, 73 1/2 x 54 1/2 inches
Untitled, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 53 1/4 x 66 inches
Untitled, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 81 x 64 1/2 inches
Untitled, 2009, detail
Clark, now in his mid-80s, paints using brooms on raw canvas laid on the floor.
(Part 2 of that documentary is here.)
Consideration of the role of the body in making and interpreting art is nothing new, but as discoveries in neuroscience deepen our understanding of how we perceive and think, they provide an opportunity to reconsider the relationships between art, body and mind. No one I’ve read describes them more succinctly than Siri Hustvedt in her appreciation of the work of choreographer Pina Bausch. Reviewing Wim Wender’s 3-D documentary of Bausch and her company, Hustvedt says:
In their 2007 paper “Motion, Emotion, and Empathy in Aesthetic Experience,” David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese discuss the neurobiology of looking at art as “embodied simulation.” Simply put, when we watch dancers or look at a painting or read a novel, we activate mirror systems in our brains. Although this activation remains below our awareness, it nevertheless allows us to participate in the aesthetic, emotive action of what we are looking at. As Freedberg and Gallese articulate it: “Spectators precognitively grasp emotions that are either explicitly shown or implicitly suggested by works of art.” In her acceptance speech when she won the Kyoto Prize in 2007, Bausch said, “For I always know exactly what I am looking for, but I know it with my intuition and not with my head.” Indeed, many artists work this way, even artists whose medium is words. There is always a preverbal, physiological, rhythmic, motoric ground that precedes language and informs it.
Because of her interest in neuroscience, Hustvedt has collaborated with the neurobiologist Antonio Damasio (author of Descartes' Error), who has been doing groundbreaking work that is dramatically expanding our knowledge of the human brain, the most complex object we have so far encountered in the universe (think about that). Part of Damasio’s work demonstrates how the body participates in thought, via the constant and vital electrical and chemical feedback loops between nerves, organs, glands and the brain. The body doesn’t add an adjunct function; it is a component of mind.
The volumes of information the body provides––how gravity impacts every movement, what it will feel like to lift that dictionary, likely sensations of an impending collision––are no less integrated into thought than brain-centric notions of philosophy or doctrine. The intellect is both visceral and cerebral. A painter or viewer can either recognize or ignore that.
As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can;
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man;
So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To affections and to faculties
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.
To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love reveal’d may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
from “The Extasie,” by John Donne
Clark’s paintings, sometimes sinuous, sometimes explosive, are rich with take-no-prisoners color and physical empathy.
New Orleans Series #5, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 51 1/4 inches
New Orleans Series #5, detail
They are generous; they are catalysts. Like the best abstract works, they put you in touch with something specific, non-didactic and unsayable by other means, and then empty you into a delta of thought and feeling. After that you’re on your own.