Seeing

The Art in Nature and the Nature of Art
George Jacobi 2014

Part of being a trained and observant naturalist is the ability to pick out clues from a complex and busy scene. An expert birder can determine the species from a faraway silhouette just by the body language of the flyer. A great tracker can tell you not only that a white-tailed deer has passed, but whether it was running or walking, male or female, and much more. I only wish I was that skilled. I can, though, pick up the tiny hop of a baby wood frog in the leaf litter as I walk, and I notice the flight of a hummingbird. Many eyes ignore that movement, just categorize it as an uninteresting bug or bee, and move on.

As a fly fisher, I see trout in a stream that most people would miss. I know where to look amid the rocks, rapids, and flickering sunlight because I know the fish’s habits. I know the trout shape will be facing upstream and I know it’s easier to see the shadow on the stream bed than the actual camouflaged fish. I know the gentle tail movement that distinguishes it from a long oval rock. I can pick out the surface sip of a sneaky trout from that of a dumb, bold dace or chub, and I know what kind of aquatic insect was eaten by the shape of the rise-form. My long hours of looking resulted in learning.

A two-dimensional artwork on a wall is filled with clues as well, that tell me about it in positive or negative ways. First, recognize the fact that a 2 dimensional artwork, no matter how representational, is not reality but an illusion.  The astute artist is playing with perception. Do the colors bulge out or recede where they should? The lines and shapes should have an instinctively recognizable rhythm and harmony. If not, my interest wanes at once. In a landscape, the distance should look farther away than the closer objects. Yet it may be that the sky looks closer than the tree line below it, usually because it was painted last, and that interferes with my sense of the work. What if something about the composition makes the eye, which started at the left top, fall off the bottom right, and not want to come back? All these things express coherence and give me visual satisfaction, or not.

There can be sections of negative space. Black or white or otherwise, they may tease by appearing to be both in front and behind the actual objects in the artwork. Depth is created where there was none, or an implied back and forth motion. Each viewer has an individual experience, but if I have a positive response to the art, it’s because saw and felt some of what the artist wanted me to. In each case, nature or art, the eye has learned to pick out anomalies, zero in on them, and revel in them. My experience of a magically fine artwork is like that of a meal. I move from course to course, each one perfect in its place, each one tasting better than the last.

For each discipline, nature observation and art appreciation, longer viewing yields more knowledge. When seeing art, though, we have an instant emotional reaction, pleasurable, negative, or empty, that we may not even be aware of. Part of this stems from our approach to it – we EXPECT to be making a value judgement, even if we have no experience and knowledge of the medium. By the time we try to intellectually defend our reaction to the art, or by the time we read the museum blurb on the wall next to it, our mind is made up. Our opinion may then change, even contradicting our own initial feeling. Perhaps we learn something, but because we still have a hard time being aware of our first reaction, we don’t compare the two, and so understanding is incomplete.

True seeing is interpreting visual evidence. The thrill comes because when one truly sees, the result is greater PARTICIPATION in the experience. By seeing nature deeply, in real time, we see and feel the harmony and richness of life; living things acting in their world in interconnected ways. Their past and future lives are open to our imagination. Their presence enriches our present.

A good work of art insists that the viewer participate in it. It speaks to us. Maybe slaps us in the face. We want to look longer, to look closer, try new angles and different light, to see if more is evident. We bring baggage to the experience, and thus have a conversation with the art. By giving time and attention, we derive more pleasure. Seeing strong art, we glimpse the energy of the human spirit as it interprets and reflects the world around us.