PELL LUCY: THINLY AND THICKLY
One of the reasons paint has had such longstanding appeal as a medium is that it is spectacularly responsive. From the translucent veils of color flowing across a Helen Frankenthaler canvas to the densely textured impasto of Claude Monet’s water lilies, paint speaks in the parlances of thin and thick, transparent and opaque, free flowing and controlled.
And while these terms describe how paint is applied to a surface, thick and thin can also suggest the aura that a work possesses. Some art has a presence that feels diaphanous and thin, leaning into what feels permeable, numinous and ephemeral. The works of Hilma af Klint, Lygia Pape, Gego and Georgia O’Keeffe come to mind. Other art evokes a sense of thickness by preferencing density, complexity and layered narratives. Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Mark Bradford and Phyllida Barlow, among others, work in this manner.
Thin and thick each hold a constellation of other meanings as well. Thin can be a paucity of content (“her argument was thin”) as well as praise for fine craftmanship (“the thinnest of cambric linen.”) For the ancient Celts a “thin place” refers to those resonant locations—like the Isle of Iona and the peaks of Croagh Patrick-- where heaven and earth are perceived to be in closest proximity. To that point poet and monk Thomas Merton once asked, “why isn’t the whole world thin?”
Architects refer to a “thick experience” as one where the built structure speaks to all the senses, not just the eyes. Thick can signify mental incapacity (“he was thick-witted”) as well as a more substantial presence (“it thickened my interest.”) In anthropology and data analysis, “thick descriptions” and “thick data” contain both qualitative and quantitative information. South African artist William Kentridge blends multiple timelines into his work, coining the term “thick time.” This nonlinear approach has been a more effective way to address the complexities and contradictions of his country’s story.
Thin and thick are often positioned as antipodes at either end of a spectrum, but they actually share a common etymological ancestry. The idiom, “through thick and thin” evolved from an ancient description of how to navigate the English countryside--“through thicket and thin wood.” Rather than opposites, thick and thin have a history of being conjoined.
Many previously polarized concepts share connective tissue that is sub rosa and subtle. Art categorizations such as figuration and abstraction—as well as the geometric and the gestural—are no longer viewed as an either/or. Other relationships are also being redefined as Cartesian dualisms are challenged. In sidestepping Descartes’s lethal legacy of mind/body disconnection, ideas previously deemed incompatible are now companionable and coterminous.
This more full-bodied engagement with the world is deeply aligned with the Pell Lucy artist collective’s raison d'être. It is also at the core of several new models for cognition such as 4E (embodied, embedded, enacted and extended.) We are both our inside as well as our outside, an “organism plus environment” in Gregory Bateson’s words.
Making art—as well as experiencing it—is well served when a full spectrum of thinking, feeling and perceiving can be accessed. “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable,” Robert Henri advised. In that larger sense, Thinly and Thickly serves as a useful mantra for a both/and approach, one that actively engages in keeping all the channels open and flowing.
Advocating for more inclusive creativity is one of the essential messages in a new book by record producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin, The Creative Act. With a long career as a catalyst for the creative success of others, he has a seasoned understanding of how to tap into that fuller dimensionality. A few samples of his insight:
There’s an abundant reservoir of high-quality information in our subconscious, and finding ways to access it can spark new material to draw from.
We’re smaller than the things that we can make. If we’re only making things as good as we are, they’ll be small. But if we can tap into a bigger source of information—a bigger wisdom—then we can hold ourselves and ride it, like we’re riding a wave.
Everything you see is part of this thing that all of us get to play in. But if we stop playing in it, this thing keeps going on. And we each get to have a role in this creation’s ability to express itself, if we choose to participate.
For every rule followed, examine the possibility that the opposite might be similarly interesting. Not necessarily better, just different.
So much of what happens in the studio is not anything that I know. It’s more about intuitive reactions in the moment.
Nothing begins with us. The more we pay attention, the more we begin to realize that all the work we ever do is a collaboration. It’s a collaboration with the art that’s come before you and the art that will come after. It’s also a collaboration with the world you’re living in. With the experiences you’ve had. With the tools you use. With the audience. And with who you are.
What is true is that you are never alone when you’re making art. You are in constant dialogue with what is and what was, and the closer you can tune in to that discussion, the better you can serve the work before you.
When you practice listening with the whole self, you expand the scope of your consciousness to include vast amounts of information otherwise missed, and discover more material to feed your art habit… Regardless of the type of art you’re making, listening opens possibilities. It allows you to see a bigger world.
Our thoughts, feelings, processes, and unconscious beliefs have an energy that is hidden in the work. This unseen, unmeasurable force gives each piece its magnetism.
The ecstatic is our compass, pointing to our true north.
Art is far more powerful than our plans for it.
It’s not about knowing. It’s all about feeling and noticing what’s happening in your body...follow that energy in your body that lights you up.
Rubin’s book is directed at creativity, but it also offers useful guidance for how to be with art in a more meaningful way. Works of art—such as those included in this exhibit—make themselves available for full spectrum viewing. Even when the encounter takes place within the limiting format of a digital image, there is value in the admonition to “follow that energy in your body that lights you up.” Enchantment and magnetism, both thin and thick, are ready to connect.