PELL LUCY: MORE SEEINGLY
BY DEBORAH BARLOW
In considering the paintings of Cezanne, Rainer Maria Rilke addressed the importance of standing “more seeingly” in front of a work of art. As a poet with a strong interest in the visual arts, Rilke’s admonition is worth deeper consideration.
His words ask for more than just giving a work of art our intensely focused attention. That phrase has come to mean something even more substantial. Rilke is recommending that we step out of the safe domain of the reasonable and rational and into the uncertain and uncanny landscape of visual language. Doing so means letting go of what you think you know and what you think you are seeing. It is a willingness to go somewhere you haven’t been. To wander. And, at times, to even feel lost.
Rebecca Solnit has an apropos phrase for that state: voluptuous surrender. It is a way to be “lost in the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.” That state of being lost is to be fully present, Solnit advises. “To be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.”
That is a feeling artists know well. Art studios are sanctuaries for a rarefied form of exploration: relentless experimentation, trusting the process, going against the grain. That is all part of what John Keats referred to as negative capability—an artist’s capacity to be comfortable with uncertainty, mystery and doubt. “Surrender is the art of uncertainty: it’s the practice of giving in, not giving up,” wrote Jessica Helfand. “This is where the magic of the optical unconscious meets the mystery of the human imagination.”
That state of being fully present and embracing the unknown is what Rilke sensed was needed to truly connect with Cezanne’s transformative approach to painting. “More seeingly” is a succinct mantra for giving in, for allowing the optical unconscious and the imagination to meld.
This is an exquisite alchemy that can happen in the making as well as the viewing of art. Rilke has additional advice that is well tuned for both experiences: “Love the questions themselves, like closed rooms, like books written in a foreign language. Don’t try to find the answers...Live the questions now.”
The works in this show have been created by artists who are welcoming you to step inside their offerings, to spend time crawling around and exploring on your own. Allow the experience of giving in to happen to you. A trove of connections, insights and pleasures, both personal and universal, are embedded there. Let them find you.