PELL LUCY: SAFEKEEPING THE NOT KNOWING
BY DEBORAH BARLOW
“Art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality…art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us.”
Richter, a gifted painter, is speaking specifically to his experience of art making. But his words are a provocative reminder that we all live in a world we don’t understand very well. Like many artists, Richter has developed skills that enable him to operate in a landscape that has a much more complicated ecology than we can perceive, one where “unknown unknowns” continually appear.
Living through a time when uncertainty has been particularly disruptive at so many levels, it may be easy to assume that more certainty is needed now, not less. But there is a substantial difference between questions that rely on verifiable data to be solved and ones that can only be answered by discovering new ways of thinking, feeling and conceptualizing. Einstein’s legendary admonishment, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it” continues to resonate.
Linear, or vertical thinking, solves problems step-by-step, with premises arrived at sequentially and logically. Non-linear, or lateral thinking, expands in multiple directions at once—forward, side to side, up, down, in, out. Concepts and entities that appear unconnected often turn out to be intertwined at a deeper realm. So many things have a “logic” we do not comprehend.
For those trained in the Western Canon, the non-linear can feel disorienting and unsettling. But a general call to explore new ways of processing reality is now being heard, from physics to business to medicine. We need access to it all: the linear and the nonlinear, the known and the unknown, the verifiable as well as the not yet imagined.
Art has the power to exceed logic and to reach conclusions that are missing in science and other disciplines because errant thinking is allowed. Being free of cognitive baggage turns out to be a terrific boon. This is not a new idea of course. John Keats coined the term negative capability in the early 1800’s to describe the way artists are able to access truths outside the confines of logic. Keats claimed that the most creative among us are “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Like Richter, artists learn to navigate the uncertain. Their artistic explorations take them to the edge between the known and unknown, well beyond the reach of a global positioning system. This is travel into the border zones of surprise, the uncanny, the fractal, the mysterious. As uncertainty advocate Nassim Nicholas Taleb has pointed out, “The field of art has become a field of possibilities…It acts as an intermediary between different fields, modes of perception and thinking as well as between different positions and subjectivities, a field for alternatives, proposals and models. Art is definitely a place where things can happen.”
Each artist in this exhibit is exploring visual language that she has found through her own explorations at that craggy edge. One is adapting her painterly sensibilities to the plasticity of 3D forms, and another is sidestepping color for black and white as a way to uncover the deeper armature in her images. Another is finding how to conjoin fluid forms with the defined edges of geometry to expose a new way of perceiving. While all these artists share a common belief that form possesses an intelligence of its own—the Pell Lucy collective raison d'être—their ways of “apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality” are quite distinct and particular.
Many artists--as well as philosophers, poets, scientists and mystics--have taken their own journeys into the terrain of the unknown. Gathered below is a selection of their travel notes. These are particularly useful for art makers, but they also serve as a general reminder of the vital importance of the realm beyond the known, one that deserves safekeeping and respect.
“The image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness which ideas can never claim.”
John Crow Ransom
“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”
“I am talking to the part of you that does not speak.”
“Use the material world to disclose the inner life…to see into the secret lives of things and the instabilities of matter…scrutinize in a visionary way the immaterial in the material.”
W. S. Di Piero
“I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values or significance.”
“Forget all you know and try to go to a place where you have never been…ramble, gamble, stagger, fall, push, pull, and forget finish.”
John McConnell, quoting painter Harold Town
“Learn what you can, then learn how to leave your learning behind you for it can hide you from the ceaseless change in and around you.”
James P. Carse
“The energy of The Unseen may come in many forms—a compelling dream, a sudden insight, a clear voice, a vision or message from a loved one who has passed to the other side. It is natural to fear these communications, as they challenge our perception of what is real.”
“The sacred reveals itself to mankind only for moments. It is man, however, who does not hold on to it. The sacred is permanent. Art is the preservation of those moments.”
“Intuition is a feeling that comes out of total freedom, being one with cosmic energy. It’s knowledge before knowledge. It’s understanding before understanding…Intuition gives us new ideas and doesn’t always tell us where those ideas come from.”
“The artist lives this indescribable feeling that is inaccessible to words as a reflection of all that has been present, of what will be present, from the beginning and forever. Freed from the need to depict the visible world, the artist becomes the receptor through whom the echoes and reflections of an irrational elsewhere flow freely and take form.”
“Art is incantation, it is being in touch with the unspeakable.”
“We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists…often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…for many, the question is more important than the answer.”