Spelling the Sensuous
by Anna Smith:
All things long to persist in their being, Baruch Spinoza has written; perhaps the Emperor and his sorcerers believed that immortality is intrinsic and that decay cannot enter a closed orb. Jorge Luis Borges1
Magic and spell-casting are a striking feature of popular culture right now. Still, it seems unusual linking an artist like Jude Rae with the paranormal when she has persistently favoured the immanent in her work. In this article I would like to suggest, however, that magic appears in many forms, and that when it comes to the sensuous, few have been as disciplined in apprehending its orbed mysteries as Rae. I will begin by referring to another artist: a sorcerer of words who used them as if they were infinitely plastic, infinitely wise in registering the secret silences of the universe: Maurice Merleau-Ponty2.
It is popular in writing about art and artists today, to invoke a phenomenology of perception3. Merleau-Ponty is frequently cited as the apologist for a way of reading painting that respects the "thickness of the world", an artist who opens our eyes to the density of the object as if for the first time. (297) But since when does the painter (or the philosopher, for that matter) have to enter into relationship with what is seen? Don't we expect the artist to see through this thickness for us? To break objects open by rendering them visible? Allowing the primitive object to speak is misguided, even risky. Yet as every contemporary thinker has pointed out, the world and its others and objects cannot be known if, for the sake of comfort and security, the viewer habitually chooses the familiar over the strange. If our eyes are uncomfortable with the thickness spread over the canvas before us, offered up to us as if it were some mysterious picnic, we will fail to see the object's truth. And by 'truth,' I mean a state that has been stripped of the vapid, the conversationally comfortable environment of meaning that surrounds and obscures. (All perception theories, incidentally, play with this dual notion of layers: the artist must strip away convention in order to reveal a radically new kind of thickness.) We are enjoined, politically as well as aesthetically, therefore, to treat the spaces we inhabit and that inhabit us, ecologically. That means listening to the speech of the other and respectfully treating with it as a fellow-dweller on the planet. (David Abrams' recent text on the relation between human and nature is one such4. ) When Merleau-Ponty embraces the animate object that solicits our attention, he is looking for a two-way traffic between observer and observed.
Painting of course, is the ultimate testing-ground for this defiant kind of perception. Technical mastery of one's materials still persists, but arises out of a new ground: the painter's willingness to treat with the mysteries of objects and enter into a conversation with them. Perception therefore involves a kind of faith in this risky conversation, a "pinning [of] one's faith, at a stroke, in a whole future of experiences" and in a potential infinity of gestures (297). Thus we discover a swelling of plenitude in a present which is unable to rope the future in; henceforth, perception will involve assenting to an evolving world.
One of the things that strikes me about the work of Jude Rae is exactly this uncertainty at the centre of vision. For Rae it is something both willed and observed. A recent statement notes her predilection for "sight undone," where the painter draws attention to the assumption that seeing is believing, nudging the viewer to face those overlooked contingencies of vision. In a statement to accompany the 1998 Wellington exhibition Stilled, she invokes Merleau-Ponty's definition of painting as a "delirium of vision," adding in conclusion how both realism and illusion, the "appearance of truth, require the shimmer of uncertainty, equivocation, doubt5." The word 'delirium' suggests blurred vision, dangerously high temperatures, and an exaggerated lack of fit between illusion and reality. Painting then, must register the supercharged transactions between realities and illusions, must effect, in the agitated, over-heated flurry of brush strokes, the sense of disorientation to be discovered beneath the surface of appearances.