I was going to say, “Why the still image is still relevant” but that’s already a conceit: it’s merely not irrelevant. What I’m talking about might be most evident in photography, say, when you compare it to watching an artsy 70’s film with lingering shots that work as portraits, and it’s one beautiful image after another, presented seamlessly, for the duration of a couple hours. Why, a single still excerpted from the film might trounce an anonymous photographer’s best snap. There’s the doubt in the photographer or painter’s mind (if the painter is a realist, anyway) that this criticism might be true, that a single image can never compete with millions of combined images that move, with sound, and are projected on a movie screen.

But, my God, when I saw the latest Star Trek, in 3D no less, at the local theater here in Siem Reap, my eye was never allowed to linger on anything. Apparently, the good people who made the Fast and Furious franchise got involved with Star Trek and made it unwatchable. Your eye doesn’t move around the scene, but rather a quick succession of scenes is projected on your retina like a strobe light. I found I didn’t have the requisite critical lack of attention span to process a constant barrage of visual action. The eye could never rest, never settle down on anything, never move along the contour of someone’s face, never stop and relish what it sees. You never get to really navigate through the movie, visually, but instead your eyeball is bounced around like a seeing super ball, and all navigation (far too much and too fast) is done for you. When I caught onto this I started counting how long the camera would linger on a single scene. The people could move, but the camera angle had to stay relatively still. I never counted beyond 3. Within every 3 seconds you got bounced to another viewpoint (the hundred and thirtieth explosion?); got jerked from visage to visage during unwitty banter; were never allowed to move your own eyes where they wanted to go. No image would be savored or digested. It’s the gustatory equivalent of having your food pumped into you through a tube.

Watching the full movie isn’t much different from the experience of watching an extended version of the trailer. Behold:

Star Trek is now an action movie with gratuitous motorcycle racing and stunts in it.

With a still image the impact is immediate. You don’t get it all immediately, and to think you do so is worse than speed reading poetry, but, the artist has laid all her or his cards on the table, face up, and your eye moves around from metaphoric card to card, or you take in the whole impression… The composition may be a satisfying geometry, pattern, arrangement of form. It doesn’t move around your eye like a swarm of bees attacking your head, but your eye moves around it, a bit like a jumping spider, crawling, lingering, pouncing.

The image is curiously outside of time and language. It doesn’t matter if the artist or the audience is Chinese and not bilingual. I do take some satisfaction in knowing that anyone can look at my art, and there’s no need for translation. There’s no rational argument to unfold in sentences, in time. All that is skirted around. Everything is already there, instantly, and you are allowed to explore, engage, and savor. Meaning manifests itself in a non linear (as in non-sequential, not absence of lines, which would exclude Mondrian) fashion, and even outside or independent of the purely rational intellect.

Christ in the Garden of Olives, Paul Gauguin, 1889.

In the painting by Gauguin, above, notice how your eye follows the strokes, the forms, the lines, returns to the unusual red of his hair, snakes up the branches, rests in the aquamarine paint.

With a still image you have a manifestation of human intelligence and imagination that is outside of  the tenacity linguistic structures and foregone conclusions writ in sentences. This makes it a unique kind of expression with the capacity to convey understanding that other mediums cannot. This is always vital, or at least potentially so. Depending on your disposition, it may appeal to you more or less than other art forms, but no significant art form encapsulates or replaces another. To believe that moving images are superior to a still image is to make the mistake of the latest Star Trek which prevents thinking and looking by doing it all for you.

Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968

In the dual portrait above, by Francis Bacon, our eyes get drawn along the two hanging chords, which direct us to the head of the sitter in the chair. Eventually we settle on the ashtray on the floor and the scattered cigarette buts. we notice the texture of the rug on the floor. The second portrait in the background – the painting within the painting – is pinned back with painted nails, which are also angled lines directing our gaze. There’s the wonderful, abstracted, flat green shadow behind the sitter’s head, and the implied action of the flung white paint integrated into the knee and driving down the leg.

I’m reminded of when I traveled in Myanmar/Burma around a decade ago, and I had a guide for part of my stay who would tell me what to take pictures of. I need to think, explore, and investigate for myself, at my own pace, and sometimes it needs to be good and slow. When hiking, for example,  you might not see many animals (except scurrying away), but if you sit and take a rest, quietly, they come out around you and you can witness their behavior.

And so, when you are presented with a still image, everything is already there, you don’t need to think and come to conclusions so much, but you need to wait and absorb, not being passively bombarded with multiple images, but actively looking at one. 20th century art criticism/theory and practice tried to eliminate the still image as at hing to be actively looked at. This was seen as a radical leap forward in philosophy, but ultimately just offered us other kinds of art (which IS a good thing) while sewing our eyes shut.

Looking isn’t going anywhere, and the visual imagination can’t be squelched indefinitely. Some contemporary artists are returning to the still image with a vengeance, and, if need be, can make a case for what  they are doing.

Ecstatic Communion, by me.

~ Ends

2 replies on “Why the Still Image is Still Vital

  1. Eric,
    It’s been all quiet on the eastern front for a while. Are you ok? I’m imagining you in some sort of misery situation. Kathy Bates hasn’t been seen around here in a while.
    Hopefully your just working on a bunch of good paintings.
    I obviously agree the still image is not dead since I’m a painter too, but the art that the curators and gallery owners are forcing on the public is mostly crap or politically motivated. The cream will rise to the top given enough time though.

    I was wondering if you are familiar with Balcomb Greene? I like his work and thought he might be on the fringe of what you like.


    1. Hi Matt: I’m getting on an airplane tomorrow so have been busy making arrangements and packing. Had a cold, etc. I have a new piece which will be done in days, once my trip’s over and I have a chance to re-settle. Also I’ve been doing a lot of training, so to speak, honing my skills. It’s actually a major life change coming up, but I can’t talk about it now ’cause I still gotta’ pack. I may not post anything new until the new year.

      Yeah, the art world is, as Tom Wolfe put it, up its own aperture. I don’t especially mind whatever it is they’re peddling. It’s just often another art form altogether, and one I’m rather familiar with. As I’ve written ad nauseum by now, it’s art, but it’s not visual art. There are still plenty of people who love visual art, and there always will be, as long as our species still has eyes in our heads. There’s no real worry about that. The extreme politics on either side of the spectrum are a much bigger worry. We have Trump and his minions on one end, and then the perpetually “radical” art world on the other with their “revolutionary” political agenda and vicious brand of sanctimonious, hypocritical censorship. That kind of rhetoric leads to violence and death. The art theory crap in and of itself is merely tediously boring and annoyingly narrow, when it isn’t actually interesting and insightful, which it sometimes is, to a degree. Kinda’ like identity politics. There was a kernel of good stuff in there initially, but it’s become an overblown monster hammering home essentialism and instead of expanding the dialogue is insisting on one point of view by any means necessary. I think I’m just too old, and have been kicked around the globe too long, to think there’s only one correct perspective on anything and that whoever doesn’t agree is the enemy.

      Also, there are certainly galleries that show painting, and I see a lot of painters on Instagram making pretty good work. There are several galleries that specialize in the more imaginative sorts of figurative painting, but none that I know of that I quite fit into. There are plenty of painters who have careers that sustain themselves, but they aren’t so much a part of the more blue-chip, institutionalized art world. That’s it’s own inbred cup of tea.

      I never heard of Balcomb Greene. A very cursory glimpse with a Google search shows he’s a painterly painter, which I like. He doesn’t seem to use much color, though. Nowadays I rather think you need to be pretty damned good all-around to make it, if you are going to make it on your own from a grassroots level. I’m just going to have to quote Steve Martin here, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

      Well, I often think nowadays that most artists and the art-world are so damned competitive that they don’t look for what shines in a work and what is unique, but for any excuse to dismiss something out of hand. You gotta’ be F’ing amazing to have a remote shot at getting enough bread crumbs to fill up on, unless, of course, you sell out or are naturally subordinate enough to settle on an extant genre style (which already has an established marketplace), or else if you came up through the comparatively paved route of the proper channels with all the proper opinions/beliefs and are catering to the blue-chop art world all the way.

      Must think of music (my “go to” whenever I wanna’ assess a situation about art). Most the popular music today is canned crap synthesized and homogenized and auto-tuned and dumbed-down to appeal to a presumed musically-illiterate audience. Turns out most the hit songs were written by two guys. Anyway, if anyone wanted to be a successful original musician singing with his/her own voice, and making original songs, and play music a bit idiosyncratically, well, he/she/they would have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it big. There are plenty of musicians making original and interesting music, but most nobody has heard of them. I think most everyone would agree that in today’s popular music, it’s more important what you look like and how you dance than how you play an instrument, and that’s mind-bogglingly stupid.

      I think it’s a bit similar in the art world. Serve up cliched milquetoast; come up with a cutesy gimmick; suck up to the oligarchs; make art about sex (that always works); copy something that’s already successful; or you’d better be able to knock people’s socks off. Even that’s no guarantee. But it’s a chance. In which case you need to cover all your bases. So, a painter who isn’t a great colorist can be taken out with one shot. Unless you rae Rober Ryman, in which case you are better than a great colorist because you dn’t use any color. That rant was kinda’ about Balcomb Greene’s lack of color in his paintings. The more I realize I have to be the equivalent of an MMA fighter with a great standing game AND a great ground game, the more I notice when other artists are weak in this or that area.


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