These drawings need context. Actually I believe virtually all art needs context. Pollock certainly needs context for one to appreciate his attempts to transcend the temporal, as does Warhol if he is to represent the most significant cultural shift since the 15th century. Context usually provides access to the content . . . what a piece is really about, which is more often than not separate from the subject, the medium and the execution. I believe this is true in my case.
One aspect of the context of my things is that my process in many ways resembles a kind of scientific method . . . because as much as I believe in the ineffable nature of all things, I believe in a reasoned truth about the nature of a lot of those things.
What is this context? There are five somewhat over-simplified, naïve, but very persistent, ideas that are at the core of my work.
First, I believe turning electromagnetic radiation (light) into thought product (sight) is magic. It transcends turning straw into gold . . . it’s alchemy.
Second: seeing is primarily a thought process. Vision starts and ends in the mind. Rudolph Arnheim says in his book “The art of visual thinking”, “Vision is the primary medium of thought.” I think to reverse that is equally as true if not more so . . . thought is the primary medium of vision. Goethe says, “My perception is itself a thinking, and my thinking is perceiving.” The seeing we do is determined by the imagination at hand and the mind’s ability to image the world around us.
The third premise is that at present we don’t possess the necessary imagination to conceptualize the essential underpinnings of the 20th and 21st centuries. Our mind’s ability to image is no longer very responsive to the forces that shape the life we live . . . hence, we call ourselves Post Modern . . . not what we are, but what we are not. According to Arthur Zajonc in his book, Catching the Light, over the past few thousand years there have been three significant shifts concerning our imagination and the mind’s imaging of light and space. These three imaginations were not just interesting concepts. They were the substance of the collective weltenschaung of their respective times. With these shifts, mind and sight have co-evolved from moral space and spiritual light to perspective space and geometrical light, and then to material space and substantial light. Moral space and spiritual light can be seen in the statues of the Abu Temple in Tell Asmar, and in most everything else up to and including medieval painting and sculpture. Perspective space and geometrical light was presented by Brunelleschi, and by the invention of linear perspective, and by most of the 15th century artists who taught the culture how to see. Material space and substantial light was envisioned by Isaac Newton and imaged by Rembrandt and Vermeer. Today our understanding of space and light involves quantum theory and relativity which challenges every concept and belief we’ve ever had about thinking and seeing and everything else in between. I would call it relative space and participatory light: an imagination addressed by Robert Irwin and James Turrell.
The fourth notion is that I am convinced there is something yet to be seen; something that should be as apparent as seeing a three dimensional space. It is a perception presently beyond our ability to image. It is not yet infused in our imagination . . . but I believe this can change. During the Middle Ages, before linear perspective, people did not see dimensional space as we do today. For them space and light was contextually spiritual. One day, Francesco Petrarch, a 14th Century scholar, climbed a hill and on the summit, for the first time in just about anyone’s life, he experienced dimensional space. He was overwhelmed by the experience and when he got home he gave penance because he felt as though he transgressed against God. In 1305 Giotto conveyed this experience in his paintings in the Arena Chapel and around 1425 Brunelleschi codified it with linear perspective. Our imagination and how we image the world was profoundly changed forever. Today we intuitively know our imagination is out of sync with all the things we have to deal with. I believe we have to challenge how we image and boldly address and rethink our most habitual, 15th Century ways of seeing.
The fifth and last idea is a culmination of the other four and is what has kept me busy for the last ten years. That is . . . I believe there is some sort of mental mechanism that has been conjuring images in all kinds of creatures going back millions of years. This mechanism, this conjuror that I affectionately refer to as the neuralchemist, is in a catbird seat and is capable of providing us with a yet-to-be-experienced response to the forces that shape our lives today. It was the neuralchemist that hit the switch back in the 14th Century, giving Petrarch the imagination to experience the third dimension. I sincerely believe it can do it again and transform our imagination to be more responsive to all the incredible dynamics of our time and place. It will affect how we image everything: which, in turn, will affect everything else. All of the pieces I have produced during last ten years have been my most earnest attempts to try and establish some kind of rapport with and understanding of this neuralchemist. That is the context.
Now you may ask yourself (and I think it is a very reasonable question), “These ideas might be fine and dandy, but where’s the art in any of this?”
If there is any art in it, and I surely hope there is, it does not come only from the context. That is just the threshold: the access to the content. Hopefully my pieces have been imbued with the energy, intensity, tenacity and passion with which I’ve pursued this neuralchemist.
William T. Ramage, Professor
30 North Street
Rutland, Vermont 05701