Monday, May 17, 2010

Looking, Eavesdropping, Watching

I have been thinking a lot about how when we look at a painting we not only complete or finish what the artist began, but we also can become unwitting participants in the fictional world of the painting. In his wonderful essay "The Work of Art and Its Beholder," Wolfgang Kemp argues: "In the same way that the beholder approaches the work of art, the work of art approaches him, responding to and recognizing the activity of his perception." Kemp's essay is essentially an explanation of "aesthetic reception,"a methodological approach to art history, which takes this aspect of works of art very seriuosly. Aesthetic reception recognizes that works of art are made for an "implicit beholder" and that looking at works of art involves an "asymmetrical" communication between the artist and the real beholder.

He develops his theory through a wonderful and interesting analysis of Nicolas Maes' The Eavesdropper (above). In many ways, this painting is an ideal example for aesthetic reception. Of course there is an implicit beholder because the painting addresses the viewer through the maid who looks "out" of the painting and the curtain that partially obstructs the viewer's line of sight. The painting is a comment on the moral implications of looking, and it invites consideration of when an onlooker becomes a voyeur or eavesdropper.

In a sense, the painting provides the viewer with a fictional choice. Should we join the maid in her invitation to be an eavesdropper? Should we pull back the curtain? Kemp's comments in this regard are interesting. He writes:
The curtain has been drawn back to such an extent that half of the eavesdropped conversation becomes visible: A woman who stands behind a table and who, judging from the position of her arms, which she has on her hips, and her head, which she holds at an angle, reproaches a person opposite her. If now, as a result of the eavesdropper's invitation, we become active ourselves in the right half of the painting and lifted the curtain or tried to look behind it in our thoughts, the blank would close and we would really become the eavesdropper's accomplices. That this is not possible ... that by the art's grace we have "only" the painting, is made obvious by the curtain, which, as an everyday instrument of veiling and unveiling, yet belongs wholly and doubly to art by being part of the matter of the painting and, also as the painted curtain, its sign.
After reading Kemp's discussion of The Eavesdropper, I was reminded of the work of contemporary painter Eric Fiscl. Many of his paintings, like Maes', have a domestic setting. In particular, Fiscl's paintings of domestic interiors tend to look like fairly innocuous middle to upper-middle class homes. They would be a fine illustration of "suburban America." But in these familiar settings (at least for those who live in homes like them) we are confronted with scenes that are often disturbing in their display of sexuality. For example, his paintings Bad Boy (1981) and Birthday Boy (1983) are highly suggestive of an incestuous relationship between a young boy and his mother, or at least of a sexual relationship between an older woman and young boy. What is interesting about many of Fiscl's work, is his ability to make the viewer feel as though he is witnessing and potentially implicated in the scene before him.

His painting The Bed, The Chair, Dancing, Watching (2000, above), masterfully draws the viewer into the action of the scene. A middle aged man sits, nude, upon a white chair covered in a strikingly red floral patter. He looks straight at me, scrutinizes me. I become aware of a shadow on the wall, and I recognize that woman is undressing before this man, and that I am somehow standing in her place. What relationship do these two people have? What exactly is going on here? Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable and unnerved looking at this painting. Unlike Maes' painting, Fiscl does not provide me with a curtain. I do not have a choice. By looking at the painting I am thrown into the scene and become a participant, become complicit, as this narrative unfolds. The bed directly behind the man suggests where the story is headed, and his gaze is hardly one of love and care.

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