I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.
The credo of art appreciation points to a simple truth: we are all inclined to like what we already know. So appreciation favours art with recognizable and reaffirming subjects.
As a method of looking at art that starts from the limited parameters of the viewer’s presuppositions, rather than the art object itself, art appreciation is a universal phenomenon that manifests itself uniquely in each situation. But its structure—”I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”—establishes a potentially damaging form of art engagement.
Why is this structure so dangerous? The answer is more easily understood when we juxtapose the statement with its antithesis.
In his book Art as Experience, John Dewey describes what he calls an experience. An experience of art is (to borrow terms from Martin Buber) an “I-thou” dialogue between the viewer and the work of art. In meeting the work of art, the viewer’s sense of personal, social, and spiritual purpose is expanded. Her horizons of possibility—as limited by experience, knowledge, faith, and imagination—are pushed back. This renewed sense of her own personhood as well as her confidence in art establishes the starting point for her next experience of art. So an experience of art becomes an ever-expanding and deepening cycle of alertness, perception, and renewal in which each encounter becomes increasingly profitable.
An experience of art is the opposite of art appreciation, both structurally and directionally. Art appreciation begins and ends in a closed cycle, defined by the visual literacy, knowledge, and sense of personhood that the viewer brings to the encounter. Rather than allowing the work of art to expand his experience, the viewer, instead, limits the work of art to his own liking. This viewer doesn’t really look; he projects. He attempts to impose himself onto the work of art.
But here is the problem: any self-respecting work of art resists this projection. And when it resists, the appreciator rejects it: “I don’t like it.” Since the art appreciator’s unshakable confidence in what he likes is the measure of the experience, this process repeats itself in a narrowing cycle which can even dull the viewer’s visual and spiritual sensitivity.
Guy Chase’s art breaks the cardinal rules of art appreciation. In Untitled Book Painting and Deluge, Chase not only thwarts our desires for instant and clichéd gratification, but he strategically investigates the human tendencies that make all of us, at least from time to time, art appreciators. By gently, humorously, and charitably challenging us to greater attentiveness to the world (both nature and culture), apprehension of our selves, and faithfulness to God, Guy Chase’s art (the subject of a recent monograph by Square Halo Books) is spiritually restorative.
Chase’s art specifically addresses issues that are central to the process of art appreciation: visual inattentiveness, personal incognizance, and spiritual complacency. His art not only exposes these tendencies—which we all have—but, even more significantly, models a life of prayerful faithfulness.
Art appreciation is compelled by visual inattentiveness, and therefore favours art that is clearly representational. (This is, of course, not to suggest that representational art can only operate on the level of appreciation.) This desire can manifest itself in two ways. The most common is a preference for pictorial subject matter. Art appreciation approves of art with identifiable and familiar imagery. While this sort of narrative-oriented imagery can quickly lead to boredom, the stagnancy creates just the sort of realm of pleasant distraction from the world that art appreciation seeks.
Art appreciation also prefers stylistic consistency. For example, a cubist portrait by Pablo Picasso may not resemble the sitter, but it does “look like a Picasso.” This conformity, what is called a “signature style,” becomes a surrogate subject matter, in which the artist herself becomes the protagonist of the work’s narrative.
In Untitled, Chase does not only avoid any representational subject, but his oeuvre also strategically avoids an easily-recognized “signature style.” (Still, Chase’s meticulous sensitivity to materials and multi-layered compositions are overarching visual commonalities across his oeuvre.)
But while Chase’s art, at least initially, suggests little pictorial or personal narrative, the methodology of his work is born out of his own experience. In Untitled, Chase addresses his own visual and spiritual listlessness. (Untitled is painted on pages from Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. The relationship between this work and text is discussed in my interview with the artist in The Art of Guy Chase.) Chase describes the process of painting Untitled, in which he meticulously made a series of marks (each one, as much as possible, identical to the previous mark), as a meditative/listening prayer of conforming to God’s revelation.
Untitled carefully draws the attentive viewer to greater self-awareness. What emerges from a concentrated viewing of Untitled is an elementary and complex relationship between the marks and the space between them. This in-between space begins to take the form of a grid. Although this grid is actually the creation of the interrelationship between the marks, once the grid reveals itself, it begins to assert itself as the image’s principal organizing structure. Within the grid, each mark pushes back by asserting its own uniqueness. However, these marks were initially made, as much as possible, identically. Initially, any variation in mark-making had been read as an error. However, it is these very “errors” that equip each mark to realize its own selfhood within the grid. Thus, a visual attentiveness to Untitled leads the viewer to a greater consciousness of the dialogical relationship between the individual (mark or person) and the context. But it is this challenge of self-awareness that art appreciation most desires to avoid. Instead, art appreciation seeks subjects that are reaffirming and reassuring. (However, I’m not suggesting that only captious works of art are true works of art.)
In some cases, spiritually-reassuring art may suggest a state of the human condition that is free of spiritual fallenness, as well as a relationship with God that is not entirely Biblical. In Deluge, Chase embraces the human condition as a mystery that is largely beyond the bounds of our comprehension. Deluge references the biblical narrative, in which God called Noah to build a giant sea vessel. Noah faithfully complied even though, as his mocking neighbours pointed out, there was no water for the ark. Nevertheless, Noah was still human; he must have had doubts. In Deluge, Chase paints the figure of Noah surrounded by a universe of numbers. His posture is one of supplication before God while his lack of comprehension is evident. Noah’s faithfulness isn’t a fruit of his knowing; it is an exercise of his faith.
Deluge is not an illustration of Noah’s fidelity; it is a practice of creative reliance and response. The work is based on a paint-by-number kit. The paint-by-number process is one that requires the painter to faithfully follow instructions. In Deluge, Chase followed these received designs in painting the figure of Noah, but the rest of the painting is modified. Chase mixed the kit’s twenty-one colours, each individually designated across the painting’s lower edge, and then painted each area of the paint-by-numbers painting individually, leaving the numbers revealed. Thus in the painting’s dialectic—I-thou, process of dependence and creativity—Deluge is a devotional work that unites free will and determinism. Chase chose this paint-by-number kit. The paint-by-number kit is prescriptive and limiting; it contains twenty-one colours, not chosen by Chase. Chase both embraces the kit’s limits and applies his own creativity to them. Deluge, in its visual form, explores and exposes the paint-by-number kit’s structure as corresponding to the artistic and faith experience. This form, and the process manifested in the form, is not independent of Deluge‘s theme of faithfulness. In Deluge, the content, form, and process are indistinguishable. This makes Deluge both a strong work of art and a direct challenge to the presuppositions of religious-art appreciation.
Chase’s Untitled and Deluge are studies in the complex process by which attentiveness may lead to self-awareness, as well as how one might respond in faithfulness to the recognition of one’s spiritual condition and dependent relationship with God. As such, these works of art necessarily confront the type of distracted, egocentric, and apathetic tendencies that are symptomatic of art appreciation and which keep us from greater maturation as visual and spiritual persons. However, Chase’s art is never belligerent; instead he models, in the process of his art making, an attitude of worship. He allows this positive example to be its own exposure of the negative. So his art is not confined to an arena of critique; it draws us into a renewed relationship with the world, with ourselves, and with God.