|Roman Opalka (1931-2011), detail
People move, nature riots, the earth spins, the stars fall in the void, and yet a single remarkable thing can stop us in our tracks. Motion and stillness, passing through and settling down: the poles of our animal existence. Edward Casey, the philosopher, argued that motion and stasis bracket the dimensions of dwelling. Hermetic dwelling, with the very wings of Hermes on our heels, propels us through the streets of our home town. Hestial dwelling has us curled up back at the hearth. We need buildings and we need thoroughfares – places to rest and routes through which we can flee.
Let me make a bold statement: the visual arts have been more innovative with the Hestial forms of dwelling, where the mobile artist and the restless object are toned down to mere vibrations: the flick of the pencil, the casting of the brush upon a canvas, the landscape quelled. Quelled, even in a Turner where an isolated frame proclaims the tumult of it all. Even the first artists, dwelling transiently in the snug of a cave and depicting the frenzy of the hunt, commemorate (or anticipate) only moments of that commotion that percusses from a world antique for multiple millenniums. Is the problem of Hermes just less interesting to us; or is it more difficult to innovate with motion? Not the former surely, as Hermes problem is Aristotle’s own. In Physica Aristotle says “Nature has been defined as a ‘principle of motion and change” and he commented that knowing that we understand motion is critical for a claim that we know Nature. Representing motion on the page, on the canvas, on the wall, must be, as they say, much easier said than done.
Not that there are no innovations. My artist above, it must be said, had a small genius for this, and though I kept the piece which he worked on that morning on Webster, the work was was more interesting than beautiful. The work of Roman Opałka illustrates another, more celebrated, approach. Opalka famously died, one can say inevitably died, during his attempt to paint infinity. This series of “details” is called "1965 / 1 – ∞", in which the artist painted numbers in white, on a gray background, the numbers fading as the paint dries on the brush (see the picture above).
I have been carrying around several images by Peter Karklins over the past year or so. In motion on my hard drive; in motion in my recollection of them, having been shown several small works by Sean Kirland in Gaslight Bar and Grille on Racine. The images arrested me. Karklins work can be consider a successful resolution to the difficulty I am describing here – that of crystallizing motion in a way that is as terrifying as any honest attempt to capture dynamic nature must be (recalling Opalka’s last painting was of the number “8”). They are beautiful, for if it is nature, it must sooth as well as scorch, and they are performatively successful in the way that an eye is terrifying in it complexity, beautiful in the gaze of our beloved, and successful in the synthetic marvels it performs.
A central innovation in Karklins drawings is that time, motion, and the work that culminates on the canvas is recorded not just in the terror and beauty and performance played out on a tiny canvas, but is quite literally recorded on the back of each piece. A series of dates, and locations provide a record of Karlins movement across the city; recorded as our Hermes makes his journeys and creates his fire. Turn over a Karklins and see what is there: it’s as if one were to reverse an Opalka “detail” and discover that behind the numbers there is something there other than death.
Note: I am working on a short piece for a catalogue on Karklins work. This post, fueled by several cups of tea, is the best I can do for the time being. I am, of course, not a critic and innovations that captures motion and change may be a dime a dozen. If you have suggestions for me, I'd love to hear about them. Comments appreciated.