I have been thinking about depth of field.
James Christensen, perhaps the artist I admire the most, says in a book of his work that he views many of his paintings as taking place in these tiny, unreal sets, like morality plays–if you move to either side, you’d see that it was just a little shadowbox. Within the set, things don’t have to conform to natural law, they don’t need to have internal consistency, because they’re not literally real–they’re this weird, unreal little symbolic place.
This struck me as very cool and interesting when I was contemplating it this weekend, in no small part because I approach my work so differently. I’ve always seen myself as kind of a naturalist in a foreign (and occasionally absurd) land, which comes out in a lot of the descriptions. The weird fruit paintings are a good example–if you move to either side, you’d get more mountains, and maybe more bighorn pears going about their lives. It’s a sort of documentary moment in the life of the species. Same with the winged frogs and the mouse-tailed kite-moth hunters and what not–I think on some level, I believe they exist somewhere and are going about their lives without me. I just get to drop in occasionally and get a shot of what’s going on.
Christiansen’s work is dense with symbolism, past the point of absurdity, but fortunately it’s terribly good natured about it, which is part of what appeals to me so much. And in this flat, shadow-boxed little space, people are often in flat profile, they’re standing on a bar of texture or a very short checkerboard, and the back wall is only a few inches away. They can levitate, or have words scroll out of their mouth at random, because they’re in these little sets, and anything can happen there without an explanation. (He can also do breathtaking, Pre-Raphaelite realism, mind you, so the flatness is a conscious choice, not a lack of skill with perspective.)
And this is cool. I don’t always feel that I have that kind of freedom. If Christiansen has someone standing on the ceiling, it’s a symbol for differing points of view. If I have someone standing on the ceiling, he’s showing off his new gecko-hide boots, made from the sensitive foot pads of the Great Blue Gecko, which is the size of a crocodile and can only be hunted with narcotically-treated lures made to resemble insects. Which is good and interesting and fun, but still doesn’t change the fact that I need an explanation for why people are standing on the ceiling. And it might be nice not to need that.
I don’t think either method is inherently superior, mind you–I know a lot of my audience likes the weird little world that builds up around my work, and heck, I do too. Christiansen, of course, is a MUCH better artist than I am, but he’s also more than twice my age, so presumably has a significant head start. I can retain hope for achieving that level of mastery someday.
But anyway, the depth of field thing got me thinking. My mother did a number of paintings, many years ago, that had similiar things going on–there’d be a band of stone and a band of hands doing random things off to the side of a particular scene, and everthing was thus a little offset from reality. And it’s something I’d like to try, I think–shadowboxed vignettes from my weird little world. Maybe it’s possible to do both at once.
We’ll see how they come out.