A simple arrangement of objects can have profound significance, as I endeavored to suggest in the previous post. What then of the structure of the picture itself? From a particular angle we are faced with all kinds of mysterious accidental spaces. These interstices are the famous “negative spaces” of art school. Strange appellation, for these are some of the most riveting, jewel-like moments in a work of art — equally they represent the most “signature” elements of an artist’s style, for they are unconscious and very direct expressions of thought. The artist’s act of looking is spread out over time. No one is aware of directing this kind of thought. It isn’t directed. It’s just one’s mind noticing first this and afterwards that.
And of course the little spaces between things must be rendered if the objects are going to materialize as a picture. But after that, there is no rule. One could use one large mass of paint to represent a patch of cloth lying between two potatoes. Or one could use three brushstrokes. Or one could use fifteen. Or a hundred. Or even a thousand very tiny, intimate brushstrokes.
The spaces between things, as well as the pictorial spaces that are things, are the fabric of the image. They are meaning ordered into shapes, lines, tones, colors. They have as much reality as the notes in music. They are utterly abstract. And into them, all meaning is poured.
Interior designers and artists have a lot in common when it comes to still life. Both are engaged in arranging objects into beautiful and significant relationships. Often the kinds of objects are similar too: vases, flowers, objets d’art, textiles, and tabletops. Moreover, these arrangements are intended to tell us a story about someone’s life.
I had some inkling I was meant to be an artist from an early age because I was fascinated with anything visual, including carpets, textiles and furnishings. And now I recognize all over again, in a somewhat different way, that I’m meant for art every time I go to the grocery store and find myself faced with the task of putting my groceries on the conveyor belt. Merely to lay out the items for purchase is not satisfying. I have to arrange them. It’s an odd inner need, evidently, almost a craving to establish order. Boxes must be arranged together by size. Cylinders must be placed with cylinders (this principle is good with paper towels, toilet paper, stuff like that). So, it often happens that humble tasks can reveal profound things about the self: as here my learning an autobiographical fact in a very plain and quotidian setting.
Anyway — in art, in still life — one has a decidedly more deliberate kind of ordering to recognize. When I painted the still life of cabbage and potatoes, I was aware of Van Gogh having painted potatoes in his early work. For Van Gogh the subject represented an identification with the peasants who dig their livelihood out of the earth. For me, the subject represented an identification with Van Gogh as the 19th century painter who most epitomized my idea of the modern.
That much accounts for the subject generally. But the particular arrangement of objects, the cabbage in the center, the potatoes clumped around it like chicks around a mother hen — that specific ensemble has meaning — it really does! — but I was not aware of creating it. Yet it is the very core of what the painting is about.
As I say, I always had something in common with interior designers. When you are arranging things — perhaps quite unconsciously — all toward the purpose of discovering meaning, whether it is self-knowledge or knowledge about a whole society — that is certainly a very noble branch of design generally and even of interior design in the finest sense, understood as relating to the decoration of the soul.