Vision and Feeling

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Poet Charles Baudelaire said, “Be always drunken.” This is impractical advice, to say the least – though he did clarify that he meant one could be “drunk with wine or poetry or virtue” as one wills. What he was telling us was that there may be other ways than the everyday way of apprehending the real world. There can be seeing that is more intense, charged with feeling, more poetry than prose.

Art can be about seeing with greater intensity. But the art that’s most in favor in urban worlds today – beginning from conceptual art founder, Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that he was no longer interested in “retinal art”– mostly ascribes to the dictum that art should be more about concept than vision. But concepts have little connection to why and what I paint. I paint to produce a simple, yet powerful retinal experience, images neither particularly contemporary nor traditional. I strive for “timelessness,” rather than for commenting on my times.

Alternatively to urban art, the art we mostly see in non-urban galleries IS retinal – about seeing – more than concept. But much of it to me seems not particularly emotional, seldom really concerned with intense seeing. Very often it is about escaping the contemporary world in favor of portraying comforting visions, childhood idylls vaguely remembered.

Though I’m interested in painting visions intensely seen and felt, I think when one sets out to paint with intensity one must take great care. Seldom does it work well to abandon concern for subtlety which should be a check against excessive intensity, that is, bombast and garishness. Our culture is pervaded with excessive intensity – on television, in movies, in our politics, and even in our games. We are drunk with the intensity, speed, and novelty in our culture. Hence we often gravitate either to over-the-top art or else tepid art that hopes to calm us down with nostalgia.

So I believe there is that third alternative: art that is emotional and intense and that confronts the real world we live in now, but that isn’t loud and fast, or isn’t, on the other hand merely “fun” just another manifestation of everything else. (Andy Warhol said that pop art was about “liking things.”) There can be art that stops the endless rolling of the reel of life for a moment of quiet, in which the visual power of things, apprehended and presented perhaps in dramatic light and pulsing color, can be recognized, understood and felt.

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ON KNOWING AND NOT KNOWING WHAT SOMETHNG IS: I paint both abstractions and representations; things seen and seeable – though I don’t paint to copy natural or manmade subjects – and abstract images, visions that are more of something felt than something seeable. It isn’t unusual for an artist to do both kinds of painting, but suffice to say, most don’t. The reason that I go from one to the other and back is that I experience a variety of things that move me. As with music wherein I enjoy listening to melodies with lyrics and melodies without (or melodies with words in a foreign tongue), I might be equally moved at one moment by an image in the world and then next by a vision emanating from inside my head. Philosophers and psychologists, both, have theorized that when we name things we see them as examples of that kind of thing, not the thing itself. We feel we already know all about it. And most people would probably agree that in childhood, when things were new, they saw things with greater intensity. Seeing something as a singularity is powerful. Encouraging the apprehending of singularities is one of the goals of art. An abstract painting is a singularity in that its subject can be named only metaphorically. It is a song with lyrics in a foreign language. We don’t know what it is about, therefore it has mystery. But mystery based on un-recognizableness alone is not necessarily intriguing or moving, the mystery has to compel us. (And being compelled is often a matter of personal inclination and taste.)

I paint expressionistically. (Loosely, with visible brushstrokes.) Paul Cezanne, unarguably one of history’s greatest painters, said, “Painting that attempts to hide the painter’s tools” – i.e. brushes, paint, canvas – “earns the admiration of imbeciles.” (Perhaps he was overstating a bit.) I feel that though much of nature is quite solid, it appears somewhat “fuzzy,” seen from even a little distance. Line in nature undulates or is serrated or even self-canceling. And our eyes don’t see to and from fixed points, but are always in motion. As with emotions themselves, there is usually a blurring at the edges. Yet, since the ascendancy of pop art over expressionism five decades ago, edges in painting, as with most things of our culture, have generally gotten sharper and harder. To me, undulation, blurring, overlap, and “painterly” painting can be conveyers of and stand-ins for emotion, can provide mystery. Certainly there can be emotion in hard-edged works – and in works with flat or muted color and light. But it’s more difficult to find. Indeed, mystery and emotion can be more dramatically sensed in ambiguity than in verisimilitude, in poetry rather than in prose. (Matisse said “Verisimilitude is not truth.”) I want my representational paintings to function as abstractly as possible, to balance on an edge: formalistic and naturalistic. I want them to be images that alternately can be looked at or looked into, “retinal” experiences themselves, rather than just depictions of retinal experiences. I want to transform elemental factors of nature into light and color, witnessing my need for balance and wholeness independent of nature. In doing so I have hoped to tap both the enigmatic power of abstraction and the boundless power inherent in natural forces.

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Agrafiotis’ self-designed, built, and landscaped home and studio in Cape Neddick, Maine.

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