Perspective and Incarnation

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The invention of perspective revolutionized our way of seeing

On the third floor of the Architecture building at Cooper Union, between the main studio room and the smaller thesis studios, is a hallway that typically features dusty black-and-white prints of architectural works we have studied in history class. They are something to stare at while you wait for your friend to come out of the bathroom. It wasn't until several months ago, when Kerry Rose Shear's artwork went up, that this hallway deserved to be called a "gallery," as it is officially designated.

Shear's work was part of an exhibition that included ten lectures on the history of perspective. The artwork and the lectures together constitute a work in progress that eludes classification: typed pages of research, corrected with lively strokes of watercolor and pen; original poetry with painted illustrations that sometimes bleed into the poems; a very stream-of-consciousness art, but with a specific goal in mind. The writings are about art history, about herself, about Giotto and Saint Francis and Aristotle and deconstruction and all the other subjects that make up this mammoth project she has taken on, the project she calls "Illuminated Perspective: A Mongrel Work in Progress."

Ah-hah! you may be saying about now. Another one of those weird so-called artists, like that woman who appears onstage nude, covered in chocolate, or the guy who painted the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but if you are in the mood for a good rant, you'll have to look elsewhere. Kerry Rose Shear is sometimes maddeningly obscure, it's true, but there is nothing phony or self-indulgent or perverse in her quest.

When she's talking to an audience, Shear is never still; her hands move, she shifts and paces and fiddles with a bright purple filmy scarf draped over her all-black ensemble. She begins every lecture as a bundle of nerves, and only gradually warms to her subject and begins to speak freely.

Perspective, she says, was invented as a new way of seeing things:

The journey through history to the site or origin of perspective gradually teaches us the new mode of seeing, and so gradually brings the new lens into being. Thus the image of the world seen in and through the found object gradually infuses the act of finding the object, even before it is found. At the instant of the finding, finding as noun and verb both coalesce in an epiphany. Here, the found object—that is, the finding—reads as the image of the act of finding it.

I'm trying to grasp what she has just said, getting my bearings by comparing it to what we have been taught about the history of perspective. According to the standard account, scientific perspective was invented by the fifteenth-century architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, who sought to create the perfect constructed space. Using monocular (one-point) perspective, Brunelleschi did a painting of the Florentine baptistery, an outdoor public space. Then he placed the painting in the space, but backward, and in front of the painting he placed a mirror. Finally, he poked a hole through the vanishing point of the painting, so that, viewing the mirror image, one could see a constructed reality. His contemporaries were amazed; no artist before him had achieved such authenticity.

I can see how this fits with Shear's talk about finding: the image of the world seen through Brunelleschi's construction is the image of the construct, and the found object, the painting, is both an object and the act of creating the object. I feel that I am on the verge of making an important connection, but while I have been thinking, Shear has continued to speak. Now she's summarizing the conventional view of perspective: The viewer is represented as a disembodied site in space, no longer bound to determined history or symbolic meanings. But, she adds, there is a fundamental problem with this conventional account—namely, that our whole language is based on meaning as derived from symbols. The only way to free perspective from the iconic and meaningful context in which it was created —in Catholic symbolism— is, Shear says, to embrace that context. By ingesting and consuming the symbols, one also digests them, and so eliminates them from the picture.

What does she mean when talks about freeing perspective? Why should we want to eliminate the symbols from the picture (and what would it mean to do that)? I set those questions aside to take up later; I don't want to lose the thread. She's leading us back from Brunelleschi to the origin of this "new mode of seeing" in the early fourteenth century, to what she calls the pivotal moment in the history of perspective, Giotto's Stigmatization of St. Francis in the Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce. Here, she says, one can see perspective from its own "interior source." I'm dazzled, and lost.

Witnessing a work in progress, it's hard to see anything plainly. Shear has alienated her audience from the beginning, speaking in metaphors and refusing to unveil clearly what she's getting at. She begins sentences that sound as if they're going to explain everything; then she flings out her arms, as if the right words are just out of reach, and I lean forward in hopes that she'll catch them. I can't tell if she is purposely circling around her subject or just doesn't know how to address it in a more straightforward manner. And while she can be charmingly vulnerable (she brings snacks for the "regulars" and implores us not to skip out during the break), she is also exceedingly proud —let the philistines go! She wants to reach the few who will understand.

Even when I understand her, I can't explain clearly what I have understood. When Jacques Derrida did a deconstruction of prayer in a lecture last fall, everyone said the same thing: I understood it while he was talking, but now I couldn't begin to explain it to you. The frustration of not being able to communicate your impressions is redeemed by the one moment of glory when enlightenment dawns and you have an intuitive understanding.

Shear herself likens this process of understanding to alchemy. She has drawn on an idea, which originated with the art critic James Elkins, about the "alchemy" of Giotto. Perspective as a historical concept is continually being refined, renewed, purified. Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Piranesi, and Panofsky each brought something into the study of perspective and left it a little different from when they picked it up. Symbolically, alchemy figures into the conceptual framework for Giotto's Stigmatization of St. Francis: Prayer has continually renewed and purified Francis until he is able to accept the great gift of the stigmata.

Shear's work, too, is still in the crucible. "To conform to Giotto," she explains,

the painted argument that is "Illuminated Perspective" must also appear at the living surface between speaker and spoken to, and to keep the surface alive, I always have to revise the form of presentation after I meet you and keep revising it up to the minute I see you and begin to speak again. Painting this argument is a frantic process, like trying to catch and tame a lion.

She says that each time when she steps to the podium, the new moment changes what she has to say and how she will say it: So it is not the fault of the projectionist that the slides are sometimes not in order. It is my fault. One of the reasons I qualify for this job is the fact that I have the sense to know I have no business doing it.

Such a mixture of humility and brazen confidence —she calls herself "the greatest art historian in the world"— is refreshing. Her certainty is true certainty, not the artificial show of conviction that many artists think they need. She is not so much self-assured as she is sure of the subject matter. Somebody needs to share it, and it might as well be her. She is desperate, frantic, to get these thoughts out into the open, and she is willing to risk herself in doing so.

And her story, she says, is part of a bigger one: the story of the Incarnation, of Christ forming the bridge between God and man, between subject and object, between language and matter. Christ was the "Word made flesh," the language made body. The Word described

the practice of materializing the way of communing with this personification: to imitate it. Then imitation was described in more and more concrete ways, first through metaphors, then a procedure, then a story, and then a fresco. Everything in the life of Christ in the Gospels functions as a tool to represent the concretizing of language. All the teachings and miracles of Christ concern immediate responses, with no gaps between stimulus and response—spontaneous love, no withholding, no aggression against the other, miracles in which to touch or sense is to be healed.

As I go through my notes much later, I find many places where I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with her. There is enough material in her work for 50 lectures, but she is confined to ten. In her last lecture, she talked about the different forms of media she studies and how they relate to the media she uses to study them. Painting, especially fresco, is a crucifixion: a slow bleeding of color. Photography is a stigmatization: light burns the wounds of Christ onto Francis's hands and feet as it burns the image into the film. She shows both, slides of paintings and slides of photographs, interspersed with her poetry. She tears at a lickety-split pace through years of research, flashing slides just long enough to leave an impression, leaving us only half-satisfied, wondering how much more there is behind what she has touched on.

And although she has put so much of herself into this work, as she tells the story she simply fades out of the picture. The individuals throughout history who have researched these spiritual and artistic and philosophical themes don't really matter. What matters are the ideas themselves, which have been refined and added to since the beginning of time. Although Giotto was a key figure in the story of perspective, he recedes into the background and lets the story play itself out without him, she says. She, too, has receded until she is almost invisible.

When her work is finished, when she has exorcised the demon Giotto from her psyche, what will she have? A book? A series of paintings? Perhaps the "complete" work will be more convincing than what she has now, but I doubt it. Every step in this process creates another, distinct, separate work, another set of questions, another set of answers. Her progress is much more interesting than the proliferation of "final" presentations that chokes the modern art market.

After one lecture, I approached her with a question, and we ended up talking for almost an hour. She is reluctant to mention her Catholicism; in fact, she was a little put out that I managed to "get" something of what she was saying largely because we are both Christians. When I saw you sitting there and nodding, she said, I was excited that you seemed to understand. But of course you understand! Wisely, amidst the cynicism of the art world, she has left her personal faith somewhat of a secret. But her quest to know more about the miracles of Incarnation and the way in which artists have tried to represent them—and to create her own art in response to those truths—comes from a deep faith that cannot be silenced.

Emily Oren is an architecture student at Cooper Union.

Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture Magazine. July/August 2000, Vol. 6, No. 4, Page 6

Photo: Chandelier Shadow - Paris, May 2003

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.


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