By DANIEL MAIDMAN October 16, 2020
Art history contains a particular micro-genre which has few instances and draws little notice. And yet, because any artwork can be taken to embody a statement of metaphysics, this tiny genre of art is able to compete at the most profound level on a footing limited only by the ideas which define it, and the talent of its artist champions.
Vincent Desiderio first pointed out this micro-genre to me in referring to one of his pole stars, Michelangelo’s early relief, The Battle of the Centaurs.
This small piece, executed by a young artist, demonstrates a concept of space opposed to the overwhelming majority of Western art.
All ordinary concepts of pictorial space are inextricably dependent on the general method of hierarchy. The most familiar concept, for us, is the Renaissance breakthrough of one-point perspective, with its hierarchy of object scale and detail sorted by near and far, above and below, in front of and behind. In contrast, consider ancient Egyptian painting, in which all objects are depicted flat, in flat strips of narrative space stacked one atop another. In this system, figure scale is determined by social rank, and object location is determined by narrative sequence. The sorting criteria are importance, and before and after. It is just as much a hierarchical method of arranging space as the perspectival system, although the specific mechanisms are different.
All such systems depend on empty space as a background matrix within which objects have location and motion. The existence of this base matrix, of the vacuum, gives rise in philosophy and art alike to agonized speculation about how and whether vacuum can be said to exist. One way this anxiety is expressed in art is through the horror vacui, the instinct to fill the entire space.
It would be easy to read The Battle of the Centaurs as a radical implementation of the horror vacui. But I think this is a misreading. It is not an obsessive filling of space. It doesn’t fill space because there is no space to fill.
Space, in the hierarchical sense, does not exist in The Battle of the Centaurs at all.
In an ordinary image, there are figure and ground – object and vacuum – space and that which fills it. In The Battle of the Centaurs, there is only figure. The space in the image is non-hierarchical. It depicts a flat, writhing universe. All overlapping forms touch. There is no near and far, no relative importance, no before and after. There is certainly a muffled narrative from image top to image bottom of the cycle from generation to decay, which mimics the falling action of a single warrior in battle. But this is secondary, I think, to the overwhelming non-hierarchical presence of everything at once.
Take another artwork:
There is a reason that Pollock, beyond all other abstract artists, sticks in the mind. The term “over-all composition” which is used to describe his work is a different way of identifying non-hierarchical space. Other abstract artists, no matter how much they strip out the specifics of representation, retain an instinctive allegiance to the geometric properties of hierarchical space: shape, distance, figure, ground.
Pollock, by contrast, evokes a frenzied region in which the entire space is filled because fill is all there is. No one part is dominant or leads to any other part. You could say all parts are foregrounded, except there is no foreground. The hierarchy of being itself doesn’t exist in his work. There are no shades of being, and there is no non-being, no rest state, no vacuum. It is all being, everywhere. Metaphysically, it presents the same statement as The Battle of the Centaurs.
I got the Michelangelo from Desiderio, and I’m pretty sure I got the Pollock from him. Talking with Vince has had a big impact on my understanding of art history. But I’m systematizing this doctrine of spatial hierarchy and non-hierarchy for myself.
The reason this strange micro-genre is significant for Desiderio is that it speaks to him. Desiderio, a primarily figurative painter, is counter-intuitively devoted to modernism. I’m almost inclined to claim that modernism, considered in this light, is an illusion, and that his core devotion is to non-hierarchical space, a philosophical thread which runs through classical and modern work alike. He has expressed this space in both figurative painting…
…and in his own strain of quasi-abstract painting, describable as realist depiction of abstract objects:
Desiderio talks with passion about the history of hierarchical space:
Not perspective as it’s understood by most people, which is a simple rationalization of space, but perspective as a flight pattern. All the people that invented perspective – Alberti, Brunelleschi, Nicholas of Cusa… Paolo Toscanelli, who taught Piero della Francesca mathematics and studied with Alberti in Padua, and Brunelleschi who was the genius who listened to them talking and said, “I can make you a model of that.” All of these men were neoplatonists. The goal of the soul for Plotinus, the originator of this philosophy which took root in Europe after 1300, was an ascent to the Ineffable One – and so how does the soul make that flight?
- Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, pp. 83-84
This is from a long interview I conducted with Desiderio, which became a book, which I am still thinking about. Only a few minutes later, he said this:
[Michelangelo’s figures] only become weighty for a very specific reason, when he feels that the soul cannot make that neoplatonic flight so easily, and the figures become so cumbersome and heavy, and they can’t lift themselves up from the terrestrial to the celestial.
- Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, p. 84
I remember his exact tone of voice as he evoked this image. He imagines himself into the scenes he describes, and so his voice became heavy with anguish as he pictured those figures. He winced as he spoke.
In some moods, he believes in that flight of the soul. In other moods, he can no longer believe in the possibility of flight, and he turns to non-hierarchical space.
Here we begin to see how a single metaphysics offers room to different artists to express different visions. For Desiderio, non-hierarchical space seems to be a region of writhing struggle which precludes any possibility of transcendence: the upward flight of the soul through the clean reaches of vacuum toward the Ineffable One is not only impossible, it is inconceivable. There is a deadly materiality to Desiderio’s non-hierarchical space, the heartbroken disgust of a neoplatonist fascinated by the hideous possibility that he is simply wrong, that there is nothing beyond what can be touched.
Finally, we come to Buket Savci, whose recent paintings got me thinking about this topic.
Trying to describe how she depicts space was the loose thread I picked at that led all the way back to The Battle of the Centaurs. Savci works in non-hierarchical space. Her picture plane is flat and her image is everywhere-dense. Saturated color appears throughout the composition, opposing the mind’s impulse to rank objects by importance. One is almost reminded of Philip Pearlstein, but Pearlstein’s nudes occupy a cluttered perspectival space, whereas Savci’s spaces are not cluttered: they are full in the non-hierarchical sense, and also contain nudes.
Again, because we have developed a catalogue of this micro-genre, we can begin to see in it the individuality of the artist’s vision. Michelangelo uses the premise to depict the nature of battle. Pollock makes a strangely detached epistemological statement. Desiderio uses it to explore and confide to us his fears of the ultimate materiality of existence. And Savci sees in the space an analogue of the heightened, kinesthesiac emotions and sensations of the erotic encounter.
Savci tackles this encounter at both the sensual and symbolic level. If you read the figures closely in BBBBB, you see a psychedelic retelling of the classical dichotomy of the sexes in their approach to one another. The man cups the woman’s breast but turns his face away from her, taking pleasure without offering connection. The inflatable toys woven into the space serve metaphorical roles. The way he strokes the pink ear of the rabbit balloon, and its placement, seem to stand in pretty clearly for masturbation. The woman, contrarily, holds a red heart balloon labeled “I love you” in one hand and sticks two fingers “into” (behind) it with her other hand. As in the case of the man, she plays out a classical drama: the woman who sees a sexual encounter as equivalent to love, but is in fact fantasizing alone. The acid green curve of the swimming tube separates these two semi-anonymous figures, using physical separation as a counterpart for emotional separation.
This is an awful lot of highly specific emotional symbolism for an allegedly undifferentiated model of space. But I think it is undeniable that the space contains those essential non-hierarchical features we have been discussing. Savci’s use of it, suspended halfway between ordinary narrative painting and the dissociative frenzy of her non-hierarchical forebears, indicates that the idiom contains room for many types of vision (or that the model I’ve been describing is wrong).
I have always found Savci’s work deliciously naughty and extraordinarily difficult to process. She has an intense sense of color and pattern, which she fragments and strews liberally around her paintings. It is only in writing about her work now that I am beginning to appreciate its not-at-all concealed symbolic dimension.
Consider what a splendid metaphor of separation she has again constructed here. Ostensibly connected, each figure is enabled to withdraw into his or her own gendered space by the bizarrely hermaphroditic potential of the central object, the inflatable unicorn. It has a stalk and a hole. The woman looks at the hole and climbs into it. The man looks at the stalk and embraces it. It could have gone the other way, the man could have climbed into the hole and the woman could have embraced the stalk. But it didn’t.
Savci uses non-hierarchical space to evoke the sensations of sexuality and to hide a psychological narrative in plain sight. She is not as divorced in her sense of composition from the hierarchy of space as our other artists are, which lends her work a unique hybrid quality. Where our other artists have seen a dismaying materiality in non-hierarchical space, Savci sees the same quality as erotic. Where the other artists have used it, to one extent or another, to escape linear narrative, Savci has demonstrated its ability to contain linear narrative.
In this painting, Savci’s overhead view contains elements of perspectival space, but her day-glo colors act against interpretation by distance. The collapsed space collapses other distinctions: the balcony is also a crib, adults are also infants, childish toys are adult fetish objects, limbs stand in for genitalia, props invert sex so that a man’s cowboy hat becomes his vagina and a woman’s antlers act as her penis, play and orgy merge. Savci navigates non-hierarchical space toward a boiling core of being, where boundaries between categories break down and the unity of things, the monism of the neoplatonists, re-emerges, having been reached by an alternate path, not a path of soaring across space, but of tunneling through flesh.
This kind of summary synthesis tends toward facile conclusion-jumping, and if I’ve done that here, I apologize. Treat my conclusion skeptically; it is simply what I think I see after contemplating these four artists – Michelangelo, Pollock, Desiderio, and Savci – intensely for some hours. Whether the work supports any kind of philosophical conclusions, I think it is indisputable that each artist offers his or her own flavor of insight, reward, and delight, and that their work is somehow linked.
I meant to write this on the occasion of Savci’s recent solo show, A Warm Place, at the magnificent Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati. All of her paintings reproduced here were included in the show. Time this year is a bendy thing, and I’m afraid I didn’t get to the article anywhere near in time. WM
Buket Savci: A Warm Place
Manifest Gallery, August 14th-September 11th, 2020
Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art
Vincent Desiderio and Daniel Maidman, Griffith Moon Publishing
Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnews, Forbes, W, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York.
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