Before Flickers Fuse
By Christina Schmid
“In all mammalian eyes, rods and cones make electrical activity out of light waves by means of a change in the pigment in the cells. The change takes time—a very small amount of time. But in that time, a cell processing light from the world cannot receive more light to process. The rate at which the cells do this leads to what is called the “flicker-fusion” rate: the number of snapshots of the world that the eyes take in every second.”[i]
How do we know ourselves? Always already in place, we continue to make sense of who we are in time: identity is premised on where and when we experience it, which culturally and historically distinct filters we rely on for interpretation. What are the terms at my disposal to describe myself? Are the words a matter of choice or imposition, do they convey respect, insult, or hard-won reclamation? Habitually, we use the cognitive and linguistic tools we have to make sense of “the self,” the old Enlightenment concept, to present narratives of who we are, how we came to be, what we might become next. The tools are limited; the information inevitably incomplete. Never fixed, stable, or done, identities are ongoing narratives, revised as often as we see fit, as our experiences and our need for continuity demand. Famously, Frederick Douglass wrote no less than three autobiographies, the first published in 1845, the last in 1881. To get stuck in just one story, as Maxine Hong Kingston suggests, may well be a kind of madness.
When it comes to construing identity, a kaleidoscope of possibilities awaits. Depending on my point of view, my angle of vision, my motives, I can select, emphasize, prioritize, flat-out invent—but always based only on what I am able to perceive and name in the first place. Of course, we do not construct only identity in this way. Ordinary perception, too, relies on our ability to “fill in the blanks.” How much of what we see is really in focus, how much do we fill in based on assumptions and memories? Especially memory, a crucial part for construing any ongoing sense of self, is imperfect and necessarily incomplete: “We remember what we understand; we understand only what we pay attention to; we pay attention to what we want.”[ii] The question, first: What do we want? And what do we miss?
For human eyes, the flicker-fusion rate approximates sixty cycles per second. Think about it: sixty times, in each second, the cells that make up the rods and cones on the retina of your eyes change pigment. And sixty times, they are briefly incapacitated by this very process (which is why, considering pre-digital movies, the frames shown per second must slightly exceed our flicker-fusion rate). But imagine, for just one moment, what it would be like to perceive the world at a different flicker-fusion rate, to see “the interstices between our moments.”[iii] Imagine having a visual range that exceeds 180 degrees and instead allows for a simultaneous 270 degrees of unimpeded visual field. Or, indulge me with one last leap: imagine seeing the world with eyes that gather more light than ours.[iv] Would the world glow?
Posthuman speculation aside, let me tell you a story, blind spots and all. Recently, I found myself face to face with a room full of paintings that did seem to glow: Howard Oranksy’s latest body of work, Born Empty, Died Full. The pigment responsible for most of the colorful effects was Indian Yellow, concentrated particularly in the sole triptych of the exhibition. Flanked symmetrically by three diptychs on each side, the towering triptych at the center seemed positively luminescent.
The artist statement begins with the words of Robert Henri (1923): “The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work. There it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs, and to be read later by the artist, perhaps with some surprise, as a revelation of oneself.” Henri begins this train of thought by asserting that “It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work.” [v] Each stroke of the brush leaves its trace on the canvas, as distinctive and unmistakable as a thumbprint. Materiality matters: color, scale, and the carefully considered relationship between architectural features and placement of the canvases. But surely, the imprint of the maker’s identity is not limited to painting alone: the most dematerialized art will bear an intellectual footprint, there to be seen—and followed—by those “who can read such signs.” Execution matters, too, and, even when outsourced or intentionally sloppy, cannot help but communicate something about the artist. My point is simply this: identity does not have to be the explicit subject of the work to leave a trail, a scent for those who know how to perceive such signs.
What do we see on the canvases? Brushstrokes falling like leaves in sudden gusts of wind, arrested in momentary gestures. The suggestion of an elegantly twisted hand here, a feathery flurry of implied movement over there. As if tumbling across the surfaces, the individual marks are not weighed down with significance. They resemble individual moments; impossible to tell which one will leave a lasting impression. Tempus fugit… and the mere fact that there is a Latin phrase about time fleeing shows just how long these questions have preoccupied us.
Without doubt, the themes Born Empty, Died Full raises are old themes: the passing of time and what it might reveal about us, to ourselves and others; our species’ awareness of mortality, and the problem of what to do with that particular certainty. But rather than a melancholic memento mori, these paintings are a celebration of time’s progression, a recognition of the importance of time well-spent, enjoyed, lived in pursuits that outshine momentary significance. (The difficulty lies in telling these moments apart from those that fade, with existentialist speed, into oblivion).
While the brushstrokes may capture moments, they speak to more than their maker’s fleeting identity. They offer a meditation on the passing of time itself. Haltingly, they reveal themselves over time. While drifting across the horizon lines created by the separation of the diptychs, the individual marks glow and fade into opacity, concealing, ever so incompletely, a depth of looming blue underneath. Yes, moments may stand out in our memory, acute experiences of pleasure or pain, meaningful in the story we are currently invested in perpetuating about ourselves. On the central triptych, the deeper layers are almost invisible, concealed by the sheer density of brushstrokes. The urgency of the present presses against the picture plane, as past and future coalesce into an ephemeral experience of the now. Whether we read the progression of time from right to left or left to right, the three diptychs on either side suggest a movement, from the past and forward into a future, where anticipations, hopes, and imagined possibilities drift across the horizon of what we deem within reach at any given moment.
Why broach these questions in the distinctive idiom of abstraction? Symbolism—think skulls, wilting flowers, sand clocks, candles close to extinction—has become cliché. Yet a predictable or altogether exhausted visual vocabulary does not entail, by some elusive logic, that we should give up pondering the questions themselves. Brushstrokes as a record of moments and traces of their maker’s identity present us with shimmers, flickers, snapshots of the passing of time. Oranksy’s paintings do not simply insist on the preciousness of a painting as an object. They revel in the preciousness of the time spent painting. They hint at the immersive encounters possible for those who take the time to learn how to read such signs.
At a time when much of our day is spent in front of screens, absorbed in virtual worlds and disembodied quests, painting’s indelible materiality insists on the importance of the body. We may be “the animals that can both understand and respond to reasons,”[vi] but we are also more—other—than that. What exactly transpires in “all the minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed”? What falls “through the troughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility?” We may not be able to see what is between our flickering moments, but out of the midst of “in-between-ness,” affect arises. Recently returned to the theoretical spotlight, affect gives a name to “those forces—visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion.” Affect reminds us of our embodiment and of our body’s “capacities to affect and be affected”—by time, the color and scale of a painting, the progress of shifting identifications. [vii]
Oransky’s paintings insist on the value of a time apart, when the rhythm of a hand holding a brush eclipses the dictates of reason and the vagaries of emotion. His work invites us to venture into the interstices of the sensible, to explore the gaps between our moments. The paintings of Born Empty, Died Full beckon to let ourselves be affected by their presence, the dance of brushstrokes and moments before our eyes. So confident have we gotten in spinning our stories, reveling in the malleability of identity, even in the face of persistently oppressive cultural conditions, that it might be time to pause for one Augenblick—literally, the look of the eyes, the German word for “moment”—or two and remember that what we see is not all there is. How we know ourselves is ever incomplete, limited by our capacities of cognition, introspection, sensation and sensibility. In between our moments, before flickers fuse, we miss a lot. Perhaps the time is ripe to change the terms of the conversation, to step outside the story we have been content to tell, and to enter someone else’s world. We just might learn how to see anew, brushstroke by brushstroke, pigment by layered pigment. Humbling? Yes. But definitely worth the time.
[i] Alexandra Horowitz. Inside of a Dog. New York: Scribner, 2009. 130.
[ii] Edmund Blair Bolles, Remembering and Forgetting: Inquiries into the Nature of Memory. New York: Walker and Company, 1988. 23. Thanks to my former student Dani Reese, who completed a fascinating project on memory and whose research attuned me to Edmund Blair Bolles’ work.
[iii] Alexandra Horowitz. Inside of a Dog. New York: Scribner, 2009. Horowitz describes this phenomenon as follows: “To create a simulacrum of reality, films—literally ‘moving pictures’—must exceed our flicker-fusion rate only slightly. If they do, we do not notice that they are just a series of static pictures projected in sequence. But we will notice if an old-fashioned (pre-digital) film reel slows down in the projector. While ordinarily the images are being shown to us faster than we can process them, when it slows we see the film flickering, with dark gaps between the frames.” ( 130, 132).
[iv] Alexandra Horowitz describes a dog’s visual capacities this way in Inside of a Dog.
[v] Robert Henri, The Art Spirit . The 85th Anniversary Edition. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2007. 13.
[vi] Derek Parfit. On What Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 1.
[vii] Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2010. 1, 2.
All images of Howard Oransky’s work appear courtesy of Rik Sferra.