Kira Od
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A VIEW OF VISION

©2002, Kira Od. All rights reserved

"But what is the use of such a description, which, as I said, is not believed to describe observable facts of what nature is really like? Well, it is believed to give us information about observed facts and their mutual dependence."

-- Erwin Schrodinger, on the subject of wave mechanics, from Science and Humanism; Cambridge University Press; 1951

(Click here to return to the PAINTINGS page if your time or attention span is short...but don't expect me to respect you in the morning.)

Flower Detail This image is a representation of the pattern I see in organically textured surfaces. When I see this array in life, it is not neatly bordered, but flows over my field of view. For the purposes of this article, please notice the vibrancy of the pattern and the general tendency to lock on, momentarily, to various sized 'tulip' shapes that radiate from the center.

First, let me define a term:

Organically Textured Surface: Any vast group of small, similar-sized, similar-shaped objects, which appear to the human eye as a single surface due to their uniformity. (EXAMPLES: a lawn; a heavily leafed tree; a cluster of bushes; an expanse of gravel; a randomly or uniformly colored carpet.)

There is a reason we don't call a lawn, "millions of blades of grass." We treat all those little blades as a group -- and as a surface, I believe -- because not to do so would be to cope with an overwhelming amount of information. So we make a judgment, and call it, "lawn." It works well enough, and it allows us to differentiate and focus on other things that may be favorable or threatening to us: things on the lawn, things near the lawn, or objects in motion, entering or exiting our field of view.

When we see, we take light into our eyes and through various physical processes discern brightness, shadow, color, contour, form, location, direction, and movement. But how do we prioritize and organize that information? I'm not sure I know, but when I look at an organically textured surface, I see something very curious that makes me wonder if I might have an insight.

I am an artist. I draw, I paint, I sculpt, and I wonder about what I see. From a very young age, whenever I found myself gazing calmly and absentmindedly at an organically textured surface, I noticed that a remarkable pattern would appear as part of what I was staring at, like a wave running through it. The pattern is identical to the one visible in the flower head above. When I notice it, I feel that I am looking through it. So in spite of its puzzling vibrancy and perfect beauty, when I see it while gazing at gravel, I still see the gravel and recognize it as gravel.

(This means I'm not completely nuts; just half-nuts.)

The pattern appears at random locations in my field of view: never far from the center, but never at the center, either. It is generated with an elegant, near-mathematical precision; and it does not remain observable for long -- perhaps fifteen to thirty seconds on average. It is the only pattern that I observe when I decide to stare, so I assume I am generating it. Having experienced it for decades, it is simply a mysterious constant in my life. But this does not stop me from wondering why it is there.

Frankly I wonder if I might be getting a momentary glimpse at the "how" of how I see. If this is the case, the spiral arm pattern might be a natural part of my visual system that aids my image processing abilities. I don't know exactly what advantages it may confer, but it looks like an array that would help organize objects by scale; would scan for edges; and that would quickly provide coordinates for stationary objects and trajectories for moving ones in relation to a central point.

By the time I was eighteen or twenty, I was not focused so much on one visual phenomenon as I was on becoming a relevant contemporary artist. This was no simple proposition. It was quite apparent to me that painting and sculpture were well on their way to losing their place in the modern world, since they were both being squeezed out fast by images generated by machines. Television, photography, holography, digital video, film, computer graphics, computer-generated animation, laser-cut sculptures from 3-D scans...the list grows every year. The machines behind these media are capable of outperforming the finest draughtsman's rendering of detail at remarkable speed; and they can capture events and objects too small, too short-lived, too far away, or too far off the visual spectrum for the human eye to perceive, altogether. Perhaps most significantly, they keep getting better and cheaper.

As a young artist, the only technological tool I had at my disposal was the 35 mm camera, and I had no qualms about using it to generate reference material. But I badly wanted to go beyond photorealism -- the exact copying of photographs -- because it seemed silly to redo a job already well done. I liked realism, though. To me, an artist's ability to render objects well was a mark of one's powers of observation and honesty. But photorealism left me cold. I wanted to inject an element that I could see, but the camera couldn't. And I came damn close by developing a unique (and uniquely difficult) painting technique, which has no name.

I wish it hadn't been an accident, but it was.

It occurred in 1980 when I decided to make a photorealistic oil painting on an extremely smooth surface, without realizing that the coarse bristle brushes I was working with would make a hash of things. It didn't help either that I thought I was clever in planning to paint the whole thing in one coat to save time.

I made a photo of a building: bold colors, sharp shadows, simple geometric shapes. I drew the image onto a gessoed board in an extra-thorough manner: analyzing the photo into finite regions of color, and painstakingly outlining each and every color transition within a closed shape. I intended to mix a color for each shape, (something like paint-by-number, but more sophisticated), and apply that color, un-thinned and unvarnished, to each given area.

I slapped a coat of blue into the entire sky area -- about a quarter of the painting -- taking care to stay within the lines. But because I had only coarse bristle brushes, and the surface I was working on was very smooth, every stroke of my brush left glaring streaks in the un-thinned, pasty oil paint. I tried to feather the strokes out, but couldn't. Still, after all the preparation I had gone through, I couldn't give up. If the texture wasn't going away, it was at least going to look deliberate.

I fiddled around, and the best I could do was to make short, curved strokes with the brush, arranging them in rows. I applied these textured rows to the sky in a manner that seemed interesting, then laid in the color of an adjacent shape and textured it; carefully matching the texture pattern where it met the edge of the previous color. Shape by shape, I covered the entire panel, surely taking as much or more time than conventional painting methods, and not feeling the least bit clever. But there was a silver lining: by the time I was halfway through, I noticed that in sunlight, the texture took on a dramatic gleam and gave the effect of a wave pattern that flowed over the entire face of the painting. It immediately reminded me of the pattern I saw when gazing at organically textured surfaces, and for the first time I had a visual representation of the mysterious phenomenon I had been observing for years.

What an accident.

I should emphasize that this representation isn't exactly what I see in the grass...and I have never seen it on a building. But it does offer more of a glimpse through my eyes than I ever imagined I could muster. Lighting one of my paintings from the side, rather than from above, a viewer can move about and watch it transform. It is especially effective in a dimly lit room. At the angle of incident light, the painting's surface is largely non-reflective, making the texture almost invisible, so that colors and imagery dominate. This is "camera reality:" a reality we expect and take for granted. But as one walks away from the light source, toward the angle of reflection, something happens: the ridges in the paint begin to shine like tiny mirrors, the texture pattern becomes increasingly apparent, and the viewer can see that it is woven organically into the image. Finally, opposing the light source at the angle of reflection, the colors practically disappear and one sees nothing but the texture pattern. It is an opportunity to wonder, as I do, about what and how we see; about what we accept and reject as visual reality; and about what is possible for man, but not for the machine...at least for now.