Looking leads to seeing

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

I've discovered a new way of seeing. New to me, that is. Painters and photographers — artists in general — have known about this for a long time. 

And before them, the mystics.

Perception is the gateway to mysticism, which sees further, plumbs deeper, outside and within.

What they share is an ecstatic approach to the world. "Ecstasy" comes from the Greek, exstasis, "to stand outside oneself." It means stepping outside of your mind, perceptually speaking, and "entering" the world around you. It dissolves the divide between subject and object, observer and observed. External reality becomes more immediate and present. Another word for this is "immanence," the root of the name Emmanuel, the one who comes into the world.

Reaching this state is how artists tap their "powers of observation" — as opposed to the more superficial way we usually view the world. It is the difference between "glance" and "gaze," between "glimpse" and "perceive."

Growing up, most of us were taught it's impolite to stare. It makes people feel self-conscious and might even be interpreted as hostile. We wonder what they're thinking of us. We fear being judged. Vision is powerful. Not wanting to make others uncomfortable, we glance and avert. Our eyes dart, afraid to settle on anything for long.

But artists linger in their looking. They study the world around them. And when they really "see" something, they want to "capture" it — in a painting, a photograph, a sculpture. To let it go would feel like a loss.

Recently, I entered the garden on the north end of the Art Institute and felt as if I had just walked into an outdoor extension of the Impressionist painting collection inside. Here people take refuge during the workday, resting on benches, reclining on the lawn, sitting at tables, or just walking slowly through. The place is an oasis, insulated from the bustle and bombast of Michigan Avenue, where refugees momentarily escape the world of hurry and stress. 

As I looked around, I saw painting after beautifully composed painting: People lost in conversation, lost in their cellphones, lost in the moment. I was standing in a living art gallery, provided for my viewing pleasure. Everyone else was, too, though most seemed not to notice.

Part of the pleasure of perusing art is having the luxury to gaze uninterrupted at the forms, the clothing, the composition, the way light and shadow plays with everything in the scene. When we're not rushed or worried about making anyone uncomfortable, we're able to see more. We tap the power of perception.

This, in itself, is pleasurable and accounts for why, when the art "absorbs" us, we feel nourished by the experience. Much of it can be attributed to the skill of the artists, but not entirely. It is also because we're seeing at a higher level. It's actually good for us.

But viewing a painting is still an object that we, as subjects, observe from a certain distance (and aware that we're observing). The living paintings in this garden, of course, did not hang inert. The forms moved, as did the sunlight. The breeze rustled hair and billowed garments, or they wrinkled with movement.

The only way I could maintain that state of intensified perception was to suspend making judgments about what I was viewing. Judging widens the gap between subject and object. Without it, everyone becomes equally interesting, equally appealing. It didn't matter how they walked or dressed, whether they were "attractive." You have to reach a level of complete acceptance in order to "see" everyone's unique beauty.

The longer I maintained this way of seeing, the more I felt I was "entering the painting." No longer an "outside observer," I was, as anthropologists put it, a "participant observer," observing and participating simultaneously. As I walked along Michigan Avenue, I saw so much more, all of it fascinating — even the people staring at their cellphones. When we aren't self-conscious, it turns out, our bodies assume an infinite variety of natural and interesting poses. An entire series of sculptures could be done on people looking at their cellphones.

It was hard to stay "in the painting" and easy to fall back into my default mode of glancing and averting, being in a hurry to get somewhere, getting derailed by emotions or lost in a forest of thought and memory. Myriad distractions of daily life pull us back across the moat separating subject and object.

Having a conceptual framework (like a painting) helps. The frame forms a gateway through which the painting can be entered. A friend of mine prefers the metaphor of being in a living sculpture garden. Entering a movie (where you are the camera) is another. Whatever works for you.

We all have the capacity. We're all capable of transcending the "blinders" daily life imposes. There is more to "seeing" than meets the eyes.

Try it out in a "gallery" near you. Oak Park's July 4th parade offered an excellent living exhibition, as does Thursday Night Out on Marion Street (e.g. kids in the fountain), or Farmers Market on Saturday mornings (all that colorful produce), or your neighborhood block party (channel your inner Norman Rockwell). Oak Park, River Forest and Chicago are full of paintings. 

Looking leads to seeing.

Seeing leads to a new appreciation of our wondrous world.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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