A Matter of Perception

Image by William Blake

We all take our very ability to look out at the world and see, feel, hear and smell with our innate senses, for granted. And sometimes I have to pinch myself into recognizing the almost supernatural gift it is to perceive. Also, that my mind and heart are singular and unlike anyone else’s. As an artist, perception is everything. What I perceive with my eyes, experience and feel with mind and heart is the source of my art. The image arrives at this intersection of experience and matter. And the artist, through the artwork, unifies perception to a form that is permanent. The subject and the object become one embedded in this ‘new’ substantial image, the artwork. The “esse-est-percipi”, to be is to be perceived (Berkley) is William Blake’s call to honor the power of the imagination.  ” To be perceived, therefore, means to be imagined…Therefore nothing is real beyond the patterns men make of reality, and hence there are exactly as many kinds of reality as there are men.” (Northrop Frye’s paraphrasing of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, p.19) If this is true, all perception is a creative act that brings ‘life’ into matter. Perception is a mental act that is generative. Therefore all men are creators to some degree.

But Blake goes still further, not only are there an infinite variety of imaginations (one per man) but also of quality as well. Therefore, the more one puts into his imagination, the greater the quality of his existence and more importantly of his daily experience of the world. Frye states regarding Blake, “Hence, if existence is in perception the tree is more real to the wise man than it is to the fool. Similarly it is more real to the man who throws his entire imagination behind his perception…the more unified the perception, the more real the existence.” (Ibid., p. 21) My experience of reality hinges on my own imaginative focus. If I am fully engaged and take my perceptions to be creative acts, my lived experience will be richer. The man who honors the imagination has a greater emotional intensity to his experience and is an inherently creative individual. Is not this the life of the artist? The frightening and awesomeness of this idea is that the imagination, can not only manifest something new but that the quality of one’s own existence depends on the same source- the imagination. “The imaginative mind, therefore, is the one which has realized its own freedom and understood that perception is self-development.” (Ibid., p. 23)

Blake holds the artist up as having an ideal engagement with the world because the artist’s activity is to visualize and therefore to realize materially through the image a unity of perception and experience and turn it into ‘vision’. Blake believed that vision is the source of all positive change and is the path to the city of Golganooza. Golganooza is Blake’s term for the city of imaginative insight whose structure is made from the images of all artist of all time. This city will be visible when our perceptions are made clear, which he believed, would happen at the end of time. This ties in to Blake’s belief that all images are permanent and therefore all perception when tied to vision has efficacy not only on a personal level but one for humanity as well. Vision leads to freedom.

The Cartography of the Waterfalls

Kaaterskill Falls, a painting by Judith Reeve

As an artist, it is always a good experience to see one’s work put together as a show. It seems to give one a clarity that one cannot have moving from one painting to another and from one experience to another. Seeing it as a unit clarifies the various experiences and brings them into focus. The vision of the artist becomes revealed. All that I felt I was on to in those moments takes on new meaning for me. Those intuitions and insights I had in those intimate spaces has acquired a language that speaks back to me and tells me who I am, for it is impossible to know oneself completely, and to find there something new. I paint not only to share my experiences with others, but to understand that compass within myself. Many times, one does not know why one is attracted to a certain image, but over time, those images expose a cartographer’s map, whose analysis of the peaks and valleys reveals a profound and beautiful imaginative landscape. It is why we love to see the body of an artist’s work, not just one or two images.

It is this feeling for image, whether I encounter it in a painting or a poem, that is forever enticing me to seek its meaning and manifestation. The waterfalls are one of those images. William Blake states that, “Art is the incorporation of the greatest possible imaginative effort in the clearest and most accurate form.” This is the real challenge for the artist. Has my work achieved a unity between my imaginative perception and the form I have given to the image? Does the image have a vital life?

When I reflect on the waterfalls I have painted, I have found that the encounter with the falls presents two contradictions. When one is at the top of the falls and stands above the precipice where the water drops off, one is filled with a little fear and trembling. The abyss has its unconscious impact on one. It compels one to stay away from that awful edge. But when I am below the falls, I experience its sublime beauty, its intimate connection to a deeper place within myself that is less instinctual and more spiritual. But there is a real connection between these two vantage points. It is the falling water itself that bridges the abyss between the above and below. In reality, the falls unifies what I feel in my lived experience is divided. The constant flowing water without ceasing is a visualization of the wholeness of man’s experience. The intimate yet grand space felt in the falls gives one insight into this dynamic relationship that is at the tip of one’s awareness. Blake confers that, “Art sees its images as permanent living forms outside time and space. This is the only way in which we can stabilize the world of experience and still retain all its reality.” (Blake paraphrased by Northrop Frye in Fearful Symmetry, 1947, p.85)

See “Waterfalls of the Catskills” on display at Saatchi Art.