Sunday, August 13, 2006

On grinding the Philosopher's Stone and other Aesthetic follies

I think I have mentioned recently that my new digital camera broke. I can't remember if I mentioned that I'm currently reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (about 100 pages into the final volume.)

What do these two facts have to do with one another? Well, superficially, nothing. But in one of those strange synchronicities that seem to follow bibliophiles, while looking for books on medium format photography today before work, I stumbled across one of my alltime favorite books of art "theory," James Elkins' What Painting Is.

If you've never come across this one, and you are at all interested in painting, in the process of painting, in the peculiarities of the creative act when channeled through pigment, binder, and substrate... Man is this book for you. Elkins uses Alchemy as a kind of metaphor, unraveling the mysteries of the studio by juxtaposing them with the mysteries of the pre-enlightenment laboratory.

The fundamental fact that argues the importance of the act of painting, is that painters spend their entire lives working with paint. ... Oil paint can't be entrancing just because it can create illusion, because every medium does that. No: painters love paint itself, so much that they spend years trying to get paint to behave the way they want it to, rather than abandoning it and taking up... photography. It is the paint that is so absorbing, so deeply attractive, that a life spent in the studio can be a bearable life. ... Substances occupy the mind profoundly, tethering moods to thoughts, tangling stray feelings with the movements of the body, engaging the full capacity of response and concentrating it on unpromising lumps of paint and color. There is no meaning that cannot seem to flow from the paint itself. pages 192 & 193

This connection between art and alchemy has bounced around my head for years, even years before I'd become aware of Mr. Elkins, though some of the connections he draws are as inspiring as they are useful tools for grasping another way of thinking.

Image via Levity

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