Rev., Feb 20, 2019
This is a fusion thought piece combining sources from popular/fine art, not a review.
A fortunate aspect of the retrospective of Jasper Johns at Matthew Marks this month is that it affords me, for the first time, a chance to put his work, as it relates to my thinking, in a completely different perspective. His work always has been and still is sold as an example of formalism, not unlike Ryman, but with certain motifs and patterns, which he then works, or plays with, to create variations in color, shape, form. On his very poor wiki page, this is typical
Johns’ breakthrough move, which was to inform much later work by others, was to appropriate popular iconography for painting, thus allowing a set of familiar associations to answer the need for subject. Though the abstract expressionists disdained subject matter, it could be argued that in the end, they had simply changed subjects. Johns neutralized the subject, so that something like a pure painted surface could declare itself. For twenty years after Johns painted Flag, the surface could suffice – for example, in Andy Warhol‘s silkscreens, or in Robert Irwin‘s illuminated ambient works.
I recollect brain-crunching at explanations of how by decoupling the paint stroke from expression, he had purified it; then, by using “images that the mind already knows” he had further purified the paint stroke so that the paint itself on its own, other elements of the art “neutralized,” as it says above, he could proceed to play in the slipstream wiggle room of paint per se. But, over time, as a result of this, I began to see the play as just a game of formalist checkers, to get to another painterly or conceptual painterly effect, the work seemed, to me at least, to go stale. But, now, I see something else. Johns is now making use of his finesse painterly skills to explore hypnagogic places.
In the MM show, they showed this piece from Regrets (2012).
It is, I think, the anchor piece of the series. Why? in a review of the body of work from 2012 at the Courtald they explain that Johns had become obsessed or fixated upon a photo of Lucien Freud sitting forlornly on a bed. The photo already had art history dna because it was used as the basis of a self-portrait by Bacon, and I think they said that Johns looked at the copy that Bacon had, which was badly smudged, wrinkled and torn.
What this means is that in this case, for this body of work, Johns created an agency relation where the picture was the prototype from which all else came, but it had been mediated, and thus it had ghosts in, over and around it. So, in first encounter, facing, through the screen of his usual armamentarium, folding, flipping, coloring, abstracting, etc., he sees the cult photo.
but then something interfered with the contact with the cult image, somebody else had already got there, Bacon, and he from it made a portrait of himself, but in the process,
abused the photo bad with smudges of paint, tears and wrinkles, and the like. So Johns has to see the picture through the mediation created previously around it by Bacon. This in turn creates a contact between that part of his POV that relates to the POV Bacon conducted on it, thus he sees that his armentarium has echoes, if in a negative form, in the effects use by Bacon put on the photo. Bacon made those marks, in the use of the photo in the making of a painting; Johns has similar marks not as sideeffects of usage, but as instruments of interrogation of a form, to see, by variation, thereof, if there is some aspect of it, in terms of its visuality or presence, to bring out. But the connection is made.
But then the question is, why does Johns manipulate images in this way? The formalist approach argues that he does so to get down to the basic element of any image, or whatever (ie he wants only images he already knows). He turns it over in his mind to get out the fullness of it, and show us it all, so that, I guess, we appreciate an image in its fullness.
But, now, the tone of this is different. That is, when I first saw this painting I saw only the form below. It looked to me like the simple nightgown of a woman, but headless sitting up in bed. It made me think of a “hag attack” at the end of the bed.
that is, I only saw this form in a positive way as a dark presence
If I saw it as an entity, in an element of bedsheet or whatever, then it is a Land of Nod sighting not unlike the Hanged Woman; indeed, this could be viewed as a variation of a Hanged Woman. Again, my model here is: close your eyes, now let the entoptic elements of the blind visual field inside (ent-) the eye (optic) flow, let the blue dots, or red areas of moving patches, or still spots, do what they will, and then you “see” something. So, if I close my eyes right now. I “see” this
that is, at immediate closing, with my eyes-opened visual field currently consisting of a lamp off peripheral left, the computer screen center and a window lit by sun through a venetian blind up off at an angle right, somehow, the imprint of the screen or window hovered, but, then, immediately began to contract; after several seconds, then, the afterimage of all the light sources in my visual field coalesced into a kind of crucifix figure, with the arms of it quite bright, the rest fading, and then the space around and above the “head” got quite compressed. It would then follow that if I fell asleep soon after this vigilogogic entoptic effect would drop down into hypnagogy and reverse positives to negatives and vice versa to show me into a place, the Land of Nod. It is from a careful observance of the strange things inside my closed eyes that I have tracked the visual origins of silent movies, television watched from across a room in a movie, old movies in new movies, portraits, but also visual effects like the High Light, the Hanged Woman, the Black Bog, the Village of dreams, etc. But this is more connected to a prescribed interest in the hag attack that people see in their bedroom when they pop up into vigilogogy, but, for some malfunction, are still asleep (which happens in the second dream of a nightmare figure eight as well). It often happens that when I get into bed and pull the covers over me some sensing of them by my body makes me see them as phosphorescent green, and as if covering me mountainously. Where A is the actual blanket on my body, then, I see, this time with my eyes completely closed, some sort of afterimpression of the feel of them, and this can result in seeing a green door, or any other structure in my room; and even seeing a hag attack figure, or a figure standing next to my bed.
indeed, it does not take much for the “impression” of a door in the green space to decay at the edges to become a figure, and, of course, this Figure Standing at the Edge of the Bed, often called a Gray, is one of the most common tropes in bedroom-based horror.
thus, this Johns form, for me, is legible as an imprint of a thing seen entoptically, with, then, a background literally being painted as if Johns is seeing the scene through the darkness of looking at it with his eyes closed. This indicates, first off, that Johns’ mind is troubled in sleeping, and has been marked by a pattern of forms which trigger responses to others, all of this either waking him up or creating comfort.
There are two additional points to make so that one sees this form for what it fully is. That is, it is not just an “interesting form” that has emerged deeply ensconced in Jasper Johns painting. It is primarily an emergent form. I have thought it represents a nightgown, but in a movie I saw the form in a more abstract form too, when the water spirit begins to rise on Susan to announce the presence of a spirit, in The Nun (2005, Spain), there is the form as an embryonic presence, promising more. This kind of image, an emergent image, comes as a shock because one was not sure if it was something, then, all of a sudden, it passes the threshold, and one is sure, it is something, this is a shock, especially in the Land of Nod
But, then, in this context, there is a second dimension which must be addressed. It is also a Shudder image. That is, Susan is in a state of panic, which might even serve to conjure up the images, because, with the others, she has been shown a series of baroque paintings of saints’ martyrings in the corridor, and each picture tells us how the person with the name of their patron saint already died, and also how they will die. Susan’s is St. Suzanna, martyr by decapitation,
The image causes her to shudder, in a physical panic. Here is how it works. You think of it, you see the image in your mind, then you feel it hit somewhere back in your head, you shudder in your shoulders and arms and get completely upset. I know whereof in terms of this kind of image because I have a Shudder image in my mind that I cannot release, from my fall on the ice three years ago. All I have to do is think of how hard the back of my head bounced like a bowling ball on the cement before I could even tell where I was, looking up seeing blue sky and people’s faces around me, this is the image, I still cannot think of it without shuddering. There is a really good example of a shudder image in the sense that it must entail a physical shudder, in this case waking her up, in The Legend of Lucy Keyes (2017). Julie delpy is recovering from having lost a child to a hit-and-run, and each night as she tries to sleep the image comes back in. And when she sees the image, then takes it to the next step, which is her daughter stepping out in front of traffic and getting hit
That is a shudder image par excellence, she physically shudders awake
This abides by theory as in order to classify something as a true “trauma,” however popularly we use the word to stand for anything upsetting, there has to be a physical element that leaves its mark on the nervous system, that is, that entails a shudder image, and a shuddering (and imagine a trauma consisting of a string of those images over a few minute reexperiencing period, a core issue in post traumatic stress). Thus, the shudder image has a physical component that is not reducible to a pure image of it.
I think Johns’ image, and the skull to follow, are, in reality, if read hypnagogically, not formally, shudder images which cast the viewer into a different state of mind, then he goal perhaps is to sift through variations to find a way to domesticate that shudder image and stitch it into the mind as a memory that no longer injures. Thus, as both an Emergent Image and as a Shudder Image this “eidol” has a shock power to drive deeper into cult.
But then there is also the issue of where this form came from. It came from the photo, or, not the photo, but from the voided or negatives space or apophatic aspects of the photo as it was damaged when being put to use by Bacon, so it represents Bacon’s negative space artistic addition to the picture. The form, however, is this tearing in the lower left corner, next to Freud, below him, as if, if read literally reframed in a whole of it taking that into the picture, a ghost or void in that bed with him, that is, the same thing in his mind that Johns then made from it in his art.
Just like this it can be read as an intrusive presence, negatively presenting itself to Freud’s distressed mind, it has a “head”, it has a certain “face” in the uneven tearings on the side, it has a “back of head” it stares balefully into his lap, it tries to bite his hand, it profiles his knee and leg, it profiles his shoes, he is construed by the strange relation between the negative space and the positive space, as a haunting presence “representing” the unrepresentable nature of Freud’s distress.
and, running the gamut of hauntings, it could be an Assyrian demon, like, in fact, haunter of Bes, lamasthtu
Or, on the other end of the spectrum, Landseer
And, somewhere in the middle, Frankenstein at the bedside too
in such a procedure, which is standard postmodern picture theory deconstruction, each time an association is made, some hint of it, however small, clings to the form; and it may be that the form can also then turn out to take in other elements adjunct to the image exactly in the associative pictures to expand the whole associative field of its deconstructive imagery. So, just looking at the above photo of Freud, and the Frankenstein picture, though the primary association is with the form of the head of Frankenstein in the window, the broken window, the broken chair, the knocked over vase, the prostrate woman, the Mary Shelley picture (portrait signifying woman of the house in trouble), all can bleed back into the negative space of the form to add interpretative poetic depth to it. But, then, Johns was more a modernist in his “deconstruction” than someone of my generation. So he stuck with abstract forms, to work with them, and eschew from his at least conscious mind the “content” of the image. So what he did is to play with the form of the negative space, he turned it over a few times, and, then, at one point, he folded over the negative space onto its opposite facing the other way, and by bookending it he came up with the central form of the series. This is standard bookending, and, as such, it is a turning-over-in-one’s-mind function that is more characteristic of, in fact, the Glass Onion (symbolic) level of hypnagogy (and a “sleep on it” fantasmata dream). In this state, one works with symbols and sigils, and then tries to turn them over in your mind until by formal means, mainly, you come to a Presque vu sense of importance as to what they mean. In the formation I call a Toad Road form, which occurs in symbolic hypnagogy, you often encounter a simple shuttle from one version of an image back to another version, and you are left to go back and forth trying to figure out how they are related.
but it is clear that Johns fixated on this form, and worked with it, working it differently, in various pieces
we are now, quite literally, in a bookend formation, of which I have also written about extensively. That is, when you look at the above, you are looking at two halves of an image split from the center of the “gown” form, and that is where you are.
So, as I see it thus far, Johns has taken us from vigilogogy, in our waking visual world and by turning off the lights, as it were, to create microspaces of tonal variation per image, he has cast us into hypnagogy, and the general look of each work, the treatment of the halved spaces back of the central image, the variations from piece to piece, in the grey variations, as if intra-color, all speak to the entoptic zone. But, then, the form of it all, his play with form, this is characteristic of adjunct Glass Onion space where things are turned over but in an obsessive bookended, that is, flip-flop simplified way. Then it is by reagency that he keeps turning the image over on itself, in various ways, to draw out another possible micro mood.
I especially see this in the astonishingly similar-but-different moods of the gray pieces in the series, comparing this
He is literally doing in formulating variations of the works, the use of grays, which spaces to make solids, which to leave open, what goes light or dark, these are micro-variations on a common picture, but this is exactly what human beings are left to do when peering into the darkness to discern if there is something there, if they can believe what they think they are seeing. It is also, by the way, what I often find myself doing with the use of the close-up function on programs to try to read an image on a painting in a background of a movie I watch on a computer, it is the same process.
Also, I have developed a variant use of the word “inosculation”. And this is when, having settled in for the night, you find a comfortable and cozy place in the blankets. You settle in, but, then, for some reason, your foot, your leg, your crotch, your back, something “picks” at you and communicates that it is not, in fact, that comfortable. So, what do you do? you simply “shift” and, amazingly, it is often possible to find a more comfortable and cozy enclosure after shifting, and it is the movement from one incalculable comfort state to another that I also call inosculation. So it is that on the form level Johns oscillates from canvas to canvas, but on the painterly or light-space level he inosculates. And it is the subtle variations representing him turning it all over in his mind that makes his work so entirely searching. It does feel like to me, regardless of his fame, nice studio, or whatever, that Johns like me or anyone else lives in the intimacy-beyond-intimacy of being oneself and only oneself, and this is the micro space he explores.
But it is also true that in this bookended form, I see the nightgown of a woman standing up on the bed by itself. It might even be cut from a movie still, of just that, of which there are literally thousands of examples to choose from, should you wish to go that direction, in terms of picture theory deconstruction. That means that, for me, it is not just an abstract form, but a “figure.” It stands in entopty, but at the threshold of the Glass Onion (symbolic phase hypnagogy); it is a psychopomp, leading one in. So, I have to identify it that way. And since to me this is a somewhat frightening image, it has an element of a hag attack, but, then, brought in closer, it has a haunting presence at the next deepest level. This locates John’s mind while painting as perhaps parallel to where he gets to these days in sleeping, he comes to a stage at a depth and breadth which signifies a concern over whether or not the voodoo of his form-manipulations are “working” in terms of overcoming thinking negative thoughts, or whatever. At present, I classify this as a Conjure Figure, brought up from the dropping into the Land of Nod in the entoptic level, but then a formal variation of a form devised in surprise to represent some “state of mind” in the next level, the glass onion. Thus I compare this to, once again, the Conjure Figures I have worked out in The Red Shoes, or in Whistle and I’ll come to you, see my post on the former. This treatment then lets us not only appreciate the formal exercises of Johns, or his painterliness or technique, but it lets us know where it is he is lost in reverie, where his mind dwells, why we are so drawn in, even haunted by its realistic presentation of a deep hypnagogic state of mind with genuine “visual wisdom.” So, first of all, he has created a Conjure Figure as his dream guide, and in its uncertainty as to what it is, it intrigues, and pulls at us.
But, then, as explained in a release for a show of these works, the Regrets series, at the Courtauld in 2012, Johns, in playing with the negative spaces as images, or the distress of wrinkles and tears in the cult image, expressive in a simple way, that is, transferring content to surface, in typical expressionistic style, he also turned over the wrinkled space in the bow of the negative tear form
And, then, while the release bends over backwards to assure us that Johns, with his mind, modelled by rationalism, would not surrender to such visual superstition, and that this appearance was completely out of his control, therefore, unintended, when he turned that over he saw to his surprise a skull in the gap space made by the bookending of the form.
A few points. First, such a coincidental, chance image, would not be something that Johns as Johns would’ve valued in his youth, but maybe he changed his ideas later. Certainly, for me, this is an image called an acheiropoetoi, that is, not made by human hands, it is a sudden, unexpected, visual phantom form, or phasma, created as a pareidol, a thing seen, a secondary image, a mirage, an hallucination. Most of the time, in his generation, these kinds of images were verboten, not to be talked about, they were inadmissible as art, though over time we have become more comfortable in talking about such forms in the work of Pollock and de Kooning (I even wrote a review in the late 80s that argued that de Kooning’s late work was interesting because he had moved from secondary to tertiary images). But this is a clear cut pareidol, it is a skull, and the release says that Johns was surprised and thrilled by it; then, he worked with it.
Second, this is a different kind of image, it is not entoptic, or glass onion, but a border guardian piece, and in its heavy purpose it exists both, if you see if alone, as a floating skull, a common trope, or, if you attach it to the “body” below it, it becomes a herm, a head of something put on a preexisting body, to stand as a guardian or apotropaic image, in a class of images going way back, at the deeper dream level of the lattice.
and I have no doubt that Johns’ treatment of the variations of the sighting of the grays was often guided by how he wanted to present the skull, either as a thing floating over, a head attached, a head just hanging there, or a head of something coming in on you. In this too, like a hand as used in close-up in a horror movie, the skull gave him the ability to move down the spiral of dream space too, to bring that head more or less closer to you
and it is certainly true that in the “skull” Johns found a found image in the tradition of his working with images that the brain already knows, to serve as a direct image counterpart of the image of Freud in distress scratching his head and hurting. By the way, I also call THIS state, when the mind is weighed down by the worries of the world, the dornkron, or the crown of thorns, because, in addition to it possibly being accompanied by migraine forms like crennellations or auras, it also pricks at the head and hurts, and that’s why we scratch our heads when it is really our mind we are scratching at. The dornkron, for me, is a depressive form, the lattice falling down the whoosh, en route to a splat in nightmare, so in this discovery by chance these images by Johns were given access to the deeper sleep nightmare realms en route to dream.
Johns being Johns, he will remain very understated and cool with all this, he will never want to “figure it out” or make it too explicit, or readable, to give the rational mind an easy meaning, when what he is after is making us look at and experience a state of mind as represented by states of hypnagogy. But, then, there also was that one image of this series that he seemed to release himself to make the most of it as a self-contained skull, to play it up as a skull, and as a floating skull, this one, from 2012
this is, for me, easily, the most evocative piece of the series, he surrenders the space of the “gown” to the background, he encircles the entire thing in a black out, he centers the whole composition on the skull, floating there, like in a Giger, or in a horror movie, over its negative space, the space around it coalesces as an attachment not unlike a fur or wings, it is part of the entity of the skull, no longer in the background. This is the kind of image that coalesces in this way spontaneously, it makes me think, as I commented in a post, that it was the Anchor image of this series. It was a one-off, a best-work which really played up the potential of this idea, and then it anchors everything else after. In its mystery maybe it was too explicit, but it strikes me as a breakthrough, then an anchor work, that set the focus of the series on the skull. Again, as a skull, it could be construed, for its surface and its connection by that surface, as a Giger in a network of forms linked to it
And, of course, the skull is a formal scaffold image that serves as a trope for any number of creations of it by means of the arrangement of other elements, so, in this case, Johns is able to lift the whole space of the picture and its background forward, for it to float.
It, that is, suggests that the background, brought forward, and joined, by illusion, to the skull form, serves as a sort of networking that signals the workings of the brain in the adjunct space. But it can also just be a skull, floating, like in the movie The Skull (1966),
But with a life of its own, floating about, like in the poster
There is even a crystalline quality to the form and its elements that suggest a self-reflective nature, as if this particular piece was imagined as a mirror
But, finally, there was also a “cracking” quality in this particular image, that made me think of another effect, that is, imagine the facture of this image as some sort of space around, folding it back out to that, but, then, that space cracking, and it being the space we are in, looking in, but it is cracking, or icing, or freezing up, and, then, ominously, the skull looks THROUGH that to us, coming ever more insistently toward us, to haunt
this I compare in a post
I compare it to a scene in a movie, to the shot where Sara, in Toad Road (2012), is separating off from her boyfriend, leaving him behind, to go on into the sixth or seventh gate of hell, and she says that it is freezing, and in the effect it does look as if the whole fog effect turns to ice and then she peers through that field from behind it, from one state to another.
and this effect I have located approximately at the point where one departs hypnagogy for ambient (circling) or sentient (spinning) frontiers past that, and thus heads off to a gate of hell, but then she glares back at those left behind to then by that power menace them.
I have the specific map in my post on Toad Road, this is close enough for her.
finally, then, there is also a whole other direction in Johns play with this image–this pareidol on a pareidol, this herm topping a Conjure Figure–and that is that he does sometimes bring it back up to consciousness, to color it in a more linear way, as per Johns
and these also have a hypnagogic-vigilogogic purpose of palate cleansing, and to, if you do not want to go low, you can nod in and nod out, as in the Village of dreams, this then like what I call the Hand of God effect represented by the lightning strobe effect of movement through and over the Luor (gap between vigilogogy/hypnagogy)
I have in this note worked out in the most preliminary way, without any consultation with the literature, what I think is the map of Johns’ travels through the state of hypnagogy in this body of work. And while in relation to the original photo it is cult art, obsessing on that image as a lattice image, in its working out it consists of a psychic dive from vigilogogy through the strobe effect to the Village of dreams wherein a Hag Attack encounter with a Hanged Woman variant causes him to treat of that in a form-playing way to see what it is; and then by surprise another form emerged from playing with the negative space that created a herm at the hypnagogic lattice level and in such a form as to come closer in the manner of a whoosh, which, then, in its most signature rendering, even wandered out into outlying ambient zones where the herm could serve as, for example, a marker of turf, for example, that tree before entering the wilderness where Nebuchadnezzar had to leave his clothes to go into the wilderness to eat like an animal for seven years. Thus it is a journey in the mind of Johns, and it gets such a response because it is a journey in a mind that everyone knows well, it maps out as a journey in a somewhat depressive, but also searching brain, exploring, prodding dark issues, maybe even death itself, if one wants to read the skull image literally, but, then, for these more anecdotal readings one has to break out of specifically this small group of images and follow Johns in exploring motifs of his other art acting as signposts along the way into deep dreaming in the mind.