Quarantine Gestalt Exercise #1: Feeling the Actual

Jasper Johns, “Cicada” (1979) Oil on canvas, 48” × 36”

Jasper Johns, “Cicada” (1979), oil on canvas, 48” × 36”

Gestalt exercise #1: Try for a few minutes to make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of. Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now.”*

On February 23, Adam Simon came over for a studio visit.
A studio visit is a thing where an unmasked non-cohabitant enters an interior space to discuss your paintings and related subjects. It often included refreshments and began and ended with a hug.
We were talking about what the viewer of a painting sees (which the painter of the painting will never really know.) Adam mentioned a book about the brain which stated that the brain sends more signals to the eyes than the eyes send to the brain.
Wow.
In a conversation with Gary Stephan, Adam and he had agreed that because of this a painting should make an impression simply, immediately and directly. I have a different take on the same info. I believe it is the job of the painter and the painting to interrupt what the brain tells the eyes to see. The painting can be complex: it must, however lure the viewer to look longer.
We may all be right. There is no one way to make a painting—no matter what anyone says.

Adam Simon, “Mrs. Whitney Rejoins Her Guests 2” (2016), acrylic on canvas, 73” x 50″

 

Gary Stephan, “Untitled” ( 2019), AC/WOOD, 16″ x 16″

 

Cathy Nan Quinlan, Not yet titled (2020), oil on canvas, 20”x 20”

I mentioned Gestalt Theory and particularly Gestalt exercises as a way of getting more information from the environment and interrupting the know-it-all brain. Adam wasn’t that familiar with the theory. And then later in an informal survey I found it was not part of every art school’s curriculum.

Gestalt exercise #1: Try for a few minutes to make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of. Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now.”

I am no expert on Gestalt Theory. I spent several months of my early adulthood doing the exercises; a Gestalt therapist helped me a great deal; the figure/ ground relationship plays a big part in the way I think about making a painting. Yet I cannot define any of these terms exactly.
Nevertheless I plan to write a series of posts about the various exercises outlined in Gestalt Therapy until we………..….?
Loosely it is a theory of perception that explores the relationship of parts to the whole. Art (and life too) becomes more interesting when the relation of the figure to the ground is flexible—when you can see the profile and the vase. It is not a cliché; it’s a symbol of the complex and active interaction we have with the world.

profile/vase

For example, if you listen to Billy Holliday’s Am I Blue? and focus your attention on the various instruments individually, you become startlingly aware of how she makes her voice lie on top of them so very caressingly.

By the way, that we are able to focus on one person’s voice in a noisy room is called “the cocktail party effect.” I wish I could prove that at the moment.

 

Jasper Johns is a painter that uses the figure/ground relationship in many, and deep, ways. Cicada (see above) can be seen as white lines, groupings of yellow, of red, of blue, and as a continuous field.
The funny thing is that the paintings that explicitly use the iconographic symbols of Gestalt Theory are some of the least interesting he has ever made.


Jasper Johns, “The Seasons: Spring” (1986)

Do you see? On the left in yellow the duck/rabbit, on the right the vase/profile.
Gestalt Exercise #1 is part of a group headed “Contacting the Environment.” It is meant to make us more aware and more accepting of the fact that our actual experience of the world is of a continuous present— not daydreams of the past or the future. If you feel you can manage it in our present situation, why not try it right now?

Gestalt exercise #1: Try for a few minutes to make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of. Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now.”

Right now, I am typing out:
“Right now I am sitting looking out of the front windows. It is gray. Right now the oak tree is beginning to flower. My street is very quiet. At this moment, I hear a plane. At this moment, I see a masked man in a red sweatshirt. Su has just turned on the news and that annoys me. Here and now, a bicyclist rides by another man with a mask. He passes a woman with a mask. Fuck this.”

—CNQ

The exercises are from:

*Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality

by Frederick Salomon Perls, Ralph Hefferline, Paul Goodman

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