I worship twin gods, the image and the text. They are like two chemical elements, irreducible to one another. Words calcify meaning, while images abide by a logic of infinite growth. An image can contain the universe, as in a spiral carved upon a stone. Looking at such an image, I often think, what more can you say? But of course, such pure and sacred images are too vast to hold comfortably in our minds. We require the narrowing, petrifying poetry of the text to balance the mystifying poetry of the image. Art always negotiates this alchemy of the image and the text. Poetry brings image to the text; painting brings text to the image. A good metaphor is a magic spell that binds image and word to cast a meaning greater than the sum of its parts.
Writing art criticism is an attempt to discover the text behind a work of art, but also to grease the boundary between the two. Drawing and writing are siblings. If I compose art criticism by hand, the activity can slip back into drawing. Sure enough, the words drip slow and uncertain from my pen as I attempt to write this piece, but in the margins of the page, images unfold. I draw a gaping mouth with shining lips, a curled tongue searching past its gate of teeth for flavors of knowledge. Beyond its reach, two serpents rise in a twisted column, a double helix of bodies pressing hard to become a single strand. Isn’t it interesting how you have now seen these images yourself (I hope), even though I have not shown them to you? You have consumed a text and made your own image. In describing a work of art, the critic in effect remakes it. Then it is remade again in the mind of the reader. I love this exercise.
Criticism also lets me appreciate my distance from another artist’s work that I will never really have from my own. It is not an objective view by any means, but it is an arm’s length at least, far enough that I am not breathing its smell in the morning. I hope this position is equally helpful for the artist I am writing about. If it were me on the receiving end, I would be relieved to discover that an “outside view” of my work exists at all. Like all artists, perhaps, I suffer from an anxiety that the work will fail to translate outside of me—what if this is all just taking place inside my head? It would be nice to know whether it is concrete enough to hold analysis and interpretation; solid enough to be dipped into currents of history and myth by another hand.
When I am asked whether I’m a writer or an artist, I sometimes vacillate in answering. In truth I am uncomfortable declaring either title, but my obsession lies in reconnecting the two. In the beginning, before the world became so woefully specialized, those we now call artists and writers fulfilled the same role—as receivers of visions. I am a seeker of visions, at least, following the image and the text in their spiral confluence.