Artist & Writer, San Francisco Bay Area

Puzzle-Making: Ambiguity as Invitation

Artists and Object-Making in the Art Market

Notes for Subject A, Semester One #exMFA. from Leonardo’s Brain by Leonard Shlain

I especially liked the notes on DaVinci’s work that pointed to the ways he played with symbolism, word associations, contexts, and more. The book connected it to the artists Kandinsky & Duchamp, and how ambiguity could be used as an artist’s tool to draw a viewer to examine a piece more closely.

(OK honestly, I’m pretty foggy right now. I want to finish the notes on this so I can get started on the next book. I’m stuck mentally on finishing this before I proceed. But I’m also really foggy, head injury related I think. So, this is my apology that this one & probably the next one won’t be thought through very well. But I want to get these done.)

SO. As I was saying. I’ve always been interested in & drawn to pieces that don’t make sense at first glance. Artworks that seem to say (subtly or not) “hey, come look at me, I have something to tell you.” Even the conceptual art one liners don’t do it for me, although I can appreciate the trickery. I want complexity, and I want an experience. That’s something I want out of my work, too- for myself and for other people. How do I carry out the process, though? Do I decide on the answer, then complicate the way it’s expressed? Do I come up with the question, and let the artwork somehow respond to it? I suppose that while I do like a concrete answer, I like the nuance of ambiguity even more. I like not just A or just B, but A and B. Or even better, I like neither A nor B, but something in between the two, something that makes me think A when I’m looking at B, and vice versa. Oh, honestly. Now I think I’m just going in circles.

All this reminds me of a poem I love, Baby Listening by Billy Collins. Here’s the whole thing at my tumblr site to understand this in context, but in this way, I guess it reminds me, I want artworks that are like poetry. I love the in between. I love the place where I’m standing as it gives way into the unknown.

Poetry wants to have the baby who is listening at the door
as well as the baby who is being listened to,
quietly breathing by the nearby telephone.
And it also wants the baby
who is making sounds of distress
into the curved receiver lying in the crib
while the girl at reception has just stepped out
to have a smoke with her boyfriend
in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.
Poetry wants that baby, too,
even a little more than it wants the others.

from “Baby Listening” by Billy Collins


“Alone in his studio one day in 1910, Kandinsky became increasingly dissatisfied with his efforts to force the painting he was working on to conform to the vision that existed in his mind. Frustrated, he decided to take a break and go for a walk. Just before leaving, for no particular reason, he absentmindedly turned the painting on its side. Returning later, Kandinsky, deep in thought about some other subject, paused in the doorway, and looking up, caught a glimpse of his work in progress. For a moment, he stood there, puzzled, unable to recognize it. Then he remembered that he had turned the work 90 degrees. Upon reflection, Kandinsky realized he was more engaged by not being able to recognize what he was looking at. … Kandinsky finally concluded that the painting was more interesting when he could not affix a name to a familiar image.” pg. 60

“In the second decade of the twentieth century, Duchamp reached a bold conclusion concerning the state of art: The retina of the eye held art hostage. … With few exceptions, he noted that ,,, avant-garde artists, similar to the academics they sought to supplant, appealed primarily to the eye. Their work demanded minimal introspection. Decrying ‘pretty pictures’ and ‘retinal art,’ Duchamp strove to move the interpretation of art from the gossamer layer at the rear of the eyeball to a haunt deeper within the interstices of the brain’s neuronal ganglia. Duchamp fought for nothing less than a great rethinking concerning what exactly constitutes art. He challenged viewers to question everything they had previously taken for granted by creating works that both the critics and the public increasingly struggled to understand.” pg.68

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