I accidentally murdered a bird that my mother had carefully nursed back to health when I was a little boy. In the effort to help the bird to fly I threw it into the air in a small bedroom. The “air” in a small bedroom is actually about 5 feet of space followed promptly by a wall. So, for clarification, I threw my mother’s injured pet bird into a wall killing it on impact. The intention as far as I can remember was to train the bird to fly which was something that my mother had been doing outside. My effort to help ended with my mother locking herself in the bathroom to cry.
A young boy unsurprisingly misunderstands the needs of another creature. The more complex the creature in question the more complicated and intricate the gap in knowledge becomes. I killed a bird and consequently took away something that gave my mother joy. When you are young you imagine your parents as somehow being less emotionally susceptible to reality. I understood the death of the bird, but the amount of sadness that it caused in my mother was surprising. I did not understand that the bird needed more space to fly and I did not understand the complexity of emotional hurt in an adult. There were two intangibles both my mother and the injured bird were misunderstood.
The more unknowable that something is the more that the mind tries to simplify it, but inevitably this results in distortions. Early pictures of God looked like Zeus because a figurative representation is needed in an illustrative context. You cannot paint a non-physical representation that is integrated into lived reality and exists outside the perception of time. It’s the worst card in Pictionary. There is something charming about ol’ white beardy god, but the image is a story-telling device.
So a picture of god is not a God and Ceci n’est pas une pipe. René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe with the statement below “This is not a pipe.” It is an honest statement because a painting is not a literal object. I cannot smoke a painting of a pipe. Even when I Google the exact painting I get a varied collection of diversely colored images. So the digital representation of a painting of a pipe is not the same digital painting of the pipe. They all look similar enough. If I had to pick the painting out of a lineup at a police station I could probably pull it off, but I have never seen the original painting. This does not mean that I do not understand the work at all. It just means that my understanding of a piece of art is limited by experience.
In art distorted perceptions of the familiar are commonplace, Wim Delvoye created a severely warped series of crosses. One looks like the symbol for infinity, another looks like a DNA strand. The object intended to represent an execution is bent and warped to represent another. It’s science warped into religion or religion into science. There is a potentially perceived blasphemy facing both directions, which is precisely why it is so engaging. It presents questions that are an immediate social trespass. When the perception of Christ is warped is the understanding and interpretation warped as well? In what ways can a figure be manipulated into a new context? Is the way that I see manipulative? Is perception itself a form of manipulation? If my perception is manipulative does that make me complicit in the manipulations?
The last few paintings that I have been working through deal with the manipulation of basic objects. When an object is warped the interpretations for the object change. A warped screw begins to look more like a human spinal column. To distort is to obscure or decontextualize. An object that has lost it’s clear connection to reality. A melting clock speaks to time in different ways than a clear representation of a clock. The disruption expands visual vocabulary. The images are Alice in Wonderlanded into a dream state and take on new meanings because of it.
All of the talk of manipulation is a route to saying that I don’t get God. I want to understand more. I feel a desire to be closer to something that makes me feel small. While I do not imagine a beardy god the images of god that I manufacture all validate my current present, my current most important values, my need for affirmation on a dark spinning globe of rock lost in the cold fathoms of space. I am small and see through clouded glass. The vision is unclear and distorted. It is unclear in part because the mysterious is always unclear, but it is also unclear due to a resistance to mystery. It is easier to dismiss the intangible in favor of what appears to be a solid reality. However there is always the chance that a pipe is not a pipe.
It helps when conceptions become more rooted in reality. Perhaps this is part of the appeal of Jesus. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” A physical manifestation of God that bleeds, drinks, eats, and weeps. It is mystical and transcendent but unflattering, caked dust on sweaty feet in a desert. He talks of service to others as a route to being more free which is not how we understand reality. The strong do not serve in our approach to reality. To say that servanthood results in freedom is a warped perception.
Incurvatus in se or the self curved inward on the self. It’s a distorted self portrait. A confused image of a whole self in the absence of others. When self-preservation becomes a primary pursuit I forget the wealth that comes in seeing and sharing a life with others. I exist because, despite any shortcomings, my parents gave me enough food and shelter. The self curved in on the self is an illusion of a purely independent state in a world that can only exist through perpetual interdependence. You are here due to the care (however clumsy or poor) of others. A rich life is a table full of friends or family, not a table where you have outgrown the need for relationships.
God rid me of god. – Thomas Merton
It is a prayer for the disruption and consequent inconvenience of a bigger reality. I am the god manufacturer. I take small things and compose alters. I prefer comfort to the inconvenient difficulties of relationships. I prefer consistency even when it is a dull and dangerous sort of consistency. The prayer is a request for the difficulty and inconvenience of reorientation. I would like to be oriented outwards rather than curved inwards and lonely.