Fragments of Light

The Work of Seeing

Where I encounter the impetus for the image is in the process of making it. This might seem backward. How can you get an idea for a work of art by making that same work of art? But this is as honest as I can be about how the work is made. Somehow my paintings seem to grow, like living creatures do, out of the struggle of interior and exterior forces—not out of cool conceptual strategies.

—Bruce Herman, quoted in Magnificat, the catalog for an exhibition of the artist’s works: Magnificat, Paintings on the Life of the Virgin Mary, and Woman; 2008.

Some works of art require our participation in the “struggle of interior and exterior forces.” Bruce Herman’s work, although figural, is for the artist, most importantly about their painted surfaces: “The surfaces of my paintings contain their deepest meanings.” Encountering these surfaces, the viewer may glimpse something of the artist’s process and experience something of the balance and counter balance of forces at play.

​In his book, The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing, James Elkins talks about the rich relationship between the artist’s work and the viewer’s experience: “Seeing is irrational, inconsistent, and undependable. It is immensely troubled, cousin to blindness and sexuality, and caught up in the threads of the unconscious . . . Seeing is like hunting and like dreaming, and even like falling in love. It is entangled in the passions—jealousy, violence, possessiveness; and it is soaked in affect—in pleasure and displeasure, and in pain. Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism.”

About himself, Elkins says: “Within limits, I do not want to see things from a single point of view: I hope to be flexible, to think in as liquid a way as I can, and even to risk incoherence. And above all, I want to continue to change—I do not wish to remain the same jaded eye that I was a moment ago. Art is among the experiences I rely on to alter what I am.”

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