Not Just Fixed Likenesses of the Named World:


© 1989-2011, Robert Comings
Consciousness         Habits         Recognizing         Un-Naming         Clarity

The Stream of Consciousness

We perceive the world through the filter of our own personal histories.   My paintings are intended to engage as fully as possible each viewer's unique store of experience as s/he attempts to interpret or make sense of what is being seen. Because of this, my paintings appear to be different to different viewers. Even the same viewer on different occasions may notice images in my paintings which had not been seen in prior viewings.
    I consider my paintings to be successful when in the mind of the viewer they are as fluid and changing as the shapes and swirls made by clear water moving over rocks in a mountain stream. The changes and motion I refer to are in the viewer's awareness, not in the paintings. The streamis the viewer's consciousness.& The changes and the movementare fluctuations in the viewer's understanding of what s/he is seeing while looking at one of my paintings.

     In the mountain stream, the changes and the movement are created by the rocks and other obstacles in the water's path. Their counterpart in the viewer's mind are his/her personal memories, experiences, preconceptions, knowledge and whatever his/her genetic programming has provided.

Between Recognition and Randomness: Habits of Perception

No matter how hard I try nor how much I may want to make art that is "realistic" or representational, I continuously find myself returning to working that narrow strait between recognition and randomness. When making these paintings, I remain constantly vigilant to ensure that my images do not become completely or easily recognizable nor that they are merely random. I do this so that the viewer is forced to become aware of an inherent habit of perception:  the need to create order out of chaos.

    That this is a universal human trait is demonstrated when children delight in "looking for animals" in the shapes of clouds; or when we project human likenesses and stories onto geologic formations as a way of being able to recognize features in the landscape around us; or when we name constellations of stars in the night sky. All these very common and natural activities make it easier for us to chart a safe and somewhat predictable course through an otherwise unknown, potentially dangerous world. More fundamentally perhaps this is an example of our very impulse and ability to create language.
     I believe that once made aware of this inner urge, the viewer is capable of having a direct experience of him/herself in the act of perceiving, a direct experience of him/herself forming knowledge, or making sense out of the world.& My paintings provide the viewer with a method and an opportunity to experience him/herself creating consciousness.

    At first this may sound pretentious, too philosophical, abstract or perhaps even magical. But it does work. It works because it is built on the basic creative acts which we all continuously and automatically perform. Acts which are necessary for us to see and recognize the world around us.

Recognizing, Naming and Forgetting

Paul Valery, the french poet whose ideas influenced the Surrealist movement more than 60 years ago, wrote " To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees." By this, I take him to mean that to really see anything directly and objectively without the accummulated layers of civilization and education filtering and limiting how and what we see, we must literally forget or momentarily set aside the names we so quickly call forth to identify, limit and recognize what is being seen.... and then, in this pre-literate state, to see as if the first human is seeing for the first time!

    I believe that this recognizing and naming function is a habit of perception. Habits can be very useful, especially this one which is so fundamental to our survival. Although such habits serve very valuable purposes, they also shape and limit the way we live. To expand those limits, it becomes necessary to break or modify habits. While it can often be very difficult to do, habits can be changed and I find myself dedicated to gaining the upper hand on this one.
I want to see directly.

    I value and depend on this particular habit or function of perception in order to live and survive, as do we all. I would never wish to be permanently deprived of this function. To have objects and environments constantly crumble and dissolve into undifferentiated reality, to suffer such chaos, to continuously be in such a state of mind, is to be schizophrenic. What I seek is the ability and freedom to selectively suspend this habit of perception so that I can see the world whenever I want with the freshness of "seeing for the first time,"while still being able to function well in our shared consensus reality.

Visual Un-Naming

Imake paintings in which it is easy to keep forgetting that which has just been recognized or named. I do this by using what I refer to as eidetic triggers, pieces of remembered, known or named images that are just barely obvious enough to trigger the natural human reflex to re- call, to re-member, to create order out of chaos, to solve the puzzle, to name (and therefore limit) what is being seen. These eidetic triggers are vague enough and sufficiently unformed to permit uniquely individual re-memberings as each viewer's experience of the painting is shaped by his/her personal history.

    Just as soon as a name or memory arises in response to an observed image or pattern fragment in the painting, that very same fragment is suddenly perceived to be a part of yet another entirely different and competing scene (seen), pattern or gestalt. The struggle between competing gestalts is what makes it easy to keep forgetting what has just been named.

vase/face double kissThe name, (i.e. the sense ofknowing that which is perceived) crumbles as soon as the recognition process begins again to methodically and instantly make sense out of the new, competing potential pattern, the very perception of which, destroys recognition of the first pattern. The puzzle, and the ever present urge to solve it, is compounded and continues to grow rapidly more complex as the viewer notices more and more competing images and patterns of images.

    It is this same dynamic which is the basis of such optical illusions as "Faces or Vase" and Rubin's "Double Profiles." I take this dynamic to such a degree of complexity that the viewer's diligent naming - knowingprocess breaks down.& Overwhelmed by the conflicting and continuous cycle of recognizing, naming, seeing and forgetting, this boiling cacophony of mental activity is abruptly silenced. A detachment results from this sudden interruption and permits the viewer to witness him/herself in the very act of making perceptible that which is being perceived.
The viewer glimpses consciousness in the making.


In addition to facilitating this new mode of perception, I attempt to make these paintings inviting and intriguing enough that viewers will invest the time and effort necessary to achieve the results I have described. Although I know that I risk repelling some viewers, causing others discomfort or even fear, I make these paintings in order to free myself. If the paintings should also prove useful to others with similar or different intentions, so much the better.

    It is my hope that by working under these assumptions and by frequently placing ourselves in such a state of mind, we can gain some freedom of choice over the habits and functions of perception. We can learn how to "see" the world with the freshness, clarity and exuberance of innocence and to appreciate and apprehend not only our own individual consciousness but consciousness per se.


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