The Fluidity of Selective Focus:
Perspectives on the Creative Process

Talk by Kristine Marx

given at the 2006 Campbell Corner Poetry Reading

It is such a pleasure to be here and listen to poetry this evening. I want to first thank the poets who contributed to this event with their works. I would like to also thank Phillis Levin, the Director of the Language Exchange, and Elfie Raymond, whose joint initiative provides an important forum for sparking creativity, wit, and ideas.

I am not a poet, but a visual artist. Ever since I've been invited to be your speaker here tonight, I have been paying more attention to what goes on between image and word and how the visual and the verbal arts converge. I began to sort through mountains of mostly vague ideas about the role of perception in art-making, to little avail. Until, one day, while reading G.C. Waldrep's epic sequence of nine poems on the BATTERIES in California's Golden Gate National Park, vivid memories of a painting I had seen months before came to my rescue. I realized with growing excitement the affinity between G.C. Waldrep's poem and the late Werner Tuebke's monumental painting I had explored last summer while working in Berlin. I sensed that either one would make me able to more fully understand the other. Poem and painting both are dealing with the sorrow of war. Both require the courageous attentive cooperation of the viewer/reader. And both furnish insights into the intricate processes of perception required to combine an artwork's parts and whole.

The painting in question is located in the tiny east-German town of Bad Frankenhausen, near Goethe's Weimar, about three hours by train from Berlin. The work is unusual, a painting in the round presenting an immense panorama 400 feet in diameter and 46 feet high. Protected by the solid wall of the Panorama Museum Tower, a planetarium-like cylindrical structure, the painting, somewhat akin to a renaissance fresco, completely transforms the tower's interior fusing wall and pictorial display. The Panorama Museum looms over the small town of Frankenhausen from the hill where, in 1525 the Protestant Reformation's Peasant War climaxed and ended in the peasantry's ignominious defeat. The painting inside succeeds in conveying the pulse of human history across the ages in the swirl of the Frankenhausen battle, the portrait gallery of the period's luminaries, the lyricism of the fountain of creativity, the prostitution of justice, animations of biblical prophecy and the repulsive unabating superabundance of greed and resentment.

The visitor enters the Panorama Museum Tower, and thus the painting, from below climbing a steep staircase to arrive at the center of the ominous structure. While standing in the tower's middle, encircled by the monumental panorama painting's full expanse, I found myself disoriented and unable to begin to decipher the complex iconography of the work. In an attempt to survey the whole expanse I tried a slow motion pirouette which made me more keenly aware of how much of the painting was constantly and necessarily present on the wall but absent from view. That is when I started to focus on and frame randomly selected portions of the work in relatively quick sequence. If I would possess the hundred eyes of Argus, perhaps I could process the information offered by the painting in a more satisfying way. I also tried to imagine what it would be like to take in the entire painting all at once-- an unlimited, God-like view with no specific point of view at all. Instead of this 360 degree view, my mundane impression of the monumental panorama was that of a picture in pieces. I had to recall the fragments as my eyes scanned sections of the painting for more visual information. To view larger sections of the whole painting meant to focus, frame, collect, collate, combine odd pieces until out of vexing fragments some coherence emerged. The experience of viewing the painting verified for me what the art historian and theorist Ernst Gombrich wrote about the way we see. He cited the 18th century British painter William Hogarth's explanation of visual perception as consisting of selective focus, where the eye concentrates on a very narrow point of the image, leaving the rest indistinct, and then moves quickly to scan another point.[i] The image is understood through a reconstruction in the mind, via memory, of these points of focus. No single point can tell us all that we need to know in order to read the image. Much like a pointillist painting, we can only make sense of the fragments by stepping backwards in space and time to take another look. With distance, the points begin to relate to each other, their edges appear to overlap and a recognizable picture emerges.

In making a work of art, such as a painting or a poem, the artist also uses a kind of selective focus. Words linked together have the potential to create meaning. Lines of poetry when taken alone can be infused with content and they also serve to bridge the parts of a poem. The poem itself is a fragment that directs the reader to a larger context. The same is true of Tuebke's painting of the Battle of Frankenhausen. Led, or misled, by the radical religious leader Thomas Muentzer, the peasants rallied to his call and in their fight for life and liberty suffered total defeat. The panorama painting also reminds us of the totalitarian state's power to control history's story. From the East German government's point of view, the Battle of Frankenhausen was to be presented as tragic episode in the unfinished revolution of the oppressed. The ideological certainties of historical determinism were to be given fresh impetus by faithful observance of the painterly pieties of Stalinist social realism. How it came about that communist bureaucrats commissioned Werner Tuebke, a man well known for his voracious eclecticism and for his bold experiments across stylistic and technical boundaries, to undertake the gigantic project remains a mystery of sorts. Fortunately, at least from this visitor's point of view, Werner Tuebke did get the contract. His ideology-resistant multifaceted vision and stunning vocabulary of painting styles and techniques won the day. By taking great liberties and asserting his artistic autonomy he succeeds against the odds to make his critical ironic statement about the serious interplay of image, symbol, and signs.

There is, for example, an image of the Tower of Babel. When I kept my eyes focused on this image, and walked from one side of the room to another, I felt as if I were walking around an actual tower, perfectly able to view it from various distinct angles. It was an optical illusion; of course it was only one image. Yet the illusion Tuebke had conjured up of actually seeing the tower from many perspectives paralleled the story of the mythical Tower itself whose monumental construction shattered Language into languages.The fallout divided people, but offered new means to describe and experience the world.

Perspective, as a painting device, was a paradigm for image making since the beginning of the Italian Renaissance until the convention was challenged by Cubism early on in the 20th century. Viewing the paintings of artists who employed the invention, one may still be amazed by the verisimilitude of how exact the world out there appears to have been recorded on a two-dimensional surface.As a matter of fact, we can become so accustomed to seeing the world through paintings, photographs, films or television that the world may seem to mimic its own representations. But with sustained, close observation, the mirror-like representation reveals its difference from the actual experience of looking at the spaces that we inhabit. We have two eyes, not one, and they don't see exactly the same things in the same way at the same time. We don't stay frozen in one place, but move through the world while our view, in more or less adequate response, keeps perpetually shifting.Yet perspective, apart from the consideration that it isn't really the way we see, still offers a structure for focus. Without it, there is a loss of definition, an indeterminate field of objects which tend to be not distinguishable from each other, indecipherable and lacking clear demarcations from the spaces between them. What intrigued me most about Tuebke's Tower of Babel was how he used perspective to structure the image and simultaneously promoted a sensation of movement. He was able to balance stasis and dynamism, two necessary components of sight. For me, deliberately recalling my viewing experience of Tuebke's painting taught me enough of a lesson about the fluidity of selective focus that I could rely on it as a method for reading G.C. Waldrep's epic cycle The Batteries.

The need for selection can be understood as the artist's right, privilege, pleasure, curse, or whatever. The necessity for selection, however, is always pressing and indicates that at any given moment much lies beyond one's peripheral vision, whether it is our two eyes as organs of vision, or the intellectual eye as organ of our intelligent perception. No artist can say everything he wants to in one work of art. He or she makes choices: the framing of an experience, a certain gathering of words, breaking a line where one does. Choosing means leaving something out and to limit one's view. Assuming a point of view and maintaining a quiet focus is as important to the creative process as it is in the act of seeing. It's a necessary strategy of self-deception to assume a fixed position in one's work, suspending knowledge of ever-present change. The artist manages to balance a temporary location from which to view the world with the simultaneous knowledge of the chameleon qualities of ever-present change. The rhythm by which his work exhibits the alternations, or sequence, of his emphases on being and becoming becomes over time a distinctive hallmark of her and his style.

Our honored poet tonight, G.C. Waldrep, is exceptional and at the same time exemplary. Rigorous in his writing and astute in his observations his poetry quietly resonates with his presence in the world by taking a perspective, but not being restricted by it. His words frame experiences and insights that expand to an extensive, complex and inclusive world view. Great art, as a fragment of something greater than itself, maintains a paradox: it points to what lies beyond it, and, simultaneously, what lies beyond it is also contained within it. This is very difficult to achieve in one's work. G. C. Waldrep, I believe, has achieved this with his poem The Batteries. Let us thank him for it and listen to it intently, read it by mobilizing imagination and memory, and view it, almost tangibly, as an affirmation of our individual powers to live and create.

[i] E.H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, (London: Phaidon, 1979) 96.