Modeling Situations of Strangeness

Essay for the exhibition catalogue Darren Waterston: Remote Futures 
Distributed by ARTBOOK | D.A.P. & DC Moore Gallery, New York, NY
October 2012


This imagined world is an ambiguous domain, with architectural remnants of a civilized past and biological signs of an emerging future. Shards of cathedrals and skyscrapers, fragments of bridges, and hulls of ships populate the scenes. Trees, mountains, cliffs, and other, less discernable forms are twisted, charred, and turned upside down. Yet it is a resilient organism, this world. It appears to continually rejuvenate and heal, accommodating the unexpected intersections of built and natural phenomena. The organic forces of being human and our awareness of mortality unite us on its surface, a membrane not unlike our skin with folds, crevices, punctures, and scars. We who love to be astonished thrive on what lies immediately before us as we teeter every day between a foggy awareness of where we come from and an uncertainty of where we are going.

Telos

The acute awareness of time permeates our impressions of Darren Waterston’s paintings from the series Remote Futures. These works show us an unfamiliar and precarious world, one that appears to balance at the interstice of a before and after. The painting Telos, for instance, depicts an unstable terrain with mangled, architectonic projections—whether crystalline spires of religion or towers of capital, we cannot say. These architectural ruins intermingle with natural forms to create a landscape with a double horizon. One is inverted above the other. The horizons fold inward, reaching (or collapsing) toward a central light like the same bright source that has beckoned us with unrequited promises for millennia. This landscape is bound together with a tension that comparatively binds the contradictory meaning of the word telos—both purpose and end. Telos is furthermore the crux of philosophical theses that explore the purpose of life. Theorists from Hegel to Marx have considered how our life force is governed by the singular, underlying awareness of an end time. Here we find ourselves at this scene by Waterston that anticipates a moment of great exhalation—a slight inhale before a rapid and forceful dispersal toward a distant, unknowable end.

The German philosopher Ernst Bloch believes utopic desires for a better future are articulated in the wide range of cultural material of the present moment. His theories of utopia in the book The Principle of Hope (1938–1947) emphasize the world’s constant state of becoming. As such, for Bloch, the future is “not yet” and still exists as a possibility. It is a theory of a concrete utopia and involves both a critique of ideological Marxist doctrine and an argument that situates utopian longings in different forms of art and mass culture from music, architecture, literature, painting, film, and philosophy to fashion, storefront displays, interior design, advertising, fairy tales, and myths. Although conceived and written under the shadow of World War II, Bloch’s treatise encourages us to search for value in the here and now. He says we should dispense with images of unattainable goals and stories of unrealizable futures and look to the immediate present as a potent place for utopian expressions. We have an insatiable desire for knowledge and understanding about how things can exist and function differently, and Bloch believes the vast and fragmented material we produce and insert into the world embodies those “dreams of a better life.”

Bloch’s critique is a rehabilitation of age-old concepts of ideal societies envisioned by figures such as Thomas More in Utopia (1516), Tommaso Campanella in The City of the Sun (1623), and Francis Bacon in New Atlantis (1627). It is also a reflection on Marx and Engels in The German Ideology (1846) where they call for the establishment of an ideal with which reality must contend. Bloch’s vision of utopia, alternatively, seeks to lend renewed agency to individuals for transforming their future into something better. Like Bloch, Waterston’s paintings show a world in constant states of flux without any fixed identity or determined ways to decipher it. These scenes hold our attention because they refuse categorization and possess an unwillingness to reveal exactly what we see. The inverted horizons, circular cityscapes, amoebic forms, and hovering jagged masses are not determined by visions of utopia based on Marxist or any conditioned ideology. They do not propose a picture of a better world. If they did, no matter what that portrayal looked like, it would be something anchored in our present economic and social realm. The confusion and uncertainty in these paintings generate a kind of productive strangeness in their refusal of consensus. They dwell in that region of Bloch’s theory of a future “not yet,” undefined and open to speculation.

City on the Edge

Other paintings in this series also make reference to the city as a lost or impotent utopian ideal. City on the Edge shows a vascular-like arch of rough and tangled surfaces with tentacles that extend beyond our field of vision. The cross-section we see appears to float in a vast primordial fluid, and the only signs of human intervention are a faint cityscape on the far horizon and a spike in the foreground that pierces the terrain’s surface, while a thin red substance dissipates from behind it. The substance atomizes and disappears into a much larger field, not unlike blood coming from an incised finger submerged in water. While oblique reminders of a bygone civilization linger in City on the Edge, the painting Cathedral has more recognizable forms. But the scene is no less perplexing. The foreground shows decrepit pointed arches strewn across a rocky armature with a quasi-ziggurat, spiral structure in the background. The entire terrain is marked by a pinkish glow that does not necessarily convey an inferno as much as a step toward something else. The great Gothic arch, of course, is a milestone that moved religious architecture to new and astounding heights by reducing massive Romanesque walls to mostly glass and light. Advanced engineering achievements and material craftsmanship intersected, giving religion the ability to refine its message about the divine. This technology infused architecture with a hitherto unimaginable experience (both corporeal and spiritual) of space, time, and light. Christianity no longer simply told worshipers about future transcendence and salvation through its images and texts. It made worshippers viscerally feel these concepts in the immediate moment of being human. The Gothic cathedral instilled a combination of both pleasure and anxiety through the sheer magnitude and breadth of space and light. It was, in one word, sublime.

Cathedral copy

Today, as we stand in the midst of yet another era of unbelievable technological achievements and wade through its deluge of information, we are infused with yet another sense of the sublime. This time, however, it is the incomprehensible enormity of the digital landscape that simultaneously generates feelings of awe and anxiety. Every crevice of our visual and aural existence is assaulted every minute of the day by the possibility of a world on the edge of collapse. And that assault is transmitted via media and the Internet in an onslaught of words, sounds, and images that never allows us to forget that something will happen. It is already proven. An overwhelming shadow of anxiety pervades since the 9/11 attacks when the world watched images⎯including the crumbling and mangled “Gothic arches” of the World Trade Center⎯that brought to life our greatest fears and fantasies of an end time. The prophetic scenes of buildings collapsing into rubble are what we had played out imaginatively for decades in films and stories. The scar of this fragmentation is what we bring with us to relate to these liminal spaces between collapse and recovery in Remote Futures. Spectators inherently view the scenes in these paintings in dialectical relation to the conditions of our era.

In other paintings, such as Edifice, the globular formations we see are beyond recognition in their combination of organic and geometric shapes. They look as if digital technology has finally fused with living organisms and crystalline stalactites. These unfamiliar formations are enveloped in mucoid or amoebic substances. While the title suggests a scene of precipitous heights comparable to City on the Edge or Cathedral, this painting embodies a sense of promise rather than the threat of a fall. At eight by fourteen feet, the painting’s impressive size draws on our visual and cognitive ability as well as temporal and spatial engagement to explore these forms that propose a world on the verge of regeneration.

Constructing Paradise No.3 copy

Constructing Paradise, No. 3 has recognizable images of hillsides, evergreens, and mountains coated in yellowish brown and light blue hazes. Yet these images, too, are combined with otherworldly qualities⎯a crimson fog permeates a small area, and bright red globular forms hover everywhere. This landscape has a double horizon, again, one inverted above the other. Pastoral Scene is a landscape where infernal forces unleashed from above pour down onto a rocky island mass that floats in an indistinguishable abyss of grays, browns, and whites. Light from multiple and undefined sources is reflected and refracted by jagged surfaces and granular particles. This landscape is nothing like conventional visions of the “pastoral” by artists such as Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and Claude Lorrain (1604–1682). The pastoral Waterston shows is steaming and unfit for human habitation, no place for a society of shepherds or bounteous copulation. This painting and others in the series anticipate rather than define what the future holds, and the conditions we find in them do not follow the same molecular logic operating in reality.

Art is a fertile place for generating new meaning and understanding about humanity and its place in the world without being obvious⎯or literal. A politics of aesthetics emerges when momentary fissures occur in the forces usually governing how we see and interpret things. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière views this space of uncertainty as an area ripe with possibility. And the act of reframing the world of common experience determined by these forms guides our senses. He sees this, in fact, as politics—a politics embedded with critique that is able to depart from the historical determinism of how to interpret a given situation. This new aesthetics becomes a space that invites the spectator to see the world differently, creating an opening that gives renewed perception of the here and now. Bloch understood this quite well. He sought to expand and breathe new life into art and culture by removing ingrained ways of assigning meaning to all its material forms. He encouraged us to think about the vast modes of cultural production as projections for a better life, and ultimately his approach to thinking about utopia is a dissensus of established historical doctrines.

In our contemporary era, we must turn to Rancière to consider the necessity of going against consensus and challenging conventional doctrines (not unlike what Bloch did) in the aesthetics already conditioned by everyday representations, images, and experiences. This necessity feels especially urgent today since capital supplies an aesthetics to every facet of life, more intensely and surreptitiously than ever before. Rancière’s writings are useful for defining and locating the politics of aesthetics in contemporary art forms, like the paintings by Darren Waterston, that are not always overtly political or literal in their critiques.

The fundamental question is to explore the possibility of maintaining spaces of play. To discover how to produce forms for the presentation of objects, forms for the organization of spaces, that thwart expectations. The main enemy of artistic creativity as well as of political creativity is consensus—that is, inscription within given roles, possibilities, and competences.

Remote Futures is part of the legacy of this critique in its refusal of clear representation. The paintings in this series have the potential to arrest our attention by modeling situations of strangeness. Their indeterminacy is what produces a rupture in the spectator’s expectations by drawing upon a combination of sensations, intuition, feelings, and knowledge derived from the experience of being in the world. All of it, however, is underscored by acute tensions related to our mortality and the ultimate refusal to submit to the destructive forces of life.

“Art of the Possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Rancière,” Artforum (March 2007): 263.