… after Shahzia Sikander — Nemesis

In her interview at the beginning of her companion book to the show, Nemesis, Shahzia Sikander explains that one of her goals was to challenge what is beautiful. I’m not so ambitious. I think, where I am as an artist, is learning what is beautiful, and if I were to challenge this, it would have to be later when I had a better grasp of what I’m challenging.

With some irony, what draws me to Shahzia Sikander’s work is that I find it beautiful. I think only when you look more closely, after maybe first noticing formal elements, like borders, visual rhythm and bright color schemes, you notice that the story told by the smaller details can work against the mood the formal elements convey.

In Pleasure Pillars (2001), the pillars of beauty are being matched with the word pleasure. Being only 17” x 12,” the work is almost overwhelmed by all its details. You can easily miss the circle of fighter jets that resemble a group of birds dancing somehow in synchronized formation, wings overlapping and noses pointed toward a shared center. You might miss the lion tearing at a deer’s throat in the opposite corner. Images of the West challenge the images of the east. Venus de Milo with her head and arm missing is slightly left of center, separated from a eastern formal dress by two connected hearts displaced from a body. There is, at the heart of the work, a woman’s head with large and impressive ram horns.

The colors are beautiful. The polka dots, elements seen in many of Sikander’s works, create layers and dimension. There are multiple frames, which help a viewer focus on specific figures. I am drawn first to these formal elements and am made to look at figures, objects and acts of violence side by side and to interpret something that is beyond the formal elements.

For my own work…

I want to offer a view into a world that has a sort of mood, manifested out of the symbols and interactions of those symbols found in that world.

Symbols in a visual work of art can be more literal than words in a work of literature. Words representing an object can carry a variety meanings given a person’s unique set of experiences and the context in which they employ those words. For example, what bees might mean in a poem by Sylvia Plath. When you use pictures of objects with symbolic meaning, you begin with the meaning given to the object by a people and their culture and history, and it might not be how you feel about the objects, intuitively or personally.

So for an audience who might not be aware of what certain objects can symbolize, I want to offer at least something that is pretty; while for those who respond to those symbols, not just as a bystander looking in but somebody who responds emotionally to them, I want to make the story I’m telling cohesive and meaningful in some way.

Elephants (2021) 9″ x 12″ watercolor and gouache

For the above image, I’m borrowing the idea of elephants as symbols of wisdom. I don’t see this personally, but I like how they can be animated. I can use the image of an animal to convey an act or interaction, which can then be a metaphor for how wisdom can look while in action, despite it being abstract and difficult to define in words.

There’s an oak tree (also a symbol of wisdom) that a string of elephants are walking toward. They are coming from the horizon and the sun is setting. These are all within a red frame, while a baby elephant has its trunk outside the frame, the trunk being slightly transparent.

I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself, but I might be fearing ignorance or not knowing enough.

My mother used to tease me as a child and say that I have no common sense. I’m older now… and I’m hoping a little more wisdom can make up for this.

Materials: Xuan paper

There were a couple of problems.

1. I thought my first problem was a lack of nifty, one-day projects. (I could only think of bigger projects, and for those I found myself procrastinating, while telling myself that I was waiting for the ideas to percolate.)

Believing this to be my first problem was a problem.

I finally picked up a brush when a “nifty” idea occured to me, and this had a lovely domino effect.

2. I wanted to make use of a set of Japanese watercolors.

I’d only made color cards, by applying a wash over individual sheets of cold press watercolor paper, each cut down to just larger than a playing card.

When they dried, they curled, and despite having them underneath heavy books for a month or so, they wouldn’t remain flat. (I’ve heard of “stretching paper,” but I’ve procrastinated on that too.)

Solution: xuan paper which dries very well.

3. I wanted to compile a “book” of my “sketches” on xuan paper but the material is very thin. Creating a traditionally designed book made only of xuan paper didn’t pan out even in my imagination.

Solution: I folded a sheet of xuan paper into a “book,” which allowed me to avoid stitching pages into signatures.

4. I hadn’t posted anything in a while.

5. I had stopped reading.

Solution: I would post something about the “book” I was making.

6. I applied a wash again of each color to each panel, but it wasn’t enough for a good post. (Yes, I let the idea of what others might think have an influence on my creative life.)

Solution: I browsed through the many books I own and looked for ideas.

7. I had a few books that had been waiting to be read for… well, a long time.

Solution: Peach Blossom Spring: Gardens and Flowers In Chinese Paintings by Richard Barnhart

(I have not really sat down with this, but from what I can tell, it looks anecdotal, which I think is the best way to write about art history.)

Below is the “book” unfolded. There are eight panels and the upper middle panels are each only attached on one side.

When you fold it in half, you see the first two panels (besides the “covers”) and the last panel.

The first two panels are based on a part of Plum Blossoms By Moonlight by Ma Yuan, who was actively painting 1190-1225. (p 21)

Here’s the “book” with the two upper middle panels folded in.

The lower bottom middle panels are the third and fourth panels. For the third panel, I was looking at the flowers in Carnations and Amaranthus by Yun Shou-p’ing (1633-1690) (p 84)

For the fourth panel, I was looking at Tree Peonies (1688) by Yun Shou-p’ing (p 87)

Here’s the book folded in half and the middle panels have been flipped to reveal the third, fourth and fifth panels.

For the fifth panel, I was looking at the leaves of One Hundred Flowers by Yun Shou-p’ing (p89)

For the sixth and final panel, I was looking at the rocks or depictions of mountainside in Peach Blossom Spring (1719) by Huan Chiang (active ca 1690 – 1746) (p 115)

I have to be more patient with waiting for the wash to finish drying before adding fine lines, so it got muddled there (and elsewhere), but hopefully I’ll improve with more practice.

Below is the book neatly folded.

Folded, it’s about 5″ x 6.” The paper didn’t exactly dry smooth, but it didn’t get warped either, with some parts more stretched than others. Instead, the pages are wrinkled and only because I creased them when applying the wash.

More Notes on Van Gogh

Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman by Sjraar Van Heugten

Here are some notes on two more drawings.

I posted a review of Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman to Goodreads, which incorporates the above as well as the better parts of the two previous Van Gogh posts.

For The Plain of La Crau (1888), Van Gogh followed basic rules of perspective, making what is in the distance darker and more obscure, while the foreground is depicted without many marks. You might also notice the marks depicting what is in the distance are divided neatly into what look like fields or agricultural land. The sky above, by virtue of the lack of marks, looks serene.

There is nothing careless about where he chose to mark the page and how.

Style of course goes beyond technique and I think marking the page to fill up space was part of that style. Leaving a space empty looks like the exception and not the rule. It looks like a  conscious choice was made to do so. The parts also share the space in a way that conjures up something beyond the whole. They are organized and convey a sense of balance.

Overall, his drawings seem to express a particular mood and each mark was chosen not just to distinguish a given part of the work from another part but to help convey that mood.

Looking at Fishing boats on the beach at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888), there’s that emblematic steadfastness I spoke of before. The thick lines ground the boats as the main focal point, despite being surrounded by the marks depicting the sand and ocean. There is a again perfect balance, this time between the parts of the boats, as their lines intersect and the lighter details lead to the heavier details and guide the eye to the boat in the foreground.

Just for fun, I made of a copy of Van Gogh’s Fishing boats. I used Chinese ink (from Daiso) on Xuan paper and it created a very similar effect as Van Gogh’s materials, which I think was a reed pen on either laid or woven paper.

I also framed the boats in yellow and blue to highlight how the boats are in balance with not only themselves but with the lines created by the horizon and water line and the paper’s edge.

NB The yellow and blue are Roel Acuarelas Italianas water colors. They don’t absorb into the paper as well as the Chinese ink.

The Beauty of Nature II

Offering an example of standing near a waterfall, Noel Carroll argues the experience “does not require any special scientific knowledge,” that it may only require our sense of how small we are. He also says we are “able to intuit the immense force,” (172) and goes on to conclude that “the cognitive component of our emotional response does the job of fixing the aspects of nature that are relevant to appreciation… Carlson sometimes describes his preferred source of knowledge as issuing from common sense/science. So perhaps… the operative cognitions are rooted in commonsense knowledge of nature.” (175)

In other words, we may simply look at our common sense to know how to appreciate nature.

I’m reading a pair of essays from Arguing About Art, which discuss the problem of appreciating nature aesthetically. In the second essay, Carroll explains that Carlson’s environmental model (discussed in my previous post) is in line with cultural theories, which makes aesthetic judgments based on cultural practices and forms, such as artistic genres, styles and movements. When we create the work we determine what the terms are. With nature, however, there is no intent to be beautiful, so any aesthetic judgment can be neither true nor false.

If we discover categories in nature using natural history and science, as opposed to subjectively determining what they are, we can solve this problem and be objective about aesthetic judgments of nature as well.

II objectivist epistemology

Carlson’s environmental model sets a standard for other models of aesthetic appreciation to be objective.

Carroll argues that an emotional response can be objective, because we can assess whether or not it is appropriate and therefore open for judgment. He uses the example of a person being afraid of a tank because it is dangerous. If the person does not believe tanks are dangerous, then fear is not an appropriate response. If the person does believe tanks are dangerous, then it is. Going back to the waterfall, he argues “… being excited by the grandeur of something that one believes to be of a large scale is an appropriate emotional response.” If the belief in the large scale of the waterfall is true for others as well, then the emotional response of being excited by the grandeur of the waterfall is an objective one. (178)

In other words, if when using one’s eyes, you call it grand and others also call it grand, then it is objectively grand.

I think, by defining what moves us, given a specific context of time and place in nature, we can determine what is reasonable but not what is objective.

The most I can offer is my own testimony. I can say I see beauty in the sheer scale of a waterfall, of a sequoia, of the side of a mountain spanning the viewable horizon. There is beauty in the strength of its durability.

I cannot explain why this is beautiful. I cannot say whether my feelings for nature are a result of previous responses to experiences that took place before I responded to the natural environment or if my natural surroundings have intrinsic beauty.

What if a person does not see a tank as dangerous? Would one’s lack of fear be an appropriate response to standing in front of a tank? What if somebody is not moved by the comparison of a waterfall to oneself? In both cases, I would say he or she is being unreasonable vis-a-vis what is a normal response given a specific subject to respond to.  

III art as experience

Carroll helps us focus on what makes the waterfall an aesthetic experience. If somebody argues that it is not, because the galaxy by comparison is much larger, we could argue that comparison would not be appropriate. Instead, we should compare it to human scale, because that is where the aesthetic lies: we are moved by comparing one’s own size to that of the waterfall.

Carroll also offers the example of how children may be “amused by capers of Commedia dell’arte but who know nothing of its tradition or its place among other artistic genres, styles and categories.” (174) He anticipates that Carlson would argue that these children are not appreciating the capers on a deep level and offers a rebuttal: “… what makes an appreciative response to nature shallow or deep is obscure. … But if the depth of a response is figured in terms of our intensity of involvement and its ‘thorough-goingness,’ then there is no reason to suppose that being moved by nature constitutes a shallower form of appreciation than does appreciating nature scientifically. The Kantian apprehension of sublimity — and its corresponding aesthetic judgment — though it may last for a delimited duration, need not be any less deep than a protracted teleological judgment.” (180)

Yes, an emotional response can be deep and profound, but I find myself going down a line of thought I cannot resolve and which Carroll stops short of.

I think it is important for a discussion about aesthetic appreciation of nature that we be able to explain why something is beautiful.

But how do we do this without reducing it to one’s psychology. To explain this cognitively seems to miss the point of having a discussion about aesthetic appreciation. You would be looking at it not as something that is beautiful but as something that is psychological. Looking at it scientifically, you would no longer be seeing the beauty the appreciator is seeing.

If you don’t see what is beautiful, how do you judge that it is beautiful? We could be calling something beautiful when it is not.

IV

The debate over whether or not beauty is intrinsic to what is beautiful is an old one, but it’s at the base of this dialogue. By putting art into categories, we put the judgment of beauty in our own terms. If there are no terms, we are again left with the subject being judged vis-a-vis one’s response and this is subjective. One’s natural surroundings may or may not have intrinsic beauty. It may be reasonable to say that it does, but it’s up to the individual to see that beauty.

This is a problem for the field of aesthetics if we are to maintain that the judgment of what is beautiful must be objective.

I would like to say the viability of the art world relies on consensus, much like how the bell curve is based on what is statistically acknowledged, that the consensus is based on what is reasonable. But of course, this is art. There are niche categories. There is also the driving force of art as currency, either cultural or monetary. It’s driven by psychology as much as history or provenance.1 Overall, I cannot say much, but I can say we engage more honestly without prescribed notions of what is beautiful.

When we find ourselves in natural surroundings, we can enjoy what we enjoy.

I agree with Carlson, that we may be missing so much of what there is to appreciate, aesthetically, if only we were aware of all there is, and we must be objective to have some basis for holding a dialogue about what we see. But I also agree with Carroll, that it is not necessary to be aware of all there is to appreciate and be profoundly affected by one’s natural surroundings.

Why somebody finds something beautiful is elusive, but based on my personal response to my natural surroundings, I can honestly say I have seen beauty.


Carroll, Noel. “On Being Moved By Nature: Between Religion and Natural History.” Neill, Alex, and Ridley, Aaron, editors. Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, 2nd ed, Routledge, 2002, pp 167 -184.

1 I’m talking about the viability of the art world and not the viability of art or whether or not there is beauty to see.