September 9, 2009

Seeing Things: Eyes in the Heat

Last week, New Scientist reported that eye movements can indicate the presence of memories buried in the hippocampus, even when these memories don't reach consciousness. "The eyes know, even when the individual might not." (Not unlike artistic impression, which I'll get to in a minute.) The hippocampus, whose function was made famous by the patient H. M., is part of the limbic system and is the center for long-term memory; studies like these make the idea of memory as consciousness, or holographic memory, that much more potent: instead of conceptualizing memories as bits of physical data stored in the hippocampus, imagine the hippocampus itself--not unlike other, even more mysteriously connected parts of the brain--acting as a conduit to a consciousness "field," and the eye movements indicative of the brain's ability to access the memories but not process them. It's interesting that the eyes play such a revealing role in this game, and that the hippocampus is so affected by visual stimulation when most memories (especially long-term) are recalled without it. It's all very A Clockwork Orange in reverse.

On the fascinating orbs themselves, science writer Simon Ings delves into the wonders of sight in A Natural History of Seeing. He expounds on trilobites and their compelling calcite lenses; the children of the Burmese Moken, whose pupils have evolved to shrink unimaginably small to increase acuity underwater; the connection between ‘night blindness,’ malnutrition, rhodopsin, and Vitamin A; and the curious and revelatory Ophthalmosaurus fossil, whose vertebrate eyes contained bone. Ings also examines the philosophical implications of sight, exploring color as a conceptual entity—a ‘construction of the mind’—in addition to the reactions of rods and cones.

Which brings me to Jackson Pollock, and Synchromism.

Pollock is famous for his late paintings, when he employed a 'drip' technique that became an emblem of the Abstract Expressionist movement. During his formative years, though, he studied under the artist Thomas Hart Benton, an early Synchromist acolyte; Henry Adams writes about all of this in Tom and Jack: the Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. Synchromists used a technique that expanded the color wheel to twelve hues, then assigned each hue to a note on a musical scale. The idea was that color scales, in abstraction, could evoke sensations in a viewer similar to that of listening to a complicated musical composition; the effect was unsuccessful, but left an impression on Pollock when he was a student. By the time he got around to revolutionizing the art world, in the late 40s and early 50s, he'd absorbed many other influences, but the inchoate concept of art as something else persisted. (Pollock once commented "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing...the painting has a life of its own.") Art scholars debate the meaning and intent of Pollock's abstract paintings, and some claim that each began with a drawing, or that each represents an emotion. Adams writes:

"Pollock's paintings suggest two altogether different realms: that of the cosmos, and that of the world of the infinitely small, the world of atomic forces. Pollock's paintings seem like representations of the universe and have striking affinities with the photographs of stars, comets, planets, and galaxies that were just beginning to enter the popular consciousness at the time. There's the sense that these images are not generated by the conscious mind but are drawn up from the unconscious, inner self. It's telling that Pollock considered Einstein and Freud the two most important figures of modern times: one delved into the structure of the universe, the other into the structure of the unconscious. The power of Pollock's great drip paintings is that they seem to explore both these mysterious realms."

Digging deeper, many of Pollock's later works employ strings of paint, a metaphor I enjoy. If Synchromism tried to marry music with vision, and vision prompts emotion abstractly, and Pollock brought it all together with vast canvases subconsciously evoking the universe, then it's official: the vibrating superstrings that make up everything we know have an artistic predilection, and Ings' "Perceptual Revolution" is nigh. Now if only Pollock had titled one of his paintings "Higgs".....

No comments:

Post a Comment