The world canvas

Part 1: The Thing

Abstract art has several jobs, but one of the most important is to take the bits of the visual world around us, separate them from their context, and allow us to see them freshly. By removing color, texture, and pattern from their received meaning allows us to pay attention to the building blocks of vision. As if we could take the music of speech and remove the words from them, so only the sensuous vestige remains.

In most of the visual world we live in, we have given meanings to what we see, like seeing the diagrammatic picture of a man or woman on the restroom door. And in “reading” the visual world this way, as a sort of language, we too easily fail to actually see what we are looking at: We simplify and name: That is “green,” rather than “that is the green of kelp,” or “the green of grass.” Two very different greens. And there are thousands of greens. If we abstract the color from its worldly signature, we can place two greens next to each other and force ourselves to notice.

The same is true for texture, reflectivity, surface (whether matte or glossy), size or scale, the opacity or translucency of pigment — a thousand different qualities of sight, and of the visual world we inhabit, but where habit has dulled our perception — and our delight.

Still, no matter how abstracted from the quotidian an image may be, there remains some remnant of its source. We tend to recognize a certain green by the chords it sounds in our memory, our sense memory. We respond to this green or that in part — and idiosyncratically — by the way it calls to mind the emotions and pleasures we attach to it in a rather Proustian way.

Thus, although we may think of abstract art as a kind of rationalized set of color and pattern, line and texture, we can never entirely divorce our response to it from the experience of our own lives.

So, we are left with complicated response to art that on the surface seems to have no meaning.

(It’s no use making the argument that such response is too subjective, too personal. Our response to any art, no matter how abstract or how realistic, is always personal. Abstraction, again, reminds us of what we don’t normally think about.)

Painters have the advantage that they can invent shapes and lines from nothing but cobalt blue and vermilion. But a photographer is left with a more direct connection to the world outside his head. The camera must be pointed at something.

So, to make the same sort of visual argument as an abstract painter, the photographer has to use the real world and re-see it in some way as to make it unrecognizable. The two most immediate ways to do that are to get so close that all context is stripped away, or to step so far back that the perspective is one that no ordinary human can recognize it.

It is why I always book a seat by a window when I fly. I can look out the window and see the colors, textures and patterns of the planet below me, and make designs with them with my camera.

I self-published a book of such abstractions using the website, blurb.com. You can find the book here, and open it up in preview mode: http://www.blurb.com/b/1376943-windowseat

The skin of the continent becomes a canvas painted in swirls and pools, like some de Kooning or Pollock, Rothko or Diebenkorn. If you look, you can see again.

Part 2: The Metaphor

We live on a planetary canvas; colors and shapes are spread across the stretched linen of the Earth’s surface, although we have to step back to see it with any clarity.

The best way to do that is to climb up into the air. Up a tree and the neighborhood looks different; up a mountain and the valleys change; up in a jet plane and whole quarters of the continent are transformed.

That is the gift of the window seat. The view out and down paints a completely different picture of the world: clouds below us; shadows stretch out for dozens of miles late in the day, or as the sun rises; seas catch the sunlight in a scatter of sparks; the sky overhead is so dark a blue as to mimic midnight at midday.

I love flying. There is nothing quite so exciting as seeing a whole state underneath you opened up like a life-size map.

From 30,000 feet, you get a sense of the world as a tiny globe and can see whole ranges of many mountains as single features, like wrinkles on a face.

Few of us will ever see the Earth from the moon, or even from orbit, but anyone with a boarding pass can have his sensibility slapped silly with the incredible beauty of the planet.

So I always book a window seat for the show. And no matter how long the flight, I’m glued, stiff-necked, to the view.

You can spot the Rio Grande and its terrace, the Mississippi and its wiggle. You can tell Chicago from Detroit, Oklahoma from Arkansas.

Several times on cross-country flights, sitting on the north side of the plane, away from the glare of the direct sun, I looked out the window and down below the jet would be a floating pool of light, moving with the plane at some 500 mph. It is called a “glory” and it is certainly well-named. It is a visual effect much like a rainbow, and no two people see it in just the same place.

It can be seen at a point 180 degrees opposite the sun, speeding across the map-landscape below, crossing interstates and rivers, past the pegged dots of new housing developments, looking like mitochondria in an electron microscope, or the great circles of irrigated crops — great green coins spaced across Texas.

But it isn’t just the landforms that excite me. Even bad weather keeps my attention. Think of all the thousands of generations of humans who were never able to see the tops of clouds, which form their own fantastic landscapes, with mountains and valleys of crenellated whiteness.

The pilot curves the jet route in wide circles around a towering thunderhead, bleach-white at top and sooty at bottom, with its cauliflower protuberances catching new light. The distance is crowded with them, sprouting like mushrooms to the horizon. Dozens of fresh, new thunderstorms rising sunward like children reaching up for their mothers.

Over California once, after a rainstorm, with a low mist of water evaporating up into the atmosphere, the millions of puddles aggregated their mirror effect into a single flash, moving at the speed of the plane and making Fourth of July lightning bolts that flashed just beneath the surface of the mist, the way you can sometimes see the blood pulsing under the skin of a newborn. It gave me a feeling of intimacy with the planet.

Or a night flight, with the ground black underneath you as you fly over the empty expanses of the Southwest, with the small embers of tiny desert communities coming periodically into view, glowing like the last bit of a dying campfire. As you approach Phoenix, those embers gather into a vast pattern of incandescence, like some great lava field, with the glowing magma breaking through the cracks of the cooling stone above it. Almost nothing is as radiant as a city at night seen from the air. You want to hold your palms out toward it, to warm your hands in its heat.


Earthbound, we have a very bland, utilitarian sense of the celestial body we ride around on. It is all streets and signage, houses and mini malls. It is the place we go to work every day, the place where we watch television in the evening.

It is true, to those who have the eyes to see it, the planetary nature of our home is there to be seen: Daybreak shows us the sun breeching the horizon and moving across the heavens; the stars are there to see at night; there are rainy days and lightning storms to remind us of the larger forces. But they have all become ordinary through habit and usage. How many of us take the time to look up and admire a mackerel sky or a fair-weather cumulus cloud floating puffy on the slightly denser air beneath it?

But take an elevator to 30,000 feet and you get the god’s-eye view, moving across the curved surface of the world, where the people aren’t even ants and where the Earth is one small aggie in a great colliding pile of cosmic marbles.

Click any image to enlarge

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