Editor's note: The editors of this issue of SPECTRA are pleased to include Sachi Stovall's work Safe Zone as its title image. We have long admired Sachi's work and are excited to have an opportunity to share it along with the artist's own reflection on the meaning it expresses for her, as well as a reflection by ASPECT doctoral student Melissa Schwartz on its meaning for the wider theme of this issue of SPECTRA: representing resistance, resisting representation.
1. Title Image
Acrylic Paint and Black Paint Pen on Paper, 2015.
This painting is, in many ways a reflection of myself. The reason I chose this name is because when I'm surrounded by the moon and the stars I am happiest.. The glow from the moon gives me a feeling that no other physical being could. I feel vulnerable but at the same time empowered.. Looking out at the universe reminds me of how great my creator is. Gazing at the stars reminds me over and over how unique I am because every star is different.. Every star shines in its own light and every star is a different size and is located in its own spot in this universe.. As I continue my life journey in finding out who I am, I've realized that I am a true believer in purity and realness. This is the reason why I chose a nude painting. No, we are not always comfortable with our physical body or what clothes we are wearing but when our journey in this lifetime is up, the soul is what matters the most. I'm learning to love my soul and not the shell that I am in. I used acrylic paint for this painting as well as a black paint pen to create sharper lines.
2. How Creative Works Like “Safe Zone” Might ‘Redescribe Reality’i
Melissa Schwartz, Virginia Tech
“Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total.” ii
When I view “Safe Zone,” I see a body filling a dark and shallow compositional plane. The nearly nude female figure flows outward strikingly toward the surface, almost pressing up against the threshold that separates the painted space from the place of the viewer. The moon creates a halo that surrounds the face of the portrait’s subject. Her eyes are closed, at first glance seeming to indicate self-contemplation. Ultimately, however, the young woman strikes one as at once suspended in isolation from the cosmos surrounding her—due to partitioning teal curves of color—yet strangely in conversation with it—because of the angle of her head and the moon-glow toward which she turns.
Against this spiritual body language of contemplation certain details stand out in contrast: the figure’s lips are perfectly painted, her body smooth and shiny, her nails done long and red, her lingerie worn skin-tight. These minutiae suggest possible relationships between the subject and her culture. Does she acquiesce to standards of beauty? Make strained and conscious choices regarding self expression? Or perhaps she feels the necessity to present her body in a certain way in order to exist comfortably within her social universe. Considering these possibilities engages some of the intellectual and humanistic questions regarding representation and resistance that the creation and viewing of “Safe Zone” engender. Most pressing is the overarching question of how the function of aesthetic representation exists as an act of resistance.
In refining a perspective on resistance in relation to representation, consider pragmatist philosopher John Dewey’s statement regarding art and aesthetics.
With respect to the physical materials that enter into the formation of a work of art, every one knows that they must undergo change. Marble must be chipped; pigments must be laid on canvas; words must be put together. It is not so generally recognized that a similar transformation takes place on the side of “inner” materials, images, observations, memories and emotions. They are also progressively re-formed; they, too, must be administered. This modification is the building up of a truly expressive act.iii
This passage reveals a primary element from his perspective that art is a process based on ‘objects of concrete experience’: material, bodily, mental, and emotional. This mutual process of transformation between the artist’s ‘inner’ materials of experience and the “raw materials” forming works of art (what he calls, “valuable products”) corresponds productively to the idea of representation as being related to resistance.iv For the individual embodying the process, creating art is a way of finding and refining one’s place in the world and one’s lived presence. Often this occurs through a type of spontaneity that breaks into the conscious after ripening through time and experience. v
Like the artistic process, resistance includes forming new relationships with one’s environment and communicating them to another. Inherent to this perspective on art and resistance is the idea that ‘opposition and conflict’ with one’s surroundings, both biological and socio-cultural, invoke a human necessity for “a transformation of them [conflicts] into differentiated aspects of a higher powered and more significant life.”vi Again quoting Dewey: Emotion is the conscious sign of a break, actual or impending. The discord is the occasion that induces reflection. Desire for restoration of the union converts mere emotion into interest in objects as conditions of realization of harmony. With the realization, material of reflection is incorporated into objects as their meaning.vii
‘Opposition and conflict’ suggest resistance, a concept that often seems appealing as providing an intrinsic defense of human dignity through the exercise of a person’s (seemingly) autonomous actions. Yet intrinsic to resistance, there is generally some legitimation of whatever the resistor is refusing to accept. Due to the function of complex bio-powers and internalized influences in constituting one’s identity, rather than pure agency, the forces at work in artistic processes and relationships are not always direct instances of resistance. Rather, the relationship between representations and resistance is more subtle and mysterious. As Vladimir Nabokov states regarding the art of writing, for instance, “literature is not a dog carrying a message in its teeth.”viii The significance of artistic processes is that they form a means of making decisions about one’s relationship to the world and, possibly, of transforming it by creating moments of openness for both artist and viewer, or audience.
Ultimately, whether or not artist and work react to or even incorporate power-based reality, the mere presence of the working artist and the attempt to foster moments of openness hold the possibility for ‘redescribing’ and for resisting what is taken for granted as reality through a change in perspective.
Consider philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s concept of ‘potent metaphor’. The ancient Greek view of metaphor was roughly that it provided a unique means of expressing a comparison through the reductive, nearly exact one-to-one correspondence between the thing-to-be represented by metaphor and the metaphorical expression itself.ix Ricoeur’s view surpasses this conception by viewing metaphor “as having a cognitive import of its own” beyond its use as comparative representation. For him, there exists a figurative space, or place of potential to “redescribe reality.”x
Although metaphor is most often associated with writing, one can apply the idea of ‘potent metaphor’ to artistic and creative acts through the embodiment of imagination in artistic processes and artifacts. This sense of potency does more than beautify the world or express a prefigured understanding of a chosen motif. It actually reveals new perspectives and associations, some intentional, some subconscious.
Philosopher Jacques Rancière, in fact, views the relationship of artistic endeavors to resistance as a paradoxical (even contradictory), two-fold endeavor: “it [art] resists as a thing that persists in its being; and, second, as people who refuse to remain in their situation.” xi The art of resistance, therefore, is “a power of autonomy, of self-maintaining,” and at the same time “a power of departure and of self-transformation . . . which intervenes to change the very same order that defines its consistency.”xii
Under Rancière’s conception, external pressures, similar to Foucaultian bio-powers , undeniably constitute aspects of an individual’s experience. Yet the very nature of producing art undermines the intransigence of these conditions, if only for a moment. To imagine how “forms of ‘resistance’” can become dynamic, Rancière looks to Gilles Deleuze on the ‘task of art’. Deleuze states: “. . . from colours and sounds, both music and painting similarly extract new harmonies, new plastic or melodic landscapes, and new rhythmic characters that raise them up into earth’s song and the cry of men and women: that which constitutes tone, health, becoming, a visual and sonorous bloc . . . a monument . . . it confides . . . the constantly renewed suffering of men and women, their re-created protestations, their constantly resumed struggle.” xiii
In considering the artist’s statement and viewing “Safe Zone,” I read its process and very presence as performing artistic functions that reflect on relationships with one’s place in the world in a way that corresponds to the conceptualizations of Dewey, of Ricoeur, of Rancière, and of Deleuze regarding the ‘task of art’. The artist states: “This painting is, in many ways a reflection of myself.” In her relationship to the surroundings, she further states, “I feel vulnerable but at the same time empowered” and also suggests that one cannot choose aspects of one’s identity and existence. This lack of full agency forms a basis for the type of tension between artist and environment that Dewey sees as fueling artistic work while mutually transforming the artist and his/her materials.
The reflections on internal nature and outward connection to the greater world in “Safe Zone” correspond to the artist’s rationale for painting herself naked. “No, we are not always comfortable with our physical body or what clothes we are wearing but when our journey in this lifetime is up, the soul is what matters the most.” These thoughts brought to mind one of various expressions of the body in Indian art, coinciding with historian Naman Ahuja’s perspective regarding views of transcendentalism in the art of India. Discussing a predominant perspective on the body in this tradition, Ahuja states that “[t]he self that inheres within the body has a much longer presence than its outer shell.” xiv
While differences obviously exist between “Safe Zone” and Indian art, they may share some similarity in intention. For example, one motif of Jain imagery, ‘ākāśa-puruṣa’, “the image of the empty cut-out or silhouette of a man encapsulating nothingness” is relatable to “Safe Zone.”xv This expression of “bodily ‘absence’,” represents “the ideal liberated being, taking the body itself beyond corporeal form.”xvi While the individual/body in “Safe Zone” is not a literally cut out silhouette as in ‘ākāśa-puruṣa’, the teal curves surrounding it and the artist’s emphasis on exceeding the life of the body resonate with transcendence.
The rhythm of loss of integration with environment and recovery of union not only persists in man but becomes conscious with him; its conditions are material out of which he forms purposes.xvii Because the actual world, that in which we live, is a combination of movement and culmination, of breaks and re-unions, the experience of a living creature is capable of esthetic quality.xviii
For Dewey, unique experiences and environments provide a ground for artistic production.xix Ricoeur sees the space provided by the creativity of metaphor as “potentially giv[ing] rise to a new conception of reality.”xx Rancière and Deleuze view the self-maintaining and transformation of artistic production as a means of renewing and expressing human struggles. Whether quotidian, or critical, artistic processes, therefore, are performances of survival that form the core and the inspiration for aesthetic expression, and often, for the most productive sense of resistance.
Perhaps the juxtaposition of transcendence to the particular characteristics that mark the subject’s body (the long nails, lingerie, etc.) in “Safe Zone,” form an intersection that highlights the possibilities of art and resistance. The work appears to embody Rancière’s sense of ‘persisting in its being’ (albeit a transcendent one) more than an outright ‘refusal’ of the artist to remain in her situation. One thing of which I am certain, successive works by the creator of “Safe Zone” will embody new expressions of presence, of resistance, and of transformation.
Ahuja, Naman P. 2013. The Body in Indian Art and Thought. Edited by Belinder Dhanoa. Europalia International: Brussels. Ludion: Antwerp.
Balina, Marina; Goscilo, Helena; and Lipovetsky, Mark, Editors. 2005. Politicizing Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, Illinois.
Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. Penguin Group: New York.
Englund, Axel. 2012. Still Songs: Music In and Around the Poetry of Paul Celan. Ashgate: England and USA.
Rancière, Jacques. 2010. “The Monument and Its Confidences; or Deleuze and Art’s Capacity of ‘Resistance’” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Edited and Translated by Steven Corcoran. Continuum International Publishing Group: London and New York.
i The phrase ‘redescribe reality’ comes from a discussion on music and the poetry of Paul Celan in which author, Axel Englund, asserts that Celan strove for a “poetics of a new reality created in writing,” which was actually “a radical version of that which [Paul] Ricoeur ascribes to any potent metaphor, namely the power to redescribe reality.” Axel Englund, Still Songs: Music In and Around the Poetry of Paul Celan, 14-15. England and USA: Ashgate. 2012.
ii John Dewey, Art as Experience, 14. New York: Penguin Group. 1934.
iii Id., 77-78.
iv Id., 10.
v Id., 74-75.
vi Id., 13.
vii Id., 16.
viii Marina Balina et al, Politicizing Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales, x. Illinois: Northwestern University Press. 2005.
ix Englund, Still Song, 13.
x Id., 15.
xi Jacques Rancière, “The Monument and Its Confidences; or Deleuze and Art’s Capacity of ‘Resistance’” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, 170. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. 2010.
xiii Id., 170-171.
xiv Naman P. Ahuja, The Body in Indian Art and Thought, 13. 2013.
xv Id., 67.
xviiDewey, Art as Experience, 14.
xviii Id., 16.
xix Dewey, Art as Experience, 13.
xx Englund, Still Songs, 15.