Painting as the Frame of Perception

View of “House of Perceptions,” Antenna Space, Shanghai, 2021  @ Courtesy Antenna Space

The difficulties of traveling during the pandemic have created greater possibilities for the mobility of art. A noticeable interaction and collaboration across countries have been forged and implemented swiftly during the global lockdown.“House of Perception”, the group show at Antenna Space in Shanghai is one such occasion featuring a constellation of local and international painters.

The curator of the exhibition, Fiona He, derives the idea of the “house” as a metaphor for the various conditions of human consciousness from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which narrates the experiential changes that Huxley’s perception of the external world underwent after taking the psychedelic mescalin. Through the chemical door into the world of transcendental experience, Huxley obtained an augmented vision that enabled him to see beyond the mundane reality. What makes Huxley’s recount interesting is his revelation on the Buddhist idea of Suchness, or Tathātā, namely the nature of things beyond ideas or words, while browsing books of artworks by Van Gogh, Botticelli, Cezanne, and Vermeer. Huxley believes that what he is able to perceive under the influence of mescalin is what “the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time”[1], and Vermeer’s paintings can best encapsulate the realization of Not-self through rendering the way things really are, how one ought to see beyond the socially and linguistically given. What is perceivable in the external world is not necessarily the objective reality due to the narrowness of our cognitive capacity and the limitation of language. Huxley’s analysis of painting expounds the ways in which this medium enables artists and viewers to see with the mind’s eye, to express and apprehend the world from within, and to be “shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception”[2].

View of “House of Perceptions,” Antenna Space, Shanghai, 2021  @ Courtesy Antenna Space

Zhou Siwei, Collector (40 years old), 2021, Oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space

In this context, “House of Perception” serves as a contemplation on the ontology of painting and as an exploration of the multifarious representation of the “transfigured” minds of painters under various influences, be it cultural, historical, philosophical, political or technological. By adding a deliberately designed irregular U-shaped wall in the middle of the space, the exhibition attempts to make a house within the “meta-house,” namely the gallery, which is further inhabited by the paintings that are also symbols of the mental abode, offering an experience of a mise en abyme both in space and in perception. As a visitor, you walk into a gallery, further into the walled space, to the frame of the painting, into the paintings themselves, then finally into the minds of the artists. The world is a household, so is the mind of the artist.

The two Fenstermalerei by Fredrik Værslev, installed on the inner and outer walls of the room-like structure, fall under the rubric of Victor I. Stoichita’s idea of the self-reflexive meta-picture, recalling Italian and Flemish paintings such as Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Huber and Jan van Eyck for Saint Bavo, the windows that frequented Henri Matisse’s paintings, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Fresh Widow (1920). Unlike Matisse’s use of the window as a device to introduce light and define spatial division, Værslev’s “windows” blur the boundary between painting and architecture, the external landscape and the mind’s inner view. The Renaissance art theorist Leon Battista Alberti in his treatise De Pictura maintains that painting is like an open window to the other world indicated by the borders of the frame, posing a structural link between the framing of the window and the making of an image. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has also commented on the importance of the frame: “I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.” As an “aesthetic boundary” defining the “ontological cut,” the frame is the key to the crystallization and enactment of the perceived vision of the artist, like the Taoist’s empty pot, like white pages awaiting writing. Without the frame, we cannot make images. Without painting, we cannot contemplate on what we see.

Fredrik Værslev, Fenstermalerei #1 (Window Painting #1), 2019, acrylic on canvas, wood frames, 244 x 162 x 5 cm @ Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space

The artist is not only the frame-maker and -beholder but also the frame-breaker. Enzo Cucchi, the seminal Neo-Expressionist painter of the Italian Transavanguardia movement, interrupts the painting frame by attaching a ceramic dove on the edge of his painting Untitled (2018), thus making the canvas aware of its own edge, us of the domain of our consciousness. Islamic miniature paintings that are obsessed with the use of border while sometimes allowing a tree protruding or birds soaring in and out of the inner picture frame also come to mind. If the world was a prison of perception, the artist who dwells in it would open the door with his transgressive imagination. That is where Cucchi’s painted dove embedded with a purple skull communes with the exited sculptural one, and the painting becomes the intermediary between life and death, a portal to the otherworldly. Perhaps this is what Huxley means by how the painter sees through “the mind’s eye” and gives form to that “sacramental vision of reality”[3].

Enzo Cucchi, Untitled, 2018, Oil and ceramic on canvas, 40 x 38 x 10 cm @ Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space

The frame can equally take the form of the human body, which also contains and constrains. Duan Jianyu and Xie Nanxing’s paintings are of this category, probing the body as a form of space that interacts with the social and political arena. Especially in Duan Jianyu’s Women Hiding in the Wardrobe to Avoid Chores (2021), a statement on the female body bound in the oppressive domestic space. Just as how mescalin makes Huxley lose his sense of time and space, Duan’s painting actively renounces them and follows the truism of feeling and experience reflected in her untamed choice of color and gestures.

Duan Jianyu, Women Hiding in the Wardrobe to Avoid Chores, 2021, Oil on canvas, 200 x 140 cm @ Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space

Sanya Kantarovsky, Heart, 2021, Watercolor and oil on linen, 80 x 60 cm @ Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space

The Moscow-born, New York-based painter Sanya Kantarovsky delves deeper into his psyche primed with a dark humour. The cartoony rendering of the figures in his paintings intensifies the surreal experience of perception by distorting and reforming reality with an air of jest and a feeling of angst, reflected in the lushness of the heart dug out of the body against a backdrop of a nonchalant boy in Heart (2021). What separates Kantarovsky’s work from those of other painters in the show is his relationship with literature. The framework of the fictional space encompassing Kafka, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Bulgakov and Marina Tsvetaeva among many others overlaps with the sphere of the canvas, which simultaneously tells a story without words.

“Every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude”[4] laments Huxley before taking mescalin, he finds the sense of oneness, unity with the All, the Eternity in a flower in seeing painting, which is the common language that is spoken in the house, the gallery, across the world, among disparate minds wandering between reality and fantasy, sanity and ecstasy.

[1]Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception. 1954. p. 9.

[2]Ibid, p.22.

[3]Ibid, p.6.

[4]Ibid, p.3.