PRINT April 1992


Ida Panicelli

Our everyday reality is held together by a theater of glances. Of all the organs of the senses, it is surely the eye that is solicited, aroused, titillated, and assaulted the most, and that absorbs the most varied stimuli, from the erotic to the intellectual. Not only images but words penetrate us through our eyes—in reading, that is in decoding, the primal act of incorporating the world as a mental image. In Greek mythology, the watchman Argus had a hundred eyes scattered over his body, and never closed all of them at the same time. Similarly, with Chevalier-Gheerbrant, we must admit that “existence is absorbed from the external world, in a vigilance that is always directed toward the outside”—even as we recognize that the constant flow of images that bombards us every day may in the long run weaken our sensitivity to them.

In this issue we have addressed looking, the primary act on which visual art depends. And in keeping with the theme's complexity, we have observed it from a number of points of view. Donald Kuspit, for one, explores the double spell that binds us when we look at art in a museum; he analyzes not only the psychological dimensions of esthetic experience under the museum's authority, but also the strategies of curating, both in Europe and in the United Stales. Unobtrusive yet pervasive, these strategies determine our perception of the an exhibited through them.

A person looks at another person's body: both observer and observed determine the knot of forces that condition this particular gaze. Four articles in this issue suggest different modes of perception of the body, particularly the female body. Ana Mendieta's gaze was projected from the inner self to the outside world; for Nancy Spero, Mendieta worked on the way the body belongs to the earth, on the memory—physical and spiritual—of its ancient relationship with nature. And she fearlessly embraced the symbolic, describing the “original” female form, excavating the earth as vagina. In contrast, Gaston Lachaise's woman is seen from and on the outside. Incarnating the desire of another, she is a projection screen for the male imagination. Her physical scale, or rather the exaggeration of the female parts of her body, Louise Bourgeois argues, is the measure of Lachaise's obsession. Therese Lichtenstein shows us the work of Claude Cahun, a little-known French Surrealist. Investigating her own sexuality, Cahun's gaze passed from self to self—these selves, however, being interior possibilities for her own identity. Cahun's auto-investigation questioned predetermined gender roles and expanded the codes of sexual behavior. Her disguises, and her manipulations, through photography, of fragments of her own body, suggest an acceptance of the difference and multiplicity within oneself. Finally, Ria Pacquée presents a different female mask, that of anonymity. Pacquée impersonates Madame, the quintessence of banality. But Madame's very obviousness alerts us to a double danger: first, that the individual, in an excess of conformity, will tend to adapt to the norm, disappearing into invisibility; and second, that contemporary society, blinded by the mythology of celebrity, perceives only the ostentatious ego, leaving an entire stratum of people—as if they were not people—at the margins.

Judith McWillie introduces us to the Southern artist Lonnie Holley, whose work so cherishes the divinatory traditions of African-American culture that it can truly be said to arrive at that initiatory state called “double sight,” which fuses spirituality, clairvoyance, and healing. Holley's way seems distant from the Western approach to art, but McWillie finds parallels in the fascination of the fourth dimension for artists such as Marcel Duchamp. Last, Lisa Liebmann analyzes Keith Sonnier's new work, which is based on relationships between systems of communication, information, and transportation. Pushing us toward an awareness of the transit (psychological transition, and also the transmission of data), Sonnier subverts our habitual perceptions, opening up new possibilities of interrelationship between space, time, and our senses.

Ida Panicelli