Friday, August 31, 2018

Fernando Casas - Interior with Disappearing Mirror - After Velázquez - A Closer Look - Essay

Fernando Casas, Interior with Disappearing Mirror - After Velázquez 

Fernando Casas said "At the moment I am working on a painting I wanted to paint for over 40 years..."  (Virginia Billeaud Anderson writes an essay about Fernando Casas' painting Interior with Disappearing Mirror - After Velázquez, which Casas considers a cornerstone of his career.)

Fernando Casas - Interior with Disappearing Mirror - After Velázquez - A Closer Look - Essay

Fernando Casas would be residing with the shades at this moment if the tree branch had fallen on his head instead of his arm.  Here’s how I imagine Casas’ transition, he floats into the ether where his essence is embraced by Aristotle, Augustine, Leonardo, Piero della Francesca and a multitude of other professorial scribes.  Think of Count Orgaz’s burial, and you get the picture.

Fortunately, the artist wasn’t killed, but I wondered if his tree trimming accident hastened the creation of Interior with Disappearing Mirror - After Velázquez by reminding him that his project loomed.  Overly-dramatic speculation, no?  At the very least it would be a pain in the ass to have an ambitious idea for a painting and a useless arm.

Unequivocally, Casas regards Interior with Disappearing Mirror - After Velázquez to be a cornerstone of his career.  He told me so, and I quote, “At the moment I am working on a painting I wanted to paint for over 40 years.  It is really THE painting I wanted to do all my life.  It is my answer to Las Meninas - the painting I most admire.

So I went to Casas’ studio to see THE painting he wanted to do all his life, his answer to Las Meninas, and naturally found a painting conversant with Velázquez’s use of mirrors to paint his image into a royal group portrait, with canine.  That’s not all I found.  Interior with Disappearing Mirror cites philosophical ideas Casas has been developing for many years related to human visual perception, pictorial representation and perspective mapping of the visual field.

It’s not my intention to describe Fernando Casas’ up-coming exhibition Limits and Proximities at Gremillion and Co. Fine Art, September 13 through October 13, 2018, which features Interior with Disappearing Mirror - After Velázquez.  Others will surely do that.  I simply want to say a few things about Interior with Disappearing Mirror - After Velázquez.

Casas and I began our visit talking about fun stuff, unrelated to art, such as his lap-swimming workouts and French language studies, the Philosophy classes he taught at Rice University, and his jumbled-up ancestry, “we’re total mutts.”  In the same breath he told me about the Marxist priests who practiced brain washing when he was a student in Bolivia.  Then he identified the players in his painting.  The woman in the rocking chair is a portrait of Rebeca Heidbreder, Casas’ niece, his sister Becky Soria’s daughter.  According to Casas, when Rebeca was a few months old he gave her the nickname “MININA” because she was “as pretty as a little kitten, and Minina is a slang term for kitten.”  Arguably, Rebeca’s eerie resemblance to her mother Becky links this painting to the Botticelli-inflected Flora (1982), in which Becky’s image appears twice, in different moments in time, once with rocking chair.

Standing near Minina is the image of a man wearing jeans and glasses.  Here is a portrait of Terry Drake, Casas’ closest person, his closest support.  I’m only beginning to become acquainted with Terry but can attest to the fact that he’s an ex-corporate guy, has the guts to climb a tree that needs trimming, and is decidedly discerning about expensive, slowly aged balsamic.

I was curious about the questionable character wearing shorts and looking at his watch on the composition’s far edge.  Bruce!  Casas’ friendship with Bruce Leutwyler reaches back many decades, and feeds off shared intellectual interests.  You get a sense of their bookish entanglement if you read acknowledgements in Casas’ published writings, for example the 1984 paper on perspective which states, “some of the ideas … developed from long discussions with my friend Bruce Leutwyler.  In fact, it was he who first saw the potential of polar perspective for representing more than three spatial dimensions.  His critical and substantive insights have been a constant guide to my work on perspective and he is largely responsible for the existence of polar perspective.”  I know of three other papers in which Casas acknowledged Bruce.

Bruce has oracular presence in other artworks, however his inclusion in Interior with Disappearing Mirror appears to have been an afterthought.  This is construed from the portrait’s absence from Casas’ preliminary drawing, it entered the painting’s composition after the preliminary sketch was complete.  “I added him for our constant intellectual dialogue,” Casas said.  “Similar to how Velázquez painted his relative Nieto in the background of Las Meninas (José Nieto Velázquez, a Spanish court official), standing in a doorway and lifting a curtain, to symbolize the opening of visual space.”

Impatient with chit-chat about humans, Gaia glared at me from her queenly position on the couch, and Karma decided it would be fun to knock me on the floor but settled for knocking my notes on the floor.  “Velázquez’s dog was front and center.”  Casas is referring to Philip IV’s hound.  In Velázquez’s brilliant representation, the royal beast seems to be aware of his privileged position in the King’s household, one gathers this from the manner in which he tolerates the child servant’s harassment and allows the brat to kick him.  Twenty years prior, Velázquez revealed instinctive knowledge of animals in the history painting The Surrender of Breda (1635), when he fashioned a large foreground horse which indecorously lifts its back leg while a momentous historical event is taking place.

“As her name indicates, Gaia is the mother of the universe and behaves accordingly.”  With my nose very close to his dogs’ portraits, it occurred to me that Casas had successfully lassoed their comportment and the differences in their personalities as well.  Gaia on the pillow in the background, appears somewhat disinterested in human shenanigans.  Karma in the foreground, even plopped on the floor, is acutely alert, nosy, calibrated to everything.  Karma takes frontal position, no surprises there.”

It annoyed the dogs, but I shifted my attention to Casas’ self-portrait.  Both of them.  The old man holding a palette is Fernando Casas, but I have no idea who the headless guy is.”  No problem Fernando, I know who the headless geezer is, I wrote about him in 2014.  The figure is emblematic of the part of the visual field we are unable to see.  We humans can’t see our own centers of consciousness.  The source of our perception, the place from which we experience the world, moreover the location of the real self, is an inescapable blind spot or void in our visual field.  After studying his peripheral vision and rigorously mapping the surrounding space, Casas landed on the “startling and profound” realization that the visual world is discontinuous and incomplete.  As he said in a paper, the visual world depends for its very existence on the presence of a conscious observer who is paradoxically both present in and absent from it.

The headless figure has iconographic weight, but the highest ranking image in Casas’ repertoire is his studio.  He built it himself with the help of a friend about 40 years ago.  “Everything,” I asked, “electrical and plumbing?”  “I contracted out the septic system.”

When Casas designed his studio “in the country” near Magnolia Texas, he architecturally arranged windows and French doors to incorporate the surrounding woods.  It was crucial to merge interior living space with nature.  He calls the studio “his universe.”

His painting replicates its “stuff.”  You see spread around the predictable props he uses every day, easel, brushes, a paint splattered floor.  That rather curious contraption sitting on Casas’ easel is his smart phone.  The Samsung’s camera effectively serves as a modern substitute for Velázquez’s mirror by allowing the artist to see his own image.

Notice the pile of messy books on the floor in the background, they denote artistic influence.  One is about Anselm Kiefer, and there is another about Lucien Freud.  “Although Freud’s view of humanity is dark, I studied these great paintings of the human figure in Dallas, one of the greatest exhibitions I’ve ever seen in my life, that space that frames his figures.  I hope mine are not as violent and cruel, that I’m not as brutal.”

Velázquez unveiled a working studio as well, and as I reminded Casas, packed it with confounding associations.  One in particular I recall from graduate school centers on the paintings of Apollo and the Greek gods on the back wall.  Its implication that art is divine conversely unfurls a secular view of human interior consciousness.  Additionally, the room approximates death, it had been the deceased prince’s bedroom, and King Philip would soon die.  No different with Casas.  Humans who inhabit his studio disarmingly march toward death.  “My studio is a subject of depiction in all my works.”

VBA: Yea, but how come everything looks curved?

FC: A pictorial illustration of surrounding visual space has curvature.  The dimension of time is an essential element.

VBA: Jesus Christ Fernando, you’re talking over my head!

Admittedly, some of the ideas driving Casas’ work are too advanced for me.  No wonder an "ARTnews" guru described his art as “hyper-intellectual.”

Using the most simplistic of terms, here’s what I understand.  In the 1970s Casas joined the chorus of Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Gombrich and others who nailed the coffin lid on linear perspective as an inadequate form of representation because it disregarded optical truth, and he devised a more effective perspective system.  Observation told him the visual field was spherical, with interesting visual phenomena on its periphery, and that when mapping the perceptual concentric sphere on a flat surface one essentially stretched the sphere or bubble flat.  Casas developed a six vanishing points perspective model to transform the curved image into a flat picture, and titled it “Flat Sphere Perspective.”  With Flat Sphere Perspective he is able to represent the entire surrounding visual world, except of course, his head or visual void which is ultimately his center of consciousness.

Aesthetic tweaking might be required.  Images stretched flat suffer line distortion, due to curvature of space.  The distortion is visible in Rebeca’s limbs, which are too long in her rocking chair.  They would be longer however if Casas hadn’t finagled the image into a satisfying portrait which reflects his subject’s inner life.  “The trick is to make them look natural in curved space, you want distortion yet want to retain their humanity, not be tyrannized by the math.”  Extreme elongation of Rebeca’s limbs in the painting Minina (1990), by comparison, makes a freakish rendering, but more truthfully represents curved images stretched flat.

It gets more cerebral.  Physicists assure us that in a multi-dimensional universe, space and time assume each other.  Casas determined that the most effective graphical or perspective system to represent visual reality would be a series of connected Flat Sphere images along moments in time.  He titled the perspective scheme based on three spatial dimensions and time, “Polar Perspective.”  His painting’s curved walls and distorted objects illustrate Flat Sphere images in time, in fact time is an integral component of the viewer glancing at Bruce looking at his watch on the composition's edge.  I was tempted to glean from Bruce’s insular form, impatience with stupid people, however it more accurately chronicles a flattened spherical image in a moment in time.

If your head is starting to hurt, it happened to Piero.  Piero della Francesca’s work to formulaically develop theories of perspective and apply them to his paintings caused him an attack of catarrh.  This regrettable fact comes from Vasari.  Since Vasari can at times be unreliable, take comfort in Plato’s more sound belief that catarrh and flatulence, which he called disgraceful, were simply due to indolence and luxury and could be rectified at the gym.

By the time Casas offered the supplemental tidbit that the line distortion of a concentric bubble which is stretched to a flat sphere is no different from the “spaghettification” of objects stretched in a black hole’s gravitational field, I needed booze.  Las Meninas similarly depleted me.  Nothing like the Velázquez to send you running to one of those fine old Madrid bars where the drinks and olives are set down faster than your butt can hit the stool.

Try to imagine seeing it twenty times.  “Although when I first started going, it was during Franco’s time, there were no tourists to get in the way.  Sometimes I got to be all alone with it.”  If Casas continues to trot back and forth to be with the painting he most admires, credit its unfailing status as one of the most profound and enigmatic paintings in the world.  His nibs Schjeldahl (“The New Yorker” mag) summed up Las Meninas by framing it resoundingly against Manet’s quote, “after this, I don’t know why the rest of us paint.”  Further, Casas teaches it.  “The painting is revolutionary, both politically and philosophically,” he told me more than once.

A final point about Casas’ process.  During our discussion about new-fangled cell phone cameras as artist tool, Casas mentioned David Hockney’s theory that Renaissance masters used optical devices.  Hockney believed the masters’ precision was proof of their use of gadgets because perfection was impossible to achieve from “eyeballing” a subject.  He said Velázquez's and Caravaggio’s lack of preparatory studies evidenced their use of mirrors and lenses, and interestingly our museum’s Gary Tinterow who was at the Metropolitan Museum at the time concurred that Hockney’s ideas warranted investigation.  Unlike Velázquez, Casas created a preliminary sketch, the same size as his painting, which means he went from cell phone photography to paper sketch to canvas.

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