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Published in: ARTSCAPE MAGAZINE, New York, Winter 09/10

Front door picture | photo by Clayton PattersonCan we agree that the bulk of current American art criticism and reviewing is remarkably shallow? Not only because contemporary art criticism embraces whatever set of ideas is modish, but also by exhibiting no grasp whatsoever of these ideas’ contexts or implications. As Robert Morgan has recently reminded us, this sad eclecticism is filled with blind spots, allowing it to grasp the significance of one important artist while, at the same time, ignoring an equally important, but shadowed, artist.

Although readers may follow me thus far, they probably won’t agree with my prescription for how to better the situation which is: through the cold bath of theory, an immersion in, and use of, the great German aestheticians, chief among them, Georg Hegel (1770-1831).

These reflections, possibly over-simplified, are brought into question by the publication of a collection of photographs by the avant-garde artist Clayton Patterson, entitled Front Door Book. Here is an artist of formidable creative vigor, who has shown in galleries and other venues, but has been much misunderstood, perhaps because the correct Hegelian categories were not applied.

The use of these demanding, but irreplaceable, categories are the only way to reveal the scope, diligence, and humanity of Patterson’s metaphysically complex project.

First, let me explain, or rather, let Patterson explain, since I will use his account, about how these pictures came to be and what they represent. “The photos are taken in front of the door at 161 Essex Street … the place I live” (93). The time frame “is basically from 1985 to 2002,” and the subjects, largely “Hispanics who lived on the Lower East Side” (93). He adds that he was able to take the photographs in an unhindered way because, as he puts it, “I traveled the whole community. Everyone knows I live there. I’ve always been open about who I am and where I live. This kind of documentary work must be done with honesty and integrity” (94). Once he took the pictures, he then displayed them in his storefront window. “Being in the window gave you fame. It grew into a neighborhood tradition: it gave you pride, self-respect … a place of honor in the community” (94).

A quick look through the book will clarify certain points about the pictures, while also opening one’s view to the challenges the artist faced. Most significantly these are all group portraits. Contrary to the general tenor of the Western art tradition, where a portrait is so often a way to convey the dignity and elegance of a single sitter, per contra, for Patterson, one has to go through the group to understand the individual, who, deep down, expresses not his or her individual self, but one aspect of the small collection of people.

To see what I mean, take the pictures on page 35, as an example. The stances, the disposal of limbs, the relaxation or tensing of muscles, the glances: everything is used to indicate ties within the small, improvised collective. In the picture in the upper left, the biggest of three boys is astride a small bike. His right arm, while resting on one handlebar, also encircles a smaller boy who stands, staring seriously, between his legs. The picture on the lower right depicts two girls. The more vivacious one, judging from her smile and striped shirt, gives a sign with one hand as the other rests casually on her friend’s shoulder. She is leaning in a way that would put her off balance, but her friend is the rock of stability.

All this is to say, that the further ones goes into each picture’s internal dynamics, and through the book, the more rarified, elaborate, and rich become the vision of friend, family, and gang ties.

Yet, a viewer might challenge the artist in this way: “It seems you are depicting poor people who are so enmeshed in their own groups that they lack true individuality? Don’t these dwellers in a downbeat neighborhood have unique personalities or are they only part of an undifferentiated mass to you?”

Some may say such thoughts are unwarranted, given the grace and humanity of the depictions, but let’s use them as a starting point to go a little deeper into the material--with Hegel, the German philosopher, as our guide.

Hegel knows only three ages of art and in order to understand their essences we must first sketch his world picture, noting, that he shares the homocentric view of his times by using the word “man” to subsume male and female. “Things in nature are only immediate and single, while man, as spirit, duplicates himself” (31). The human being lives both in the world of sensuous things and in the higher intellectual world, the Platonic world of ideas and conceptualization. So where does art come in? “The universal need for art…is man’s rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes his own self” (31). To make the world a real home, the artist gives outward things--from cities to animals to tragic events--a deeply human spin.

In the first age, that of abstraction, which Hegel identifies with ancient civilizations, such as the Indian or the Egyptian: “perceived natural objects … [have] the substantial Idea…imposed on them as their meaning so that they now acquire a vocation to express it” (76). The operative word is “imposed” since artists recognize the necessity of marrying the idea to sensuous externals but lack the capacity to do so except in an obviously forced manner.

Front door picture | photo by Clayton PattersonThe next, classical ages of Greek and Rome go in the opposite direction in that the merger of outer and inner is so perfect that the distinction between the two disappears. The work of art “is the free and adequate embodiment of the Idea in the shape peculiarly appropriate to the Idea itself” (77). However, this unity has a defective side. “In this blending of the two, spirit is not, in fact, represented in its true nature…[in that] absolute inwardness cannot freely and truly shape itself outwardly” (79). The beauty of the Greek statue, then, is illusory since it is too harmonious.

Truer to the relation of spirit and sensuousness is Romantic art, which covers everything from the Middle Ages to Hegel’s own day, since it reveals the disruptive nature of the pairing. “The unity of divine and human nature is raised from an immediate to a known unity, the true element for the realization of this content…[is] the inwardness of self-consciousness” (80). In other terms, in works such as Rembrandt’s portraits, the consciousness of both the person depicted, and of the painter, visible in his touch, illuminates a contrast between self-awareness and the contents of the picture, flooded, but not overcome, by personal inwardness.

It may seem we have wandered far a field from the humble Front Door Book, but let’s take a crack at answering the imaginary question posed earlier--about whether Patterson’s work underplayed the individuality of his subjects--with the critical use of Hegel’s thoughts.

For the Protestant Hegel, the Romantic style of art, which contrasts the inward luminescence of the spirit, or human consciousness, against the outer world in a way that inextricably links them while still emphasizing their distinctiveness, the two spheres arise from the contrast of body versus Christian soul. In a more secular view, I would like to explain this duality, by moving through Émile Durkheim, considered by many to be the father of sociology. It will be remembered that, in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the French writer argues that the magical, spiritual, all-pervasive force of manna, central to Aboriginal thought, is a substitute for the equally-hard-to-grasp sense of community. Spirit is an abstraction for the tribe.

That’s putting his ideas too crudely, of course, but let’s apply his way of looking at things to the photos at hand. Patterson says, “I live in the community and take pictures of the associates in this life.” (94). If we slightly reframe Hegel’s categories, so the higher level is not the individual, though this level is still significant, but in the group, the Hegelian dyad is changed from objective/subjective to individual/community. In both case, the first term is real in a common sense way; while the second is a partially imaginary entity, which is nonetheless equally real.

To bring this down to cases and search out how Patterson depicts this imagined entity in the same way that Rembrandt depicts the imagined entity of spirituality, let’s look at some pictures, first of all keeping in mind that a collection of pictures, even shown in a store window, does not give unity to a neighborhood. This unity has to be created in each, single frame through the concrete depiction of the lines of solidarity.

So how do these lines flow? What do they indicate? Look at page 46, upper left. Three young men are holding a fourth person aloft, his arms spread as if he were flying above the pavement. The trio holding him forms a triangle since the fellow in the middle is the tallest of the group. He is the most quietly smiling of the three, the others grinning with abandon and showing many teeth. Let me note one powerful effect. The two outer pillars have almost identically colored blue slacks, while the youth in the middle wears pants that are deep black, blending and disappearing into the black door behind him, making it seem as if this were a blank space. Such an illusion doesn’t lift the held-up person any higher but increases the sense that he is flying. It goes without saying that these three friends are starkly indicating how they can trust themselves in each other’s hands and that Patterson’s masterful sense of composition deepens the experience.

Color, too, is another tool used by the photographer to shine light on community ties. On page 52, upper right, a black-shirted, slightly taller, slightly chubby youth stands between two friends, her arms forking over their shoulders. One of the encircled, sports a bright yellow tee shirt, the other has a shirt the same color as that of the man in the middle. The hand draped over this last-mentioned fellow holds a small, bright red lollipop. Since these are short kids, much of the white graffiti on the black door is visible above their heads. The two vividly contrasted colors on the outer shirts, the youth haloed by the electric markings on the door; all this perfectly suggests a summation, a yin-and-yang completion, Kant’s manifold of all sensory experience. It’s a vivid pictorial example of Patterson’s statement: “This was a private world that belonged to the people in it” (94).

Front door picture | photo by Clayton PattersonThe majority of these pictures are of young people for this is a young community, and perhaps this accounts for the exceptional vivacity and unblushing beauty in so many of the pictures. But loveliness is also a social attribute.

The standard of beauty changes, or evolves, with the society. To speak of the ideal applied to women, for example, one age prefers the leaner, though not willowy, nudes of Botticelli while another prefers the more robust, fuller forms of Rubens’ nudes. America today is haunted, polluted, and corrupted by the store-bought, Caucasian, Barbie-look beauty, which is advanced by advertising and mainstream media as the height of feminine glory. But other countries, as my trips to Guangzhou, China have taught me, have little notion of this standard of beauty, and are fiercely independent in upholding their own native versions of beauty.

What Patterson’s intense dissection of the passage of the Lower East Side through a rather brief unity of time indicates is that the community, too, has evolved, its own special sense of loveliness, juxtaposed to that of mega-society.

It doesn’t require reading Plato’s Symposium to see that beauty is intimately connected to other values. The Barbie image is tied to social control since the doll’s features: unblemished, chiseled, coated with creams and makeup, is not a natural state but one that is only available through purchase. But the beauty standard in the Lower East Side (L.E.S.) is quite distinct from that.

Take >page 63, upper left. There is much use of shadows here as two young ladies stand, both with backpacks. The one on the left is wearing a denim jacket and flannel shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers and has her hair pulled back so it is nearly invisible. The one on the left, with prominent bangs and long hair, is dressed in a white-and-blue, striped blouse, lighter blue jeans and black gym shoes. The light falls more on the figure to the left while the girl on the right is more shaded in; but both are lighted by tender, infectious smiles. Both represent different types of beauty as they look outward, to the left, modest, sincere; to the right, gleeful and charming. Their beauty is not primarily conveyed by symmetrical lines and ideal proportions, but by the sense of being fully alive and part of a larger whole, even if it’s only the two of them.

What are the primary values such pictures uphold? One is the idea that the richness of individual loveliness only can be fully viewed in a moment of juxtaposition. The other that the L.E.S. has always been, and will always be, the place where the young take such joy in their courage.More could be said, but it should be evident that Hegel’s great appreciation for art, in all its depths and richness, is the only view that makes a suitable match and gives a viable way to understand the intricacies and virtues we find when we open the Front Door Book.

CITED: G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Volume 1, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)
Clayton Patterson, Front Door Book (New York: O.H.W.O.W., 2009)