On the joy of puzzles
It is supposed to be the height of naivete to look at a painting like "Gothic Still life," by Barbara Swan, and wonder how the seemingly inert little blobs of paint on an artist's palette could be transformed into objects so real you want to touch them. It is not sophisticated to wonder how something as simple as these blobs of paint could capture something as intricate as the constantly changing prism of color caught in the top and bottom of a glass jar.
Yet however scorned, that naivete can start you noticing things that haven't been thought about since childhood. It also makes you wonder whether childhood was really enchanted, because everything was so simple. It might have been the other way around. Perhaps the very complexity of natural objects made an unending stream of things to explore and make into an adventure.
This very unchildlike picture gives the viewer new eyes for seeing. For instance, if we were to see the sculptured head in real life outside the picture , it would be easy for our adult eyes to pass off its coloring as just gray-brown.But in the picture the gray brown opens into a kaleidoscope of colors. The variety brought forth is not confusing or distracting, for each facet builds upon the other, giving the sculpted face an ever increasing blush of beauty as new hues are discovered.
The picture at first looks very serious, perhaps because it refers to 15 th-century sculpture, paintings by Rogier Van der Weyden and his workshop. These works of art are actually book, magazine, and postcard reproductions. However, the reproduction of the Van der Weyden "Descent From the Cross" is overlapped by the other artworks as if they were canvases just taken out of storage, being made ready to hang on the walls of a museum.
The table scarfs under the artworks, the blue background behind the sculpture , divides "Gothic Still Life" into blocks of bold color, reminiscent of abstract paintings by Hans Hofmann. The robes in the Van der Weyden -- smaller accents of red and blue -- seem to have broken away from these parent blocks of color and become deeper and richer with age.
Yet in spite of its seriousness, this picture takes you back to the time when discovering something new was an aspect of play; when a teakettle was not looked at as a means of making tea but as a reflective surface that made your face look funny. In the same way, these artworks are played upon, not as artifacts from different periods, but in order to see what happens to them in certain physical circumstances. In reality, the quilt to the left of the picture is completely separate from the figure in the Van der Weyden, but when they are reflected in the bottle, the quilt sneaks behind the figure and begins to wind itself around it. The reflected figure becomes attenuated, spiritual, almost like a statue on the doorjamb of a Gothic cathedral.
In spite of its realism, this picture does look a little Cubist, since the art reproductions are fragmented either by being placed behind each other or by being reflected in the glass jars. But this painting is more comforting than many Cubist works, because unlike them the fragments can always be pieced together to make an unbroken whole. In this still life there is no feeling that the universe is irrational. Disorientation comes from nothing more than misunderstanding or lack of information. To me, this painting even suggests that without some confusion in daily life, there would be no game to play, no puzzle pieces to put back together again.