Nicholas Baxter

Shapeshifting

Or, The Transmutation of Artistic Critique.

While reading Becoming Animal, a beautiful treatise on the sensual interaction between humans and the perceptual world around us written by David Abram, I came across a startling bit of truth that resonated with my visual artist’s mindset.

In this passage Abram brilliantly describes the perceptual shift that occurs within the author upon receiving the critique of a peer or colleague–and even more poignantly–the mysterious shift that occurs before the critique is even rendered, like the extrasensory perception of a wild animal fleeing from an as-yet unnoticeable oncoming storm.

Abram elucidates (and I can confirm with my own experience) that these mental shifts are very real phenomenon stemming from our almost-forgotten animal awareness of the perceptual field our consciousness is not only immersed in, but continuously creating.

Below is an adaptation of Abram’s passage (Shapeshifting: Magic II, pp.232-33), with all words referring to being an author adjusted, by me, to instead refer to visual art. I think any experienced artist will powerfully relate to the concept described here, and find that it holds true through any of the creative disciplines.

“It is a type of transmutation well known, I suspect, to many artists, although precious few probably notice how bizarre this phenomenon really is.  It shows itself when, after laboring over some painting, I send a draft to a couple friends or colleagues in hopes that they might view it.  Whenever one of them subsequently mentions (on the phone, perhaps) that she is now perusing the piece, then–at that moment–a curious change occurs in the picture.  When I  glance at my original painting, I find that every brush stroke has been altered, some dramatically, some only slightly.  It’s the damnedest thing.  But wait: looking closer, it appears that the precise marks I’ve rendered are still the same, as is the color of those marks, and the space between them.  Yet the whole thing looks different.  Problems I hadn’t seen before are glaringly apparent, while previously unnoticed elegances also reveal themselves, gleaming like half-hidden gems among the clumped grass of the rendered marks.  For now I’m viewing the image with eyes very different from my own.  My colleague has not even called me back to tell of her reaction to my piece.  In all likelihood, she hasn’t yet viewed it.  It doesn’t matter.  I do not need to know if she likes or despises the thing, only that she is viewing it.  That knowledge, alone, suffices to activate a dramatically different encounter for me with what I’ve painted.  And if I learn that another friend is viewing it, then the image will transform yet again.

“Once I discovered this shapeshifting, polymorphous capability in my visual works, I realized that as a painter I’d be much better served if I could effect these transformations on my own, before sending the photographed painting out to be viewed by anyone else.  After finishing the frst layers of subsequent paintings, I undertook to view them from the imagined perspective of various colleagues.  But to no avail.  I was simply unable to conjure, on my own, any clear change in the texture and feel of what I’d painted.  Only by sharing it with others did the metamorphosis occur…

“Even at this very moment, then, your perusing of the images on this site is already influencing them, changing their tones, torquing the way they feel to others, and to me.”