Monday, March 19, 2007

Still Life Osmosis

Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life Majolica with Wildflowers

(This post is stolen from inspired by concepts and readings from Dr. Bill Nericcio's English 725 Ethnic American Literature Seminar and especially from a close reading of Chapter 5 of Tex{t}-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the Mexican in America, a fine study of Frida Kahlo and Gilberto Hernandez titled "Xicanosmosis: Frida Kahlo and Mexico in the Eyes of Gilbert Hernandez.)

When we got civilized, Westerners in the Old World built walls to separate the inside from the outside, and for many years, most of us thought they separated us from the natural world--the walls protected us from cold and rain but cut us off from the pretty stuff, too, such as blue skies and flowers. Pretty soon, we started trying to bring the outside in through representation. The idea was to decorate our houses with tamed images of nature, pictures that didn't have all those funny smells and runny fluids associated with biological stuff.
This detail from a Pompeian fresco shows how the architectural borders become natural representational windows; later, when painters got framed into the making art (with a Capitalist A) even tortured souls such as Vincent Van Gogh stuffed their inspired visions of the natural world into tidy pictures that didn't get dirt on the floor.

When the Colonists came to impose their wallish borders on the indigenous peoples of America, they ran into osmosis.
Gilberto Hernandez's frame from his graphic novel series on the magically realist Palomar shows us the problem for the conquistador of the New World: stuck in an environment that has no walls or borders, the photographer is forced to realize his own position, a position that is ozmotically connected to everything, especially connected to the people who make a habit of picking stuff up and bringing it inside.

The people who met the colonizers had still lifes, but the art they made, at least from the perspective of the art dealer-border guards, didn't fit in the dualism of inside and outside, wild and civilized, natural and artificial. Most importantly, these emergent ozmoticians--and we can include Van Gogh among their number--engaged, in their arts, in a valiant effort to increase the permeability of the borders that civilization put between the bodily natural, the inner spirit, and the outer representation, recognizing that the ozmotic process is not one of separation, of keeping things--molecules, energies, fluids, psyches, experiences, flowers--apart but a way to comingle them, to assert the connectivity between the natural and us. The doorway into the natural has one (of many) permeable pathway, and that is our own bodies, the way we perceive, the experience we share when we make or look at art. Artistic border crossers, some of them, start here.

The establishment types, colonists of nature and used to seeing safe and non-throbbing representations framed on the wall, thought that idea was kind of icky.

When Frida Kahlo presented the still life above (Naturaleza Muerta (Tondo), 1942) to the wife of the president of Mexico, the story goes, she refused it--presumably because of its oh-so-biologically-female innards represented as fruit. That's the story, and it makes sense, but the most dangerous thing, for the indigenously inclined, is not the representation of female parts, but the illegal osmosis of perceiving the wild inside us, connected to the wild all around us, outside.

But those Mexican artists haven't given up, despite the danger, as a photograph of a pear, a classic still life subject, by Flor Guarduño shows. This naturaleza muerta brings the natural reproductive system into the house and leans it up against a wall, seducing us into a voyeuristic pear-slit attraction, undeniably inviting us to peer into the pears natural insides, exposing us to the wilderness of our own representationally scandalous ideations.

This photograph makes me hot for pears, and according to the Colonial paradigm, that ain't right.

South California artist Hernandez does it--that is, lives in the semi-permeable, osmotic moment--in his magical realism, embedded in the graphic novels, serialized in comic form in the Love and Rockets series. His experience with still lifes is probably more like the orange crate here than some painterly pot of flowers, so he comes at it from a different perspective--that of a South Central L.A. chicano dude--but the osmosis happens anyway, even though in his cinematic, people-centered space a still life more probably is a dead memory of representation--but still an indigenous text of graphically natural representation:

Hernandez does an ultimate form of ozmotic function--he portrays natural people in his art, indigenous people who are not "corrupted" by Western civilization but who function in the semi-permeable states, what some might call "on the border" but what is important here--at least for me--is that these people don't "cross", they live in the membrane, on the border, in the place where the osmosis happens. They emerge, Hernandez emerges, not as a new type of, as Nericcio puts it, "border as wound, border as hyphen" but within a look at the process of "absorption, evaporation, and secretion" that flows both ways--indeed in many directions--across borders that are culturally, geographically, historically, psychologically, scientifically constructed to traditionally divide things but in reality connect them (195-96). This type of osmosis doesn't happen at the approved sites of the Mexican-American War but all over culture, art creatively emerging as a process of osmosis. So a still life lies in our naturally occurring function of permeability, our human, geological, biological flow that depends on the connective tissue in our heads and on our bodies for its creative function, a function that creates beings of beauty who are functions of osmosis.