Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality, Atlas of the Iconic Turn
De Gruyter, Berlin, Germany, 2020
440 pp., illus.104 col. Trade and .pdf, $37.00
I’m reminded of M.C. Escher’s famous drawing of hands drawing hands with this book. Luca Del Baldo's Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality is a reflective/reflexive study, literally an iconic turnabout in a dialogue between artist and scholars from a variety of disciplines. The artist worked from photographs provided by the scholars to produce lifelike hyper real representations of the scholars and invited these people to respond to the paintings in exchange for the paintings themselves. Of course, what we have in this weighty hard cover book are photographs of the paintings of the photographs and so the reciprocal responses are yet again postponed (at least, as I see it).
As a psychologist with a particular interest in mind body philosophy and the reciprocity of human perception as we go about our engagement in the world, this book both stirs up my interest, but slight irritation as well. The invitation to the scholars, art historians, philosophers, historians, ethnologists, social scientists, and the like are definitely intriguing. Some responded with rawness and blunt curiosity regarding the representation of their me-ness, their face, while others have written somewhat avoidant pieces. Of the former, Noam Chomsky’s pithy response of “The portrait is highly evocative, and if it were someone else, I think I could comment on it,” (a sentence in the presentation of a single paragraph) rather sums up the intrinsic philosophical problems inherent in this whole enterprise, indeed in the business of the paradox of face, facial identity and self-awareness. How do we know ourselves from an alien representation of that self as it is proposed from a photograph that captured us in a moment in time? Can we identify a greater reality of selfhood when that photograph has been taken and turned, through human artistry, into a painting, or does that process remove the recipient as well as the viewer even further away from the integrity of the person themselves? This question would be more easily answered if the painter had responded less photographically and more interpretatively to the photographs he found on the internet. What we have instead is more representation, less interpretation.
Del Baldo’s paintings are hyper real. This makes the representations a bit cold, I think. There is no sense of personal encounter that the artist may well have had with the subjects themselves (and don’t we generally have subjective responses to the philosophical ideas of others). This obscuration would have been very different if the paintings were more interpretative than representational. The paintings look more like painterly photographs than interpretative paintings in their own right.
A "result (that) is a unique and profound conversation between image and text focussed on the enigma of the human face in all its mediations" (W.J.T. Mitchell, from the Introduction to the book), I’m not so sure. I suggest that the lack of painterly interpretation of the photographic images would have produced entirely different levels of engagement by the subjects than is produced in this book. It could be said that Del Baldo’s restraint created the avoidant responses from the subjects that support his thesis that essentially very Escheresque: the drawing of the hand drawing the hand drawing the hand, or as a postmodernist would exclaim, “reality is endlessly postponed”.