Signs and Extended Metaphor

"Ella" oil on canvas with attached wood, © Antonio Dias

Signs pull apart the totality of perception. Tearing holes in the field of relationships. Stopping the eye and the mind. Forcing a precipitation of some part held in opposition.

This post is illustrated by a series of images of my work from various “genres” and across the span of three decades. This essay begins to explore why these are one body of work and not merely an eclectic mash-up of “styles.” And not just this work, but all visual expression, is within a single unified realm of perception and action.

"Penetration," oil on canvas with attached wood, metal and spun Fiberglass
“Penetration,” oil on canvas with attached wood, metal and spun Fiberglass
"Inside Outside," 72" x 72", oil on canvas with attached wood and spun fiberglass panels
“Inside Outside,” 72″ x 72″, oil on canvas with attached wood and fiberglass

The signs referred to in the opening passage, as they are found in painting, are marks representing concepts. They are read as stand-ins for what they signify. They correspond to the word in language. Both represent logos. If they predominate in a work of Art they tear at the fabric of totality and push us into linear thinking and reactions to what we project upon the work as against what is there to be seen. This is the realm of ideology. Where what is perceived is taken as imperfect stand-ins for some ideal. A perfect abstraction lying out there, somewhere else. This maintains expectation and anticipation as constant forces impinging on how we interpret the world. They strip our immersion in what is of any perception of meaning or value. We are catapulted into elsewhere, nowhere. Chasing utopia or fearing dystopia.

Our organism resists. We are embodied within a biological organism that has its – we could call them instincts or resonances. These guide our existence as living creatures moving around and doing things at a scale of time and space that we recognize. This does not separate us as human or even “living” creatures from everything else. It provides us with intuitions into the way life permeates all existence in ways that cannot be reduced to chemical or physical reactions.

In writing, extended metaphor breaks through this isolating quality of logos. Extended metaphor creates a field in which our mind is not held to literal, reductive, simplistic equations of this and that. Extended metaphor takes us from the realm of simple systems, like machines – and all the metaphoric attachments we have made to seeing the world and ourselves in this manner – and brings us into the realm of complex systems. We find ways to navigate complexity without falling into the defeat of fearfully reacting to complexity as chaos. We have a way of touching and responding to implication that does not continually risk sedimentation. When we persist within any simple metaphor we can be said to precipitate out of the flow of complexity and become frozen like the sediment precipitated to the bottom of a test tube. Extended metaphor, maintains us in solution. It does so by not resting with a single metaphoric connection, but by continually finding other connections that somehow rhyme and resonate with the Implicate Order. They create an environment of mind in which we are working in resonance with the holographic nature of the universe.

In painting, when we transcend the intentionality of the mark, a visual metaphor embodies direct visual perception. There is an amalgam formed combining ambiguity and familiarity. We sort out what we are seeing on the canvas as if we were viewing an actual space. We see a visual field sharing the space of the surface of the canvas. We respond to a fact-ness of these perceptions. As we see apparent light falling within a perceived space that correlates to our world in some way. This fact vibrates with the tangible materiality of paint and canvas. This is a visual equivalent to extended metaphor. Marks take on a holographic quality. They are both part and signifier of the whole. They exist as marks and as carriers of our visual perception. Looking at the surface of a painting we have an insight into the field as it is presented to us. This is not representation. It is presentation. The painting provides us with an experience. Not a description of an abstraction from experience. It is there before us with a heightened present-ness.

This is neither reductivist representation  nor abstraction. Such a painting can appear to be either of these types or a combination of the two. What distinguishes them from either genre, as we have come to expect them, is this direct experience, physical and material, which carries an insight into the field energizing its surface.

How is a painting metaphorical? This may seem difficult to grasp by those more familiar with writing than painting. The following is a response to clarify this relationship:

A sign acts like a word. It stands in for an idea and places it before the imagination.

The perception we have of visual space and light in a painting is a different kind of illusion. It seems that this can be likened to extended metaphor.

Metaphor, simple metaphors that create a single play on words, do not leave logos behind. They don’t resist the illusion of certainty or categorization.

Extended metaphor, and the illusion of space and light created on a painted surface, do resist. They are at once specific and also universal. They are apprehended as experiences and not as representations.

“Stepping aside,” as you describe metaphor,* could be a way of talking about what I’m ascribing to extended metaphor, whether written or visual.

Before getting into that, I just want to add – although not in reaction to anything you said but – it is a common assumption, especially among those who do not paint, to consider visual illusion to be somehow either a trick or just a common-place. Either way it is discounted as an artifact and not an arena of action.

There is a transparency that is unavoidably present when this aspect of a work is there and strong. We see the space and light as though they were there. Right there in front of us.

This is different in some ways – that I would consider superficial – to the way we see a scene as written. This transparency, this sense that what we are perceiving is a fact and not an arrived at artifice, is strengthened by an equal pull to hold our awareness to the physicality of paint and canvas. At the same time and in the same space.

To me this is analogous to the way the language in poetry, and poetic prose, generates a similar tug between transparency and a focus on the way it was made.

Kitsch, in painting or writing, dissolves any connection between the how and what is meant to be conveyed. The imagery is transparent – in the sense that we are manipulated into believing it is real, “It’s so realistic!”

The sentiment, as well as the language of written kitsch, is also transparent in this way. This is not the same kind of transparency as the other alluded to before. This is a transparency of manipulation. The message is fully grasped by its intention. An intention to convince, to create allies in negotiations. Every effort is made to hide the making so as to pull the recipient out of any sense of being an independent agent confronting a realized work on their own terms. We are to be swept-up by the rhetoric. Carried away on as simplistic an emotional level as it is possible to evoke in us. Being a lie from start to finish, and with no interest in confronting anything that might dilute the agenda behind its creation, it does not want to be open to inspection.

A work of extended metaphor holds to its contradictions and to every accident of its making. It carries its meaning holographically. This requires that all its aspects be visible so as to provide another avenue into its wholeness.

* A response within a conversation with Cat Lupton.

Signs are real. Logos exists. We cannot eliminate signs. We find them in random patterns. They are intrinsic to our perceptual matrix. That animals and plants have graphic shapes and patterns shows this receptivity to signs goes much deeper than just human cognition. It is reductive to attempt to remove any vestiges of signification from painting. Just as it is reductive to allow signs to dominate a work. It is in the play of sign and metaphorical perception that we reach painting’s full potential.

“Out” oil on canvas
“Tor” oil on canvas

Marks can also provide somatic clues. They embody gestures that our organism responds to as if facing another creature or force of nature. This acts on us as another form of visual metaphor. It acts on our perception, just as color and value relationships do, to provide us with another layer of experienced perception. Again, we are not reacting to a representation, but responding to a presentation with various degrees of connection and correspondence to our sense of the world.

This has been the thrust of my painting since the early eighties. It has taken a long time to recognize this. It has taken the self-destruction of the assumptions we held about Art in the late Twentieth Century to clear space for what this kind of painting might be.

This perspective opens up the possibility to approach painting from a variety of directions. To explore any part of our lives and our search for meaning. The key is in the way this perspective allows us to stay out of the traps of any reductive single point of view. This framework allows us to see all painting as part of a single enterprise and to relate them all through a shared, common language. This language is not stylistically bound within any parochial view of art history. It grows out of the fundamental nature of perception and signification and how they form our interpretations of what is.

This perspective opens painting as a viable and vibrant medium for any number of approaches to the implications of marks upon a visual field. It does this while helping us maintain a firm grasp on the perceptual basis of all our arts and everything we do.

This grasp gives us a field of play in which we are aware of our interplay with implication on all levels and without restricting ourselves to any reductivist oversimplification.

Making and confronting art in this way is an extension of experiencing the world. It allows us the opportunity to grapple with habit and find ways to integrate habit with insight, and so participate in the evolution of our relationship with consciousness.

In this way we are not trapped in our present conditioning. Nor are we expecting to find transcendence in an instant. Each change in us finds its manifestation in the work and has repercussions on everything that follows it. We work within a form of engagement with all realms, internally and externally perceived. Directly, and with a fluency of interconnection between their manifestations.

The external transfixes us. The internal infuses everything we see and do. These occur at time scales, from the perceptually instantaneous to decades – within our own lives – and even millennial spans of time – as we experience past art. In our confrontations with physical objects that carry within them means of expression and perspectives on meaning. All of this works to provide us with leverage and contact with all forms of reality. It does so with a character of clarity that is not available in any useful action. Without this realm of useless activity we have no way of anchoring our other endeavors in meaning that is actually perceived and not just fossilized into received belief and unexamined assumptions.

We leave a session in front of a canvas – whether as artist or viewer – changed in ways that cannot be arrived at in any other way.

This is analogous to our confrontations with written arts and performances of dance or drama. Each medium brings its own most direct form of engagement with the interstices of our perceptual experiences and our modes of action in the world. Each does not limit us to a single aspect of life. They all bring us into contact with everything, feeding each other and all of us as we take them on.

“Blue” oil on panel
“Peonies & Dried Hydrangeas” 22″ x 16″
“Beach Point” 27″ x 17.25″ oil on panel
“Sharpshooter on the Ways” 16″ x 20″

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

3 thoughts on “Signs and Extended Metaphor

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