White Light, White Heat: Gary Nickard’s Leviathan
By Karen Elliot
“Nothing can be sadder and more disconcerting than this position in the world: the only spark of life in the vast kingdom of Death, the lone center in a lone circle. With its two or three mysterious subjects, the picture seems an apocalypse, as though it had Young’s Night Reflections, and because in its sameness and boundlessness it has nothing but its frame as a foreground, it
is as though one’s eyelids had been cut away…” – Heinrich von Kleist
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?” – Herman Melville
On one level literature and art seem to inhabit entirely different realms of intellectual discourse, yet some, Gary Nickard among them, are impatient with these arbitrary boundaries. Playing off of the cosmic allegory of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick, Nickard’s Leviathan is a visual conflation of the concepts of an apocalyptic sublime (as found in romantic era literature and philosophy) with a postmodern consideration of modern science. While Melville himself may never have produced visual art, he was nonetheless a consummate imageist who painted with words, creating elaborate, often quite abstract metaphors, which followed what he called an “aesthetic of the indistinct.” Nickard’s art, like that of Melville’s, is based upon a direct apprehension of the fact of nature. Yet at the same time Nickard asserts that he has become “increasingly aware of the inevitable subjectivity of our perception of nature” and that “the perceived object is wholly dependent upon the medium through which it is seen” and “ultimately, all knowledge” he says “comes down to belief.” Nickard’s direction of our perception through the perspective of the materials he has chosen to work with, collectively force these perceptions to remain purposefully indistinct, in both subject and object. Reality, so indistinctly perceived, can be quite slippery and treacherous. Yet this is only true to life, not only technically and perceptually, but also imaginatively and emotionally.
1. Abstraction and Negation
These images, in company with most abstract art, beg obvious questions: Should they be viewed contextually or formally? How should they be read for intention and meaning? Where is the author in these works? These are seemingly irreconcilable quandaries which have never been definitively resolved for abstract art, and probably never will. Richly detailed though these works are when examined closely, they consciously deprive the viewer of easy rewards. Nickard states (perhaps with some irony) that he has “never been much of a formalist,” insisting that “content obsesses” him. In looking at his images one must ask what content could be present in them? He asserts; “Leviathan is a kind of philosophical rumination upon human perceptions of nature,” envisioning this project as “an aesthetic attempt to lend eloquence to that obdurate blankness – the enigma of our existence.” In this work it seems as if the tragic, as a Hellenistic cultural idea, has been replaced by a starker image which summons, through the metaphysical implications of darkness and light, a more Beckett-like tragedy – an existential mood closer to the absurd – resonant of the inescapable dilemma of emergency, rather than the tonic catharsis of the Greeks.
Nickard’s images pose an obvious question (one that would not have been asked thirty years ago) can abstract images possess the meanings herein ascribed to them? How odd to find oneself asking that question after over eighty years of abstract art. Yet it must be asked, now that postmodernism devalues the achievements of modernism at large. Abstraction, seeming to be equally idealistic and subversive of “reality,” and by implication, of humankind’s place in the world, has historically had a quasi-political content forced upon it and has consequently become suspect. Aside from the usual convolutions of artistic fashion, there is something slightly sinister about this. Despite the problematic history of abstraction, these works, Nickard’s most demanding to date, should be seen as they are – as visual equivalents of the epic literature he cites – as well as establishing a perspective which might possibly refute the facile charge that abstract art is somehow handicapped in its reach.
There is also a deeper play of meaning going on in these abstractions: they are, in fact “ready-made” or “appropriated” images. It must be noted that these non-objective geometric abstractions were originally constructed to be objective informational evidence about atomic structures. As such they were, in the eyes of their makers, documents of nature’s microcosm. Wrenched from their prior informational context and thrust into the arena of art by being aestheticised, these radical recontextualizations play off late modernist minimalism. Minimalism has occasionally been described in scientific terms. Nickard sums up its present state as being: “modernist reductionism collapsed under its own critical mass into a singularity, spinning rapidly and refusing to give off light.” While many contemporary artists now see abstraction as having reached its “ground zero” in minimalism, Nickard, true to his contrarian nature, refuses to give up on it, seeing in it a means to engage deeper poetic and philosophical issues that more literal forms are incapable of addressing. “In an abstraction,” he says, “narrative is never explicit, and its implicit meanings are always subjective and inherently indistinct.” This is why, for his purpose, abstraction seems the most effective strategy at hand to engage in a negation of Enlightenment reason.
2. Against Reason
Nickard derives his critique of reason from the Nineteenth Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as well as the currents of post-war thought which perceive an ever increasing crisis of faith in the main values of civilization and of the Enlightenment in particular, which have been characterized as an existential crisis. William Barrett argued, in Irrational Man, that existentialism was “a product of bourgeois society in a state of dissolution” and that it was attributable to a general societal sense of crisis, breakdown, loss of absolutes and foundations and dissatisfaction with rationalism. It is to these conditions, which Nietzsche described as the “revaluation of all values,” that we may attribute the ephemerality and relativity of the very concept of meaning today.
Nietzsche had attacked all blind belief in the notion of objectivity. For him, all ideas, values, positions, are relative posits of an individual perspective. For him, there are no facts, only interpretations laden with presuppositions, biases and limitations. Such perspectives, Nietzsche felt, are optics, a way of seeing, and the more perspectives that one had at one’s disposal, the more one could see and the better one could understand and grasp specific phenomena. This awareness, he maintained, avoids one-sided or partial vision since objects do not have an inherent essence but will appear differently according to the perspective from which they are viewed and interpreted and according the context in which they appear. Thus for Nietzsche, perception and cognition were always perspectival and he scorned those who believed that science alone could attain truth and that the scientist has privileged access to reality. By stating in Human All Too Human that; “ultimately, man finds in things nothing but what he himself has imported into them: the finding is called science,” Nietzsche blasts positivist notions of objectivity and overarching truth, insisting that all such concepts are but instrumental reason, “master narratives” constructed to assist human agendas.
Nietzsche is most provocative in his rejection of notions of “natural laws” and “causality” as human perceptions which stem from a fundamental need to believe that the universe is governed by moral laws – clearly an anthropomorphic fantasy. “Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands. Nobody who obeys, nobody who transgresses.” Ultimately, the world is not as determined and orderly as it appeared in the Newtonian view; the modern paradigm suppresses chaos. For Nietzsche the world does not have the qualities that human beings typically impose upon it, whether those of a rational moral order, of natural laws, of an anthropomorphic harmony unfolding according to a perceived purpose or plan, or of anything flattering to our needs and desires. But neither is the world totally random and devoid of pattern or order of a non-anthropomorphic kind – Nietzsche’s conception of chaos is very much like that which has emerged in contemporary chaoplexity theory. Nietzsche’s view defined the world as ordered complexity governed by incessant change, mutation and flux which he called “becoming.” His point of view is powerfully summed up in this dramatic passage from The Will To Power;“That the only justifiable interpretation of the world should be one in which you are justified because one can continue to work and do research scientifically in your sense (you really mean, mechanistically?) – an interpretation that permits counting, calculating, weighing, seeing and touching, and nothing more – that is crudity and naiveté, assuming that it is not a mental illness, an idiocy.”
These Ideas set the stage for Nickard to orchestrate a collision between the modern construct of rationally derived objective truth (as manifest in the prior scientific aspect of his images) and a transposition of our thoughts toward an encounter with the sublime (as manifest in the twin ideas of whiteness and annihilation). Through the process of a radical recontextualization into indistinct abstractions, Nickard is using the perceived structure of nature itself to articulate his point. William Hazlitt, in The Indian Jugglers, declares that: “Nature is also a language. Objects, like words, have a meaning; and the true artist is the interpreter of this language, which he can only do by knowing its application to a thousand other situations.” Similarly, Nickard is concerned not only with the intellectual quality of the meaning that is found in the application of related objects, but also with its quality of feeling – particularly the twin feelings of awe and terror which constitute the apocalyptic sublime.
3. The Apocalyptic Sublime
Nickard predicates this project upon ideas which underlie Melville’s Moby Dick citing the signal influence of its “aesthetic of the indistinct” as well as its celebrated explorations of the cosmic implications of whiteness. John Ruskin, in Modern Painters, described the English artist J.M.W. Turner’s “aesthetic of the indistinct” (an idea that was later appropriated by Melville) as capturing “the dignity of the simplest objects, when truly painted, under partial concealment by aerial effects.” Edmund Burke in his Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful stated “Even in painting, a judicious obscurity in some things contributes to the effect of the picture, In painting as in nature, dark confused uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions than those which are more clear and determinate.” Following these delineations of the aesthetic of the indistinct, Nickard’s work presents us with a brooding darkness describing an indefinite, infinite background against which is inscribed a vortex of whiteness redolent of chaos. Melville’s own assertion that colors are only imagined lead him to ponder “if colors are only shadows and apparitions, then we would recoil at what a rough unsightly sketch of nature should we be entertained with, did all her coloring disappear.” Add to these thoughts Goethe’s theories of light as well as Burke and Ruskin’s ideas of visual annihilation and the reader quickly approaches Melville’s “terrible white-hot nothingness, a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink” in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
In Melville’s epic the implications of whiteness are critical. In the chapter “The Funeral,” a once black whale, now stripped of its blubber as well as its head, is transformed into a mass of whiteness. Melville’s conscious and deliberate use of the aesthetics of perception describes it thus; “The peeled white body of the beheaded whale flashes like a marble sepulcher…that great mass of death floats on and on, till lost in infinite perspectives.” Therefore Moby Dick, the albino whale that obsesses Ahab, being the color of the dead, stripped and beheaded whale carcass, manifests an abhorrent whiteness that seems to echo an oft quoted line from the Bhavagad Gita: “behold, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Melville’s strikingly visual way of expressing a moral perception of color can be seen in his appreciative essay on Hawthorn, Mosses From An Old Manse, which contains his celebrated image of “a blackness, ten times black.” The blackness that Melville celebrates in Hawthorne is moral, rather than pigmentary, a darkness which reveals “a great deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet.” These statements intuit a cosmic blackness, even in realms of overt brightness. Therefore in the language of Melville’s “Mosses,” Ahab transposes his inner “blackness, ten times black,’ from visible to invisible spheres and to the terrible whiteness of Moby Dick. Likewise,
Nickard, by employing black and white photographic abstractions, embarks upon a his own exploration of the metaphysical implications of darkness and light. By employing means characteristic to the medium and avoiding color (with the sole exception of a single transilluminated work), Nickard directs our perception into a consideration of an indefinite, yet terrible whiteness set against a brooding infinite darkness.
Melville’s statement:: “the more light you throw on things, the more you obscure” reflects all he had learned about color, optics and the aesthetic of the indistinct. Melville’s ideas about color derive from the Theory of Colors by Goethe, wherein the German poet makes the unsettling observation that “color is itself a degree of darkness,” followed by “we see no color in its pure state” because “every hue is variously intermingled with others.” In the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael takes up “that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues” than white “are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel house within…pondering all this the palsied universe lies before us a leper.” Technically, this view accords with that of Goethe, who states that all combinations of colors are owing to three causes; the light, the medium through which the light appears, such as water or air, and lastly the local color from which the light happens to be reflected. But to such aesthetic theorizing, Ishmael adds a white-hot subjectivity of his own: “and like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him.”
Understanding Melville’s apprehension of the cosmic dimensions of whiteness is essential to grasping Nickard’s use of this color and the aspect of terror which it invokes within this context. He, like Ishmael is likewise painfully aware of that “…monumental white shroud…” Having pictured the visible whiteness, Ishmael goes on to picture the invisible “spheres of fright” that this aspect implies when he states “there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.” As Ahab had come to hate that which was inscrutable in the white whale, so Ishmael has become appalled by that which is inscrutable in whiteness itself. This insight into the essential nature of whiteness opens Melville’s articulation of the kind of fright that appalls because “…by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation…”
4. The Annihilating Vortex
These thoughts of annihilation are what lie behind the vortices depicted in Leviathan. Each of Nickard’s black and white abstractions echo the vortex of the sinking Pequod, in whose frothing whiteness Ishmael barely survives annihilation at the conclusion of his climatic confrontation with Moby Dick. Being tossed astern of Ahab’s boat, Ishmael was “floating on the margin of the ensuing scene…when the half spent suction of the sunk ship reached me.” Drawn “but slowly” toward “the closing vortex” he finds that it had “subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round then, and ever contracting towards the button like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital center, the black bubble upward burst; and now…owing to its great buoyancy, rising with a great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over and floated by my side.” Melville’s vortex is as central to the telling of the tale as it is to the climatic action. It allows Ishmael to open up invisible psychic spheres and to point to the paradox of a vortex as a chaotic form – “its capacity for meaninglessness.”It is this meaninglessness also evident in Nickard’s abstractions, which reciprocally feature a black bubble amid a frothing whiteness, and collectively open up a depth of potential meaning not available to any linear single perspective – cosmic activity and cosmic stasis, universal something and universal nothing, matter and void – all in reciprocal definition.
5. A Whale’s Eye View
Nickard’s work is far more than a mere illustration of Melville’s epic book – it is instead a ship on a parallel tack, with similar course being entered into its log. As William Hazlitt stated in On the Ignorance of the Learned, “Books are less often made use of as spectacles to look at nature with, than as blinds to keep out its strong light and shifting scenery from weak eyes and indolent dispositions.” Therefore to observe nature as it truly is, one needs not only the spectacles of writers like Melville and Nietzsche, but also those of nature itself, as Ishmael makes memorably clear in the chapter “The Blanket.” There “from the unmarred dead body of the whale, you may scrape off with your hand an infinitely thin, transparent substance somewhat resembling isinglass.“ As it becomes “rather hard and brittle” after it dries, he can use bits of it “for marks in my whale books.” But its “transparent” quality also gives it a “magnifying influence when laid upon the page” when Ishmael’s finds it “pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles as you say.” Ishmael applies the concept of seeing nature through nature’s own spectacles in his thoughts upon the “peculiar sideways position of the whale’s eyes…(that) must wholly separate the impressions which each independent organ imparts. The whale therefore must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him. Man may in effect look out on the world from a sentry-box with two joined sashes for his window. But the whale, these two sashes are separately inserted, making two distinct windows.”The implication is that the whale is not limited to a single restrictive point of view (objective truth) but is instead flexibly multiperspectival. The character Pip sums up multiperspectival perception when he says; “I look, you look, he look; we look, ye look, they look.” These are Melville’s ideas about perspectivalism in a nutshell. Ahab, like most men, obsessively seeks a single overarching and unconditional objective truth. Ahab, therefore can only entertain a single perspective and is destroyed by his idee fixe. Ishmael, on the other hand, like the whale they hunt, is fully capable of seeing the world from multiple perspectives, his ideas are relative, incomplete and indistinct. He is therefore able to survive the apocalyptic vortex created by Ahab’s monomania.
Nickard’s Leviathan is grounded on just such a multiperspectival rejection of any notion of objective truth. It is significant the Nickard chooses photography as the medium to undertake this task. He employs its inherent verisimilitude as a means of generating an uncertainty in the viewer as to what they are really looking at. By subverting “objective scientific evidence” into purposefully indistinct minimalist abstractions the viewer is placed on uncertain ground wherein they are forced to question their own preconceptions and beliefs. His use of this medium, which traditionally has inherently reinforced belief in the rational, in order to call itself into question (a Nietzschean selbstinfragestellung) is a task accomplished by making us aware of his multiperspectival shift of meaning. This work directs us to look at nature through natures own spectacles, to see a natural world otherwise invisible to the unaided human eye, and to see revealed in it the terrible whiteness of an annihilating vortex.
Nickard’s apparition of a vortex resonates with the dread implications of universal extinction. The contours of the “whirlpools” he depicts seem soft, elastic and mobile and the viewer is left with the impression that they are perhaps formations of luminescent gas. Their seemingly benign appearance is deceptive for their forms are not unlike the accretion disk of a black hole, at whose borders all is dissolving into a fatal dusky infinity. In this light, his microcosmic horrors bring to mind a macrocosmic horror – the recent suggestion that a supermassive black hole lies at the center of our own Milky Way. If so, it would be this invisible object’s inconceivably powerful gravitational pull that shapes the spiral disk of our galaxy, as it fatally draws all of the constituent stars of our system in toward itself, absorbing their mass as it captures them, as if it had set in motion an immense “whirlpool” – like some cosmic Charybdis – with the entire universe ultimately “pouring down the drain” of its irresistible “gravity well” and into an inescapable extinction. In considering the comparatively infinitesimal brief span of our individual lives, which constantly seem to teeter on the brink of what Soren Kierkegard called “Being and Nothingness,” it should come as no surprise that reductive reason fails to satisfy either Melville or Nickard. In the face of such ringing silence and the infinite immensity of the universe, all the endeavors of human enterprise, no matter how elephantine in scope, when illuminated by the blinding whiteness of our immanent extinctions, pale to an insignificance that brings to mind Ishmael’s observation that even “the mightiest elephant is but a terrier to the leviathan.”