Seeing: Some Thoughts on Michael Growe’s Artworks
Michael Growe is my friend. He is a painter from Germany. We clicked right away, mainly through his work. The best way to get to know an artist is to see and feel his work. A person’s decades’ creation and experiences went directly to his works, where his inner-self can be seen more thoroughly.
When it comes to seeing, everyone sees different things. For painters, it is not only necessary that they have sharp eyes, but also they need to know what they see. What do you see? This is the starting point of Michael’s art and the theme of expression of his works. He refuses to imitate and copy the specific objects themselves, he also abandons exaggeration and abstraction to express narrative emotions. Instead, he directly plays and communicates with paints and other painting materials he uses. Because in his view, our existing base of culture and knowledge occupies the memory of our brains, and the brain will quickly start the database to put the inputs/information to the “right seats”. Therefore what we see is the world that others have already defined and described. It is said that Google Glasses will display annotation information on everything that appears in front of your eyes. What horrible coloured glasses! The so-called rights of seeing things differently with different eyes are “unified” and deprived per se.
We are used to seeing things with our minds, but our eyes. While discussing design plans with my clients, I was very often asked to explain the meaning of the design. If I say no, there is no such meaning, the client would like to “help” me to piece together a story, for his/her appreciation or self-deception. An image without any meaning or any story is considered to be inconceivable. The analogy has changed from a method of deduction to description itself. This approach to metaphor is sometimes ridiculous, contradictory, and even awful. In Chinese culture, red colour represents happiness, while white colour represents grieving. Therefore, does the white wedding dress mean happiness or bereavement? Southerners in China prefer a marriage ceremony in the evening, while northerners like it in the morning, and how can a southerner marrying a northerner get it right without confusion? When it comes to numbers, Chinese people like “eight”, with the pronunciation similar to FA, meaning getting rich, while westerners love “four” (full), which is shunned by Chinese people because the Chinese pronunciation of “four” is SI, which is similar to DEATH. And in the end is it good fortune or is it death? San (3) Yang Kai Tai (Three goats usher in prosperity) , Wu (5) Fu Lin Men (The five blessings have descended upon one’s house), Gong Xi Fa (8) Cai (Congratulations on making fortune), Zao Sheng Duo Zi (Dates with lots of seeds bring the births of lots of babies soon), Sui Sui Ping An (Broken pieces of bottle imply peace every year). These habits of understanding things too easily and literarily may be called “forgetting the trap once the fish is caught”, or “catching the meaning and missing the form”. Therefore the heavier the cultural deposit is, the more imprisoned the minds are.
Our vast culture almost has defined every item of the world. However there is not always a complete one-to-one correspondence between our conceptions and their intended objects. The richness of the world still leaves a huge number of things that we have not yet defined, or have defined wrongly. Keeping an inquisitive mind and the curiosity toward the origin of things and its truth is the so-called innovation.
When the Europeans just discovered that the New World and had arrived in South America by ship, the first indigenous person in the area asked how they came from the waves. The Europeans pointed to the big ship behind them, but the aboriginal could not see anything. Because in their consciousness there had never been a conception of a big ship, which led to his “blindness”. But since he had built the awareness of the big ship, a source of consciousness was triggered, which quickly ignited all the indigenous people’s systems of consciousness. Later on, even the indigenous people had never heard about or seen a big ship before, at the very first encounter with the ship they could SEE it immediately.
How human cognition works still remains a mystery. It is as intriguing as how bees feed back and transmit information and how ants organise collective actions. It seems that human beings’ communication through language and text is still sort of not so brilliant. There must have been more efficient and mysterious approaches which had already been put to practices but not “known” or documented yet. Such cases are not uncommon. For example, when it comes to many occasions of scientific discoveries, a scientific breakthrough accomplished by one person at a certain a place is very soon echoed by a similar breakthrough made by someone else at different place without the two parties’ being aware of each other’s work. The appreciation or understanding of artworks works in a similar amazing and efficient way, i.e., everything will be clear at a glance, without the need of communication and explanations in words. On the other hand, any interpretations with language and words would be an attempt to take a part for the whole and therefore full of loopholes. It is also redundant if I try to comment on or interpret the works of Michael. The ability TO SEE with the eyes is essential to appreciate paintings.
The artist is very often the first person to see the ship, and inexplicably his seeing is infectious to other people. Michael should have realised his mission as a painter quite early, and he was fortunate enough to begin to answer the question “Who am I?” as an artist very early. He seeks to see it with his own eyes. At the same time, he also answered “What do I want to do?”. Michael’s artistic approach deliberately questions the so-called connotation and metaphor of things that have already been defined, and re-examines the essence of things that are “well observed” but “well ignored”, attempting to guide the “seeing” of the audience through his works.
The paintings of Michael are first of all about SEEING the body of painting. The theme and the subject of the painting are the same thing. He chooses wood which is all too familiar to us. Our understandings of wood is so rich that we could even recognise it even with closed eyes. Instead of avoiding and concealing this kind of intimacy, Michael makes plain exposure of it to trigger its very ancient and yet fresh qualities.
Secondly, his expression of a piece of wood is through his colouring and polishing to strengthen and reveal the characteristics of the piece, which leads to a new understanding and imagination by the viewer. Either a far-fetched story or an unpredictable legend, it will be stripped from personal experiences and mapped to the body of the wood. This mapping is different from previous cognitions by experiences. Like the image in a distorting mirror, it is both true and illusionary. In his Frame Series, the frames are PAINTED on wood. Wood is present everywhere, inside and outside, upon and beneath of the painting. The play is WOOD IN WOOD, and the concept of wooden frame is repeatedly mocked.
In addition, through the combination, splicing, deformation, and use of multiple pieces of wood, Michael Growe stimulates people to further get in contact with and explore his works. Contemporary art focuses not only on viewing but also on the participational perception by the public. Although the works of Michael has the multi-dimensional features of sculpture, the variability of installation, and even the functionality of furniture, they are still in the domain of painting. He calls these works “three-dimensional painting”. Whether it is flat, multi-dimensional, or distorted, the focus is still on using painting as an approach to encourage people to get closer to the object/body of abstraction and to challenge the inherent cognition. The result is to give one more glance at the ancient, dead wood.
Attracting one more glance from the viewer is simply a luxury of glory for an artist and his/her works. For the tens of thousands of works at the Louvre, it is such an honour already if a piece could attract a viewer to stop just for a few seconds. Even if it is Mona Lisa, how many people might gaze at the painting for more than a minute? Most of the artworks has become a deadly cognition along with the things they depict. In the corners of museums and galleries, the brilliance of the artworks itself is gradually lost, and instead they are wrapped in decaying value tags. The artists breathed life into their artworks, but the value of the artworks has nothing to do with the artists.
The interactability of Michael’s three-dimensional works with the participants represents in a way its public and practical features. This might lead people to misunderstand its attributes as the commodity, like a furniture, and even its “potential” of marketability. We have seen too many artists surrendering to mass production and duplication of original concepts to create so-called “market value”. This avenue is almost considered to be an artist’s fast track toward success. However, Michael’s work over the past three decades shows that each time he had skipped this getting-rich-quick path and inadvertently switched to the next scene. Perhaps he is only interested in SEEING the process of creating his artworks.
Life is a process in which creating and being created are carried out simultaneously. The living conditions of the earth have nurtured the growth and reproduction of life, and the activities of life have in turn allowed the life of the earth to continue. Growing and collecting is the law of life and the law of living environment. Without activities of life, the environment of the earth can not be sustained. Just like a house without people living in it will soon be run down, an unprotected and maintained painting will lose its colour. The recognition of a piece of art by the eyes with great insights can lead to more brilliant creations. It is said that the wild peony before the Tang Dynasty was only in white colour, and might occasionally be a little yellowish. However, by the accident of nature, a petal was tinted with a little variation of colour and was later discovered, which inspired people’s imagination and exploration thereafter. Within a not so long period of time, the peony had become colourful and a symbol of the prosperity of Great Tang. Later on it had become the national flower, symbolic of grace and dignity.
The flowers blossom, but not for human beings. It is just an instinctive act of life for survival and reproduction. Life itself has no meaning, it is just a process toward death, the “meaning” of life is a given by people. And the meaning given is not the whole of life, and it can never replace life itself. Therefore, it is necessary to look back and forth again to find and enrich the original truth. Therefore, art is not an object to place one’s personal feelings to grieve over the passage of seasons, to sigh and mourn the impermanence of life. It is not to be utilised for sentimental twaddling. Art is for SEEING without bias and prejudice, over and over again, just like a baby, opening the eyes and seeing the world for the first time.
This reminds me of a young man riding the bicycles from Chengdu to Lhasa, all alone. He was not driven by over-self-estimation to conquer the height, nor was he urged to return to nature after going through the vicissitudes of life, it was just an act of tacit agreement with nature. His eyes did not see so many mysteries, strangeness and disparities, but discovered the genuine kindness of beauty of people and things. The colour and fragrance each flower carries are its only way of survival. If the narcissus smells of lily, its fate will only be extinction. Only when you see the beauty without prejudice can you return to your heart and return to the self. And when you return to yourself, you will have the origin of the coordinates to see the world and see all beings.
Faced with a piece of lifeless, dead wood, it is a question of how to discover itself. Among our traditional art forms, there are root carvings and wood carvings, and special attention is paid to utilising the natural forms of the raw materials for artistic shaping. Those images and meanings which conform to human cognitions are still the themes of traditional art creation. For example, a stone in a shape of the Eight Diagrams, or a cross, a trunk like a Lohan (Buddhist arhat) or a monkey head. Without these implied meanings, it would be considered lacking of value. Those who carry heavy cultural burdens to dig stones, find roots, explore treasures, make gods, and pray for blessings are not able to become unrestrained like that loner rider, nor are they able to create their own works, because they can not let go and their “missions” gradually drift away from art.
Any piece of wood used by Michael is equal and independent. The processing of each piece of wood has its own logic. And the combinations bring unexpected surprises, therefore the seemingly very ordinary wood gets an extraordinarily dazzling and colourful presence. Michael believes that every piece of wood is just in slumber, and the artist needs to wake it up and rejuvenate it. An uncharged cell phone makes no difference from a piece of stone, so is an uncultivated seed from a grain of sand. A wonderful book can’t attract illiterate readers. The life of one egg needs another life to warm up and hatch. The life of one object needs the energy of another life to charge it to full throbbing. The life of a piece of art also needs the devotion and efforts of an artist to activate. It is the artist’s mission to charge, cultivate, guide, create, and activate life.
A recent series of Michael’s works is called “Trojan Horse”. The “hidden mystery” switch is revealed explicitly, as associated with the deep imprint about wood in the minds of the Westerners. The use of this metaphor is like making a mockery of oneself and its work, and a catharsis of the memory about ancient wood. This colourful exterior and rich transformability of body shape of Trojan Horse, however, is not cast into shade by an inferior interior, like the case of a straw bag inside a beautifully embroidered pillow. But, the interior of Trojan horse is an extremely passionate, hot orange-red space. Opening a Trojan Horse just releases a sluice of a single orange rapids. Does it mean the ending of void expectation or the beginning of mad bolting? It took the Hungarian talent a few minutes to watch the disrupted Rubik’s Cube, then tens of seconds to rebuild it to regular colour patterns while blindfolded. What did he see in the process of recitation? Perhaps it was the hidden mystery, the blindfolding was just a performance, and the mystery was already seen by SEEING. This is the just the message of the “Trojan horse” by Michael Growe. The mystery is already laid bare, just whether you SEE.
Ting Zhu, Beijing-Shanghai-Toronto
“Odilon House”, 2012, 40 x 24.4cm, oil-paint, airbrush, and tempera on plywood – chassis