Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On faces and calligraphy

The human face is a sophisticated communications device that uses several dozen muscles to convey a preposterous number of emotions in all gradations of intensity and sincerity. Thus it is not farfetched to equate it with a writing system. We even use the word 'expression' both to denote an element of language and a particular configuration of our features.

The ancient art of calligraphy, as practiced in many cultures around the world, means the hijacking of a language tool for purely aesthetic purposes. A true master may turn even a shopping list into something to delight the connoisseur. He may even permit himself such freedom in the shaping of the letters that only these devotees are able to read it. Still, that will not be held against him, for they are looking for a separate message that speaks of form, balance, suppleness of line, rhythm etc. All these tell a tale of the creator's character and intentions.

There you have the intersection that describes my work in a nutshell. Our inbuilt facial recognition skills are so highly developed that I can take just about any liberties of form – as long as I add those two smudges anywhere near where eyes should be and perhaps a line to denote the mouth beneath them. These will cruelly yank the processing of the picture from the section of the brain devoted to abstract enjoyment of beauty to the one that insists on finding out what that concoction of lines is thinking.

A face is invariably a story, which is why modernist critics tend to scoff at artists like Picasso and Francis Bacon who allowed them to enter the picture. Stories are so 19th century. A face is an individual, which is why it clashes with 20th century theories of masses, movements and ideals – unless carefully shorn of expressivity. Art of the past hundred years is littered with shop window dummies dressed up with ideologies.

Mind, we are also taught very early on to hide what our faces are telling, to tone it down to unobtrusive twitches of eyebrows and lips. Only people in extreme physical or mental pain display their feelings openly for all the world to read. As do my pictures. Subtlety of emotion would so limit the dance of my brush and pen. So do pardon me for shouting.

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