A Brief Genealogy of Estrangement

Humanities class assignment at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Jill Vesci, 2013

Reality is a condition to which we become all but accustomed, a raison d'être by which the answer begs no question. That is to say, it is a state of complacency. We often drift to and fro in an air of blurred insolence as we resist the permeation into our bodies of the myriad occurrences around us. Thus, reality is a sensorial dam imposed by the mind in order to quell the incessant noise of the external world in the face of momentary objectives. Efficient in our daily lives, this anesthetic allows for our fixation on conscious goals, often preventing the recognition of potentially beneficial nuances. Much has been accomplished in addressing this inadequacy of the human condition in art, procuring various methods by which we are to see the objectives of our existences otherwise obscured by our very actions. Of note throughout this oeuvre of revealing introspectives is a consistent reliance on estrangement. It is in the removal of the subject from his typical vantage that we come across a pervasive quality in escapism. As if having ascended to the plateau of a gargantuan plinth looming above all that is pedestrian, he, the mindless flâneur, grasps the final step with a rotation, turning his vision. Behind him, he gazes across the landscape that was his existence, now playing before him in the third person. In this, his estrangement has enabled him more objectively to survey that which he once so numbly took for granted.

To these ends, a chronology of artistic estrangement is extensive in its breadth, although the technique is perhaps best based from early uses of abstraction. Beginning with the likes of Turner, this methodology of removal can be seen in explicit detail. As early as 1819, Turner begins to employ an erasure of realism beneath the cloak of abstraction, such as in “Venice, Looking East from the Guidecca, Sunrise”. The implicit fact that these actions begin to eschew the difference among the depicted scene and other variables (this is to say, the medium, the subject and the work itself) refine the distinction between straightforward abstraction and a more subtle technique of estrangement. Whereas abstraction might birth from typical portrayal a reconstructed aesthetic, estrangement holds an explicitly political goal. We are intentionally withdrawn from an understandable subject, tweaked in our perception of its characteristics and consciously returned to reality so that we might see it anew. In the aforementioned example, the eye is first caught in the background by the recognizable outline of the Venetian skyline. Following its swoop across the lagoon’s shore, we encounter the abstracted (yet clearly defined) form of a dock, lined by a series of boats. It is significant that here the paint strokes gradually evolve from being features of known objects to more ubiquitous gestures. We transcend the momentary understanding of the depiction as a purely optical thing and begin to contemplate the form and aggregated nature of the boats, among other things. Although these work as straightforward artistic accents in the overall composition, they can markedly be rewritten in the interpretation of the painting as explicit elements of estrangement. Turner continues this investigation in his 1834 studies, “The Burning of the Houses of Parliament”, where the blurring of a crowd and the hued amplification of vibrancy in the fire-engulfed background seem to estrange us from the explicit inscription of the scene. In these works noted, the implications of these estrangements tend to remain rather phenomenological, devoid of tangential reference or political consequence.

Nearly contemporaneously, the gradual development of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne series parallels similar progressions in estrangement. “Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket” (1875), perhaps most famously, demonstrates a clear removal of the viewer from direct interpretations. Done in an effort to study color, its delineation of the pictorial content from a more straightforward image to an abstraction underlines the early assets of the estranged technique. We find ourselves first countered with what appears to be an interaction of colors, our eyes gathering in fascination about their intricate entanglements. It is only then, after the initial confusion over subject, that we begin to compile what lies before us. Figures at the canvas’ bottom left become discernible, and cues of reflection on a watery surface gradually lead us to the conclusion that we overlook the final moments of an explosion above a lake. This realization, by way of the estrangement, returns us to our contextuality. To nearly anyone familiar with the combustion of a firework, the scene clarifies instantaneously. We arrive to the same position whence we began, back in reality, and yet our understanding has been altered. A deeper appreciation of the innate beauty in the conflagration of the night’s sky lodges itself into our psyches. Truly, this is the epitome of the removalist goal at play. Other works by Whistler depict similar narratives. “Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow” (1876) in particular exemplifies early components of the estrangement. A distant street renders itself as blurry, here conjoining to the snow’s optical effects on the eye. We are presented the appropriation of an intentional abstraction to the ends that we might come back from the painting with a heightened sense for the phenomenological ramifications of snow in darkness against the gleaming lights of a street. Assisting us are a small variety of reorganizations: a wandering person, a foregone window, a dim tree. In “Nocturne Grey and Silver” (1875), the same technique is employed. If not for the glimmering tower in the painting’s background and the reflective qualities of the scene depicted, it would attain a purely abstract interpretation. To avoid this derailment in affect, Whistler allots the audience precisely larger enough a set of referentials to weave a personal connection in each onlooker to the subject of the painting. Still, these are blurred from an obvious understanding in various methods throughout the oeuvre (in this case, through the use of a blur), so that the viewer might first come to understand some essence of the moment. Thus, the spectator moves forth from the work having received a highly sophisticated optical interaction with the subjects at hand. Whether the firework over a lake, the streets in snow or the town above a fogged river, an inherent change interplays the apprehension which occurs at the moment between the unclear abstraction of the estrangement and the realization of the subject.

As the subsequent abilities of abstraction as artistic device progress from these early examples, so too does estrangement entangle itself in the interpretation of various works. We find in the rise of impressionism the keen impregnation of the method into major artistic techniques. Inasmuch as these works rely on oppressively thickened brush strokes and overtly emphasized color, the slight skewing in the relationship between a subject and its otherwise immediate recognition in the artwork come to underlay key joints in the artworks’ poignant structure. Claude Monet’s various studies in 1984 of the Rouen Cathedral capitulate this exchange. In the series, the tool manifests itself in the intense overlay of color to the point that the cathedral barely emerges from details of the painting. In “Rouen Cathedral, the Portal, Morning Fog”, we only minutely discern what lies before us in small articulations. The sheer effect of the extreme amplification of blue tones consumes the subject. A choreographed exchange between the encapsulating fog and the subservient architecture jolts our immediate understanding. Herein, Monet uses our moment of brief confusion to interject the impressionist appreciation of light and tonality. Blurred is the space between atmosphere and object, encircling the comprehension of the depiction as it was before Monet’s eyes in a mist of gradated affect. When finally the vision catches the more subtle details of the façade, the true impact is felt. Monet delivers with high emotive precision an understanding of the effect occurring, through estrangement from the direct cognitive discernibility of the painting, to the end that we might approach the scene later on with a more sophisticated appreciation. In his later studies of the British Parliament against the River Thames, we again encounter this muting of the subject within a slightly differentiated field of color. “Houses of Parliament, Fog Effect” (1903) nearly completely decimates the relationships intermingling among foreground, subject and background. Rather than allowing a consequent progression of comprehensions, Monet’s goal through tonal estrangement seems to elicit a deep connection to color, as would naturally be the case for the Impressionist agenda at hand. Regardless, we must emphasize to ourselves that Monet’s work relies implicitly on the subject in order to ascertain this effect. Were it not for the minimally articulated House of Parliament lingering atop the hues of blue, we would not be able to properly implicate ourselves into the work. As we view any of the series of color studies by Monet, we are overarchingly tied to distinctly familiar subjects. Our predisposed knowledge of the Gothic style or the Parliament’s iconographic outline are cornerstones to the proper impact delivered by the overwhelmingly vibrant colors.

This is akin to yet less dramatic than Paul Cézanne’s still lives, appearing roughly at the same time. In these, a more subtle estrangement of perspective serves similarly as a catalyst for the eschewed space between onlooker and subject. Although their immediate reception appears to be of little noteworthiness, a closer examination reveals the utter deconstruction of the perspectival apparatus. Differentiated into a series of interposed systems, we gradually (yet perhaps only subconsciously) register the non sequitur relation between the fruits and their bowls. This, in turn, informs a great deal of the exploration in consequent Cubist work, itself another level entangled with the complexities of abstraction. In many ways, this highlights Cézanne’s work as a typological hybrid between earlier attempts at estrangement and a transition into more implicitly Modernist works. Earlier faceted abstractions such as Pablo Piacasso’s “Dance of the Veils” (1907) lead gradually to a higher caliber of gap between the subject and its own clarity. By the progress reached in “Head of a Man” (1913) or “Pedestal” (1920), it could be critiqued in regard to the importance of the estrangement that abstraction has overtaken subject. Thus, artistic agendas begin to defer from estrangement into the utterly removed realm of complete abstraction in a great deal of works. These Cubist appreciations for said explosion, via faceting, of an object shine as pinching notes of piquancy before a long silence. Consider the aforementioned works by Picasso. In both, very slight indications of subject gradually offer the viewer the realization of what he sees. We gain in each an enhanced interpretation of form and inherent shape as we return from the abstractive qualities of their facets and otherwise broken geometries. From the woman, snipped momentarily in her dance, we are given a novel understanding of stance and form in a work where the subject emerges only in relief from a varied background of underplayed hatches. Respectively, “Head of a Man” imparts in one reading, as do many other similarly timed Picassos, a redefinition of organic geometry.

In succession, we survey an underplay of the estranged subject in much of the highly abstract works of Modernism. This is perhaps a key note to both the failure of the movement and the emergence of its conceptual reaction, Postmodernism. Here too enters the key role of estrangement in divulging the immensely critical role of art in relation to the masses. Though to be appreciated by those esoterically in the know, much of Conceptual Art and the prior Abstract Impressionism fall victim to their own levels of removal from reality. What has become a joke of patrons writing into the interpretations of Rothko paintings their own objects (whether those be something as belittlingly mundane as a sandwich or as melodramatic as the scene of a murder) is in truth an indication of the highly problematic nature of such works. Which is the proper function of such artworks in their relationship with those who view them? Although Rothko, Pollack and fellow cohorts may have underwritten this obviously accusatory inquisition with the hopes of eliciting emotive responses in their constituencies, it can easily be leveled against their productions that the public in general is far more receptive to objects which are, at least in the end, more recognizable. While both the Abstract Expressionist and the Conceptual agendas devalued a priori the subject in their works, they seem to have in so doing set their own demise, an artistic glass ceiling which has as of yet to be surmounted. Although of an aesthetic nature in one interpretation, the value of estrangement lies truly in its ability to so briefly sieze the viewer into an artwork through his very realization that he sees in it something which is familiar to him. With this, the piece slices into his personally specific psyche, forever engraining in his memory the moment at which he saw as evident to himself the metamorphosis from an intended effect to its subject – the facets to the woman, the outlines to Venice or the glimmers to a firework. In Monet’s work on the Rouen Cathedral, for brief example, the power of the artwork is felt at the instantaneous recognition of the subject. We are bathed in the reference to the Gothic valor for lightness so inherent in its architecture. We swoon in the prick of our consciousness that is the transition between a Ganzfeld of color and the articulation of masonry under fog. All this wonder is void in much of the aforementioned work of late Modernism.

This act of disappearance finally leads to an emancipation in the work, specifically, of Jasper Johns, whose series of studies on the American flag (1954-1955) can be seen to initiate the conceptual framework on which most contemporary studies into estrangement stand. Having employed the geometry of the flag itself, Johns’ abstractions begin to play out a careful and curated discussion with both its intentions and ramifications. What does it mean for the viewer to encounter a flag rendered purely in shades of white? What might a blurred flag infer? Thus, the artist harnesses the required ability to engage personally a relationship with an object which is commonly kept within complacent terms to the audience. This fulfilled materialization of the power in estranged references compels the works in the study to delve with particular vigor into the ethos of the Modern American mindset. Each of the undertaken transformations, whether they be the multiplication of the flag onto itself or the desaturation of its colors, are fundamentally estrangements from the status quo. These prod at the constancy with which the American populace comes into contact with its own representative icon, engaging alterations (estrangements) as methods by which the inquisitive viewer might begin to question or to displace a relationship otherwise inherent. It is beyond these extant purposes to offer conjecture as to the intention of any specific member in the series. Rather, the importance of these abstracted flags lies in their methodological abstraction under a popular symbol, by which they engage the populace before them, and a noticeable discrepancy in the reproduction thereof, which harnesses the moment of recognition as an intuitive possibility for deepened understanding or enlightened passivity on the matter brought forth.

Such early re-emergences of the reference as an underlying element in art cornerstone the Postmodern movement and, although not all uses of precedent preclude estrangement, allow a great deal to be interplayed within these general themes to a variety of ends. The reinterpretation of the everyday, in place of the explicitly conceptual as a field for artistic study allots a significantly viable body of subjects. Here again, it is in the estrangement that the work takes on its role as something interpolative rather than merely reproductive. An image taken without pedigree is no more than a replication of a moment at someplace in time, devoid of much meaning. Contrarily, a work intentionally removed from its proper state demonstrates a decisive and crucial strategy an artist may choose to employ. An estrangement levies its potentials in this regard, comprehensively allowing the dislocation of subject from viewer. By these accords, Andy Warhol’s developments seem to be of utmost priority. As in Warhol’s chromatic overlays on journalistic photographs of car crashes published commonly in newspapers (ca. 1963), we see the slight disjunction of the reference from its prototypical frame. We view the work from an oblique, at once stepping beyond our natural tendencies and yet retaining a vital tie of importance which holds firm the poignancy of the piece to our psyches as an audience. The bodies lie across their metallic gravesites as is to be expected, but a certain level of confusion occurs in Warhol’s minimal abstraction. The distance commonly held towards the image, one minutely tapestried to our societal mentality by a complacency with the photographic medium, is tweaked at a perceptible level. In so doing, we are forced to review our confusions, if by nothing more than the pure realization that our reality has been sheared to one side. We grow closer to that which is precisely in question. Whence we bring a myriad of experiences alongside photos, we are in the most basal of natures pulled around and forced to face what we typically bypass. Familiarity is hijacked on a perceptual endeavor to reset the constructions we entitle for the world. Such images, commonplace in American print media at the time of Warhol’s work, gain naturally a numbed effect when seen in the multitudes. This strain in the artist’s oeuvre parallels his experimentation with the replication of Marilyn Monroe in his series of portraits concerning her (1962- ), wherein estrangement is reached through seemingly mechanical reproduction. Evolving the use of color imposed atop typically black and white photographs, Warhol removes our humanly reference from Monroe, causing a gap to form between our understanding of her humanity and her stardom. Here, the message is clearly one of commodification and celebrity, inscribed onto the artworks in a process which removes us from a normative vantage. The political foresight of the estranged perspective seems to thrust forth as an effective methodology for explicative artwork.

In general, much can be said of this correlation between Pop Art and estrangement. At a most fundamental level, the genre itself must inherently reference the already known features of contemporaneity. In many ways, it is the final subversion of the overall tactic into the art world, leaving in its wake a series of deepened explorations into the subject. Of these, the interests within New European Painting best begin to demonstrate the overt implementation of the approach at hand, setting the determinative factors for its use in the current artwork of the 21st Century. Though there is often a lesser role for optical play concerning immediate recognizability in the movement, certain estrangements occur through medium and subject, among other abstractive methods. An early example can be found in Gerhard Richter’s “Elizabeth I” (1966), where we encounter a portrait of the Queen utterly distorted by a constant blur. As if caught in a moment of uncontrolled movement, the work begins to question before us our perceptual understandings of something otherwise fairly innate, much in the same vein as Warhol’s nearly concurrent investigations into Monroe. In the blurred countenance of “Her Majesty”, we encounter a snapshot of seeming informality. The typicality of Elizabeth’s highly infamous features is eschewed, as if to entangle the pomp of the monarchy in its own humanly failures. Without the immediate recognition of the work’s subject, we are to understand the woman it portrays as a mere human being. We gaze into a splinter from the propaganda and ceremony, a revelation only allotted for us through the briefly fleeting augenblick of estrangement. This theme continues in Richter’s work, next emerging in prominence in two works, “Woman Descending the Staircase” (1965) and “Brigid Polk (305)” (1971). In these, the estranged aspect so vital to the work’s success renders itself as an issue of material. Though both seem to depict in photorealism blurred captures of quotidian interactions, whether these be a woman stepping down stairs or another gazing blankly into the lens of the camera, the revelation to the audience that both are painted oil on canvas shifts an embedded understanding of representation quite inherent in the modern psyche. Having been barraged with innumerable slews of photographs for the greater part of our exoteric interaction with media culture, we emerge quite dazed at seeing such a thing depicted in hyper-reality through an unpredictable medium. Such is the allure of many photorealistic works of painted, sketched or sculpted works.

The implications of this newly skewed understanding seem pervasive throughout art in the later decades of the 20th century (and subsequently those of the 21st), especially within circles influenced by the likes of Pop Art. Works like Ron Muecks’ “Boy” (1999) or Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project” (2003) play similar games with scale and frame of reference. To supersize a hyper-realistic sculpture of a young boy is to break our everyday connotations just as is respectively to drop an artificial sun into the entry hall of the Tate. Of particular interest to the efficiency of estrangement is Eliasson’s “Your Rainbow Panorama” (2011), wherein the artist buids a massive ring of colored glass, alternating along the spectrum of the colors in the rainbow, above the ARoS Museum of Art in Aarhus. With one experiential shift, Eliasson effectively removes the city from its a priori context. Those who visit the work walk along the circle and view the overlay between the colored light and the otherwise preemptively understood vista of the city. Therefore, one might be lead to believe everything must be reinterpreted, having been without question cast in a new light. The exuberance with which the everyday interactions of the metropolis must reemerge from beyond the tones of the glass is an exemplary exogenesis of the estranged moments provided by the structure. Would not such implementations forever alter the ways we look back at the city, once removed from its imposed abstraction?

In a number of ways, these estrangements in recent decades have become tied to various forms of glitches, momentary confusions of scale, tonality or reference, among other topics. It is thus of little surprise that the emergence of Glitch Art would take in a multitude of ways from the playbook of estrangements available to it. Although still an emergent field, its explorations to date have been incredibly fruitful in harnessing the technique for the utter abstraction of the frame of reference. Unfortunately, many of its achievements have been tied to the examination of the technocratic implications on modern life, especially in regards to the digital age, wherein we are removed from prior understandings so inherently tied to analog mechanics. In lieu of this reading, it might be posited that Glitch Art instead grasps our regularized comprehensions in an estranged capitulation of misunderstood interpretations. Take, for example, the work of Adam Ferriss. In “Satellite Photo of Island” (2012), we are bent from the usual perspective we take when viewing satellite imagery. This medium, to which we have become so accustomed in the 21st Century, is inherently abstracted by Ferriss’ imposition of a series of tonal bands running horizontally across the image. These are the residue of a scripted interpretation, the result of which presents a confused understanding (on both the parts of a computer and a viewer) of the data provided. As we oversee the forms before us, we are provided the new ability to discern what is consequent of either the photograph or the glitch. In one way, the informative aspect of the imagery is stripped of its usefulness, forever reinterpreted as a formal investigation with little explicative ends. By another interpretation, it begs us to question our presumptions about the natural features which cause our immediate recognition of such images. Why must we take for granted that these even represent the truth? In fact, Ferriss simply provides us the formalization that everything comes in an intrinsically bias representation. Whether the lens of the satellite or the digitized algorithm through which the image ran, nearly all visual media we encounter have the residue of the political, technological and social hierarchies to which they are subject. This is therefore a keen capitulation of the politically efficient successes evasively tied to estrangement.

In nearly every case of this effect, we approach a certain kind of precipice. Our conceptual underpinnings of the world around us are torn loose, and in the reactionary force unleashed we are shoved backwards, ripped away from our normative paddings. Such is the prospective of the visual intervention which has been described in this varied set of artworks. A product of early abstraction, we have come to a time when this methodology might serve well to rectify much of our comprehensions about subject and representation. What we see in these estranged portrayals is the momentary interplay between what we already know and an alternative perspective as of yet foreign to our eyes. There, far beyond the normalcies to which we are numbed, we appropriate an alternative appreciation for otherwise nuanced moments around us. Be they the topographical identity of an island, the humanity of a monarch or the veracity of an early train, we are endowed an escapist agenda by which we emancipate ourselves from complacency. The artist here must engender the moment with an implicative empowerment. In the aforementioned examples, we survey the meaningful ramifications of this contextual break. We thus present ourselves with the opportunities to skew reality against itself, allowing the pivotally crucial re-interpolation of its infinitely minute details to come forth. It is in these hopes that we stumble across this fragile state to find anew something already known, thereby gaining a heightened acknowledgement of the variables so omnipresent in both the execution and determination of our lives.