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LAYERS at Aricsok Gallery, Toronto
Commentary on Tadeusz Biernot’s paintings
- Jordan B. Peterson
There is a very old and widespread idea that the world – at least the world as it is experienced – is made out of order and chaos, and that it is the creative, cognitive and communicative capacity of consciousness that transforms one into the other. This is reflected, for example, in the profound Western idea that it was and is the Word of God, later identified by Christians with Jesus Christ, the Savior, who rendered and still renders habitable order from primeval chaos. It is reflected, as well, in the bottomless Jewish respect for knowledge and for the careful and precise use of language.
A very similar idea exists at the very foundation of Taoism. The Taoist philosophy is predicated on the idea that experience itself consists of the eternal interplay of yang and yin, each of which can and does transform itself into the other. The former, “masculine,” is order. The latter, “feminine,” is chaos. For the Taoists, this is eternal reality, always, everywhere. Wherever you are, there are things you know, things you can predict, things you can control. That is order. Wherever you are, there are things you do not understand, that exceed your domain of comprehension and articulation, that confuse and undermine you. That is chaos. Thus, experience is made of the known, and the unknown, explored and unexplored territory, the enlightened day and the dark underworld, wakefulness and unconsciousness.
For Christians, the road to salvation, the imitation of Christ, is most fundamentally the attempt to act as befits something made in the image of God: that is, to attempt to mediate between chaos and order in a manner that maintains the balance between both, and that allows creation to continue unfolding, in the best of possible manners. This is the attempt to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, to make Heaven bloom here and now, instead of the hell that could obtain. The deepest of experiential meanings is to be found in that attempt – in fact, meaning as a phenomenological and perhaps even a biological or neurological phenomenon is precisely the experience that marks success in such an endeavor. For the Taoist, similarly, the Tao, paradise, for all intents and purposes, can be found at the juncture of chaos and order. This is the spiritual place where the water of life flows, parching the physical and spiritual thirst of desperate and suffering living beings.
Too little order, and chaos reigns: ignorance, confusion, suffering, and panic. Too much order, and only what is already understood is allowed to be. The former accompanies and then justifies faithless nihilism. The latter is the stale and then the deadly dystopia of totalitarianism.
It could be said that knowledge grows as chaos, incomprehensible chaos, is transformed into order, even though this is only half the story. Order is that domain of experience where familiar actions produce desirable responses. Order can become stultifying, because it is predictable, and too much order leaves no room for preparation for the unknown future, but the right amount of order allows for the necessary security that life needs to flourish. The creative act is precisely the act of transforming chaos into order (although the reverse can be equally true).
The great analytical psychologist Carl Jung believed that the process by which the absolute unknown, chaos, was transformed into order was not precisely cognitive and linguistic, not articulated, in its first stages. Instead, the domain of fully articulated and comprehended territory, extant in the middle of infinite chaos, like an island in an ocean, was surrounded by a shadowy domain of nascent knowledge. It was in that domain that inchoate emotion helped to structure what was not yet understood, and that creative art and imagination began to structure emotion, and that myth was derived from art.
The artist lives on the border between chaos and order. The artist chooses to live farther into chaos than the good citizen, and tames that chaos, by dreaming, so that the good citizen can start to feel comfortable there, in the bright daylight hours. This process occurs in a microcosmic manner when the artists and the galleries and the coffee shops move into chaotic urban areas, and transform them, and render them habitable, through their creative and ill-paid work. What the artist does in decades in the city, art does over the millennia for civilization.
Tadeusz Biernot worked originally in the most practical domains of creative representation: in design, where the tropes of visual representation are harnessed to communicate and attract, at the intersection of culture and commerce. In his current work, later in his life, he has moved outside the domain of immediate and evident practicality, into the shadowy domain of genuine art.
His paintings are so chaotic that the order is invisible, at close inspection. Nothing can be seen, six inches from his canvas, except the same apparently ill-formed blur that characterizes the night fog, or rusted metal, or an artist’s easel . The canvas as a whole has many of the same features as any particular area of the canvas: there are no borders, no lines, no shapes of nameable geometry, and large areas are left blank, with nothing but the remnants of work to signify their transformation from mass-produced canvas to particular work of art.
Ten feet away, the faces emerge, in the most spectral manner possible – but not to everyone. Even at that distance, what might be there remains invisible, without guidance, to some viewers (and to some, even with guidance). For those who can see, subtle differences between dark and light transform themselves almost impossibly into profiles, cheekbones, eyelashes. This is partly the gestalt of perception: a blur that might be an eye becomes an eye because it is in the proper relationship to a blur that might be a nose, or an ear, or parted lips. It is also partly, and consciously, the action of the artist, who is striving towards the ultimate minimalism in form, the least transformation of chaos possible, to still render order.
Gender becomes evident, because of the delicacy of the faces; the cartoons or the sculptures of Michelangelo are quoted and brought to mind; and, just as the figures are emerging from the brushstrokes and spatters and smears of paint on the canvas the emotion of the figures portrayed emerges from the hints of shapes of the figures themselves. The parted lips suggest communication about to occur. The pensive faces hint at melancholy thoughts about to be experienced. The chaos, barely structured, not only becomes order; it becomes beautiful order, suggestive of something more beautiful yet. It becomes history, and individuality, and consciousness, and life.
Biernot plays with perception. That’s what artists do, if they are actually artists. They experiment with the destruction and reconstruction of what is real, showing us how much our imagination, our conscious imagination, can make with so little to grasp. This is frightening. How can so much be seen when there is so little there? How much of reality is fantasy and dream?
Biernot’s paintings are guided hallucinations. The viewer has to participate in the creation of the image. When the Impressionists demanded this of their viewers, moving qualitatively beyond the more explicit representations of classical art, demonstrating how much could be removed and how much still remained, riots ensued, perhaps provoked by those rebelling against the malleability of reality and its participatory nature. We are more sophisticated, visually, than those upset Parisians, or more cynical and hardened. Even so, the fact that Biernot’s beautiful faces simultaneously exist and don’t exist gives them the same unnerving quality enjoyed by ghosts.
At the deepest level of analysis, Biernot, like all truly creative people, demands that his audience participate in the process that mediates between Yin and Yang, or chaos and order, and that constitutes the central ethical requirement of the true Western – or the true human – soul. Furthermore, he demands that we become aware of doing so, as we are forced to become conscious of how our being brings everything out of nothing.
Jordan B. Peterson, Ph.D
Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, author of “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief”, TV lecturer (TVO).