Still Life

I just finished reading a book by the art historian Norman Bryson called Looking at the Overlooked, a book about still life painting which inspired me into some new thoughts about the music this blog is about. I bet when Bryson wrote in this book about the 18th-century French painter Chardin, he didn’t know he was writing about shoegaze.

Bryson talks about the extraordinary textures of Chardin’s paint, the way he painstakingly fills each square inch of the canvas, and the tendency of his forms to be blurry and dissolve into peripheral haze. Replace ‘pigment’ and ‘colour’ with ‘sound’, and his description of these textures – the play between wet and dry pigment and between rough and varnished surfaces, the careful registration of every groove and grain, the way even blank backgrounds resonate with mysterious flickers and sparks of colour – could almost be a description of a My Bloody Valentine track.

Chardin_Glass of Water and Coffee Pot_1760 (oil on canvas)_resizeChardin: Glass of Water and Coffee Pot

Bryson sees all this shoegaziness as related to Chardin’s wish to leave behind grand and supposedly ‘higher’ themes, and engage instead with the mundane, grey, frequently overlooked reality of our human lives. He describes the space in Chardin’s paintings as tactile and intimate; it’s a familiar, proximate space in which one knows where things are and can reach out and touch them even without focusing. By creating perceptual immersion, Bryson says, Chardin wishes to give himself over to that bodily domestic space, to make himself and his canvas porous to it.

On the one hand, as Bryson points out, this way of painting is related to a kind of democratic impulse on Chardin’s part. No part of the painterly space is declared unimportant, and the depicted objects are not seen as intrinsically more significant than the areas between them. We can liken this to how in shoegaze-type music, the bass, drums, rhythm guitar and ‘lead’ guitar are all seen as equally important, and the vocal lines are not thought of as intrinsically more significant than the spaces around them. This democratic, ‘ordinary’ impulse would sit well with this music’s roots in punk as a reaction to the bloated budgets, detached stardom and monumental solos of rock.

But on the other hand, as Bryson hints, Chardin’s immersion in space also threatens to dissolve his own individuality and authority  as a sovereign artist, and as such has what might be called a post-humanist dimension. We can liken this to how in the music, blur and noise seem to engulf the musicians’ and listeners’ consciousness and sweep them away from the space at hand, deep down and far out into spaces of strange and impersonal reverberations. This post-humanist, ‘spaced-out’ dimension would sit well with this music’s roots in experimental, post-structural ambient soundscapes.

And so Bryson also gives us clues as to why this music may seem a bit solipsistic, or at least introverted. With all Chardin’s wish to break down social and spatial barriers, Bryson suggests, because of their blurry appearance his images cannot help but create the idea of solitary absorption. While sharp focus denotes objectivity, blur is subjective: no-one else saw the scene this way, and therefore the visual field is made private and internal.

My Bloody Valentine: Cupid Come from Coffee Cup

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