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Koch, Lewis, 1949- / Lewis Koch, notes from the stone-paved path : meditations on north India

Dharwadker, Vinay
How the eye forgets: on looking at Lewis Koch's pictures,   pp. 42 and 43-44 and 45

Page 42 and 43

Director, Center for South Asia
University of Wisconsin-Madison
August 2003
How the Eye Forgets.  On Looking at Lewis Koch's Pictures
A picture is always cropped-- it's suspended inside a Euclidean rectangle.
 For the photogra-
pher: the viewfinder, the aperture, the strip of film exposed, the piece
of paper "rubbed with
the chemicals of desire" (to borrow a phrase from A. K. Ramanujan's
translation of a con-
temporary Kannada poem).  No less for the painter; vellum, a block of clod-pressed
color paper, sanded and tinted sheets for pastel, primed canvas mounted on
stretchers, even
the roll of raw cotton-duck, are all made only in rectangular shapes.  A
square is too symmet-
rical.  A square forgets the difference between height and width, between
the vertical and the
horizontal.  A rectangle always recalls-- and compels the viewer's eye to
remember-- that
distinction between two essential dimensions.
So the photographer and the painter who wish to capture the world in their
images are
always caught inside the unbreakable illusion of realism, inside the unreality
of their faithful
representations.  Breaking up the world into finite rectangles, these frames
become fragments
of Euclid's ancient imagination, pieces of visual artifice based upon the
abstraction and ide-
ality of geometry, but embodied in the "ineluctable" materiality
of "the materials of art" (to
echo James Joyce and T. S. Eliot).
But, of course, the picture never really ends at its intrusive, irrepressible
borders.  The
sixteen-by-twenty black-and-white print (though it's really all gray), the
canvas covered with
velaturas and glazeds, layer upon layer, even the apparently spontaneous
and artless conte sketch
laid down on a sheet of Canson in fifteen minutes, always go on.  The trick
that tricks the
viewer's credulous eye is to move toward one of two extremes.  On: to fill
the material frame
with so much texture, shape, movement, and energy that it makes the viewer's
eye dance from
point to point within the rectangular space, until the eye forgets-- at least
for the moment--
the borders of the representation.  A kind of transient amnesia, if you will,
a short-term
suspension of both belief and disbelief, that what it's looking at is merely
a picture.
The other trick: the opposite.  To empty out the rectangle of its worldly
bustle, slowly
and quietly, to simplify the world to a degree where the viewer's eye-- the
most vital and
involuntary of human and non-human organs--  forgets to dance, relinquishes
its prized
movement, and comes imperceptibly to rest, like the blackbird's eye in Wallace
poem, persuaded beyond persuasion to dwell upon a single, still object, captured
in its
simplicity, singularity, and serenity.  That object-- a stone slab in a temple,
a piece of
wrinkled cloth, and iron trident, a wizened human hand-- warm to the eye
but frozen
between the vertical and the horizontal axes in movement's space, then reminds
the eye
that such a thing is nothing but itself, taken out of the world in multiple
stages of
selection, and suspended in a rectangle where it defines its own antithetical
The world is full of color.  In my field of vision, even water refuses to
be colorless.
And, as any painter knows, white is never merely white.  Or black, black.
 Working on
the gesso ground on a canvas.  I have to use a large palette of colors, applied
in luminous
layers, with increasing proportions of a mixture of dammar varnish, turpentine,
stand oil,
and cobalt drier, to produce the precise illusion of a white cloud behind
a tree or a
woman's glossy black hair.  Like countless other photographers, Lewis Koch,
too, has
reduced this world of color to monochromatic rectangular stills, displayed
on off-white
walls with orchestrated lighting.  Like the draftsman working with the velvet
sheen of
compressed charcoal on toothed paper, or in the soft and hard tonalities
of graphite, the
photographer is contained and defined by the materiality of his or her medium:
the two
dimensions of the surface of paper, which must create the appearance of a
reality in three
(or four) dimensions, captured in its roundness without distortion, without
Hence the paramount importance of surfaces.  The exact texture of human skin,
minute graininess of stone, the absence of metallic luster on a piece of
wrought iron.
Especially, the contrast between human hands-- the beautiful hardened hands
of a peas-
ant or laborer, no the soft manicured hands of a woman-- seeking to clasp
each other,
or at least to touch, behind the man's back, on the smooth cylindrical surface
of the
Ashokan pillar in the great stone courtyard at the foot of the Qut'b Minar
in Delhi.
(My memory shifts for a moment to the images conjured up by the contemporary
English painters Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud in their canvases of the
1970s, when, a
little like-- and a lot unlike-- the American poet Wallace Stevens some forty
years ear-
lier, they sought to put down "unvarnished reality" within the
rectangular confines of a
picture, knowing full well that "things as they are/ Are changed upon
my blue guitar.")
The painter's brush, the photographer's camera, are actually blue guitars.
 But the maker's

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