Trying to see things properly

Seeing something, really seeing something, can be pretty hard to do.

Two weeks ago, I talked to a landscape painter in New Mexico. I asked how she began her paintings. She said she often started with shadows, a single shadow in the landscape, she’d try to identify its darkest spot, its deepest color—and from identifying that deep, dark color, she could begin to get a sense of palette, the colors she needed to use. I found this fascinating. I’d never thought of shadows containing different tones, but of course they have range, a whole spectrum of color. She confessed she struggled with sagebush the most, and pinon trees, she had a hard time giving them dimensionality, capturing their “roundedness.”

This week we revisited the new Lorna Simpson show at Hauser Wirth, an art gallery in downtown Los Angeles. Included are several very tall paintings of women. The women are Black, their skin tones expressed in a variety of twilight, perhaps polar colors: glacier grays and celestial blacks and deep blues. The backdrops are similarly colored, but with a subtle shine, like shimmering curtains, such that no matter where I stood in the gallery, I couldn’t quite see the painting very well. The first time we saw the show, I complained about the lighting. Now I wonder if the effect is intentional on Simpson’s part, to suggest something about how we look at other people, about how hard it is to really look at another person and see them as they are.

Here’s what I mean: how we see the world influences what we do. Seeing is moral. The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch once said to the effect that love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than you is real. I think it’s very, very close to being a hundred percent right. The ego is a blindfold, the mind is a kaleidoscope. It can be next to impossible for me to step away from thinking, from storytelling and sense-making, from the noisy messiness of my perceptions, just to see a thing properly, to see it as it is. But the instance I do see something, really see something—a shadow in a landscape; a person in front of me, in all of their complexity, or at least as much as I know—feels like a different kind of instant.

From tomorrow’s “Sunday Supplement” for paying subscribers:

  1. Things to keep in the car in case of emergency

  2. Some extremely good coffee

  3. How to understand the evolution of orchestras from the 16th century until about now

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A post shared by The Wende Museum (@wendemuseum)

I did a wonderful event last week at The Wende Museum for Everything Now, and there’s another one this week for Angelenos at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz, in collaboration with Skylight Books. I don’t know if it’s sold out (the Wende event was), but it should be fun. Masks and vaccination required.

As ever, thanks to everyone for the support.

What the what? “Meditations in an Emergency” is a weekly email published Saturdays by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin about things he finds beautiful. “The Sunday Supplement” is his recommendation bulletin for paying subscribers.

Rosecrans’s new book, Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles, is available from BookshopAmazon, or your local store. Any other books mentioned in this newsletter are featured on a Bookshop list.