This is the year that I began to understand duality in the world I see. It is ironic that this is the year I also developed diplopia. Diplopia is the medical term for the double vision I experience as a result of Graves’ Eye Disease. The double vision comes and goes depending upon the time of day and whether I am tired. One could imagine that this vision is a handicap for an artist. It may be, but it is also another way of seeing the already mysterious world of vision. Color is dependent upon the angle of the light. Therefore, images in double are also in different colors; warm light or cool light depending upon the eye. When I see this, I am reminded of the Emily Dickinson poem: “There is a certain slant of light….”; the poem continues to describe the light that both illuminates and oppresses.
An understanding of the duality of everything does not mean seeing the twin of everything and it does not come from double vision. By duality I mean seeing the opposite of something within that something. As every artist knows, duality happens in colors. When I see the blue of a midday sky, I am not seeing blue. I am seeing the orange within the blue creating that shade of blue. Once I referred to a neighbor’s house as “that red.” My neighbor looked confused; “My house is green,” he said. “Yes,” I said, “but it takes so much red to make that shade of green that I see it as red.” My interpretation of colors is not what made me realize that I saw the opposite in everything.
I paint landscapes and I paint birds. A few years ago, I was walking on the Cornell University campus and wandered into one of the buildings. In the atrium of this building I came upon about 200 mounted birds representing as many species. I was immediately fascinated by the birds and wanted to paint them. Some time later, I spoke with an ornithologist about the effect these mounted birds had upon me. I told him that it was their silence, their form, and how the light hit the form that commanded my fascination and that if the birds had been living birds they would not have had such power over me. I started painting these birds; not birds in natural settings, but birds displaced; birds that are bound to earth and haunted by the sky. I often paint the large birds, the cranes, the heron; the ones whose size suggests flight is a burden. It was not painting these birds out of their elements that made me realize that I saw the opposite of everything.
When I realized this year that duality existed in everything I saw, I was looking at loss. My mother-in-law had cancer and was dying. When I sat with her one day before she died, I noted all the loss that comes with dying and cancer; hair, lucidity, body parts, and eventually life itself. But then I am shocked. I realize that she is absolutely beautiful. Not the beauty-is-on-the-inside kind of beauty, but real physical beauty. This beauty that she possessed gave her an aristocratic elegance that raised her above the indignities of the cancer. I remember my grandmother looked like this when she died. I remember thinking my grandmother was as beautiful as Ophelia if Ophelia had lived to be 87 years of age and died of cancer. When my grandmother died looking like Ophelia, I thought it was my grandmother’s beauty I was seeing. I didn’t know it was death.
Artists have historically seen the opposite of something within that something. The Pre-Raphaelites repeatedly painted death as beautiful. When I mentioned the idea of duality to my husband, he responded that it is just a Zen thing; that duality is common
knowledge and everyone knows it; a kind of overstated Zen belief. To me it is not a Zen belief. It is a belief based upon the physical evidence of the world I see and for me this world comes in visual duplication.
Maybe one can see beyond this duality. Maybe one can understand the seamless transitions between loss and non-loss where one does not see the transitions and only see the whole. Maybe that whole is the infinite; in art, maybe that whole is the sublime. When I go to museums I am always pulled towards the Gothic and Early Renaissance paintings. I draw copies of the Madonnas. Looking into the faces of those painted Madonnas, it is hard to see the transitions between light and shadow that creates the form. Is this part of the sublime that make these paintings so powerful? Can the seamless transitions between the opposites be the whole that cannot be explained?
The ideas of sublime and infinity are too abstract in applying to everyday life. Even the term duality can be too abstract. As an artist, I prefer to use term “chiaroscuro”; that term describing the dichotomy of visual opposites. Of course, chiaroscuro is most commonly used when discussing the play between light and shadow in a painting. In my belief of duality I understand the term chiaroscuro in another way. It describes the mystery of vision that addresses not only light and shadow but addresses that ever present visual moment when “clarity” becomes “obscured”. In a chiaroscuro painting, things are revealed and then hidden. Again to borrow from the Dickinson poem, it is that certain slant of light that illuminates the common world as we know it; only to reveal that world as mystery.