Art Life - Susan Mackay
By Susan Mackay
Aug 23, 2006 - 11:09:00 AM

The pilot has a crisp white shirt with epaulettes. His blue slacks are pristine. He carries an air of confidence and capability. Squeezed into a six-seater plane, I have the privilege of sitting in the co-pilot seat and as I study the switches lights and gauges, it suddenly occurs to me how much trust we place in a pilot. In my important seat I am painfully aware that I do NOT know what the myriad of switches are for. It seems like a small miracle when we take off and another when we land. All through the flight the pilot performs his duties with the same calm authority.

And I wonder at our ability to trust these strangers – pilots, with our lives. They are human after all and therefore capable of fallibility. In this little plane, in close proximity to the evident humanness of the pilot, I am aware of the contrast when flying in big Trans-Atlantic commercial flights; the pilot is a shadowy figure in commanding cap and uniform.

We, the passengers recognise the symbol of the uniform. We understand instinctively the power signified by it. Pilots lose their identity as a fellow human and become imbued with importance and efficiency.

In fact, in all professions where a uniform is required, it is silently understood – the unspoken significance of the clothing. From ministers, to policemen, doctors, nurses and even school children. We see the uniform and immediately categorise the wearer with a sense of otherness. Like the uniform signifying a pilot and their ability to fly planes, in art, different effects are used to express something more than is initially apparent.

‘Symbol’ in my Collins Pocket Dictionary, means ‘sign or thing that stands for something else’.

Symbols are very much like a language. Sometimes we understand the language and sometimes we do not!

The trick about understanding the language of art, especially contemporary art, is to have awareness that not everything presented is purely about aesthetics. Colour, tone, texture, composition, size, shape, space, in fact every aspect of a piece of art has the potential of some deeper interpretation and significance.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a famous Mexican artist, whose work is rich with personal symbolism. Her life was marked by pain – emotional and physical. Her paintings were filled with vivid and disturbing expressions of her life.

The painting
‘Thinking About Death’1943 , is a self portrait. Frida’s gaze rests on us; the viewer, with unflinching honesty, her expression is indefinable. Thick foliage fills the canvas around her. There is no space between our view of her and the leaves. There is no escape from what she wants us to see, we are immediately demanded to engage. And there, to leave no doubt to the title, a little circle on her forehead depicts a skull and bone. The skull and bone placed over her head is a very clear symbol of her thoughts of death. The cloying greenery and the relentless intimacy of the painting are also symbols of Kahlo’s apparent thoughts of the claustrophobic inevitability of death.

Frida’s work is so intensely and sharply honest in her personal expression it is haunting. The truth of her experience of her life, though expressed through symbols, resonates deeply. Frida Kahlo’s work is figurative. The symbols she uses have a recognisable form- the leaves, her face and the skull. Modern and Contemporary artists do not always use such figurative symbols, abstract art, (art that is non-representational) then, is a slightly different language.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is famous for his beautifully hypnotic abstract paintings of large canvases of vibrant colour.

“Rothko largely abandoned conventional titles in 1947, sometimes resorting to numbers or colors in order to distinguish one work from another. The artist also now resisted explaining the meaning of his work. "Silence is so accurate," he said, "fearing that words would only paralyze the viewer's mind and imagination” - the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, describes succinctly a different approach to the artists desire for interpretation.

Rothko removes himself and any deliberate use of formal symbolism and asks the viewer to open up to the image presented – colour and form. His work can be likened to an expression of pure emotions or an intense exploration into the truth of colour.

And so in the little plane in my co-pilot spot, as I gaze into the unending blue and blue-grey of the melded sky and ocean, I am reminded of Rothko’s work and I feel a similar sense of tipping into oblivion. However, I am of course, reassured by the pilot in his authoritative and capable, starchy white shirt with its efficient epaulettes!

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