In Istanbul I visited the The Kariye Museum (Church of the Holy Savior in Chora) known for Byzantine mosaics. The local guide lamented at the effects of time and human interference that had contributed to the gradual deterioration of the mosaics — but I was instantly struck by the beauty of these incomplete icons. They were mesmerizing.
I was reminded of an article that I read in Modern Painters a year or so ago about Neuroaesthetics written by Tim Adams — the star of that article is professor Semir Zeki, who studies the primate visual brain. One quote in particular has stayed with me from that article: “Artists are never satisfied, because the interior and the exterior never become united in their work. We respond often more powerfully to unfinished works — Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta is the perfect example — because they both attest to a perfect concept and acknowledge its impossibility.”
This makes sense to me. I feel that everything I work on — all my projects — are eternally designated as Works In Progress, never to be completed, but perhaps slowly abandoned at some point. After all, a story is never really finished is it? I have heard that even Picasso later in life was once caught putting some finishing touches to masterpieces prior to a exhibition to the horror of the curators.
The idea of the incomplete in art is an interesting thing to ponder — all that is not shown in a work of art, whether it’s due to the ravages of time like gorgeous mosaics in the Chora, or by deliberate manipulations like Ruth Claxton’s Postcards series (the work used to illustrate the Modern Painters article) or if by deliberate omission, such as New York-based artist Laura Carton’s “Stripped” series, in which she shifts the narrative of porn images she downloaded from the internet by removing the bodies and then reconstructing the gap left in backgrounds using Photoshop.
I am still thinking it all through and will write more about this topic of incomplete art (or rather art with omissions) at a later date. But as sort of an ending thought, that which is not shown in a work of art becomes as important as that which is shown — and it shifts the meaning of the image too, as if looking at it from a different perspective. It becomes an illusion. And if I understand Dr. Zeki correctly, this absence might actually engage the human visual brain more for it presents both a question of “what else is there” and a promise of elusive perfection — and that is an enticing combination.