2: Into the Pool

On this week's episode, I talk about Worcester Art Museum accession number 2014.1151, Carrie Moyer’s Rapa Nui Smashup.


A quick note on today's episode. This story today is presented as a guided viewing. I will be giving you instructions about how to move around the gallery to see this painting from different angles. To that end, the piece will still be interesting if you are viewing the image from home on the internet, but I think the effect is best obtained if you are actually in the gallery. Finally, I have tried to make the movements around the gallery relatively simple and accessible to all, but if standing in one place for a while is a bit much, you can always grab one of the sketching stools provided by the museum and take a seat through the longer stretches. With that, let's get started. 


Welcome to Accession. Today’s piece is on display at the Worcester Art Museum, in the Contemporary wing. From either entrance, you’ll want to find the knight riding the pink horse. Head in the direction he’s going, up two flights of stairs, and you’ll be confronted by either Hamlet’s Ghost or a horse stoping low. To your right will be two tinted glass doors. Go through them, and once you’ve made it past the rockets red glare, you’re going to head left, being careful not to step to close to the giant wooden iron. (You wouldn’t want to get burned.) As you walk around the iron, make your way to the back corner of the square on the ground, furthest away from the door. If you see the large black sculpture made of cabinets and table legs, then the piece were are looking at will be just in the corner of your eye. But don’t look too quickly. We have to take this one slowly. With trepidation. As if we are about to jump into a frigid pool on a hot summers day. It will be worth it. But still... Today, we’re looking at accession number 2014.1151- Carrie Moyer’s Rapa Nui Smashup


Now if you're standing in the gallery, precisely where I have positioned you, slowly turn your head to look over at the painting of brown and tan and cream and orange and yellow and blue. If you allow it, if you let your mind ease into the painting, the canvas may look kind of funny to you. Like the orange is somehow popping off of the canvas and the green and yellow are sort of receding into it. The dark streak that cuts from the left side of the orange body to the right side of the green creates a starting point, from which the orange body leaps out of the canvas, and the green body sinks into it. For those familiar with any bit of color theory, this is a well-known fact. Cool colors sink. Warm colors pop forwards. But in this painting, Rapa Nui, the colors are literally coming off the canvas and receding into it in a strange three-dimensional shape that no other canvas has. 


Or at least, so it seems. Move slowly to your right, till the painting is straight on, just ahead of you. We're at the edge of the pool now. We can see clearly that this is no three-dimensional painting; that the orange and the green are level with the canvas. It was just an optical illusion. And now looking at them head on, it may be more apparent precisely what they are. The orange and the green are fish, one leaping upwards, one diving down. Their core colors are clear, but they have a translucence, that makes them a blending of oranges and yellows and blues and greens. The purest, highlighter-esque colors ebb off of their two forms, like tides gently cresting up the beaches made by the cream color in the background. But let's not forget the illusion, the way the fish once lept and dived from the canvas, even if they were flat the whole time. 


Entwined with the yellow and orange fish are the two or three large brown shapes. The lower part of the brown shape appears to be a sort of abstraction of a fishes torso, while the upper part of the brown appears to be either human legs or the tail of a whale. Because it's abstract art, we've no reason to believe that they aren't both. So if you can, hold onto both, or at least try to. It is terribly convenient to be able to think about two things at once.  


Behind them still, the gold and green fish and the human-whale legs, are what look like two sea lions, one blue, one yellow, if we account for the small sliver that peaks out, but here green because of its translucence and intersection with the blue sea lion. They look in opposite directions, but both have a clear directionality of moving up, the same direction as the orange fish, the opposite direction of the human-whale legs. 


Then there is the question of the background. The brown frame, which makes a sort of keyhole shape around the cream feels as if it is both in the foreground, if we look at it as a whole, and in the background, if we look carefully at the border between the cream and brown. The lighter brown edges and tan splotched only further confuse the layering of the background elements and the black bar at the bottom the most. I feel like the black bar is so clearly in front of the brown, the cream so clearly in front of the black, and the brown so clearly in front of the cream. What we have in the whole is either a cream figure against a brown background, or a cream shape, framed by a brown outcropping. Hold them both again, if you can.


If you haven't figured out the title yet, Rapa Nui is a play on the name of the island that most Americans know as Easter Island, Papa Nui, famous for its tall stone heads that jut up out of the ground. The fact that there is little other evidence of the peoples of the island feeds into our imagination of these giant sculptures growing out of the ground, without human intervention, like some miracle of nature, some confirmation that more than one thing is made in our image. We now know that the heads have large bodies buried deep beneath the ground, but this seems only to add further to the mystery and allure of Papa Nui.


The cream shape, whether it is framed by brown or not, is reminiscent of those giant head shapes, or perhaps the torso of a money, perhaps the torso that's missing from our human whale legs. The glossy black almond shape, isolated from the rest of the piece, might be an eye if we let the two smaller splotches below be the nose, and the one below further be the mouth. It's missing its other eye until we see the shape, though not the color, imitated in the blue curve of our orange goldfish. It also finds its other, its missing half in the black bar along the bottom of the painting, so it isn't truly alone. 


We're almost done with our looking, almost worked up enough courage to jump off the edge and get fully submerged, but we're gonna dip a toe in and check the temperature of the water first. Walk up close to the painting, but please, don't touch it. Look carefully at our two fish.  Look at the black sequins that line the spine of the fish, that caused it to leap from the canvas just moments before. We can now see that these sequins are not just randomly placed across the fishes skin. Each one is carefully placed so that the difference in space gets smaller the closer we get to the left side of the fish. Their sparkle might remind us of stars against a night sky, which works well with the white and orange lightning strike shape, the scar that cuts through the darkness of the bottom of the fish's fin. 


This shape, the fractal appearance of lightning appears again through the body of the yellow and green fish. Its now clear that the divergences from the main line along the fishes spine that fade out as they recede into the brown gave the yellow green fish the depth that it had in the illusion. These shapes look less like lightning, though, and more like neurons or microscopic blobs. We might take these shapes, the neurons and the lightning and the stars in the sky, as referents to nature or not. They can be both, as we've said many times. Let's try to keep all these thoughts in our head. 


We've got just one last thing to see before we think about all we've seen, before we jump in. You may have already seen it, but I have to tell you if you haven't. Crouch just a little bit, or find a way to look up at the beak of the sea lion. When you do you'll see that it's adorned with glitter, like droplets splashing off as it breaches from the water. It's just another part of this painting that can only be seen from a certain angle. It's small, but its important none the less. If this little discovery compels you, feel free to pause the podcast and walk around a little bit. Take in Rapa Nui Smashup from a couple different angles, and then meet me on the bench, where we'll sit and talk about what we've seen. 


If you've taken a break, welcome back, and if not, welcome back all the same. We're on the edge of the pool, and its time to jump in. 





Your body glides through the air. You feel your toes and then your ankles and then your calves, all go into the water. Feel the inevitability, as your torso knows the fate that is soon to come. But in your imagination, I want you to do something that a person jumping into a pool cant, but a painting can. Find the halfway point. Find the point where half of your body is below the water's surface, and the other half remains perfectly dry. Hold your self there, just like this painting has held us here, and imagine, really imagine, what this feels like. To be wet and dry, to be falling and floating, to hold two states in your mind at the same time. Then I think we might begin to understand Rapa Nui Smashup


Everything in this painting simultaneously exists in states of solitude and in twain. The orange and blue goldfish and the green and yellow brown fish, the fish that leaps up from the canvas, the fish that dives in, the human-whale legs with a fish torso, like some inverse merperson, that dive down, the sea lions that breach up, the face, the torso that rises from the ground, the face with one eye, the background which turns into the foreground which turns into the background which turns into the foreground. 


Things that were seemingly random reveal themselves to be precise choices, and the things that seem to be precise reveal themselves to be increasingly unclear. The card asks us whether the gestures presented here are premeditated or intuitive. But I think that an honest experience of this painting, one that takes in as many perspectives as we just have, has to argue that we can neither call these gestures premeditated nor intuitive, at least not solely. There is something about this work that seems simultaneously premeditated and intuitive, that each gesture that not only been placed with careful forethought but also with a freedom of motion and expression that captures something intangible. It is both natural and man-made, both colorful and colorless, full of form and formless, both grounded in reality and wholly abstract. The whole world that has been created here simultaneously pulls us up and drags us down. Catches us in a stasis we can only really create in our imaginations. It is the freedom we feel as we jump through the air like we might take off and never hit the ground, never grace the ground again, and the inevitability of falling into a pool, the wet, the submergence that we know we have already put into motion. There is a moment, captured perfectly here, where we can hold both in our mind, where we can believe in the impossibility of flying and the inevitability of the...

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Our special thanks this week goes out to the two dutiful museum attendants who talked through this piece with me for a couple of hours one Saturday. Of course, I failed to write down their names, so the thanks is anonymous, but notes of our collaborative discussion on the piece and their ideas about it are all throughout, and this episode would not be half as good if it were not for their help.


Our show art was made by V Silverman. Our theme was recorded and engineered by Casey Dawson. The music in this episode is from the album Azalai by Blue Dot Session. This episode was written, recorded, and edited by me, T.H. Ponders.