Reductive | Subtractive thinking
What is Reductive Thinking?
Sculpture is traditionally divided into modelling and carving. Despite immense changes in art during the past century, this division is still useful shorthand for the designation of much larger issues.
Modelling is additive: as it follows the logic of assembly, it accumulates substance toward achievement. Modelling can be taken to represent all methods of addition or rearrangement. This would include shaping a form in clay, assembling a construction, gluing things together as collage, or setting up an example.
Carving, as a subtractive process, is the opposite of modelling. The effects of carving can be seen whenever meaning is created by stripping something away, or where a new form takes shape by means of removal. The subtractive (reductive) method we associate with carving can be a tool for creative destruction or a means of refinement and intensification.
Modelling and carving are distinct ways to engage with material and as such they are also contrasting approaches to the world. Each requires different sets of sensitivities which in turn create their own opportunities.
Today the additive approach is so pervasive that it has a monopoly on almost every discipline. We are conditioned into it. The examples of working processes that we are given as children are nearly always predicated on growth. The additive is implicit in every idea of increase, including the establishment of value. Human beings are so attached to increase that quantity (whether in amount or cost) is substituted for quality. Excess is taken to be a kind of protection. The expansionist tendencies of modelling have so thoroughly conquered the world that there are few other options.
The reductive or subtractive method would be able to offer the world an alternative approach, but it is difficult to find any place where it is fully active. It has no effective advocate and no regular usage. When the subtractive approach can be found at all, it is usually fragmented, distorted or hidden.
The STONE project [see profile elsewhere] began its research with a sense of urgency. One of the central aims was to document endangered skills so that they could be saved for later generations. It became quickly evident that with this task came an obligation to preserve the subtractive mode of thinking. The effort required to preserve craft skills turned out to be relatively easy in comparison to documenting a process that was also a way of thinking. Thinking is not easy to document. Techniques and sequences can be recorded more easily.
The subtractive or reductive way of thinking is more complex and less streamlined than the elegance of technique. In the subtractive can be found pockets of inharmonious ideas existing side by side. There are vectors that when followed propel those trying to understand from differing perspectives. A simple skill is so streamlined that it does not have any places to hold such confusing and residual ideas. If it were possible to apply a psychological analysis to these differences, then simple skills would have fewer unresolved issues than are found in the complexities of the subtractive approach. The contradictory tangents in the reductive mode are what make it particularly interesting and challenging. In that sense it resembles human culture in general. The roots of carving stretch back to prehistoric times but an efficient assessment of carving’s insights has never been successfully articulated.
Most skills are really collective efforts. The knowledge that comprises them is cumulative. The sequences have been slowly perfected as they are passed through generation after generation. Over the centuries everything superfluous has fallen away and differences are harmonized until everything is pulling in one direction. Theoretical and philosophical understandings are embedded in the fixed procedures of such actions. Deeper understandings are so securely attached that there is no need to articulate them in order to preserve them. Craft skills are more or less understood. That is not the problem. Skills are only disappearing today because the lineage is breaking. Many skills are no longer being passed on to younger workers.
A discussion of skills is inevitably a discussion of technique, but understanding is also a skill. It too needs to be kept alive with all of its nuances but its complexity makes this more difficult. It is not always possible to see everything from a single perspective. Yet some kind of inclusive overview is needed. If the subtractive or reductive approach is simplified for the sake of preserving it, we risk discarding something very important.
The task is to uncover everything that could lead toward a general principle of carving and do so in a way that is able to preserve its present and potential richness. As a beginning, six distinct points of access can be identified. These are: a respect for margins, an appreciation of loss, the pull toward refinement, the thrill of exploration, the discipline of keeping to the core, and the ability to ‘re-live’ the sequence of an object’s creation while looking at a finished object. Looking deeper into these qualities might reveal some preliminary principles of reductive thought.
It may not be possible to begin at the beginning. The re-carving of images and explanations, like the re-carving of blocks of stone, has a long tradition. Most aspects of culture have been prone to periodic recycling. So much is already given that for now it is necessary to carve out an understanding from what is given and adjust it where it is needed.
The material received from the past might occasionally be treated like an inheritance, but most of the time it is just slightly compromised raw material. The impression of alla prima vitality that direct carving conveys is in contrast to carving’s centuries of reassembling and rethinking.
One of the clearest examples of this process took place in Europe as the Roman Empire collapsed and Christian culture took over. It wasn’t worth the effort to work the quarry when stones from so many pagan buildings were there to be used. Some of these old stones were re-carved; others were appropriated for building; anything made of limestone or alabaster was likely to be burnt to make lime or gypsum.
Re-cycling saved time but it had the additional benefit of defusing pagan energy and converting heathen rock into Christian significance. From the Middle Ages until well into the Renaissance, stonemasons were busy recycling earlier human energy and separating it from its original content. The façade relief of the Orvieto cathedral is reused stone, as is Nicola Pisano’s pulpit in the Pisa baptistery. The marble cladding from Rome’s Coliseum was stripped off and transported to St Mark’s in Venice. One of the porphyry baptismal fonts in St Peter’s Basilica is the cover of Hadrian’s sarcophagus, now simply turned upside down. The poetry of reuse is filled with extremes of meaning. After the Bastille was destroyed the larger stones were used to construct a bridge across the Seine, while small stones from the rubble were mounted as jewelry.
The most famous description of the reductive process is Michelangelo’s image of a figure trapped inside of a block of stone. He also explained that he carved as if he were witnessing the revelation of a submerged object. Michelangelo’s friend Vasari described how Michelangelo put his model into a little coffin, filled it with water, and slowly dipped the water out of the box. The nearest parts of the figure emerged from the water first, like little islands. These were carved as he saw them. More water was let out; more stone was carved. The carving dug deeper and deeper into the block, increasing the figure as the block disappeared. The maquette and sculpture changed together, each mimicking the other. In each case the figure was being drawn slowly into the air.
The explanation of carving began as two separate images but they soon become linked together. There is the trapped figure, and the figure revealed as the water recedes. When taken together these images create an unmistakable biblical analogy, one that would not have been lost on a devout audience at the time. The receding water in the box parallels the receding waters after the flood of Noah. The figure emerging from its burial in the box is simultaneously the revelation of land after the end of the flood, and The Resurrection. The Resurrection is essentially an image of liberation, and this is made explicit by freeing the figure trapped in stone.
The triumphant sculptor is the liberator. Part of the appeal is that the viewer seems to feel part of the process and consequently empowered. Within the process is the contagious power of moving boundaries. Shifting boundaries also suggests how a drawing might slide into three dimensions, something that is not always easy to understand or obvious.
Michelangelo offers up carving as a kind of theatre. The sculptural relief becomes a proscenium arch pulling the audience into another world. The process of carving is approached from a single position. Because Michelangelo’s explanation of carving is broadly accepted today by both specialist and non-specialist, it follows that most of our shared understanding of carving is grounded in relief carving. This does not at first appear to be a problem, but it causes difficulties in several ways. It sometimes gives those who think literally the idea that there is only one authentic figure in each stone. This gives permission to believe that any particular sculpture might be the ‘wrong’ one. In fact the potential is broader than this, more akin to the way that Homer described language in the Iliad: "The tongue of man,” he said, “is a twisty thing; there are plenty of words there of every kind." Carving is really a world of plenty. Any problem with the twisty thing in sculpture can be circumvented. The bigger difficulty is that these accepted explanations are at odds with the most important contribution to human perception that sculpture in general makes.
The real genius in sculpture is that it looks at things from multiple points of view. The figure trapped in stone and revealed as if by receding water, presupposes a single, meager point of view. The world of carving is more generous than that. No comprehensive understanding of the sculptural approach can be formulated when a single point of view eclipses all others. Michelangelo’s explanation, as brilliant as it is, obscures carving’s true parentage. The hazards of the single view appear in the two most common frustrations faced by young sculptors: the surprise discovery of a sculpture that is wonderful from one position, but horrible from others, and the common mistake of making a portrait face that is too flat, where the nose and cheeks barely come out into space.
Explanations of carving that are based on bas-relief are a Renaissance re-positioning of an earlier way to work, a repositioning that rejects a process of carving that shapes form by approaching it simultaneously from all sides. It would be a shame to discard Michelangelo’s resonant explanations, but neither can they remain unchallenged.
Any attempt to articulate the reductive mode today has its own analogy to the Biblical Noah. The effort is no longer involved with the receding waters but in the cleanup after the flood. A lot of talking had taken place since Adam began his adventure, but when the waters were finally gone it was time for Noah, the second Adam, to start over. The things that happened before could not be denied, but they were only one limiting view, a view that for Noah was not immediately useful.
Sculptors tend to use the words ‘reductive’ and ‘subtractive’ interchangeably. When they refer to ‘the reductive method’ they mean any process where significance is increased by taking something away. Reduction is a shared word; it is not unique to sculptors.
Reduction in general is a mode of exploration and focus. Traditional scientific reduction is a technique of breaking something up into its constituent parts, then studying each part separately so that it is neither completely overwhelming nor subject to adjacent or outside influences. Too often what is beside or before or around something interferes with that thing’s reception. A freedom from such distortion is of inestimable worth.
This idea on which reduction rests is part of a lineage that stretches back at least to Aristotle, perhaps further, a way to divide the world into what Aristotle called ‘essence’ and ‘accident.’ Essence refers to those qualities that make anything what it is, and accident is what can be taken away without changing it into something else. If it were possible to focus only on essences, then embellishments, undergrowth, and other unrelated attachments would not be a distraction. Many of the things that become distractions have accumulated so slowly that they were never noticed. Reduction is a tool of action in the service of discovery. It provides intensification and clarity, as it moves toward increased precision. It can make the superfluous disappear.
Reduction cuts into its subject to reveal what is hidden within; it often presages further revelations. Albert Camus believed that thinking itself is reductive. In The Myth of Sisyphus he observed, “To think is first of all to create a world (or to limit one's own world, which comes to the same thing).” Editing occasionally has the power to reveal what is hidden which then creates something that wasn’t exactly there before.
When something is extracted and placed in another context, the change in surrounding can change in meaning. Mining or quarrying could be examples of where this kind of reduction is at work. The carving of a quote from a text is another example.
Language itself is reductive. No language is large enough to squeeze the whole world into it. Some things do not fit. Not everything gets named, and those that do get named begin to take the places of the un-named. Small bits of the world disappear. A compromised world like this is invisible because in the end there is no evidence of loss. Emptiness itself is invisible. Everyone today adapts to ready-to-wear clothing that fits so well that no one notices that nothing actually fits perfectly.
Reduction is present whenever there is a functional management of information. Nearly all information about the world is received as packaged abbreviations. If these packages are delivered via television, radio, or print the information is further reduced into discrete digitised bricks. We are buffered in an abbreviated world. Even something as ordinary as the structure of human manners is reductive. As Madame de Stael observed “Politeness is the art of choosing among your thoughts.” Civilization is preserved, and culture established, by carving it out of less helpful possibilities.
It is fashionable today to be against reduction, and the word itself is almost a censure. It is easy to find places where reduction fails to give an accurate answer. People often believe that they understand when they have only been given part of the picture, and whenever this happens it makes further discovery more difficult. Quantum physicists describe particles too small to be divided that can mysteriously be in more than one place at the same time. They can never be measured in isolation; observation changes whatever is observed to the point that nothing can ever be accurately measured. Allotropic medicine, like any situation where multiple systems benefit each other, sometimes overlooks important clues. When a part is chosen to represent a whole it may not give the whole story but it can still be a successful form of accounting. William Blake was able to see the universe in a grain of sand, a vision that could be called extreme context. Belief in the expansiveness of the detail can elevate the specialist over the generalist. There is the risk that narrow expertise might obscure context while revealing detail. It is important to determine which simplification will lead to wisdom. As Albert Einstein put it, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."
Today’s antipathy to reduction is not often based on objections to reduction’s actual limitation; reduction can be (mis) used as a synonym for incomplete, thin or superficial. People apply the word to situations where initial assumptions are so intractable that they ignore any new evidence, such as when the researcher proceeds to find only data that supports what he has already set out to prove.
It would be very helpful to find an alternate way — an alternate word — to name situations like these, because when the word reduction is used it shrinks a useful three-dimensional word into a less useful two-dimensions. A kind of literalism invades its usage and comes close to reversing reduction’s original meaning. True reduction, in all of its forms, is guided by an urge to preserve, clarify, or refine something, not reduce or diminish it. Reduction’s real role is to trim away anything that is not essential to a real identity. It is an act of essential purification. Classic abstraction is a good example of reduction.
Just as it would be useful to find a word for situations that are hindered or diminished by oversimplification, it would be useful to have a dedicated word to encompass the nuances and depths of a process of enrichment that can only be arrived at by taking something away. The word “subtractive” avoids some of the complications of a heavily burdened word like reduction, but it is also less inclusive, less able to include the richness in the process. It lacks the associations with concepts of investigation, exploration, purification or refinement. There are many situations where a more limited word is the right one to use, but this is not always the case. A debate rages about which term to use in reference to both carving and the larger issues that carving encompasses. At this point in discussions of carving the words are used almost inter-changeably. To continue to do so might be the best protection against inadvertently throwing out an essence as an accident. To avoid discarding essence as accident may be the sculptor’s most difficult challenge.
"The skilled workman is taught by his materials, and their resources and qualities enter through his hand and thence to his mind.”
— The Wheelwright’s Shop, George Sturt
A quick overview of all the activities of sculpture shows that it embodies several distinctly focused processes that are comprehensive enough to be considered a distinct way of thinking.
1 Carving, for instance, actually trims a world into existence. Modelling builds up a shape bit by bit until it occupies a specific morphic field.
2 Mould making ignites a specific anxiety of attention because after once running foul of undercuts a craftsman’s sensitivity towards the angle of approach is forever on high alert.
3 Transforming flat material into a complex three-dimensional form leads to an understanding of how the flat bell shape found in clothing patterns can be sewn together to make a normal looking sleeve.
4 Constructing buildings leads to a sensitivity towards weight-bearing possibilities.
5 Rigging and moving heavy objects refines the skill of balance and equivalent weights.
Sculpture is so rich in different modes of thought that early exposure to sculpture seems to set the stage for further learning.
What sculptors grow to believe is that actions and ideas can sometimes be interchangeable. Richard Sennett streamlined the theme of his book The Craftsman by saying “Making is thinking,” This echoes an idea introduced years earlier by George Sturt’s 1923 classic A Wheelwright’s Shop. ‘Making is thinking’ sounds like a manifesto, but it is even more than that. It is a beginning. The next step is to see how different ways of making filter and program raw material in specific ways, and in so doing evolve different modes of thought.
How is it possible to identify a mode of understanding? Does it structure our inventory of responses; change a pattern of balance; have a ‘grammar’ that determines specific internal relationships? Does it transform our insights in order to reveal what might otherwise be obscured and perhaps obscure something in return? How does a mode of thinking deal with things unexpected or out of the ordinary? How does it handle crisis, for instance, or boredom? Are conceptual structures spontaneously generated? Does a mode of thought consume energy, or transform it from other sources?
Thinking is primarily reactive because it performs an action on received information; thinking is a tool that processes what is already there. The philosopher Robert Sokolowski pushes this concept further. “Thinking is not something we do entirely on our own,” he says, “we are allowed to think by what our thoughts are about.”
Thinking is a process of multiple re-positioning in hopes of revealing previously unrecognized connections. Thinking enriches any situation through which it passes. Thinking does not draw attention to itself. It shifts all awareness onto the subject of the thought. Thinking has a reputation of being solitary, yet modes of thinking — like skills — evolve collectively through generations. We learn to think for ourselves, and for others, even, sometimes, through others
Where thinking is reactive, modes of thinking are adaptive. A mode of thinking joins with intelligence for short periods of collaboration. Both are impermanent. The law of thinking must be unstable because thinking responds to experience, changing as the situation or the thinker changes. Without this flexibility, the same approach might be applied to everything, and the risk of stagnation would set in. This is one of the main challenges of education.
Curiously enough, thinking does not always need to be knowing. It is possible to respond creatively without consciously understanding the situation. Tacit skills function covertly while working out useful solutions. Sometimes these ‘intuitions’ are interactive and creative and other times they are simply repeating received information. The task is to discern which is which.
Even within the single discipline of carving more than one approach can be discovered. Progressive apprehension is a characteristic of all carving but it can be seen most clearly in relief carving: where something is approached, then approached closer, then approached closer still. Each ‘remove’ is also a move and a consolidation. Each step first anchors the form and then moves it toward the next state of flux. This sequence can be experienced as physical expansion, or as a magnification of detail, or as increased cognizance. As successive planes are carved into the stone, they push the ’wilderness’ of the raw and uncultivated background further back. The creation of increased cognizance is something that carving shares with observational drawing. With each new step it is possible to see things that could not have been seen before.
Relief sculptures live closer to the plane than objects that are fully in the round. Intervals that are physically small can be powerful in some reliefs but would probably be disregarded in a fully resolved three-dimensional object. In the right situation a difference even as thin as a sheet of paper will catch and modulate the light in a way that would otherwise never be seen. Distance becomes relative rather than absolute.
Change happens constantly in stone carving. With such persistent change it is useful to find any stability, some unchanging point of reference. This might be a measurement taken from the edges into the center. The absolute nature of each stone’s dimension is a fixed boundary.
In an irregularly shaped stone this would be more difficult. The stable reference can be an invisible axis established with the aid of a plumb line. When this runs through the center of a randomly shaped stone every action can relate without ambiguity to its true vertical. Very little else is needed. It bypasses the need to square up a block into flat surfaces as a screen for the projected profiles.
Relief carving finds its stability by referring to either the front plane or the back plane. All depths are ‘measured’ from one of these ‘points’ of reference. When carving relates to the front plane it will continue to do so even when most of that surface has been carved away.
The Margin of Amount
The expansionist approach represented by modelling is accompanied with an unstated assumption that there can be no limit to expansion. This ‘euphoria of increase’ is everywhere in the world today. The ground of carving is the opposite of this. The subtractive approach is built on the assurance of its limits. Carving has an ‘identifiable absolute’ built into its character.
The ‘judgment of margins’ rests firmly on the assessment of amount. Carving exists entirely within the stone. The artist is created within the stone because that is the place where the best of what she or he can offer is manifested. The stone has its mass, but the artist makes personal space within its margins.
At exactly the moment when it becomes evident that margins create the sculpture is the moment when it becomes possible to visualize how any block might be carved simultaneously from all directions. In carving, old surfaces are constantly being replaced by new ones. The progress in carving moves slowly from fuzzy to precise. The action to take off more from some places than others continues until a form is materialized within that space. Carving teaches that as the stone gets smaller, focus and form intensify. As the intensity of the stone increases, it incorporates more of its surroundings. Carving is less about something being diminished than it is about the creation of space. A sculpture often functions as the nucleus of a field of influence that is larger than its apparent boundaries. This extended area is the real boundary of the work, but it must be identified by feeling rather than sight.
Stripping things away is not to be confused with serious loss. All forms of loss, however, may have much in common. The action goes in both directions at once.
The space that a sculpture shapes is almost tactile. Sculptures in general and carving in particular create auras of influence both inside and outside of its apparent boundaries. An awareness of these relationships and a sensitivity to this extension into space can be anticipated and brought into the working process. Most of the sculptural experience can be equally shared by sculptor and viewer, but there are privileges for those who work with their hands. The craftsman in the midst of intense work can develop a sensitivity to space which is not easily shared: it is as if he has extra eyes looking at the stone from angles positioned well beyond the edge of the carving. In this case it is not theory but activity that transports awareness beyond its normal boundaries. As Albert Einstein said ‘Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.’ This is something more than metaphor. For the carver the peripheral —the marginal—once again becomes a central concern. At the same time the sculpture is sending a presence into space, its edges are reflecting back energy.
The Margin of Context
In the quarry a stone block is removed from the central matrix of the earth. It is a fragment of the planet itself. This bit of stone had been in the same position for millions of years; now it is split from a single mass and moved from darkness into the light. The orientation at the time of this ‘birth’ is forever afterwards a quality that stays with the stone, part of what it is. Once it is removed from its original mass of the quarry it becomes raw material again. From this stone now smaller things can be quarried.
Every matrix regardless of its size has the solidity of place. That is how a fragment taken from the quarry can become the unquestioned ground of carving. This block has shifted easily from fragment to monad simply by moving place. Just by being moved from the periphery to a central position it begins to set itself up like a separate consciousness. The displaced becomes place.
Context is considered to be a relationship with what is directly adjacent. A quarried block of stone has a double context. Extractions from an originating matrix exist within a context that is not contingent. Consider the way a human garden restructures wild nature. The context is in contrast to the steel and concrete skyscrapers that surround it, but its other context is its existence within the entire orchestration of nature. A block of stone is similarly ‘tamed’ by its removal from the earth. Each reproduces something of its place of origin but on a smaller scale. Both the quarried stone and the garden are new ‘places,’ and yet they have inside of them the immensity of their pre-tamed state. A garden’s context is not defined by the wall around it, or by its urban contrast. Its context is not found in its geography but in its deep history, in the wilderness from which it was separated. The quarried block is no different.
To a lesser degree this is the case in scholarship when a few lines are separated from a longer text. The original manuscript is the originating matrix and the quotes are fragments quarried from it. It is not unusual for a quote to seem more complete than the original text ever was. When further editing removes a few internal words for clarity it might inadvertently juxtapose phrases that had been more distant — an act of carving that can expose hidden meaning. How is it possible that additional meaning, and in extreme cases even identity, can be created by removing parts of something?
Every photographic image, regardless of whether it is still or moving, is a fraction of a second snipped out of the day from which it was taken. A photo is also a fragment that can develop a sense of place. It is in a sense already carved.
The film editor’s task is to further carve the initial carving. Editing film is closer to the way a horticulturist will prune a tree. The raw footage is shaped by clipping off what doesn’t support the narrative. Occasionally a removed scene is grafted back into the story out of sequence. Such a displaced image or sound can be used to tune, to focus or to expand the scene to which it is added. The inserted clip becomes a reminder of a larger outside world or of parallel processes. To what extent does the altered object preserve a relationship to its earlier self or to the matrix from which it was extracted?
Some sculptors intentionally preserve a bit of unmodified raw stone as part of the finished work. They keep a bit of the matrix because it contains sleeping energies. Reductive thinking uses these energies as a foundation upon which everything else is built. The talismanic residue is a reminder to the artist that the power of what has been done is always linked to what has not been done. By preserving some of the raw stone the experience of the work is kept up-close and tactile, and the memory of the work that went into the carving is kept active. Tactility has a higher priority for many sculptors than the streamlining of the form as silhouette. Silhouettes distance form; tactility keeps it up close.
An important part of the ‘margin of context’ is the way that the work’s sense of being stretches back to the quarry, back to a contact with the earth itself. The importance of contact with the earth was not lost on the ancients. Antaeus is the powerful character from the Greek myths who could only keep his strength as long as he touched the earth. Someone like Antaeus could be the patron saint of stone sculptors.
Sculptors are fundamentalists. They find their best nourishment in irreducible basics. The first matrix is the quarry: it grounds the sculptor in the earth. The second matrix, the extracted stone, is where experience is concentrated. For a carver the place of experience is the place of achievement. Achievement for the sculptor is not something that is floating in the clouds. In one way or another, the work is earth-bound, always below the surface. The summit to which sculptors ascend for achievement is never really above them. A sculptor may try to carve a high mountain, but the work stays always beneath his feet.
Carving is held between the stone’s two distinct margins. The ‘margin of amount’ is a combination of mass and dimension. The ‘margin of context’ is a complex frame of alignments, intervals and expansions emanating from what is inherent in historical, contingent and associative qualities. Carving is framed by a restraint.
A block of stone when it has been removed from the quarry is somehow able to both keep and exceed its boundaries. The sculpture is able to extend beyond apparent boundaries in two different ways: ‘historical’ and perceptual. Like a person who is more balanced with feet apart than together, there are two ‘feet’ that stabilise the margins of context. The first ‘foot’ extends back in time; the second ‘foot’ expands into perceptual space. The core of the work is secured between these positions.
It is possible in the right situation to feel how the physical edge of a sculpture is not its real boundary. A sculptural object has the ability to ‘carve’ the space around it. These extended boundaries come into play just as it appears that the work is finished, pulling the work back into the realm of action. It is starting over once again by initiating a new aspect.
For a work that was always functioning from the edges to the center this enters a different perceptual space. The sculpture begins to function as a tool. Stone sculptor Lenore Thomas Straus believed “The correct positioning of [the]… stone upon the earth will be the final act of carving.” Careful placement can carve space. In some clear cases the space and the object can be experienced as locking themselves together. The object ‘holds’ space. The ability to recognize this is what makes some people better at placing sculpture than others. Like other skills this too can be learned.
The Neo-Platonic philosophy of Plotinus was very important for Michelangelo. In just a sampling of Plotinus’ writings we can imagine the extent of his influence on Michelangelo‘s sculptural ideas and approach:
“ ... a progressive stripping off of everything that is
alien to the purest nature of the soul”
“a gradual hierarchy of existence and value”
“the whole world which we know arose and took its shape”
For Plotinus matter was pure potentiality. It could be refined toward a kind of goodness, and he hinted that there was a moral obligation to do so. Reductive processes — specifically revelation and purification — settle comfortably with ideas such as those espoused by Plotinus.
The double prongs of revelation and purification may be yet another thing that goes back to Aristotle’s distinction between accidents and essentials. Accidents, remember, are qualities that can be shed without changing something’s essential nature. A carving appears as something distinct by being separated from what is not needed, as the accidents and impurities fall away. When Michelangelo discards the accidents, the core is purified.
Because this process of purification it is always exposing hidden stone, it is also a movement toward light. In carving all formative activity happens where light meets darkness. Goethe recognised the edge of light and darkness as a place of generation; in carving this is where things get more precise. The concern of the subtractive process is making an approximation more precise. That play at the edge of approximation and precision may have an aesthetic component. In fact it may hold the secret to one specific charm of French women: there is a tradition that after dressing for the evening, just before going out, they will look in the mirror and take just one thing off. A single removal intensifies and focuses what is left. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “If anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
This is equally true in meditation when un-bidden thoughts are put aside to gently fall back into the world. Everything manipulated drops away and what is left is something untouched.
The material world is where everything happens. For the sculptor in particular it is the container in which ideas play out their potential. The different levels of resistance inherent in the material will affect almost every sculptural action. Each kind of material cuts, folds, chips or bursts according to the rules of its type. How cleanly a material can be cut might depend on its hardness or structure; how it is split will depend on an invisible grain. A stone will split along a grain in preference to any other direction.
The world of substances teaches through resistance and collaboration, but also through ambiguity. Ambiguity does not disappear even when the material is well known. Material has the dominant voice. It is not unusual for craftsmen to talk as if the material itself chooses arbitrarily whether to refuse or to cooperate. It often seems mysterious how the material can sometimes transform itself with only the slightest nudge from the sculptor as if it has become complicit with the carving. The opposite is just as likely: the stone can suddenly be resistant beyond any expectation. Material has the potential to destabilise those who confront it. Brute force is not really helpful. The slightest whiff of coercion or over confidence messes things up. Respect makes the spirit of the material come alive. Material becomes the co-author of every achievement. Empathy gives life to the substance and in reply the material responds almost as if it were an extra part of the body. Craftsmen sometimes say that they can ‘think the way the material thinks.’ The decision is inside the stone.
"It is by carving stone that we discover the spirit of matter. The hand thinks and follows the thought of matter."
— Constantin Brancusi
Sculpture and impatience are not comfortable partners. Carving is a process of adaptation, and sometimes waiting. Sculpture teaches how to sustain an idea. Patience is mandatory. This is often the only way it can work. Sculpture, as multiple positioning, takes time. Material has its own timing. When taken together, they are slow enough that developing insights have enough time to manifest.
Some people interpret carving as the imposition of will onto an accepting material. Sometimes it seems to be the opposite. Almost always it is the sculptor who adapts to the stone, not the other way around. Decisions that come from inside the material are as much received as they are made. For the carver the process erases the illusion that there is a choice. In the largest sense possible, there is no choice at all. Only some things are ever possible, and the direction is clear. As the Buddhists so beautifully put it, you cannot push the river.
Carving is unthinkable without an acceptance of loss. The theme of loss is first introduced in the quarry, and passed further on to the carving. Working backwards it is possible to see the quarry as a huge carving, and quarried blocks as giant scattering chips. After receiving one of these large chips from the quarry the sculptor maintains a pattern of loss by reducing the block still further with ever-smaller chips. Between quarry and carving there is a continuous activity, differing only in degree or scale.
An understanding of loss informs all reductive approaches, but it is a far more nuanced understanding of loss than might first be supposed. Carving is not a singular activity but an accumulation of small individual judgments. No single chip can make a sculpture but as tiny actions accumulate and reinforce each other the entire field of action has been separated into the preserved as matter and what is preserved as emptiness. Loss fills the intervals and balances the end result.
Loss here is the ground on which everything is built, and it is felt as reassuring, even generative. It is both the central foundation and the construction itself. In the ecology of a carving loss couldn’t be more central, yet carving is not defined by what is lost. The carver’s understanding of loss is not sentimental. Sentimentality is a parasite. Carving is defined by what we save, because what is saved is what comes into existence.
"… You work on that material. You touch it, you cut it, you hit it in every direction and in the end what you remain with is something that was never touched …you touch everything that you take out....Everything that you have touched, that you destroyed or violated, is gone… you remain with…stone … that is actually hundreds of millions of years old… the original stone."
— Saint Clair Cemin, STONE Project interview
"If you really look at human experience the truth is that we are all living a life of experiment."
—Lindon J. Eaves, Geneticist and pioneer of twin studies
In the subtractive method, what is learned is immediately incorporated. Different ways of exploration establish their own relationships with the material. This affects what can be learned. Experiment, like exploration, is a search within defined limits, a way to learn about what is hidden.
Exploration suggests that some part of the process occurs while the searcher is in motion. It only lingers over incident. In exploration, as intention changes so do results. One intention can reveal things that another intention will not. When exploration is linked to a purpose anything discovered is limited by that purpose.
Over time, a stone sculptor will make increasingly accurate guesses about how the material will behave, especially when working in stone from the same deposit. Even so there may be surprises hidden in the stone. The exploration that is part of the subtractive processes does not guarantee security. A split stone can reveal almost everything along that one single plane, but except by inference it cannot reveal what it is like elsewhere.
The tendency of exploration is toward penetration, even when most of the activity remains near the surface. Exploration is always throwing out hints that suggest what will be discovered when a particular action is performed or the depth is increased. The discoveries that are made become as open-ended as exploration itself. When Bernini was in France, he was commissioned to carve the bust of Louis XIV. He ordered several blocks of stone and began to work on each of them, before choosing one to use for the carving. He didn't know the quarry and he wasn't sure of the stone. He was experienced enough to be insecure.
Before beginning a carving, the sculptor tests a bit of the stone to know how it breaks, but exploration is not limited to preparation. In fact exploration makes preparation continuous. For the most part, every action prepares for the next action. Each stroke carves a new platform from which allows something else to be seen.
Limestone, marble and sandstone are all granular, but the size and nature of those grains determines what the stone can do. Some stone is too brittle or 'sugary', or slippery to take hold of a specific form. Discoveries that do not appear to be immediately useful may become so later. Every discovery reveals one more reference point that can help to establish a kind of 'map' of the stone's characteristics.
Exploration assesses the orientation of the stone and determines the orientation of the explorer. For the explorer it is as if he steps back to position himself outside, better to see and to explore further. Exploration is a relational position. The process incorporates less the margins themselves than the awareness of the margins as a position from which to assess. Exploration, as a way of thinking, establishes perspective.
This is contrary to the sculptor's ability to mentally inhabit his material. These two, almost opposite positions can both come into play in the process of carving. The fact that divergent approaches are possible enriches and strengthens the process.
Splitting is the ‘cleanest’ of the exploratory tools; it is decisive and revelatory. The speed of splitting stone is one of the fastest actions in sculpture. Most of the time it takes to split a stone is taken up in preparation. The actual splitting occurs at lightning speed.
The instant of splitting is a kind of epiphany. The moment just before the stone splits is full of anticipation. Natural stone is almost always obscured by a weathered crust or bruised exterior. Splitting is zooming into the center of the stone. Sculptor Jene Highstein insists that the beauty of stone is most evident in the split surface. When a stone is split we might discover interior ‘drawings’ or stratified color variation. The texture reveals if the shape and size of crystalline structure is consistent.
The sculptor’s search for a form can be experienced as a constantly shifting surface. Insights are seldom found on one surface alone but on that surface in relation to adjacent surfaces.
Exploration is a kind of progressive diagnosis where one insight leads to another insight. It is also an action that merges with carving where one step also moves toward a further step. In both carving and exploration each time one action reaches a solution it uncovers a new territory that is explored in turn. It makes sense to see carving and exploration together, in each case discovery changes the light, sometimes literally, and a change of light determines how far it is possible to see. Comparing two surfaces slightly apart or two surfaces of different heights or depths can reveal more than any singular surface. To be able to look at a surface response and see in it evidence of some hidden event or action is a useful skill. Concealed structures can be intuited from the surface. Clues may need to be enhanced to be deciphered Polishing is an activity of the surface, but may reveal things about the stone that neither splitting nor carving can do. A successful polish might show microscopic changes that cannot usually be seen. What can be seen may be evidence of something that is only shallow or something that continues deep into the stone. Polishing takes so much time that it cannot be used regularly as a tool of exploration. Wetting the stone is sometimes a shortcut to polishing and can bring out variations of coloring or texture. Because water evaporates at different speeds on the surface or in the depths of a crack, a wet stone can show flaws that would otherwise be harder to see.
Splitting is insistently planar as it reveals the inside of the stone top to bottom. It is not the same inside of the stone that carving reveals. Carving is far less restricted than is splitting and can never be limited to a single plane. Carving requires that the carver touch different depths in different places. As a result of searching for a specific form, some things become adjacent that would otherwise stay distant or hidden.
Carving is not production; it is discovery. The form arises only through the action. Because the exact form is not certain in the beginning, the related shapes are slowly tested. The result is recognized. Carving is a kind of groping toward discovery. What characterizes a groping action is a sequence of many small ‘tastings’ of position.
Like the probing white cane of a blind person or the focusing of a camera lens, carving starts large and gradually arrives at its achievement. The goal is to arrive at an exact, sharp, condensed point. A concentrated form is recognized because it is ‘dark’ in the sense of an increased presence. An imprecise image takes more space, and is fuzzier, foggier and lighter. Focus implies condensation. We move toward a crisp resolution.
The slowness of exploration in archeology is a perfect example of explorative groping. The archeologist needs to be alert for things that are not specifically being looked for. Clues can be found in subtle changes such as a pattern or a break in the pattern. As archeologist Nick Card explained when he talked about his work in Orkney “As an archeologist you always wonder if you are missing something.” The hardest skill is to look for something that is not known to be there. The searching action in archeology, and perhaps in sculpture, takes place within a world of potential always just short of the final form.
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