It is a truism that artists see the world much differently than other people. But what about those artists whose eyes literally deceive them? It is not thought odd for a gifted musician to be blind, although we often grant them an additional aura of wonder. To be sure, the inability to see does not affect the ability to hear, or listen. A blind person playing the piano doesn’t have to see anything; he must only remember the sound produced at the spot where he just placed his fingers. The same logic applies to writers who are blind or can only see the physical world in limited hues–and there have been an admirable number of them. James Joyce, for one, claimed his blindness was the least important thing to have ever happened to him. John Milton, with braggadocio, claimed his was voluntary.
In contrast, the world of a blind visual artist must be a vastly different one. How does the photographer compose a frame of which he does not clearly see, or not see at all? What is the color palette of a painter who can only see variations of blue, green, and yellow? What does the world of the blind visual artist look like?
The annual Insightsshow at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery at City Hall seeks to answer that question–which it modestly does–and cast some light on blind and visually impaired artists who labor in the dark of their better represented, and sighted, peers.
A vast group show–forty-five artists working in a variety of formats–Insights is hardly a well-oiled machine, but there are many moments where one is struck by the elegance and sheer candor of its constituent parts. For example, each artist is granted the opportunity of a statement which is displayed prominently next to their work. Some might find this distracting, but the artist statements add a fascinating and necessary commentary on the particular circumstance and manner of their creation.
“I have less than five percent vision in my left eye and only light perception in my right eye. Due to severe tunnel vision, blind spots and Nystagmus, I am only able to see approximately a one-inch square of blurry vision,” David Kontra writes. Like the best artists in the show, Kontra uses his condition to his advantage, creating wonderfully slurred group portraiture. His subjects are typically gaping, grimacing, guffawing, and often gesticulating wildly. There is such life and movement in his sometimes political work, and it is often unclear whether the scenes are simply joyous or vaguely macabre.
Just as intriguing, if somewhat more somber, is Kristi Dean’s Untitled painting, a small piece that hearkens to Cy Twombly’s earlier work (and his more recent return to form). One is curious to know whether she’s actually ever seen his work. Stunningly, she writes, “The only sensation of light I notice occurs when the sun is shining in my face,” which doesn’t necessarily answer the question, but certainly shakes up the viewers’ notions about technique and influence. Unfortunately, the viewer is granted only this one piece of Dean’s, and it becomes a recurring default of the show that some of its best artists only have one piece on display.‚Ä®‚Ä®Interestingly, only fourteen of the artists on view utilize sculpture, a medium obviously requiring a certain tactile dexterity. While generally not as strong as the painting, there are some bright lights. The tangled deep sea-like creations of Passle Helminski, an Erie, Pennsylvania-based sculptor, literally dangle from the ceiling, delighting those who might run into them.
Most surprising, nine out of forty-five of the artists are photographers, and given the magnitude of the form’s emphasis on literally having a good eye, the nightmarish work of someone like Pete Eckert, “legally blind for about twenty odd years… totally blind for about half of this time,” is striking. Eckert goes on to explain that, “By memorizing the event of taking photos using sound and touch, I have a clear minds eye view of my work. I could do conceptual art by showing the contact sheets and doing a write-up about the event of shooting the photos. This would eliminate sighted people from my process. I don’t. I want to interact with sighted people.”
The 2008 Insights exhibition gives the viewer some quite good artwork to look at; yet, for better or worse, the lasting impression of the show may be the sobering words of the artists themselves, who linger between parallel worlds of the afflicted and the inspired, blind and practitioners of visual art. Does their work help the sighted gallery viewer to better understand that luminous dichotomy? At times. But the entire show certainly makes for a fascinating introduction.