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An Unexpected Adventure

Today’s post comes from Isa Pengskul, class of 2019 and Art Center Student Docent.

William Baziotes American, 1912-1963
Night Mirror, 1947
Oil on canvas Gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd (Blanchette Hooker, class of 1931) 1955.6.3

I have always walked past the painting Night Mirror by William Baziotes with a sense of indifference and a splash of contempt. The painting has been displayed on the wall adjacent to a doorway for as long as I’ve been a docent, and it has always been more enticing to walk through the door than to stop and stare at that painting.

When Bella, one of our fellow docents, said she liked Night Mirror, I laughed in my head with disbelief. I was thinking “No way. How could anyone like Night Mirror?” Hoping that I could make some sense out of this claim, I asked if she could explain her opinion to the group of docents, and I was delighted by the response she gave.

Bella brought us in front of the weird forms and uncomfortable colors that make up the painting. She gave us an awkward few minutes to examine it, in which I kept thinking “What is it? What the heck is it?” There seemed to be something going on. It looked like something I could ultimately make sense of, so I tried hard to do so.

The blue form in the center immediately attracted my attention. It appeared to be a body with a bulbous head and a strange beak. The shapes suggested that it was in conversation with the pink figure on its right. Though the pink figure was distinct from the blue body, I noticed that it was also joined with it, making me think it was an alien arm with its own volition. This was unsettling, so I focused my attention towards the left where another pink figure lay. It was no less ambiguous. The zigzag pattern brought my eyes up and down it, and I eventually noticed how the blue bleeds into the pink and conjoins itself to both of the bracketing forms, creating a paradox of unison among these discrete figures.

Looking away from the disturbing fetus-shaped figures, my eyes focused on what I assumed to be the green and black background. However, upon fixating my attention there I started to think that the painting looks like a map rather than a portrait. The green would be a forest, and what I thought of as the blue figure now looked like a lake. Accepting this line of thought, the blue figure became part of the background, but as soon as I looked at the blue figure alone I couldn’t help but once again think of it as a portrait. But a portrait of what? This painting left me utterly confused and dissatisfied.

Through a careful and precise dissection of its colors and composition, Bella described how the work mirrored, in fact, a particular and unusual feeling of nauseating stress she had experienced not long ago. It makes me, on the other hand, anxious and frustrated. I believe that both of our uncomfortable feelings, however strange it may sound, are precisely what this painting is about.

This morning I dragged my friend to the Loeb to see if this idea sounded legitimate to someone who wasn’t into art. She pointed out to me that this painting was making me feel uncomfortable because it lies in between being a depiction of reality and being completely abstract and strange. The fact that there seems to be a subject that vaguely looks human makes me want it to be so, but it still isn’t quite right. On the other hand it’s not abstract enough to allow me to think it’s something else altogether. This painting, she said, demonstrated the “uncanny valley” hypothesis of aesthetics.

The uncanny valley hypothesis is a theory that arose from studies of human emotional responses to robots. Researchers found that observers tend to feel a sense of eeriness or revulsion when they encounter replicas that appear almost, but not quite, like real humans. As human likeness increases, so does affinity towards the replica. However, at the moment when it looks like a human but isn’t quite right, e.g. a zombie, there is a dip or valley in the emotional response. Night Mirror, then, seems to lie somewhere in this dark valley.

Baziotes may very well have been aware of the emotional effects of his paintings. His use of flat figures, shapes, strong brush strokes are reminiscent of Symbolism. Though the symbolist movement had its roots in poetry, for painters it became the idea that art should reflect emotion rather than simply emulate the material world. Baziotes was also interested in the idea that one form could take on many meanings. It is clear that the painting is not meant to be understood immediately. In fact, Baziotes said: “I want my pictures to take effect very slowly, to obsess and haunt.”

Oddly enough, I now approach Night Mirror with a sense of fondness. It’s been like one of those Mt. Everest journeys where you put yourself through hell but then when you succeed it feels pretty good. Perhaps that comparison is hyperbolic. All I can ultimately say is that sometimes it is valuable to sit with unpleasantness and examine it for a while. When I come out on the other side I always feel like I have learned a little bit more about life, art, and myself.

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