Essay / Avant-Garde

Squirrel Appreciation 101

Gather around, all of you. Look with me at this drawing. What do you see? Yes, that’s right, a squirrel. A happy squirrel?
Climbing a tree, that’s right. Stop pushing. squirrel climbing This is a marker drawing of a squirrel climbing a tree, under a cloud under the sun. Would you say this is a sunny day or a cloudy day? “Partly cloudy” is a good answer, the kind a meteorologist would give. But if you think about the artist designing this tall rectangular panel, he chose to put a big iconic cloud and a big iconic sun right in there. Please don’t lean on the walls, okay? The squirrel probably thinks it’s a cloudy day, because the cloud is closer to him and would block the sun from his vision.

Look closer at the squirrel’s face.
squirrel head
When you look close, the face is not very much like a squirrel, is it? It’s really a happy face (two dots and a curve) with ears. Isn’t it amazing how much expressiveness an artist can get out of two dots and a line? If you change the line just a little bit, the squirrel’s expression would change. One of the green lines from the background (why is the background GREEN?) comes into the squirrel’s head and looks a little bit like angry eyebrows. Do you think that’s intentional? Does the squirrel still look happy now that you’ve seen that?

A good trick when looking at a drawing is to try squinting at it. Not the kind of squint that makes your vision sharper, but the kind that blurs your vision. Try doing that now.
squirrel blurrily
What do you see when the picture is blurry that you didn’t notice when it was in sharp focus? What’s that? Yes, the dark spots. Everywhere the red and green lines cross, you get a very dark spot. You can almost count the squirrel’s interaction with its environment as a series of dark spots where they overlap.

What else? The tail looks bigger, yes. And the body kind of goes away. When it’s blurry, this squirrel looks like a head and a tail with almost nothing connecting them. That’s not a bad description of a squirrel, in some ways.

What else? The green background (Why is it GREEN?). It looks more like an actual field of color rather than a set of scribbly lines. So blurring your eyes helps you see the main thing the artist was going after, doesn’t it? Losing some detail can really help.

Here’s another trick. Try looking at it upside down. What do you see when you tilt your head over far enough to see the image upside down?
squirrel upside down Shapes? What does that mean? Oh, the squirrel’s head is really a blobby triangle, and the top –or now, the bottom– of his head is very flat. And his ears and arms all turn into recognizable shapes too, that are easy to see. Something magic happens to a picture when it’s upside down: it becomes abstract. Our minds forget to automatically translate the shapes into one picture, and for a little while we get to stare at the shapes themselves. Where’d the squirrel go? He’s still there, and with a tiny bit of effort you make him come back. But the point of looking upside down is to make him go away so we can look at his shapes, abstractly. We’ll like him better when he comes back right side up.

Hello, Mr. Squirrel! Hang on tight!

Now look one level deeper than the shapes, into the marks that the shapes are made of. What kind of marks is this drawing made of? Even though a colored marker can only give you one smooth line of ink, this artist made lots of different kinds of lines.

In some passages, or sections, of the drawing, the marks are very descriptive. “Descriptive” means that the marks take on the shape of the thing they are portraying. Look at the tree bark, for instance.
squirrel tree bark
Those are lines that seem to trace the contour of a piece of bark, and are layered in lines that all go the same way like tree bark. But in other places, like the green sky (WHY is it GREEN?), the lines are just zig-zagging everywhere to cover the whole area. So those are not descriptive at all, they are just themselves.

Now. We’ve blurred it, looked at it upside down, and examined its shapes, its descriptive marks, and its abstract marks. What’s left? The most mysterious part of any drawing, the part that isn’t there.

Look at the space inside the cloud.
cloud interior
That’s right, the space where there is nothing. That cloud looks like it has a magnetic field inside that pushes everything away, and makes all the marks swerve back as they approach the center. That’s a place where no greek marks are allowed (WHY ARE THEY GREEN?). No marks, just the empty background. The paper on which this drawing was made. An artist uses empty space as a design element, like one of the colors in his set. Imagine if you had a marker that was the color of nothing, and you had to use it to draw exactly the shape of nothing exactly where you wanted the nothing. That would be hard. One way to see it better is to imagine if it were a bright color like red.
red cloud interior
That would show the cloud interior to be what we call a Very Particular Shape. Does the shape look like anything you know? Not the lines, but the shape of the nothing inside the cloud. That Very Particular Shape inside the cloud, the cloud which stands between the squirrel and the sun, blocking its rays from the living things below. That field of force whose power is paradoxically caught up in its own refusal to BE, which stands as an obstacle precisely as nonresistance, non-occupation, non-representation!! Which repels all positive marks and holds itself eternally vacant as the very nexus of all nothingness, where the substratum of being shows through and declares itself to be what it is: nothing! Nothing! NOTHING, I tell you!!!

What’s that?

Yes, my head hurts too. Maybe we should move on. But before we go, let’s read the little label on the wall beside this drawing. We can see if the artist made any comments about his drawing. Let’s turn from the artist’s marks to the artist’s re-marks, get it?

Here’s what the artist says:

“There’s a beaver on the other side. I wanted it to look funny. I made it funny with a green squirrel. He’s thinking, “I’m going to climb this tree without anyone looking at me. No one sees me, ha ha ha,” the squirrel said. And then the squirrel punched his own head (ka-chong!!!) and the beaver saw him on the other side of the tree. The squirrel doesn’t know that the beaver sees him.”

Hmmm. A beaver. A green squirrel. Well class, maybe the artist is having a little joke with us, because this is not a green squirrel, and the beaver is not there, and “ka-chong” is not even a word. An artist is not always the best interpreter of his own work, you know. I think we’ve all seen something in this drawing that even the artist might not have seen.

Let’s move along.

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