Recently, I’ve been thinking about how titles influence the way we look at paintings. I cannot help but feel that, in many instances, titles are the artist’s concession to the viewer’s need for meaning and not an expression of a particular intention. At least that is what many artists tell me. Others admit that the title is their own attempt to make sense of the process that led to the creation of that particular piece. A translation into words of what first appeared as an image, or a colour, or a tentative brush stroke on an empty canvas. Making sense of an intention they did not know they had. The need to make sense of the stirrings of our internal world is strong. Titles carry authority: they are an expression of an author’s mind, of their conscious intention, much as the artistic work is an expression of what lies outside conscious intentionality. Perhaps we can think of the title as a passage or a conduit between unconscious motivation and conscious intentionality; a portal into another world; a gateway to the imagination.
When I first saw Deon Venter’s painting, I immediately thought about the title's (“In the Avatar”) significance to the scene unfolding before my eyes. The painting is based on a real location, the Avatar Forest, near Port Renfrew, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, so I knew the title had a literal meaning. Perhaps here, I thought, in Freud's (apocryphal) words, "a cigar is just a cigar." But I knew about the origins of the word "avatar" in Hindu religion, as a manifestation of the divine in human form, a divinity embodied. The metaphoric connotations of the name are obvious. Yet, there are no human forms in this painting, no incarnated gods, only an agglomeration, a thick impasto of vertical and horizontal lines, semi-circles, oval shapes, squiggles and scratches densely layered over the surface of the canvas. Taken together, these shapes and their colours—a rich combination of browns, green and blues, sprinkled with red, pink and orange dabs—convey the sumptuousness (the thickness of the paint, the corrugated surfaces) and majesty of a forest, a living and growing forest in all its physical grandeur. There is no human grandeur here, no divinity incarnated, but the vastness of nature— Nature's spirit, embodied in the trees and given expression in the semi-circles and oval shapes punctuating the canvas: an arcane language of undecipherable symbols.
More important than the image represented (or abstracted is perhaps a better description ), for me, is the experience this painting makes available. Looking at this forest of rich colours and thick textures, I am transported into the experience of “being” in the forest—as a part of the forest’s "being" and as a "being" that is separate from it—a feeling that is both exhilarating and unsettling. To enter the avatar, then, in the way that Venter’s painting conceives of it, is to enter another body, to be re-embodied, which is also a way to have access to another, more intense way of being. What are bodies but material containers for our “being,” for the stirrings of our internal world? The forest as body, as avatar, another space where these stirrings, this awareness of being alive and fully present in the world, can be experienced in all their breathtaking and troubling intensity. Now that I am “in the avatar,” I sense the painting’s (the forest’s) heavy presence, its motionless materiality, but also its vitality and exuberance, what literary critic Gaston Bachelard calls the forest’s “intimate immensity” or the “immediate immensity of its depth,” which is also the feeling that there is “something else to be expressed besides what is offered for objective expression.” (The Poetics of Space, 186) This “something else” is the “sense of mystery” that, according to philosopher David E. Cooper, permeates our experience of being in the world, of becoming part of an emergent world we cannot comprehend, as it escapes “objective expression," but we still feel at home in.
So the emergence of a world —the presencing of anything for experience—cannot be explained or described. It is a mysterious upsurge, a coming to be, from a source that is itself mysterious. (David E. Cooper, Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life, 50)
Venter’s “In the Avatar,” with its tangled mess of lines and squiggles, long and short brush strokes, thickly layered and scratched surfaces and arcane symbols captures the “mysterious upsurge,” the “coming to be” of the world that Cooper so beautifully describes in these lines. This is what an emergent world looks like and feels like. This is what "being" in the presence of the divine (the original meaning of "avatar") really means: to be enclosed, embodied, bathed in the source of things; to be gathered and then released into being, a being that is as physical and material as it is mysterious and ineffable.
In Cooper’s words (and Venter’s imagination) to be "In the Avatar,” is “To experience this gathering … [this] mystery of emergence, an epitome of that larger coming to presence that is the human world as a whole.” (Cooper, 65)
Sometimes, titles, like the paintings they name, really are portals to the imagination.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to visit Nuria Belastegui's blog.