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come close, very close

At first glance, I thought this picture was of something I knew very well… I read in the article that it is a 1/4" macro of a Tom Thompson oil painting, photographed by Jon Sasaki. When this tiny fragment of the painting is blown up to become a new picture of 16 x 24 inches, it seems to look like a surface I am much more familiar with - the soft, shiny, dry, smooth, rough, cracked - etc etc - deeply nuanced surface of a glazed ceramic work.

Jon Sasaki: macro photographic image of a quarter inch square of a Tom Thompson oil painting. 2013. 

Close-up photography has offered a very different perspective on the oil painting surface, revealing how different media, and our different tools - brush, knife, finger - can be so different in process, or appear so alike, simply by offering a different scale of seeing, to appreciate what is there.

Temperature and the pressure of the brush or tool affected how the oil paint originally flowed and levelled, its shape frozen as it dried out. Though carefully stored at room temperature, the paint has aged over time, it has cracked, and will continue to change, slowly; there is a physical, on-going temperature-time relationship in the material. The same is true of the firing of ceramic glazes, where vastly accelerated mineral transformations are caused by extreme temperatures in the kiln—it is literally hot enough to make crushed rocks melt! 

Flanders Fields - detail. Ceramic glaze materials on stoneware clay, raw fired to 1160C.
Christine Pedersen. 2011.

As the ceramic cools, the new chemical compounds in the glaze mixture freeze into surface, colour, and shape; some residual tension perhaps unwinding into ‘music’ from the kiln - the dreaded, but beautiful, ping and tinkle of cracking glazes (that’s something for another post). And it doesn’t always stop there - ceramic pieces may take decades to develop surface cracks in the glaze - just like oil paint.

The medium conveys a message. It seems that time, and different ways of seeing, can add to or change our understanding. In oil paint, as in ceramics, there is also the role of time’s arrow (1. see physicist Sean Carroll’s excellent short talk). Ironic that a finished work of art increases the entropy—the disorder—of the universe, even though locally we have lowered it, by creating one unique arrangement of materials. Entropy, in our large-scale, or more poetically, ‘coarse-grained’ version of the physical world takes on the finished work, slowly mutating the arrangement of materials created by the artist. And eventually will reclaim it all.

1. Physicist Sean Carroll with a concise and excellent discussion of the ‘arrow of time’


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