Marcia Gygli King


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  Marcia King and the Symbolic Language of Frames

by Arthur C. Danto


Sir Ernst Gombrich's magisterial text on the psychology of the decorative arts, The Sense of Order, begins and ends with-the text is almost literally framed by-a discussion of the tremendous frame around Raphael's Madonna della Sedia in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. The frame was made expressly for the painting as can be seen from the fact that its circular opening precisely fits the circumference of the tondo, and because the artist's name and the title of the work are inscribed in an ornamental cartouche below it. But purists might dispute the suitability of the elaborately ornamented and gilded frame, which dates from about 1700, to the work it almost overpowers, which was painted nearly two centuries before. There is a pretty myth unfailingly told by guides to the groups they lead before the work, and of which Sir Ernst is art-historically contemptuous. Raphael, drinking in a tavern, was so taken with the beauty of the innkeeper's daughter holding her child, that he picked up a barrel head-hence the circular form!-and dashed off this marvelous likeness in which the simple mother, in her Roman costume, was transformed into the Madonna herself. But the frame is swags and garlands, masks and clasps, tendrils and festoons, and exhibits a taste that belongs to a pole opposite that of the unaffected mother and child, whose look is at least consistent with the myth. What this criticism overlooks is that it is not a picture of a simple, young woman and her plump baby, who merely occasioned it: it is a painting of the Holy Pair, Mother and Child, and the frame is a kind of celebration, a kind indeed of coronation, the symbolic equivalent of an enthronement The painting is precious, and the strength and width of the frame emblematizes its protective function: through its sheer physical mass, the frame underscores the fragility of its resident canvas, as the metal of the setting underscores the pricelessness of the gemstone it guards. But beyond function, the majesty of the Virgin is proclaimed by gold leaf and virtuoso carving. It is fit for the Queen of Heaven in the symbolic language available to the taste of the time.

I shall call the principle of framing exemplified here Internalist because the frame has a meaning internally related to the meaning of the picture it encloses. But here is an example of the contrasting Externalist principle to framing, illustrated by the following instruction sent by Poussin with a painting to his patron, Chantelou:

When you receive yours, I beg of you, if you like it, to provide it with a small frame; it needs one so that, in considering it in all its parts, the eye shall remain concentrated, and not dispersed beyond the limits of the picture...

The taste of our time, when it is not altogether uneasy with the entire idea of frames, is most comfortable with the Externalist view of framing largely because we think of pictures as Poussin did, primarily as addressed to the eye: the frame "concentrates the eye' So the frame should be, when present at all, "small," so as not to draw attention to itself and hence away from the picture. The Palazzo Pitti frame inevitably is thought to distract-but that is because the Internalist concept of framing has fallen into near oblivion. The taste of our time is expressed either by no frames at all, or by honest proletarian strips of wood nailed with no pretense at joinery to the stretcher of a large painting, underscoring by the rudeness of material and the zero degree of craftsmanship the immediacy and the directness of the painting itself. The stripframe has at least a certain stammering eloquence-it acknowledges that the frame has a meaning by affirming its own rudeness, and in this it differs from stripping paintings of their frames altogether in the curatorial determination to let the works "speak for themselves The difference between the strip frame and the stripped frame lies at least in this, that the former acknowledges the physicality of the object it marginally protects, whereas the latter betrays the extent to which contemporary sensibility has identified "the work" with slides of the workdisembodied luminescences whose habitat is
the art history lecture. Since most curators are art historians, it is inevitable that they should think of what comes through on the slide as the work. If one showed the slide of a Cezanne stilllife in a frame, the latter would be aesthetically invisible, since not part of the work. The virtual erasure of the frame thus blinds us to the profound information it is capable of revealing, and to the rich possibilities of an Internalist theory of the frame. And this is the second way the strip frame differs from the stripped one: it supplements and amplifies the meaning and feeling of the work.

Wainscott Jetty - Hurricane Clearing, 1991-2 Oil on canvas, mix-media frame 72" x 96" x 1'3"

Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Allan Finkellman

It is hardly possible to overlook the frames in Marcia King's work, and part of what most attracts me to it is first of all the robust physicality her spectacular frames draw attention to in the paintings they collaborate with, and then the robust feelings carried by means of the frame past the edge of the canvas and on into the surrounding space we share with them. Her frames serve less to concentrate the eye than to concentrate the mind. They focus our attention less on what the paintings show than on what we are in relationship to what they show. To see this it is only necessary to imagine what would be changed if the frames were replaced with the kind of small frame Poussin requested of Chantelou. That would concentrate our eye on the roughness of her textures, the stickiness of her surfaces, the cut edges of shape superimposed on shape. The frames indeed participate in all the physicality-they do not stand outside it. But beyond that, like the Palazzo Pitti frame, her frames put us in relationship to the meanings her paintings make visible. There is a distinction in the philosophical analysis of language between the content of an utterance, and what the speaker was intending to do by means of the utterancebetween what one writer distinguished as the utterance's phrastic and its neustic This distinction is easily carried over into the analysis of paintings. The phrastic of a painting might be the sea, or a garden, or a kind of burning bush. The neustic would be the attitude the painter wants us to take toward the sea, the garden, the burning bush-an attitude of awe, of peace, of astonishment or whatever. What King has discovered is that frames can perform the neustic function, putting the viewer in some kind of relationship to the phrastic content of the work. The frame enfolds and engulfs not so much the painting as us, together with what the pointing shows. It prevents the experience from being purely visual. It becomes dramatic, emotional, and, in a way, philosophical. It is a way of passing beyond the limits of painting that an Externalist viewing of framing instead endeavors to respect. The small frame literally draws a line the large symbolic frame tries to break. The "neustic" frame brings the painting to life.

Consider Long Island Burning Bush's frame, which undulates and swells so provocatively around the burning bush at its center that we cannot help but feel that some sexual metaphor is being enacted, and some engulfment intended considerably more dangerous than being lost in the aesthetic contemplation of a flowering shrub, let alone having our eye concentrated on a patch of red. That is to say, the frame, with its swellings and heavings, projects Nature, as it were from the inside, as something fierce and exigent, for which the burning bush is but an outward sign. The relationship between picture and frame is like the relationship between idea and will in the metaphysics of Schopenhauer: the will is blind desire, pure act, urgent drive, Nature from within. The picture, with its worked and agitated surface, hints at the seething behind the appearances which the frame seems to breath. That all that striated and spasmodic undulation should also turn into a sort of bench is a breathlessly comic touch: saying, in effect, "Only kidding, Folks. This is art. Here, have a seat. Take a good look at that red bush!"

Nature-as-will, refusing to be nature-as-representation, comes through vividly-and again comically-in Springs Upstate. Here the role of frame is to impose a certain discipline and order, which Nature insists on breaking, spilling out past the picture's surface into real space. The pink stream flows irresistibly out onto the floor, the painted rocks materialize on either side of it. It is difficult to repress the thought that the drama of frame-and-picture is animated by a half-remembered passage, from As You Like It: "And this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything," The "running brook" in Springs Upstate is tonguepink, as if it literally babbles, and the frame in the form of the church window transforms the stones into sermonizers. The frame, so far as I can read it, expresses the futility of trying to contain and discipline nature, which breaks through and floods the space we thought we were secure in, looking out at it. Or possibly it is a metaphor for art breaking the boundaries the frame emblematizes. But art really never can break those boundaries: it can only try, for example by the artifice of Internalist framing. The rocks in the painting look more real than the rock outside it.

With Wainscott Jetty-Hurricane, King aspires, so she says, to recreate her own Great Wave at Kanagawa, though those who remember Hokusai's amazing print might feel there is something missing, namely the terror of those little figures in the fragile boat, about to be swamped. Here we are standing on the jetty, and the feeling is rather one that was famously captured by Lucretius in De Natura Rerum, ii, 1: 'Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters, to gaze from the land on another's great struggles; not because it is pleasure or joy that any one should be distressed, but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortune you yourself are free:' The blood-red streaks in the foreground have nothing to do with us. But the frame, toothed and rolling, advances on is from all four sides. It is not a stylized version of the wave, given a threedimensional identity. It reaches out to engulf us, the way its Japanese counterpart was about to swallow the row of boatmen in Hokusai, like a pod of peas. It reaches toward us to shake us from our lucretian calm. The frame puts us in the right relationship to the scene depicted. It addresses us in our fragility and in our embodied condition. But, like the bench, like the conspicuously staged rocks, it leaves us as we were.

The frame around the Madonna della Sedia as a kind of throne puts us at the Virgin's feet, where we, according to the faith the frame makes concrete, belong. Somewhere between its era and that of Marcia King, the question of the frames was reduced to the question of ornament and decoration. So salute this artist for recovering the forgotten language of frames construed internalistically. Whether or not we accept her vision of nature-what the tongues, books, and sermons in her trees, brooks, and stones speak out about-the frames leave us in no doubt what she thinks of nature, and of us. And against that severe and menacing philosophy. I am further grateful for the touch of comedy with which she advances all this, leaving our fragile dignities intact. Nature overflows the frame, but our feet are left dry.

  ©2006 Marcia Gygli King. All rights reserved.
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