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living with uncertainty

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Joe Coffey and I frequently meet at a café, he after a morning’s intense painting, moi after a sweaty workout. A few weeks ago Joe pulled coloured mugs and a camera from his backpack and asked whether I’d mind having him take a photo (mug shot?). That was the extent of my modelling. The now-completed work will be in Joe’s next show — priced at C$3,400, well beyond my pay scale and certainly not “my portrait.”

Seeing my features reflected in the painting draws attention to the abstract nature of perception. Yes, I recognize the fleshy hands, the lines across the forehead, and that uneven pair of ears. I remember Joe taking the shots and our conversations as his work progressed. Yet none of this was or is about “me.” Factually it’s about paint brushed on canvas once removed via digital transmission. The viewer’s eyes and brain assemble the pixels and, if they know me, might see “Peter’s face and hands.” A visitor to the gallery, unfamiliar with painter and model, might see “some old guy with a coffee mug.”

Or none of the above for someone with prosopagnosia. Face blindness is an uncommon neurological condition in which the brain’s face processor doesn’t function. With this condition, a person can see faces but can’t read their features as a cohesive unit and commit them to memory. In a book glowingly reviewed in The NYT Book Review (October 10), author Heather Sellers retraces her early years marked by “all the ingredients of a tough-childhood memoir: the schizophrenic mother, the alcoholic, cross-dressing father.” Sellers depicts a life where confusion was a normal state (how, as a single child living with two dysfunctional adults, would she know otherwise?), where she’d walk past her mother without recognizing her, and watch family movies without knowing that she was in them. She views prosopagnosia as a gift: “the ability to live with uncertainty, to be receptive to all that a person might turn out to be, literally and metaphorically.”

Sellers, H. (2010). You don’t look like anyone I know: a true story of family, face blindness, and forgiveness. New York: Riverhead Books. 


4 responses »

  1. Fascinating

    To me, Joe Coffey has captured the essence of what I recognize as “Peter”
    But then I too undoubtedly have prosopagnosia – particularly if I interpret ‘prosopon’ as ‘person’ rather than ‘face’. 😉

    I associate Joe Coffee with pictures/paintings of sheep or other cattle looming out of a mist.

    Perhaps the mist that one early Christian mystic described as the Clouds of Unknowing?
    And, as I understand it, he suggests that only by passing through these clouds can we come to know. Cognoscere as opposed to Agnoscere.
    I like to think that each leads to the other.

    And is not confusion our normal human state?

  2. hi malcolm-peter suggested i respond to what you said-i confess i find it hard to put into words what goes on in my inner joe world while i paint or what captures my muse. i will say my very early years –those vague vignettes of my childhood–misty sweaty walls of a barn in early spring with dimly lit light bulbs or just the foggy spring thaw-and animals looming out of that mist-both sound and smeel is “HEIGHTENED” it was all rather haunting in a way. throw in an old catholic neoclassic country church that we went to and buried family at and statues that mesmerized me and frightened me at the sametime—all these things are there i am sure in my work. regardless of my subject–perhaps they are esoteric in a way?? i hope so. everyday things but “something” is there lying underneath…..excuse this ramble–it might not offer insight into your points–i found both your comments and peters blog fascinating-of course what others interpret—not the artist–that is what gives art a life of its own–i should let the work just speak–and be……:)

  3. Joe.
    Thank you for your response.
    It’s taken me a while to clarify my thoughts.
    What I was trying to say – in an abstruse way – was that we seem to recognize people and things, rather than know them.
    However, recognition seems for most of us – certainly for me – to be based on past experience, or memory, rather than knowing what is, right now, in this moment.
    And that a suggested solution to this condition, is to be willing to not know, or to un-know, so that we can then come to know.
    So for me, Joe, your comments were helpful, because I was able to relate to your recall of sheep appearing out of the mist. I too, can recall trudging up a misty Sunday hill through a muddy Welsh sheep farm on the way to a tiny hill-top church. Being small at that time, I seemed to meet the sheep – and the ankle-nipping Border Collies – nose to nose, just as you paint them.
    It was this that triggered the realizations about memory, recognizing and knowing.
    Recently I was watching a DVD about the painter, David Hockney, who said that all paintings are autobiographical. How could they not be. And yet, when I’m willing to be still, to let go pre-conception, memory and instant judgment, and simply look at a painting or piece of art – to pass thru’ the cloud of un-knowing – then, at some other level or place, I can ‘know’ the artist and better know myself.
    And it is as this point, I think, that the work, the art, takes on another life: what you call ‘ a life of its own’
    I hope this makes some sense.
    In any case, again, thank you for taking the time to respond, it helped me.


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