Thoughts on Altar

As with most of my work, Altar started off with a vague concept and a desire to paint something because I liked the way it looked. It was a domestic scene from my girlfriend’s mother’s house that we’d now visited enough times for me to become familiar with and move from absently gazing at to actively capturing. I took a few clumsy photos of the empty windows with my arm stretching up toward the kitchen light – the illusion of 3 separate arms created by the oddly angled plates of vintage glass.

After sorting through the photos, I decided to cast everything in an inky blue similar to the fluid in a magic 8-ball with the lighter areas gradually revealing themselves like the rubber white pyramid. I wanted to make the piece huge so as to give the viewer the impression that they’re looking through actual windows, and the final piece is actually one side of an earlier diptych turned horizontally. I found as I worked on the diptych, I was sacrificing the nuances of the image for the larger size. Important visual elements were getting lost and large masses of color were being applied begrudgingly and with no enjoyment.

The title comes from my first impression of the scene. The two votive candles and framed centerpiece were left as I found them – positioned symmetrically as they might be at a place of worship – and I started playing with the idea of an altar for the faithless. The scene provided an opportunity to capture the imposing black void of the windows while also playing with the reflected light in the left window glass. My hope was to convey a blank minimalism with enough representational imagery to avoid total flatness and provide the viewer with a refracted view of the interior space they couldn’t see. I struggled endlessly with selecting the perfect hues until realizing that I could use Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson for pretty much the entire painting (and some newly discovered Manganese Blue in the dome light). If only I could magically replenish all that wasted, expensive Cerulean…

When a painting lasts long enough, you have ample time to project onto it whatever it is that’s currently concerning you the most. In the finished piece, I see all the concepts that went through my mind while creating it woven together – consciousness / unconsciousness, movement / stillness, familiar / unknown, spiritual / faithless, struggle and peace. None of them wholly define it and that’s the way I want it to be – begun with serious intent but ended as something malleable.

I’ve always had a fascination with empty windows – particularly at night when there is nothing but pure black, no visual cues to help you orient yourself. Just an opaque sheet of glass revealing nothing of the outside and reflecting the interior it looks out from. For me, there’s something about this visual that is charged with nervous anticipation. It’s the feeling we get when our perception is limited and our survival instincts kick in – when we’re flying blind and can’t defend ourselves because we can’t accurately perceive the threat.

When I was a kid, I’d drive myself crazy staring at windows and waiting for something to suddenly pop up from behind the window frame or slowly materialize out of the darkness (usually a face and usually from something I had recently watched or read). And of course it never appeared. And as time went on, the more I played these mind games with myself, the more I learned that they always end the same way – nothing ever actually happens in reality like it does in my imagination. But back then and even at times throughout my adulthood, I’d consider the possibility that maybe my entire life has been training me to accept this reality only to break with it at the most unexpected moment. That point that I completely let my guard down, that I finally give in to the acceptance of a dry, predictable, anti-climactic existence where deep fears never actually materialize and stare at us through dark windows – that’s when it will finally happen, and at thirty three years old, I’ll completely lose my mind and that will be the end of me.

I’ve played other games like this that hint at a tendency toward paranoia and superstition – another one is that my entire life has been scripted right down to the finest details of friends and loved ones. When The Truman Show came out, I was fascinated because I wondered for much of my younger years if I was the only one who considered this possibility, which might make me a bit crazy. On one hand, it seems like a healthy sign of one’s capacity for questioning everything – never settling on one version of the truth – and I don’t think it’s as uncommon as I always feared. On the other, it’s a mechanism that can easily spiral out of control as indicated by the truly lost conspiracy theorist. One who doesn’t just believe in the conspiracy, but has reached a point where there is so little belief in their own perception of reality that they are incapable of trust – who’s life has become an endless cycle of cynicism and chess strategizing – the fear of “giving in” and letting your guard down only to be taken advantage of at your most defenseless leaves you attempting to stay one step ahead of the conspirator until you can no longer function in society.

The slow-burn horror movie genre has attempted to exploit our commonly shared fear of the unseen and to artfully keep the evidence that our fears are warranted just out of reach for the majority of the film. Movies like Audition, Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing, It Follows and House of the Devil are some of my most beloved from this genre as I can think of few others that pull off the trick so well. They all use similar tactics to keep the audience engaged and frantically guessing by hiding the insidious threat within seemingly inconspicuous characters. They also intentionally break with the standard horror movie tropes we’ve become familiar with and that have almost given us a sense of comfort through their predictability despite their original intention to shock us.

House of the Devil and It Follows in particular do an exceptional job of utilizing what is not there to break trust with the audience – they are laced with scenes that take us through a familiar rise and fall of anticipation but when we get to the familiar “it was just the wind” scene followed by something rattling us out of our relief, nothing happens. In It Follows (the soundtrack to which I played repeatedly while working on this painting to the point where I can’t look at it and not hear it), the camera focuses on an open window in stark daylight for a full minute while the main characters are being stalked, but there’s no climax. The terror is heightened both by the scene taking place in the afternoon (a time when we expect to be safe in reality and in horror movies) and by the film having developed its own foreign, unpredictable rhythm. We’re continually led to believe throughout the film that, as in reality, after that minute of being suspended in fear, the face never actually appears in the window – until it does.

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