bemusing musings of a bewildered brush-wielder

horror vacui

There is a field off of the Long Island Expressway in which is grown corn, lettuce, tomatoes, what not.  The produce is fine, nothing special.  The layout of the land is nothing spectacular.  But this field holds my destiny in its hands.

When I was spackling, back ten years or so, my dad would send me into jobs deep in Nassau County.  Entering certain congested areas within Nassau, I had to brace myself as one might mentally prepare for entering an overcrowded elevator.  Some of those neighborhoods were so densely populated, their roads so congested, the highway traffic overflowing in such a way as to bewilder any young man who had grown up between Connetquot Park and County Wicklow, Ireland.  I couldn’t understand why anybody would design neighborhoods in such a way as to eliminate any empty space.  Dense population is not a problem, provided it is balanced with empty space.  But in some of these neighborhoods, every last centimeter of land was surveyed, marked, plotted, paved, alotted.  Who would do such a thing?  My spackle tools in hand, I looked out of the window of a home, not to see a broad expanse of green, not to see tree tops stretching into infinity, but innumerable roofs disappearing into smog.  Didn’t anybody understand the need for empty space?

On my way back from these spackle jobs in Nassau, I would pass a field south of the Long Island Expressway, just west of route 110.  There, in the middle of this wasteland of hulking, unimaginative, corporate buildings, was this field.  A green field.  A pretty green field.  The sensation I received from viewing this green field was somewhat like happening upon Gwyneth Paltrow in a white Grecian dress in the middle of the plumbing department of Home Depot.  I told myself, at nineteen years of age, that if that field were ever paved over with concrete and McMansions, I would have to leave Long Island.

When I returned from Florence, six years later, I passed that field on the way back from the airport.  In my absence, there was a fungal outbreak of homes- McMansions had overtaken most of the field.  Didn’t the Long Island-powers-that-be know that weary commuters returning from Manhattan needed that large, abstract mass of green?  Okay, maybe it’s a bit melodramatic to say that the field had held my destiny in its hands, but the fact that it was developed is a stinging metaphor for the worst case scenario of suburban sprawl on Long Island.

And so I ask myself, doesn’t our culture understand the need for empty space?  “Horror vacui” is a term used to describe the fear of empty spaces.  Horror vacui describes a canvas that is overwhelmingly busy in every possible area of space.  Mentally deranged art often displays properties in keeping with horror vacui.

Neil C.K.R., medium unknown

When I talk about empty space, I mean that it is a dialogue between the positive and empty space.  Between the substance, and the air surrounding the substance.  Between the person, and the space surrounding the person.  New York City would not exist, as we know it, if it did not have Central Park.  Everyone would kill each other.  It would descend into money mongering mayhem.  All that concrete needs green, all that culture needs nature, all those people need birds, all that capitalism needs lassitude.  And so, Manhattan owes its success to Central Park.

New York City

And so it is with good art.  With art, the information you put in is as important as the information you leave out.

And so it is not with not good art.  It is not a coincidence that our culture produced photorealism- a terrible peversion of naturalism.  Photorealism is nature sifted through the colander of computers, and as such it includes all detail and excludes nothing.  Confusion, too much information.  Consequently, in photorealism there is no climax and there is no humanity.  At other points in history, Long Island’s sense of space was seen in the claustrophobic clutter of Pollock’s abstract expressionism, then the meaningless, minimalist void of Rothko.  Sigh.  It’s as if Long Island were sitting in the car, and to get the right temperature, it is turns on heat full blast, then AC full blast, then heat full blast, then AC….

Pollock, Horror Vacui

Rothko, Vacui

Nature, when it is sifted through the strainer of the human spirit, when detail is selected and rejected at will, can create the climax of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35.  Think of the empty space surrounding the figures in Sargent’s group portrait of the Boit children.   Contemplate Courbet’s “In the Painter’s Studio,” which is twelve feet tall and twenty feet wide, and you will see how the empty upper six feet of the painting is as essential as the figures on the bottom of the canvas.  Painters are not observers, but composers- we select and reject detail to create a climax on our canvas.  So it is with musicians, as well- that silent pause in the Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, just at the very peak of the climax, is as important as the choral outburst that follows.

Courbet, The Artist’s Studio, 12 feet by 20 feet

Sargent, Daughters of Edward Boit, 87″ x 87″

People on Long Island do, of course, understand the need for empty space.  It’s interesting to me that while Long Island has played a role in birthing the current movement of painters that exhibit these naturalistic sensibilities on canvas, it also has created land protection associations such as the Peconic Land Trust.  If Long Island homes were filled with paintings that reflected these values, the neighborhoods would have better civil engineering.  Every thirty homes would, out of innate necessity, be balanced with a decent sized, empty field.  Every five strip malls would be balanced, out of a felt sense of aesthetic harmony, with a stone fountain.  Every ten parking lots would be balanced with a broad swath of birch trees.  Every corporate building would have an orangerie in the expansive center atrium, over which the glass walled offices would look.  Every mega mall would have a generous tract of forest encompassing it, as a sort of purifying penance.

Sometimes I think that the Industrial Revolution came too early to this country, that we would have done well to have a nice Dark Ages, so that we would all be forced to stew over the importance of stone fountains, idle time, and empty space.

oil sketch, 12″ x 16″, oil on linen

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5 responses

  1. Excellent, Kevin. Have you read A Pattern Language? you would really enjoy this book.

    April 8, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    • Thanks Ben! A Pattern Language? No, I’ve never read it. I will get it from the library this weekend though.

      Have you ever read Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut? While it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with this idea of horror vacui, it is perhaps my favorite book, and I think you’d really like it.

      April 8, 2010 at 4:32 pm

  2. New York City, with its high population density, has big parks in every borough: Forest Park, Prospect Park, Van Cortlandt Park, Clove Lakes Park, and others. Suburban areas feel they don’t need so many big parks. They have a lot to learn.

    April 9, 2010 at 4:27 pm

  3. erin wan

    Hey Kevin…I happened to come across your blog randomly…I really loved learning about horror vacui…so interesting. I live in Nassau county now…and there is actually a piece of “horror vacui” behind my house…a very tiny, wild, untouched space. It does help keep me sane sometimes in a county of chaos.
    I love that you mentioned pollok because when I saw his pieces displayed at MOMA, I was extremely underwhelmed and there was no place to rest my eye.
    The next time I look at art, I will look for vacui.
    Give a hug to your family for me…

    April 14, 2010 at 7:51 am

  4. A p.s. to this blog. Yesterday, I drove by the site where a field had been. When they developed the field, they left a tiny parcel of green running the length of the expressway, probably for zoning reasons. But, they are developing it, and squeezing homes onto every last inch of green.

    I think that they should name the development after the Massapequa Indians, who originally inhabited the area. Long Island seems to like to acquire fields from the local inhabitants, build homes, then proceed to honor the initial inhabitants by naming our high schools after them. It’s kind of like naming a mall after Walt Whitman.

    May 25, 2010 at 9:49 am

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