Blindness has its own identity politics, and a full-vision viewer of “Passionate Focus,” a juried exhibition and auction of art by blind artists, can’t help but wonder: What is blind enough? The standard for the Guild for the Blind’s annual exhibition is legal blindness, which means the participating artists have widely varying degrees of visual impairment, from total blindness to low vision or partial sight. The Guild hopes that the assembled artworks will undermine several stereotypes about blindness and its logical pendant, vision. Certainly the most interesting aspect of the exhibition is its necessary emphasis on the limits and definition of sight, revealed here as an uneven continuum of loss and acuity rather than an absolute category.
The disintegration of representational or perspectival space is a major trope of Modernist art, one that some nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics thought reflected a disintegration of society itself. It is almost too easy to compare the fragmented planes of early Cubism or the broad, symbolic abstraction of late Surrealism with art that reflects the degenerative vision of its maker. Tracy Mosman’s abstract paintings go the farthest in this direction, though she is careful to say that her art is not “consciously abstracted from observed data.” Presumably because “Passionate Focus” is about displaying the ability, rather than disability, of blind artists, the jurors have limited the amount of art that would invite these kinds of comparisons. In fact, the majority of the work is representational. Frank Valliere and Julie Bruno create landscapes and buildings with a realistic accuracy that deftly belies their compromised vision.
A conversation with one of the artists, David Simpson, reveals that relinquishing that precision can be difficult when abstraction turns into another symptom of loss. Yet the question of perception, how the brain aggregates imperfect neurological data into an experience of volume, shape and color, has always been a central problem for art. And the annihilation of certainty about whether what one sees is a true picture can be stated as a moral or physical crisis.
It is difficult for Simpson to maintain continuity across a large composition and his many blind spots. His field of vision is a cinematic montage, stitched together with unpredictable lacunae. In a kind of visual bricolage, Simpson builds narratives with puzzling characters that occupy wide-open landscapes. The experience of his paintings and the other works that make up “Passionate Focus” is an effective reminder of the expansive potential of representation as a practice that inevitably distorts and surpasses our perceived environment. (Rachel Furnari)
Passionate Focus 2010 shows at the Guild for the Blind, 233 West Huron, through May 21.