The myth of depth
Matias Quintero Sepulveda
The myth of depth refers to a couple of paintings by Mark Tansey that bear the same name, both of which are very interesting to me because already through their application of visual language they pose a kind of tautology on the topic of representation and the illusion of depth in painting. In both paintings, the theme that appears more explicitly is that of the duality between (representative) illusion vs. The idea of the real and on the other hand, the polarity between the flat and the deep, surface and space.
As a title, the myth of depth offers a multiplicity of interpretations, from the idea of the illusion of representative depth in painting understood today as myth (in the sense of fiction), to a notion a little more mystical that extends to the daily, in terms of the cause that constitutes the origin of all myths (in the sense of poetic stories): that of the idea of an inherent and significant depth in human existence.
In the first painting (the myth of depth) Jackson Pollock appears on the right performing a "miracle" that refers to the famous event of Jesus walking on water, on the left, a group of people appear grouped in a small boat. From the ship, art critic and promoter of abstract expressionism Clement Greenberg takes aim at Pollock as he lends a lecture to artists Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky (who is holding on to his lifesaver), and Robert Motherwell. (who seems to be studying the water carefully, as if looking for the trick). Finally, the entire scene is represented, offering the viewer the illusion of depth in two senses, the first: spatial depth in terms of perspective, which makes us believe that the scene extends into the pictorial space; and the second: the depth of the waters that is delegated to our imagination. The language of this painting is highly illustrative, however, due to its own material characteristics, it is constituted by an even greater complexity, expressed in the fact that, as an object in itself, it is a manifestation of what it refers to in its visuality. That is to say that what is expressed in the image, through representation, is shown or presented, already in the perceptual, in the materially pictorial. The painting is flat, and even so we can enter it, but upon entering we find a reference to the flatness of the image in the representation. This means that, as an object, this painting is simultaneously a trick (or optical illusion), and real magic; in other words, representation and manifestation. Thus, we can say that, in the sense of illusion or representation, Pollock walks on the waters, but in the sense of presentation or manifestation, Pollock does not walk on the waters, because the waters are as flat as the painting that we see in front of our eyes.
An important aspect of this painting is the tension manifested, throughout history and, particularly since the Renaissance, in the polarity between surface and depth, representation and manifestation, illusion and magic. On this, Fulcanelli mentions in his Mystery of the Cathedrals, by way of comparison between medieval Gothic and Renaissance the following:
"Builders of the Middle Ages had inherited faith and modesty. Anonymous artists of true masterpieces, they built for Truth, for the affirmation of their ideal, for the propagation and ennoblement of their science. Those of the Renaissance, concerned about All of their personality, jealous of their courage, built to perpetuate their names. The Middle Ages owed its splendor to the originality of its creations; the Renaissance owed its fame to the slavish fidelity of its copies. Here, an idea, there, a trend. On the one hand, genius, on the other, talent. In Gothic work, the making remains subject to the Idea; in Renaissance work, it dominates and erases it. One speaks to the heart, the brain, the soul: It is the triumph of the spirit, the other is directed to the senses: it is the glorification of matter. From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, poverty of means, but richness of expression; from the sixteenth and on, plastic beauty, mediocrity of invention. medievals knew how to animate the common calcareous stone; Renaissance artists left the marble beautifully inert and cold."
Depth in painting is not only limited to a matter of formal representation, that is, it does not necessarily depend on the illusion of depth represented, that makes us believe that we are looking at a "window" when viewing a work, something that also depends exclusively on technicalities and artifice. For me, depth is already implicit in the perceptual experience in front of the pictorial object. Such an experience can lead to the inner depths of the observer's thought or emotion. Understanding, which literally means to stand under, means we must stand on a place which transcends the surface. To understand is to extend inwards, something that already happens in the most superficial stage of the experience of an artwork, at the moment of sensible experience, and does not necessarily lead or depend on a rational process. The material surface of the painting, the place where the illusion is usually represented, ceases to be a place where the trick of representation is performed, and then becomes a space for exploring the surface and its real effect on the viewer. true magic manifested as experienced mental or emotional substance. For me, painting, far from being exclusively a space of illusionistic representation, is a place where the manifestation of the internal takes place and even on the flattest of surfaces, it can produce a truly profound conceptual or emotional experience. Though this experience, an artwork can displace the standpoint from which the viewer is approaching it, and provoke different sorts of under standings, which means that the viewer transcends the material experience to explore the more metaphysical sub stance, which underlies beneath the material veils of manifestation.
The mystical component that stars in the illustrative theme of the image of Tansey, represented in the allegory of Jesus, is very significant as a turning point that has allowed me to stretch the question of the tension between surface and depth, to much larger areas of human experience, such as philosophical concerns that have been very familiar to me throughout my own work. It is as if in that scene, the depth of the painting was extended to a more esoteric place, in which it would be necessary to delve into what is expressed allegorically in the story of Jesus walking on water. From a phenomenological point of view, everything that we live and that we consider as the real experience of the tangible world, is just a subjective interpretation of the effect that electromagnetic waves have on our perceptual organs and, which are interpreted by the brain. Ultimately, what we call real experience is just an image of what we could call experience in its purest form. In mystical terms, subjective experience is an illusion constructed by individual consciousness, a fragment of absolute consciousness, a representation of the cosmos but not the cosmos as essence. The individual experience of the world, as a phenomenological experience, only exists as an interpretation mediated by language. Thus, the allegory of the miracle of Jesus, can be seen as a meta-physical representation, of what we can interpret from Tansey's painting. If we could see our own existence from a higher dimension (call it the fourth dimension), we would see nothing more than a 3-dimensional painting, a simple illusion represented in an artistic manner.
Pollock, curiously enough, was quite esoteric in his process and in his concerns. I remember hearing from someone a long time ago that he used to play recorded Native American chants while painting, and that it allowed him to go into a kind of trance while he dripped the paint on the canvas. I don't know if that's a true story, but just by looking at his earlier work and the frequent allusions to alchemy, among other things, to see that on that surface on which paint was dripped, there was a web of deeper concerns. Even from a mathematical standpoint, Pollock's paintings have a very mystical conclusion, at least in the most superficial layer of its material dimension, as they have been scientifically proven to contain an increasing fractal content throughout his career. In his work, what seems to be a chaotic expression of randomness, actually ends up as being an expression of what could be called the theory of chaos in physics, where things seem chaotic to the observers of phenomena, only because they lack enough information as to be able to organize it. Ordo ab Chao means that there can only be cosmos (order) derived from a previous chaotic state of matter, o reven better, that cosmos y the inevitable consecuence of chaos.
What seems even more disturbing to me is the fact that, in Tansey's painting, the sea, or the waters, which surprisingly could be seen as allegorical of the primordial and chaotic waters, could easily have been replaced by one of Pollock's paintings, equally shallow, equally deep, and would have produced a similar effect.
In his second version (the myth of depth II), Tansey's painting points to the relationship between representative depth and mental depth. In this version, we see on the left a cave that references Gustave Courbet's Grotte de la Loue, on the right, a group of characters that seem like a great space-time dichotomy taken from various photographs, but also appear well blended by the monochromatic quality of the painting. A ship's captain looks as if taken from a series of the seventies, an explorer with a flashlight about to shine the darkness inside the cavern, a woman with a gun at her waist that looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, a guy who looks like a French legionnaire but carries an umbrella, in the background a girl with headphones on her ears and, closer to us, a fisherman with a net, a photographer ready to shoot and, on the far right, a guy who appears to be a worker carrying various fencing elements in his hands. All the characters have a very precise effect in offering the mind of the observer, ways to complete the depth of the cave. With each character, the mind can enter the cave or at least create an idea of what is inside, and build a unique narrative, by putting them in relationship, it is possible to build new, more complex narratives. In the end, whatever is found inside the deep and dark cave, is available only to the imagination of the viewer.
In this painting, we can also observe a subtle nod to the notion of aquatic depth opposite to that provided in the first version, expressed in the fact that all the characters have their feet submerged in shallow water. Here, unlike the first version, depth is something that is penetrated, something that is entered. These waters that originate, like a fountain inside the cave, are the beginning of a body of water: the Loue River. From a symbolist point of view, this idea of origin in a cave, associated with water (and its link with the feminine) can be related to another painting by Courbet: the origin of the world.
Leaving aside the narrative aspect contained in the elements of the image, it seems interesting to return to the idea of the surface of this particular painting, which only looks profound in terms of illusion. Materially, the cave is flat, it is a painting, and already in the experience prior to its narrative aspect, a subjective depth caused by the perceptual experience can be explored.
I am interested in the tension between depth and surface in its two dimensions: as an illusionistic representation of depth in a flat space such as a painting, a drawing or even a photo; but also in the sense of depth of meaning. I am drawn by the tension in both cases, and in how depth can be found on surface, but also on how surface can be provocative of depths. What is most interesting to me is how these concepts can transcend the pictorial surface, even extending to everyday life, in such a way that the creative act happens also in the mundane. In this sense, the surface-depth duality also appears in notions such as the sacred and the profane, and in the way this dichotomy inhabits the artifacts and experiences of everyday life.
In ancient Egypt, for example, painting wasn't detached from these notions of the sacred and the mundane. Egyptians were less interested in using the pictorial surface as a space for the representation of the illusion of depth, because for them painting was not an end in itself, but a means to attain something deeper. Painting in Egypt did not fall for representation, instead, it was focused on manifestation and it pointed towards a means of symbolic experience that could only be produced in a concrete way. On the surface they displayed an immense range of concrete ideas that, rather than generating a realistic illusion of reality for the sake of amazement, it sought to produce a true symbolic experience in the viewer.
For the Egyptians, the everyday was sacred, inasmuch as it was an essential part of the divine embodied in human experience that, understood as a spectrum, ranged from the most mundane (the superficial) to the most sacred (the deep), each part of the human experience being a range within that spectrum, that is, only a portion of the whole. Their concern was not put in the realistic representation of the world, because for them painting fulfilled a sacred function and for that reason it had to be used in a specific way. In such a way that Egyptian painting, although flat in material and formal terms, originated in a place of immense mystical depth, a depth that pointed to the interior of consciousness, and not to the surface and, sought to offer through experience, access roads to that place, so it functioned as a kind of cognitive map.
Personally, I believe that the relationship between Egyptian painting, the everyday and the sacred, contains a surprising teaching regarding the question of depth and the superficial. I think it is very common, especially today, to meet multitudes of people who are looking for something beyond, something metaphysical, full of hallucinogenic experiences loaded with spectacular visions and fireworks, what they call "the spiritual." But when seeing the Egyptian paintings of the everyday, and their closeness in color, style, space and composition with those in which the divine is presented on the stone surface, the teaching remains that the divine is expressed even in the most superficial of human experience, that is to say that the sacred and the profane are so intrinsically related that they cannot be seen as separate experiences. It is precisely at that point of intersection where, for me, the idea of the myth of depth takes on greater significance, which is not necessarily myth in the sense of fiction, but also in the sense of what expresses the nature of human existence in poetic terms.
I remember that, during my studies at the university, it was very common to hear art history professors comment that Egyptians represented the world in this way because they did not know perspective, or perhaps because "that is how they saw the world", always alluding in a pejorative way to a kind of primitive mentality that did not allow them to think the plane beyond. In fact, all the mathematical knowledge that could have produced a representation of depth in terms of perspective, which has come down to us through Europe, had already been in use during ancient times in Egypt. All those so-called theorems of Pythagoras and Euclides, were learned by them in the Egyptian temples, the same places where the mysteries of painting were taught. I think it is important that we begin to abandon the idea of a linear history, in the evolutionary sense, in terms of a Darwinian social evolution, which puts ancestral traditions in the place of the primitive, what comes before "development", not only in relation to Egyptians, but also to ancestral native traditions that still live. For the Egyptians, painting was a hieratic, sacred language that had to meet specific conditions, which met the need to produce a real symbolic experience in the individual. They knew that through the representation of flat, simple figures, they could express, or manifest concrete ideas, which could be reinforced with symbolic attributions and, with the vibration produced by sound and by the electromagnetic spectrum of color. We would be seriously mistaken in regarding the minds of the Egyptians (or any other symbolic tradition, including natives from all over the world) as primitive. Egyptian painting was, and still is, one of the most advanced technologies for consciousness.
In terms of architecture there's something very interesting that can be noted, not only in Egypt, but even in India, Central America and perhaps in some other places in the world, something that possibly extends up to the Middle Ages. In most temples, the facades (the surface) of the architectural space, used to be decorated with scenes of the mundane, experiences of the everyday that included agriculture, food, commerce, hunting, and even sex. As the initiate was granted entry to more interior (deeper) places in the temple, he began to discover that the images increasingly alluded to less literal and anecdotal events, and more to allegorical and explicitly sacred issues. When the initiate had concluded his training and only if he was "worthy", if he managed to pass through all the tests, was finally allowed exclusive access to the Naos, a small central cubic space, the navel or "belly button" of the temple (the place where the construction of any temple began) and, where the golden statue of the great solar divinity was preserved. Not just anyone was given access to this space, not even any initiate or priest, because access to the interior of the temple was only granted to those who simultaneously, in their own daily lives, were capable of refining and entering into themselves. Access to the interior of the temple was a process analogous and parallel to the process of self-development: access to the interior of oneself. The temple itself was an analogy of the being, which ranged from the most mundane (the outer surface) to the most sacred or "spiritual" (the inner depth), even though it was part of a single thing, a totality. Those who could not go beyond the needs and worldly pleasures, only had access to the exterior spaces, the facades, where the surface of the human experience was presented in paintings and, they could only see the sacred statues, when they were taken out of the temple in processions.
In relation to architecture, it seems pertinent to also mention an element that curiously bears blue in its name. The blueprints, which are the place where any building has its origin, its projection, or planning. I find it fascinating that the temple, as much as the mall are already built on that surface, at least virtually. This two-dimensional space, originally blue, was the place where the materialization of the physical architectural space took place. I also find a lot of fascination in the link that this has with the idea of the blue and chaotic primordial waters, the place where cosmos is originated. In the blueprint the building is virtually found as a potential manifestation, in the same way that the tree is already contained in the seed. The rest is a "magical" operation: "abra cadabra", and by the effect of the application of the will and the energy manifested in work, boom! The building appears. Thus, in the superficial two-dimensionality of the blueprint, the immense and infinite depth is virtually expressed, a potential space in which everything possible can be created. The blueprint is the primordial "chaotic" space, where creation derives into cosmos (order), in it, everything exists as a potential for of manifestation, and remains unmanifested until the willing hand of creation brings it to manifestation.
Continuing with the idea of the myth of depth, I consider it relevant to talk about Jasper Johns, especially his "Flag". I believe this painting to be an important statement regarding the pictorial tension between surface and depth. In this particular painting we are offered a flat image, it does not pretend to represent a depth, and rather the depth can be extracted from the cultural content that we assign to that sign. For an American patriot, this image will be the catalyst for a specific meaning, while for a person who is fascinated by the symbolism of colors, it can offer another kind of depth. For me, what is essential in this painting is that it does not represent, but rather expresses, in a concrete way, an experience, or a series of subjectivities. This image presents an immense spectrum of depths that depend on the subjectivity and context of the person who experiences it. The painting in itself, that is, as an object, can be seen as an exploration of the surface or flatness and its capacity as a fuel for mental provocations. Johns himself commented in an interview that he used to paint "things that the mind already knows", so that he could get rid of the question of what to paint when facing the blank canvas and, in exchange, direct his attention to the processes, or the ways of painting. Thus Johns, in his process, focuses on the exploration of depth, not necessarily of the image, but of the pictorial surface and its material possibilities. In one way or another these ideas on the surface were already being explored by Abstract Expressionism, yet it is clear that Johns managed to take it to a new level. When confronted with this painting, we begin to wonder if we should consider it a painting of a flag, or a flag itself. If for a patriot it displays an effect of national sense, then the image ceases to be a painting of a flag, in such a way that it does not represent a flag, but, in effect, is a flag. At this point, the dichotomy between representation and manifestation is completely broken. This work inhabits both dimensions and cannot be understood as one or the other separately.
My first encounter with Johns' Flag was in 2011 at the MoMa, until that moment I had never seen that work, much less had I heard of it. My meeting happened in a curious way, because I came to it in profile, not from the front, in such a way that the first experience I had was at a material and not an iconographic level. At that time I was obsessed with Van Gogh's sunflowers, more for their material content than the image, their topographical aspect seemed incredibly sculptural to me. My material experience with Johns' flag was very similar, I got lost in the topography and color of the paint, in the newspaper clippings that were revealed through the transparency of the encaustic. The red were flaming and the whites creamy, the stars seemed to melt into the blue, in short, the whole painting had an almost palatable quality, I savored it with my eyes before seeing the image it contained. Seeing the image gave me a kind of shock because my mind was instantly filled with prejudices and cultural questions.
In a sense of meaning, we could speak of the depths of color, as in the case of the colors of any flag, which are indoctrinated to us from school: Yellow = gold, blue = sea, or in the case of the Johns flag, = to the celestial immensity, and the red = blood.
From the point of view of color and its "meaning" (in terms of flags), it is important to bear in mind that these meanings are not inherent to color, but are attributed to it by consensus, in such a way that they do not operate as symbols, but as representations of concepts. In the case of Johns' Flag, it is inevitable to fall into the tendency to signify the colors according to those learned concepts, due to the matrix that sets order in the interactions of those colors, just as when seeing a letter "A", it is almost impossible not to pronounce the sound, both are part of specific languages. It would be interesting to explore the depths of the color in Johns' Flag outside of its linguistic attributions, color as symbolic manifestation in termos of pure experience. An operation opposite to that of assuming the "meanings" of colors from their learned significance, would be something like what Duchamp proposed more explicitly in a portrait he made of Washington, where blood no longer appears allegorically expressed, by means of the use of a linguistic element, but is presented, more explicitly, in the materiality of the image itself by means of the gauze with which it is made. In this case, due to the context it is inhabiting, the gauze doesn't need to be attributed with meaning, because it already contains an inherent meaning, so it produces other significant effects in the image that contains it.
Color cannot be represented, unless it is done through language. If I paint a surface with blue, in ti, blue is a manifestation of blueness. As we have seen already, blue can be used to represent other things like the sky or the sea, that is, it can operate as an illusion of something else, but it cannot represent itself or be represented unless it is through the word. "Blue" represents something, and what everyone sees in their mind's eye when reading that word will be a subjectivity conditioned by their own context. Thus, if we take Johns' flag and explore the depth of its chromatic dimension, we can find a sea of possibilities. Even more so when the colors that compose it are articulated as they are in the painting, in the form of shapes, proportions, and interactions. Now one might ask, what is "blueness"? that is, what is blue as an idea? Faced with these questions, a new depth awaits us that derives from the experience of the surface of color. A flat painting, whether it contains a figurative image, or not, can express at the most superficial level of perception, great depth, not only at the level of emotional experience of color and shapes, but also by the effect of its symbolic and cultural contents.
Now, let's take for instance the word "BLUE", as it appears here, written in blue color. In this case, the signs that, by consensus express an abstract idea, not only represent this idea but also, in terms of their materiality (blue ink, or light in this case), express the idea literally. This means the word is operating as a tautology of its own attributed meaning, but is also conditioning the reader to experience a particular shade of blue which is being given forehand. This particular word, "BLUE", becomes a manifestation of what it represents, which produces both an abstract, and a concrete experience simultaneously, magic and illusion. If, on the other hand we see the word "YELLOW", the concrete experience is broken, and we can only refer to the abstract idea that this set of letters build by consensus in our mind, in other words the represented illusion.
Something similar happens with numbers, which reminds me of a very profound experience I had at the Pompidou. I had just walked through an entire floor of the museum, very excited to see works by Duchamp and Picasso and already reaching the end of the corridor. When I was getting close to the end, which ended at a window that offered an incredible panoramic view of Paris, I came across a painting by Johns. The painting was quite large and since my encounter with it was from a very close stand point, the first thing I noticed was its surface. The painting was made of a series of large brushstrokes of gray and black, and given its high material load, I ended up lost in the complex topography that formed on its surface, something very similar to what I experienced with the Flag. The stains were thick and in several it was possible to perceive drips from the moment they were painted, they were made with encaustic. As I was going through the valleys and mountains on the surface of the painting, I noticed that there were some spots that had a more geometric feel to them, and it seemed strange to me. I started walking backwards, away from the painting, trying to understand if there was something else in it, and after a long time and a tremendous effort (it was covered with a glass that reflected my image and all the background, including the widow i mentioned before), I managed to find an immense 5 on its surface. After I saw it once, I couldn't stop seeing it .
I spent a long time looking at the five and while I doing it I, was wondering about the painting and the surface. A five is flat by nature, and I wanted to understand if it was possible to represent it. Ultimately, I was wondering if what I was seeing was in fact a 5 or a representation of five. As I thought about these things, my gaze met the reflection of my image on the glass once again and, when I saw them together, I felt some kind of epiphany.
I remembered that one of the main initiatory rites of the original Pythagoreans, as taught by the Egyptian initiates, was to contemplate the number, and I thought that it seemed like a very clever move to make a painting of a number, since, in essence, a painting is an object of contemplation. It's as if, without explicit intentions, Johns had offered me an ancestral connection. Johns, with his "flat" painting, put me in the place of the one who contemplates the number and, opened me a door to a very significant inner depth.
Now, the numbers that the Pythagoreans used were not the same in terms of the sign, as the ones that we use today, and that made me think of the number as a representation. But the number (sign, that is to say "5"), is not a representation, rather it operates as a symbol, and the difference is that the representation is a kind of imitation of something it is not, it's an illusion; the symbol on the contrary is a manifestation of the idea, that which actualizes it formally (materially), that is, real magic. The 5 is 5 and attends to the immense and deep complexity that inhabits the abstract idea of the five, this is, of course, when it is used, not in quantitative terms, but as a living, latent and pulsating entity that inhabits the cosmos from the least to the most immense. It is very different to say a "5" than "5 apples". The second is just an application of the first, the first is an expression / manifestation of the living entity, an aspect of "the whole". Pythagoreans, and by extension Egyptian Geometra initiates, would not contemplate the sign itself, but rather the more essential abstract idea. They would place their minds into the state of mind of what the numerical symbol contains, as is to say, instead of contemplating a concrete 5, they would mentally contemplate "fiveness", which is contained in tis symbol, and its diverse manifestations in cosmos. Nevertheless, symbols are manifested as means to attain this same state of mind, as tools which would place one's mind in the actual state of the contained essence. By these means, if the mindset is correct, one can actually use the symbol 5 to contemplate fiveness (quintesscence).
Curiously, of all numbers, five was one of the most significant for the Pythagoreans and, in general, for the geometra initiates of the Egyptian temples. Five is the number they used to identify themselves through the pentagram and the one that allowed them to recognize themselves as brothers through salutation (which derives from the latin salus, which means health, salutation in consequence, would mean to wish health) that was done with the 5 fingers of the hand. 5 is the number of the pentagram, a five-pointed star with which the Pythagoreans identified themselves, symbolizing the human being and the search for a return to the divine and, when inverted, becoming the opposite: the human being chained to earthly desires and the endless search for the satisfaction of pleasure. As a symbol of the human being, 5 is built with 4 plus the connection with divinity or monad 1. Five is the number of human limbs, and 4 elements plus 1 ether (or quintessence) are what, in essence, make up all things in cosmos . A five plus another five is equivalent to the decade, the ten, which is the perfect number of God, the return of the unit (monad or 1) to the whole, or the undifferentiated nothing (or Pythagorean 0). 5 is 2, the duality, plus 3, the trinity.
Faced with these equations, it is important for one to remember that the "5" as a sign is only an outfit that the living entity, the symbol, uses to manifest itself. Long ago he dressed in the signs of the letters of the alphabet, "V" for the Romans, the letter "Vav" for the Hebrews, the star or dots for the Pythagoreans, and so on. But none of these forms is the living five, they are just some of the bodies with which it manifests itself in the world.
I spent a long time contemplating the number, no longer the painted number, but the number alive in my consciousness. Although it was the number that Johns painted on that surface that triggered these and many other contemplations that I had in that place, in front of the 5 that was intermingled with my reflection in the glass.
Another painting that I find essential to express these questions of surface and depth is this is not a pipe from Magritte's series of the treason of images. This painting is also very helpful to address the notion of the viewer as a primary entity in the completion of a work. The two essential poles of creation are the artist and the spectator, said M. Duchamp in his creative act, for him, the work always remains incomplete until it is experienced and updated by the spectator. Thus, depth is not something specific to the work, nor is it found on its surface. Depth, in the sense of meaning, is rather something that the viewer imposes on materiality. It is an element that adheres to experience and that is built from the judgments and interpretations that the observer makes from their own context and subjectivity.
If "this is not a pipe", because the artist says so, then what is? Is it just a painting of a pipe? If that is not a pipe, but a painting (or an image) of a pipe that says that it is not a pipe, it is possible to begin to delve into the depth of the meaning of the visual experience. If an image of an object is not the object, it is necessary to make an interpretation of the image by distancing itself from the real object. Possibly it is not ONE pipe, but the pipe as an idea, the "pipeness". In this sense, it is necessary to see the pipe in its history and its cultural content, its affections, its effects, all its extensions, and even notions of gender, time, politics, etc. to be able to assume that painting no longer in the sense of representation, but as a concrete manifestation of an archetype and its symbolic content in human history. In this idea of depth, accessory elements of that IDEA begin to branch out.
On the other hand, we could also step aside from the image represented and all its archetypal content, and then penetrate the depth of painting as an object. Or rather in the idea of the pictorial object, or even the pictorial, as I have already mentioned with Johns' Flag. What is the function of painting? What uses does it have? What is its history? Is there such a thing as a useful painting? Etc.
When observing this painting, it is possible to stop at its content and notice that there are 3 representations of the idea of pipe in it. The first and most obvious is the image, the second is expressed in the letters that make up the word "pipe", which is itself a representation of an abstract idea, and the third, more subtle, is the one that appears mentally represented in the reading of the sentence through the word "this", an invisible pipe that only exists in our imagination. In grammatical terms of pictorial language, the materialization of the phrase is done using the same elements that would be used to paint a painting, the phrase is a painted image, made with strokes of black paint on a canvas. The fact that we read the sentence as a written statement instead of seeing it as an image says a lot about the way we approach "the pictorial". But perhaps, it would be worth thinking of written words as drawings made with lines, and with the same materials that we use to draw. Words are pictures to which we assign, by consensus, specific abstract meanings.
It would also be possible to delve into more complex issues of the text contained in the image by questioning it. What is "a", or, "pipe"? In itself, the word "pipe" does not mean anything, the set of phonemes that make up the word: Pe - Ii - Pe - Ee, are devoid of intrinsic meaning, and the phoneme they constitute as a set "piiiiipeee" only has meaning in so much so that it has been assigned by consensus. The word "pipe" is itself an abstraction of the idea, not a symbol, but a representation, just as much as the accompanying image is. In relation to what I mention, it seems convenient to quote a small extract from the introduction to Symbol and the Symbolic by R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, made by Robert Lawlor:
"With our present form of writing, we use groups of arbitrarily formed abstract signs (our alphabetic letters), each of which conveys some memorized sound and visual associations. We are trained to think and communicate through these alphabetical letters -placed in certain (again, memorized) groupings, or words- by reducing these abstract conventions into objective images in our minds. Simply stated, this means that when we read "cat", we immediately register the formed image in our mind. This habitual reduction of a non-objective mental abstraction to a delimited image can be seen as an initially centripetal action, which, subsequently, disperses perception and knowledge into a classification of disconnected data. We use numbers in a similar way, moving from abstract symbols to quantitative evaluations. But hieroglyphic writing works in the opposite or centrifugal direction. The image, the form, is there concretely before us, and can thus expand, evoking within the prepared observer a whole of abstract intuitive notions or states of being -qualities, associations and relationships which cannot be described or defined but only experienced. A centering sense of unification later results from this inwardly expansive movement of mind. A method of viewing is required comparable to our hearing faculty: one must learn to listen to the symbolic image, allowing it to enter into and pervade one's consciousness, as would a musical tone which directly resonates with the inner being, unimpeded by the surface mentality. In this moment of inner identification between the intellect and the aspect of the tangible world evoked by the symbol, we have the opportunity to live this knowledge. “By the hieratic symbolic method, the aim is, no longer to translate things into sensory terms, but to put ourselves into the state 'magically' identical with the symbol object, so as to become heavy with the quality of weight , to become red with the quality of 'redness' and to burn with the quality of fire.”
Can meaning be expressed through language? What is experience without language? If the painting did not say that, we would have to approach it in another way, then the language plays an important role in the experience of this work. If the painting only mentioned the pipe, but there was no pipe depicted, perhaps I would have to attend to my own version of the idea of pipe, and not the pipe that Magritte decided to represent. It is in these latter concerns where I find origin of my interests in language as logos, in the mystical or metaphysical sense. The creative capacity of language. Human beings can only live the experience of the world through language, even if those words did not appear in the painting, as soon as it was perceived, the mind would translate the experience into linguistic abstractions. The word pipe would appear in my mind automatically, or pipa if I was approaching it from a hispanic context. This is because, for a few centuries now, education has focused exclusively on reason, which has produced a kind of disability in our capacity to listen to the image, as Lawlor suggests (In opposition to this type of dissability caused by education, we can see an incredible capacity of listening to visual phenomena in basically all of the ancestral cultures over the world). It is precisely at that point, language, where mystical traditions have focused their genesis. This is, in the most esoteric sense, according to which, this perceptual, tangible world does not exist for me, if I can't name it. "I" is god, or at least it's an aspect of god, while "I" co-creates the world as it names it, if it doesn't name it, it does not exist in the world as something separated from it. In this case "I" is itself the world, the cosmos. The very notion of the existence of consciousness, as separated from the world, originates in language, in its application, that is why the original role of Adam in paradise was ("is", because it is actualized in the present) to name things.
Thus, we could take the idea of representation even in terms of the everyday, in the sense of illusion. Here is preciselly where the allegory of Jesus walking over the waters in Tansey's painting, takes a lot of significance to me. We could say that the "real" world in which we live is really a representation, a virtual space, a translation that individual consciousness builds, through language, of experience in its purest state, of what we could call cosmic consciousness. The life that we consider as real cannot be "the real thing", insofar as it can only be experienced individually, fragmented, through language. For this same reason, the experience of the world, of a person who speaks English, is completely different from the experience of a person who speaks Arabic or French. Each of these experiences is an interpretation, a translation that the mind makes of stimuli from the great electromagnetic field that is the absolute, experience of energy in a pure state. Taking it to an extreme, our consensual, tangible reality is nothing more than an abstract, superficial representation of something much deeper or more vast that cannot be understood or expressed through language and that precedes it in terms of experience. The reality experienced by the individual is a work of art, it is his or her own work of art. On this, Kierkegard wrote: "If you name me, you deny me. By giving me a name, a label, you deny the other possibilities that I could be. You pigeonhole the particle into being a single thing.". This has even been proven in quantic physics, where it has been shown that by mere observation of an experiment, a person can modify, by conditioning it, the results.
Ultimately that tension that occurs between surface and depth, is latent and present in all facets of human existence. We use the term "superficial" to refer to someone who looks only at appearance, but as we have seen, it could be said that even in that appearance or surface, there is a degree of depth.
That phrase, "the myth of depth", alludes on the one hand to the idea of representative depth as a myth, as a kind of true fiction, but also to the idea that depth can be found on the surface and therefore it is explicitly invisible.
 R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, “The Intelligence of the Heart”, conference offered in 1956 in the Congres des Symbolistes, in Paris. Translated to english by Nancy Pearson, Published in Parable, vol. 2, 3 publication, 1977