this new series of paintings by artist Busser Howell could be taken as images of the reawakening of the earth and its non-human species after the lockdown for the Corona virus pandemic stopped industry, air travel and other engines of pollution. A literally new vision became possible. Mountain ranges not seen for decades because of smog and pollution appeared to the astonished inhabitants of cities as if they’d just been created. The foundations of an ancient church became visible for the first time in human memory in the newly clear water of a lake in Turkey. These visions, revelations, in fact, awaken the mind immediately to the possibilities of what else has been obscured to us (and by us) and of what other sights we may now be able to see.
For Howell, these works show what he considers to be the actual form of reality: energy- an idea shared by both Eastern thought and contemporary physics and even the newer field of quantum biology. The title of this series, Evolution, evokes the micro and the macro -the individual and the species- just as the images evoke the quantum, the molecular and the galactic. To a certain extent, these paintings are the product of a mystical practice, the imagining of views of the earth from a great distance. In each, an upper level plays over a lower level as layers of water might in a stream, one slower moving, with one population of life forms, the other faster, with others. The series itself contains numerous evolutions -in the gradual muting and deepening of the colors, the interaction between the surface elements and the underlying pattern of streams or lines, the shrinking and reconfiguration of the surface shapes, and the increase in a vibrancy and harmonics among the elements.
The question of vision and disappearance is especially compelling in relation to an artist who is blind. Howell was born sighted and began to gradually lose his vision from the age of 15 until he became completely blind at 40. His career as a painter thus began with normal vision, passed through a phase of degradation, and finally the lack of all eye function. The idea of a blind painter is, perhaps especially to the sighted, a thrilling one. It raises the possibility, fervently hoped for in times of crisis and disorientation like this, that the blind might be able to see more clearly than the sighted, especially into human compulsion and folly.
Howell’s response to this idea is clear and characteristically unromantic: “Sixty years of painting, part of those sighted, make me able to know what one color will do next to another, but over the last thirty years of being sightless, my perception of color has evolved, so that is not based on a seeing memory, but a brain function. Even as I type this, I ‘see’ my hands typing, that is, in my brain, and it is this practice, and it is from practice, that I ‘see my world’. I ‘see’ the art as I paint, but am using my brain to hold the image as I work.”
Howell’s visual sense, of color, shape, texture, composition, line, is as complete as that of a person with working eyes. The ability to mix color and apply it to a surface in the execution of a visual idea is qualitatively equal to that of a sighted person. In place of a verification of colors and visual features with his own eyes, Howell uses language, questioning when needed a sighted person whose sense of the visual he trusts to determine whether what he has painted fits the idea in his mind.
Howell’s wire sculptures give a different sense of the balance of hand and idea. Figures like Don Quixote or the Seven Deadly Sins, about two feet tall, were made by winding a single length of steel wire into a central compression of orbits that gradually open and twist to produce the shape of the character. Lines wind out of the unreadable inner tangle to form, for example, the tail of a horse or the neck of the rider then dive back into the knot within and emerge elsewhere in the figure. There is a feeling of drawing in motion, and even of animation in the figures. The lines achieve an almost mystical power in this descent to the spun core and flight to the surface. An unsettling tension flickers between the lyrical sinewy revolutions of the outer shape and the tight, chaotic, opaque whirling of the interior, which seems as if it is made of a different element, by a different logic, as if it is in fact the materialization of what Howell calls “blindsight.”
Is it possible that a non-sighted painter can reach modes of vision inaccessible to the sighted artist, or produce visual ideas that a sighted artist would not be able to conceive of? While it may be impossible to know, the possibility leads us to examine these works more fully, as if they were produced with a different freedom, tapping other modes of perception, with a sensibility or connection with image-making that seeing with one's eyes makes impossible, perhaps because the relentless onslaught of visual stimuli produces in the sighted its own particular blindness.
Evolution is Howell’s second aerial series, of views imagined from above the earth. The first was a response to broadcasts during the Iraq War of the massive night bombing campaigns launched by the United States. The Iraq series, in stark contrast to Evolution, was about darkness and consisted of collages made of ripped black tar paper, the material itself manufactured from the product that triggered the war - oil, itself the blackest black, the absence of all light. The result was a compounding of the darkness of violence by the darkness of night by the darkness of ignorance.
In Evolution, though, the vantage point is far above the surface of the earth, and the subject is light and color and movement. The evocation of the minute and the vast together is more compelling in an age when an object invisible to the naked eye and technically not even alive has killed half a million people and disrupted life as we know it worldwide. Yet it too is nature and may share forms and colors with these images.
At this point in history, the very question of evolution raises the question of its direction: evolution away from or towards? And towards what? The pause occasioned by the pandemic provides a clear indication of what direction the world was heading and seems to offer regardless of the duration of this crisis a choice of enlightenment, or a return to blindness.
Playwright, essayist, fiction writer