Guardians of the Secret
Jackson Pollock, 1943
This painting depicts a pair of figures – “guardians” – on either side of a central object, the “secret”. Underneath the secret is a dog, laying down but apparently also at guard, while above the secret is a region of bizarrely depicted creatures.
The piece is done in a graphic, semi-abstract style using brushstrokes which are large and heavy but also inexact. The perspective of the piece is flattened, such that all elements at first glance occupy a single plane; depth can be inferred but is not explicit. These aspects of the composition obscure the reality of what is being depicted, blurring the lines between reality and the supernatural: the figures on either side may be statues or literal guardians; the secret may be a depiction of an image meant to convey secret meaning, or a doorway directly into the unknown. The figures at the top may be depictions of the torments threatened against those who would pursue the secret, or the literal torment of those who pursued it and failed. In this regard the dog at the bottom stands as a contrast. The animal’s head is depicted in a symbolic style, but the body and posture of the animal indicate an organic reality at odds with the potentially symbolic nature of the rest of the elements being depicted.
The color scheme of the piece outside the secret is primarily dark-toned, with heavier and more definite coloring. The color scheme within the secret contrasts with this as a collection of lighter colors, predominantly white and yellow with black lines flowing over it. The brushwork in this area is more flowing and chaoitic, lacking the solid regions of color which anchor the outside elements of the piece. The flatness of the composition and the more forceful color scheme of the outside sections of the painting cause these elements to fight their way to the forefront of attention, while despite being at the center the ‘secret’ recedes to the background.
The difference in the way the secret is painted possibly indicates a fundamentally different reality than that of the guardians. The black lines overlaying it at first glance seem to harden its reality, leading more towards the conclusion that the “secret” depicts a depiction. However when looked at upside down the lines suggest simplified human figures traveling through the swirling chaos, which leans more toward the possibility that the secret depicts a literal doorway into the unknown.
Overall what appeals in this piece to me is the way it uses symbolic language to create a presentation which reflects the nature of its subject. The painting reveals the existence “secret” which is mysterious, powerful and desirable, yet protected. In the same way the symbolic and abstract composition of the painting both convey the intention of powerful and appealing meaning and at the same time obscures and protects that meaning from being easily accessed. While the ‘secret’ itself is portrayed as placid and inviting, the visually aggressive nature the areas outside it causes those elements to fight for the viewer’s attention, guarding against consideration of the painting’s central mystery.
Because literal meaning is so obscured, the powerful emotionalism of the style and composition become necessary tools for inferring meaning from the work. The figure at the right is dark, solid, blocky and defined, making it imposing and forbidding. The figure at the right is curved and flowing, a mix of the softer colors within the secret yet undergirded by contrasting darkness and almost-solid shapes, evoking anxiety about its purpose. The area at the top is primarily dark, yet filled with a chaos of shapes of varying degrees of definition and reality, evoking a more direct and present fear than the potential threat at the right or the uncertainty at the left. The lighter and indistinct shapes and colors within the secret speak to uncertainty, yet with a cohesiveness and uniformity that offers peace and respite from the foreboding and chaos surrounding it.
This emotional content allows the piece to communicate on a purely abstract level. However, this emotionalism continually ties back into the reality depicted in the work, a feedback which amplifies the strength of both of these channels through which the painting communicates and allows a viewer to make definite – if subjective – judgments that allow for comprehension of the work as a whole.
My own interpretation is that the outside elements are meant to depict contrasting dangers in the search for the truth. figure at the right represents authority and the law. The figure at the right represents superstition and the unknown. The dog at the bottom represents a threat of harm that is immediate, but stilled. The creatures at the top represent harm that is active and ongoing, but distant from the viewer. Personally I see the figures as real, or at least real within a reality more unreal than our own. I look at the right figure and see an actual divine figure standing in judgment, at the left and see an actual specter. To me the figures at the top are real monsters and spirits tormenting a sea of victims who sought the secret and failed, reaching up for mercy and relief. To me the secret itself is a diaphanous gateway into some reality beyond what we’re seeing, and what some might take as writing is the shape of whatever swirls and dances between this reality and that one.
However what I ultimately find powerful about the work is less my attraction to my own interpretations than the richness of expression and communication that invites interpretation. Guardians of the Secret guards and obscures, but does not bury or deny – meaning is there in front of us waiting to be grasped. The painting warns us that trying to do so may be challenging, and even dangerous, yet offers the possibility of rewards for doing so commensurate with the undertaking. Like any revelation of a secret’s existence, Guardians of the Secret is a tantalizing invitation to learn exactly what that secret is.
This painting depicts three primary areas of yellowish brown, black, and a darker brown. Within the area of black is a swathe of blue. From the area of black a trail of large red dots lead up – seemingly out of the painting – from the upper left while an overlapping trail of blue leads away to the upper right. A pair of black streaks extend from the main black area’s upper right towards the top of the painting, with a section of beige and white within them. At the lower right, muddied yellow dots travel the border of the lower brown region, then down along with a streak of brown which runs towards the bottom, offset on the otherside by another strip of yellow which flares toward the base.
Though the color of the larger regions is uniform, texture within each is messy and chaotic. In the middle black section, paint is formed and molded into thick, heavy lumps, globs and bulges. In the lower brown area, paint is pushed over large areas with uneven lumps left behind. At the top yellow area, the texture is particularly violent, as if the paint were being stretched and torn while semidry, almost tortured. The lumps of red, blue and yellow color at the top stand physically out from the piece, piled up over successively dried layers. This texture gives the piece a tangible, almost fleshy physicality.
The regions between colors come into harsh conflict. The area where the yellow and black regions come into contact is jagged, with the paints coming together as if pushing against each other, with lumps and bleeds piling up against each other along the border. At the bottom the paint is less forced together and more blended, in a way that feels like the brown leaking into the black.
The aesthetic created is one of aggressive unpleasantness. Scale plays a significant role in this. The piece is physically large, maybe 8-10 feet in height. The colors seem to demand, even capture attention. The heavy black at the center makes the muddied yellow at the top feel more vibrant. The piece uses tools of graphic communication to further draw attention. The red and blues at the top pull the eye to them, then direct it through the muddied yellow and into the inescapable blackness.
Having commanded attention, the piece uses it it to inflict on the viewer a determined and persistent ugliness. The piece is marked by a lack of shapes either regular or organic. Lines are conflicted, opposed and slurred. The colors which at first glance appeared to be uniform and inviting are internally mottled and chaotic, pushing into and overwhelming each other. Color itself fades in importance compared to the texture.
The piece could almost be looked at as a primal scream, except the deliberation and effort preclude the possibility of such raw emotionalism – no scream goes on that long. Rather than a human cry, then, the piece functions as a persistent and blaring alarm. The sheer amount of paint used, the way that it has been piled up and shaped makes the deliberation overt. Shapes are irregular not due to emotional imperfection but successive rounds of determined effort to shape them in just that way.
The irregularity of shape and form gives an organic to the composition that opens the possibility of a literal reality to be interpreted, but the piece offers little reward for such considerations. One such interpretation I considered was that of an image of an old woman overlooking a dried up riverbed next to a dead field, which felt in keeping with the mood being created. However this interpretation leaves no explanation for the upper reds and blues which persist in feeling like graphic elements. Flatness of composition plays a role here, as in Guardians of the Secret, but here that flatness is unexcepted, with nothing to allow for meaningful inference or interpretation. Indeed, the possibility of perspective and dimension seems to be aggressively counteracted by the form and texture of the paint, with elements that might seem to be receding into the background actually, physically projecting forward from the canvas.
Overall the feeling of the piece is an opposition to meaning and communication. Where Guardians hints but hides, speaks but obscures, Untitled simply denies, responding to consideration with successively deeper antipathy. Even the lack of a title speaks to the refusal of the piece to provide any kind of hint or guide to understanding of what thought or experience informs the feeling of hostility, such that the hostility ultimately feels reflected at the viewer. Guardians seeks to engage, but Untitled seems more designed to entrap the viewer within its morass of negativity, to which the only rational response seems to be a desire to escape.