It’s December 21st and the world as we know it is still here. The Mayans probably stopped their calendar because they thought by now we’d have a better grasp of the cosmic forces that lie beyond the scope of human reason, but as much as we know, it’s not like we’re more advanced. Indeed, because we now depend on data to make sense of all that is nebulous, from trading stocks with bots to finding a soulmate before the first date, our deference given to algorithms is hardly different than a shamanistic belief in spirits, Nate Silver being our high priest.
Doomsday prophecies are nothing new, but it’s funny that even post-Y2K (which, of course, wasn’t even real), the Mayan apocalypse would get enough attention to warrant a statement issued by NASA. It’s actually not all that surprising, given that we now expect to know everything at our fingertips, the unknowable is all the more seductive. Although we certainly fear what we don’t know — people without Facebook are suspect — we also seek those things that cannot be so easily put in a box, which is why it’s been said that Facebook cramps our style. It’s not a stretch to say the information age has altered our perception of the ineffable.
We now expect to see behind the veil of everything, in an instant, without restriction. Why leave something to the imagination when you can potentially interact with it from behind a screen? Fortunately, it’s not so easy with art. While Art.sy might be able to use an algorithm to suggest what we might like, it doesn’t tell us why we like it, not yet. Correlation does not equal causation, and that’s why the era of “big data” has only left us with more questions than answers. For now, beauty remains in the eye of the beholder.
But, what if I were to tell you there is a magic number that does determine beauty, and it can be seen at every level of creation from the double helix to the Mona Lisa? You’d say that’s something out of the Da Vinci Code, no more believable than a Mayan doomsday prophecy, and you’d be right on both accounts, but that doesn’t stop artists to this day from exploring the potential found in the golden ratio.
In the “anything goes” art world, it’s hard to break the rules because there are none, but painter Adam Winner has found a way, albeit paradoxically, by using the golden ratio for the sake of constraint. Winner uses this ancient visual principle as more than a mere compositional guide, instead of applying it to an image to make it proportionally attractive, he consults it as a diviner of lines and shapes. A single rectangle placed spontaneously begets a rigid framework of possibilities dictated by the golden ratio. The more input the image receives from the artist, the more it begins to determine itself. Ultimately, the artist’s only choice is to follow it’s path or stop. Winner describes his process as working through possibilities that he pins down as opposed to working toward the completion of a predetermined picture. There’s a push and pull between the creator and the creation that resolves itself like an equation. Despite the mathematical conclusions found in his pictures, his results are anything but formulaic.
While the golden ratio is arguably successful in making pictures more pleasing, to claim it’s God’s building block found in all manifestation of nature and art is as dubious as a conspiracy theory. Once you see a pattern, it’s hard to not see it in all shapes and forms, but Winner’s paintings look at the golden ratio exposed on its own, appearing once austere, but then at the same time wide-open to contemplation. His painterly interpretation of what could be hard-edge straight lines provide a needed indeterminacy for the viewer to approach the work on a human level. The title of his largest painting, “Stalwart Bastion” (2012) seems to also mock the cold and calculated infallibility of the data driven world, the irony is that by declaring something to impregnable, we can’t help but look for cracks.
Viewing the world through the golden ratio can be useful, but it’s only one way of looking at things. There’s little evidence to suggest its more right than one’s intuition, but there’s a willingness to invest in the golden ratio’s veracity because it offers a peak behind the curtain. The subjective nature of art is what elevates it beyond other endeavors because it eludes scientific analysis, but we’re closer than ever to understanding how the mind reacts to great works of art.
What a fall from grace it will be if certain emperors (Hirst, Koons, Murakami) are exposed with no clothes. So maybe it’s only a matter of time before artists, instead of using the golden ratio, become more like Nate Silver and consult mounds of brain scans from various curators and collectors to predict the viewer’s reaction, calculating with a high degree of certitude which shade of green produces the strongest reaction, making a work of art that is verifiably beautiful within a +/- 5.0 margin of error. You might think my tin-foil hat is on too tight, but today is the one day we can all get away with indulging our inner Nostradamus.
Adam Winner is currently showing in a group exhibition at 80wse (80 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).
Editor’s Note: Readers should know that all images on Hyperallergic’s homepage that aren’t ads or sidebar banners are golden rectangles.