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At the First Clear Word, Selected By Sienna Freeman (Online Exhibition)

About the exhibition

Max Ernst’s 1923 painting At the First Clear Word depicts a fair skinned hand with elongated fingers draped delicately through a small rectangular window. The window is cut from some sort of surreal architecture: an umber clay wall from which two erect stalks sprout, each with an artichoke-esque head pointing upward.  A thin white string dangles above from a deep periwinkle sky, it follows a scalloped draped line across the wall’s surface. A small red ball is tied at its end and held precariously between the pale hand’s first two fingers. One crossed over the other, the fingers mimic the pose of a crossed-legged woman, their grasp on the ball unsure, as if holding the ball is an action based in inquiry as opposed to retention. 

In his 1962 essay “Phenomenology of Perception” French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty uses a similar example of crossed fingers holding a marble to describe the experience of erroneous perception, or “a disturbance of body schema.” Merleau-Ponty describes a scenario where two parallel fingers (an index and a middle) hold a marble between their tips and the presence of a single marble is detected.  When the fingers are crossed one over the other with the same glass sphere pressed between their tips, the feeling of two different marbles is suddenly perceived.  

When I look at Ernst’s painting At the First Clear Word, I am reminded of the second experience that Merleau-Ponty describes.  I see the painting and then imagine my own fingers crossed, holding that same small red ball. But, I am aware of a perceptual split. The works selected in this exhibition evoke a similar experience for me. I read them as both visual and haptic, optically drawn to their materiality.  My eyes act as fingers, following brush strokes or stiches as they have been marked by their maker, or picturing the weight and temperature of the object in my hands. I experience a sense of double perception, regarding the works visually and then feeling the physical sense of the artist’s hand as my own. 

About the selector

Sienna Freeman is a San Francisco based visual artist and writer. Her visual work has exhibited across the United States and internationally in Switzerland, London, Belgium, and Canada. Her written work has been published on and in the California College of the Arts’ Sightlines journal. Freeman earned an MA in Visual & Critical Studies and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and a BFA in Photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  More info here:

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