Water & Dreams

Water & Dreams
a watercolor exhibition organized by Katy Cowan
May 20 – June 21, 2017
In his final work, Jean-Jacques Rousseau beautifully describes the continual flux of life on earth. He notes that nothing (not objects, not affections, not even one’s own ideas) retains a constant, fixed form. “Always ahead of or behind us,” he laments, everything recalls either “the past which is no longer, or the future which often is in no way to be.” The pure present takes shape somewhere between these poles. Yet because of life’s transitory force, rare is the moment when “the heart can truly say, ‘I would like this moment to last forever’.” The trouble, in other words, is that one is always enjambed in…the present longing and attached to something beforehand and looking…forward to something, desiring an afterward. Rousseau is not unique, of course, in making this observation. Both water and dreams had already long communicated the idea of persistent, sudden change. For Heraclitus the river represented such instability; and similarly, for Descartes the dream illustrated our fundamental lack of surety in experience.
Rousseau ultimately relies on the imagery of water and dreams to convey precisely the opposite idea. His resolution to the chaos of change is found in his lying down, daydreaming on a boat in the river. Either: his eyes open to the nebulous clouds and the patterns of birds in flight; or: his eyes closed, in reverie. Floating along, he would take in the oars, let the boat drift, and lose himself in dreams. Opposite of the instability of space and time, water and dreams now provoke an eternal present. An experience in which one needs not “recall the past or encroach upon the future; in which time is nothing; in which the present lasts forever, without making its duration noticed and without the trace of time; without any other sentiment…except that of existence, and having it alone fill one’s soul completely.” A caesura: the still movement of water: the calm allure of a dream. The surface upon which the image of the present now manifests itself involves an even distribution. No center of focus: neither the drag of what was, nor the pull of what could be.
Thus, on the one hand—like Apollo in a fleeting moment of distracted repose—water and dreams are poetic devices that draw forth the vague moment of abstraction that lies within representation. And on the other—like Dionysus in a rare moment of full attention—water and dreams call out the indefinite representational features of the abstract. Water and dreams operate, therefore, as witnesses to the fundamental disjunction: between being and becoming, between the temporal and the eternal, and between stillness and motion. All of the works in the exhibition Water and Dreams (which no amount of metaphor can even begin to explain) have a real unity through the freedom with which each artist operates between both the instability-of-the-image and the steadiness-of-the-impression. In this way, the mark of the water is not so different than the mark of the dream.

– SJ Cowan