Note: This post will be a general look at David’s use of images as symbols, while next week’s post will be a more detailed consideration of some specific images.
Symbolism is the art of representing the invisible with the visible. It means using a visible sign, like an image or a word, to stand in for something more complex, like an abstract concept, a feeling, a character trait, a religion. We understand what symbols refer to because they are part of our cultural conventions, just as we understand what a word means because we are educated in a particular language. For example, although love is a complex concept, we can easily refer to it by arranging letters (l-o-v-e) or by drawing the simple shape of a heart.
David has developed a set of reoccurring symbols in his work that he refers to as his “vocabulary of images.” You may have noticed them over the years: antelopes, jesters, mermaids, queens, houses, rivers, piano keys, fields, arrows, circus tents, boats. Each of these images stands for something larger, but their meaning can change depending on who is looking at them and how they are arranged.
David sees his relationship to his viewer as similar to the relationship between a writer and a reader. In both cases, the creator puts forth a set of signs, whether they are words or images. The signs are laden with meaning that has accumulated over time. However, there is also an expectation on the creator’s part that the reader or viewer will bring some personal meaning to the work. Because we are all unique, we will probably have different interpretations of the same work of art. For example, in seeing piano keys on David’s pieces, one viewer may hear classical piano music, another may hear ragtime, while another may not hear music at all but appreciate the graphic elements of the black and white keys. The connotation changes as well. When I see piano keys, I think fondly of my grandmothers, both skilled musicians, but, who knows, maybe you quake at the memory of your old piano teacher’s rasping criticism and knuckle knocks.
David’s images are also like words in that their meaning changes depending on the arrangements. Anyone who has ever played with magnetic fridge poetry knows how many different ideas, images, or moods you can create with the same collection of words, just by moving those magnets around. Similarly, there are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet, and yet look at how much material writers have produced and will continue to produce simply by arranging those letters differently. The same is true for David’s images. They are like letters or words that he moves around, producing different stories with each arrangement. Let’s take our same piano key example. When you see piano keys, you will most likely think of music. But when you place a figure beside the piano, it changes; suddenly, it signifies dancing. And two figures dancing might make you think of romantic love, while a whole bunch of figures dancing might make you think of a party.
And, to take the image a step further, what is dancing? In a literal sense, it is moving your body to music, but in a symbolic sense, it is a process of becoming, a passage of time, an act of creation (Cirlot, 72).
I found a book on David’s bookshelf: A Dictionary of Symbols, written by J.E. Cirlot, and translated from the Spanish by Jack Sage. Next week, using this book and David’s explanations, I will delve deeper into some of the images in David’s vocabulary.