Seeing What Is In Front Of Your Face

One kind of land­scape is hard to look at just because you don’t know where to start; there are too many things and they aren’t in the right order. It’s grotesque; it scat­ters your atten­tion like a beam of light pass­ing through a prism. This is the eas­i­est one to start to see; you just spend the time to con­sid­er each part, piec­ing togeth­er the mys­tery of what hap­pened and why. There is some reward there.

William T. Wiley, I'VE GOT IT ALL ON THE LINE (1970)

Oth­er land­scapes are hard to look at because you see your shame mir­rored in them; you avoid them the way you would avoid your reflec­tion. It’s even a lit­tle stranger than that; you can dri­ve through them with­out look­ing at them, in the same way that you can shave with­out look­ing at your face, con­cen­trat­ing on one patch of stub­ble after anoth­er, one inter­sec­tion after anoth­er. This, too, you can learn to look at with some courage; you can say, I should see this, no mat­ter how much you don’t want to; you can lift the sheet.

Hughie Lee-Smith, LANDSCAPE WITH FIGURE (1952)

A third kind of land­scape is hard to look at because it does not want to be looked at. It says, I’m doing what I’m sup­posed to, don’t pay atten­tion to me.” It says, Move along, noth­ing to see here.” It says, Noth­ing hap­pened here, and even if it did…” It has been made to be that way, and there isn’t even a word for that inten­tion; the clos­est I can man­age is that it hides in plain sight.


I have been struck in doc­u­ment­ing Colum­bus just how dif­fi­cult it is to look at an office park, or a logis­tics cen­ter; your eyes seem to slide right past them. Find­ing an absur­di­ty, or a glitch – a mis­placed pile, a bro­ken tree, a drained pond – seems to be a nec­es­sary con­di­tion to rest your eye at all. Why should it be so dif­fi­cult to look at some­thing nor­mal? What would hap­pen if you were to final­ly see it?

(August 2021)