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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Look Closely

Review of The Awakened Eye by Ross Parmenter

The act of looking is vital and elemental to any visual artist. Looking, for an artist is more than just making your way through the world from one place to the next without bumping into things. For an artist, even if you are not an objective painter, you need to understand composition, color relations the expressive qualities of line and texture, to name just a few formal concerns. If you are an objective painter, then deep observation of your subject is key to the success of your work. How one part of a whole (be it a figure, landscape or still life) relates to another part of that whole and how it all fits together, is crucial to the understanding of art.

Ross Parmenter wants us to become excited about looking. He wants us to become as passionate as he is about conscious and close observation of the world around us. In The Awakened Eye Parmenter takes us through his initial examinations of playing cards, which opened his eyes to the idea that details have meaning. This eventually leads to his final explorations of Times Square in the rain using tourist postcards as a visual tool for understanding historic changes in the architecture and signage of that constantly evolving landmark. Along the way, the reader is exposed to a variety of visual games that the author has designed to increase observational skill. Parmenter is convinced that developing and heightening our sense of sight, will lead to “new knowledge, enriched understanding and increased wisdom.”

Ross Parmenter is not a visual artist. If he were this would have been a far different book. Artists are trained early in their careers to embrace the habit of close observation through exercises such as contour drawing to understand edges; still life drawing to understand shape, texture, light and shade; and figure drawing to understand human proportion and form in space. These are only a few of the lessons that artists need to master in order to become proficient in their discipline. These exercises are designed to train the eye as well as the hand, to get the student artist into the habit of seeing the world in the particular way composition, form, and color befits the creation of art. Parmenter in fact, advocates the use of contour drawing as one element of his close observation theses. But this is the only instance in this book devoted to looking where he actually uses an art technique as an aid for his premise.

Ross Parmenter was a journalist, specifically a music critic, a position he held at the New York Times for thirty years. It is perplexing that he does not write about close listening or musical understanding anywhere in his oeuvre. His observations on listening from the perspective of a music critic would probably be more informed, than his enthusiast’s perspective to looking.

The Awakened Eye begins with Parmenter retelling a joke from Proust: Do you know why the king of diamonds was turned out of the army? Because he only has one eye. This sets him off on a deep dive into examining all of the face cards of the standard playing deck, noticing their details and figurative anomalies. In turn, this begets a trajectory of research that starts with an inventory of the curious details on the cards and continues with interviewing friends about what they have noticed about playing card details. It escalates to tracking down a retired curator of prints from the Brooklyn Museum to ask about the history of the playing card characters. The curator directs Parmenter to a book published on the history of playing cards. In the recommended book, Parmenter finds all the information on the development of European playing cards he needs to satisfy his curiosity.

Next, he turns his attention to staring at logs burning in a restaurant fireplace. The author goes into great detail in describing his observation of the log fire, including the color and shape of the flame, how the flame is reacting with the wood and the density of smoke, to name a few of his descriptions. Parmenter offers strictly observational data on the phenomena of flames and their effect on the logs, then on a single flame of a candle, and lastly on an electric lightbulb. These objects were connected by the author under the theme of illumination, with each incarnation of light being more tamed than the preceding. Unlike his interest in the playing cards, Parmenter did not seem compelled to research what he was seeing. His conclusions about the mechanics and physics of fire were rudimentary involving “vapors and solids” and not the scientific high-temperature exothermic redox chemical reaction between a fuel and an oxidant. Parameter’s interest in combustion remained at the level of just looking. Using observation as a method of understanding fire and combustion sets a limitation that does not get at the complexity of this physical and chemical phenomenon. For many physical processes, observation only can lead to misleading conclusions. And Parmenter’s conclusions to his looking at fire do not reach a level an understanding which some research would clarify. For instance: he seems to forget that oxygen is necessary to cause the flame of combustion; that combustion can happen without a visible flame and that the light of an electric lightbulb is not caused by the same physical reaction as burning wood or a candle. It is possible that the science of fire quickly becomes too advanced or ancillary to his objectives. Given Parmenter’s readiness to take on some in depth research into the minutia of playing card design, his interest in only the visual nature of combustion seems to be neglectful. This is especially puzzling when the author devotes an entire chapter in The Awakened Eye to being blind to things that one finds difficult.

Later in the book, Parmenter keeps a similar limitation of his exploration in looking, when he attempts to discuss looking at art. His advocated method is to obtain postcards of the paintings, bring them into the gallery and compare them with the originals hanging on the walls. He is convinced that doing this exercise will render your observational skills more acute. His examples all tell another story. What he achieves comparing postcards of works of art with the original, is discovering the flaws in reproduction, printing, and reduction. What he does not seem to be interested in is in what the painting is about, why it is rendered in the way it is or anything about the artist and their working methods or the period of the artist and paintings. The art and the artist seem to have only a vague interest to Parmenter. Instead, he looks at paintings as memory enhancements which help him ruminate on past experiences or as visual cues to render personal life experiences more meaningful. Both ideas are expressed when he discusses Seurat’s paintings of seascapes. Seurat’s seascapes remind him of a scene of a Spanish port he saw while in the Army. Later he recalls Seurat’s sailing paintings while watching sailboats ply along the Hudson River. The paintings exist for the author as picturesque metaphors. In Parmenter’s view of The Awakened Eye, art is not an intellectual pursuit of expressing ideas that requires study and immersion to understand. Instead, it is only a tool that the viewer uses to make his personal experiences more delightful.

It is curious that Parmenter has such a limited perspective of art, when in several chapters he rails against the absence of visual teaching in American public schools. The main problem of this declaration is that it is a wrong assumption. Art Education has been a part of the United States public school curriculum since 1841. It has gone through various transformations through the decades and has often been subject to the vagaries of school budgets and the emphasis of local school boards. Since the 1960s, many states (including New York where the author was located and was in effect in 1968 when this book was published) made Art Education mandatory in Middle School and an elective in High School. Parmenter made this conclusion of educational negligence from his own personal experience of his trying to concentrate on looking at the details of the passing landscape while riding a train. Instead of contemplating on the forms of trees, he finds that every time a billboard interrupts a scene, his attention is drawn to the printed message, which has the effect of visually erasing the scenery. The author apparently without research, attributes this phenomenon to our American schools concentrating on the teaching of reading and literacy as the core of education. Literacy and critical thinking are emphasized in education over most other subjects, mainly because all the remaining learning relies on study and comprehension through books for much of the information that is passed on. Still, anecdotally this emphasis on letters, words and comprehension of the text creates the dominance of deciphering messages from any print media that we see. This may distract us from enjoying the pure visual experience of a landscape or anything that has signs or text as a part of it. We are trained to read the meaning of the text and trust our information that way, rather than trust visual information which we are often taught can be deceptive. In art school I was warned not to put text in my painting as it would become the focus of the work, instead of the content of the image. Many times, this has been proven to me to be truthful advice, which validates Parmenter’s core premise. It has little to do with the lack of art education in schools.

Another visual quandary that the author discusses, is the common experience of not remembering what something looked like after it is gone. Without visual cues, most individuals do not remember (or tend to misremember) the details of landmarks, people’s faces or anything that no longer is in a person’s sight for various reasons. Humans need some visual prod to remember the details of an object or event. Even with the prod, we can often be surprised that the reality of the thing does not compare with the memory of the thing. Parmenter offers the observation that humans often have two levels of perception: what they believe they see and the actuality of what is seen. He demonstrates this by comparing historic photographs with on-site looking which for him drives home the faultiness of memory. That is as far as he is willing to dive into the phenomenon. There are far more interesting theories into human memory and perception that could have been addressed on this subject such as the problems of bias, false memories, and memory blocking. But here, as in previous chapters in the book, the author decides to curtail his research and leave the subject with only a superficial observation.

I am not sure who would be the audience of The Awakened Eye. It’s larger concept of looking to notice details and understand what one is seeing is important, even vital to human lives. Non artists benefit from thoughtful observation just as much as artists. Non-artists should develop aspects of closer observation to increase the awareness of their surroundings, develop their memory and visual retention or to understand their location when they find themselves in unfamiliar territory. For artists it is imperative to intensify their visual acumen as part of their trade. This is not the book that will help to achieve that goal for either group. Parmenter’s interest in the visual world, despite his enthusiasm, remains limited because of his lack of understanding in both human perception and the science behind what he observes. Instead of looking for guidance from those more adept in visual literacy, he tries to formulate his own way of seeing. This works for him in a constrained way but does not afford him a more intensive understanding of the visual concepts he discusses which he could distill into a manageable populist project. He creates a few visual games that work for him personally, but these territories have been more successfully addressed through other visual exercises. The breath of this subject of intense looking is far more expansive than this book advances. Parmenter keeps the advancement of looking to a narrow view. Despite the promise of the title, the reader will not find his eye awakened. Anyone would do better to take a beginning art course which would be much more valuable for arousing their latent visual senses.

Arthur Bruso © 2021

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