Going Meta





Ulysses Belz

Painter and printmaker

Going meta

Metacognition refers to the awareness an individual has of their own mental processes (also referred to as 'thinking about thinking'). In the past thirty years metacognition research has become a rapidly growing field of interdisciplinary research within the cognitive sciences.

The Foundations of Metacognition, by Michael J. Beran, Johannes Brandl, Josef Perner, Joelle Proust; Oxford 2012.

/ clouds / frontiers / messengers /
Ulysses Belz and his revolutionary Project of Thinking-in-Painting

by Joelle Proust, CNRS

In our daily experience, clouds are evanescent, vaporous masses, defying any objectification. Still science tells us that they actually consist of an indistinguishable crowd of invisible droplets and frozen crystals. Belz's clouds are not clouds as we think we know them. They are there to be perceived as painted surfaces, and understood as pictorial signs (from now on: /clouds/). /Clouds/ have a deep and fascinating potential for association. How can one make associations on the basis of icons, without words? Here is an answer from philosophy. Pictorial signs do not only owe their meaning to what they analogically represent – here, clouds. They also work as indexes. Just as languages have words for referring to the person we are talking about ("she"), this or that time ("now", "then"), pictorial signs can use their analogical content to refer to invisible properties, such as change, uncertainty, past ways of painting. Because of the open nature of indexing, there is no a priori limit for representing the invisible in pictorial signs. Thinking-in-painting and thinking-in-viewing both use indexing as a medium for a mode of figurative understanding that cannot be fully captured in spoken languages.

A major step in viewers' indexing process of /clouds/ as pictorial signs depends on noticing that, In Floating States, /clouds/ happen to map specific countries, Britain (Floating State A), The United States (G), Denmark (c and g), the late Weimar Republic (F), Greece (a), Japan (D and E), Switzerland (f), The Virgin Islands (1), Baleares Islands (untitled). A pictorial sign such as /cloud/, however, does not amount to a revelation, an unveiling of hidden realities out there. It is rather a pointer to a deeper layer on our mental canvas, an encouragement to sense the floating motive from a fresh viewpoint.
From this viewpoint, contingency is a key feature of the composition. A cloud looking like a state is a most unlikely phenomenon. /Clouds/ only contingently map states and national borders. In Floating States, the contingent mapping of /Clouds/ to states leads to recognize contingency in what is mapped as well. Random collective phenomena have defined provisional, contingently precise borders, wrongly perceived as fixed and intangible. Just as clouds, frontiers both materialize and dissolve across time. Like clouds, states have their apparent, drifting contours and their invisible reified constituents such as citizens and institutions. This is only a first line of thought elicited by /clouds/, however.
In classical painting, as emphasized by Hubert Damisch, /clouds/ often have the function of figuring otherness (altérité). They index an alternative space where the physics of bodies no longer holds, a space of blessing, triumph, radiant joy, revealed truth, which contrasts with human misery, doubts, pains and uncertainties. /Clouds/ are spatially contrasted with worldly realities: higher spheres of transcendent beings occupy the top of canvases. In Floating states, in contrast, /clouds/ are not assigned to a conventional partition of the canvas. They have an altogether different pictorial sign-content and indexing potential. Instead of offering a paradoxically spectacular representation of the invisible, Floating states radically shift the significance of painting away from any ontological revelation. Floating states make the painter's own uncertainties, doubts, and questions about art pictorially manifest to viewers. A central example of uncertainty has to do with perspective.
/Clouds/ can be viewed as if from below, as in classical painting. Realist attractions may still marginally be lurking in the back of viewers' mind. Clouds belong to the sky above, /clouds/ tend to be seen as if from below. From this viewpoint, and although they occupy the full canvas, (on a pure ultramarine blue or on a turquoise background), /clouds/ contingently, but in a sense also miraculously turn out to have the specific appearance of state borders. From this viewpoint, /clouds/ appear as states, as homelands: ethereal shelters of some kind.
Let us reverse the perspective, and look at the figurative content as if from above. Now states appear to be cloud-like entities, set out on the blue background - a sea, a continent, or just the conventional colour for nostalgia, love, regret. Who is the viewer from above? God, an astronaut, an atlas reader, a poet, a philosopher, or the painter himself.
Stabilizing a specific interpretation or perspective, however, would miss the pictorial point of Floating States. The point is not to stage an amusing referential ambiguity, à la Arcimboldo. It is rather about allowing pictorial signs to emerge, i.e. questioning the selection of a privileged referent, and replacing it with an open-ended sequence of questions, associations and dissociations. Belz's work takes canvas as an invitation, perhaps even as a command, to think-in-looking, in a way that tentatively corresponds to the painter's own activity of thinking-though-painting. The word "tentatively" is essential: uncertainty prevails in viewers' activity, as it does in the very act of painting. Any attempt at identifying – stabilizing – the painter's specific intention, would entirely miss the point.

The painter's attempt to make privately entertained, transient mental states visible finds a powerful expression in a third kind of floating elements: neither "/clouds/, nor /states/, but elongated filaments and fleshy blobs: /Floaters/. These pictorial elements provide meaning, balance and movement to Belz's Floating states much as angels, cherubs, and seraphs do in classical religious painting. They do not evoke celestial creatures, however, far from that. Standing at the forefront, always in full, unobstructed sight, they are not subject to perspective. Their specific way of floating in the forefront invites a naturalistic interpretation: just as /clouds/ are (depict) clouds, /floaters/ are flying flies in the vitreous humour. Consonant with this interpretation is their graphic aspect evoking cell debris. A realistic interpretation, however, is again to be resisted. /Floaters/ may have something to do with Ulysses Belz's own visual flies. Yet /floaters/ are primarily pictorial signs (Floating states G encloses them in a dotted box, as if for future use). They are an essential part of the painter's syntax, here and elsewhere. Part of the viewer's own reflective activity is to capture their role as dynamic pointers. A possible pathway is to consider more closely their iconic analogy with celestial creatures.
/Angels/ and /cherubs/, in classical paintings, work as pictorial signs of invisible tri-dimensional entities. /Floaters/ are neither sacred nor spectacular icons, and they are not related to the sky as an external floating medium. They rather float in a two-dimensional space – the space of the retina (as an irregular light reflection), or of the canvas. They acquire a sign-quality of their own: Floaters are transparent additions to sight. In other words, they are unrelated to the contents of vision, but they do not block them either.
Floaters, then, elicit attentional transitions between a visual singularity (a blob, a filament) and an open-ended interpretive sequence. /Floaters/ as pictorial signs, index the subjective, individual quality of artistic forms of thinking-in-looking. Even when crossing our visual field at its periphery, /floaters/ have a major graphic function, as elements of unarticulated questions and responses. Just as angels were flying messengers of God's will, /floaters/ are freely floating messengers for a new type of art perception.

Floating States finally include an entirely different set of pictorial icons, associated with maps, and electric appliances. These icons consist in graduated scales possibly expressing distance, as in Floating States 1 (Virgin Islands), or intensity, as in Floating States c and g (Denmark). Whenever scale icons are used, in painting or elsewhere, they are typically interpreted as floating signs, i.e. as signs whose significance depends on their context of use – on what they are supposed to measure. Measure is an objective fact; use is flexible. This duality paradoxically confers to graduated scales a kind of autonomous and directive iconic status. They belong to a form of representational level that cannot be questioned: they are part of a user’s manual. In a painting, they seem to be intruders, but simultaneously, provide a conditional anchor on which our mental ship might stop and rest. A conditional anchor, however, because what they measure might be the effort that viewing (or painting) requires from the viewer (or painter), in terms of oculomotor activity and mental concentration. Scales, from this viewpoint, work as attentional commands. Look and feel as objectively needed here! Appreciate, concentrate, sense the rhythm pulsing into this piece! This fourth variety of pictorial signs are also floating, then, with the varying demands inherent to canvas viewing or painting.

Floating states are a new step in Ulysses Belz's thinking-in-painting revolutionary metacognitive project. /Clouds/ as states, /states/ as clouds, /Floaters/ and /Gradient scales/, are the elements of Ulysses Belz's present figurative syntax. As we saw, they rely on very different principles. The non-linear evanescence of /Clouds/, the graphic precision of /Floaters/, and the abstract linearity of /scales/ are normally exclusive from each other. Their combination, however, is a meaningful source of pictorially inspiring thinking-in-painting and thinking-in-viewing. Each canvas in the sequence of Floating states finds its balance and dynamics by solving the contradictions that the four elements generate in thinking. Each of them engages complex meta-visual experiences and fresh interpretations. Each triggers its own independent series of subjective associations. This activity uncovers surprisingly interesting contrasts across interpretive lines. /Floaters/ guide interpretive shifts that parallel in their own terms the /cloud-to-state/ and the /state-to cloud/ shifts. For even though /floaters/ are presented with clouds in the background, they are not subject to perspective, do not have the cherubs' grace, and indeed do not refer to any entity, whether up here or out there.
These powerful works renew the concept of visual arts by questioning head-on naïve ontological assumptions. Naïve ontology identifies objects, and explains their causal powers in terms of their displacements and relations to others objects. Situations described in these terms are used to interpret what there is to see in a canvas. But thanks to pictorial, non-verbal signs, painting has a much wider scope of thinking. Belz's strategy in art in part consists in using naïve ontology as a teaser (seeming to depict /clouds/ as clouds, /floaters/ as floaters), in order to deflect attention away from it. A strategy such as this has been explored by other artists, and could even be included in the definition of visual art. But Ulysses Belz's strategy adds to it an unprecedented affirmative twist. Painting is thinking over time. Pictorial thinking is a difficult and lengthy process of self-transformation, noise creation and iconic metamorphosis, fraught with uncertainties and difficulties. Perceived contradictions foster new pictorial thoughts, make manifest new filiations across the history of painting. Floating States pictorially demonstrate the existence of mental time in painting– the time needed to understand, remember, associate, infer, doubt, search again, without any kind of anticipation or planning – as a fundamental iconic, non-conceptual dimension in art.

Joëlle Proust
July 2, 2018


On Course for New Spaces

by Markus Braun-Falco, PD, Munich

Painting, as a traditional point of intersection between external vision and inner perception, is undergoing social and esthetic realignment due to advances in the field of consciousness and brain research in the early twenty-first century. Mental processes encompassing abstract concepts of human existence formerly regarded as unable to be materialized or concretized – such as consciousness, perception, language, and emotions, but equally mood, motivation, and concentration – are becoming increasingly definable on a molecular and genetic basis.

Ulysses Belz approaches from the viewpoint of an artist the challenging and complex questions surrounding the possibility of visualizing mental processes. In many years of intensive preoccupation with cognitive neurosciences, he has developed a mode of painterly expression
that he terms "metacognitive painting".

The concept of metacognition, introduced in the early nineteen-seventies by the psychologist John H. Flavell and the physiologist Henry M. Wellman, focuses on the analysis of one’s own perceptive processes, that is to say, on knowledge of how we can know[1]. For Ulysses Belz, it is the plastic interest in the processes by which occurrences and memories are stored, filtered and retrieved.
From an angle of self-perception arise compositions that make visible a figuration beyond figuration. In works like "Spare Bed", "Viennese Hotel Room", or "Archive", which in the broadest sense still embody an existentialist sensibility paying reverence to the work of Francis Bacon, it is possible to discern the germination of a confrontation with personal recollection, the processual nature of which is already reflected in the all-over treatment of the canvas in "Daylight".

"Selfportrait Contemplating the Sky" represents a striking developmental step forward. Despite the implication of the title, the painting has nothing of an individual self-proclamation but seems more like a cosmological speculation. The painter’s view of the heavens includes, as a biomorphic seal of existence, a depiction of "mouches volantes" (commonly known as eye-floaters), those thread-like strands or dotted structures fleetingly inscribed on the field of vision in line with the motion of the eyes and percieved as entoptic phenomena by almost everybody. As a selfportrait it is a descendant of Ernst Mach’s drawing of himself as a headless figure lying on his sofa, whereby not only the mirror image of the classical selfportrait is avoided, but simultaneously the question is raised of the internal generation of the external world.[2]

Despite the precise corpuscular definition in paintings like "Patience" or "Timetable", there is no trace of a return to figuration. Similarly, fundamental concepts of abstraction are largely eliminated.
These works – and even more so "Reactions to a Ringtone", "Wasps" or "Thank you, Mother" – provide examples for the way in which the viewers are required to neuronally grasp the structural patterns presented to them in order to be able to appreciate by non-rational means the correspondence between picture and title. The title may still evoke a concretizable visual notion in the personal recollection of the viewer – an aspect which has largely vanished in the series "New Centres". Here we are presented with loop-like signal patterns that indicate a concrete momentary state of an individual’s sensate condition. Or are they possibly even universal activation patterns characteristc, in each case, for a specific sensation?

In order to enter into a relationship with Ulysses Belz’ paintings, viewers must compare with their own experience the painterly proposal regarding an internal process. It is a wordless communication
in which a pictorial investigation is undertaken into shared patterns of stimulation. According to Ulysses Belz, a picture is a mental object produced in the field of neuronal connections and able to assert itself only within the dynamic of previously unknown algorithms. Painting can thus make no statements about the outside world without deceiving itself about its own character.

Ulysses Belz’ metacognitive painting articulates a neronal esthetics, an artistic formalization of absolute immediacy, which approaches the sublime of contemporary art from an innovative perspective.


Markus Braun-Falco

Freiburg, 7th of april 2008

[1] H. Flavell and Henry M. Wellman, "Metamemory", in Perspectives on the development of memory and cognition, eds. R.V. Kail and J.W. Hagen (Hillsdale, N.J.,1977),pp.3-33

[2] Ernst Mach, Die Analyse der Empfindungen und das Verhältnis des Physischen zum Psychischen, 1st edition ,Jena 1886; translated as Contributions to the Analysis of the Senses, 1886

(Transl. Tom Morrison, Berlin)