LAST MONTH I WAS CAUGHT by a painting in a gallery in London. In the picture people were playing cricket. I do not like cricket. Like Oscar Wilde, I believe it to be a dull, imperial game that "requires one to assume such indecent postures." Ordinarily I would sooner turn to stare at a patch of blank wall than look at anything to do with the sport. What stopped me was the triangular patch of orange at the picture’s heart. It was so super saturated a shade of orange that everyone else in the room — the frail old man in a tweed jacket, the young woman with a racking cough, a man with twitching lips — was immediately forgotten. They were not in the picture, not standing on the orange sand of a long beach cut by cyan-colored waves. This was where the game was taking place, though it was not a proper game, just one person bowling at a man standing before a multicolored box. Behind the batsman there was another person, somewhat like a wicket keeper, though he stood further away. Parts of him were painted over, so that he seemed both present and not, and it was this quality that kept me looking after the shock of the orange had faded. The picture seemed to contain many places at once, not just a beach, but also fields, a wood, and this was not the only contradiction: if the three figures were in the same place, they appeared to be present at different times.
After 20 minutes the painting seemed as real as anything around me. This was helped by its size — 10 feet tall and six feet wide — and the fact that every picture, by virtue of its shape, cannot help but mimic a window or door. It would be an exaggeration to say that at any point I considered it possible to actually climb into the painting, but I inhabited it far more than the room in which I stood. The London streets I had walked through to get there — passing the Syrian Embassy in Belgrave Square, then along the eastern edge of Hyde Park, into Mayfair, past the US Embassy — were as distant as legend. I certainly did not remember anything of what those places had evoked, neither the fact that planes had just bombed a bakery in Halfaya, nor the recent shootings in Newtown. All I knew, as I stared at the painting, was that I felt sublime.
If we, as viewers, can get lost in pictures, it does not seem unreasonable to posit that a similar thing may happen to their creators. It took the Scottish artist Peter Doig six years to finish Cricket Painting (Paragrand). When asked how he knew when a work is completed, he said, “A painting is a living thing. It’s finished when it’s let go, when it’s out the door.” I do not presume to know whether Mr. Doig has ever stood in front of one of his paintings and imagined stepping through. But any work of art, whether visual or not, requires its artist to reside within it for long periods. You cannot write, paint, sculpt, or compose without stepping out of the world.
Sven Lindqvist’s book of philosophy, criticism, and more, The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu, begins with the story of a Tang Dynasty painter who is said to have literally done so: