Portraits & Passages
A Memoir of an Artist
The Return to Compassion
Art on the Demise of the Avant-garde
In painting, the image is suspended in the substance of paint that is itself suspended within the transparency of the weave. As one stands in one’s own temporal site and looks into the depths beyond the canvas, an image already in one’s mind decides its fate.
And so one paints upon the fabric of time; for a call comes from a great distance in human time that beckons the artist to enter into a sacrament that goes as far back as humanity itself.
One need not be clairvoyant to feel the image; one needs but a willing receptivity- for it is a soul’s reflection passing by the veil of temporality that has triggered resolution in the artist’s imagination.
It is amazing how much violence this seemingly benign sense attracts.
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One hears the usual mocking refrain echoing down the hallways of academia. But just shouting “romantic cliché” doesn’t support a blanket dismissal of a universal transcendent in art, but only confirms that such censure trivializes the issue of what is the province of art and why we come before it.
The metaphysical is to the artist what water is to the diver. One can enter air space posing as if in free flight, but we swim in an ontological source. Any attempt to withdraw from mythic significance only changes what we sanctify.
Historical designations formerly qualifying approaches to art are used punitively as if the label now constitutes proof of error. So the term “romantic” gets smeared onto figurative painting as “retrograde” by a righteous garde who enamored by the glamour in “enlightened” progress enter the mystical trance.
Such a moment arrives with Minimalism becoming the black hole sucking dry the last vestiges of figurative imagery only to become its haunting, hierarchal icon transfigured into a devotional relic commingling presence in the containment of absence.
It is refreshing for a short while.
Then comes the conceit of archival installation yoking the viewer to a decoy of seeing- gratuitous paraphernalia, listless notation, words floating as detritus flaunting intention- so subverting in iconoclastic demagoguery both language and visual imagery.
Still later will come the endless desert of media mockery; one blight following another, one concession after another to expose corruption only to become the newly installed icon of ironic embodiment identical in cynicism to the vacuous culture it purportedly resists- its parody extending pollution further into our lives.
How very different from the fierce vibrancy of Van Gogh’s self-portraits or the kindliness of Rembrandt’s-each as immediately present as if just painted. Their faces share with us in candor and warmth a communion that doesn’t recede in time but remains with us to be our guide.
We need look far back to quell the monotonous clamor of spiteful objection to deeply felt expression. Here, in opposition to consensus by plurality, resolution rests on the individual. For even twenty or thirty millennium ago there were only a very few. Do you think Lascaux was painted by committee!
Of course cave painters is a misnomer. They drew by brush: observation distilled to clarity- recollection inseparable from its imagining- vision transparent in intention. If this is the primitive mind, we should all aspire to such conceptual rigor where wonder arrives in the revelation of its contours.
Can any age claim greater accord in following the heart in matter? Such faithfulness would never be embraced by the mind bent on disavowing it. Yet the path to equanimity resides in our perception of splendor. Beauty in all its myriad guises sustains us; its expression benevolent as an act of friendship.
Even in its opposite face of what seems ugly and painful, its reflection speaks of the wholeness of who we are and the thrill and poignancy of the mystery in which we play our parts. Seeing the spirit in all creation becomes the journey taken by the artist. It is what is meant by the word art.
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To announce the soul out of painting denounces painting in advance. The violence of inquiry answers what is sought- that the visual be supplanted by the word, the spiritual denied, and expression subjugated by ideological codes of compliance. But to view art merely as a mechanical instrument illustrating methodology is a rather corrupted notion of purpose.
What credence does a literary conspiracy have entering the visual domain intent to crush art’s spiritual dimension when such arrogance demands that we not question its prejudice, the defect within its premise- the conspicuous absence of faith that underscores its essential grievance?
Art without spirit is inert matter that no longer speaks to us but is only spoken about. With critical arbitration blindsiding the visual, the scornful go blithely round and round within its dislocation- a pageantry of lexicographers parading their coinage to the fleeing present.
What an exercise in short-sightedness; all that hoopla to become footnotes to qualify the insubstantiality of critical pertinence. Can postmodern reshuffling Dadaist farce be seen as anything but anachronism careening down the corridors of virtual art?
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It is not an insignificant question as to how we see ourselves in our art. One need ask what is eternal for some of us wish to attempt something that might be understood well into the future.
Though the phrase “communion with another soul” is commonplace; that should not suggest it trivial but essential to why we come before the artwork. In the manifestation of spirit bridging the gap between artist and viewer we take in and share in its essence. It is indeed a communion.
And it is compassion that has compelled the artist to render the overwhelming beauty in the world. And it is compassion that will be what emanates from the portraits, though not only the portraits that await the future.
For there is a destiny that resonates with this compassion embedded in the dynamic of presence and absence, that though already well discussed in the art of the portrait doesn’t go far enough to reach its most essential conclusion- that everything an artist does is meant for the future; that though we can’t cross the barrier of time, we have our part to play in it that they might in their turn extend compassion to those further into the future.
So that it isn’t just that one might be remembered, but that what one leaves behind offers the sweet ferocious message that what we are here to do beyond our own lives is to share our love with those yet unborn that they might understand that they are not alone.
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With art’s essential humanism being repudiated by advanced critical theory, an avenue to solace and reflection has been denied leaving in its stead ironic sophistries draining meaning from any fulcrum of purposeful communication.
This is especially evident in the months following 9-11 when the avalanche of protest that one expects against the Patriots’ Act and the invasion of Iraq from artists showing regularly in the galleries never materializes. It is mind-boggling.
When William Anastasi places in the summer issue of Artforum 2003 a photograph of his camouflaged installation ‘BLIND’ then just recently shown at The Annex, the editors remain complacently blind.
Lost is the moment to smack an instantly recognizable symbol of the war and occupation right onto Artforum’s cover with its same Eisenhower quote-
ALL OF US HAVE HEARD THIS TERM ‘PREVENTIVE WAR’...
Coming from a generation that had seen all this before, Anastasi once proposed his installation in 1966 during America’s escalation into North Vietnam. But it requires prior scheduling which explains the year delay in response to the administration’s unilateral action.
‘BLIND’ could have been the rallying call that art stand as witness to the tragedy of an unjust war, but no one wants to hear it.
A fateful decision is needed by the world’s most successful art magazine, but Artforum won’t cross that river. It would have sent a message to the peoples of the third world nations that we are horrified.
I don’t care if it were a rush job or if used for the next issue- it would have shown what stuff the magazine is made of. But Artforum’s magnificent resolve in ‘READING 9-11-01’ (November 2001) dissolves.
From then on all their actions testify to impotence. The ship is going down. It is on their watch while arguing over semantics that they step away from duty.
Like the rest of the country safe from the trauma of being sent to the occupation, exigency and equivocation take precedence in a game of hide and seek as the magazine shoots itself in the foot- willingly becoming the target of de-constructive inquiry.
Once we see as indelible from editorial content Yves Saint Laurent’s blond persona exorcising pastiche as Saint Teresa in Ecstasy Scourging Feminist Grievance on suits of multiple-page spreads in the March 2009 issue, we realize the fatuous pretense of the magazine being something other than a glossy ornamental fancy in a culture of trifling parody. So irony goes full circle.
As Artforum achieves its apotheosis leaving the dissimulations and evasions of the avant-garde to come full term, we get buried in a wasteland of spectacle overload treating art as if the neighborhood floozy with whom you can do anything you want. From then on the capitulation into gratuitous cynicism in endless barrages of brain tarring fills every cranny of our beleaguered minds with the hallucination of burlesque inconsequence.
Both the present and the future deserve something better. We need to believe we can make a difference, or why do we make art!
We need reconsider the very nature of the problem eroding significance- for there in the contentious denigration of the spiritual dimension we lose sight that art, in particular painting, is a site of affirmation. In placing our trust in an artist we depend on honesty and kindness and a great deal of empathy towards human frailty.
So, more surprised than you can imagine, one has woken up to the call to write of the practice that arrives in compassionate attentiveness between artist and beholder, and in that, this one small story of an artist’s journey may offer a more intimate reason why we make art and a more generous one.
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In Praise of Folly
The figure central to the allegories painted is the artist himself, making these works collectively an autobiographical performance through which the artist assigns himself the role of the Other.
Already in freshman year at Carnegie Tech, Warhol & Company’s ascendancy is overtaking the foreseeable future when this artist chooses his part. It will be the reverse of what is shocking to an audience now accustomed to being shocked. What outrages those in the know when he paints The Burial of Christ in 1964 is his total disregard for the agenda of the avant-garde, and he is warned that he will suffer rejection if he continues.
This place of alienation has many names: outsider, outcast, outlaw; but if ostracism is a heavy price, it more importantly is the condition of freedom. Still payment is due.
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The Other is the institution of the artist whose deviation is the very substance sought by proprietary society entertaining spectacle in those seen in caricature as marginal. The artist whose vision disturbs the boundaries of order assumes the silhouette of madman in the eyes of the incredulous and so is purged as sacrificial offering; only afterwards in hindsight to be re-imagined as messenger of sacred wisdom.
In its fulfillment, the death of the artist becomes proof of authenticity by which scandal and heresy is transformed into sacrament.
Yet no matter how lyrical the artist’s evocation or light the pen’s touch on vellum recalling that inspiration, someone soon chooses to press down more firmly on each letter of revelation for fear that in fading light its authority might be obscured and the misguided wander in ignorance.
Later, others come to erase it as folly. Yet as many times as it gets scraped away; traces of passion remain to snare the unwary. Heaven pity anyone whose grasp of protocol slips past the boundaries to what is forbidden.
If this scenario sounds clichéd, it’s because humans can’t get it straight since time immemorial and must clothe themselves in doctrine and apology. We are ashamed of our spiritual nakedness and fearful of those with mystical vocation.
So it is no surprise that there is a corollary in the story of Jesus, interlocutor of the hard severe observance of the law, finding censure along with those whose vision disrupts the defining perception of order. So mystical attraction to wonder looses ground, the apocrypha are withdrawn, and obedience dominates faith.
One doesn’t read Foucault’s Madness and Civilization in 1965 when painting Six Characters in Search or in 1966 for Ship of Fools or in 1970 with Joseph Accused or in 1994 as The Performer to know that one is a stranger in a strange land. The images of Bosch’s Ship of Fools and Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind suffice to understand that one is consigned like refugee or cripple or criminal to the shadows.
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There is no explanation for consciousness. It is a mystery. Yet who would deny his own soul? And how do we describe the inexplicable mystery of the soul coming through the material veil of canvas?
Without the soul’s presence, the image remains distant, a mere artifice without passion. One can’t force it by prescription alone; that is only its armature. One need allow it into being by letting it come on its own- just reaching out for it as one might beckon a stranger to dance; the pressure on the brush finding accord in an unspeakable moment of faith. Done! It wasn’t you who did it; it did it.
Without a sense of the soul or the soul of the world and without compassion, we are lost in inadvertent capriciousness. For all our supposed sophistication, our moral choices haven’t changed since Plato wrote his dialogues. We are forever asking ourselves what constitutes nobility in the conduct of our lives.
The stories of Bathsheba or Lucrecia are timeless within the scope of the great challenges to duty, honor, and destiny of those who see for themselves a higher standard in which to live, and if Rembrandt includes in his oeuvre the etching of The Monk in the Cornfield; its merit in being addressed to our attention as a small, private deviation needs to be understood compassionately.
The attraction and compulsions of sexual desire remain one of the most intense particulars of the human condition, but without being placed within the deliberations of what it means to live nobly, its expression looses relevance.
Though contemporary culture has let go of puritanical indictments; the sanctioning of sexual identity as the subject of art has mostly manifested itself as fury. Such expression may be assertion of entitlement, but its unwillingness to find a bridge to what divides understanding turns such work into repositories of defiance.
Comprehension may arrive in a broader waveband than previously acknowledged, but it still must address the greater human dramas and passions that bring us together or keep us apart; themes that can be understood in spite of differences and from which compassion can evolve for those seen as different from ourselves.
We are all father and son in Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Without compassion we are lost, and without compassion what meaning does an artwork have for us?
The agendas of critical theorists wishing to make art the place of discursive activism have reduced art to political manifestation and whatever is produced risks becoming mere artifacts of that discourse. Once the polemics have past, what pertinence do these objects have for us? There is a vast chasm separating art from artifact. We have forgotten the distinction of these words as we have of what is decent what obscene.
Now a vulgar insolence prevails insubstantial as dry rot. Still nothing has changed but dogma; compliance is still expected; and the artist still operates outside its jurisdiction.
The contemporary moment’s refusal of the soul is founded in the wish to avoid despair. One can escape the worst. Pain is defeated by withdrawing the soul, but that simultaneously defeats meaning. The denial of the soul empties all that matters. The absence of despair takes away wonder. By choosing to be numb we are left numb to miracles.
So in faithfulness to wonders, to the miracle of life and in resolute humbleness before its mystery, the artist who will allow compassion to guide him is still the Other!
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THE IMAGE OF CRUCIFIXION
Let us not forget that crucifixion was not reserved for Jesus alone. It was the usual method of mass execution used by the Romans known for wiping out whole cities- a practice deployed as spectacle to intimidate and subjugate peoples whom they considered alien.
Seen historically, crucifixion is a symbol of man’s barbarity, and as such, the cross being usurped and perverted by the Nazis is expressively logical.
Nonetheless, one cannot escape its association to The Crucifixion of Jesus; nor does one want to, especially in view that the Holocaust is fundamentally the result of the Church’s grievance towards the Jews- an antagonism which is radically in opposition to Jesus’ benevolent teaching.
If The Cross became a symbol of martyrdom for the early Christians; what about for the Jew, for it may also be seen as the symbol of the executioner every bit as much as the swastika. The Nazi regime in its first acts of denying the restoration of the rights of citizenship to the Jews, following a millennium of ostracism, exile, and murder, was the return to policies demonizing Jews by the Church of Rome.
Can we then not admit there is terrible irony at work? The sacrificial role of Jesus, outsider to an empowered orthodox priesthood placating the Roman world order, has been subjected on to the Jewish People; whereby, one asks the further question: Can we now view the image of The Crucifixion and not see in Jesus the embodiment of Jewish suffering? Can we really imagine that in his suffering he would have wished that on anyone, but especially his own people, or that it would have been perpetrated in his name when it was he who made the plea for forgiveness?
Here is an image of humanity that is not pretty. The torment and crucifixion of Jesus, without contradicting its Christian view, may very well be seen symbolically as that of every victimized people throughout time recorded and unrecorded. In that, we may all mourn each in his or her own way before The Crucifixion.
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THE ICON OF SORROW
The image of sorrow is a site of affirmation where we remember the souls of those torn from life and from us. By coming before it we perform a rite and a prayer. It is here that we must resolve ourselves in all faithfulness to them and in all faithfulness to faith in a mystery that we cannot fully explain but in which we must resolve to believe in with all our hearts.
In this we renounce adamantly the concession to the finality of this tragedy and affirm our belief in the possibility for its victims to reach spiritually a place of sanctuary. In this we do not give up our sadness and our mourning, but neither do we give in to utter despair.
Such painting is an icon for reflection, symbolic as the icon is and so not partaking of or submitting to a barbarity beyond the unthinkable, beyond comprehension itself. Instead we seek within those impossible confines some place to perform the work of mourning for it is the required work for us.
But it does no good to tear at our flesh. Better to enter this zone of reflection with compassion for ourselves that we may in equanimity find a capacity for compassion for those lost souls and not partake of the stain and contamination of the unthinkable but let it pass obliquely to the shadows from which it hovers nearby but does not belong to them, our lost ones; can not claim them the way it claims its perpetrators. And so we leave that horror to the margins that we in all our empathetic capacity devote ourselves with love for its victims. Only then can we celebrate the souls of those we wish to remember as they deserve.
So this rite of remembrance is performed before the icon, whose beauty, if one can address it as such, renders the unthinkable to the background, and so distanced, allows us to find composure to reflect on the great affirmation we owe those souls by our resolve to restore them to their rightful place, and so celebrate their memory, their worthiness, their talents lost to the world, and understand that at the end it was only their bodies that could be broken.
So it is that the paintings are beautiful within that parenthetical affirmation. We pray that, at the last, those souls could make that leap into The Arms of The Eternal. We do not know that. We can only hope and pray that it was possible even there, especially there. And it is in that hope and prayer that these paintings are beautiful.
And so coming before these paintings is our assigned task to affirm that that was possible, that there is a soul, and that that soul individually and collectively was at the very last, and speaking figuratively, poetically if you will, taken into The Arms of The Eternal. That is the act of faith, the affirmation and the communion that the viewer performs before these paintings.
There is no other choice; for without the wish, the hope, the faith and affirmation that there is the soul, however imperfect we may conceive it; then there is no reason to come before these paintings or in truth before any paintings. For without a belief in the soul, regardless of its status as immortal or not, there is no point in making art. Without faith in the soul where can we find compassion? For without it we are left without comprehension, or wonder, or love. Without faith in our souls we are lost.
Our only hope is hope itself, faith itself. Can we find the inspiration to live in such innocence, not naively, not in ignorance of evil, but in the simple innocence of affirmation towards the worth of life and the nurturing of our souls despite the unthinkable!
In this light, the paintings made under the title The Work of Mourning hold up a candle to the terrible darkness that had engulfed its victims that we should affirm their worthiness in spite of that darkness and pray that in those last hours, those last moments, that they did not loose sight of that affirmation for themselves and for those whom they loved, and in that comprehension, at the very last if not before, attest to that affirmation and leap into The Arms of The Eternal.
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If longing is the mystical side of love dissolved in silence as the soul before an artwork; then what proofs need the soul? And if longing need not prove itself; why need art prove more than that it moves the soul? Need art be a tool to another purpose, or longing go beyond itself?
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Within the silence of painting, the sparse transparency of the sensory sketch gives the imagination all it needs to flesh out memory. Its strength lies in reticence. The mind gratefully receives sensation- a glance, a look, an impression in the sunlight of the day’s passing. The heart holds fast as summer looses ground, withdraws, and suddenly the momentous tide of expectation turns; our days of sunshine so brief.
Isn’t that what we love about Picasso - his evocation of nostalgia? Even in his cubism he brings us moments of this introspection- a passion so elusive we can’t give it name.
Already as a child of eight or nine, one feels the attraction to the sovereign face of the artist bearing witness. Its summoning resides in unspeakable longing overriding difference to become companion from another time.
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