Sunday, October 13, 2013

Entry - 10.13.13

In my last entry on Seminal Works, I ended my discussion with a look at First Light, a painting completed in 1990 after a period of indecision during which I determined in what manner I would address the figure in my art.  The entry was a long one and I felt compelled to wrap it up, so I summarily addressed the circumstances that lead to the creation of the work and wrote briefly as to why the work is considered “seminal” by me.  I recognized after publishing the entry that it is somewhat misleading.

Wickham - First Light - 1990
In my entry, I mention that I got the idea of painting a double portrait because I felt that my friend who posed for the work embodied a clear duality of conflicting personalities between which lay a chasm that could not be breached.  It was my belief at that time that these personae could not coexist in a single individual and that one persona would have to take precedence over the other.  All of which is true.  But the painting has very little to do with this germ of an idea.  I would be aghast if viewers came to the work thinking it an exploration of how a dominant persona must subdue one less viable in the individual, that this is a painting about a specific person that I knew twenty years ago.  The circumstances that initiate the development of an image are of interest as they expose process but commonly offer very little insight into how the finished work functions… may often lead to misconceptions instead.  That is why I seldom read those cards containing a few neatly printed paragraphs of verbiage that accompany artworks in museum shows.  If I read them, inevitably, the artwork is transformed into an illustration of the context purported by the card.

Picasso - La Vie - 1903

Does it help us to know that La Vie depicts Pablo Picasso’s friend, Casagemas, who committed suicide after being rejected by his lover, supposedly because he was impotent?  Or does this information prevent us from fully experiencing the image.  Picasso himself once opined: “A painting for me, speaks by itself.  What good does it do, after all, to impart explanations?  A painter has only one language.  As for the rest…”  He shrugged.

Gauguin - The Spirit of the Dead Watching - 1892

Does knowing that the nude figure in Spirit of the Dead Watching is Paul Gauguin’s 14 year old Tahitian wife help us to better understand the painting or does it place a context on the painting that most members of a contemporary audience would have trouble getting past to rationally explore the artwork?

By the time I completed First Light, that germ of an idea, visually representing the personality dichotomy of my model, was no longer of primary interest to me.  I didn’t even care if the viewer recognized that the same model was used for both figures.  (In fact, most people don’t notice this.)  Other aspects of the work began to dominate my thinking as the painting progressed.
Early on, as I began to map out my composition in my mind, I thought of the painting as an annunciation.  Although I don’t adhere to any religious beliefs, I have always been captivated by annunciation imagery and have, over the years, addressed the theme in several works.  Most importantly, annunciation imagery represents a charged instant in time when a significant transformation is taking place.  The natural and the supernatural are merged as Mary is impregnated with the seed of god.  On a cosmic level, this moment is charged with such significance on so many levels that it is impossible to go into them here.  But there is a personal story to the annunciation as well.  This is a moment of revelation.  An individual, Mary, is being informed by the angel Gabriel that she is to give birth to the son of god.  This, of course, is rather shocking news, and I am fascinated with how different artists depict Mary’s response.

Greek Orthodox - The Annunciation - 14th Century

Wickham - First Light (detail) - 1990

In researching this entry, I was surprised to find that Orthodox iconography consistently depicted the angel Gabriel with a trailing right foot, turned toward the viewer.  This gesture mirrors that of the standing figure in First Light.  I must have tapped into deep reservoirs of art history images stored in my subconscious because I had no idea that my reference was so explicit at the time I made the painting.  I’m not sure what the significance of this gesture in iconography is.  My guess is that it symbolized the descent of the angel from the cosmic to the mortal plane.  (If any reader can help me with this, I would be appreciative.)  In First Light, I use the gesture to show that the standing figure is caught in mid-action, that she is approaching the supine figure.  It reinforces the sense of the moment.  I also think that it lends the standing figure a slightly threatening aura.

Martini - The Annunciation - 1333

Another thing I like about annunciations is that they are usually compositionally awkward, depicting a huge void between Mary and the angel.  I appreciate unconventional and awkward compositions.  The eye doesn’t know where to go and bounces back and forth between the two figures.  Simone Martini resolves this problem by emphasizing the independence of each figure, placing them in ornate niches and flanking each with the figure of a saint.  The composition becomes frontal and static, relying on a pattern of vertical repetitions to hold it together.  The portrayal of Mary is wonderful in this work, her sinuous body contracts upon itself, her face expresses wariness and dissatisfaction.

Fra Angelico - The Annunciation - 1437 to 46

Like Martini, Fra Angelico also utilizes a composition that places his figures in niches, but he integrates these framing devices into the composition as three dimensional architectural elements.

Botticelli - Cestello Annunciation - 1490

Tintoretto - The Annunciation - 1587

Later artists resolved the compositional problems presented by traditional annunciation imagery by bringing the figures closer together and employing more sophisticated compositional devices to lead the eye through the painting, generally by stressing strong diagonals.  But I have a strong preference for the clumsy compositions of the Byzantine and proto-Renaissance periods. 

Wickham - First Light (detail) - 1990

Of course, in First Light, I had no desire to evoke religious themes but did wish to emphasize the impression that the painting captures a charged moment when something critical is taking place.  As the wisp of smoke caught rising from the just extinguished candle establishes a sense of the instant, my allusion to annunciation imagery is intended to do so as well.  The theme of revelation in annunciation imagery is of equal importance, reinforced in the image by suggestions of drawing back a curtain and shedding light on a subject.

Wickham - First Light (detail) - 1990

In depicting the supine figure in a state of internal musing, I wanted to accentuate her vulnerability.  Too distracted to be aware of the approaching figure, she revels in her personal thoughts, leaving herself open to assault.  It is clear by her exotic dress, make-up, extravagant jewelry and carefully coiffed hair that she has good reason to be engaged in inner musings.  She is sophisticated.  Her life is rich, complex and active.  Balthus also depicted musing figures in his art.

Balthus - Nude with Cat - 1949

But his figures appear to be plotting, to be forming a stratagem to achieve some amoral goal.  They seem dangerous.  My musing figure is weakened by permitting herself the luxury of surrendering to inner thoughts.  She is not conscious of what is happening around her and does not notice the approaching figure.

Though we are unsure of her intentions, I wished to portray the standing figure as dominant; she looms over the reclining figure, studying her dispassionately.  I even deliberately made the silhouette of the candleholder, pointed like a knife, jut into the void over the recumbent figure.  The viewer cannot be sure what is happening here.  It’s possible that nothing is occurring, that we are witnessing a quiet moment of observation when the daily lives of two beings temporarily intersect.  But I’ve also attempted to suggest that something more momentous is in the works, that these two very different figures should not exist in the same space and that a resolution could be impending.  Simultaneously, these beings are strangely linked.  There is a hint that there is a bond holding them together, that we are voyeurs of a strange game.  I do not allow the viewer to come to a firm conclusion concerning this image.  It would be my preference that he vacillate between interpretations, that he never settle on one hypothesis about what is occurring, that he invent an endless series of myths to place the image into a context.  As the creator of the image, I am only responsible for setting the parameters of how far that invention can go.
I will digress a moment to relate a personal story.  Back in the early 90’s, I used to get together with a friend at a bar in lower Manhattan about once a week to relax after work, have a few beers, shoot some pool and engage in freewheeling discussions about a host of subjects, one of which was art.  My friend had seen First Light on several occasions, so, one evening, I was explaining to him how I thought the painting should function, that it could represent a banal moment in the lives of two women but it could also depict something more momentous, that there were suggestions of conflict, violence and decadence in the image.  My friend could only see one facet of the work: two women calmly coexisting in an interior space as the first light of morning illuminates their surroundings.  I described the cyphers embedded in the image that I hoped would suggest alternative interpretations.  I touched upon my references to art history.  Though hesitant to do so, I even conjured up a possible scenario or two to explain what could be happening in the painting.  After all of this, he looked at me dead eyed and stated flatly, “I just don’t see it.”  I must admit that I was nonplussed by his reaction, wondering if my subtle suggestions within the work were too subtle.
A few weeks later, a friend from my wife’s workplace visited her at our apartment in Brooklyn.  At that time, First Light hung outside of our apartment on a landing that capped what seemed an endless series of stairways.  As you climbed the last flight to the top, First Light, lit by a filmy overhead skylight, filled your view.  It was unavoidable.  When I came home from work that evening, I asked my wife how the visit with her friend had gone, and she told me that she had been very disturbed upon seeing First Light.  Her friend thought the painting was sick.  I was surprised that her reaction was so strong but, at the same time, felt relieved that she had picked up on nuances in the work to which my friend had been blind.  In a nutshell, the painting functioned.
As I conclude this entry, I recognize that I am guilty of self-deception here, that I began by questioning whether being provided with biographical facts and explanations actually helps one better understand a work of art and then proceeded to provide a host of biographical facts and explanations about First Light.  I guess my excuse for this blatant contradiction is that, even though wary of the impact that the written word can have on one’s experience of an artwork, I must confess that I greatly enjoy reading about art and artists and take a prurient pleasure in rooting about in the intimate details available concerning the milieu within which an artwork was created.  It seems only natural that I would speculate on my own process, explain my intentions, attempt to unravel the workings of my art and even toss in the occasional private anecdote.  I suspect that most of us would like to remain intellectually “pure” but find ourselves surrendering to personal weaknesses.  I don’t find this a bad thing.  Much of my art takes a sympathetic, if not comic, view of human failings, and I honestly believe that it is our deficiencies which make us creative, innovative and interesting.  I can state one thing with certainty; future blog entries will continue to indulge in this kind of agreeable roving.
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