Barry Nemett on Honore Daumier

Daumier, The Strongman imageHonore Daumier, The Strong Man, ca. 1865, Oil on wood panel, 11 x 14 inches

My son’s breath warmed my neck as I lost myself in the wrinkle of his wrist. Blackness. Quiet. Then the skeleton: we’d barely entered the dark room when it danced headfirst from the ceiling. Its mouth passed so close I could smell its death, the boney Bo Jangles almost taking my 10-month-old along with it. Instantly, an infant’s rage overwhelmed a whole bunch of other spotlit jolts. Fright, not delight. What was I thinking? Had I forgotten my own experiences of carnivals? When my boy and I finally escaped back outside to balloons and cotton candy, I looked again at the rainbowed word–each cockeyed letter a lie–scrawled huge across the sunlit walls of the makeshift shelter: FUNHOUSE.

For me, carnivals mean bad/tasty food, being young, rides you threw up from, thrills, threats, sweat, and joyful scares. There are great and foul smells and not winning prizes off shelves. In my adolescence, it was where you tried to pick up girls and you fought guys. It was where skeletons didn’t die. Fun, danger, and sleight of hand–when the carnies came to town, my friends and I were there.

Honore Daumier’s “The Strongman” captures my youthful take on the itinerant world of fire eaters and sword swallowers as I roller coaster from picture viewer to sideshow spectator, from old man to child. The French, 19th-century artist poses, costumes, lights, even provides dialogue for his shady cast of characters. “Step right up and pay your dime. Watch bare hands bend steel bars! Marvel at . . .!” Here, a drawn-back curtain leads to a seductive unknown. Darkly exciting, but no place for an infant. Behind the curtain, any minute a balloon will pop or a skeleton might drop. The teen in me clamors for a ticket, enters, and sits beside a guy with missing teeth. The splintery bench is uncomfortable. It smells in here. The toothless guy and I wait impatiently for the man of strength to do his thing. I don’t mind the wait, the smell, or the splinters; the performance will be worth it—just look at the strong-arm pitch for the strongman act going on outside.

Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Daumier’s twosome is a duo of opposites. The announcer’s forearm rockets out of a loose-fitting, high contrast garment, while his stationary partner’s skin-tight, subtly toned t-shirt and ridiculously bright red pants girdle a performer with muscular arms, a slow, gracefully curved wrist, and a pot belly. Like back-up singers, the two men airing it out behind the hawker support his booming voice, while the only person behind the silent he-man is silent, too. The strongman wraps himself up in a warm, self-contained pose, perhaps, in part, to withstand his cool-colored partner hustling you and me and every other “mark” he sees. His arm thunders in a lightning-like thrust. The figure of speech ends with an exclamation point—the hand. Connecting the two main characters, it’s the only hand in the image given any special attention. His friend hardly has one. For emphasis, the artist loads it up with pigment and echoes it with the pulled-back curtain’s folds that splay like fingers.

From hands, we go to legs, as left and right below are reversed above. A piece out of order in a jigsaw puzzle, the poster hanging in the painting’s top left corner completes the chubby Hercules. With back arched, chin up, trimmed mustache, and slicked down hair, he stands proud and tall. Daumier pits his pose against the gestures of each of the background figures who repeat the diagonal of the hawker’s shadowed torso. His harangue seems to have set those behind him in motion, while gale winds wouldn’t budge the star of the show. Or would they. The steadfast entertainer is altogether full of himself, taken with his own stature–even though he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Daumier, ever the jester, is poking fun, but the joke is over the head of the figure of brawn. Also overhead is, perhaps, the strangest detail of the painting: the other poster. The announcer points us straight to its corner, which appears to balance awkwardly on the strongman’s head. Does the poster advertise a sideshow anomaly? Are we looking at a freakish time traveler creeping from Dana Schutz’s sunshine into Daumier’s darkness? It doesn’t look like the man with folded arms has much to say about it . . . about anything. But who knows?

*      *      *

Although quiet, my dad did have a lot to say. I wish I asked him more about his carnival days or about the carnival within him. Too late now; even sleight of hand can’t open the closed fist of time. Once, with his fingers gently stroking my wrist at a circus, my father said that he had to look to make sure it was his fingers near my hand and not his father’s fingers near his. I didn’t get what he meant, then. I get it now. We saw strongmen, hawkers, knife throwers, and death-defying flyers. They beguiled me as much as clowns, up close, creeped me out. I still try to keep my distance from those costumed performers with their sheet-white, caked-on makeup juiced by freaky, painted-way-over-the-lines smiles. Time, however, has defused the charge most of the other attractions once held for me, which is too bad; after all, where else besides in fear and sorrow do witching hours spotlight afternoons? In a painting like “The Strongman” is where.

My grandson is the age his father was when his father’s warm breath comforted me inside the funhouse. My son’s house is fun and warm and filled with unscary magic. He knows more about infants than I did. He’ll wait a few years before trying to entertain his child with Daumier’s playfully grave and desperate shadows.

When I recently told him the Bo Jangles story, my boy, now a strong man, replied that he’s never found skeletons or clowns creepy and that he likes the dark. As he spoke, he tenderly stroked the bones of my wrinkled wrist.

Antonio López García textBarry Nemett, Unrepentant Jester, 1986, Pastel on paper, 132 x 118 inches
I created Unrepentant Jester in 1986 around the time my two children were born and shortly after I saw Daumier’s The Strong Man for the first time.

Gaby Collins-Fernandez on Frederick Edwin Church

1280px-Our_Banner_in_the_Sky_by_Frederic_Edwin_ChurchFrederick Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861, Oil on paper, 7.5 × 11.25 inches

“Our Banner in the Sky” is a painting made almost entirely of belief, which is why I liked it at first sight, in reproduction no less, advertising the Met’s 2013 Civil War and American Art exhibition in a newsletter. When I went to see it in person I was pleased that the painting is tiny, seven and a half by eleven and a quarter inches. Frederick Edwin Church made the painting in response to news of the Union flag having survived (albeit in tatters) the Confederate bombing during the Battle of Fort Sumter. It was later turned into a popular poster through chromolithography.

In painting, the acceptance of meanings and feelings is usually dependent on how convincing the work is on the spatial terms it sets out. “Our Banner in the Sky” casts mid-19th century nationalism as trompe-l’oeil-based hyperbole, the American flag appearing immanently, via Manifest Destiny, in the confluence of a striated, star-spangled sunset and a tree. What must have read then as an auspicious alignment that exposed the truth and inevitability of a united United States and its democratic government reads clearly now as something between propagandistic fortune-telling and flat-out delusion. (There is a very nice corollary between thinking of this painting as an apparition and the anecdote of the flag-as-symbol coming to Jasper Johns “in a dream.”)

There are a lot of things to like about the work from a contemporary vantage point: that Church is able to pull off near-modernist flatness in a landscape painting (amazing enough on its own) through a behind-the-picture-plane reverse-anamorphosis move; the similarity between the logic of this image and that of picking out which cloud best resembles a T-Rex; how funny it is, how straightforward. Because it is so small, the main conceit of the image as revelation is contradicted by the brushwork, the conceptual sleight of hand undermined by the obviousness of the touch.

What is remarkable about this image, and kind of ludicrous in 2015, is that it worked—socially. As if to answer Union concerns that the war was the right course of action, Church said, unequivocally, that the flag was still there. People loved it—they bought the poster.

In my own looking, I’m most interested in the terms of belief. “Our Banner in the Sky” feels impossible to make unironically in 2015 because we don’t, as a country, believe in the same way; and the art world certainly hasn’t since the ’60s, at the latest. The painting is not for me, really, because I have conflicted and ambiguous feelings about my Americanness that a meditation on the flag isn’t going to fix. But I like thinking about what the emotional conditions (and, as an extension, the physical realities) would have to be for that to be enough to help me to justify a war and a way of life.

red velvet I KNOW IT HURTS paintingGaby Collins-Fernandez, Red velvet I KNOW IT HURTS painting, 2014, Oil paint on fabric, 30 x 18 inches

Jo Smail on Pietro Perugino

Jo-Smail-#1Pietro Perugino, Crucifixion, 1493-1496, Fresco on plaster

Turn left outside the Jules Maidoff Palazzo in Florence†, walk to the first traffic light, turn left and walk up the hill until you reach via della Collona. Go right, soon you will arrive at # 9. You are standing outside the 13th century Monastry of St. Mary Magdalene De’Pazzi, now a school. It is open, only, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Inside you will find an extraordinary fresco: a crucifixion by Perugino, painted between 1493 and 1496. Go left into the chapter room near the entrance and prepare to be astonished!

If you are like me you will have a trancendent experience. It is painted in a manner that belies the subject matter. There are many crucifixions in Florence but it confirms my belief that how a work is painted, makes all the difference in how it communicates meaning. I go in close and take notes with my camera. Tiny brushstrokes are whispers that caress the folds of fabrics, dark to light. The tall, slender trees echo the vertical line of the cross, their leaves barely kiss the sky. The overall feeling — the balance between the figures, the architectural elements and the landscape — is one of extreme tenderness. I sit on a bench at the back of the room. I have the luxury of time to appreciate this sublime painting.

Jo Smail #1 Me photographing Perugino’s sky

I spend most of my days in Florence looking up! In this city of religious art I find myself drawn to photographing the sky. Elements of architecture are the containers for sky. Having a philosophical bent, I ponder the idea of “infinity”. Looking upwards I find myself thinking about something Clarice Lispector asks in A Breath of Life “Could there be a number that is nothing? That is less than zero? That begins where there is no beginning because it always was? And was before always?” It seems to me, the sky is the only constant wherever we are. Its “nothingness” is the universal.

My camera is an extension of my arm. It rests in my pocket at the ready.

Jo-Smail-#3Pietro Perugino, Crucifixion, (Detail)

Jo-Smail-#4 (1) Jo Smail, Looking Up #9, 2014, Photograph

On my return home last summer, after taking thousands of photographs, I painted.

The paintings are influenced by the photographs. But the color and materials are contemporary.

I use bare canvas as a constant reminder of beginnings.
I patch: construct, build
I glue: cover up
I tear: like giving birth
I cut: damage or break
I wrap: like clothing
I paint: reveal, excavate

The physicality of the paintings is contrasted with flat photographs.

I think about ways of “being” and ways of “seeing”.
What constitutes “being” and what constitutes “seeing”?
Presence and memory.
And so I circle back to Perugino!

Jo-Smail-#5Jo Smail, Marmalade Heart, 2014, Acrylic, Found Fabric, Pencil, Collage on Canvas,
50 x 40 inches & #57, 2014, Archival Digital Print, 24 x 18.5 inches

† I lived in Florence for 4 months as mentor for students from MICA’s semester abroad program, Spring 2014. They attend SACI (Studio Art Centers International), a university founded by Jules Maidoff in 1975.

Elizabeth Glaessner on Karin Mamma Andersson

2005-ANDMA0006-200-e1323796532704Karin Mamma Andersson, The Best Storyteller I, 2005 Acrylic and oil on panel, 31 1/2 x 48 inches

I discovered the work of Karin Mamma Andersson as an undergraduate while scanning art magazines in the library. Her depictions of interior spaces seen from slightly skewed perspectives, some including figures engaged in domestic activities, caught my eye. There was nothing loud or overtly shocking about the paintings but the longer I looked, the stranger they became, as though something menacing was lurking beneath the surface. And the paint itself, so confidently maneuvered, described the disparate objects and surfaces with acute specificity. Her interior rooms housed planes of landscapes that destabilized any rational delineation of space. The planes, which could be interpreted as backdrops or murals for a stage-set, seemed to allude to an alternative space which has no boundaries, or as Christian Hawkey describes it in an interview with Andersson for Bomb, “a between-space, a space between here and there…”(1) Any desire to apply logic to the image was eclipsed by the possibilities that arose if you didn’t.

charlotte-salomon-9-1Charlotte Salomon, Life? or Theater?, 1941-1943, Gouache on paper

I bought my first Mamma Andersson book, Dog Days, several years later, during a residency in Leipzig. I had just been to Documenta in Kassel where I saw an exhibition displaying a selection of Charlotte Salomon’s gouache paintings from a work entitled Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater?) After Kristallnacht, Salomon was forced to leave her home in Germany. She moved to her grandparents’ house in France where she spent one year creating a song-play composed of 800 gouache paintings integrated with text and musical cues that documented her personal story set in the midst of the rise of Nazism and a history of family suicide.(2) Salomon’s experience as a young Jewish woman growing up in Berlin during the Holocaust closely mirrors that of my grandmother’s, so when I walked through the exhibition, I carried those heavy stories with me and immediately felt that same eerie sense of familiarity that struck me so poignantly in Andersson’s paintings, a familiarity that breeds a sense of uncanny nostalgia for a memory you’ll never know or a place you’ve never been. I wondered if Andersson had ever seen Salomon’s work.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.30.22 AMCharlotte Salomon, Life? or Theater?, 1941-1943, Gouache on paper

When I got back to Leipzig, Dog Days in hand, I spent hours analyzing Andersson’s works: evocative landscapes, interiors melding into exteriors, still lifes which were clearly alive. The interiors felt like stage sets in the way that Salomon’s song-play was intended, and as I flipped through Andersson’s book I thought about life and theater and how we’re constantly shifting between the two. Her paintings piqued my curiosity, not just in terms of content but also materiality and technique. Mamma Andersson uses paint like language, each passage sounds different from the next. I could hear her brilliant stories, but I had to lean in close; her paint never screams. There are sharp edges tempered by watery spills of color and deliberate, thick textures couching areas of thin washes, seductively veiling the naked panel underneath. At times, the grain of the panel is exposed to describe a very specific surface. There is something that seems so personal about the way she uses materials to make a painting; the techniques she employs come together harmoniously in service of the narrative.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I first stood in front of a Mamma Andersson painting at her show Behind the Curtain at David Zwirner, which included works inspired by toys and interiors constructed for “theatrical and domestic fictions.”(3) This body of work did not have the same immediate impact on me in terms of content or emotional resonance, but standing in front of the paint was a transportive experience and as I imagined her process, the stories opened up and I saw the work on a different level. I had seen and studied many of Andersson’s works in reproduction and while her muted color palette and references to period interiors sometimes cast a vintage-like shadow over her surfaces, an effect that I might normally find gratuitous or off-putting, her strange way of telling a story with no resolution or creating an in-between space transported me to a timeless realm where I was free to imagine with reckless abandon. In an interview for Bomb, Andersson writes to Christian Hawkey, “We were all once children who loved to delve into our other ego, where anarchy and limitlessness reigns. There we felt alive and creative. We long to find this aspect again in our adult lives—the place where we forget everything around us and just exist.”(1)

ANDMA0178_retouchKarin Mamma Andersson Burden, 2014, Oil on panel, 44 3/4 x 33 1/8 inches

I don’t know that I have one favorite painting in Behind the Curtain, but I’m still thinking about Burden. Initially, I saw a child’s room with crooked paintings that seemed a bit off kilter. It took me a while to understand where I was standing in relation to the space, and then I quickly realized that this room wasn’t built with people in mind. As I looked closer I felt more and more shaken. The rust-colored stain lining every object in the space became blood. Suddenly, the paintings on the wall were crooked because something horrific had happened, but nobody had been there to discover what. Then I looked at the other paintings around me and I realized that it was a dollhouse with tiny furniture. But actually, no, it was a painting, so it could be all of that, or none of it at all.

As I stared at the paint, I pretended to be Mamma Andersson – I felt this weird sensation, as though I were making the painting myself– I felt calm, fearless, raging with confidence and searching for nothing beyond the mark itself. If I wanted something to hurt, I chose the bloodiest red and spilled it onto the surface, sadistically watching it stain and drip down the panel. If I wanted something to glow, I inquisitively scrubbed the paint until I found something mysterious underneath, and if I exposed too much I simply buried it again with more paint. As I made the painting, the story unfolded and it was done before I knew the ending. I never knew the ending. I don’t know if Mamma Andersson would resonate with my reenactment, but the fact that I could play out such a specific situation in my head simply by looking at the paint was enough for me to justify my curiosity and admiration for her work.

I remember walking through Charlotte Salomon’s show at Documenta, hearing my grandmother’s voice narrating Salomon’s violently tragic world, shifting from a high-pitched manic tone to a quiet, breathy whisper. Her compositions read like poetry – I didn’t necessarily understand exactly what was happening but I felt it. And, years later, as I walked through Mamma Andersson’s show at Zwirner, I felt that same transportive sensation, a visceral response. The oddly familiar, ambiguous scenes spawn an unsettling feeling, that in their seemingly banal spaces something extraordinary can happen, and I will never know exactly what it is but I will also never unfeel it.

IMG_2568Elizabeth Glaessner, Weightless, Floating, Feasting, 2015, Ink, water dispersed pigment, acrylic, urethane on paper,
22 x 30 inches

 

1. Hawkey, Christian, Mamma Andersson, translate by Laura A. Wideburg, and Anna Petterson. “Mamma Andersson.” Bomb 100 Summer 2007. Web. <http://bombmagazine.org/article/2905/mamma-andersson&gt;.

2. “Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?” The Jewish Museum. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/charlotte-salomon-life-or-theatre&gt;.

3. “Behind the Curtain » David Zwirner.” Behind the Curtain » David Zwirner. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibition/mamma-andersson/?view=press-release&gt;.

Matt Bollinger on Gregory Gillespie

Gregory_Gillespie_Self_PortraitGregory Gillespie, Self-Portrait on Bed, 1973-74, Oil and Magna on wood, 48 x 84 inches, Private Collection

In Self-Portrait on Bed, made in 1973-74, Gregory Gillespie paints himself as a not-quite young man, some years older than I am as I write this. He sits on a mattress that sags toward the floor. Around the time I finally saw this painting in person at the Fogg Art Museum in the spring of 2004, my sleeping arrangements resembled those in the painting, perhaps slightly worse: a mattress with no bed frame in a spacious walk-in closet in my attic studio in Philadelphia. My paintings bore a strong family resemblance to his, and I carried my Hirschhorn Museum retrospective catalog all over the apartment so I could keep my family close.

I first encountered Gillespie’s work as an undergrad. The Kansas City Art Institute had only one catalog, ten pages long, that I xeroxed and still keep in a manila folder along with other clippings of his work. His paintings made me feel as if observation, honed to the nth power, opened visionary possibilities. I saw the clear imagery of his paintings of strange vegetables, portraits of friends, and close-ups of the ground as containing something unconscious as well. He even talked about his process as “rorschaching” into the paint. This feeling in his work reminded me of the movement in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when the camera careens from the technicolor suburb, down through the green grass, into an underbelly of writhing black beetle bodies.

When I saw Self-Portrait on Bed in person in the Cambridge show, I immediately walked up close to it. As I approached, the painting switched from comprehensive illusion to a fragmented material world. Some of the paint Gillespie allowed to act as itself—the painted palette in the corner, caked with dimensional globs—but most of it took on various degrees of illusion. The skin on his left knee, I remember, was beyond photographic realism. As though he was building a living body, he recreated the translucence of the flesh in individual glaze layers. I had read that when he painted skin he used a dentist’s magnifying lens and a fluorescent light to depict the individual pores and, in that particular painting, I looked at all of them.

His technique with oils and Magna came out of trying to replicate Carlo Crivelli’s egg tempera method. This always made sense to me both in the minutia that Crivelli’s cross-hatching enabled, but also because those Renaissance panel paintings frequently included material juxtapositions: elements sculpted in relief beside painstakingly replicated, trompe l’oeil painting. As I scanned the surface of Self-Portrait on Bed, I found the wood floor moved from painted wood to a collaged laminate (I picture Gillespie carefully removing the contact paper lining the kitchen drawers). He ruled the wire screen into the door with a pencil as though he were weaving the mesh instead of depicting it, while the painted pear on the windowsill seemed cut and pasted from a Crivelli, or another Italian painter Gillespie obsessed over during the years he lived in Florence and Rome. Revealed only up close, the material moves implied a shifting attention both for the artist and in the viewer’s perception of the scene.

I remember visiting a friend’s apartment when I lived in Kansas City and sitting on her bed (also a mattress on the floor). While we talked, I scanned the room—from a piece of driftwood, to a family photo, to a friend’s print. Entering Gillespie’s room suggested the same fragmentary sense of a self, made from many past moments and the more I looked at this image, the further away that initial cohesive illusion seemed to me. If he was family, he was as complex and hard to know as a parent can be.

I think a lot about my father when I’m making my work—some of my painting-collages deal directly with events from his life—and Gillespie’s 70s-look reminds me of him. In pictures from that time, my dad frequently appeared in similar, surprisingly short, jean cut-offs with a range of scruffy facial hair. I have a picture of him from this time propping himself against a highway patrol sign as though a Kansas tornado were about to blow him away. In 1974, when Gillespie’s painting was newly finished, my father was dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of having been stabbed in the heart and nearly killed in 1970. Looking at the vulnerability of the Gillespie self-portrait, I think of my father. When I see the generous and playful way the context for his vulnerability is painted, I think of this photo, my dad clowning around for the camera, just a few years after he was hurt.

Skip BolllingerPhoto of Skip Bollinger ca. 1972

About four years before the show in Cambridge, Gillespie died of an apparent suicide. His death upset me almost as though we had known each other. I had imagined meeting him often. On more than one occasion, while talking to myself in the studio, I had told him all kinds of things—what I had found rorschaching into my own paintings; how our studio ceiling leaked, but you could make that mattress like new with Febreze!; how important his work was to me. Perhaps it also reminded me of my father’s close call.

Seeing Gillespie’s works in person thrilled me, but also left me longing. His gaze in Self-Portrait on Bed seemed to look two ways at once, down to my left and right past me, far into the distance.  This doubling mirrored the split between image and fragment that I experienced when I first approached the piece. I can imagine the world that this version of Gillespie sees and I can perceive the many facets of his space, each with its own sense of time. In the painting’s fragmented world, he is at once past and present—a memory embodied.

Renovations_SMMatthew Bollinger, Renovations, 2014, Flashe, acrylic and collage on paper, 96 x 113 iches overall (dimensions variable); 15 x 11 ½ inches each
Courtesy of Zürcher Studio

Renovations_25Matt Bollinger, Renovations (Detail)
Courtesy of Zürcher Studio

Bibliography
Lerner, Abram, Gregory Gillespie. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977. Print.

Stebbins, Jr. Theodore E. & Susan Ricci Stebbins, Life as Art: Paintings by Gregory Gillespie and Frances Cohen Gillespie. Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 2003. Print.

Dotty Attie on John Auguste Dominique Ingres

unnamed-1John Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque (Detail), 1814, Oil on canvas, 35.8 x 63.8 inches

When I was eleven, my father, who had wanted to be a painter, but became a salesman after he married my mother, brought me a little book of drawings by Ingres. He said that when I could draw like that, I’d be an artist. Of course I never could draw like Ingres, much as I wanted to, but the fact that my father admired him so much made me admire him, too.

             Nicolo Paganini by Jean Auguste Dominique Pencil, 298 x 218 mm Ingres1819         unnamed    
 Ingres, Nicolo Paganini, 1819, Graphite on paper, 12 x 9 inches
Ingres, Monsieur De Lavalette, 1817, Graphite on paper

As I got older, and saw more of his paintings in museums and books, I loved the smooth and silken way he applied paint to canvas, the intricate patterns that appeared so flawlessly executed (he abhorred the visible brushstroke), and the perfection of the folds and wrinkles in the clothing of the imperturbable people whose portraits he painted so perfectly. Then I wanted to paint just like him but, needless to say, I never did that either.

Portrait of Louis-François Bertin, 1832, oil on canvas, 116 x 96 cmIngres, Portrait of Louis-François Bertin, 1832, Oil on canvas, 46 x 38 inches

As I got still older, I began to see beneath the surface of his work and, for me, that became the most exciting and interesting part of what he did, and the true mark of his genius. A lot of Ingres’ work was very strange, and full of eroticism that had very little to do with the subjects of his paintings, portraits or panoramas, and everything to do with him.

Raphael And La Fornarina by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1814 Oil on canvas 64.8 x 53.3 cm (25 1:2 x 21 in.)Ingres, Raphael And La Fornarina, 1814, Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 21 inches

I was especially drawn to his paintings of the harem. One of my favorites is La Grande Odalisque.  The serpentine back (which critics of the day complained had three vertebrae too many), the soft, vulnerable feet, the delicate hand, but most of all that wary eye, all show a woman not in control of her life, and all too aware of it.   None of the other painters of Orientalism suffused their paintings of the harem with so much helplessness and raw eroticism.

His own irrepressible impulses manifested themselves very clearly in his work. As controlled as it appeared on the exterior, it was uncontrolled just underneath. And that became my final goal for my own work.

Ingr-056Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Oil on canvas, 35.8 x 63.8 inches

John Auguste Dominique Ingres has been my role model since I was eleven, and he continues to be one today.

unnamed-2Dotty Attie, The Lone Ranger/Enthusiastic Fans, 2011-2013, Oil on Linen, 25 paintings, 6 x 6 inches each

Meena Hasan on Robert Gober

zoom_1412364342_Stop_285Robert Gober, Slides of a Changing Painting, 1982-1983, Color transparencies for projection
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund

I recently visited Robert Gober’s The Heart is Not a Metaphor at the MoMA, and at the core of the exhibition was a dark room with Gober’s Slides of a Changing Painting. Gober had a small 11 x 14 inch board that he painted and re-painted on and off throughout the year between 1982 and 1983. He documented the changes to the painting through thousands of photographs, which then became slides that he projected.

The slideshow moves back and forth, from moments in an interior space to scenes outdoors. Autumnal New England leaves fill up the empty room, turning into a tangled web of tree branches that open onto a momentarily still lake. A hand reaches for a seashell that resembles an ear and is nestled in the grass, only to find a mysterious second hand emerging to take it. A story is located on a human chest that changes gender and age freely. The chest collapses in on itself; a stream of water overcomes the throat; nipples grow tall into trees; dark hair sprouts on one side while the other forms a round breast. The empty crevices between the arm and the ribcage linger as the space changes from chest back to room, making me become suddenly aware of my own moist armpits as well as those of the man who sits in front of me. Those armpit crevices become tall triangles of black, then red, marking the absence of the body and then its return. The nipples on the chest multiply, becoming marks and freckles whose form and color match exactly the knots on the wooden bench that I am sitting on. The narrative reaches out into the space, trying to grow closer to the person observing it with incredible care and attention to detail.

DetailGober_000Robert Gober, Slides of a Changing Painting

Within the slideshow there are objects painted seemingly from observation (a drain, a coffee cup or books on a table) that are intermingled with paintings from a dream-like imagination. This exchange develops the sense of the year passing through seasons and states of mind. Each object and image is endowed with a potentiality containing both a history and a future. Water permeates the entire narrative, flowing, pouring and pooling through the body, the interiors and the forest. The water evolves into a woven pattern of flesh and liquid that brings with it destruction, renewal and regeneration.

The projected slides move from one to the other through dissolve transitions, a vital, technical detail implemented by Gober. The projector’s set up creates a layered visual narrative that differs from a standard animation as the light and images float forwards and backwards along a visual axis between projector and screen, rather than linearly from left to right. As I watch the piece, I sit squarely in the middle of this axis with the changing screen in front of me, and the noisy projector behind me. The piece feels as if it is trying to get as close as possible to me, to absorb and overwhelm me as the images stretch themselves in and out of intimate revelation. The exchange between interior and exterior dominates not only the animation, but the environment and the viewer’s state of mind.

34952Robert Gober, Slides of a Changing Painting

The narrative creates an evocative atmosphere of loss and regrowth, speaking to mortality, the cycle of life and, of course, the time in which it was made: the height of the AIDS epidemic. It is a circular narrative, echoed in the three circular slide carriers in the projector as they fill the room with their meditative thumping. The projector’s rhythmic pace marks the passing time, particularly the moment of reset that announces itself with a cacophony of clacks.

Slides of a Changing Painting was originally exhibited at Gober’s first solo show at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1984, when Gober was 30 years old. The show was up for a mere five days to a select audience. It has rarely been shown to the public and I am sure that I am one among many who waited in suspense for its arrival at MoMA. The piece itself, therefore, embodies mystery, longing and discovery not only for the artist, but also for its viewers and followers.

Having now seen Slides of a Changing Painting in person, it is clear that it has served Gober immensely as many of his subsequent sculptures seem to have emerged out of the slideshow’s images. In fact, he made his first sinks the year the slideshow was completed. Gober’s recurring image of the suspended, empty dress appears in Slides… hanging from tree branches and overwhelmed by a conscious energy of blue water. Gober’s numerous door sculptures that penetrate the exhibition spaces they inhabit also find their origin in Slides… His first image of a closed door appears in the slideshow at the center of a man’s chest, drawing a parallel between door and male body, while questioning the nature of the door itself: what it is hiding, what it might reveal, what its purpose is and who it belongs to.

Slides of a Changing Painting has the capacity to transcend its own physical space in meaning and influence. It is, in actuality, entirely immaterial, as it is a documentation of a series of paintings that no longer exist. Gober spoke of this as a response to neo-expressionism, emphatically embracing the transformative and ritualistic process of painting, while also questioning the importance of painting as an object. He states, “Among other things, the work was a reaction to the time, with its glut of neo-expressionist painting. I wanted to make many images, a surfeit of images, and images that weren’t for sale.”

Because Slides of a Changing Painting permeates the rest of Gober’s works, for me, speaking about the work singularly has been difficult, and perhaps misguided. It is a work that is undeniably rooted in many emotions, thoughts, and images, and holds within it meaning so dense that it is impossible to fully put into words. In the exhibition catalog to The Heart is Not a Metaphor, images of the slideshow are dispersed between texts on Gober’s personal history and sculptures, haunting the book’s pages the way that they haunt Gober’s works. As a whole, Slides of a Changing Painting evokes a myriad of questions and desires, asking me to reexamine and re-confer with myself and my environment, while denying any answers or solutions.

MH-8321Meena Hasan, Getting Out of Bed, 2014, Acrylic and okawara paper on panel, 58 x 48 inches