Julie Langsam on Frederic Edwin Church

1965.233_wFrederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Oil on canvas, 40 x 64 inches, Collection Cleveland Museum of Art

I first saw Frederic Church’s “Twilight in the Wilderness” in 1996 on my first trip to Cleveland; I was wandering aimlessly through the galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art when this painting stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never been particularly interested in landscape painting or the landscape as subject, but the high drama of this particular painting affected me deeply. I felt a bit used and manipulated in the same way that certain sappy songs can choke me up no matter how obvious the formula, or the way a scene in a movie can bring on an intense emotional response even when there is no logical reason why I should be so affected by a fictional narrative. And yet…. and yet I felt an excitement about the possibilities this painting presented. It was bold and it was daring. It was syrupy and obnoxious and all the more thrilling in the way that only the forbidden can be. It was so OBVIOUS. Yet I kept coming back to this painting time after time, visit after visit, never fully understanding why it was getting under my skin even though I understood how.

I could describe Church’s use of high key color, the juxtaposition of both complements and neutrals, the meticulous brushwork, but these formal qualities are not what interest me about the painting. In fact the surface of the painting is quite cold, hard, and calculated. What does interest me is the daring on display: unapologetic, upfront, in your face, think what you like, take it or leave it. I am telling you a lie and I expect you to believe it.

In fact, it is the fiction of Church’s painting that fascinates me—- the impossibility of the moment combined with the elaborate mechanics that he uses to convince me of the impossible. “Twilight in the Wilderness”, as with many of Church’s paintings, is filmic and theatrical. As a scene it sets the stage for something to happen, yet we are suspended in both the now-ness and the forever-ness of the painting. It is not particularly large (though not small) and not particularly wide or expansive, yet it demands much of the attention in the room where it is displayed, despite sharing company with works by Bierstadt, Cole, Heade, Gifford, and Kensett to name a few. The melodramatic mood of the painting speaks to a longing for a past and/or a future that is only partially imagined, creating a desire, which, though not fully articulated, is both painful and titillating. It hurts so good.

As a painter seeing this work for the first time, I felt liberated; liberated from the strictures of ‘good taste’, liberated from the introspection of much of 20th century art and liberated from the self-reflexivity of ‘painting as image/object’. Church, in many ways, was a maverick. His work speaks presciently to the ‘society of the spectacle’ described by Debord where representation replaces reality. Its strength as a painting lies in it’s grand gesture(s), its confidence and conceit, but most of all in its fabrication of a believable fiction— a fiction that becomes a reality only within the context of painting.

GropiusLandscape_Master's_House_300Julie Langsam, Gropius Landscape (Master’s House Kandinsky / Klee), 2014, Oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches

Jennifer Coates on Paul Gauguin: Pork Talisman (re-post)

the-ham-1889.jpg!BlogPaul Gauguin, The Ham, 1889, Oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 22 3/4 inches

Paul Gauguin’s ham is like an archeological dig site with remnants of the porcine ancestor embedded in its terrain. The untamed progenitor of domesticated pigs, sus scrofa, or wild boar, haunts the charcuterie. Fatty streaks subdivide the flesh strata like fossilized bones in clay-colored earth or like a Paleolithic drawing in a meat cave. Pigs, who huddle in muddy wallows in fellowship with their brethren, are killed, chopped, salted and drained of blood. The legs become an edible delicacy after a period of months. “Cured” of its animal state it becomes food for humans, a symbol of both abundance and death, offered up on a round silver plate. Beside the pork sits eight small pearl onions and a glass of red wine. The still life casts a crepuscular shadow on the hot orange-yellow wall behind: the encrusted, fading residue on the glowing back wall implies demise, a radiance that foreshadows an end.

The small onions appear like speech bubbles from an imaginary mouth of the skull-shaped ham: a rhythmic tumble of bulbs that are actually repellant to animals and cause tears in humans. The involvement of onions in lachrymation – a cleansing and lubrication of the eyes – is a blurring which engenders a clearer seeing. In ancient Egypt onions were placed over the eyes of the dead; oaths were sworn on onions. “Onion” is derived from the word union or one, it has been seen as a symbol of eternity, a metaphor for uncovering layers of truth. In a basic biochemistry experiment, visible strands of DNA can be easily extracted from them: onions have more DNA than humans. A descendant of the wild allium, in the lily family, the onion is also one of the oldest cultivated vegetables.

The glass of dark liquid reflects two of the onions and a flush of red flesh. A picture within a picture, the onions appear to hover over the surface of the blackish wine like sea creatures at night – vegetal emanations of the murky deep. The drinking glass is like a petri dish, a vessel that contains transformations. The wine is a product of fermentation, of the bubbling action of bacteria on fruit: a “boiling” that hastens rot, as yeast turns sugar into alcohol. Wine is a symbol of blood, a sacrament of redemption with narcotic effects.

Glass, plate and table theatrically present evidence of the human intervention upon flora and fauna. The sloping legs of the table are a calligraphic flourish that echo the streaks of fat in the ham and indicate surplus: the fat of humanity that requires trimming. The vertical wood beams along the back wall with rhyming decorations painted alongside them reinforce the hard-won illusion of warmth, comfort and familiarity against the cold, empty vastness that constitutes the majority of the material universe. These are all structures “united to hold up the edifice” – as Gauguin wrote in his essay On Decorative Art, referring to art within the church upholding Christian ideology.

In The Ham, the animal speaks of the vegetable, which recalls its bacterial ancestry. Culture (along with all its accouterments and distractions) is the by-product of microscopic dots and dashes. As Gauguin wrote: “What are we? Daily existence. The man of instinct wonders what all this means.” The pig, the onion and the grape sit together within the circle of domestication, cultivation, and agriculture: within the limits of history. The circle demarcates a threshold beyond which chaos lurks. In this epic painting Gauguin creates the visual equivalent of an etiology and a doomsday prophecy of life on earth.

Picnic #2 48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas, 2014Jennifer Coates, Picnic #2, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

Jon Rappleye on Joseph Stella

2003.3Joseph Stella, Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924, Oil on canvas, 43 3/8 x 32 3/8 inches

I believe it was at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City where I first saw this jewel of a painting from across the room, beckoning me to come closer. I am not clear on the details, but I remember it was not a large painting, although I stood in front of it for a long time, mesmerized by its seductive power. I felt as if I had made a new discovery, so profound, like discovering a new planet. It was Dance of Spring (Song of The Birds) by Joseph Stella.

This was my first encounter with the artist Joseph Stella’s symbolist paintings. Most of us know Stella for his futuristic-industrial paintings from art history class. He was influenced by the Italian futurists in works like The Battle of Lights or his ambitious, monumental NewYork Interpreted-Voice of the City, an epic five-paneled piece. Full of innovation and complex iconography, it is considered by many art historians to be one of the masterpieces of American Art.

Stella’s subjects are diverse, ranging from nature to technology to birds and bridges. Underlying all of his subjects is an interest in and subjective use of symbols, not an established use of known allegorical references but a modern, personal individualism. These works I find strange, ambivalent, oddly ambiguous, mystical and seductive.

tree-of-my-lifeJoseph Stella, Tree of My Life, 1919, Oil on canvas,  83.5 x 75.5 inches

After my encounter at the Kemper Museum I decided to further investigate the works of Stella. I was surprised and fascinated by what I discovered, but one particular piece stuck with me and continues to hold me spellbound. In Tree of My Life, a sort of Garden of Eden is presented, bursting forth with an abundance of life- flowers, birds, fruit, butterflies and vegetation. Like many of Stella’s works, symmetry plays an important role: a duality of contradictions, forces of light and dark or good and evil. You can almost smell the air, fragrant with flowers and fruit, a garden of earthly delights where fruit, vegetables and flowers become phallic and fecund. Stella’s narrative is a complex synthesis of abstraction and representation. The central tree figure bursts forth in a circular form, like a mandala or Native American dreamcatcher; light emanates from its center, an antenna simultaneously projecting and collecting information. A sky of cobalt blue cradles this circular form. A tangle of branches and tendrils creates a strangled tension. According to Stella the bulbous and deformed tree trunk represents “the first fierce struggle in the snare that evil spirits set on our path”. The act of art making was a divinely spiritual act for Stella; his Christian leanings can be seen in many works depicting Madonna and Child.

I have always had a strange attraction to the oddballs, those characters who are not easily categorized, who don’t fit cleanly into the pantheon of art history. I appreciate works of art that I can get lost in, that reveal themselves slowly over time. I appreciate their detail, their complexity in execution and content. Over time, Tree of My Life has continued to reveal its secrets to me, hidden within its fantastic frenzy.

2-2Jon Rappleye, Oh What a Beautiful Symmetry We Are, 2014, Acrylic and spray paint on paper, 52 x 40 inches

Judith Linhares on Marsden Hartley

G31094_R, 3/12/09, 12:40 PM, 16C, 6282x5031 (81+2124), 112%, Repro 2.2 v2,  1/20 s, R17.6, G7.5, B20.8
Marsden Hartley, Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy1940, Oil on hardboard, 40 x 30 inches

Acadian Light-Heavy is the very picture of erotic longing. The image has lived in my mind since I first saw it in reproduction in 1975. It was years later that I saw the original at the Chicago Art Institute. Today, version III is featured in the inaugural exhibition at the new Whitney Museum. What I first noticed about this painting is that the figure appears to be looking at me from his chest. My attention is drawn away from his face and towards his body by the bull’s eyes of his upper torso. A light coming from the lower left side and slightly behind him illuminates the space he is standing in with sloping red and orange paint. He is forward in the space of the painting and backlit. The short brushy strokes that represent body hair are both comic and descriptive of the figure’s manliness. This painting is not a simple portrait, like much of his work, Hartley creates an image that transcends portraiture and reveals a type. I see an archetype of the virile man.

The almond shaped eyes are outlined with light. This is a handsome face but the body is what Hartley wants me to focus on. His body in relationship to the frame of the painting leaves spaces that are small in relation to the mass of the figure. The fighter has no hands; his genitals are sheathed in a dark cloth leaving just a suggestive shape. At first, we are struck by the overall shape of the body. The painting is modest in size, 40 x 30 inches, the simplification of the form and its placement in the frame of the canvas make the figure feel totemic and monumental. The play of light and dark is dramatic; the figure is modeled with dark reds and yellow ocher mixed with patches of orange. The highlighted areas of the neck and torso are clear strokes of yellow ocher and white. The paint is applied with directness and follows the contours of the form, adding to the man’s dramatic presence. Seeing version III of Acadian Light-Heavy at the new Whitney reminded me how you can know a great painting, but its presence will still surprise you.

In 1975, when I first encountered this painting, I was reading Linda Nochlins’ feminist texts contrasting traditional representations of women and men in western art. My take away was an irritation with how often women were represented as passive, depicted naked or nude, and how they seemed always to be agents of nature. By contrast, men were often represented by their vocations – be it knight, fisherman, carpenter, or King. For the most part, men were not represented as vulnerable with the exceptions of Christ and St. Sebastian who were often shown half-naked, dead, or pierced with arrows. The painting Man of Sorrows by Marten Van Heemskerck, created in 1532, shows a well–developed Christ with a light cloth fairly dancing around his groin. Identified by Leo Steinberg in the essay “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Painting” this is a fine example of an exposed man, powerful in his vulnerability. Representations of half clothed men interest me, as they might reveal the hidden side of sexual dynamics and gender politics. The man in Acadian Light–Heavy is mostly naked but takes an aggressive, totemic stance. This great Marsden Hartley painting is not only a work of personal desire, it challenges social norms and contains mystery in the simplicity of its form. What is the place of the body in the imagination and what is its part in being human?

WaterJudith Linhares, Water, 2012, Gouache on paper, 30 x 41 inches

Tim Doud on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

800px-Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec_-_At_the_Moulin_Rouge_-_Google_Art_ProjectHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-1895, Oil on canvas, 48 x 55 inches

I came to my artistic interests in a very particular fashion. I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts a port town near Cape Cod. My parents married young – both had working class backgrounds and neither had an expansive knowledge of fine art. Early in their relationship, they had fuzzily romantic portraits painted of one another. I always loved those paintings; even though they were officially bad art, they were my first reference to any kind of painting, as well as, to the significance art can have in a life. My dad, a career navy machinist, bought some small replicas of Michelangelo sculptures during one of his deployments – made with a material that dissolves if it gets wet. This was the art I grew up with. When I was in middle school, we relocated to rural, central Missouri.  It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school, when the art students took a trip to the Nelson Adkins Museum in Kansas City, that I saw paintings in a museum.

The first paintings I ever interacted with regularly were those bought and traded in the board game “Masterpiece”. “Masterpiece”: I had covetous relationships with many of the paintings in the game but two stand out. Rembrandt’s portrait Old man with a Gold Chain with the subject’s wonderful, lumpy, black cloaked, illogical body was one and, my favorite, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge.

Masterpiece (Game)

My initial interests in At the Moulin Rouge were the large figure with an under-lit greenish face in the lower right hand corner of the painting and the dynamic composition. The scene was decadent and exotic to me as a teenager living in rural Missouri. The large figure is May Milton, a well-known dancer at the time and one of the subjects of the painting along with other notable nightclub denizens, including affluent men of different professions and the performers La Goulue and Jane Avril. The various portraits portray an insider’s view of the ostensibly bohemian nightlife and more importantly, the convergence of different lives. The painting includes a self-portrait, in the center of the composition, an important inclusion in the larger context of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.

The work employs a compositional device used frequently by Vermeer and Degas; figures interact behind a structure (in this case a table) that separates the viewer from the action in the painting. The formal obstruction indicates something about access and makes the viewer aware of her or his position as a viewer or voyeur – standing outside of the scene. The smears of mustard yellow, dark orange and blue green paint contribute to an atmosphere that further reflect Toulouse-Lautrec’s interest in abstraction.

The Moulin Rouge — known as a revue where the Can-Can dance emerged — was situated in the Montmartre district in Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in the colorful and theatrical environment around the Moulin Rouge. It was a nightclub meant to titillate and entertain. It was also a crossroads. Toulouse-Lautrec was one of a handful of post-impressionist artists known for conveying images of “Modern life” in their paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec conveyed his idea of “Modern life” through unsparing (although non judgmental) representations of the people to whom he was drawn. The paintings don’t necessarily flatter, nor do they necessarily reveal the individual. They do however reveal Toulouse-Lautrec’s position within an important moment in Parisian culture, and from his rarified point of entry. He pursued a form of realism that relates to the realist artist Millet: real people.

7968203588_c26473ea0b_bHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  At the Moulin Rouge (Detail)

Toulouse Lautrec painted people he interacted with directly and often. The subjects of his paintings and drawings are generally at work. These are performative, portraits conveying the spirit of the gender dynamic at the time – animated representations of women and, on the whole, uniformly dressed men. At the Moulin Rouge the women are lit, glowing, colorful – there isn’t a sensible, consistent light source; female figures are highlighted and animated by the light. On the other hand the men portrayed in the work have a different kind of visibility. They recede, adorned by women. His subjects could appear provocative, decadent or taciturn – depending on who you (as the viewer) are.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s growth was stunted by an injury in childhood. His family wealth and access privileged him but health issues put him at odds with the aristocratic culture he was born into. His relationship to his sitters was direct – while he came from a different class he wasn’t living outside of the worlds he portrayed. He was between worlds. At the Moulin Rouge is a portrait of the convergence of Toulouse-Lautrec, the class he represented and the proletariat world of the Montmartre. He painted the people with whom he lived and worked. He wasn’t making a project or curiosity out of his subjects. His interest is an indication of a change in society.

While his relationships were authentic he could elect to move through this world of his own volition, and he did. At the Moulin Rouge is a snapshot of a romanticized moment in time – a place where bourgeois and aristocrats could gather and experience what might be called anti-bourgeois and anti-aristocratic plebian entertainment. *(1) Toulouse-Lautrec’s complex identity afforded him the opportunity to move among the people he painted, in some ways like a tourist, perhaps — but in the end he was not a tourist. He was a painter with an attraction to the colorful worlds that he could engage in as an artist– part documentarian, part connoisseur.

In an essay published by the Art Institute of Chicago, author Reinhold Heller discusses the history of At the Moulin Rouge and gives and exhaustive account of the destruction and reconstruction of the painting. It seems that the painting was cut into two sections for a time. May Milton was cut out of the painting – maybe for commercial purposes. It seems that the melding of these classes of people was not something that could be easily sold.

Because of my own practice, I have an interest in the complicated and sometimes contradictory nature of artists’ relationships to their subjects and At the Moulin Rouge is at the center of this dynamic that continues to compel me as well as many other writers and critics (Kehinde Wiley’s 2015 Brooklyn Museum exhibition review in the Village Voice is a great example).

We move quickly through influences as young artists, and have voracious appetites for work and artists who compel us. Some stick with us throughout our varied life experiences and travels. If we reflect on our interests long enough (and have the opportunity) we can begin to reimagine and make sense of some of those early, initial attractions. Thinking about painting reveals that there is always more than what is on the surface and the painting changes the viewer in this respect. The poet Rilke puts it this way:

…For here there is no place that does not see you.
You must change your life*(2).

American PrizeTim Doud, American Prize, 2014-2015, Oil on linen, 40 x 40 inches

*1) Rediscovering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Moulin Rouge” Author(s): Reinhold Heller and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Source: Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, The Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection (1986), pp. 114-135 Published by: The Art Institute of Chicago

*(2)”Archaic Torso Of Apollo” – Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke

Peter Drake on Maso di Banco

Banco_Maso_St_SylvesterMaso di Banco, St. Sylvester Resurrecting the Two Magi Killed by a Dragon, c.1335,
Fresco, Cappella Bardi, S. Croce, Florence

One of my favorite paintings in the world is Maso di Banco’s St. Sylvester Resurrecting the Two Magi Killed by a Dragon and I’ve never seen it in person. When I was a teenager I stumbled upon the image in a Time/Life book on Giotto that I stole from my sister and it has haunted me ever since. I was struck immediately by how much better it was than any of Giotto’s other followers’ works. The fresco is built like a brick shit house and the power of its structure is something I sensed immediately without really understanding why.

You enter the painting through a broken arch whose flat top is echoed by a similarly arched, broken building in the middle ground and the parapets of a walled city in the distance. Even with some mildly wonky vanishing points, because of a repetition of forms, there is the sense that you are sitting front row center in a completely stable, and therefore believable, environment.

The first scene that you encounter is St. Sylvester slaying the dragon, but strangely, there is absolutely no bloodshed or violence. It is such a peculiar moment. The saint grabs the dragon’s snout while it bashfully backs away like a skittish colt. What should have been the dramatic money-shot is handled with almost somnambulant calm. It’s also worth noting that all of this is inexplicably taking place in a pit with two monks holding their noses and not lending a hand (the bible suggests that the two magi were killed by the dragon’s horrendous breath). Their presence in the pit, however, is part of a formal device that creates a large pyramidal shape whose peak is the top of the saint’s miter and whose base runs from the bottom edge of the pit to the top of the two dead pagans. This stabilizes the composition and creates a clear hierarchy with St. Sylvester at the top of the heap.

Banco_Maso_St_Sylvester_detailMaso di Banco, St. Sylvester Resurrecting the Two Magi Killed by a Dragon, Detail

There are two scenes being depicted here (the pagans are represented as both dead and alive) and if you’re reading from left to right the saint appears to be killing, rather than reviving them. In order to read the sequence properly, you have to hop over the resuscitated pagans, land on the dead ones and double back to the now kneeling, undead pagans. This appears to be intentional and very creative to me as it keeps you in a weird Möbius loop circling back and forth from the not-quite-slain dragon to the dead pagans and back again.

Curiously, there is a crowd of onlookers led by the Emperor Constantine who barely reacts to all the goings-on, which only heightens the dreamlike feeling of the piece. This is something that Maso learned from Giotto and it lends the scene a seriousness that can’t be achieved through operatic gesticulations. Any emotion that is conveyed by the fresco is actually supplied by the viewer. This is in keeping with the essential quality of Maso’s work. There is nothing extraneous in his paintings, no gewgas or jimcracks. Everything in Maso’s work has to be there like some form of representational minimalism. There are broken buildings that represent the end of the pagan era and fortified bulwarks that represent the Christian future and all of the figures have a role in advancing the narrative, but otherwise, the scene has been stripped bare.

The light in St. Sylvester is also remarkable. Set against a blue, black sky it is intensely directional with an almost lunar quality. All of the buildings and figures exist in clearly defined light and shadow but nothing in this pre-Masaccio world casts a shadow itself, which makes the scene all the more unreal. Everything seems to exist and not exist at the same time.

Maso also uses sharply defined pounce-lines that give the fresco a strangely contemporary, photorealist quality. Many fresco painters of the day tried to obliterate their pounce-lines as they were generally viewed as simple guides from the original cartoon to the finished piece. The fact that Maso not only chose to keep them in, but actually accentuated them, suggests that the heightened realism they provided was something he was striving for.

Ultimately the fresco is about the sea change event that occurred when the pagan culture of magic and superstition was replaced by the new Christian culture of gentle but all-powerful strength. The pagans are reborn in front of their leader who first witnesses the demise of a terrifying mystical creature. The struggle for life and death is caught in the ever-repeating loop represented by the dragon and the now-you’re-living-now-you’re-dead pagans.

Sadly, Maso di Banco died at the age of twenty-eight, long before he could have realized his full creative potential. I can only imagine what he might have achieved had he lived a long and productive life. It reminds me of all of the plagues, famines, and holocausts that have decimated creative lives throughout history.

Drake_Peter_Waiting_42x48inPeter Drake, Waiting, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 48 inches

Hanneline Rogeberg on Titian

Titian, The RapeTitian, The Rape of Europa, (Postcard Reproduction), 1560-62, Oil on canvas, 70 x 81 inches

I grew up seeing the paintings of Munch and minor works of Northern European artists in the flesh, most of them tipping the scale at maudlin/austere. Painting was subject matter to me, not object presence, which I thought would only distract with its human reminders of flaw. I wanted impersonal grandeur and overwhelming, invulnerable persuasiveness; I wanted to be silenced, and I wanted to learn from them how to be the silencer.

I saw The Rape of Europa as a projection in a lecture by the art historian Gloria Kury. I knew it only vaguely, and its title prepared me for just another in the long line of opulent misogyny. But she didn’t identify the slide and it took a while for me to recognize it. My English was wobbly then and I missed much, but we looked at the image for a long time. What I remember: note the putto riding a sea monster in the lower left corner in imitation of Europa clinging to the back of the bull on the right. Like the gun in the first act, or an hors d’oeuvre in preparation for the main meal.

As soon as I could I went to Boston to see the painting; hanging high above a door, it was dark, dirty and inaccessible. I felt no intimacy with it, but stocked up on reproductions before going home.

It is a rich dish. Jupiter, in the shape of a bull, abducts Europa from her homeland and carries her on his back to a cave on the island of Crete. (The source has an endless echo: Herodotus quotes a Persian king noting the prevalence of the taking of women such as Europa, Io, Medea, later Helen, and how women wouldn’t be abducted so much unless they wanted it.) Titian doesn’t show the rape. The world in the painting is cataclysmic and vertigo-inducing, though with an off-kilter horizon line and all boundaries between sky and land and sea dissolved. What is above and below, dry and wet, inside and outside, blind and sentient, ecstatic and terrified – I can’t draw the line. Instead of a landscape obeying elemental space, gravity and compass points, I see interiority and the bluish-purple of fascia and bruises. The woman and bull ride the peak of a rogue wave or convulsing muscle, the striations of wet pelt and torn garment run together and become interchangeable. Pieces of red cloth flap like displaced tissue in a Vesalius dissection. The corkscrewed tail emerging between Europa’s legs could be umbilical; at the other end of it, the putto rides his fish. He grips the fins with his limbs, cutely scrambling, whereas Europa’s legs and arms are flung wide open, exposing insides and undersides of the unbearably tender, least defended parts of the body. With its putto decoy, the human/bull pairing has a rhyme that makes you look back and forth, pulled by pattern recognition. While I study the tiny version, the huge, insupportable, monstrous version in my peripheral vision flies below my radar and knocks something loose, something systemic and category-dependent.

Titian was eighty-four when he painted the painting. The same year the Council of Trent set down its rules for the counter-Reformation, one of which says that (religious) painting shall not contain distracting and frivolous details.

I would have recognized the Council’s impulse when I was twenty. Without the cognitive foil, I would see only what I came prepared to see and be confirmed, knowing I was right. That totalitarian ideal would have been mine, not Titian’s. Instead, the too-muchness of The Rape of Europa, its unruly effect on me threatening in several directions at once, continues to irritate and inspire me about painting and thinking. As my attention snags on things refusing their categorization, it offers displacement activities for the brain’s normal defenses. Ploys to make my eyeballs tack back and forth, between putto and Europa in Titian’s case, or between tactile surface information and image in the case of painting in general, provide busy-work for the brain against otherwise unbearable recognitions, a kind of mercy. By inviting the eye to toggle an optical seam over contradictions, paradoxes and wounds, the frivolous and distracting do the job of making the intolerable tolerable.

I don’t have Titian’s material surface to add to the experience of his painting, but I have my own history with it. It follows my studio as a postcard, its iconography made up of paint stains, rips and holes from thumb tacks as much as Titian’s intended image.

rebound introvertHanneline Rogeberg, Rebound Extrovert, 2013, Oil on canvas, 96 x 96 inches