Portraits & Passages

Chapter 27

Ashes in the Wind true pale single verticle

Ashes In The Wind, 1996

Painting condenses and fixes this human time of rushing decades that is otherwise evasive, untouchable.       - Czeslaw Milosz

Invention through Compassionate Looking

It wasn’t only Caravaggio’s bare feet of the Virgin or the dirty bare feet of the apostles that as a break from protocol are staggering departures, though for sure they are. Or that his mastery in painting those bare feet is exquisite. That it is. Or that the relationship between actors in his dramas sees every gesture a mastery of cinematic observation; that it is as well and more. Nor is it only the great sensitivity to ambient light emanating within shadow that makes the atmosphere of his interiors alive; though again it is and so beyond the cliché of chiaroscuro that defines his categorical position in art history. For it is the unifying act of all the above, painted with passionate sympathy towards the humans caught in life’s struggles whatever their greater roles that passionately makes us care!

We care about the feet. We feel them for he has caressed them in observation- in sympathy with his eyes before he sought to paint them. Otherwise he would not have painted them so lovingly, so caringly.

Caravaggio’s invention arrives from compassionate looking. He paints the most common person, and he cares deeply, compassionately. That is his springboard to invention; the jump to using bare feet arrives as a conclusion of loving them.

Those who live in strict protocol see those feet categorically, not sympathetically and certainly not lovingly. So the art historian sees the conclusion but not the impulse- categorizes the outside form while ignoring the internalized emotion of the artist who sees the whole person and follows lovingly to view the vulnerability of their bare feet.

Caravaggio’s inventions remain his, not because he may have arrived there first, but because he uses all the elements to the greater purpose- a unity of image whereby humans are revealed compassionately. Nor is that compassion tarnished in sentimental cliché but is contained in a structured viewing- the sentiment stronger by remaining within the formal bounds of people held within the logic of observable, ambient light, which is the principal, guiding dimension to the act of painting from life.

Here is the example of the deployment of innovative technique arriving with subjective response to the natural and the human. The invention of a new manner surfaces first from sympathetic observation, and theoretical conceptualizing comes afterwards as part of a discriminatory process of refining the image. The heart feels attraction; the mind structures its significance. Neither can be left out. 

Otherwise, the conceptual superstructure overplays itself in rhetorical overbearing. The tool becomes the subject; the image locked into the system; the container a sterile box.

The best of Renaissance painting uses one point perspective in stride, sparingly, and in tandem with freer forms of observation operating from the experience of balancing the shifting dominance of the sharper eye with the generalized field of the softer eye. That’s why we have two eyes. The theoretical absolute of one point perspective as a system is idea, but not ideal. It is far from how humans generally perceive. 

The avant-garde has reversed the reason why we make images. It has made the servant the master.

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The Empathetic in the Aesthetic

Painting gives the human capacity for empathy a place to settle, find coherence, and recharge one’s very humanity. One naturally slows down, enters the receptive mode, and hears the voice of silence. It has become a forgotten talent- this quiet listening with one’s eyes.

In painting there are no jokes or punch lines; that would only break the moment. Where there is sexual attribute, it is only the baggage that every soul must carry. Don’t misplace emphasis on why we commune with images. The density in intimate quiet is what holds us suspended. The lure of painting is this silent offering.

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As religious holidays fall within the ancient observance of nature’s seasons; so the portrait and icon attract a human response. If humans have declared the gods in their image; it illuminates the human need to commune with their likeness. That some scorn this attraction as bourgeois denies who we are. The eternal in man is irrevocable. It suggests the resilience in the hypnotic spell of the face rooted deep in the human Psyche. 

Carnival was once designated as that time of year to let loose from the strictures of sexual morality. As an escape valve its deviation from normal behavior and mocking of authority provided a deconstructive critique of the status quo which diffused any real threat to the stability of the covenants by which society lives or, ironically, to those in power.

But a society can’t run the calendar year through in Carnival mode. Yet used as a mechanism to gain power, its permissiveness is the chimera by which the avant-garde has won allegiance to eclipse the social contract and channel artistic compliance. That it has paradoxically done so with the fervor of inquisition should be enough to question the culpability along with the hypocrisy invested in its squandered promise.

The shrill banter that explodes from the writings of its most distinguished proponents suggests bonfires for all they deem reactionary.

They will not acknowledge the necessary parameters that once defined Carnival nor the vanity in their posturing. Their crowing is a rather grotesque sort of farce that itself needs to be seen as Carnival. We could all laugh eternally if it weren’t for the mayhem that has brought meaninglessness without end.

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The aesthetic cannot separate from the empathetic, or its purpose be disinterested; otherwise it’s just design. The empathetic response dictates what the image conveys. Compassion attracts us. Without compassion we loose sight of the significance of our condition- our mortality.

As that must guide all our actions in the world; so need it be reflected in images of ourselves. All else pales. All our lives touch upon tragedy. As such, there is no image free of that consciousness. The portrait always carries with it the consciousness of time. We are all bound by its limitations. Even in the most sublime moments there haunts what is approaching.

Then how do we look upon the suffering of others as not our own, or view aesthetically the image of others’ suffering without that specter following us. If there is beauty in the horror, it is our horror as well.

The image of death compels us as we are compelled towards death. What we have remains always without surety; and however we pretend a mocking gaze, our turn waits upon its choosing.

Why all this fretting censure against the representation of suffering? Let’s face the subject with candor, and leave issues of censure to those whose distain of pathos sees cannibalism in others’ acts of remembrance.

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The Imaging of Sorrow

In Defense of Representation

So do we, as some insist, forbid the icon of sorrow? Does any representation of the lost soul become an abuse by art? For if we forbid a meaningful death so as to inscribe upon its shadow the impossibility to arrive at normalcy; does that then absolutely forbid the image of suffering?

Or to whom is this icon addressed? For if one renounces the possibility of a meaningful death; then one subscribes to the impossibility of recourse to mourning and to the impossibility to recourse to forgiveness so that there be no possibility to forgetting. So that this icon is less for the surviving generations than for the future that there be no possibility of their forgetting, no possibility of abolishing the representation from the ashes; that apparition and torment not be torn from the body of memory.

Though to image the unfathomable be unforgivable; far better than to suspend it in the aporia of reckoning what is beyond representation. For it is all we have or risk paralysis. To refuse the lesser infidelity is the greater betrayal. Without images the dead have no presence among us.

That then must be the principal occupation of the artist- to mark our passages. Otherwise the visual submits to being silenced by literary censure- a revenge that has made irony sovereign at the loss of meaning. It’s time to impeach the tyranny of the word.

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 Ashes in the Wind

The subject of the Holocaust has haunted me. There is no easy answer on how to represent its history or its present manifestation in the Jewish psyche. Soothing  abstractions sooth, and the photographs from Auschwitz are impossible to dwell on. From my viewpoint, the only context that lasts and crosses cultures is where the  human image is clearly present. Unless a message is anchored in form it will not hold memory but will be swept over the falls along with the other bits of input crashing over our heads.

That, and then there is the problem that knowledge can be compartmentalized in the mind in ways that bury its significance. It is my belief that only through  mystification and allegory can the collective imagination hold memory cross generations; otherwise it evaporates. The iconic figure is central to the way I tell my  stories. It is my way, and I know many people reject it for their own reasons. However, the silent human image can act as a screen for the viewer to reflect  inwardly. It can be very magnetic while leaving us in a deliberate calm. Then the duration of the experience in front of the image can touch us.

At the time I turned to the subject of the Holocaust in 1996 after my return from Barcelona where I exhibited “The German Girl Nude”, I never imagined that the  new body of work that came immediately afterward would find such an extended relevance and meaning to our present lives since September 11.  Just “Ashes in the  Wind” might bring back memory! Originally devised as a triptych and reproduced in the 1996 December issue of “Artforum”, I have since separated the one canvas that gives it its title.

That I had decided to change the context in which I was painting nudes was predictably not in everybody’s comfort zone. I know it might seem inappropriate  that the inspiration for an image representing the victims of the Holocaust followed on the wave of nude paintings that I had just completed. That is until one  understands the self-sufficiency that the nude is in itself as image. For the nude is not just naked; the human it represents turns her consciousness inward to the safety of the “Self”.

And in comparison to Zoran Music’s screaming victims, what I was aiming for was an expression of that spiritual isolation that can enclose a condemned individual into  God’s Hand. I had wished to represent the sublime beauty of the soul lost in this world before the material presence of that person was broken. I didn’t want an  image of what they were reduced to. That’s no way to remember people!

These images are vehicles for meditation. Their presence is a formal ground for the viewer to stand before that the mind might travel inwardly to find comprehension  and possible solace. But it requires that the viewer approach with a willingness to suspend judgment and conclusion and let the experience wash over one. We must  quiet our agitated minds if we wish to enter the present moment with the painting. Only then can it become a site of reflection.

If in a sense there is a correspondence to Christian iconography, it wasn’t unintentional. “Madonna of Flames’ clearly and ironically addresses to a Christian  audience the idea that millions of Mary were sent to the flames.


Madonna of Flames untitled

Madonna Of Flames, 1996

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