Tuesday, 29 September 2015

on writing differently ...

Bedfellows: the time and matter of two fake deaths

“At about 11 a.m. ET on Friday (September 25, 2015), our beloved director Woody Allen passed away. Woody Allen was born on December 1, 1935 in New York. He will be missed but not forgotten. Please show your sympathy and condolences by commenting on and liking this page.”

Facebook page to commemorate the death of Woody Allen …   http://en.mediamass.net/people/woody-allen/deathhoax.html

The subject of this text arose from an afternoon in the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the summer of 2015 and the opportunity to look at and write about art with which I was unfamiliar. With it came the chance to write in a different way to normative historical writing, to write mainly about art’s formal components – its capacity to mean something just through the selection of the raw stuff at the artists’ disposal - without too much recourse to textual sources, and to think about the interstices between art and writing.  

The first of the two works in question is anonymous, a small, finely crafted, sixteenth century terracotta made in France in the sixteenth century showing the death – or more specifically, the dormition - of the Virgin Mary. The other, more recent, much larger picture also shows another immanent death. Here, blood pours from the head of an anonymous prone male figure as he seemingly breathes his last. The picture measures around two by three metres and was made in 1970 by the twentieth century American painter, Philip Guston.

On reflection, the two works were part of a curious calculus: they had something in common and where they had nothing in common, they really had nothing in common at all, each respectively repelling and attracting the other with the force of their own similarity and difference. In this sense, they were, both literally and figuratively, bedfellows, two characters caught napping in once different and now similar circumstances, both brought together by the redemptive cloak of art. (In this sense we might see the museum as misericordia, doing the job of the Virgin’s gown, offering sanctuary to the myriad pictures that gather within.) 

Let’s start with a striking similarity. Neither of the two subjects is really dead. According to Catholic doctrine, the Virgin Mary doesn’t die; she simply enters a period of suspended existence, a sleep or dormition. We know this because she is conceived without concupiscence and at her passing from this world sleeps uncorrupted before ascending a few weeks later to her Son’s side, whereupon she assumes the role of Queen of Heaven, Christ’s bride. Her course from one condition to the other is cat’s cradle like in its theology and is discussed at length by the early Christian Fathers. It gets taken up again by theologians in sixteenth century France and Germany, and it is upon this reference that our dormition draws.

At the exact moment shown in the Metropolitan’s terracotta, Mary is largely of this world rather than the next, an old woman, her face drawn and wrinkled. But the next world clearly beckons. Time, space and matter are already buckling under the weight of the prescience of this event, a buckling that shapes and twists the terracotta. Mary is given notice of her passage into heaven by the same angel who announces her pregnancy and in this her final moment all but one of the Apostles – Thomas –  take time out of their Pentecostal mission to rally to her bedside. They come from far and wide and arrive with miraculous speed. Each somehow finds his space around Mary’s bed, twisting in an out of the pliable clay interior, pushing bedposts, arches and pilasters to find sufficient room. Over time, even the clay struggles to keep pace as it too cracks and the components of the picture warp. We have, then, within the dormition a doubled time: the twisting time of the event itself (the mustering of Apostles and angels) and the material time of the clay as it dries and twists over its six hundred year history. Not least we have the doubled time of the spectator: the time of the Catholic Church and now the time of art. 

Like the Virgin, Guston’s subject is also in some form suspended state but we know this only from clues in the picture rather than religious dogma. The picture is ambiguously titled Stationery Figure. It is not moving. Despite its thanatosic pose, the figure is clearly living. It draws on a cigarette, the intake of oxygen making the tip glow red while a small, cartoon like cloud of smoke hovers above. (By way of a theological footnote, the late Apostle Thomas was said to have arrived late at the Virgin’s bedside on a cloud such as this.) Our second figure, then, is not dead but acting badly, playing possum, a stage corpse taking time out between scene changes. A hint of the time of the event is given by the clock in the picture’s background: it seems to take place in the early hours of the morning – sometime before 1.30 a.m. - although the calibrations on the clock face are difficult to read. At least fourteen divisions can be seen and some are partially eclipsed by the prone figure. It is also possible to see the night sky through a small window in the picture’s background. In this sense, then, the Virgin and the Stationery Figure are both poised on a chronological margin: poised waiting in a backstage time of a suspended performance.
What of the two works’ facture? The dormition is made with evident skill. The clay is pressed into describing the event in painstaking detail from the texture of Mary’s skin to the decorative detail on the pitcher by her bedside, from the carefully delineated pages of a Gospel to the ionic pilaster visible behind the bedpost to the right. The artist of the dormition also knows his art history: the images of the Apostles take their lead from various forms of Roman portraiture, some classical and idealising, others more realistic. The Apostle on the far left  looks like a pugnacious Vespasian from the first century when Romans gave up idealism. In stark contrast to the level of detail, skill and labour invested in the Dormition, Guston seems to know nothing. His work is crude, clumsily drawn, badly painted and poorly composed. There is nothing in the selection of colours – pinks, whites, greys and reds - that could possibly suggest any hint of harmony, informed selection or taste. However, this may also be a choice conditioned by the time of another dormition. These are the colours of the slaughterhouse, the colours of greying fat, blood and flesh, not of decomposition but not of life either.  This is the matter of death as it is caught between a moment, the absence of life and the point of putrefaction. If this is the case, we can quickly find our way back to the dormition because these are the colours so abjured by Mary’s immaculate condition. We have, then, flesh in two kinds of suspended animation, one immaculate, the other the death of the freezer cabinet. Again, the two figures are both inscribed with a new kind of time, a time of suspension.

There are also curious connections in the two works’ composition. In step with Guston’s wilfully clumsy drawing, is an equally clumsy composition. Components of the picture make way for one another flattening the picture into a relief.  The bulb, the light switch, the smoke, hand and window find space for one another in a way with which the sculptor of the dormition might again sympathise. On closer inspection the body doesn’t eclipse the clock face, the clock presses onto the body: time weighs on Guston’s figure.  

Although the two works have something in common – they share comparable subjects, they address the subject of time, and not least, they are both art - the contexts from which they draw their references are very different. The Dormition takes as its point of reference from the spiritual preoccupations of the northern European late medieval world, one in which intense spiritually is articulated through close observation. By contrast, Guston’s world is one largely of his own making and his point of reference is not art by way of theology – but art for art, prepositionally turned in on itself like most of the art in the Met and most art in museums. There are clues to what is going on but we need to look back at Guston’s troubled course through American art to find them. In the 1930s and 40s, he made the transition from a socially and politically engaged figurative art to Abstract Expressionism. The final part of his career marked a return to figurative art for which his was vilified by many art critics and it is in his early work that we can start to find some points of iconographical reference: an interest in surreal forms particularly in the metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico. But Guston’s points of references are still largely personal; in fact, they are personal twice over: once as modernism (with its concern with art’s autonomy, its locus of meaning solely in the person of its maker) and again as a wilful personal rejection of what became American modernism’s house style - Abstract Expressionism. Guston, like his friend the author Philip Roth, were both rejected by the art establishment for injecting vulgarity into the academy. Again the offence is doubled: the picture is vulgar because of its facture - this is a horrible scene, horribly painted - and vulgar purely by way of it containing figuration at all, at least from the vantage point of a modernist aesthetic of 1970.   

By way of a conclusion another kind of time conditions our two works. Guston eventually runs out of paint. His signature rests not on the bottom of the painting – presumably the limits of the picture’s mise-en-scène - but on the lateral band of pale pink that doesn’t quite make it to the canvas’s lower edge. The dormition doesn’t quite make it either. This may be a sketch for a work in alabaster, a pliable, expressive but unforgiving medium that fixes its subject not in the transitional stuff of clay but in the dead matter of stone.  

Steven Adams

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