Explorations (III): And What About These?

Terezin Memory; oil on paper, 2005

Terezin Memory; oil on paper, 2005

In the studio, there are images that I return to over and over. They have become an elemental part of my visual vocabulary and even if I don’t understand exactly why I so readily turn to them, I sense that they bear enough weight (visual, psychological, emotional, intellectual) to convey what I need at that moment.

With this in mind, I want to examine two paintings, made several years ago, and see what’s going on here— What terrain was I mining? What connections did I find and follow as I worked on these? Where did the images come from? Why this element? Or that one? These images still feel strangely mysterious to me. I like that I don’t understand them completely, that I am not the same person that I was when I made them, and that enough time has passed that they feel distant and “other”.

First, there is the blindfolded figure, common to both paintings.  I recognize this as a condition of sensory deprivation. Of being without power. Being kept in the dark. I started using this image after clipping a newspaper photo of blindfolded soldiers, hands tied behind them, standing in the back of an open-air truck sometime during the Balkan War. They looked completely vulnerable and there was something about their way of standing there–their posture, their stillness–as they were being driven away, that seemed so very old.  It’s the low tech aspect of this way of humiliating and instilling terror, I think now, that was working on me.  And imagining what they must be “seeing”.  Even as an artist, to draw a face that has no eyes but, instead, an anonymous strip of cloth, is to realize that this is an act of negation.

Years ago, while visiting the Czech Republic, I went to see the former concentration camp at Terezín. Terezín Memory comes out of remembering that place, remembering an empty concrete swimming pool that was on the grounds of the house where the Nazi commandant-in-charge and his family lived. I couldn’t get that scene, as I imagined it might have been–children swimming, adults sunning poolside–out of my mind. Am I remembering correctly this detail from that place? It doesn’t matter, really. And I haven’t researched it. The symbolic truth of it feels correct to my perception of the situation.

The blindfolded man wandering above the line of the pool–who is he?  With his long pointed feet and heavy winter coat, his one sleeve wrapped with … what?  Are these leather, phylactery-like, bindings? Gauze strips? Loosened bindings of some sort? The speech cloud for what he is saying is empty. It is as if he and the landscape he wanders, as well as the tower rising before him, and the smokestacks beyond—all scratched into the paint surface—are made of air. Are just notations in a dream. Whose dream? Mine? His? Sometimes when I look at this painting, it feels as if I have made visible some other’s memory—as if I have made his memory. Have made visible how, from inside, he saw himself: living blindly, without power. Floating. How odd, this lack of separation between myself and him.  And yet, the statement doesn’t feel untrue.  We write persona poems.  Why not persona paintings?

Night Blind II; oil on paper, 2006

Night Blind II; oil on paper, 2006

Night Blind II is a related image, though not entirely; it was done a year or so after TM. It’s really more a drawing/painting. Monochromatic. Done on paper coated with a black gesso that has the feel of a blackboard surface when it dries. Is that why I kept the palette to a chalky gray/white and why I tended to draw more deliberately, as if I was writing? I hadn’t thought of it before now.

Again, the figure is blindfolded. The speech that pours from his/her mouth is like water spewing from a fountain.  Stairs or ladders climb the tiered hills rising to his side, and there are smokestacks in the background, also, like in Terezín Memory.  But this image feels like it comes from a more particular and personal landscape. The figure is larger, set in the foreground. It feels androgynous to me. The shape of his/her hand, the right one, is suggested (I wish this photo was clearer), and water washes over it.  You, reader, will have to take my word for it when I say that the face, in profile, is the most delicately, sensitively, rendered part of this image.  The face is first, and then, the loose, open collar and neckline of the shirt, and, finally, that hand.

This figure may be “in the dark”, but to me it feels like a darkness that is chosen, and that light and water (sustenance, energy), emanates from some interior place. Truth be told, this figure feels like it could be my father as a young man, or it could be me, or it could be, part-way, my son. Or some combination of all of those. I just “feel” it to be that way and that seems like a kind of lame way of describing my relationship to him/her in this particular context.  But sometimes when I am working–and I think that other artists and poets would recognize this–there are truths that come to the surface in one’s work that are momentarily so clear and at the same time, one senses that they are so layered and complex, that it is better to just quickly acknowledge their presence and not get sidetracked. Push on. Re-vist them more deliberately sometime down the road. The subject matter that wants to come forward, is always coming forward. I believe this.

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