Friday, June 22, 2012

The Uncanniness of the Pickpocket

This is only tangentially linked to art, and it's not a subject well amenable to pictures. So - consider that fair warning?

I was at Spring Street the other night, drawing a model named Burr, a tall, skinny, hairy guy; life drawing is when I do some of my best thinking. I was thinking about Leonard Cohen, whom we discussed a bit recently. I had earlier in the day heard one of his songs, and a lyric in it came back to me. It's The Stranger Song. I have long identified with this song because it includes a line that sums up my worst fear about myself:

I told you when I came I was a stranger

Well, second-worst. But that's not the part I was thinking about. This was:

...while he talks his dreams to sleep
You notice there's a highway
That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder.

Context: this song, like so many other Cohen songs, is addressed to a woman with flamboyantly wretched taste in men. The woman in this case has a thing for guys who claim they are giving up their wandering, gambling ways, but really, they just need someplace to crash tonight. They'll be moving on in the morning, once she's already fallen in love with them.

In this lyric, a stranger is talking to the woman. He is claiming that he's changed. And she is listening to what he's saying, and seeing at the same time that he is lying. I had a sudden sense of the uncanny. It was very much the same as the scene in Lost Highway where Robert Blake is speaking to Bill Pullman at a party, and Blake claims that he is, right now, inside of Pullman's house. He pulls out a cell phone and has Pullman call home. Blake answers, and the two of him carry on a baiting, menacing conversation with Pullman.

 Lost Highway, Robert Blake

In Lost Highway, Blake's character, listed in the credits as Mystery Man, conforms structurally to Freud's notion of the uncanny as the return of the repressed: he is an ambiguous, multipresent gnome who murders Pullman's wife, with the strong implication that Pullman himself murdered his wife and partially blocked the memory.

I have an evolving relationship with Freud's definition of the uncanny. I used to think it was entirely incorrect; now I think it is simply incomplete. I think he observed an actual phenomenon, and piggy-backed his own set of ideas onto it to lend credence to the ideas. But the resulting definition is a kind of special subset of the entire field of the uncanny. For me, one good hypothesis (good, but ultimately likely to be wrong) of the Compleat Uncanny is a shocking conflict between a real experience, and our accepted idea of reality. Robert Blake, demonstrably in two places at once. The man who talks his dreams to sleep, and all the time a highway is curling up above his shoulder.

Wait - how is that second one uncanny?

Well, consider: there are three loci of our notion of the real:

    •    the processes of our own consciousness
    •    our sense perceptions of the world
    •    things other people say

These three loci often stray from one another, and our consciousness is always seeking to match them up. We instinctively treat all of them as real - at least I do. Uncanniness occurs within and between these loci. There is a trace of the uncanny to a man floating in midair; there is a speeding locomotive of uncanny to having forgotten you are a murderer.

Lies, like the return of the repressed, involve a reality conflict. But lies go further - they are a willful mislocation of reality. They are insupportable, there is something about them which goes not against the laws of morality, but against the laws of physics. I cannot tell a lie, and I cannot abide a lie.

A man faces me, eyes bright and clean as glass, and tells me he is done wandering. And I see the highway curling up like smoke above his shoulder. The image is perfectly crafted, which is to say, inspired. No rational process leads to it; it can only reveal itself. Smoke goes with fire, and fire is demonic. The highway is linear, like the serpent's tongue. The man is the prince of lies, the heartstone of the uncanny.

The best line of Othello, unfortunately, happens to be found in Hamlet, Act I, Scene V:

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—

This is the mechanism by which Iago undoes Othello. Othello cannot conceive the hideous conflict Iago embraces, that Iago can say one thing, and know that something else is true.

For me, this is the crux of the tragedy of Othello. The rest is window-dressing, a plot cooked up to support this essential idea: the ontological terror of the lie. I would be half-prepared to make the argument that Othello is the tragedy of Iago. Certainly Othello falls from grace, but his fatal flaw - all that jealousy business - is a less profound flaw than Iago's lies.

Othello and Desdemona in happier times

Othello suffers blunt pain and death, but what becomes of Iago? Act V, Scene II:

Demand me nothing, what you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Iago is disfigured by his villainy. Shakespeare contends that he who starts in lies, ends in silence: effaced by his own hand, not from life, but from the universe. He launches himself into the void.

All of this makes my skin crawl. Cohen's Stranger, Blake's Mystery Man, Iago: those who come up to you and lie to your face.

This is what I considered, while drawing our tall, hairy, skinny model at Spring Street. And he himself looked a little like a liar I once met. I was reminded of this liar: he was a pickpocket. We were in a flea market, in Rome. I had been warned of pickpockets, and kept my wallet and passport in zipped pockets. A crowd mysteriously condensed around us in a narrow lane in the flea market. Our pace slowed to a crawl. I looked at the thin, tall, hairy man beside me. He smiled. I felt a nervous skittering on my leg. I shouted, in shock, "This man is picking my pocket." He smiled: "No, I don't know what you're talking about." I looked down; his hand was in my pocket; he was pulling out my wallet; my passport was already gone. I grabbed his arm, shouted at him, shouted for the police. I made a commotion. Someone somewhere along the criminal chain, with a subtle jerk of the wrist, threw my passport on the ground and said, "Look, it must have fallen there."

He got nothing. I should have broken his fucking fingers. Except probably I'd have gotten a knife in the gut for my troubles. The pickpocket was narrow and lightboned; his friends were not. I do not think about my pickpocket much, but I still recoil in anger and shock when I think of the time I came face to face with this reptile, this uncanny, this liar.

There is another element to the encounter with the uncanny that arises in these instances. It is the uncanny gaze, the gaze endowed with secret knowledge. What is secret knowledge? It is knowledge you do not have. All knowledge is secret until you have it. The hook of the uncanny is that this secret knowledge is knowledge you should have, knowledge you may already have had. For whatever reason, you don't have it now.

This comes back to Freud - it may well be that the knowledge is so terrible you have repressed it. This is literally the case with, for instance, the uncanny gaze as delivered by Robert De Niro in Angel Heart.

He knows something, and Mickey Rourke ought to know it too. He used to know.

But it is not always the case that the uncanny gaze fits so neatly into the repressed-memory model. Consider Galadriel's telepathic conversation with Frodo in Peter Jackson's version of Lord of the Rings:

There's nothing Frodo should have remembered, but didn't. He doesn't particularly notice that what Galadriel is physically saying, and what he's hearing, are not the same, until she points it out. He's totally innocent in this instance. She's pretty much just fucking with him. But the reality conflict arises, and riding its pale horse beside the conflict is the uncanny gaze - the gaze that says, "I know something awful, and if you think about it, you will find you know it too."

The uncanny is, in a sense, a falling away of illusion. Only one claim can win this conflict. One claim is true, and one claim is a lie, or an error. There is a terrible vulnerability to the liar: with his mouth, he advocates for the error. But with his eyes, he admits the truth. He begs you to believe his lies. There is something abject about him, something that puts him entirely in your possession, if you want him. Cohen's unnamed gambler is the pathetic captive of his hostess. Iago is the slave of Othello. My pickpocket begged me, "Believe me, believe me." And all the time they know something, it is written clearly on their faces, and it is available to the subject of their blandishments if he or she wants to pick it up.

The recipient of the uncanny has a choice to make: do I go with my instinct and believe the words, or do I look directly at the highway above the shoulder, the secret knowledge in the eye? Believing the words gives a tactical win to the liar, but as we see with Iago, it destroys the liar. Believing the gaze defeats the liar, but it saves him. It casts out his demon, his untruth. It restores to him the world, from which he has turned away. Lies are dead ends, as dead as it gets.

But the truth involved in an uncanny situation is not an easy truth. If it were easy, there would never have been anything uncanny about it. We can see this vividly illustrated in, of all things, the little-noted horror movie Event Horizon. Event Horizon was made in 1997, during the period when filmmakers agreed that faster-than-light travel must involve three large concentric rings rotating on separate axes to produce an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. The reasons for this consensus remain mysterious to this day.

FTL drive, 1997 model year

Anyhoo, what happens is, this experimental spaceship, the Event Horizon, went faster than light, and what do you know, computer glitch, they wound up in a hell dimension. Here's the upsetting thing about that - they didn't particularly have a bad time there. Rather, they recognized the truth of the place, and gleefully self-mutilated, and came back evangelists of bloody malevolence. Now a rescue crew has gone to find out what's up with the Event Horizon, including Sam Neill, whose wife was among the crew. The ship seems abandoned. It isn't, of course. Eventually, poor Sam Neill catches up with his wife. She appears to him, apparition-like. Turns out she's de-eyeballed herself at some point since he last hung out with her. Meeting up with him again, she croaks, "I have such beautiful things to show you."

worth noting: Freud's description of the uncanny involved the concept of eyeball theft in Hoffman's story "The Sandman"

Subtle, it ain't. But it is uncanny. Missing eyeballs aside, it's an instance of the uncanny gaze. In this case, the emphasis lies with the difficult truth. Because the conflict underlying the uncanny is this: if the thing you thought was true, isn't - then what is?

It might be anything, except comfortable. If it were comfortable, it wouldn't have been concealed or lost.

So the liar does not depend on his lies alone to convince you. He also depends on the fact that you don't want to know the truth. You are shying away from the truth right now. There is every chance that the truth is worse than the lie. The uncanny gaze is a frightening invitation, and the lips keep whispering, "Believe the words, believe the words." You might just want to go on believing the words.

I think about the uncanny gaze a lot. It is often in the back of my mind when I design a painting.

Emma Twice, Daniel Maidman, 2009, oil on canvas, 48"x48"

The uncanny gaze is on my mind a lot because I have had a feeling, my entire life, that the world is not what we think it is. Not at all. This is not an uncommon feeling, especially in children, who must constantly re-evaluate the world because they don't know anything about it yet. But for me, the feeling won't go away. I am in no wise so organized in my thinking as to be religious, but I cannot shake the feeling that it is absurd to think our primitive senses, and our rudimentary reason, are telling us the whole story.

I think the world is not what we think it is, and moreover, I think that when we finally see the world properly, it will not be a surprise. We will, as Socrates suspected, have a sense of recognition, of recollection of something we knew, and forgot.

There are two ways to express this sense in artwork: one can attempt to depict the truth itself, which is the strategy Kubrick adapted in 2001:

2001, Stargate sequence

Or one can depict people who have encountered this truth, which is the strategy Tarkovsky took in Solaris, which was very much an explicit response to 2001:

Solaris, start of final scene

Kubrick's strategy is riskier - you can get it right, and basically start your own religion, or you can look absurd. Both arguments have been made about 2001.

Tarkovsky's strategy is more accessible; it retains the recognizably human, providing purchase for the audience. And yet it introduces the uncanny, it leads the audience toward its own encounter with the awful truth.

I have emphasized the uncanny gaze in the past because I generally empathize with Tarkovsky's path. I have never wanted to tell anyone what to think (laugh at me, those of you who know me personally - it's true; I have certainly tried to persuade you, and I'm working on improving that skill even now, but I would not be your dictator). I have never wanted to tell anyone what to think - but I have wanted to introduce people to the vast stretches of available thoughts which I had glimpsed, or thought I glimpsed.

And similarly, since I do not know the truth, I have looked around, asking, "Do you know? How about you over there - do you know?" I am afraid of the truth, but I want to know what it is. So I am drawn to the uncanny gaze, and I seek to put it in my work.

I am, however, working on some work right now along the path of Kubrick, which I will show you soon, and we can discuss it then.

Incidentally, being oversensitive to the uncanny gaze, from a practical perspective, is a fast-track to paranoia. If you go around thinking you might run into somebody who knows something, you'll think you see them everywhere. This is why I will not touch marijuana. The only thing it does for me is give everybody the uncanny gaze - and meanwhile, it's quite obvious, the entire time, that I'm the only monster in the room. Everybody has always known, and I had forgotten. Nobody has said anything yet because it would be horribly impolite.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day: Love, Faith, Work

It's Father's Day. Let me tell you a good story about my father. A little background first: You remember cuneiform tablets, right?

The Sumerians used them instead of paper, after they went ahead and invented writing. The obstinate will of baked clay to survive results in a jaw-dropping number of extant cuneiform tablets: not only the Great Literature, but tax records, receipts, shopping lists...

My dad reads those; his name is Maynard Maidman, and he's an Assyriologist. He has spent most of his career reconstructing the social, economic and military history of Nuzi, a long-vanished town situated near the Tigris river in what is now Iraq. Small in itself, Nuzi looms large historically because of its location, in time and space, at the confluence of much larger conflicting forces.

Nuzi and surrounding area

In fact, Nuzi is a bit of a problem: its internal history has been reconstructed, but its links to the outside world have always been unclear. Who exactly conquered it? When? When was it finally laid waste?

The answers to these questions carry implications beyond the fate of one small town on the Tigris. They draw in the better-researched chronologies of mighty empires. Some answers rule out the conclusions of some factions of historians; others rule out the conclusions of others.

My dad has been working on this problem. It involves sequences of kings, records of arms and soldiers, the dates of seemingly unrelated events. Did you ever fill out a logic box? They give you an annoyingly incomplete list of clues: Sally sat to the left of somebody wearing a yellow shirt.  George and Ralph wore red shirts. Etc. You set up a grid, and eliminate the impossibles, and eventually you know where everyone was sitting. Working out the links between Nuzi and its neighbors is like that, except there are hundreds of clues, and no guarantee all the necessary ones are available.

For all that, he's concluded that the entire history of an alleged war between the Babylonians and Assyrians represents a snowballed misreading of a single tablet 50 or 60 years ago. Some of his colleagues find this extremely exciting.

That's not the story I want to tell you. That's just some interesting stuff my dad does.

Maynard Maidman, his awesome girlfriend Janice, and Seurat's 1884-6 masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

I have been interested in many things over time: astronomy, anatomy, music, physics, film, and art. Some interests lasted ages; others not. My dad has supported me in each of them, and the longer I stayed interested, the more he himself became expert in each field. By the time I switched tracks from film to painting, we could discuss grammar and theme in Welles and Kubrick as well as I could with any of my film friends. And the same has occurred with art, his own knowledge and tastes broadening with my experience of it. In this latest field, our conversations are once again as involved as any I have with my peers.

So, finally, here is the story about him I wanted to tell you.

Not long ago, things did not look good for me and my ambitions (this was before the recent almost comedically extreme turn for the better). At that time, the public response was flatlined; it had always been flatlined, and showed no signs of life. I was living hand-to-mouth, spending whatever I had on paint and canvas, piling up gallery rejections and wearing truly pathetic clothes. My college friends, meanwhile, had long since gotten on with acquiring houses, children, and savings, and were making good headway in their careers. I was feeling fairly lowly about things. This is real life -- it is entirely possible to screw it up, and find yourself old, broke, and unknown.

I went to my dad and said, "You know, I'm not doing so great, and here's why." I was feeling the panic of thinking maybe I should start over with something sensible. And he said to me, "Is the work you're doing good?" I said, "I'm doing the best work I can, and I think that apart from that, it's actually good work." And he said, "OK, so, that's the important thing." And I said, "Well, what about all this stuff with career and institutional support and so forth?"

He said, "You have to remember that you have chosen a path which has no standardized means of promotion. On the one hand, it's very exciting, because it's entirely self-driven. But on the other hand, it means that there are no sign-posts because there is no road. You can't measure yourself in comparison with your friends, because they've chosen a marked road, and you've chosen the wilderness. You will spend years thinking you are getting nowhere. In fact, you must. That's part of your job. You may eventually find yourself given startling external rewards for your effort, but whether you do, or don't, is not really important. The only important thing is that you do the best work you can. That's what matters in life, and it's the only thing you can control."

That's what I wanted to share with you about my dad.

Parents can support your life-long process of becoming yourself in any number of ways. When you are little, they can save up, and sign you up for lessons. They can come to your games or your recitals. Later, when you are already off on your own, they can provide moral and financial support. They can become proficient enough in your field to make it possible for you to communicate your passion to them in its own native language.

But this response my dad made to my dilemma -- this is what you could call support through empathy and imagination. He looked at my problem from ground level, as I saw it, so that he could feel its emotional tremors; and he looked at it from above, from the perspective of what he's learned about living. He forged his answer from that double vision. The answer was utterly specific, and totally supportive.

Let's try to return his act of imagination. You are the father of a son. When your son was young, he was just this side of a prodigy in a surprising number of areas. But nothing much ever came of any of his interests. Now, already adult and by no means young enough to be farting around with unrealistic ambitions, your son comes to you, wearing his pathetic clothing. He says, essentially, "I'm worried I'm turning into a loser." It never even occurs to you to say, "Shape up and get a real job." Rather, you describe your son's dilemma to him in a way that shows hope, a way forward -- the hardest way, but none of them is easy. Your answer comes down to, "I have faith in you."

There is reason for this faith, but reason alone doesn't quite justify it. There is a gap. Love fills the gap. It's the costly, nourishing love that will help your son maintain his own faith, go on with the patient, difficult, lifelong work of becoming whatever he can become. Perhaps it is a love that abides in many relationships, but this precise texture of it, a love that expresses itself as an unreasonable but totally practical faith, I have only ever seen from fathers. It's what fathers alone can do.

So -- happy Father's Day to you, Abba, and to all of you fathers who help your children to go on struggling to do their best. Some of us have to do it without you, and many of us can, but how lucky are those of us who do not suffer that profound loneliness.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Further on Seeing and Knowing

Hi there - again, apologies for the silence.

So here's something a little interesting. I was at Spring St. the other night, drawing Leah (of course). These sessions end with two 40-minute poses (each broken into two sets of 20). This was what I drew during the first pose:

Daniel Maidman, Leah’s Torso from the Side, 2012, pencil on paper, 15"x11"

And here's what I drew during the second one:

Daniel Maidman, Leah, End of a Long Day, 2012, pencil on paper, 15"x11"

If you study them a bit, you'll find that the first one is much more distinct and specific, with a higher value range and greater detail to the structures. It is, however, a little wonky in its proportions - the torso is slightly elongated.

The second, in comparison, is flatter. And yet the second one has a more cohesive sense of the entire body as a single unit relating to itself in three-dimensional space.

The first one looks more real; the second more right.

Here's what happened. This second pose was taking place from 9:20 to 10:00 p.m. at the end of, as the title would imply, a long day. My eye was starting to lose its sharpness. And the pose itself was kind of a leaning-forward affair. So Leah was tending to lose altitude: she gradually pitched forward during each of the 20-minute sittings. Ordinarily, I can compensate for a fairly large amount of change in a pose, but with this one, I was out to sea - the lighting changed, the angles on all the major structures shifted significantly; her face was nearly hidden by the time the bell rang.

This is not a knock on Leah, by the way. It happens with every model now and again.

Since I was dealing with an unstable visual reference for the drawing, I had to depend much more than I usually do on what I knew rather than what I saw. I sketched out important structures and shapes at the start of each of the two sittings, and then filled them in throughout the pose on the basis both of what I saw, and of my understanding of proportion, anatomy, light, and shadow.

The first drawing is informed by my knowledge, but dominated by my observation. My observation, traveling as it does part-by-part, introduces proportion problems into the drawing. The second drawing is informed by my observation, and dominated by my knowledge. The proportions are pretty good, but the details are vague.

We have discussed this dichotomy before, but I'd like to present here a comparison of the work of several artists in relation to the two-dimensional space suggested by the observation/knowledge dichotomy. Consider the space:

You will notice that I've pulled a bit of a fast one with you here - The vertical axis discussed not prioritization of knowledge, but amount of knowledge available. I think it's more useful that way. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

In quadrant I, I would place nos ami Pierre Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823):

Seated Female Nude, Pierre Paul Prud'hon

I'm almost sure this is the drawing that, one time, I saw the drawings by the guys on either side of him in the life drawing workshop. They showed the same pose from slightly different angles and, yes, this was a real chick who actually sat like that and clearly kind of looked like that. But Prud'hon, being a knowledge-prioritizing guy who knew the jesus out of his anatomy, stylized her structure and smoothed out what he was looking at.

In quadrant II, you will find blog favorite Stephen Wright. Steve, like Prud'hon, knows the jesus out of his anatomy:

Undated Elbow Joint Study, Stephen Wright

But he is a high-observation artist, not a low-observation artist. His knowledge serves as a foundation for his exploration of what catches his eye. When the thing he sees contradicts the thing he knows, he throws out what he knows. When the thing that interests him contradicts what he knows, he throws out what he knows.

fun challenge: see if you can spot the proportion error

In quadrant III, let's place French savant and lunatic Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)(note: not actually French). I can't be bothered to read a biography of Van Gogh, but based on looking at his work, I'm going to conclude that either he totally rejected, or never really integrated, a thorough understanding of anatomy as a hierarchical outlook on the structure of the human body. On the other hand, he observed intensely, atomistically. I am thinking particularly of his 1882 drawing Sorrow:

Van Gogh, Sorrow, 1882

Incidentally, this is his prostitute girlfriend who eventually ran off, like everyone else he knew, because it was impossible to sustain the intensity of his company. What's interesting about this drawing is that in some respects, it's very like the totally naive drawing of a child. A child who is working on drawing from observation will awkwardly and directly trace out the shapes of the thing observed. Sometimes it comes out right, sometimes wrong; but there is a sort of ignorant fidelity to the seen. It is as if Van Gogh has been drawing in this naive way for decades. He has refined it, become artful with it, but has never seen any particular reason to puncture the conceptual boundaries of childlike representation. And, in fact, I think this grass-and-soil-level perspective characterizes all of his work. He dissolves in his subject, armed only with his ignorance. But his ignorance is a mighty sword.

Van Gogh, Portrait Of The Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888 or 1889

Finally, we come to the seemingly perverse quadrant IV: less knowledge, and less observation. Whom could we find creeping about there?

Oh, right.

Renoir, Les Baigneuses, 1918

Contemptible sack of shit Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), that's who.


I am amenable not only to my individual classifications here being off the mark, but to the idea that the entire system is a matter of classification-for-classification's-sake. It is not necessary to make a system out of every little thing. I just thought it was kind of interesting, when I thought about it while comparing the Leah drawings I was drawing.

While we're on the topic of Leah - and, lately, when aren't we? - let me clear up a little misunderstanding which has crept into the discourse. In the time that I've been working with her, Leah has become prominent on the New York art modeling scene, and is the subject of fairly many drawings, paintings and, most relevant here, conversations. During these conversations, I will often hear Leah described as looking like a Renaissance painting. Wrong.

"Renaissance painting" is not a generic term denoting "the opposite of rough on the eyes." Here's a Renaissance painting:

You know who this looks like?

That's right.

Leah does not look like a Renaissance painting. She looks like a Gandharan Buddha sculpture of the Hellenistic period.

I'm glad I could clear that up for you.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What Makes Rubens Great?

Q: What makes Flemish painter, diplomat, and scholar Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) great?

A: Lots of things.

Today, I'd like to compare two of his paintings. First, consider the Prometheus Bound, which lives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Prometheus Bound, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1611-1618, oil on canvas, 95 1/2" x 82 1/2"

In case your memory needs a little refreshing, Prometheus is the Greek titan who stole fire from Zeus, gave it to the mortals, and got chained to a rock with his magical regrowing liver torn out by an eagle every day for his troubles. Rubens depicts the later part of the story here.

The second Rubens I'd like to share is his Daniel in the Lions' Den, housed at the National Gallery in DC, where I have been visiting it since I was very small.

Daniel in the Lions' Den, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1614/1616, oil on canvas, 88 1/4" x 130 1/8"

Again, a little review of the underlying story: Daniel, a Jewish administrator serving in Babylon, defies a no-pray order from King Darius. Darius has him sealed in a den of lions, which would ordinarily lead to a sticky end. Daniel, however, finds himself unmolested by the lions, and is released the next day.

Let's go back to the Prometheus. Just look at what Rubens has done here. Where else has anyone so vividly captured the state of rebellion? Rebellion against tyranny, against limits, against all. The rebel against all, suffering the absolute worst that can be suffered and still hollering rebellion.

In Orson Welles's terminally under-appreciated 1962 adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, the hero, K (Anthony Perkins), finally rejects the deranged mechanism of justice which is attempting to swallow him. Having walked out on his advocate, he faces one last time a priest who has tried to reason with him before. The priest begins, "My son --" and K says, "I am not your son," then strides out to his execution.

stills from The Trial, Orson Welles, 1962

There is an ineffable sorrow to Perkins's line reading here. He would like to be this priest's son, to take his place as the son of a loving and protecting God, but he cannot. He cannot, because the god of such a system of justice is a mad god, and rather than submit to a mad god, he chooses to stand for himself, to the death.

This scene has always seemed to me to sum up, in a couple seconds, the tragic dilemma of man in the modern age. He has found his god cruel and insane. His own reason strong, he turns his back on the religion of his fathers. He is proud, independent, and mighty, but there is grief in his heart. He is the first man who has chosen to be alone in the universe.

All of this is prefigured by Rubens's Prometheus. Rubens, in the profundity of his imagination, looks forward from a religious age, from his own Catholicism, and pictures a man who faces the Almighty and says, "No -- I will not submit; do what you like to me, I will never submit." Rubens's Prometheus has already begun upon the endless round of torture, and yet his lip still curls in rage, his eyes are still bright with reason, his arm still wraps around the chain, yanking on it. He does not care that he must lose; he cannot but fight. He is the father of Ivan Karamazov, of Bartleby, of Meursault, of K.

detail, Prometheus Bound

Now consider Daniel among the lions. As I said before, I was a very small child when I first saw the Daniel. I remember it, because at the time I thought paintings were boring (they were all brown! Who wants to be in a building full of brown things?). But not this painting. What excitement! A skull, those luscious caramel-colored lions, that gleaming light on Daniel's enormous tanned muscles, the tension in his powerful toes, the awful symmetry of the thing.

detail, Daniel in the Lions' Den

I didn't understand the painting, but the painting rewarded me in the terms I could understand, those most basic terms of color, line, value, simple objects -- the story a child can understand.

But we are no longer children. What do we see when we, all grown up, look at the Daniel? We see an indelible image of the concept of Man, powerful, not without resources, who finds himself overwhelmed and turns his gaze upward toward the Almighty, terrorstricken, and begs for salvation. We do not need to believe this narrative to recognize it. We recognize it because we have inherited it; we too know the terror, and the urge to turn upward, and plead to be delivered.

detail, Daniel in the Lions' Den

Each of these paintings, Prometheus and Daniel, is amazing. But amazing is not so much as great. It is the two paintings, taken together, that make Rubens great. The paintings represent diametrically opposed viewpoints. Prometheus is willing to pay anything rather than submit before God; Daniel, faced with the same agony, surrenders.

One time, I read a medieval legal document, which used some jargon of the period. It referred to "men, who live and must die." This was not a literary device, and yet -- what a phrase! There is little more that we can say with certainty about all men and women. I know this, you know this. We are both alive now, and we both will die.

This very simple thing, this elemental thing -- that's all you absolutely need in order to understand Rubens, not as a child understands him, but as an adult understands him. Look at Daniel. He is placed among the fatal beasts, and he's scared to die. Look at Prometheus. He too is set upon by fatal beasts, and he refuses to let his fear of death bend him.

These two responses cover most of the replies mortals can make to their condition. Their condition is your condition too; their story is your story. Rubens could have made one painting of somebody else. What he did make was two paintings of you.

But where do Rubens's sympathies lie? Is Prometheus right, or is Daniel? Can you tell? I can't. I believe that Rubens reserves himself. He shows us what he has discovered, but he does not tell us what he has concluded. This question, in his respect for his viewer, he leaves to his viewer. What made him amazing was his insight into the utter universals of the human condition. What made him great was his forbearance. He cut to the heart of things, and when he could have used his power to become a dictator of the soul, instead, he became a teacher. He showed us the faces of our choice, and asked us to choose -- he enlarged our freedom, and invited us to be free.

Friday, June 1, 2012

There Was No One Day When I Felt More Like a New Yorker

I had a day of symbols of New Yorkness last Friday. Early in the day, I realized I had slipped into a zone of New York symbolism, so I started taking pictures. I didn't know where it was going to go, but my artwork was involved, so I thought - if it makes for a good story, I'd like to tell it to you, and illustrate the telling. It was kind of a rambling day, and I fear the telling might be a little rambling too.

There have been many days that I was more a New Yorker than last Friday. Being a New Yorker is an active process. The point of New York - one of them, anyway; mine - is the making of things. And I have made many things here, and witnessed many things made. This is not a matter of symbols, but of solid things made. As New York ceases to reside in the making, and drifts toward subsisting in symbols of itself, it starts to die.

One cannot survive on a diet of symbols. They are good only for celebrations. One cannot party all the time either - best save it for when there is something to celebrate. So on Friday there was something to celebrate, the start of the Inanna paintings. It was a party of New Yorkness, and I ate party food: symbols.

I was heading to meet Cassandra to shoot the first reference pictures for the Inanna paintings. Because of the strange technique I'm using, these paintings can't be done live - they're going to be from photographs.

As you will recall, Inanna, on the right, wears cloth with vertical folds in it:

Cassandra didn't own any such clothing. So it was off to the fashion district for me. At the turn of the 20th century, clothing manufacture made New York's fortune. It was the city's largest industry. The fashion district is the shriveled remainder of a world capital of industrialized clothing production. The district sprawls up the midwest side of Manhattan between the bland curve of Penn Station/Madison Square Garden at 34th St., and the ugly hulk of the Port Authority Bus Terminal which looms above 42nd:

The avenues, running north-south, are crowded with tourists; the narrower streets, running east-west, with garment professionals and lunatics. All phases of clothing occur on the streets, from the finished products:

Back to the buttons and accessories:

And down to the raw fabrics:

I was there for the raw fabrics, which are sold from a nucleus of two streets, the locations of which I can never remember. I meandered, walking north from 34th St., back and forth between 7th and 8th Avenues. It was a hot, hazy day, finally, after a non-spring contiguous with our non-winter.

I didn't know where the fabric stores clustered, and I didn't know the name of the cloth I was seeking. I found both - they are between 7th and 8th, on 39th and 40th. And the cloth is pleated. When I need cloth, I tell Charlotte, "I have to go to the fashion district," and Charlotte says, "You say you have to, but you like to." And this is true - I like to have a reason to go there.

I ducked in and out of many places. This is a view of Weavers Fabrics Inc., at 258 West 39th St.:

They had just the cloth I was looking for. Here the guy cuts a yard and a half of it for me.

I came back out onto the dense, nested sub-universe of 39th St. between 7th and 8th. I walked past a fat man whose entire face had been burned off, several young designers, and miscellaneous crazies. New York crazies. I did not feel at home, but I did not feel apart either. I remembered a couple panels in a comic book. In these panels, the heroine, Maggie, is asking herself what she thinks she's doing, after having spent several days hiding away from her friends to have lots of sex with a random dude she just met. The comic book is called Love and Rockets, and it was written by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and it changed my life. Here are the panels:

In these panels, we have all of the synecdoche of great literature: the tiny thing that stands for all. The text is about teeth, but the meaning is about vanity, about recognizing that what makes you special does not make you better. I took this lesson to heart when I first read it at RC Speck's suggestion in 1995, and I remembered it again outside 258 West 39th St., hefting a 45-inch clear plastic bag with a roll of pleated white cloth in it onto my shoulder in the muggy afternoon.

I am just another New York crazy.

Everybody gets harder with time, don't they? Or most everybody. All you can hope to choose is the force that hardens you. I have been hardened by my ambition. I thought I chased my dreams, but they chased me. I am one in a vast crowd of hard, fast people, consumed by ambition and chased by dreams. Most will fail. That's horribly painful, but it does not make them worse. Some will not, but this does not make them better. My own story is still only half-written. I am not from here, but I am here now, because the character of my life places me here. This is true of many, perhaps most, of the New Yorkers.


From the fashion district, I walked south on 8th Ave. to meet Cassandra. She had work at 6 (burlesque) and asked if we could do the shoot at her boyfriend's place, closer to her gig. I said sure - why not?

Her boyfriend is a photographer, and he has lived at his place for 17 years. He lives at the Chelsea Hotel.

What the hell is the Chelsea Hotel? It is a flop-house with a staggering role in the history of modern culture. Mark Twain, O. Henry, Tennessee Williams, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Willem de Kooning, William S. Burroughs, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop lived there. Dylan Thomas slipped into his fatal whiskey coma there. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 there. Sid Vicious probably stabbed Nancy Spungen to death in room 100. Leonard Cohen kept a limo waiting for him in the street for a reason of debatable validity.

I had never been inside. Listen, y'all, it's just a place. It's got nice staircase bannisters:

All places are just places; but such a place.

Cassandra's boyfriend's apartment used to belong to an Australian artist who painted stylized flowers on the walls and left framed prints hanging. She was covered, this Australian, every inch, with tattoos. The apartment has become encrusted as only the long-term residence of a packrat-aesthete can be, as covered with eccentric doodads as the Australian was with tattoos.

I caught up with Cassandra a bit; we had not seen one another in a while. I gave her the cloth - after years of elaborate costume management, she can safety-pin cloth into shape like nobody's business. When she had the cloth done up, we got down to shooting the reference pictures for the first two Inanna paintings. In Sumerian mythology, there are symbol-objects called mes which are some sort of divine decrees relating to the fundaments of civilization. There are mes of kingship, priestdom, weapons, prostitution, libel, truth, music, and so forth. In the first two Inanna paintings, I am depicting Inanna discovering the me of life and the me of death. She wants these mes for herself, and this motivates her journey into the underworld, where she dies and is brought back to life.

This is my design sketch for Inanna #1, where she discovers the me of life, represented by a very pregnant woman:

This is my sketch for Inanna #2, where she discovers the me of death, represented by a dead soldier:

In each, Inanna clutches her belly, but the clutching has opposite meanings in the two compositions.

I plan to paint these on large unstretched chunks of canvas which I am going to have to nail to the walls of my studio, once, of course, I evict the current occupants from the walls. And now I have the pictures for them, ready to begin.

Here is Cassandra at her boyfriend's apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, in a space which, if one wanted to picture a space for Cassandra, is precisely what one would picture:

And here is my final gander at the door of Cassandra's boyfriend's apartment:

I don't often think about coolness. But sometimes I do, and when I do, I think about it intensely. You know me by now - I am not so interested in coming off well as I am in telling you candidly what my progress as an artist is like. So here is an impulse which I think makes me look very bad indeed: heading out, I felt plagued by an awful feeling of inadequacy which sneaks up on me when I have confronted the utterly cool. Once the electrified contact breaks, I feel hollowed out, and weak, and futile.

In the past, I have wallowed in this species of self-pity.

This time, I decided it simply would not do; that it was beneath me, and beneath the situation, and reeked of ingratitude. I reflected on the matter, and thought these things over:

Cassandra is a good friend and a dazzling performer and model. She is full of generosity and kindness. Her loan of her sense of the expressive gesture, and of her unique beauty, makes the Inanna paintings conceivable in the first place.

Who else could plausibly play a Sumerian goddess?

Furthermore, because she had a gig to get to, she invited me to stumble into beginning a major project of my own at an iconic locale for American creativity. It fed me, and I fed it.

Weighing all these factors in my mind, I came to the conclusion that cool is transactional. It does not exist in isolation; it exists as a perception in the minds of the cool and uncool alike. It arises in response to people and events. I did not walk into a room of coolness when I showed up at Cassandra's boyfriend's apartment - at least not the coolness that I perceived when I was there. Rather, I became part of a series circuit, consisting in me, Cassandra, the Inanna project, and the Chelsea Hotel. The flow of current in this circuit was a unique instance of cool, and when the circuit broke, it was not that I was banished; rather, that precise coolness dissolved. There are other coolnesses, but this one did not exist without me.

Right there, among the pedestrians and afternoon shadows on West 23rd St., I experienced a sharp little click of revelation: yes, Maidman, this means you are cool.

Can you even call yourself cool? I dunno. Maybe it's like giving yourself a cool nickname - it's just not done. My friend Kelly has this friend Hank, and one time we joked about how Hank, who is trouble-prone, should really be called "Hank, Destroyer of Worlds":

Lo, I am become Hank, Destroyer of Worlds.

Now, if Hank came up to you and suggested you call him that, you would say, "In no wise, Hank, will I consent to call you that." But if you, not Hank, thought of it, then by god, that's his nickname. Maybe cool is like that. The cool fairy just has to tap you on the head with her glam rock wand. If that's true, and I cannot assign coolness to myself, then let me pass along whatever cool wattage I've got, and testify that however cool or uncool grim-faced History may judge me, Cassandra is way cool. And Inanna, who went down into hell, and hung dead on a hook three days, and still came back tougher. She's way cool too.

You know what, now that we're talking about it, I don't even need to be cool. I just need to be cool enough to go on hanging out with cool women. Hi Charlotte!

Thus did I leave the Chelsea Hotel, taking a last look back at its shambling mass.

There was no one day when I felt more like a New Yorker.