Thursday, August 30, 2012

Time Regained

I've been working on this post for a while; I kept wrestling with it, because it seemed to me melodramatic, even lachrymose. Toward the end, it grew tediously presumptuous in generalizing my own condition to all of you as well. I wrestled with these flaws, but ultimately, I decided I couldn't rid the post of them, so I thought I'd front-porch the piece a little bit.

I try to propose ideas here, and follow through the logical implications of those ideas in an orderly way, and reach clear and consistent conclusions. Laugh into your sleeves, if you will, but this is my ordinary goal. I don't think I've met this goal here - I think my own feelings have run wild with the post.

Another thing to understand, approaching the post, is that I absolutely cannot give up on anyone I have ever called a friend. In practice, of course, I can give up; but I approach friendship with the assumption of eternity, and I cannot get past a certain twinge when it proves not to be so. I am in touch with an unusual number of people from my past.

What I am discussing in this post is not friendship, but the artist-model collaboration. It is a different thing; but as with so many artistic phenomena, it is structurally parallel with certain real life dynamics.


More thoughts on Inanna #1. Whence so many thoughts? I have a rule for lo-mind activity: no radio, no music, no distraction. I find that this no-distraction practice leads me to a split in mental activity. On the one hand, I perform my lo-mind paint work, the meditative part. And on the other hand, my mind wanders over my current stockpile of analytic categories. I rarely hit a true zero-ego state, where the lo-mind eclipses me. Yes, I know I'm meditating wrong. At least I have lots of interesting thoughts. Interesting to me, anyway.

As I mentioned before, in Inanna #1, the power-object, or me, of life, is represented by a pregnant woman:

This is not just any pregnant woman. The composition was designed around a reference picture I took of Piera, in February of 2010, when she was pregnant with Lorenzo. This is the inkwash I did of the pose:

I loved this pose so much that after I finished the inkwash, I shot a bunch of pictures in case I ever came up with a painting for it (pregnancy being a fairly temporary condition). Lo and behold, I came up with a painting for it. And here I am working on that very painting, two years later (Lorenzo can already walk, and speak, and raise hell).

Piera, Emanuele, and Lorenzo are in Italy - they go back for a few months every summer. And here am I, in Brooklyn, making this painting. I was drawing the life-sized image of Piera onto the enormous goat-smelling linen, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me; it made me gasp, this nostalgia. It demonstrated the brilliance of the odd redefinition of nostalgia on "Mad Men." It was the pain of a broken part that has been broken a long time; a part that, for all that it is broken, I have learned to hobble, so that sometimes I forget the pain, and that I didn't always hobble; that I used to walk; and the part is not going to heal; and sometimes I suddenly remember it is broken and the break feels fresh again.

Here's what happened - Piera had Lorenzo, and her life got very busy. All of the parenting authorities, from Aristotle and Diderot, to Schopenhauer and Husserl, agree that having a baby will make your life very busy. And indeed, the authorities are correct on this. Piera's life got very busy, and she didn't have time to work with me on paintings anymore.

This doesn't mean we weren't still friends - Charlotte and I are very close with her and Emanuele, and huge fans of Lorenzo's, despite the hell-raising - and we all hang out together pretty frequently. It wasn't that part that having a baby interfered with. Rather, raising Lorenzo gobbled up Piera's leisure to spend endless hours in the studio collaborating with me on one painting after another.

I finished my first painting of Piera in February of 2008:

Daniel Maidman, Piera, 2008, oil on canvas, 28"x22"

At the time, this was an enormous technical leap forward for me. This portrait still hangs in my studio, so that I can see it.

Over the next two years, I worked with Piera every week, and completed 11 paintings. On this blog, we've discussed Piera a great deal, as some of you will remember. Then that period ended, and we couldn't work together anymore.

Daniel Maidman, Night (AKA Piera painting #7), 2009, oil on canvas, 60"x40"

There are three solutions to the problem of the end of a period. Let us turn to two or three exemplars to illustrate them.

First is Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli, like all the better Florentine artists of the period, was busy painting Simonetta Vespucci. Let's be clear about what kind of relationship Botticelli and Simonetta had: he wasn't banging her. She was married to somebody with lots more money (Mr. Vespucci) and rumored to be messing around with somebody with even more money than that (Giuliano Medici, the one that got stabbed by Pazzi, although the stabbing was about something else).

Simonetta is reported to have been quite lovely, even by the impressive standards of Renaissance Florence. The Florentines make us and our Victoria's Secret catalogues look like rank amateurs at lookism. How are they such pros, compared with us and our photoshopped fashion models? Because we don't believe in it, and they do. We've heard of Darwin. We get over our idea that beauty indexes virtue by the time we're, like, seventeen. Not the Florentines. One can argue with somebody who prefers a certain breast shape, but there is no arguing with somebody who thinks that breast shapes, like the Hebrew alphabet, are the chosen medium of God Almighty for making his awful meaning clear to puny Man.

Speaking of snazzy boobs, here's somebody who is apparently based on Simonetta Vespucci:

Detail, Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1483

And here's somebody else:

Detail, Botticelli, Primavera, 1477

I say "based on," and not "pictures of," because Simonetta died in 1476, at the age of 22. Take a look at this page from Botticelli's set of illustrations for The Divine Comedy, in my humble opinion some of the most profound drawings ever drawn:

It almost looks as if Botticelli depicts Dante's Beatrice as Simonetta, doesn't it? Botticelli illustrated The Divine Comedy from about 1480-1495. The real Beatrice died long before Dante wrote his poem; and the real Simonetta died before the masterworks Botticelli based on her.

Botticelli is like an engine for seeing, and when the thing he sees dies, the engine rumbles to a halt. The seeing eye films over, the beating heart goes silent. It is dead. In the shadows of that cavernous broken heart a new engine is born eyeless. It is a windowless armored engine of memory. It makes lines and shapes and colors like the old engine, but it does not do the same thing at all.

There is something so heartbreakingly direct, so childish, about Botticelli, the artist and the man. There is no bullshit to his work. A little child says, "What is beautiful must be good." Or rather, it is like a little child to be incapable of considering otherwise. It is like a child to say, "I will look at beautiful things only." A child draws with simple lines, and flat colors.

A child also, confronting death and absence, might stamp his foot, and say, "La la la, I refuse to admit that it is so." And this is what Botticelli does, for decades. He retreats into seclusion with his imagined Simonetta, and fuses her to her absence; he makes of this pair, Simonetta and her opposite, an idea, a perfectability of human reason, adoration, ambition. This is perversion, but it is magnificent. Perhaps it is even redeeming. Perhaps on the last day, when the pillars have all fallen, and everything is on fire, and the fierce angel says, "Man, what did you do that was worthwhile?," some battered survivor will say, "Fuck you, angel - our Sandro Botticelli found meaning in the death of Simonetta Vespucci, who died of pulmonary tuberculosis when she was 22." And God, listening in, will have the common decency to die of shame at last.

Perhaps. But it is still a perversion; and it is not my perversion.

Let us consider another response to the end of a period. This one we have from André Téchiné's 1995 movie Thieves. In this relatively unremarked-upon film, a shocking event occurs offscreen. Here's what happens. The plot of the film revolves, more or less, around a young woman, Juliette, who proves irresistible to several older characters, including a philosophy professor named Marie, played by Catherine Deneuve:

Wait, you're thinking, is this a comedy or a drama?

It's not a comedy. For one reason or another, Juliette winds up dumping Marie. So what does Marie do? She fucking kills herself.  This is the shocking offscreen bit. Who kills themselves anymore over being dumped? Well, Marie, that's who, I guess.

Being a French philosophy professor, she leaves behind some very strong writing on what she was thinking. She says, "In this life, we do not renounce, we only replace. And I did not want to replace her."

Let's pause here to appreciate the remarkable genetic good fortune of Catherine Deneuve.

Catherine Deneuve in Thieves, age 52

OK, I just thought that was worth mentioning.

Back to the point. Marie presents a second model of how we can respond to the end of a period. We can, in however radical a manner is required, excise the component of consciousness which characterized the period. We can force ourselves to renounce.

I think it is very difficult for us to conceptualize killing ourselves over something, until it is time to do it. Soldiers, I think, must do it in a few situations. But in a movie, over love, it is liable to come off very silly. In Thieves, it kind of works, and kind of doesn't, depending on your tolerance level, going in.

I may be a romantic, but I am not, at the present time, a killing-myself-over-it romantic; not in real life, and doubly not in art. This makes me feel a little bad, like maybe I'm not intense enough to really count as a worthwhile person. But if I'm not a worthwhile person, I'm at least a tremendously productive person who is still living and breathing and participating in the lives of people I matter to, and that's not nothing.

To translate from love-talk to art-talk, the second option, vis-a-vis models and painting, would be to put down the brush once the model has left the studio, and go into geology, or dentistry, or something else; and never look at another painting. I actually did this once, with film; but it was film that left the studio, not any particular person.

Option 2 is not acceptable to me either. So what is option 3 for coping with the end of a particular period?

Here it is: you mourn (or the art equivalent) and then you go on living, and sometimes you remember. This is my preferred option. I am not saying it is the right option - I have a lot of sympathy for the other ones, as you have sympathy, indeed must have sympathy, for things people do in confrontation with a force greater than themselves. I'm just saying that for who I am right now, it makes most sense to gasp at the pain and go on living.

Since Piera left, I have, of course, produced a body of work with Leah which stretched beyond anything I had tried before, or was capable of before:

Daniel Maidman, Blue Leah #3, oil on canvas, 2011, 24"x36"

I owe this work not especially to my own progress as an artist. I owe much of it to what Leah brings specifically to our work together. Without Leah, these paintings could not have been; and without Piera's schedule change, I don't know if I would have worked so closely with Leah.

Daniel Maidman, Blue Leah #9, oil on canvas, 2011, 24"x36"

This third option combines the Jewish "pull yourself together" and the Heraclitan "not the same river" approaches. It is not a very dramatic option, nor a very narratively satisfying one. Matisse and Picasso both seem to have pursued it in their own ways: that you simply go on living, that you commit yourself entirely to making the work your models inspire, and someday you lose your models, and you keep putting one foot in front of another, and eventually it gets better for a while, and then likely worse again. You never stop making yourself available to lose, but you also never stop making new things.

We are here to make work first, and be happy second. Our work redeems us, not our pleasure. Not yet; we are not that good yet. Somewhere, there are people so pure that their pleasure justifies them. We used to be like that, and we will be like that again one day. But right now, it is our work that buys us the right to go on living. And this, really, is a beautiful part of the titanic struggle of becoming human.

Yes, I prefer this third option; I prefer to go on learning a new face, and relearning my marks to make the true image of a person who has time to sit with me and tell me who they are.

But before we go thinking of loss as a total thing, let's recall the insights of Proust, who considered the difference between art and life from a different angle from the one which has popped up here.

In Time Regained, the final part of Remembrance of Things Past (spoilers! sort of! this book has no plot!), Proust's alter-ego Marcel reflects on his life, and the people whose company he assumed he would always share, and whom he eventually lost. Suddenly, time itself becomes visible to him, and he sees these people as being like enormous towers in time. Freed of the first-person perspective on time, outside of time, he realizes he has never lost anyone he has ever known; they all remain in an incorruptible present.

Marcel asks himself how he can manufacture this state of enlightenment, or what its origin is - he asks how he can return to his grandmother, to the church and the trees, the paving stones, to Gilberte and to Albertine - and he sees art as the path from the here-and-gone torment of first-person time to the transcendent calm of absolute time. He sees life as a nearly meaningless raw material which must be digested and made over, and art as the meaningful product of human insight applied to the processing of this inchoate substrate. Suddenly we, reading, realize that his book, his tremendous book, has superseded and subsumed his life; that the man, shriveling away to nothing in his cork-lined room, writing and revising thousands of pages, actually carried out this transmogrification, this miracle, which he describes, which recasts the years we spent reading his book and makes us understand that Proust was the fiction, and Marcel the truth; that the book is real, and the life imaginary.

Marcel and Proust

And this, my dear, dear friends, is a fundamental part of the third option. Botticelli and Marie are both, in their ways, suicides. Proust, who withdrew from society to write his book, was a suicide in his way too - but Marcel is not, and we base our lives on Marcel, not Proust. Going on living, and loving those we work with, and above all making our work, is our task for the time being. Marcel shows us how to make it bearable; how we have not lost, and cannot lose, anything we once knew.

Sometimes - not all the time, but sometimes - we make another image of those we used to work with, which is what I am doing with Inanna #1. But by and large, we keep going. Our work is incomplete. We are not dead yet.

 detail of Piera as me of life, Inanna #1, work in progress, pencil and oil on canvas, 108"x84"

Oceanic Feeling

This post, as you would no doubt deduce from the authorial voice, appeared at Huffington Post first. I'm running it here as well, while I finish up a piece written specifically for this blog. Unfortunately, today is the last day of the show I'm describing, so if you like the work - keep an eye out for future shows of Victoria Selbach's paintings, alright?


I'd like to talk with you today about the show "Grace in the Light," at Dacia Gallery in Manhattan. It's a solo show of paintings by Victoria Selbach. I've been a fan of her paintings for a few years now, and in the interests of disclosure, I should tell you that I also show at Dacia Gallery. In fact, I recommended Selbach to the dealers there, and they liked her work and gave her a show.

 Victoria Selbach, Mary 4, acrylic on canvas, 58"x28", 2011

I'm a painter first and an art writer second. This puts me in an awkward spot. I do have to write about painters apart from myself, but I also know a lot of the painters whose work I like. The way I've resolved this issue is that I simply won't write a negative review. That doesn't mean I'm lying in my positive reviews. It means I only write about work if a) I like it and b) I have something interesting to say about it. And I hope you'll put up with my being friends with some of the painters.

So let's talk about Selbach. Much of her work involves paintings of women in dark interior spaces, patchily lit by bright sunlight. The human eye can handle a maximum light-dark contrast ratio of something like 15,000 to 1. Paint at its best goes to maybe 100 to one. Selbach has spent years finessing tricks out of paint to suggest dazzlingly intense light emerging out of lush shadow. Consider Nude 4, from 2009:

 Victoria Selbach, Nude 4, acrylic on canvas, 24"x30", 2009

She has figured out composition, overexposure, and bounce-light glow in this image. But revisiting these techniques three years later, she coordinates them much more subtly and gracefully:

 Victoria Selbach, Mary At Mille Fleurs, acrylic on linen, 48"x30", 2012

There are a lot of people painting a lot of female nudes right now, and many of them are doing a good job. Yet I have always had a feeling that there was something more essential, more necessary to Selbach's work than to most of the nudes I was seeing. What makes them special? I think I've finally put my finger on it. Consider Mary 3:

 Victoria Selbach, Mary 3, acrylic on canvas, 58"x40", 2011

Typically for Selbach's work, a complex pattern of light and shade is draped over the figure. This pattern disrupts the ordinary figure-ground relation. Instead of one figure (the figure itself) and one ground (everything behind the figure), we have two paired figures-and-grounds. One pair is the literal figure and the floor she's lying on. The other is the light, and the shadow surrounding it. These two systems conflict.

That's interesting, but what does it buy us? On the most superficial level, it's cognitively appealing; the brain is forced to fill in the outline of the figure, just as it does in those images of a dalmatian against a field of random black-and-white blotches. We get a huge preconscious kick out of this edge-completion procedure.

On a deeper level, I think this disruption holds the key to the significance of the work. The sight we see has clarity and definition, and yet the figure is not entirely separable from the space in which it is immersed. This phenomenon - a combination of clarity and irresolvability - reminds me of Freud's elaboration on Romain Rolland's proposal of the concept of oceanic feeling. Freud writes:
It is a feeling which he [Rolland] would like to call a sensation of 'eternity,' a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded - as it were, 'oceanic.' ... it is the source of the religious energy... One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone... it is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.
[Civilization and Its Discontents, pp. 1-2]

Yes, yes - this is what I think of when I look at Selbach's women, who are so thoroughly integrated into their spaces that they cannot be separated from them, or even seen distinctly, despite the light. There is no cognitive impairment here, but rather a shift in perspective, a collapse of distinction between self and world. Where does this oceanic feeling originate? Freud continues:
An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world... He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognize as his own bodily organs, can provide him with sensations at any moment, whereas other sources evade him from time to time - among them what he desires most of all, his mother's breast - and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help. In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego an 'object,' in the form of something which exists 'outside' and which is only forced to appear by a special action.
[Civilization and Its Discontents, pp. 3-4]

I would not like to overcommit to Freud as a thinker, but I do think he's onto something here. Let us return to Selbach's work, so much of which is named in relation to Mary mother of Jesus. Here is Mary 5:

 Victoria Selbach, Mary 5, acrylic on canvas, 58"x28", 2011

Armed with the concept of the oceanic feeling, we can make more sense of our response to the work. This Mary emerges partly out of darkness, as do the Magdalenes of de La Tour. The immeasurably bright sunlight, reflecting off the floor, warmly illuminates the undersides of her belly and her breasts. Confronting this female nude - yet another female nude, sigh - we are suddenly overcome with a feeling of the essential, of the unfetishized feminine. Why? Because the entire basis for the oceanic feeling lies in the primal encounter of the infant and its mother's body, and its inability to distinguish itself from it. Selbach's Mary figures juxtapose the religious impulse, and the infantile bond to the mother, evoking both in the glowing bodies of her models, dappled by sunlight and lost in shadows just inside the doorway of her studio. They must evoke both, because their true subject is the profound force which underlies both, the oceanic feeling. And if Selbach's true subject is the oceanic feeling, then we have an explanation for why her female nudes read not as a neo-academic reflex, but as a thematic necessity: because without the original encounter of the inchoate consciousness with the body of a woman, dimly understood as a kind of cosmic mother, there is no fully-formed oceanic feeling.

This is what sets Selbach's work apart. She selects a seemingly simple toolkit: light, shadow, wooden floors, trellised windows, a female model. But she recognizes that her tools are not ends in themselves. They serve a basic need, a fundamental impulse, to go back - if you are a Freudian - or forward - if you are a Catholic - to that Mary who is all-surrounding, all-present, loved without bound because she herself is without bound. Selbach's impulse is an ache for the ocean, and her work is the ocean itself.



1. Grace in the Light
Victoria Selbach, Solo Exhibition
August 1-30, 2012
Dacia Gallery, 53 Stanton St., 10002, Manhattan

2. Victoria Selbach online: