Friday, July 26, 2013

Institutional Memory

A bit over a year ago now, I guess, Alexis Hilliard moved to New York. She came here to develop her skills at the New York Academy of Art. She's not a celebrity in the world overall, but I am a member of a very narrow sector among whom her face, if not her name, is extraordinarily well known. I've been looking at her face for nearly a decade:

Bo Bartlett, Alexis, 2006, 33"x33", oil on panel

This is a painting by Bo Bartlett, a figurative painter with the patience and eccentricity to have developed a sui generis quality to his work. There are traces of Hopper and Wyeth about his sense of light and air, but his rigorous distortions of the figure are his alone, and instantly recognizable.

Bo Bartlett, Matriculation, 2010, 24"x18", oil on panel

Bartlett is a big deal in the highly-rendered figurative painting world. For eight years, Alexis was a muse of his, so if you followed what was going on in that world, you got to be familiar with her presence in his work. I met her in person at a New York Academy event not long after she moved here. I don't know what I expected her to be like. What sounds do you hear in a Bartlett painting?

Bo Bartlett, Betsy and Alyssa, 2011, 24"x36", oil on panel (not an Alexis painting)

I hear seagulls, and the crash of unseen waves, and the wind in the grass. Would Alexis have the voice of the grass?

As it happens, of course not; she is an actor in Bartlett's universe. It is Bartlett's heart that makes a sound like wind in the grass. Alexis herself is as loud as life, boisterously loud. She started modeling for Bartlett when she was very young, so she is still very young. She is full of energy and has a million things on her mind. She has the Frida eyebrows, and intense eyes, and mass of dark hair, which Bartlett painted. But she does not appear, on introduction at a party, as the same person. She appears as the center of herself: 0 degrees latitude, 0 degrees longitude, not an island in the mind of Bartlett.

I wanted very much to work with her. Embarrassingly, in terms of personal decency, this was not about her relative to herself. I wanted to go looking for whatever had inspired Bartlett so. And not only Bartlett, but other major contemporary figurative painters too - Juliette Aristides worked with her when she lived in the west:

Juliette Aristides, Back, c. 2009, 24"x 18", charcoal on toned paper heightened with white

And Steven Assael worked with her when she moved to the east:

Steven Assael, title, year, dimensions, media unknown

Bartlett, Aristides, and Assael are among the first artists you come across when it is 2002 and, like me, you reject the hegemony of the non-representational in contemporary art and go seeking someone - anyone - who is doing a good job of actually painting people. These artists are like your lifelines, for a few very important years. Who, having gone through that, wouldn't be intrigued by the woman who made so many of their paintings into windows, looking out on a single landscape, across which she was always striding?


It took a while before I actually had a chance to work with Alexis. She was in graduate school and, as you may remember, I was busy starving to death. Finally an opportunity came up. My gallery, Dacia, put together a traveling show for this summer. Drawing on some kind of esoteric European arts funding, they are exhibiting work in France, Germany, and Romania (down the street from Vlad's tomb - that Vlad, the Third, Prince of Wallachia, the Impaler Lord, Son of the Dragon: Dracula). For this Dacia Universal Art Project, my gallerist Lee asked me to make some small work that could be mailed easily. Fair enough.

I messaged Alexis and asked if she were around. She was, so we got together. I did some 8"x6" drawings in crimson on heavy cream paper, a combination of materials which had popped into my head as suiting preliminary work with her.

Let me tell you my own impression of working with this famous model. She has the professional virtues nearly universal among experienced models, which is to say that she understands her own body, both in its capabilities and the relative interest of its configurations; and consequently takes good poses that she can hold.

Daniel Maidman, Alexis Seated, 2013, 8"x6", pencil on paper

She has a combination of beauty and oddity which is categorically common among popular models, because it never repeats - there are many forms of beauty, and even more of oddity.

Daniel Maidman, Alexis in Profile, 2013, 8"x6", pencil on paper

The most striking thing I encountered in my work with her was how different in tone the work was from the mood of her work with Bartlett. Bartlett's work projects serenity, stillness, moments fallen out of time. In contrast, the Alexis I met virtually bounced off the walls. She is athletic and vibrates with energy. There were underlying conditions promoting such an impression: she'd been cooped up on her own for a few weeks before we worked together, and I did not instruct her much as to poses - I was out to do a heap of fun little pieces, not a unified masterwork. I was pleased to let her take the lead.

Daniel Maidman, Alexis's Front, Seated, 2013, 8"x6", pencil on paper

So extreme was her energy that it inspired me to fundamentally shift my mode of painting the figure for the first time in some years. I generally draw a very precise underdrawing onto my canvases before I begin painting:

Daniel Maidman, The Hexagon 1a (detail, process), 2013, 72"x48", oil on canvas

But for the two little paintings I wanted to do of Alexis, I decided - fuck it, I'll just wing 'em. And that's what I did. For the first one, I asked her to repeat the pose from one of the drawings above, and I got to work. Is the draftsmanship accurate? No way. Did I care? Also no. Owing to its small size, rapid process, and total lack of planning, it had a kind of solidity and vitality different from my other work. I liked this very much.

Daniel Maidman, Alexis's Torso, Front, Seated, 2013, 10"x8", oil on canvas on panel

I felt I had lived up to a very funny comment a junior Soviet officer once wrote in his notebook. This befuddled officer said: "One of the serious problems in planning the fight against American doctrine, is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine." I think it's important to cast aside everything you know sometimes, and proceed by instinct, in the a-doctrinal way this Soviet described Americans fighting. I've done this once in a while, but this time I accessed the jitterbug spirit by following where Alexis went. I did it again the next time we worked together:

Daniel Maidman, Alexis's Torso, Back, Standing, 2013, 10"x8", oil on canvas on panel

Hell yes.

I have had adequate time to reflect on the difference between the Alexis I met and made pictures of, and the Alexis in Bartlett's paintings. I have not spent eight years studying her, as Bartlett did. I liked her very much, but she is not my people. Becoming one's people takes a lot of time; Leah and Piera are among my people. Alexis is Bartlett's people.

Clearly there is only one Alexis, and she may be - indeed, given the time and companionship involved, must be, in a profound way - the woman Bartlett saw. So how are the two of her so different?

I think the difference is rooted in the different tenses in which Bartlett and I seem to perceive time. The time in his paintings is the past. Not only is it the past, it is an absolute past, born not in experience but in memory. It was the past while it was happening. There is an erotic nostalgia to his work, the nostalgia of the lover who is detached from himself, who wiles away an afternoon with his beloved oppressed by the thought that someday this will all be gone. His work is bathed in the wrap-around light of the coastal afternoon, like Hopper's, a light uniquely suited to this irrecoverable pastness of time. The work conforms with Proust's idea that the transmogrification of life, which is shattered, into art, which is whole, is the only means of reclaiming the past, of sharing in the company of all those whom we have lost even when we had them.

Studying his work, and spending time with his muse, I learn that I am not so like that in my perception of time. I thought I was, but he is more so. My tense is the present. I have two of them: the instantaneous present, which was the present in which Alexis's native high energy placed me, and the eternal present, the present which neither starts nor ends, which has not the hierarchy of progress, which is immortal. I consume everything I see, and everything I see transfixes me. I never leave its presence. This is what appears in my work. I have spent three afternoons drawing and painting Alexis, but she will never vanish from before my eye. Bartlett, seeing the present, perceives a ghost, and I, seeing even the pale shadows of memory, continuously live again what happened one time, long ago. We saw the same person, but we were standing at different angles relative to eternity.


Yes, but, let us stop chewing our cud and get to the really interesting question: what did Alexis see?

Alexis Hilliard and Bo Bartlett
photograph by Jeff Markowsky via his blog - do read the rest of his post too

There she is, working with Bartlett. She may be the subject of his work, but he is the subject of her gaze. He turns and smiles, yet she neither turns nor blinks. If you look at a figurative painting as an isolated phenomenon, you will tend to conclude that the artist saw the model. But the painting is only an outcome of a process, a process which was larger than the painting and had properties which may no longer reside in the painting. It is important to understand that the model also saw the artist.

Working with Alexis, she recounted offhandedly how Bartlett works, and Aristides, and Assael. These were casual recollections, but made with the deep insight of the observant model into the process of which she formed an integral part. I enjoyed hearing these stories, then experienced a pang at the sudden realization that these stories are treasures to the future art historian. Moreover, they are treasures only Alexis can yield. Only she has these memories and insights, and only she can have them. The artist is not aware of him- or herself from the inside in the way that the model is, sitting across from him or her. Other artists can never see the artist in a state of total work, because artists are distracted by one another, and perform for one another. In a very substantial way, the only people who can see the honest state of a figurative painter in the act of creation are the models who form the subjects of their work. The models are the institutional memory of figurative painting. And the muses most of all - they are the ones who log enough hours with individual artists to witness the many seasons of creation.

Consider it this way:

The solid lines indicate deep observation; the dotted lines, shallow observation. By and large, artists are mutually blind, and models are mutually blind. We artists are the institutional memory of models, and they are the institutional memory of us. Leah and Piera and all the other models I have been so privileged to paint can, no doubt, tell you things about me that I do not know, and would not recognize if I saw. They have, to my face, compared me with other artists. I apparently work very quickly, and am unusually pleased with my work throughout. I'm sure they all have ways of describing me they did not think or care to say, which they could recount to another party in a very illuminating way. Alexis has got Bartlett's number in a way no non-subject of his ever will. Art may reside in him, but art history resides in her.

Why did we never think of this before? Why have we been asking artists about one another? Artists don't know about anything except putting paint on canvas or, to use my father's formulation, Herman Melville is the last guy you should ask about Moby Dick. If you want to understand an artist, talk to the model. If the artist has no model, then there is no institutional memory of the artist. There is the distortion of performance when guests came to the studio, but the truth itself formed only in solitude, and vanished as it formed. It was a temporary truth, and it condensed and then evaporated absent a consciousness to perceive it. It's lost.

Writing this, I am inclined to think that we ought to go out and chase down the muses, wheresoever they are frollicking, and interview them. Why not? I suppose diplomatic reserve might keep some stories untold. But once those models are gone, the intimate history of their painters as painters will be gone too. Models understand their artists in a precise, and detailed, and tender way. They are not blind to faults, but they know how to appreciate virtues. By nature they like to be seen, but they are extraordinary at seeing. Ultimately, many of them turn out to be artists of one sort or another themselves.

This is one of Alexis Hilliard's photo-collages:

I told you before that she has a million things on her mind. She is working out a visual idiom to convey her mentation. To me, this demonstrates artfulness in the sense described by Jesus in verse 70 of the gnostic gospel of Thomas:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

It may not be so urgent for her, but the compulsive multiplication and arrangement of forms suggests to me that she is indeed doing this because she must. Compulsion can either be a neurosis, or it can answer to the highest stakes - it can arise from the presentation of salvation versus destruction outlined by Jesus. Both sources of compulsion are at work in the artist, and it is not possible to disentangle them. What we see in Alexis's work is a third Alexis: not the one I saw, nor the one Bartlett saw, but zero north by zero west - the most herself matter of herself that she can bring forth.


A final clarification: my uses of the terms "muse" and "model" in this passage refer to my own definitions of the terms. This comes up because Bartlett, whose permission I got to reproduce his work, uses the terms differently, and requested that I make the difference explicit.

For me, a model is somebody one has drawn or painted a few times, while a muse (provisionally - we will talk about this more sometime) is a model who proves sufficiently resonant for the artist that a collaboration of large magnitude takes place  - the magnitude is large in the latitudinal dimension of number of artworks, the longitudinal dimension of time over which the works are produced, and the altitudinal dimension of profundity of observation. In this sense, Alexis developed into a muse of Bartlett's.

Bartlett, however, adheres to a different definition. I don't know exactly what it is, but I imagine it has to do with the more classical moral idea of category bleed: that your muse jumps the painting's frame and takes over your life, not just your art. Or rather, that your art and your life are identical. For him, Alexis is not a muse, but a model. He says:

Alexis is our model, we think she is great, we really appreciate her, she is one of the best models.

Betsy is my muse.

Betsy Eby is a painter and Bartlett's wife, and appears in many of his paintings. Comparing the Alexis paintings and the Betsy paintings, it would be fair to say that Alexis comes off as somebody Bartlett found fascinating and productive to work with, while he simply vanished in Betsy. Both of these phenomena pass my own technical cut-off for museship, but you can see how for Bartlett they are not the same thing at all.