Tuesday, August 22, 2006

beta and servants

Like some sort of leitmotif in Pierre Michon's Masters and Servants, his narrators often compare paint to honey. Poured gold, pure in sunlight, a viscous substance, an ambrosia, the metaphor sticks. Five stories meditate on the relationship between painter and subject. Starting with Vincent Van Gogh's portraits of Joseph Roulin, Michon muses on a relationship between the two men far from the easel and canvas, be it hunched over glasses with sugarcubes plunked in la Fee Vert, in slurred speech about la republique or an unanswered exchange through the post office. Michon dwells also on Goya, before wading deeper into the despairing nature of painting, to that artistic gesture that fails against the immense face of time, to obscured, non-existent artists who are lost to the centuries, their work warped and destroyed by sun and bonfire, by negligence, by simply being. People can get lost, even when set into that amber...er honey of portraiture.

Going to see my friend Jackie Gendel's exhibit recently, her paint feels more like milk, to where faces seem spilt, diluted, either curdling or evaporating, half and half. Her exhibit is a series of portraits, but the faces would never conjure a specific sitter. The glowing review in New Yorker notes a vegetal palette, stating "the underlying subject, however, isn't the figure or its identity but the process of painting itself, and how...subjects are chameleons who can't make up their minds what gender, setting, or century they inhabit."

Her work devastates me the night I finally get to glimpse them. Nevermind that it's one of the most brutal days I've experienced all year-long. Dealing with a sick family member, with a break-up, with a downpour of rain that soaks me through, by the time I arrive, I feel as if the centrifuge in my mind is about to spin me apart. Walking through the rain, everywhere I look, I see fliers that read: "The female is a chaos." Despite being freshly printed, the paper curls and dissolves in the downpour, to where the appropriated Ezra Pound quote reads like some ancient adage.

Inside, soaked, my white shoes taking on the color of my socks, my shirt clinging to my skin so as to become it, I stare into these hanging portraits. They steal my face and I'm lost in the void of them. Veils of brows, cheeks, lips, eye sockets continually peel away, staged characters and multiple personalities at war. My eyes, anxious, terrified, search in vain for a core, a center to it, a familiar face to reassure me, but none comes forth from her canvasses. I need something to hold onto.

It's a centuries-old struggle to exist, to swim up against the tide of rain and to remain in a place, anyplace. Her portraits (which can all be glimpsed here) embrace both disolution and illumination, the rot and evergreen of this skin, these faces. I can no longer recognize anybody in the gallery, even the face of an old lover turns to that of a stranger. Even milk and honey menaces with such a transformation.
(Her) profile was merging with the foliage, enough in shadow that flesh had become light, a ghost or a thing of the trees...the one whose features we recognize -- the full cheeks and mouth, the long neck and throat -- she sank away at the instant of her cry, disappearing, becoming this superlative creature, exalted and ferocious...more imaginary than angels, but like angels was given glorious body and fabular flesh, and like them let out a sort of exaggerated song.