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Folly and wisdom in The Ambassadors

Chad, making his debut in the novel, coming into the balcony at the theater occupied by Strether. Illustration by Leslie Saalburg.

It might be fun and profitable for someone—if college students still read Henry James—to translate his late novels into English. I read The Ambassadors in graduate school, as required, and absorbed little of it. It was a compulsory title. The problem was that I wasn’t prepared to pay enough attention to actually locate subjects and verbs. It’s often a challenge in The Ambassadors. Over the past several years, as I’ve attempted to read or reread all of James’s novels, I’ve struggled to find the right adjectives to describe this late prose style: elliptical, disembodied, ethereal, circuitous, evasive, a sort of private murmur of abstracted assertions that seem to exhale the aura of his protagonist’s awareness rather than simply tell the reader what in the world is going on. Henry was offended when his brother, William, reacted to The Golden Bowl, the novel James published directly after The Ambassadors, by saying he admired its brilliancy but would have preferred an “absolute straightness of style” rather than “the method of interminable elaboration of suggestive reference.” William was being tactful: his observation more or less sums up how annoying these novels can be. And yet they are addictive once you succumb to the challenge of deciphering the prose. They tease you into submission. It can be amusingly, ridiculously frustrating to fish in the dark lake of this prose for what a given sentence signifies, especially when—fish in creel —you realize you could have netted one just as nourishing from inside an easily plumbed aquarium of the sort built by the earlier Henry James himself.

Lambert Strether is the central “ambassador” in the book. He has been sent to Europe by Mrs. Newsome to retrieve her son, Chad. She owns and runs a lucrative industry in Woollett, Massachusetts, and she wants him to lead it into the future. Ostensibly, Chad has been seduced by an immoral woman, maybe even a woman “of the streets.” Fears about this mysterious woman’s antecedents are groundless. She’s an aristocrat. Chad has been transformed into a genteel, poised, Parisian courtier by his association with Madame de Vionnet and her daughter, Jeanne. He has become a bit like Swann, from Remembrance of Things Past, twenty years ahead of Swann’s emergence in Proust’s novel. Strether must convince Chad to come home because his mother wants him, effectively, to run the company with a focus on the new world of advertising—a force that, it’s surprising to learn from this novel published at the turn of the 20th century, was already fueling commerce.

From the moment he arrives in Europe, Strether falls in love with his surroundings, and finds himself—in his own version of a mid-life crisis, in his fifties—falling, not for the first woman he meets (who falls in love with him, as it happens) but for Europe and, especially Paris itself. When he meets his quarry, Chad Newsome, he recognizes that Chad has matured and come into focus as an accomplished social creature in ways Strether never would have guessed were possible from his acquaintance with the boy while he was growing up. Strether’s imagination opens to Paris, the magnificence and subtle elegance of the shops and houses, the left and right banks of the Seine, the Faubourg St. Germaine, the parks and the museums, the restaurants, the hotels, and the everyday sounds that rise from the streets. The world has been renewed before his eyes. His impulse is to wander and absorb everything he sees, smells, hears and touches. He’s reborn. Through this febrile, almost manic hunger for the city and the region, he’s only half-aware of how the seemingly innocent seductions of a beautiful place color his perception of the relationship between Chad and this lovely, charismatic and slightly older woman. Marie de Vionnet is a countess, highly intelligent, sensitive, humble, the model of noblesse oblige. All of Strether’s actions arise from his desperate faith that her relationship with Chad is virtuous, chaste, a model of Platonic devotion and friendship. She is married but estranged from her husband and Chad’s family suspects adultery, hence the need for Strether to bring the son home. Yet, from the beginning, Strether is charmed by both Chad and the countess and immediately begins to resist his mission, the call of Woollett. His motives for temporizing are a complex mix of selfishness and generosity—he wants to dwell in Paris as long as possible to absorb its glory. This requires Chad to be morally pure. If Chad’s love for this woman and her daughter were base, it would break the spell of Paris itself, destroy the aura of nobility. It would be the serpent and apple in this garden. The garden itself would cease to charm. This would obligate him to bring Chad home by any means possible, ending the entire European idyll. His actions throughout most of the book are based on Strether’s desire for this new, improved Chad to have grown from the soil of Europe, a man adroit, connected, moral, a paradigm of human flourishing, as a result of his role as protégé, confidant, and companion to Madame de Vionnet. What Strether discovers is that as dazzled as he is by the possibilities of becoming Europeanized, following in Chad’s footsteps, he is too old to take advantage of all this himself. It’s too late for him to grasp the possibilities he has missed, so his effort to save this ostensibly courtly love between Chad and Marie intensify into a new, selfless mission.

Everything sensible for both Strether and Chad depends on their obeying Mrs. Newsome’s wishes, because she has promised to marry Strether if and when he returns with her son, who will inherit the company if he comes home to marry his intended bride, Mamie Pocock, a comically inappropriate woman for the new Chad. Strether has let life slip through his fingers and survives on a small income he receives from Mrs. Newsome in the role of editor for a small quarterly she publishes. At one point, it’s clear he’s ashamed of his comparative poverty and his social standing back in Woollett. The little journal he edits isn’t literary, but prints essays on science, philosophy and other subjects. It’s respectable, interesting in its own way, but obscure. She has offered Strether a path toward wealth and all its privilege, insofar as Massachusetts can confer it. If Strether stands up for Chad and the glories of Paris (glories filtered and fed to the reader through Strether’s heightened consciousness) against Mrs. Newsome, then he will forfeit his future. He has everything to lose by guarding Chad from Mrs. Newsome. But the virtue of this sacrifice accomplishes nothing if Chad’s liaison with Marie itself isn’t virtuous. Knowing James, it’s not that hard to discern what will happen, but what’s remarkable is how he seduces the reader as deftly as Paris seduces Strether. Your hope for Chad, for Madame de Vionnet, for Strether himself, and for Maria Gostrey, his guide through Europe and the woman who falls for him, keeps flickering until the last words of the book.

Much is at stake. Pathos lingers everywhere. How to tell good from evil? Wholesome intimacy and rank duplicity bear all the same earmarks, the whispered asides, the lingering glances, the silent smiles across a room: there’s more than enough suspense in all of this to make the novel gripping. For many characters, bliss and fulfillment hang in the balance against ruin and shame. Yet, instead of telling a straightforward story, James seeks to convey the unstable, dark glass of Strether’s consciousness itself, the stream of impressions, questionable insights, suppositions, hesitations, second-guesses, joys, sorrows, regrets, the parade of ghostly hints that pass through his awareness. It isn’t a Joycean stream, but unmediated nonetheless, with severe limits. Those limits are the universal boundaries of human knowledge and certainty, and the way in which thought, reasoning, moral choice, are all riding on a wave of untrustworthy feeling and emotion. James works that dynamic: he tempts you with veiled language, draws you in, and then keeps you hooked by withholding rather than delivering what you need to know until you’re nearly done. You aren’t allowed to know anything Strether doesn’t know, and there’s a submerged iceberg of information he can’t access.

This murkiness, this uncertainty, and, in essence, this moral dread, Strether’s horror of making the wrong choice—as well as the integrity that makes the wrong choice a horror to begin with—are conveyed in this oblique prose that makes nearly everything that happens in the book an occasion for confusion and only tentative understanding. (Hence that urge to translate back into actual, familiar English, nearly everything in this milestone of English literature.)

Here’s an example of one of the clearer, though still verbose passages, one of the turning points in the story. Strether has been waiting to meet Chad when Maria Gostrey takes him to the theater. During the performance, a man steps into their balcony and waits patiently, silently for a chance to talk. It’s Chad, but Strether doesn’t realize it and doesn’t recognize him because Chad has been transformed. When Chad’s identity is revealed, his metamorphosis stuns Strether so deeply and immediately that it colors everything else he thinks and does in Paris. It convinces him that Madame de Vionnet has magically turned this unrefined young American into someone who could pass for a prince. This impression disarms him so thoroughly that he can never bring himself to side with Mrs. Newsome’s wish to bring Chad home. Here, at length, is how James describes the moment in what is a comparatively clear, direct passage in comparison with others in the book that might as well have been delivered in Navajo:

Our friend was to go over it afterwards again and again—he was going over it much of the time that they were together, and they were together constantly for three or four days: the note had been so strongly struck during that first half-hour that everything happening since was comparatively a minor development. The fact was that his perception of the young man’s identity—so absolutely checked for a minute—had been quite one of the sensations that count in life; he certainly had never known one that had acted, as he might have said, with more of a crowded rush. And the rush though both vague and multitudinous, had lasted a long time, protected, as it were, yet at the same time aggravated, by the circumstance of its coinciding with a stretch of decorous silence. They couldn’t talk without disturbing the spectators in the part of the balcony just below them; and it, for that matter, came to Strether—being a thing of the sort that did come to him—that these were the accidents of a high civilization; the imposed tribute to propriety, the frequent exposure to conditions, usually brilliant, in which relief has to await its time. Relief was never quite near at hand for kings, queens, comedians and other such people, and though you might be yourself not exactly one of those, you could yet, in leading the life of high pressure, guess a little how they sometimes felt. It was truly the life of high pressure that Strether had seemed to feel himself lead while he sat there, close to Chad, during the long tension of the act. He was in presence of a fact that occupied his whole mind, that occupied for the half-hour his senses themselves all together; but he couldn’t without inconvenience show anything—which moreover might count really as luck. What he might have shown, had he shown at all, was exactly the kind of emotion—the emotion of bewilderment—that he had proposed to himself from the first, whatever should occur, to show least. The phenomenon that had suddenly sat down there with him was a phenomenon of change so complete that his imagination, which had worked so beforehand, felt itself, in the connexion, without margin or allowance. It had faced every contingency but that Chad should not be Chad, and this was what it now had to face with a mere strained smile and an uncomfortable flush.[1]

“Comedians” is a brilliant touch, completely unpredictable and outside the sort of box James usually creates. So is the phrase: “imposed tribute to propriety.” Still, here would be my loose translation from Late Henry James into common English, or at least into a more familiar and contemporary syntax and wording. I’ve eliminated nearly a hundred words, including all of the ones that contribute almost nothing but the sound of precise but empty qualifications while they create the refined rhythm of idle, patrician patois: “quite”, “as he might have said”, “the note had been so strongly struck” (“note” is an almost obsessively used word, a kind of verbal tic for James, in the sense of “tone” or “key”, as in music, and the word “high” recurs constantly, as another verbal tic and often empty adjective) “as it were”, “for that matter”, “being a thing of the sort that did come to him” and so on:

Strether felt instinctively how this moment would become the foundation of his stay in Paris. The sense of discomfiting recognition, when he understood he was looking at Chad without being able to recognize him, would reverberate throughout his sojourn in Europe. He felt already how it would set the tone for everything he was yet to think and feel with regard to his mission. Sitting there, stunned that Chad seemed to have become a charming young nobleman, Mrs. Newsome’s ambassador found himself completely disarmed. The rush of this recognition was one of those moments if life that counted, as he later put it. The moment’s impact had to do not only with the way Chad bore himself, the clothes he wore, his posture, his mature and poised demeanor, his utterly cool and almost carefree patience—the gentility of his ability to wait on them, his sprezzatura—but also the fact that they were all courteously waiting to speak, so as not to disturb those in the seats beneath them. None of this would have been innate to the Chad he recalled from Woollett. Kings, queens, comedians, no less, had little relief from the pressures of life, but this new Parisian Chad bore the pressure of the moment with such aplomb that he was magnificently at ease. The pressure, for Strether, on the other hand was overwhelming. They all waited through the performance, for half an hour. That half-hour was an awkward blessing. Strether was able to compose himself. If they hadn’t been forced into silence, Strether’s bewilderment might have completely destroyed any hope he had of impressing Chad with whatever borrowed authority he carried with him from Mrs. Newsome. He had imagined every possibility other than this fact: Chad was no longer Chad. The charm of the new Chad overwhelmed him and colored every other impression he was to receive during his stay. For half an hour, he found himself blushing and straining to smile. All of his resolve was undone. Yet somehow by the end of their long wait, he had regained his composure.

I don’t think much is lost in translation here. I violated the limits of the point of view once near the end, that’s all. There’s only one great argument for wording this novel in the more difficult Late Henry James. Critics have defended the obscurity of the prose as a way of conveying the flux and complexity of Strether’s consciousness itself, the currents and undertows and eddies in its stream. James was trying to do something radical, a precursor to the bolder experiments of Joyce and Woolf to follow. The story is told in limited third person. We have one window through which to see and hear what’s happening: Strether’s unreliable awareness of everything in and around him. Here we are told not only about what Strether sees and hears, but about the state of his awareness itself—and the difficulty of the prose is showing that state rather than telling us about it. We eavesdrop on Strether’s consciousness, and James makes it as difficult for us to see and hear clearly what’s happening as it is for Strether to discern the truth in his perceptions. We are spies, as Strether is himself a spy, an agent, sent into Europe from America. We struggle, as he does, to decipher what’s happening. We are interlopers, outsiders, and we remain uninitiated into the quiet or unspoken semiotics of this social order. The prose reflects and intensifies all of this.

But it’s doing more. Instinctively, I think James wanted his prose to sound almost rarified into unintelligibility. He wanted the reader to feel socially at a disadvantage, as Strether himself feels. I imagine the reader as someone alone at a table in an expensive restaurant, seated beside the characters in this book as they talk in terms familiar to the members of the beau monde but nearly impenetrable to anyone who comes in off the street and overhears them. Or, imagine a married couple on a loveseat at a party, foreheads a foot apart, smiling, exchanging nearly inaudible asides—using a shorthand language they’ve grown into over the years—about the party. They know exactly what they’re saying, because they are so intimate, but the eavesdropper—James’s reader—has to decrypt what he hears. For the onlooker, there is not only the mystery of what’s being communicated but a sense of envy for how easily the insiders understand one another. This envy is part of what James undoubtedly intended to instill in the reader—the sense of always being out of step and a little dense, always on the outside peering in a little enviously at the peerage. The narrator and the characters are knowing, quick, winking with an implicit mutual understanding and you, the commoner, the—ahem—American, are trying desperately to keep up, rereading again and again, rewinding and playing, rewinding and playing until . . . okay, I think I get it.

The reader’s fluctuating bewilderment bonds with Strether’s. You are both immersed in mystery, struggling for clarity and feeling intensely excluded, socially crippled, essentially ignorant. You are both living at the edge of where everything is happening, tolerated, invited, but not included. As Rebekah Scott sums it up in an essay published online earlier this year:

The necessary absorption, engrossment and bewilderment experienced by James’s reader in trying to decipher his text reflects that of his characters, as they struggle to manoeuvre through their circumstances, equipped only with the acuity with which they can perceive, realize, and convert meditation into self-assisting action.

And they do all of this without any certainty about the knowledge or the outcome of actions based on it. This cloud of unknowing, for narrator and reader, serves as the essential medium from which James conjures his final stories. This is the primal scene for James: the outsider, the interloper, the latecomer, the observer in a world full of people so immersed in a member’s-only private language that they don’t have to explain anything to one another. They get the joke, and you don’t. It’s annoying because James, in his narrative voice, sounds like the insider, the one who holds the key to the code and keeps taunting us with his ability to remain vague and indirect, promising us the possibility of clarity but always withholding it just enough to keep us uncertain about what’s what. The reader, along with Strether, fears being made a fool. Two people, heads together, smiling and whispering: from our distance, they could be declaring their love or plotting a crime, or doing both at once, as Strether fears Chad and Marie are doing. Intimacy has the look of lies, as well as love. At the end of the novel’s eleventh book, James writes:

That was what, in his vain vigil, he oftenest reverted to: intimacy, at such a point, was like that—and what in the world else would one have wished it to be like? It was all very well for him to feel the pity of its being so much like lying . . .

Observing the intimacy of others, you are excluded. The experience of exclusion—of not knowing what’s actually passing between Strether and Marie, and of being merely a tolerated guest of Paris—underlies all the action, all the thinking, in the novel. Exclusivity guards the privilege of belonging: whether it’s membership in a marriage, a love affair, a country-club, a political party, an economic class, a conspiracy or a faith. The famous, crucial scene in Gloriani’s garden reveals to Strether the abundance and complexity of a life fully lived, but how rare the invitation into that sanctum. Once inside the garden, he recognizes that he has failed to live, along with an awareness that it’s too late to succeed in a pursuit of personal fulfillment he’s only now discovered he has failed to seize. He has come across the Atlantic to gaze into this glittering, exhilarating cage of social and sexual power, sophistication, wealth and freedom, and all he can do is to advise someone younger, Little Bilham, to live his own life as intensely as possible while he still has time. Carpe diem. Whether or not he’s simply been dazzled by Babylon’s lovely surface, unaware of the rot within, is the matter that hangs in the balance. It’s clear Strether doesn’t believe he’s been fooled by the lovely, inviting surface of a corrupt city, because he doesn’t want that to be the case. Here is where Madame de Vionnet, the countess in question, makes her debut, at this moment of Strether’s psychological surrender to a desolate awareness of his personal failure in life. She appears, charms him, and begins the process of winning him, enlisting him into her desperate hope to keep Chad for herself. Her refinement conquers him, as well as her achievement as Chad’s finishing school, and then her pathos as a woman appealing to him for mercy. She finds him at his most lucid, but therefore most emotionally weak, because his moment of clarity reveals his failure as a person, and swept into the current of her power and charm, he becomes her agent rather than Mrs. Newsome’s. The first blow of seeing that Chad was no longer Chad is followed by this second, the beauty of her behavior, and his ability to believe in Mrs. Newsome’s mission dies under the force of this one-two punch.

At this point and then through most of the rest of the book, the reader is just as morally disoriented as Strether, and anyone who sticks with the prose has begun to slow down, parse each difficult sentence, tease out what it actually denotes and then step back from the jigsaw puzzle of sentences to recognize what a paragraph actually depicts. By tossing away a deadline for finishing the book, the way Strether ignores and then abandons any sense of a deadline in getting Chad home, you succumb to the obscurity, plumb it and fish out what’s comprehensible.  The game becomes enjoyable. You feel as if you have been initiated into the exclusive club and now other readers are the neophytes, the pledges, hoping to get in. Your envy turns to a nasty kind of pride and you keep reading, feeling more and more accomplished as you go. You have accepted the terms of the class structure created by nothing more than the quality of the prose and you have found a way to work your way up into the exclusive salon, the Faubourg of readers.

Meanwhile, more and more identified with Strether’s struggle, you eagerly want everything he wants; you want to believe in the virtue of the relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet. At first you accept Little Bilham’s assessment that Chad must be in love with Jeanne, the daughter, since Marie is married and off limits. Then when Chad becomes instrumental in Jeanne’s engagement to a suitor, you and Strether tell yourselves than this was the heart of his allegiance with the mother, simply a noble attempt to help her find a partner for her beautiful, but shy and socially isolated daughter. You want to believe you’re reading a Jane Austen novel where people pair up, after many mistakes, with the man or woman most suitable. Strether will return Maria Gostrey’s love. Chad will resist the call of money and power and somehow devote himself to Madame de Vionnet, who desperately thinks of Chad now as the embodiment of her entire life. Little Bilham will somehow take Strether’s hilarious counsel to chase Mamie Pocock, in order to foil the Woollett plan to have her marry Chad. The book is nearly done. Then Strether decides to take a day off and wander around the countryside and—in an improbable, novelistic coincidence—comes upon Chad and Madame de Vionnet in a boat, flustered at being seen, drawn into spending a few hours with Strether in order to keep up appearances and yet, through their behavior, betraying the fact that they have spent the previous night secretly together. Everything begins to crumble. Finally, Chad returns from a trip to London as an evangelist for advertising, how it “has presented itself scientifically as a great new force” that will reveal a new world of commerce, and is, in fact, a world of its own. It’s nightmarish, almost claustrophobic. Strether brings up the subject of Marie. The awful horror and absurdity of Chad’s remarks at this moment have devastating power only because the reader has spent more than three hundred pages surrendering to Strether’s vision and his romantic illusions. You realize you and Strether have been played. Here, abruptly, Strether and the reader recognize that the prince is actually a frog. He has become thoroughly French in the most despicable way possible.

“Of course I really never forget, night or day, what I owe her. I owe her everything. I give you my word of honor . . . that I’m not a bit tired of her.” . . . He spoke of being “tired” of her almost as he might have spoken of being tired of roast mutton for dinner.

With all the clothes they had to leave behind in the country, to keep up the appearance of a day trip, it’s clear he isn’t tired of her. Chad has used everyone around him, has transformed himself at their expense, and now is ready to ditch them all and return home to claim all the bounty that will simply be handed over to him. He’s as evil, in his own way, as anyone can be in Henry James. All is lost, for Strether, for Madame de Vionnet, for (as it turns out) Maria Gostrey, and for the reader. Chad’s choices will destroy people around him, and yet he’s full of plans, ready for the future, absolutely stoked about advertising, so at least there’s that. He’s a man who will get things done. Yet Strether’s quest was all for nothing, because Chad isn’t Chad. Only this time, it’s the reverse of what that sentence meant in the theater when Strether met him. This is a novel obsessed with ethics and morality and the fine distinctions they require, and by the end it feels also almost as dark as King Lear.

E.M Forster’s very funny trashing of the late Henry James misses all of this. Many readers share his displeasure with James, the way in which the structure of the book demands characters who obey it and don’t exceed the outlines of the story James devises. He uses characters as puppets. Forster is funny and deadly in his brief skewering of James in Aspects of the Novel. He shrugs off the obscurity of the prose as if to boast that it didn’t make him pause at all—no need to rewind to hear that dialog again for me, folks—but he classifies James as an aesthete who sacrificed flesh and blood, the actual mess of common human life, on the altar of perfectly imagined form. The book is an hourglass where Strether and Chad change places, starting on one side of the helix and ending up on the other, crossing paths in the middle. Though he doesn’t point it out, Chad and Marie also obey a different hourglass, he lusting for her European sophistication and she falling for his American innocence, all of which leads to a reversal where he becomes the cynical and sophisticated manipulator and she the helpless romantic in his hands:

A pattern must emerge, and anything that emerged from the pattern must be pruned as wanton distraction. Who so wanton as human beings? Put Tom Jones or Emma or even Mr. Causaubon into a Henry James book, and the book will burn to ashes, whereas we could put them into one another’s books and only cause local inflammation.

He gives you a moment to laugh with pleasure and then continues:

Only a Henry James character will suit, and though they are not dead—certain selected recesses of experience he explores very well—they are gutted of the common stuff that fills characters in other books, and ourselves. This castrating is not in the interests of the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no philosophy in the novels, no religions (except the occasional touch of superstition), no prophecy, no benefit for the superhuman at all. It is for the sake of a particular aesthetic effect which is certainly gained, but at this heavy price.

Forster steps aside and quotes H.G. Wells to deliver the coup de grace:

The thing his novel is about is always there. It is like a church lit but with no congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg shell, a piece of string . . .

Forster sums it up:

Maimed creatures alone can breathe in Henry James’s pages—maimed yet specialized. They remind one of the exquisite deformities who haunted Egyptian art in the reign of Akhenaton—huge heads and tiny legs, but nevertheless charming. In the following reign they disappear.

It’s all hilarious, especially the dead kitten, and true to the experience of reading much of the late prose, and quite a persuasive take-down. Yet the nay-sayers remain blind to the evil that prevails or merely threatens to, how the duplicity of evil surrounds the occasions of adultery in the last three great novels, and how that adultery ruins—or, in the case of The Golden Bowl, his Winter’s Tale or The Tempest, is helpless to ruin—the lives of those around it because of the Christ-like sacrifice and selflessness of the betrayed wife, Maggie. His arrow is aesthetic perfection. His target is the reality of evil. Adultery is the other primal scene for James. The fact that James reduces his drama to a handful of characters is hardly a critique. It takes only three characters to create a timeless, profound story: a man, a woman, and a snake. James wanted to be a playwright, and the room on a stage admits a fraction of the characters in a novel from, say, Tolstoy or Proust. A short list of characters is hardly a flaw for Salinger or Beckett or Kafka. Forster apparently wants all novelists to be, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, foxes rather than hedgehogs. What Forster misses, maybe because Strether doesn’t seem to quite comprehend it himself (a feature consistent with the point of view and with that unified aesthetic effect Forster mentions), is the tragic power of a James novel. Portrait of a Lady is, as Anthony Lane put it when he revisited the novel in The New Yorker a decade ago, a horror story. So is The Ambassadors.

The horror isn’t in the revelation of evil alone. It’s in the dread that precedes it, the fog of duplicity, the fog of words and glances and smiles, the medium of the novel itself, that makes it possible. James went back again and again to the plight of the American in Europe. He lived it. One can imagine his being invited to dinner three hundred nights out of the year and yet every invitation represents, not a welcome into the European extended family, the gracious Habsburg hospitality, but an offer to be the night’s entertainment. Much of his life was probably spent this way, knowing how he was secretly held at arm’s length, even seated in a neighboring chair at a party in London or Paris. One would invite James into the fold for a few hours, the way one might hire Mackelmore or Taylor Swift to sing at your daughter’s wedding. The American in Europe is always an outsider. In an essay published in The Nation in 1878, “Americans Abroad”, James sums it up:

Americans in Europe are outsiders; that is the great point, and the point thrown into relief by all the zealous efforts to controvert it. As a people we are out of European society; the fact seems to us incontestable, be it regrettable or not. We are not only out of the European circle politically and geographically; we are out of it socially, and for excellent reasons. We are the only great people of the civilized world that is a pure democracy, and we are the only great people that is exclusively commercial. Add the remoteness represented by these facts to our great and painful geographical remoteness, and it will be easy to see why to be known in Europe as an American is to enjoy an imperfect reciprocity. (The Nation 27, October, 1878, pp 208-9)

That sardonic “imperfect reciprocity” is perfect, pure James, in its of tact and understatement. Please keep those dinner party reservations coming, Countess. It’s the fulcrum of the worldview that prevails in so much of his fiction. The American struggles to find a safe path through Europe and mostly fails and the failure can be horrifying, the lack of reciprocity deadly. Ironically, Chad actually enacts a sort of unwitting revenge for this imbalance—using Europe the way Europe mostly uses Americans in a James novel—and in his betrayal of Marie, he offers a mordant opportunity to smile for a reader so inclined. Chad uses Madame de Vionnet, not the other way around. But Strether’s defeat is total, and in it, James depicts how a good man, assiduously trying to do the right thing, can be used by the people around him and then discarded—just as Chad uses and discards Marie. Europe seduces Strether and compels him to sacrifice his own future for the sake of a few more weeks of Chad’s sexual pleasure and Madame de Vionnet’s romantic fantasy. It chews Strether up and then leaves him on the pavement, without income, without the wherewithal to see where his own interests lie with Maria Gostrey, dazed and confused and with nowhere to go. Europe ruins him in the process of reshaping Chad into a heartless, manipulative captain of industry, a model of American success, a kind of metastasized version of the stereotypical American Europe might befriend but never embrace. Forster could only wish he might have achieved such a dark, unsparing vision of human helplessness and hinted at it only in the echoes of the Marabar caves, but Forster’s wheelhouse was social comedy. James can be very amusing while he breaks your heart, but his amusements are a side dish. William James was a professional philosopher. Henry James is closer to Socrates. Though he had a mind so fine no idea could violate it, as Eliot put it, The Ambassadors has a philosophic, Socratic gravity: human knowledge is insufficient, misleading, evanescent and flawed. In the end, we know nothing. What are we to do? Alone, we are helpless to help ourselves, and those who survive, who succeed, will use us and then leave us behind. We can only hope to share Strether’s apparently cheerful stoicism, in the face of all this, at the end of the book—he may have been a fool, but he’s been ennobled by his sacrifice and his ability to be cheerful is the fruit of genuine, belated wisdom.

[1] Henry James, The Ambassadors, Norton Critical Edition, 1964, pp. 89-90.

 

Life Studies

Night Walker, Jim Mott

It’s the last week to see Jim Mott’s excellent work from a unique project, Life Studies, a modification of his usual itinerant mode, where he travels to a city like Ferguson, Missouri and paints scenes from the life of his participating host, as a gift in exchange for lodging. In this case, he has painted multiple scenes that mattered to a woman who lives here in Rochester.  About “Night Walker”, he says:

One of the paintings in my current show at the Yards – done after exploring Ridgeway Avenue at night a couple of weeks ago. This is in the area of Sacred Heart Cathedral – where my project collaborator, Sonja Rosario, was baptized and where one of Rochester’s 50+ fatal shootings of 2021 occurred earlier this year.

At THE YARDS – Jim Mott’s 2021 NYSCA project exhibit runs through Nov 28, Saturdays 10-1 and by appointment. Jim will give a talk about his practice on Nov. 20 from 5-7 pm. “Featuring the results of my 2021 NYSCA Grant project, Life Studies is a collection of paintings and stories based on collaborative sketch outings with Sonja Rosario Belliard, a creative individual and young mother from northwest Rochester. The images and words represent places of significance to her life.”

In a Different Light

My submission for the Oxford show, April Dawn, oil on linen, 52″ x 52″. Sold.

At the opening reception for “In a Different Light” at Oxford Gallery Saturday, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., you’ll be able to get a glimpse of one of the best themed group shows Jim Hall has organized. Nearly all the work is rewarding and some of it is remarkable and surprising. Tom Insalaco has been working for years on a series of paintings showing city traffic at night, almost an extreme reduction of his usually dark motifs into two-tone compositions that either look like a procession of ghostly headlights or sinuous lines of stars against the black ground of the urban night. In Night and Light, the title emphasizes the stark juxtaposition of blindingly bright light against almost featureless darkness. Yet this potentially bleak darkness comes across as familiar and alive: two figures, perfectly rendered in the half-light, watch the passing cars and make the viewer feel like another pedestrian enjoying the night’s energy. It’s as ordinary as a remembrance of a late walk to your room in New York City, but also suggestive of the anonymity of city life in a spiritually-isolated age.

Elizabeth Durand’s Shoreline Light, at etching monoprint, shows how much she has continued to push her work toward a sort of abstraction that somehow looks wonderfully accurate in the way it conveys the rich warm color of a setting sun over a strip of land and sea, all of it minimally indicated, yet rich with carefully applied color and brushwork that somehow passes for cloud formations but also looks expressionist and gestural. She has been making art for many decades, and now late in her life is still innovating as a quietly original and masterful print-maker whose feel for color has always been superlative.

In an utterly unique contribution to the show, Barbara Page has interpreted a small library of books in visual terms. It’s  the outcome of an epic endeavor to create a personal card catalog of 800 different books. Using blank library lending cards, she covered 800 of them with the title and author of each book then a unique work of art to visualize the book’s content in the spaces where borrowers would normally sign their names. The drawings are funny, clever, touching, and sometimes mysterious. All of them are either lively, lovely, or both. One of her contributions to the show is a copy of the book she published offering readers a catalog of the art work itself, and it was accompanied by a digital print of some of her favorite cards, as well as the two drawers containing all of the 800 original works. One could spend days poring intermittently through her efforts, giving each title the attention it deserves.

One of my favorite paintings in the show is Amy McLaren’s “Democracy.” I didn’t look at the title when I saw the painting at Oxford, and today when I spotted my photograph of it on my iPhone, I thought, “This is either about marriage or politics.” Then I saw the title in Jim’s price list and laughed. It is a funny painting—it shows what appears to be a white rooster running toward the left with a small group of black roosters running toward the right, the group clearly running away from the lone rooster and vice versa—as a metaphor of cluelessness of our contemporary political luminaries. But it’s a haunting image, and the faint light that falls on the agitated fowl bathes them in a sad kind of wisdom, as if this flight makes visible the universal human desire to flee the truth in a fading light that makes this possible and only fades faster because of it. The image transcends its intentions and the sense of mystery exceeds the title. It feels intimately familiar and mysteriously strange, these birds that seem to be levitating by virtue of their moonlit shadows.

In “Birds and Fish,” Kate Timm offers another of her still life/landscapes, with objects arranged before a window that offers a view of low hills browning with autumn color. The arrangement of objects enables her to work from pale greens and whitish yellows at the center of the composition outward toward more intense areas of warm reds orange and yellow, beside blues and purples. Colored glass, delphiniums, a drooping day lily, two birds pausing on thin branches reaching out of a red pitcher, and a small rectangular glass aquarium with goldfish, offer her a way to create a wonderful field of color on a bright autumn day.

Bill Santelli’s “Novalunosis” uses geometric abstraction to segregate and contain a small square of organically swirling color in a way that intensifies the effect of the color and the sense of freedom it suggests. Across the surface of the painting, regularly spaced small white dots form a rhythm of starry light, a motif from his work decades ago, introduced in a way that makes the painting work perfectly with the show’s theme. The feel of the image is the tension between mathematic, geometric order and control and the unpredictable core of swirling color as well as the immensity of that starry expanse against which it all takes place.

In his first contribution to an Oxford Gallery show, “Open Your Window”, Buffalo artist Michael Herbold creates an eerie and beautifully unsettling painting that draws attention to the surface in the thickness of the paint and the regular marks that descend like a column down the left third of the canvas. Yet in the remaining space, he creates what appears to be a cloud formation at sunset, the invisible sun reaching up from behind the curve of the horizon to blanch the underside of the cloud formation. The cloud seems to extend fingers or tentacles toward the right edge of the canvas and though it doesn’t seem to be advancing, the feel of the image reminded me of the end of Take Shelter, where a sort of apocalyptic storm is approaching the family on the beach from far out over the Atlantic.

With “Glimmer”, acrylic on canvas, Bill Stephens explores another corner of his inner imaginative world, plumbing his subconscious and finding an almost impressionistic scene, with hints of the Nabis, vague shapes flickering with light here and there, seen through a violet haze. His work has, for so long, centered on ink drawing, with great success, that it’s a surprise to see such an emphasis on color, another chapter in his prolific path.

With oil and cold wax on panel, Sharon Gordon continues to produce masterfully indefinite, abstract landscapes, this one more indebted to Turner than to recent abstractionists. In “Moving Toward Home V,” she uses blacks, bronze, gray and white to hint at a dark house on a shore, seen from out on a lake, with a low sun glinting and breaking through hazy clouds near the shoreline. Yet the image works as well as pure abstraction, where every mark seems both spontaneous and energetic and yet perfectly considered.

Probably the most innovative works on view are Margery Pearl Gurnett’s three Agamaglass constructions, geometric digital prints assembled behind vertical rows of curved glass that operate as lenses through which the image warps, changes color, and slowly insinuates itself away as you move from left to right or vice versa, gazing at the print. It’s Op Art that works almost the way one of those printed holograms worked, like the cover of The Rolling Stone’s Their Satanic Majesty’s Request.

And Jim Mott’s “Corn Hill a La Magritte” depicts a restored Victorian house in the Corn Hill district with a sky with clouds overhead that’s clearly a nod to Magritte’s “Empire of Light.” It’s an interesting way of merging Mott’s long-standing devotion to the particulars of specific, often random, places around the United States, brought home to Rochester, but with a sky from more than half a century ago.

This is an inadequate sample of the rewards the show offers. It will run until Nov. 27.

Caitlin Winner’s radiant narratives

Season of Plenty II, Caitlin Winner, oil on canvas, 65″ x 67″

Note: I was honored to be included in Manifest Gallery’s Painted biennial, an international survey of new painting, yet the show came and went before I had a chance to write about it. A week ago, though, near the end of the exhibit, I participated in a Zoom call with 15 or so of the artists showing at Manifest, including a few from the collateral exhibitions: Jason Bly to talk about his solo show and some painters from the galleries concurrent overview of exceptional recent watercolor painting. It was a stimulating discussion that ran into the evening for those of us on the Eastern side of the country, exciting partly because the work from these artists is among the best Manifest has gathered for Painted, and also because some of the artists were exceptionally articulate. I felt tongue-tied much of the time as I tried to speak briefly about what I’ve been able to write about more fluently in these posts. There’s almost no work in the show that didn’t impress me at one level or another, sometimes to the point of envy and sometimes despite my own aesthetic preferences. I’m going to try to post work from these painters every few days, alternating with paintings from the current group show at Oxford Gallery here in Rochester. I was so impressed by one painter in particular, I reached out to her and got some interesting answers to the questions I posed. This post is based on my response to her painting and what she wrote back.

Caitlin Winner works very slowly and deliberately, putting in more time on her paintings than nearly anyone I know. It shows in the strength of the results. Two of her large canvases were included in Manifest’s Painted exhibit in October, and they take perceptual painting to a place I love. I admire the work of most of the perceptual painters, though I think of it as a larger aesthetic space than do its primary practitioners, and I would include in its ranks painters whose work doesn’t exhibit many of its most familiar stylistic hallmarks—and aren’t usually considered part of the club. Above all else, Winner is an exceptional colorist, which I think sets her apart from much of the “perceptualists,” whose color is often remarkable but more subservient to other ends. Erin Raedeke’s paintings of birthday party detritus from a decade ago have been an exception, achieving a rare and delicate touch in the selection and use of color almost for its own sake. Yet color is boldly front and center for Winner in a way that isn’t the case with people like Zoey Frank and many others in that growing collective. I think of color as one of many equivalent formal tools most of the perceptual painters use to create a way of seeing that hovers between abstraction and representation, creating a sense of temporal disorientation, so that the past seems to move into view, blurring the contours of the present moment, creating what feels like the inexactitude of remembrance. David Baird, whose paintings were hanging beside Winner’s in the Manifest exhibit, offers an astonishing example of this: the gorgeous, autumnal tones of his images work to reinforce a dreamlike sense of temporal dislocation. Yet even with Baird, color—masterfully chosen—is on an equal footing with shape, value, line, and so on.

With Winner, as with someone like Louisa Mattiasdottir and Fairfield Porter, in October Interior, color becomes almost the overarching visual mission itself, with all the other formal qualities in a subservient role, even though so much else is going on in her devotion to the figures she shows the viewer: family and close friends who enriched her life during the pandemic’s most isolating months. The precision and clarity of her line also distinguishes her from many of her peers. Eve Mansdorf talks about the importance of edges, but clearly defined edges aren’t a mainstay for most perceptual painters who tend to elide and obscure the transitions between figure and ground. Winner’s outlines could have been drawn with a pair of scissors inherited from Matisse. The edges in her work bring to mind the clarity and definition of geometric abstraction from the 1960s. Her canvases have the translucent luminosity of watercolor, even though the oil is undoubtedly layered and opaque. Her color is intense and radiant, heighted by juxtapositions of complementary tones, but it nonetheless offers a visually accurate sense of immediacy in the way direct sunlight falls onto an outdoor scene. It’s almost impossible to capture the radiance of a bright summer day with photography, which favors the magic hour, early or late, when sunlight is diffused into the air, for bringing out the most vivid color without losing definition in the shadows. Yet here the relentless, high sun casts no colorless, murky shade. Foliage on the far side of a lake becomes a uniform curtain of beautiful green, a block of distinct color, as saturated in tone as anything in the foreground. Everything is crisply defined and drenched with color, like an old Kodachrome slide on a light table—it’s the light of the Impressionists—yet her figures are solid physical presences cut cleanly from their surroundings, not simply extensions of it, except in the way their color harmonizes with and enriches the color of what’s around them. Her kitchen interior works the same way: everything glows with color and light, nothing lost to shadow, no highlights overexposed, as inevitably the lights and darks would end up in a snap shot of the same room.

The arrangement of the figures in her work looks random and candidly “of the moment,” as it would in a series of snapshots, yet the paintings are rigorously structured. Winner based Season of Plenty’s composition on Piero’s Resurrection (which Aldous Huxley in a hyperbolic mood referred to as “the greatest painting in the world.”) The obvious triangle formed by the people assembled on the dock is counterbalanced by the downward-pointed chevrons in the boards of the dock, which are echoed and extended by the backs, arms, legs and other lines in the surrounding composition. Even after ten months of working on this canvas it isn’t clear that she’s quite done with it, based on her commentary. Season of Plenty II, the centerpiece of the Manifest show, achieves a perfect balance between abstraction and representation. It isn’t as first apparent how structural lines merge and unite background and foreground, because the image is so instantly convincing as a transcription of a family scene. (Her close-up photography of details shows how rough the paint actually appears on the surface, and how the eye resolves her painterly marks into a seamless image from a distance.) There are a couple concentric circles in the upper left quadrant that run through the background and the figures, and though they are subtle, they look fanciful until you understand that she’s using a trope from photography: the sun flare created by sunlight falling directly on a lens. Cleverly, her central figure’s tan lines become a continuation of a horizontal line formed by the back end of the dock, and the lower edge of his pectoral muscles, in the same way, picks up and extends the horizon line at the far end of the lake. You only notice these congruities after studying the image, and much of the abstract obscurity surrounding her grouping remains visually inconsequential. It works compositionally but it doesn’t overpower the remarkable realism—remarkable, given how the image breaks down into vigorously-applied paint on a rough surface up close.

What shines through all the work, aside from (but also as a result of) Winner’s technical achievement is an affirmation of love and the simplest pleasures of family life. The wisdom of that affirmation is what could drive a painter to keep going back to a painting for nearly a year. Ironically maybe, the slowness of that work becomes instantly recognizable in the beauty of the image.

Here are Winner’s responses to my questions:

Caitlin, as I mentioned the color in your paintings is what struck me most forcefully, the way in which the color works as visual music on its own merits, but also serves to define the figures in the value of the tones. I like how you are using relatively pure areas of tone that aren’t as muted as the color is in the work of a lot of the perceptual painters. Your paintings might be described as Fairfield Porter meets Louisa Mattiasdottir, and more toward the latter. Though she simplified form more radically, your images make a far more realistic impression: even though the color and detail is dramatically simplified. There’s also some Eve Mansdorf, the crisp edges, but the pentimento of undercoats showing through seems to be valued as an artifact of the painting process with someone like Frank, but with you it’s to create exactly the tone you need, vivid areas of color that stand on their own—as they do in Porter’s Tennis Game or October Interior. Am I characterizing correctly what you’re striving to do in these beautiful scenes?

Thank you, I admire all of these painters very much. 

I was taught to paint in the Hawthorne lineage, by putting one spot of color next to another. I think I sort of fall in love with whatever color I’m mixing. I want it to be the most beautiful version of itself / in relation to the neighboring colors. 

 When you refer back to work from art history, are you influenced only in the way you structure a painting when you work from a Piero or Poussin or Gaugin? Elise Ansel re-interprets Poussin as abstraction and I think she uses an earlier painting almost as a template simply for areas of color and value against which to balance her quick gestural technique, though she has said she channels something spiritual and/or erotic in this assimilation of earlier work. When you draw from Piero are you simply using the geometric composition from the earlier painting or also hoping to present some kind of re-interpretation of what was depicted? I’m guessing the former.

More of the former. Occasionally the history is too good not to play with. I’m working on a scene in a pasture right now with figures and animals. I’m looking at Piero’s nativity but also Titian, The Madonna of the Rabbit, where the rabbit is a symbol of fertility because female rabbits and hares can conceive a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with the first (!). I’m not sure where I’ll take this fact but I am thinking about it as I paint.

You have taken great care to use geometric shapes as organizing visual structures in Season of Plenty II, and elsewhere. These abstract properties are less obtrusive, more integrated into the realistic impression than they are in the work of others. I assume this is your intent: to emphasize the representational power of the work over the abstraction. Am I “reading” your images the way you intend?

The geometry helps me organize the painting and keep the chaos at bay. Sometimes it is symbolic. In season of Plenty II I was thinking about the figures in a circle as seen from above. I tried a circle in perspective at their feet and then later the double sun flares. The sunflares also helped break up the air around the figures. 

Lining up the interior and exterior lines in my “window sill” painting, or body parts with lines in the landscape as in Season of Plenty is a way to make the parts and the whole feel inevitable. 

The figures in that painting almost sit like hours on a clockface or spokes in a wheel. How much of all this is a conscious decision on your part and how much is simply what happens in the long months of work you put in on a painting, and a bit of a surprise when you arrive at the image that looks finished?

I find a lot of it along the way. In “Is there anything new?” finding the geometry in the floor tiles finished the painting after months of struggle.   

What is happening in the months that go into each painting? Are you constantly adjusting the composition, the shapes and arrangement of figures, or are you mostly working on getting the colors exactly right? Zoey Frank seems to pride herself on how she can improvise a figure in different poses as she develops a painting. Are you doing anything like that? Do you have to go back over entire areas with a new ground and begin from scratch or is the work mostly a matter of less dramatic adjustments?

It’s equal parts solving for composition and color/value. I do move figures around, sometimes I change the pose entirely if I can’t make my first idea work.  I like to make progress videos that show all of this. The videos are made up of still photos I take after each painting session. https://www.instagram.com/p/CJD98bfHWY1/

Did you say during the Zoom call that you had gotten sidetracked into a career in tech? How long did that last and were you painting during the period at all? If you are interested in talking about it, how have you managed to work on painting full time? When did you start drawing or painting, at what age?

My high school had a wonderful art program. I took summer classes and in order to take more art classes during the year. I loved being in the state of making.

My parents were not enthusiastic about my desire to study art in college so I studied economics and later found a way to do art inside the bounds of the emerging tech boom. I started out doing little animations and then building websites, eventually designing websites and working at Facebook on their mobile app.

I started painting soon after I graduated college. I think even then I was looking for an antidote to technology. I lucked out with a vibrant and eccentric first teacher and then again by attending the Jerusalem Studio School’s program in Italy for several summers. After JSS I started to pick out painters I admired and look for opportunities to study with them. I was working in tech throughout and painting on weekends.

How long have you been showing your current work?

Manifest is my first physical show with this body of figurative work.

 I think I saw that you offer prints of your work. Bravo. I have talked about this for years with my painter friends here in Rochester, upstate. I’m glad to see someone is actually doing it: it seems to me a solution to the central problem of visual art now. There’s no way to charge what a painting is worth, given the time and years of learning that go into it, and still reach a public large enough to make visual art something that has a role in the lives of an average educated person.

I agree. It takes time to deal with the higher volume of buyers and do the shipping logistics, that’s the only downside.

Are your figures members of your family? I assume so, but thought I’d ask. It’s hard to imagine working for eight months on a painting of models or strangers.

Yes. Family and a few close friends. 

Your work, strikes me as intensely affirmative, a resounding yes to life. When you structure a painting after Piero’s work, it would be hard to paint something darkly sardonic. Am I right in assuming that you aren’t being ironic or cynical in a painting with a title that includes the word plenty in a cultural season when prosperity and abundance don’t seem in high favor? (Abundance is human, not economic, in my view.)

Yes, no irony. I’m trying to tell believable stories about the world now as it is, and how it can be. Season of Plenty was a pandemic painting and while we were short on toilet paper we were fortunate to have grandparents staying with us long term, a garden and fish in the pond. 

 

Tighten up

This is the verso view of the Degas self-portrait at the Getty. I was surprised at how many stretcher bar “keys” were wedged into every available joint in the wood to tighten it up. I generally use them as a last resort, keeping the surface flat by using different kinds of linen canvas for larger paintings than for small, unfastening the canvas and restretching, and so on. The problem I’ve had with this method is that the wedges loosen up in transport so that a tightly stretched canvas comes out of the crate a little slack by the time it arrives at a show. Also surprised that such a relatively small painting would need this much attention: smaller linen canvases tend not to loosen up in a visible way in my experience. It’s a pleasant surprise to see how a 160-year old painting looks almost brand new from the back: maybe because some comparatively recent attention was given to restretching it on new wood. It would be interesting to see how someone would do this job in such tight spaces behind the canvas.

Wittgenstein and the ethics of hyper-realism

Rod Penner, 290 East Brenham TX, acrylic on canvas, 32″ x 48″, detail

 

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There’s a sense in which Vermeer’s interiors have an aura similar to that of a religious icon. There is little that’s explicitly religious in Vermeer’s subject: civilized, upper-middle class life in a culture where capitalist wealth was generating a new quality of life and an economic environment where painting could thrive. You can look at other work during the same period and be astonished at the quality, but in Vermeer, something unique emerged, this ability to convey the most ordinary moments in a tranquil, prosperous household as if they were eternal, blessed, somehow transfigured by ordinary sunlight through a leaded glass window. In a certain sense, Vermeer used purely esthetic means to awaken an ethical sense in the viewer—ethical in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s broad and slightly unconventional sense of the word. He opens his lecture on ethics with a startling assertion: “Now I am going to use the term Ethics in a slightly wider sense, in a sense in fact which includes what I believe to be the most essential part of what is generally called Aesthetics.”

He goes on to explicate what he’s attempting to say:

Now instead of saying “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good” I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable, or, into what is really important, or I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living. I believe if you look at all these phrases you will get a rough idea as to what it is that Ethics is concerned with.

If you have read enough Wittgenstein, you would recognize that he is saying things that he, in other contexts, would call nonsense. This is not a pejorative term for him. It’s fundamental nonsense. To enquire into the “meaning of life” is to do something of almost grave importance, something he highly respected—as a threshold for living properly. (He would undoubtedly go on at length about the various implications of saying “properly” here.) This was, more or less, the mission of Socrates, to use reason as a ladder at the top of which you step off to live a good life, in the ethical (and also esthetic) sense of the word. It’s not a coincidence that Wittgenstein was the most Socratic of all Western philosophers since Socrates. He taught and philosophized by thinking along with his students, and he published only one book—which actually ought to draw comparisons to the pre-Socratics in its epigrammatic form—in his lifetime. What good means in this context is essentially indeterminate, inexpressible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s relative or subjective. Wittgenstein understood that to assert “I need to know the meaning of life” is to say something accurate and meaningful about a pursuit of nonsense—in his usage of that term. You are saying something about yourself that can be verified in a sense, so that the sentence itself has reasonable content about you, but the phrase “meaning of life” isn’t a signifier for which there are corresponding facts in the world. If the world is “everything that is the case” or the sum total of all facts, and logical thought consists only of propositions about the world that can be either true or false, then a phrase for which there are no corresponding facts is not logical; it is nonsense. And yet the fact that the phrase exists, that people use it, shows something that the words themselves cannot say: it “shows forth” the universal human urge to say what isn’t sayable, to think what can’t be thought—to discover, as it were, what life is. To put it another way, it demonstrates the human desire to step outside the world and see the whole of it clearly, objectively, in a way that makes sense of the totality of being. This is rationally impossible for a thinking individual, living within the world. You can’t step outside yourself and get a good look, let alone step outside the entire world for a more comprehensive view. In a similar way, in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein pointed out, in reference to logical thought as a picture of the world, “2.174 A picture cannot place itself outside its form of representation.” And “3 The logical picture of the facts is thought.” Therefore, thought cannot get outside itself to see and express clearly its own relation to the world. Nevertheless, thought reaches its limit and keeps pushing, speaking nonsense—in Wittgenstein’s sense—in order to express what’s unthinkable and inexpressible. There is something both absurd and yet utterly essential in this endeavor, this craving, and this restless compulsion resides at the core of Wittgenstein’s life work. He spent his life attempting to clarify the limits of reasoning and to show how reasoning—and especially science—isn’t enough, it can only take you so far, and not very far at that, when it comes to understanding how to live a good life, in both the ethical and aesthetic sense.

In his essay on ethics, he says:

I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were . . .  a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water . . . <even> if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

One’s first reaction to this is to say that there are, on the contrary, many quite obvious ways to describe ethical behavior, good behavior, a good life. Why is a book on ethics so unthinkable? Karen Armstrong, who studies the commonalities of the world’s religions, reduces the essence of religion to one imperative, The Golden Rule. This would seem to be a way in which one could answer the question about the most important thing in life, or the meaning of life: to not do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. This is for her the heart of all ethical codes. But this advice isn’t a proposition that can be verified; it isn’t a statement of fact that is either accurate or inaccurate. It isn’t an argument that turns a command—love your neighbor as you love yourself—into a propositional truth. It’s still an imperative, or command, and is in a sense supra-natural, not a proposition about facts, not something derived from the world or the sum total of facts about the world. It isn’t something one can derive rationally from what is the case in the world. The goodness of treating others with kindness and love may seem self-evident, but only if you begin with a presupposition of a self-evident absolute good—and reason has no way to express or comprehend this absolute other than to believe that it obtains. It doesn’t exist in the world and reason can only contend with facts in the world. This presupposition of an absolute good may be utterly central to your life, but as a rational postulate it’s a chimera. Absolute goodness can’t be located or described or, really, imagined, let alone verified.  For Wittgenstein, the only way to clarify this idea of The Good is to observe how language about it is used in a particular way of life.

All of this carries over into how Karen Armstrong, in A Case for God, explains why religion has become intellectually discredited over the past two centuries and yet is alive and well, in various forms across the globe: because it has been misunderstood as a set of propositions about the world rather than a complex language that “shows forth” a way of life that can embody a distinctly different awareness of human existence, with all the concomitant behavior that embodies it. The key for her, and Wittgenstein—and Tolstoy before him—was the realization that religion (and art for that matter) are ways of life, founded on the desire to align oneself with absolutes that transcend the facts of the world. Only with an assumption of these absolutes do facts have any value whatsoever. Otherwise, the world is a collection of neutral facts, none of which have more value than the others. Wittgenstein says:

I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolutely valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.

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In this essay on ethics, as should be obvious from the clarity of these quotes, Wittgenstein says fundamental things about both ethics and aesthetics, religion and art, directly and plainly (in a way that’s more conversational than his better-known work which often leads the reader around the insight he wants to evoke, circling it and aiming at it obliquely.) For example, about his intimations of absolute goodness:

I believe the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it, I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.’

And shortly, he adds:

The first thing I have to say is, that the verbal expression which we give to these experiences is nonsense! But it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing.

Here, he is staying within the lines he drew in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. For a statement to make sense, it needs to assert something about the world that is either the case or not the case. There is no way to make sense of Wittgenstein’s ontological puzzlement, this wonder about everything that exists, because it seems to ask a question for which there is no intelligible answer. In this passage, Wittgenstein finds himself a philosophical bedfellow with Heidegger, for whom the central philosophical question was almost identical: Why is there something rather than nothing? A scientist might have an answer that mixes cosmology and physics, but that doesn’t respond to what’s being shown in the question. To offer this questioner a lesson about the Big Bang simply misunderstands the nature of the question itself, what the questioning represents in the life of a human being rather than what the question asks semantically. Science would try to twist the meaning of the question into a quasi-empirical framework in order to answer the question on terms that don’t address its role in the life of the questioner—and doesn’t address the puzzlement of rationality trying to exceed its grasp. To ask such a nonsensical question with enough insistence—as a Buddhist struggles to solve a koan, say—may serve as a crossroads or turning point in the life of the questioner, a prelude to some sort of awakening, about which again nothing sensible can really be said to elucidate its nature. A Zen Buddhist koan is an example of the sort of crucial nonsense Wittgenstein recognized as something at the core of what makes him human.

Imagine a scientist saying, “It isn’t really wonderful that everything exists, because it’s all just the outcome of the Big Bang.” Aside from being a buzz kill, this would be a bit like explaining the beauty and mystery of Vermeer by attaching probes to the skull and measuring what happens in the brain of someone looking at The Music Lesson. The scientific way of looking at the world entirely misconstrues the nature of aesthetic and ethical discernment and reduces subjective human experience to its concomitant physical events. This was Wittgenstein’s point, that rationality, and especially science, has severe limits—fully aware of the danger of how science and rationality are reductionist when applied in areas where science is irrelevant. It’s like bringing a crescent wrench to a baptism. If someone woke up to find that he had turned into a cockroach during the night, science would hypothesis and take measurements to explain it, but that would be missing the nature of the event. He says:

The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that term. For we see now that we have been . . . describing the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: it is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle.

3

Aesthetically, Vermeer seems to offer the most distinguished case for what Wittgenstein is getting at. The Dutch painter depicts the most commonplace and ordinary things with no extraordinary value in and of themselves—a woman pouring milk, another woman getting a music lesson, and so on—while also conveying a sense that these domestic moments have been transfigured, instantiating a glimpse of what’s timeless, eternal, or blessed. And he does this without appearing to distort or change anything in what he observes before him. This quality is, one might think, an aesthetic corollary to “The Buddha is your everyday mind.” This is at the heart of what distinguishes Vermeer as a great, or even the greatest painter, the way in which he used marks of paint on a flat surface to convey a certain quality of light and color that, itself, embodied an otherwise inexpressible “spiritual” goodness.

When Vermeer depicts a woman pouring milk, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the picture. It is entirely mundane. So why does one have the sense here of eavesdropping on something holy? How and why does a Vermeer painting convey this aura? Again, there’s no reasonable way to answer this question and a set of scientific measures about the correlation between qualities in the painting and responses in the observer would be a comical misunderstanding of aesthetics. In a parallel way, though Wittgenstein didn’t consider himself religious and didn’t practice any particular religion, he famously said: “I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.” He wasn’t saying that he couldn’t overcome his Catholic upbringing at the end of the Habsburg reign. He wasn’t making an observation about his psychology. He likely meant the philosophical impulse for him was as all-consuming and was as much about the mind’s inability to grasp the wholeness of the world as would be the case for a devoted monk, just as driven to align himself with the ineffable wholeness he calls God, about which he has no choice but to remain silent, if he’s honest about what he’s able to express.

A collection of philosophical essays, Ludwig Wittgenstein between Analytic Philosophy and Apophaticism, concludes with a long, trenchant essay by Michael Grant, “Wittgenstein and the Language of Religion.” The early pages of this essay offer a way of understanding what’s happening in Vermeer’s work and how his greatness can be understood in a quite simple way, once you recognize the engagement between a painting and its viewer. To see this simple, yet puzzling way of thinking about painting only intensifies the mystery of its power, its alchemy. Grant’s essay also works as a way of understanding why photo-realism and hyper-realism offer an opportunity to alter the way a viewer sees without significantly altering the sense that you are engaged in an unmediated observation of the scene. Grant refers to a section of Philosophical Investigations that concerns “aspect seeing” or “seeing as.” It’s a familiar phenomenon. Most people have seen drawings or photographs that can be recognized in two different ways: maybe the most famous is the beautiful young woman looking away from the viewer whose ear can become the eye of an old crone when you recognize the entirely different image called forth by the elements of the picture. Nothing in the picture has changed, but you can see it in one of two opposite ways, each of which evokes an entirely different woman. You are seeing the same thing, in sensory terms, in all of its details and formal qualities, but you are recognizing two entirely different “aspects” of it. (“Aspect” doesn’t seem quite the right word, because it suggests “feature” rather than the act of recognition.) In the image you are recognizing two dramatically different people whose visible features are identical in terms of what occupies your field of vision. The ear of one becomes the eye of another, though nothing changes in the picture itself. It goes without saying that Escher depended on this phenomenon in much of his curious work. But there is a way in which a shift in “aspect seeing” could become a metaphor to describe how any visual art can change the way one sees the world—and maybe it’s more than a metaphor.

Grant writes:

Wittgenstein’s account of aspect-seeing starts from what seems a paradox: when an aspect dawns on me, nothing has changed in what I see, and yet everything looks different. “The expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged.” . . . “It is of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand.” (p 168-169)

Wittgenstein here is describing how his philosophical method is an attempt to shift his reader’s or listener’s mind into a recognition of things from a different aspect: nothing in life changes, nothing in our scientific facts about the world changes, but everything is recognized differently.

A bit later, Grant adds:

It makes sense for me to ask you to see the likeness between two faces. I can ask you to look for it, and give you hints as to how to go about it. The same holds for aesthetic judgments. As with aesthetic insight, an insight which requires the exercise of one’s imagination, no information is acquired . . . Nothing is discovered. Hence there is a sense that aspects are not subject to dispute. They are not open to rational support or to disconfirmation by appeal to the facts. One might say that aspects are cognitively empty. (p 171)

He brings this all home, in terms of Vermeer, with:

Solving a picture puzzle, or engaging in aesthetic appreciation or judgment, may depend on getting someone to see an aspect to which he is now blind . . .what would be involved here would be distinctive: it would involve a form of rational discussion without the possibility of proof . . . (p. 173) “the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes . . . we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and powerful.” (p 175)

Vermeer aside, one could draw upon that last quote from Wittgenstein almost as an argument for what representational art does, by definition, in all cases—aside from anything else it is consciously created to do, whatever ideas or agendas an artist embraces.

4

On my last visit to New York City as the pandemic restrictions were lifting, I visited Meisel Gallery in its downtown location toward the end of my tour of galleries and museums. I was struck by Rod Penner’s hyper-realist paintings, not only because of their technical achievement, but because of the nature of what he was depicting. He favors small Texas towns that still look as if the marks of the Western frontier might peek out at you through the seams between one object and another, places where they might have shot scenes for The Last Picture Show decades ago. At first glance, I fell in love with Penner’s images, partly because he steps out of the way and lets you see exactly what you would have seen if you had been standing where he was when he captured what he saw. He shows you this part of the country invisibly and self-effacingly, and with astonishing accuracy, down to the tire tracks that reach out like skeletal fingers from puddles of rainwater and each speck of gravel arrayed like a galaxy on the blacktop. It’s not saying much to call a photo-realist or a hyper-realist “self-effacing” since that’s essential to the genre, which is to show you with exceptional precision exactly what meets the eye—without consciously modifying it. (Even though, and this is a fact at the heart of all painting, every photo-realist conveys the world individually, despite the conventions of the genre and despite the painter’s conscious intent to disappear in the act of painting.) Most hyper-realists are up to more than self-effacement, and you can feel their different personalities, at a minimum, in their choice of subjects and the way they crop their images or pick the sort of light they want the scene to convey.

Richard Estes is unique in the quality of his marks, for example. In general, photo-realism is a gaudy, sexy genre that emerged out of Pop Art, with a lot of things going on, and plenty of opportunities for shiny spectacle, where taste is flexible. It’s a commercially viable genre, and therefore of little interest in the critical community. (Dave Hickey wrote The Invisible Dragon against that bias.) Seeing a retrospective of Richard Estes up close at the Museum of Arts and Design in 2015 demonstrated how subtle and restrained his best work has been. Up close, his marks were visible, simple, methodical as Chuck Close’s, often seemingly uniform, though not as reductive as Welliver’s, and the marks disappeared as you moved away, like pixels from a distance, but even so, they hummed in your field of vision. It was part of what made the image come alive, that sense of rigorous and confident simplicity in his marks. In the images he chose, the busy metropolitan streets, he often evoked the exact feel of being in New York City, the submerged awareness of the city as a whole that laid the subliminal ground for my moment-to-moment impressions during my purposeful maneuvers around the city. The work selected for the Estes show was exceptional because of its subtle color and the mastery he brought to it during the years he executed the paintings. Often, as with so much hyper-realism now, he chose images for their abstract properties, with an effect similar to what Sheeler often achieved in his choices. Yet most of the images stirred my submerged awareness of the whole city, by making me see, at one remove and as a whole, what I had just been seeing on the streets around the museum in a more fragmented way. It was a subtle but radical shift in aspect similar to what Wittgenstein talks about. In the choices Estes made, mostly matters of personal predilection, he distilled an experience of beauty from subjects rarely considered beautiful in the daily experience of someone navigating the city. He made my everyday mind something arresting, liberating and marvelous, in its entire aspect, while not altering anything in the content of that everyday mind. How this is so represents a puzzle at the heart of why anyone loves even the most traditional visual art.

This is what Penner does even more vividly.  In the four acrylic paintings viewable at the Meisel site, completed between 2004 and 2008, he favors nearly empty streets at different times of day during the summer or spring, after a rainfall. Water stands in puddles and either drenches the blacktop or is drying from it. Part of the appeal and sense of wonder you get from paintings this masterful is the way Penner—like many who work in this genre—can seem to duplicate a photographic source down to the smallest detail. Each painting is a marvel of technical skill. But this isn’t what distinguishes Penner’s scenes. Somehow, in the choice of subjects and in the way he captures nearly empty streets in Bertram and Brenham, Texas—as sunlight falls directly or indirectly onto the macadam and the standing water, everything bathed in the same quality of light, the viewer is filled with a sense of momentary perfection and a faint sense of loss, which intensifies the moment’s perfection and beauty. Why, though, it is beautiful? The sense of loss accompanies, among other things, the knowledge that you know you will soon look away.

In Clearing Skies Bertram, TX (a witty touch, to indicate the state by its postal abbreviation, emphasizing that most viewers of his work would only have contact with Texas, if at all, through the postal service) the A.B. McGill & Co. stands like an historic monument, its brick façade showing forth a lost era of human labor and craft. It reminded me immediately of Vermeer’s The Little Street, where the walls appear to be assembled with individual, rough-hewn stones rather than uniform bricks familiar to anyone who shops at Home Depot now. The color and shape of each stone—they are used as bricks but look like individualized stones—appears utterly unique and distinct from all the rest. This wall itself is as interesting and as full of the human touch as a painting, and he shows it to you twice. Not only do you see it directly at the right edge of the painting but it’s mirrored in the large puddle on the parking lot below. It quit raining not long ago, the clouds are dispersing, the blue sky appearing again, probably late in the day but maybe having just cleared the horizon at the start of the day. This is not a picturesque scene, not a prospect most people would even notice, as they walk across the street, and yet you don’t want to look away from the painting of it.

Most of these observations hold for his 290 East, Brenham TX that shows the main drag in another small town, with its antiquated diagonal parking. Great Falls, Montana looked almost exactly like this when my wife and I moved there before we had our first child, in the late 70s. The rain has passed, the sky is completely clear, and the sun is either setting or coming up. It’s the photographer’s magic hour. Looking at the painting, I’m seeing the town the way I would if I had just finished working overtime at the counter in the local pharmacy, now walking home alone. Again, the painting does what a great Japanese haiku does: it presents to me something utterly ordinary and overlooked, something about which no one, in the actual material events of an average day, would pause and say, “Look at that, will you? I mean, just look at that.” And yet, as a painting, this view of mundane and literally pedestrian surroundings, silences my mind and makes me pause to keep looking, with a feeling that I’m seeing something infinitely familiar and yet breathtaking. There’s an e.e. cummings poem that opens: somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond any experience, your eyes have their silence: in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, or which i cannot touch because they are too near.

Art like Penner’s is about showing forth what can’t be touched because it is too near. This is a large portion of what Wittgenstein meant in his passages about “aspect shifts.” The sense of the miraculous can be awakened by particular events in life—it’s a miracle that horse won the race—but he was most interested in the philosophical puzzlement that gives rise to the sense that Being itself is a miracle, that the world as a whole is what a philosopher or painter or poet is, in a paradoxically fragmentary way, attempting to “show forth.” Absolutely nothing changes in what you see, in this sort of painting, when compared with what you would see in the actual place, but everything is seen differently, and that kind of seeing is at the heart not just of the aesthetic life, but is the ground of an ethical life as well. Without that kind of reverence for everything, why bother with any discriminations of right and wrong. You bother because the sort of perfection you see in a painting reflects the sort of perfection offered and ignored every hour of the day to someone too busy to notice, and that perfection once recognized inspires the desire to keep noticing and honoring it in your awareness and behavior. As Rilke put it, in recognition of a damaged torso of Apollo’s perfection: “There is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” This is a paradox—everything is perfect just as it is in this fragmented sculpture. In reaction to this paradox, one must choose this rather than that—and there’s no rational argument to justify this. It’s a paradox that can give rise to a life work of humble paintings of everyday things, depicted in a way that makes you think you’ve never actually seen them until you’ve seen them in a painting, and this is where aesthetic and ethical goodness fuse together. When you do see them, as if for the first time, you want to be a better person.

Bridge

Screen shot from Bridge

I met a young artist at the Chautauqua Institution in August, Ali Georgescu, through her grandparents, who visit during the lecture season every summer. Having recently earned her degrees at Kenyon and Columbia College Chicago, and still looking for a path out into the world, Ali was working the front desk at one of the galleries. She’s a “lens-based” artist herself, but her work wasn’t on view in the student show at the Fowler-Kellogg Art Center. Having toured that show and then later in the day viewing one of Georgescu’s videos, I was more taken with her work than with anything I saw in the exhibit, except maybe an archival inkjet print, Truth or Consequences, by Furen Dai.

Georgescu is an observant young woman, laconic, skeptical, but personable and quietly intelligent. Her video, Bridge, is a montage of short excerpts from archival video and film. With software she’s constructed a dream sequence that reminded me a little of the deadly video in The Ring except that with the VCR footage in The Ring it’s actually easier to deconstruct what you’re looking at by the end of the movie. (I didn’t get a dreaded phone call, with Bridge, and haven’t yet died after watching it several times.) I’ve been charmed enough to keep going back and trying to make out what I’m seeing and though I haven’t made much headway, I’ve enjoyed it more each time. It seems there are maybe a couple dozen excerpts fused into one surreal narrative: a road rolling under the camera, a knife-thrower using a child as a target, houseflies flickering into view, ocean waves, large fish swaying against one another, a close-up of a woman’s eye—all of it slightly out of focus and most of it washed out, as if the lens were pointed toward a setting sun. Behind the entire video is a tubular white noise, eerie and hollow, affectless. You look at this sequence of imagery as if through a strange, throbbing, square tunnel. In the end, everything is swallowed by that oncoming light. I wanted to see and recognize more of what she was showing me, have something come into focus at last, but nothing ever did, and yet as a result the seven-minute video—for all it’s remote and chilly imagery—felt almost nostalgic and wistful, like the fragmented memories from a child of itinerant parents. It’s haunting and assured and maybe an indication of even more interesting things to come.

Notes from underground

In 2004, for his MFA thesis at the University of Maryland, Matt Klos painted a series of underground studio spaces. In these White Paintings, he paid homage, in his own idioms, to the work of Antonia Lopez Garcia. He represented various aspects of a drab and artificially lit basement studio. All of these interiors were spare and utilitarian and slightly abandoned-looking. The subtle complexity of their white walls fascinated him, as well as their blank, apophatic humility, the quality of erasing themselves, reflecting maybe just enough light to direct your attention to the muted color of other charmless things in the room: a utility sink or a chalkboard or a skeleton. As Klos put it in his thesis, in this small series of studio scenes, he wanted to evoke “the ethereal beauty inherent in the visible.” That doesn’t seem quite right. Most painters I know have signed up for that mission. It’s more as if, in his work, he wants to create a way of tapping the potential for a pictorial beauty inherent in a place, a beauty that wouldn’t be quite visible anywhere except in the quality of a painting of it. The beauty of a Matt Klos painting lives in the intensity of his gaze, and the insistence of his struggle to make paint retain its character as paint on a particular surface while conveying the life of what he sees. (This seems like a core axiom of the perceptual painters with whom Klos has aligned himself.) Mostly, like Antonia Lopez Garcia, he likes the challenge of representing what wouldn’t instantly be recognized as lovely or appealing. The beauty of his painting rests in the uncompromising passion that drives this assiduous and painstaking attention to what most people might not bother to let their eyes rest on for more than a few seconds.

It would appear Klos hates to come up out of the basement. For a decade and a half, he keeps returning to these underlit spaces, some of them cluttered and crammed with antiquated objects or the tools he relies on. (He does come out of Plato’s cave now and then, though. When he ventures above ground, as he does regularly, his work is quite different, often bright and stunningly expansive even in the confines of very small canvases. His little painting, Belfast Bay, is a marvel in which he creates qualities of scintillant light and a sense of a vast brilliant stretch of water simply through the way he magically scumbles the paint.) His new solo show, Contents of a Cabinet, at Gay Street Gallery is virtually a catalog of the many antiquated things left behind by a previous resident in a basement he adopted as his studio in Maryland more than a decade ago. He paints in a working-class neighborhood near the “recently closed Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point.” (The most startling word in that artist’s statement is “recently.” How did an American steel plant survive so long?) As he wrote for the first installment of this series of studio paintings at Gay Street in 2017, when he moved into the space more than a decade ago, “Dust and disorganization obscure the objects. Even when the objects are clearly defined their meanings may be lost to our current generation. In an age when so many answers are at our fingertips, I marvel at what seems to be a disconnection with our recent past.”

 At the gallery’s website, the paintings aren’t titled, nor are their sizes indicated, though it’s clear from the texture of the surfaces that some are quite small. The larger paintings are the most intriguing. Klos paints the sort of things that look as if they stayed put on their shelves after an estate liquidation and weren’t snatched up by survivors of the owner’s death. He shows an old Sanka can, probably full of nails or bolts, and then something that looks like an improvised vise for squaring a frame, and shelves full of Depression glass and old dishware, a teapot, dolls, candles, a box full of wrench sockets, and an old landline wall telephone. These objects mostly give the impression of physical weight and mass, and they cast harsh shadows. They look stubbornly resistant to current culture, popular style, feng shui, ergonomics, and the virtualization of human experience: in other words, they are immune to everything contemporary, with one eccentrically lovely exception. Somehow, Klos gives us the guts of what appears to be a desktop computer being scavenged, its little green circuit boards (a video card maybe, or a wafer of RAM) glowing like grass in a university quad, lodged into a composition arranged as a wheel of muted, subtle colors: coral, ochre, olive green, blue-grey, and dark apricot. Against this parade of lumpy physicality, there is one painting in the series that looks as if it crashed this party from another dimension. In what almost qualifies as a Diebenkorn vision of a Santa Monica ocean view, Klos shows the viewer two blank turquoise panels, side by side, bisected by a small crease through which you can see vague gray details of what’s hidden behind the panels, a small and vibrant wound around which everything pivots, with a little bleeding sliver of brilliant red near the bottom. A rectangular streak of blue sweeps across the base of the canvas, and along the left border (bringing the viewer back to earth) what appears to be a sheer robe or apron hangs to the left of the panels. It’s a brilliant, luminous study, minimalist, almost non-representational, full of joy, as if all the expansive green and blue of sea and sky and mountains beyond the walls of this work space had flooded into his basement through this one canvas.

What keeps me coming back to look at the paintings in this show is a jumbled interior scene with what appears to be a child’s brilliant painting on paper that has come loose from its anchoring tape and rests askew behind and above a fat red candle resting on a flat surface shared with a couple dolls and a Kleenex tissue cube. In front of these objects is what appears to be the upholstered backrest of an antique, carved hardwood chair. The surface of the wood is conveyed with precision, the cataract glaze of its old glossy finish gone dull and gray, all of the cordovan-colored wood in bad need of being stripped and refinished. The whole composition, like the neo-Diebenkorn canvas, is structured in concentric rectangles shaped by wires and lumber, these elements criss-crossing themselves into a firm grid around the red, unlit candle that looks votive given the fact that it’s sitting just below a crucifix hanging on one of the exposed studs in the upper right corner. The whole image inhabits a sort of tattersall of crosses. Klos includes two paintings of this scene in the show, the other one a quick study of these central objects, including the crucifix. As you absorb these circumstantial indications of spirituality, you look again at the Kleenex tissue and it seems to be floating up like smoke or a ghost or rising like a shrouded figure from its cube. It all offers just enough of a signal of Matt’s faith: it doesn’t overwhelm the painting, but makes itself felt and appreciated and respected as a quiet affirmation of something that seems to be at home among things discarded and overlooked by contemporary culture. It would be interesting for someone to do a study of how current painters tackle the struggles and disciplines of faith, from any tradition, and the parallels to the work of painting itself: the requisite mindfulness, humility, and patience. In my own work, faith is entirely subliminal, a motive for painting without being the overt subject of anything I depict. This may be Matt’s situation as well: painting as a corollary of prayer.

During the Renaissance the question of faith was quite simple: it was the reason for painting anything, the system in which painting made sense. After the advent of modernism, with a few exceptions like Rouault, faith seems to have little place in most painting, especially now, given the West’s intellectual antipathy to Christianity. Even though more than two-thirds of Americans identify as Christian, do painters need to work little samizdat signs, like this basement crucifix, into their images as a code to other spiritually devoted types? Being a Christian can’t be an effective calling card in Chelsea—more a quick way to get ostracized and banished from sophisticated society. Which makes these indications of it just as much a signal of artistic integrity as a predilection for painting things underground.

Alice Carpenter’s tiny, enormous dream

Alice Carpenter, monotype, relief inks on paper, 4″ x 4″

This monotype was selected for the 2021 Butler Midyear, another of the remarkable pieces included in one of the best Midyear exhibitions Butler has assembled in quite a while. I’m dumbfounded by the way Carpenter can convey a dreamlike, timeless, and utterly haunting world, a world that feels both slightly oppressive and yet spacious and expansive, all within the confines of a tiny square of paper.

Marc Ross

Marc Ross, Make Me That Happy 2, Acrylic, pastel and color pencil
53″x 55″

Another work from Marc Ross won Best in Show at the Butler Midyear exhibition. His exquisitely executed abstractions refer back to Rothko, minimalism and the ghostly, incremental discriminations of Agnes Martin’s bands of faint color, but his work is all his own.