Death and the Critic

For me, the difficulty writing about visual art starts with my struggle to describe the open-ended and visceral experience of looking within the far narrower limitations of language. Prose writers complain about the information and nuance lost when their work is translated from one language to another, but at least it still follows the rules of language on both sides of the translation. Add to the linguistic struggles the vagaries of individual visual acuity – perception of color, line, depth, etc. – between viewers and you begin to have some idea of how difficult it is to share something meaningful about an artwork in a few hundred, or even a few thousand words.

Beneath my struggle to write cogently about art is the far broader and slippery problem of subjectivity. As everything we perceive is passed through the filter and processor of our brain, it’s simply inevitable that who we are as individuals colors all of our thoughts. This fact is so ingrained in our thinking that for most of us it is all but invisible. Neither is it news; contemporary culture has created all sorts of terms in the public sphere attempting to foreground this insight. And truthfully, because subjectivity is our natural state of dealing with the world, we make do. Unless we can’t.

Four years ago my sister died and then, starting about two years ago, all of these people I loved died during a 12 month period in the following order: my mother-in-law, a very close friend’s spouse, my father-in-law, my mother, and one of my closest friends. Having gone through this, I think I can say with some certainty that those who have lost people close to them can understand what a list like this means, while those who have not can not. In short, the world, and by extension art, is forever transformed by this experience.

During the time these illnesses and deaths were happening the only writing I completed were eulogies. For months and months afterward, exhibitions were only of faint interest to me, writing art criticism impossible. I was aware that the lens through which I viewed art was changing, and mourning was keeping my thoughts from coalescing. I was disinterested in expediting the process. In the end, two entire years passed between my last published piece and my next, when I was finally able to put together my thoughts on first one exhibition, and then another. The “problem of subjectivity” seemed to recede into the background, while the persona of formal analysis graciously and reassuringly once more took center stage.

Or so I thought, for in the event, just weeks after posting my essay on Picabia, I walked into an opening that offered proof positive that I was mistaken in this assumption. The paintings in the show were by an artist I have followed for many years and, that being the case, have expectations about the forward trajectory of her work. Initially a representational painter, her style has evolved over the past decade into a strange and wonderful hybrid, a roiling frisson of personal image and pure abstraction fighting for visual dominance, resulting in artworks as unexpected as they are satisfying. And, in point of fact, there were a few paintings that continued brilliantly in that direction.

Most of the works in this new exhibition, however, diverge from this path. Where the paintings leading up to the current show present puzzle piece layers of body parts and vibrant colors, these new works feature simple compositions. Images – horse heads, flowers, flags, ribbons, an umbrella, a tightly cropped hand, a foot, the torso of a woman – take up nearly the entirety of each canvas, indeed flow over the edges. Abstract shapes are added sparingly and used to settle the viewer’s eye rather than disrupt it. The spare palette, applied in buttery, dream-like strokes, is comprised primarily of velvety browns, lavender purples, and mid-night blacks, although there are small appearances, here and there, of deep green, bright red, and pink. Of the just over a dozen works, nearly half feature a horse’s head. As with the other images they are presented to us in profile, mostly browns and blacks with intense black circles for eyes, and drawn in a child-like manner that belies the sophistication of the painting process. They stare out at us, alive but mysteriously still.

It takes little effort to describe these paintings formally, and yet so much more went through my mind as I moved through the exhibition. Forefront in my thoughts was the knowledge that the artist had lost both of her parents only weeks apart the preceding year. Which brought back fresh thoughts of my own mother’s recent passing. A big fan of painting, my mom would have loved this show. This in turn reminded me of a conversation I had had years earlier with the artist’s father, how astute he had been about her work and, as my mom had been for me, how supportive. The paintings, it appeared to me, were speaking directly to these thoughts and memories: A hand plucking a single flower, beautiful but now cut off from life. A woman in a field of purple flowers, her head cut off by the top of the painting, moving away. A lone umbrella offering meager shelter from a deluge of purple rain. The overall prevalence of black and purple, funerary in mood and tone, created a narrative atmosphere so heavy with emotion that it was difficult not to picture each of the somber horses pulling a shrouded hearse in its wake. But this is not to say that I found the paintings morose, for their affect was quite the opposite: a transcendental feeling of joy. Sadness as well, yes, but sadness rooted in the memory of something so wonderful – a parent’s love – that it was transformative; deep grief transmuted by paint into beauty. Going up to the artist to congratulate her, I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears.

So, as a critic I ask myself: Does the art actually speak of these things? Did my own recent and still clearly raw experiences of death and mourning color my perception so strongly as to render my insights too unique to be critically relevant? Does speaking of these things risk coloring, warping even, a neutral viewers experience of these paintings? Or did my own grieving, coupled with my knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the creation of these works, give me a heightened sense of awareness and the ability to tune into a deeper current of embedded meaning worth sharing and, in doing so, opens up the possible interpretations for others?


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