Thursday, March 06, 2014

To feel presence despite absence must be to experience joy and loss at the same moment.

I visited three colleagues at UWS today.  One, I first met eight years ago, when I was fresh and new and eager to find colleagues.  One, I met about three years ago, and she is now a collaborator and friend.  And one, I met just a few weeks ago.  

This post is about that third person's office, which struck me as particularly vibrant, a window into some aspect of their soul that goes beyond the usual symbolic code of the professor's office.  Profs think simply about their decorations: I hang this poster, to assert my love of music.  I post this quote from some dead dude on my door, to appear wry or educated or cynical or... I carefully place this action figure or statue or other mass-produced goodie to tell students who I am as a nerd.  

Instead of mass-produced bric-a-brac, my friend's office held original works of art, painted by her husband.  Most academic nerdly, a sketch of Merleau-Ponty rests atop a shelf.   Four paintings of a toddler in a single frame stand at the edge of the desk to the left.  Two canvases, still lifes, basically, hang across the top shelf of a bookcase.  

Her office is an environment rich with art, dense with art, that gives me a chance to try out some of the ideas from The Shape of a Pocket.  

"Every authentic painting demonstrates a collaboration.... When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. He stays at a copying distance." 

Do these works represent a genuine collaboration between artist/painter and subject?  Merleau-Ponty is dead;  we will never know the answer there.  The daughter painted four times, in a surface level "Brillo" Warhol-style of repeated imagery, nonetheless feels to me like she is her father's collaborator.  In that sense, her father's struggle to paint her is not, like the Warhol gesture, the struggle to reproduce her.  She is not a can of Campbell's soup on a production line, nor is she a screenprint for a thousand posters for sale.  

The artwork, raw in its coloration in a way that brings energy to the image of the child, feels to me like a sign of artist and model, father and child, collaborating (as Berger describes the model-artist relationship) to create her in color and canvas.  I have never been a parent and may never be one, but perhaps this is in a way similar to the way that a parent must collaborate with the child (and with the child's mother) to help the child become.  The rawness, the energy there -- this is not just a painting of the child at a certain age;  it is a painting of the child as coming into being, an energy that one image could not contain, and so there needed to be four.

“What any true painting touches is an absence - an absence of which without the painting, we might be unaware. And that would be our loss.  [In a painting,] we feel less alone in face of what we ourselves see each day appearing and disappearing."

A photograph on your desk is a momento, a memory cue, designed to remind you of family and friends.  "Here is the thing that is not here," the photograph says to the viewer.  Berger believes that paintings operate differently, and I think this may be true here, too.  

Berger claims that a good painting achieves a likeness.  If I understand him correctly (and the man speaks with so much poetry, I may not), what makes a likeness possible is that, in the absence of the person, we feel them nonetheless present.  Photos make the absent present;  paintings that carry a likeness to someone make us feel the presence of the absent, even as they remain absent.  

So this painting of this beautiful daughter is not designed to make the daughter present.  A snapshot would do that.  Instead, it makes makes my friend feel the presence both of the daughter and her husband, the painter, despite their absence.

I can imagine nothing more beautiful and, at the same time, nothing more sad.  To feel presence despite absence must be to experience joy and loss at the same moment -- a complex of feelings that we don't expect to experience together.  Maybe our contemporary culture discourages these kinds of complexes of feelings.

This tension can be fixed, thankfully, when the lights are turned off and my friend can go home and make the absent present, again, with hugs.


Addendum:  My therapist has already said, several times, that "you think too much."  Yep.  Yes I do.

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