Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Lorraine Shemesh and the impossibility of the Romantic

Where we are currently in the cultural history of ideas is hard to pin down. Ex post facto is always easier. The past has already been packaged and defined by countless historians but the present as it evolves into the future is hard to fix and if we try to paste the past on the present we get into a lot of trouble. It seems to work momentarily like assuming Trump is Hitler or the removal of a statue of Columbus from a college campus is akin to the destruction of a Buddhist statue by the Taliban. But is the past really so well categorized and no longer open for discussion. This struck me when I wrote about a visit I made to Edwin Dickinson on Cape Cod in 1970. After I had seen his work at the Biennale in Venice in 1968, I found myself encouraged by his love of the observed world to persevere in my pursuit of realism in the context of the overwhelming dominance of High Modernism in mid-century America. However, in my more recent analysis of his work I noticed that his phenotype was more 19th century than 20thc and from the perspective of where we stand now seemed to float further and further into the past like some flotsam and jetsam thrown into the wake of a steamship until it is irretrievable and disappears out of sight. And I would add that if such a person were to live in our day and age he or she would be so out of  sync with the prevailing zeitgeist they would most likely go insane.

The most salient characteristic of Dickinson is artist as observer. Not an observer who looks coldly at the world but one who seeks to be at one with what he sees. He takes an anti-solipsistic stance where like Stevens in his great poem “Idea of order at Key West” Dickinson interweaves the self and nature. And most importantly Dickinson’s persona yearns for a meaning to one’s life on earth, a romantic ache for for a meaningful story on the world's stage.  It has a strong narrative bent where he is an actor in his own play. Not Beckett but Shakespeare with a beginning, middle and denouement. I have talked elsewhere of the deconstruction of the strong self at the hands of the deconstructionists or the supremacy of things a la Duchamp or the cosmic melding of self and society from Hegel where we are always mediated by being part of society. This is where we are currently in our world of art, a place where in in an essay on Jed Perl’s criticism I expressed the idea that we have been turning around in circles for quite some time. At the end of history there are no more mysterious unknowns ahead of us to conquer. We are surrounded by all the detritus of society that is circling around an immense black hole. As it circles around we are totally unaware that is slowly sinking into the abyss.

Recently, I sent out images of my new work to several names on my email list.  A few thoughtful replies came back acknowledging that the color of the new work was richer and more evocative. An unexpected reply came from Lorraine Shemesh whom I met , when we both studied at the BU Summer program in Tanglewood, Massachusetts in 1969. Phillip Pearlstein was the artist in residence and several well-known New Realists came to visit most notably Al Leslie. There was a lot written about the New Realists in the art press at the time, which peaked with a cover story in Newsweek in 1970 featuring a painting by Bill Bailey on the cover. Two years later he would be my senior project advisor at Yale. Another fellow student at Tanglewood, Paul Dinger arranged a visit to Leslie’s studio in NYC after the program ended for an article in the art magazine “Boston Review of the Arts”,  that he had recently founded. Probably for the only time in my life I felt as an artist part of a movement.

Shemesh shows at the Allan Stone gallery in New York. Judging from the images in the two catalogs she sent me, she is clearly well trained in the tradition of classical painting as it was taught at BU where she got her BFA in 1971. The first catalog is a retrospective of her work, which culminates around 2009 with her iconic pool paintings that have evolved from swimmers at the surface or just below to a view of their now faceless bodies and body parts totally submerged. Whereas the earlier painting retained the notion of an observation of swimmers in a recognizable setting, the latest work puts the observer in with the observed. She does not rely on a romantic search for connections between herself and the environment that allows Dickinson to overcome his solipsistic isolation but conveys rather the inability to jettison the self in such a liquid realm. Of course to swim casually in a non-competitive manner implies the desire of the swimmer to enjoy being buoyed up by a warm and caressing world similar to the amniotic fluid that supports a fetus.  Shemesh retains a strange, almost awkward, disconnect between the possibility of a merger between the water and the physical hardness of the body that resists it. There is built into her work the impossibility of the kind of cosmic explosion of the self of a Pollack or the a priori connection one finds in Dickinson or for that matter the poems of Walt Whitman.  I think that this is inherited from her realist background but also from the edgy postmodernist zeitgeist of the New York scene. I find myself using the word impossible again as I did in the essay on the play at BAM on Thomas Merton that stated unambiguously  the impossibility of transcendence in a world awash in physical drives and passions. Or the word incommensurable to express the distance of paint and meaning when I wrote about a show I had with Paul Pollaro at the Bromfield Gallery in Boston.