ART REVIEW: All of the Dream, None of the Penance

All of the Dream, None of the Penance

It might as well have been a dream. I walked to the house alone. The gate was broad, the door unlocked. Night crept along the wall, rippling among the stones. I went in. There was no scaffolding to crawl around in, only the cellar.

An empty hallway with no welcome: it led to the stairs which led to the basement. An impressive array of colored glass hid high on the wall. Blue and yellow panes crept onto the ceiling, turning with the last of the twilight. The sound downstairs was social/casual.

They congregated in loose groups on the cement. Their voices, elegant for the harshness of the room, passed like strands of a drying river. What little light there was collapsed in yellow plumes along the wall. Some fled down the halls which opened around us, vanishing before they could reach the end. The room was nauseously formless. It seems unfair to ask for harmony, teleology, or resolution, but only so much as it seems unjust to ask for spring or the consummation of a feeling in another’s eyes.

With such demands I turned to the paintings. If these were a part of the show, or the rooms a part of the paintings, or both or neither, I have no idea. A poem answers a poem, a painting waits in another. I could find nothing here, at least yet. A future may come in which these are bright pillars. A worker at Lascaux finds Klee’s Angelus Novelus beneath a creek, Brancusi’s Sleep in a new passage.

I kept looking up the stairs for something to lead us from the dark, a lion or a bear. We were lost. None of it made sense. But the world around us was different, changing in subtle, wonderful ways. A new carnival raised its tent over the night, taking up residence for an entire week. Although everything failed, or failed to even make clear its criterion for failure, the room refracted in the frames, casting shifting evanescent colors.

Cracks and accretions bent to the paintings on the wall. They were portraits of generalized acquaintances with sunken Egyptian eyes. A pall of stone passed into the cellar. We were trapped, thieves in the pyramid. They made this clear. The faces could be anyone in such dim light, a gallery of lost frontier families or a galley of the first sailors, tossed between rock and rock.

It was hard to determine anything more about the paintings, whether they were a part of the opening or not. So strange how their gaze spread across the room- more alive than any of our own, older, wiser- and fled through a window onto the street, ancient and more permanent. No one paid them any attention. Their travels will end at a mountain. They have a different time and a longer memory than us.

And so they absorbed the room, refracted the street, the city, the oceans and glaciers- all of it loomed. Centuries-old words crackled across the frames, pooling on the wall or flickering like coals in the corner. I caught a bit of Alexander Pope, which I confirmed later:

He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall:
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;

These words meant something different in the cellar. The cracks and deformities of the wall altered the stanzas and sentences, changing the argument. The same with the lines from Wyatt. The room was indeed growing. Everything was quiet until a dog scampered across the floor above us, scattering several small animals, or so it seemed. The slats blinked as they passed. I had seen his eyes earlier; they indicated nothing.

Someone spoke of the paintings, suggesting that they were allegorical but allegories detached from any underlying doctrine, like saints of an unfathomable religion. “Like us this evening,” he calmly explained. This may have been joke. No one knew. Someone else cited Georges Didi-Huberman, who I also tracked down. After marveling that the abstract art of his own time had enabled him to see, and be struck by, certain colorful, constellated panels of Fra Angelico which his discipline had not only ignored but consigned to nonexistence, meaninglessness, he asks:

What, in the discipline or “order of discourse” of art history, has been able to maintain such a condition of blindness, such a “willingness not to see” and not to know? What are the epistemological reasons for such a denial- the denial that consists of knowing how to identify the slightest iconographic attribute in a Holy Conversation while at the same time not paying the slightest attention to the astounding three-meter by one-and-one-half-meter blaze of color situation just below it?

I wasn’t sure who the speaker was, whether it was Wisdom, Folly, Pestilence, or Beauty that registered shock at the blindness of men. No one led us out. There were no insights in the quarry. We quit the basement of the arts of our own will. Thought holds to a different ridge.

The night outside was different. Not better or more manageable, quite the opposite. A dense thicket lined the street. We walked beneath the bare trees. Shadows formed on the windows, wherever there were lamps really. The rose-like figure of woman appeared on the shade of a world less solid. There is so much to see. I would trade none of it for understanding. Some forgetful few crossed the river, the others waited on the bank.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. “Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism.” Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

John Paetsch is Associate Editor for the Penn Art Review. Paetsch is a Master of Liberal Arts candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. He studied art history and philosophy as an undergraduate and delivered a Symposium paper on Mondrian.

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