Monday, December 22, 2014

The Bright Silence

I have always had very good luck with artwork of Manou, a dancer who has, sadly, left New York. This is my first painting of her, which was purchased before anyone knew who I was for a very decent price by Chicago super-collector Howard Tullman.

The Minoan, oil on canvas, 60”x36”, 2010

This is my second painting of her, which hung for a while at Charles Saatchi’s restaurant in London, and which has gone viral on Tumblr every few months since I painted it.

Hands #1, oil on canvas, 24”x24”, 2011

Manou turns up once in a while, and I work with her as much as I can when she does. On her most recent visit, I did a series of red line drawings of her on white paper.

Red Manou Drawing #16, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014

Having only a few sessions together, I shot a bunch of reference pictures for work on my own later on. I’m by no means above doing this in such cases. After she’d jetted back to London, I studied what I’d shot and started drawing things I think I might like to do paintings of as some kind of a body of work.

Manou Kneeling, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014

This hypothetical group of paintings would be composed like the painting of her hands above - high key lighting, no deep darks, and a white background. And in fact I soon had an opportunity to test the concept. I was invited to show a piece in Small is Beautiful, the 40th annual small works show at Flowers Gallery (this year held at the Chelsea, New York branch).

The rule for this show was that the artwork must be no larger than 9”x7”. So I chose 8”x6” panels, and painted two compositions I had focused on from the body of available images (I was asked to provide a backup painting in case the first sold and walked out the door). Here is the first painting I did:

Manou Walks Away, oil on panel, 8”x6”, 2014

This is the one that is currently hanging at Flowers Gallery, a subject we will cover in a future blog post. The second painting, the reserve, is a different take on Manou kneeling:

Manou Sits on Her Feet, oil on panel, 8”x6”, 2014

Once I had painted these two paintings, I sat back and looked at them and thought about them. The more I thought, the more familiar they appeared. If you look at them again, you will see that these stark configurations of the human body against a zero-background take on a grammatic quality. They are like letters. For me, in fact, they are exactly that: letters. They are letters in the long human alphabet.

Our attention gusts backward now to how I thought when I was very little. The whole world, to me, was like these compositions: a glowing whiteness, out of which fragments of things, detailed and various, emerged and solidified. These centered objects came into view, and hovered in fascinating richness before the eye of my attention, and then receded. I am not a hierarchical thinker by nature. Whatever lies before me is the most fascinating thing in the world; all other things are beyond dull, they simply cease to exist.

And yet I was not entirely without hierarchy. I craved one thing before the eye of my attention beyond all others, and this was human being. I wished to see people in absolute clarity. I did it, too, but in a terribly incomplete way. I studied the acts of human beings from a purely physical perspective. The endless permutations of what the body could do made a visual impression on me. This impression vibrated with a numinous quality, and yet it was divorced from psychology, narrative, and anything we would call human meaning. It leapt directly from the physical to the divine, without a trace of the world of men and women in between. I myself suffered emotions, of empathy, of jealousy, of adoration, of desire. But these emotions were not linked to what is generally understood as the human condition. I was a follower of the collarbone, the scapula, the carotid pulse, the bunched bicep.

My experience of human beings hovered at their surface. It was like Aristotle’s reasoning on the concept of place in the fourth volume of the Physics. He wrestles with the question of whether the matter of which a thing is composed is its place, or whether perhaps the form of the thing is its place, before ultimately concluding that place is “the boundary of the containing body at which it is in contact with the contained body… place is thought to be a kind of surface, and as it were a vessel, i.e. a container of the thing.” (Physics, IV: 212, 6-29)

You can see here a formulation of a concept I have raised before, the mystery-in-broad-daylight. One may collect a virtually infinite amount of information, a total documentation of boundary or surface - the seemingness of things - without once progressing beyond it into matter - what they are. Comprehend, if you will, the silence and loneliness of such a conception of humanity. Madly searching, it sees all, and yet it remains essentially outside: an omniscient beetle, a flatlander. This was my primary experience of other human beings. It was sensual, crystalline in its brightness, and strictly inhumane.

Although this was my experience, it did not define the limit of my awareness. I was aware of my insufficiency, of my solitude, and I fought to expand the basic form of my perception. I held a firm belief that the long alphabet would someday sound itself out into words, that seas of meaning underlay that broad ocean of letters. Indeed, the very breadth of the ocean hinted at a nearly unendurable abundance of meaning, a fertility of meaning beyond all compare. One day I would penetrate that surface and drown joyfully in the matter of it.

All these things I recalled as I studied the two small paintings of Manou. I recalled them, and I realized I remain as much at the surface as I have ever been. Those of you who know me in person probably know me as gregarious, friendly, and extroverted. I am all of these things, but they are habits built upon an analytic substructure, and the substructure emerged from a decision - a decision to become human - followed by years of practice. Perhaps we all go through this. Perhaps I am unusual only in remembering it, and in recognizing my social nature as alien. Even I forget most of the time what parts of me are original, and what parts I chose and built.

These paintings, these two letters in the long alphabet, brought my original nature forcibly back to mind. What do these two letters mean? Nothing at all. They do not form a word. They are mute, and through them, I am mute. They hover at the very edge of the boundary of humanity, puzzling out and revealing all its formal beauty. But they are ultimately without any form of idea which could be called human.

Compared with other artists of my age and abilities, my work has always seemed relatively devoid of ideas. It is anchored in the sensual, in the surfaces of things. This is not to say that I am blind to what people think of as ideas, or that I do not appreciate them in the work of others. But my fundamental nature does not generate that kind of thing, and so, even in my most humanistic work, echoes of the bright and silent mystery remain. Neither, however, am I a follower of depiction. Others paint with more detail, more verisimilitude, and more rigor than I do. I once set myself in competition with these masters, but I do not any longer. The best I have to offer is not becoming the best at depicting. Rather, it is to become able to catch the beauty and longing of that bright silence. A long time ago, I received a wonderful compliment from an artist I admire very much. She said that she liked my anatomical drawings above others because they plumbed the depths of the dead, and yet were lyrical.

Deeper Muscles of the Neck, ink on paper, 14”x11”, 2002

I dare not say such a thing about myself, but I hope that there is indeed a specific quality of the lyrical - what a wonderful word - that is unique to me and which my endless practice has begun to allow me to convey.

Nothing is so categorical as this description might suggest. I was never autistic; my work is not about surfaces only; some of it contains narrative. But it is also true that if you work with enough models, you will encounter one who interfaces precisely with each of the phases of your consciousness, even the ones you’ve forgotten. Because Manou has been a disciplined dancer for a very, very long time, she has refined her own body into a seamlessly efficient and graceful machine. She partakes easily of purely formal gestures because they yield the letters of her native artistic medium.

Therefore my work with her leads me back to the bright primal silence, the land of cold wind, light, and color. It shows me where I began, a place that must be unburied in order to be known, a strange and lonely place which provided the awful, beautiful, meaningless alphabet in which I transcribe everything I say.

Portrait of Manou, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014


  1. great but to be honest i love the hands most

  2. From Amy T, who couldn't post it here, but I love this comment so I'm adding it myself:

    Dani, I tried to write on your blog but it didn't work, so I'm reaching out here. Oh the bookface. How hate turned to passion overnight. Ha!! I think those two poses you picked for Manu were incredibly spiritually insightful. It's as if spirit is popping into your work naturally. The feet to me read as 'stepping forward in life' & the painting had such strong sense of direction. Which the soul yearns for collectively & individually, even when we do know we are on the right path we need this affirmation! The crouched pose immediately moved me to recall someone crouched down in prayer- so powerful. Ludicrously symbolic & powerful. You are such a true & genuine artist. It's inspiring.

    Regarding this one, spectacular. [a Kuan drawing posted to Facebook] The soul floats. There is a womb like quality to it that is mesmerizing. Keep doing whatever it is that you are doing. You are on fire!🌋