Like so many Americans at this time of year, I too found myself behind the wheel of my car heading home for Thanksgiving in Virginia. The return trip was more relaxed. At my leisure, I could point my car down strange byways just to see what there was to see. Since moving to Ohio four and a half years ago, I've been curious to know more about my new piece of the country.
I stopped for the night in Charleston, WV, and spent the morning hours wandering beneath the elevated interstate roadways that slice through the city. Homeless men gathered in small groups outside the mission to drink coffee. A tent city behind the mission proclaimed its solidarity with the Wall Street occupiers.
From Charleston I headed west to Huntington to cross over the Ohio River to Route 52, and Ohio. Before leaving West Virginia I stopped in at the Huntington Museum of Art where a beautiful show of prints by early 20th century artists was on display: old familiars like Brangwyn, Pennell, Haden, John Taylor Arms, as well as some new (to me) etchers, such as Kerr Erby, Martin Lewis, and Levon West, who studied with Pennell. Martin Lewis, I learned, was a friend of Edward Hopper and taught him the techniques of etching. Hopper' etching a single figure on a lamplit street corner owes a lot to Lewis.
At the Huntington Museum there was also an exhibition of contemporary artist Lenny Lyons Bruno. Born in a coal camp in 1947, and self-taught, her work mixes found paper and quilt materials with acrylics in large-scale constructions that relate to her life. Later, at home, I Googled her and learned that she now lives in Lexington, VA, my old neck of the woods. She chose for her show a quote from Marcel Proust:
"Our vanity, our possessions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits, have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to that place where what has really existed lies known within us."
The choice of Proust's words to headline the exhibition eerily synchronized with a train of thought I'd had earlier while driving. I had found myself returning to the word "apparition" to describe my experience of making of a painting. In so many artists' work today, if their statements are to be believed, everything stands for something else, usually an abstract notion like "the self," or "society." An apparition, on the other hand, is something immediate, unknown and, because of that, maybe even a bit scary. The dictionary says an apparition is "a ghost or ghostlike image, or, the appearance of something remarkable or unexpected.." Before such a vision one can only experience it.
In the act of painting, the experience of the subject precedes language, knowledge and rational intelligence. A subject doesn't render up its meaning into neat symbols - it's too complex. Things can't "stand for" or signify anything else, at least not while one is painting them, because one has not fully seen or understood what is there. The subject, in the act of painting it, exists in a self-sufficient reality of visual relationship. Shape, color, texture and space announce only their presence. For me, this is the "traveling back" that Proust speaks of as the task of art. To paint is to stand in a kind of ecstasy before an experience one doesn't really, fully understand, even though, according to Proust, it is "known" within us. We are almost embarrassed by the simplicity of this and feel compelled to explain it by ascribing all kinds of pretentious meanings to what we have experienced. We labor, as a psychology professor I had in college used to say, to produce the "passport of credibility" that explains what it all means, and that exonerates us from the crime of lapsing into a pre-rational state.