Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Apichatpong Weerasethakul at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

At the entrance to the installation Primitive, there is a 10 minute film Phantoms of Nabua (2009) that is conceived as a preface or exposition to the forms and ideas of the larger installation. (Click on the link to see the Film)

I couldn’t help seeing this film as encapsulating everything that interests me and seduces me about the cinema. I have seen Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films before in the movie theater, and was so much more taken and entranced by these examples in the gallery. I wonder if they aren’t in fact more appropriate to the context of the gallery, even though everything about them is cinematic. This ten minute film, Phantoms of Nabua is all about light: fire —in flames and cinders— neon, electrical, light of the projector, and lightening as it is projected on a screen that is the backdrop to the profilmic reality. The film is, in many ways, a poem of light, an ode to light, as these everyday lights dance together, the one replacing the other, making patterns, light made into an object, creating and destroying illusions. And perhaps the most fascinating thing about the lights in this film? They never illuminate the scene. Light might be the film’s protagonist, but it is a protagonist who remains true to its realist dimensions, and simultaneously, departs from our expectations of it.

The film opens with a shot of a neon street light against a luminescent blue night sky. The camera finds the image of lighting on a screen in an expanse of wasteland. A group of young men kick a log around in the foreground of the screen. The two worlds, the one on the screen, the one before the screen apparently have nothing to do with each other. And then the screen catches aflame, it becomes an object, and the men do not extinguish it, they watch it burn, waste away. It is as though now that the screen is an object it warrants their attention, whereas before when the parade of images were projected onto it, there was nothing of interest to look at. And then as the screen becomes ash, blowing away in the gentle night wind, the light of the projector behind what was once the screen flickers. The film continues to run, but with no screen to fall on. All illusions are incinerated, but behind the illusions there is just another empty light. We can still hear the soundtrack of the image as it runs through the projector: the thunder of the film that no longer exists, is so distinct, and in place of the lightening we see the flickering light of the projector. Is this the end of cinema, or the end of illusion?

Phantoms of Nabua is about watching films within films, films on films, the image we watch continually being reduced to no more than a surface as the drama of the lightening on the projected screen starts to resemble something we would see in Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory, sparks flying, exploding, and yet, of course, as we watch the light, the film becomes about the difficulty of seeing. Again, somewhat ironically for a film that is such a drama of light, lighting and lightening, we never see the young men, even as they use a log on fire as a football. We know they are young men, but that’s as far as we can go to defining their presence.

Like the figures of the young men, the themes of anger, memory, the past and history are kept in the shadows here. We know they are there because the title alerts us to their presence, but we have little access to them. Nabua was the site of a bloody battle between local communist farmers and the Thai totalitarian government in August 1965, resulting in a longstanding and brutal occupation by the army. If Phantoms of Nabua is an exposition of what is to follow in Primitive, then its concerns with light--natural light, neon light, electrical light, daylight, fire light-- which stay in the darkness, then the history of national destruction and trauma might be everywhere addressed in the exhibition, but they are nowhere to be seen. And I have to say, this is not because the real history is obfuscated, but rather, a subtle rendering through experimental film ensures that they remain spectres that haunt every vision, but refuse to satisfy our desire to know more.

It is a rare occasion to find such powerful and intelligent filmmaking either in the museum or the theater, and to appreciate the force of Phantoms of Nabua as exposition to the installation, a word of warning. It’s important to approach the exhibition through its main entrance (as opposed to via the Albert Oehlen exhibition next door).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Magic of Skin and Light, Rembrandt's Hands and Faces

Rembrandt’s exquisite self-portraits are as enigmatic and mysterious as the eyes that follow us before the Syndics. In another room of the Rijksmuseum is an early Self-Portrait (1628) we have seen many times before in reproduction. As always, it’s the light that enchants me, frustrates me and seduces me. My fascination with this inexplicable beam of light does not begin and end with the way it illuminates the skin on the face on which it falls. The light itself is so clear, so defined, so lucid, and no matter how close I stand to the canvas, the answer to the same question of how Rembrandt does this, how he makes light from paint continues to elude me. It is a mystery that I cannot see in the painting itself. I move backwards and forwards and still I cannot see anything other than the photographic image of the light falling on this heavenly, porcelain like skin.

Skin and light, together, are the reason I go again and again to see Rembrandt’s portraits. As much as I love Jeremiah (1630) and the Philosopher in Meditation for example, it’s the portraits that have me in amazement every single time. And always, it’s the very old and the very young who have the most beautiful skin, transparent, heavenly, perfect, in the light. Even the hand of the Old Woman Reading (1631) which is also in the Rijkesmuseum, is not only lifelike, but when skin and paint as light come together on her weary wise fingers, the result is so photographically dreamy that portrait photographers might experience pangs of envy at the ability to replicate the perfection of the human body in an image. And this, painted 200 years before such technology was dreamed of.

I wonder why no one has called on Rembrandt’s hands and faces to dispute theorists such as Belà Balazs’ claim that the cinema, for the first time, like no other medium before it, sees the emotions written on the face, and we could extend this to the gestures of the hand. The cinema may have the capacity to reveal to us in close up the internal drama of emotions as they are written on the human face, but surely painting, in the hands of Rembrandt, clearly has the capacity to do just that and more. Like the film camera in particular, paint on Rembrandt’s canvases not only depicts human emotions as they are created through the marriage of light and skin, but this too is the place at which we are invited to connect to these people. Where paint as light and skin coexist on Rembrandt’s canvases, no matter the identity of the sitter, we are beckoned and seduced into their emotional world. It doesn’t matter if the person is old and the skin wrinkled or if it is the flawless, porcelain skin of youth, we cannot help but adore these faces and hands.

It is true that when eyes come into the equation, and the brushstrokes become looser, often as Rembrandt matures as a painter, like the Self-Portrait as the Apostle St Paul (1661), the serenade is more complicated. Figures such as the artist in the said portrait always look at us and simultaneously, they reflect on their own inner melancholy. It is no longer the skin that is so delicately rendered, but the inner life made external, once again, inexplicably through brushstrokes we cannot always discern.

I always come away, at a loss to explain how Rembrandt does what he does, how he makes these figures so replete with a perspicacity and emotional complexity. And then, seducing me into their subjective world, as if I am somehow held responsible for its existence. I know Rembrandt always experimented with paint: he dries it out, adds more oil, applies flecks of gold dust to create light, he adds it, removes it. As a painter who never really made sketches, we know that all of his thinking is done in paint. But still, this doesn’t help me explain anything. In the end, my inability to explain and analyze Rembrandt’s paintings is probably for the best: it means I continue to be seduced by these sumptuous images.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Does He Do It? Rembrandt's The Syndics, 1662

If my journey to Madrid was a pilgrimage to Vélasquez and Goya, Amsterdam held the promise of Rembrandt. Like Las Meninas and The Third of May, Rembrandt’s paintings have become so clichéd thanks to their mass distribution in every possible medium, that I wondered if there was anything left for me to see. And though it took some time to shift from seeing the images I expected to see to those before me in the Rijksmuseum, once in the world of Rembrandt van Rijn, it was as though I was there for the first time.

The major drawcard of the museum is The Nightwatch (1642), which is truly breathtaking, primarily for the splendid gold coat of the lieutenant. But it was The Syndics (1662) that caught my eye for hours. What an extraordinary painting. These five men and their servant were the sampling officials of the Amsterdam Drapers' guild in 1662. Unlike the arresting dress of the lieutenant, it is not the fabric of their official garb that holds us, or held me, before these esteemed gentlemen. It is their eyes, and their direct engagement with us that compelled me to keep looking at them. No matter where we stand, all but one of the syndics follows us with their eyes. As we enter the not so grand hall in which the syndics temporarily sit, from the opposite end, they make quite clear that they have noticed my arrival. Stopped in motion, they watch me walk in the room, perhaps I have interrupted them, intruded on a conversation I am no supposed to hear? I all but hear them demand to know “What’s she doing here?” But it is unclear, maybe they were expecting me and they are merely announcing my arrival: “she is here!” Such is the world of a painted masterpiece, and the ambiguity of their look is just the point: I may not know what they are thinking, but what is clear, is that they know and acknowledge my arrival.

The oldest among them, Volckert Jansz, in the process of standing up or, maybe he is sitting down, looks ever so slightly downwards. As a result he does not watch me. The youngest —we know this by his dress and his hair — Aernout van der Mye (second from the right) is the one we strike up the strongest connection with. And yet, he is also the one in the most shadow. How does that work? Surely the focus of the paining should be in the light? But it’s true, contrary to all logic van der Mye has the strongest eyes, vibrant features, full lips, and ruddy cheeks that give him an energy, an attractivenes. He has a fire in his face, his eyes, his hair, that somehow gives him a seduction, his intensity makes him reach out of the painting, to me at least. He also smiles quiety with me, perhaps at me, in animated engagement with me. The others are more reserved, quieter, their pale, aging skin, their calmness sees them less eager to flirt with me, they rest content with their place in the painting. It is very difficult for me to move away from Aernout van der Mye: the connection that develops with him starts to leaves behind the others in the painting. And I am left to wonder: How does Rembrandt do this? Evoke such animation and emotion, in a painting?

When I regain my composure and recover from my flirtation with Aernout van der Mye, I note the brilliance of the composition: the table at an angle, the figures at different heights, impossibly both looking in different directions and surveying me with their look. I am also transfixed by the light that falls on the embroidered carpet that covers the table, the gloves of Jochem de Neve on the right of the painting. Again, I am left to wonder: How does Rembrandt do this? I shall save my discussion of light, especially as it falls on skin for my discussion of the portraits. Here, I want to briefly mention the page of the ledger that the syndics are studying together. The thick, yellow, handmade paper is so realistic, so tactile that I can feel the texture of the hand woven surface as I adoringly watch van der Mye lift they page, and Willem Doeyenburg in the process of discussing something he finds written thereon, a discussion that takes places through he movement of his thumb and forefinger. Here, in The Syndics, Rembrandt extends the passionate rendering of the hand for which he is renowned into the exquisite texture of paper, as though the hands that touch it infuse it with their beauty and magic. And so, having settled down from my flirtation with van der Mye, I fall into a relay between faces, hands, books, and we must not forget, collars. Again, like the pages of the ledger, the brilliant white collars, each different from the next as they mark the age and social position of their wearer are like the extension of the face.

A word of warning for those determined to make new discoveries, the Rijksmuseum is under renovation for the next few years, and they have chosen the masterpieces for display. It was fine by me, because rather than discovering paintings I had not yet seen, the diminished display made me make discoveries within canvases I thought I already knew.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Pierre Soulages au Centre Pompidou

I have to admit I had not heard of Pierre Soulages before I saw the poster for his latest exhibition at the Pompidou Center. This, together with the fact I didn’t feel as though I spent enough time with the later paintings in the final rooms of the exhibition, makes my thoughts and impressions of his work seem incomplete.

My disclaimers aside, as I walked around the chronologically organized exhibition, watching the paintings get larger and larger, I was overwhelmed by how very un-French is the work of Pierre Soulages. French painting of the twentieth century is noticeably characterized by small, compact, quiet, petite. And certainly, Soulages’ Taschist contemporaries, Fautrier, Dubuffet, and so on, are not known for the largesse of their works. Even a painter such as Nicolas de Staël who made four foot canvases did so with a quiet, reflective resolve. There is nothing grand, aggressive or masculine in the form of de Staël’s work. Soulages is a different story: the later paintings might even be described as paint attacking the canvas: they are huge, aggressive, masculine and determined in their exploration of the relationship between black paint, canvas and the light it reflects. There is no quiet contemplation of the kind we see in the Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella black canvases. On the contrary, if we compare Soulages to an American, it has to be the masculine energy of Franz Kline, an energy that is multiplied in Soulages’ severing of canvases with thick black lines.

The early works are fascinating as they engage with materials not usually associated with painting: tar and walnut stain on canvas, glass, paper. The specific quality of these substances, their dilution on paper and their luminescence on glass gives them a substance, a tactility that allows them to show the first signs of what will become Soulages’ trademark of color appearing to emerge from the surface on which it is painted.

Among my favorite paintings were Peinture 202 x 125 cm, 15 décembre 1959 and Peinture 190 x 300 cm, 11 juillet 1965, both painted immediately before Soulages launched into his half century devotion to black. What I love about these paintings, especially the first, is that color is shown to be in a slow process of appearing, Up close it is as though the black has been stripped from the canvas and red is in a process of revelation. There is also an unpredictability to the black and the red, their relationship to each other filled with conflict that might drive them in surprising new directions at any moment. And this unpredictability gives way to a movement, an energy that is in no way harnessed by the rest of the painting as a support to the encounter between black and red, or by the canvas as frame to that painting. In turn, this energy is a force that beckons the viewer to connect with such a painting. In contrast, images such as Peinture 195 x 130cm, 30 Octobre 1957 feel trapped, stultified by the boxed in nature of the black strokes that overlay the color. Black has won the battle over blue, and there is no invitation offered to me to indulge in the vibrancy of he conversation with red, or with honey in Peinture 190 x 300 cm, 11 juillet 1965.

As I moved through the exhibition into the explorations of black, where black comes to dominate his palette and his thinking, I couldn’t help seeing them through the lens of Rothko, and Reinhardt. But it is only a useful comparison in so far as we get to see how completely different is Soulages’ relationship to painting and to the canvas. If, as I and others have argued, Rothko invites us to fall into his canvases of thickly layered paint, Soulages keeps us on the surface. The ribbons of flat against glossy black paint, the composition of different thicknesses, different viscosities, different panels of black moving in different directions across a diptych, even the veil of black paint dragged and scraped away to reveal blue in Peinture 222 x 137, 3 février 1990, keeps me occupied on the surface. In fact, these paintings actively discourage the contemplation that has me fall into my own self before a Rothko canvas, a falling I love and yearn to experience again and again.

All of this said, I need to go back and spend more time with the diptychs in which it appears as though the surface of thin black paint has been stripped away when wet with tape to reveal grey, brown, and white underneath. These huge canvases such as Peinture 222 x 222cm, 8 juin 2001 may represent a return to that vein of modernist love of painting in which the mystery of color is all that matters.