Sunday, February 01, 2009

Ann Goldberg - Still Life With Camera

A common assumption about painters called Photorealists, and this includes Ann Goldberg, is that they are obsessed with technique and getting paint to minutely reproduce visual reality.  But like most common assumptions, this one is not necessarily true.  Another name for "common assumption" is prejudice - the mistake of judging people and things by what they look like.  In visual art, prejudice is the mistake that comes from not judging things by what they look like.  That's what happens with Goldberg and her paintings.  Because of insufficient looking, assumptions have been made about what she is doing.  And I think it's been gotten all wrong.     

Goldberg isn't a Photorealist.  When you really look at her paintings she is only a tenuous Realist.  The impulse to paint in a deceptively realistic manner - today we would say in a Photorealist manner - predates the modern camera by millennia.  From the Roman naturalist and writer Pliny the Elder we receive the story of the famous Fifth century BCE contest between the painters Zeuxis of Heraclea and Parrhasius of Ephesus to determine which of the two was the greater artist.  When time came to reveal their work Zeuxis confidently drew aside the veil and showed his painting first - a picture of grapes that appeared so luscious and true that birds flew down from the trees to peck at them.  Zeuxis confidently asked Parrhasius to pull aside the curtain from his painting, only for Parrhasius to reveal that the curtain itself was the painting.  Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat, and is rumored to have said, "I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis."  That to me sounds like something that could be called Photorealism. 

Admittedly Goldberg paints from photographs, but she is neither producing a detailed representation like that of a photograph, nor representing familiar things as they actually are.  Not when you really look.  Why not then paint directly from the object?  Goldberg won't for many reasons.  There's the difficulty of controlling the conditions of light for the time necessary for her to paint a picture.  Through photography she can quickly and spontaneously compose.  She's attracted to the cropping, flatness, and shallowness of focus of photographs which she uses compositionally.  And even though painters have been using photography since its discovery, it still lends a sense of modernity.  So why doesn't Goldberg just show the photographs from which she paints?  Precisely because she is not a Photorealist.  Because that would be too precise.  Goldberg's paintings aren't so much about how much they look like the reality from which they're painted, but how they differ from it.  More proper is to simply call her a still-life painter.  The late art historian Meyer Schapiro said that the objects of still-life painting are "often associated with a style that explores patiently and minutely the appearance of nearby things - their textures, lights, reflections and shadows".  The objects of Goldberg's paintings are the everyday, but their subjects are the abiding values of light on objects, and of the capture and transformation of beauty.  What is particularly germane to seeing what Goldberg does is recognizing what Schapiro describes as the "subtle interplay of perception and artifice in representation".  In other words, how and what we see and the tricks we use to capture it, or in other words again, representation and abstraction.  Goldberg's paintings don't give the illusion of reality, it's the illusion of precision.  White Tea-Set is convincing in the painting of its sleek, white porcelain vessels - firm, modern, architectural.  Yet in the cup the swirling tea and cream are like sky or water.  Next door in the bowl the short choppy strokes of the sugar are like drapery or landscape.  A fluid abstraction in a cup.  A Cezanne in a sugar bowl.  Such a gulf separates these distinct ways of handling paint yet there they are side by side. 

There is a factualness to her paintings which is continuously slipping away.  She performs an up and back between concentrating now on representation, now on abstraction.  This isn't an unusual observation when looking at a painting.  We have learned that every painting by every artist is made up of strokes and smears which we can look at for their aesthetic qualities alone.  Representation doesn't preclude abstraction.  Goldberg however makes this oscillation a conscious part of her painting so that we can never get completely comfortable, can never relax in our looking at them.  Just when we do there is something we bump into which is jarring or even clumsy.  But if we trust Goldberg, and trust is essential in art, we will give her the credit she deserves of believing that she has blocked our way on purpose.  In Mussels With Lemon most of the shells are painted with a similar degree of verisimilitude.  They have a continuity of surface and a convincing concavity and convexity.  Look, however, at the shell just below the mid-line on the right.  Here there's no convincing continuity or illusion of surface.  Instead it's broken and daubed with as much bare as painted canvas.  With its rose highlight it's as much a miniature Impressionist painting of a sunset on water as anything else.  Like the Impressionists, her concern is with objects not resolved close up, but only at a distance, even if for her it's a near distance.  For the Impressionists that might be twelve inches, for Goldberg two.  Up close it's the marks that are important.  Her inclinations are at once to Realism and Abstraction and confirms her saying, "I like my work to take on the painterly significance of an expressionistic stroke as exemplified by De Kooning, but at the same time retain realistic and photographic qualities at a distance."  

Ann Goldberg paints as she does, not from an obsession with technique, but because this is who she is.  In an unstable, unsettling world, can trying to set it right and to fix its relationships through the arrangement and painting of its objects, be interpreted as a defensive or coping strategy?   A dreamed for wholeness and security?  Psychology is not unimportant in looking and thinking about art.  This is not to say that works of art are always mirrors of the artist's personality and character as was believed in antiquity - a belief revived in the Renaissance and since then gone in and out of fashion - but that they are always an expression of some part of it, no matter how evident or hidden.  Former mathematician, former architect, ordering the world, figuring out its equations, its sums and balances, comes naturally to Goldberg.  But just as in the real world, Goldberg's painted world doesn't resolve itself into elegant equations.  There are uncertainties and anomalies and paradoxes.  We see them in Olives in Glass Bowl where colors and shapes dissociate themselves from the objects they are supposed to describe and pull themselves out of the spatial relationships they are meant to define.  Look how the red of the pimento at the center right seems to push itself forward through the bowl and how the star shape at the lower left, that telltale mark of the pitting machine, looks misplaced and floats away from the olive it is supposed to be a part of.  In front of our eyes, Goldberg's world, and therefore our world too, pulls itself apart and is redefined not in terms of objects and spatial relationships, but in terms of Goldberg's most important value - beauty. 

"I see beauty and light as promise - a truth or hope in the darkness", says Goldberg.  And in the same moment we hear an echo of Medieval religious and philosophical thought, and also that of the Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria.  Particularly the evocative story of the Breaking of the Vessels.  According to Luria, ten vessels corresponding to the ten archetypal values, the Sefirot, meant to contain the emanation of God's light, were unable to do so and six were shattered.  As their pieces fell through the void they trapped within themselves sparks of the divine light to compose the world in which we live.  In Goldberg's continuum from beauty and light through promise to truth and hope, her paintings are like little shards of light, little shards of goodness with which the world can be made whole again.  It's a beautiful, poetic thought for what can sometimes look like paintings of such a mundane collection of objects.  It were as if they were a part of a hidden combination.  That once the objects were arranged just so our troubled, gray world would unlock and we'd be flooded with light.  One can imagine this an ecstatic vision, much like the ecstasy of the Chassidim.  If we believe Luria, our world will be redeemed one small piece at a time.  And for Goldberg, one painting at a time.