Embodiments of life

Still Life, Gillian Pedersen-Krag

There’s a funny and moving scene in Amadeus where Mozart defends his music for The Marriage of Figaro. His monarch cites good reasons for prohibiting a performance of the story: it’s immoral, degenerate and revolutionary in spirit. (The movie suggests that some might have thought of Mozart’s own personal life in those terms, on occasion.) The king fears that a performance of the opera might inspire insurrection.  France is on the verge of political chaos. Austria worries about the contagion. Yet Mozart dismisses all of these considerations, and his fervor about what he’s done in his composition is entirely about the formal brilliance of his work: the libretto may be subversive, disruptive and potentially violent, but his music is the embodiment of harmony and order. He’s living on an entirely different plane from those around him, playing a glass bead game with notes, striving for transcendent harmonies, merging many voices into one melody, with a passion for conveying nothing more than the quick joy of life itself.

The king: “Figaro is a bad play. It stirs up hatred between the classes.”

Mozart: “Sire, there is nothing like that in the piece. I hate politics. The end of the second act for example. It starts out as a simple duet. Just a husband and wife, quarreling. Suddenly, the wife’s scheming little maid comes in, duet turns into trio. Then the husband’s valet comes in. Trio turns into quartet. Then the stupid old gardener comes in. Quartet turns into quintet. On and on. Sextet, septet, octet. How long do you think I can sustain that, your majesty? Twenty minutes. If that many people talk at the same time, it’s noise. Only opera can do this. But with opera, with music, you can have twenty individuals talking at the same time and it’s not noise, it’s a perfect harmony.

For him, it isn’t what anyone in the opera is saying that matters. What matters is the magic of music’s arithmetic, the way layer upon layer of separate sounds can be woven together into a complete whole—how one becomes two and two becomes three. And of course that’s what endures. No one today who gets goose bumps listening to that opera’s overture cares that it might have sparked a revolution. We’re filled with the bliss of Mozart’s genius, not the libretto’s comically subversive message.

For me, Mozart’s struggle is similar to the struggle of representational painters who realize that they are wrestling with physical materials in an effort to create an image that answers to certain entirely formal needs—and therefore to convey, through perception alone, an awareness that has little to do with imparting ideas or thoughts. The formal qualities work in a way that doesn’t depend on what they can be construed to mean. A painting has little or nothing to say about life; instead, it embodies life directly.

Even without the need to mean something that can be extracted through analysis, representational work faces another challenge. Paint’s abstract qualities—color, value, texture—still need to evoke a roughly recognizable world. Color has to serve representation in a way similar to the way Mozart’s music works with the burden and opportunities of his libretto. (In the movie, Mozart couldn’t care less whether or not his story is vaudeville or Greek tragedy or conventionally meaningful at all; the narrative merely gives him an excuse to channel delight and joy through sound in a purely physical way.)

Having rewatched this movie recently, I was reminded of these polarities when I drove down to Village Gallery in Cazenovia this past weekend to listen to Gillian Pederson-Krag speak for an hour about her painting. I was eager to see her paintings and meet her ever since I’d caught a glimpse of her work in Baltimore a few years ago at an exhibition of perceptual painting curated by Matt Klos. In Annapolis, Pederson-Krag’s painting hung appropriately alongside examples from Rackstraw Downes, Edwin Dickenson, Charles Hawthorne, and many other great painters who worked mostly in a perceptual mode.

On view now at Village Gallery are her latest landscapes and still lifes, a genre in which she has made color her primary concern. With landscape, she somehow, marvelously, uses a much more restricted palette to evoke feeling and intuition from scenes that feel like remembered dreams even as they are also precise representations of either enclosed wooded bowers or expansive beaches that serve as the threshold to endless open space. In both still life and landscape, she does what Fairfield Porter strove to do: depict the world just as it is, while seeming to make it slightly more beautiful. That sounds like a cosmetic procedure, but Porter added a stipulation that a painting is beautiful because it contains a mystery, not because it hews to some pre-conceived notion of what’s lovely. The paradox of this aim toward beauty is that every vital painting has to rediscover what the terms are, how beauty can be disclosed in a fresh way. For Pederson-Krag it arrives through the struggle to achieve this with color—often despite the demands of representation. (Porter shrugged off many of those demands as a needless surrender to a work ethic, keeping his brushwork simple and often very loose, turning his shadows sometimes into pure hues; his thesis about Eakins was that the earlier American painter submitted to assiduous realism in an effort to make painting feel more like work than play, trying to convince himself he was actually working for a living rather than indulging himself in art. Porter, on the other hand, was determined to keep his choices more unpredictable, regardless of whether or not he worked just as hard in the end.)

Pederson-Krag’s brief description of her central contest, the tug-of-war between color and representation, for me, was the pivot around which everything else in her talk revolved. She spoke of how every artist has to find his or her own “door” into painting, a foothold from which all of the work springs. She opened a book about Cezanne and walked around showing her little audience the painter’s early, unrecognizable, melodramatic depictions of murder and rape—you could see how he essentially realized who he was when he discovered that the paint mattered more than what it depicted, and thus how he, and only he, could make a painting. As she pointed out: he discovered who he wanted to be as he discovered how to paint. For him the door into painting was the hope of making a field of color evoke geometric form and volume without losing the sense of brilliant open-air light—pushing toward pure abstraction in formal terms, while still evoking a partly recognizable world involuntarily distorted in an individually original way. What’s amazing about Cezanne is that the increased complexity of color in his work, compared to the green and blue world he was rendering, doesn’t feel arbitrary, but has its own inner necessity, in Kandinsky’s phrase.

Countless painters are engaged in that same effort now. This effort to fashion a truce between pure color and the way the world actually looks, when it works, can reveal feelings, moods and intuitions, what used to be called a sensibility, opening up an entire world of visual intelligence that isn’t about intellectual content. In a way, a painting is about nothing but itself, even though when it works it triggers in the viewer a long sequence of insights and experiences, opening up a fresh way to behold a familiar world. A great painting doesn’t mean something; instead it evokes a world. The problem with most of what’s said about painting is that, of necessity, it usually ignores this central work visual art is engaged in and instead tries to translate the work into intellectual terms. Analyzing art, speaking about painting, invariably conceptualizes what’s happening, even though visual art is able to bypass the intellect entirely, and embody, as Porter said, a mystery inaccessible to theory. (Don’t look to Banksy for this, for example: what he’s doing, and so many artists who have something to say, is perfectly clear.) The mystery isn’t something occult or strange or rare: it’s simply an awareness of life so familiar and intimate—and anterior to thought—that it becomes invisible in daily experience until a painting makes it feel new by making it visible again. The point of painting is to manifest what’s there in life from minute to minute but is so omnipresent it’s inaccessible to conscious observation. Peterson-Krag put it this way: the beauty a painting achieves is both surprising and familiar. It’s a slightly different way of saying “surprising and yet inevitable.” And she echoed another of Porter’s observations when she said, “It enables you to see something familiar as if for the first time.”

That’s precisely the paradox at the heart of painting: to enable you to recognize something that feels entirely fresh and new.  If you recognize it, it can’t really be new, and yet that’s how it feels.  Habit falls away and the most ordinary things become fascinating again when represented effectively in paint: looking at a great painting is liberating. The difficulty of painting, and of any creative work, is that there is no way to keep doing this reliably, despite all of the repeatable working methods a painter can master—beauty emerges as a byproduct of the struggle, as unpredictable to the painter as it is to the viewer.

From still life to still life, Pederson-Krag works to establish a varied range of colors that fill the entire visual field established by the painting—nearly every patch of color in the painting serves a purpose, leaving no room for negative space. Even a wall behind a little green end table bears a pattern—a tactic Zoey Frank uses to the same effect in her still lifes. The eye moves around the canvas comfortably but doesn’t fix itself on any particular item as a focal point, but instead apprehends the light, and the entire composition, as a whole. This approach makes the surface of the painting, the paint itself, as important as what it depicts. Her struggle is to compose an image in color, using the hue of various source objects to create a design—balancing the flat design against the challenge of creating a three-dimensional space—while attempting at the same time to unify the image into a coherent whole and a consistent sense of light.

This, for me, is what she meant when I asked her at what point in her life color became her central concern:

I have always struggled with it. I think it’s the most powerful element in the painting. When I’m really moved by a painting it’s usually the color. I’m always looking for color and warmth. Many objects have a character to them, but they don’t have a color opportunity. When I’m painting, the color always diminishes. I’m always diminishing the color so I always exaggerate it (early on) because I know it’s going to disappear. As I work into things, the color diminishes and I tend to resolve things with value. In that landscape (pointing to one of her pieces on the wall), I tried to make it about color but in the end I could only make it work with a value statement, which is the little element of light (shining through at the center of the painting). (The parenthetical remarks are mine.)

What I think she meant was that she designs a painting as a composition of pure color. In a still life, her objects are carefully chosen and arranged, chosen in part for their color, not simply “found” sitting on a surface in her environment. Her intent is to create a pattern of hues on the surface of the canvas by depicting what she has assembled. She begins with a focus on the relationships among the various colors she’s enabled herself to put down on the surface, through her arrangement of objects, but eventually she gets to the point where she can’t ignore the painting’s lack of unity, so she gradually shifts to a concern with lights and darks, in an effort to create a unified whole. And that inevitably dilutes and obscures the color and pulls her away from what prompted her to paint in the first place. When the painting works, even when it works beautifully, as her paintings all do, it’s a wistful truce between color and value. I’ve always considered this contest between value and color the price of perceptual painting, or any sort of representational work whose primary motive is color. There’s a trade-off in how the demands of representation mute a painter’s opportunities with color. At some level, you’re stuck wrestling with how the world actually looks: it’s mostly green and blue and brown, and it’s full of shadows. Anyone who wants to work primarily with color and, at the same time, create an image that looks remotely the way the world actually looks is living under the yoke of conflicting demands. It’s why it’s easy for a representational colorist looks toward Stella or Noland with envy.

What’s remarkable about Pederson-Krag is that she succeeds so impressively and her final colors become subtle, not dull, in a lustrous way. Though Matt Klos suggested to me, on my visit to Baltimore, that perceptual painting descends mostly from Impressionism, Pederson-Krag’s effort ends up creating images that look Tonalist in their disengagement from the immediate present, in the way they hint at loss and memory and the past, a timeless evanescence, as it were, while still feeling entirely alive and unpredictable in the colors that emerge from her tenacious determination not to obscure the fact that she’s fashioning a field of paint, not simply tricking the eye entirely into forgetting the paint in favor of what it depicts. If I were a collector, I would have bought more than one of her still lifes, but her landscapes have taken her to an even more rarified level and in some ways are more amazing. In them, she achieves a remarkable sense of reality, in a severely restricted range of colors, even while, up close, the images are literally layered visibly into a stucco-like surface of paint—a surface I told her reminded me of Braque. I marvel at the landscapes, because though I can conjecture my way, as a painter, from the blank canvas to the final image in some of her still lifes, even repeated viewing of the landscapes left me baffled about how she got from a white stretch of cloth to the painting hanging on the wall: those scenes embodied yet another level of mystery that kept me coming back to look at them in vain for a clue about how she’d made them.

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