A new Old Master

La Coiffe Bleue, oil on wood, 20 x 20

Anne-Christine Roda’s portraits, mostly of her daughter, are a must-see for anyone in New York City during these last seven days of her solo show at Arcadia Contemporary in SoHo. I was impressed with her work in the digital catalog emailed out before the show opened, but there’s little comparison between the albeit excellent photography and the presence of the work itself. In a quick visit to the gallery yesterday, I was astonished and moved by the immense discipline brought to these paintings.

They are good on every level: technical skill, the quality of the paint surface, the intensely personal and unpretentious relationship with her sitter, and the almost monastic simplicity and austerity of the information each painting conveys. The title of the show, Les Silencieuses, conveys the aura of Roda’s work: it’s all signal, no noise, and it’s a precise, narrow bandwidth of signal at that. The peak and trough of her wavelength are shaped at one extreme by the spiritual, protective quality of her care for her daughter embodied in these paintings, and the contrary sense that this young woman is on the threshold of what is inevitably a wildly unpredictable adulthood. This young woman is an icon of purity and vulnerability, her image indelible and protected by its frame, though the actual sitter, the living human being, will find nothing equivalent to that safety in the world.

To say the work is hyper-realistic is almost an understatement, but also misleading. Her inspiration comes from the Old Masters with their dark baroque backgrounds and almost somber moods: intentionally or not, Zurburan looms large here, but the finish she brings to each painting compares as well with Rembrandt and Van Dyke. Her surface has a smoother finish than much work by the Old Masters, closer to the uniform absence of brushwork one sees throughout hyper-realism, but while her edges can be distinct and precise, there’s an unaccountable softness in the light and the texture, even the skin of a leg or arm. The feel she brings to her paint handling mysteriously remains sensuous and incredibly supple, even with such little evidence of her brush: her tones are impossible to describe in some places, the shadow on the back of a hand, the color of the creases in a knuckle, seeming to effectively blend every possible hue while representing the absence of color. I would think her achievement with these paintings might inspire Donald Kuspit to rank her as a New Old Master, but I don’t think anything has been heard from his quarter.

Moving from one painting to the next, I thought of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a book that hasn’t crossed my mind in years. This solo show of contemporary French painting more or less proves him wrong. This work is justified by its aura, and no amount of reproduction can convey it, nothing can substitute for actually standing in front of the paintings. His Marxist thesis was that the ability to reproduce and distribute visual art—through photography and film, for example—diminished the “aura” of the actual, unique and historical work itself and had what he considered a revolutionary leveling effect on art, making it accessible to anyone, at any time or place. A victory for the proletariat.

Fast-forward to now and think: Instagram, Netflix, Spotify. Benjamin quotes the French poet Paul Valery’s insight, a startling precognition, that perfectly describes what’s happening: “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.” He had it perfectly right: a tap on an icon, a click on a trackpad. It signifies the root of our current plague, our Biblical flood of stimuli, from TikTok to Twitter, and only now are we beginning to wonder at the destructive effects of this ease, this continuous availability from the cloud of what has become a combination of soma and the feelies in Brave New World. We’re suddenly recognizing the problem with our age of “mechanical reproduction”, as evidenced in our discussions of TikTok ownership in Congress and Florida’s attempts to shield children from the perils of social media. My own daughter picks up her phone and says: “This is the new tobacco.” She vows not to let her two children get their hands on a smart phone until they are close to adulthood. She isn’t a Puritanical monster; her love is just ahead of the curve. Walter Benjamin had no idea what was coming. He celebrated the way a unique, irreducible work of art could be transformed into something for mass consumption, the way it equalized everyone’s access to the work—again, think streaming—while eliminating the problematic reverence for the work’s physical aura, in a Marxist’s vision of history, erasing the mystery of what the actual physical object conveys.

If you want to get a glimpse of that astonishing mystery, and its power of endurance unique to oil paint on panel, get yourself to Roda’s exhibition before it’s over in a week.

A little postscript on the journey required for my few minutes spent in front of Roda’s work, which bears on why painting is almost unique among the arts in the way it remains stubbornly physical and hard to reach. I think it bears on why painting is a unique bulwark against the tsunami of stimuli, the current, endless availability of entertainment and chatter—anywhere, at any time. It requires real effort to stand in front of a painting and see it first-hand, to witness the actual work itself, available at any given time in only one place on the planet. To see Roda’s paintings, I planned a trip to Manhattan, combining a brief meeting with Peter Georgescu in midtown Manhattan with my visit to speak briefly as well with Steve Diamant at Arcadia. Before sitting down with Steve, I spent time in the gallery absorbing Roda’s work and it dramatically deepened my appreciation for her talent.what follows is what was involved to have those few wonderful minutes with the actual paintings. (Note: online availability of art is a boon, too. Steve told me he does quite a bit of business with collectors who see work online and buy it on that basis, so Valery’s prophecy wasn’t entirely a bad thing, but I suspect Internet sales work because Arcadia’s buyers know the unique quality he offers and can trust what they have seen in person in the past.)

For more than a decade, on visits to Manhattan, I have been staying in New Jersey  to avoid the costs, mostly at what is now Parsippany Suites in Parsippany, NJ, where I can park for free and get into the city with a drive that’s anywhere from 35 minutes in the dead of night to over an hour during the rush. I usually park in an open-air lot on W. 26th St. next door to where the Upright Citizens Brigade used to be located. So on Monday I Uber-ed up to the Loew’s Regency to have tea with Peter and then Uber-ed back and drove out of the city at 5 p.m., astonished that I faced very little traffic to hold me up. Cost of the visit? $75 for two hours in the parking lot, and another $75 or so for 40 blocks drive north and then 40 blocks south. Plus tolls at the Lincoln Tunnel. A night in Parsippany, around $150, a bargain compared to a stay at the Ace Hotel, in midtown, say.

When I got back after my meeting with Peter, feeling a little discouraged—it was a discouraging trip in a number of ways, but discouragement and hope room pretty well together for me—I considered just driving home and skipping the trek back into Mordor. Instead, I decided to defy what Google maps was telling me and make the 90-minute drive down through Newark with an enormous amount of traffic, the many lanes funneling into the Holland Tunnel around 10 a.m. The traffic emerges in SoHo. Despite a long wait at a very short light, I turned left onto Broadway and parked illegally near the gallery entrance. Last time I did this my rental car was charged a parking ticket though nothing appeared on the windshield at the time, so I’m thinking there must be surveillance on every street now with video capture of plates on cars and automated bureaucratic revenue harvesting to follow. I await my parking fine in the mail as another little gotcha from my old friend Manhattan. But maybe my parking was allowed; couldn’t see any prohibitions along the street there, but the lack of cars didn’t bode well. All of this is fun in its own way, working the logistics in a way that makes me feel at home in the city after all these years.

Once I was done at the gallery, I amazingly managed to get from Arcadia’s front door to my own door in about five hours, with, again, little gridlock around the southern tunnel, though the drive back through Newark has some very tricky turns that have added to my drive time in the past when I miss them. This time, even while talking with my wife Nancy using CarPlay I remembered what is effectively a chicane of wishbone swerves where you have to choose right or left, in quick succession, and I got them all right. And then there were five hours of rain, sometimes so heavy it was a fog, all the way home in well under five hours.

All of that effort amounted to a slightly daunting mini-pilgrimage, the reward for which was to see some exquisite oil painting probably for the only time in my life, a few minutes that couldn’t have been better spent—all of it, the entire experience, a defiant alternative to the way nearly everyone consumes vicarious experience now. I would say the closest I come to what I experience in a great exhibition is found only in church, where as it happens I see dozens and dozens of paintings as well. They are called icons. Ironically, most of them are reproductions. There is very little driving involved.


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