Wit and beauty

The Moon Woke Me Up Fifteen Times, Sara Genn, acrylic on canvas

Back when an office copier seemed to be something almost large enough to step into and drive, there was a gag familiar to most people who ever used a big Xerox machine. Someone would inevitably hop up onto it and moon its flashing light to duplicate their naked rear end. It was a trending gag in office spaces for a while: drop trousers, sit on platen glass, press button. Judd Apatow humor. I was amused that all of this was brought to mind by Sara Genn’s marvelous cluster of paintings, assembled into a grid—lovely and suggestive tulip petals, rows of them, each in a color as subtle and lyrical as the tones of Stella’s floral geometry in the Sixties. It’s little wonder her work was awarded finalist status for the Luxembourg Prize last year. Hers was the most beautiful and accomplished of all the work entered for that generous prize.

The Moon Woke Me Up Fifteen Times seduces the viewer gently but relentlessly with the quiet joy of its variations on a single note: a curved bifurcated shape that’s part ravenous Pac Man, part tulip in profile, part suggestion of human life’s anatomical axis in the shape of a Xeroxed moon. What I mean is, along with everything else it evokes, it’s also a colors-of-Benneton cluster of bare derrieres—and that hint of irreverent burlesque puts a cheerful cap on all the work’s other virtues.

Her title is an homage to a Basho poem, “The moon woke me up nine times.” It’s a haiku full of Basho’s characteristic simplicity, profound in its matter-of-fact celebration of the moon’s fleeting beauty and its uncharacteristic sense of humor, a quality more typical of Basho’s poetic descendant, Issa. You can’t tell whether the moon stirred him because it was bright and full, and thus impossible to escape as he slept outside on one of his itinerant quests into the natural world, or did he keep waking up on the hour all through the night because he didn’t want to miss a moment of its luminous silence?

Aside from changing the number of awakenings to suit her formal ambitions, Sara Genn modifies the line into a smiling affirmation of how many times her duplicated moon woke her to rapt attention and celebration of one subtle color after another. But you have to recognize the funny pun packed into the word moon in order to understand this affirmation of her artistic awakening. Alongside that, you realize the line asserts a night of unquenchable desire, the way an old blues lyric is likely to do. But the desire here has been sublimated into a sequence of notes, like a refrain from Erik Satie. The tension between the title’s humor and the simple perfection of those color harmonies, the slight way in which each pair of lips has been parted to create a unique spire of negative white space that disappears into the rich color that surrounds it—the pull between the sincerity of that beauty and the slightly ribald remix of Basho reminds me of how Frederick Hammersley worked so hard to make his viewers smile at his clever titles for small-scale, heartfelt color harmonies. Genn’s work is a close neighbor to Hammersley’s minimalist lyricism. She’s absolutely serious about the radiant beauty she composes in this simple sequence of tones, but she lets her wit give it a title it doesn’t require to do its work. Ever since I first saw this image months ago, I haven’t yet been able to look at it without smiling.

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