Friday, January 18, 2008

Amy Pleasant, Artist

Amy Pleasant's recent exhibition at Tandem Gallery marked a new direction for her works. What follows is an essay I wrote that accompanied her 2002 solo show at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery.

Melancholy Baby

A friend reminded me recently of a scene in The Big Chill where one of the characters closes herself in the shower and cries. He said, “It was the only place she could go to break down.” I never paid too much attention to the film, in part because it depicted a generation that preceded mine. Still, I remember the moment and understand precisely what he meant.

I begin here because looking at Amy Pleasant’s paintings in Time Lapse is something like watching The Big Chill without sound. Some of her subjects are in she shower - and not just figuratively, either. There they stand, going about their daily lives, sharing intimate moments with even the most casual viewer.

I have always been intrigued by her works. In part, my fascination stems from the fact that the scenes they present are both universal and individual, both totally significant and entirely mundane. When I first began to consider them, I was surprised by a conflict - the language that suggests itself as descriptors stands precisely in opposition to the ways one wants to feel.

Perhaps it is the events depicted. Bathing. Lying in bed. an apparently endless stream of insignificant events, so I thought. But what began to emerge was the enormity, as opposed to the banality, of precisely these actions. There is a passage in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in which Nikolai Kuzmich becomes aware of both the enormity of time and how quickly it passes, in precisely the same moment:

And as he was sitting there with wide open eyes in his dark room, he began to understand that what he felt now was time as it passed by. He literally recognized them, all these tiny seconds, one as tepid as the other, but fast, but fast. Heaven knows where they were rushing.

Moments later, Kuzmich lies down forever. He doesn’t die, in the literal sense of the word, but the enormity of his discovery overwhelms him. In many ways, this is precisely what happens when one is confronted by Pleasant’s paintings (an unintended pun, as Kuzmich felt anything but pleasant.)

The complexity of her works is multilayered. Initially, there is the apparently flat surface and the repetitive image. This presents an almost filmic sensation, in which it is difficult to focus on any one event. This is coupled by the gradual realization that Pleasant has underpainted and overpainted, that other inhabitants of her painterly field are partially hidden, veiled or obscured. This creates a unique dilemma. One can attempt to construct a narrative from the visible images - a hopelessly fruitless task, since the images are related but nonlinear - or one can attempt to excavate the levels, to examine the buried images, and to construct a more complex map of interrelationships.

Her history is at least as indebted to Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Paul Sartre as it is to Edward Hopper. In each instance, the artists in question revealed aspects of the individual that were preferably hidden. In Rear Window, for example, Hitchcock presented voyeurism as a perversion and a virtue. Jean-Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, spoke of being caught peeping into a keyhole. And Edward Hopper, painter of the urban dystopia, presented works in which the outside and inside of both places and people, were seen in precisely the same moment. Pleasant appropriates the psychology of voyeurism and interiority, and makes it her own.

The lushness of her surfaces is almost irreconcilable with the silence of her subjects. I have, at times, discussed her works with her in the following terms: banal; mundane; everyday; quotidian. And she has suggested other, similar terms, particularly melancholy. I see the works as interrelated but individual. Each presents a series of everyday events which stand as signifiers for the complexity and intimacy of personal spaces and actions. In their entirety, as installed, each presents a series of vignettes which totally entrance the viewer. The experiences are so universal that everyone becomes the person in the shower, the person in the bathtub, the person peering into the closet, the person lying in bed.

Yet I am also tempted to say that the paintings have an unnerving ennui. Much like the novels of William Faulkner, it is as if Pleasant’s subjects are resigned to their fates, content, if not wholly comfortable in the knowledge that life probably won’t get much better. This doesn’t imply that it will necessarily get worse. What it does is reflect the Western tendency to equate pictorialized happiness with psychological success. Much in the manner that one is told to “smile for the camera”, the expectation is that the depiction of a joyous state will necessarily equate with one.

Pleasant is one of the few painters that has the courage to depict the banality of the everyday. Recognizing that existence is marked by a constant swing of optimism and pessimism, of success and failure, or, to use more philosophical terms, by desire and lack, Pleasant populates her canvases with subjects who represent the other moments. What is most compelling is the fact that her paintings are seductive in their sense of shared expectation. Someone is waiting for something; someone is looking for something; someone is remembering something, or savoring something.

There is still, however, the question of unintended voyeurism. Pleasant’s apartment and home dwellers never gaze out at the canvas. They never, as it were, return the gaze. One of the givens of psychoanalytic theory is that there is always an oscillating relationship between the viewer and the viewed. In Pleasant’s paintings, there is both an identification with the subject, and a visual appropriation of him or her. At the same time, there may be a transference as well. It is very likely that viewers will substitute themselves for the people Pleasant depicts. Here, it is the subjectivity of the viewer, and not the intentionality of the artist, that directs the experience of the image. In any event, the ability to process such a diverse set of responses, both as viewers and subjects, makes Pleasant’s intentions complex indeed.

A further consideration for the works in Time Lapse is their richness and diversity. When viewed in a totality, the works have an opportunity to interrelate, and apart from the complexity of each work, there is a shared complexity as well. For while a single image might stand as a view into a window, when viewed together it is like navigating a city.

Then, there is the question of color. For while color usually stands as a representation of emotions - red for hot, blue for cool - looking at Pleasant’s palette is somewhat like watching 1950s film noir. Here, the majority of works tend toward black, and white, and gray. However, just like one wants to see the color of Peter Lorre’s handkerchief in The Maltese Falcon, Pleasant sometimes adds a touch of color. A delicate yellow-green emerges from a layer here. A figure, depicted in red, crosses a doorway there. The color stands almost as much as a lure, a seduction, as the images themselves.

Finally, there are the questions of gender, of identity, of sexuality, of space. Here, one might consider the eroticism of space. The same friend who reminded me of the scene in The Big Chill said one day that he was surprised by the apparent lack of erotics. I am unsure that this is entirely the case. There is a strong argument for the suggestion that the erotics of the works stem precisely from their depiction of intimate spaces. It is a short step, then, from the intimacy of the bedroom or bath to the implied eroticism of the image. Yet this too is almost unreconcileable, almost too complex to comprehend. How do works which, at face value, seem to depict simplicity, become ones in which intimacy, eroticism, and resignation, among other emotions and feelings, practically step out of the canvas? It is a question which is impossible to answer. It must depend upon something other than subjectivity, personal experience, or the idea of something universal and shared.

I am reminded of a photograph of Sigmund Freud’s office In Vienna. It contains a mirror, facing his desk, which is affixed to the window frame. In looking at the mirror, Freud sees three things in precisely the same moment - himself, his space, and the space outside. In many ways, this is precisely what we see when we look at a work by Amy Pleasant. Yet when we see ourselves, it is because we have substituted for the subject of the painting. We have become both inside and outside the work, and at the same time we are inside the room. The picture frame before us both contains us, and contains our vision. We may or may not be within someone else’s gaze. This idea may seem nonsensical, but it reflects the ideas and constructions of thinkers from Descartes to Sartre, from Freud to Lacan, from Rosalind Krauss to Richard Wollheim. It is a doubling. As Lacan said in his seminar, “I is an other.” This fundamental statement becomes clear in Pleasant’s seemingly banal, everyday, quotidian figures. Precisely in their universality they are individual, and precisely in our individuality, they are universal. And throughout it all, time passes. And lapses. In precisely the same moment.

Amy Pleasant is represented by Jeff Bailey Gallery, New York, and Tandem Gallery, Birmingham

1 comment:

gm said...

Love your blog about Amy Pleasant's work - very good writing. Sensible, subtle - a good read.
Warmest regards,