From the first page of Carl Watson’s new installment of the misadventures of Frank Payne, Idylls of Complicity, the reader knows they are in for a bumpy ride.
After spouting an apocryphal run-in with John Wayne Gacy, Frank muses that everything he says will be taken as a metaphor for some repressed desire. He proceeds to concoct a globe-slumming yarn (not forgetting the trots) that bristles and squirms with desire and metaphor, leaving very little repressed. My metaphor for Frank would be a pinball, being shot spun, slapped and ricocheted from one impressive woman to another in a slow decline until he rolls up against Sophie.
In Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming, Watson’s man explored a landscape of the American seventies astride a motorbike, but this installment finds him in the next decade, bogged down in a Chicago scene where not to be some kind of poseur is to disappear entirely. Like one of Colin Wilson’s angry young mystics, he is compelled by the unknown, in the form a vengeful Hindu goddess, who broods over the story from one end to the other. He and Sophie travel to India, possibly because that is the only thing they can agree on doing. Does anything good ever happen in India? Not to them, anyhow.
Watson is incapable of wasting words, and nothing is beneath his observation. A ringing phone can springboard you into a harrowing dissertation. Not since the Wizard of Oz have I encountered a work where such a large percentage of the content was devoted to dreams, but they are operatic in scope and given an equal weight as waking life.
They get around and get along well enough for a while, but as Frank passes through India, a parasite passes through him leading to ‘a week of living expulsively,’ and when he recovers, Sophie has gone off on her own, or possibly with a somewhat sinister fake fakir. Her pessimistic optimism was incompatible with his optimistic pessimism, near as he can tell. He makes a few inquiries, but returns home alone.
No one is satisfied with his account of her absence, least of all her parents, so the third act is concerned with his return to the subcontinent trying to track her down, maybe even save her from a cultish prostitution ring. But Frank can’t even find himself, acknowledging ‘there was no reality left to me other than my own obsessions.’
What we have in this mystifying oracle of a novel is a ‘Thinker’ sculpted by Rodan, the winged Japanese Kaiju, not unlike Kali Ma, laying waste to our desires.
Review by Kevin Riordan, March 2016
Seeing through Nicole Eisenman’s Al-ugh-ories
Nicole Eisenman, Commerce Feeds Creativity, 2004
If you enter the Nicole Eisenman show, “Al-ugh-ories,” at the New Museum the wrong way – take the stairs to the third floor, where you will bust into a wing with no wall text to announce it – you will come upon some smaller paintings first. A green man spooning some strange liquid into a bound woman’s mouth will greet you, next to a kind of undead couple having a glass of wine. If this sounds uncomfortable, I encourage you to indulge it. These paintings take your temperature. They are works you warm up to.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of entering a space the wrong way. Entering a building the wrong way, entering an exhibition the wrong way. Entering a painting the wrong way, entering history the wrong way, maybe even entering where you’re supposed to exit.
In keeping with my entrance of the exhibition, I thought I would enter the conversation on Nicole Eisenman the wrong way, too. I would start with a you and an I, a gesture of irreverence toward academic writing on art and toward self-erasure more generally. I take Eisenman’s paintings as an encouragement to use an I in a critique of them, an I that writes or paints into and out of overdetermining structures. Form to match content, so to speak. Eisenman’s paintings make this seem a dubious binary in the first place.
* * *
If Nicole Eisenman and I have something in common it is probably a shared desire to do art history the wrong way, to stack it and skew it, to watch the wiggling Jenga tower of it all topple.
Night Studio, 2009
Stacked art history and poetry books act as bookends in two paintings: Is it So and Night Studio. Framing the two reclining lovers of Night Studio, the book stacks point us to places outside the painting, toward references as scattered as Ernst, Byzantium, Goya, Japonisme, Rousseau, Bellmer, Munch, Breugel (an Eisenman favorite). Together they create a canon between which Eisenman’s figures are quite literally situated, a (mine)field of references presented as a frame. To first state the obvious, none of these named figures are women, so the queer lovers appear within a frame of male art historical references. Yet, neither individual part nor whole of these collected references helps us out much in making sense of the painting. We could consider the nude bodies in relation to the abject dolls of Bellmer, perhaps, or the flattened shimmering surfaces of Byzantine art, but only to be led into mental traps of our own making. As influences or interpretive lenses, these great men only take us so far.
Foils to see through, these books throw the very notion of “reading” a painting into question. Art historical allusions turn out to be illusions. Rather than providing resolutions they assist us only about as much as the Bumble Bee tuna cans do as they sit in the background of Tea Party, resting on a shelf behind Uncle Sam. Perhaps it is not that these references point outside the frame but rather to the frame itself, to the hierarchical structure of canonization, the stacked nature of historiography. The anachronism in the act of stacking Ernst on top of Picasso on top of Vuillard on top of Breugel and Munch is already a reshuffling of the art historical deck. With Eisenman we get an intervention in the form of a dishevelment.
* * *
Progress: Real and Imagined, 2008
If you enter the Nicole Eisenman show the right way – take the elevator to the third floor, step out into a large room with the introduction to “Al-ugh-ories” written on the wall – the first piece to blast you in the face is her 2006 painting, Progress: Real and Imagined. Here Eisenman has most clearly allegorized herself as painter in the whirling world of her studio. We enter a cosmos of canvas flying, daubs of paint flung willy nilly, a rotting cheeseburger long forgotten under a low table. The whole image is out at sea, clinched by some bearded seamen who pull the frame taut with a diagonal oar.
So much shit brown sits on the surface of Eisenman’s paintings, from the squirted-out raised taupe spurt, to the ruddy brown patches of her 2008 painting Coping, to the dark mudpie color in The Work of Labor and Care. These lowly, abject turd moments of Eisenman’s paintings deserve a closer look even as they incite a kind of strange, even olfactory disgust. “How’s my painting?” a cheeky bumper sticker at the top of Progress probes, pointing to Eisenman’s sarcastic play with expectations of what a painting should look like. Her asynchronicity of style and gesture, not only within her body of work but also within a given painting, makes this question difficult to answer. Whatever frame of reference we brought with us to assess the painting, we will have to let it go. As with the temporal incorrectness in her stacks of art historical references, here the whole idea of progress becomes hairy at best.
* * *
Nicole Eisenman knows that a painting is always already an allegory of itself. You don’t have to fill it with symbolic meaning for it to be loaded, fraught with an often hard-earned ideology. Always participating in an act of (art) historical narration subject to power, paintings, like any I or you which anchor speech, somehow get away from themselves in practice.
That I can call the hands clasped by the mid-cunniligus couple in Is it so “hands” does not detract from their pinkness, their round fleshness. Eisenman’s yellows are too strange, too acidic, her greens too toxic to make sense of – in the same way that the I or you is always in excess of itself, in excess of meaning. For all the old talk of figurative painting as too obvious, Eisenman’s figures refuse to resolve into any easy narrative. Too stout, too warped, too skeletal, sometimes all at the same time, they actively resist any “about” function of a figurative painting. In all their delicious obviousness – or what is mistaken for obviousness – the kind of sight that Eisenman’s paintings demand is what she describes her father, a US Army psychologist, as having taught her: “to see things that are not there and to see through things that are.” Our seeing through must be double – to look beyond the picture only to arrive back within it, looking back at us. These figures see through their own picture plane, through their world of quite palpable fictions and into our own.
Is it So, 2014
There is a “colorful and amazing world where universes explode,” a mysterious place where splashes of galaxies move like waves and there is no such thing as true emptiness even when it feels like there is. That world is ours, and Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” — a real understatement of a title — is our soulful guide, leading the curious through the origin stories, essential components, and ongoing debates surrounding general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, and other theoretical building blocks of modern physics.
The short book is not just any primer for those of us whose heads rest above the clouds of the physics world; it is written in our native tongue of artful prose, rooted in curious wonder that grows exponentially with each question it answers, cushioned with humility, and framed by humanity. “Perhaps it is we who have not yet learned to look at it from just the right point of view,” muses Rovelli on the Standard Model. He continues:
For now, this is what we know of the matter: A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, woods, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars.
Here, Rovelli is no ideologue. Rather, he shares with us what he has learned in his years of immersion in theoretical physics in the way that ever-unquenchable thinkers share a brilliant yet fragile idea; his words shimmer with hope that we will see what he sees, and even before we do, he wonders aloud what else there may be. In each discovery he gracefully conveys, he rediscovers along with us. “The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta stone of physics,” he writes to his own awe, “still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time.”
In order to spare those who seek only a traditional meta-level reflection that we expect when it comes to books, I’ve waited until now to bring up one challenge regarding this ‘true nature of time’. It’s a critique whose specificity, I think, represents an admitted overstepping as my role of reviewer. That’s the first problem with what I’m about to say. The second is that I know next to nothing of physics nor philosophy compared to Mr Rovelli, and it is my understanding that amateurs thinking they have found a flaw in the laws of physics is a common, painful thorn in the side of those who have dedicated their lives to the phenomenon. But it’s one that I can’t resist. Now that I’ve apologized for my sin, I’ll commit it.
In Rovelli’s sixth lesson, he presents the possibility that the flow of time is an illusion, much the like the misguided feeling that the world is flat. He writes that our discussion of past versus present in a manner similar to discussing here versus there is flawed. “For a hypothetically super-sensible being [that is, a thing that somehow perceives beyond what it experiences], there would be no ‘flowing’ of time,” Rovelli writes, “the universe would be a single block of past, present, and future. But due to the limitations of our consciousness we perceive only a blurred vision of the world and live in time…. Is that clear? No, it isn’t. There is so much still to be understood.”
At least he admits that last bit.
Rovelli’s discussion of time feels murky and underexplored. The physicist essentially tells us that he suspects heat is the key to differentiating between past and future. For a book that is meant to break obtuse ideas into digestible morsels, this explanation felt stale. If heat is the motion of atoms, then what we are really talking about is change, aren’t we? Why not discuss the incredible (and accessible) idea that we only experience time as relative to change?
Rovelli had introduced this confusing lesson with the following statement: “It is possible to imagine a world without colors, without matter, even without space, but it’s difficult to imagine one without time.” I scribbled in the margins: “Because time is the phenomenon of things we experience (color, matter, location) changing. Time is not a characteristic that exists independently; it is an experience entirely relative to the things that we do indeed isolatably experience.” This is why we are able to so clearly imagine — yet never experience — time freezing. Time freezing would be how we would describe every single aspect of the entire universe stopping, not changing one bit. If you or I lost consciousness and the world continued on, we would be frozen but time would continue to exist. Whenever we regained consciousness, such as when we awake in the morning, we would experience the perception that things had changed, from the micro level of our own body’s cells degrading and regenerating to the macro level of the sun’s location in the sky having shifted. It would feel like time had passed. But if we lost consciousness and every single sub-atomic particle in the entire universe, from oceans to air to stars to dust to the cells in our bodies, stopped — froze, did not change in its location or other characteristics, however you want to say it — I would like to suggest that there would have been no time. If the universe began moving again — creating heat, as Rovelli so opaquely referred to it — at the same time that we regained consciousness, I do not believe it would feel as if any time had passed. To me, time is like one of those amazing German combo-words, like “Schadenfreude,” which is defined as the pleasure derived from misfortune. Imagine trying to discuss the experience of schadenfreude as a feeling that would exist on its own separate from the things that constitute it: pleasure and misfortune. When we try to understand time as a dimension isolatable from states of being and their change (the two things I’m asserting that time is the interaction of), it is as confounding as trying to understand schadenfreude divorced from pleasure or misfortune. Unintentionally, the discussion has been structured to be an ontological cycle of conflation. That is my admittedly preferred explanation for why I faltered during an otherwise immaculate journey through the stunning, crystal-clear waters that is Rovelli’s exploration of our current understanding of physics. Regardless, what a profound journey it was.
Aside from that little hiccup I feel an obligation to admit I experienced, I can’t and should not analyze the academic rigor of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics — it just isn’t my place — but what I can speak to is what it feels like to read this book. Despite its highly intellectual nature, Rovelli’s words feel like poetry. They feel religious. In his attempts to explain where we come from, how we move, what time feels like, the Italian physicist injects fresh wonder into our view of the world. Reading the book feels like looking up at the night stars themselves.
It is that feeling that the book’s true value lies in. These days, we could find on our own many of the essential summaries that Rovelli provides us with. Explanations of gravity and quantum mechanics aren’t hard to come by. But for many of us, such gross access to information has turned into white noise, so Rovelli’s enthusiastic and patient curation is most welcome. Read this book to bathe in the feeling that you are a part of something wondrous, and that perhaps how this is possible can be grasped after all.