Alice Zinnes "Tunnel of Hell"

Alice Zinnes "Tunnel of Hell" oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches

        Alice Zinnes: Orpheus Rising

      Tribes Gallery

      East Village, New York



The Exhilaration of the Dark

The Poetic Descent of Alice Zinnes




in that instant she was whisked away,

clawing at the shawls that hid her from the world

to show him the ravaged face of all farewells

and the blank pennies of her defeated eyes.

-- Stanley Kunitz, "In The Dark House"




"Tunnel of Hell"

      oil on canvas

      36 x 40 inches


The dramas of our inner worlds spill to an essential descent. There is an arc to the movement of imaginative life, a curving crescendo and a dive, a plunging to the fiery insights of the self-interrogating, probing soul, and then a return - a gesture of the dreaming dance that drops past the easy optimisms of the surface life. The soul that seeks to know itself must step down to its death, and then arise. There is a tragedy in the hard realizations of the inward existence, and it is written in our myths.



It has been the devotion of myth to remind us of the dramas in our inner world, and in the arts, it has been the devotion of poetry to remind us of the myths. But not of poetry alone. Through the ages, painting and sculpture have repeatedly revealed their undying ties to the poetic dedication, returning to the depths of myths and the penetration downward that poetry protects and renews - to the turbulent drive to the mangling center, the place that destroys that it may re-create.


Narrative paintings have often illustrated the myths directly, but it would seem the terrible transformation of insight is natural to abstraction, to the mode of painting that unmakes everything. And so, clearly, it seems to Alice Zinnes.


Zinnes has frequently taken poetry as the inspiration for her work. She has done so again in her exhibition at Tribes Gallery, a riveting display of 15 oil paintings and charcoal sketches, many of which are based on poems that Zinnes has set in a book in the gallery's main room.


There is a difference this time, and it is the theme: the myth of Orpheus. In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the first human poet. He fell in love with Eurydice and, when she suddenly died, descended to the underworld to retrieve her. He sang of his love so sweetly to Hades that he won her back, on condition that, as he led her up to the surface, he not turn round to look upon her. Yet, his impatience and doubt were so great that he did look back, only to see Eurydice falling back to Hell.


It is the story of the descent to the harrowing depths, of seeking the center of the heart in the center of death, and it is the heart of this exhibition. Clearly, Zinnes understands the tragic, creative fall into darkness. Every work enacts the chaos of the soul, the eternal battle of darkness with light that is the source of creativity - the source of life itself. On each canvas, atmospheres of seething hues infiltrate each other, as if suffusing intuitions of things enlightening and deadly were grappling, battling for possession of the spirit. And in Tunnel of Hell, which is matched to a poem by Stanley Kunitz, we witness the sight of the crucible, the touchstone of the vision. It is a spectacular work, as exhilarating as it is threatening - like inspiration, and life, itself.