Haunted Anatomy

Elijah Burgher

In his essay, “The First Man Was an Artist,” Barnett Newman expresses a quintessentially modernist desire: to see through the eyes of the first man. “Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void.”[1] The first man, unburdened of the fragments of a contingent reality and the weight of history, is a cipher for a new art, a new self, and a new reality. Towards these ends, painters like Newman systematically cleared their artworks of narrative, representation, symbolism and illusionistic space over the course of a century, as if they were attempting in their studios to recreate the primordial void before which man’s creativity originated.

Despite its redemptive, utopian aspirations, the modernist project could not hold out the multitude fragments of life, of history. The artists of postmodernism, in a radical course correction, allowed life to flow chaotically into their practices. Rather than first men, these artists are more akin to detectives rummaging critically in the disarrayed fragments of a postwar mis en scene that beckon but refuse adding up into a meaningful whole. In this changing of the guards, the attempt to cognitively map our contingent reality and obscurely plotted history replaces the spiritual purpose and utopian desire of which Newman is so exemplary.

Both perspectives outlined above – the first man’s and the detective’s – are at play in Deborah Boardman’s work, and thankfully she does not take sides but attempts synergy between the two. In her exhibition The Flux of Matter at the University of Indiana Kokomo, Boardman poetically responds to the history of the region’s Miami Indians, drawing on the watercolors and journals of British-born artist, George Winter, as well as conversations and visits with contemporary Miamis in nearby Peru, Indiana. Boardman threads into this narrative her Western education in the European aesthetic tradition as well as her daily experience as a painter in her home studio. Circulating through this recent body of work, one encounters a heterogeneous assembly of objects, places, pictures, and stories: self portraits by old masters interweave with watercolor portraits of Miami Indians from the mid-19th century; the windows in the artist’s Chicago studio open onto the Indiana landscape; and a French roman cathedral morphs into a Miami longhouse on radio tower legs.

The motley assortment of images, references and experiences in The Flux of Matter are much like a collection of clues, pieces of evidence, and various leads arrayed on a detective’s desk, and Boardman draws speculative lines of connection amongst these disparate materials. The title of her exhibition connotes chaos and contingency, history drained of meaning and narrative. It is, however, taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The whole world is the flux of matter over the wires of thought to the poles or points where it would build.”[2] Across a teeming, seemingly anarchic surface, Boardman scans for the lines of force – the wires of thought – that galvanize her assembled fragments into a larger whole. Her intention is not surreal juxtaposition, smug meta-fiction, or a total cancellation of meaning. The strange, poetic shapes of the gravestone objects, the hybridized sacred architecture of the chapel-longhouse construction, and the fluid brushwork and saturated colors in her oil and gouache paintings betray something akin to Newman’s belief in the transformative potential of art.

Each artwork reshuffles the deck of her references, presenting a different constellation of elements. Raft at Night (2007) pictures a simple boat carrying five heads through dark, undulating waters beneath a green night sky. The water is depicted with swooping, horizontal stripes, each a single, fat brush stroke connecting the sides of the canvas. Two asterisk-like stars with trembling, silver-gray tendrils of light, hang from the murky green and brown bands of the sky. The heads in the boat, loosely copied from self-portraits by Gericault, Titian, Poussin and other old masters, are each displayed on an ornate, symmetrical shape, situated in the raft facing out at us.

The face-bearing shapes are, in fact, based on Boardman’s series of “emblems” – small, shaped objects, made by laminating her old works on paper. As with those in the boat, many of the emblems picture artists’ self-portraits. There is something occult about the shapes of the emblems – symmetrical shapes made from adjoining curling lines and pricking points. The face-bearing emblems resemble both trophy heads attached to ornate plaques, as well as divination mirrors, from the depths of which faces emerge. The shapes also put one in mind of decorative, “feminine” variations on Newman’s idea of the “ideographic picture” – a shape as a “a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings … felt before the terror of the unknowable.”[3] The freestanding gravestones in The Flux of Matter appear to be derived from this strand of the artist’s practice.

With its expressionist brushwork, art historical quotations and heavy-handed symbolism, Raft at Night could easily have been suffused with irony, a David Salle-like investigation of clashing signifiers, perhaps. Within the context of Boardman’s practice, however, the elements collated in the image ramify poetically. Specifically, the painting raises two specters of the past – the European tradition of art and the history of migrations to the North American continent. Both formally and metaphorically, Boardman evokes the European aesthetic inheritance as it was received and transformed by American hands: the romantic expressionism of early American modernist painters like Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, the gestural abstractions of the New York School, and Frank Stella’s stripes. Perhaps the Raft at Night prefaces The Flux of Matter, picturing George Winter’s European-style academic training shipping to the new world, where it will be used to portray the culture and, ultimately, the plight of the Miami Indians.

No matter how sympathetically Winter depicted Native Americans, probingly reproducing his watercolor portraits brings up the question of whether Western aesthetic traditions, as part of an entire complex of religious, economic and other transplanted cultural practices, played a part in the dispossession of American land and degradation of aboriginal cultures. Boardman copies Winter’s portraits in thin washes of oil with flickering gestures. Despite the confidence of the brushwork, the images on the canvases appear tentative, not fully present, as if they are either fading, unpainting themselves, or are freshly but incompletely reappeared. These twice-appropriated faces also appear in Boardman’s projected animation in the exhibition, where again they flicker, like flames unsteadily catching and then going out.

It is provocatively unclear in the portraits how the dripping gesture, a hallmark of modernist autonomy and safeguard of originality, relates to the faces. Does the gesture imbue some semblance of presence to these long-gone countenances? Or does it incite a kind of forgetfulness, a repression of likeness by emphasizing the work of the artist’s hand? Or is Boardman haunting the gesture, forcing memory to persist in its absentminded playfulness? This ambiguity is present in other images, like Kokomo 14, in which Raft at Night and another canvas float in a field of veering gestures, rude intrusions on an otherwise placidly abstract space; and Ash Tree with Ghost Raft, which pictures a line of faces emerging from a sunny atmosphere of oil washes and arcing brushstrokes beyond the lineaments of the ash tree outside her studio window. In Ghost Waters, the raft with its cargo of heads is all but totally obliterated by an aggressive flurry of horizontal strokes that settle, finally, into an image of calm but foreboding water. This last image explicitly connects modernist abstraction’s promise of freedom and autonomy with the dangers of repression and an irresponsibly negligent, perhaps lethal, turning away from life.

In these paintings, Boardman activates a liminal space between abstraction representation, between the pictorial grammar of marks, shapes and colors and the information these visual elements are pressed into the service of conveying. Whether the images are coming into being or decomposing, whether abstraction is drowning representation in nonobjective waters or representation is loudly pealing through the silence of abstraction, is uncertain. This ambiguity, however, is arguably the moral center of the work: a narrow space of choice, where memory and forgetfulness, the living and the dead, the modern and the postmodern, make productive contact.

No matter the redemptive intentions of Newman’s concept of the first man, abstraction nonetheless performs a repression or at least an elision of much of life; but the disinterred histories, the ruins brought to light by postmodernism’s detectives remain just that – ruins – if not animated by the spiritual purpose, the desires for reconciliation and redemption, that are part of the inheritance of modernism that Newman so eloquently embodies and that postmodernism so categorically refuses. Opening that thin gap of possibility, where representation is indistinguishable from abstraction, where memory is either half-submerged or half-recalled from forgetfulness, is an ethical matter in Boardman’s work because she demonstrates it to be a place where the relationship between art and life can be renegotiated.

Boardman brings together two constellations of psychic and actual space: the private imagination as sheltered in the artist’s studio; and our collective history as collected and narrated in museums or marking the transformations of the American landscape and the migration of people across it. Art and life, the private space of the studio and the public space of exhibition, abstraction and representation, personal experience and collective cultural inheritance – Boardman seeks communication, exchange and mutual transformation amongst the diametric points of these and other polarities. Rather than proffering another postmodern object lesson in disunity and contradiction, she emphasizes connections and interdependence amongst her heterogeneous materials, cultivating what we might refer to as an ecological aesthetic.

Elijah Burgher

September 2007

[1] Barnett Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist,” in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996), p. 569.

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson.

[3] Barnett Newman, “The Ideographic Picture,” in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996), p. 566