by Alessandra Stamper
I want to talk with you about magic.
I’m a painter, and this story about magic starts with my first solo show, Blue Leah, at Dacia Gallery in Manhattan in October of 2012. Part of it got shut down by a hurricane we had in New York. But the rest went pretty well.
Blue Leah consisted of eleven paintings, made over the course of about two years, all of them larger-than-life-size close-ups of a single model— Leah. I had a reason for painting this way. I don’t entirely subscribe to this reason in my current practice, but explaining it will lead us toward the present.
Pliny the Elder tells a good story on the subject of why we make pictures. It’s one of the Greek myths of the invention of drawing. In this myth, a young woman from Sicyon, near Corinth, is sitting with her boyfriend. He has to leave the next day, and she’s going to miss him. They’re sitting by the hearth fire, talking. Suddenly she turns and sees the shadow of his profile on the wall. So she grabs a piece of charcoal and makes an outline of the shadow to remember him by. And that’s the invention of drawing.
There is a medieval story about the crucifixion that parallels Pliny’s story. Jesus is on the Via Dolorosa, hauling the cross toward Golgotha. He’s sweating and bleeding. He’s covered in mud, and people have been spitting on him. A woman in the crowd, a sympathizer, takes off her veil and pats his face with it. When she takes it away—a miracle! There is an image of his face imprinted on the veil. This image is the true image of the face of Jesus. In the middle ages, they even had a faux Latin-Greek term for this concept: vera eikona. With a bit of folk etymology, the name of the True Image, the vera eikona, becomes the name of the woman—Veronica.
Both of these stories, the woman from Sicyon and Veronica, are myths based on the importance to us, as human beings, of making a True Image. But they have something else interesting in common: the means of producing the True Image is essentially mechanical in each case.
So the question arises: If the means of producing the True Image is mechanical, why do we still feel a need to paint after the invention of the camera?
I think we can answer this question by drawing on a very interesting concept raised by Neal Stephenson in his peculiar novel Anathem (2008). In this novel, the main character is press-ganged into serving as an amanuensis—a stenographer. The character very reasonably asks why they don’t just get a tape recorder and some voice recognition software. His boss explains to him that what is needed isn’t a record of the words alone. It is absolutely essential—for narrative reasons—that a consciousness parse the words on their way to the record.
This pertains to our question. We can slightly rephrase Stephenson’s proposition to reach an answer:
It is necessary that a consciousness parse what is seen for it to be a True Image.
Why? To answer this, we have to answer: what is the True Image a true image of ? It is possible to measure the density or boiling point of iron, for example, by mechanical means, and to find out the color of a star. These are purely physical phenomena. Machines are good at representing physical things. But it is next to impossible for a scale, a telescope, or a surveillance camera to represent consciousness (or the soul, the spirit— whatever you want to call it). The True Image is an image of something that is not physical. It is of the same nature as consciousness, and this is why consciousness must parse it to represent it accurately.
When we paint, we are making an image of a spiritual phenomenon. The image itself begins to partake of consciousness, owning itself and making person-like demands on the viewer. It is very difficult to make such an image. It is not hard for the artist alone. It is also hard for the model. The model must present herself, make who she is available. Her consciousness must, unhidden, interact with that of the artist. It is very difficult to do, and all sensible figurative artists are profoundly grateful to their models.
Given how difficult it is, let’s ask again: Why would anyone bother? Why is the True Image so important to us? I think Plato addresses this problem with his distinction between Being and Becoming. Plato describes everything eternal—ideas, mathematics, logic—as partaking of Being. Everything that changes, that comes to be and passes away, that lives and dies, he describes as partaking of Becoming. And Plato says that which is Becoming is an illusion. It doesn’t really exist. Why does he say that? It’s a radical rejectionism. He’s rejecting death. He says, “It is impossible that death should exist.”
Consider again the woman of Sicyon. She looks at things that are partaking of Becoming : her boyfriend, who will leave in the morning ; the fire; the shadow. And she realizes she will miss these things. So she reaches for those objects closest to her that partake most of Being: the charcoal and the tiles of the wall. And she translates that which is Becoming into that which is Being.
We pursue the True Image as a less radical version of Plato’s rejectionism. We say, “This thing, which exists now, is real. I see it. I live in it and it lives in me. I don’t want it to go away.” So we reach for whatever we can reach that partakes of Being, and we make a True Image of the thing we see. We make an image using materials that will last longer than we will. The future will roar down upon us and sweep us away, and yet we will have marked time, and we will have something to say to our descendants, and they to us, down through the generations.
This was the whole of my thinking until October of last year. It was a good system, which I built up over many years of thought. Then I finished the Blue Leah project.
A lot of figurative painters, having finished a project like this, would move on to another model. But I suspect that continuing to work with the same model will produce the kind of complexity and insight that characterizes any other long-term friendship. This is more important to me than variety.
So after my show, I was casting around for what to do next with Leah. I designed the Blue Leah paintings to create a zone where I could work toward some kind of fundamental truth about Leah specifically and, through that truth about her, a general truth about people. Late in the project, I realized that even if I succeeded in the effort, Leah the person has more sides than any one project can capture. A person is more than a painting. Fine, OK.
I could not do more of this; I cannot do more of the same. It is necessary to move forward. The alternative is not stasis; it is decay.
2. HEMN SPACE
From where I was, what was forward?
My True Image doctrine seemed cramped to me now, stale, constrained. I thought of two possible series to initiate—in fact I’m planning to do both. One of them is about the social side of living, all of the fleeting expressions, laughter, and motion that I eliminated from the first series. A Frans Hals kind of series. The other series is mythological. We all have a mythological dimension. What was Leah’s? Or, more likely, what was that part of mine I could see through the lens of Leah?
This second idea seemed more urgent than the first.
I began to think about mythological painting. I approached it from the side—I considered another interesting idea from Anathem (a book full of interesting ideas). This second idea was Hemn Space. Hemn Space is a made-up mathematical concept, Stephenson’s edited version of the real concept of Configuration Space. As it is described in Anathem, Hemn Space allows the physicist to model a situation, not in terms of the actual locations of objects in real space but in terms of new coordinates related to what is most important to the situation. So for instance, under this mathematical regime, momentum might be the fundamental property of a system. Instead of mapping the movement of an object by reference to its location in space, you map its momentum over time. In a sense, this exteriorizes an implicit property—it makes the thing you want to look at clear, by hijacking the concept of space and using it to represent nonspatial phenomena.
This had specific applications for me. I too was trying to exteriorize an implicit property—the mythogenic qualities of a situation. How the hell was this trick done? How do you turn the world inside out, so that the ordinary physical begins to represent the extraordinary universe of mythological narrative? How do you make objects vibrate with that special significance inherent in the stories the human race told itself in its childhood? Where is it to be found?
I had a concept, but no specific instance of it. I knew some art was symbolist, and I admired the Rider-Waite tarot deck. I could see the formal paradigm at work in that deck, but I could not build a bridge from my rationalist viewpoint to the spooky mythological zone it occupied. I could no longer personally access this reckless seeing of significance in things without degenerating into kitsch.
So I sought out systems of relevant imagery, to see if a close examination of their formal qualities could yield insight into the method of their generation. I soon discovered Chicago-based artist Lauren Levato, who has, in her own way, been feeling around in mythological Hemn Space, just as Rider and Waite did, and as I sought to do. I studied Levato’s history as an artist and a current series of hers, Wunderkammer (2012–13), that resonated with me.
Until a few years ago, Levato specialized in drawing bugs. It was only very recently that she made a breakthrough. Having tackled some personal issues, she was suddenly able to make self-portraits. Her outlook, grounded in the methodical qualities of scientific illustration, opened a very interesting path. In the current Wunderkammer drawings, she incessantly repeats not only herself as an image but more or less the same pose and the same gaze at the viewer. What does this signify?
When you have an encrypted but meaningful signal, you can try to decrypt it by examining fixed and changing elements in the system of which the signal is a part.
The fixed elements in the Wunderkammer drawings are that they are all full-length nude self-portraits done with spare, elegant lines. They all involve animals and odd hairdos, and most depict Levato with unorthodox items in her womb.
The changing elements are the animals, hairdos, and womb objects. They vary wildly.
Evaluated in this light, we begin to see that Levato’s image construction follows only the most basic rules of visual grammar. The sophistication of the work results not from visual grammar but from linguistic grammar. Each of these paintings is a sentence:
“I am Lauren Levato, and I am [ ] and [ ] and [ ] and that involves [ ] and [ ].”
They are elaborated reflections on the consequences of a series of self- recognitions. Their titles reflect this: Self Portrait as Hex, Self Portrait as My Sister’s Keeper, Self Portrait as St. John the Baptist …
Levato’s objects and arrangements are categorically surrealistic, but they are not ends in themselves, as surrealist images so often are. Like her self-portraits, they are words in her language. Just as her self- portraits are halfway to Chaplinesque caricatures, her objects have been partly emptied of their self-contained meanings in order to fit more smoothly into their relations with one another. The meaning of her work emerges from its total composition, not any one part of it.
What is this language she creates? What is the meaning of her work?
It seems expressionist, in the sense that it focuses on exteriorizing and objectifying an interior state. But pure expressionism, in its late-19th- century flowering, was often disorderly and inchoate, a matter of self- willed, passionate dispositions violently expressing themselves through bizarre imagery.
Levato, on the other hand, designs her work with a meditative calm. Emerging from science, she applies an artistic equivalent of the dissectionist’s practice: the bloodiest of matter, the most methodical of excavations. Her image-objects are partly defined complex symbols representing internal states. She has developed the ability to relate important visuals in her life to specific aspects of her own state of being. She has thus laid portent on top of physicality and trained herself to draw in a way that conveys both the likeness and the portent: “This is not itself, it is the substitute for something else.” And she has also trained herself to detach, once each exploratory surgery is complete, from the brutal work of conjoining the interior and exterior worlds. Having detached, she can lucidly convey the results. She’s got the tastes of a tiger and the sensibilities of a lab assistant.
In some of the drawings, certain symbols are immediately decipherable, as in Self Portrait as Forgetting (2012). Here black ribbons tied around her leg are monstrously large versions of the strings children are told to tie around their fingers to remember. In other works, however, the set of symbols defies simple analysis, as in Self Portrait as Caul; neither the red hair, the ram’s horns, the nest, nor the hooded falcon is, precisely, a caul. I wouldn’t claim that I particularly get it.
But this is important—that sometimes I should be unable to get it. It is exactly when the symbol is indecipherable that its nature as a symbol is most evident. The falcon, nest, horns, and hair/cape clearly form a network of symbols. They mean something to Levato; they don’t need to mean anything to us. What we receive is the unnerving imminence of the perplexing but loaded symbol, the threatening authoritativeness of the tarot. We are not traveling on Levato’s path; her art is not the same as her path. Our path with her art is an experience of the intellectual and emotional texture of Levato’s journey. We see her walking. We do not see, entirely, where she walks.
3. THE TRAGEDY OF MEIOSIS
I now had every tool I needed. And I thought I knew how to use them. I scheduled some sittings with Leah. I said to her, “I’ll work on excavating some of my deep images and, if you like, you work on dredging up some of yours, and we’ll put you in a world of these images—not a real world but a world of symbols made into real objects.” Leah agreed that this was an exciting thing to do but, being fairly rationalist, was not sure how to access the territory I was describing. I wasn’t either, but, as a kind of a test instance, I had one image ready to go—Leah’s snail. Leah is heavily into snails. She is fond of many invertebrates but the snail especially. Perhaps it is a question of the mesmerizing spiral of the snail. Perhaps it is the presence of male and female sex organs in each snail, which resonates in Leah’s queer community. Perhaps it is the meditative, patient lifestyle of the snail. It seemed obvious at least one of the paintings should include her favorite snail, the Common Mystery Snail, as her animal familiar.
My own experience with snails derives from running after midnight on the orange rubber track of the University of Texas at Austin in early 1996. So my experience consists mainly of stepping on them. You couldn’t avoid it; they covered the track when the night air cooled enough for living things to come out. At one in the morning, when I was running, this track hosted many animals. I remember armadillos and herons. I was unhappy, at that time, among the strange night animals and the snails.
I decided to apply all these memories to the painting as well—to have Leah and her snail familiar, an enormous, human-sized snail, running along that track at night. And she should be cautioning her snail to be quiet, so that the weeping heron and the mourning armadillo will not hear them, and come over and try to share their miseries. That turned out to be an awful lot to cram into one painting, and I revised it to Leah and her snail running along. The gesture of hushing remains, but its antecedent scenario has vanished.
I got going with this, and I realized I didn’t really have any idea what I was trying to accomplish. Neither of us was accessing any deep imagery, and the whole effort seemed forced. So I took a few weeks off from actively making the project and went back to thinking about what the project was.
I don’t know how this works for you, but when I am trying to create an idea, the entire world I experience begins to encounter a filter of that idea, and only items significant to the idea pass through the filter. They gather and swirl in my mind. If I wait long enough, the project defines itself this way, by organic accretion. But if no filter presents itself, there is no idea—the project is misconceived.
During my hiatus from the project, I tried to manufacture an idea-filter, but I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I couldn’t. Fortune smiled on me, though: I entered into a region of synchronicities that answered my questions. First I came across a picture of a bizarre and frightening bird, the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock. This is a vividly orange-red bird that, when it raises its crest, appears to have a semi-circular head with one eye in the middle.
I didn’t know what was relevant about it, but I knew that something was; I was at least receptive enough to recognize important images knocking on my door. Then I saw Capacitance (2013), an abstract sculpture by Jesse Soodalter. This sculpture seemed to me to have a male side (a penis-like lug) and a female side (a vagina-like socket). And it had wire wrapped around it. It was a hermaphrodite electromagnet.
What is a hermaphrodite electromagnet? It is an altered form of a phrase I had just come across in the comic book Dial H (2012) by novelist China Miéville—it is an iron snail.
From the iron snail, I made a quick leap to an image of fundamental terror for me since I was very little: the granite sphere that fills the room, bisected horizontally, its top half and its bottom half rotating slowly in opposite directions, and making an awful grinding sound.
There is in the United States a man who has been working on a stop- motion film for the past six years. John Frame’s film is based on a dream he had. This single dream halted his previous plan for his life as an artist. Now he is the man who makes the film of his dream. The dream was so dense in information that remaking it will likely take the remainder of his life.
Consider a novel. The novelist may spend years compressing into the novel its rich, considered content. And yet it may take the reader only weeks to decompress that same content. There are certain nearly miraculous states of mind where the thinker becomes like a novel-reader in his rate of perception of content. Ideas enter his brain in a torrent, so quickly that they become overlapped. His language and images assume multiple meanings, each image bursting with multilayered truths. If the thinker tries to share this dense content, it unfolds and unfolds and unfolds, and it will take him much longer to say what he thought than it took him to think it; shockingly longer.
Each of us who is an artist craves these instances of vivid image- sight. I experienced only a flash of it:
—the cyclopean bird—the hermaphrodite electromagnet—the iron snail—the bisected sphere—
Though it all came in a flash, it will take me a couple of years to decode and transcribe these images. I recognized quickly in an analytic sense what they represented. Here is some of what Aristophanes says about love, in Plato’s Symposium:
The original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, of which the name survives but nothing else. … the primeval [man- woman] was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and the same number of feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.
Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods …
[Zeus] said: ‘Methinks I have a plan which will enfeeble their strength and so extinguish their turbulence; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two … They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’
After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they began to die from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,— being the sections of entire men or women,—and clung to that.
Socrates scoffs at Aristophanes’s explanation, but the odd thing is that Aristophanes has it exactly correct. He has here a profound insight, in the languageofmyth,intothesingleoriginofsex,separation,anddeath.We all have an intuitive sense that these three things are linked. Aristophanes sensed it, the young woman of Sicyon sensed it, whichever French wag called orgasms “les petits morts” sensed it. Genesis speaks of separation from parents and cleaving to spouses, the parting and unification of flesh. This universal sense is not a spurious sense. It is true, but it predates us. Us human beings.
The unicellular organisms that trolled the uncertain face of the young and bitter Earth were just like Aristophanes’s rolling men-women. They reproduced mitotically, making complete copies of their DNA and passing one copy on to each of two offspring. It was not in their nature to change; they were sexless and immortal. Mutation urged change upon them over the sluggish eons, but of themselves they were without change.
The innovation of meiosis introduced a structural mechanism of change into the repertoire of life. Meiosis produces gametes, specialized reproductive cells with a somewhat random half of the parent DNA. The gametes are of two kinds, male and female, and they seek one another and fuse into whole cells, zygotes, from which larger sexed organisms grow.
This capacity for change throws individuals with new combinations of traits into the world in each generation. And yet, it means that as the bodies of the older generation wear out, their combinations of traits die off and are never seen again. Meiosis gave life change, by means of the creation of the sexes, but it also gave life death, by means of the differentiation of one generation from the next. Under the burden of Zeus’s punishment, we cannot have one without the other.
The network of images that formed in my mind was a kind of densified visual tapestry of the tragedy of meiosis. The cyclopean monster, the hermaphrodite mystery snail and the iron snail, the double-sided electromagnet with its positive and negative poles—these are all variants of the primeval man-woman. The terrifying bisected sphere is the process of separation of self from self, past from future, man from woman, the shattering of the edenic unity into the modern separation of forms. Through this tapestry of overlapping, half-remembered images, Leah lopes, herself translated into a cipher of the progress of life. Her form will change—she will have here a single eye, there a penis and a mustache—her structure will flow like wax, and she will lope ever onward, Shiva-like, as life lopes, because it must go forward or decay.
I wanted to talk with you about magic. And we have been talking about magic.
But I don’t think we’re clear yet on what we mean by magic. When we are little, we naturally believe in magic. There are two major models of this belief.
In model 1, we as children are ignorant of the linkages of cause and effect that undergird the world. So we are prone to making incorrect or wishful links. These are magical links; they reflect magical thinking. Adults come along and say, “There is no such thing as magic,” and in this they are correct: these links are false, and we mostly get over them. Adults, of course, have their own version of these counter-factual causations, but they have a more dignified word for them. They call them miracles.
In model 2, we as children are much more knowledgeable on some topics than we are as adults. We understand the universe as an active, changing phenomenon and ourselves as submerged parts of it. The universe is changing, and we are changing. These changes are connected to one another. We are speaking to the universe, and it is speaking to us. This too is magic. So when adults say, “There is no such thing as magic,” we take them to mean miracles as well as our innate sense of Being and Becoming. As our own rate of change slows, and as we internalize the stability required for civilization to function, we lose our sense of this second form of magic.
This is a terrible error, because this second form of magic is real. It consists of all the truths we don’t yet know. Some of them appear miraculous until the ever-expanding purview of science unravels their links of cause and effect: the electromagnetic field, the genetic code, the microbial nature of infectious disease, the entanglement of particles, the variable structure of space and time. Many of these not- yet-known truths present themselves as modes of enhanced awareness: of understanding that the seeming constancies of our health, our occupations, and our cities represent tiny static islands in vast oceans of turbulent change, of understanding that when viewed from an absolute perspective, the mass of the electron and the curvature of the galactic arm are as poignant and close to us as our own brothers and sisters. We ourselves are the islands, and we must one day dissolve back into the enormous variety and unity of things.
This real magic, when perceived directly, is shocking. It is sudden- blow shocking, jaw-dropping shocking. You and the world are no longer what you were; you are newborn. Aristotelian arch-rationalist Thomas Aquinas had a revelation during Mass in the last days of the year 1273. Afterward he said: “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” This is the comment of a destroyed man. It is the comment of a man who has abruptly encountered the insufficiency of his grasp of the world, when a world much greater than his grasp spread his fist wide. And yet his marveling statement betrays no kind of grief. His old writings are what he now esteems straw; he lost everything he achieved, but what he got in exchange made everything he lost seem hollow and worthless. Aquinas is describing the joy of having been awakened. He is describing magic.
Technology, properly considered, is the set of all artificial tools by which human beings intervene—in the world, in each other, in themselves. Language is as much a technology as the steam engine. Human consciousness can move out of the zone of illusionary steadiness and into the magical zone of transformation. This motion of consciousness can be aided by chance and happenstance. But it can also be aided by technology.
The arts are among the technologies of this spiritual intervention. What is Remembrance of Things Past? Is it a novel? Does it tell the story of the life of a man? No, it is none of these things. These are its form, not its nature. Its nature is that it is a magical object. Its magic is to unhook its reader from the rack of time.
What about Las Meninas? It is not a portrait of Philip IV and his family and attendants. It is not a picture at all. Las Meninas does not exist, in the same sense that a doorway does not exist. It is a doorway through which the viewer enters a pocket universe. In this zone, the bonds of space and self dissolve. There is no fixed perspective—the viewer might be himself, or he might be Philip, or Velazquez, or the Infanta Margaret Theresa, or Maribarbola the Dwarf. The activated consciousness, delocalized in the uncanny space of the painting, becomes each of the eerily aware citizens of the universe of the painting. I know a man who spent three days in front of Las Meninas, his will to turn away overpowered by muscles made rigid as if by current. Years later, I made my pilgrimage to it and finally understood his account. It broke me, broke the boundary of myself. Eventually returning from that strange region to the world, I did not lose the communion. The floor of the universe of Las Meninas is a threshing floor of the soul; something of space and self is left behind. Because it is magic.
When I began this cycle of paintings, I was confused about what I wanted from them. I knew I wanted to paint something mythological. I dug down through layers of art criticism and memory, seeking the nature, not the form, of my goal. And eventually I managed to pass through a flurry of images, some new and some old, and see that these images were really equivalent statements of a single analytic insight that has haunted me, one way or another, throughout my life: this matter of the deep, deep identity of sex, death, and separation in the long history of life on Earth. In the face of this revelation, my terrors stood transformed and humbled, my affections deepened and ringing like bells. I had a magical experience.
This was what I had sought.
Taking this into account, my project turns out to be the translation of my experience into several paintings in which, hopefully, some of this magic inheres. Another way of saying it is that my project is to become a magician. Surely this is an everyday kind of magic made by each and open to all. But magic it is nonetheless. What a delightful thing this is! How hopeful! How pleasing!