Wednesday, January 11, 2017

 A New Year's present from Chip:

by Samuel R. Delany

Mia Wolff painted her oil on linen triptych The City of Green Fire between 1997 and 1998, at her New Paltz, New York, studio, where I first saw them in late Spring or Summer shortly after their completion. It is probably when I saw them again on Church Street in New York City that I first wanted to write about them. (Comic artist Eddie Campbell was also struck enough with them to quote them in The Birth Caul that he drew for Alan Moore.).
        And when she asked me to comment about her painting in the documentary, Wolffland (Laura Checkoway, 2015), the triptych always impelled my words, even when I was talking about other Wolff works.

The City of Green Fire is not a Comedy, divine and Dantesque, or human with some Balzacian bevy of social types.
     It may be religious, however: the figure off-center in the middle panel is part animal and part human. The fish and flowers that populate the whole of it it do not hit me as Christian. 

The city itself seems both older and newer then any real ones—that aspect suggests something comic (with a small c), and reminds me more than anything else of Rem Koolhaas’s vision of Coney Island in his architectural meditation, Delirious New York (1978), the experimental try-out area for the shapes then to be exported to Manhattan to create the actual city on its historical base, some time later.

The artist writes that it came to her in a dream in which she was barefoot, coupled with some photographic sources of the old castle of Prague and a woman—the Patron Saint of Roses—changing roses into fish; the chandelier hung in her New Paltz studio at the time she painted it.
Lights are reflected on its windows. Signs are legible on its walls (but not in English). It’s a city of silhouettes, cut out and made visible by light behind them, here and there thrown into relief with decorations and gleams from a more complex pallet in its flooded street.

Serious question: Does the liquid over in the city extinguish the fire--or fuel it?


The panel on the left (The Sea Horse) appears to be an interior, almost black. Through a window, two portals left and right, and what appears to be a doorway at the end of a cobblestone hallway, a green fire burns. 

          The middle panel (The Sphinx) shows the outside of the city, the sky above it, filled with the same yellow-green. The viewer looks down an alley by a sphinx to the left, spurting liquid from her breasts, to spill over a fountain’s edge onto the street. Even so, the liquid seems to flow along the ground from the first painting around and into the second. 

         The third panel (The Patron Saint of Roses) shows the city roofs. Then, through a brick arch we see roses, green water, and a female nude (a self-portrait of the artist at the time of the painting); Green light still fills the painting’s background, but the roses, the fish, the figures here are illuminated by a far more varied and—dare I say—realistic palette than the rest of the work (that is, panels one and two), which of course draws the eye across all three.


In the first of the three paintings, in the foreground we can make out a seahorse—a creature part of the architecture. At the doorway in the back, a wraithlike shadow stands, with fronds and tendrils.  Possibly it’s a female figure entering the scene. As easily, though, it could be leaving. The figure could be a tree, it could be a silhouetted break between the flames burning at either edge of the door.


In fact, the material actuality of the female figure in the panel on the right highlights a set of questions and judgments about the figures in the panel on the left.
        Is the figure at the end of the hallway a positive or a negative space? (No question of that sort needs be asked about the nude with her raised hands.) Is it male or female? If it is a positive form, is it entering or leaving?   
        The larger and closer images of sea horses and fish are specifically architectural; they are images of things painted or carved on the walls as opposed to the realer and realer creatures as we see as we move to the right through the three paintings, the more and more unquestionably living creatures more and more convincingly pictured as we move from the left.


“The reproach of escapism is seldom aimed at a painter; we do not hold it against Cezanne that he was living hidden away at Etaque during the war of 1870. And we recall with respect his “C’est effrayant, la vie,” (It’s astonishing, life) even when the lowliest student, ever since Nietzsche, would reject philosophy if it did not teach him how to live fully (a etre de grand vivants).
       “It’s as if in the painter’s calling there were some urgency above all other claims on him. Strong or frail in life, he is incontestably sovereign in his own rumination of the world.”
                     --Guy Davenport (1989)


Balthus’s (1908-2001) Passage du Commerce Saint-Andre (1952-’54) sets up a distinct dialogue with the middle panel of The City of Green Fire. The alley we look down in both paintings is rich with the theme of their artists, Balthus and Wolff. If Balthus theme is “the care a culture has for its young,” (Davenport, 50); that is, how the society treats its children, specifically its adolescent girls, with an attention that lapses over into the pornographic, even. Wolff’s concern in a city that recalls Balthus to me, is stated in the concluding panel: how its women treat its fish, its flowers—or, if I can make such a leap, it’s ecology.
         For both painters, in both paintings, these themes are suggested as a more or less troubling resonance with sexuality, decentered as much as stated.


In classical paintings the streets are often the setting for Comedy. This is what gives meaning to the fact that in The City of Green Fire the paintings re relatively free of direct social life. In the first panel, we can’t tell if the figure is a single person in front of the flames or a break in the flames themselves. In the last, it’s a nude woman, and both flank an absence—an empty street, with only a statue spurting liquid (water? milk . . .? . . . oil?) from its breasts—in the second, as if to emphasize the lack of living figures.


The “lost paradise” (of innocence . . . ? Of license . . . ?) that Camus wrote about in Balthus may explain Wolff’s unpopulated streets in this major work.


Writing in 1980 in an introduction to the republication of her earliest story “Acrobats in a Park,” (written in or about 1935) Eudora Welty wrote that Walls were like families. (“In performance, their act had been the feat of erecting a structure of their bodies that held together like a wall. . . . from points of view within and without, I’ve been writing about this Wall ever since and what happens to it . . .”)
          When you look at the brick and stone and dead black walls of all three panels in The City of Green Fire, it’s interesting to remember that Mia Wolff after starting as a visual artist, became an acrobat and a catcher in a trapeze act—with a partner. She has described the relationship to me as one as close as a family, and that ceased after an accident when her partner fell because of a piece of faulty equipment, after which she was not comfortable going up to perform with anyone else (Footage of her remains from these days, in the Wolffland documentary),  though she has taught trapeze work, even as she has become a more and more extraordinary painter. (See her own children’s book, Catcher [1994])


Contemporary art criticism is a criticism of photographs and art books. Even if we spend time with the actual painting in the museum, or on the studio wall, photographic prints or reproductions are likely to play their parts. In my case that’s a CD reproducing all three paintings, separately and another of them side by side, that I can put on my computer to re-view what I have seen so frequently before.
       I look at an image presumably shared by the artist who wanted to communicate it. At the same time, though, I am interacting with an image that came into being though the interaction of what was in the artist’s mind with its own realization on the canvas an image that grew in a certain way and submitted itself to certain criteria or just changed so that with her brush and pigments the artist both made it, then made it look better:
       Painting, and the painting’s final look of necessity have a self critical relation with the initial conception if the painting is to encompass any complexity.
      Some of that as a beholder, once the painting is through, I have some access to, perhaps in the brush work, in a comment the artist might have made to me, some of which stays and most of which goes (“I wanted to make this seem darker, and so I . . . “, the correction of an imbalance that did not even exist before the painting reached a certain stage), and none of is present in the static image of the “completed,” which joins the painting even as it creates itself.

On her liquid filled pedestal running with water or milk, the winged sphinx rearing to the left of the central panel spurts multiple sprays from her breasts in my memory (and in the tiny photograph on the CD case) and appears to be blind. I see her as a classical cherub, an angel whose ancient form was a centaur with a lion’s body and the torso of a human, another image of the artist herself, the guardian of the work as well as the city, and at the same time the rector of all the chaos that the darkness of the painting wrestles with.
        The reflections of the city here and there in the water at various  distances comprise the streets from the interplay of dark and light, of colors and cutout figures that is what painting is.
       In the same panel, a stack of Chinese characters beside another that are clearly not Chinese at all, suggests a private language for which the artist may or may not have a meaning in mind; in any case they are essentially the same color as the relatively “realistic” fish swimming through the air and observing or even reading them, though each rests in different colored hazes of incident light.
         One of the fish even moves above its own shadow, which give an authority to the space between them. The highlights on the roof ornaments of the city are another way for the artist to speak directly to us of space, of illumination, of mind itself.
          Can we ask what layer of the painting we are looking at?
          When we choose to look at any few inches of the surface, are we looking at an early painted layer or a last? Did it contribute to the organization of the rest of the painting or did the rest of the painting eventually produce it at its climax?
          Is it an impetus for the work, or a final layer that reveals a meaning not there at the start?
         And can it matter to the viewer that it may be the opposite of the artist’s process of creating the image in pigment laid on a ground we do not even see?
        The illusion is that we are observing a static picture, but of course we are not. We are looking at an image put together over time—weeks, even months.  Possibly years.
         Which again bring us back to the fact that there are three paintings, which we look at all at once—and which were done presumably one after another . . .?  To what extend were they separate?
         Did the artist move back and forth between them?
         (She tells me she did.)


The title of the whole work suggests a creative/destructive eruption which must consume and support the artist through the transition of the work’s conception to its completion.
        Green fire . . .
        A city of it. Is the city only named by it? Is it created from it? Is the fire destroying it?
       As I write, I can remember two years of my life given over to a trilogy of novels, the difficulties of completing the second book of which simply scared me off conceiving of any work in that form again—even as the toboggan of pleasure that was the writing of the third and final book almost (but never wholly) made up for it.
       For better or worse, the memory of my own mental movement over those two years becomes a part of my experience looking at that these three Wolff paintings together.
        Part of me wants to know if I can find any answers to the lingering despair that was my own experience of the second panel of my own three-volume work in the second painting of Wolff’s.
       Imagination being what it is, I would have no problem with Wolff’s three painting, with their questions and visual resolutions as images on the covers of my own volumes from twenty or thirty years before Wolff’s were painted.  As easily I could see her response as one of horror at the thought, as though green fire at its most destructive was consuming the meaning of her canvasses.


The image of the woman making a fish from a rose as it is read to sit at the end of Wolff’s narrative arrives with an immense sense of narrative relief.
If we decide to read the work right to left, so that she is placed at the point of origin, it is equally satisfactory. The way she stands out from the background, the way the fire in this panel seems to be closer to resolution or taming, is simply reassuring to anyone who experiences the disruption of the green illumination perfusing the work.
         Read in the traditional direction, the three paintings foreground “shadow,” “myth,” and “body” respectively.
           Body is also in the first, though it’s entailed in the represented architecture.
          Shadow is there in the third, in the backgrounds, enfolded in the petals of the roses, wedged in the grout between the bricks.


In the first painting, as I return to it on my computer screen, I am reminded (or am I seeing it consciously for the first time?) that there is a great deal of blue in the walls of the building I assume we are within. The liquid running in over the cobbles is as likely to be tar or crude oil  as water. (That, I know I have noticed before.) And the decorative fish swimming down the wall on the upper right gives a sense as “realistic” as any of the goldfish swimming through the air in the other paintings.


Looking again at the middle picture, the very act of writing about it makes it seem much lighter and livelier than my own meditation transformed it into: the city itself is an intricate city, a city in silhouette, not a heavy city at all, which is how my own ruminations on it pushed it in my imagination.
       Looking at it again I feel both disoriented and relieved to have it back.
       The particular myth of the sphinx as Mesopotamian angel/monster is, at least in my recent meditations on it, a highly creative image, and one that comes with renewal and—in Wolff’s central panel—is painted with it.  


In the third picture, the chandelier, the bridge shape across the top, the red roof—all these are details that vanished during my reading in note III.  The rose in the woman’s hands is being transformed into a fish, from the tale forward. The expression on her face as she performs this change in mid air is . . . in a word, priceless.

As familiar as I am with these pictures, writing as I look at one of them changes it even now so that every new look is a healing of the violence of interpretation.


It is—I almost want to say, “of course”—precisely when I free myself of my own story of the artist painting these pictures that they speak most directly to my own needs as an eye in time.  For whatever reasons and by whatever process, it is an image created. If I loose the why and how (in which only my own uncertainties of the moment can be reflected) and try to fix on the what, the picture is (or the pictures are) more numinous, richer, and more a sat of paintings in which I can grapple with what kept drawing me to them in the first place:


The green fire is bright. All the figures walk on the surface of the liquid that grounds them. The sphinx in the central panel has no hands, but paws. The liquid arching and falling from her breasts foams and bubbles in the fountain’s pool before her hind paws. She is green, but parts of her body—her own paws, the edges of her wings—catch all sorts of other colored light from the painting, holding it together.
       The intelligence and energy in the paintings details are what, at this viewing, I am responding to the most. And the light. 


Historically, art seems to move from picturing what we know is there (what we think of as primitive art) and moving on to what it looks like. And somewhere painters such as Wolff come in to paint what is not there and what it might look like anyway. The result is cities or landscapes recognizable as such, but impossible to locate in the world.
       This is certainly the city of Green Fire, as it is in her most recent series of landscapes.
        Under such a regime the works become combinatory, immediately seem to be in the midst of conversations with other works as soon as you blink at them, infinitely legible.
        Thus the way morning or evening comes through my windows in the apartment in Philadelphia where I currently live is the way the light of the Green Fire comes through the windows of the city that bears its name. It’s an interesting experience how, over the years  that it has been talking to me, that I have become so at home in it.

Clearly physical and conceptual space fall between each of the  paintings. Even as there is clear passage between paintings one and two, two and three, there is resistance as well.
         It is what gives the city its sense of size..
         The interior molding does not get from painting one to painting two. The wings of the sphinx do not make it from painting two to painting one.
        The red illumination in the brick archway of painting two is not continued in the brick arch of painting three. Neither is the sidewalk.
And of course the massive symmetry of painting three is not continued in painting two.

Buildings in the city suggest apartments and restaurants, and even possibly places of entertainment, but not libraries or places of business per se.
      Clearly, however, there are catacombs, which at least in the neighborhood we are in have access to the surface.
       And at least one thing the Green Fire has displaced is weather itself. 
       The antennae pretty clearly suggest broadcasting. But I doubt the city is as massively on line as we are in the present, since—after all—it is a work of the last decade of the 20th century, not the 21st.


The tiles and cobbles of the first painting suggest to me sunset, locality, edifices that are utilized largely by the public. Others have recently passed by. Others will soon arrive.

In the second painting there are two lighted doorways open and exiting onto the street. And there is a larger one that visually balances the sphinx on the other side of the walkway. Out of its half visible arch, one of the fish in the series swims—not in the water, but through the air.
        I find this very hopeful.
        In fact, I find this the most optimistic node in entire sequence.


A curtain of green fire hangs across in one of the doorways, reflected on the water. I am intrigued by the little blue window in the city’s upper copula.
    In this panel there are suggestions both of excess and resolution.


Guy Davenport translated the Italian version of an ancient Egyptian maxim (“Il paradiso per un uomo e la sua buona natura”), "A man's paradise is his good nature."
That's good to remember because often neither men nor women have any other.

Be kind--to people and animals and strangers---because that is how bits of paradise can be spread. Even when you live with some one else who is uncomfortable with all three.
There is room for this insight in the burning city too.

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