Recent drawings by Maria Kreyn and Evan Kitson
By DANIEL MAIDMAN, SEPT. 2017
I am a painter, and like many painters, I have periodic open studios. Every once in a while one of my visitors is in the military. Whenever I realize I have a member of the military for a guest, I thank him for his service. Each time, whoever it is has brushed aside my thanks and told me that he does what he does so that people like me can do what I do. These offhanded remarks invariably fill me with a sense of insufficiency and shame. Brave men risk their lives to protect the garden in which I have the liberty to make what art I choose. They acknowledge it without resentment. I feel that a heavy burden rests on me to make their risks and sacrifices worthwhile.
We have evidence that the impulse to decorate and make art emerges near the beginning of the human story. Like the flamboyant displays of sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom, prehistoric art consumed precious resources without direct reward. It is easy to understand why animals hunt for food or seek shelter. It is not so clear why early humans sunk effort into the creation of objects of only aesthetic value. Pragmatic explanations are available: communication, attraction of mates. More abstract explanations also make sense: an impulse to express the self, or to celebrate the beauty of existence, or to redeem its wretched ugliness.
Be these as they may, art was and remains a luxury good, and moreover, a luxury act. Without bread, we will starve. Without art, we will merely be miserable. It is the essential absurdity of the art act which has, in part, made art so attractive to so wide a viewership over the centuries. The assertion of the art act is an assertion of the wealth not only of its patron, but of humanity. It is a statement of sufficient surplus in the grain bin of the human race to be able to make things just because we like them. Because it is unnecessary to make art, we are most godlike when we make it. God too is driven not by necessity, but by self-willed choice. Therefore, while art is many things, it is essential that it should also be pointless. It is only when it is pointless that it becomes a pure expression of existential liberty. Men are willing to fight and die so that their nations should be home to the making of art.
The absurdity of art, however, extracts a high price from artists themselves. Although what they make is valuable precisely because it is useless and pointless, it remains useless and pointless. It is a hard thing to devote one’s passion and talents, the scarce moments of one’s life, to something so devoid of sense. Reconciling with this aspect of art has generated many ideologies and neuroses among artists over the centuries.
One of the most becoming of these, to my eye, is the long-running affection of art for labor. I think this arises from two main causes. The first is that art-making itself is a form of labor. It depends on a learned dexterity of hand and eye, and it is physically demanding. Artists don’t get a lot of recognition for this, and don’t deserve to, because there is such wild joy in their work, and unlike other forms of labor, wild joy is a big part of the point. Making art is a privilege, but it is a privilege which gives artists much experience with which to identify with all physical laborers. The other main cause is that same sense of insufficiency and shame which I feel when confronted with a veteran who gladly justifies his service in relation to my work. Some such sense of anguished gratitude animates all decent artists in confrontation with anybody who sweats and strains to make the resources art depends on to survive.
In my spotty knowledge of art history, one of the earliest and best examples of work responsive to this principle is that of Caravaggio.
In the Madonna di Loreto, his pilgrims are barefoot peasants, with dirty feet. When it was unveiled in 1606, the painting was scandalous for this breach of decorum, for violating the cleanliness and divinity of scenes of Mary and the infant Jesus. But it answered to a different strain of the story, to its emphasis that God rejoined the world among the poor, and preached and ministered to the poor.
In making this choice in his depiction, Caravaggio threw his artistic weight behind one tactic of the Counter-Reformation: a renewed embrace and welcoming of the poor into the Church, an acknowledgement of the dignity and humanity of the poor. Caravaggio, himself a brawler and a scoundrel, needed the poor to be redeemable, because he shared the nature of the destitute and desperate. He could only be saved if they could be saved. So he brought the poor back to the center of the Christian story. His is a story of poverty, not labor. But it is the poor who do the filthy work, who go in public with dirty feet.
In my personal star-chart of the artistic heavens, the next really profound invocation of labor comes from Van Gogh.
Van Gogh’s shoes are not dainty, not designed with a thought toward prettiness or show. They are strong protective shoes, ugly and battered. They bear evidence of long use at their purpose: work.
It is said that the proper artistic eye can find the beauty wherever its gaze comes to rest. I happen to believe that this is true, that this is how art reveals that the ugliness of life is an illusion. When Caravaggio turns his gaze on the poor, he replicates in himself the doctrinal path he advocates for the Church: the redemption, first and foremost, of the poor. He shows the way. He does not seek to make the poor not poor, he only seeks to remind them, and himself, and the wealthy, that the finest elements of humanity inhere in them as much as anyone. Similarly, Van Gogh turns his gaze upon the wretched object and finds the beauty in it. He chooses a symbolically loaded object, an object linked with labor, because one of the projects of his life is the revelation of the profundity of the rural laborer. In them, he sees his aspiration for himself.
Let me confess a few things at this juncture:
I am not a socialist, and this is not some kind of sidelong pitch for socialism.
I am deeply suspicious of depictions of labor by artists, because it is so simple to submerge anything worthwhile or true about the effort in a “noble savage” species of sentimentality.
I have done some work that might be considered labor – dishwashing, stocking, farming – but not enough that I would really consider myself to have earned credibility in talking about it. At the same time, I have enormous respect not only for people who do this kind of work, but for people who find satisfaction in doing it well. This strikes me as a key quality in living life happily and wisely.
And finally, as an artist, I think that the depiction of the imprint of labor on the body is one of our highest callings. Our hands and feet were made to do work. Exertion of forces blunt and fine is what they do, and coordination of those forces to improve our lot in life is an endlessly diverse and fascinating story. It lends character to the hand, and records evidence of the life the hand lived. The hand bears almost as much expression as the face. Similarly, depiction of the wear and tear of labor-related garments captures the story of human effort, which is a noble thing, in a way few other depictions can match.
This network of thoughts struck me recently when studying this drawing by Maria Kreyn, currently on view in her solo show May You Live In Interesting Times, at Booth Gallery in New York (details at bottom).
As in Caravaggio, the extremity is filthy. Kreyn has lovingly observed the contrast between dark stained hand and pale clean arm, and the way the stain has not penetrated the lines of the wrist and palm, leaving them bright. She relishes the physical character of this hand, which is not a young hand: veins have grown prominent across the back of the hand, and the fingers are thick. She is also sensitive to the psychological character of her sitter. The pose is awkward and shy, as if the sitter did not quite know what to do with his hands. “Make some poses with your hands,” Kreyn seems to say in the story of this drawing, and the sitter obliges, but is not sure what she wants, and hesitates to show his dirty hands, covering one with the other. There is another drawing in this sequence:
Again, the sitter is awkward in his pose. Kreyn says, “Let me see your palm too,” and he says, “Is this what you want?” It is so simple, so unadorned. The fingers curl naturally, and the hands are placed in the most obvious possible pose of display: on a table, one palm up, one down. There is no art to what he’s done with his hands. They’re just his hands. He’s accustomed to using them, not showing them off. In making a picture of them, Kreyn finds everything she needs to say.
I don’t have that much to say about these drawings in particular, but in a sense, everything in this essay so far is about these drawings. They inspired all these thoughts. Their integrity and resonance made me cast my own gaze back down my memory of art, and find a way to communicate my sense of the links between art and luxury, meaning and labor. In using art to express the dignity of the body marked by labor, Kreyn gives art, the most pathetic and childish of activities, its own dignity.
Van Gogh, however, is not depicting the body. He enters into this discussion because Kreyn’s piece also reminded me of a recent drawing that absolutely blew me away.
As with Van Gogh’s shoes, this is not a glove designed to impress. It is an ugly insulating glove, fairly cheap. But in his exquisite sensitivity to its color and texture, its forms great and small, Evan Kitson applies that redeeming eye which, in all great still lives, discovers soul in objects. In making so profound a study of an object linked to use, Kitson’s piece takes on synecdoche with his subject’s function: the glove becomes identified with the life lived using it. It is a not terribly well-financed life, in a place with nasty winters. Because the glove is assigned dignity, so too the life is assigned dignity. It lacks glamor, but it is a human life, and therefore rich in meaning and worthy of respect.
Kreyn and Kitson carry on a project which has been ongoing in art for a long, long time. They offer their gratitude to the human conditions which make their own work possible, by demonstrating that art has no subjects which exceed in merit the artist’s own counterparts in the universe of labor. WM
May You Live in Interesting Times : Recent works on mylar by Maria Kreyn
until September 9, Booth Gallery, 325 W 38th St, New York, New York, 10018, (646) 902-4566
Evan Kitson online: http://evankitson.com
Daniel Maidman is a painter and writer. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections, among them those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and Gemini-winning screenwriter Jeremy Boxen. He has produced paintings in collaboration with best-selling novelist China Miéville, award-winning poet Kathleen Rooney, independent film icon Martin Donovan, and noted installation artist Erika Johnson. Maidman’s art and writing on art have been featured in ARTnews, Forbes, Juxtapoz, Whitehot Magazine, Hyperallergic, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, MAKE, Manifest, and The Artist’s Magazine. He blogs for The Huffington Post. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.
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