Deborah Sebaoun: Smiles from Reason
Opening April 6th, 2021
By DANIEL MAIDMAN, April 2021
I used to make films, and when I was designing them and thinking about them, I noticed a problem. So long as the image was wordless, the viewer was intensely awake to every detail on the screen: the body language of the actors, the rich implications of their actions, the textures of light and color and object. But as soon as somebody opened his mouth, all of that flattened and receded. The words told the viewer what to think, and the picture became a crude, half-superfluous illustration of the words.
If you’d like a particularly vivid demonstration of this phenomenon, compare the first and second halves of Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood: the first half is a profound and nearly wordless exploration of the material experience of oil drilling, and by extension, of all ingenious labor. It is one of the great passages in film. It is a complete film in itself. The second half is all talk, and the movie collapses into a fairly standard melodrama. Saving Private Ryan shows the same dichotomy. Both movies trust themselves and their viewers much more deeply when they are wordless. Both movies are much more real and complex, more fundamental and transcendent, when they do not lean on the spoken word.
In describing her work for her show Smiles from Reason, Deborah Sebaoun quotes Bernard Berenson’s The Italian Painters of the Renaissance: “So unnecessary do I find facial expression, and indeed, at times so disturbing, that if a great statue happens to be without a head, I seldom miss it; for the forms and the action, if both be adequate, are expressive enough to enable me to complete the figure in the sense that they indicate; while there is always a chance that the head, in works of even the best masters, will be over-expressive – in a direction either not necessitated by the forms and action, or in flat contradiction to them.”
With this passage, Sebaoun explains to me something I have never quite articulated in my own work – I draw figures, often without the head. Nobody ever seems to miss it. I do not miss it myself. I have drawn probably thousands of headless figures. Berenson pinpoints the reason for it: the body speaks with its own language. The figure follows its own logic. The power of the face, like the power of the spoken word, overrides the dense network of meaning in the figure, and the figure recedes into an illustration of the narrative imposed by the face. Without the face, we re-awaken to the profound nuance of the body.
It is relatively easy to develop a drawing aesthetic for headlessness. People instinctively accept that an incomplete figure may well be a finished drawing. Contrarily, they carry an assumption of pictorial completeness in paintings, and this makes the absence of a head much more noticeable, and therefore more awkward.
Sebaoun, a painter, wants to listen to the language of the body in her current paintings. She has oriented her aesthetic framework toward two simultaneous and co-equal goals: coaxing out the expressiveness of the body, and creating a pictorial idiom in which headlessness comes across as natural.
In her earlier work, Sebaoun turned her eye to the figures at hand: models and friends sitting for her at the studio or apartment, under the soft flat brightness of late afternoon, muscles slackening, expressions drowsy.
She shares this subject with other painters in her circle, notably Yedidya Hershberg and Israel Hershberg. This particular group is intensely dedicated to the subtleties of direct observation. Their nearly ascetic doctrine restricts their subject matter to landscapes, still lives, and simple setups with figures like those in Sebaoun’s work. They dabble neither in dramatic narrative nor in explicit expressionism. Their contention is that meaning is holographic: all of it resides in any part of it. The depth of the gaze is the key to revelation, not the pursuit of extraordinary scenes.
Sebaoun’s new body of work draws her away from this ethos. In order to create a headless paradigm, she has to abandon faithful realism. In Figure in Interior, patches of green paint lend a palimpsest quality to the paint surface, while the figure floats in front of a dim, murky space which recedes and recedes. Sebaoun saves both her highest contrast and sharpest edge for the focus of her composition, the line of shadow the figure’s left buttock casts on her right.
The same process of elimination is seen in Figure in Interior IV.
The composition focuses at the genitals, where the most saturated of her muted colors bumps up against the brightest of her values. In fact, it is not difficult to read a second narrative into Sebaoun’s process of eliminating the face. The project clearly began as a generalized inquiry into everything the body has to say when the face is not dictating the terms of conversation. But this wide field of possibilities narrows fairly quickly. Without the model looking back at her, Sebaoun’s own gaze becomes unpoliced – she becomes a voyeur, staring frankly at the erogenous zones. Her reduced spaces take on a thick, dreamlike atmosphere, and her figures assume a symbolic quality. As she refines the purity of her process ever further, a startling alchemical transformation takes place: she begins to paint not the product of her gaze, but of her fantasy. Her work casts aside the encomiums to pure reason, and confesses that, at least for now, it is about desire. Stumbling away from the sunlit studio, she has returned to the livid spaces and uninhibited sexuality of the Pompeiian frescoes. What an astonishing turn of events! WM
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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