:: Article

The Logos: An Introduction in Two Parts

By Mark de Silva.

What follows is the first half of the first chapter of de Silva’s recently completed novel, The Logos. The chapter’s conclusion will be published here later this month.

 

Is painting done to be looked at?
—Edgar Degas

 

If a metaphysician could not draw, what would he think?
—Gaston Bachelard

 

I have always thought of her face as a mistake. Always—even before I could see the world wouldn’t turn out as we’d hoped. Where was it, though? The flaw. I suppose you could just have well have asked, which of her faces did I mean?

There was, to start, the one where she looked at you sidelong, her head tipped low and her eyes scrunched from a light so pure it seemed it might erase her. Claire was a whisper then, or only an echo of one, her face pulling away from you with a glance so slight you couldn’t be sure you weren’t imagining it. How, though, could you say there was anything to find fault with here? With blending into light, white light. With admitting no edges. With looking askance even. I realized that.

There was another face of hers. It looked at you dead on and wasn’t so far from guileless in the end. But something managed to spoil it, turn it feral. I suppose fear was drawn into it, the sort that has a way of inspiring it too. How exactly, though? Was it the chalky skin, the way it made you feel as if merely being alive, and not some special exertion, had sent her blood into retreat? Or was it the tawny hair that went tumbling around her face, as though, moments before, something had happened, and ever since she’d been whipping her head back and forth, scanning the scene in terror? It might, though, for all anyone could know, have been as simple as the steep descent of her nose, which, even when she was stock-still, seemed to slash defiantly at the air.

But how could it have been the nose, really? Considered on its own, it was simply precise—exquisitely so. And her hair, however confused, fell only in the mildest curls, swathing her face just as though she’d woken from a long and fearless sleep, nothing like a nightmare. The aperture of her eyes, yes, perhaps it was a touch wide, at least for a genuinely settled mind; and against that pastel skin, the dark irises leapt toward you with frightening speed. But wasn’t it a bit churlish to say eyes could be too open? And if they seemed to reach your own more quickly than you’d expected, well, shouldn’t that rate as a gift for intimacy, something to be envied, not faulted or feared?

So then, a third face. This time Claire had almost entirely untensed it, though somehow this didn’t lend her the smooth and lucid neutrality you might have expected, and that I must have been seeking in her, in one way or another—from time to time, anyway—in my fumbling through all sorts of attitudes toward life and art. Instead, she seemed open and generous now, and so content she didn’t even need to smile for you to know it.

How could there be any mistake here, you would say? But this was precisely the issue. What you saw in her, you saw everywhere now. The floorboards of my ancient and once-grand townhouse apartment, so worn they looked like some kind of pressed wood at this point, the grain itself had seemed to come off them, these slabs of wood dimpled by the unfinished feet of the aluminum stool she’d perched on, by contrast almost space-age in its polish; the window behind her gridded with grease pencil, putting you in mind of a prison as you looked out over what was in truth only a placeholder of a park, making bars, virtual or otherwise, wholly appropriate: all this appeared instead as serene, as gilded as she did. You’d never have imagined the stool’s raw feet stabbing into the floor, as if by merely sitting on it she was digging herself a hole; or the true state of that park, all its steaming metal and concrete, the trees only a cover for the dealers and muggers as they did their business with spun-out teens and the homeless who’d made their beds in the park when they could no longer tolerate the shelters.

Nothing, it seemed, managed to mark her off from any of this. She seemed to warp the room itself, and even what was to be found beyond it, in that park. That the warping was rather pleasant, like Vaseline on the lens, didn’t change things much. A sense of unreality came on as you gazed at her, no less vexing in its way than any apocalyptic vision you might equally well have projected onto the scene, which was really something short of that. Not banal, exactly. There’d been a rather inventive killing carried out in that park in the summer. A runaway teen had her face collapsed by the fat edge of a laptop so hulking you couldn’t conceive how many product cycles back it must have come into being, before all its circuitry had disintegrated through a life outdoors. Had it died, in fact, before it was used to bring on more of the same?

It was hardly a land of unmitigated cruelty or despond, the Bronx. Something as simple as the peculiarly heavy ice-cream truck traffic in the neighborhood told you that much. There were three or four trucks, all monocolored slabs of blue, various versions of the sky, and they each considered the area their turf. The rivalries were often less than collegial. But then, sometimes you could find all of them clustered next to the rusted iron gate of the park in the afternoon, all doing remarkably brisk business, positively thriving. The people of the neighborhood must have drawn a sizable portion of their sustenance from these carts, which were stationed along the streets at unusual times, early in the morning, and sometimes near midnight, times of day I hadn’t imagined had much attraction for an ice-cream vendor—hadn’t, anyway, before moving here from Brooklyn. They sold a Mexican ice cream of which I’d grown quite fond, and which I would pick up on my many odd-houred walks through the neighborhood, not so far south of Yankee Stadium (yet far enough, I suppose). It was by a large margin more ice than cream, with bright, artificial colors that utterly misled you as to their flavor, which was extraordinarily mild, if not simply notional. The entire business was already so peculiar that one of the drivers had not long ago thought nothing of selling tamales right alongside his desserts—and why not? They were exceptional specimens. My days growing up across the country, in the Bay, equipped me to recognize this. They came frequently to serve as my dinner, whenever I’d hear this truck’s distinctive jingle in the street, a sort of tuneless ringing, the bell was broken. You couldn’t miss it.

Even so, no world, I knew, could be quite as charmed as this face. Perhaps it shouldn’t be even; there might be something slightly vulgar in that, or inapposite. These were matters on which my opinions had been shifting, after a long period of relative stability; but even now, I tend to think of this look as too pure for its own good.

So, one last face, then. Perhaps it was the one that mattered most. There was nothing behind Claire when she’d made this one, the background seemed empty, actually it was the palest blue, but you didn’t notice. What called out to you now, as her gaze ever so slightly missed yours, confronting something that must have been just behind you, over your shoulder—almost on top of you, really, who knows just what—were the gentle symmetries built from her ears and cheeks, her chin and brow. Her hairline, freshly visible (her hair had been pulled back for the first time), described the upper bound of what was, structurally speaking, a more or less ideal façade.

This time, unlike the previous face, there was nothing unreal about it, nothing utopian, I mean, the sort of thing that can get boring, that you get the sense is holding something behind its back. For one, her expression now wasn’t quite placid; no, it was very much of this world, suitably, interestingly agitated. Whatever exactly it was that was over your shoulder, perhaps just some quotidian treachery, ensured that much.

Still, as your eyes traversed her face—as my eyes did then—it was hard not to notice that they lost focus, began to stray, and other thoughts, almost any thoughts, would take her place. This was difficult to make sense of—it was a “great” face, full of story—until you accepted that an absence of error, including, this time, the error of ideality, the blankness of an unadulterated joy, could still amount to one. This, you might say, was a face too real for its own good. Truth, precision, no less than brazen fantasy, wasn’t quite as profound as you would think, not until it was touched by something other than itself.

***

 

As I began to dwell on this thought, or rather dwell in it, to consider whether it was merely a compelling formulation for being koan-like, or whether it held some deeper integrity, and in this case the truth of the matter was genuinely elegant (if recondite), I was overcome by the intensity of our negotiations that day, the memory of it, neither of which was anything like elegant. I’d had to sit Claire down roughly on the high and shallow windowsill. She was wearing heels for no good reason other than that it was summer, and that was her way in summer. I coaxed her partway to her feet from there, and for an instant she would flash ungainly, always unintentionally, in a manner I associated with beauty, or if not that, of what was even more desirable than beauty, and here I don’t mean truth, as nothing was less characteristic of her than ungainliness; it was its exceptionalness, really, that brought it a kind of poignancy and weight. I’d taken her hands by their backs and wrapped them around the sill, leaning her shoulders against the pane which was hot with summer sun, even if, as I remember, there wasn’t much light cascading through just then, and manipulating her against it until I was satisfied with the pressures, the pushes and pulls, the sense of rising action I was able to conjure through the slight strain of this posture.

After I’d pinpointed this interest, manipulating her person by going just past it, into what I imagine was quite painful territory, shaping the arch of her back, the weight flowing down through her calves—you had to overrun things slightly, watch them fall, to know you’d found the peak—after I’d set her back in the strongest possible position, from my point of view, not hers, of course, though if she really were the artist I believed her to be, she must have known in some way that it was for the best, however much she ached, that is when the pleading began. My own, I mean: Can you just stay as you are? I’ll be fast, I promise. I backed away from her, never leaving her with my eyes, toward the easel on which I’d pinned my paper. I started whittling down the black charcoal pencil, holding the knife at an angle just off parallel with the pencil itself, so that the longest possible point was produced. She watched the shavings flutter to the ground; I could see her tracking them as they fell around my feet. I called to her then, seeing the burgeoning revolt of her entire body: just a couple of minutes. Hadn’t I done the same for her, and more than once, as she’d molded clay in my image?

Once I’d gotten the pencil to a soft sort of sharpness, I held it out by its base, with two fingers, upright, and stretched my arm out toward her till my elbow locked, as if I were trying, absurdly, to hand her the pencil from fifteen feet away. What I succeeded in doing was just to superimpose the plumb line onto her.

I held the pencil horizontally too, staking out all of the ways she took up space, and the way she, or rather the lighting leaving her, intersected with the plane of the picture I was attempting to build. As I swiveled the pencil in the air, capturing proportions, marking her boundaries on a broad sheet of laid paper—the eleven segments of the so-called hinged I, the angle of her spine, the vectors defined by her arms as against her legs, which had a reddish hue to them from the sort of Bronx light that was coming in; how the width of that sharp little nose of hers compared to that of her mouth and eyes, how exactly her long earlobes aligned with her cheeks—I could feel her dissolve into these lines and curves and tones and contiguous regions of color, all of these interlocking planes that constituted her position in space. After a time, this is where a certain sort of perceptual attention, rigorously pursued, invariably leads. I felt I could hardly see her at all anymore, not in any ordinary sense. All I could see, no less than Monet or Pissarro painting in open air, was the trace she left on me. When I wasn’t feeling particularly jaded, this vanishing had always struck a note of despair in me, the sense of remove it created from the tangible world I knew or believed I did. (Here again, my opinions had been shifting, in directions I hardly understood yet.)

It was certainly still her that I heard, though, the occasional whines she made as I reconstructed her on paper: whines that were not without pathos, as I kept her this way for a remarkably long time—the method, which I was determined to carry out properly, whatever my feelings, required as much. Long enough, in the end, to sketch her down to the knees, and fill in much of her face as well, those details I knew so well, and not just by sight. All the while my fingers took on the rich black shine of blending charcoal tones without the paper stump I usually used, smearing bits of carbon into the heavy paper, the fineness of which tended to repel them without real pressure. It made my hands ache to do it.

The softest of the pencils I used, collected on the easel’s lip—I switched between a few of them for the line work, those and some graded sticks of vine charcoal for the deep tonal modeling—laid down so rich and black it looked not only shiny but liquid, in the manner of other media entirely, ink or acrylic or even oil. I stopped re-sharpening with the knife after a while and let the line fatten naturally, the tip of the pencil simply melting away with even a delicate touch. To that I applied ink, with an old tarnished nib from a set of them I still had from Cal Arts. I’d stolen them from a favorite teacher, Sarah Arles; she was dear enough to me that I’d felt it necessary to keep something from her when I left for New York, something she liked very much, like these nibs. I firmed up some of the contours this way, emboldening the hatching, and then adding white highlights, dipping the same nib to achieve a marbled effect, the highlights winding their way around the basic tone, colonizing it like kudzu. The support itself, in that faded blue, paler than any sky I knew, had tiny ribs crossing it that hinted at a planar grid—along one axis anyway—the famous Grid we still hadn’t quite managed to shed, so long after Constructivism, and even longer after geometric abstraction, the watershed defining all those rejected Salon pieces of Cézanne’s. Yet the drawing atop it remained fluid, curvilinear, unorientable in Cartesian space.

Claire’s face ended up quite finely finished, in high contrast, with great depth, the sort her body, however, never had the chance to take on. For at some point, perhaps on the second day—or was it the third?—she’d mutinied. At the time, this had been unprecedented. It was, I suppose, the first glimpse of a greater abandonment to come.

Now, as my gaze drifted down from her face, down to her shoulders and the windowsill, the whole of her world, the one I’d transferred to paper, grew increasingly vague, provisional, the very definition of space turned ghostly, its sense of volume dissipated.

***

 

What she’d said later, I remember, in explaining this refusal, minor perhaps on its own but something quite different when you realized it was the first, really, and that they would flow ever more freely thereafter, as if some sort of resolve had been permanently shattered by it, never to reform with its original strength, in the manner of broken bones, was that her neck had gone stiff from having to turn toward me. It was true, the position I’d asked of her was fraught, her body hanging between two of its prime postures, sitting and standing, a space in which relief was naturally impossible to find as one was ineluctably led from one point to the other.

I have a hard time believing this was the deepest reason she’d found the position impossible to sustain, though. That was really a failure of the will, simultaneous with a failure of seeing the point of these sessions now. I hadn’t, it’s true, been showing any of these drawings, not for a few months; nor was I using them as preparatory works toward paintings, the very thing that might have shored up her resolve. Instead, I only sold them to a few private collectors I’d picked up along the way through my mercurial dealer, Sandy Hinton. These were the ones who’d stayed loyal to my biographical “studies,” if that’s what they were to them, even after I’d seceded from Sandy’s louche Upper West Side gallery, his first space from twenty years back and still his headquarters, pleasantly distant from most other institutions of fine art. I demur at the word studies only because I can’t say I was trying, at least in the end, or perhaps ever, really, to get to the bottom of anything, or to clarify something’s nature, and it seems to me that that is what studies or investigations are about. For me, all of these works, which were indeed closely attached to particular persons, sometimes fifty or sixty pieces all involving a single subject, you could see why someone would think they were studies, were more akin to pronouncements. I was more concerned with surfaces, really, trying to graft onto each of these people new skin, new nerves, and in doing so, perhaps find a new place for them in my mind.

Of course these collectors had remained, Claire had said. That had nothing much to do with sympathetic understanding, and certainly not with loyalty, merely the fetish of completism and the whiff of profit, wanting to see out the last fizzles of this dying project, seize it for resale or display later, perhaps donate it to some museum down the line that might help make their name, or that of their great grandchildren. Weren’t they all of that type? In the end, I think this was slightly too simple, and anyway I am sure Claire would acknowledge there was something else, at this point, simmering in her that drove these remarks; still, they were less wrong than I would have liked.

Whatever it was, there had never been an occasion on which she’d abandoned a pose once begun (we considered this a kind of mutual duty). She’d also never criticized my work quite like this, insinuating in some way that I wasn’t genuinely trying anymore, that there was some sort of capitulation involved. Most times I asked, she would sit endlessly, however many sessions were needed, if she thought something of moment were taking shape. Sometimes, in the early days, I came to think she spontaneously took up poses in my peripheral vision, or else repeated various motions or gestures there, extended the time it took her to complete some task, mixing paints, say, or watering her plants that lay throughout my place, knowing that this was how ideas worked for me, surreptitiously, and that by doing so she might provide, without a word, the precise stimulus I needed. These poses were often barely distinguishable from her merely carrying on with life as if entirely unseen, like a bather in a Degas. (She was going to water those plants regardless, I knew.) She would do these things while I sat with a sketchpad and drank, or even just stared off into the distance, twirling a pencil in my fingers—anytime really an instrument was at hand.

That day, though, or the next, whichever it was, I can’t remember, I believe it took place far from the easel—the moment, I mean, when she declined to pose any further (though she’d not done it noisily, gently pinning it on the irrefutable aches of her body)—that must have been the turning point, the threshold. These were sketches I was fussing over, she must have felt. I would lavish months on them, it’s true, bringing a polish and finality to them that was merely . . . what, to Claire? Ornamental? Time that might have been better spent transferring them to canvas?

Drawing, for her—she drew all the time, had to—was something merely practical. She was a sculptor by training, an artist of literal space, and in practice lately she was the kind who installed things—the favored sort of artist these days. Whereas the arts of figural space, painting foremost, had been mostly out of fashion for forty years and counting. Who ever thought icons like Schnabel or Prince to be even with Polke, Rothko, Richter, Keefer, Hamilton? There was Hockney, I suppose, but he had his problems; his one note wasn’t worth listening to very long.

No, for most, painting as a medium hadn’t been at the vanguard since the 1970s, maybe even the 50s. It was actually drawing that had begun to have its advocates since the turn of the century, probably through the broader apotheosis of the sketch in all its forms, that is, of all that was incomplete, unfinished, fragmentary, in short, what was epistemically infirm. Really it was moldy French thought, not terribly compelling the first time through, in the 60s, given a second life by the internet, a medium effectively defined by its incompleteness, its indiscriminate (and exhilarating) admixture of knowledge and ignorance. Had digital culture actually sundered painting?

Claire’s indifference to my drawings might have come down to this: she didn’t care for what she was beginning to see in them, and she wasn’t indifferent at all. She’d been in thrall to my paintings, and I knew this precisely not by what she said—how much can you know of someone from what they choose to tell you?—but rather by the way she would ferociously study them when she thought I was otherwise occupied, say, building frames, cutting canvas, or grinding pigment, which I sometimes liked to do myself.

She’d also said, quite offhandedly, that it was my work that first convinced her she was a sculptor—something about the life I could fit, or find, in two dimensions, she didn’t think she was going to be able to catch me at that. There was also the suggestion, correct actually, that in three dimensions, the same dimensions in which we lived our lives, I was rather hopeless next to her.

I don’t really know how much to take from this. It could have been a simulated offhandedness, and really only a kindness or encouragement to me. More likely it was a convenient way to cut ties with a medium that anyway had little momentum in modern life. Or, perhaps, the real meaning of the compliment, though this is not a generous thought, was less about my paintings themselves, their character, and more about the sort of reception they were getting. It was this that she wasn’t going to catch up to—which, to be fair, she might have been right about. I had been unusually well received.

***

 

At the time we’d met in the city, four years earlier, I’d only been out of art school for a short time, yet even then, as she liked to point out, I wasn’t what you’d call an unknown in the city. A prospect is what I was; my brother, Ty, our resident sports fanatic, would put it that way. Painting had been what I’d graduated in, a recently resurgent major, it was said among all the mixed-media people, or those of “new genres,” but the fact that it was in need of a resurgence said more than a little about its troubled state (ever since the 80s, never mind the trifles of Salle and Schnabel), as did the terms on which it was gaining re-entry. It was coming along with the return not merely of figuration but of outright narrative to art: graphic-novel, comic-book-panel narrative almost, where it was said, not wrongly, to outclass many other forms in its concentration and lucidity. The actual sculptors in my graduating class were very few. Mallet-and-chisel sculptors, I mean, who treated the study of classical technique and hand fabrication not merely as a dutiful tribute to the past, on the way to becoming a mixed media worker of the conceptual or political variety, which those who had real ambition, it was understood, would do, usually in the final years of school, with their senior thesis. Claire, who’d trained in Chicago, at the Art Institute, was just such a sculptor. She loved to cast bronzes, in particular, or anyway she did when I’d met her, and this is what I found initially attractive about her. She was terribly fashionable in her person—well-liked, widely desired—yet not in her tastes; where exactly she got them from was something immediately intriguing about her. You wanted to unravel this.

I, though, I was a painter, and at just the right moment, apparently, ready to help bolster a full renaissance of the form, now that drawing was already in full swing. What’s more, I was a painter of the figure, which no longer signaled something fusty and remote (as Claire’s bronzes could) but rather read as personal, vulnerable, authentic. The age had made people hunger for this—the very qualities that would have been laughed out of court, as maudlin or naïve, just before.

In school, I would often include textual layovers with my figures and tableaus, whether in paintings or lithographic prints, even with some of the tenderer ones. Sometimes these bits of texts were typographically sophisticated, blending humanistic and transitional fonts so thoroughly, and without a hint of pastiche, that it made the origin or era of the founding idea hard to trace (certainly it was difficult to call them modern exactly). I myself was hardly a type designer. But, with the aid of classmates and professors who’d gone far beyond Thinking With Type, I’d sometimes been able to get a one-off type design done, perhaps a slight bastardization of something they were already working on. More often, though, I achieved the synthesis myself, staring at musty type-specimen books and hand lettering from there in a kind of free improvisation on the standards.

Photomontage, they’d sometimes call the results, a depersonalization of the personal or some such. Others thought of illustration first. Both were undercooked readings, not so much based on a fundamental lack of discernment, but an inability to take youthful work with any real seriousness. There are some things that can only be believed or grasped when the messenger is right. Things evolved, though. It began to be understood that I my real models lay much further back, in Van Eyck and Steen and Saenredam, where phrases and proverbs frequently appear inscribed on the canvases themselves, in curly or wispy letters that trailed off. Often they are placed within pictorial space, yet somehow seem slightly to overrun it; that is, they seem to be inscribed partly onto the canvas and partly into the painting. Unlike with certain paintings to the south, where inscribed words, when they do appear (and they appear far less often), are usually poetic or biblically aphoristic, these seem almost captions for the work, a kind of internal title card, making the ones on the walls, next to the paintings, otiose.

At the time I preferred to keep words and images more or less coeval, without one symbolizing the other. Some were as short as a fragment, three or four words, others as long as a paragraph. But the truth of it is, I don’t really want to discuss this. The technique itself is so entirely a thing of the past now for me. Not because it was unsophisticated. The best of those works can stand with the works of more developed artists. The real reason for silence is simple: you would almost certainly misunderstand. That’s why I abandoned the approach—people were taking these images and narratives a little too well. Con-text was betraying me. Words have this problem. It’s why I left them behind when I got to New York. I hadn’t even titled a picture since college, never mind integrating text with it. People actually had to look now.

And what was it they saw in my figures, mostly acrylic and oil, realistically depicted, contemporary? I relished their newfound uncertainty. These images, for one, were studiously shorn of conceptual or post-conceptual suggestions. Which is to say, they weren’t especially clever, or steeped in irony. Nor, however, could they be called personal or earnest, that common point of retreat. Where else could you go? There was always the realm of whimsy and nonsense; the entire twentieth century was peppered with such. But I avoided any hint of irrationalism, as well as that other safe house, kulturekritik.

How exactly to describe them, then? What was it that my art did exactly, if not illustrate ideas, divulge subjectivities, highlight iniquities? What is an art, a contemporary art, that isn’t ingenious, confessional, indignant, or insouciant? I suppose I have left naïve art out of this catalogue, but that’s just because my own biography, the years of careful study, much of it undertaken in my high school years, the technical fluency it had given me before I’d ever got to college, ruled out any such interpretation. What else am I forgetting? There is the neoclassical, something that seemed to draw Claire. But no one sensible would be tempted to claim I was primarily after homage or replication, even if those Dutch painters had once given me ideas.

The short of it was that my college work, though always centered on figure and narrative, befuddled all who looked on it. Despite this, a reverence persisted—I will get to why—one that gained me entry into the art circles of New York not long after I’d moved, and without much of the anxiety suffocating the more career-conscious of my peers. My professors, if they no longer claimed to understand my new, wordless direction, were apparently convinced that I, at the age of twenty-six, was on my way toward something “significant,” even if what they imagined as significant seemed like nothing much to me.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark de Silva
is the magazine’s fiction editor and the author of the novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio, 2016). For 2019, he is in residence with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019.