2022 - 2025 | MFA Painting, CUNY Hunter College, New York NY
2016 - 2019 | BFA Fine Arts, Parsons School of Design, New York NY
2012 - 2014 | Chemistry, Occidental College, Los Angeles CAEXHIBITIONS
2022 | Solo Show, Tomato Mouse, Brooklyn NY (Upcoming October 2022)
2022 | SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2022, New York NY (Upcoming September 2022)
2022 | Among Friends, NY Artists Equity Association, New York NY
2022 | Intimacies, MAPSpace, Port Chester NY
2022 | Intersections, Art on the Avenue, New York NY
2021 | SPRING/BREAK Art Show, New York NY
2021 | Welcome Back!, 205 30th St, Brooklyn NY
2021 | Chasing Light, Gallery 263, Cambridge MA
2021 | Double Vision, Bromfield Gallery, Boston MA
2021 | Storylines, Gallery 263, Cambridge MA
2021 | Fresh Perspectives Group Exhibition, London Paint Club, londonpaintclub.com
2021 | All of the Lights, treat gallery, treatgallery.org
2020 | 2020 Members Invitational, NY Artists Equity Association, New York NY
2020 | We Will Meet Again, New Apostle Gallery, Online
2020 | Night & Day, Local Project Art Space & Departure Studios Gallery, Queens NY
2019 | Group Salon Show, Greenpoint Gallery, Brooklyn NY
2019 | Art 52nd Street 2019, Gallery MC, New York NY
2019 | Gregor, Huang, Karjalainen: Three Painters, 367 Gallery, Brooklyn NY
2019 | BFA Thesis Show, Parsons School of Design, New York NY
2019 | Art, Media + Technology Show, Parsons School of Design, New York NY
2019 | Public Privacy, The New School’s Skybridge Gallery, New York NY
2019 | Beyond Landscape, 25 East Gallery at Parsons School of Design, New York NY
2019 | Milk Press Books, New York Poetry Society, New York NY
2019 | BFA Senior Open Studios, Parsons School of Design, New York NY
2018 | Fire in the Wet Lab, 25 East Gallery at Parsons School of Design, New York NY
2018 | Cover Art, 12th Street Journal, New York NYNEWS + PRESS
2022 | Emerging Artist Feature, E66 Studios
2021 | Issue 4, Huts Magazine
2021 | Artist to Watch, Art Connect
2020 | Human Nature, Vellum Magazine No. 24
2019 | Gregor, Huang, Karjalainen: Three Painters by Eric Bayless-HallCOLLABORATIONS
2019 | Translation/Transmigration, Matthew Gallery, New York NY (reading based on film made in collaboration with Tatiana Istomina)
2018 | Philosophy of the Encounter: Screening, Triangle Arts Association, Brooklyn NY (film in collaboration with Tatiana Istomina)AWARDS + FELLOWSHIPS
2022 | Ruth Stanton Scholarship, CUNY Hunter College, New York NY
2021 | AltMFA Fellow, The Crit Lab
2019 | Social Science Fellowship, Eugene Lang College, New York NY
2019 | Global Ambassador, Eugene Lang College, New York NY
2018 | Opportunity Award Recipient, Eugene Lang College, New York NYRESIDENCIES
2022 | Self-Made Residency, Victor MTCURATION
2021 | Welcome Back!, 205 30th St, Brooklyn NY
2019 | Gregor, Huang, Karjalainen: Three Painters, 367 20th St, Brooklyn NY
2018 | Fire in the Wet Lab, 25 East Gallery at Parsons School of Design, New York, NY
2018 | Land, Water, Flesh, The New School’s Skybridge Gallery, New York NY
Problematic Experience: Reflection, Recognition and Responsibility in Art
It's remarkable that our experience of the world, which includes our recognition of and response to things in it, is so often unremarkable––that is, until we are faced with something we don't recognize or aren't sure how to respond to. Only in the latter case, when a problem arises, do we begin to reflect on the generally unproblematic quality of experience, to wonder how such problems arise and how they might be resolved when they do. And so we are faced with a problem: a problem about problems that I’m inclined to resolve by making a distinction within our experience of the world, by slicing experience as a whole into two faculties so that experience is unproblematic—we might say ‘normal’—when these faculties are in harmony but problematic when in discord: the faculty of conceptualization, which organizes particular perceptions under abstract concepts already held; and the faculty of perception, which apprehends sensory data, presenting it to conceptualization for organization, or, if no appropriate concept exists, assists in creating a new one. By drawing this line between the faculties of conceptualization and perception and their corresponding objects, concepts and perceptions, we can account for the potentially problematic nature of experience by positing that within experience abstract concepts and particular perceptions are reciprocally related by their corresponding faculties and thus can fall in and out of harmony, so that, when they are out of harmony, a problem arises in experience that wants resolution; that is, that we, the experiencers, want to resolve.If you’ll accept this distinction as our starting point, we can generate from it a structure that conceptualizes four ways these two aspects of experience might be related: (1) concepts and perception may be in harmony and thus experience unproblematic; (2) a problem may arise in experience wherein concepts are inadequate to organize perception, so that either old concepts must be wholly abandoned and new concepts created to achieve resolution or (3) concepts broadened in order to subsume incongruous perception; or (4) perception may deny conceptualization while concepts insist on organizing them. According to this schema, it’s only in the first scenario that a problem doesn’t arise. In the second and third scenarios, problems arise in experience that can be resolved. In the fourth, experience is irretrievably divided so that resolution can only be achieved by successfully ignoring the problem.This schema we’ve generated from our initial distinction presupposes that perception can’t occur without concepts. These concepts may be innate, arrived at inductively, inherited, or created. Regardless of how we come to hold them, we can say that the aggregate of our concepts compose our world, or conceptualization of it. Together concepts paint a picture of the world as one sees it, a worldview, in light of which one recognizes and reacts, consciously or unconsciously, at any given moment. This worldview is the structure through which experience is understandable; is where we stand, a way of seeing, a vocabulary and grammar that describes this world, a limit to what is conceivable, what is realizable; is the world that we perceive. Perceptions are presentations of that conceptual world in its particularity, particular instances of abstract concepts, which can be, and often are, harmonious with one’s conceptual structure. But perceptions can also be inarticulable in a given vocabulary and can push, perhaps even puncture, the limits of what is conceivable, can change our way of seeing, which is to change our world. It is tempting, perhaps inevitably so, to believe one’s own worldview to be an accurate picture of the world as it really is, as if the world were an object we could come to understand through empirical observation, as through the lens of a camera, microscope or unbiased eye. But the world is conceptualized differently by different people, their actions and products not mere objects that can be known empirically but expressions of their subjective worldview. The world we perceive is composed of the worldviews of others, at least in part. How we resolve a problem between our conception of the world and our perception of others’ worldviews––that is, between our concepts and our perception of the concepts of others––is a question, not of coming to know the objective world merely, but of coming to see another’s conception of that world and consequently relating theirs to our own. It is a problem of recognizing, reflecting on and responding to another’s worldview. If we emphasize the recognition, we might call such problems that arise in experience epistemological; if we emphasize the responsibility, moral. I am going to emphasize reflection and call them aesthetic problems.Art occasions relations between the viewer’s conceptualization of the world and their perception of the artist’s conceptualization of the world as embodied in the artwork—relations parallel to those between perception and concepts sketched above: (1) the viewer may find that they share a world with the artwork; (2) they may find such difference between their worlds that the viewer can only enter the artwork’s by abandoning their own; (3) the viewer may expand their conceptual world in order to assimilate the artwork’s to it; or (4) the viewer may insist on using the concepts of their world to understand the artist’s while finding reconciliation to ultimately be impossible, which may result in preoccupation with the problem it presents to them or in walking away from it, perhaps to look at a more pleasing painting. This parallel we’ve set up between the relation of concepts and perception in our experience of the world and our experience of art suggests that reflecting on how we resolve the problems that arise in artistic experience, which artificially affords us reflection independent of recognition and responsibility as is demanded in our experience of the world, might prepare us to better recognize and respond when our world, or the interrelation of our world with others’, becomes problematic. To do so, let’s imagine four types of artwork that correspond to our schema. I will restrict the instances of each to painting, for painting, which addresses itself to the eye, is especially suited to problematize how we see the world. Paintings show us that others see the world differently than we do, so that we might see, or try to see the world differently, a different world.Paint’s potential to mimic the appearance of different materials, textures, volumes and atmospheres can produce paintings that reinforce a worldview in which vision is a neutral means of coming to know an objective world, wherein perception is unproblematic because it seems to transmit to us a conception of the world as it really is. Such paintings don’t problematize the relation between the viewer’s conceptual world and their perception of the painting, but rather claim to represent the world accurately, as if through a pane of glass. I will call this first type of painting ‘descriptive painting’ because such a painting claims to describe the world as it is. A descriptive painting assumes congruence between the view of the world it presents—how it is perceived by the viewer—and the viewer’s conceptualization of the world, thus situating itself as an extension of the viewer’s world. The viewer’s concepts, and therefore their way of seeing and the vocabulary they use to describe what they see, are adequate to it already, so the relation between their concepts and their perception of the painting is unproblematic. Let’s look at Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps as a particular instance of our concept of descriptive painting. With imperceptible brushstrokes, naturalistic modeling and atmospheric perspective, the material properties of paint—its viscosity, color, handling—are made invisible, transformed into the material properties of other objects. Indeed, the painting announces itself as a window into a world not of paint but of familiar objects made from identifiable materials: flesh, leather, iron, stone. It presents a world that appears to behave according to the same laws that a viewer, who believes their eyes accurately tell of a world characterized by extension and material differentiation, expects the world to behave according to, and manipulates this expectation for a rhetorical end. Napoleon, with flesh so convincing it seems it might yield to touch, is painted wearing ornate clothing, pointing forward and upward astride a rearing horse, in the process of traversing the mountains with an army in the background. The horse’s glistening eyes seem to roll and its tensed muscles to twitch under its coat as its power is restrained by Napoleon’s utter control. Paint is manipulated to imitate the appearance of things as one who believes vision to record the effects of natural laws would expect. The painting is continuous with their conceptual world and by means of this continuity of concepts constructs a visual enthymeme that can be articulated as follows: Great paintings mimic the visual effects caused by natural laws; Napoleon appears, as if he himself were before our eyes, valiantly leading his troops over the rocky Alps whereon his name is carved alongside, and larger than, the names of great leaders throughout history; therefore, tracing the causal chain backwards, Napoleon is by natural law a great leader (and David a great painter). By stylistically establishing a world continuous with the viewer’s own, to which their way of seeing, and thus their vocabulary, is already adequate, and organizing that shared vocabulary into an argument, the painting claims to describe the world as ordered by natural laws and the qualities of the things in it. In this painting, description is used to the rhetorical end of persuading the viewer that, just as surely as they can see the clouds in the sky or the mountains on the horizon, they see their emperor is a great man.
Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801.
But paint, in addition to being able to mimic the material properties of objects seen in the world, has material properties of its own, which can be used to make explicit the potential gap between concepts and perception. A second type of painting does the opposite of descriptive painting by restricting itself to the material properties of its medium, thereby creating a world of paint all its own. I will refer to this conceptualization of painting as ‘autonomous painting’ because such a painting creates its own vocabulary and uses it to define itself. In relation to an autonomous painting, the viewer must be born again into this new world by abandoning their normal way of seeing in order to form new concepts in light of the painting’s internal logic, the laws natural to paint. The relation between the viewer’s concepts and perception is problematic because an autonomous painting demands that it is like nature itself, absolute creator of new forms, and the viewer that clings to concepts external to the work, thereby failing to adapt to this nature, is a lifeform not long for the painting’s world. Mark Rothko’s No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow) is a particular instance of autonomous painting. No. 13, indifferent to the normal concepts of the viewer, announces itself to be a world of its own: it is large and so fills the viewer’s field of vision that it seems to engulf them like an environment; it is always changing because staring at saturated pigment creates after-images of complimentary colors that move as the viewer’s eyes move, thereby modulating the appearance of the pigment applied to the canvas; furthermore, like nature, it seems less to be something made by a human than something that simply is because its history is unknowable insofar as the process by which it is made obscures that very process. Once the viewer relinquishes their usual concepts––that is, leaves their world behind––and allows theirself to enter this new world that is the painting, they must let their perceptions teach them the concepts this world demands. Starting with all they have––what they can perceive––they begin to build new concepts: they see the shape of the canvas, the occasional glob of paint or brush bristle left behind, the relative effects of color––and, in looking, they realize that these perceptions occasioned by the painting are themselves mimicked in the painting: the shape of the large canvas is represented by smaller rectangles within; the physiological effect of the viewer’s eye layering after-images of color over the painting is reproduced by the material layering of paint on the canvas; the physical qualities of the materials, such as shadows cast by globs of paint, are reproduced in paint, as by a dark dot on its surface. By representing in paint the perceptions its own paint occasions in the viewer, the painting shows the viewer the concepts appropriate to its world: concepts of, what we might call, ‘rectangle,’ ‘layering,’ ‘paint glob;’ that is, concepts that grow out of the material nature of its medium. But we need not call them by these words; we could just as easily gesture or make up new words for our perceptions and the new concepts we abstract from them because the painting presents what it represents and represents what it presents. To enter this world of paint, the viewer must become a child again and through their sense of sight begin to learn a new conceptual structure, a new language, a new world.
Mark Rothko, No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow), 1958.
Taking advantage of paint’s material potentials for both mimesis and abstraction, a third type of painting depends on the viewer’s concepts to make intelligible what are initially unintelligible aspects of its appearance by problematizing the relation between concepts and perception in such a way that the viewer’s perception of the painting is close enough to, but different enough from, their conception of the world that the relation between concept and perception is problematic, but ultimately reconcilable. I will call these paintings ‘correlative paintings’ because bringing concept and perception into harmony requires the mutual adjustment––the co-relation––of both: the expansion of concepts to include novel perceptions and the conformation of novel perceptions to fit within those concepts. For instance, Edouard Vuillard’s At Table. Painted with a narrow spectrum of values and hues, the grayish brownish daubs of paint, made by a hand in motion that discovers the form its subject matter will take as it moves, assert that they are indeed paint applied to a surface while also representing, miraculously, a scene of people at a table. That the viewer perceives those patches of paint both to be paint and to be a table with three figures shows how concepts can expand to include perceptions and, conversely, how perceptions can be informed by those concepts in order to assimilate those daubs of paint to conceptual categories common to a domestic scene. Take, for example, the hand belonging to the figure at the right of the canvas, which, at first, may not be intelligible as a hand at all: in color, paint application and form the hand is nearly identical to the tablecloth that surrounds it, lacking any outline to delineate it from its background––and yet, it is a hand. Some combination of direction of brushstrokes and vicinity to a black silhouette suggests the viewer’s concept of ‘hand,’ while in relation to the suggestion of the concept of ‘hand,’ the paint daubs appear more hand-like than they may have at first. By correlating Vuillard’s paint daubs with the viewer’s concept of ‘hand,’ and vice versa, an equilibrium is reached between concept and perception: the problem of what type of thing the paint daubs represent is resolved. The painting’s patchwork of brushstrokes together with the viewer’s conceptual categories knit a harmonious scene populated by human bodies, lace tablecloths, flowers and glass bottles. But––and here is where correlative paintings, as exemplified by Vuillard’s At Table, differ from descriptive paintings like David’s Napoleon––in a correlative painting, the viewer must, at the same time that they see lace and flowers, also see the lace and flowers to be paint. The perception of paint and the recognition of a concept are inextricably interrelated. At Table doesn’t claim to describe a hand in the way David’s painting claims to describe the flesh and bone that compose Napoleon’s right hand. Rather, Vuillard’s painting uses paint’s materiality to occasion the recognition of painted things that appear very different from instances of those things as they are normally perceived in the world, showing forth the potential rift between our abstract concepts of a type of thing and our particular perception of an instance of a thing while occasioning the resolution of this rift by broadening our concepts to subsume the particular, albeit painted, instance.
Edouard Vuillard, At Table, 1893.
Finally, there is a fourth type of painting, which also occasions in the viewer a feeling that there is a problem between concept and perception, but insists that the relation between the two is not so reconcilable as correlative paintings suggest. Instead, for this last type of painting, the relation of concept to perception is one of continual severing and suturing, slicing and stitching: a problem without harmonious resolution. I will call this type of painting ‘ambivalent painting,’ in the sense of showing simultaneous and contradictory attitudes toward something, because it occasions a divided experience in which concept and perception are unavoidable but irreconcilable. The following two paintings by Philip Guston are such paintings. The experience they occasion is necessarily fragmented: concepts are always inadequate to wholly account for perceptions, but perceptions nonetheless appeal to concepts to be understood. No amount of suturing can return experience––that is, the world––to harmony: nevertheless, these paintings attempt to nail it back together. This type of painting, or rather, these paintings, throw the schema from which their type was derived into question because they problematize the very function of a schematic, or conceptual, understanding: can an abstract schema account for particular experience? Can a concept be adequate to particular perception? Despite the risk of denying its own schema’s validity, it is here, with these paintings and the problems they pose, that we will spend the rest of this essay because it is from here, in the problems that arise between our perception and concepts and between our concepts and perception of others’ concepts, that the schema came.Let’s begin by describing Guston’s painterly vocabulary used in these paintings as it is perceived in Ancient Wall. First, a description of the types of things we recognize in the painting. In its top half the viewer perceives a black sky above a red brick wall, over which a mass of bare legs dangle, pink and knobby with dash-like hairs. The lower half of the painting is filled with a mass of diverse objects that can only hesitatingly call shoe soles, some connected to red stalks––bloody limbs?––that sprout from an area of black paint––perhaps a shadow?––at the bottom of the canvas. But this description, being verbal, emphasizes those things that are recognized, more or less, to belong to concepts continuous with our conceptualization of the world, concepts for which they have words: ‘sky,’ ‘brick,’ ‘wall,’ ‘leg,’ ‘shoe;’ whereas many other things in the painting, though they are perceived to be similar in form and paint application to these recognizable things, refuse to fit neatly into those same concepts,––or any concept, for that matter––so that we might hesitate to call the area of black paint a shadow, opting instead for ‘that shadow-like thing.’ Such a description that emphasizes words, or abstract concepts of things, can only be partial for a painting that is so emphatically paint. We must now turn to describe the same painting with emphasis, not on what types of things are recognizable, but the perception occasioned by the paint itself.
Philip Guston, Ancient Wall, 1976.
The painting is composed of marks from a painterly vocabulary of which the dash-like brushstroke made by a quarter inch flat brush is the smallest unit, as in the leg hairs; and from a limited vocabulary of colors—primarily red, black and white—employed separately and so mixed to make pinks and grays. The dashes, when placed end to end, form a ragged line or, when made with a large brush, compose the swathes of paint that cover the canvas. The ragged line sometimes functions as a contour that transforms a swathe of paint into a recognizable thing; sometimes that same ragged line is simply that, a painted line that can’t be seen to function as the contour of any particular thing, despite appearing formally indistinguishable from the aforementioned lines that bound something recognizable. In these latter cases, the line is an instance of a painterly vocabulary applied without representational function: paint perceived as paint in contrast to a painted instance of a recognizable concept. This double use of paint problematizes our attempt to assimilate our perception of paint to our concepts by employing a vocabulary of painted forms in two exclusive ways: on the one hand, the units of the vocabulary are composed so as to occasion the recognition of particular instances of types of things; on the other, the units are simply perceived to be paint applied to a canvas in an idiosyncratic manner.This doubleness exemplified by Guston’s painterly vocabulary, in which the same brushstroke can be recognized to function in two different and contradictory ways—either representing a concept or simply presenting paint for perception—applies to Ancient Wall as a whole. The painting, like an image that occasions a gestalt shift, presents two views: two different paintings on a single canvas that represent two contradictory views of the same scene: the first, the view the painting presents to perception the second, a view that requires conceptual reorganization to see. The painting at first––the ‘first painting’––is perceived to be a landscape scene with a pile of shoes in the foreground, which takes up the bottom half of the canvas, in front of a brick wall with legs hanging over it in the background, which, with a black sky, takes up the top half of the canvas. An unsettling scene of limbs without bodies made more unsettling when we reflect on how we recognize these things to be limbs and shoes although they are unlike any limbs or shoes we, or at least I, have ever seen. We experience a problem of how to organize our perception of the painting so as to assimilate it to our worldview, subsume it under concepts already held. We can only continue to look, to perceive the painting more particularly, letting the faculties of conceptualization and perception wrestle. Eventually––in my case, hours later––a second way to see this painting, a ‘second painting,’ is perceived; or rather, conceptualized. To see this ‘second painting,’ the viewer must recognize in the ‘first painting’ instances of the concepts ‘leg,’ ‘foot,’ ‘shoe’ and ‘sole’ and subsume them under another more comprehensive concept: that of the body as a whole, in relation to which the concepts are parts that are, in the first painting, severed from one another. By conceiving of their potential continuity––that in relation to a ‘body,’ a ‘leg’ is continuous with a ‘foot’ that is sometimes in a ‘shoe’ with a ‘sole’––we can conceptually reconnect the shoe soles in the foreground to the legs dangling over the wall behind by imaginatively flipping the bottom half of the canvas. Reorganized conceptually, the bottom half of the canvas becomes a view of the legs hanging over the wall seen from another perspective, from underneath, as if we each—I—could enter the scene in the first painting, lay on the ground with my head touching the brick wall to look up at the shoe soles of the shod feet connected to the dangling legs while simultaneously seeing the scene that I’ve entered in the top half of canvas. Now what appeared in the first painting to be a pile of shoes turns into a canopy of feet in the second, the black shadow-like-thing from which the feet were sprouting in the first transforms into the sky above the wall at the top of the canvas, the bloody limbs continuous with shoe soles flip to be the dangling legs reflecting the red light of the brick wall behind them. The single eye painted in the bottom right corner of the canvas confirms this view: a representation of the concept of vision separated from a body, suggesting another view from within the painting. A view that is impossible for me, who can’t physically enter the painting, to perceive, but is possible for me to conceptualize.
Diagram of the ‘second painting’ in Ancient Wall.
But this doesn’t resolve the problem. This second conceptual view can only be maintained by an act of mental gymnastics because it requires a reconceptualization of the painting that contradicts the perception of it. Our experience of the painting remains irresolvable because the single canvas contains within it two contradictory paintings: the first, perceived to be a unified view of a landscape with fragmented body parts in which the bottom and top halves are respectively foreground and background; the second, a fragmented view of a landscape with unified body parts, in which the top and the bottom halves must be conceptually reorganized so that the viewer simultaneously perceives a view of the scene looking at the canvas, as one looks at a scene from a window, and a view from within that scene, but perpendicular to it and from beneath. The painting as a whole occasions a problem in the viewer’s experience in which all the perceptual data can’t be subsumed under concepts, but neither can concepts be fully abandoned because some perceptions are indeed recognized as belonging to them: on the one hand, the viewer’s perception in which the landscape is unified required the fragmentation of their concept of body; on the other, the conceptualization that unifies the limbs into a whole body fragments the viewer’s perception from the conceptualized view. The painting(s) tempt(s) us to resolve this problem while symbolizing its impossibility in the two what I can only call ‘leg-like-things’ hanging over the wall on the right, deflated by nails: a means of uniting and puncturing, or uniting by puncturing. In the experience of this painting, the problem between concept and perception can only be resolved at the cost of one or the other. That is to say, it can’t be.
In looking at the problems that arise between concepts and perception in the double function of Guston’s painterly vocabulary in general and the double view in Ancient Wall, I’ve limited my analysis to problems that arise between the perception of paint and the recognition of the paint as a thing belonging to a concept that is in itself unproblematic. I’ve used the term ‘problematic’ to describe experience in which a problem arises and occasions reflection, in contrast to the contemporary moralizing usage of the term. However, this term is commonly used to describe statements or actions that pose moral problems, usually to condemn those statements or actions. Thus far, my reflections have emphasized the aesthetic, so I’ve used the first sense of the term because, as I said in the beginning, art seems to grant reflection a degree of autonomy from epistemological claims of truth and moral demands of responsibility, to create a space in which to work out problems without practical consequences. But some paintings make clear that this autonomy is indeed artificial; that aesthetic reflection rubs up against moral responsibility, just as it rubs up against the epistemological problem of recognizing abstract concepts in particular perception. With this moral sense of problematic in mind, I can look back on the previous painting analyses to wonder whether there were not moral questions I ought to have asked, perhaps regarding the economic conditions in which easel painting developed, the elitism implicit in the assumption of art’s autonomy, the propagandistic ends of French imperial art. And furthermore, ought I have assumed that ‘we’ see these paintings the same way? Does it do violence to others, with their particular conceptualizations of the world? to you, who I’ve assumed to make up my ‘we’? I am inclined to say that, while the ‘we’ can be used authoritatively or coercively, it may also function as an invitation to share a view of the world that may be refused; that while one may always consider, and perhaps ought at times to consider, the moral implications of paintings, all paintings and all situations in which one looks at painting don’t necessarily demand it. But let us now, if you’ll follow, look closely at one of Guston’s controversial Ku Klux Klan paintings, a painting that, I believe, does demand that we each reflect on the interrelation of the aesthetic, the moral and the epistemological in the problems it occasions.
Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969.
In The Studio, a white hood with one red and one white hand, respectively holding a paintbrush and a cigarette, paints a self-portrait on a canvas. The (American) viewer recognizes the figure as a hooded klansman, despite the fact that it appears more like a cartoon ghost than a terrorist. One might even be tempted to call the hooded figure, in its pink surroundings, cute. Nonetheless, the concept of ‘klansman’ is enough to make the viewer and the art institution feel a problem and wonder, in the former’s case, how one ought to respond to such a painting, and fear, in the latter’s––as proven by the postponement of the Guston retrospective in 20201, the response to the postponement in an open letter signed by over 2,600 artists and curators2, and Hauser and Wirth’s press release for their show of his work in 20213––that it would create problems for the institution that shows these pieces. In the hooded figure in The Studio we recognize the hood first and foremost as a symbol; that is, as standing for concepts the Klan values: racial purity, intolerance, dogmatism and the violence they beget. If we stop here in our reflection on the painting––at the level of mere recognition of what is painted––we might arrive at some vague justification of Guston’s use of the symbol, like the one given in Hauser & Wirth’s press release:In this group of paintings, Guston holds up a mirror not only to America’s racist past and present, but to his own culpability by dint of white privilege and the complicity it engenders. In ‘The Studio’ (1969), one of the artist’s most iconic paintings, Guston depicts himself in the grand tradition of Western art, as an artist at work before his easel. In this allegory of painting, however, Guston occupies not the exalted role shown in celebrated self-portraits by such forebearers as Gentileschi, Vermeer, Velazquez, and Courbet, but as one of his own hooded figures, cigar in one hand and paint brush in the other, hood splattered with blood red marks. By identifying himself with the enemy, Guston creates a radical image of an artist wrestling with both the act of painting and his own role in the state of the world.4Those defending Guston’s use of the symbol––and that many feel the need to defend his use of it, even when it isn’t under explicit attack, signifies that the painting indeed occasions a problem in the viewer’s experience––claim––anxiously and vaguely––that Guston is––somehow––directly addressing the concepts the hood stands for by means of an allegory. I don’t believe this conclusion is wholly wrong, but it is partial and therefore, I’m inclined to say, irresponsible, insofar as it doesn’t respond to the painting in its particularity but rather distances the institution, the curators, the artist and the artwork from the moral problem it poses by contextualizing the painting––that is, informing the viewer’s perception of it, reflection on it and response to it––with moralizing concepts. Imposing a conceptualization, or interpretation, of the painting doesn’t actually resolve the problem the painting poses but pretends to by shrouding the problem itself from individual viewers in jargon that the institution thinks the viewers want to hear. Providing a conceptualization of the painting fails to encourage viewers to see for themselves exactly how aesthetic reflection relates to moral responsibility in its particular manifestation. The open letter penned in response to the postponement of the retrospective rightly condemns the institutions for shying away from the controversy this painting’s “capacity to prompt its viewers… to troubling reflection and self-examination” might produce.5 But, once again, the letter’s conclusion is partial because, though it proclaims the necessity of individual reflection before the painting without the institution’s mediation, it makes, in one voice that speaks for thousands of signees, contradictory demands. The accusation that the museums are avoiding “uncomfortable questions about museums themselves—about their class and racial foundations” is an easy accusation to level when responsibility isn’t taken for enacting a solution. The public, or a vocal part of it, demands that institutions take responsibility for their dependence on systems of oppression by changing, but simultaneously demands that the institutions continue showing work as usual. Thus, the institution, also a voice that speaks for many, changes its language to retain its public, or customers, but only to the degree that it can continue to show artwork and maintain its institutional authority. A clash of two abstracted voices, two worldviews, two conceptual worlds. But what of the individual who signed the letter? who works at the museum? Is their worldview the same as that expressed in the letter, or does it, like particular perception when subsumed under an abstract concept, lose whatever makes it it? To see how Guston, in this painting, “holds up a mirror… to his own culpability by dint of white privilege and the complicity it engenders” requires that the individual viewer in their particularity—you, me—first perceives the painting in its particularity and, in reflecting on it, conceptualizes it, takes responsibility for it by relating it to their world; relates their conceptualization of the painting to their perception of another’s and, from the other’s point of view, takes responsibility for their own. So, let’s do as the voice in the open letter suggests and each now turn to look at The Studio from our own point of view, beginning not with the museum or gallery’s conceptualization of the painting but with how we perceive it. I find it remarkable that this hooded figure, a symbol so charged with significance, also happens to be so visually sparse, little more than a white swathe of paint with Guston’s black dashes for stitches and eyes. I believe it’s this contrast between concept and perception, between loaded symbol and sparse paint application, that accounts for Guston’s preoccupation with the klansman as subject matter, at least in part. How the klansman is painted is so central to The Studio that the act of painting is itself represented: the painted hooded figure paints itself on a painted canvas, using a black line composed of dashes. This representation of the act of painting––of transforming blank white canvas into a symbol by means of a black bounding line––identifies the materials of painting, the white-primed cloth of the canvas and Guston’s dash-based painterly vocabulary, with the klansman’s hood, made of white cloth with stitches and slits for eyes. It is the recognition of this identity between the materials of painting and the materials of the hood that allows me to see this painting’s particular doubleness and thereby to precisely articulate the moral problem it raises. The self-portrait is in progress, the contour of the hood not yet complete, making explicit the relation between material and symbol: symbols, and the concepts they represent, don’t exist apart from a particular material embodiment. A symbol is, in a sense, the materials it is made of. By making the conceptual connection between the materials of painting and the hood, the charged symbol of the klansman is shown to be canvas and paint, thereby stripping it of its conceptual significance. Thus conceptualized, it is merely paint and canvas: the klansman’s hood becomes another composition of painting materials and abstract painterly vocabulary.According to this conceptualization, this painting––and the act of painting in general––can be a moral act because it strips the hood of its symbolic meaning, which negates the concepts the symbol represents, thereby negating the possibility of their realization. In a world in which the concept of racial supremacy doesn’t exist, violence in the name of racial supremacy couldn’t. A beautiful idea. A utopian resolution of the problem. However, the identity of hood and painting can be seen a second way. Instead of negating the hood’s conceptual significance by reducing it to the materials of painting, this identity can be seen to positively identify painting with the values, intolerance and violence of the KKK. Indeed, as I said just a paragraph before, a symbol is the materials it is made of. To use those materials is to participate in the perpetuation of that symbol and is, therefore, to perpetuate the values it symbolizes: purity, intolerance, inhumanity. From this perspective, the common characterization of the modernist narrative of painting’s progression towards it pure essence, which required the elimination of all foreign elements that could be achieved better in other mediums––including figuration, illusion and narrative––sounds eerily similar to the Klan’s desire for the development of America into a racially pure ethnostate by means of excluding all non-white, non-Protestant people.6 The painter is not merely complicit, but is as active in the perpetuation of these values as is a member of the Klan.The Studio, as we would expect from Guston, doesn’t resolve this problem, even if the institutions that show it try to. It is ambivalent, capable of being seen, conceptualized, in two ways, and we are left to decide which side the painting comes out on; or, rather, which side we each, as a painter, or a lover, or a hater of paintings, come out on. On one hand, a return to figuration, which had no place in painting according to what is called the modernist narrative, is a transgression of the modernist exhortation of medium-specific purity that has the power to strip symbols of the concepts they represent and therefore the power to change the world insofar as what is realizable in the world must be conceivable. But, on the other, the materials of painting––whether used figuratively or not––are identified with the klansman’s hood, and, one might conceive, just as the klansman shirks moral responsibility by hiding under the anonymity of the hood, so the painter, and the viewer who chooses to spend their time looking at paintings, might hide behind the anonymity of the canvas. In this sense, The Studio reflects back to me my culpability and complicity, to use the Hauser & Wirth press release’s jargon; but this articulation is misleading, for the painting doesn’t merely reflect but––and this is what the press release glosses over––demands I acknowledge the persistence of the problem. However, a clear interpretation provided by an institution can’t get me to this point. It’s only after I look at the painting in its particularity, after perceiving how the things I recognize are painted, that I can reflect on its ambivalence and decide, for myself, how to respond in light of the discomfort of its irreconcilability. Guston responded to the problem by deciding to paint paintings that remind us of the problem, which both optimistically strive for resolution and pessimistically insist on its impossibility. I am responding by writing this essay. How will you?But this essay can’t be the end of my response. It leaves me, perhaps us, close to where we started at the beginning of this essay, faced with a problem of recognition, reflection and responsibility; a problem that has epistemological, aesthetic and moral implications. Here I can’t help but reflect on my initial distinction between concepts and perception and the schema I generated from it. The schema is problematic because it attempts to account for a particular experience by subsuming it under abstract concepts that homogenize the particularity of experience. This is also why it is appealing. For, at times, it does seem to me that experience is an interaction between the abstract––schemas, worldviews and institutions––and the particular––paintings, expressions of the worldviews of others, and individuals––both of which are, or ought to be, responsive to, and responsible for, the other. Such a conceptualization of experience might be artificial, but I believe it can—I hope it did—lead to fruitful reflection that then feeds back into the resolution of problems in experience While recourse to a schema won’t do justice to a painting without experiencing––recognizing, reflecting on and responding to––the painting itself, nor will it account for another’s point of view, nor will it provide practical solutions to problems that arise between institutions and individuals; this schema might suggest, with its four ways of relating concepts to perception, our worldview to the worldviews of others, ourselves to the institutions that mediate our experience, that art is not sealed off from the epistemological or the moral but rather can be an occasion to reflect on moral and epistemological problems that arise in our experience of being human. The schema reminds us: first, that we can share a world with others; second, that we can imagine new worlds—utopias—by abandoning current concepts and inventing new ones; third, that we can reconcile worldviews that differ from ours by making our concepts more inclusive; and finally, that reconciliation may, in particular circumstances, be impossible. In the first three scenarios, a problem either never arises or is resolved, but in the fourth it remains. We might say that the acceptance of the problem’s irresolvability, or the successful ignoring of it, is itself a resolution. Sometimes it may be. However, problems, as uncomfortable as they may be, are occasions for changing the world—as I see it, as others see it, and as we share it. The aesthetic is not necessarily true or good, the problems it poses are not always epistemological or moral, but the aesthetic can be an occasion to reflect on the true and the good, insofar as the experience of coming to see an artwork is parallel to the experience of being human: of living in a shared world, striving to make sense of it, trying to improve it and, often, failing to share, to understand, and to improve it much at all.
1 According to the museums involved in the retrospective, the exhibition was suspended “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted. We recognize that the world we live in is very different from the one in which we first began to collaborate on this project five years ago. The racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause.” National Gallery of Art, Statement from the Directors, 21 September, 2020.2 The Brooklyn Rail, Open Letter: On Philip Guston Now. 30 September, 2020.3 Hauser & Wirth, Press Release: Philip Guston. 1969 – 1979. 2 August, 2021.4 Hauser & Wirth, Press Release: Philip Guston. 1969 – 1979. 2 August, 2021.5 “Rarely has there been a better illustration of “white” culpability than in these powerful men and women’s apparent feeling of powerlessness to explain to their public the true power of an artist’s work—its capacity to prompt its viewers, and the artist too, to troubling reflection and self-examination. But the people who run our great institutions do not want trouble. They fear controversy. They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience. And they realize that to remind museum-goers of white supremacy today is not only to speak to them about the past, or events somewhere else. It is also to raise uncomfortable questions about museums themselves—about their class and racial foundations. For this reason, perhaps, those who run the museums feel the ground giving way beneath their feet. If they feel that in four years, “all this will blow over,” they are mistaken. The tremors shaking us all will never end until justice and equity are installed. Hiding away images of the KKK will not serve that end. Quite the opposite. And Guston’s paintings insist that justice has never yet been achieved.” The Brooklyn Rail, Open Letter: On Philip Guston Now. 30 September, 2020.6 The common, and superficial, concept of modernism, which aimed at the “self-purification” of the different mediums of art, is generally attributed to Clement Greenberg and can be summarized in the following quote from his essay, “American-Type” Painting: “It seems to be a law of modernism––thus one that applies to almost all art that remains truly alive in our time––that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized.” Contrast this quote with Guston’s comment from an interview in 1970, “I got sick and tired of all that Purity!” in light of his return to figuration.
A horror story first published in Volume 7 of The Revenant Quarterly
These words are not my own; nor are they sufficient to analyze my topic, because they are themselves shaped by it––are it––and are therefore unable to produce a logic other than their own. It is human nature to speak, so I do, but inevitably the language spoken expresses the will of the powerful; its will is his who can impress his will on the world, and in so forming his circumstances, dominate the wills of those weaker than he. I find myself forced to speak a language native to those with bodies stronger than my body, with wills more vital than my will, which is stunted deep within me in a wordless womb from which it can never be born. Nonetheless, I talk to myself, for I feel my speechless will kick within, wriggle in discomfort. Though I have no hope that it will be born, made manifest in this world, I hope to make its cloister into a world of its own wherein it possesses the means to blossom within me. So, I have embarked on an experiment in generating a language suited to it, so I might express myself to myself and in doing so realize my will. The ideal means of producing such a language would be the linguistic correlate of parthenogenesis, so that my words might be genetically identical replicas of myself: free from the grammar that now determines their meaning, my meaning. Unfortunately, I have been forced to speak in the grammar of my fathers for so long that the spontaneous development of a language is impossible: I must begin with the material at hand, or else let my will shrivel within. So I have culled some words and planted them within me, selecting for traits that best harmonize with their new environment alongside my yet-wordless will. It is commonly supposed that the development of a language is a social endeavor and that alternative languages such as I strive to produce not only exist but are used by suppressed communities to reproduce their wills in the world and thus reform the structures that once rendered them impotent. But the existence of subversive grammars––the so-called mother tongues rumored to perpetuate in kitchens and yoga classes, to be woven into the braids of us daughters who believe ourselves fluent in both the common language and those better suited to represent our bodies,––are but figments grown out of misunderstanding, like mirages in the desert that, though insubstantial, give hope to waterless wanderers. In truth, our tongues are counter-impressions left by our fathers’ tongue; our words are but theirs wearing lipstick, used by us women to say the things they allow us to say in the places they allow us to be.She who, in a bid for freedom, conceives of a language in which she can reproduce herself without the interpenetration of others runs the risk of appearing mad to those around her, for to realize it, she must spurn the advances of the father tongue and resist the coercion of his lipsticked reflection that bends to his will and does his bidding. Such a language must develop free from intercourse with others. I admire her who tries: the saint who, choosing silence, leaves society for the desert clime; the martyr who, renouncing the tongue of her countrymen, lets herself be called heretic and put to death. I am afraid I am weaker than such women, for my endeavor is a compromise. Like the mayfly, who reproduces both sexually and asexually, I try to reproduce myself both to others in common language and to myself in my own. However, unlike the mayfly, who produces viable offspring, I only beget half-formed fruits: I am unintelligible both to myself and to others. My lack of fluency is most apparent to members of my own sex who, though they feel the same frustration in their tongues and bodies, are suspicious of my inability to speak as they do. I have always envied man’s freedom, that harmony between word and will that allows him to see himself reflected in the world, so I trained myself by his tongue and spurned its pink-painted shadow; however, I could not bring his words into harmony with my will and could only forget their dissonance insofar as men could forget my body while listening to his words in my mouth. Do I blame them? I find myself more often frustrated, not by the man’s inability to forget my body, but by my body itself and, by extension, by her who, similarly frustrated, reacts by painting her lips and molding her body to be desired by him whose desire deprives her of her tongue.It’s not that I don’t understand this reaction of molding her appearance, which, when words fail, comes to feel like the only means of exerting her will in the world, indirect though it may be. What a man wants a woman to be is consequently what a woman wants to be so she might influence he who wants her. But this is a primitive reflex born from a misunderstanding of what it truly means to shape the world to one’s will. Our mothers lied to us, though they did not mean to, when they taught us to use our soft bodies as tools given to us by nature to influence man’s hard words. In fact, nature gave us no advantage when she made our bodies desirable to man; rather, those very traits that make our bodies desirable also make them weaker and slower, resulting in a physical vulnerability that proved to be the genesis of man’s domination, man’s language––the birth of which made nature herself subordinate to man’s word and will. Now, his grammar is the structure that determines our bodies and possesses our tongues; his words are the atoms that make up the world. Mankind no longer perpetuates through biological but through linguistic means: men live on not through multiplication of their seed, but through the stories that tell of what they have done, what they have said; that is, how well they have made their will realized in the world through their words and deeds. It is easy to confuse the relation between the biological and linguistic, and too often a woman, nearly driven mad by the desire to produce something of her own, resorts to the biological reproduction that has seemed her domain since the dawn of the species. This too, however, is nothing more than the reproduction of man’s will in this world where language structures nature. Her biological progeny are as little her own as the words she speaks. Far from achieving freedom, the pregnant woman finds herself further weighed down by the added weight of a second life that transforms her body to accommodate its own. This burden is not lifted postpartum, when the child no longer nourishes itself on her blood, nor once it ceases to suckle on her blood turned milk, for that child is but another iteration of her fate: her flesh formed by another with a will of its own. The only place where the hope for realization, for freedom, exists for us women is that wordless womb that envelopes the will. Perpetually pregnant with ourselves, our only comfort is to feel our will kick, even though it will never walk or talk among us.I have never shared these thoughts: they are impossible to express in the grammar available to me and even my best attempt at representation would be called satire by men and treason by women. Nonetheless, I have ample evidence to support my thesis that women only resort to biological expression out of the despair of failing to express themselves linguistically. This becomes clear when the behavior of women around babies is compared with other expressions of despair, namely, the behavior of addicts. When one observes a childless woman around a baby, she appears overwhelmed by a craving to hold it, exhibiting behavior remarkably similar to that of the dieter who eyes the buffet of indulgences at a party freely consumed by the other guests, or to the recovering alcoholic who clenches her can of Coke while her friends pour themselves another drink. If these yet childless women are like abstinents on the cusp of giving in to desires, it follows that mothers are like those addicts who have forfeited their wills to vice in pursuit of the promise of pleasure. It is a fitting analogy, for just as the glutton hopes that each bite of cake will be as pleasurable as the first and thereby continue to quell her anxiety so long as she keeps eating; and as the drunk, numbed by the first drink hopes that successive drinks will sustain that sweet reprieve; so the mother hopes that having her own child will imbue her life with the sense of meaning that she has glimpsed while cradling another’s baby in her arms––only this satisfaction would be greater because the baby would be her own. But each subsequent bite does not produce more pleasure than the first, and their diminished effects only amplify the desire for satisfaction, which, frightened that it may never be fulfilled, cries for more, more, more! until any pleasure is but a concept detached from the sensory experience of pain caused by an over-full stomach. Likewise, the next drink always fails to maintain the reprieve and leads only to a drunken form of the misery that first led the drinker to take a sip. So the mother’s desire for satisfaction by means of motherhood grows as it fails to materialize. However, the mother’s lot is more tragic than that of these other addicts, who by destroying themselves need not threaten the well-being of another. In contrast, the mother’s vice lives as her flesh molded by another’s will: renunciation would be a murder-suicide. Thus, for the sake of her life and her child’s, she must feed her addiction and maintain the belief that, despite all experience to the contrary, her will is made manifest in the world through the child. If parthenogenesis were possible for our species, then a woman might look into the face of a child of her own creation to see herself reflected, but instead, the father stares back, possessing the flesh that grew from her own.But these are all just words, a pseudo-theory that provides me with little comfort and even less guidance as I lay here in bed, watching you sleep and running my hand over my yet unswollen belly. You don’t know it, and you never will, but my body has won––you have won. Since I was a young girl, when, in horror, I watched my body bud, bloat and bleed, and now, with even more horror, when it fails to do so, I have known myself to be subject to forces beyond my control. Until this morning, I was able to hold onto the hope that, if I couldn’t reproduce my will in your words, I’d endeavor to breed my own and, at the very least, not bend to the wills of others by confusing biological with linguistic expression. But I now see that I, too, was mistaken. Language is not mine, these thoughts are not mine, my body is not mine: they are yours: man’s. I don’t blame you, nor do I doubt that you love me. I’m sure, if I told you, you’d try to imagine the despair that gripped me this morning when I realized that, despite those biology-altering pills I swallow nightly, I have nonetheless been overcome by human nature.But I’m not going to tell you, because you wouldn’t believe me. It’s too early for empirical evidence: my period isn’t expected for at least another week, so I can neither point to its absence as proof nor convince you with the results of a pregnancy test. How, then, do I know? Your words, of course, fail me. All I can say is that I know, as surely as I exist, another exists within me: the informing forces I have so tried to resist have coagulated into a life that sucks my own away. But it is impossible to express such a feeling to one who doesn’t have a body like mine––and to those whose tongues you possess so they misrecognize your will as theirs. As surely as I lay here now, listening to your heartbeat, I feel a third throb deep within me at an imperceivably different cadence than my own. But not for much longer. None of them for much longer. Maybe when you kissed me goodnight you thought my Chapstick tasted bitter: it did––it does, as I lay here in the dark, running my tongue over my lips, tasting the poison that laces them. In that kiss, my lips, my tongue, for so long shaped by your words, have rendered your lips, your tongue––your grammar that structures this world and determined my form within it––as impotent as they. Surely, this is not what my mother imagined when she taught me to shape your world by using my body to manipulate your desires––but this is its logical conclusion. Your breathing grows shallower, the third heartbeat grows fainter, and I, as my eyes grow heavy with a sleep that my body will never wake up from, dream of the freedom of silence.
A vampire story first published in Volume 6 of The Revenant Quarterly
FOREWORDWe are fortunate to live in a time when the scientific attitude has suffused common sense, freeing one and all from the tyranny of superstition. The world, which once appeared a chaos, is now known to be a textile of cause and effect in which our own strands are interwoven—and yet, enmeshed as we are, through reason the mind is free to gaze upon the tapestry in its entirety. From this vantage point, we recognize our ancestors’ explanations of the world to be myths, mere psychological testimonies that never strove to venture beyond the realm of appearance into that of objective truth.The following pages are a personal mythology of this kind. They were discovered on the property of Mr. Thomas Turner—an expatriate who fled our own country to dwell in the wilder lands of the south where minds are still moved by a mixture of Catholic sentiment and pagan superstition—and have made their way into my possession through a circuitous series of events. I have since translated them from their original language into English. Aside from its serving as a source of entertainment, my reason for publishing this tale is to provide you, my dear reader, with a peep into the minds of a provincial people who, though not so distant from us in time, lived their lives far from the light of reason, in a world darkened by fear and fancy.THE ACCOUNTI cannot recall how long I have been at the villa, though, in my confused state of illness, it seems as if it has been years—decades, even—since I first set foot on its impoverished soil. It is thanks to the inhabitants of this house, who have spared me no provision during my time with them, that I have regained a semblance of my past vitality. But now I must continue on my passage through this world: a passage that seems more sorrowful than ever before in light of what I leave behind. For within the timeworn walls and woodlands of this ill-fated place, I have tasted that very thing that being most desires. And although at times it has felt as if I cannot exist without it, it is against my nature to let live such a lovely thing. Furthermore, the recent illumination of an unnatural course of events has made it clear that my time to depart has come. But I will come to these events later.The master of the house, Mr. Thomas Turner, and his longtime maid, Ms. Chiara—who had more or less assumed the rôle of lady after the death of his third wife,—had been expecting me for some time, my departure from my previous residence and subsequent arrival having been delayed by the malady from which I have yet to fully recover. In my mind I knew these two, though I had surely never met them, as echoes in my mother’s voice from a distant time. In the period leading up to her death she had sought solace with them; and I hoped that, out of pity for the child she had left behind, they might now open their doors to me. I had written them some months before offering my services in exchange for room and board—a moment of pause in the lifetime of wandering to which I had resigned myself. I can only explain the impulse behind the writing of that letter as arising from my mother—from my desire to be close to her, though she was no longer of this world. It was her life that filled my mind, her thoughts that I imagined, her likeness that gazed at me from the looking glass. Throughout my two decades of life, I’d dreamed of visiting them, as if it was there that I might come to know my mother, the origin of this miserable life.As I approached the ancient house, I pictured it as it must have been many years ago: a happier place than it seemed now, before the blood of life had been leached from it by a series of tragedies. Its once-sprawling garden had been converted into a pasture, where the few cows and goats that made the sustenance of its current inhabitants rooted through the brush for their own. At my knock, its main door creaked open, revealing Mr. Turner framed in its place, motionless until, as if by a silent summons, a figure appeared over his shoulder: Ms. Chiara. Their countenances—which were striking in a gaunt, weatherworn sort of way—stirred a memory in the depths of my mind. Mr. Turner finally spoke, welcoming me into the house and remarking on how similar I looked to my mother, who had arrived at that very threshold nearly twenty years previously. Although he did not say so, I am sure the similarity of these two instances, separated by the span of two decades, did not escape him; she, too, had arrived in a weakened state, desperate for shelter, offering all she could give in return for a bed.I was led through the house and directed to a room on the top floor that would be my own during my time with them. It was small and sparse, with a single bed and a window facing a forested part of the property: one of many such rooms that had been occupied by a fleet of servants in more prosperous times. My belongings were placed at the foot of the bed and pleasantries were exchanged, but I found myself declining their offer of food or drink. I had not much of an appetite and wished only to yield to the lethargy that never seemed to leave my limbs. Before shutting the door behind her, Ms. Chiara pressed a key into my hand.“There are no dogs on the premises, so it is best to lock your door at night.”I did so after she left, as was my habit. One quickly learns to take such precautions when one survives by working in the houses of strangers. Dogs, it turns out, seldom protect from the greatest threat, which comes not from robbers or intruders but from within the very walls that serve as shelter. This constant threat of my work, which at one point in my life must have been overwhelming but had since become ordinary, had dulled my ability to feel the excitement of my senses, as if I were separated from the world and my limbs by a thick pane of glass. I watched as my hands unpacked my other dress, nightgown, socks, placing them in the chest in the corner. Finding myself at the window, about to draw the curtains closed, I surveyed the property: wind-worn but orderly, like its keepers. The diffused light of the flat sky cast no shadow, flattening the scene before me and converting all colors into shades of grey. As I began to turn away, a figure among the trees drew my eye: a girl, probably near my own age, stood motionless as she stared into my second-story window. In that color-leeching light, she appeared a most exquisitely carved marble statue—so much so that, for a moment, I wondered to myself if she might indeed be a sculptural artifact of the garden’s past grandeur, accidentally oriented to gaze upon my window. But no, her dark locks and loose clothes trembled with the slight breeze that broke the stillness. I know not how long we stood, separated by that pane of glass, each drinking the other in. But when I blinked, she was gone. Her countenance burned into my mind’s eye, I undressed and, although it was not past noon, sank into a dreamless slumber.My first days at the villa were free from work, as I was granted time to recover from the physical exhaustion of my travels. I must have spent most of that time in my room, registering the sounds of this new place as I let my heavy limbs rest in preparation for the period of labor ahead. Those hours were as thoughtless as my nights were dreamless, but finally my body righted itself and I alerted Ms. Chiara that I was ready to begin my duties—that no amount of rest would revive these limbs, nor the soul that claimed to move them. So it happened that I was walked through the routine that I was to repeat each day, composed mostly of cooking and cleaning. Ms. Chiara, once a maid herself, assured me that I would be treated well and invited me to take my meals with the other members of the household, suggesting a type of servitude different from that which I had always known. I felt a smile light my face as I nodded in thanks, not knowing whether her graciousness arose from sympathy or pity, though it soon became clear that the distinction between servant and master did not so strictly apply to this house. Ms. Chiara spent her days tending to the garden and mending, and Mr. Turner spent his days out with the animals and his evenings before the hearth with a book open on his lap, his attention on the flames of the fire before him. But the two of them are merely supporting actors in the drama that unfolded in that house.That first day of work, I descended from cleaning the upper quarters of the house to find the marble girl sitting in the parlor, her long neck bowed like a sapling’s trunk over a small book. Struck dumb by this presence, which seemed to fill the room with a scent sweeter than flowers, I watched as she inclined her head to meet my gaze. Entranced by her eyes—emerald in tint and glimmer—I could not shake the impression that, in beholding her, I was granted a glimpse of something not of this world. The heady effect of her appearance, combined with my physical weakness, caused my legs to give out, as if in a swoon. I blinked—she was beside me, cradling my head. She wound her arm around my waist and, with surprising strength, helped me to lie down on the couch. With my head in her lap, her lovely face filled my field of vision as the warmth of her flesh flowed into my ever-cold frame.“I’m Ava, Mr. Turner’s niece.” She said sweetly.She brushed her fingers across my forehead, like a mother does to her child when checking for a fever—except, upon their contact with my skin, a thirst unlike any I could remember having felt before flushed through my body. As I laid there, entranced, she explained that the knowledge of my employment had been a source of great excitement for her, a girl who had come to age with no playmates other than those of her own invention or those she found in books. She must have thought me quite stupid as I lay there, staring into her face, but she continued to talk as I heard her explain that her father had died in the war before she was born, and her mother when she was but a child, so Mr. Turner had stepped into the rôle of guardian, taking the young orphan in and treating her as his own. I heard her words but could only listen to her heartbeat.In that moment, the pane that always seemed to separate me from the rest of the world began to melt, as if it were not made of glass but of ice. When I had recovered my wits, I sat upright, a respectful distance away from her after our initial familiarity. I confided that I, too, had lost both of my parents at a young age, but had not been fortunate enough to know relatives who might shelter me. Ava asked few questions and I provided few details; in reality, there were not many to tell. My life preceding that moment seemed to me an undistinguished stretch of misery. The decade spent in the orphanage so blurred together that I could barely draw distinct events from my memory. A little clearer—but admittedly not much—were the years after I left the orphanage, years in which I drifted from household to household as hired help. I could, with much effort, recall the different houses I had worked in, the different families I had fed, the pursuits of different employers who had grabbed at me behind their wives’ backs, the inevitable notice of termination when I resisted their advances. But all of this was so faded in light of the present moment—in Ava’s light—that I felt as if, all this time, I had been merely half-alive.From then on, Ava and I spent all of our time together when we were not working. She was my first friend, and I can only describe how I felt about her—and, I think, how she felt about me—through the analogy of the moth’s inevitable attraction to the flame. Often I would clasp my hands in my lap, intoxicated by her proximity, yearning to reach out and touch my newfound friend. I savored the moments when, sitting close, she would lean in to speak to me, her dark hair caressing my arm, as if I were her closest confidant and her words were intended only for my ears. In those weeks, thoughts of her eclipsed all thoughts of my mother. And yet, while Ava filled my mind, my mother felt closer than ever before: as if walking where she once walked and sleeping where she once slept closed the gap that yawned between us.As Ms. Chiara had promised, I was welcomed to take meals with the family, though I often declined, as my appetite had yet to return. Nevertheless, I felt more at home—a phrase I rarely thought to use—than I could ever remember feeling. After supper, while Mr. Turner sat with his unread book on his lap, the women in the house would sit and mend. However, shortly after my arrival, Mr. Turner was gripped by an increasingly somber mood, preoccupied by the animals, three of which had been found dead since my arrival. With no apparent cause of death—not a symptom in warning, nor any sign of injury—he worried himself over the possibility of a sudden sickness that might spread to the rest of his tiny herd. But his worry struck me to be of a deeper sort, and I soon learned from Ms. Chiara that the blight that nightly picked off members of his herd had swept through before—and apparently, each time it had struck, a human death had followed. It was under these circumstances, Ava informed me, that her mother had sickened and wasted away.“The doctor said it was a fever, but as a child I was convinced that her nightmares were what did her in,” she said. “Each night she dreamt of a heavy darkness, in which my poor mother was unable to move; then, a stabbing pain, always above her left collarbone.” Ava unconsciously touched that location on her own body, and, drawn by the graceful movement of so beautiful a limb, I watched her hand quaver in time to the pulsations of her heart as it rested there. She continued: “I remember being woken by her screams, but I was not permitted to see her for fear of contagion. She died after a few weeks of these nightly visitations.” She looked at me. “Ms. Chiara tells me that your mother went in the same manner.”Ms. Chiara glanced up from her mending and turned to face us before she commenced speaking. “She must have been the same age as you are now, when she appeared at our door,” she said. “The villa was a different place back then, before the death of the first Mrs. Turner—untouched by the sorrow that has since peeled the paint from its walls. Your mother was on the threshold of death, and Thomas had to carry her indoors. Each day we watched her pine before the window, staring in the direction from which she had come; and each night, we waited to hear the scream that roused her from her dreams. By the time I could unlock her door, she would be staring at the foot of her bed, shivering—babbling something about darkness, something about a man. Her health declined after each episode.”She went on to tell my mother’s history as she and Mr. Turner had pieced it together. My mother had been a maid in a fine house but had had the misfortune of being seduced by the master. When my mother learned that she was going to bear his child, the lady of the house, suddenly, and conveniently, died. The master, whose infatuation with my mother had only increased over the course of their affair, took her as his second wife before—as Ms. Chiara so bluntly put it—the warmth had left the body of his first. Facing a choice between certain poverty and a marriage marred by scandal, my mother chose the latter. Then the nightmares began, strikingly similar to those than had preceded the death of Ava’s mother: first paralysis, as if something heavy were holding her down; then always the pain, just above the collarbone, and what felt like a stream of cool water flowing into her body from that location. Then she would awaken, alone in her own chamber, calling for my father. But he never seemed to hear her cries, and she, too frightened to venture from her bed, could only wait for the sun to dispel the darkness from her room—but never again from her mind. Something, my hosts knew not what, had happened after my birth that had frightened my mother, and she had fled, deserting both her husband and her newborn daughter.
Ms. Chiara continued to speak, but I was no longer in the room with them: my imagination had taken over. As if from the very depths of my own memory, I was there in my mother’s place: I could feel the weight, the pain, the not unpleasurable sensation of ice coursing through my veins, the overwhelming urge to flee. Ava stroked my arm, and I returned to myself.“I think that’s enough,” she said. “You look as though you need some rest.”It was as if knowing more about my mother’s life drained my own away. In my confused state, the stairs to my chamber seemed a mountain reaching to the heavens, and Ava—my angel—half-guided and half-carried me up; but upon nearing my destination, I fell. As my sweet angel sank down with me, I heard nothing but the hymnal hum of her voice in my ear. In moments like these, in my delusional mind, I desired nothing more than to melt into her and live in her emerald eyes: to bask in her beauty forever. Yet now, suddenly, hovering over the precipice between consciousness and unconsciousness, I was in my room. Ava was tenderly undressing me, helping me into my white nightdress, her song still echoing in my ears as she put me to bed. Before she left me, she stood at the foot of the bed as if there were something she ached to say, something she yearned to do. But as I beheld her through half-closed lids, that instant of internal struggle seemed to pass, and she stood there in the dim light, as placid as a marble goddess.All night I tossed in my bed, overcome by a need that I was unable to articulate. It was as if I were split in two: part of me remembering the thrill of Ava’s fingertips on my neck as she had helped me unbutton my dress; the other part reliving my mother’s tale with a vividness that frightened me.I awoke revived, feeling well enough to accompany Ava on her morning stroll; but when my friend finally appeared, she appeared, to my worry, to have changed overnight. Her green eyes seemed dimmed, ringed by purple circles; her shoulders were bowed, as if weary from a burden; her steps were short; her feet shuffled as she moved. She must have been able to read the anxiety on my face, for she addressed it with a wave of her hand.“Don’t worry,” she said. “I look awful, but only because I didn’t sleep well last night. My dreams kept me awake.” But her voice was hollow and her face pinched.I led her to a bench on the edge of the pasture. As we drew near, the horses became agitated and fled our presence. Ava told me nothing more of her dreams, but as she sank to sit on the bench, my mind whirled and I could not help but connect the omen of the livestock deaths with her sudden change.Ava retired early that evening. Neither Ms. Chiara nor Mr. Turner seemed to sense anything amiss, and Ava—protesting that she was simply tired—did not wish to alarm them. Desperately seeking distraction, I asked Ms. Chiara to continue with my mother’s story, and she obliged me.Ms. Chiara, then a young maid, had served as my mother’s caretaker during her stay, though for most of that time my mother’s fever kept her in a world of her own: a world that seemed to dance between life and death. As time passed, her dreams occurred less frequently, but the bewilderment they produced did not dissipate, but merely transformed into an all-consuming grief. Day in and day out, my mother would stare out the window, as if wavering between longing to return and desperation to continue her flight.One evening, a visitor—a man, unnaturally tall and gaunt—had arrived at the door. He’d introduced himself, but never removed his eyes from my mother, who seemed to wilt in his presence. In his arms he’d held a bundle that appeared to be a child, swaddled in a coarse linen cloth.“My beautiful wife,” he said softly, “the time has come for you to join me. You have been frightened, and I fear that in my consuming passion for you, I am to be blamed. You are young, but we—through the sacred law of marriage—are bound together, our blood combined to create a new life.”As my mother beheld the bundle in his arms with a lifeless expression, her husband lifted her chin, with all the gentleness of a lover, to gaze upon her face. His words and actions suggested tenderness, but his eyes expressed only hunger. “Come,” he said. “You cannot flee, for without you I cannot live. And in joining me—in fulfilling these, our vows of eternity—you too will take on a new life, an existence few have ever known.” He lowered the child into my mother’s arms, and she stared at it with empty eyes.Ms. Chiara, having glimpsed its face for but an instant, had recoiled in horror. Dead, she had thought—an infant corpse wrapped in a shroud. But that impression had soon passed. Surely her eyes had betrayed her, she’d thought: it was only a trick of the light that had made the babe appear so pale and still.As she told me this, she fixed me with her stare.“Your mother went with him,” she said. “I protested, but she said that there was nothing to be done—that it was time for her to fulfill her duty and become one with her husband.” And the day after my mother left, she told me, two cows from their heard had been found dead, the blood drained from their bodies.No one will be surprised to learn that my dreams that night were uneasy. I was crawling on all fours, away from—or toward?—something, a double shadow that loomed both behind and before. The coldness had almost taken over my body; I was going to freeze. In the no-place of dreams, I tried to call out for my mother, but Ava’s name fell from my lips: her name, her image, her body—she filled my dreaming mind, and with her came the most delicious warmth one can imagine. I threw myself into it—into her—into the arms of my mother, for they were, in this moment, the same. Warmth flowed into me, thawing my body from the pit of my stomach outward.A scream pierced the air—whether in my dream or in reality, from myself or another, I know not. Still warm, I sank back into a dreamless sleep.The next morning, Ms. Chiara informed me that Ava was not well: she fell ill in the night with a fever which brought with it visions of specters that continued to haunt her in the light of the morning. I admitted that I too had suffered from nightmares, which slipped away as I tried to recall them, and nodded when Ms. Chiara attributed them to the conversations about my mother’s illness––mere associations of the mind.Climbing the stairs to Ava’s room, I felt my mind to be divided. There was a part of me—most of me—that wanted nothing more than to be near my ill friend, to hold her hand and stroke her hair as she had done for me when we first met. But the other part, a dark shadow in my heart, was loath to see her—not because of her dream, nor because of the illness, nor even because of the prospect of losing her. Something inside of me, something beneath consciousness, was gathering itself. But all I could grasp of it was a shapeless sense of foreboding.I found Ava in her bed like an angel with wings outstretched, her long dark hair spread around her body. A faint smile fluttered across her face when she saw me—but only momentarily, for it quickly morphed into a look of confusion, then into what I can only describe as horror. The scream from my dream pierced the air. Before I knew it, I had been driven from the room and the door slammed in my face, the sounds of Ava’s sobs traveling through the walls.Over the following days my vitality returned while Ava’s diminished, and my heart and mind sank deeper and deeper into despair. Each night I had the same dream; each night I was jolted from it by Ava’s scream before slipping into a satisfied sleep. Each day, a wordless desire—like that of hunger, but deeper—consumed me; each day, Ava refused more forcefully to see me. Mr. Turner and Ms. Chiara turned chill, their minds—I assumed—occupied by the failing health of their ward. I could not help but taste a hint of suspicion in Ms. Chiara’s attitude toward me, as if she suspected I were the cause of this mysterious illness. Little did she know, I thought to myself, of my love for Ava—my need for her—which only swelled while we were apart.And yet I knew my time at the villa was nearing its end. I could not put off my wanderings much longer, now that my strength had returned; and while part of me dreaded leaving my beloved behind, that other part of me knew that it was her fate to join me.On what I knew was to be my last night at the villa, the dream began before I fell asleep. Shrouded in darkness I slipped out of my room, passing through my locked door as if it were made of mist, and into Ava’s chamber. My lovely lady rested on white sheets, her lamp left burning in the hope that its light would ward off the spirit that haunted her dreams and sipped her life away each night.My mind was lucid for the first time since my last feast, and I could again remember the strange events of my long but ever-young life. Before the change, I remembered fearing that which visited me in the darkness each night, the horror of learning how closely love and evil are bound, the repulsion of the death that their union produced. I recalled waking up, changed, and the first time I quenched the thirst that would forever guide my eternal wandering. I saw the others who had fed me, who had slipped away as I had kissed their lovely necks. But none had been so lovely as Ava, and none had thirsted for me as I had thirsted for her.I sank onto her bed and buried my face in her sweet-smelling neck. The light went out as I drank in our final embrace. When it was over, I stood at the foot of her bed; my crimson nightgown, warm and damp, clung to my skin. Ava’s stillness revived my first impression of her: standing still in the garden, bathed in the color-leeching light in which she had appeared a statue, the darkness of the trees spreading out around her, as even now the spreading crimson darkened her once-white sheets.