Ad Astra

I’ve been stacking things lately. Building cairns, post and lintel constructions, compact heaps of familiar things in the calm center of a square of darkness. Just before “Ad Astra”, I came up with a small image, “Stack” (more a description than a title), that served as a kind of trial run for the much larger “Six Wooden Blocks”, now on my easel, in which the stack has reached the breathless, precarious height children of all ages (myself included) love to construct and collapse. But at least in my own mind “Ad Astra” is another kind of stack. Compositionally, on the level of the picture plane, it is a tower of 2-D elements reaching upward “to the stars”, the square block in the lower right- hand corner its cornerstone, an abbreviated but still legible builder’s mark and date carved heavily into it. We assume, of course, that the picture’s edge crops a larger fragment of stone into that square, just as we assume that the whole image is simply a tall narrow glimpse of a much larger and wider structure in 3-D space - a trait “Ad Astra” pointedly shares with the only other images of mine in this format, “Stele”, 2004, and “The Garden of the Hesperides”, 2006. But as I think back through those three compositions, “Ad Astra” separates itself: it is more concerned than its predecessors with distinct architectural levels (niche, ledge, pediment), a vertical hierarchy of unequal steps created by layers of overlapping and receding wall fragments - fragments surviving from earlier structures, other walls, that have been re-cut and re-joined into a new structure. Even the two clusters of still-life elements suggest, through overlapping, the depth of space they reside in, though a shift down in color intensity in the upper group also reinforces the distinction between proscenium (ripe, red-orange crabapple) and backstage (dimly translucent dark brown bottle). Here, as in the whole image, higher up = farther away.

I’ve been stacking things lately. Building cairns, post and lintel constructions, compact heaps of familiar things in the calm center of a square of darkness. Just before “Ad Astra”, I came up with a small image, “Stack” (more a description than a title), that served as a kind of trial run for the much larger “Six Wooden Blocks”, now on my easel, in which the stack has reached the breathless, precarious height children of all ages (myself included) love to construct and collapse. But at least in my own mind “Ad Astra” is another kind of stack. Compositionally, on the level of the picture plane, it is a tower of 2-D elements reaching upward “to the stars”, the square block in the lower right- hand corner its cornerstone, an abbreviated but still legible builder’s mark and date carved heavily into it. We assume, of course, that the picture’s edge crops a larger fragment of stone into that square, just as we assume that the whole image is simply a tall narrow glimpse of a much larger and wider structure in 3-D space - a trait “Ad Astra” pointedly shares with the only other images of mine in this format, “Stele”, 2004, and “The Garden of the Hesperides”, 2006. But as I think back through those three compositions, “Ad Astra” separates itself: it is more concerned than its predecessors with distinct architectural levels (niche, ledge, pediment), a vertical hierarchy of unequal steps created by layers of overlapping and receding wall fragments - fragments surviving from earlier structures, other walls, that have been re-cut and re-joined into a new structure. Even the two clusters of still-life elements suggest, through overlapping, the depth of space they reside in, though a shift down in color intensity in the upper group also reinforces the distinction between proscenium (ripe, red-orange crabapple) and backstage (dimly translucent dark brown bottle). Here, as in the whole image, higher up = farther away.

Stacks, levels, layers, bricolage: all familiar organizational procedures in my work. Words and phrases have also found their way onto the surfaces I’ve re-enacted in other images over the last decade (for example, “Niche”, 1997, and “Leal Souvenir”, 2001), but in “Ad Astra” the words and phrases are in themselves fragmentary. They seem to have been cropped, chipped, and abraded when the stones that still sport them were reshaped by either the fictive bricoleur who built a new structure out of them or the actual bricoleur (me) who built a new composition into them. “PACE” (“in peace”, in Latin, as in “rest in peace”) is only partly visible under the pediment; “AD ASTRA” runs off the right picture edge, the eroded top half of “PER ASPERA” (the other half of the battle cry “To the stars through adversity!”) just barely in evidence beneath it; a line from Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” (“J’ai vu des archipels sideraux”: I have seen starry archipelagos), faintly scratched in Rimbaud’s handwriting, bleeds over the edges of the stone in the lower left, his signature beneath it cut off after the “i” - but completed in the “cornerstone” next to it with my own mark (an underlined “M”) followed by a tiny cupid’s bow (sans arrow), a pictorial homonym for “baud”. The verbal references to stars are reinforced by the holes in the foreground layer of stones (including the 5-pointed star deeply incised above AD ASTRA), which constitute a partial map (another fragment) of constellations in the summer sky, Ursa Major pointing toward the crabapple - the polestar, in terms of color and shape, of the image as a formal whole. The translation of the stone surfaces into a map of a portion of the night sky is reinforced at the bottom of the image, where the broken “0” of “07” turns into a profile of the man in the moon - a meld of two tools for marking time, the moon and the calendar.

Here, toward the end of this - what do I call it? a retrospective dissection? - I’m suddenly reminded of a student of mine in the late 80’s who fiercely resisted any formal or thematic analysis of poetry. Poetry, for him, at that point in his life, was pure pleasure: immediate, escapist, and overwhelming. Analysis, on the other hand, was a detour. Worse than a detour, it seemed to permanently roadblock his way into new or already familiar poems. It’s not that I was - or am - in the grip of that conflict. On the contrary. But I always worry that someone reading my thoughts about my own work might misunderstand my intentions. First and last, it is the whole image that matters to me, the synthesis of all these discrete species of data and ways of structuring data, which I can separate and label only through hindsight. It is another sort of pleasure altogether to turn an image, this way and that way, like the 10-sided bottle in the upper center of “Ad Astra”, attending to each particular facet as it catches the light. But I hope - hope more than anything else - that my viewers/readers can enter with ease into the joy of returning to the whole image, which requires, subsumes, and ideally transcends all its parts, again and again, and which analysis only enriches with, in Henry James’s phrase, “the general stirred life of connections.”

click here to go back