Breach / All The Fall Down

From the first journal sketches in August, 2007, “Breach” and “All Fall Down” developed in tandem, on the page and in my mind’s eye. They were untitled at first, simply labeled 1 and 2 for the first fourteen months I spent mulling over both possibilities. Vividly painted carved wooden alphabet letters and alphabet blocks poured through a break in a ruinous wall in the lower left quadrant of image 1, and late summer grapevines wound through the same break - but reversed, as if in a mirror - in the lower right quadrant of image 2. Not, as it turned out, the other way around. I jokingly referred to image 1 as “The Collapse of Language”, a tongue-in-cheek post-modern title I knew I couldn’t use because it failed to touch the vague felt meaning this image stirred up in me, and the letters themselves raised too many unanswered questions, both formal and interpretive, for me to commit, yet, to a full-scale preliminary drawing.

A short backstory: vis a vis my studio work, I’ve always welcomed other people’s ideas, and even the occasional gift or loan of a potential still-life object. It’s the kindness I’ve welcomed, the effort of involvement in my vision of things, but I have to admit that my imagination rarely wants to go down anyone else’s path. There are exceptions, and one occurred in October, 2008, when Scott said one morning, out of the blue, “I wish you’d work with leaves again.” With the flash of that hard bright feeling I wait for, a tumble of dry leaves - like Shelley’s leaves: “Yellow and black and pale and hectic red,/ Pestilence stricken multitudes” - replaced in my mind’s eye the wooden letters in image 1, and that afternoon I ambled around the back yard picking up leaves, “only the ones [I wrote in my journal] I already knew I wanted.” As soon as I finished “Mi Sol Fa”, the work on the easel, I built a fragment of a ruined wall in the studio, north light raking across it, and gently emptied my basket of leaves into its broken “V”.

Then I rearranged the leaves. Rearranged them again. Sketched. Photographed. Got a headache. Shifted one leaf here, another there - on the lookout for an organization of curved planes and arcs that would both make dramatic sense of the whole mass of leaves and also suggest a random “found” quality, a blown wave of natural detritus rolling out of our space, out of the light we see the picture by, and into the black. It seemed easy, even at this stage, to pin this down as a personal metaphor, the “heap, somber and terrific, of a kind of refuse”, as Walter de la Mare describes a nightmare vision of a pile of human souls in his short story, “The Wharf”. I was still in the grip of sadness after the deaths of my mother and a close friend, Agnes O’Donnell, in 2008; my father, on the downhill side of serious diminishment, was approaching 90; and, for that matter, leaves - particularly dry leaves - had played key roles in several of my visual meditations on mortality over the course of more than two decades: “The Way Through” (2003), “ILE” (2001), “Darkness Behind Everything” (1998), “OVER/LEAF” (1989), “Torches for the Night” (1990)and “Multitudes” (1990), the last layered with references to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, quoted above. In 1988’s “Oak Leaf, Red Plum, Persimmon”, an apple seed, a ripe plum, a dry persimmon, and a dry oak leaf disport themselves in a ring on a shelf top, the leaf just one link in a symbolic life cycle, both the last step in that cycle and one dance step away from new birth.

While working on “Breach”, I kept toying with that first idea of a mirror image of its structure, the break in the wall filled with a tangled net of those late summer vine leaves my initial scribbling had been code for. I even bought a potted grapevine at a local nursery, dragged it into the studio, photographed it from various angles, made rough sketches. Nice, but too predictable, too pat: dry leaves/green leaves. Perhaps it was inevitable that I’d find myself drawn more strongly into another kind of thematic contrast, the interplay between natural and manufactured objects, which has dominated many of my still lifes (and pairs of still lifes) since the late 70’s. And anyway, those alphabet letters kept distracting me, making my fingers itch to work with their sculptural forms, their rich hues. It seems odd, now, that I didn’t realize until midway in the production of “All Fall Down” just how powerfully those letters would resonate. In three previous works, “Mi Sol Fa” (2008), “Stele” (2004), and “Niche” (1997), I had etched on stone walls the initials of people I’d loved and lost, my way of privately memorializing the elusive past, my past: MK, VI, H, E, PN, M. But as I wrote in my journal, suddenly I saw them all again, “. . . . . here, in this compost, this increasing crowd of people whose voices I can now hear only with my mind’s ear.” I even found my father’s initials in the foreground, GK, near the picture’s proscenium, along with my own, DM, on the far right edge of the heap, in the brightest light, but tumbling toward the break in the wall and what looks like an infinitely deep darkness beyond. In “The Wharf”, de la Mare’s nightmare vision of extinction is redeemed at the end by a waking vision of a pile of barnyard manure gorgeously strewn with blooming wildflowers. In “All Fall Down”, the letters themselves bloom like flowers in pure paintbox colors, the bits and pieces of our particular lives heaped like a pile of tiles in a game of anagrams, waiting for the hand that will rearrange them into new words, new names, other lives.

-G. Daniel Massad

Click here to go back