Ephemera

While earning my MFA, I spent almost a year walking the steep hills of the University of Kansas with a Nikon SLR around my neck and spending many hours in the Art Department darkroom stolen from a busy studio schedule. I was, after all, a painting major, whose interests had already homed in on the genre of still-life, but my sideline camera work had nothing to do with still-life and everything to do with my environment - the town of Lawrence, its university, its denizens. One short series of black and white images focused on flights of stairs leading up to unrevealed, or partially revealed, heights. In the only one that made it to the final print stage, wooden steps cut through a densely weedy slope up to a glimpse of the corner of a porch supported by a single Doric column. I called it “Propylaea”, the same name I gave to one of my pastel still-lives in 1995, several years after I had transformed the domestic tabletop of my earlier still-lives into a wall, or a fragment of a wall, with receding ledges. The title, in both cases, was wishful thinking on my part: I wouldn’t visit for the first time the real and very Doric Propylaea on the Acropolis - wouldn’t experience firsthand that slightly vertiginous zigzag ascent and, at the top of it, the sudden breathtaking nearness of the east front of the Parthenon - until the summer of 1997. But that second “Propylaea” did not fully shift my broken wall fragments into a flight of stairs, and though I would play with the notion of stepped levels in other images - notably in “Steps” (1995), “Per Gradus“ (1997), “Darkness Behind Everything” (1998), and “Ad Astra” (2007) - I couldn’t quite arrive at a satisfying composition built entirely on the horizontal bands of a flight of stair treads, seen head-on. From at least 1997, my journals were occasionally dotted with little thumbnail tryouts, all failures.

“Ephemera” comes the closest, so far. The horizontal bands that structure it are not levels that invite us to imaginatively walk up, but they do rise and recede with geometric predictability. They also metaphorically link into a kind of narrative of a life trajectory, my life in some of its details, any life by extension. The square at the bottom contains partial outlines of states I’ve lived in, along with the initials of all the people I’ve loved and lost since 2008 - the year I produced “Mi Sol Fa” (“me so far”), which contains the initials of loved ones lost from 2008 back to 1997 - the year I produced “Niche”, which contains the initials of loved ones lost before 1997. The Greek letter phi is also there, the sign for the golden ratio, which governs the whole structure of “Ephemera” and which has been a part of my visual thinking since I learned about it from the classical archaeologist, Geraldine Gesell, my high school Latin teacher and lifelong friend, whose slides of the Acropolis had utterly enthralled me in my mid-teens and made me a convert to ancient Greek and Roman visual culture. That first walk up its steps in 1997 was the climax of a kind of pilgrimage.

Above the past, and its eroded traces, bits of fruit, leaves, a core sample, and a deep blue game board piece disport themselves across a narrow, brightly lit, deeply shadowed step-backed level: the present, that thin sliver of time we inhabit. The stem of one plum arcs down into the past, and the tip of one leaf pokes up into the next level: the future, or the future we imagine, plan for, count on, here dominated by a tall, empty, wraithlike bottle whose shoulder and neck lift up into the golden rectangle of pure black above: the “invisible country”, as Edward Gibbon describes life after death. I don’t mean to suggest that impenetrable darkness is my idea of heaven, but it does share two of it characteristics. It can’t be seen into, with these mortal eyes, and it seems to go on forever.

So what - I keep asking myself - is the relationship between these images I come up with and my own post-game reading of them? Do I even “come up with” the images, which, after all, first emerge unbidden in the dim light of my mind’s eye long before I have an answer to the question, “What might this mean”? I have no solid confidence that my own interpretations are anything more than partial, or better than arbitrary, and they are not the answers I would expect , or want, my viewers to give. My viewers, for that matter, might have different questions. Once, at an opening, a stranger pulled me over to one of my pictures, a still-life riff on one of Turner’s Venice paintings, and excitedly told me that it reminded her keenly of the harbor of the Jersey shore town she grew up in. Art historians would frown at her projections, but how could I - or any artist - not welcome her involvement? She had entered the picture through a door unavailable to me, and once inside she was willing to begin to see it on its own terms, to make other connections. I hope my reader will do the same, and, frankly, when I see “Ephemera” again, say ten years from now, I hope I will, too. Perhaps its meanings, as I have explicated them here, will have faded, and a new interpretation will surprise me, a new metaphor that will take into account the vertical stain in the stone just under the lip of the amber bottle, and the faded black arc crossing it, like the path of a comet. (Ah, there I go again: “like the path of a comet.”) And perhaps someday I’ll also understand why an artist so deeply committed to the way the world looks can’t seem to stop himself from reading extraordinary signs and portents in the very substance of ordinary things.

-G. Daniel Massad

Click here to go back