Essays

The Still Lives of G. Daniel Massad

Catalogue essay for "G. Daniel Massad: Recent Work" (New York: Forum Gallery, 2006)

When one sees the work of Daniel Massad it is almost impossible to imagine him doing anything else. In fact Massad always knew he wanted to be an artist, although realizing that dream has been an indirect journey. He has eloquently recounted the seminal experience of standing transfixed in the National Gallery at the age of ten (and being subsequently ejected by a guard for touching a painting.) For someone growing up in Oklahoma, however, there was little to suggest how this childhood passion could ever be translated into a plausible adult occupation. Massad turned instead to writing and literature, entering Princeton to major in English. But rather than closing a door, that decision brought him in contact with a remarkable teacher who would help point the way back to art.

Toshiko Takaezu joined Princeton’s Creative Arts Program in 1967, already a noted figure in the studio craft movement. Conventional assumptions about the very materials of art were being challenged and artists working in ceramics were at the forefront of this revolution. Takaezu’s artistry reached its pinnacle in the repeated exploration of her signature “closed form.” Derived from the vessel concept, her work both implies and denies function: a container of space the eye never sees. Massad entered her class knowing nothing about ceramics but hungry for the visual arts. There he found a model and mentor whose example of patience, focus and discipline formed his concept of an artist’s life.

Decades later, Takaezu’s imprint is abundantly evident in Massad’s own work. Like his teacher, Massad has consciously and deliberately narrowed his focus not simply to the still life idiom but to a specific vocabulary from which he constructs his images. One sees the same devices set forth and repeatedly explored throughout his work: stone blocks that comprise the walls and shallow ledges that anchor the compositions and provide the proscenium where the play unfolds; sharply raking light that dramatizes every nick and dimple on these simple surfaces; profound blackness of the background that intensifies the drama of his images. These compositional constants are reinvented in endless variation, but they also abide by the laws of their own universe. The weathered building blocks may be reconfigured into a variety of ledges and niches, but always in balanced proportions, often echoing the golden ratio. They also provide more than simply a staging device, with their faces often bearing marks or monograms that are as much a part of the visual script as the objects populating their surfaces. The theatrical play of light and shadow pays tribute to the chiaroscuro of the Italian Baroque but also follows its own internal discipline – always from the right and always suggesting, if not overtly revealing, a logical point of origin. And the stark black backdrop is not truly a void; it is as richly developed as any other part of the composition, suggesting all the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in that: a deafening silence, a vast and palpable emptiness.

Against these mutable elements a remarkably simple collection of characters presents itself with quiet and absolute authority. The twigs, fruit, seedpods, bottles and simple bowls that populate these ledgescapes are both particular and personal, selected with deliberation and continually reconsidered and rediscovered as archetypal markers in a larger story. Massad completes fewer than three works in a year. His compositional ideas take two to three years for gestation, starting with a first foggy vision of its essence, with each element considered and worked through mentally beforehand. It is therefore not surprising that these simple objects, once having captured his imagination, should appear again and again. Neither is there anything capricious about their arrangement. Massad crafts his compositions like a writer who knows that the precise words in the precise configuration are the only true expression of a precise idea. Thus their placement feels inevitable, as though dictated by some inexorable natural law.

Massad’s work evinces a serene classicism: rational, ordered, timeless. Each image offers another diagram of his universe. In Stele (2004) the nest of objects in the niche sits high in the picture plane, with only a sliver of velvety space revealed beyond. The staging blocks rise in studied Pythagorian proportions. The customary ledge has become a sheer wall, accentuated by the narrow verticality of the composition itself and asserting its primacy as the focus for the viewer's attention. A tiny monogram near the center hints at the origins of this work, a commemorative meditation on a loved one’s sudden death. Massad has confessed that he was unaware of this connection when he first conceived the idea for this piece, but once into its execution, this association became obvious and inevitable.

Although these basic elements have remained constant, two recent works point toward different terrain in their rethinking of this visual vocabulary. In Falls (2003) the sturdy ledge has been penetrated and broken, its jagged fragments barely visible above the ripe weight of a lush profusion of apples. The utter stillness of the scene suggests the quiet aftermath of an intense, careening rush of energy, peaceful now but once witness to an irresistible force. This tension becomes even more tantalizing in Yield (2005.) The bricks and walls have now completely given way and a tumbled mound of tea bowls is cradled in their ruins. Massad has identified these as the “beautifully useless” kiln rejects given to him over the years by Toshiko Takaezu. Her ceramic pieces have frequently appeared in Massad’s imagery, but always precisely placed and ordered, whether nested in tidy stacks or showcased as single highlights. But here they are strewn topsy-turvy against the jutting shards of the heavy masonry. It is as though the kiln itself had collapsed around its delicate contents, yet the bowls have not been crushed and there remains order even in this disarray. As in Falls, the scene seems to record a violent upheaval but gives no clue to whether it occurred minutes or eons ago. Massad’s consummate craftsmanship is underscored by the impossible fragility of the pastel medium itself - particles of pigmented dust that can be dispersed into nothingness with an accidental sharp blow. It is almost too neat a coincidence that the pastels Massad uses share the same material makeup as Takaezu’s porcelain. There is something at once unnerving and deeply satisfying in the realization that this image is constructed of the same substance as the bowls themselves, as though the porcelain had been dematerialized and the particles reassembled into an illusion of the original.

Dan Massad is a thoughtful student of the history of his craft. His fascination and affinity for such masters as Chardin and Vermeer both inspires and challenges his own predicament. He has somewhat ruefully described his decision to be a still life painter as the “formal defeat” of a “wannabe cutting edge artist,” but that assessment seems unduly harsh. Certainly still life was long relegated to a back seat in the history of art, its status officially codified as falling well behind narrative works or even portraiture as a worthy artistic subject. Although Carravaggio himself noted that it took every bit as much skill to paint a good picture of flowers as of a figure, such bravura passages in the art of the masters failed to elevate still life beyond its humble role as a decidedly minor painterly device. But those assumptions were radically upended in the 20th century. After Cezanne and Van Gogh, and with the revolution of cubism, still life was liberated from its traditional genre roots, indistinguishable from the history of contemporary painting itself. Far from trapping painters in some decorative byway, still life provided the ideal means for shaking off the conventions of illustration and concentrating on pure painting. Massad’s work acknowledges that rich history as well as the opportunities of modernist invention. He explores complicated territory through his deceptively straightforward subject matter, using commonplace objects to graph larger ideas.

Massad still loves writing and is an articulate and insightful commentator on his own work. He keeps a journal and crafts thoughtful essays that record the contextual underpinnings for each completed piece, tracing the seed of inspiration through the trial and error of creating the composition and the painstaking (two square inches per day) execution and realization. The works themselves brim with literary, historical and personal references. It can be very satisfying to mine through these layers of content, but also a bit daunting to feel one may not be quite sharp enough to keep up. Massad himself is quite mindful of this. His detailed explications are qualified with the acknowledgment that the viewer shouldn’t need to know and sort through all the personal associations or back story in order to respond to the work. Distilled to the purely visual level, his images dazzle. In the face of the postmodern devolution of craftsmanship, Massad’s works offer a convergence of intellect, process and genuine art object. There is far more here than meets the eye, but what meets the eye alone is itself supremely rewarding.

-Christine Knop Kallenberger
Director of Collections and Public Programs
Philbrook Museum of Art