The Keys to Everything / All the Missing Pieces

I’ve always been a grade-B collector. Even as a child, my treasury of jigsaw puzzles reached what I must have felt was an ample number, and then I stopped spending my allowance on more. From that point on, I simply worked my little trove again and again, in fact so frequently that if a stray piece ended up in a dust ball under the couch I’d know precisely which puzzle it came from. Stamps, too. Insects. Arrowheads. I loved each of those species of similar objects, took pleasure in their ownership, handled them with care, and - how else can I put this? - pondered them. But enough was enough. “Some” was always better than “Many”.

Fortunately, as an adult I found a partner who is the same kind of collector, and though our assortment of jigsaw puzzles is certainly more than ample, at least by the standards of our friends, we also periodically get bitten by the de-accessioning bug, whatever the type of object. The same holds true in my studio. For more complicated reasons, I’ve found myself drawn for over thirty years to certain families of things - old corroded bottles, dry leaves, pick-up sticks and picked up sticks, Toshiko Takaezu’s tea bowls (the kiln-cracked variety), brick shards, eroded seashells, tiny machinery parts - “Things Found Along the Way”, a title of a work of mine from the 1980’s. In most of my still lifes, objects from one subset usually pose with objects from other subsets, and occasionally I go through all the collections - again, none of them large - and cull out things that no longer spark any interest or suggest roles in future images. Keeping each family separate is useful: knowing where things are saves search time I’d rather spend at the easel. But organizing by family also gives me those odd moments of pleasure I’ve enjoyed since childhood. Whenever it comes over me, I waste a little of that time I’d rather spend at the easel looking at - and pondering - those clusters of things arranged on a few shelves in my closet and in three drawers of an old dresser. I attend to them again, handle them carefully, turn them over in my mind.

Although some of my images over the years have focused entirely on one kind of thing or other - apples in “Falls”, Takaezu’s tea bowls in “Yield”, old bottles in “Apotheca”, and those several dozen pastels produced between 1981 and 1984 that are composed almost entirely of cast-off pieces of wood and cardboard. But the idea of picturing a collection as a collection, preserved in a contained space all its own, did not attract me until 2009, when the idea of “The Keys to Everything” took hold. It seems odd, now. After all, I’ve been building small collections for nearly six decades. But as I see it, it was the shift from “All Fall Down” to “Letters from Home” that acted as a precipitate. For the former, a loose pile of wooden capital letters painted in bright colors spilled through a breach in a wall; for the latter, I dropped those same letters in an old canning jar, its surface beclouded with the oxidation burial gives glass, the letters coming into focus as viewers move closer to the image. It was a small step, constructing a picture with a discrete olio of similar objects as its primary subject - not found, or as if found, like the pile of letters in “All Fall Down”, but contained, as if stored and treasured for a particular purpose.

The next trigger was a bit of mundane housecleaning. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who save all the keys they no longer use (for junked cars, lost padlocks, replaced door hardware), and those who don’t. We belong to the first group, all our useless keys gathering like sediment in the bottom of one particular catch-all basket. I happened to be de-accessioning those keys when “Letters from Home” was on the board, but I knew in a flash that I was not going to scrap my pile of throwaways. I piled them in a narrow jar, did a little rearranging, took photos, and by 7-28-2009 I had drawn the full- scale prelim in my journal - the jar eliminated, the keys crammed into a niche in a cabinet, the frame standing in for the cabinet, like the frame in “Apotheca”, its tiny opening a golden rectangle. Within that rectangle, I was also pursuing another change in my work, a gradual shift making itself felt since the late 90’s. As I wrote in my journal, I was “moving off the linear structure” and “thinking more about the masses of things shifting forward into the light, receding into the dark”.

It was that handful of discarded keys, those keys to our own irretrievable past, that must have put me in mind of another unintentional collection of things in our house. Anyone who brings home a vintage jigsaw puzzle knows that occasionally, when the last piece goes in, there’s an extra piece or two from another puzzle at the bottom of the box, strays that will never find their way home. I haven’t been able to throw those unusable, unreturnable pieces away. The puzzles they come from may or may not exist, somewhere; the likelihood that I will ever acquire any of them and restore a prodigal piece to its incomplete family is miniscule, to say the least; and it’s only a mild pleasure to attempt to imagine the rest of the picture that once required them. In that sense, they’re a close kin to those frustrating fragments of whole dreams we can’t remember, and the very opposite of Proust’s madeleine: they do not have the power to conjure up the specific worlds they once formed irreplaceable parts of.

In the end, they remained useless even to the artist in me. I replaced them with a more uniform congregation of pieces from two different complete hand-cut puzzles in our collection, selecting only little corners of sky and tree, along with a cut-out star: a jumble of bits and pieces of Great Nature’s incomprehensibly vast unity, that big picture of Hers, which in its totality always eludes our mind’s grasp. Technically, the title is untrue: these are pieces that have never gone missing. But it was a title I wanted to keep for its ambiguity. On the one hand, it might suggest that what has been lost has been found - or that, spiritually, in Whitman’s phrase, “nothing is ever really lost”. On the other hand, the puzzle pieces in the image itself are preserved but inaccessible, invitingly tactile but untouchable, saved from oblivion but marooned, estranged, bereft of their original function and reduced to the status of objects of contemplation, like the finger bones of saints in reliquaries. Only worth, if nothing else, pondering.

-G. Daniel Massad

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