Essays

The Still Lives of G. Daniel Massad

Catalogue essay for "G. Daniel Massad: Silent History" (New York: Forum Gallery, 2001)

On a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., I stopped for what I assumed would be a few minutes before a painting that I don’t ever recall taking note of in my twice-yearly trips to that museum, which might in fact be a new acquisition. The work was “Still Life with Figs and Bread” (c. 1760) by Luis Melendez. After the dry detail and bombast of so many pictures in the temporary exhibition I had gone to Washington to see, perhaps any number of still lifes would have provided the respite I was looking for. But, like the best examples of that genre, Melendez’s painting in the end offered very little actual or sustaining calm. Never mind the knife and the gleaming jug, the plate and the perfectly rendered figs; I doubt I’d remember them today with any clarity if I hadn’t bought a postcard reproduction that I kept on my desk for several weeks before I gave it away. The round oven-baked bread tucked behind the plate, however, was another matter. The pores in the gaps in the hard crust of the bread, in particular, were another matter. A reason to forgo the Goyas this trip, a reason to sit mesmerized on a nearby couch between each new approach to the wall, a reason to catch a later train. The question nags: why should the inside of a loaf of bread, however well-painted two hundred and forty years ago, have this power?

The pores in the bread, so to speak, in the work of G. Daniel Massad come in many forms: a chip in a mottled wall; an opaque bottle in a darkened crevice not seen on a first or a second or a third look; a honey glaze on a bowl; a leaf gall on a ledge, precarious and transient, discarded by the insect who made it. In their copiousness, the full images can provide the same elemental visual pleasures we traditionally associate with still life - exquisite draftsmanship and subtleties of texture, clever composition and strong light - even as they raise the same far-from-elemental questions. The questions and possible answers are, I feel, more pertinent today than ever. The first has to do with craftsmanship and to what degree this governs our reactions to still life in a way it does not with narrative or abstract art. The others concern metaphor and, ultimately, meaning: Is still life entirely, or even fundamentally, about the successful replication of the visible world?

On the first point, I confess to having little to no concern with how G. Daniel Massad creates pastels of such exactitude and complexity. I want the technique to be past my knowing as much as it is past my doing. Watch a crowd of children stunned by a magician’s sleight-of-hand at a party, and you quickly see that the world is divided into two groups: an earnest crowd demanding to be told “how he did it” and those, more grateful and more knowing, who want to revel in the effect, to feel what it is to leave behind a mundane, knowable world to enter less stable but more exhilarating territory. Massad invites us into hidden depths that require letting go (of time, preconceptions, hierarchies and categories) more than probing behind the curtain. From nineteenth-century naturalism to Photo-Realism, the layman’s wide-eyed interest in technique often becomes a substitute for aesthetic experience, a way to avoid connecting with the philosophical and even spiritual issues that certain kinds of art can raise. Acknowledge how unusual it is that a master of verisimilitude has elected to work in the notoriously messy and impressionistic medium of pastel, but remember that it is the voyage, not the means of travel, we ultimately want to focus on.

That voyage is inward, and the artist has left abundant, if ambiguous, clues about the spirit in which it might be undertaken. What is most obvious is the absence of so much we have been taught to expect or desire. Chardin’s copper pots gleam because they were used last night and will be today, and Manet’s melons are ripe for the eating. They are intimately allied to the hustle-and-bustle world beyond the picture frame. With Massad, a stark, stagey light (always, oddly, coming from the right) illuminates an artificial , asocial, anti-kinetic tableau, dominated by an impenetrable darkness in its top quarter or third, that works to deny the hand of an arranger or the presence of a user. Like the pock-marked walls themselves, the objects of human origin (the bottles, bowls, and phials) are far from pristine, though we can only guess at what their past life entailed, while nature’s bounty comes in the form of fruit (crabapples, pears, persimmons) made eerie by the severity of the light or dry twigs long since snapped from the trees that bore them. Lushness, fertility, an acceptance of the body and its appetites - staples of the genre - are obviously irrelevant here. Massad’s titles both clarify and add to the confusion. These unnervingly decontextualized walls might be thought of as repositories (“Thesaurus”), ledges housing the urns of the dead (“Columbarium”), faithful remembrances (“Leal Souvenir”), sites alluding to myth and mask (“Janus”). Letters or symbols etched into the walls imply a further layer of communication and require a “reading” of the walls, and the compositions are meticulous to an extent that suggests a density of meaning.

Indeed, not surprisingly, the artist works in the earliest stages of an image from a constantly evolving, not always conscious sense of direction and iconography. But the accretions of meaning add up, making use of disparate forms to establish a coherent whole. “Leal Souvenir”, for instance, is especially rich in personal associations. An hommage to Toshiko Takaezu, the ceramic artist and an important influence on Massad, it focuses its best light on a jaunty tower of six ceramic bowls, an explicit reference to Takaezu’s talent and a hidden allusion to her place as the sixth child in a family of eleven. The large break in the lower center of the wall is shaped like the island of Hawaii (the “X” on the shore to the right marking the spot where Takaezu was born), while the wandering line of sediment across the top of the wall is in fact the shoreline of New Jersey, with an inland double “T” (her mark in clay) noting the site of her Princeton studio. The four light smudges at the top of the wall in the center echo the fingerprints Takaezu sometimes leaves in her glazes. With this information, the image becomes an affectionate portrait. Yet would anyone have been able to deduce this unaided by the artist’s comments? Is a biographical reading essential to the picture’s reception in, and meaning to, the wider world? No, on both counts. And that very fact is an element of what makes Massad’s art so potent and, despite the questionable linking of his style to a “realist” tradition, so modern. He makes palpable a feeling of information withheld, intimate truths buried, clarity and deep emotion hinted at but kept forever just beyond our reach. Objects dusty and abandoned, walls raised solid and gleaming for other purposes in other times, are transformed into “sets” that beckon and seduce us, while necessarily complicating - if not impeding - the universal drive to interpret in a definitive way. Most frequently we are left to perceive a mood (anyone is apt to feel the light in “Leal Souvenir” as warmer than it is in certain other pictures), sometimes solitary and elegiac, sometimes wry and loving and occasionally disquieting.

Still life has always been grounded in dichotomies: depletion/plenitude, decay/rebirth, solitude/sociability. Massad’s art pushes any latent tensions still further, claiming ambiguity as the only true reflection of our lives. Have the bottles at the base of the T-shaft in “Thesaurus” been left in a place of security, made less vulnerable than the exposed fruit on the ledge above (Cicero: “Thesaurus rerum omnium memoria”/ Memory is the storehouse of all things), or is their placement there an entombment masquerading as refuge? Are the apples at the base of the niche in “Columbarium” a recent offering to the dead, or is vibrant nature itself the object of burial, while the jar - the man-made object - strains to be released from dark confinement? What meaning can be taken, what communication can be asserted, from letters scratched onto a wall that tell of a desire to name what can no longer be known? Each image posits more questions that require more looking in an endless spiral. The minutiae of stone, leaf, and glass, like the pores in a loaf of bread: the signs point us to an interior world that is as complex as its ostensible opposite.

Late twentieth-century painting has vigorously explored the diverse purposes of art - preeminently, the political and the psychological. What has often been lost sight of in our time is a primary, perhaps the primal, purpose of art: namely, the evocation of mystery and our perception of it. Is it possible that still life is the perfect vehicle for this in an age that worships size, speed, clamor, rhetoric, and technological wonders? Massad’s art forces us to slow down, is belligerently indifferent to the glib passerby, attunes the eye and the mind to an almost unprecedented level of concentration. It also makes demands on its viewer/participants that have nothing to do with the overworked metaphors of still life (the vanitas motif) or the genre’s time-honored validation of sensual and social interaction (all those remnants of good meals consumed and wine bottles emptied). Rather, he asks us to contemplate by way of an exacting artificiality the awesome hold of the minute, the fragmentary, and the cast off. His pastels call for both a loving scrutiny and a willingness to embrace uncertainty. They argue the value of stepping out of time as we customarily experience it. Is this still life as an act of deprivation? I don’t think so. Even as Massad’s works seemingly dwell on decay, impermanence, and remorseless change, they celebrate some enduring realities: the joy of acute awareness, an aspiration to reverence, the fervor of art.

-John Loughery