Essays

"Clear Eyes, Calm Hearts": G. Daniel Massad and the Poetics of Still Life Catalogue essay for "G. Daniel Massad: Recent Still Lifes" (New York: Tatistcheff & Company, Inc., 1998)

Obviously – have I overstated this? – the mere recording of fascinating detail is not what drives me. It is the image that drives me, the image and its embedded meanings, its power to absorb us briefly in its world and to return us to our own lives with clear eyes, calm hearts. (1)

-G. Daniel Massad

Nature vivante: "Living things portrayed in a state of rest"

"Still life" is a notoriously slippery concept. Attending to the problematic enterprise of explaining the tricky term, the usages cited in the Oxford English Dictionary [OED] are preceded by a revealing disclaimer, warning the reader that the expression was "originally applied to representations not of inanimate objects but of living things portrayed in a state of rest." (2) As this qualifier suggests, the genre does not necessarily describe the hyperrealistic representation of dead game and imminently decaying flowers. Still life has not always characterized the painterly capture of nature, or nature morte [dead nature] (3), to quote the French translation of the term. Rather, we may infer from the OED, still life can be thought of as "life made momentarily still," suggesting the vibrancy of nature temporarily seized in a state of artistically induced rest.

G. Daniel Massad (b. 1946) produces work adhering to this often overlooked aspect of still life; for his imagery expresses a "living" nature, an underlying sensibility of vivacity and effervescence. Each image in this exhibition contains fruit which, although plucked from the vine, nonetheless vibrates with life. From the apricot in Propylaea (1995) to the kumquat in Per Gradus (1997), to the recurring bottles – which emit a blue-green glow, as if infused with chlorophyll – the objects depicted in Massad’s works appear as "living things portrayed in a state of rest." Drawing inspiration from still life masters such as Jean-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779). Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), and Francesco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), the artist suggests a lifelike palpability and creates a seemingly organic surface texture with the unlikely medium of pastels. In Massad's case we may therefore substitute nature vivante for nature morte.

Many of the materials depicted in Massad’s tableaux seem mature in age, and often appear to have been heavily used prior to our – and the artist’s – vision of them. We come to Massad’s compositions as belated arrivals. The marks on the bottles suggest a history of the objects’ use and abandonment; each fruit has been removed from an earlier natural environment, and each puncture evokes the succession of insects that bit the fruit. The bricks are fragmented from yet another previous setting to which we are not privy. The objects exist in the present, but their time-worn condition impels us to ask questions of the past – and the path – that brought them here, to Massad’s pastel universe. As viewers, we have arrived, it seems, at intermission. These objects are so vigorously modeled and so curiously lit that they appear teeming with life, potent with gesture.

Like actors on a stage, and as if performing a melodrama, the fruit, pottery, and bottles stand on brick ledges. The proximity of one object to the next, in turn, suggests a dialogue between them. In the sense that each image contains a visually expressive, compositional drama, each is effectively a tableau vivant. More than a "living picture" (the literal translation of the French term), a tableau vivant is the rehearsing or acting out of a picture’s narrative or structural components. In works like Transparents (1996) and Per Gradus, the artist – like a fastidious theatre director – assigns the bottles and fruits to their correct positions on the brick stage of the foreground. Although the analogy to players on a stage is inevitable, it should be applied with caution. As much attention as Massad's’dramatic images call to themselves, they often appear psychologically inaccessible. To the extent that the objects do function as actors, they are engrossed in their roles. The figures hover between "absorption" and "theatricality." (4)

Massad's Narrative: The Uses of Openendedness

Standing before Massad’s art works, viewers may raise questions regarding meaning, narrative, and intention. The works do, of course, have historically specific and strongly personal iconographies for the artist. A pastel such as Niche (1997) attests to just how personal that symbolism may be. Here, the artist inscribes on the brick the initials of friends who have died; these are individuals who, Massad observes, "I have loved deeply, people who have touched me deeply." (5) Also hinting at clues of a storyline, the compositions may refer to – even maintain a dialogue with – still life painters such a Peale and Zurbaran. Massad’s images bear particular affinity with the works of the Spanish still life painter Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627). In Massad’s Arrangement with Pumpkin Stem (1997), the grape and stem strongly recall the vegetable forms in Cotan’s painting Cardoon and Parsnips (c. 1604; Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada). Similarly, Massad’s tiered bricks – a recurrent motif in his work since 1993 – evoke the layered brick slabs in the still lifes of Juan van der Hamen (1596-1631). (6)

Yet such personal associations and artistic references can only provide starting points for explaining the images in this exhibition. For Massad, aesthetic comprehension does not demand that one enters the artist's mind; nor does it necessitate deciphering arcane historical references and iconographical clues. Rather, it requires that the viewer search his or her own mind for a story which the work may evoke. Massad is most "interested in work that reveals more upon second thought – the longer you look at it the more you are aware of your own reaction to it." As personal and specific as the compositions may seem initially, the artist is quick to note that "I am not writing my biography in still life." Emphasizing the viewer’s role in constructing a narrative – rather than the artist’s intended symbolism – Massad here evokes the literary critic Roland Barthes, who commented that "the unity of a text lies not in its origin but in its destination." (7) Massad, too, is more interested in destinations, the trajectory of an idea sparked by a composition, but reified by the beholder. For Massad, then, a successful art work does not demand that its viewers learn "a new visual language"; rather, it inspires them "to look at what’s going on in their own minds."

Massad employs several formal strategies to encourage viewers to narrate their own stories before his works. If the lower half or two-thirds of each picture on display here depicts hauntingly familiar fruits and bottles, the top of each composition presents an unknown territory. The darkness is a mass of negative space, a void to be filled conceptually by the viewer. If the foreground objects inspire a particular memory or association, the dark, empty background provides a blank space, a tableau vivant in which viewers may inscribe – if only conceptually – their own meanings.

The lines created by the stacked bricks suggest another way in which viewers may devise interpretations of the images. These elongated horizontals evoke lines on a page, a place where something may be read, written, or, perhaps, on which more objects may be placed. The fruits and bottles, in turn, function like words or letters on a page. Massad, who has an M.A. in English, infuses his works with what one may call a "writerly" sensibility. In works like Per Gradus and Transparents, objects on the three brick ledges create a succession of symbols in a language that, as Massad observes, can be interpreted only by the viewer. Given the primacy of writing in Massad’s life – he has dutifully kept a journal since 1972 – it is not surprising to find page-length lines in his art works. Further suggesting an analogy to writing, Massad’s pencil studies have a pronounced calligraphic quality. In the early 1990’s, the artist frequently inscribed passages from Virgil, Shelley, and his own poetry in his study drawings; "maybe I’m heading back towards words," he speculated at the time. (8)

Yet the questions remain: what kind of words might his images suggest? What sort of narratives can these works reveal? At the very least we may say that the picture plane is repeatedly dominated by everyday, found objects: bricks, bottles, branches, pottery, and fruit. The message here may well be that great beauty and powerful poetry can be found in the most vernacular materials. Siphoning subject matter from the commonplace, Massad finds a soulmate of sorts in the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), whose treatise The Poetics of Music (1947) has deeply influenced the artist. Stravinsky remarked that,

The true creator may be recognized by his ability to find about him, in the commonest and humblest thing, items worthy of not…he does not have to surround himself with rare and precious objects. He does not have to put forth in search of discoveries: they are always within his reach. He will only have to cast his glance about him. Familiar things, things that are everywhere, attract his attention. (9)

Although drawing parallels between his philosophy and Stravinsky’s theory, the artist repeatedly inverts the composer’s advice. Indeed, Massad transforms those "things that are everywhere" into "rare and precious objects."

Bottles: The Artist as Archaelogist

Most of Massad’s recent still lifes depict, among other things, a wide variety of time-worn but elegant bottles. Most of these are oblong, elongated, and topped with an indented rim or opening resembling that of an old soap or perfume bottle. These objects are, in effect, domestic leftovers; yet each is intact and tidy, suggesting an aura of purity. The mottled surfaces echo the skin of the unwashed fruit resting at the bases of the bottles. Although exquisitely illuminated in their tableaux, and although modeled in painstaking detail, the dirt and wear from years of use are nonetheless apparent – faintly, but obviously there. Like a human figure, the bottles stand erect upon the brick ledges where they tower over the nearby fruits. The bottles appear as carefully preserved ruins – neglected by human beings, witness to the ravages of time, but rescued and represented here in a sacred, perhaps classical, rarefied context. These objects suggest a history of rubbing, scratching, soiling, cleaning, filling, and emptying. They also bear traces of burying and retrieving – and this is where Massad has stepped in. Like an archaelogist on a dig, Massad scours the flea markets and "bargain basements" of south-central Pennsylvania in search of these delicate, translucent fossils.

The bottles pose questions for the artist: "Who made me? Who used me? What did I contain? Who threw me away?" (10) Massad is obsessed with those stories that seem to be just beneath the surface of the objects; he is utterly fascinated with those things and ideas left behind by previous individuals. "Many of the things I draw," he notes, "are pieces of other worlds." The picture plane, in turn, is the site where Massad displays these elegant curiosities, and where he reveals the visual identity of the objects. Painstakingly marking, erasing, and re-marking the picture’s surface, Massad is able to probe questions of purpose and identity – questions one would not expect to ask of bottles.

Massad’s tableau functions as a two-dimensional gallery space in which to display these glass artifacts. Much as antiquities in a museum are separated by time and space from their original context, so the bottles are now far from the store shelves, medicine cabinets, and perfume cases where they may have been kept initially. In place of a museum display case, sturdy brick ledges secure the objects in the artist’s pictorial universe. For his part, Massad, like a curator, literally provides the framework through which we view his archaeological finds. Inspired by the handcrafted frames of American painters Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and John Peto (1854-1907), the artist selects the wood and conceives the design for each of his frames. And like the bottles themselves, the rich grains of the dark wood evoke the vitality and grandeur of an earlier age.

The artist’s fixation upon old, exquisite bottles may be connected to his fascination with another set of objects: the furniture and bric-a-brac of the turn-of-the-century American Arts and Crafts Movement. Massad has informally studied the cultural history of the Movement, and has meticulously and programmatically collected its artifacts for the past twelve years. Initially, the artist found the furniture in the same flea markets in which he unearths the bottles. Discovering poetry, use, and value in neglected bottles and discarded furniture, Massad specializes in "looking at the overlooked," as the art historian Norman Bryson recently phrased it. (11)

In matters in and out of the artistic realm, Massad is nothing if not careful and fastidious. His interest in and love for antiquated, partially decayed bottles demands such a conscientious attitude. Consider for example the five bottles in Glass (1994). One imagines the artist excavating the objects from a junk bin, then taking care to preserve their structural integrity, and finally depicting with thorough precision their every smudge, stain, crack, reflection, and refraction. Has Massad rescued these bottles with the love and gravity with which one adopts a child? At the very least we may say that, via his modelling of form, the artist gives the bottles human qualities. In works like Glass and Transparents, Massad captures surface textures as expressively as a portraitist might render an individual’s torso or physiognomy. Alluding to the commonplace characterization of the human anatomy as a vessel, the artist points out that we describe bottles similarly to the manner in which we "label our body parts, from head to toe: mouth, lip, neck, shoulder, belly, foot." Displayed hierarchically, the bottles in Glass and Transparents range from large and imposing to short and slender, much like individuals in a family portrait. "They group like families," the artist observes, "or stand alone like maverick individualists." As artist-archaeologist, Massad collects these vessels, imparts to them expression, and preserves them in the living history museum called "still life."

-Leo G. Mazow

Footnotes

(1) G. Daniel Massad, untitled ms., 1995.

(2) Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. "still life."

(3) "nature morte" is the French expression for "still life."

(4) The art historian Michael Fried has applied the absorption/theatricality faultline to monuments of American and European visual culture; see Fried Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980); and Fried, "Art and Objecthood," in Gregory Battock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968), 116-147.

(5) Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Massad are from the author’s interviews with the artist; 19 August 1997, and 8 January 1998.

(6) Interestingly, one of van der Hamen’s best known works, Still Life with Sweets and Pottery (1627), hangs in the National Gallery of Art, which Massad repeatedly and excitedly visited as a child. On Massad’s formative visits to the National Gallery of Art, see Sally Allen McNall’s introductory essay in G. Daniel Massad: Pastels: 1991-1994 (New York: Tatistcheff & Company, Inc., 1994), 2; and Laura Ritter Chandler, "A Magnificent Obsession," The Valley/Lebanon Valley College Magazine 10 (Winter 1993), 2-3.

(7) Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," in Image, Music, Text, transl. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 148; emphasis mine.

(8) Chandler, "A Maginificent Obsession," 5; Massad quoted in ibid.

(9) Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, transl. Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947), 54.

(10) G. Daniel Massad, untitled ms., 1995.

(11) Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).