from SILENCES: The Autobiography of Loss (Blue Lion, 2007)
Christian Vincent’s Faith In Painting And Humanity
A Review of a 2001 Exhibition at Forum Gallery (New York)
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore.
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! Yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! Can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
—Edgar Allan Poe, A Dream Within A Dream
Once, I wrote a poem about riding the Staten Island Ferry as it approached New York City. The sun had just set and the downtown skyscrapers glittered with lights. As night fused foreground and background to flatten the scene, the city’s lights came to evoke loose white diamonds against black velvet. I began that prose poem by stating: “You tell me the lights remind you of Tuscany, the fires in homes dotting the hillsides. I am looking at these same stars and see dying men in white shirts toiling past midnight in the skyscrapers of Manhattan.”
I am familiar with these “dying men in white shirts.” Before switching careers to become a poet, I worked for a decade in Wall Street-related careers where I met many men flushed with money but impoverished in spirit. I don’t think these industries contain more of these afflicted men than other professions—but Wall Street comes to mind easily as I peruse Christian Vincent’s exhibit. For in painting a mahogany-paneled world of “suits,” Vincent evokes the cold-bloodedness that is the occupational spiritual hazard of those who would excel in business. In another poem, I once wrote the lines: “It is so difficult to find innocence in accomplished men. There is always something to be paid.”
The two poems I reference are among those works I wrote shortly after leaving the financial world. Vincent’s “Cockfight (1999)” can help explain why it required years for me to overcome business-derived metaphors. The triptych features the interior of a men’s club. Wealthy men in black tuxedoes and pristine white shirts drink martinis and trade money as they bet on the outcome of a bout between two pale-skinned, almost-nude young men battling each other with bared fists. It is a world of privilege where the crowd of white men can pay others to beat each other to a pulp. It is a chilling scene—and even more chilling because it is not necessarily fiction, even as the artist concocts what the catalogue essay calls his “invented dramas.” (Another viewer of the exhibit told me that such a scene occurred regularly in the late 1970s at Boston’s Harvard Club.) Though I never experienced such a scene (possibly because I wouldn’t be allowed in some of these clubs), I find the brutality of “Cockfight” metaphorically emblematic of the kind of business dealings that unnecessarily have bankrupted many and put thousands out of work—the kind of effect not really felt by those who view the world from Wall Street’s financial documents versus from the trenches of Main Street.
I was ambitious—have you known
The passion, father? You have not:
A cottager, I mark’d a throne
Of half the world as all my own,
And murmur’d at such a lowly lot
—Edgar Allan Poe, Tamerland
Such dehumanization marks many of Vincent’s paintings. “One Foot Out (2000)” features a man in a business suit with one foot out of one shoe as he stares at himself in a mirror. The setting seems to be in a hotel room. The man is seated in a chair, his back to an unmade bed where someone else's naked foot reclines. He either has just finished or is about to begin a sexual encounter. Yet the expression on his reflected face is one of despair as if he is asking himself, “What am I doing here?” In any event, he has found or expects to find no solace in this most intimate of acts.
My draught of passion hath been deep—
I revell’d, and I now would sleep—
And after-drunkenness of soul
Succeeds the glories of the bowl—
An idle longing night and day
To dream my very life away.
—Edgar Allan Poe, Romance (Introduction)
“Mary Go Round (2000)” features a naked blonde, knees drawn up against her chest, floating in the midst of the painting and encircled by tuxedo-clad men. The image reminds me of “players” – a term I’ve heard ascribed to beautiful young ladies on the prowl for wealthy patrons or potential husbands. Thus, though the blonde is naked in Vincent’s painting, her exposure does not preclude a sense of hauteur on her expertly made-up face. In fact, the expressions on some of the fully-clothed men make them look more diffident than the woman who is using her knees to hide her breasts. Wealth does not necessarily translate to self-confidence, after all, and the image implies that some of the men are wondering whether money will suffice to purchase the company of a young lady desired by many. Vincent adeptly features this narrative against a red background—red evoking lust or passion—while still managing to convey the fragility of a world based on money instead of perhaps more stable moorings like friendship or love.
In fact, something that easily could be a benign image, “The Fan (2000)” becomes more insidious partly due to Vincent’s gesture-laden brushstrokes. The man portrayed does seem to be cheering something or someone off the painting, but a certain savagery lurks within the tightly-fleshed face—one looks at him applauding and yet does not believe that he has lost himself totally into his role as a fan.
Consequently, “Eradication (2000)” compels the interpretation that, from the many that flock to and stay in the business world, there is a small group who would wish to leave. The painting depicts a line of black-suited men and darkly-dressed women being led by a man beating on a red drum; here, the use of red, the brightest spot in the painting, facilitates the evocation of a toy from one’s childhood, which is to say, a period when the group was more innocent and care-free. Behind them, strewn papers rise to mingle with the clouds. In the deep background is an image of a city that, presumably, the group is leaving—the image features skyscrapers, as if the scene is of downtown Manhattan that contains Wall Street, the leading financial capital of the world. One man clutches onto a painting as he joins the group running away. A painting is an intriguing choice—Vincent sentimentally could have inserted a painting to reference his avocation; but the man also could be seen as taking the painting with him because it is a valuable object, perhaps something that he had a chance to acquire from one of his bonuses and that now may afford him the means for starting a new life elsewhere.
Far away—far away—
Far away—as far at least
Lies that valley as the day
Down within the golden east—
All things lovely—are not they
Far away—far away?
—Edgar Allan Poe, [The Valley of Unrest]
It is also worth noting that the faces on “Eradication” are those of relatively young adults—perhaps in their 20s or 30s. It’s as if Vincent is noting that if they stayed in professions whose practices force them to lose their humanity, they run the risk of becoming like the man portrayed on “Interconnected (1999).” A white-haired man in a white shirt, dark pants, dark suspenders and dark tie stands in the center of the painting, his hands in his pants pocket. Behind him, a series of wheels seemingly rotate, connected by sprockets. In the midst of the largest wheel are two naked infants clambering like gerbils within its inner circle—also recalling the struggle of Sisyphus to roll a boulder up a hill. The man, towards the end of his career and/or life, seems to be considering his past – including whether certain decisions he might have made were the correct ones to make. Perhaps, like Sisyphus of the Greek myth, he has worked hard—and sacrificed much—during his life and is now doubting whether such has been worth it.
Certainly, certain lifestyles are implied in the ultimate conclusions portrayed in “Shelter (2001)” and “The Rite of Spring (2000).” In “Shelter,” a white-haired man is featured asleep with a book as a pillow beneath a table. Lying atop the table is a lady reading a different book. The tableau is set within a dim room; a window allows the view of blue sky and white clouds, implying a beautiful day outside. Thus, “shelter” is portrayed to be the gloomier, unattractive interior of a residence where people have become distanced from each other—and where people have become blind (the man is asleep and the lady is reading a book) to the beauty of the natural world. Meanwhile, “The Rite of Spring” features an aged conductor falling backwards into the orchestra pit—seemingly, he may have suffered a heart attack. As he falls, black birds mingle with sheets of music upended in the air as the other musicians try to catch him. By featuring the image of a tuxedo-clad man dying in the midst of his success, Vincent asks: is a life of compromises worth its toll on our spirits when, ultimately, we all die and can’t bring wealth with us to the next cycle of life? That is, whatever we attain in life, if it comes as a result of compromising something of ourselves – whether it is our ideals or our human relationships—was the rationale for such compromise—whether it is power or money—worth it?
Know thou the secret of a spirit
Bow’d from its wild pride into shame.
O yearning heart! I did inherit
Thy withering portion with the fame…
O craving heart, for the lost flowers
And sunshine of my summer hours!
The undying voice of that dead time,
With its interminable chime,
Rigs, in the spirit of a spell,
Upon they emptiness—a knell.
—Edgar Allan Poe, Tamerlane
Indeed, Vincent’s theme is not a railing against Wall Street or any other world dominated by business suits or tuxedoes so much as the tragedy of dehumanization. His theme may be encapsulated in “Icarus (2001)” that features the plummeting Icarus about to plunge into the sea after the sun has melted his wings. Icarus was ambitious—which can be a virtue. But Icarus was also arrogantly unrealistic: he thought to soar on wax-formed wings towards the sun. There may be nothing wrong with making money to finance a comfortable, even luxurious, life. But surely there is something wrong if the process requires us to make bad decisions—perhaps including those decisions that unfairly take advantage of others. If life becomes a dog-eat-dog world, Vincent suggests, it is because the participants have failed to appreciate and respect the “interconnectedness” of human beings.
Thus, we come to “Field of Frames (2000)” that shows a white-haired man surveying a field of empty frames. In the far distance stands another man holding up a pole needed to mark some measurement when the white-haired man looks through a nearby telescope. The white-haired man is measuring in the same way that the white-haired man in “Interconnected” may be considering his past. For the mounds of frames once must have held pictures or paintings before they were cast aside. In fact, the man in the distance is a younger man and may symbolize the white-haired man’s younger self—perhaps from a time when the man’s ideals or dreams had yet to be tested by time and the limits of his own character. Vincent has captured a moment that most of us—just like the man in “Interconnected” —is bound to undergo prior to the ultimate death featured in “The Rite of Spring.” Someday, most of us will reflect on how we’ve lived our lives. What expression then will we discover when we look at the mirror? Will our expressions manage to avoid the pathos so ingrained in the expression depicted in “One Foot Out”?
In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed—
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.
—Edgar Allan Poe, A Dream
My narrative reading of Vincent’s paintings is markedly different from that suggested by Robert Fishko who wrote the catalogue essay. I read Fishko’s essay after I wrote the first draft of this review as I wished my response to Vincent’s works to be as unmediated as possible. There is no right or wrong interpretation of Vincent’s work and it is a testament to the psychological impact of Vincent’s paintings that they compel such personal (and different) readings from me, Fishko and perhaps other viewers. Fishko, for example, considers the woman in “Mary Go Round” to be “caught in the maze of human relationships” due to her nudity and fetal position, whereas I consider the woman to be more in control due to the haughty expression on her perfectly made-up face. What matters is the evocative strength of Vincent’s paintings—an effect facilitated by the large scale of the works, luxuriant oil surfaces, rich though muted colors, confident brushstokes, and Vincent’s use in some paintings of opulent wood frames. The framing is particularly effective in the triptych format of “Cockfight” in seemingly mirroring the painted wood panels within the canvas.
From reading Fishko’s essay, it is worth repeating his note that “The Rite of Spring” shares its title with “Igor Stravinsky’s symphonic masterpiece, which was famously stoned at its world premiere in 1913. A conductor is ejected from the orchestra pit, apparently unable to withstand the disruption of his performance.” Thus, what I interpret as an aged conductor experiencing a heart attack is a scene undoubtedly more intended to reflect on the factual history of Stravinsky’s work, as reflected in Vincent’s title. But Vincent’s paintings are potent specifically due to their ability to tap into a variety of viewers’ subjectivities to create different significances. In “The Rite of Spring,” the presence of black birds allows a haunting doorway into the mind’s imagination—and the birds provide just one key. In all of the paintings, Vincent offers a variety of entryways for the viewer’s mind to reconnoiter with humanity’s stories: desire, loss, greed, regret, resignation, stupidity, duplicity and more. What these particular stories share is the ability to counsel the viewer: Beware!
Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!
Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair
Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled,
Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of the horned moon,
The swift and silent lizard of the stones!
…These stones—alas! These gray stones—are they all—
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Coliseum
Notwithstanding my personal background as a former banker, I don’t believe my strong recollections of Wall Street from viewing Vincent’s paintings is far-fetched. I believe Vincent’s themes relate closely to the booming stock market of the last two decades—a development reverberating not only within the business world but in culture. During that period, the accumulation of wealth also served to widen significantly the chasm between the poor and rich. For many, spiritual poverty seemed to rise with material wealth. Against this backdrop, Vincent’s paintings also may be seen to be a postmodern extension of the dialogue depicted by the social realist painters between WWI and WWII.
Before WWII, such forces as the Depression, Fascism and the threat of a world war inspired such artists as Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield to paint despondency. Vincent is as adept as these artists in using light to evoke haunting moods. The loneliness permeating the room in Hopper’s “Eleven A.M. (1926)” is mirrored in “One Foot Out.”
Whereas much of the twenties and thirties’ art portrayed cityscapes to effect the (cheerless) mood of the times—such as Hopper’s “Nighthawks (1942)” —Vincent focuses directly on the personal world of powerful men to depict psychological bleakness. On this level, “Cockfight” shares much with Reginald Marsh’s “The Bowery (1930)” with both evoking a sense of psychologically ravaged men. However, the men in “Cockfight” seem worse off because the kind of impoverishment that blinds them to the brutality of (paying) the two men fighting within their midst is from an internal cause—not the external source of, say, a depressed world economy.
Consequently, the men in Vincent’s “Interconnected,” “Shelter” or “One Foot Out” are shown to be as much at risk to the vicissitudes of life as the young women portrayed in Raphael Soyer’s “Office Girls (1936).” Vincent presents a world where men try to bolster their security with accumulated wealth, and failed. Just as Burchfield painted a rural American from which pioneer strength had vanished, Vincent paints a world where money’s limitations are starkly revealed for the purpose of guaranteeing happiness.
Despite hearkening back to early 20th century realism, Vincent is plowing new ground unlike many of his peers. His vocabulary reflects our times adeptly. For instance, the conflation of witness with participant in our media culture, as most overtly reflected in the participatory audiences for such television shows as “Jerry Springer,” is one of the characteristics used by Vincent in the perspectives of his paintings. Unlike for a Hopper painting where the viewer remains an observer, Vincent places the viewer right smack in the middle of his scenes – one (even a female viewer) is mingling with the crowd in “Cockfight” drinking a martini; one is yelling “Hurry!” to the line in “Eradication”; or one is in the room, perhaps sitting in an armchair, in “One Foot Out.” The viewer is enmeshed in the intimacy of—rather than looking at—Vincent’s scenes.
In addition, Vincent is drawing attention to one of the most significant (and yet now ignored) periods of American painting to note that we—the country and the art world—are at a critical juncture. In the decade prior to WWII, the United States didn’t have a vision of its future so much as simply was trying to survive the Depression. Events led the country to WWII from which it emerged the victor, and subsequently led to the explosion of American culture including abstract expressionism and pop art. Vincent is reminding us that parallels can be drawn between the social and economic upheavals of the thirties with the situation we find ourselves in today following the recent crash of the stock markets.
If art is to reflect the mood of a culture, Vincent has tapped into something about the current psychology of the country. But instead of lapsing into nihilism, nostalgia, romanticism or kitsch, Vincent evinces a classicist eye and approach. In doing so, he maintains faith in his art—the art of painting—and, ultimately, the future of humanity.
These stones—alas! These gray stones—are
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?
“Not all” —the Echoes answer me— “not
“Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever
“From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise,
“As melody from Memnon to the Sun.
“We rule the hearts of mightiest men— we
“With a despotic sway all giant minds.
“We are no —we pallid stones.
“Not all our power is gone—not all our
“Not all the magic of our high renown—
“Not all the wonder that encircles us—
“Not all the mysteries that in us lie—
“Not all the memories that hang upon
“And cling around about us as a garment,
“Clothing us in a robe of more than glory.”
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Coliseum