In discussing the unusual circumstances of her artistic lineage (her mom, dad, stepmother and stepfather were all well-known artists), including her painful experience of the prototypical “hygienic museum-gallery space,” artist Rebecca Quaytman writes, “I often experienced mild waves of dizziness when walking in highly lit white minimal exhibition spaces. I felt as if I was simultaneously the organism being looked at and a huge gelatin eye looking. I was unsure as to what was meant to be experienced and felt guilt when my huge gelatin eye became two small eyes wandering from the intended target of the painting.”
This is probably a common gallery syndrome for art initiates, not just a neurotic symptom resulting from Quaytman’s own history. So it’s no wonder that such an art veteran would pursue a course that seeks to analyze and contextualize (if not undo and change) the very environment that once nurtured her. In summing up the decades of artistic production within her own lifetime (from the ’60s through the ’90s), she writes, “It’s no longer relevant to paint for an audience of one peripherally blind monogamous Cyclops who will never leave.”
In the 47 works that constitute The Sun, the current installation of Quaytman’s paintings at Revolution, a personal narrative documents the contingencies of her life and seeks to destabilize our traditional experience of viewing art. The notion of a directional strategy to the narrative begins with an image that represents the stacked sides of 40 of the paintings. What first appears as an abstraction is eventually recognizable as a representation of plywood laminations — the boards on which the paintings are done — that changes the viewer’s perspective of the paintings themselves. And as we scan the room, it’s apparent that this strategy of dismantling is maintained throughout all 47 works.
The narrative itself begins with paintings that document the story of two men in a car killed in a collision with a train. The men were returning from a visit to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which ironically celebrated the automobile and the mobility that it would bring to life in the future. The logo of The Sun, the newspaper reporting the accident, displays its equally ironic motto, “excelsior” (meaning both “onward and upward” and a material used for packing and stuffing). The figures of Liberty and Justice are also present in this antique logo. Then the series continues with an oblique, geometric investigation of passenger train interiors, photos from the World’s Fair, and more sides of paintings arranged in abstract formations (essentially creating directional arrows which push us further along, as well as diagrams of hypothetical interior spaces). By the end of her narrative, Quaytman represents a trip she took to the Polish city of Lódz, from which one of the men had immigrated to New York. Ultimately we learn from the gallery guide that the men who were killed were Quaytman’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather.
Throughout the series, there’s a preoccupation with movement — on train tracks in both passenger cars and boxcars, with alternating views in and out of windows — evoking a perspective on the accumulated incidents of history. Replacing the traditional notion of the “masterpiece,” the series propels us toward a new way of looking at art, while situating Quaytman herself at its ironic center. These painful references to her own identity have a dizzying effect, with an overriding sense of Nazi concentration camps at the end of the tracks. In fact, we learn that Lódz was indeed a loading station for Jewish Holocaust victims and that a couple named “Kwejtman” had been deported from the Lódz ghetto to Chelmo, one of the four “exclusive death camps” used only for extermination and not labor.
In her exhibition statement, Quaytman says that painting is a slow process – but revisiting and dismantling the facts of history necessitates this dogged slowness of which The Sun is a brilliant illustration.
Rebecca Quaytman’s The Sun is at Revolution (23257 Woodward Ave., Ferndale) through Oct. 19. Also on view is “Wish You Were Here,” a group show featuring works by Marcia Cottrell, Maya Lin, David Shaw, Anne Wilson, Jae Won Lee, Jim Melchert and Robert Turner, inspired by music from “Postcards” by composer Bright Sheng. Call 248-541-3444.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]