A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 6)

In 1995, Andrews’ implication in the unfolding of the HIV/AIDS pandemic yielded a suite of drawings rendered in oil and pencil and exhibited under the title Album.  The works in this series cross a calendar with a commonplace book, manually reproducing snapshots, letters, sympathy notes and greeting-card images that amount to an inventory of dreams both fulfilled and betrayed, conducted at some distance from the youthful optimism often associated with the promise of the future.  The unframed parchment paper that serves as the drawings’ material support evokes skin, and hence the body that eventually encounters what Seneca, in “De brevitate vitae,” calls “death’s final constraint.”  In the following year, Andrews literalized the allusion to the body readable in Album‘s fragile parchment, resorting to pliant pig intestine as the receptive surface on which he silkscreened familiar, even clichéd images of meteorological phenomena in a series entitled The Weather.  The sunset, tornado, lightning-bolt and wind-tossed waves offer themselves to a cursory glance as givens.  In fact, their complexity resides not in what they represent, but in an interplay of image, medium and material whose effects are not only unpredictable, but incalculable.  These brief landscapes begin by skewing the terms of our received understanding of the figure-ground relationship, cunningly enlisting the body as the surface on which they unfold.  Nothing is more mundane than the weather; yet the artist’s treatment, both conceptually and materially, makes a fresh demand for reflection on what we are perhaps too prone to take for granted.

The diptych “Parenthesis (no gold),” for example, presents both ends of a rainbow, their symmetrical placement adumbrating the invisible arc whose antecedents are inextricably natural and cultural.  For it is virtually impossible to register such an image independently of its palimpsestic overlay, whether the reference point is Jesse Jackson’s coalition, the gay activist banner, or – perhaps most inevitably – The Wizard of Oz.  Thus the stakes of a potentially banal depiction are raised in a way that the work’s title itself confirms:  For what we encounter here is not so much the representation of a rainbow as the figuring of a dubious promise, in the fabled pot of gold.

Read in the context of the new generation of antiretroviral therapies that became selectively available in 1996, the promise figured here takes on a certain specificity.  If in Facsimile‘s commemorative portraits the promise in question was that of the survivor to the dead, emphatically pledging not to forget, “Parenthesis (no gold)” articulates a promise of a different order:  that of longer survival, and with it the prospect of yet more effective treatments, perhaps a vaccine and eventually a cure.  It staked its first claim to our attention at a time when combination therapies including protease inhibitors held out the possibility (predicated of course on access) of a future radically other than the one presumed to that point by the HIV-infected, including Andrews himself.  The Weather, then, administers to its viewers a Wordsworthian “shock of mild surprise,” for the putative landscapes become legible as portraits, and indeed self-portraits.

As Andrews notes in the artist’s statement that accompanied the exhibition of the series in New York in 1997, “New drugs have afforded a ray of hope.  Hope is a fantasy of a future that might continue to unfold before us.  Who can predict?”  The cliché enlisted here takes the specific form of a catachresis:  a “ray” of hope.  As it does so often (so often that we may fail to notice), the language of affect borrows from other realms – the weather, for example – to figure an experience that resists formulation and formalization.  This reliance on the resources of language is evident in another component of the same exhibition:  a series of cyanotypes of a handwritten alphabetical list of names (Arthur, Berta, Cesar….) by which the season’s hurricanes – the unpredictable tempests of 1996 – were anthropomorphized, their force linguistically domesticated.  Tacitly, then, another allusion to The Wizard of Oz emerges, especially if we recall that the film’s storied heroine also has a telling surname:  Gale.  Taken together, these works attest that the black-and-white of the past (which was all along multiple shades of grey) has been sucked up and dashed to pieces by a vortex that has transplanted the very horizon, depriving us of our bearings.  We find ourselves catapulted to unmapped terrain – if not over the rainbow (“no gold”), then at some other point beneath its arc of promise.  Like the artist’s earlier efforts, The Weather thus combines a certain skepticism about the durability of the work itself with an abiding optimism about what is to come.  If biodegradability dictates in advance that this corpus, with its fragile material support, is destined soon enough to return to dust, the force of its attestation, which is irreducible to sense, may prove more resistant to the ravages of time.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing

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