Bubbles and Reflections
Prof. Haim Maor
At first sight, it seems as if Assaf Romano’s works shown in Bubbles and Reflections exhibition were painted by two artists, a figurative realist one and an abstract one. The former paints reflections of human beings or animals in various situations, whereas the latter’s paintings contain flat circles (discs) or voluminous circles (spheres) hovering/floating in a space covered with dynamic brush strokes. Romano calls these circles, “bubbles.”
Once you get to know better the artist, his outlook and body of works, you begin to comprehend the inseparable link between both styles, which seemed at first irreconcilable. A common question resonates in the bubble and reflection images: what is the essence, meaning and validity of painting today? Romano has put in writing his thoughts about this and other questions concerning his life and artistic styles in his artist book Bedidim, a self-produced work in progress, based on a diary he had written from autumn 2004 to winter 2007.
“The picture is a surface appropriated from reality / an independent territory compelled to emphasize its independence and make its presence felt by virtue of its immanent nature / however, one must keep in mind that a picture is only a picture / an echo of our own mind’s workings / otherwise, it would have been impossible to play [...] to see a larger picture in small details / to see small details in a larger picture [...] everything resonate / an inner reflection / projected unto the world / and vice versa / echo of an echo.”
In these and other statements of Romano about his works, one can discern a conception that likens the painterly act to the movement of a zoom lens, zooming in and out, back and forth, from the macro to the micro.
Seeing his works for the first time, I was reminded of a similar method of working simultaneously with several styles, of the one employed by German artist Gerhard Richter. In the latter impressive body of works, there are abstract, geometric-minimalist, abstract expressionist, hyperrealist and conceptual paintings. Indeed, Richter was Assaf Romano’s source of inspiration, guide and reference as he was developing his credo that good art is not predicated on one unified style:
“A style is like dry, dead skin / many strive and labor to hold on to it / as though it is an anchor stabilizing their ego / it becomes a bitter, undefined and pretentious ideology, / as it becomes associated with the strongest ambitions / it turns into a seemingly unnoticeable fettering burden / that allows for standing upright against the winds of change / (what a pity!) / Even though, as a matter of fact, it has never existed // good art is style-free.”
To the question whether his abstract and realist paintings reflect his inner-outer world, the artist replies by paraphrasing Gerhard Richter: “Every painting describes something. My abstracts describe something as yet unidentifiable and unknown to us.”
For Romano, painting is a possible alternative for the world:
“Painting is a possibility, an opening, for a world replete with possibilities that do not exist in the real world. The paintings move on this axis: inner world and outer world. People with eyes shut. Something happens inside them, in their inner world, and you – the beholder – are aware to the fact that the interior is inaccessible to you, it is always closed off to you.”
Romano’s painterly act oscillates between prolonged reflective, philosophic, Zen-inspired meditation and a slow, precise and meticulous action of an artisan, who extracts “a slow painting [from] an image-inflated world [...] To work like an artisan [is] / in other and better words / to be an artisan.”
I wrote about the portrait of the artist as a philosopher and/or an artisan in the context of two exhibitions shown simultaneously in Tel Aviv in 1994, that of Marcel Duchamp and that of Avigdor Arikha. In that review, I had argued that theirs are seemingly polar artistic worlds.
“The contrasts between them are superficial and artificial, and their points of view are only ostensibly different. [...] Arikha is a realist painter-draughtsman [...] his painting is sensuous and sensual [...] what you see is what you get. [...] Duchamp, on the other hand, is essentially – so they say – a conceptual and intellectual artist. [...] The artist is a sophisticated and witty copywriter that casts his spells and witchery on existing [ready-made objects] turning them with an intellectual magic wand into a ‘work of art.’ Whereas Arikha opens his eyes, uses his hands and needs a skillful eye-hand-mind coordination, Duchamp prefers to shut his eyes, to use his mind for contriving schemes, moves and strategies [...] and needs intuition and illumination.”
Further down, I wrote:
“Duchamp is an obsessive observer or voyeur of reality with a singularly keen and searching eye. Without looking rigorously at an object, one cannot find/invent a new spirit for it [...] the gaze is Duchamp’s bedrock. This is a penetrating serrated gaze. [...] Arikha, too, is not merely one side of the coin. He is not just a technician or a skillful craftsman [whose paintings] ‘show reality’ [the way it is]. Nay, his paintings are not reality. [...] There is a long and complicated process of using the gray matter, not only skillful sleight of hand. A line on the paper is a conceptual one, the painted portrait cannot be caressed in any real sense of the word, and it is made of paint just like the smoke coming out of René Magritte’s pipe. [...] Duchamp is Arikha in the guise of a philosopher, and Arikha is Duchamp in the guise of an artisan.”
In Romano’s paintings, one finds the double consciousness and proficiency of an artisan and a philosopher.
“I want to look life in the eye / I look life in the eye / it is not easy when you know that eyes haven’t got life and life doesn’t have eyes [...] a picture will never be / you // and you will never be / inside it // even though it exists within you [...] like a flower / slowly, slowly // finally / there will only remain / a picture of / consciousness [...] as long as there is a language there would be a story / as long as there is eyesight a picture would be created / (and not vice versa).”
On the one hand, Romano is aware of the fact that his paintings are merely a layer of paint, a membrane laid on a canvas (“from nothing to nothing / and in between a membrane”). On the other hand, he encodes into them mental contents, echoes of childhood memories, or personal experiences (a severe road accident injury in December 2003). The painting is a sensitive membrane, a living tissue, a projection plane for pain or its blockage (“PAINTPAIN”). Thus, abstract painting becomes a reflection of inner reality (“Orange bubble / holds the world”), whereas realistic painting presents to us a bubble functioning like a convex mirror, which opens unto alternative world, unto virtual reality. And both are merely illusions through which one attempts to create a world, to turn the painted “membrane” into an “essence”: “vision as a mirage / an image as tyranny [...] signifying is not enough, I must will it to be.”
Looking at Romano’s paintings, I’m thinking about bubbles and reflections.
What is a bubble? A bubble is, by definition, a perfect shape, air or gas globule existing in a gaseous, liquid or solidified liquid medium. When we look at bouncing bubbles in a fizzy drink, or play with soap bubbles, we experience the present in its ephemerality and fragile beauty, as if we were watching our ethereal reflection in a metaphorical crystal ball: an air globule, or air enclosed within a floating thin sphere of soapy liquid, expresses or turns out to be an insubstantial thing, an empty vessel. Like a butterfly, it represents for us life’s fragility, transience, and vulnerability. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” said King Solomon. Christian art had translated this concept into the vanitas genre: life in a bubble, or dissociated, repressed false reality and denial of the “day of reckoning” or our mortality. “Memnto mori,” recommend whisperingly moral paintings, which describe still life or nature morte, or seemingly innocent paintings, which display a bubble suspended from a blowing straw held in a boy’s mouth. “Why do children enjoy blowing bubbles?” Romano asks, and answers: “A bubble is a momentary creation. A situation of coming into being. You can’t plan it. The boy is immersed neither in the present, nor in the future. It is a triumph of the moment: a breath of air emitted from the boy’s body materializes and creates a perfect momentary object. Sort of a perfect event that links the inside to the outside.”
However, even in life’s moments of banal peacefulness and pleasure, your vulnerability and helplessness might catch up with you unexpectedly. And then, like a bubble, you break and for one potent and significant moment you experience life to the fullest.
In December 2003, while driving the winding road going down from his home in Har Haluz in central Galilee, Romano had lost control of his car and crashed into a truck. This indelible moment was etched in his memory like a cinematic slow motion sequence, like a free falling/gliding followed by a crash. His awareness of life and death was heightened by this constitutive experience, and its traces are singed in his paintings.
With his circles/spheres/bubbles, Romano makes a fascinating visual statement about routine-order, restraint and logic, and about their chaotic opposites; micro- and macro-cosmos; flatness and depth in a painting; singular and recurrent forms; forms striving to converge into a pattern and frame and forms that shatter life/order conventions and break to pieces in the process.
“From within a car / feeling an inevitable impending accident / the mountains’ indifference [...] thick and viscous fatigue out of which I move forward as if in a slo-mo picture [...] fragments in a passage from solidity to memory // the fragments’ history [...] I write with disbelief / have I died and this is but a dream? / Somehow it became clearer // there – is – nothing – scary – about – death [...] while experiencing reality intensely, / a rare experience indeed / when you feel as one with the universe / the feeling is (I am lost for words) // the dissociation is so structured – the unrelatedness / expulsion from the Garden of Eden [...] the more I think about it / the more everything slides away, out of my grips / and becomes much more interesting.
“I draw my small daughter, / the one born in a car in a dark, cold night, / the one I thought I was losing there at the roadside, / the one, from whose life, from the age of two weeks to the age of three and a half months, I was absent, / injured, hurt, in a hospital, / I draw her vulnerability / the glow of her skin, her softness, / my love, / a bundle of self-centered joy, unaware of the attention surrounding her, / exposed, precarious, / I draw / my parenthood, my values, my anxieties.”
Atalia, 2005, is a realistic painting of the artist’s daughter sleeping, oblivious to the world, on bluish bed sheet with her back to the viewer. The child’s body floats-glides-falls within the painted space. The painting qua medium stops her from falling or gliding away. The artist leaves the child in mid-air. Like the wonderful verses in Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, Photograph from September 11, commemorating the people who jumped to their death from the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001:
“They jumped from the burning floors— / one, two, a few more, / higher, lower. // The photograph halted them in life, / and now keeps them / above the earth toward the earth. // Each is still complete, / with a particular face / and blood well hidden. // [...] I can do only two things for them— / describe this flight / and not add a last line.”
All of Romano’s realistic paintings are based on news photography, or snap shots he took on different occasions. Carefully staged in the process of their metamorphosis into paintings, they serve him as a means for reflective meditation. Each painting narrates, as it were, a unique story. But, as a matter of fact, they all conceal one and the same secret, or unsolved enigma: a world withdrawn, between serenity and crash, between balance and the threat to it.
Furthermore, a closer examination reveals that each of these paintings has another layer, an encoded one, that relates to childhood (traumatic?) experience. At times, these experiences were hidden even from the artist himself, who became aware of them only in retrospect, after painting them.
“Why is something being drawn up? Images crystallize within me long before they surface in my consciousness and are imported from there to a canvas. After they are set on canvas, a long reflection on their origins and meaning emerges.
“A colorless childhood memory from my first days in primary school: in the area by the public lavatory, two bigger boys play with marbles on gray soil. Everything is gray, except for the intensely orange marbles. I stand there mesmerized, looking at their spherical shape and glowingly intense orange color. Is this the early source of the bubbles?
“Another childhood memory: I’m ten or eleven years old. Alone at my grandfather’s home in Haifa, I am drawing heads of birds of prey. When my family came back, my mother asked me: ‘Who did these drawings?’ I answered: ‘I did.’ ‘Impossible,’ she said absent-mindedly and went away. The painting Boy and Goldfish in a Fish Tank, 2009, is based on a staged photograph. As I was painting it, I remembered the incident with my mother. I think the painting somehow deals with the act of painting and, perhaps, also with my disappointment of not being recognized as an artist. Present also in the painterly consciousness are paintings of goldfish in a bowl by Henri Matisse and the tale of ‘The Fisherman and the Goldfish.’ According to dream interpretation, a fish appearing in a dream denotes a talent, an elusive gift or good fortune.”
An encoded layer of the kind that reveals itself to the artist post factum, exists also in The Eagle, 2008. The artist has kept a National Geographic reproduction of an eagle since the time he was fifteen years old. He translated it into a large painting, adding a Native American chain to the eagle’s neck. This chain is associated in his mind with a scene from a film he saw as a child showing Native American children harassing a boy. They tied him to poles in the shape of bird’s wings and hurled him down from a tall cliff. As the boy fell into an abyss, he suddenly became an eagle and moved into another world...
Only in retrospect, after the painting was exhibited publicly, Romano found out that what he thought of as representing the inner part of a wing actually looks like a fish. The image of the fish eluded him, even though it was there. This brings to mind, for a reason, the story of the hidden form of a vulture (kite) encrypted into the folds Mary’s dress in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child With St. Anne, 1510. Sigmund Freud analyzed the work and its psychological implications in his 1910 essay “A Memory of His Childhood,” an essay with which Romano is well acquainted.
These combinations/concatenations (eagle and fish, eagle and chain, goldfish and boy, tiger with collar, woman with colorful bead chains) are but a few examples of those hidden in the deeper layers of Romano’s realistic paintings. They show that these paintings are reflections in a very certain sense of the word, that of “something reflected by something else, or something whose qualities resemble something else”. They bring together, time and again, the forces of nature and culture as they both try to grab each other by the neck until the moment of explosion: the moment of disillusionment or awakening from the painted illusory ideal.