Donald Sultan’s Disaster Paintings and the quandry of their painterly stratagem.

Rev., Feb 24, 2018.

This essay is based on seeing this show in person at the Sheldon Museum, February, 2018.

Encountering the Disaster Series by Donald Sultan at the Sheldon, I was a bit nonplussed. Sultan is pretty much exactly my age, and he began to make a name for himself in the art world at the exact same time when I made a bit more modest effort at the same. I remembered his flowers and his abstractions, as pictured in the catalog, quite well, but…I did not remember the Disaster Series. So, that was the first problem. This was clearly a body of work that he devoted an enormous amount of time to (the exhibition as seen in the catalog was much bigger than that presented at the Sheldon), but it was not shown at the time (at least, I did not see it, or, if I did, it did not register). So, assuming that to be true, and that this show is an attempt to give a second look at a body of work that was overlooked, the question is, why?

Of course, there are any number of reasons why the work of an artist does not get a proper airing, urban legend of course argues that gender or ethnicity is the primary reason, but, really, especially in the 80s, which was so market conscious, it is simply that a work belongs or does not belong to a market. Especially if a market is circumscribed by a strong theoretical push, then the work has to conform to the market and gain entry into it by being “approved” as it were by the theoretical gatekeepers of the moment. Again, this was how it was in the 80s, things are much looser (but not entirely different) now. So, generally, Donald Sultan’s abstracts were accepted and consumed as part of a vague movement at the time called NeoGeo. The idea was promulgated most of all by Peter Halley, and it argued that abstraction was by no means the expression of the artist but a circuitry borrowed from the world and existing in the world and it was best if abstractionists could cool off their work by casting over it a cover of distancing effects through which one looked at the simulation of abstraction in the abstraction. Or something like that. To map it out, using my graphics, expressionist abstraction believed that the facture of the painting was somehow connected to the cult of the artist, expressive of his or her energy or whatever

sul 1that is, the work of art is a creation of the agency of the artist, in the context of a cult of the artist meaning that everything in him or her is important to get out, their subjectivity rules, and as a result in the painting the facture is an expression of their subjectivity and feeling, and this, this hotness makes for the cult of “painterly” painting that prevails on and off in the period.

By contrast, neogeo worked out a different formula

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that is, the work of art was STILL the creation of the artist, but the artist was now deferring from authorial input, the actual look and substance of the painting was derived by the artist as observer interpositioning between him or her and the painting the world and all its surfaces, and then from the application of his thought about the world as artist he or she created a painting that is as cold and material and abstract and compact and objective as the world. This posture then reverted by reagency (or maybe reverse agency, my graphs are always scenic improvs) to the artist representing his/her cold eye on the world by as it were a screen or sludge of pure, hard, abstracting, effacing paint, over the surface of the painting as thing. In this case, then, the world was represented by as it were a distanced or buried subject matter, remotely seen and detected, and then grounded in the ethos of the world as abstract and being abstract in the way of all but not being there. It was the connoisseurship of simulation, represented, in paint; it was thought, by means of the effacement strategy of an artist turning against the claim of abstraction to represent emotions or even the world, to posit abstraction as just another “medium”, that, generally, Neo Geo nested.

This did have some relation to the distancing strategies of classic postmodernism. In its simplest terms, as I read it in the 70s, before I entered the art world, the postmodern aesthetic reversed the ethos of straight photography or imagery, the idea that the medium was a naïve, transparent, objective recorder of truth, and truth was in reality

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to a much more nuanced view

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that a photograph was taken by a photographer with his or her subjectivity and interests and this resulted when taking a photograph in a certain degree of framing and selecting of a subjective nature which as such made media opaque and all about itself, to be read first, for its biases, and THEN you read through that to the non-truth of the subject matter or reality beyond it. In this formula as it worked out, there developed, then, a number of effacement or objectification strategies, either making more or less of the medium, to at the very least make it more present, as a clear screen or veil through which one viewed reality, and this created the ethos that blocked Straight Photography and created Constructed Photography. But, it also, from that effacement in the medium consideration created a number of strategies by which a photographer or artist could manipulate the medium to make it more or less to interpose it between him- or herself and reality to make the point that the medium is the frame and most of the message is in the medium, while the subject is just a something in a reality that cannot really in its truth be known by way of medium.

The simplest way in which I got to this point of view was naively, before I had read any theory, by just wowing at the oldness of old photographs; and, then, as a kind of joke, argue that I can’t see through them to the past, and, for that, I read them literally, to then make jokes based on that.

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that is, I would see an old photo

sul 7and rather than see through it transparently to a recorded reality, in the past, that is, conveying the truth of the reality of the past (and I was playing games here, and was immature), I would “read” the marks of obsolescence on it, the fadedness, the shadows, the nicks and bruises, then also the old-timeness of it, its “surreality,” the stiff posing, the serious faces, the deer in the headlights stare before the new medium, and other aspects of that sort (I broke it down in an intuitive not systematic way), and thus from this picture describe a poetic-magical Civil War world where all the men waded knee deep in a grey fog for the whole war, and had long guns to as it were row with an oar through that permanent fog, and they would often, not to get lost, just sit perfectly still, without moving a muscle for hours in camp, to make sure they were all there; and then too they were not moving a muscle because they were afraid of black misty ghosts like the one in the lower left corner coming up and jumping into them from the dead bodies just off screen, etc. I still do this, now and then, for fun, but it was by these visual games that I came upon the postmodern approach to reality by way of medium, medium first as the frame, always having a bias, always constructed, and then reality in effect somewhat unknowable (I was also a phenomenologist so believed that, in fact, the reality was IN the place where subjectivity and objectivity met in the ghosts etc described by Husserl, and all that was materialized in media, in old photography).

sul 9And it turns out that, though somewhat differently, Cindy Sherman did pretty much the same thing

sul 10She did this:

sul 11she took a film still from an old movie, and, by her subjective looking at it, noticed that something about it now, by the passage of time, seemed wrong; that, therefore, brought the medium forward to interposition it between the subjectivity of the artist viewer and its subject reality, to create of it a medium through which reality is seen, but with more consciousness of its role as medium. That is, by observing the front, fictive and support space of a film still, which in its time in the market was simply viewed transparently as “reality,” (though I now somewhat dispute this too), she suddenly, by focusing attention on the medium, SAW the lines in its wholeness, and was able to separate them out, and also observe maybe that, my theory, by time and market they had come apart on their own, creating fissures where things were formerly seamless; and she, then, interjected herself into the fictive space of the shot to recreate the shot in front surface and support scenery but position herself with just a hint of datedness and CSness sexiness of whatever to make it seem ever so slightly off, but still entirely ‘nailing it’ to exactly and precisely with surgical skill deconstruct the hidden sexism, for example, in the film still. By this masquerade, stepping into the film still, she as it were created a kind of crawlspace in the counterform of the medium, to create a new medium in photography, constructed photography.

By her overwhelming influence, however, it did seem as if the art world mostly embraced the stratagem of sizing apart the surface and support, to see the fissure or split in the image, then interjecting something in the fictive space of a comic or deadpan manner, to “deconstruct” it and make it ridiculous. This strategy has become by now such total second nature in the age of the meme that it is somewhat quaint to admit that this seemed like a revelation to us, all of us raised on the truth of the straight photographic image, and I would almost blush at our naivete were it not for the fact that it does seem as if since 9/11 the world has wholeheartedly returned to an abiding faith in the pious falsities of photojournalism as conveyers of some dramatic truth, and seems to believe once again, or when it suits your point of view, in the absolute dramatic effect and truthtelling power of a straight image, a very dangerous turn in the ability of the world to manage its media. But of the three possible general categories of stratagem of splitting the former truth atom of straight photography by parsing out its surface, fictive space and support, as such, abstracted from the above

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the CS method, 1, parsing out the fictive space seemed the most popular, and the most copied approach. At some point, I will go back and pull out some other photographers who followed in the line of constructed photography, but things went wide of the mark quickly.

But, more to the point here, how did painting respond to the picture theory (for that is what this is) breakdown of straight photography? simple, by breaking down the straight painting, as described above, with now the interposition of the subjectivity of the artist but as a critical subjectivity interrogating the truth of the medium and doing so primarily through, imitating CS, breaking apart the fictive space of the painting. Mark Tansey, of course, was the most popular artist at the time, doing this, and popular for that

sul 13But there were others, Duncan Hannah, John Bowman, Robert Longo, Willy Lenski, all of whom broke down straight representational painting and interjected something odd and mysterious and awkward in it, by means of manipulating the fictive space of the painting, and keeping all other elements quite simple and plain (this all, however, really didn’t take off until John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage figured it all out, fusing this tendency with “bad painting,” another train of thought, at the very end of the decade, see my piece on Currin, same arguments).

Then there were painters like Mark Innerst, who, in my language “literalized” painting, much in the tradition of the photorealists, by “literally” painting the severe reduction of content caused by the framing of things in this way

sul 14this, then, putting the frame up front, that would be an adjunct space, bestride the fictive, I would guess

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this often involved what I then clumsily called the new landscape, where frame was literalized–again, that was my term for foregrounding the medium by reading it literally then peering at the usurped reality reduced to mere signs of “painting” to be seen far off

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And then there was Troy Brauntuch, and all sorts doing this sort of thing, all but making opaque the surface space, to all but entirely efface the content as a mere phantom or mirage seen in the solidness or surfaceness of the surface

sul 17Something like this

sul 18and then Jack Goldstein who, I think this is right, thought, OK, the medium is intervening, but what if we sharpen it up by way of silhouette or other shock or highlighting devices, like you see in movies, would that again as it were by a kind of end-around reinvigorate the subject matter or painting of the painting to make it reach back and enrich that reality to be seen in a new way

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And I guess schematically, I will just map him to the back of the surface, fictive and support breakdown, so he is about manipulating media to see the support and ground behind it in a new way

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Robert Longo also more or less doing the same thing. And, then, in that little world, which I was enchanted by, Doug Blau was the curator of choice, all his included works wiggle-rooming one way or another about these shiftings, and all the variations possible, and I of course liked it that because Chesley Bonestell’s space drawings now had “surfaced” and “literalized” as fantasies of reality embedded in the media (same language), they were included in Blau’sk landmark exhibition, Fictions, at Kent Gallery (there was a whole tranche of the Jack Goldstein groupies all centered around futurist Paul Virillo’s language, and Z Magazine, the cyborg enthusiasm of the moment, I mean it was thrillingly “postmodern” on a larger level of reaching out to popular art and, in my theory, popular art that had now “migrated out” of its one-dimensional straight period, to now be seen as what they were, subjective art with medium intervening

sul 21And I will also say that every artist, once they figured out at least the ballpark notion of their armentarium, that is, their strategy in how they wiggled in and around the deconstructing of the medium of photography by way of picture theory and doing what I generally called at the time “photo based painting” (my best essays written on this topic were for Inherent Vice, an exhibition I curated at the Woodstock Center of Photography (1991), and about the painting of Willy Lenski in a brochure I wrote for Neo Persona gallery, 1989), it did seem to me that, at times, Innerst, for example, would thicken his surface enameling to allow for a crossover bridging the picture theory painting and the Neo Geo moment for all of it to kind of harmonize in the development of the market.

And, in fact, it is in his thick lacquering over in a dull, black way, then involving pop art or just pure simulation-painting non-content, that Donald Sultan snuck in the door, and made it big in his particular little wiggle room.

sul 22But, then, like I said, that is where he took up his place, in a narrow little wiggle room spot in the developing market. And that spot was already taken by Troy Brauntuch

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or rather, that spot was an active place, and as he made work in that niche space that is what he became known for, and what people wanted of him, so, there it was, the market decided (and so did he) (the market is still the market, but it was highly parsed in the 80s).

And, now, it turns out that he was also, at the same time, in the background, creating another body of work that was also picture theory painting, but much more focused on the content as some reflection of the horror of the world, that is, in a kind of straight way; but then he sludged over it his signature heavy dark opaque flow of resin resulting in, perhaps, people having the same reaction to them that I had to them last week, you wanted to engage with them as if they were Longos or Goldsteins, or even Turners, the big subject matter, the strong, hard, rough content, the “disasters,” and you wanted to want his marshalling of the medium of painting in a more dramatic and mediated way like Goldstein, to bring new oomph and sharpness to the depiction of the content in a way that circled back to reconnect content to the reality of the world, creating, as it were, a kind of zigzag recapture of the straight photography ethos, but by way of acknowledging, then overcoming, the influence media has on how you see it, to get there by way of a filter, then, but…..because the paintings were covered by an insistent in-your-face surface with such a sludge of opaque black paint that as it were seemed to flow down over the content and even “put it out,” if a fire, or neutralize it, if other content, one did not know how to deal with it, it did not read as his Lemons did, it read in a way that by the pattern set in the market was not readable at the time, so, the impasse of this series of paintings. Thus, my first conclusion with this work is that, because it is titled the Disaster Series, one wants to engage with the subject matter and content and in a way that enlists the painterly style to reinforce and recharge the power of media filtered to capture reality, to reassign this formula of representation back to a straight purpose to represent the horror of reality, the cold dead horror of life today. But it doesn’t work. Then, at the same time, you want to stand back and accept the screen and view the art of the sludge of resin in front on the surface and see that as somehow metaphorical of the POV of the artist, or whatever, but that too does not quite work. Therefore, one is stuck, both ways, both ways, the paintings do not seem to quite work according to pre-practised strategems in classic picture theory, picture theory painting, or even Neo Geo painting. So, what is one to do? And here, I think, dynamic agency theory is required to unpack the problem, in part two.

The magical apotropaia of Donald Sultan’s Disaster Series, Sheldon Museum of Art.

Rev., Feb 25, 2018.

Note: This is a radical phenomenological reconstruction of a visit, to tease out what I actually thought of these paintings, then to come to a conclusion. Apologies in advance for hardly passable photography.

Having determined, or at least guessed, why it was that I might not have seen Donald Sultan’s Disaster Series back in the 80s, when it was done, and why I was surprised to see them in 2018, at the Sheldon, and using for all that a kind of postformalist model of onionskins of elements of works as derived from my treatment of movies, now I have to concede that the actual reason why the work confused me, and then maybe resolved itself into be acknowledged as of interest, is agentic. That is, a broader picture related to the fact that the pictures made a relational solicitation to my attention which involved either cult, intercessional, votive or apotropaic impulses.

To get to this authentically, I have the difficult task, two weeks later, of trying to reconstruct my brief tour of the show, and mark out what I noticed, what I paid attention to, as an indication of my response, agentically. First picture, then, right in the door (from the elevator), is of the scenic quality of the firemen fighting a fire

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The shot seems to focus on the silhouettes, the men as heroes, of some sort, and then it expands to take in the whole of the flames. Sultan, my photo seems to say, does good flames. But, right away, in the next shot, I was worrying, what exactly are these things, are they pictures, or platforms? and this support structure, I don’t know what it means

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then, I would have to say, by the noncommittal nature of these snaps, I drifted. I didn’t respond to Poison Nocturne, and, wondered, in fact, why so black, why so dark? I had no thought in the gallery about the idea of the “nocturne,” or any of its Whistlerian implications, which I would think effete and jejune rationalization in any case.

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Here too, however, the physical question mark

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and then, trying to take in the whole thing, to give it the benefit of the doubt

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These were the paintings in the opening gallery, the gateway, introductory pieces, as it were, coming into the show from the elevator (which I now use).

Then, in the next gallery, the introduction seemed to be over, as right away I jumped back into the firefighting, and saw and felt that this was “good fire.”

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And I think this close-up clearly indicates that not only did I like the fire, but I thought Sultan did a good job with capturing the facture and fury of fire, and the whole fire thing. This was my entrée into the work

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And again, and it’s possible I even saw intimations, in miniature, though these were painted years before, of 9/11, who knows.

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Then I focused on this part, in another painting, a church tower silhouetted against fire.

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If I could deconstruct this according to picture theory I’m guessing I was trying to put it in line with both classic images of St. Paul’s cathedral during the Battle of London

sul 33And maybe obviously relate it to Turner’s pictures of the Burning of Parliament, in which he was clearly trying to symbolize the changing times by the disasters happening, truly with apocalyptic fervor

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And the picture of the burning church inside the door of the Castavettes apartment, as snuck into by Rosemary at the end of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), one of my favorite movie paintings ever (see blog post, June 2013) (Note: I have since located a number of fire scene painters in 17th century Holland).

sul 37Smoke too, so by the clicks I was into it.

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And then that little oomph of interest was resolved back into something more signature as a Sultan, because more abstract, Forest Fire (1984).

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But, here too, my eye was licking at the fire

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Curiously, at this point, I had taken a picture of a work in the first gallery, of a factory in silhouette, in some form, and now I turned to frame it in the doorway of that gallery and look back on it for reasons why I am not clear about, yet.

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And there were more fires, perhaps emphasized curatorially in the truncated version of the show shown at the Sheldon, but it seems I just ambled by.

sul 44and then I fixed on what I later said was the best painting in the show, a picture of Auschwitz, Polish Landscape, and the trains and industrial complex about it.

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and the surface and facture on this was quite a bit more intense, and directed, and more closely related to and involved in the subject matter than other paintings in the exhibition; that is, it seemed to me, that the space between treatment and topic was smaller, this was a tighter, almost descriptive painting, but with surface effects

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It is the only picture I came real close into to focus on imposing passages of evocation of the horror of the place, this passage gives one a true chill.

sul 47And I tried to get the whole railroad verticality in a picture to capture more of the relation, and effect, this then the path of death, how it was done.

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Then I sat down and looked at a catalog that was set out there, and it featured, apparently, a source painting, in the ben day dot way that abtracting postmoderns do graphicaly to give the scene an historic patina and distance, and maybe even aloof grandeur (the original picture in the press is a photojournalist picture meant to scare us, and make us terrified of the world and life, so that when other people respond to it, we can make them heroes, and thus buoy up our sense that our sensibility and our human interest in mankind will protect us from the world, this sentimentalization and romanticization of the tragedies of the world, so common in treatment of the news today (I mean, WHY cant we talk about Syria without right away talking about it through pictures of dying children?) I deplore as evidence of a corny and false belief in straight photography when most of the time it is propaganda. Then, as the picure theorists found out, and as I know from my attraction to muted sort of representations of old, I particularly like the blank, aloof tone of documentary photos from the turn of the 20th century as, for example, in my copy of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all of these effacements are meant to distance us to accept the carnage of the world, and I do have a strong streak of belief in the God of Carnage, but…..I did not sense this apocalyptic spirit here).

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Somehow, someone in the catalog relates this all to Bocklin’s Island of the Dead, no, Bocklin was a pagan who was seeking to find a place for death in life conceived of in as a more animated, numinous place (I have not read the catalog essay).

sul 51And I was reminded of the Donald Sultan I knew of in the 80s market, all at Blum Helman

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The catalog also showed more typical abstract treatment of the flames, in ways that break the monotony of the black.

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and a more lyrical tone

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which feel like defintely not disasters, just nature (Note: this comment written before California burned down this year)

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and more abstraction of the leaf form, closer, then, to the lemons work

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then a super closeup of Auschwitz again

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and another old photo

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and other more Jack Goldstein-y gambits, giving graphic punch to photo sources and more

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Concluding with a good dose of artist-as-god myth creation shots from the studio sanctum sanctorum, then an essay by poet Max Blagg which starts off with a thud with Shelley’s Ozymandias, for god’s sake, the most downloaded poem online in the weeks after 9/11, and then Blagg brings all the literary references in from Armageddon to Dante (and I thought it odd to read of the Odor of Ashes on a Valentine’s Day that was also an Ash Wednesday), the full romantic treatment.

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which then goes on, somewhat contradictorily (middle class consciousness always Janusfaced) to rightly so deplore the romanticization of war photos and the like, my hated photojournalism, see above, but then indulges in all sorts of artist statement-based readings and artist-god tropes of feeling and depth and all that, and, oh please, I stopped reading. And……that was my show. A last shot at the blackness

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and then a questioning departure

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So, what did I get out that exhibition? And where does my feeling fall, in my somewhat bemused response to it, after, that is, I get over the art-critical market-sorting point, covered above, that I did not remember them from when they were painted.

First thing, a lot of people will go into a show by “Donald Sultan” and view each work as a token or souvenir of his mind and of the mind of the artist and therefore see these paintings, and their response as takeaway souvenirs to support their continued cult of the artist. If they happen to be an artist, then from these they will reflect back on their embrace of the heightened subjectivity which so many middle class people have in the past generation, being artists, have embraced, so, these are relics of a cult of the artist, and becomes tools of narcisistic self-regard and middle class consciousness wagon-circling. I simply do not see artwork like that anymore, it is all anecdotal rationalization, or only rarely and only for a very few artists, artists that merit it. Most of the time I look for nothing more in an artist than a kind of saint’s or shaman’s role, an intercessionary to open up a door to a different perspective, to help me see things in a way I might not have thought about before, and that’s that, all art functions as door-opening to by continual labor help me hope that I can keep an open mind about life when the overwhelming evidence of human life and existence is that over time most minds close down and stall in fixed opinions, resulting in a closed-minded culture (which, by the way, I consider cult of the artist culture to be).

But by the phenomenology of my experience, it seemed as if the show did, by gallery, divide into three zones, and three moods. Early on, in the first gallery, I hesitated, and was unsure, these were the concierge pieces, and yet they did not guide; the psychopomp role was called for, and they left me wondering where am I and what are these? This first impression of aloofness translated into a cool response to the art, in terms of taking up some urgent, impassioned, expressive meaning, ala Blagg, about the miseries of the world. In fact, it could be said that my interest in the flatbed quality of the stretchers meant that subcionsciously I felt a lifeboat ethos afloat, a kind of depressing despair at the state of the world, and the artist and us as caught on a lifeboat just trying to survive whatever. The main problem here is that this amounts in the end to a tepid apotropaic response to the work, that is, it did not open the door to the content, it did not pay homage to the firefighters, it did not glorify the dark evil and energy of life (like an action movie might), it shrugged, but maybe even, in the dark coloring, turned its back, somehow.

Thus, to figure out this tepidness, I need to place the apotropaic impulse more precisely. I use a model derived from Faraone’s Talismans and Trojan Horses (1992). According to this model, at the edge of a Greek town were the outermost apotropaic elements to protect the town, usually either blepophobic heads or trophies of vanquished enemies to speak the message, don’t mess with us, trouble if you come in here, or simply statues of protective gods thought to keep you out, gylloi they were called. These paintings, in this situation, definitely did not function in this way. Their abstraction in particular was problematic, even though I tried to get into the fires, they did not, in first impression, light up. Thus, I have to step further into the apotropaic circles by which on the model of ancient Greek towns we circle the wagons about us, and fix on the baityl, a strange abstract rock unhewn which somehow to them in its abstract, aniconic form nonetheless represented a grounding in the place and time, and which they honored by covering with olive oil to animate it, as some sort of calling forth of the spirit of the world to keep them grounded there. This baityl usually appeared early on in the approach to a house, but not directly by it, on the way. Therefore, protective, but in a more territorial way. As such, these early-seen works were simple “welcome to my world” statements, this is life as I know it, baitylic art, establishing the ground of reality as conceived by Sultan at the time, with no clear commitment to a political view one way or the other.

And then, in the next gallery, the fire took over. I think that I got into the fire to seek relief from the indeterminancy of my intial response. I mentioned the painting of the burning of the church in Rosemary’s Baby as my mental source point. That is what is called, subdividing now the apotropaic class of art, which I think we are in, a pure apopompic image, cherished by an owner who hates churches who likes to see and look at images of churches burning down because he wants to see the world burn down and that is that, it is a mental exercise in banishing from his world a church. So, this reference most definitely does not work because, even though I picked up a 9/11 vibe in my detailed appraisal of it, and getting into it, this fire is still depicted as a destructive force, an element of “disaster” and not as a cleansing force (one of the most basic tropes of Anglo Saxon cultural mythology, as evidenced by the ending of thousands of horror movies). So, to dig deeper. In a subdivision of apotropaic art that I have further tried to develop of late six classes have emerged, the phylacteric, or guardian; the apopompic, or banishing; the bleophobic, or outright scare-you; the binding, to curse or restrain you; and the epistatic, or the presiding guide over a site to make sure things go ok and keep bad things from happening off (this is the most problematic of translations as the word in this context does not simply mean presiding as in presiding over a meeting with a gavel to keep things moving along, it means putting out a force field that physically protects the whole set-up from problems); and then the telesmatic, the talisman art that embodies the place and keeps it safe in essence. Subdivided off these are the types that pile up, in the Faraone model, between the outer city wall and the inner sanctum of the house so that most of the propylotic and apotropaic house-related statues are phylacteric, but a herm is more apopompic, as is an alexikakic, warding off evil statue, as is a Hecatean tricephalic warder off-er of evil. Then, if Apollo is just depicted in the house, or the example given by Faraone is a god of fire represented on an oven to ward off his own power, he being both bringer and banisher of it, and that is epistatic. Then, further in, and in the center of the house, is the telesmatic, or talisman work of art, endowed and animated with empsychic powers which by that magic protects the whole field of the circled wagons.

The challenge then in the fire pictures, and my focus on it, though I wanted from it at first something that it could not give, a burn the world down vibe, is that painted in such a way (and more abstractly in works excluded), then overlaid with a “black sludge” treatment, then kept as if restrained on a stretcher, it is as if fire is presented, but put out, feared, but warded off, in the very execution of it. As such I still get a fear of the world on fire, a fear of fire per se, the worst fear homeowners of others have, but also a more generalized sense of its inevitability and naturalness in the world, for by its representation to somehow label it and thus control it. Therefore, though I felt an apotropaic vibe, to ward off this evil, the way it is reversed in the physical execution of the work makes me think of the epistatic function of images, of the god overseeing the safety of a site from the thing that the presiding god both brings, but, then, for that, by auto-reverse of like-to-like magic, repells, as he is also the best go-to guy to ward it off and put it out. So, Sultan presents us with a world of disaster, but in a way that says, it’s not the end of the world, it’s just the way of the world. This is not a newsreel meant to make us fear the world (every night the job of the evening news), to seek escape from it, it is picture meant to as it were resign ourselves dourly to the reality of it, these things happen, the paintings, that is, shrug. They are not then heroic, or sensationalizing, but neutral, in the manner of so much art of the 80s, as it was, as a decade, often seeking refuge in artifice, and resigned, in a kind of nonpolitical way. This is not a new feeling, I have written of it before, it is called “abandon,” a surrender to the destiny and fate of life. Not a popular viewpoint, most definitely not “woke,” but the “what are you going to do about it?” daily ethos that a lot of people adopt to get by and get through (my dad once expressed this when we were watching some news about killings or deaths over in China, and though his comment has a tinge of his-generational street-bias as to the fact that other cultures treated life less respectfully than Americans did, he only said, “life is cheap.”).

So, after confusion and hesitation in the first gallery, the foyer, as it were, to the exhibtion, in the first room, where I am welcome, an urge to see the apopompic is quashed, an interest is enflamed but then doused, and I resolve to an epistatic sense of the work as simply helping me face up to some hard facts about life.

But, then, if this is so, then it turns out that my claim that the Auschwitz painting is the best piece in the show, also means that that last gallery (first gallery if you come in the other way) is the sanctum sanctorum, holding the true value system of the show. There is little question to me that the Auschwitz picture, with its much more careful connection between surface and fictive space, with treatment and content, with its many more dark, but descriptive, commemorating passages, as if to freeze forever a response to an actual visit the artist made there, perhaps, this is a much more telesmatic, or talismanic painting. It exists like the palladium or the telesmata at the center of the house, embodying in it, by its extra degree of animation and empsychization, the endowment with a numinousness, the central principle which supports, protects and magically secures and keeps the force that makes all these paintings come alive. It is like the palladium of Troy, a small statue which, if that is stolen, the whole town goes down, it’s spirit is stolen, it’s power lost, it represents then the true cult ground, the prototype of all the other art in this hanging of the show, and, as such, grounds Sultan’s “abandon” faced with a bleak world in the memory and event of the holocaust, thus marking him as a clear member of his generation (as it would not seem that a memory of the Holocaust informs the worldview of anyone born after 1970). This painting IS a cult painting, it is about what it is about, it is an attempt to memorialize a visit, and to memorialize those who died there, it looks in its facture that Sultan was trying to evoke graveyards, mass graves, ashes, death, maybe even gas chambers, it is a rough, explicitly bleak picture in a way that no other picture in the show is, it comes closest to living up to the rhetoric slathered over the show by Blagg’s commentary in the catalog.

sul 47But, then, it functions here only as a telesmatic painting, as a magic power-source of protection that the world it pictures will, by this representation, and, then, by this series of painting, that sense of fate and abandon sent out into the world (who knows maybe pars pro toto Sultan believes that painting fire will let fire be the extent of disaster so that no worse disaster like a Holocaust ever happen again?), imbue all the world with the protective shield, represented by that black sludge treatment, not so much cooling everything off but burying it or embedding it in volcanic ash, binding it (another large class of apotropaic art), to fix that generation, and that time, in time, as in a bel jar, so that nothing like it will ever come back. In any case, then, that is my take, using terms of subdivision derived from Faraone, on what I think my response amounted to, these are apotropaic paintings, but in layers of response, the apopompic punch I wanted is not here, primarily, they represent in the nexus of physicality and content epistatic paintings, all then backbuilding (in this iteration of the exhibit) to a single telesmatic painting which embodies the power of fatefulness to ensure that the world in which the artist is alive is forever spared a recurrence of a holocaust memorialized in the grounded bleakness of the prototypical painting of his universe.

The Return of the Lovers: Complications at the End of L’Aventurra (1960).

Dec. 10, 2016.

This is part 2 of a treatment of the dream structure of L’Aventtura; see previous for Part One.

In a previous note I attempted to untangle the wanderings of the adventure experienced by Claudia (Monica Vitti) in L’Aventurra. As I worked it, if it can skip through a recap with graphs is this, Claudia tags along with Giuliana and Sandro on a journey to the Aeolian Islands, to swim and hike, and generally just look around. But during this effort, with active agency seeking wonder moving toward a goal, Giuliana gets lost, and then never found, hiking, thus depleting and negating at once, it is vanishing person mystery

a a 61this disappearance instantly ends the vacation, and the swimming and hiking, all of which is now cast back away from their intent into the contra reality of a search, and an island searched over is not by any means the same as an island hiked over, especially since the rocks and landscape are now invested with negative agencies, from 1-4 I think I worked out in my tour of the physiogonomies of the rockfaces, the fear that she had drowned, committed suicide, stumbled and hit her head, or maybe skipped the island, because she hates them all, who knows else what could be thought. But it is this contrareality of terrible suspense that they get caught up in. Then, in the middle of all that, a new plume of agency breaks out of it, as a bird from an eggshell

a a 62Claudia and Sandro keep bumping into each other, he tries to console her, she feels weird, there is an odd vibe between them, for a while she tries to avoid him, is frustrated by him wanting to be around her, so there is this whole knot of interagency twisting which is too micro to graph above, but it altogether causes both of them, as the suspense of the first search leads nowhere, to decide to stay on, in a demonstration of faith and responsibility, and in doing so they are accommodated by finding a hut on the island, and this hut is a place on the island of restored agency, a place where the pictures indicate family and faith, and finding it restores some of the island’s power as is as well as the scenery out the window, and while they feel guilty, in that small space their attraction is more pronounced and clear, and they exist in that state for a while.

But, then, even that is given up on, and they return to the mainland, mainly to follow leads, and the pretense of following leads, from newspaper men about sightings of women down the coast, takes them by train to another town, and then by car to another, but as they drift down away from the original suspense of the issue of the missing person case, their attraction becomes as it were a force of counteragency to draw them away into a kind of romance, and then to an adventure of playing tag in that. Somewhere down the way on a hill by a railroad they make love, so it is a romance, but then her behavior gets antsy again, as I documented.

a a 63Those are the four distancings and deferrals of the main part of the plot of the movie, and it is, as analyzed originally, a depleted, drifting away, sliding-signifier space, they are suspended in a missing person case, but in that suspense start up a guilty romance, and keep playing a game of tug of war as they seem to let the case peter out and wander downshore where they then end up availing themselves of the opportunities of closeness offered by this adventure which is increasingly a pretext take them away.

But then, when the movie arrives back at some hotel in the last city they go to, when they meet up with her friends again, at a big party, seemingly at the hotel, things take an odd, complicating turn. Or rather they coalesce into an intricately woven climactic plateau of complications which represent a testing ground or prediction of what their life might be like after they return to civilization. Thus, this is their return, in the archetypal quest, and the troubles they have there, but it is not quite a return, it is premonition of it, at the end of the world. The surprising thing about this whole sequence is that they have been wandering through what seems an increasingly empty landscape, that one might be forgiven for thinking the movie would just continue to wander out into further and further empty space and end that way. But at that end of the world, they come upon a whole other city, a whole civilization, busily living in its unconscious antlike energy, and it all kind of confuses and derails them, and perhaps prepares them for what might be ahead. For that reason, this part of the movie deserves a much more detailed look, a micro look.

I left them in the hotel in the town with the bells, where they had wandered a bit. The hotel room is odd, it is right across the street from the cathedral, and it is rather dowdy, but they make the best of it. But the room gives off odd vibes. Here, Vitti is profiled by whatever is the Italian equivalent of an Girl at the Well statue group, a genre tableaux usually of a sentimental sort, evoking some domestic value. The fact that the blinds are pulled shut, as well as her body language, all indicate serious second thoughts, maybe she is thinking I might want to marry him, and that frightens her

a a 64it is also really more a hostel, than a hotel, with lots of dowdy valued hangings as well. A picture of Beethoven, for unclear reasons, except that as a figure of authority and admiration the portrait serves as a great man icon to represent the order of culture in the town

a a 65but then they skip town, she did not like the place, and wanted to go, just because, because she had weird vibes. At this point, we are going to begin to see Vitti go into her classic up and down mood mode, and she is very good at capturing every state in it. But to get to the next town down the coast they have to pass through an undercut in the mountains, it has a kind of harrowing of hell, passing through to a valley of mystery feel, it is meant to make you think we are headed into some other world, beyond the complications above

a a 66but now they check into a much fancier hotel, in whatever town it is that they attend that party. It is done up in the classic Renaissance chateau style, with lots of hacienda or country house artifacts all about, all designed to make you feel at home in the country, and in luxury, this would be gates, torchieres, mosaics, and the like

a a 67in the lobby, they run into a kind of event, a party already ongoing, and her friend is there, it is an odd space, the long corridor, with a level above, and then people at the end, in the other room, and beyond both left and right. It is odd, it is as if there are people all over the hotel

a a 68a very odd scene happens when they try to talk. They sit down where they are, but Claudia notes that people can hear, so they go look for another place, around two more corners, is a more or less empty dining room, not yet in use for the evening, and there they find a table to talk at, but it would seem at that point that Sandro wanders in and finds them and since they cannot all talk together, as Claudia has things to say, and neither of them would want to say other things in front of her, they just get up and decide, nope, not here, and move on, it’s very odd, skittish, nervous

a a 69then Claudia just decides to say, later, and moves on, but she moves down the long, ornate hallway, to head for her room

a a 71Sandro seems to come with, and as they find their way back into the hotel part of the hotel they pass by a few large statues, which seem to bespeak their sense that everybody there is a statue to them, they are alienated, not quite having a good time, or even knowing what they are doing there

a a 72now they check in, and even the room has complications, as they try to get the bellboy out, so they can be alone

a a 73but then they just sort of go their separate ways. She, oddly, seems to take up on the floor, kneeling to unpack, but then pausing, never quite sure

a a 74later, when she begs off going back down because she is too tired, and he goes anyways, she just lies on the floor in her slip, her blouse off, certainly odd, and Freud would have something to say about the concave shoe shown in the scene, you would think this would be a seductive shot, but, no, she is serious, she is beat, and so beat she will just impulsively camp out on the floor. Two episodes of floor play in this manner are so odd, they must mean that, though it is supposed they had sex, she is not at all sure she wants to have it again, and is trying to stay away from the bed as if it is cursed, and represents a level of commitment that she is not interested in at the moment

a a 75the room is an odd little nexus of three or four chambers, with a foyer between bedroom and bathroom, but the bad news then is that to fill that space large houseplants were invited in, and they always mean trouble

a a 76as in so many other shots we get the lattice view of Claudia, meaning that she has indeed lapsed into a state of hypnagogy, and is not quite all there, but before she was looking at the sun out of the peasant’s hut, or at the landscape out of the palace window, or off the balcony, or off the church tower with the bells, or out of the window of the hotel room, here she is looking at a curtain, which can mean both that trouble is coming from the other side, or that she is hiding in the room. Either way, looking at nothing, she is all blocked up again, what is she thinking, has she begun to mull over the disappearance again, is another wave of depression coming over her, what is it

a a 77then he, perhaps sensing this, and even being driven crazy about all this, a behavioral pattern people refer to as being antsy, or a cat on a hot tin roof, Sandro decides, ok, but you’re not going to ruin my time, I am back in civilization, time to be Sandro again, he gets showered, and dressed, and goes out, all in front of her

a a 78the fact that he is split in a mirror image is a traditional device indicating torn of mindness, he is of two minds, and walking between them. The fact that there are anodyne paintings of flowers indicates depletedness and so it may be indeed he too is fleeing from the level of commitment that this room, without speaking about it, implies.

a a 79the movie then separates into two scenarios criss crossed with each other, she up in her room, and he down at the party. Up at the room, she has changed entirely into her gown, she is serious, she is just Claudia again, woman taking care of her own issues, and is going to bed, damn it

a a 80but downstairs the party is heating up, and it is ripe with girls for the picking. This is a nifty use of a picture, it is of a classic saint picture, St Bernard, or someone, who because he was starving in prison a woman or a saint or someone allowed him to avoid starvation by suckling him. It is meant as a Christian picture to bespeak deep devotion and sacrifice of modesty for the survival of another. But in the context of a la dolce vita party it only says to the girl gazing at it, trying to make a move in the room, that IS how  certain men are

a a 81it is a crazy hotel party, it has spilled out into all the other rooms, and, as before, so here, Antonioni seems to be setting up shots to mix up the people with the statues so that you might think one is the other, and each the alibi formation for the other. While this does not look like a wild party, the suggestion is that it is an extremely sophisticated party, by all the art all around

a a 82and then at both ends of their determined divisions, things peter out again. Sandro, at the party, wanders off from the party, in to the darkness, to watch some tv, for god’s sake, he is at sea

a a 84and she gives sleep a good try, but fails

a a 85after about half an hour most people will give up, and get up, and she does, to wander around in the closest thing Antonioni ever got to a gown prowl, and it is quite sexy, but the houseplant bespeaks her souring mood, there is trouble ahead

a a 86she then ends up looking into the mirror with a what are you doing? or, who are you? mood, and really is having serious doubts about her strategy

a a 87magazines, counting, nothing will help with a really, really bad case of insomnia

a a 88then, shockingly, she is looking out at the landscape again, but the difference here is that this view announces that it is morning, dawn, and she has not got any sleep, the night, her determination has been a total mess, and, worse, Sandro is not back, this view is the emptiest view in the movie, the apogee as it were of their sliding-signifier riptide-taken removal into the wilds of Sicily, it is as far as they go

a a 89and she snaps, she wants him back, having for once turned her back on her lattice-form gawking, and turned back in to him (she has also got dressed in the meantime)

a a 90one more look for this is ridiculous

a a 91and she bolts. At this point, at this hour, the hotel becomes a labyrinth. And it also becomes, in terms of dreams, a whoosh, she is spiralling down. All of this space, and all her running through it (and Vitti would do a lot of running for Antonioni) represents a panic attack, her strategy, if that is what it was, failed, and her wanting to be alone, and her old self again, that too failed, so she bolts, and runs down to her girlfriend’s room, down a very long hallway, to knock on her door

a a 92she wakes her friend at like five in the morning, to have a heart to heart, she wonders where Sandro is, she has lots of questions

a a 93they kind of have a heart to heart, but for what?

a a 95so now she spirals down further into the labyrinth, into the morning after mess of the hotel, from lobby to the parlors where the party took place

a a 96then she scours a dining room where you can sit and look at the sea

a a 97she trails down along the whole length of a grand table (each view here kind of working with motifs of civilized life much in the same way that the rock shots worked with the scares of the wilds)

a a 98and then when she gets to the end of the table, in a corner, under that mantel, she finds Sandro making out with that other girl at the party, who showed up earlier (a type in 60s Italian cinema, the interloping American whore), they are just making out, but Sandro is, of course, ashamed

a a 99so Claudia runs out, he runs after her, an architectural shot of their not quite being able to come together

a a 100and the final what now?

a a 101I suppose that at the end of this people might have been surprised that Sandro’s way of working out the same ups and downs she was feeling, was just picking up another girl and losing himself in the allure of a meaningless flirtation, if she did not expect this, she does not know men like Sandro that well, at least in the immature phase, but there have been by this point so many signals that upon their return to civilization everything began to unravel and whoosh down the wormhole into confusion, it should not have come as that great of a surprise, and, in fact, makes perfect sense based on all the pushes and pulls they have tried to negotiate since they got to town. This is all like the end of the Odyssey, after the quest, there always comes the part of getting back to civilization and to normal, and it never goes that well, and rarely is that happy ever after. This final look seems to say that she understands, that at present they are kind of stuck in the wake of the suspended animation they were tossed into by the disapperance of their mutual friend, but perhaps they will work it out, as this is the modern condition, and it happens a lot to a lot of couples. Structurally, however, and in relation to the dream theory I put forth in the first part of this note, this whole final scenario represents the whoosh down the spiral into the labyrinth of actual dream, but in this case reversed back into the confusions of everyday life.

In part one of this note I mapped out how Claudia negotiates the complications of civilization, to go out on a sporting trip to te Aeolian islands with friends. And then one of the friends goes missing, and everything changes. But, in its change, the movie turns into a strange sort of dream, full of pushes and pulls of hard, authentic agency, of deep feeling, removed from the rationalizations of civilized life, and placed in a world of dream. There is complication in this world, but it results from more real feelings, really responded to and acknowledged, Claudia and Sandro, overcoming guilt, have feelings for each other. That then causes more pushes and pulls, and when they get back to civilization, for a time, the intensity of their searching together keeps them inside this dream. But, then, in Part Two, I have traced out, while a lesser film maker might have left them in their dream to be happy ever after in uncomplicated love, in Antonioni’s world, that dream always has to confront reality sooner or later. So, after going to the farthest extent possible in the remote place of Sicily, they snap back and somehow return to civilization, where they find all their friends, who have already forgot all about the trauma of the missing person, and they have to find a way to fit in. They fail, the dynamic here is intense as they continue, in the shape of the shots in the movie, now begin to fall in a spiral down a whoosh into a nightmare, the quandry of what to do. But, it is also true that this fall is pricked at repeatedly by the complications of or contrasts with the normalcy or back-to-normalness of civilization and its petty angsts, and in that tension, the descent is quite turbulent, splitting them apart, but maybe not. The amazing thing is that whereas Antonioni managed to film the departure of the couple from routine life into a strange adventure with a tragic element, a hiatus of true feelings and real agency, he films their return to civlization as a fall, with turbulence added by the constant picking at it of the pressures of civilization. It is a true and honest representation of the archetype of the quest, and, for that, a deeply moving, very modern motion picture.

The Dream of the Adventure: Monica Vitti’s Dream Umwelt in L’Aventurra (1960).


Dec. 9, 2016.

Posted in thanks to Filmstruck, RIP, November 29, 2018.

Deep in the wandering maze of The Adventure, by Antonioni, a young painter of the palace flirts with the lady of the house, who might want her portrait painted. Problem is, he only does paintings of women, and in the nude, so it is also something of a pass

a a 1It is somewhat surprising that at the middle of his radical movie Antonioni would make use of such a tired trope of the nude model-romance nexus in the art studio, a device going way back. The cat painting is not what you could call an entirely contemporary work of art, but of the style of Bernard Buffet as it then influenced others in a tranche of followers all through the 50s and 60s who though all you had to do was lengthen and exaggerate figure and that made it expressionistic. It serves to profile, but with slight mockery, the cat eyes of the obvious mistress.

But, then, it has a deeper purpose too. Notice that as the long-necked cat goddess holds the cat in Madonna position she gestures in the zygodactylous gesture. This is a classic Madonna gesture going way back to the 15th century, and it is taken from the gesture that a breastfeeding mother must do to express milk from her breast. Thus, the picture laughs a bit at the lady, for toying with a child (he is 17), after all. It is possible, then, that there is in this image both an explicit and implicit text

a a 2But then, there are a lot of eyes in his art, and most of the eyes seem to be him (and Antonioni plays with this).

a a 3That is, his eyes branded on the objects of his desire, implying that he is boggled by them, and cannot get enough. He is sex crazed, and that’s what these bespeak. Especially with the seductress eyes and boobs coalesce, to enact the seduction. She is turned on by the presence of boobs on canvas, and titillated by the possibility of showing her to him, but, of course, as model to artist

a a 4In another shot, Vitti looks at all the paintings, and notices that that’s all he does, nudes

a a 5later, she is profiled by a painting that is a series of eyes, a kind of palinopsic panorama

a a 6that spreads out around her and takes her in.

a a 10This is the camera and Antonioni’s eye speaking through the camera to the property and through the property into the story. She knows this too, because she catches on that it is really her that he wants, and she has to say, emphatically, playfully, no

a a 11(I will mention here, parenthetically, that she is, in this shot, crowned by a sculpture. It appears to be an effigy of a person, that is, a symbolic representation of someone, to glory, as a signa, or defame, as burned effigy.

a a 12this seems to evince a certain self-awareness on her part that she is a man-magnet, but that men never know what they are getting, since she is not at all as advertised. Strangely, the exact same form shows up around Vitti in Red Desert

a a 14It is almost as if Antonioni works best with Vitti when he realizes that she is an effigy symbolic of the complexities of sex relations, and not an actual 3D human being. This would seem counterintuitive, but it may be true (she has too much personality in Il Notte, and is a bit too depressed, then manic, in L’Eclisse, at one point even going so far, so flexible is her sense of self, to go blackface, until the hostess says ”let’s stop playing Negroes”)

a a 15What it means is that while Claudia roams in a world of utterly conventional aristo folks, there is something distinctly special about her. The not so contemporary paintings profile the conventionalness and littleness of the emotions and feelings of those around her, but then the palinopsic abstraction bespeaks her elevated state as having other more serious things on her mind. This does seem like a class comment, but there it is. She is above class, and above race, a goddess, who exists in her moods on a higher level, and then she can take human form in any one of several moods and manifestations, the mere mortal men never quite sure what they are going to get (by this reading I guess I am saying that the effigy is a cult representation of her divinity).

But then if you attach to the eyes the notion that embedded in them is a symbol of the primary gaze of the movie then the catness of the figure, and its long neck, reminds us of Bastet, goddess of protection but also war, worshipped in her temple, but brought out when ferocity is required to be stirred up.

a a 16

It is perhaps a bit too mythologically-minded for Antonioni to claim that at the heart of his masterpiece is a cult of Bastet, the goddess of mixed emotions, but it does seem to synthetize the split character of the art in the studio visit and convey it to Vitti to say that Claudia is indeed a goddess and embodies in her the prerogative of the goddess to be capricious and imperious by turns.

Then, the division in the scene is shown by the fact that Claudia then insists upon going, she has had enough of passively playing along. Earlier, when asked to go, she followed along, but kept asking, as they walked, why am I doing this? She has many such passive, go along for the ride moments in the movie. But when she comes back out notice that at the door into that wing of the castle is a strange satyr sculpture holding up a wall sconce lamp, and that would seem to indicate that there is a godly presence guiding her, and it is nature.

a a 17we know that Antonioni does place pagan gods in places, because in L’Eclisse, at the heart of the party in the country is Pan, and all the wet girls drape themselves on him, as if for good luck in getting laid tonight (as I have mapped out, these guides are located at the various zigs and zags of a labyrinthian space)

a a 18Also to note that both coming and going there is an elaborate vase. Most of the time these overly floral concoctions, as I have written about in The Woman Who Came Back, represent the fragility of the woman of the house, but also her thinking too much, her mental issues. In this case, it seems to reflect Claudia’s entirely mixed feelings at getting all mixed up in this mess. And, it is not too far to claim that Antonioni thought of this, coming in the vase is foiled as civilization against wild nature, and the promise of sex, coming back, just the vase

a a 19It might be claiming too much for what appears to be a tangent of the movie that this visit is a central scene, and even a cult scene, walking into the holy of holies of the movie, but, after all, this is, unlike Antonioni’s other Vitti movies, clearly a goddess movie, so it is possible. The studio visit, and the split representation of it, between the hostess flirt and Vitti, symbolizes the split down the middle of the movie between the normal folks who live comfortably in the world of their rationalizations, and Claudia who lives more directly and precisely in the animalistic umwelt of her immediate feelings. At all points in the movie the director’s gaze is projected at her, but, then, she is not the subject of it, but the psychopomp of it, the conductor or medium of it, she takes that gaze into her and it is as if through her flitting and uncertain gazes, her shifting emotions, her sudden, and adorable bursts of laughter, she sucks up the space around her into her body and then projects the gaze back out through the manyformed imprint of her body. That is, the space around her figure is also figured out, and figural. This is not quite the male gaze Mulvey worked out, as at no point in this movie does she become or in any way is objectified. For that reason too, she is a goddess on another plane.

Most of the academic art house glorification criticism of Antonioni fixates on his unravelling of the devices of neorealist cinema into a more deconstructive real time pacing and cinematography. This is true, and, no doubt, at the time, it seemed like such a new thing that it is completely understandable that the arthouse critics felt that this technical change of mood was the primary characteristic of the movie, that made it a great movie. But as time passes, the dramatic effect of the shift from the earlier form of time sense in movies, the mental time senses, with flashbacks, and the like, to the real time time-image sense of time passing, and catching people up in that passing, this effect seems less important, though still, sometimes, just as trying on the nerves of human beings who, in fact, contrary to what so much 60s minimal art insisted, do not live in and never want to live in real time, or zero degree time. This is also less critical now as the teleological drive of late modernism is over, and a critic of movies ought to be able to accept all sorts of movies as being important in their own way. There is no one answer, there is no one single overpowering drive to the media-specificity of the pure media, as there was thought to be at the time. As a result, the clear strengths of the movie, even when compared to the not so good Il Notte, which tried all the same tricks with less effect, and even in the quite good, but still not quite so great L’Eclisse, the strength of the movie is the push-pull atmosphere of tension created in and around the body of Monica Vitti as it moves through space, almost as a ship through water, always parting the waves in front of her, and leaving a waking in its departure. In this regard, Vitti is presented not as a modern human, in control over time, but more like an animal living all but unconsciously or reactively in the umwelt (to use Uexhull’s term) of her existence. It is a very difficult thing to show, and hard to make come alive. As I put it, the movie makes the agency of Claudia come alive in a new and dramatic way, and this, this alone is its magic strength.

Agency is not quite, in my view, the power that people get politically or socially, as described in social studies and history. That is, it is not exactly the synonym of empowerment, a buzzword usage that it receives quite a bit. Rather, agency is much more subtle. It involves core human feelings enacted for the purposes of survival: it edits out all rationalization and depletion and all the various ways in which block out true feeling. In agency, one either is in a cult, intercessional, votive or apotropaic state. That is, one worships, asks, offers or is afraid of. There can be compounds of this, and then too dynamic agency charts out the dance of agency that human beings by way of reagency must undertake in order to capture or recapture the vibe of life (my postmodern drive argued that there was no one way to get there, no primitive or grounded solution, but any number of ways can be devised to untangle the mess and get by dynamic agency back to agency, ie reagency). Thus, agency comes alive in a moment, or it does not; it cuts through the bull, or it does not; it gets to the point, and creates magic, or fun, or wonder, or fear, or haunting, or it does not. In fact, agency as I study it most in horror movies involves fear, and it is activated when someone is haunted, period. When one is not, there is no agency. When the depiction of agency by way of conventions that are not well thought out results in a rendering that does not make the haunting haunt, then it is not. Agency thus can be viewed figuratively as a kind of ectoplasmic awakening that arises out of a moment much as, in TNT, if one is presented with an event that makes one think of death, that is called mortality salience, either it does or does not, and, awakened, people, in fear, must respond and react. Thus, agency is agency salience, or worship, asking, votive and apotropaic agency, awoken in the scene.

This is done in the movie L’Aventurra, and the movie is wonderful as whole, not because it is revolutionary, but because it all takes place in a very carefully arranged, and quite strange situation. A group of tourists have gone out to visit the Aeolian islands in the sea north of Sicily. They go swimming, hiking, have a good time. But then Giuliana goes missing, and there is a search. Then, she does not materialize, to the police have to be called in. Next, that brings up nothing, so the search spreads to other islands. A few of the folks stay overnight in a peasant’s hut, including Claudia and Sandro, and wait it out, but then finally have to give it up and retreat to the mainland and search for clues there. Then they hear lots of reports in the news about the story, and about sightings of the missing girl, and think they might as well go looking for that. And it all comes to nothing. But, this is a very strange situation, a missing girl emergency, so there is that. Then, woven into that is the fact that while Claudia and Giuliana were close friends, there was some conflictedness involved. Just as Claudia was more or less at odds with the other woman in the studio, so she has been so with Giuliana. The movie starts with Claudia killing some time in an art gallery, looking again at modern art, which here again seems to profile blankness or mental absentness, as she waits

a a 20Here, as elsewhere in Antonioni, blocked out abstract art seems to signify mental blankness and pent up mixed emotions, she is waiting, she is annoyed, she is bored, abstract. And while she waits, she also simmers, I suppose, knowing full well that over the ceiling Giuliana is keeping her waiting in order to fuck. It has to be annoying, but what are friends for.

a a 21Then in the boat when Giuliana comes in, they talk over Sandro, and here too there is weird intimacy between them

a a 22And they even strip, in very confined quarters, in front of each other, no problem, so they are modern no big deal sexual girls

a a 23But the fact that there has been some issues between them makes the strange situation stranger by adding the element of Claudia’s mixed feelings about the loss of her friend. Then overlaid into that is the added confusion that it would seem that at first sight Sandro, Giuliana’s lover, who is clearly having trouble with her, fell in love with Vitti, well, who wouldn’t, and Vitti, if not the same, certainly has picked up the vibe, and therefore spends a good deal of time avoiding him, until at last it would seem they outrun their guilt and hook up. This is a very strange situation, filled with all sorts of feelings of guilt and shame and gall and all that. It makes her feel like a terrible person, even as she seems to relent to his pursuit.

So, this is not simply a movie of modern malaise, like LEclisse, for example, or even Il Notte, it works on a whole other level because it is a very strange situation, each moment of which is a complicated push-pull of conflicted emotions, and the miracle of the movie is that Vitti pulls all the push-pulls off with breathtaking spontaneity and improvisation. I know that this sort of strange situation is rare, and not emblematic of modern life, because I once experienced a L’Aventturra weekend very much the same. I was home visiting my ill mother, but after three days needed a physical and emotional break (I did not contribute to her care nearly as much as I ought to have). So I darted north to join some friends for some fun. But then as we went to the hostess’s brother’s house to swim, her boyfriend put his car keys in his pants pocket, threw his pants into the trunk, and slammed the trunk shut. We spent 48 hours trying to overcome this blunder. But the strangeness of it was, my mother was back in Milwaukee, and every minute beyond the 24 I promised I’d be back in, increased tension and guilt. Then too the hostess was convinced I had a crush on her, and maybe I did, because after we bunked out over night in her dad’s mansion, I was given a daybed in a porch with a fire under the stars and I thought, this is perfect, so romantic, except that I am alone. So, all the tensions were there. And, I can affirm, these particular moments are very rare in life. They do not happen in daily life, or routine, they happen only in strange situations. Thus, the key to the strength of L’Aventurra is a very special strange situation, and then the fact that Vitti was able to navigate it’s every push-pull.

But then those layers had to be nuanced, and the decision had to be made both in the setting the mis en scene, how to manage it, how to wriggle and bend, to ensure that each nuance is carefully read. This is where dream imagery comes in, as, though there is no explicit dream imagery in the movie, no other movie, in my mind, has a more dreamy way of moving through ever receding and marginalized space than this one. Deleuze has talked about the dreaminess of this movie. At the same time, Scioli has noted that Roman fresco panoramic art was also dreamy.. I am fairly certain that in his selection of Sicily and its islands Antonioni was as influenced by the lore and lure of the Roman Mediterranean as anything else. Roman fresco art situated in settings in the Mediterranean were all intended to relax Romans from the beta wave terrors of urban life, and settle them softly into the alpha waves of dream land. In this image of Mars coming down to rape Rhea Silvana

a a 24

It is clear that, in terms of dream states, this art takes place in the almost abstract light dream state I call the entoptic, where one closes one’s eyes, then visualizes things by more or less connecting the dots of the fissures inside one’s eyelids. Thus, the factured field of vision is wavy, and cloudy, and leaflike and natural, while if any imagery pops up in it is the result of either pressure of the eyeball as reflected in blue dots or other forms in the eye (and this can result in all sorts of movie effects from irises on), or paraeidola imagined as figures brought up from the connected-dots of the abstract field. The only logic of Roman panoramic painting is the field, and then the superimposition on it of the mandate that all the scenes involve a signal myth, and then the artist just waits for the suggestions to take form in the pareidolic potential of the field, and fills in the blanks. It is a dream, but a light dream, a state of hypnagogy, on the way to deep dream.

In addition to creating dream windows on the walls, Romans included mythological scenes in floor mosaics, fitting for walking over and around them to 360 read the meaning. Since this is underfoot, the image is simplified, and made bolder; it is also symbolized more explicitly, and it could be said that the combination of the scene and its setting, a room with a floor in it, drew them up into a way of symbolic expression more typical of the next deeper dream state, the glass onion. In this one, Rhea Silvana, the water jug spilling water (this from Scioli) represents the task she was undertaking or had just completed in the story, as you approach it, but, then, as you pass back over it, her broken vessel, or vulva, and the spillage of his semen into and from her, conceiving Rome.

a a 25

Another important aspect of Roman entoptic dream imagery is that it travels, but does so by, as it were, bouncing to the perimeter of its visual field, excavating or vacuuming out the center, and existing then only as visualized treasures found and encountered in the margins, and at small scale. This is why so much of the true magic art is manifest only in jewelry, or coins, it was personal, partly marginalized in public life and its official cults

a a 26

This art exists, I think, if measured in hypnagogy, back up in the entoptic state, but at its margins, as they overlook the glass onion. They might be the currency of the glass onion, but it is hard to say.

Finally, though Scioli did not cover this, it is also true that sarcophagal art was dream based and dreams were used as a model for the Roman’s conceptualization of the veils they had to pass through to get to the land of the dead. In one mode, because there were not just the gates of horn and ivory, but the paths of war, myth, forest, etc., there also the thiasos, the journey to death conceptualized as a procession in the ocean, the hippocamps and amphitrtytes riding in the floats in front of or around the sun of Poseidon. And then you get to the palace at the bottom of the sea, and the door opens, there is the land of death (I worked this out in relation to Argento’s rendering of the actual episodes of Stendhal Syndrome in that movie, see that essay for images). This is a more complete model, as one does drop down through an entoptic veil of busy symbols and forms, to a symbolic reading, then to a lattice fixated, and, finally, you enter into a door with access to the interior of the coffin, and death.

In any case, all of this indicates that dreamlike mood and tone was the word when it came to helping Romans cope with the stress of civilization and gain access to the realm of the gods, in dream.

In my viewing, in light of recent reading, it is apparent that early on the lavishly remote scenicness of the island section of the movie is entirely, shot for shot, enriched by entoptic hypnagogy, and the sensing just under the surface of its venues pareidola, rendered by physiognomic perception. All through the sequences, these are not just action shots, but symbolic sightings of the gods, nice or not. When one of them swims to the boat, the water is inhabited by the visages of the gods, faces in both waves

a a 27A god greets them at the cliffs (I see a face in the center)

a a 28They lurk in the rocks, and are either good or bad omens. It would seem that there is a relation between the mood of the actors and whatever it is that Antonioni is sensing in the presence of the rock forms, and his reason for shooting just that shot at that moment. For example, in the cliffs, several old men in the mountain

a a 29then, when the disappearance occurs, and they start looking, it is only then that we rise up to the top and see the island stretch out, and up the hill a rock formation, like an easter island god, making a So? face

a a 31every time we look down back toward the water, in the search, one thinks of suicide, and the rocks, like the one on the left, scream oh no

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just to the right of his head here, looking to see if she jumped, he might really have in mind, maybe she is off hiding, having an assignation with another, because the rock figures above his head to the right seem to kiss

a a 33I think they call into this cavern, but the rocks, facing down on right, seem to whisper, several of them

a a 34as the tension builds, the rocks get downright aggressive

a a 35As a result, this is why this whole section is so strange. I am not claiming that Antonioni saw these things, but perhaps am claiming that he made use of a rubric of seeing something to set up his shots. We also know that he did ten to anthropomorphize rocks by the sea, as evidenced by the story within the story of the pink beach and its rocks in Red Desert. This sequence is filled with tension, but it is also incredibly aloof and laid back. It seems like nothing is happening, but a lot is happening. There is an unreal push-pull, and, for that, no one quite knows how to behave.

Then, at one point, they discover a hut, and stay there. This is Antonioni’s moment to demonstrate what basic art really is. Here is a simple man, who had been however around the world, and what he points out are his family members

a a 36And then he has his protective guardians, it is all about cult of family, and protecting them

a a 40But Vitti just looks out the window, gazing in confusion, it is beautiful, certainly, what a place to be in, what a spot to be in, but que bella. (but it is a classic lattice shot saying, all of this is in her mind)

a a 41Also, likely because of the close space and the privacy Sandro steals a moment to bring up the problem that has developed, the obvious attraction between them, in shame, because it is too soon, she shushes him away and spends a good deal of the rest of the time on the island avoiding him, the rocks snarling, until she manages to separate him from her for some time.

a a 42It is an incredible sequence, and so complicated, yet only sensed as that by someone who, like the director, is informed by the lure and lore of the gods of the sea, and understand the dream nature of the consciousness that pervades the place, templum, holy places, where the gods are.

Once they get into Sicily again, my sense is that they try things in the big city, then get clues that take them west along the north shore of the island (it is all worked out in great detail on Wiki so I need not address this, or come up with the sources), but, certainly, it is the overbuilt and slightly abandoned air of these places that is the startling dream imagery source of this latter part of the movie.

It is known in Euro movies that the moldings of old palaces and the like are dream spaces. Usually looking up renders one in a spin, and a whoosh, and women often lose their head during orgasm looking up at the spin of those ceiling images.

a a 38But to see police work taking place in such conditions is surreal, it is redressed, and reused, but not in a way that respects or fulfills the space, thus depleting it, and rendering it haunted. This, however, raises the possibility of agency’s arousal, as the space is now a no man’s land. This happens best when someone points out to Sandro that the station used to be a palace

a a 39And then later when they get to another town (apparently Mussolini overbuilt all these towns trying to inject economic revival in, but now they are white elephants), and we see the whole run.

Seeing these things way out here is dream like. In the manner of de Chirico, Antonioni particularly seems to like abandoned churches, as in one empty town, and they even ask why is it here, they fixate on it once

a a 43And twice

a a 44And then later they take a room opposite a church, and being so close to something so enormous, but then allowed to be close because the sacred space of it has contracted,

a a 25and the town’s economy has gone done in the world, is surreal, clashing imagery of transient errancy and absurd almost dinosauric permanence, a dream construct

a a 46It is also interesting that, even so, they still need to get out of town, and I am told that on the hill overlooking the train track they have sex for the first time, though the movie is quite obtuse about it. Antonioni is a connoisseur of marginal space, liminal space, but, in my reading, dream space, where things dovetail and deplete from the norm meaning of everyday life, and are opened up by entopty or glass-onion-symbolism, to be read abstractly, eccentric settings, as I once conjectured. Overall, I will say that vacant overbuilt buildings and empty squares and such represent the glass onion but in a highly architectural way. My guess is that Antonioni perceived the kind of symbolic space he wanted, but had to acknowledge that this was also provincial space, where the pure symbol has been obscured by countering, thus, we get to a counterreal expression of the glass onion. But then to give substance possibly even of a counterfeit lattice he reverse agencies through the expectations of at-home architecture the oddness and outofplaceness of the architecture here to create a whole reverse world where nothing quite makes sense in terms of fronting this or that is ways in might in the capitol (by this conjecture then, Antonioni works on the glass onion level, but by way of counter-reverse agency, ending up with a counter-reverse form of it, and if I might be allowed a mnemonic pun it could be said that Antonioni works in an Ant(i)-ONION-I state, the anti-onion, a particular end-around the glass onion to come out as monumental and empty form.

There is one scene in which they actually ascend to the roof of the church to learn how to ring the bells

a a 47And Vitti all but plays with it

a a 48And enjoys looking out over the entire town, as a toy town, all in a what is all this doing here feeling.

They are having a good time, forgetting about their mission, getting lost. But by that maybe they are solidifying and getting used to their new love, and that is the heavy thing giving new weight, expressed by the architecture, to this section of the movie.

For us, however, it is always eyes on Vitti, This is conveyed most strongly by the girlwatching menace of the scene in the other small town (another Vitti gaze lattice shot)

a a 49And how she walk through it, ignoring them, and, as long as she does not respond, they do not attack

a a 50And then she loses her nerve, and retreats to a store, there to be rescued.

Then comes the episode in the palace. But at this point it is as if she has been off on an adventure, and woken up to new things, she has lived in the moment of a strange situation, having to deal with many emotions, many of them painful, but there is no question that she was alive, and so it pains her to return to civilization, as it were, and find all her friends carrying on as is, no problem, routine aristo life. She gets petty, and girlish, she dresses up and plays dolls with herself

a a 51She wanders about like a movie star

a a 53She later puts on a wig, again impersonating the normal life of the people outside of the dream, and then comes the descent to the artist’s studio. In this context, then, this art and the triteness of the seduction represents conscious life again, and she is not amused, it is silly, and so she bolts.

a a 54But it is odd that sitting in that space is Bastet, the guiding spirit of her journey. Maybe it was too much self-knowledge.

a a 60The movie concludes in another highly civilized but outlying provincial town. This could almost be another movie in itself, and I suppose I will call this the surfacing from the dream, where they now have to negotiate how all this is going to work out, and maybe it wont, and that is another topic.

However, throughout the gaze of this maze is fixated in and projected through Vitti, and then she is given a habitat where he actions seem almost entirely natural and alive without a trace of artifice by rendering the umwelt in which she prowls as a dream space in the grand tradition of panoramic entoptic Mediteranean mythological Roman art, modernized here in an amazingly alive way. To Be Continued.