In the Affirmative
by Rick Moody I met the painter Elise Ansel when we were both students at Brown University in the early eighties. Painting at Brown, in those days, was a very nearly oxymoronic ambition, perhaps even an impossibility, above all for the obvious reason: if you really wanted to paint, why weren’t you down the hill? At RISD? (One possible answer would be because there was more to learn than just painting.) The very idea of painting, was completely different at Brown, tightly organized, as it was, around the discipline of art history, around l’art pour l’art, the legacy of Clement Greenberg, Ruskin, the tradition. I can well remember an art history class at Brown during which an exceedingly stylish and lugubrious professor went on a bit of a tirade about how Picasso had clearly forgotten everything he had learned about art when painting “Guernica,” and yet it was a painting that could cause riots, that could produce sentiment, action, ambition, where many a modernist canvas could not. The painters at Brown (as distinct from the painters I knew at RISD), had to go through a rigorous period of historical cleansing, of beholding, e.g., Clifford Still and Willem de Kooning, and of complete engagement with how abstraction was the highest understanding of how paintings might use light and space. Elise Ansel is a product of the Brown University art department, in that she works in abstraction, knows the AbEx period of the postwar years, has definitely read her Clement Greenberg, and yet visual arts education of that time, at Brown, was taking place on a campus highly politicized, engaged in its critique of patriarchy, particularly in the department known then as semiotics, then brand new. It was as if through intellectual ferment one could begin to see for the first time that canonical rigidification, which enshrined power and marginalized voices, was just one rhetorical argument— That’s the intellectual backdrop, one much more energized than simply around the art historical tradition of paint on canvas. Let me add, in a biographical and perhaps hagiographical spirit, that Elise Ansel, in Providence, in the early eighties, was a person I knew to smile. Or, in addition to being hardworking and interesting and ambitious, and very often in the studio, in addition to being sometimes in the writing community, Ansel was just an extremely genial, and kind, and generous, and thoughtful person, quick to laugh, and perhaps a smile was a signifier of a certain sort of choice— from a feminist perspective, this observation runs afoul of the idea that it is to be free as a feminine subject to not smile, and I am alert to this problem, and well understand it, and in no way do I think smiling is a thing a woman should do, as a matter of urgency, nor because men expect it, nor for any other reason, unless it happens through automatism or spontaneity or because a body wants it, not because of social expectation, and yet in Ansel’s case maybe the smile was the beginning of an assertion of a thematic intention; As affirmation is the theme of Ansel’s show, for example, what it means, when Molly Bloom says and yes I said yes I will Yes, which Ansel alters slightly in the title of this exhibition of the artist’s recent work (the alteration being the indicator of the artist’s hand), there is an organizing of inquiries into the rendering of subjectivity in the feminine, a smile a sign of feminine practice, a practice in a feminine tradition, a jouissance, according to, e.g., a French psychoanalysis of the mid-seventies, much in evidence, it should be noted, on the Brown campus during the training of Elise Ansel. What does feminist practice mean in confronting the issue of abstraction? Is feminist practice a matter of space, brush strokes, pigment, volume? Does one replace masculine practice with a counter-narrative, a parallel practice, that has different emphases, and thus create a different nuance? How to name it technically? One thing I love about Ansel’s approach is that it seems like automatism is a feature, aleatory practice, that is, the paintings are produced repeatedly, improvised, with variations that mark the day of production, each with its aleatory energy, they are the site of a negotiation with the patriarchal history of art, but are made in a collision of painter with pigment and form, and against a model of rigor, exchanging the stable for the unstable, the canonical masterpiece for the replaceable sign of the immediate Composition Is Spiral, And Space Is Spherical This, for example, is a remark that Ansel made to me, and it is also true that the conceptual model of visual art making did not long precede Ansel’s education—it was still working itself out in the late seventies, and was much more the standard of the pro- and proto-feminist semiotics department, and it’s possible to see this in Ansel’s canny retelling of old master paintings, the re-narrating of them, the covering over of the rape of the sabine, e.g., with waves of color, and with an idea of pleasure that is not narrative in its essence, not mapped onto a masculine ideal of what pleasure is, the pleasure of voyeurism replaced with a dignity of light and pigment, and a conceptual framework, an aleatory practice, the conceptual being the sign of a counter-narrative tradition; it’s possible to see the signs of historical formulation that go back several decades in Ansel’s work. If we return to the moment of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the end point of Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s clear that one essential feature of Joyce’s action on the page is the imposture of the feminine point of view, and that by borrowing the ending, and subtly redeploying it, or recasting it, especially manipulating the feminine consciousness against a novelistic tradition of story orientation, Joyce subverts a masculinity of story structure, and Ansel has borrowed back this feminine perspective, this subjectivity, from the classic modernist, somewhat in the same way that Joyce borrowed the narrative of the Odyssey and retooled it for early twentieth century as it occurred in Europe and the West, in Eire, a site of imperial meddling. I want to talk a little bit about one painting in particular from this show, and that’s Ansel’s detail of The Portinari Alterpiece. By Hugo van der Goes, in the original form completed in 1475, central panel rendering the adoration of the baby Jesus by the shepherds, surrounded by angels, five of them in the lower right, and thus the title Five Angels, in Ansel’s composition, as in Kandinsky, more narrative material than meets the eye, or where there is a collision of narrative activity and anti-narrative activity, Ansel’s big, beautiful, confident brush strokes occlude the angels as angels, veiling the voyeurism, replacing it with a sort of a dasein of feminine composition. More accurate to say that the quality of angel essence is being depicted, the being-here of the angels, stripped of personification, replaced with something more diaphanous, or adiaphonous (a word that Stephen Dedalus uses in Ulysses), the angels become a sort of a pillow fight of tonalities, a green here borrowed, or appropriated from the upper left of Portinari transposed into the riot of angels, condensed and displaced, a red that one associates with the left margin displaced into the center, a riotous activity, an improvisation, a site of play, which activates condensation and displacement, the dream work, and where are the angels exactly, if by attempting to locate them we are attempting to find their personhood, or their volume, or their mass, their physicality, rather than their being-here methodologically, their action upon the scene, and in The Portinari Alterpiece the action is on the gaze, on the bearing witness, on the bystanders and the awe of the bystanders, but Ansel displaces the gaze as the energy that most interests in the image, and replaces it with the wave, with the kind of being and non-being that is best expressed by a physics of the wave, or spiral creation, and here light and pigment and texture, and the way these are deployed in time, one day in the studio, and you could read into the space, which is an obscuring of space, both deep, enveloping, and flat, and one that reminds that The Golden Section Is Also Evident In Music Among Ansel’s first well-known works in this manner (from 2016, though the painterly confrontation with the Old Masters for Ansel goes as far back as 2007), the manner of rerouting, of taking classicism and rerouting it through an employment of abstraction as affirmation, was an annunciation, in particular the annunciation of Denys Calvaert, which Ansel subjected to a series of revelations, revelations of perturbation, and in particular acts of veiling and unveiling, which resulted (especially if you include the studies for the paintings) in progressive stripping away of the narrative material of the annunciation, so that only traces remain; and what is the annunciation, it’s worth reminding oneself in the interpretive moment, but a spiral-shaped agreement between the angel Gabriel and Mary, in the city of Nazareth, first involving the laying out of the plan on the divine side, that Mary is blessed among women, etc., and that the holy ghost shall come to her, etc., after Mary has to do something fascinating in the drama of the scene, she has to agree. Or: to say yes. That is, unless Mary assents, affirms, there is no plan, no capitulation to the fact of Christian history, because it would not do to foment the child on Mary without her permission— Calvaert’s painting seems to announce the moment, which is the mission of the annunciation, in a dark, small space, in the person of the angel Gabriel, dark and small except for the roof space in which God himself, the Renaissance God, seems to peer down to watch the activity, the character most quickly dispensed with in Ansel’s revelations, The first image by Ansel preserves the angel’s wings, above all, they are a spiral of feathers, in a spiraling sequence of paintings, but in due course the feathering of angelic wings becomes like a sequence of brushstrokes, these which begin to reduce the annunciation, and the force of angelic presence, to a meditative space, Mary becomes a dab of lavender, the angel’s Catholic sash a sort of reminder of womanhood; If the annunciation is about fear, which is unignorable, and Ansel’s work is about balancing the power, then her revelation is to see into the revelation of the instant of annunciation, that is Mary’s power to say yes. No Christmas, no Easter, no Catholicism, no Renaissance, no modernity, without Mary’s agreement. The awe of the presence of the angel, and what it would feel like to be visited by one, becomes muted in the successive layer of improvisations, until what remains is the riot of color, the subjectivities of the announcement, and the agreement, the aleatory rendering there. Ansel’s recent annunciation, Yes, after Titian, reprises some of the themes, and makes manifest a cowering of Mary that is at variance with respect to Ansel’s affirmative model only in that it speaks to an obviousness of awe in the scene, but where Mary is recast as a black volume in the lower right, the angel, whose winged qualities are both preserved and nearly detached, assumes his persuasiveness in a sort of rhetorical crimson and orange, The willingness to borrow and retool Titian, a painter of enormous scale, the sheer willingness of the reinvention is the affirmation, and by borrowing from Titian, from the most canonical of painters, Ansel makes clear that there is no patriarchal image that she cannot repossess, bringing to it not only her poetics of human sentiment, but also the undeniable beauty of her technique. Is it okay for this work to be beautiful? When we talk about an ethics of Ansel’s gesture, a repurposing of patriarchal language and misogyny in the history of art, we are saying one thing (and it seems to me an obvious thing—that such a veiling of disagreeable rhetoric is natural and useful), but what about the sheer beauty of the images? Is it a foregone conclusion that they are beautiful, which they assuredly are, or is beauty, a contested word, a possible or even relevant designation in the conversation? If the human body was beautiful, or the female body was beautiful, in classical art, there was a way that it was always pre-formatted for and regulated by the male gaze. Beauty, when confined to the work of male artists and male subject matter, was a term whose denotative power was in dispute— Ansel’s beauty then is beautiful for what reason, and for which audience? In part, her beauty comes from having had an extremely good education in the art of the mid-twentieth century, and from knowing extremely well the art of the renaissance, but it also comes from the sheer joy of interrupting art history, and replacing it with raw expressive power, and in this way she makes a case, for painting itself, For painting as the vehicle through which this thing can be expressed, which is an experience of being-here, and a non-narrative narrative, a narrative of practice and art historical re-imagining, decades in the preparation and execution. Maybe this means that Ansel’s paintings are beautiful because of technique, and maybe it means they are beautiful because of themes, but also maybe they are beautiful as a result of the joy of palimpsesting the originals, and the art history that canonized the originals. I’m lurching around in time here, since time is a wave, and maybe spiral-shaped, with an Elise Ansel from forty years ago, and a Titian who is entirely contemporary. Gabriel, in addition to being the name of the angel in the annunciation, is also the name of the main character in Jame Joyce’s story “The Dead,” who at Christmas dinner, in the story of the same name, after going through a variety of social convolutions, finally collides with a memory about his wife weeping over the death from consumption of a boy she once loved long ago, leaving Gabriel awake, looking over the sleeping body of his wife, gazing at the feminine, and out the window at a veiling of snow-- Before he gets there, he “wonders at his riot of emotions,” where had they come from, from the recognition of deaths of elderly aunts of his family, and then he comes to see his wife’s dead lover, in a church graveyard, and the snow falling on it, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end.” The Joyce of “The Dead” has not yet become able to give us the feminine subjectivity of the end of Ulysses, but the sleeping of Conroy’s wife foretells the sleeping of Bloom’s wife, And that his name, Gabriel, is an announcement of the matter of the story, and the presence of the weeping of his spouse over the memory of her love, a fine singer if ever there was one, is the presence of something new in literature, of a subjectivity, The Lens Is A Fixed Point In Space, Meaning a point beyond which one must go, as the painter Elise Ansel has said to me in correspondence, that is altered slightly here (as the sign of the artist’s hand), and aestheticized, Ansel is an outflowing of paint and light and space in an expression of affirmation, against a tradition, and the creation of a counter-narrative of abstraction, against a tradition, and a replacement of the tradition with a feminine, an affirmation of a feminine, but not in a reductive way, or a merely tendentious way, but in a re-creation of technique and expressivity, an expression of practice as the site of the feminine, of a smile of the feminine, a pleasure of the feminine, that is also a dazzling and beautiful site of paint upon the canvas, and a reconciliation of the two educations, art historical and conceptual, in and against a tradition, that creates a space for the new, meaning and not meaning, that is, she said, and says, yes yes yes.