Journal, Day Five
POETRY JOURNAL, DAY FIVE: ANIMAL PORTRAITS
Getting ready to write an essay on the paintings of Siddharth Parasnis, I’m struggling to articulate the vivacity I admire in his work. How fasten it to words? He’s certainly learned from Diebenkorn: there’s a similar love of the architectural line, a similar brightness in the palette, and an ability to use those often saturated hues to elicit oddly subtle moods. But Sid has transmuted that influence into something wholly his own.
In an e-mail to me, he writes of traveling in the American South and in his native India: “I find some odd places such as patios, corridors, thresholds, backyards, barns, a small alley or even a stairway supported by a broken old wall or it could be just a simple window. These places are often overlooked and quite mundane but they have something sooo emotional about them that I think we all relate to them in a very unique way. To me they are like… Grand Ma or Grand Pa… We love them but we don’t really understand their importance… take them for granted. One day they pass away and we realize what we have missed.”
Reading this description, I think I know one way that Sid is entirely unique. The emotions and mysteries of place which he writes of certainly suffuse his work. And yet there’s something almost the opposite, a speed and sharpness of line, that makes for the immediacy of the paintings. The crispness of presentation contrasts with the lingering feeling tones, and that heightens those feeling tones to their full potential. The speed conveys the thrust and exhilaration of travel, and also the risk of taking for granted the very beauty and depth to which it offers us arrival.
Arnold Schopenhauer claimed that only people can be the subjects of portraits. According to the philosopher, the human image has a unique ability to induce “purely aesthetic contemplation.”
But is this really true? Animals have distinct features. And if we’re looking for purity in paintings or poems, wouldn’t animals actually make better subjects? They arrive in our field of vision untangled from so many contingencies, like race and class. Animals come much closer than we do to being purely formal creatures.
But still, Schopenhauer must have been right. It is identification which gives portraiture its unique energy. This is especially true when a portrait, or for that matter a poem about another person, conveys the surprise of otherness. The sixteenth century paintings of Arcimboldo, for instance, those composites of human heads made from the shapes of vegetables, derive their force from respecting the lineaments of our species. Seeing a bosc pear approximate the nose of Rudolph II, we’re made to laugh about the very creation of the resemblance. That laughter betrays an uneasiness, a confusion that comes from seeing how our attempts at representation, those skills with symbols which help to make us humans, can be absurd and miraculous at the same time.
Arcimboldo’s paintings are more than virtuosic gimmicks because their humor opens a space for the viewer, a space where humans not only appear to one another as both alien and alike, but also where they can communicate this odd duality. As with all successful portraits, his paintings offer a reciprocal circuit between the artist, the subject and the viewer. This may not involve “communication” as we usually know it, but the process of exchange is crucial.
Schopenhauer will be proven wrong not when animals can paint portraits, or write poems, but when they can show them to one another.
After the movers came and went, and Jack and Amy flew east, I lived in the empty cube of our apartment for a week, to finish up my classes. Before I left, I drove to the Sierras. At Donner Pass it was snowing. When I came down into Truckee, flakes were still blowing in the late May sun. I remember standing in the middle of the Truckee River, the water a rapid, muddied emerald as I casted back to the bank and the snow drifted in wisps. It felt as if winter and summer had somehow collided. It felt as if the whole of our five years in California were distilled into something I could carry in my hands. Across from me, a vacant job site with a blue tarp snapping in the wind, the crisp outlines of Douglas firs, the sheer sweep of the mountains: there was a clarity so strong it was almost burning. I remember that feeling now when I look at a printed manuscript, my own or one by a friend, or when I see a painter friend’s work in the light of a gallery show. To be finished: it has less to do for me with reaching some mysterious level of achievement, much less with making everything fit perfectly. It happens when the work becomes its own thing, sharpened, creaturely, inhuman.
Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005), The Lions: Poems (2009), which won the Levis Reading Prize, and El Dorado (2013). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry...