Velázquez somehow managed to show up in the frame of the enormous screen in Lang Performing Arts Center during a well-attended presentation by Catherine Kehoe and Susan Lichtman, introducing their “Tone Shapes and Shape Notes” exhibit, currently inhabiting the List Gallery. But only as a ‘sort-of’ inspiration.
“Still-life painting,” said Kehoe, “makes it possible to compose a world that remains constant.”
It wasn’t, however, Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” but one of his more obscure portraits being projected onto the screen, placed right next to Kehoe’s interpretation of it, in her fragmented, abstract style. Where, for Velázquez the major subjects of his work might have traditionally been a King, a workshop assistant for practice or the Princess, for Kehoe, the characters, on the contrary, are the light and textures of surface and space, dancing together and transforming through her drafts upon drafts, like a poem, brought out of various human identities to resonate as a function of the traditions and the paintbrushes and the images used to communicate between them.
“What happened?” asked Kehoe, closer towards the end of the presentation, looking at once from behind her glasses to the laptop on the pedestal to the projection screen looming behind her. “Something went dark.”
It was as though the self used to allude to and describe the existence of “art” had suddenly become, in little more than a microsecond of darkness, more significant than what the art on the screen was trying to represent. It seemed the lag in the projection was a threat to the stoic frame’s legitimacy. This screen was the same screen, after all, upon which the dastardly compositions of artists such as Roman Polanski and Jean-Luc Godard are repeatedly projected into students’s eyes as precisely that: formidable threats to the narrative of traditional film’s legitimacy. And this gallery was the same gallery whose events are accustomed to serving Swarthmore art admirers a glass or two of wine.
The frame of the two spaces was deliberately set for art, primarily as spectacle, like an animal in a cage; but the pause provided insight into the outline of the List gallery’s main character and subject, i.e. the frame. One might say, in this light, while identifying with the brushstroke of the presentation’s malfunction — instead of with the actual artists and artworks being presented — with Kehoe, that:
“I quickly forget I am looking at myself; when I see the resulting paintings, it is as if someone has captured my image without my knowledge.”
If one could identify with a technical malfunction…
It’s indeed incredible how accessible art is today, like the animal kingdom, from a variety of what art calls “perspectives.” The technological fact that her Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, in the course of half-an-hour, could show more of the artist’s works, along side their inspirations, both quotational and visual, than the gallery-space could exhibit over the course of a month, was a technological fact of the same flavor as that of Youtube videos capable of revealing to viewers more about a wild animal than a zoo could possibly dream of.
The exhibit must therefore carry some ritualistic value, like a technical malfunction, reminding us of worlds we used to know.
It is said somewhere, probably by Adorno, that the most valuable — insofar as they are ‘timely’ or ‘contemporary’ — works of art are those in which a power recognizes itself, as in a mirror. As powers change, so too do the limits of the art in which a power sees itself, projects itself, evaluates itself and, in the end, accepts itself. But something about the general structure of this relationship, like the relationship between a ruling elite and its capital or its fashion, remains the same.
“As I paint, I conjure up unplanned narratives. I realize I am revealing small things that have been on my mind: a story I heard on the news, a relationship between family members, a memory of those unsettled moments when we have just arrived home or are about to leave for elsewhere,” said Lichtman.
The frame, whose — yes, a frame can be a character too — subjects, from French film to PowerPoint presentations, never remain the same, lords over LPAC like the names of Art’s policing authorities. Velázquez, Cezánne, and Monet are continually deployed, like security apparatuses, zoo-guards, to legitimize art and its conducive cages. The frame is certainly the unnamed, unarticulated subject of the presentation and exhibit.
Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” to contrast, took sponsorship as its main subject, when most court-painting was accustomed to taking royalty as its main subject. Representation for Velázquez, and most the court painters, generally meant to embellish a power, to represent, to reify, to rectify a power, thus reproducing a power.
“—a few hues and white intermix to build a narrow tonal world, an atmospheric envelope—”
In Kafka’s “Trial,” the hero — like art within the frame of LPAC’s unacknowledged projection screen — is condemned for a crime he did not know he committed. He fails to gain any practical counsel from lawyers, from the police, and from the law itself. In hopes of solving the mystery of his condemnation, the hero decides to seek legal counsel from, of all people, an artist named Titorelli. The reason for this is vague, like everything in Kafka; but his seeking an artist is a fact, since the desperation pervading his pursuit of justice at every corner compels him almost unconsciously to the very limits and frames of civilization itself, like a lion pacing back and forth inside a cage.
The artist, a court-painter who provides the paintings in which the power of the court and all the individuals who comprise it, not only wants but needs to see itself. The only thing unique about Titorelli’s “art” — which, as a function of the court, is for all intents and purposes the opposite of originality — is the fact that it is he, Titorelli, who produces it. Titorelli’s reputation, like Swarthmore’s List Gallery, the signifier, i.e. the court-power which contracts his skills, is more significant than what, through the name and process of ‘art,’ like ‘animal life’ in a zoo, is supposed to be signified. His art, like the lion’s appetite, instead of becoming inspirational or an exemplary original, defers all creativity to the function of the frames in which the power of the court functions and is reproduced.
A walk from LPAC’s theatre to the List gallery, likewise, defers all creativity to the function and power of the frame, in which Swarthmore apparently recognizes itself. Art today is unimaginable without the frame, whether it is financial, in the form of a sponsor, bureaucratic in the form of portfolios, cover letters or resumes or formal, in the confessional form of a PowerPoint presentation.
“It’s all been done before,” said Kehoe.