Keeping The Eye Moving

June 16, 2011   •   By Robert Polito


Stein & Limits

GERTRUDE STEIN EVENTUALLY called her lecture Composition as Explanation, but as she worked through the repetitions and variations for the 1926 Cambridge Literary Club audience, "composition" proved the stuff not only of writing and painting but also of everyday life. "The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living in the composition of the time in which they are living," Stein submitted, and any neat "explanation" immediately atomized into restive self-examination:

Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing ... Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here ... Just how much my work is known to you I do not know. I feel that perhaps it would be just as well to tell the whole of it ... It was all so nearly alike it must be different and it is different, it is natural that if everything is used and there is a continuous present and a beginning again and again if it is all so alike it must be simply different and everything simply different was the natural way of creating it then.

Patricia Patterson's performances over the past five decades, whether paintings, murals, or installations, landscapes or portraits, and however scrupulously, even radiantly observed, insist not on explanation but on sustaining only speculation and questions - her smart, resistant probes are, like Stein's, as much for the artist herself as about the world. Her panache at invoking the people, vistas, and interiors of the Aran Islands, which she first visited in 1960, returning often over subsequent decades, advances an unsettling mix of autobiography and ethnography, representation and high concept, as does her work based in Southern California, where she and her husband, painter and film critic Manny Farber, moved in 1970. Her performances, too, spring from a propulsive vision of daily life as itself inherently composed, as theatrical.

In her essay "aran kitchens, aran sweaters," Patterson identified the whitewashed slate-roofed houses of the "island women" as "their medium and arena for a lifetime," the rooms "dominated by a vivacity of language and dramatic physical gestures," particularly "their all-purpose kitchen, the chameleon-like hub of Aran life, which changes constantly with each chore, meal and ceremony." Any art that encompasses this diurnal action must be — like Stein's — formally dynamic. "I felt that I was presenting the Aran people, presenting the place, theatrically, as if the people in the paintings were characters in a play," Patterson told Robert Walsh during a 1989 conversation in Interview. She went on to document that pictorial play through a close scrutiny of a single painting, Pat with Cigarette and Yellow Jug:

...that has a lot of things I like: the colors glow and have a real presence; the wall has a quality of "wall"; Pat has the quality of himself, a vivid individual; his shirt has the quality of "shirt"... I don't mind that the hand with the cigarette might be badly drawn, because it looks spontaneous and quick. I had it better drawn at one point, but it looked dead.

What I really try for is the sense that things exist on the canvas and breathe. Pat's face in the painting has very much his quality — his openness and eagerness; I think I got that. So it's a painting, but it also has the feeling of a person in a room. I try to get balance, where it's definitely a painting, and also alive.

In a lot of the paintings, I want to bring each thing and person forward ... it's also very true of Aran people that they have traditions of performing for each other; people have an obligation toward each other to provide entertainment and to be almost like characters themselves. A lot of their pastime is mimicry; they're phenomenal mimics. There's the body language, the tone of voice or the drawl, plus the characteristic things they would say. And then people start acting themselves out, so that each of them becomes a living, walking persona that the others can recognize.

Patterson's paintings offer dramatic embodiments of dramatic personalities, a protean set for a shifting stage. Her algebraic art fascinatingly arrays and rearranges a persistent set of variables, even as she is tracking movement and change. One of the surprises, looking over her achievement, is to see how many elements were in place from the outset. A 1962 series, although comprised of rough whirls of dark, broad-brushed oils, presents the familiar dramatis personae she would later render in brilliant, fresco-like casein paint: houses, stone walls, vaulted sky, clouds, terraced fields, kitchen tables, stoves, utensils, carts, horses, cows, haystacks, tools, and people working or resting. Her 1977 installation at Palomar College, An Irish Story, marshaled some painted cutout masonite figures from this enduring Aran repertoire against panoramic island backdrops — along with sheep, dogs, her friends Patrick and Mary Hernon, Cóilín and Nan Mullen, as well as Patterson herself wielding a camera, forecasting the inquiries that will animate all her future work. What is this place? Who are these people? What is my relation to them? How can I represent them? Do I even have the right to represent them? 

Even in her earliest forays, Patterson converged sly riddles of stillness and action, space and time, engagement and distance. The stationary cutouts and bird's-eye vistas, for instance, of "An Irish Story," and the six scenes of the related 1977 UCSD exhibition "Fold Out Painted Book" — a woman drying dishes alone in a kitchen, a man and two women eating at a table, a woman doing laundry while a man sleeps in a chair, a man gazing out a window, and a pair of bookending landscape views — might signal immobility, stasis, arrested tableaux. Yet everything about this art inscribes motion and flux: the mutations in the island light, the movements of animals, and the round of activities in the house. The sequences along the fold-out painted books in turn resemble unrolling scrolls; Patterson compared them to "Yamoto-e picture scrolls ... storytelling scrolls." They also recall Edward Ruscha's sweeping Every Building on the Sunset Strip (Patterson and Ruscha overlapped at Artforum during the late 1960s.) The masonite figures in front of the variegated panoramas meanwhile suggest actors performing before careering rear projection. No wonder Patterson titled some 1977 paintings after mobile camera shots: Tracking Past Kate's House, and 360° Pan Around Our Kitchen.

By 1980, Patterson started constructing painted wood frames around the canvases for shows such as Downstairs at the Nancy Lurie Gallery in Chicago, or The Inishmore Sequence at the University Gallery of San Diego State. By 1983 she was including objects — a stove, floor tile, a kitchen cupboard — alongside their painted depictions in Roisin Dubh: A Term of Endearment for Ireland at the Newspace Gallery in Los Angeles. Both moves only intensified her spatial/temporal tangle: if the installation objects reinforced the hints of a stage set, did those hints tilt static, or fluid? Similarly, the often two-tone wood frames conspicuously "frame" the experience of the Aran people. Yet by echoing the architectural and color arrangements of their households, the frames also signify impulsive "movement," as Patterson explained in "aran kitchens, aran sweaters":

The rooms have thick plaster or mud-covered walls, which are divided into upper and lower halves of differing colors ... One of the visual pleasures of these kitchens lies in the eccentric deployment of erratic quantities of paint. A dish cabinet or a door is painted from the same can of bright enameled paint as a small frame around a religious picture ... The movement of the colors — heavy and bright worked against luminous whitewash — compensates for the minimal skills in carpentry and masonry. The unpredictable color patches create a liveliness and variety in a house made up of white and two colors. But what colors! A kelly green and a chrome yellow, used in equal amounts. This kinetic, frugal paint scheme keeps the eye moving ... It's an anarchistic way to paint.

Keep the eye moving emerges as Patterson's root tactic. Our eyes veer along the unfolding books, frames, and objects, and over the multiple perspectives of the buildings, roads, fields, walls, and people of the paintings. Immersed in time passing, this art holds out the promises of narrative, but narrative interrupted, fragmentary, incomplete — again reminding me of Stein's prose. Throughout, Patterson is spectrally vigilant about boundaries, registering the confines of Aran life, and especially her own limits as observer, annalist, and artist. In "aran kitchens, aran sweaters," she riffed on other inevitable, darker resonances of frame:

Everything goes in within a cultural-psychic frame. Just as life is lived within rigorous structures — of a subsistence economy, Catholicism, no big city distractions, no birth control, no divorce — the frames are the motif everywhere. It is an island framed by water, framed by the Gaelic language; the mantel frames the coal stove or the hearth and is itself framed by a march of mementos and photos across its top ... None of the objects is placed only for decorative effect: these presences are like protectors spotted around ... or connections. They create a stage set of cultural locators, defining the family's world as Catholic, Republic of Ireland, Gaelic-speaking, and their lineage as either Hernon, O'Brian or Concannon.

Glancing allusions to European and American painters — Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Friedrich, Mondrian, Schiller, Piero, Giotto, Neil Jenney — help Patterson evoke the islands, while intuiting spheres beyond.

Radiating outwards from that masonite standup figure of a young American woman who appears to rally the men and women of Aran in the lens of her tourist camera, Patterson's self-skepticism surges through all these astute, agile strategies. Her literally flat, two-dimensional cutouts, and the frames that operate like quotation marks around a contested word, are her hedges against sentimentality, idealization, and presuming to understand. How often in these paintings someone is staring out at something we can't see, or is in the middle of saying something we can't overhear.

Patterson is an accretive artist, invariably extending, but rarely leaving much behind, at once conservational and restless. Her axial 1984 installation at the San Diego Museum of Art, The Rabbit and the Kiss, consolidated as it innovated. A multiform orchestration of objects, walls, and paintings, the show spanned four rooms — two "interiors" inside two "exteriors," the blueprint mirroring the flow of Fold Out Painted Book. But now you could look in  — or out — windows, and walk through doorways. The doors and windows were carpentered and painted as they would be in the houses on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, urging access to the paintings, and also in a sense framing them, the paintings themselves framed again in bright enamels. The canvases, once you found your way to them, focused on instants of transformation in weather and light, or disposed antitheses: labor and repose, community and solitude, everyday and history, the life passion of a kiss and the cutting up of a dead rabbit for dinner. Through constant re-adjustments and a slippery, porous sensation of inside and out, original and representation, every aspect of The Rabbit and the Kiss compelled you to consider its opposite, and at no single moment could you take it all in.

Patterson's skill at dropping a spectator into the middle of her own drama of wonder and bewilderment, story and silence, pleasure and anxiety, is the engine of her dramatic art: a coincidence of the meticulously contemplated and the unknowable.



Bishop & Home

That phrase two paragraphs back, "constant re-adjustments," was a variation on Elizabeth Bishop — her "Gentleman of Shalott," she says, "loves / that sense of constant re-adjustment" — and more than Stein, the artist Patterson reminds me of is Bishop. Early on Bishop wrote that she preferred poems that dramatize the mind "in action" rather than "at rest,' and both she and Patterson seem drawn to the world when it is in the process of changing - it's dawn, or twilight, a storm looms, light plays off the sea. Although at complementary ends of the Atlantic, the harsh Nova Scotia of Bishop's childhood frequently tallies with Patterson's Aran: the "narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea," the "fog, / shifting, salty, thin," and the "sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance, / that means 'Life's like that,'" of "The Moose"; or the workaday stoicism manifest in the six recurrent end words of "Sestina": "house," "grandmother," "child," "stove," "almanac," and "tears."

But I'm remembering foremost, of course, the poems Bishop wrote after she moved to Brazil: Brazil occupying in Bishop's life and work a role comparable to the Aran Islands in Patterson's. Bishop, too, a bit comically and self-consciously styled herself a woman with a sightseer's dubious camera. Or, as she put it in "Arrival at Santos," the opening poem in Questions of Travel, "Oh, tourist, / is this how this country is going to answer you // and your immodest demands for a different world, / and a better life, and complete comprehension / of both at last." She also was suspicious of romanticizing and mythologizing this "different world" in her art; so suspicious that in "Brazil, January 1, 1502," she characterized her habits of close observations as a form of imperialism. Like Patterson's Inishmore, Bishop's Brazil is a land of evaporating polarities: "Even if one were tempted / to literary interpretations / such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female / — such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off / in that watery, dazzling dialectic," she writes in "Santarém."

Finally, Patterson first saw the Aran Islands prior to the advent of electricity, without television or radio, when people fashioned their houses and clothing by hand, and Bishop presented Brazil similarly as a realm about to disappear. As the poet wrote to Robert Lowell in 1962,

The dying out of local cultures seems to me one of the most tragic things in this century — and it's true everywhere, I suppose — in Brazil, at any rate. Small towns far inland on the rivers were real centers; they had teachers of music and dancing and languages — they made beautiful furniture here — and built beautiful churches — And now they're all dead as door nails, and broken-down trucks arrive bringing powdered milk and Japanese jewelry and TIME magazine.

In "The End of March," a poem she published after her return from Brazil in Geography III, Bishop sets herself walking with a friend on a cold and windy day along the Duxbury, Massachusetts shore towards a wood structure she can glimpse in the distance but never reaches: "my proto-dream-house," she calls it. I've come to think of the houses in Patterson's paintings and installations as her own proto-dream-houses, and her art as a fierce, elegiac meditation on home ("home / wherever that may be?" as Bishop elsewhere asked).

Patterson sometimes paints the Aran Islands as a place of couples, families, a community. Groups — husbands and wives, in-laws, friends (but never children?) — gather around a table to eat, drink, and talk; they might hug, kiss, ride horses or do chores together. Just as often, though, she limns Aran as a community of isolates. Rarely in Patterson's work is anyone looking at another person, rarely do people look in the same direction. In a canvas for her 1982 installation Pat and Mary in the Kitchen at the Southwestern College Gallery at Chula Vista, California, for instance, two men sit on either side of a stove, one diverted by a newspaper, the second staring at nothing, while through a doorway we observe a woman working in the other room. Even when inhabiting a small space, these souls seem apart. Her paintings of more than one person can expose distress, unease - the strain in Cóilín's crossed arms in The Brothers-in-Law; and from the taut cast of Mary's face as Pat skins a rabbit, it's almost as if she were being butchered. Individual figures are portrayed in tense close-ups. And whatever auspicious attributes we've recognized in the masonite cutout figures — the intricacies of motion, or Patterson's artistic restraint — they are stark tokens of dislocation, alienation, and homelessness.

Is Patterson outside looking in, or inside looking out? Her later major mural exhibitions — Here and There, Back and Forth at LACMA in 1985, and Itinerant Painter at the University of Texas at Arlington in 1987 — would increasingly situate images of the Aran Islands amid farther and vaster contexts, including global popular culture. She referenced the recent importation of TV to Inishmore, as well as the geography of her own double life on Aran and in California. Patterson covered the walls with a swirl of allusive textures, linguistic as well as visual: the noticeably older Hernons — thinning hair, a cane on the wall; Mick Jagger and Tina Turner at Live Aid; a Ragtime parlor song, "Waltz Me Around Again, Willie"; dialogue from a Gaelic primer; a line from Dashiell Hammett ("I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."), and a question she heard Pat ask Mary ("Mary, Mary, tell us who do you fancy, and who do you like?"), both sounding like Irish folk songs; farm animals; Talking Heads and Bob Marley lyrics; Olympic divers Wendy Wyland and Greg Louganis; gnomic Zen mottos ("Don't think. Don't talk. Swim!"); and excerpts from letters Mary sent about the death of their dog, and the drowning of Mickie MacDonagh and Brian Flaherty.

"I'm inside and outside at the same time," Patterson painted on the walls of both LACMA and UT Arlington, quoting "Television Man" by Talking Heads. Her slant is loss, mutability, and death, her tone commemorative, but — absent any melodrama and nostalgia — celebratory, too. "The experience of being a part of two cultures is at the base of my work," Patterson told a UT Arlington Shorthorn reporter. "I have found that my work serves as a way of fusing the two worlds together."


Akerman & Shallow-boxed Space

Fusion, or split? When I mentioned "the geography of her double life," I was also thinking of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and even more than Bishop or Stein, the artist Patterson reminds me of is Chantal Akerman. Jeanne Dielman was the subject of "Kitchen Without Kitsch," the final film review Patterson and Farber wrote for Film Comment in 1977, before they abandoned criticism for painting and teaching. "I loved the images in that film and thought they were very close to what I'd been doing," Patterson recounted in Interview, spotlighting Babette Mangolte's cinematography. The fixed, frontal camera of films such as Jeanne Dielman, Fassbinder's The Merchant of Four Seasons, and Straub and Huillet's History Lessons parallels Patterson's Aran angles and vantages. She and Farber tagged this approach "shallow-boxed space," writing of Jeanne Dielman, and perhaps of Patterson's own ongoing art:

A marginal life away from the progressing mainstream, with all the traditional forms and strictures, is chronicled with a static wide-angled lens, using structural traits first found in Warhol's fixed-frame film (early sixties) and developed in other repetitive films (Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow, et al.) in which the space becomes spiritualized and proliferates ideas.

Other details of Akerman's film rhyme with Patterson: the accent on the kitchen, the allegorical dramas of food preparation, and the iconic stove, table, window, door, black-and-white floor tile; Dielman's front-and-center china cabinet in her dining room; omnipresent shades of blue — in a robe, a coat, the wallpaper; all the framing rectangles — hallways, an elevator; a ghostly alertness to inside and outside, be it the bedroom or the psyche; and the importance of letters. With her son, his school, her neighbors and her circadian excursions to shops, Dielman, like Patterson's islanders, would seem to exist in a community, but instead remains separate, sealed-off, alone. Both Patterson and Akerman ultimately summon a disturbing concentration and abstraction of domesticity: nothing is out of place, and everything is not right.

Patterson suggested in Interview that as far back as the mid-1960s, when she was teaching art to New York City Catholic kids, "I always felt that I had a split life — Catholic schools, and then my bohemian downtown friends." And later, summarizing her California and Texas installations:

My work is speaking to two worlds ... neither of which can really get it. I mean, there's no one in the Aran Islands who knows who the Talking Heads are or would understand the meaning and the irony in their lyrics. And no one here is going to know what is meant by a line that I take out of an Irish song or a quote from Mary or Pat — the whole tonal quality that comes with it.

Maybe split and fusion. One of the galvanizing splits - fusions - in Patterson's career originates in those stoves, cupboards, and kitchen utensils, her decision to balance actual objects against their painted counterparts as they resound across the divide. This is an art that, for all its elegance, vigor, and mastery, betrays impatience with art. Patterson rouses the technical and historical resources of art to go beyond art. While she continues to paint (and paint dazzlingly) it appears no accident that much of her recent work is steeped in artistic process — Private Notations (1993), her solo exhibition of sketchbooks, notebooks, and diaries, and Two for the Road: The Sketchbooks of Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson (2003) — and that she is so ambitiously absorbed outside her studio by numerous public gardens, environments, and buildings, including the San Diego Children's Museum and the Leucadia, California home she shared with Farber until his death in August, 2008.

Material yet transitory, these spaces are Patricia Patterson's latest invocations of the yearned-for, elusive shelter Bishop called "my proto-dream-house," and of the dailiness, too, Stein called "composition": "the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing."