Exhibitions A Delicate Balance
SAMUEL BECKETT struck upon the primary purpose of art in the twentieth century when he observed that "we always find something to give us the impression we exist." Art, facing an increasingly fragmented epoch growing less certain of itself, must maintain a running struggle to illuminate "impressions" of human existence from artist to audience. Sometimes, these impressions merely state the quiet yet dramatic fact of human existence, like the paintings on the walls of Spain's Altamira caves, or else they can boldly declare individual existence with the sincerity of a Roman bust.
In a sense, art can also be both social and aesthetic, tapping the emotion of the viewer in a particular manner to communicate to him the artist's impressions of our existence.
Group art, especially the work of primitive societies, assumes the character of communal art, a sharing of human existences. Individual art, like the works of Florence at its haughtiest, can hail the piece of work that is a man or, in less boastful moments can dramatize to beings of a fragmented century the brutal and atavistic parts of our existence, witness "Guernica."
The exhibit at the Eliot House Junior Common Room of the works of Sy Gresser and Charlotte Lichtblau provides its own dramatic but calming balance of contrasting views of humanity. It is an exhibition which searches man from opposite perceptions-Gresser is intensely psychological in his evocations of the individual struggle while Lichtblau pursues the group stirrings of city-man and country-man with sociological insight.
THE Gresser-Lichtblau show is significant-not merely because it replaces the JCR's fond portrait of President Eliot and old photographs of championship House crews-but because the human image it presents the viewer is a tense but unified whole.
Charlotte Lichtblau seeks to paint, in her words, "an imaginative vision of subject-man-whether he lives in the city, ancient or modern, in a village-as a creature never fully acclimatized, always an alien spirit even in the most intimate surroundings." Her work is mystical, even iconographical, with bold colors straining toward the fervor of stained glass. A triptych on the death and rebirth of the city captures a corner of the room with a strident assertion of group-hope.
The first of the series, "End of the Brownstone Era or Tower of Babel," is a canvas crowded with the mass shapes of an urban nightmare. Harshly cubist in its leanings, the work centers on a large tower pricking its way from the sludge of sewers into a haze of pollution and demonic flame. This is Bruegel's Tower of Babel with a twentieth century difference. Lichtblau's shapes are coarser, more jagged, and her tower is crowded in by other towering and toppling refuse. In the center of the canvas huddles a family, dark and enclosed in helplessness, surrounded by boxes, perhaps even attache cases, brimming with stacks of the dead and dying. Lichtblau dwells on the family and small social groups, enclosed in tightly-drawn, womb-like shapes which symbolize the vain attempts at insulation from a dying urban culture. The figures are trapped in the painting's debris. Behind them pushes the boatman, a favorite image of Lichtbrau, in Charon-like darkness, bearing a kneeling passenger.
In the second canvas of the triptych, "Epidemic," Lichtblau presents a grim, horrific picture of devastation. The shapes, cubist skyscrapers, still pierce their grotesque bleakness toward a pale sun in the center of the painting. The viewer looks up to the gray and lavender sky, feeling as though he too is lying with the victims who struggle in burnt-orange groups at the bottom of the painting. A lone gantry pushed ladderlike toward the dying sun, but stops and returns to the ground with its own image of circular death, the builder's wrecking ball, suspended over the death-groups.
The third work displays rebirth for the city, vivid with prayer and Biblical symbolism. The new structures are jagged but small, clinging to one another rather than pushing into the sky. Significantly, Lichtblau's city is reborn into the form of a village, a characteristic nostalgia.
Her other works prate menacingly on the dying urbanism of the American cityscape. They are complex and geometric, Baroque in expression, and the image of the city is harsh and self-destructive, swept with the contrasts of blaring and bland colors-as in "The Mugging," with its incompletely sketched faces of an indifferent and ignoring populace.
LICHTBLAU, a resident of New York City, also presents the beauteous scenes of her native Austria, paintings which, with the exception of the Wagnerian nightmare "The Black Lake," are calm and contemplative. Once again, the family groups appear, though more idyllic in their rural surroundings. "Pastoral Dream" presents her thesis, the juxtaposition of urban terror and rural serenity. The contrasts in her paintings grate and, though powerful, often appear stark and over-simplified.
Sy Gresser's sculptures approach the human condition from the individual's viewpoint. They stand alone and often truncated in the room. Unlike Lichtblau's romantic vision of a social universe, his works appear to offer little hope for human salvation. One, "The Lovers," sitting inside the fire-place, presents two persons writhing on opposite sides of a wall, unable to touch one another. Gresser's sculptures cannot even give the consolation of a family group.
Gresser chisels directly into wood and stone "the struggle and the supreme dignity of life." His work is pain-staking, the quiet evolution of the sculpture reveals a complex set of emotions. One piece, a woman entitled "Madonna Reborn," remained unfinished for a decade. "I stopped work on it and could not resume until I regained my feeling for the feminine form," says Gresser.
The figures evoke a probing sense of human loneliness. Even in the heavy granite in which Gresser often works, the sculptures are delicately crafted with a stern Gothic sensitivity for the grandeur of the solitary human form. Although his figures often appear blunt in their aloof individuality, the directness is modified by the lack of harsh edges. His surfaces are pleasing and receptive, especially the highly polished appearance of "Torso," whose edges are softened and very smooth. The softness is the redeeming quality in which we see a cautious hint of hope for human existence.
As a whole, the show is well balanced, offering its viewpoints of modern man from both a social and a psychological perception of the human struggle. Both artists dip with eloquence into the terrors of man's estrangement from both himself and his fellows. Both reveal the possibility of hope, emphatically stated in the paintings and delicately woven into the sculpture. From two vantage points we are given the impression that we exist, despite the apparent chaos of an inhuman world.