Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lucien Freud L'Atelier, Centre Pompidou

I came away from the Lucien Freud exhibition, L’Atelier, at the Centre Pompidou very relieved that I was having dinner with my friend Anne, rather than Freud himself. This small exhibition of Freud’s work painted in his London studio was intense, emotionally challenging, and ultimately quite difficult. I admire the force of Freud’s painting, the power of his brushstroke and the transparency of his representational process, I find his intellectual engagement with the history of painting to be exciting, indeed, there is much to marvel at here. And yet, I can’t say I “liked” the paintings; the dominant feeling I had at the end was one of being trapped in a world of self-contemplation, Freud's self-contemplation.

The portraits are, in the best possible vein of portrait painting or photography, all about Freud, and seem to have little to do with the sitter. I appreciate that Freud does not pretend to be doing otherwise. He is unabashedly open about the fact that all the portraits are actually a portrait of himself. Compare this to a photographer such as Richard Avedon who claims to be revealing some undiscovered, fleeting moment of his sitter’s inner self, when really, he is completely immersed in his own obsessive controlling of every look and gesture. The sagging flesh of Freud’s sitters, the somewhat exaggerated distortions of their bodies are the creations of a mind that wanders and wonders about his body growing old. It is his own body that is given substance in these works. It is his own flesh that comes together with paint on the palette and then on the canvas as the material of self-exploration. And then I am unsettled when caught watching a very private moment of contemplation of the sitter, not so much his or her physical exposure on the canvas, in the empty studio, alone with Freud. But I turn away when the sitter’s vulnerability is glimpsed, when I recognize the privacy of the moment I peer into. I feel as though I have entered a room uninvited, caught in my moment of transgression. And yet, like Leigh Bowery above, the pose is always so obviously staged, performed in a gesture which becomes Freud's flaunting of the conventions of classical portraiture. This is Freud's brilliance: his one and the same time emotional journey into the depths of the individual's self and an intellectual exercise in the undoing and subsequent reinvention of the conventions of art history.

And then as if to remind us that all this is always filtered through the mirrors of Freud's mind, we find these self-portraits that encourage us to see the paintings as a reflection (in the two senses of the word) of the artist's most private moment - the moment of artistic creation. Even when no mirror is present, we have the sense the body sits in a distorted time and space, in the studio as mirror of Freud's mind.

Perhaps what I loved most about the paintings in Atelier was Freud's fusion of flesh and paint. The texture of flesh and the materiality of paint become the same thing, merge into one, the subject of the canvas. In The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2004-2005), the paint-spattered studio wall and the canvas onto which Freud paintgs become one, as our eye then drags down to the subtle shifting colors of the model's flesh, as it gives way to the cloth that is permanently strewn around Freud's studio. We feel, or rather touch, smell, even indulge in the thrilling texture of paint and flesh as objects to be pushed and massaged around the surfaces of Freud's paintings.

Lastly, to reiterate, the exhibition is small by Pompidou standards. And how refreshing it is to see a well-hung, coherent selection of a single artist's work in spaces that can themselves become vast and overwhelming.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Talk about driving in LA

After spending five days in LA, the temptation is too great; I have to write about the traffic. Sitting at Bert’s, the closest Paris comes to American, I announced to American friends that I would be going to LA with no plans to rent a car. By the look on one face, I might as well have announced I had a terminal disease. Complete horror: “but you can’t get around LA without a car.” I said I had heard that the city had a very efficient public transport system. “But people like you don’t catch the bus,” the look of disbelief deepening on her face. I explained that didn’t really have a choice as I no longer have a driver’s licence. And I watched her grave expression shift between profound concern—not just for my enjoyment, but more for my safety in LA—and disbelief that I would attempt such a daring feat as navigating the city without a car.

This, something close to panic around my not having a car, prompted me to accept friends’ invitations to come pick me up at the hotel and whisk me off to the far reaches of “car only” accessible LA. There’s no doubt I had fun in the car with my friends, and it was really, an outing in itself. Where in Paris I catch up with people in cafes, in LA, conversation and laughter began the minute I stepped into the car. Most of all, I was struck by the Los Angelenos' relationship, not so much to their cars, but to traffic. In Los Angeles, the question is never “where am I?” or “where am I going?” but rather, “ what route do I take?” There's is a relationship to space totally defined by the peripatetic, dependent, in turn, on the time of the day.

The constant discussion between strangers, friends, casual companions, with valets, concierges, in person, on the telephone, by text, the great social leveller in LA, is the intensity of the traffic on the road between here and there. Even though they all have navigators in the car, what Los Angelenos really needed to know is beyond the electronic mother’s best efforts to find her way around town. What they need to know is how many others like them are on that road. At times the conversation about traffic reached the intense (obsessive) levels of that between New Yorkers on the topic of their apartments. At others, I was reminded of listening to a scholar revealing never-before considered insights into some rare discovery. I watched and listened as my friend Denise discussed with a shop assistant how best to get from the Grove Shopping Center to downtown LA. The young woman was so focussed, knowledgeable, gave such intricate details of the route, the traffic, where to turn free of oncoming traffic, the sequencing of the lights, that it reminded me of a conversation I had the night before with Mike Zryd about 50s discourses on documentary. Like listening to Mike talk about his field of expertise, I was riveted, not only by the extent of the shop assistant’s knowledge, but by the verve and commitment with which she shared this knowledge.

On arrival, another internal dialogue begins: parking. Where to park, how much will it cost, will there be parking, how not to forget to have the parking ticket validated, how to remember which floor the car is on. And so the conception of space and became fraught for a whole different set of likewise unforeseeable circumstances.

My sense is that the obsession with cars, traffic, parking, navigators, and so on is a chosen one, and that it is possible to move around LA without a car. And it did not take long before, I understood the look of horror on the faces of those who lunch at Bert’s on the glorious Avenue Marceau in the 8th arrondissment. Once on the bus, I realized that “people like you” means that “they” have never caught a bus in LA in their life. I also understand that staying downtown helps a lot as it might be the one place in LA where public transport connections are good. For me, the buses were extremely efficient, more so than in most other big cities, and the people who were “not like me” on the bus were all very pleasant.

I do understand that people work in areas where it is too expensive to live and so they need to commute to work, but I am not yet convinced that the car is so indispensible to the lifestyle of the Los Angeleno. At least, there are ways of organizing life so as to avoid the stress of how to get there, navigating traffic, parking, maintaining a car. But I wonder what then would be the conversation thread that might bind people together in this disparate, postmodern city?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When War is the Humane Option

One of the joys of living in Paris is the American community, and within that community, the constant turnover of people visiting, living with, marrying, working and just being in Paris. One of my dear American friends has dinner parties at which it is rare to meet the same person twice. As a result I never know who I am going to meet when I am invited for dinner at Marjorie’s, but I always know there will be someone who I would meet nowhere other than the American in Paris community. And so it was with Caleb, an ex-marine, who got out while the going was good, that is, before he was drafted to Iraq or Afghanistan, before he was maimed for life.

Caleb is in Paris doing his MBA, clearly a young man with choices that those at home, or at war in Afghanistan do not always have available to them. Caleb not only had the foresight of knowing that going to war wasn’t such a good idea, but he had the choice of an alternative career. In anticipation of the Oscars on Sunday night, I asked him if he had seen The Hurt Locker. His response to the film was so was completely different from my own, and so compelling, that it has stayed with me. Caleb thought that the most important sequence of The Hurt Locker was a scene I had nearly forgotten, a scene that gets minimal screen time and no analysis: when Staff Seargent William James goes home to the US and has to choose which brand of cereal to buy for breakfast. The purpose of the scene is to reinforce that returning home is a return to the mundanity of daily life where supermarket shopping rather than de-activating IEDs is the order of the day. James’ inability to make a decision about the breakfast cereal reinforces that a soldier whose work requires the utmost precision and split-second decision making is ill-equipped for the tedium of life on the homefront. There’s no mistaking why James wants to go back to Iraq.

Caleb told me of his friends who had returned from Iraq, unrecognizeable. For these men, the injury is far worse than amputated limbs and schrapnel wounds, precisely because they are not worn physically. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is so extreme that America has no idea of how to heal it, there is no provision for the kind of rehabilitation they need. The men remain traumatized, violent, haunted by an inability and no possibility to express what it is they saw, felt, experienced day in and day out on the battlefield. The flashbacks, nightmares, social isolation are the tip of an iceberg that is given what amounts to lip service. These men might be the picture of physical fitness and prowess, but they face lifetimes of anxiety, depression, uncontrolled bursts of anger, violence, and social stigmatization. And we can expect that these unresolved traumas will be passed onto the next generation. When the troops came home from Vietnam, they may not have come home heroes, but at least they came home to an economy that could support them, if only by giving them jobs. For returned US servicemen today, even this is not on offer, further reinforcing their alienation, further prohibiting rehabilitation and reintegration as functioning individuals.

I have always been fascinated by the merging of the battlefield and the homefront as a result of technological modernity. Wars that take place in urban landscapes have no regard for the lines between battlefield and homefront. And neither does the media: since the days of photography onward, through television, video, the internet, the two once separate worlds are joined, instantaneously, through transmission of events across lands, oceans, airspace. And yet, as Caleb reminded me, the worlds on the battlefield and the home front have never been so distant and unfathomable to each other. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, so the trauma becomes deeper and more profound. In turn, the capacity to deal with it, the therapies needed to heal it, become more elusive. It would be remiss to claim there is no therapy for PTSD, and in some cases, the cure is as technologically avant-garde as that which caused the problems in the first place. But even with innovations such as the "virtual therapy" that takes the soldier back to the battlefield, the "time-space" of the trauma, the cure is not yet adequate to the number and extent of those returning with everything from brain damage to permanent psychiatric disorders. While months are spent training for combat procedures and conditions at war, nothing prepares soldiers and marines for the return to the “normality” of suburban America. Their use value to America is now past the use by date, and there is little of use to them in America.

And so, according to Caleb, Obama made the right choice, took the humane route, when he decided to leave the troops in Afghanistan. At least in Afghanistan they have each other, a community of servicemen and women that supports them, understands them, sees through their eyes. And in Afghanistan they have a raison d’ĂȘtre, even if one that none of us approve of, that is, to kill an enemy. In America, no such luxury of purpose is on offer. Caleb's thinking made perfect sense, and it made me wonder how tragic is the world we live in? Where are we when it is more humane to leave men and women at war than it is to have them at home as contributing members of society?