Allan Gurganus is the author of "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All", "White People", "Plays Well With Others," and, forthcoming from Knopf, four tales entitled, "The Practical Heart".
To paint on a wall. ---It is the vandal's nighttime misdemeanor. It remains the high noon of all human pursuit. Naturally our parents punished us for doing it. It implied we were ungrateful for the blankness they'd provided. Something illicit still attends even the most skilled artistic assault upon white plaster. History has lost Michelangelo's parents' opinon of The Sistine Ceiling. Did they see one very big graffito by their wall-climbing repeat offender? "You take this soap right back up that scaffolding, young man, and clean up after yourself."
The dare of walls' blankness made artists of creation's earliest amateurs. (See the Lascaux cave paintings' smoky handprints and the menus of wished-for beasts.) Next, see Pompeii and cry. Note Giotto---achieving the first painted perspective and, with it, a first painted psychology. All those walls advance toward the lunar purities of Piero della Francesca.
Commerce finally demanded more portable surfaces---painters shifted off walls and onto canvas, rollable for easy transport by horse. ---But, nowadays, what would one major living painter create if sent back to the essentials, sent back to the well---I mean---to the wall. I have just seen the outcome and want to speak of it.
The painter is James McGarrell. I am not allowed to name the village where he lives, except to say it's in a state called V---t. (Which shares borders with N-w Y--k and a nation named C---a). But I have been encouraged to describe the immense painting. Since it circumnavigates the painter's own large country diningroom, I get to describe what it's like to eat there among, amid, within it.
To the naked eye, from your passing pickup truck, the frame house where it lurks appears as prim and stalwart as ten thousand others in V----t. Perfectly maintained since 1800, its three storeys, shuttered in green, simply assume their several centuries' good repair. Fields around the McGarrells' home sensibly head straight toward blue distances. Former cornfields have become an ideal farm for poplars. The yard is alive with goldfinches and rosy buntings, their colors petstore-worthy. For urban visitors, this zone of breeze and birch feels narcotically unnerving in its very peacefulness.
The big house reminds you of a upright local Unitarian matron---an excellent lady who believes that Virtue is what everybody wants down-deep, isn't it? ---Alas, it probably isn't.
The unlikely room McGarrell has created inside might resemble just such a decent woman's actual interior life: surprising, pre-Christian, lavish, romantic, epic, rule-breaking, unapologetically sensual, a state of joyful wishing rendered transistive---set into questioning (perpetual) motion.
Having parked your own apple-red truck, knock hard, state the codewords: "Paint" "Wall', or "World", and you will soon find yourself let in on a very good secret.
Six cats, uneasily occupying this single home, make it feel conspiratiorial as a Republican Convention held in utter silence. Glimpses into other rooms show you a sensible conspiracy of comfortable places to sit and read, abundant cushions, books rampant. Notice the etchings and lithographs by Degas, Rembrandt, Corinth, Marquet, Beckmann, Ensor, Morandi, Giocametti. (Somewhere in V----t.)
But what you want is through the first door on your right. In New England, the derring-do of any sensual attainment can be truly ranked only by whatever pain it's worth enduring. By Old Salem's standards, this house contains pleasures downright punishable. The scale of appetite, grandeur and talent (indistinguishable from each other) feels nearer Veronese than V---t.
The artist's own favorite critical response to his room came from a neighbor who, upon entering, just hollered, "Holy Shit!" High praise for how the painting leans all the mantel, how it surmounts each window, crowns each door with edible still lives.
My own first glance at these walls made me recall early 19th century French paper---its happy busy citizens depicted fishing, farming, or riding every form of modern transportation through glades whose umbrellaed trees remain stylized in the manner of the previous century. But this view seemed to have been quickly painted over by someone with Ensor's tensile sense of surface pageantry, painted in Redon's lacquer-sorbet color range.
The vista circles behind and before you; it rising above the wainscotting, it investigates clear to the ceiling. The work is unframed, unless you count the acid-green Fortuny brocade draperies (circa 1914) hung at the real windows. Paint is pretty much all you see. The paint-wall of experience soon reconstitutes your entire (world) view.
You've walked into a room whose every surface is paint, paint that simulates vistas, creates mythic beasts, provides likely meals, shows folks' dayjobs set right beside their dream expectations, paint that tricks the eye into believing this paint is fur and wood, now glass, fish and locomotive and campfire smoke, paint that manages to reassure and, most important, to mean.
How many of us, on looking at a chamber depicted by Vermeer, have not thought, "A painted room. That's it. That vault of tile, Turkish rugs and hanging map, that sanctuary interim of an always sunny three p.m., is exactly where I forever belong. There".
But now, you have entered the frame. The painted room is real and you've become its major actor.
McGarrell's work is titled "Redwing"---for the many redwinged blackbirds that reccur throughout it, for the way its ruddy tone tints this entire wing of the country house. Four walls recount the the four seasons, and most times of day from dawn through midnight. We're offered layers of cultural and personal myths, overlapped as those always are. And, most significantly, the painting acknowledges and celebrates, with a cranky lyric wisdom, the Ages of Man---more specifically, the many concurrent ages of one man. He becomes recognizable as the craggy, literate, genial artist himself. McGarrell's own frequent response to the world is a laugh, a loud baritone laugh, exploding wild as some operetta pirate's.
The artist becomes our stand-in up there. Around the room, we see one white male personage near-life-sized at age eight, eighteen, thirty eight, fifty eight and seventy eight. The figures form upright numerals on the clock these four walls soon provide. We accompany the artist as he guesses how he must have looked as a pretty child, as a surly juvenile delinquent, then as a sexually driven and literally horny young satyr soon tamed into a domesticated conjugal partner preparing food with his spouse, and finally, with his back to us, as a burly old man of squat Picassolike bodily power, finishing his masterpiece, the last in long deepening series.
That this new and painted world---all celebratory Vanitas and Memento mori---so successfully complements then competes with the surreal beauty of rural V----t (a Peeping Tom seen snooping in at all four windows), bespeaks some of its implicit power. The dining room of this country place soon becomes---with its saturated color, sweeping half-literary narration, and bravura brushwork---a greenhouse for our parched, blasted modern imaginations.
McGarrell's own ravishing vandalism creates an up-against-the- wall autobiography that stretches fully sixty eight feet long.
Let us now praise famous wall vandals. The goal is: never to smother a surface but to reveal what's always been implicit just beneath it. Since Jim McGarrell turned twenty seven years old, his canvases have hung on walls as steadily white and regularly perused as those of the Museum of Modern Art. Having till now committed his life to portable large canvases, he now reverses the movement of art history; the artist reverts to walls. First his own and---soon, one hopes---others'.
After a somewhat nomadic life, Jim and Ann McGarrell found this commodious house four years ago. He then served as Artist In Residence at Dartmouth College in nearby N-w H---e. Who would commit a masterwork to the walls of a rental home? Permanence, walls this bought and unmoving, became the passport needed for extensive imaginative travel.
It is always a good time to paint a masterpiece; but now especially. McGarrell's wife of forty one years plies her own trade here as a translator and poet. Ann McGarrell has just finished translating Alberto Bevilacqua's forthcoming memoir of a long and sexual life, "Eros".
The McGarrells' children---a research librarian and an art student (who phones home asking that her feather boas be FedXed to Rome, pronto, prego)---live largely elsewhere.
So, this farmhouse is now mostly the precinct of good food, what seems a remarkable marriage of equals, much serious work, six healthy if moody cats, and McGarrell's large jazz library. (His own 1954 recording of New Orleans greats, Barnes-Bocage Big Five, has just been released on CD). Upstairs find McGarrell's stark white studio tucked under the old house's mansard roof.
But the diningroom walls kept siren-singing up three flights, offering the artist a more seductive invitation. Last June---prepared panels of wide Belgian linen, paper-backed, were hung from wainscotting to ceiling height by an expert paperhanger. If the artist's easel paintings were each a string quartet, then "Redwing" would become---in its reach, its developed motifs---unmistakably symphonic. (Maybe late Mahler, with penny-whistle obligato? Or something Brucknerian, based on the themes of wild bird song, running brook and a single caterwauling offstage cat.)
Sitting here early, left alone with coffee and one of the plumper cats (she truly likes to be spanked, another story), I am wondering why everybody on earth doesn't take a paintbrush to the walls that gird and limit where they live. Why don't more of us try making the imagined world actual? Why not risk it through that continuing low-tech miracle called paint? Then I remember a concept called, oh, Talent, right.
I recall how "paint" and "pain" stand just one skinny letter apart.
I next understand a barricade maybe even more daunting. It's this: To paint your ideal chapel-room means that you must choose your very own complicated subject. You must invent and preserve certain images you will willingly study every day hereafter. The chamber should at once become your own mothership and psychic compass. But, to concoct such images, you'd best know which ones, if you could paint on your walls, you would paint there.
True, most people cannot. But, even if everybody were born knowing how to paint with McGarrell's seeming supple satyr glee, even if allowed to select any motif the imagination might souffler in some dream or parboil during wakefulness---most people couldn't, couldn't choose.
Hence the ubiquity of white walls. Hence, the way we, at our decorative and whimsical best, will venture only to paper across our rooms' interiors. Giftwrapping our quarters with the stammering geometric monotony of most wallpapers not by William Morris. What is our finest North American try at finding personal and mythic wall imagery? We buy it readymade out of sample books! Rectangle, leaf, rectangle. Or at best---bird flower bird flower bird corner.
Not a problem of the room in question!
I sat before "Redwing" early on my last morning in V---t. I was enjoying good expresso and the decent company of a yellow legal pad (the long kind), one fountain pen (fat, Forties) and an obese affable self-cleaning gray cat named Eglantine. I vowed I would simply try to describe this painting's subject matter "straight". I'd state it as if I were some local V---t reporter chronicling a V---t fire, or a V---t wedding. This is literally what I wrote:
"Seen behind blue drapery, a mountain horizon burns crocus purple. A stream twists past one naked boy taming a prancing horse (or has the kid, suddenly broken-in himself, been won over by the creature's wildness?). In the foreground, saturated with the glow of 6 AM, a plowman and his drayhorse cut a furrow across a meadow till now merely natural. One freight train, its cars toylike in the golden haze of spring light, transits a landscape abruptly becoming ideal with summer fertility. Before a grove of trees as classical as any by Poussin but fuller of breeze and actual limb-creak, a vine overtakes one homemade stick trellis where a driad, her frock light with its own trellis of leafage, seems in the process of fatalistic seduction. A satyr (the artist at thirty eight) interrupts playing his cello to wield his bow and points---an act of ownership---toward the bosky horizon. His own profile is half-animal, no, three quarters so. He snarls at his willing lady prey, a sexual threat that contains a certain frisky sexual promise. On the placcid adjacent lake, a single shirtless rower works his oarlocks. Ashore, summer's trees already start turning russet. One sinister panel truck brakes. Its headlights are lighted midday (a signal?) as if awaiting a rendezvous with drug freight? or some kidnap celebrity-child victim? Into the pond's cold autumn depths, one naked diver plunges---fingers to toes atop his own arrested reflection. Above the treeline, hot air balloons pursue their own notion of what might constitute a proper godlike vista. An actual window comes next. It does looks somewhat `under painted.' Its crude factuality appears somewhat improbable in this geography of exemptions, and even somewhat annoying."
(And this, fellow viewer, inventories just seventeen eventful feet of it, a fourth of this dense, entangling alliance).
"Since I finished the painting after six months' work," McGarrell says,"something curious has occured to me. This is the only painting I've ever made that can never be seen all at once. Viewers will always have the backs of their heads to some portion of it. Not only does it allude to an unfolding in several time scannings, it must in fact be seen in separate parcels of actual time. I think of `Redwing' more as a painted room than as a wall mural. It is the largest picture I have ever made, and I made it `inside' something, the 17-foot square formal dining room of our home."
"Like all of my painting it has no single subject or theme but many overlapping ones. Most were found in the act of making the painting. I never do preparatory drawings, never have fixed preconceptions....
"We visual artists, because of the arrested-object nature of our medium, lack an ability to order the sequence in which our works are apprehended. This control is always assumed by poets, choreographers, novelists, composers, film-makers. Yet most sculptors and painters---especially us painters---attempt a rhythmic ordering, a setting of forces into motion despite the sacred arrestedness of the quiet objects we make. It is a good part of the magic of the paintings of Piero, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Cezanne that their great canvases are enthroned in the integrity of unshakable stillness. And yet, their paintings are filled with forms that dance, dart, thrust, flicker, fall and fly."
If one of the clear threads of the work is "Time"---its over-ambitious enrichments and inevitable deletions---"Redwing"'s alternate subject seems the very material of its making. It truest subjects then are time and paint. Paint in time. Thank God for paint's ability---so unlike us, its worshippers and wielders---to last many many centuries.
Coming upon "Redwing" all at once is to be returned to some childhood dream of what one's own paint kit and crayolas might someday, if pied then squared, evoke.
George Adams, McGarrell's New York dealer, sees this epic painting as "a compendium of all his major work and themes. `Redwing' might be Jim's best thing, ever. It has freed him from such formal question as panel breaks. The half a year he spent doing the room he lived in a fugue state. (The work) allowed him a more continuous and therefore more inventive narrative flow."
Of the many ways to enjoy such a room, my favorite is eating in it. How helpful that the poet, Ann McGarrell, is a world-class cook. Her Umbrian cuisine can make you believe that V---t lurks several longitudes lower.
Sundays in "Redwing" are apt to be enjoyable, especially with a party of eight discussing the ongoing pathos of Carol Channing, or certain gifted painter acquaintances lost young to AIDs, or the pros and cons of the Sistine Ceiling's perhaps over-insistent cleaning. Talking-listening, you feel the joy of looking from face to animated face and seeing, around a shoulder, above that silvering head, some purplish tonality becoming a horizon, one fraction of tree bough of the landscape, or that pair of anarchic painted monkeys as big as a hyper-active seven year olds. The picture subdivides itself like some good gooseberry pie served from the round central table. Each of us takes a different wedge of its complete visual nourishment. These walls coach us toward our own reveries, they provide the McGarrells' guests a secondary feeding.
There is, in us pent-up North American pilgrim-puritans, this unaccountable hunger for imagery that is true, sexual, beautiful and impenitently hedonistic. Such retinal rewards should feel as piled-up and associative, as poetically disjunct as are our lived lives these days. There's this starvation for sights that are as abundant, absurd and gorgeous as those errands and rites performed in our own over-colored underrehearsed dreams. To eat near and before "Redwing" is to carbo-feed on such a peripheral-vision bounty, pleasure unembarrassed.
Though McGarrell is the most American of North American painters, though self-invention is both his mode and one of his abiding themes---novelists, composers, directors, and other circus professionals rank among his most enduring subjects---his decade spent in France and Italy must have given the artist some curious erotic ballast. Just as there appears to be no Minimalism anywhere in his body, McGarrell also seems to lack any pinched and proper sense of healthy American shame. (Oh, lucky man. The time that must save!) In his work, you'll often find food, somebody is reading or talking or smooching or playing the sax in a wicker chaise on a flagstone terrace. There's a general air of people sitting around awaiting a meal they can already smell from one room away and in perfect preparation. There is, in the actual McGarrell household, a similar sense of joy in the domestic. Who could endure V---t winters without some abiding organizing indoor joy?
The chess board is always set up, ready for a game; the relaxed furniture surrounding it seems dedicated to allowing no single hurried move, either on or off the household's alabaster board.
W.B. Yeats expressed an endearing, artful hope for the future of his infant daughter,
"And may her bridegroom bring her to a house Where all's accustomed, ceremonious..."
As we eat in it, "Redwing", offers us an invitation, back to the magic of mere paint on a wall, to the child's dream of "What if...". Wholly personal, this room insists that we be. There is no higher praise, no greater luxury. Toward each other, at this table, in sight of it, we act naturally accustomed, ceremonious.
---Yeats might have wished his daughter into this very room, this very beautiful room.