Palace of Memory
I was a feral child before the technological era, and grew up roaming hills and streams. For years I have I painted abstracted landscapes of feeling and memory. The Palace of Memory paintings evoke a kind of haunting, with disappearing glaciers and eroding forms, but also assert hope and the possibility of survival.
Donna Brookman 2014
I love painting. I love the way it is so suggestive of the world and yet is something else. I love the light it can conjure, the energy and sense of touch it conveys. I love the sense of skin in an oil painting. It is tactile, messy, complex, mysterious…a wonderful antidote to disembodied contemporary life.
Moving through a series I work on more than one painting at a time. The paintings evolve slowly and intuitively. I have a starting point, perhaps a memory of a certain quality of light, and then go where it leads me. I like to make the marks legible and discreet, to give the viewer a sense of process, of actions,almost the way a musician uses an instrument to build a rhythmic foundation). The process moves towards a certain unity, ideally a sense of inevitability.
I’m looking for emotional range, for allusions to the world and human experience. I welcome metaphor. The reductive, minimalist attitude of the 1970s was the context in which I was educated but, as Robert Irwin says, “Restriction can be a discipline to break habits, but it need not be a final state and it’s no state of grace.” Making paintings that are colorful, energetic, emotional, that freely refer to landscape and the body might seem almost “transgressive” now, but I have developed a sense of freedom and fearlessness, and a real sense of urgency about doing the work.
The title fullflood refers to a poem by Denise Levertov in which a friend urges her to work well as her “river is in full flood”. Metaphors. My belief is that metaphor is essential, that often the most obscure or muted work is coded in some way. The core human realities, presence or absence, life and death, grief and joy, physicality, sexuality—we look for echoes of our experience in the world around us. Water, as a fundamental element, holds endless possibilities.
The core of the work is in quietude. I believe that a painting can redirect our attention, can create a sense of presence in the world. Here, of course, is the link to Lucretius, and his poetic treatise On the Nature of Things. That sense of energetic unity is a touchstone for a more grounded reality, of connection and consolation. I approach painting as a lover of the world. I ultimately feel it’s a more powerful stance than polemic—engaging the imagination, memory, and senses helps us to value what we have. And of course, that is what is essential now.
Donna Brookman 2012
Donna Brookman: Aorist and fullflood, Stephen Greenblatt
“The lines of my painting do not go astray,” Michel de Montaigne wrote in 1588 in Of repentance, “though they change and vary.” For millennia philosophers, writers, and artists had attempted to stop motion in order to discover the stable forms that must, they believed, endure forever behind, below, or beyond the surfaces of shimmering, transient matter. The goal was always to pass through Becoming to the realm of pure Being, and that realm would be unchanging and invariable. But Montaigne boldly swept away the search for stillness:
The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are
in constant motion—the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt—both with the common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing but a more languid motion.
If all things are in constant motion, then an art that is loyal to existence
—and such loyalty was at the heart of Montaigne’s vision—must give up the conventional attempt to fix forms in unwavering lines. “I cannot keep my subject still,” Montaigne noted wryly of his attempts at self-portraiture; “I do not portray being; I portray passing.”
So too the lines of Donna Brookman’s oil paintings do not go astray, though they vary and change, and for reasons comparable to Montaigne’s. It is not, of course, that these paintings are self-portraits, or if they are, it is only in the sense that all artistic expressions are inevitably traceable to the inner world of their creator. It is rather because they are loyal to a vision of a world in motion.
“I portray passing.” If there are no stable forms—if all things are constantly moving and changing—then familiar modes of representation have to be abandoned. The genius of the essays is bound up with Montaigne’s realization that he should trust the apparently random motions of his mind, not forcing them into the coherent order of a mimetic system but registering and inscribing them as they passed. He allowed himself to “try out” his mind’s faculties—the word “essai” means a trial—by recording whatever struck him and made him “muse and rave.”1
The power of Brookman’s paintings derives from a comparable trust. Allowing herself to “try out” her mind’s faculties, she is able to capture and transmit crucial elements of lived life—inscribing both her perceptions and the way the world is. Such trust does not come without effort or courage: as Montaigne’s art was the fruit of a lifetime’s labor in his famous tower and in his library, among the books he mined for inspiration, hers is the hard-won result of untold hours of disciplined work in her studio, along with her sustained absorption of the achievement of such artists as Joan Mitchell and Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Hans Hofmann. And as Montaigne’s work drew on an ancient poem by Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, with its central claim that everything was in motion, so too Brookman’s work has its distant roots in the crucial breakthrough of Monet’s impressionism, with its central insistence on the artist’s subjective experience.
Last year, jouncing along in the early morning chill across the rough tracks of Tswalu, in South Africa’s vast Kalahari Desert, I saw something astonishing, something I had never seen before in my life. Shimmering in a narrow band on the distant horizon, above the enormous, undulating expanse of dried tussocks, aardvark mounds, dry gullies, hillocks, swaying grasses, isolated trees filled with the nests of sociable weavers, there was an enormous city. It was a city from a quattrocento painting, with pencil-thin towers, sunlit domes, long arcaded palaces, sloping aqueducts, some of which seemed doubled on themselves, as if an inverted city had been constructed in a second layer upon the first. Gasping in surprise, I pointed out the apparition to the four other passengers in the Land Rover, all of whom saw what I saw. We stopped and looked at it in silent awe, while the sun slowly rose over the low hills behind us. Peering at it through our binoculars only intensified our awe, for all of the features—the turrets, the towers, the startlingly inverted domes—became still more intensely visible. And then, at first in a slow motion followed by an eerie suddenness, each of its innumerable elements disappeared, taking its place in an abstract design of smudges, shadows, and lines. We continued to gaze in wonder, in part because the city we had glimpsed had been so magical and in part too because the pattern of the dry scrub land that now lay before us was so unexpectedly and compellingly beautiful.
In other circumstances, we would scarcely have noticed that any such pattern existed, for it is what the eye ordinarily drifts across, a vacancy or emptiness as we might term it, with nothing distinct on which to focus and hence with nothing to see. But because we were looking with such heightened attention, straining to take in every detail and following with amazement and rapture the vanishing of the apparition, we saw not only the great city but also the indistinct vista—the almost flat, bleached, washed out, and yet strangely beautiful landscape—that lay in its wake.
The naturalist who was driving the Land Rover told us what we had witnessed: it was, he explained, a Fata Morgana. A Fata Morgana is a particular kind of mirage, intense and complex, formed by a steep thermal inversion. The desert was very cold when we set out in the morning in the shadow of the hills. But the intense sun beating down on the horizon had heated an upper layer of warmer air that acted as a distorting and refracting lens. That lens had in effect conjured up the amazing image out of the little hillocks and gullies in the distance. The term Fata Morgana comes from the late Latin word for fairy conjoined to the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay: the idea, which seems to derive from the early Middle Ages, is that the sorceress creates dangerous illusions to lure ships to destruction.
But if that was the correct term for the miraculous city, what was the term for the indistinct, vacant, and yet luminous landscape that we saw for a moment when the city disappeared? None of us had a word for that, not even the gifted naturalist—we scarcely could define it for ourselves or say what it was we had glimpsed.
Strangely enough, to my knowledge the best description of the disappearance we had witnessed comes from someone who had almost certainly never seen a Fata Morgana. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the ruined Antony, talking to his follower Eros, likens what he feels to the dissolution of a bank of clouds—the Elizabethan term was a “rack”—that had for a time formed what seemed like fantastic shapes:
ANTONYEros, thou yet behold’st me?
EROS Ay, noble lord.
ANTONYSometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock,
A forkèd mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs;
They are black vesper’s pageants.
EROS Ay, my lord.
ANTONYThat which is now a horse even with a thought
The rack distains, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.2
“Indistinct/As water is in water” is Shakespeare’s exquisite description of what it means for representations to become abstractions, that is, for shapes to disappear entirely, leaving traces of themselves but not outlines.
Now, thanks to Donna Brookman, we have both a succession of beautiful images of this process of dissolution and a word to go with them: aorist. Brookman’s Aorist paintings explore emptiness, precisely in the way that for a privileged moment in the desert a landscape of traces, indistinct as water is in water, had become strangely visible. The term she employs for these quiet, meditative works—including the wonderful triptychs that surround the viewer with their indefinable mystery—is used by philologists to describe a verb tense in various languages, especially ancient Greek. The word “aorist” comes from the Greek aoristos, indefinite, and it can be used to designate an action that is unbounded, without a distinct location in the past, present, or future. English does not possess an aorist, but Donna Brookman has conjured it up before our eyes.
The second major group of paintings in this exhibition is in a distinctly different register from the Aorist canvases—less quiet in mood, with greater density in the application of the oils and more vivid intensity in the palette. Brookman’s title for them, fullflood, comes from a poem by the late Denise Levertov, which begins with a friend’s encouraging words:
‘Your river is in full flood,’ she said,
‘Work on—use these weeks well!’
The poem, “A Blessing,” is not only about making good use of time but about renewal after a period of emptiness and doubt:
. . . her life risen
up from the root of despair she’d
bent low to touch,
risen empowered. Her work now
could embrace more . . . 3
The “fullflood” in Brookman’s title, gesturing toward the way in which these canvases, though still abstractions, seem to represent reflections in water, is a welling-forth of renewed creative power. But it is welling-forth that is haunted by loss.
Here again it is Shakespeare who seems to me to provide, in his oceanic romance, The Tempest, a language suggestive of what Brookman has accomplished:
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
So sings the spirit Ariel, bringing the news to prince Ferdinand that his father has drowned. The news, it turns out, is false, or perhaps we should say it is premature. For the king is alive. But mortality hangs over him, as over the play’s other characters, all of whom inhabit a world in which everything is destined to come apart and become something else. In the end even the great magician Prospero, who seems to control everyone’s fate, breaks his staff, drowns his magic, and returns to his native Milan, “. . . where/Every third thought shall be my grave.”
Shakespeare’s late play is about shipwreck, exile, and death. It is all the more remarkable then that Ariel’s song is strangely consoling—it is the pre-lude to Ferdinand’s falling in love—and that, when the wedding masque that
Prospero has created suddenly vanishes, he tells his son-in-law to “Be cheerful.”
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Why should the vanishing of the visionary illusion—and here again Shakespeare uses the image of “rack” of clouds whose shapes dissolve—call for cheerfulness? Why should the melting of the glittering structures of the world into abstractions be an occasion not for grief but for gratification? Why should the transformation of bones into coral or eyes into pearls evoke something other than mourning? Because in Shakespeare’s late work the loss of firm boundaries, the disappearance of familiar objects, the tantalizing confusion of the natural and the artifactual, the confounding of the living and the dead are a revelation of the deep beauty of things. Nothing keeps its form intact, nothing stays the same; nothing offers a firm handhold. And this disorientation turns out to be the necessary condition for aesthetic exhilaration.
Such intertwined disorientation and exhilaration, I suggest, form the spirit of Brookman’s fullflood. Why should the loss of representation feel like something other than a loss, that is, how do these abstractions manage to lose loss? They do so by giving us a form of painting that gestures toward the world—here the shimmering presence of water—and yet is closer to the spirit of music, a music that, like a late Beethoven quartet, focuses attention not on illusion but on the artistic process itself and on its own internal structures.
The key, here as in the romance, is the lived experience of what Shakespeare calls “sea-change.” It is the movement from one state to another, the unsettled indeterminacy of form and matter, which generates the deep pleasure of this art. The represented world is just out of reach, as if one could almost but not quite glimpse the water that must have given rise to these reflections. Where do these luminous paintings begin and where do they end? How do they define their relation to the phenomenon of the edge, or the corner, or the middle? How does the artist—and how do we, the viewers—know that they are finished and complete? Shakespeare uses words like “melted,” “dissolved,” and “faded” to capture something that Brookman captures in her brushstrokes, in the ways in which her colors meld, overlap, and drip, in the rhythmic interplay of light and darkness. What these paintings capture so beautifully is the elusive space between representation and abstraction.
1 The words are those of Montaigne’s Elizabethan translator, John Florio: “Sometimes I muse and rave; and walking up and down I indite and enregister these my humors, these my conceits.” Elsewhere I have used the translation of Donald M. Frame (The Complete Essays of Montaigne, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957).
2 All citations of Shakespeare are to The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al., 2nd edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008).
3 Levertov’s gratitude for the blessing of renewed creativity also recalls the wonderful lines from “The Flower” by the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert: And now in age I bud again / After so many deaths I live and write / I once more smell the dew and rain / And relish versing / O my only light / It cannot be / That I am he / On whom thy tempests fell all night.
The title Aorist comes from a Greek word meaning unbounded or timeless, according to the poet and classicist Anne Carson. These are quiet and meditative paintings that were an interlude in the midst of making the denser, darker fullflood paintings. The subdued palette and rhythmic fields suggest a minimalist musical score or the bleached light of the ocean in winter.
Donna Brookman 2012
“fantasy is a place where it rains”
~Calvino quoting Dante
The Ragini paintings are named for an ancient tradition of Indian miniature painting which celebrated the arrival of the monsoon and the rebirth of the landscape after months of drought. They also reflected the complex rhythmic qualities of traditional ragas. This confluence of water and music is a wonderful point of departure into an imagined world.
These paintings depict a dematerialized landscape which suggests the fragile unity of the world. As Calvino said when describing the poetry of Lucretius, “Knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile.