At the still point of the turning world. Two Quartets by Tom de Freston
Lydia Goehr- essay for Acumen book
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets1
Circling the Square
Given established historical precedents, one could produce a square of criticism and claim, first, that the correct condition under which to judge an artwork is when the mind and the senses have become accustomed to the work, when the contemplation has settled, when something like a harmony between subject and object has been established. David
Hume thought that a critic ought to be of sound and sober mind even if he suspected that few ever came really close to achieving this state. Still he stuck to the harmonious ideal— and to the “standard of taste”—to justify his view that there is a correct state of mind in which critics should issue their judgments.2 This view can then be added to by the claim that there is also a singularly best or correct place from which to view an artwork, where this authoritative place of viewing corresponds to the perspective formed within, and framed by, the work itself. If one looks straight on at Holbein’s Ambassadors on the wall in London’s National Gallery, one won’t see what one is meant to see, the work from its deliberately skewed or angled perspective, from literally and metaphorically its right side. To these two views could then be added a third, according to which an artwork, a painting or a sculpture, must capture the right emotional moment in its depicted action or drama, the “pregnant moment” to use Lessing’s phrase, when the temporal unfolding of a state or of an action is perfectly stilled. And finally, to complete the square of criticism, it has been held that there is a singularly correct historical moment for a contemporary artwork to be judged, as the artwork moves from being entirely new for the public to its settling down into a history to be remembered or forgotten in the great stockpile of artworks produced.
Needless to say, few anymore endorse this square of criticism, especially if the square has the effect of setting artworks into straight, static, essentialist, or overly authoritative frames of interpretation. Most now encourage a more variable, fluid, or hermeneutical approach to art criticism. According to this approach, artworks call not for singular judgments, but for on-going viewings and readings that allow those who engage with the works to find something new or different each time, as though, as in great works of philosophy or literature, they were always somehow viewing the works for the first time. Or the square is circled when artworks are read as essentially open, as allowing the works to explode into changing and even competing meanings as contexts and horizons of interpretation alter what one sees as embodied within them. Hence, that one judges works good or beautiful, or, better in contemporary terms, that one deems the works worth engaging with, doesn’t imply that a given judgment holds for all time or that the value of the artworks is exhausted by one’s singular view or perspective, by a singular viewing under a singular condition, by an isolated emotion or a singular expressive state. Rather, works submit to changing assessments as they engage preferably not too sober viewers in altered states of movement, ambiguity, and tension. When viewing Holbein’s Ambassadors, one may reasonably claim that one point of the painting is to move from the wrong, naïve or head-on, Testadura-like perspective to the correct perspective, given some sort of proof that the painting was originally hung in a certain way on the wall, so that the first viewers would have seen the painting from the correct perspective straightaway. But with more theatre in mind, one could also argue that Holbein was playing, through techniques of ekphrasis, with breaking down any naïve idea of a painting’s perspective and medium within the painting itself. Given its content, colouring, and spatial design, framed by a staged curtain and a circular mosaic-floor, that supports a movement between figures and objects who live and those whose lives have been stilled, the painting compels its viewers to move not only with their eyes but also with their bodies. Or, by forming on its two-dimensional surface three walls of a space that is both completed by but also opened up to a fourth wall, viewers are compelled to walk around the painting as one would a sculpture—to view and even touch it from its different sides, and all to the sound of a music moving between harmony and disharmony that is silently evoked by the placement of the partially broken pipes and lute within the painted scene. More than this theatrical reading issuing a definitive meaning of the work, it encourages viewers to pay attention to painting as an art, to how paintings draw or fail to draw their viewers into a space in which meanings emerge in the interaction between works and viewers. This interactive view could be theorised in terms that still rather boringly either essentialise or relativise meaning. But the same view could also break down this traditional dichotomy by drawing our attention away from how meaning is either found or made to how meanings emerge between finding and making, between the two ambassadors of representation, between the theatrical interaction of the different arts.
In his novella dedicated to exploring the chemical movement between the four lovers of a dynamic quartet, Goethe pursued this theatrical or dramatic space when articulating his idea of elective affinities. For he gave to his idea a content and choreography pertaining also to the arts, made evident the moment he allowed one of his characters to describe how one must place something, be it an artwork or a lover, before one’s eyes, and see how, although they appear to be lifeless [at first], they are in fact perpetually ready to spring into activity; one has to watch sympathetically how they seek one another out, attract, seize, destroy, devour, consume one another, and then emerge again from this most intimate union in renewed, novel and unexpected shape.5
Only after this did Goethe think that one could credit an artwork, a human life, or a relationship as making sense, as pointing to something beyond itself, perhaps to something “eternal” or as “possessing mind and reason”.6 However, even at this moment of accreditation, his point was not that the person should stop looking or listening or moving. Even when a painting makes sense, it does not make a final sense, as though one had completely contained its meaning in the act of making it explicit to oneself in a particular viewing. With the next viewing, sense and reason might be reached by different springs of activity. For the idea of something’s coming to make sense for someone was also to acknowledge a limitation, an inadequacy, or a necessary rupture between an aesthetic or passionate engagement and the conceptual demands of our understanding. For Goethe, as for many of his contemporaries, the enlightened-romantic point of not conceptually fixing or defining any standard of taste, sense, reason, beauty, meaning, or value was to open up the space for art criticism, and for a fundamental question to be posed: whether, like a lover, a work of art—a quartet—draws one into its space, literally and metaphorically. Does it draw one’s eye in, one’s ear or one’s hand, one’s mind, interest, sensibility, and even one’s heart? To this question was then added another, whether, if one is drawn in, one is drawn in productively, so that one’s subjectivity is drawn out beyond one’s private space into a social, common, or public space—often a struggling human community. In this space, as Goethe showed in his novella, one might find oneself drawn in through an admirable art-fullness of the artwork or lover in which case one would think that the engagement had been worth one’s time and attention. Or one might find oneself drawn into the space through the work or lover’s cheap tactics, so that one would resent the waste of one’s time, the spending of one’s energies—but only of course if one thought that the value of one’s life was never to waste one’s time. By the same token, however, one might engage the work or lover with the wrong sort of attention, so that the lack of satisfaction in this dynamic theater of engagement would be due not to the object of one’s attention, but to one’s self. In this hermeneutical and critical approach to art and love, it takes at least two, if not also three or even four, to tango—to bring a quartet to life or, as sometimes, to death.
When the editors of the present volume asked me as a philosopher to write on paintings of my choice, given a hundred contemporary paintings from which to choose, I was pressed for time and more or less picked randomly, less I admit by looking at the paintings than at the titles, assuming that the titles would give me something to write about even before I confronted the paintings as a viewer. Since I’d thought before about the figure of four, and given my own far more musical than painterly background, I selected two paintings of 2012 Quartet—Stage I and Quartet—Stage II, without even thinking that there ought to be four paintings in the set—which I eventually learnt that there were. When more months had passed, and I turned to my task, to write about these two paintings, I did what I suspect many do when writing about contemporary painting: I read what others had written. This, I knew, would provide me a safe context from which to assess the works, safe because it was given by others more in the know than I. Soon after, I contacted the painter, which one can’t always do, and arranged to meet him for a cocktail at the fancy, old-fashioned bar at the newly-renovated station at St Pancras in London. It was a delightful and productive couple of hours in which I interviewed the artist, asking him about his work from every conceivable angle. These were hours of attracting, seizing, destroying, devouring, and consuming a painter whose name—Tom de Freston—now began to take on meaning for me. Tom was in a good mood; he was celebrating an anniversary with his partner, a talented young poet, who turned up so that my conversation with Tom could end and theirs, far more romantic, could begin. To my many questions, Tom’s answers were encouragingly precise and thoughtful. I returned to New York feeling secure that I had done my homework. Yet I still hadn’t spent real time looking at his paintings. Were they good or bad? I did not, and still don’t, know. But were they worth engaging? They were and are. I learnt by looking that what mattered deeply to this painter mattered also and as much to me as a philosopher. He was interested in ekphrasis and in the engagement between different arts, and so was I; he was interested in the history of the arts as informing contemporary painting, and so was I. However, despite these points of contact, I didn’t want to read his paintings as merely illustrating philosophical views that I’d already formed for myself. I didn’t want to engage his work as a philosopher of painting, who makes her chosen examples fit her already-formed theories. Instead, I wanted to see what philosophical issues, if any, were raised by looking at his paintings. I knew that not all artworks raise questions, let alone philosophical ones, but I did find that Tom’s paintings do, and just the sort that allowed me to begin my essay as I have, with a meditation on how one critically engages painting as an art.
Before I wrote this essay on de Freston’s work, I wrote the draft of another, more or less a transcription of our interview from the bar. For it was a good interview. Tom had told me about his interests in the binary dualisms that had long dominated art and the discourse overlaying the arts. He was intrigued by presence and absence; the visible and invisible; sound and silence; movement’s speed and its rest; order and chaos; guilt and innocence, joy and suffering; the artist’s offerings and withdrawals of meaning. He spoke of how he had increasingly engaged with artists of other mediums—poets, musicians, and playwrights—to produce images that brought out something new in their works. But he spoke more of how he had brought their work into his painting to expand the scope of his own visual imagination. After this, he turned, much at my bidding, to the comedy of repetition, to how the figuration of his quartet series had extended into far more than four paintings. I was relieved and pleased that I had made the same point by choosing to address only two of the four works. Even more, I realised, that, although de Freston had connected four paintings by title, there was little to separate these paintings as a set or series from what was evident in the extraordinarily many paintings he’d produced in more or less the same year. Although he spoke of his interest in narrative, the narrative was not produced traditionally, as linear or closed, with a beginning, middle, and end, but as circular and on-going, which is what one would experience were one to walk the four walls of a room as though the walls were continuing collapsing into a continuous rotunda effect.
De Freston is interested in repetition insofar as this both gives character to a modernist mass-produced art and generates a comedy of cartoons that depends, as jokes, on the play of similarities or identities to generate dissonant (comic and provocative) differences. If one repeats an image, sign, or word often enough, the familiar meaning is defamilarised, rendered uncanny, and we laugh, cry, or, otherwise respond. “Ridicule,” de Freston has written himself, is crucial to my work, whether it’s dressing figures in socks and boxers or fitting them with comic book masks. Humour can be used to expose the pathetic or ridiculous nature of figures who are trying to present themselves as heroic or worthy. It helps me create ambivalence in the reading of the paintings.
Yet, as I see his work, de Freston is also interested in repetition as a mode of experimentation, of trial and error. In many of his works, and certainly in his Quartet paintings, the repetitive tensions and ambiguities of meaning are staged through a visual technique of suspension—a particular play of gravitational forces—with the result that one’s viewing or perspective is constantly put into question. In part, his repetition is that of obvious and easily identifiable images or figures across different paintings, so that the paintings come overall to be easily identifiable as his. That one can recognise a painting of his suggests at best that he has already developed his own style or at least (and perhaps more interestingly for our times) a trademark that belongs uniquely to him. Yet the repetition is also that of equally easily identifiable images drawn from the history of painting, so that every figure repeated becomes also a figure overlaid by references to an inexhaustible list of names from art’s history: Cranach, Bosch, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, Giacometti, Bacon, Klein, Rothko, Warhol, and that’s to list only a few of the immediately recognisable names.
Sometimes, in looking at his paintings, one feels as though one were being asked to enter a sort of University Challenge, to guess the correct historical precedent in any of his impressively many paintings. Sometimes one feels one is confronted with a Don Juan who collects images as though he needed to win a contest with the history of his art. This is to read him, as a mere history painter, as young, overly prolific, and as too much under the influence. But there is also another outcome of viewing his work, captured by an answer he gave to someone else writing about him, when he was asked why he had chosen to describe himself, paradoxically, as a “contemporary History Painter”. He replied that he was “interested in the idea of History Painting as a bankrupt notion, and if it’s possible to have such a thing as contemporary History Painting,” and then continued:
My paintings are not historical in that they are not illustrative of a specific geographic or historic source. Instead they are an amalgamation of numerous sources, fusing timeframes in order to produce autonomous scenes which could be read metaphorically and metaphysically in relation to a contemporary or historical context.
I, however, would like to move his answer away from content to form and suggest that his strategy of juxtaposing the repetition of his own figures with those drawn from and by other artists forces viewers to keep looking at his works until they realise that his point is not to let this looking actually settle in a pattern of recognition. The more you recognise the figures the more the works conceal their meanings: repetition is his way of moving from surface to depth, where the dance and movement of repetition matters more than where one ends up.
De Freston told me that he moves with quite considerable speed between one painting and another, that he often has several on the go at once. Perhaps his way of speed painting captures an impatience and ambition, consistent with the artworld of contemporary times. Or perhaps it captures a personality trait of which he is seemingly proud—that he has eaten pretty much the same thing every day his whole life. But if he is compulsive, and he is, about repetition, he has, in my view, put the compulsion to a productive and philosophical-reflective use: to make his work about a certain repetition compulsion. Another way to make the same point, because I enjoy repetition too, is to see de Freston as stressing the movement more than the repetitiveness of repetition less to pose problems to which then, in his paintings, he finds aesthetic or artistic solutions, and more as posing questions that motivate new questions to be asked, because the questions no more stay or stick with one than the repeated figures. For de Freston, to find solutions in paintings is quite different from constantly seeking solutions and new questions. The former is associated with an experiment that has a clear end for which one has to articulate or express the correct means. The latter is associated with an experimentation that has suspended means-ends relations in favour of constant enquiry. To capture this difference yet further is also for de Freston not to settle with an older concept of ekphrasis according to which one becomes satisfied with a description of the image that itself contains a world. It is to engage, rather, a concept of ekphrasis as turning descriptive sentences into questions so that a given painting can open up different and often competing worlds, arts, and artworks before one’s very eyes. As another reviewer of de Freston’s work has made the point:
“The term ekphrasis and its relationship with poetry is one which troubles me. The word finds its roots in Greek; ek meaning ‘out’, and phrasis ‘speak’. The general understanding of this concept being that the work of visual art is spoken out on to the page, dramatically translated into written form. Before mass communication made it possible for us to see a work of art without actually being in its presence physically, one function of ekphrasis was presumably to ‘show’ us works of art in lieu of a reproduction. In the Google-age the poet’s engagement with the visual work of art must go beyond description.”
But if a visual work goes beyond description, where does it go? One place is to ongoing questioning, to the constant enquiry encouraged by so many philosophers of the twentieth century. In addition, however, it also goes or encourages a dynamic play between image and thought, art and philosophy. Many art critics and philosophers of art have addressed the meaning of thinking (philosophically) through images, and in this address, they have given as much attention to the idea of thinking-in-movement as to the nature or status of the moving image. This, too, is what I was thinking about when, above, I wrote about a dynamic theater of engagement with images that allows elective affinities to emerge in thought. But as I want to show next, the chemistry that grounds such an emergence of affinities is not that of an empirical science but that of an agonistic testing of one’s affections for and disaffections with image-making, a testing that is so much at stake in de Freston’s paintings that his figures come to be tied biblically to this very stake.
Suspending the Dance
As with so many of paintings, Quartet—Stage I and Quartet—Stage II are produced with oil on a canvas with deep edges. They are painted on a human scale, at 200 x 150 cm or approximately 6.5 x 5 feet (because I still see and think in feet and inches), so that it is possible to meet the figures in the paintings eye to eye. It is a meeting that is evidently meant to unsettle the mind as much as the eye. Like his other paintings, we see that the canvasses are mostly thick with paint, thick with colour, producing often glossy figures even when the figures are made to be comically flat. The paintings are mannerist, masked, and theatrical; they are often voyeuristic, obscene, repellent. Many of his figures move in the hybrid and androgynous space between the human and the animalistic, showing carcasses that are butchered but in a way that reminds one of the anatomical or laboratory interest of Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty. The paintings wade neck-deep through the Christian themes of sacrifice, martyrdom, crucifixion, and resurrection, and play in all the public and private spaces of carnival and catastrophe. And yet, as the paintings repel, they make one laugh, perhaps with the sort of laughter associated with political subversion or satire, or with a more cynical laughter at a history of painting that has staged so much cruelty for the sake of educating and edifying humanity.
Quartet—Stage 1 strikes the eye immediately for its biblical insinuations: falling bodies, naked and suggestive of death, a fall into hell, which yet, through the abstraction of a general image or gestalt, forms an inverted tree indicative of life. The image simultaneously suggests a genealogy of the Western world, of persons and of paintings given obvious allusions to the rising and falling bodies of the many heaven-and-hell or life-and-death paintings of earlier times. In this painting, one sees two saint-like or apostle-like figures pointing upward as though to contradict the downward motion of the many bodies. But perhaps the fingers are less pointing upward and more, as partially masked (head-dressed) figures of the commedia dell’arte, pointing only to the falling bodies to instruct us, as viewers, not to look at the figures pointing, but to that to which they point: “Don’t look at us, look at them—we are only the directors of the scene”. But how then do we look at the rising or falling bodies? With eyes wide open or shut, or with eyes slightly squinted?—so that more than attending to a multiplicity of figures we see them as one figure repeated, the naked gestures and characteristics the same in design, scar, and colour: the colours of a fleshy pink, a muted green, a grayish black, and a more glossy nail- or lipstick-red of the mouths and genitals? With figures repeated, the image assumes the textured form of a tapestry or a mosaic, a single triangular shape of a tree if seen upright, but, if inverted, as a mountain to be climbed. And once, with this shape before our eyes, are we not invited to engage in an Escher-like experiment, to put the figures into the background and the in-between shapes and spaces into the foreground, to bring our eyes to the motion of a form that seems to be turning, like a cyclone, around a center axis? But if this effect is to what our eyes are meant to attend, should we not now read the fingers of the two larger side-figures as deliberately placed at the painting’s horizontal axis, with the purpose to display their power, conveyed through their pointing, to set the figure into this circular motion? But to what purpose is their power if not to hold the smaller figures in a suspended state, rendering it ambiguous whether the figures are falling or rising? And to what end is the suspension if not to pose the theological question, whether these figures, devilish or angelic, are being punished or redeemed, given how this question is made an acute question of and for early, Medieval, and Renaissance paintings, where raising questions about sin and redemption is often inextricable from raising questions about the status, sacred or secular, of painting as an art. Yet if a sacred question is being posed and staged in de Freston’s painting, is it a question that can be asked in his and our times, or is the point to put the question itself into question? When his blankly staring figures seem in our eyes to allude to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment painted on the Sistine ceiling, do they tell us that the last judgment was really the last, because this sort of judgment is no longer available to us, or at least to those who wish that it were? Is, in other terms, de Freston’s painting a continuation of, or a commentary on, theological painting, rendered violently comic by the cartoonish character of the repeated figures?
And what next should one make of the painted fact that the two figures are perched half- on and half-off a square, but skewed, board—a checker or chess board—not shown in full, yet suggestive of a movement or instability by being half-in and half-out of the picture? And what game is being played on or by the board? Surely not a game between two players because the squares are not divided in binary pairs either of colour or shape. The many blacks-and-blues on the boards suggest rather that, whatever game it is, it has left its players worn out, bruised by a game of history that has gone on for too long, but a game from which the mass of people—the suspended bodies—hasn’t yet been entirely freed, because those with power in their fingers still have one foot on the board. But with their other foot off the board, the figures who pull the strings of the movement in this image seem to perch uneasily, perhaps to support the gesture they carry with irony on their breasts, as though they were saying that “although we still hold our hands on our hearts, we don’t believe, and you shouldn’t either, the movement that we hold between our hands”. “So look at us now! We do not stand as stable figures sure of where we are and want to be: no, we’re in movement, almost dancing”—indeed twisted with all the agony or wounds shown through the scars on the pasty skin, as once made evident in early representations of Christ, of Saint Sebastian, or even of musician-artists such as Marsyas when he was strung up in punishment on a tree for his musical art. And what, finally, if we, as viewers, choose now to effect an inversion through the glories of modern desktop technology, by literally turning the painting upside down? Would this not bring attention to the obvious hostility in the expressions of the falling/rising figures who seem now to be suspended angry before their maker? The lips, no longer turned up, are turned down contrary to the seemingly neutral expressions held by the two sideline figures. With the image inverted, the small figures more evidently become an ominous pile of bodies as though falling into a hell that will burn them alive. Or perhaps, they are rising, determined to crack a ceiling that is protected by a code provided by the colour of the boards. If they pressed the right colours, would they finally be released from this painting? To enter now another?
Quartet—Stage II stages a single figure suspended in space above a board of similar design as the previous painting, but gazing upward to a checkered yellow-green crystal or disco ball that hangs by a string as a lamp or sun of illumination, as though to control the movement of the figure in a dance that is being staged between three walls that are checkered by grey, blue, yellow, and green squares to match the board below. However, the walls don’t coincide with the frame of the painting, since between the outer edges and the walls is a speckled or marbled background whose two-dimensional flatness contradicts the three-dimensional space of the dance. The single figure dances with legs that seem to run, while the chest is projected outward to bring attention to the arms that end with hands and then fingers that point down, on the figure’s right side, and sideways to the wall, on the figure’s left side, to suggest that the dance is not revolving harmoniously around a single axis. The eyes gazing upward to the geometric ball are accompanied by red lips that, partly open, could be singing or questioning the situation into which this figure finds itself put. Perhaps this figure is wondering where all the other sibling figures have gone: have they already gone up, down, or have they simply exited the stage? Is the singularity of this figure a sign of its own loneliness or alienation? Or has it come to stand for all—a community of the dispossessed, for each is only a repetition of every other? Has this figure become one, a figure for a wallpaper or a cardboard cut-out that, with its uniform effect, multiplies itself without end to cancel out any individuality it might once have signified, or to void it of any substance or iconic content it might once have had in the history of painting? But if the figure is read as standing for the multiply-repeated figures of Quartet—Stage I, does not the distortion of its shape, shown also with exaggerations of colour, suggest, through our capacities of recognition, traces of what once was represented and representable in painting? Turned on its side, at a quarter turn, the figure comes to look very like the Christ-figure in Van der Weyden’s Deposition. But if the deposition is there as residue, is this because the painter is engaging a history of loss—the loss of what was once possible to paint? But if he is, is he then seeking a hopefulness, as a contemporary painter, in the residue? Does he want to re-mythologise a world disenchanted? With his art—and his figuration—does he gesture toward a hope that painting will lose its contemporary imbalance to find some sort of serenity or reconciliation in a world in which he is both making his art and finding his art situated? Perhaps, but who knows, since his paintings, as I have said, leave one not with answers only more questions.
In the already impressive literature on his work, easily accessible on his website, de Freston’s paintings are read against evident and intentionally expressed references to the history not only of painting but also of theatre, music, and poetry. To complete my own circled square of criticism, I want finally to set his paintings against four corners of a quartet, though my eventual point will be a most philosophical one.
In the first corner, I find Samuel Beckett’s “ballet for four people”, in two parts Quad or, with the German title, Quadrat I and Quadrat II, first performed in the early 1980s. As others have noted, it engages a notion of coincidence to mark the moments of meeting between persons or things in severely contained boxes of time and space. It is not altogether unlike the cage that John Cage staged with the boxed-in exactness of 4 minutes and 33 seconds, although whereas Cage wanted to show the way out of the cage, Beckett’s play leaves one stuck inside. In his ballet, according to the terms of a modernist alienation, when persons traverse a board, they cross each other as a sign that communication amongst them is no longer possible. When meetings occur, which is rare, they are marked as moments of danger in a space that Beckett declared also a “danger zone”, after the “quad” of the quad-rat, which, by referring to a prison yard and playing on a German-English confusion of terms, shows rats moving endlessly in circles, even if by Beckett’s design, the form is that of a rigid square dance, or, as some have described it, a musical canon.12 Circling in the square, as we see also in de Freston’s second quartet, any given figure moves as though with a goal, but where in a gaol, every movement is predetermined. In the meetings between figures, no agency is at stake and no affinities elected. The meetings are imposed through a designing mind and hand that are invisible to all eyes and silent to all ears, for language and conversation have been eliminated. And yet, the force is ever present, dominating and directing the scene. The ballet has all the deep edges of authority with the aim, as I am tempted at some moments to read this aim into de Freston’s art, to reveal the lie of any authority that thinks it can contain its figures entirely within four walls.
In the second corner, I find Walter Benjamin’s first thesis on the concept of history which offers a Denkbild—a thought-image—hung on the wall for all to read. It tells of an automaton who partakes in a winning game of chess, because each answer of the opponent is met by just the right countermove. Yet what is shown is not two players but one: a puppet attired as a Turk, who, with a hookah in its mouth, sits at a table before a chessboard. As in de Freston’s Quartet—Stage II, a system of walls draws up a theatrical space, although, for Benjamin, the “system of mirrors” sustains the specific illusion, which is but an illusion, that the terms of the game are transparent for all to know “on all sides”. This deceptive knowing is a theological-political illusion or allegory that Benjamin draws out by reference to how the puppet’s moves are pulled by invisible strings by an expert hunchback who, dwarfed, stands for a crippled theology that has determined that the modern ideology of historical materialism will never lose the game that it has made up. How could it lose? The hunchback thus hides that for which its ugly physical disfigurement stands, as an ideology conceals its mechanism: that although it promises the people a prison-break, a rising above the ceiling that has been weighed down to oppress them, it will in truth only cheat them by delivering them to their fate, which is also, as suggested in de Freston’s first Quartet, their fall.
In the third corner, stands a painting from 1902, by Henri Rousseau, titled Happy Quartet. It shows the members of the first biblical family, affined musically through a string of flowers. It shows an Adam-figure playing a flute, an Eve and a maternal figure, and a Christ or angelic child, all of whom are accompanied, dead center, by a dog that seems to be listening to his master’s voice with an absorption that renders him stilled in movement to contrast to the other figures who seem more to be in movement. The scene is framed not by the artifice of any game, but by the natural shape and colours of trees that give off an autumnal glow, although the slightly twisted figure of the mother suggests that something is amiss in this arcadian scene. Might it be that she, as Saint Cecilia, alone knows that a figure that plays the flute, however melodiously, may well end up hanging in agony from a tree, twisted and writhing, as shown in representations of Marsyas, that wind-producing musician who, associated in the history of painting with the agony of Saint Sebastian, is bound to a tree that no longer gives off colour or life, but which holds the figures steadfast in their suffering, as their blood, as in Titian’s famed image, is lapped up by a dog? My associations are not ungrounded and not unfounded.
De Freston admits often to having Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas in mind, as he does also the first biblical family, as shown in his strikingly clever painting, Hung, where the mother and child (represented as animals) return home to find the husband and father hanging inverted as an animal carcass with a dog rolling a toy underneath, comically to mark just how normalised in the history of the home—at 5 pm each day—this image has become. With four figures present, de Freston might have titled this painting Quartet – Stage III, had he not used this title for another painting that fits the series just as well, but does not make my point as well as Hung does.
In the fourth and last corner, I find myself walking again through the National Gallery in London, stopped in my tracks not only by Holbein’s Ambassadors but also by a less well- known Saint Sebastian, painted at the end of the fifteenth century by Matteo di Giovanni. I am caught by the twisted body but even more by the hands that make me think of de Freston’s hands, and I mean now his hands. For there is often in painting the possibility that the hands painted by the painter are correlated to his own invisible hand, so that the painter, by putting the colour and design on the canvas, is the one who finally controls the moves of the artwork by turning the work also into an act of self-portraiture understood as a (self-)reflection on the very capabilities of painting as an art.
Standing before this painting, and with this thought in my head, I am tempted to email Tom to ask him whether he has recently been looking at this particular painting in London. But I resist the urge. The more I’ve become a viewer of his paintings, the more I’ve lost my need to depend on him or on what he told me in the bar the evening of the interview. I decide that one enters a danger zone—a prison-yard of meaning—every time one thinks that one has acquired a certain knowledge of an image by aligning the image to intentions articulated by the artist. Even if there is self-portraiture and a certain self- reflection or reflexivity within the painting, this sort of intentionality must be separated from an external set of articulated intentions. But not only because the paintings are then freed from a certain sort of fixity of meaning but also because the viewers are then freed from the quadrat, to engage in the excitement and risk of looking at art. Yet the risk is great, especially if one’s thinking about contemporary art will have an impact on the entry of that art into history. Perhaps not wanting to take any risk, it is preferable to declare an end, as many have, to history and to art, so that the responsibility of writing about art is rendered null and void. But then to what purpose the continuation of art criticism? Is it enough to conclude that writing, thinking, and painting is a way of liberating oneself from what one finds, allowing one to engage a finding in art with a making that will either make or not make the works of value for those who like to look? It is, but what sort of value do we have in mind?
In condensing his thought about the genre of the quartet [quatuor] into his Dictionniare de Musique, Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted that although the ensemble was staged with four musicians, the genre had in fact only two voices: the melody and the harmony. The rest, he quipped was “pur remplissage,” (ornament, extra, or fill), and one ought to be warned against giving too much space to that. Centuries later, Derrida, in writing about “the truth in painting,” remarked on how pleasure had been deemed redundant or inessential, leaving pleasure to lie silently as the rest or as the waste in the wasteland on the side of the road that had been enlightened by aesthetic theory. To lay the ground for a different path, he turned the Shakespearean “rest” that had been silenced (this is my language and not his) into a pleasure of thinking and looking when the end of the path is not known in advance. He engaged both the suspension and gravity of the pleasure of being on the path, and on the path he found a value—the value of pleasure—for which he was willing, with pleasure, to be held responsible.
Another of De Freston’s paintings, House of the Deaf Man Band, bathes musicians in the blood of a history that has not always been good to the art of music. The image is of a quartet disturbed, an ensemble broken. It shows two (jazz) musicians playing instruments, as the two figures in Quartet—Stage I producing the tones and rhythm to which the other two figures must dance. But in this case, the other figures are less human than horse-like, suggesting that they are the shadow-selves of the musicians who play. The painting opens up the question, whether the animal dictates the terms to humanity or vice versa? As many of de Freston’s paintings, this one shows a duet performed by four and a quartet performed by two, putting thereby the very question of what and who controls what into question. Speaking of which, had I been allowed to do what critics once could do, title the paintings according to how they were reading them, then the House of the Deaf Man would have become my fourth quartet Quartet –Stage IV, and with that, I would have finished the dance.