essays

Located somewhere among those worlds envisioned by Giorgio de Chirico, Balthus, Piero della Francesca, and Giotto lie the pictorial spaces we see in paintings by Lani Irwin and Alan Feltus. For all the similarities between the manner and approaches of Irwin and Feltus—and they are significant—their work differs from one another's. Where Feltus finds assonance, quietude, organic sufficiency, and harmony, Irwin often locates dissonance, disquiet, and dislocation. That is not to say that nothing unsettling occurs in Feltus's painting or that the slight uneasiness in Irwin's images cannot be cool, still, and almost tranquil.

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One only has to follow the winding road from their house in Umbria to the gates of Assisi to understand something of the painting styles of both Irwin and Feltus. The church of Saint Francis of Assisi is a veritable museum of late 13th- and early 14th-century painting. The frescoed depictions of the life of St. Francis by Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, and others transport one not precisely to the times of St. Francis but to a period in late medieval painting when artists portrayed a sense of gravitas—of weight, solemnity, authority, and earnestness. Here we find, in other words, a source for at least some of the sensibility of their paintings. But there is more.

Although Feltus's works in the exhibition date from the past six years, Mute Sirens of 2004 might, in all of its organicist purity, have been done at any time in the past 30 years. Everything in the painting—figures, space, chairs, background planes—fits together organically, creating balance and coordination. The perspectival space contains a peculiar reality of crystalline clarity, of stillness and quiet so profound that one seems to hear white noise. The low saturation of colors and the "quiet" (his word) surface of the brush strokes mute those sirens who enticed and tormented Odysseus. Here Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia sit dolefully side by side, bereft of their enthralling song that led sailors into cliffs and shipwreck. They are mute and contemplative, apparently not even thinking in words. Their language and singing faculty is suspended, making the figures human in appearance only; for all their apparent mythic standing, they are merely mammalian and homoeothermic, forms in a carefully registered composition. 

The theme of unachieved seduction continues in Mermaid's Story (2003), and 2004 Summer (2004). The artist's surrogates (essentially all the faces in his paintings are Feltus's own) sit idle and distracted in the foreground, while in one a mermaid lies insensibly, perhaps half dreaming of piscine adventures. In the other, a naked woman lies on a disturbingly short bed, her legs slightly parted, one elbow across her brow in a gesture of dejection and perhaps rejection. The disinterested (and perhaps uninterested) artist-figure in the foreground holds a teacup in one hand and a piece of note paper in the other. None of this adds up to a narrative, but the affective quality of the painting holds us in thrall. 

Feltus has written that in his work the figure is important, the subject not. But saying it does not make it so. The bare bones of narrative bring about an unavoidable subjectivity in nearly all of his works, despite the arresting, demanding presence of the paintings simply as paintings. The problem is that human consciousness cannot simultaneously see these paintings as objects and stories. Our minds automatically judge ontology, which is the coefficient and status of reality, and therefore we see the woman and the man in Mermaid and Summer living in a material existence that is neither ours nor that of the physical work of art. Let us be clear: not withstanding Feltus's self-effacing, understated painting techniques and the perfect harmony of the forms themselves, these are mysterious and unsettling images. We can no more separate the image from the painting than we can see them both at the same time.

We see in Letters (2005) those things that are, in so many of Feltus's paintings, just odds and ends of a story; but here they begin to cohere into an arresting psychological charge. Sometimes Feltus the exquisite craftsman yields a bit to Feltus the man of feeling. Letters turn up in a lot of his paintings, and every time they do, we sense that there is a play on communication. Whether or not Feltus ever had it in his mind, one can hardly avoid thinking of Fragonard's Progress of Love (New York, Frick Collection), in which the young swain and his beloved cuddle and mew over a stack of billets doux. Yet, Fragonard's lovers never make eye contact, any more than do Feltus's. The image of the parkland behind the woman in Feltus's painting suggests the locus amoenus—or place of love—which is also the setting of Fragonard's brilliant, mocking visual essay on love. For all their invocation of classical love stories, these fractional figures in Letters never send or read their messages, never couple, never love.

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Lani Irwin's world is more metaphysical than Alan Feltus's. Having said that about Irwin's paintings—and many have—what does it mean? The great 19th-century semiotician Charles-Sanders Pierce defined metaphysics as "the science of unclear thinking." If we were to take this apparently derogatory comment and apply it to Irwin's painting, we would see that the artistic thinking is anything but unclear. Her paintings are as lucid, calculating, and harmoniously balanced as any Italian Renaissance artist could desire. But the meaning, another matter altogether, is obscure. Because she gives us what in ordinary parlance we might call a "realistic painting," we tend to assume that it makes sense. But that may be either an illusion or a misunderstanding. She herself has pointed to the "disquiet" of early Renaissance and late medieval painting and commented that "I often do not know the particulars of the story, nor do I need to. And so it is with my own paintings." "Knowing the story" refers to traditional narratives that are part of one's culture, religion, and history. We may tell ourselves stories in order to understand life, as Norman Mailer believes, but many of us will admit that much of the time we do not understand life. In Gandolfi's Reading (2003) a woman in sheer leotard sits or stands behind a counter with laid-out Tarot cards (which first appeared in Italy in the 15th century), with their mysterious divinatory images. Irwin gives us the woman's head and body in clear bilateral symmetry, fully frontal, hieratic—that is, priestess-like—immobile, and inexpressible. Magical squares reminiscent of Frank Stella or Robert Indiana appear behind her, and a rose hangs from above. One may try to unravel the mystery, or—and this seems the more logical move—revel in paradox, irony, and "unmeaning." Not that the painting has a single square centimeter devoid of meaning in an aesthetic sense; yet, our attempts to divine the occult significance, although perhaps entirely reasonable, seems like an effort not worth making.

In Red Wall (1999) a woman in leg warmers and undergarment reaches with her right hand for her left fingers. Perhaps she is counting off the parts of a syllogism, like Socrates in Raphael's School of Athens, or maybe she is just stretching her index finger. The face in perfect profile is like an archaic Greek statue or an imago clipeata, the profile effigy of the deceased on a tomb, coin, or shield. The young man in front holds cards as if he were tipping his hand. And a couple of roses lie about. Roses, according to another famous semiotician (and Irwin's paintings cry out for a resident semiotician, it seems) Umberto Eco (in reference to the reason he chose the "Name of the Rose" as the title of his book) are, because they have so many associations, meaningless. But absence of meaning is as significant as presence of meaning. Irwin's title Red Wall deflects our attention from the two figures going about their business, whatever that business may be, entirely unaware of one another. The art historically-minded might think of Matisse's Red Room, which has some of Irwin's eerie implausibility.

Zoetrope (2006), three performers, saltimbanques, prepare for their gymnastic performance. They are reminiscent of Picasso's early saltimbanques, where performers idle away the time before going on stage. Unlike Picasso's, Irwin's strategy of address—how the image presents itself to the viewer—is dramatic, vividly staged. The balanced composition shows two figures containing a third as if they were parentheses. Vibrant costumes, long gloves, and the powerful squat of the head-line performer promise a choreographed performance of both delicacy and energy. But the drama has yet to begin, and the figures lack any kind of psychic intentionality.

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Unlike many American artists who came of age in the decades immediately after World War II, Irwin and Feltus resisted the mainstreams of modernism (specifically abstraction) and leapt into their own versions of the post-modern. By post modernism we can mean that painting (for instance) is not working toward some goal. The early modern critic Giorgio Vasari (1517-74) viewed the history of art from the 14th century until his own day as growing from infancy (Giotto) to early maturity (Masaccio) to full maturity (Michelangelo and Raphael). More recently, Clement Greenberg's retrospective view of the history of painting claimed to discover a tendency beginning in the middle of the 19th century for art to realize itself, to discover those "increate" elements (such as color, design, form) that are peculiar to it as a medium and to pursue them. Eventually, this historical process of distillation would cast off everything unnecessary, everything volatile, such as recognizable objects and narrative, which are typical of language rather than art in Greenberg's view. Neither Irwin nor Feltus believe for a minute in Greenberg's deterministic and modernist version of art history, nor would they ascribe to Vasari's normative history. Irwin's and Feltus's choices are eclectic, beginning, as we have seen, in that period between medieval and Renaissance, and continuing into various forms of early 20th-century painting, such as metaphysical painting (Giorgio de Chirico), early Picasso, and surrealism. Irwin and Feltus are not just post-modern, they are beyond modern, believing that they are not simply dealing with an art that is only for their time, but for all times. It is not an art that transcends history—indeed, it is completely anchored there—but that avoids trends, fashions, fads, or vogues. Their art is sturdy and made for the ages.

please visit Lani Irwin's site www.laniirwin.com

Vernon Hyde Minor
Professor of Art & Art History/Comparative Literature & Humanities (Emeritus)
The University of Colorado at Boulder
Research Professor of Art History
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Editor, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome
128 North Stanworth Drive
Princeton, NJ 08540 (until June 2007)

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