Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Florescent Enlightenment - Wayne Thiebaud and the Baroque Ideal
And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
Wayne Thiebaud is usually considered a pop artist, and like Hopper (who clearly is not), much has been written about the comment his work makes on the spiritual isolation in post war America. There is a loneliness beneath the surface of all those rows of confectionary goods that belies their cheerful appearance. There is also light, Thiebauds paintings are suffused in it. It permeates his backgrounds so completely that his subjects appear trapped in its glow, like flies suspended in chips of amber. They are on display, but the stage is an abstraction and light is the world made featureless.
Light has always been the secret subject of painting, it is immaterial but fecund with symbolic and metaphysical content. In Baroque paintings this is especially evident. Figures appear out of the darkness as though materializing from a deep, inky abyss. It's not just a physical illumination that we are witnessing, but a spiritual and intellectual one as well. Here, darkness is a manifestation of ignorance, Godlessness, and even madness. It is our primordial past. Light on the other hand is knowledge, civilization and God. On the cusp of the Enlightenment, the artist is depicting the awakening of civilization . Man leaves the darkness of his past through the light of rational thought and spiritual faith. An artistic aspiration mirrors this humanistic one. The painter is staking a claim to his own part in this process, no longer content to be considered a mere craftsman he moves in to the light of recognition as a culturally important figure.
So, Baroque painting, in all of its chiaroscuro, candle lit drama is actually about the coming of age of both mankind and the artist. Both are moving from darkness to light, from ignorance and obscurity to knowledge and recognition. Light is not shining on them as such, instead the subject and by implication the artist, are actively entering in to its glow. Rationality and faith are fused in to one as mankind transcends his ignorance. We are witnessing a tripartite alchemy of the soul, the subject, the artist and lastly our own.
These are deeply hopeful paintings, they assert a trajectory of human development that would be elaborated upon for the next 2 hundred years. If light is knowledge leading us to progress, then it was assumed each successive generation would increase the aperture of illumination. It's a breathtaking journey, one that came to a swift end with the 20th century.
Like the baroque painters before him, Thiebaud places his subjects in the center. As far as he is concerned nothing else exists in the universe. Thiebauds figures are in the light completely, but, there is no conquering of the elements, instead of transcendence there is a blank objectivity. These paintings are not hopeful, they are remorseless, oddly happy on some level, but mostly aware that the ideal of progress is an empty promise..
Thiebauds paintings aren't so much the natural extensions of their Baroque predecessors as their dialectic opposites. Looking at this work is like looking at a negative image of a Rembrandt. Where there was darkness there is now nothing but clear, featureless, light. This "all over" light is unprecedented in painting and is not just a visual device. The Baroque painters painted by candlelight, the impressionists by sunlight, Thiebaud on the other hand, working in post WWII America, is painting the light of the florescent bulb. A democratic light unique to the 20th century that privileges nothing and at the same time makes a commodity out of everything. In Thiebauds paintings the world has been made in to a giant display case. There is no active relationship between the subject and the environment. One no longer feels that the figure is moving towards or away from a light source. The figures are static, the light is static, time is static.
So one can argue, Thiebaud's paintings are about failure. The failure of progress in the 20th century. Prosperity and knowledge have led us to a world illuminated not by the Divine but by an artificial, ceaseless machine. It is a strange and oddly still dead end.