on ali cavanaugh
by Daniel Maidman
I had a friend in college with no background in classical music. He knew that I had a little, and one time he came to me and admitted he liked Bach. I asked him why and, sheepishly, he said, “He’s so happy.” I knew exactly what he meant about Bach, but it’s worth examining why he felt sheepish about his reasons. My hunch is this: that we are taught that serious art is not happy art. That happiness is not a serious emotion. Oscar Wilde speaks persuasively about this in De Profundis: “… sorrow, being the supreme emotion of which man is capable, is at once the type and test of all great art. What the artist is always looking for is the mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward: in which form reveals…. Behind joy and laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind sorrow there is always sorrow. Pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask…. Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit. For this reason, there is no truth comparable to sorrow…. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain.” This is a powerful argument, and it corresponds with our experience of much of art. Many of our greatest paintings and sculptures are crucifixions and dying warriors; our greatest plays are tragedies; the crowning achievements of novelists generally vivisect unhappiness at the scale of the individual, the family, or society at large. What place then does happiness have in art? I have always believed, and a lifetime of wear and exposure to griefs has not shaken my faith, that happiness has every place in art. All the things we hope for – to learn new things, to comprehend beauty, to enjoy experience, to be with family and friends – all these things are accompanied by happiness. Happiness is the bright shadow of right living. It is inseparable from it. And if we did not hope to reach right living, then we could not go on at all. So make what argument you will for sorrow in art, happiness must be welcomed as well. If, as Wilde observes, happiness is surrounded by a halo of false happiness– of kitsch, sentiment, performance, insipidity, and fraud – then what of it? All that means is that, of happiness and sorrow, depicting happiness is the more difficult task for the artist.
I have been studying painter Ali Cavanaugh’s art for many years. I wrote about it once before, so long ago I’d forgotten everything I wrote. Rereading the article, I find that as I groped for terms to explain her work, I reached first for Bach and happiness, just as I have again. At that time, I analyzed the elements in her work which supported her depiction of pure, uncorrupted happiness: sunlight – wind – female youths caption – contour lines – luminous color – translucency – symmetry – language – and focus. Even to read the list of Cavanaugh’s elements makes one smile. And yet they are so much less than her work. All these pieces integrate in her work into a seamless visual whole that unchains the viewer from the weight and fogginess of the day-to-day, returning him or her to a clean state of primeval joy. Visiting Cavanaugh’s work again, I’d like to set it in art world and psychological context. There are a lot of very accomplished figurative painters helping to define contemporary painting in the United States. But their emphasis is startlingly different from Cavanaugh’s. Construction of the figure as a solid mass, with ample definition of muscle, fat, and bone, tends to be the priority. Alongside construction, painters emphasize the unified, convincing depiction of value and color in the light which drapes the flesh. Broadly speaking, the figurative art scene has selected its territory and technical priorities in relation to these two qualities, solidity and color. This focus has strengths and weaknesses. It yields vivid, even overpowering figures. And it produces breathtaking observations of the most transitory moments of real light. But it is poorly suited to depicting emotions. Its practitioners tend to approach the depiction of emotion through narrative and through facial expression. But naturalistic narrative remains a problem, as it has been since the invention of photography. And facial expression is a problem too, because the heavy emphasis on anatomy and direct observation makes it difficult to capture the ambiguity and the weightless impermanence of emotion as glimpsed in the face. The American figurative scene is at its best when depicting figures of a sober neutrality. This neutrality can be explained in the painting in any number of ways, from the “resting face” of a model unaware of being observed to the spiritualist gazing back at the viewer from a position of enlightenment, but the bedrock position is always neutrality. Cavanaugh neatly sidesteps the entire problem by starting from a different position. Consider humor in television shows. There are two basic modes of making an audience laugh. In a drama, one will sometimes see a character who is simply funny, the way some people in real life just happen to have a knack for saying funny things. In a sitcom, on the other hand, the entire universe is funny. The characters all behave in unrealistic ways, conforming to a cosmos constructed for pratfalls and jokes. Most American figurative painters, when tackling emotion, tackle it as a drama might tackle a funny character. But because the tools these painters use to depict emotion are flawed, the characters always feel a little off. You can see what they’re getting at, but it doesn’t quite work. Getting it right is not impossible. Seventeenth-century Dutch portraitist Frans Hals, with his acute observation of micro-expression, solved this problem from inside the same framework of artistic values. Cavanaugh solves it as well, by approaching it from an entirely different position. Cavanaugh’s single emotional pursuit is happiness, and she tackles emotion the way a sitcom tackles humor. She constructs an entire happy universe around her people, so that even though they rarely smile, they cannot help but express happiness. This comparison might suggest that she is essentially fraudulent, as the sitcom universe is a fake universe. But this is not what I mean. The sitcom universe is stylized; the proportions of different qualities – unlikely narrative, physical accident, light, color, friendship, romance – are all skewed relative to their proportions in real life. This is what makes the sitcom universe fake. Qualities in Cavanaugh’s universe retain the proportions they have in real life; she is simply ruthless about eliminating the ones that do not contribute to her project. Those elements I mentioned many years ago – youth, wind, luminosity, contour – are all expressed with tremendous realism. Cavanaugh simply isolates them, so that the only elements permitted into her work are those which support happiness. A great misunderstanding has crept into our conception of happiness, from at least as far back as our founding “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We have begun to think that one chases after happiness directly. But this is impossible. One can chase pleasure, but not happiness. Happiness remains a byproduct – the bright shadow of right living. One who wishes to become happy must first live well. Cavanaugh recognizes this and orchestrates happiness in her paintings not as a direct goal, not as a superficial rictus of a smile, nor a tilted-back head or a widespread arm. Her minimal universe serves to demonstrate, in an allegorical way, some properties of right living. She summons happiness not from her figures but from us. We respond to her figures as our instinct, recognizing the causes of happiness, tells us we must. Cavanaugh’s approach to happiness is unsmiling and unadorned. The colors and stripes in her work are splendid and showy, but her method is humble and pure. In her economy of means and monasticism of method, she answers Wilde’s charge that happiness, in life and therefore in art, too easily hides vice. Her happiness, though compounded of light and air, is as substantial as his sorrow. Like Wilde, she squarely confronts tragedy, and her work does not fail under a burden which, without art, might be utterly intolerable. How? Consider: Cavanaugh’s recent work includes commissioned portraits of dead infants. Although these portraits form a small fraction of her creative output (she mainly paints family and friends), they are, for our discussion, of key importance. Birth and infancy are terrifyingly delicate periods in life, and for all the advantages of the modern world, it cannot save all children. I have a little bit of experience with infants who have died. An infant projects a shape into the future of those who love it: a shape filled with all the potential, all the experiences and adventures that infant will encounter over time, all the people that infant might become. That shape immediately solidifies into an essential component of the self-concept of those who love the infant. The infant’s future is part of who its mother or father is. When the infant dies, the shape instantly collapses. The future vanishes. Everything that could have been, that one had a right to expect, is abruptly gone. Those who love the infant, in a substantial sense, die with that infant. Cavanaugh is given photographs of those infants who have died – sometimes post-mortem photographs – and applies her gentle methods to them, creating a likeness of the child as a living person, though already submerged in a shining, oceanic universe. What Cavanaugh is depicting is not the present or the future of the dead child, but the shape that child projected into the future in the hearts of those who loved it before that shape collapsed.
There is an awful lot of kitsch and fraud associated with dealing with death. Half of religion itself is a mawkish attempt to redeem the irredeemably sad about the conditions of our finite life on Earth: that we will be separated from those we love, and some of those separations will be more unfair than others. Cavanaugh’s mere intervention in this territory is no guarantee of her good faith. Lots of people intervene in grief with bad faith or fake insight. Rather, it is the simplicity, the lightness of touch, the steadfastness of love and intention which characterize her work, which do not waver when confronting the ultimate sorrow, which demonstrate the truth of her statement of happiness. Rembrandt’s portraits of himself as an old man share this quality. The confounding in life – the humiliations and infirmities of age, the loss of loved ones, persistent and grinding poverty – stand transformed in his portraits into calm, acceptance, insight, amusement, appreciation … into wisdom. He creates, in his paintings, a kind of heaven. His heaven, if implemented in reality, would return to what it came from: mud and misery. But when converted into art, it is heaven. Cavanaugh gives this gift to the families of the dead. She takes the ruins of their hopes and breathes life back into them, restoring their natural estate, which is the natural estate of all children, which is happiness. She too creates, after a manner, heaven. It can only exist in the work, but the fact that it exists at all represents a certain triumph of human reason, will, love, and hope over an inimical universe. For decades she has refined her vision of happiness in the context of her own children, growing and healthy. One might argue that happiness without adversity has not demonstrated any mettle at all. But now she has carried the torch of happiness down into Hell itself. Hell did not dampen her torch’s light; rather, its light illuminated Hell and soothed those condemned to spend time there. That is the epochal might of her vision of happiness. Ali Cavanaugh is the real thing. She’s sui generis, and we’re lucky to have even one of her.