In the final moments of Goethe’s Faust, as angels lift the soul of the repentant scholar to heaven, a celestial chorus chants: “Everything ephemeral is but an allegory.” In a recent classical music review in the New Yorker, Alex Ross quoted that line to illustrate how music serves as a metaphor for the endless struggle to make meaning of life. Goethe’s text drives the point home, proclaiming: “The unknown is here! The indescribable is here!” About music? For sure. Except for an occasional bird song quote or Gershwin’s use of a taxi horn in An American in Paris, music is all abstraction, sound as metaphor. Music is, quite literally, “nonsense.” And that is okay.
Yet abstract visual art is often a harder pill to swallow.
The current show of John Vitale’s abstract paintings, Riding With the Ghost, at Stephanie Chefas Projects helps to bridge that gap. Unlike the in-your-face physicality and emotional intensity of post-war abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline—the generation of artists whose staggering inventiveness forced abstraction into American consciousness—Vitale’s work is quiet. There is nothing revolutionary about it, no stick-it-to art history message. It is the work of an artist who does not need to raise his voice to be heard.
I don’t often use such terms to describe art that engages me, gravitating, instead, to art with the kind of daring impact that can blast through solid walls. I know that the world on the other side of the rubble can be explored in stillness . . . but to make art that can hold my hand on that journey—without being humdrum—is a special challenge. That is what draws me to Vitale’s paintings.
To open our minds to the power of Vitale’s work, we can again look to the Faust legend. In each of his literary personalities, Faust is a man thwarted in his search to comprehend the meaning of existence. He is an unfulfilled seeker of the unknowable. He is humanity. We live, we die, and we never know why. That search, however futile, is the role of art, whether aural or visual. The more we seek, the more we are artists. The more deeply artists delve into the indescribable, the stronger their art. We may all be Faust (putting aside his flirtation with Satan), but artists are the most Faustian of us all. And unlike other guides to the ephemeral (religion comes to mind) artists make no claim to know the answers or even the route. Art is a portal, not a destination.
Representational art—landscapes and figurative painting, for example—can do this, but it cheats. It uses what we call “reality” to suck us into exploration. Sometimes it works, and when it does it can be spectacular. Yet reality can get in the way and be the end of the search, not the beginning. Abstraction is more “honest.” It says, “Here is a door to the unknowable, venture through if you dare.” To grossly oversimplify, representational art says, “This is what it is. Accept it.” Abstract art says, “This is not what it is. That is for you to try to figure out.” Of course, most art is somewhere in between, some version of a magical reality.
On first look, Vitale’s work appears to be all imagination, avoiding any reference to obvious realism. I suspect there is more to it. The abstract images all around us—images that we tend to overlook—are likely our visual grounding for both making and appreciating abstract art. Below, for example, is an image I recently noticed in a parking garage. Other than removing all color, it is what it is, just as I saw it. Most importantly, that fact is irrelevant: Art can at once be both realistic and nonsense.
I find the same to be true of Vitale’s paintings. They could have been inspired by layers, forms, and textures seen in a grassy park or on a reflective window, visual memories that the artist absorbed and merged with his imagination. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that with their organic geometry, gentle palette, random textures, and mysterious layering they seduce with a harmonious familiarity. These are not foreign images. They are invitations to the unknowable.
In several works, such as Information 1, I found myself wanting to slide through an imagined gap between several layers as if a door was left ajar. “Explore,” it tempted. Even when one shape or hue in a work is primary (as is black in Spawning Over Night), it is sensitive to its companion shapes even as each politely pushes and pulls for a chance to be heard. I can imagine each painting as a gathering of fascinating minds presided over by a restrained but undisputed matriarch, the tension of differences among the participants being modulated by their compatibility.
Each of Vitale’s paintings is an assembly that welcomes us to join in its internal dialogue—and, together, to embark on the Faustian inquiry: Who and what are we? We can never know the answer, but the journey is the purpose of art.
- “Riding With the Ghost” continues through June 11, 2022, at Stephanie Chefas Projects, 305 S.E. Third Avenue, Suite 202, Portland, OR 97220.