Tuesday, March 2, 2010

C. People

From the cultural blood of legend and myth that flows through the veins of a race, through blood spilled on the stones by history and national self-determination, I arrive at the living, warm flesh-and-blood people in the streets of Poznań today. These are the heritors of the past and the makers of the future, alive, moving with purposeful, optimistic, youthful energy. That is my first impression. They seem so young, these New Europeans, and so modish! But I have not made many paintings in this category. It is hard for me to pluck people out of my own perception of history and see them simply as isolated bodies, humans on the face of the earth with the same innocence and lack of embedded nationality as migrating birds. I would have to paint them as unlabelled faces. But the anonymity of faces without labels could point with equal sincerity to either a school yearbook or to a government dossier documenting the victims of a massacre.

I have tried here and there to separate people from their history. In Women Bathing I imagine Lake Malta in summer and from the faces passing by I have plucked three and shifted them from the winter streets to a beach on a hot summer day. The scene, I suppose, could be anywhere. In Figures Crossing an Icy Street I watch the Christmas shopping frenzy in roads leading up to Stary Browar. On a December morning elegantly dressed young women in woollen hats, their matching scarves pulled over their mouths the only concession to the bitter cold, scramble along a pedestrian artery. Older women in fur coats waddle just as fashionably towards shops crammed with New Europe goods and consumer heaven.

This is certainly the present. But I feel uneasy. Perhaps I have lived too long in Old Europe or overstayed my time in the Malls of North America. I have already tired of the superficiality of consumerism. As in my own homeland Ireland, it has arrived here with force majeur in spite of recession and unemployment and emigration and it seems to have set the old streets slipping and sliding out of control. But it does not impress me. The deeper flow of a nation is what grips my heart. These paintings are of sunny days. But I see they cast a shadow. They are impressions of moments observed immediately without either the burden or delight of history or cultural identity. I ask myself can any people be shorn of all that and presented as naked human beings going about their chores or pleasures when I have separated them from all the impedimenta that define them not only as ordinary people but as ordinary people from a particular place? Ah! The great paradox of Identity! Are you really different from me? Am I you? Are you me?

And perhaps, even in these pictures, it is not possible to effect this separation. Here is Woman Walking with Stick in Snow. This is an older woman, a woman who must have known her Poland under earlier less benevolent regimes. She is balanced precariously as she makes her way across the snow filled sidewalks. At her age the world around her is always a slippery place. And I imagine that that is how it has been for most of her life, one way or another. But perhaps not. Perhaps she was once ensconced safely in the old system. Perhaps when the Wall fell so did she.

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