(introductory essay to Steven Spazuk monograph published by Projekroom, Montreal)
I read somewhere today that seeing a place for the first time in the dark is like reading a poem in translation. Writing about art is like using words to describe that place to a deaf person. Reading what someone has written about art is like touching a woman with gloves on. And to read this in translation… well, the clumsy metaphors go on ad nauseam.
The first time I saw Steven’s work was several years ago at the “Affordable Art Fair” in New York City which then branched off into Scope and Bridge and the Red Dot fairs… but at the time it was all there was for the ‘indie’ galleries and mostly you had to wade through plenty of crap to find something that you felt you couldn’t afford not to buy. It was one of his multiple-image pieces, and it was large and for me unaffordable and I tried to talk the gallery into some kind of arrangement but when I came back it was sold.
So then I had to go back and look at it multiple times and regret and try to do that sour grapes thing and hope that the buyer wouldn’t pay or would cancel and still I’d have to face the fact that I didn’t exactly have the cash in hand.
And I never saw it again. Except in my mind, where I yearn for things like that painting, at this point in my life, the way I used to yearn for other things. And where, with my exhausting passion for art-historical credibility, it settled like smoke and I began to qualify it...
When I was young and studying art, a poet wrote me a late-night note on torn paper that said “Of all those devine (sic) in the darkness, you are the darkest...” and the 4th word was indistinct and maybe said ‘defined’ or divine’ or ‘de-vined’ but it would have been inappropriate to even form the question. So I ended up spending months of poet nights in the tower-room of an abandoned building without electricity where we built a fire and talked and smoked and awoke after hours of unbearable passion with our skin cold and clammy and bathed in soot. I can scarcely remember his name, or the incredibly obtuse things he said to me but there it all was, in the Steven Spazuk painting — the smoke and the bottomless unabated desire and the terrible dark ghost of lost passion.
And other things. In the beautiful smooth surface, there was the captured essence of smoky moments, and there was killing and there was love and a man falling as from the towers, and the trace of birds and insects, and weapons and desire and even hope and the smell of candles and blood and touching and flesh and the frozen ice of painting that protects them.
I later searched for Steven—as I could-- on the internet. His titles were in French, so I further understood his technique… working with a candle, he painted with ‘la suie’ which is the ‘suis’-- the personal essence of who he is, the eye/I of the surrealists, the Latin ‘sum’/sum of Being of the medieval philosophers.
‘Soot’ being such a hideous word in English… it is misleading even to use it. Rather ash… or smoke… or shadow-painting because the shadows of his imagination appear… some by chance, some because there is no ‘chance’, in the world of the deep subconscious. They are clinically accurate x-rays of the soul—precise and accusatory, and they are smoky and osmotic and elegant…like the ghost of a dancer who enchants and torments you and then disappears. They are musical and they are funny. They are bathed in color, some of them, but underneath, the darkest of us remember the ash of cremated bodies, the horrible haunting smoke of holocaust incinerations, the smell of war-death, the smoke of memories we try to burn but which taunt us with scent and visions and dreams…. the grey veil which shrouds Dickensian nightmares in old London…. the terrible and wonderful atmosphere from which genies and devils emerge in our darkest fantasy… the mark of Christ we bear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, above our eyes… and the exhaled smoke of the lover whose memory is killing, even after years, after many loves and births and joys and sorrows-- the one we let go, because we cannot keep dreams.
From my poet I have a box of cigarette butts. I don’t know why… somehow this is my souvenir of the smoky nights. I heard he died of some wasting stomach cancer. He haunts my dreams, on occasional lucky nights. In my house I now have a Steven Spazuk called 30 Vracs. Every visitor pauses before this; it commemorates 30 verses from another dark poet. Without reading the poems, without understanding the language, the Spazuk images emerge like a conjuror draws things from nothing. They are art and they are palimpsest, they are the painting and the pentimento all at once, the shadow and the being….then there is the color, and the shadows of color, along with the color of shadows, and the ‘suie’ like the breath of a dark angel, the translation of a dream.
For me the paintings are the witness of intimacy, a kind of painterly photograph of the desire which precedes the moment, the memory of what will never be in the film, the thing that a sculptor sees in the marble before he carves, the untranslatable—just there, simply there. It is not a sketch we feel, but the ghost of the thing which compels the artist to sketch. Not the song but the singing, pure and simple….an indecipherable metaphor that is instantly understood by the smoky of us, and which makes all of this description absurd and awkward and a little pathetic. The way the dream begins to evade us as we try to remember… and disappears. This is what Steven is painting, with a candle as his tool, using the black ‘suie’ from the flame, coaxing images from the shadows, fixing them beneath a surface, so they in turn continue to bring to light the imagery of his ‘suis’ as works of art.
But don’t take my word for it….