ART SHOW

Liquid Modernity

by David Abed

Central Question: Why use a nineteenth-century style to address early-twenty-first-century anxieties?
Approximate years of prominence of the symbolist movement in art: 1860 to 1890; Quote from the symbolist poet Paul Valéry stenciled on the wall of Liquid Modernity: “Interruption, incoherence, surprise are the ordinary conditions of our life. They have become real needs for many people, whose minds are no longer fed… by anything but sudden changes and constantly renewed stimuli… We can no longer bear anything that lasts. We no longer know how to make boredom bear fruit. So the whole question comes down to this: can the human mind master what the human mind has made?”; Number of years between Valéry’s death and invention of the World Wide Web: forty-five

The painter David Abed recently held a show at the Century Guild in Chicago. Painstaking and figurative, the majority of the twelve oil-on-linen pieces are crepuscular depictions of inertia: solitary women floating in water, dead-eyed, dead-skinned, and radically alone. The mood of the paintings, individually and together, is isolated and estranged. In their otherworldliness they recall the mysterious imagery of the European symbolism of the late nineteenth century—appropriate, since the Century Guild is a gallery explicitly devoted to the symbolist movement.

In the symbolist tradition, Abed’s images are entirely personal, and thus ultimately inaccessible to the viewer. The colossal Between, for instance—a larger-than-life winged female nude, arms outstretched as if in languid crucifixion, walking across water in a way that might be Christlike were her eyes not so gleaming and ambiguous—has a specific narrative behind it, but we can’t access it just by looking. Abed painted it while his father was suffering from advanced throat cancer. Abed cared for his father by day and painted at night; at first the wings on the figure were closed, but as his father unexpectedly recovered, the composition changed: the wings began to open. Though the painting was essentially finished after a year, Abed continued to work on it as changes occurred to him: adding a red line to the horizon; making the eyes, which were previously human, green and glowing with light.

Unlike many contemporary artists working in relation to art history, Abed does not use pastiche or quote from symbolism. Though the works of some contemporary artists inspire the satisfaction of recognition—like John Currin, who applies Renaissance techniques to the flotsam of pop culture (Bea Arthur topless!), or Kehinde Wiley (Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps—but Napoleon is black!), Abed’s work does not wink at or nod to history in order to interrogate contemporary attitudes. His is not a knowing symbolism, or an appropriation thereof. It just is.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—Kathleen Rooney

A founding editor of Rose Metal Press, Kathleen Rooney is the author of, most recently, Robinson Alone, and her debut novel, O, Democracy!, is forthcoming in spring 2014.

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