You are – ENSNARED…
Trust me, for I speak with utmost gravity! Do you think I am joking? Ecoutez2, such a joke rings true in the words of Martin Short: “What serves as a pun in my show, and what is sincere truth – is for you to decide…” But me – I know what dangers lie ahead of you. No mistake here. Rather a mystery. Enigma. The very first step inside the gallery, the very first glance into Cheval’s book, even the first time you heard the name – Cheval… You were ENSNARED. YOU FEEL YOUR PUPILS DILATING. Leave before it is too late! YOU SENSE YOUR PALMS GETTING WARMER. Leave for the sake of all that is sacred! Do not LOOK at the paintings… YOU BREATHE FASTER. And do not try to remember anything… It is DANGEROUS.
Cheval will poison you. And believe me, he will get away with it easily. He will turn your life into torment, sweet torment of – ANTICIPATED PLAY. Venom, which preserves in itself the fundamental nature of ancient wisdom, elements of which forever exist within the sacred boundaries of acceptance toward other cultures and outside of religious or atheist subtexts, will pervade you. It will poison instantly, profoundly and for a long time.
All dictionaries, presently known to me, define absurdity as nonsense, ridiculous irrationality, which makes the phrase uttered by the emperor Tertullian… in the light of such interpretation to appear quite lacking, even though Tertullian himself referred to the supernatural regarding religious beliefs. Therefore, Cheval jokes that his absurdity – is a supernatural, reverse side of reality, not an argumentum ad ignorantiam3, but rather proof of existence of another dimension.
The followers of Carl Gustav Jung call this a mystical participation – a term borrowed from the anthropologist Levy-Bruhl and used to identify a relationship in which “a person cannot separate oneself from the object or an article being perceived”. Freud’s followers call this phenomenon a proactive identification. Personally, I would name it “contact schizophrenia”… One person boasts of seeing flying teapots and, after a while, another will start noticing them as well.
A few years ago, I heard about an artist, who received a quill as a gift from an ANGEL… and now uses it to create his paintings; naturally, I did not believe it.
A QUILL? AN ANGEL? PAINTINGS?
Michael Cheval never affirmed nor denied the story about his angel quill, and questioning him felt redundant, especially after I saw his works with my own eyes… They could not possibly be created without an angelic touch.
His paintings are crafted with unbiased virtuosity of great masters belonging to the Golden Age of Dutch art and with… sensibility of an angel. This sensibility radiates certain healing powers. Let me try to explain. The outer, visible side of irrationality in Cheval’s creations is nothing but an invitation to PLAY, to start creating by yourself. He arranges his composition in the way of a theatrical production with actors and dialogue, except that you become the author of this dialogue, making it up based on your own aesthetical sense. You make the connection with the time or the epoch. You create a legend and compose myths. This collaborative act gives birth to an entirely new work of art – a painting with your own plot. Here the healing capacity reveals its power. You are cured from “illusory astigmatism”, in this case – the inability to see a different reality, or in other words, according to the analogy offered by Ortega y Gasset, you discover a way to see both the glass and the garden behind it, simultaneously.
of the world, the master calls a butterfly.
Richard Bach, «Illusions».
Every epoch speaks in its own language, has its own tone, plasticity, and substantiating base. Picture yourself in Amsterdam. Close your eyes and imagine the Dutch city of 17th century. Breathe in the pungent fish smell of the streets… Does it stab your nose and knock you off your feet? During this time in Amsterdam, in the age of Ter Borch , every fifth man was a painter or at least someone who could hold a brush in his hands.
Standing with Cheval in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by works of Ter Borch and Vermeer, I recall the answer he recently gave me to a question about the boundaries of surrealism and absurdity in his paintings. He looked at me and replied with his Cheshire-cat smile: “I fill in the gaps, spiritually I fill in the gaps, left by Dutch masters”. Noticing my perplexity, he laughed: “You see, when I visit a museum, I find it much easier to communicate with Vermeer, Rembrandt and Ter Borch than with Picasso or Klee… For hours, I can converse with old masters. It is not a question of equality, it’s just that when I create my scenarios, I can allow myself that which “Little Dutchmen” could not allow, due to their upbringing, education or imagination. That is to play with the absurd. I am partial to archetypes familiar to us from childhood. They are universal in distinct quality of their elements. I am at home in the world of silk skirts and Spanish collars… I am comfortable there.”
In the 17th century, Dutchmen overthrew the catholic rule of Spain and acquired independence. They became protestant and Calvinism left little space for art, imposing firm restrictions on paintings with religious themes. The painters became liberated… from artistic requests made by the Church. That is why works produced at this time are largely dominated by nobility and merchantry.
New genres began to emerge; landscape and still life… Cheval’s eyes sparkled as he mentioned these words. Suddenly I realized what Cheval does – he fills the gaps left in scenarios embraced by the classical Dutch school. Could Vermeer have allowed himself to paint a flying cup or a fishing boat suspended in mid-air… of course not.
What can the artist allow oneself? Two excellent painters got into an argument about terminology. He, not to reveal his name, claimed that his canvases are crafted while she, letting her name remain a mystery, insisted that her works are created. They barely avoided a fistfight!
What do you make of it? Just a thought.
ETERNITY OF ABSURDITY
In his monograph on the “primitive mind”, Levy-Bruhl used a term “prelogical”, which is often incorrectly translated as “illogical”, as if to show that primitive thinking is not logical and therefore incapable to comprehend, judge and analyze the way we presently do. The issue with perception lies in the same plane as the aforementioned problem. Works of art can become and in fact are becoming the direct analogues to pictographic writing for future generations. They will be used to study history, geography and sociology. In the case of surrealism, the subject for analysis will be – DREAMS. Painting, for Cheval, became not only a meaning of life, but a life’s necessity. Using his art, he frees himself from atavist fears and prelogical dangers of repeating that which already took place thousands of years ago.
Japanese language employs two types of writing: kana, where similarly to the Cyrillic alphabet, symbols correspond to sounds, even though each symbol correlates not to a single sound but to a syllable; and kanji, where hieroglyphic symbols represent objects or notions. Prelogical perception is similar to primitive. For a “primitive” person that belongs to a totemic society every animal, plant and object has an influence on other members of its totem, its class or subclass. Each member has certain responsibilities towards the others and displays mystical association with members of other totems.
Cheval himself believes that the connection between an artist and his creation is like that of a mother and child. In their various forms and intensities, they assume the presence of “participation” between beings and objects. For the painter – everything within the periphery of his canvas is conditional. It exists, sup specie aeternitatis5, outside of an epoch, outside of time and in temporalibus6. Therefore, it cannot be aesthetically or culturally identified. Characters in Cheval’s paintings should be recognized by their costumes and instruments – if a figure uses a fish to play the kettle, he is a musician, if he is dressed in a Pierrot costume, he is an actor. Cheval’s characters are all of us, lost and wondering.
Cheval’s absurdity is equivalent to the eternity itself, or to the universe, which is also eternal. The only thing that makes sense, the one thing of true importance – is mastery. In this light, mastery has the precedence, the major significance or else… the game is not worth it. But what lies at the end of the universe? Maybe Stanislav Egi Lec was correct in saying that “the question is not where does the universe end, but what does it end with; with a fresh green hedge or with a sharp wire fence?”
After meeting Cheval at the opening of his solo exhibit, I approached a well-known New York art critic, Lana Vais and pointed out the refinement of detail in one of Michael’s paintings. Smiling, Lana replied that during a recent interview, the artist told her: “A painter is first and foremost, a master. A master who strives for perfection and for whom carelessness is suicide.” I believe, I replied to her that I met many painters that knowingly commit this type of suicide.
Incidents… another thought.
REALITY OF ABSURDITY
We must be over the rainbow.”
B. L. Baum “Wizard of Oz”
At the opening reception last winter, a visitor, full of apprehensive reverence and earnest perplexity, approached Cheval to ask him: “How were you able to see my dream?”
How does he do it? How can Cheval see YOUR dreams? From culturological perspective, Cheval is aesthetically autogamous7. This is the source of his strength. Instead of relying on cultural sources, he explores deep motives of unconsciousness that are easily understood because they are universal, regardless of one’s geography, experience or knowledge. His paintings lead their independent life. Outside of time and space, this artist spends too much time communicating with specters.
Cheval’s paintings are often similar to photographs, but the familiar is inevitably invaded by the unreal: unfeasible spheres, floating under the arches of gothic cathedrals, a violin sliding down the pipes, countless masks, continually changing and leaving their characters for different roles and perhaps for different producers found among the audience. His paintings present a frightening difficulty of separating his images into “reality” and “illusion”, since everything coexists in parallel and obeys strict laws of his ontological vision.
A curious literary genre was borne in a number of countries during different periods: the travels of a deceased character through the otherworldly realms. Tibetan “Bardo Todol” and “The Egyptian Book of the Dead” are the two examples. Both texts describe the tribunal of the Gods and the weighting of good deeds against the sins. The heart and the feather are placed on the scales in “The Book of the Dead”. Black and white stones are balanced in “Bardo Todol”. Egyptians have a Devourer of Shadows, Babai, that consumes a spirit if it dares to lie in its afterlife world of shadows.
At this art show, you have the role of Babai while Cheval, working privately with his paintings served as the highest court. He emptied the bodies and left them vacant, the way they are in their essence. The artist ironically comments that in his works, he used the image of skin that belongs to a popular singer who undressed to his bones in a musical video. Exhibitionism of the soul would be achieved if one took off one’s skin and muscles while performing a striptease dance.
The irrational and the mysterious that surrounds us is expressed simply and clearly in Cheval’s paintings, while they continue to follow the principles of figurative art. Intricately detailed unreal objects contrast with their unnatural surroundings. Paintings are stretched like strings from a famous Buddhist legend where a wise musician advises his pupils that if the string is overstretched, it can snap and if it is not stretched enough, it will play out of tune… only when the string is stretched out precisely right, will it produce a clear beautiful sound.
SENCE OF ABSURDITY
Samuel Beckett “Waiting for Godot”
I tend to trust the opinion of Lana Vais, for I consider her views about culture and especially about historico-culturological aspects of American and European art of XX-XXI centuries, to be in the least subjective and to the highest degree analytical. According to her terminology, the present-day culture is “mute and deteriorating” as if the mark of silence, like the anticipation of autumn, descended upon the painters’ brushes. Only Cheval’s voice is heard within deserted grounds of lonely galleries that perceptibly lost their right for a distinctive sense of irr?el, beautiful and terrifying.
There is no hint of absurdity here. Before becoming an anthropologist, the “surveyor of individual”, I worked as a reporter and was shocked to discover new relationships between people through the lenses of journalism.
The absurdity of love, of friendship, of neighbor relationships… everything proved to be reductio ad absurdum8. How could it be otherwise – for no plots were left after Shakespeare. Our relationships are no different from that of our ancestors, five hundred years ago.
It is important to understand that Cheval, with his unique view and philosophy that developed and gained its strength from a different, perhaps less free world, acquired the ability to combine these concerns, anxieties and impulses of the heart like no one else can. Cheval journeyed through all elements of esoteric backyards described in literature and knows that betrayal can sometimes serve for good.
Absurdity entered our culture since the time when the greatest masters of our epoch began to joke – among them are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach, Hieronymus Bosch and Rembrandt Van Rein. Irony and humor help us endure all hardships and misfortunes that befall our fate. Only through this “human, all too human” ability to endure, are we capable of surviving all that is called life.
How wonderful are the jokes of refined pizzicatos by Paganini, behind whose shoulders, witnesses often claimed to spot a devil, or the jokes in Bach’s interpolations from “Brandenburg concerts”. This same humor Cheval proffers from his paintings into reality and back…
Cheval jokes with the lightness of Mozart and instructs with indisputable conviction of Schopenhauer, even though the latter was banned from scientific circles due to his ceaseless doubts that confirmed his personal maxim “I doubt, therefore I am”.
Cheval’s paintings are filled not with a morally mentoring tone, but with a game of continuous all-permitting waywardness. He changes the game’s course not with the purpose of confusing his audience, but with the intention of continuing the game for as long as possible.
Such a thought.
ILLUSIONS OF ABSURDITY
Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
Everything created in the XX century, appeared absurd from the viewpoint of previous generations. Absurdity, magnified and established into the ranks of art, became an inseparable part of our lives. You would be mistaken if you think Cheval sells his paintings. He does not sell anything, but the effect is such that seeing his work makes you stop, stunned as if the powerful gust of wind temporarily restricted your ability to breathe, hear or move. You stand before the painting and realize that you already saw everything presented on the canvas… you remember it from some far away and forgotten childhood dream. Just like we try to recall a forgotten dream, a sense of sweet torment impels us to return here, into the gallery and buy Cheval’s paintings, in order to spend day after day at home, journeying into our dreams… into our forgotten childhood dreams… and remembering how warm and comfortable it felt there.
Who is he, Michael Cheval? A Minotaur, pretending to be a horse? Or a child, ignorant of his own doings?
Close the book. Just close it… and do not turn back.
R U N …
Or it will be too late and you will start to think.
Cheval regards art as a kind of shamanism. It is a very sacred performance when a painter takes off his skin and bares his nerves. Often he does not realize himself how far his unconsciousness wandered ahead from everything that we know and understand.
Looking back – throughout the entire essay, we discussed the basic principles for interpreting reality.
Art, that always rebelled against the scientific view of the world, in our new century learned to ensnare us into its transcendental dimensions, breaking the subjective visualization of reality.
Art – is always an illusion, a vision, a reflection of the impossible, even the absurd. Only art is capable of portraying the ideal and the absurd, equally sensed but never tangible in reality.
Illusion – is a secret weapon art uses to make visible that which can only exist in a parallel dimension and only in the presence of special physical factors.
Cheval’s paintings are the maps of his journeys into a different, transcendental world, into his personal maze where he chooses the path and the length of his voyage. A maze in which he is both a Minotaur and Theseus… a victim and a hero. A destructor and a creator.
To deviate a little before sounding the final cords, I would like to quote the words Cheval used to conclude one of our discussions: “I cannot stand it when a person that I meet for the second time in my life, puts his hand on my shoulder and tells me: “How keenly I understand you.” How is he able to do that? I have struggled with this mystery for almost forty years and still cannot fully understand myself.” Looking at Cheval’s paintings it is impossible not to feel how alive and flowing they are. They leave you regretting that you made it only to anagnorisis9 and did not see the performance from the beginning to the end. Alarming spaciousness is always present in his works and as you approach the canvas, immediately the irreversible chain of events, like a chemical process, occurs, leading to collapse and rebirth – a process that repeats as many times as you come near the painting.