These comments were written on the occasion of Janet Malcolm’s show of collages, now on exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art
VERY WELL THEN. Let us turn our attention to the question of fiction. And how it stands, presumably, on the other side of truth. And how the waters that separate fact from fiction are muddy, and always have been. And how that muddiness is the result of truth and fantasy living in rather close proximity to one another in our respective minds. We’re built that way, to hear all words as stories, but eventually our incessant internal moralizing insists we separate truth from legend, as if such a thing can be done, but we’re built that way, too, to not leave well enough alone, to categorize and moralize, separating that which we deem correct from that which we dismiss as wrong, because we must cut the world down to our size in order to manage living in it, but what does it mean to define this or that action as wrong or right? What does it mean to live anything as impossibly fucked and chaotic as life in a “correct” way? Of course, most of us exist with the compunction to be a good citizen. And that is the only right—to love, and to protect hearth and home. But how does correctness—the good citizen angle—get perverted by the need to label, say, this or that other form of love as “wrong”? Sometimes those good citizens define certain modes of thinking as being incorrect, and threatening, too. The imagination for one. Why is fantasy often regarded with distrust? Is living in the real and the good, and living in one’s imagination, mutually exclusive? Marianne Moore longed for “literalists of the imagination,” who could create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” And yet so many of us spend our time trying to build real ponds to contain those frogs—when we’re not trying to kill them, that is. We reduce the world to a series of literal-minded propositions, the better to define or describe it, eventually coming up with what? Journalism and cant. But the waters that separate fact from fiction are filled with little fishes, and the little fishes have bits of mesmerizing glint on their tails, and sometimes in their eyes. You could call the glint lies. Or the shiny, inspiring catalysts that hook the imagination. When Daniel Defoe stood on the banks of the Orinoco in his mind, he saw the truth of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the fact that it grew out of several real lives, Alexander Selkirk’s for one. Selkirk was a Scottish castaway who ended up on a remote island in Chile and lived to tell the tale. And then there was Robert Knox, whose account of being abducted by the King of Ceylon was published in 1659. By the time Defoe, a former journalist, published his best-known novel—which is widely regarded as one of the first, “pure” fictions—the truth would not leave him alone. You may recall Robinson, and his desire, always, to leave England for the unknown—a world of waves, and loneliness, and paganism, and sand, and cannibalism, and slavery: a “sensational” tale filled with sensations. Like the best art, Robinson Crusoe is a collage, a marriage of fact and fiction, a universe of the real and the imagined that only a former journalist could have come up with, since journalists—certainly the smart ones—live with the question of veracity, always, and the question, always, of what makes a truthful account of anything. Journalism becomes an art when the writer dares him or herself to ask if reality itself is a form of fiction. Or, more specifically, how real is this or that, given that it’s being filtered through a decidedly subjective perception? Is the sky turning silver moments after seeing it, describing it, as blue mixed with white and flecks of gold as true as the blue sky one saw moments before? Are the “ums” and various hesitations that punctuate regular speech fictionalized when they’re cleaned up in a magazine? The waters that separate fact from fiction are muddy and filled with fish the color of kelp, and their gills are a brighter color than that fish’s green, particularly after one realizes that the most interesting art of the twenty-first century is based not on the truth or fiction winning out—which is to say documentaries or various forms of fabulation—but an admixture of both.
Janet Malcolm’s work as a journalist who writes about the fiction in real lives, and as a visual artist of the very highest sophistication, is at the center of the questions illustrated above. Indeed, her work in both mediums asked those questions much more astutely than most other writers have, or can. In our rapidly expanding world of truth in a second, no one can get away much with a lie. But it’s the human impulse to make things up. Appropriation—collage falls under that heading—is a fact-based art. Take Sherrie Levine for example. In the nineteen-eighties she re-photographed Walker Evans dust bowl era pictures, signed them, and made them her own. There was a collage of feeling in this seemingly academic exercise about originality. For starters there’s the artist who loves Walker Evans, and who aspires to “copy” him—a feeling no artist is unfamiliar with as they sit sketching a Renoir at the Met, aspiring to be Renoir. And if Sherrie Levine is not to your taste, think about Joseph Cornell, whose dreams of movie stars, of the glamour of silence, of women, inspired him to re-construct all that in his own work. One story about Cornell: In 1931, the “B” movie star, Rose Hobart, was featured in a very bad film called East of Borneo. But Cornell didn’t dislike the film, nor its narrative of adventure: Robinson Crusoe, but starring Depression-era Americans in pith helmets. Indeed, the artist found Hobart’s portrayal of a girl lost in the wiles of wild palm “exoticism” moving enough to recreate her. So, he re-edited East of Borneo, and put Hobart at the center of his imagination, a damsel not so much in distress, but more alive because of our attention. As a collagist of superior skill and feeling—indeed, could a collage not be regarded as a kind of film still, an outtake from a coming attraction on the screen of the artist’s mind?—Malcolm creates imaginary gardens but with real newsprint and letters and photographs in them. In her recent work, she also imagines other real life artists. A significant presence in these recent pieces is the German born Jewish artist Eva Hesse (1936–1970). In 1949 Lost Everything and Too Clinical, Malcolm uses copies of photographs of Hesse’s sculptures not so much to call attention to the sculptural elements in her own work—the building of layers with space as another layer—but as a visual element that recalls how Hesse’s early work came about: through appropriation. Living in the Ruhr valley in the mid 1960’s, Hesse found her voice as an artist when she started sculpting out of the materials she was literally living with in the factory she and her then husband shared: life as the event, with art as its record. Hesse—a Jew displaced by World War II, and then further emotionally displaced by her mother’s suicide—was, despite her past, an artist who was deeply engaged by, and admiring of, the art making process; her work conveys there is joy to be had in making things, and wit, too. But there is sadness shading the arched eyebrow: no artist ever feels they “got” whatever it is they mean to express, not completely. And despite the decisiveness of Malcolm’s line—one gets the sense that a piece’s various elements have only been put down after many, many drafts, and reconsiderations: time and revision as part of life’s collage—the space surrounding her images, and bits of colored paper, or yellowing paper, is filled with a quite deliberate absence, like something abandoned but not forgotten, not ever, like bodies we have loved but can love no longer. In this series, sex, one of life’s more ephemeral and intense activities, happens, but it happens through language—a doctor or patient describing what it means to his subjects, or a patient to himself. In one note a patient writes: “Shelley Winters—special charm in her face—no beasty feelings about her, just charming feelings—now for about four months.” But when does desire not bring out a “beasty” feeling, especially when it’s the performer’s job to seduce? One tries to repress one’s “beasty” feelings the better to be socialized. But into what kind of world? A world of repression with its arbitrary rules vis-à-vis what constitutes a lie, or the truth, or attraction? Malcolm’s desire to order the world is not so much the desire to re-create or control it as it’s an exploration of its various elements—those moments of being that are no more, and that were as true and fake as anything else. Grief and fiction are the central themes of her collages; the grief is real, the images are made up out of the real stuff of grief, which is to say artifacts from the past, a desire to not let go, and are the visual representations of the will to remember even as time erodes that will, and we are no more. But that’s not entirely true. The others that come after us remember us as Malcolm remembers her dead, or the not-known-at-all, their various fictions and facts intact as they swim in the muddying waters of what we erroneously describe as the real world.