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Humanity Unadorned

Text from the catalogue for an exhibition in Chamaličres, France, December 1998- January 1999

In one panel, a black swan. Its feet are churning the dark water, pushing against the current, feathers vibrating, neck stretched forward eagerly, and beak sharp. The swan is a god disguised, and bent on rape - Zeus, ‘father of heaven’, lawmaker, commander of the sun and moon, sole wielder of the thunderbolt, and lecher. In another panel, a pale girl. She too is pushing, stretching. Is she bathing, unaware of danger? Fleeing? Struggling?  Recovering? We cannot say; we only glimpse her torso from behind. We do not see her face. The girl is Leda, wife of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, fresh from her husband’s bed, alone on the banks of the River Eurotas. Twice impregnated in one night, she will lay two eggs; from one will hatch Castor and Clytemnestra, the children of the king, from the other, Pollux and Helen, children of the god.

This evocation of a violent, lawless world of long ago, David Maes’ diptych, Leda, touches on several of the major themes that have emerged in the artist’s work over the past fifteen years: contact between the human and the divine; intimacy between the human and the animal; and - the great theme - human vulnerability and resilience.

Divine intervention in human affairs is also the theme of the etching The Voice. Here again,  a god enters the human world - this time through a hovering messenger in human form - but now only to speak, not to assault.  The image tells us nothing about the content of the message. Perhaps it is a command, perhaps a prohibition.

The possibility that would fit best with Maes’ general view of the human condition is that the ‘angel’ is offering this advice about how we may live well:  You are here, vulnerable and uncomprehending in a world you have not made and which you cannot control. But you are not alone. There are forces beyond your world, always present, but only occasionally revealing themselves. These forces are not necessarily benign; they may even be murderous. But, if you look and listen, they will help you to understand the world, to see it as a place where you can live well.

The figures in Chorus V can also be seen as concerned with the way we live.  Like the chorus in Greek drama, they are acting not as ordinary humans, but as commentators. They seem to be defiantly speaking back to the gods, refusing to accept their fate. And, despite their passionate agitation, they convey the moving dignity that Maes manages to impart even to his most desperate personages.
In their anguish and their anger, the figures in Chorus V are immensely powerful. Their power derives in part from their size, which, as in all Maes’ painting, is, approximately, the same as our own - life size. Their power also derives from the fact that they are convincingly three-dimensional, and that they have enormous weight.  Maes is that rarity among contemporary artists - a fine draughtsman whose ‘hand’ is imbued with the contours and volumes of the human body. This skill, used with great modesty - and often downplayed by ‘painterly’ brushwork - allows Maes to create remarkably ‘tactile’ forms. We can feel the weight and shape of the women in Chorus V; we can regard them as real.
The fundamental source of the power of the figures in Chorus V  is, however, something beyond draughtsmanship and scale. The members of the chorus are all nude; and their nudity is completely open and unselfconscious.  In other words, it is completely natural.  This natural nudity is so essential an element of Maes’ world that ‘nudity’ seems scarcely the right word. To describe a body as ‘nude’ implies that it is sometimes clothed. But Maes’ personages apparently inhabit a land without garments. There is striking originality here: For Maes, nudity is not a way of reveling in the beauty of human form; nor is it a source of eroticism.  It is a way of emphasizing a crucial truth: The basic human condition is something that comes before culture and civilization - before clothes and all the rest.  Just as our bodies are covered by our clothes, what we really are, our naked and unadorned essence, is buried under the paraphernalia of civilization. But civilization does not destroy our real nature any more than clothes destroy our bodies. Our natural core always underlies our constructed world - and may outlive it.
In a painting like Woman and Children, the nudity of the figures has perhaps even more impact than in Chorus V.  Here, the theatrical element is absent. On the surface at least, there is no drama, no passion, only a domestic commonplace: a woman hovers protectively over her young, gathering them to her. If the figures were clothed, the image would be sentimental.  Nude, they take on an elemental, animalistic quality. And, far from being trite, the whole image becomes ambiguous, tinged with menace. There is a reassuring sense of the profundity of the mothering impulse, but at the same time, there is a troubling awareness of the absence of convention and law.

Woman and Children contrasts with Chorus V.  Despite its ambiguity, its element of mystery, it seems to counsel inwardness and acceptance. Walking Man IV , on the other hand, expresses determination and strength. In this painting - and the others in the long series of which it is a part - Maes seems to be providing his answer to the great question: How, given the hard facts, should we live?  His answer: Despite our loneliness and vulnerability, we must keep moving, striding forward with courage and optimism.

Powerful as it is as an individual work, Walking Man IV could not be fully appreciated by someone ignorant of Maes’ other work. Looking at the painting in light of a knowledge of the rest of Maes’ ‘world’, however, we not only sense the determined purposefulness it radiates, we understand the source of this quality. Like the walker, we can keep going without despair because we have the company of our fellow creatures and because, above all, we are somehow divinely guided. All this is still ‘there’ for support and succour even when we must leave our family, our tribe, behind, and even when the Voice cannot be heard.

While acknowledging his commitment and depth - and his great skill - critics have sometimes excoriated Maes for his darkness, his bleakness.  This is a mistake. Anyone with open eyes and open mind, anyone capable of seeing that the purpose of all deeply serious art is not merely to contemplate the superficialities that happen to surround us, but to go as far as possible beneath the surface, must see in Maes’ work a ‘message’ that, although perhaps stern, is ultimately reassuring and inspiring.
Nevertheless, much of Maes’ work does have a ‘difficult’ feel. This is perhaps the inevitable fate of an artist who is preoccupied with the need for unflinching devotion to the truth, and who is determined to avoid comforting delusion at all costs. In recent years, however, there has been more ‘light’ in Maes’ work, and more signs of exuberance and joy.

This shift in emphasis is immediately apparent in Dance I.  The most striking thing about this painting - a diptych - is the juxtaposition of a female figure in the right-hand panel, diving sinuously through clear space, with sumptuous irises in the left-hand panel. As in Leda, the separation into two panels has a complex effect.  Again it is as if, in a single gesture, questions are raised and dismissed as unanswerable or misconceived. Does the woman see the flowers? Does she want them? Are they even in the same physical space as she? Or is the relationship merely logical, ‘textual’? Are the flowers perhaps a comment on her beauty or she on theirs? Or are the flowers and the woman somehow identical? The painting has an elusive textuality. Like Leda, it forces us to ask questions, but, unlike Leda, it seems to tell us at the same time that the questions have no answers. In short, Maes seems to be uncharacteristically tempted here by the charm of irresolvable ambiguity - to allowing formal ideas to take precedence over representational ones. But if he is tempted, he does not succumb; the vivacity of the emotion and the sense of happy freedom are convincing and refreshing.

If  Dance I is a move away from a somber commentary on the human condition into a realm of unfettered beauty and ambivalence, a somewhat earlier painting, the imposing Le rappel, can also be seen as a step away - but this time a step away from the basic and the universal toward the cultural and the historical, and from the pagan to the Christian. Maes conceived the painting, he explains, in a mood of great pessimism, provoked by news reports and personal accounts of the fighting in the Balkans. He felt the need to speak out against the inhumanity of war and also to offer hope. He decided the most effective way to do this would be by finally taking on a subject he had long being drawn to - the crucifixion of Christ. But this is a crucifixion of great strangeness. The left-hand side of the huge canvas is devoted to a large group of female figures and children, reminiscent of the ‘chorus’ but less mobile, less aggressive. They are singing plaintively. Christ, crucified, is relegated to the upper right-hand corner, part of an isolated group of three figures; the other two are the Virgin and Mary Magdalene. The Magdalene, who crouches submissively before Christ, is naked; but the virgin is clothed - another indication of the extent to which this painting is a departure for Maes.  Are the singing figures aware of the crucifixion scene? Is the Magdalene a former member of their ‘tribe’, a deserter? The answers to these questions seem locked away, out of our view. The mystery is deepened by the reappearance of the virgin, looming behind the ‘chorus’, on the far left-hand side of the painting.  Pressed for an explanation of this doubling, Maes has commented that « she takes her position with the rest of humanity. »  In all, Le rappel is a strong and subtle painting - but it is hard to believe that Maes will produce many more works in this heavily allegorical vein, just as it is hard to imagine his producing many works with the ‘lightness’ of Dance I.

In Woman and Flowers, completed in 1998 - as in the recent Leda - there is still light and beauty, but here freedom and joy, although not entirely absent are tainted with anxiety and danger. And there is no sign at all of an interest in historical, institutionalized culture. In Women and Flowers, we are back in the realm of the pagan and the pre-cultural.  There are flowers here again, but vague, dreamlike flowers, melting into a background that is not as impenetrable as the background in Walking Man IV, but far more viscous than the clear emptiness of Dance I.  The woman - only her upper torso is visible in the bottom half of the painting - is even more enveloped by the milky background than are the flowers. Her face is darkened and blurred. She is asleep, dreaming. The flowers seem both to enter her and to emanate from her.

Not obvious at first glance, but very definitely there, a halo - a halo through which one of the flowers is passing. Once again we witness the meeting of the human and the divine. And once again, despite the floating flowers and despite the warm beauty of the whole painting, we feel the weight of being human. Clearly, Maes cannot escape such themes, however many ‘keys’ he may set them in. He could not, even if he wished it, become primarily a poet of pure beauty - or a ‘religious’ painter. He may make excursions in those directions, but it seems clear now that he will concentrate on other things.

Forrest Lunn
Toronto, September1998