This short essay was written for EriK Volet’s show, “Scenes from the Yiddish Theatre & Other Paintings” at the Ministry of Casual Living (June 1st to 15th, 2014), and was featured in a catalogue produced for the show.
There is an anecdote about Philip Guston in which he relates the experience working in the studio as being in a room crowded with people. As the work progresses, the people leave; maybe, on an especially good day, the artist is able to leave too. Suppose the characters are ancestor ghosts. Hungry ones. Assume being an artist is, as Jasper Johns once asserted: “consuming and being consumed” (is that what reading/writing is as well?)
Erik Volet’s studio in the Ministry of Casual Living is tightly squarish, with a fresh, thin coat of paint skinning old walls that give way to a new ceiling made of corrugated metal that closes down like a lid. There are photocopies on the wall with green paint spattered on some of them, and green paint in jars or plastic containers on the floor. There are more drips, the spore of an absentee automatism, around the containers, floor and a crusted easel.
On one wall is Volet’s large painting, The Yiddish Theatre. The painting reminds me, though only in retrospect, of Guston’s paintings of boys enacting peculiar rituals in the guises of games. Or Ben Shahn’s wonderful illustration of two boys facing each other in a wood with masks on, close enough to hear one another breathing. Also, Picasso’s old blue-period painting of a boy leading a horse without reins: something is happening so that the painting is showing without telling, a pictorial mystery as to how it’s accomplished. It turns out that the old photograph Volet used for the painting (“I don’t know how long I’ve been carrying that picture around for”) is of dummies posed in a reenactment of folk theater, making his effort an animate rendering of false players.
In a recent interview, Volet argued that a picture constructed from a photograph might be just as much a work of Surrealism as might an automatistic abstraction. There is something about the image that became The Yiddish Theatre that looks definitively ‘found’, perhaps by virtue of still bearing unmistakable traces of having been at some point lost. Coincidentally, Volet and I end up talking about that famous picture of loss, Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother, and also some of Gorky’s other pictures (and titles): The Water of the Flowery Mill, The Plough and the Song and of course, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb. Aren’t these barnyard abstractions really some exile’s recollection of folk theatre?
The painting has more and less layered areas: a thin dragging fringe of broad strokes traces the hem of one actor above a shadow that has dark, dumpy curves like a ladleful of jam. The shadow adjacent to a figure’s whittled profile looks like a sculpture of a speech bubble, carved with a hatchet and cast in grey rubber. Thin contour lines of canvas leak out between broad, open tones of flattish black. The grey scale, he says, helps with the deliberateness of the composition, and in this context it also reminds me of a passage from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red:
“Depression is one of the unknown modes of being.
There are no words for a world without a self, seen with impersonal clarity.
All language can register is the slow return
to oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape
and habit blurs perception and language
takes up its routine flourishes.”
Volet was interested in drawing and graffiti as a teenager, and one day saw a painting show of Noah Becker’s in the old Winchester Gallery. It is the first instance he can recall of the experience of seeing a painting as something contemporary. He called Becker up. Becker advised him to look up ‘a surrealist hermit’ who turned out to be Glenn Howarth, RCA. Howarth offered instruction, in Volet’s words, of “praxis,” or how to make a painting. For instance: lay the paint on in patches of juxtaposed value rather than in lines, difficult because Volet sees himself as “an artist especially reliant on line.”(It seems true… in Volet’s sketchbook, a foot of a figure whose instep and arch are delivered with Pre-Columbian buoyancy.) Howarth also encouraged him to freely associate between forms and images. At university years later, where Volet claims to have been a “stubborn autodidact”, Sandra Meigs supplied the other half of the chance/construction formula, encouraging Volet to diagram and plan his work.
Me: “What do you think a painting is for?”
EV: “What, do you mean, for the viewer?”
Me: “Sure, I guess, since we’ve both been to art school and had those conversations about the viewer”
EV: “When you’re in here, and I’m in here, and we’re looking at this, I don’t know – are we the viewer?”
As we sit regarding the medium-large painting in the compact space, Volet is talking about Kafka, and notes the way that so many of the events in Kafka’s stories happen in “confined spaces.” Walter Benjamin wrote that Kafka’s characters pace on narrow rugs dreaming of a racetrack; the analogy is to something Kafka called the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Hearing Volet talk – about Alfred Jarry (whom he painted riding a bicycle) about Surrealism, about Jan Jan Švankmajer’s films or Max Beckmann’s compositions or Mircea Eliade’s ideas about myth – turns the studio itself into a sort of premise or precipice for thinking about art and cultural history as a training ground for theater-sports of memory. His selection of found photos for paintings obeys laws of chance, but is the carrying around of the photo, letting it get wrinkled and acquire new, incidental but assignable history, a history of perambulation, also important?
Volet describes the arrangements artists make with other artists, past and present, as “a ricocheting dialogue.” I am interested in whether contemporary painters whose use of style and content undertake past art historical moments (Kai Althoff, or Peter Doig, or Neo Rauch) are -if not allegorizing art-making as cultural memory as a return of the repressed- thematizing it within painting. What Volet delineates in our conversation seems more tactile and gracious. His expressed interest in ceremonial time, the time of ritual that connects a person to a larger continuity of collective memory, seems important in this regard. Can the reenactments of the studio, of Bohemian movements and subcultures, and the shabby, immediate theater they construct around themselves, be read as a sustaining congruity with a meaningful collective experience?
Talking with Volet, I am curious to note how many familiar landmarks of the Victoria arts scene he seems to have had contact with, and the continuum that is conjured up in the way he references past teachers and influences. The overarching impression I have is that what might be mistaken for naïve anachronism or nostalgia in his work is instead the conscientious cultivation of a coincidence of affiliation. In conversation, he mentions Aimé Césaire as a Surrealist who never meant to be a Surrealist. When we talk about Antonin Artaud, he refers to an essay by Susan Sontag that argues in favour of reading without being sure one understands the text. In The Yiddish Theatre, the signs made by his characters are multivalent but grave, though those who enact them seem only half serious or sure of their roles: it’s painterly fatalism that relates them at last as the found objects of a misplaced history.