Caught in the Throes of Absence (Part I)
By Tom Wachunas
“…How was this possible that he was living a life that had a delete button which, once pressed, forever lost information about self?”
- Marcy Axelband
EXHIBIT: Tangled Memories, new work by Marcy Axelband and Michele Waalkes, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH MARCH 29. Gallery hours Wed. – Sat. Noon to 5 p.m.
This exhibit is both a journey and a journal. It is a heart-rending articulation - in paintings, photographs and mixed media - from two very accomplished local artists who have witnessed the devastating spiral of their fathers into Alzheimer’s disease. Both Marcy Axelband and Michele Wallkes provide deeply affecting written observations – an eloquent mix of reverence and trepidation - with each of their works.
After just a few minutes into my first visit to the show (there has since been a second, with a third viewing immanent), I knew it merited a two-part commentary. And so I begin with Marcy Axelband.
If painting and written language can be regarded as analogous, Axelband’s visual language is not so much a delicate or florid poetry as it is a particularly muscular, arresting brand of prose. Her painterly vocabulary is steeped in bold color and robust gestural physicality. And to continue the analogy, she’s bilingual – equally fluent in her distinctive styles of representational and abstract imagery.
Look closely at the surface of her paintings. There’s a history both underneath and on top of the finished “skin” of the images - ghosts of brush strokes, subtle ridges and furrows painted over, colors cut or scratched through. For as much as they are pictures of people, ideas or feelings, they are also records of a process, a progressive series of decisions, and I think a fitting metaphor for the longing of a child to understand the torturous progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Paintings such as My Dad and Jolly have a sculpted presence. In this context, the portraits present solid remembrances of better times. In contrast, the painting called A Life Forgotten is a startling portrait of the frowning father with eyes closed, seemingly adrift in a sea of lost connections, represented by a scattering of printed words and phrases floating on a black field (like a chalkboard). It’s a sad litany of once known facts and functions now on the verge of disappearing completely, and an otherwise jarring manifestation of absent consciousness.
Two of the abstract pieces exude a rueful urgency while complementing each other in a haunting way. There’s a sepulchral aura of finality in the enigmatic Tangled Memories, symbolizing perhaps the inaccessibility of a damaged brain. On the other hand, on the wall opposite that painting, Torment is an aptly named explosion of slashed colors and corrupted shapes. This too is a portrait of sorts, depicting an eviscerated consciousness, and suggests a question of identity: Whose consciousness? Is Marcy’s father consciously aware of “torment” in the sense that we, unafflicted with Alzheimer’s, understand the word? What exactly is he cognizant of? This could just as well be Marcy Axelband’s self-portrait as an anguished daughter, desperately wanting to explain the inexplicable.
For all of the tactile, visceral solidity that her canvas surfaces possess, there is a poignant transparency and evanescent spirit to this body of work. Call it pathos materialized.
PHOTOS (from top): The Family; Jolly; Tangled Memories; Torment; A Life Forgotten