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The Universal Prison

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THE JUDGMENT OF PAINTING

Elizam Escobar

at Prospectus, through April 18

Mainstream art has become increasingly concerned with educating the public on the social and political issues of the moment. In such a climate it may come as a surprise that an artist who is also a committed political activist might see the function of art as something quite different. Elizam Escobar has written, "Art should go against all ideological reductions and all political repression or impositions. . . . art is a constant exercise of liberation and freedom. Where the Being writes or is delirious over his dreams and real experience." Perhaps the truths of art are not the same as the truths of the political arena; perhaps an art made from its own truth, from the imagination of an individual who has lived and dreamed and suffered, can pass judgment in a way that art attached to a cause can never do.

Just such a critical art comes to us in the form of 15 large, dark acrylic paintings and 6 small self-portrait photo paintings, all done between 1989 and 1992. And they come to us from prison. Escobar is now entering the 14th year of a 68-year sentence in a federal prison in Oklahoma for "seditious conspiracy"--for being a member of the FALN and dedicating his life to the independence of his country, Puerto Rico. Escobar has also dedicated his life to art, however--and these paintings have nothing to say about the "issues" of Puerto Rican independence and political imprisonment. Precisely because they do not set out to do that, they condemn and judge more harshly a society that can colonize and imprison a small nation and its people. The Puerto Rican activist and the artist are inseparable in all the works on exhibit.

In 1989, Escobar wrote in a letter from prison, "I finished my last painting for the exhibit. I am possessed by it in a way that makes me think only about painting and painting pictures one after the other without interruptions. . . . I will have to wait for that (sublimation?) as I will have to wait for so many other things." In this letter he was speaking of a painting Juego de cartas ("Game of Cards") that is the first of a series of seven hung in sequence on one wall at Prospectus. Game of Cards is based on a painting of the same title by Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski, a Polish artist born in Paris in 1908) and incorporates images from another Balthus painting, The Living Room. Each of the paintings in Escobar's series repeats the four images in the two Balthus paintings. In the first of the series, the two cardplayers are playing at a table. The man on the left is kneeling on a chair, clutching the edge of the table with his right hand and clasping his cards to his chest with his left. He faces the spectator, his expression wary, yet his suspicious glance seems to secretly dart toward the face of the other player as if to read her hand. She sits rigidly in her chair, laying a card on the table. She has the upper hand we are sure, because we feel that however hard he tries to penetrate that blank stare he never will. They are frozen in a silent struggle to the death. The two figures from Balthus's painting The Living Room are a reclining figure sleeping on a couch and a woman kneeling on the floor drawing.

As the "narrative" develops in Escobar's series, the four figures divide and multiply, creating mirror images of themselves, as in Conspiracion ("Conspiracy"). They also move from the beautiful in El sueno ("The Dream") to the grotesque in La pugna del ser ("The Struggle of Being"), from exquisite dream to paranoid nightmare: all four characters are playing out a clandestine drama in a dark and claustrophobic space under a naked light bulb. A drama eternally interrupted by the spectator, at whom the characters seem to stare with condemnation. They judge us and condemn us from necropolis and from hell. They are the citizens of a phantom country incarcerated in the house of the dead, where their powerlessness is expressed in the playing of cards without cards. Jean Genet in his Prisoner of Love (recounting the time he spent among Palestinian soldiers) constantly returns to the image of the fedayeen cardplayers, who played without cards; Genet refers to it as "a kind of dry masturbation." "The card players, their hands full of ghosts, knew that however handsome they were, their actions perpetuated a game with neither beginning nor end. Absence was in their hands just as it was under their feet."

These seven paintings also speak of powerlessness and absence. Anyone who has experienced periods of forced isolation or extreme loneliness will remember the others--those alter egos, wraiths, and specters--who shared the experience with us, the endless dialogue between the two halves of ourselves and all the mental conversations with absent lovers, friends, and enemies, the letters we wrote but never sent. Maybe this is why the citizens in Escobar's paintings sometimes play their "game of cards" with letters (cartas in Spanish means both "letters" and "cards"). Letters are the main instrument of dialogue between those inside prison and those outside. They can communicate in ways people dare not do face-to-face. But letters can be hazardous too: they have a way of changing their meaning in the mail; something steals the words. They're often open to entirely different interpretations from one reading to the next. Letters are, after all, the indiscreet instrument of paranoid dialogue.

In one of the last paintings in the series, La seduccion del condenado ("The Seduction of the Condemned"), the narrative seems to change. The reference to a game of cards is less clear, but paranoid confrontation with the audience remains. In this painting we see two images that recur in Escobar's work in recent years: a hanged man and musical instruments without strings. These images are also evident in the other paintings in this exhibition: La otra ("The Other"), El juicio de Ana Cronia ("Ana Cronia's Judgment"), El velorio ("The Wake"), and El ahorcado ("The Hanged"). In La seduccion del condenado, sham musicians replace sham cardplayers--just as they happen to do in Genet's book: "The music was real, but the guitar was not, and its absence reminded me of the game of cards played with non-cards." The obsession with absence remains. Card games without cards. Music without guitars. Letters without replies. Friendship without friends. Sex without partners. The frustration wrought by our powerlessness in daily life, always played out symbolically in dreams, must be more intense in the colony or in the prison, where the condemned cannot exercise control over even the most trivial aspects of their lives.

In a sense, Escobar's series may be less a progression than a constant struggle to return to the experience that inspired the first painting: repeated attempts to create a painting that corresponds to an inner vision. That starting point is probably a real or imagined experience of love or hope. Obsession is born in the tension between the drive to change and the desire to hold still at the moment when love approaches--never to let it go, but to keep painting and painting until you can return to that moment and be locked within it forever. This, I think, is the solitude in which Escobar paints.

But paintings are also creations that go out into the world and acquire new meanings in a process of sensual dialogue with the viewer. Which is why artists who understand that the work of art is not fixed at the point of completion but continues to live in the world never wish to discuss the "meaning" of their work. Whatever Escobar's intentions, his paintings are always confrontational. This is the judgment of painting, this assault on the viewer that condemns but is also sad, ironic, and grotesque. It has something to do with the way they're painted. The lack of spatial depth in any of the works (with the possible exception of Thanatos y Eros) means that no receding perspective draws us gently into their world. The characters in the drama, these citizens of the phantom country, are forced to the front of the painting, frozen on the threshold of the spectator's world. Masked or unmasked, they are rarely seen to interact, as if the viewer's intrusion cannot be tolerated and the rituals repeated by the citizens must never be imparted to us.

Ivan Silen, the Puerto Rican poet, has written, "The war of liberation has not ended, it has simply detained itself to dream momentaneously in the paintings of Elizam Escobar. . . . The Citizens of the Phantom Country simply are standing . . . waiting." And we are waiting for so many things, among those we can define: waiting for liberation, waiting for political prisoners to be freed, waiting for true art to be returned from its exile to the margins. As Guy Davenport wrote in his A Balthus Notebook, "If modernism ended by trivializing its revolution (conspicuous novelty displacing creativity), it also has a new life awaiting it in a retrospective survey of what it failed to include in its sense of itself."

The majority of easel paintings today are made as harmless, reassuring decoration for the living rooms of the middle classes, which is why so many artists have turned away from painting. And why Escobar's exhibition is possibly the most important painting exhibition to have been seen in Chicago for a long time. It reminds us that whatever the limitations of painting in this era, when it liberates the imagination it has a more profound effect on the viewer than any of the technologically innovative works in the service of "issues" found in mainstream art. In Escobar's exhibition prison comes to us, not as his specific experience, but as a universal, part of a common drama of the human condition. It's impossible to see this exhibition and not be haunted by it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Kelly.

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