In 1957 Iris Murdock wrote that, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.” I would like to take Murdock’s observation quite literally when considering Jessie Edelman’s Day Gazer compositions depicting a woman turned from away from us, the painting’s viewers, and staring instead into brilliantly colored landscapes. But first I would like to call attention to a standard bearer painting, a work that I return to again and again when thinking about the importance of boredom, attention, and longing. It is “Odysseus and Calypso” (1883) by Arnold Böcklin. Hanging in the Kunstmuseum Basel, it is a spectral scene depicting a dark and shrouded Odysseus staring out over the sea into a dense gray fog. It also depicts the nude sea nymph Calypso who reclines seductively between rocky outcrops. She represents the promise of immortality, eternal youth, and endless love as long as Odysseus remains with her on the remote Island. Yet he turns away from his lover, staring outward into the seascape, bored and longing for his life in Ithaca.
As in Böcklin’s Odysseus and the many travelers in Casper David Friedrich’s landscapes, Edelman too examines the suspension of time as represented by figures gazing away from the space in which they are pictorially situated. Bodies are firmly located in compositions and their gazes are unambiguously directed at the landscape stationed in front of their bodies. Yet in Edelman’s paintings the landscape is framed as a representation of a landscape, a complex synthesis of Picasso’s window-space, a-painting-within-a-painting trope, and the contemporary impulse to orientate oneself toward screens. Nonetheless, the subject of Edelman’s paintings is foremost the subject of attention and the slowing down of time. And ironically, time and attention is a subject that the viewer can never fully experience in these works, despite having an empirical grasp of the figure contour and the landscape on which it gazes.
What makes Edelman’s subject especially compelling is that her concentration on attention is also an indictment on contemporary value systems. And in an “age of distraction” our frequent distractibility suggests we are regularly baffled about what to value. “The moralist will say that one has to carve out this space for oneself resolutely, against the noise, and that to fail to rise to this task of evaluation is to give oneself over to nihilism, in which all distractions are leveled and all meaning gives way to mere “information,” notes cultural scholar Matthew Crawford in his recent study probing our “age of distraction.” Returning to Iris Murdock’s quote, I would suggest that Edelman’s figures, if taken literally are engaging in an ethical act. They are, like Odysseus paying attention to their own thoughts as they gaze outward. They are not seeking distraction but are occupied with contemplation. They are not killing time but protracting it. The fact is that Edelman’s woman may be bored, or daydreaming, or in deep reflection. We may never know. But what they are thinking and feeling is less important then what they are not doing, and that is pursuing diversions from their own thoughts. These paintings are declarations of discipline. And they are vividly bewildering at that. One hundred years ago a reposed female figure staring into the landscape was a familiar genre in painting. Pictures of leisure underscored relationship to class, delivering canvases expounding on notions of beauty and social hierarchy. Today the act of staring at anything other than a flatscreen for long stretches of time is exotic, not commonplace.
Edelman’s painting influences, are a conflation of late 19th and early 20th century French artists including Cezanne, Gauguin, Bonnard, Matisse engaged in exuberant integrations of figures and landscape. Her exulted color, brisk brushwork and flattening perspectives are also sourced from various modernist compositions. Yet Edelman inserts another figure between the female and the landscape, and that is painting, or a sort of simulation of landscape. Thus her framing conceit confuses where the gazing figure is located: an interior, a nondescript exterior, a public commons, a private space, or a combination? Those are 21st century questions and questions unique to the conditions shaping contemporary image culture. There are historical incongruities in Edelman’s paintings as well as spatial ambiguities. The garments donning the female figures are stylistically distinct from the 19th century landscape paintings she is quoting. A stutter between a figure in a contemporary dress and a Cezanne-like seascape suggests that time and history is as fantastical as the thoughts spinning in her figure’s head.
“Attention is the thing that is most one’s own: in the normal course of things, we choose what to pay attention to, and in a very real sense this determines what is real for us: what is actually present to our consciousness,” writes Crawford. Edelman gives women the power of attention in her paintings, highlighting Virginia Woolf’s “imaginatively she is of the highest importance.” It is only at the height of attention that the imagination can flourish. And whether or not Edelman’s women are looking at a landscape or into a landscape, at a picture of a landscape or a digital projection, they are actively making sense of the world in their own heads, each figure engaged in the ethics of attention.