Sweating the Small Stuff

A painter who proves his ability to render the human form competently has flashed me a valid passport.

                                                                                                           William T. Vollman. Imperial.

Vollman had asserted the above in, it had seemed to Goshkin, a digressive discussion of the work of Mark Rothko, about one-sixth of the way through a 1200-page study of the exploitation and ruination of the land and people in and around a geographically inexact region encompassing both sides of the California-Mexico border. This study itself had seemed primarily digression, though digression as an all-encompassing, all-swallowing, all-explaining miasma of fact, fiction and surmise. His point, Vollman’s, that a painter who hadn’t mastered this basic aspect of drawing could not be trusted when he elected to communicate through “blotches and squiggles” seemed a bit close-mindedly retrograde but perhaps held a truth. We were all but human, Goshkin knew from 77-years of being, the last eight of which having been particularly instructive since his badly damaged heart had made every day of them a constantly informative surprise; and if a painter, whose job it has been since the Renaissance was to get us on canvas, could not be bothered to learn to render limbs and noses, he might arguably lack the connection to deliver any knowledge worth sharing about our cradle-to-grave existence.

And it seemed a matter of near-divine cosmic connivance that Goshkin had come to this passage only the evening before Ruth and he were to visit an exhibition of the “micro-paintings” of Guy Colwell at Berkeley’s East Bay Media Center[1] for, aside from an art school flirtation with abstraction, Colwell had made the human form, in service to a commitment to social justice, the central plank of his half-century career. “Figurative social surrealism,” he termed it. You could believe in Colwell’s people, and, as Vollman wrote, they could transport you across borders.

The Center occupied space in a brick building in a rejuvenated – some would say, gentrified – pocket of downtown. Auto body shops had given way to theater companies. Parking garages, one of whose roosting pigeons, Goshkin knew from experience, had regularly spattered vehicles-in-residence, had been replaced by  jazz and folk clubs. A former five-and-dime sold books. Trees and sculpture and poems embedded in brass brightened sidewalks long accustomed to chewing gum.

“I wonder what to expect,” Ruth said. “What I’d liked about his gigantic canvasses was all the life going on. Will he be reproducing details from them?”

“Miniatures,” Goshkin said, with all the authority of one who has done his research at Wikipedia, “became prominent in 16th century England and France. Usually, enamel-on-copper or watercolor-on-ivory.”

“I wouldn’t expect Colwell to use ivory,” Ruth said. “On Friends of Wildlife grounds alone.”

“People gave them as gifts, both personal and political. They were big as playing card or small as an inch by an inch-and-a-half. They were framed and hung on walls or inserted in lockets or snuff boxes. And when photographs came along, the market collapsed.”

“I could see distribution now as high end stash boxes, powders and pills, maybe statins and anti-depressants.”

In 1968, Colwell was sentenced to two years imprisonment for draft resistance. After his release, his life had become a blend of activism and art. He reported on political trials for leftist newspapers. He marched against wars and nuclear proliferation. His underground comix explored revolution and sex. His canvasses delved into racial conflict, income inequality, and ecological devastation. His paintings became so provocative that one gallery owner reported that her premises had been trashed and that she had been assaulted for showing them. But though his commitment to confrontation did not wane, his work became welcomed by galleries in Los Angeles, Marin County, and San Francisco.

Colwell came to miniatures in the early ‘90s, when the cartoonist Jay Kinney commissioned one for his wife, who collected doll houses. She was so pleased that she ordered more for other homes in her collection. Colwell enjoyed minis as a break from his more serious, more time-consuming canvasses, and they became an attractive, more affordable item  to offer customers at exhibits. He also sold them on-line, where, it turned out, his comix treatment of sex had created a market for his nudes.   

Now more than three dozen micros hung in a more-or-less straight line around the Center’s walls, in strings of six or a dozen, with gaps between. “I had nothing like this in mind,” Ruth said. “What a surprise! What a delight! They look like light switches turned into paintings, except, instead of light going on in the room, light goes on in your retina. Thoroughly delicious. A Whitman’s Sampler of the beautiful, the strange, and the erotic.”

Colwell’s were more mini than his 16th century predecessors. A half-inch by a half-inch was the norm. Oil- or acrylic-on-canvas, attached to a plastic supporting sheet, sometimes wood. Each sat at the center of a handmade frame, themselves works-of-art, a series of ever-smaller, ever-narrowing, different colored rectangles, forcing vision onto the image at its core. Each piece could take days of intense work, magnifying glass in one hand, sharp-tipped brush in the other, rendering each precisely executed detail. Eye and hair. Foot and claw. The mastery of technique was inspiring. The devotion to vision commendable. The miniature zeroed in on the consequential. But, embarrassingly, Goshkin’s first association was to a tiny yellow plastic telescope purchased, without parental awareness, when he was ten. When you peeked, a naked lady winked. He strove to cleanse his brain. Be here now, he thought.

For the most part, the issues on display were limited. (It could be “social realism” was better left to full-size canvasses, posters and murals.) One African-American working man rode a bus; but, for the most part, fauna solo (“Swallowtail,” “Macaw,” “Anglefish”) or man-with-beast (“Woman and Grizzly,” “Girl and Lion,” “Man and Chimp,” the man humorously holding a banana and the chimp a book ) were on display. Works of this type, especially the couples, were basic to Colwell’s oeuvre, and, like in his larger work, the message rang out. All we creatures, great and small, are on the same sinking boat, whipsawed between fire and flood – and, the Bible notwithstanding, we were out of next-times.

Colwell had never striven to penetrate the inner lives of the figures he depicted. It was enough if one recognized they were homeless or hungry or underpaid. It was enough if they held the viewer’s eye while the brain absorbed the concern which had led him to apply pigment to canvas in the first place. The absence of other issues from the agenda did not disturb Goshkin. If you, as he did, gave Earth 20-, 30-, maybe 80-years, then, really, the environment was the only issue. If man could not get that right, he could forget the rest.

He wondered to what extent the certainty of his own forthcoming doom facilitated his ability to conceive of the planet’s. That he would not see 20 more years did not mean it would not abide for ten times that. Where did art fit into this? Where did commitment to its processes? If you recognized all devastations, what profiteth it you to call attention to them and go on? Each of us sees a different version of the same world, the Buddhists say, based on what’s already inside us. With that, he could not argue.

Their next stop was the gym. He would hit the heavy bag he could not deck. Ruth would climb the Stairmaster whose summit she would not reach. Exercise lay bricks against incoming tides. The futile effort sustained.

They stopped for a light.

“I can’t decide who to give which to,” Ruth said. “Everyone could use a little Colwell in their lives.”

To their left had been the garage where the pigeons roosted. It had held a dozen spots; the hourly rate had been below average. But each time he’d entered to retrieve his car, he had dreaded what he would find deposited where. The Buddhists said, Love the world as it is. The Utilitarians said, Each act should do the most good for others. Did he have sufficient time to find an answer for himself on this continuum?

Then he had merely elected to park where shit did not fall.

[1]. Now through Jan. 31, 2020, followed by a March showing at the Fantagraphic Bookstore in Seattle.