After the Place
by Julia Teale
Before embarking on what turned out to be a deeply complex engagement with Janice Rabie’s body of painting titled “After the Place”, it is worth framing the following reflections on her work by stating the following: These works represent a journey that begins bleakly and ends with the sort of radiance that has something of the quality that we see in those who have relinquished their fretting about the existential questions that dog us as humans, turning instead to gently observe the garrulous world and the silent earth – leaving us to muse, as we must, over what they mean. This leaves Rabie as painter free to play between two telling images – buildings - that can be taken to represent the man-made world, and mountains - that can be taken to represent brute nature. But for now enough has been said and a journey through the works should begin.
Inner City (2009) and Grey City (2010) are two of the earlier of Janice Rabie’s recent works that mark a journey for the painter that begins with the spatial coordinates of a Kafkaesque nightmare. These are the sorts of places the unfortunate Joseph K got lost in, airless and alienating, the restricted, predominantly grey palette and the stark, urban compositions speaking of an unsympathetic and hostile modern world, ruled by an authoritarian system that is both remote and inaccessible. When the mountains do appear in these works, such as Skyscrapers (2009), the rude upward thrust of the buildings causes the mountains to shrink back, speaking to an arrogance that is blind and overwhelming. These works tell us that nature and everything else or other cower before the brute domination of a cruelly defined and ideologically definite world.
In 2010, a radical, and very sudden shift in her painting dismisses the relentlessly dehumanized spaces of the earlier works. In Blue Façade and Façade of 2010, the layered, refracted and reflected surfaces of buildings are at once seductively beautiful and profoundly disorientating. Within them the mountain is reflected, bizarrely fragmenting and dispersing its monolithic presence, effectively throwing the binaries of earth and world, of nature and culture into subtle and luminous disarray. That these works provocatively elude becoming anything certain suggests a more complex, generous and happier world on the brink of being realized.
However, accompanying these works, paintings such as St. Peter’s (2010), signal the impossibility of this project and remind us that any attempt to bring a new, kinder world into being, reasserts the binaries that hold us hostage in our particularly human cognitive process that through language brings the world into being. Heraclites of Ephesus was the first to articulate this concept of the unity of opposites:
The path up and down are one and the same.
They would not have known the name of justice if these [unjust things] did not exist.
Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger [does the same for] satiety, weariness [for] rest.
In the aftermath of the joyous dance that marked Blue Façade and Façade, the mountains and buildings pull back from one another, and that they are of the same scale in relation to one another suggests the possibility of an equalizing of power, a balancing of scales – but the works no longer have any sense of the open playfulness found in those two works. In Mountain City (2009), Building Mountain (2010) and Face-off (2010), a portentous stillness is introduced into the paintings where mountain and building seem locked into an interminable gaze. Initially one may be tempted to read into them the ‘green’ politics that are currently gaining momentum globally, what with debates raging about global warming and all that goes with it. Of course, this reading is readily aided and abetted by the general sense, these days, that we have alarmingly and irreparably damaged our relationship to the mother, Earth, and are seeking to make amends for the arrogant ‘husbanding’ of her resources, recognizing her power as equal to, if not greater than, our own.1
However the immense subtlety of Rabie’s paintings demand much more than cursory glances and easy assumptions. St. Peter’s (2010), shows a tired and faded dome and hazy, indistinct mountain dominated by a clear and dark shaft of building aggressively cutting into the left field of the composition, containing within it an equally strongly painted rendering of mountain. This shaft leans forward and the dome of St. Peter’s shrinks back. Considering the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral as standing for the old world, the thrust of the modern building could then stand for the new world, a world that sees itself not in opposition to nature, but rather as having completely assimilated it. These differentials between the disparate elements are calibrated in such a way as to introduce the viewer to infinitely more complex and perhaps even treacherous meditations on reality and meaning that are slowly unfolded in the works hereupon.
In Grid, Face-off and Big Face-off of 2010, in the reflecting, netting, devouring of earth (mountains, nature) by the world (buildings, culture), the idea of the balance between opposites goes awry and perhaps we can find in the following assertion from Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art a way to negotiate this reading:
World and earth are essentially different from one another and yet are never separated. The world grounds itself on the earth, and earth juts through world. Yet the relation between world and earth does not wither away into the empty unity of opposites unconcerned with one another. The world, in resting upon the earth, strives to surmount it. As self-opening it cannot endure anything closed. The earth, however, as sheltering and concealing, tends always to draw the world into itself and keep it there.
For those that would have the buildings represent world, in juxtaposition to earth, as represented by the mountains, it is Big Face-off (2012) that entertains this fantasy. The composition is simple: on the left the mountain rises without foundation, and on the right the building which is of equal height and is also without foundation, mirrors it. Each is ungrounded. Yet inside the building, framed in such a way that both forms are contained within it, we have the same building and mountain, with one subtle difference: On the outside of the building, earth and world, as represented in the world of this painting as a whole, are equals, yet, in the building’s fantasy (contained within it) it is slightly higher than the mountain and thus placed above the earth. Thus the world elevates itself, without foundation, above earth. Within the idea of mastery, world has always believed in its masterful position in relation to earth, and this is in some sense true: but as elicited in this painting, one sees that the master is, in fact, also enslaved, but less apparently so, by his servant.2
The mountains, resolutely unreflective, are reflected by the shiny surfaces of the buildings, exposing the emptiness of the world that presumes itself to be full, and thus generous. While both mountain and building loom massive, the sharp, polished hygiene of the buildings seem to swallow the mountains into their sterile guts in an orgy of desire, but the mountains cannot be digested, transformed or surmounted, nor can the buildings, as revealed by the refusal of the indifferent mountains in their stubborn opacity. Thus, the place of world is empty, existing only in form. What is cunningly suggested here is that, without the articulation of the world, the ostensible relation between world and earth would not exist, however, at the same time we are shown that the world is nothing more than our articulations of it and therefore does not exist. The world then, is precisely the entire backdrop, the foundation upon which this articulation of the relation between world and earth is built: it is not shown and in not being shown it suggests the actual (terrifying) absence of the world, the world which we have to conjure, and which, as such, is ours [mine] alone.
Rabie’s exquisite rendering of veils of light and colour infuses the buildings and the surrounding space with an almost romantic sense of the sublime, lending them something of the power invested in the Christian tabernacle which it is believed holds secure the “Real Presence” of the Holy Spirit. However both of these objects are empty. While the Tabernacle is deliberately opaque so as to prevent the “Real Presence” being defiled by what we might refer to as the logic of the gaze, the luminous, reflective surfaces of the skyscraper are a pretence that there is, ironically, “nothing” to hide, suggesting its fictitious fullness by reflecting back at us the emptiness of the “substance” that caused them to be built. Thus these objects call upon our tacit need for them to be full of meaning, if actually full of nothing. It is in these that we reveal our insecurity with being human and with being mortal and thus blindly trust in what cannot be founded in actuality.
Before continuing, it may be useful to think of world as Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail. In order for the world to exist, it must perpetually generate and simultaneously devour itself in order to avoid encountering the gap between existing (worldliness) and not existing (or simply being earth). This may explain the tension, that arouses a certain anxiety in the viewer, between the building and the mountains, as though they are pushing against each other, but neither moves the other. (Can it be that the very gap that is perceived between them is what holds the world in place?) The anxiety is such in the strict Lacanian sense: it is honest, it cannot lie, but it also does not tell/point - it does not show its cause, does not expose itself and therefore cannot exist as a problem able to be overcome. The root of the anxiety evades diagnosis.
It is the opacity of the relation between the buildings and mountains that reveals that both are earth. That which is spontaneously read as standing for world, and as such satisfying our desire for the gentle balance and reassurance of the unity of the opposites, is in fact fugitive; in the opacity of their relation to the mountains, the buildings perform the same relentless retreat that we now know earth to, and in the place where world ought to be held, instead there is again earth.3 The place for world is the same emptiness (as earth). The repetition of earth in mountains and earth in buildings is precisely what points us to the impotence of those grand gestures: that they cannot escape earth, it is not even that all our attempts to hold earth in the openness of world fail, it is that our attempts to formalize world are impotent and fail to escape earth.4 It is perhaps in works such as Götterdämmerung (2013), where the mountain overwhelms the building that no longer even reflects anything, that the futility of bargaining a difference to the earth is admitted.
Before submitting to what might be read as the nihilistic tone of this interpretation, it is worth considering Rabie’s works again. The delicate and luminous light and colour that infuse her paintings after 2010 and the rendering of the buildings as towers suffused by light lend them a sense of transcendent beauty that provides a gentle, but unbalancing nudge to the central and somewhat uneasy and anxious quality of the work.
It is the last of these paintings that appear to gracefully concede to the world as just that, ideas that form about things in relation to other things and thus make them recognizable within the ephemeral and restless ghost that is the world - the world as the work of cognition, and thus endlessly generating the meanings and perceptions of existence.
We can see here that the earth does not need to know that it exists and is indifferent to our ontological naggings that try to make sense of the anxiety we feel. We can see too, that world or the things we identify therein are nothing more than earth too – to bring them into the world we have to both see them and then see them again in relation to everything else. Thus both the mountains and buildings address this particular understanding of being, and humans are both the masters and slaves of the constructions of world as experienced by each of us in our own worlds and those we share. So, as worldly creatures, as with Ouroboros, the painter must continue to paint and the philosopher must continue to think or, as Slavoj Zizek once remarked, “if I stop talking the world might end.”
There is a delicious capitulation of world in the last works of this series, seen particularly in The Canyon (2013) and Known Unknowns (2014). Here the emptiness of the world is gently acknowledged and its vestigial, ghostly presence drifts over and into earth. Thus Rabie’s work performs precisely as painting should. It does not tell, it does not opine, it refuses in its openness to be closed and is therefore resolutely of the world. What it does do is take us to that barely discernible horizon, the source of our deepest anxieties that we perceive as the gap between the earth and the world. This gap, most certainly for want of a better word, defies definition, while being that on which the being of the world depends. Some try to name this the abyss, the thing, the gap, some the Absolute, others God and yet others, nothing at all. These quietly thoughtful and compelling works hold us there until our desire to name and thus be worldly becomes unbearable and then words must prevail, again.
1. Despite the increasing violence of natural forces and the overpopulation by humans of the planet’s land-mass, we are still convinced that we can master her, perhaps more kindly, by introducing ‘green’ consumption – a wonderful self-deception that demonstrates the construction of the idea of Nature by World, thus being something to be remade at will.
2. The master-slave relationship is an idea forged by a number of thinkers including Jacques Lacan who based his theory of the “Discourse of the Master” on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.
3. On the retreat of earth, Heidegger says in The Origin of the Work of Art: “[Earth]… shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth thus shatters every attempt to penetrate it. It causes every merely calculating importunity upon it to turn into a destruction. This destruction may herald itself under the appearance of mastery and of progress in the form of technical-scientific objectification of nature, but this mastery nevertheless remains an impotence of will. The earth appears openly cleared as itself only when it is perceived and preserved as that which is essentially undisclosable, that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up.”
4. Escaping earth is another way of referring to the desire for transcendence and thus immortality that is a foundational drive of western thinking, whether expressed philosophically or theologically. The binaries with which we have made our world arrange opposites on a kind of sliding scale between earth and world. Not surprisingly these are also gendered as is God (father) and Earth (mother). Hence, most corporeal things are female, such as ships, and ideas are male, explaining the valorization of male thought over female thought. Within this too, feeling, especially via the senses, is female and seen as inferior to rational thinking which is celebrated for its objectivity – in other words, not sullied by feeling. The celebration of the idea is that it can continue without the physical body of the maker – thus it can be deemed transcendent and immortal.