SMALL MEMORIES, QUIET DREAMS
by Peter Frank
No doubt but that
the crux of Maggie Hasbrouck’s art resides in the image. Not in the
subject, not in the picture, and certainly not in the form, but in
the image – the apparition of recognizable things in contexts that
divorce them from extrinsic “meaning.” No landscape, interior, or
other narrative embellishment contains the figures and objects
maintaining at the core of Hasbrouck’s painting/photographs. (The
artworks are sourced in photographs, but are scaled and textured as
paintings.) The girls and boys and animals, the devices and
furnishings hovering in what seems to be an old-master gloom, seem
whole light years and mindsets removed from environments or
backgrounds that would force us to read them a particular way.
Indeed, the luminous, even immanent murk enveloping these beings so
unmoors them from conventional pictoriality as to permit each of us
a grand, even vertigo-inducing breadth of interpretation. Here,
viewers are not simply invited to “know” the work according to their
own experiences, but have responsibility for knowing the work fairly
foisted on them.
Hasbrouck sets in motion a chain reaction of subjective response.
She chooses the protagonists, and disposes them in each work,
according to what must be arbitrary decisions – decisions informed
by a clearly coherent personal symbology, but designed, if anything,
to protect that symbology from quick decipherment. The recurrence of
particular things – birdcages, for example, wielded by a number of
the human figures in the most recent works – prompts one’s
attention: they are clues to a meaning, to a narrative thread, at
the very least to a system of motifs, and motives, that might
contain Hasbrouck’s message. But the message, finally, is not borne
by these props, or even by the gestures of the people wielding them;
indeed, it is not conveyed even by more persistent factors, such as
the youth of those people (few, if any, have reached puberty).
Hasbrouck’s message, however much it may be informed by such factors
– they are not negligible, and clearly they are not just formal
conceits – concerns the condition(s) of human perception, of memory
and imagination and the elaborate way the mind both generates and
Although materially based in photography, the works do not relate to
each other as if, say, adjacent in a scrapbook. They elide the
narrative conventions of both “high” photography (e.g. the
monographic sequences that brought photographers such as Robert
Frank and Lee Friedlander to prominence) and “low” (the more and
more ubiquitous fotonovela). Still, their similarly ordered contents
and compositions insist on a linkage, one that seems to take us
deeper than the formal continuity of a “body of work.” These panels
seem to want to convey a story, but their drama is buried behind the
images, as if contained in the backlighting. As in the theater of
Robert Wilson, the tableau rather than the scene is the unit of
information here; we come away from these stark, incandescent
apparitions as if they are the remains, the souvenirs, of dreams.
Perhaps we can say that Hasbrouck has taken the elements of an odd
novel and made poems out of them. Events do not happen; they are not
happening; they have not happened. Events simply exist, as detached
from the flow of time, as ever-present as matter. We can project
teleologies on these tableaux, much as we look at snapshots and try
to imagine the things the people in the shots did before and after.
But, having set in motion our process of close reading, Hasbrouck’s
images resist being read closely. They stand entirely out of time;
they are not even in the present. Rather, they occupy a plane of
perceived time that curves around and through ours, sometimes
parallel, sometimes perpendicular, sometimes diagonal, sometimes not
at all straight. This fluid plane is the dimension of dream.
Not dreams, dream – a hypnagogic state of cognition that denies the
tyranny of time by denying time itself. While some sort of causal
relationship suggests itself constantly in the interaction between
child and prop, the relationship does not seem occasioned by any
logical sequence of events. However vivid the boy’s or girl’s
presence may be, however palpable the stool or hat or bird may seem,
their suspension in a realm as bottomless and depthless as outer
space itself suppresses their narrative coherency, not to mention
their physical location. They are ghosts of themselves, haunting an
Of course, where children appear, the psychological dimension
inevitably foregrounds itself. The picture of a child can never
stand apart from its ramifications. However fraught with ancient
cultural baggage or even the burdens of the collective unconscious,
a man-made object can remain an object, an animal can remain an
animal, a plant a plant. (Hasbrouck as much as insists on this with
her vast renditions of single flowers set adrift in her
characteristic dark aether; no matter how they float and glow, these
large blooms resist our psychological projections.) But, as every
one of us has been a child – and every one of us has been shaped
crucially by our childhood – the presence of children invariably
inspires strong sensations, irresistible associations. Hasbrouck’s
underage cohort does not serve to “put you in the picture” so much
as to put the picture in you, to narrow (if not collapse) the
emotional distance between you and the moment you see.
Is that manipulation on Hasbrouck’s part? Not at all – or perhaps we
should say, of course, art that moves us manipulates us. But
Hasbrouck does not put children in her pictures simply in order to
make them more effective (much less more sentimental). Rather, she
conceives the pictures around these children. They are the pictures’
raison d’être, their focal point, the nucleus of whatever they are
saying and/or getting us to say to ourselves. If they are about
memory, they are about childhood memory – which is essentially the
same thing: the most important thing we learn as kids is how to
remember (or at least that we live – and succeed and fail – through
recollection). These tableaux are manifestations of remembrance –
less of specific things remembered than of the mechanism(s) of
memory. Sometimes they even seem like mnemonic devices, rebuses
designed to help us recall specifics. But, however much nature may
abhor a vacuum, Hasbrouck relishes it, and in that generous space
she allows the specifics to dissipate off the figure or the
furniture into the inexactitude of the surrounding gloom.
Good pictures, like good stories, tell you a good deal about their
authors. Really good works of art, however, tell you a good deal
more about their viewers, beginning (or is it ending?) with you.
Maggie Hasbrouck’s recent paintings are nothing if not windows on
the soul. But is it her soul you’re gazing into? That is, is it only
“The Promise of
Thunder and the Secrets of Children”:
on Maggie Hasbrouck’s Newest Paintings
by Jerry Cullum
work is about dream, desire, innocence, spirituality, and the body.
That may seem like a grandiose territory to claim for paintings that
appear to evoke children’s games and fantasy, her imagery stirs the
imagination, comfortably or not so comfortably. Whatever discomfort
we might feel inevitably raises issues of innocence and knowledge,
or lack and wish and dream and the gulfs between.
Hasbrouck is sidestepping the world of literal reality and taking
the viewer quickly into realms of imagination that belong not to the
adult viewers but to the children in the pictures. She is a mother,
and her daughter appears in many of the photographs that underlie
Hasbrouck’s children often wear animal masks. We may be reminded of
Egyptian and Roman wall paintings, scenes in which nakedness
signified the stripping away of illusion and the masks symbolized,
the direct animal forces of emotion or the accumulation of the
personal powers imaged forth in the creature whose head replaced the
Or we may just be reminded of children’s made-up games of the
moment. As a mother, Hasbrouck knows from her own experience as well
as her own memory just how secret and creative the world of the
sensitive child is. The child’s imagination really does construct
its own private rituals and its own private equivalents to ancient
religions. A little introspection may be needed to call this forth;
we forget, because it was a long time ago. And children learn early
not to be too forthcoming with their fantasies in a world that
denigrates the place of imagination.
This is why “Parable Revisited” is a key painting in the newest
work. The (female) child is a lamb, a masked emblem of innocence in
a Peaceable Kingdom in which the (male) lion is a companion and
guardian rather than a devourer. But we are nevertheless not
necessarily in the land of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, much less in the
country of conventional gender roles. The lion and lamb are
contending forces within the same person, and it may take a lifetime
of inner struggle to get back to the condition that exists in this
potent though seemingly simple image.
It is of tremendous significance that Hasbrouck begins her painting
practice with a period of meditation. It is also of significance
that she teaches Sunday school at a Quaker meeting.
“If thee does not turn to the Inner Light, where will thee turn?” is
an ancient insight that long predates George Fox and the particular
rebirth of inwardness that gave rise to Quaker spirituality. In the
traditions that have been persecuted by fundamentalist opponents in
all generations, spirit and body are in opposition but also a
continuum. What begins in the lowest, crudest biological forces
terminates in the highest forms of ethical and spiritual commitment
through direct experience. Just as psychoanalysis teaches, the
impulses grounded in bodily survival provide the driving energy for
personal capacities intuited only in dreams. The traditions differ
from Freud only in the assertion that the capacities are real.
So Hasbrouck is tapping into some scary possibilities. Her own
innocence may overlook the infinite distortions of which human
beings are capable, but her recollection of the visions that occur
in early childhood and are subsequently beaten out of us,
figuratively or literally, is exceptionally accurate.
Some of it is easy to read, and very comfortable. “Of Wishing to
Fly”: who hasn’t experienced the longings of spiritual liberation or
literal escape into the heavens? Birds are messengers of the soul in
most traditions, and the parallel here is simple, fairly universal,
and itself spiritually liberating. Put more simply, it makes us
The aw-shucks response that stems from our own recollection of past
joy is played off of by Hasbrouck in any number of new works. But we
are never, ever in the world of Norman Rockwell. We are in that
sphere of childhood in which the simplest, seemingly cutest act
opens out into a realm of mystery. “Another Dream About Flying”
combines wings, mask, and an odd pose that recalls meditational
postures more than childhood exuberance. We draw ourselves up to
enter into our own realms of inward experience, as often as we run
to allow space for our dreams.
The empty birdcages swung by a boy in “The Secrets of Children” and
by a girl in “Wind in My Hair” are potent signifiers of a complex
set of intuitions. Parents cage children in myriad ways; it’s part
of the process of creating civilization. We are born wild, and we
become human. But again, the traditions teach that we have the
highest possibilities alongside the lowest from the very beginning;
it’s the refining of early perceptions that leads to realms beyond
the crudest of self-aggrandizing and self-absorbed strategic moves.
We are, in this view, beasts born to become angels.
And that seems to be where Hasbrouck is going. The naked child with
crown in “Threshold” is an ancient symbol of divine insight embodied
in reborn innocence, although in this case it could also be read as
simply being on the threshold of grown-up power and possibility. The
kingdom to be gained could be much more literal and this-worldly.
“Sunset” is a reminder of the long road to be traveled to get to any
thresholds whatsoever. Standing on a chair is a simple pleasure of
childhood that gets the body higher. The cramped views of being
little are opened out into heights more associated with grown-ups.
And the power and liberating energy of horses seems to be associated
with this kind of experience; why, we won’t go into here. Reams have
been written about the childhood link between girls and horses, and
Hasbrouck knows all about it.
“Waiting” is what childhood is all about. Bouquets of flowers are
homages to what has not yet arrived, and what that might be is left
to the imagination of the viewer.
It gets easier to understand as the child grows older. If the
innocent joy of a “Baby” suggests a world of happy butterflies, the
goatish stubborness bodied forth in “When I Was Four” may persist
even as the bird self bursts forth in “When I Was Six.” But the
animal emblems suggest more than Hasbrouck is willing or able to
“The Promise” is an immense mystery feeding into possible religious
symbolism on one hand, and multiple strands of private personal
experience on the other. The lamb, the solo moth (so butterfly-like
as to remind us the Greek “psyche” means “butterfly” and “soul”),
and the red-gloved child poised on a dividing line between two
worlds present more symbols than one can comfortably connect. As is
the case with many of the paintings, several different readings are
possible, and Hasbrouck doesn’t intend to make the interpretation
easy. Dreams and visions are always a bit ambiguous, even though in
the old tales much rides on getting their meaning right.
“Another Small Memory” is just about as stunningly archetypal as
they come. It’s as though Hasbrouck’s accumulated intuitions break
through into some other realm of experience altogether, though
paradoxically. The child in rabbit mask and loose garments is posed
against a dark circle edged in a flamelike corona, a dramatically
symbolic black sun. The lozenge of light beneath this scene is
reminiscent of one of Mark Rothko’s spiritually charged abstract
works that defined the fresh religious quest of
mid-twentieth-century Americans. Coming in the middle of much
simpler symbolism, it’s startling.
Lest we be led into our own spiritual simplicities, “A Quieter
Dream” perches the unmasked child on a horse outline against a
smaller, blurrier dark sun. Whatever spiritual revelations might be
going on, they feed back into Freudian perplexities. Childhood is a
messy tangle of opposing energies, and we spend our adult lives
sorting it all out.
And eventually it all feeds into our intuitions from or projections
into nature, depending on your own intellectual perspective. Rumi
writes that we died as plants to become animals, and this memory is
retained only in our affection for flowers and springtime. We don’t
have to follow the Persian mystic’s logic of dying to animal to
become human and dying to self to become angel and more than angel
to appreciate the dimensions of Hasbrouck’s flower paintings. We
could also read them as sensually compelling or, heck, downright
sexy. Hasbrouck makes room for a whole range of perspectives. As
Rumi wrote about why he wrote poetry, a good host gives the guests
what they desire, rather than imposing a rigid regimen.
And these flowers are certainly as open and inviting a vision as one
could possibly wish. Their visionary quietude is a contrast and yet
a continuation of the paintings of children.
Consider the complexity of the “Parrot Tulip,” for example. The
whorls, concavities, and convexities take us in many directions of
association, and the darkness against which the flower occurs
suggests the night that gives birth to our deepest, most charged
dreams. The flower is more like some such dream image than like the
literal blossom photographed in the garden.
The lushness of the many calla lilies in these paintings likewise
calls forth a host of associations. Hasbrouck redeems a flower that
is so highly favored by painters that the first task of the artist
is to overcome its merely decorative possibilities. She manages to
load it with the full charge of prospective energy that most of us
suspect might be there.
The “Reclining Tulips” are as humanoid as one might wish. Seeing
them, it is possible to believe Rumi’s assertion that our forms had
their origins in the vegetative and floral kingdom.
We might profitably consider, some other time, just why the tulip
was adored as a form in Turkey (where Rumi would have known it as a
potent visual symbol in Turkish art). We might think about why the
Dutch hybridized it so obsessively and turned it into a commodity
that brought down financial empires. There is something irrational
in our response to flowers that can lead to destruction, but
Hasbrouck focuses us on the positive, spiritually developmental
We’re back to the idea that Hasbrouck is a prophet of innocent light
in the midst of darkness. The Inner Light shines in the midst of our
own darkest night, and the darkness has not overcome it. This is not
a vision that is particularly well received these days, not least
because the night may be more terrible than visionaries like
We tend to read all human beings in the light of our own inwardness,
and Hasbrouck’s “visions from a summer of storms,” as her poetic
artist’s statement puts it, are simultaneously dark and sunny.
But they are visions that find “the teasing of lightning” and “the
promise of thunder” a hope and not a threat. The force that can
destroy is also the bringer of the water of life. An “abundance of
rain” comes after, and from the rain, the flowers that are gathered
by children waiting. The storms that bring fallen trees bring also
the visions and the secrets of children.
On the other hand, Hasbrouck’s vision isn’t utterly romantic in the
sense of neglecting “the mockingbird outside the window carried off
by the hawk.” The world is waiting to eat innocent flesh, and the
birds of the soul can sometimes turn deadly.
However, Hasbrouck wants to focus on the ways of “small beasts in
the night” finding safety even as they explore and we muse on their
explorations. Her paintings are shelters from the storm as well as
gateways to new mornings…and that mix of metaphors is one way of
saying that her symbols work in more than one way. Good symbols do
that; they point us in the right direction but they don’t force us
down roads we aren’t ready to travel. These paintings are openings
to dreams that disturb as well as comfort.