The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin

The essence of this analogy is as follows. Eighty thousand yojanas down, on the bottom of the ocean, lives a large turtle. He has neither limbs nor flippers. His belly is as hot as heated iron, but the shell on his back is as cold as the Snow Mountains. What this turtle yearns for day and night, morning and evening—the desire he utters at each moment—is to cool his belly and warm the shell on his back.

The red sandalwood tree is regarded as sacred and is like a sage among people. All other trees are regarded as ordinary trees and are like foolish people. The wood of this sandalwood tree has the power to cool the turtle’s belly. The turtle longs with all his might to climb onto a sandalwood log and place his belly in a hollow there in order to cool it, while exposing the shell on his back to the sun in order to warm it. According to the laws of nature, however, he can rise to the ocean’s surface once every thousand years. But even then it is difficult for him to find a sandalwood log. The ocean is vast, while the turtle is small, and floating logs are few. Even if he finds some floating logs, he seldom encounters one of sandalwood. And even when he is fortunate enough to find a sandalwood log, it rarely has a hollow the size of his belly. If [the hollow is too large and] he falls into it, he cannot warm the shell on his back, and no one will be there to pull him out. If the hollow is too small and he cannot place his belly in it, the waves will wash him away, and he will sink back to the ocean’s floor.

Even when, against all odds, the turtle comes across a floating sandalwood log with a hollow of the right size, having only one eye, his vision is distorted, and he sees the log as drifting eastward when it is actually drifting westward. Thus the harder he swims in his hurry to climb onto the log, the farther away he goes. When it drifts eastward, he sees it as drifting westward, and in the same way, he mistakes south for north. Thus he always moves away from the log, never approaches it.

The ocean represents the sea of the sufferings of birth and death, and the turtle symbolizes us living beings. His limbless state indicates that we are poorly endowed with roots of goodness. The heat of his belly represents the eight hot hells of anger and resentment, and the cold of the shell on his back, the eight cold hells of covetousness and greed. His remaining at the bottom of the ocean for a thousand years means that we fall into the three evil paths and find it hard to emerge. His rising to the surface once every thousand years illustrates how difficult it is to find enlightenment.

Immediacy Redivivus:
Michael David’s Paintings

by Donald Kuspit

The best abstract painting seems “nothing short of miraculous,” the French poet and critic Yves Bonnefoy remarks, for it satisfies “the desire for the immediate”(1)--for pure sensation, uncorrupted by consciousness of meaning. Bonnefoy thinks that the experience of immediacy--of pure presence, directly given, with no need for language to shape it into comprehension (and mute its impact)--is an illusion. It is a private myth--magical thinking--that has been given social credibility, ironically by the need to escape social pressure. The “conventional readings of the world” are not so much defeated as complicated by the mirage of immediacy, he argues. They need a codicil explaining why the belief in immediacy must be abandoned, however reluctantly. Bonnefoy doesn’t want to wait for the feeling of immediacy to fade away, as it will inevitably do because it is inherently transient, but discredits it as a subjective indulgence. Looking at it from the disillusioning point of view of everyday reality, he implies that we must distrust the spontaneity with which it appears, thus undermining it before we can savor it, and reap its emotional benefits. He has no interest in the way it enriches the feeling for life, reminding us that there is life beyond everyday life. Bonnefoy never imagines that the experience of immediacy cannot be conventionalized--that it is not meant to be “read,” and in fact cannot be read in worldly terms. He seems to think that we should have intellectual guilt every time we experience an abstract painting as sheer immediacy--eternally present, as it were, and as such suspended beyond time. We should “qualify” this “mystical” experience--peculiarly “metaphysical” for all its physicality--by analyzing it away, that is, use our minds to purge it as a lie and hallucination.

Michael David’s abstract paintings renew immediacy, indeed, reconstitute, strengthen, and even apotheosize it. They raise it to a feverishly fresh intensity with their remarkable touch, indicating they are among the very best painterly abstractions made. To me they make it transparently clear that immediacy may be an illusion to the intellect but it is not one for the senses--for touch and sight, mingled together inextricably in ecstatic perception. For them, painterly immediacy is ultimate reality: pure sensuous intensity transcendent of ordinary, habitual understanding of the world, which is mediated by socially sanctioned language and banal meanings that force sense experience into their procrustean bed.

David may be the most innovative master of immediate surface since the Abstract Expressionists. He has acknowledged his debt to Abstract Expressionism, but he has transformed it. Where the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the forties and fifties seem like modern cave paintings, as their crude, unfocused, often meandering, turbulent painterliness suggests, and as such to reinstate prehistory, David seems to turn the cave into a temple, as his more considered, concentrated, indeed, dense, contemplative painterliness indicates, so that his paintings have the aura of post history. The sublime is gained with no loss of force--no sacrifice of painterly dynamics. Indeed, there is a gain in the sense of bodiliness: each of his works has a certain “body”--density of presence--so that it seems to embody the sublime, not simply evoke it. His paintings make the abstract sublime vividly concrete, as though it could be grasped rather than existed as some numinous beyond.

The challenge of gestural abstract painting is to break through the barrier of reflection--we put it up to keep ourselves at a certain mental distance from the world, so that our immediate impressions of it do not overwhelm us, and to sort them out and organize them into coherent and practical patterns--by developing a dramatic immediacy of surface. When the breakthrough occurs, as in David’s abstractions, it restores the lability of sensuous appetite natural to the human body, but that the human mind has repressed for the sake of worldly functioning. David’s powerful, deeply felt, boldly visceral gesturalism embodies this appetite in the act of arousing it: his painterly immediacy has prereflective sensuous appeal, which is why it seems preternaturally fresh--uniquely vital, however at times, morbid. The blackness of Refuge (all works 2000) certainly seems morbid, however many traces of bright color--mostly orange, but also bits of red and yellow, as though the orange was disintegrating into its components--erratically break through the dark surface, which seems generally disintegrated. David tells me that he sometimes uses as many as ten “rounds” of paint--the word is telling, suggesting that for him painting is a kind of boxing, that is, in Harold Rosenberg’s famous words, the canvas has become an arena of self-confrontation, indicating the amount of combative energy he puts into it--to build up his surface. For all its solidity, it has a fragile, fragmented look, in part because of the beading of the wax emulsion with which he paints. But, if Rosenberg is right, it also tells us something about David’s sense of self.

Building up that looks like tearing down--construction that looks like destruction --is in fact the emotional as well as physical substance of David’s painting. Plane of canvas is placed upon plane of canvas, creating a three-tiered pyramidal architecture that has a family resemblance to an Aztec temple--but an abandoned and ruined one, as its stripped and above all blackened appearance suggests. Nonetheless--and this is the essential paradox of David’s paintings--this fundamental, melancholy structure is kept alive by the immediacy and vigor of the paint that at the same time signals the decay and death which mark it. The tension between the physical immediacy of the paint and its geometrical underpinning--between gesture and structure, interpenetrating, so that structure seems less fixed, as though in insecure process, and texture more fixed, as though absolutized in amber--keeps the work dialectically alive. And embedded in this immediacy, like an ironical beacon, is a black cross, its arms lengthened until they blur into the painterly ground. It arises like an epiphany from the mire of agitated blackness--a dark epiphany, as it were, confirming the darkness of the paint. The projection of the geometry--the painting is a relief, even as the relief is a pure painting--thrusts the flat cross forward, so that it confronts us, but it remains an abstract vision--our ambiguous vision.

David’s painting is a kind of negative icon, composed of crushed gestures. I cannot help thinking of George Steiner’s remark that “our aesthetic forms explore the void, the blank freedom which come of the retraction (Deus absconditus) of the messianic and divine.”(2) He argues that where art, in its “kinship...with the calling on mystery in the matter of the world and of man”--the mystery in matter itself, one might add--once “enact[ed] the epiphany of a real presence,” it now reveals the “encounter with a ‘real absence’.” Steiner thinks that this is what we see in Malevich and Ad Reinhardt. We must add David to the list of these great abstractionists, for he has shown us that real [material] presence can also be real [spiritual] absence. Immediacy can be made to serve the purposes of absence and loss as well as presence and givenness.

Because David’s paintings convey both simultaneously, we are forced to ask whether he means to suggest that there are hidden sparks of life (vital colors) in the ashes of the dead symbol or whether he is flatly stating--as the blunt, recessed flatness with which the cross is given suggests--that it is irremediably dead. Is the cross a phoenix or Lazarus in the process of rising from the grave (it is “engraved” in the flatness, as though in a grave, perhaps an empty one), or it is a ghost that however haunting confirms the triumph of death? Is David struggling to restore the traditional symbol of salvation or is he showing the permanent ruin that it has become--confirming that it is also a symbol of suffering unto death? Does his cross still have the miraculous power to absolve us of our sins or is it a black mirage that mocks us, deepening our guilt? Does it symbolize the depth of suffering--a new emotional dark age--or is it a consoling omen of resurrection--a promise of purity, a blessing in disguise? Is it a shadow with no substance, or is its substance hidden in the painterly shadows? Refuge, clearly, is an ironical title. Part of the greatness of David’s painting is that it can raise these existential questions--that it can suggest our fundamental uncertainty about ourselves, indeed, our ambivalence about being. David’s black cross--his whole painting--is emotionally profound as well as brilliantly conceived. In general, his paintings are emotionally eschatological, that is, they articulate inescapable emotional concerns. But everything is not tragic bleakness--demiurgic blackness--in David’s oeuvre. Mourning and melancholy are overcome: gnostic illumination occurs in the subtle, progressive transition (as I see it) from Population (Dark Blues) through Population (Orange) to Population (Blue). Darkness is transformed to light by its passage through color, which recedes into seductive mist. Restoration, with its open white surface through which strong, passionate color appears, and Brooke, with a white surface that veils darkness--it is overcome, however much it threatens to break through--confirm the momentum of the process, which began with the almost completely closed black surface of Refuge. Finally there is the marvel of 777, with its pure white luminosity, completing the process of transfiguration--confirming salvation, liberation from the fatalistic black, the dark, the defeated. Death has lost its sting, and been replaced by eternal light. The tension between light and dark has been resolved--the victory belongs to the forces of light. (With the exception of Population (Dark Blues) and Population (Orange), which are flat field paintings, all these works have the same pyramidal structure and painterly density as Refuge.)

Yet the tension generated by the breakthrough of underpainting--the friction between surface and surface-within-surface--remains, however subliminally, as the bits of unanointed structure that appear near the bottom of 777 and the subliminal, impacted darkness of Brooke suggest. Simply on the level of color relationships David’s paintings are astonishing feats of subtlety--a delicate blending of incommensurate colors, making the spectrum freshly sensuous, all the more so because of the gestural state of the colors. Sensation has become transcendence in these works, physical density confirms spiritual purity. At the same time, there is an indwelling disturbance, signalled by the rupture in the surface, through which the depth is glimpsed. Painterly magma erupts through this fissure, almost covering it over: surface and depth reconcile in the fluidity, healing their difference while acknowledging it.

Whether my gnostic interpretation is right or wrong--whether these works are masterpieces of sacred paintings, as I think--they are all aesthetic masterpieces. They restore immediacy to credibility after it has become a decadent convention. What began to be worked by Kandinsky and seemed overworked in Pollock, and finally exhausted by expressionistic overuse, has been given not only a new lease on life by David, but extended into new technical as well as emotional territory. Flatness is “architected,” as it were, so that it becomes a platform for the painterliness that finesses it, even as that painterliness is made more “forward” by it. David has regenerated painterliness without making it seem precious, even as he refined it so that it is no longer raw, primitive, headlong, naively aggressive. The primordial effect of immediacy remains, even as gesture seems deliberate as well as spontaneous. Indeed, the effect of immediacy--the epiphany that is immediacy--is all the stronger, when it occurs, because of the contradiction. For the tension between spontaneity and deliberateness--instinctive power and reflective control--makes the breakthrough into immediacy, the demonstration of the immanence of immediacy, all the more moving and convincing. It becomes a breakthrough into integrity, rather than a pro forma exercise in painterly skill.

Thus, David’s paintings concentrate in themselves the history of modernist painting without selling its emotional possibilities short, as happened when it deadended in post-painterly abstraction. All one has to do is look at his works on paper, with their evocative modulations of tone and surface--their perfection of subtlety --to realize the truth of this. They are masterpieces of unresolved tension--presence and absence compete in them, even as they seem to converge--showing how intimate abstraction can be. Clearly painting will never die, if David has anything to say about it.


(1)Yves Bonnefoy, “On Painting and Poetry, On Anxiety and Peace,” The Lure and the Truth of Painting (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 171

(2)George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 229

“A Desperate and Honest Search”:
Some Notes on New Works by Michael David

by Jerry Cullum

Michael David’s photographs engage in a difficult dialogue with both religion and art history. He doesn’t challenge belief in either case; he challenges practice, and he asks hard questions.

David’s engagement with issues of our bodies springs from the rebellion of his own body in the form of debilitating illness brought on by the tools of encaustic painting. Scarcely the first man to be laid low by the materials of his trade, he used the experience to address and identify with moments in great art. Specifically, Manet’s Dead Toreador struck him as a model from which he could wrest a new, very personal meaning.
He went on to produce a species of self-representation based on deep emotional identification. Eventually the dialogue with physical suffering led to a confrontation with other emotional issues, by way of other great moments in painting. David doesn’t so much study a painting as enter into its unarticulated and almost certainly not consciously intended messages.

Through several intermediate steps, this led to his greatly abstracted, monumental photographs. He literally strips down key moments in Mantegna, Manet, and Caravaggio. Maintaining their drama but not more than the essence of their figures’ postures and symbols, he manipulates their imagery for his own ends.

Those ends involve, he says, arousing compassion, in himself and in his viewers. He sets out to confront topics of homophobia, racism, and gender expectations (the role of women) through the transformation of some of our best-known visual expressions of religious or sexual suffering or ecstasy.

Suffering and ecstasy are precisely the polar opposites that David blends in his photography as much as the master painters did in their works on canvas. Cupid and Gabriel bring very different pronouncements of the meaning of love and the generation of life; but both bring challenges to the way life was lived before the moment of the angelic proclamation or the arrival of the erotic god’s little arrows. By the time David is through with their stories, the figures in his photographs are no longer retellings of Roman mythology or of the Christian story of the incarnation of the redeeming divinity, announced through the words of an angel. They’re possibilities of being, housed in our own contemporary imaginations.
Getting to this point of psychological intensity isn’t a simple or single-track road. David plays with several possibilities for each posture, replacing a white Christ or Cupid or Narcissus or Archangel Gabriel or dead or dreaming toreador with a naked black male, or a distinctly muscular white female. Occasionally he relieves the tension that all this generates with a comic gesture, such as the twin angels giving the viewer their raised middle fingers. More often he keeps up the emotional pressure, reducing situations to a single dramatic encounter or solo performance against a backdrop of pure black that recalls the charged darknesses of El Greco or Goya, although David cites Bronzino and Caravaggio as his points of comparison.

He doesn’t necessarily reproduce meaning altogether literally, but finds those moments of discomfiting imagery that are better represented by titles that come from other paintings. Most notable in this regard are his crucifixions, in which his replacements for Christ wear the wrist bindings in lieu of nails that some painters reserved for the thieves crucified on either side of the central figure. These works are called “Taking of the Christ,” a title which Caravaggio uses for a memorable scene of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. The melding of the two moments of the Passion allows for multiple meanings. His nude black man or white woman “take” the Christ in the sense of taking on the posture and possibly the sense of betrayal and self-sacrifice involved in the Crucifixion. (Deep re-imagining of and identification with the sufferings of Jesus have, of course, long been part of Catholic practice, so this reading isn’t altogether without precedent.) Whether they also declare their creatureliness by wearing the image of a crucified thief depends on which paintings the viewer is thinking of.

It would be a stretch to claim that all this psychology and Christian theology is in David’s mind when he composes these photographs, but the point is that they allow the viewer to create an independent dialogue with the art historical models from which they come. We can take what we will from his Narcissus or his Magdalene in ecstasy or his isolated scrap of the seven acts of mercy. They ask only that we enter into the dialogue.
As with any works of art, that dialogue is deepened by the degree of visual literacy the viewer brings to the photographs. The copying of the sinuous geometry of Brancusi’s bird sculpture by David’s nude model results in a striking image. The title Brancato’s Brancusi reminds us of something we might have missed in our admiration of the photograph’s formal purity. If for some reason the viewer were ignorant of Brancusi’s modernist achievement in sculpture, this would still be a stunning picture.

The same goes for all of David’s photographs. It is possible to imagine a world in which someone would come to these works wholly innocent of the tales of Mary Magdalene’s replacement of sexual ecstasy with contemplation of the inner force of divinity, or Narcissus’ fatal fascination with his own image. (Think of someone raised in the Buddhist culture represented by the statues of the enlightened Gautama that David has also transformed in this body of work. It is possible, likewise, to imagine a viewer who knows the story of annunciation, life, and redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ, but not the story of suffering and redemption from suffering that is the life of Gautama Buddha.)

What would an only partially informed viewer get from these photographs? A great deal. However, it not only helps, it is almost essential to know the original stories in order to understand the meaning of Cupid’s arrows or Gabriel’s clustered bunch of lilies. It is probably not necessary to know the original story to understand the emotional force of David’s wrapped or repeated Buddhas, but it deepens our reaction to think of the Buddhist meanings of veils of ignorance or revelations of the hidden inner light.

David’s dead toreadors, his original inspiration and his only major departure from the realms of religion and mythology, run a surprising gamut. Again, the trappings of the costume are minimal but essential for the metaphor; without them, it might be difficult in some cases to know whether we are seeing, for example, Manet’s dead toreador or some variation on Holbein’s dead Christ. As it is, we know; and what we know is that David has confronted us with all the possibilities, from graphically visible male genitalia to death in the bullring devolved to an erotic dream. The horror and helplessness of death mingled with the attraction felt by, for example, Keats (“I have been half in love with easeful death”) collide in these images. This isn’t a figure laid low by the violence of the bull’s horns; it’s a figure in the posture of collapse and/or sleep. It allows (or more accurately, they allow) us to project a much wider range of reactions on the image.

In this case, David has archetypalized a historical moment as much as Manet did, transforming into lasting transcendence an event that would otherwise be ultimately of limited significance. Great art and great literature have explored in depth the universality and the specificity of death. We view it as individual tragedy and we find it alarmingly alluring, and all of our reactions have been embodied in works of art. As with the crucified black man and white woman (we can fill in all the other possibilities), the power and beauty of an image allow us to contemplate in tranquility topics with which we may otherwise wrestle in our most anxious midnights.

David does all this with just a few formal tools. He wrests maximum impact out of the musculature of the human body; his original sources were baroquely contorted, to be sure, but he arranges his models’ postures to bring out the maximum impact of well-defined abdominal muscles or gluteal lineages. His lighting would be accused of excessive theatricality were he not merely replicating the already existing theatricality of the paintings from which he starts.

Eliminating the clutter of symbols that surround the figures originally, however, turns these photographs into distinct dialogues with modernist simplifications of form. Brancusi enters into the dialogue quite appropriately, as a reminder that once the great images of myth and religious discourse are extracted from their original context, they can be seen as independent elements of art. We lose parts of the story to gain clarity, just as modernist art eliminated narrative and pictorial realism to gain fresh insight into the ways of shape and process.

David began, we might remember, as an abstract artist. He loved the confrontational quality of the cross from the beginning, but he found its best expression in the world and canvases of Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. He later confronted the issues raised by stereotypical presentations of the female nude, and the collision of abstract and figural issues informed his painting for the next decade or more. He has continued to paint, and to explore abstraction as well as figuration.

But photography has been less physically dangerous; incautious use of the poisonous volatility of wax, after all, robbed him of seventy per cent of the use of the nerves in his feet and thirty per cent of the nerves in his right hand. The slowness of production involved in painting even without these obstacles means that David has turned increasingly to the large-format Polaroid image as a tool for visual exploration. As he remarks, the Polaroid photograph’s one-of-a-kind quality is parallel to the act of painting, and the peculiarly black surfaces of the film resonate emotionally.
The formal and material analogues mean that David’s work, more so than many painter-photographers, is all of a piece. At the same time, he has approached his photographs as autonomous works, not as studies or substitutes for painting.

And they lead us inevitably back to his primary concerns: the creation of a compassionate dialogue within the self and with the embedded customs and expectations of our culture. He shocks us in order to make us think productively.

Transgression would be merely tiresome without some such deeper conceptual agenda, and David’s photographs remain, despite their beauty, deeply transgressive. They violate the pieties of art and religion alike, but they do so in order to reach the original purposes of both enterprises.
That is their strength and their source of claims to permanence. They are distinctly works of the early twenty-first century; it is impossible to imagine them without the precedents set by, among many others, Robert Mapplethorpe. But despite dealing with overlapping sets of issues, David’s photographs are also distinct expressions of moral concerns (what he calls a “desperate and honest search”) that are not those of other present-day artists. This body of work is about the human body, but also about the human soul, and the soul confronted with history as well as with life’s ongoing existential dilemmas.

Probably the saving sense of humor beneath the baroque emotional confrontation is the most distinctly contemporary aspect of David’s work. As recently as a dozen years ago, we still felt compelled to put on tones of respectful heaviness when contemplating the issues of art and life. David theatricalizes them in a new way, maintaining their ultimate seriousness but allowing moments of respite that incorporate the best parts of postmodern irony into an exploration as fraught with consequence as the deepest ventures of the age of unquestioned and uninterrogated belief.
Both art historians and sensitive viewers have found similar ambivalences and ambiguities in the works of Caravaggio, which also sprang from an age in which beliefs and social customs were in a state of upheaval. Acting intuitively, David has picked an appropriate source of inspiration.

Michael David:

by Peter Frank

Every generation, painting dies – and rises anew. Ever since the emergence of photography, observers have regularly signaled the death knell of the western world’s most ubiquitous, most beloved, most western medium, painting. Their prognostications are then countered as new artists reassert the vitality of the practice, revealing whole new aspects of a remarkably tenacious and many-faceted discipline and gaining whole new audiences in thrall to the reanimation of a durable tradition. However triumphant painters might be over and over again in this cycle of negation and rebirth, they are the ones who most agonize over the death of painting, who at any given moment are most ridden by despair, and whose certainty is most undermined by feelings of doubt and feelings inspired less by the naysayers outside the studio than by their own struggles within.

The work of certain painters – some of our greatest – externalizes this otherwise hidden struggle. The passion and mastery they display bespeaks no easy confidence; rather, it embodies a heroic battle waged in the studio. Like boxers, good painters battle against the painting medium, and achieve their best work by fighting painting to a draw (no pun intended). Great painters, however, strive not to slay or knock out painting, but, like surgeons, to bring it back to life. After all, these painters paint in great part out of fear that if they don’t, no one will, and painting, that great homely beast loved and misunderstood by everyone, will die of neglect or worse. In their eyes the beast is too far gone, but in their hands might live one more day. Painting’s fate is the painter’s fate, and the painter survives only as long as painting does.

For all his struggles with his chosen medium – struggles that have literally poisoned him – Michael David is one of contemporary painting’s devotees and rescuers. Although he is far from alone in his fidelity, his fervency, and his sustaining skills, David’s oeuvre is driven by an unusual level and a unique kind of intensity. He approaches painting as part Byronic romantic, part ingenious technician, part fundamentalist, part agent of change, part storyteller, part architect, part philosopher, part madman. Painting is not a calling or way of life for David, it is – simply and ultimately – a place where he dwells, an abode from which he never strays far, and on which he never ceases working. Whenever he turns to materials or techniques foreign to traditional painterly practice, he does so not to betray painting but to supplement and amplify its qualities and abilities. For all its high gloss and lack of actual tactility, for instance, David’s employment of photography is clearly a painterly endeavor -- the pictures assume the scale of his paintings as well as their rich coloration and sensuous granularity. Like the pictorialist photographers of a century ago, David brings painting’s look into photography – but this time he arrogates photography to the painter’s studio rather than the other way around.

Likewise, building his already caked surfaces in mounded, often pyramided layers -- (and occasionally strewing them with foreign objects and materials (flowers, for example), which he then binds into the painting-objects with yet more wax-infused paint – David conjures his “Chorten” paintings out of substances so real, so substantive, so obdurate, that a paintwork can wind up weighing several hundred pounds. David’s Chortens are as much sculptures – certainly bas reliefs – as they are paintings, riddled with nooks and folds, their myriad pits and creases attesting to the vulcanism, the quasi-geologic drama, of their fabrication.

David asserts the physical profundity of pigment – suspended in oil and wax alike – no less in his “Golem” paintings. Although these compositions adhere more conventionally to the picture plane, they have been formulated with an unsparing use of paint, their surfaces gnarled and agitated like (if to a lesser extent than) the Chortens. Such lush, aggressive employment of paint brims with sexy bravado, but the macho fireworks quickly yield to the experiential presence – indeed, the presentness – of paint itself.

These two series, Chorten and Golem, are current – and concurrent. David continues to add to both series, and considers them ongoing and of equal centrality to his activity as an artist. Moreover, David considers his recent photographic work connected to the Golems. Working in several “styles” at once like this may not be the career-killing anti-strategy it once was, but it still gives pause to those manifold art-world denizens more comfortable with pigeonholes than with sensibilities. David demonstrates the risks he is willing to take in painting; he would rather give it the elbowroom to expand and reach maximum personal expression than force it down a straight and narrow path.

This liberal methodology points to one of the most audaciously complicating factors at work in David’s art, especially at present: subject matter. The basic focus of David’s work is painting itself; but “painting itself” includes the history of the medium not just as it has been developed but as it has been practiced. Its traditions, that is, the vast inheritance of the myriad painters of the world, western and otherwise, have left us. And those traditions bear not simply a history of technical and sensual accomplishment, but a history of narrative and symbolic expression. Much of the world’s painting has propagandized for one source of influence or another; much more has manifested religious sentiment; and more still has embodied earthly power through unearthly vision. The history of painting is inextricably part of the history of icons.

No painting (as the abstract expressionists insisted) is free of subject matter, or even free of iconography. Even the formalists who dominated the art world prior to David practiced modes of painting imbued, despite their assertions, with meaning. Issues of perception, physiological effect, psychological motivation and viewer interpretation would not disappear at the command of “what you see is what you see.” David’s generation of painters, the first to be raised in a visually pervasive popular culture, recognized this, and generated not simply a post-minimalist approach to abstraction, but a return to the figure – indeed, a much-ballyhooed (and much-exploited) “return to painting.” David fed these “returns” and owes his rapid emergence to them. But he always stood a little apart from his contemporaries, unable to squeeze comfortably beneath their simple, even simplistic declarations. He was neither representational nor abstract, and his icons were at once entirely obvious and thoroughly obscure. From the first, his painting had a sculptural presence, and a graphic one; he always approached painting as a task of making objects and pictures, things you had to regard as images and simultaneously couldn’t regard as just images -- surfaces (and even supports) that called attention to themselves and to the iconic notations they bore.

These notations were usually derived from religious or otherwise spiritual symbology, and their presence in David’s work often proved controversial. The reiteration of the cruciform puzzled those who expected only six-pointed star shapes from the Jewish artist, but it was the use of the “swastika” of the Incas and the Dravidians – and the Nazis – that caused the most consternation. He intended it both as an ironic comment on the Punk use of the image at the time and also as a signifier to question creativity (in its extreme as the ultimate self-destructive force). Spiritual symbology wove in and out of David’s art until the end of the 1980s, when a visit to a Degas exhibition proved critical. Seeing the show, he wrote, with “a feminist friend of mine, we had a discussion on the numerous biased uses of the female nude throughout art history. I realized my own personal complex issues with women… and [the] utilization of the female nude would provide me with an image as meaningful as the cross.” David made a series of photographs of a nude model with which he began the Jackie series.

To this day, David has not abandoned abstraction; if anything, it would seem as if the permission he has given himself to work overtly with the figure. This self consent has given him freedom to continue painting abstractly and to eliminate referential iconography from the abstract paintings – not in order to realize a “pure” abstraction, but to manifest the fact that there is no such thing as pure abstraction, even the most self-referential, hermetic painted object brims with metaphorical association. Shapes mean things. Patterns mean things. Textures mean things. Colors mean things. Abstract paintings can be as meaningful as flags, although, like many of his colleagues, David keeps his inferences more obscure.

In fact, the most direct symbolism David now practices can be found in his figurative works. Just as he turned to the figure to explore gender issues, many of them personal, David has addressed similar social issues – race, sexual preference, even physical beauty – in his photographs. These concerns are equally present in his figural painting (the Golems); however, the Golems are driven more by interior passions and private pains. Like the large format Polaroids and monumental chromogenic photographs, the figurative works embrace art history, finding in the reiteration of museological icons a comprehension of personal experience as well as painterly experience (for an artist like David, of course, painterly experience is part and parcel of the personal). Just as he has turned to Caravaggio and Mantegna for the figures in his photographs, he turned to Manet for the figures in his paintings; and just as Rothko, Reinhardt, and Stella inform David’s treatment of color and content in his Chortens, Pollock and Hofmann, Beckmann and Soutine, Velazquez and Rembrandt, and many other of David’s painter forbearers, inform his treatment of figure and ground, line and volume, atmosphere and perspective in the increasingly rich and complex Golem series.

Until now the primary Golem, reiterated to the point of obsession, has been Manet’s fallen Toreador. David has not simply focused in on this pivotal art-historical image and its rich mine of formal and narrative meaning; he has claimed it as a cipher for himself. This is not an act of mere arrogance, but one of self compassion. In the fallen figure, unable to arise, David sees his own recent plight. Still recovering from the substantial loss of mobility and significant manual dexterity (sustained, ironically enough as a result of his wax-heating technique), and likely never to regain full use of his legs and feet, David regards Manet’s bullfighter as his avatar, wounded, perhaps mortally, in the effort to perfect his art.

Importantly, David does not regard his effort as wasted, any more than the toreador would have considered his sacrifice inglorious. Required to abandon painting at the outset of his recovery, David turned to photography to continue exploring the images and issues of painting; and once he was back on his feet, as it were, he resumed painting. “Painting has become a dangerous place for me,” David testifies, “and is now a very slow and painstaking process.” But, even though he could (and more than his doctors think he should) give his burgeoning photographic work his all, chose to return to his first medium, encaustic paining. Painting is David’s soul mate and savior, as he is painting’s. He has returned to its side, humbled and renewed.

Many commentators are again predicting the death of painting; the digital age supposedly marks the eventual end of such an un-electronic discipline. But the ubiquity of the virtual only serves to heighten our taste and need, for the actual – and there is nothing more actual and also more virtual (even in its iconographic and philosophic complexity), than painting. Painting is currently being saved and sustained by a newly hungry audience that spends hours before a hard, impassive monitor screen and needs something juicy, intricate, and riddled with meaning to add depth to its experience of life. With audiences thus primed, painters do not now need to save painting; they need only practice it faithfully. Michael David has proven his faith in and devotion to painting, to its history, its facture, and its manufacture. His is the kind – the kinds – of painting the new audience seeks.

Los Angeles
December 2006


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