“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are moments at dusk or in darkness when a single light glowing from the window of a store or apartment in an otherwise deserted street evokes the kind of emotion (or so we can imagine) our unimaginably distant ancestors might have experienced when, starved and frightened and cold, they first sighted in the far-off distance the fire at the mouth of a cave. And yet, because 60,000 years of human history have passed, and because we are now blindingly, blaringly surrounded by light and stimulation in our every waking moment, these solitary illuminations can simultaneously evoke in us the opposite feeling: not of relief, but of unspeakable and unshakeable loneliness.
This desolated welcome, and the tension it creates in the viewer, is one of the paradoxical “double feelings” that characterize the paintings of a new American realist named Linden Frederick, and that account in part for the eerie power of his work. His work’s effect on the viewer is burnished by his oil technique, but the technique serves as underpinning to, rather than as the point of, his art: Everything painterly in his paintings is subsumed in fealty to the power of reality – a reality that is uniquely his, but also uniquely American.
Everyone is Gone
In Frederick’s deeply mysterious oil painting Wedding Night, the deserted street is in an American small town, most probably somewhere on the East Coast, and the solitary source of illumination comes not from a home, but from a bridal shop. It’s a one-story Mom and Pop operation in a cheaply constructed, part- brick, part-clapboard building fringed by an old-fashioned awning and featuring in its window angular mannequins posed so as to “look” not at each other, nor at the window shopper, nor at the viewer, but at nothing at all.
The shop is attached to a rambling old house in which, it would appear, nobody is at home, and down the block – where, among the other old-fashioned frame houses that are depicted, one can also imagine a dimly lit tavern, maybe, or an old-fashioned ham-and-egger luncheonette – everyone is gone, as well. There is only one car on the street that appears to be occupied; its headlights are on, but it seems to be idling at the curb, going nowhere.
It is right around sunset, and the store could be recently closed for the evening or – because the long window glows with a buttery light—still open. There’s something melancholy about the latter possibility – the bell that will break the oppressive silence of the street when you open the door, the glaring fluorescence inside (that golden light is likely reserved only for the display window), the single indifferent salesperson, and the distinct possibility that you would be the first, and final, customer of the day.
But it is a “wedding night”, after all. And, in the ironic title and the subject of Frederick’s canvas dwells the second doubled feeling: This is a store that exists only for reasons of love and joy, yet whatever wedding and marriage that will follow may have a long road to travel from the straitened circumstances implied by the little shop and the slow-moving, small-town street where it is located.
Or perhaps that is looking at it from the wrong angle entirely. The couple getting married this very evening are already done with the little shop; they are about to move on to bigger and better things, while the shop, dependent on a perhaps dwindling pool of customers, may be the entity facing a dreary future. Somewhere, on the other side of town, there is a joyous wedding party, but this shop and its owners will play no part in it, or in the lives that will follow.
But there is, at the same time, something touching about the scene, in the stubborn way, perhaps, in which this small store holds out against the enveloping night, or in the lovingly rendered, classically American small-town street scene itself, which, in its very ordinariness, is extraordinary. And yet it wouldn’t seem extraordinary at all if we lived in the neighborhood of the bridal shop.
Frederick’s painting is not a “meta” work of art—in other words, it doesn’t, as has been the fashion in recent decades, seek to call attention to its status as a painting. Rather, it attempts to evoke in the viewer the precise emotion he might feel if the scene depicted were actually encountered. But the likelihood that any of us would have encountered this scene, whether in the present or the past, and think anything at all of it, is rather slim.
All Souls Day
And who can blame us? If we’re not in the market for whatever’s being offered, we quite sensibly just drive past it.
Seen in this way, Frederick’s subject matter would seem to be the preciousness, and fragility, of civilization, that elaborate and imperfect structure that all of us depend on and all of us, as a result, inevitably take for granted. In another of his paintings, All Souls Day, the theme is reiterated: In a dark wood, the sky a deep indigo so dark that it is even difficult to see the outline of the trees, we can just barely glimpse the outlines of some small houses. From one of them, a welcoming light is glowing. All else is encroaching night.