Linden Frederick and the Magic of Realism

“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.

Lit from Within

Idaho (partial)

Lit from Within

In a literal sense, the “power” in Wedding Night is the artificial illumination that floods the deserted bridal shop. That same source of power is to be found in most of Frederick’s paintings – in, for example, Henry & Chick, which depicts an old-fashioned filling station, the kind with oil and tires, but not cigarettes and sandwiches, for sale. Behind the tiny station is a black tangle of trees, and behind the trees, the westering sun.

Once again, as in Wedding Night, there is a single source of artificial light – a blindingly yellow-orange electric sign that renders the station’s office as bright and as warm as an oven. But the service bays next door to the office are impenetrably black, and the sky (once again, it is sunset) is just about to turn black, as well.

From the Impressionists to the Luminists, many of our greatest representational painters have explored the effect of light, specifically natural light, on landscapes and human habitations. But here, and in his other works, Frederick does just the opposite: Like the great Japanese shin hanga print-maker Kawase Hasui, whom Frederick resembles in many ways, the emphasis is on how light shines out of, rather than on to, the parts of our world.

Nor is there much interest – again, unlike so many of our representational painters – in the explicit effect of this light on the surfaces that surround it; Frederick is much more interested in the implicit effect – which is to say, the psychological effect – of the light on the observer.

And what is this effect?

There is something toy-like about this station, in its diminutive size and in the simplicity with which it is rendered. (Where are the gas pumps? The signs? The cars left overnight?) The sense, here, of futility and failure is palpable; like all gas stations, this one is in theory a provider of power, but it is either a remnant of the past and therefore barely hanging on, or a memory of the past, and therefore no longer extant.

Yet the warmth of that one light somehow seems to defy, if not defeat, the encroaching gloom. There is a love in these paintings – a love for, in the broadest sense, civilization and, in the narrowest sense, for the virtues of merely hanging in there.

William Carlos Williams once wrote, “Would you consider a train passing – or the city in the icy sky – a love song? What else? It must be so. And if I told you the dark trees against the night sky and the row of the city’s lights beyond and under them – would you consider that a love statement? That is what my poems have been from the first.”

Henry & Chick

And so it is with this lovingly rendered portrait of a tiny, possibly defunct Sunoco station apparently owned, or once upon a time owned, by someone named Henry and someone named Chick.

Does this station still exist? Or, painted as it may be from a decades-old memory, has it been out of business for many years, replaced by a bank branch, say, or razed in a recent wave of urban renewal? For that matter, did the bridal shop, and the street on which it is depicted, ever exist?

No matter: Even when the “hanging in there” may be nothing more than Frederick himself retrieving long-gone or partially imagined commercial establishments from his memory (inducing in the viewer feelings more nearly atavistic than nostalgic), they live on.

An Unpeopled America

Any American painter who takes as a subject matter the un-peopled quotidian landscape of our cities and small towns must inevitably contend with comparisons to Edward Hopper, whose own words (on the topic of another great American painter, the half-realist, half-expressionist Charles Burchfield), can apply just as well to Frederick:

“His work is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and this life that he knows and loves best. From what is to the mediocre artist and unseeing layman the boredom of everyday existence in a provincial community, he has extracted a quality that we may call poetic, romantic, lyric, or what you will. By sympathy with the particular he has made it epic and universal. No mood has been so mean as to seem unworthy of interpretation; the look of an asphalt road as it lies in the broiling sun at noon, cars and locomotives lying in God-forsaken railway yards, the steaming summer rain that can fill us with such hopeless boredom, the blank concrete walls and steel constructions of modern industry, mid-summer streets with the acid green of closecut lawns, the dusty Fords and gilded movies – all the sweltering, tawdry life of the American small town, and behind all, the sad desolation of our suburban landscape. He derives daily stimulus from these, that others flee from, or pass with indifference.”

It is this gentle wrenching of our attention out of our daily indifference so that we might see for a moment the mystery and beauty of the mundane that is the American urban realists’ greatest accomplishment. Arthur Schopenhauer once commented that, “(t)he more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence seems to him.” Perhaps so; and yet, for those of us who are not philosophers, it is possible to believe that is isn’t a lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of time and a surfeit of responsibilities, that cause most people to rush past the strangely beautiful banality that surrounds us.

W.H. Auden perhaps put it better when he said, “(t)he commonest ivory tower is that of the average man, the state of passivity towards existence.” The issue, in other words, isn’t intelligence, or the lack of it, at all: It’s passivity. Neither stupid nor insensible, we are all, a few artists excepted, inarguably passive in the face of a world that by all rights should be regarded as astonishing. It is the task of the painter to try to pull us down from that distant tower.

The Extraordinary Ordinary

Much of our art, of course, concerns itself with the explicitly extraordinary – with extreme emotions and states of being, or with the transgressive, or at least with the aggressively new and strange. Taking on, instead, the aggressively ordinary is in some ways a tougher challenge, in particular because, having shown it to us, it is entirely possible that some of us will look, and shrug, and continue on our way: It is still, simply, ordinary.

But at dusk, or in certain seasons, or in the light shining from an isolated farmhouse in the dead of winter glimpsed from a speeding car, or at certain odd angles of an otherwise familiar street, it is probable that most of us have experienced at some time the emotion that Frederick attempts to evoke and that the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald describes in his essay “The Third Kind of Knowledge” (from his collection of writings of the same title):

“Beginning in boyhood, on a Sunday walk in winter, I had had to distinguish between ordinary experience, including that of the senses, mind and imagination — almost all, in short – and extraordinary experience, a kind that was rare, unwilled, sui generis, and superior. It came without any particular warning or preparation. It was as though everything waked up, as though everything drugged into somnolence by its own memory of being itself suddenly lost that memory and merely incredibly existed.”

Merely incredibly existed: As in the street that is living and breathing outside your window right now, and the world that Linden Frederick creates and evokes.

“We keep coming back to the real,” Wallace Stevens said in his poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”. The real: It is a mere thing, perhaps, but it clings.

The Haunting

But why, after all, is the ordinary, on certain rare occasions, so extraordinary? Precisely because we never pay any attention to it. And so, when we do pay attention, we are stunned and chastened to see that what we have ignored for so long is more real than what we see on our televisions and computer screens, and yet more mysterious, in its implacable power and forbearance, than what we see when we look at the skies.

Paintings like Frederick’s not only elevate the ordinary, they affix our gaze on the intense beauty at the heart of everyday existence, and evoke, at the same time, a kind of retrospective wonder for what we’ve seen a thousand times and overlooked. And thus, consequently, they also evoke in us the slightest sense of shame.

Photo of Linden Frederick from his website

If the most instantly powerful paintings are those that manage to hold within their frames the most contradictions without coming apart at the canvas, then Wedding Night wields an unusual power, indeed. Perhaps the most notable contradiction of all, then, is that this work is a seemingly ordinary rendering of a perfectly banal scene, and yet, through some alchemy of memory and sensibility, it has become a great painting.

The term “haunting” is often used to describe art that is poignant or melancholy, or that somehow, for some undefinable reason, keeps on calling to us. But there is another sense of the term as well: Paintings like Wedding Night haunt us because they represent the things of our world that we have taken for granted, shoved into the shadows, and left for dead.

But these things are not ever willing to go away. Through one agency or another, they will return, with a certain alienated majesty, to remind us of their rightful place in our world.