Linden Frederick and the Magic of Realism
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.
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
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.
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
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.