Speak, memory, and watch as poets, writers and historians struggle to capture with some measure of accuracy that intangible, shape-shifting — and ever unknowable? — phenomenon called “the past.”
“One is always at home in one’s past,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Speak, Memory (1951), one of modern literature’s greatest personal memoirs, in which the Saint Petersburg-born writer occasionally wove fictional strains into a vivid tapestry of recollections about growing up in an aristocratic family before the Russian Revolutions. That book covered the period up until Nabokov’s immigration to the U.S. in 1940. Later, in a 1962 BBC television interview, he observed, “I think it is all a matter of love: The more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.”
For Stephanie Brody-Lederman, a New York-based painter, the ungraspable nature of memory and the fugitive, ever-mutable character of its content have long been both the subject and the raw material of her art. So has a mixed bag of uncertain emotional currents and psychological tensions, as well as a fascination with what humans think, feel, say and do — a sense of wonder, that is, about what makes people tick.
In the new paintings on view in Memory Invents, Brody-Lederman’s latest solo exhibition at O.K. Harris Works of Art in New York’s SoHo district (through today), the artist plays a gentle game of tug of war with the thoughts, emotions, images and sensations that constitute the vividly remembered and the unwittingly forgotten, grabbing and then letting go of a stream of soul-scratching souvenirs.
“I’m interested in the dance, the drama of life,” she said during a recent, two-part interview, which took place at her Manhattan studio and, later, at O.K. Harris. “Such human energy is evident in the big stories that make the headlines, but I’m also interested in the small details of everyday life. I make art out of what’s overlooked, taken for granted, thrown away. A remark I hear on the radio or from someone at the supermarket. An old proverb that pops back into my head. A word or a line from a poem. I read a lot of poetry and I write poems, too.”
Brody-Lederman’s pictures are impressionistic; they capture the first-apprehended forms, colors and textures of the visible world. They’re expressionistic, too, serving as receptacles for an outpouring of unfettered energy in the form of the colors she brushes, drips and scrapes across her surfaces.
A scrap of candy wrapper on the sidewalk; the weightlessness of a shadow on a wall; the sounds of car doors slamming or a faucet dripping; the glow of a lantern; and the shapes of just about everything — tables, lamps, trees, birds, rowboats, scissors, decorative iron grillework on the façades of old townhouses. Such is the raw material from which Brody-Lederman fashions her peculiar, very personal art.
(The only other contemporary creator of such distinctive moods and images I can think of, an artist who can conjure up so much with so little — so much that is evocative and resonant, and whose heft seems to congeal right out of the ether — is the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. In her novels and stories, Ogawa can whip up complex psycho-emotional dramas from little more than a date marked on a calendar or a character’s sense of smell.)
An only child, Brody-Lederman was born and grew up in New York. She recalled: “My family moved a lot. It was stressful. I found an outlet for what I was thinking and feeling in drawing and painting.” From the start, she said, she regarded her youthful creations as art, and her father, a real-estate broker who briefly owned a gallery, took his daughter’s creative expression seriously.
Today, like many artists, Brody-Lederman may still feel a shiver of stage fright when confronting a blank canvas, but she also knows how to get down to work and make her muses pull their weight. She explained, “Normally I start with a spot or with some washes of color, or maybe with a particular motif in mind, then a new composition begins to unfold organically. I don’t sketch out a picture in advance. Sometimes, though, a painting may end up evoking a memory of a specific moment, event or place.” For example, she pointed to “Pasta Bolognese in Venice” (2012, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches) in the O.K. Harris show. “It refers to a man who, like myself, took part in a poetry class at the 92nd Street Y. One day he mentioned that pasta Bolognese was his favorite food, and somehow, in my memory, that statement stuck.”
Brody-Lederman’s painting includes a hieroglyphic-like profile of a bird and the silhouette of a small tree, as well as two cloth-covered tables floating in the pink- and salmon-washed expanse of its otherwise empty pictorial space. Tiny letters hovering above the tables spell out the phrase “PASTA BOLOGNESE IN,” and, below, in the composition’s lower right-hand corner, larger letters (“VENI,” or Latin for “I came”) partially spell out the city name, which an out-of-sight spirit — the artist herself, perhaps, aiding her muse? — helpfully provides in brackets: VENICE.
In “Memory Invents” (2013, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches), Brody-Lederman brings together several familiar motifs, including two wiry trees flanking an oval-shaped pond, a black-silhouetted table lamp, and a multi-colored, gridded pattern at the bottom of the picture. The lamp, with its electric cord dangling like a lazy dog’s tail, appears to sit on the surface of the pond’s light-blue water or — like the scarlet-red, curlicue patch nearby — to float on the painting’s actual, physical surface.
Large paintings like “The Happiness Factory” (2013, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 x 60 inches) and “The Family Meal” (2012, oil and acrylic on canvas, diptych, 36 x 72 inches) offer summaries of the visual elements Brody-Lederman regularly combines to create her pictures — all those birds, trees, lamps, tables and drippy stripes of color — and of the technical ways in which she handles paint for expressive purposes.
“Believe it or not,” she said, “every seemingly random daub of paint has a role to play. I don’t think about any of this in a calculated manner, but after many years of making paintings, I can sense when a color, shape or tiny dot is working or not. If it isn’t, away it goes, and I’ll keep working at it until that sense of completeness all painters strive for emerges, until a composition feels right.”
It’s hard to imagine that a painting like “The Happiness Factory,” which features the words “INSIDE THE HAPPINESS FACTORY,” along with a vase of flowers and two silhouetted table lamps (here come those lamps again!), dotting a crusty yet transparent green background, would pack the same visual punch without the luminous white stroke partially surrounding the bouquet, or the simple white dots that convey all a viewer needs to know about the flowers’ fresh, fluffy petals.
Similarly, without the scarlet-red little bird on the right-hand panel in “The Family Meal,” the entire balance of this brightly colored, multifaceted diptych would collapse, losing its perfectly pitched oomph. “My work is the art of accidents,” Brody-Lederman has said, but in technical terms, in paintings like this one, she plays skillfully with contrasts and correspondences between her colors’ values (their relative lightness or darkness); sometimes complementary colors decorously fight it out for first place, or whole families of related colors (the moody blue-green-turquoise gang; the close-knit pink-salmon-cream clan) squeeze themselves out of the artist’s brush to show just how much longing, anxiety, romance or trepidation they can convey.
There is gentle humor in Brody-Lederman’s work, too, but it is rarely ironic in a detached, postmodernist, self-conscious way. Instead, for all its ephemeralness, her art is unabashedly engaged. Brody-Lederman noted: “This has been something of a problem, since a lot of people in the art world don’t know how to respond to humor or to certain emotions that are either directly or implicitly expressed in work like mine — and that I care about. So how to classify it? It doesn’t fit easily under their existing marketing labels.”
“The human memory is constructed so that it works like a projector that throws light on individual moments, while leaving the rest in impenetrable darkness,” the Russian modernist poet Anna Ahkmatova (1889-1966) wrote in her diary toward the end of her life. Or as that great philosopher of the late 20th century, guitarist Johnny Thunders, put it in his post-New York Dolls signature song of 1978, “You can’t put your arm around a memory. Don’t try.”
In the new works on view in Memory Invents, Brody-Lederman dares to try, and somehow the random assortment of moods and icon-like images that make up her painted world come together in ways that shake up those regions of the mind and spirit in which the past (real, imagined and fleeting; individual or collective) resides.
On the afternoon of our interview at O.K. Harris, a group of dancers arrived. They had been given permission to conduct a rehearsal in one of the gallery’s rooms. “Are you the artist?” a young woman asked as she approached Brody-Lederman.
“Yes,” the painter replied.
“I really like your work,” the young dancer said. “I feel myself responding to certain paintings in particular but also to the effect of all of the paintings together.
“What are you sensing?” Brody-Lederman inquired.
“I don’t know how to say it,” the woman continued. “In the presence of these paintings I feel all sorts of different emotions at the same time. They pull me into their world, into their stories, but they’re not exactly telling precise stories, are they? These are your paintings, your emotions. But at the same time, even though I can’t pin them down, they’re my emotions. It’s like you’ve painted my emotions and my stories.”
The artist turned to me and said, “She’s getting it. I don’t understand how art communicates. It’s such a mystery, but when you see it happening, it’s magical.”
Catching Brody-Lederman’s comment, the dancer nodded in agreement. It was the kind of observation a young artist, living in a world of dubious “facts” and a sometimes feeble collective memory, might never forget.
Stephanie Brody-Lederman: Memory Invents continues at O.K. Harris Works of Art (382 West Broadway, Soho, Manhattan) through today.
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