A few months after moving to North Texas, I develop a habit of procrastinating by scrolling through Impressionist landscapes at work. Something happens when I look long enough at a painting, such as Alfred Sisley’s The Dam, Loing Canal at Saint Mammes. I begin to detect a current that I think of as my own twisted life force, pulling my vision off the painting’s left-hand side, concealing the scene until I re-collect and circle back. Not knowing any better, but now with a place for not knowing:
See the boaters on their errand near the lock. Their anonymous postures, curled with sadness and with work. See the far-side houses that are nearly people, each with its painted face, swaybacked slightly. Their common vigil, gazing into the water. Daylight unflinching. The dam, a single line in gray.
The canal is new-dug, beautiful only in the fleeting high-def light. And, as if to prove this point, there is the Seine tucked behind it all, made tiny, a secondhand blue afloat.
If I’m in flight from myself, then the plinth of the foreground bank is a place to be in flight. I picture Alfred painting on his lunch break while I hide inside my office cube. The inefficiency I call myself. A widening caesura. The brightness.
When I attend to my attention, it’s the sky-swirl I start to sift: egg-white half-moons, half-readable code, a word muttered over and over. Cloud-shape before the cloud-shape before he sees the canal must become sky, too.
Wild, noon color-field. Lively mirror. Ambivalence so pure it leaps out as praise.
I come through it evenings when I walk home from work: mile-long parking lot of the half-defunct University Plaza shopping center that holds a Planet Fitness, El Matador Tex-Mex, a half-dozen struggling mom and pops. The strip is anchored by a Kroger called Murder Kroger by college kids who scare each other with the folklore that a guy got stabbed here twenty years ago. I like this place. It is the geographic center of loneliness in my life.
El Matador’s door opens and the mariachi singer harmonizes with a recording of himself. In winter he’s replaced by grackles. By March he’s back again, surrounded by ads for discount margaritas. Most of the year it stays hot, the sky tinged with car exhaust. To the restaurant’s left, men do lunges in giant mirrors. To its right, human-sized bags filled with pink packing peanuts line the window of U Pack-It Plus. This airy, suffocating feeling I traverse, toward a completely empty storefront where the sun has poured itself into a sweating half-gallon of orange juice, upright in the basket of a busted shopping cart.
What does it mean to redeem this, to produce this vision like a painter and a person in a painting both at once?
In a moment I will enter a still strange house.
At the Dallas Museum of Art, I view Berthe Morisot’s After Lunch. The painting depicts a woman in a gray dress seated on a porch so that her body becomes a window. Morisot extends this suggestion literally, using the same brushstrokes and color palette that create the yard also to compose the fabric of her model’s dress. The outside has seeped inside, disconcertingly so. The model’s eyes are wide and her face is pale. An otherwise bucolic scene infects her. The food she has consumed, its leftovers visible on the table, is the vehicle of this infection. It evinces her participation in what ails her. This allows the painting to be what it is: a portrait and a landscape at once. The model is Morisot’s muse and her lens and a stand-in for herself. The painting suggests the model as the painter, in the same way that the figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream is also the painting’s author. The brushwork that Morisot’s male contemporaries called amateurish is clearly a refined method of portraying dread as it curdles into rage.
I am with my wife when I see After Lunch. In it I see my wife, and also myself. I see us twinned as Morisot and her model are twinned. I see the landscape I see when I look at my wife at the end of our first year in Texas, by which I mean the realizations we can’t yet discuss: chief among them that our striving after career fulfillment has not been worth it. I see the toxic boss, and our too-large mortgage, and Texas’s hyper-capitalism written in fracking wells across the horizon. I see the ugliness we keep squinting to say is pretty, which implies the ugliness of our own ambition and the loneliness inside our house. Equally, I see that to articulate this is to begin a conversation that risks our dissolution, given how our collaboration has led to this unhappiness. But, in the gallery, I see my wife seeing this, too. I see a portrait we have authored and can still endeavor to edit. I see, because I need to see it, how the landscape infects me.
The Impressionists painted landscapes desecrated by greed. Their work impairs my understanding of the beautiful. The dislocation I feel in North Texas makes me more aware of this. I live where the Great Plains, the Midwest, and the South peter out. To my East Coast eyes, the starkness that can make this landscape uninviting is the same quality that can make it beautiful in a painting. Down the street from my house, a half-built shrewdness of condos, all plywood and weather wrap, is lovely, actually, at magic hour, sitting (for now) at the precise edge of the Dallas exurbs, their golf green lawns juxtaposed to prairie.
For a while, I wanted to scorn painters like Sisley and Morisot for conditioning me to find beauty in devastation, as if they were early practitioners of enforced positivity, as if their sustained popularity were blocking me from my own sadness. This would have made subjective sense if not for the fact I kept staring at digital renderings of their work. Eventually I indulged myself as these paintings’ subject. They became the site where I could interrogate a swallowed quarrel: Why did I move a thousand miles from all my friends and family? Why did I think any job would be worth it? Why must I participate in obscenity? Why do I choose perpetually to participate? Apprehension blurred bearable when I am only pixels and am all of them.
Photo by Kzoo Cowboy, used and adapted under CC.