Notes on conclave
A stairwell is a staircase with no natural light in it. In this way, this staircase is made a staircase by its skylight. The four walls surrounding the skylight form a particular space called a “skywell” within which a painting by Léonie Guyer now lives. When you enter the space from the bottom of the stairs the staircase looks empty. When you look up the stairs, a small framed work hangs on the wall to the right of the staircase but, from the bottom of the staircase, you can only see its edge. In daytime, the stairs’ landing, which is below the glass skylight, is illuminated. I first entered conclave in the morning, and ascended towards the light. When I learned this show was to be titled conclave, I thought first of the word “clavicle” and had to be reminded that “clav” is Latin for “key” and that “con” is Latin for “with” and that “conclave” is a private meeting, as in, you are “with key” and you have a key to the door within which the private meeting will take place. To get into the staircase no one greeted me. I used my own key to enter the staircase because I used to live inside the apartment that my mother grew up in, on the other side of the left door on the staircase landing, underneath which is a hardware store, which used to be a children’s clothing store, which used to be a hunting and fishing store, which my grandfather ran. In conclave, which of the four pieces you first meet is not self-evident. Once on the landing, I saw the marble piece with the black painted shape first, and then I turned to my left and saw the red painting, and then I tilted my chin up so that my chin was perpendicular with my clavicle, and I looked up into the skylight, where I saw a painting made directly on the wall, and I stood there, looking at the wall painting for a long time, and then I returned to the painting hung on the right side of the staircase, and only then saw the fourth painting–a white shape on black paper hung on the wall that you see when you descend the staircase so that, when you leave conclave, the painting on black paper passes directly over your head. There are four pieces in conclave and two places in the staircase where you can see three pieces at the same time. There is nowhere you can stand where you see conclave in its entirety. Always, at least one of the pieces will be out of view from you, obscured, like a covered weapon, the painting’s power emanating out through the wall that hides it, like an electrical current in water, like sand to a magnet, the feeling of being pulled toward the painting but not being able to see it, until finally your body curves around the corner, your head cranes up to look at the skylight, your head looks forward and passes underneath the painting on black paper when you leave. Houses are often compared to bodies because it so often feels like we, the humans, are blood, passing through the house’s veins, that the house needs a human to be activated into house-ness, that without its breathing inhabitants, the house stagnates, atrophies, and dies. Before the advent of autopsies, before any human had sliced another human open to see what was inside, the Greeks believed bodies were animated with a substance called pnuema, a life-giving liquid that lived in your chest and ascended to the sky when you died. The word “pnuema” is often poorly translated as “spirit” or “soul” or “energy” which misses the more literal meaning of the word, which is “that which is blown” or “that into which breath is breathed”. A pnuemaness thing is made of a radiant substance. It is of our world, but also from a world where our bodies are useless.
When I first saw each of the four paintings in conclave, I thought immediately that they were pnuemaness, that they were created by a body, but revealed a realm where there are no bodies. In the wall painting, the left side of the shape has a limb that is outreaching, extending up and out and then curling over, unfurling up towards the light of the skylight, bending like a plant that changes shape over the course of the day with the shifting light of a rising, then setting sun. It is a small show. And yet, the show feels spacious. The space in which the show exists is a space between spaces, the artery of a building, the staircase within which people, including myself, including my mother, including my grandmother, ferry their bodies to their next dramas, up to their homes, and down out into the hardware store parking lot upon which the staircase delivers the bodies it intakes. The marble painting in conclave has the shadow of an action on it, the clear contour of a shape that Guyer made and later erased. And the marble itself has black veins in it. That is what marble-sellers call it–“veins”–as if rocks had life-blood, too. Something that tranfixes me about each of the works in conclave is the painted shapes’ entanglement with the substances on which they were made. The wall painting on the interior of the skylight feels inextricable from the wall on which it was painted, as if the painting was not exclusively executed by Guyer, a painting painted upon a wall, but a collaboration between Guyer and the wall, the wall an active participant in the painting as it was being made. It’s as if the atomic levels at which Guyer paints encourage a cellular level mixing. One of the things that always made sense to me about pnuema is that it makes sense that we all come from the same thing. The marble painting in conclave looks less like a painting made on marble and more like an extraction of the marble’s black veins, a concentration of the force that made the marble have black speckles focused back and funneled into a singular arresting shape. And the red painting, the one that looks red like the red of dried blood, red like the red of blood after its been pulled, and separated, from an artery, that painting was created on, or with, a 19th century piece of paper from India that is creased in a way that makes it look like someone once thought about, but then abandoned, making a fan. The creases on the paper leave the ghost of a human action. The ancient Greeks believed that every time you moved your hand it was pneuma flinging forth from your chest and into your hand that animated the action. I am still stunned that once my grandmother was pregnant, and inside her body was my mother, and inside my mother, somewhere, there was me, and so the three of us, maybe, or the substance that makes the three of us, walked up the stairs of the staircase, and ascended from emptiness onto the staircase landing, where now, in conclave, visual riches lay. To know your body is physically where a previous person’s body was is an intimacy this show exploits. That is part of the magic of Guyer’s site-specific installation. Looking at the wall painting, I can feel the ghost of Guyer’s body up on a ladder, her body illuminated by the skylight, her eyes focused on the shape she is making, with pencil in hand, and her looking down at me, saying, it’s almost done, maybe a day more, or maybe two. So many powerful people in this world want me to believe that all things are not equal, that the substances of the world are specific and segregated. The four paintings of conclave refute this with vehemence. The four paintings of conclave make me sure we’re all made out of the same substance.