Artists get this. We are all profoundly familiar with the paradox of figure/ground, these notions at once separate and indivisible. That is what is at stake in this issue, as we reflect upon this other pair, absence and presence. Note in our title the slash between the two concepts, an aptly named typographic mark that sharply divides two opposing notions. But we also followed this with a question mark: are they truly distinct? They might even be interchangeable, just like in the classic example of the vase and the profiles in which what is ground can be turned into the figure and vice-versa. Can presence exist in absence and absence in presence? Take, for instance, how what is absent comes back: memories, flash-backs of repressed traumas, or ghosts (we call them in French, revenants—those who return). Consider how we strive to recover what might be lost forever, because the absence is all too real, too present.
Suzanne Theodora White’s “imaginary landscapes” aim to “give voice to what we are losing in the natural world.” Invoking the feeling of “solastalgia,” White asks how we can remember what we have lost and how to live with the grief. The creation of a philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, “solastalgia” is the merging of “solace” with “nostalgia” and captures what others have been referring to as “eco-anxiety”: the painful cognizance of what’s disappearing.
Shoshannah White marries the invisible with the tangible as she garners the powers of magnetism to work with “physical matter” such as pigments, but also silt, rock, or iron. White merges photographs of lightning with cameraless prints, in order to reveal “unseen worlds and hidden networks of information.” Claire Seidl similarly negotiates the gap between the visible and the invisible. She explores the camera’s potential for capturing the passage of time and for showing “more than the unassisted eye can see.” Seidl records the overlooked and the ephemeral, the “residues of memory” that have survived and the traces that remain long after inhabitants have left. Some of Seidl’s images possess an uncanny similarity to 19th-century spiritualist photography, a genre directly mentioned by Claire Millikin, who looks at the work of Francesca Woodman, now dead for a little over four decades. About one of Woodman’s self-portraits Millikin asks: “Is that lost thing Woodman herself?” The image prompts a reflection on the relation between image and viewer, vanishing and appearing, frame and three-dimensional reality, the permanent and the evanescent, the material and immaterial, and of course, presence and absence.
Gideon Bok’s portraits explore another relationship, that between sitter and setting. Bok paints the place first, then the sitter, and, after the sitter has left, he continues painting. As he does so, elements of his composition shift and as a result, “the figure or parts of the figure might disappear.” The portraits of his recently-deceased mother take on a new meaning—not just because she is now absent. They also serve as “remembrances of how she specifically inhabited the space, and how her presence informed all of the objects and spaces in the room.” Absence is also central to Libby Sipe’s work, for whom paint, in all its intensity and materiality, provides a tool for self-exploration and transformation and for grappling with absence (for instance, that of her dead father). Absence is confronted through pictorial matter, with layers of viscous and dry pigments that are combined with all kinds of other materials in order “to embrace the presence of all the complicated feelings we all feel daily.”
Kathleen Noyes describes her “spontaneous tendency to see recognizable images, shapes, and patterns within unrelated forms.” As is often the case in what is called pareidolia, the images that emerge from random shapes tend to be of human faces. When Noyes explains that they become “allusions to a deeper spirit that lies within the image,” she hints at a mediumistic dimension in her work. As she adds a variety of materials and subtracts by scraping and sanding, what is absent materializes, what is hidden is revealed, and what is masked is unmasked.
The same goes for the past and for what has been repressed, whether on a personal or societal level. Carl Little reports on a recent visit to Charlottesville and what it means to face the past and what has been repressed or even obliterated. Little writes about Australian artist James Tylor whose work addresses how colonialism has canceled Aboriginal people and their culture. At once hiding and revealing, Tylor’s art “remembers erasure.” The same holds true for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers that Little visits while on the University of Virginia campus and for Ashley Bryan’s book, Freedom Over Me. The memorial and the book uncover the past. More importantly, they give a name, a face, and a voice to those whose memories have been obliterated. The ”identity-erasing conditions of slavery” and the trauma it carries are central to some of the digital photomontages by Jeffery Becton that Christopher Crosman writes about. In Becton’s works, the sea is always present and the human figure always absent. As interior and exterior blend, different vantage points coalesce, and “time and place are unfixed” Becton’s images are “simultaneously calming and disquieting” with “distant views brought uncomfortably close; weather about to change.” Crosman says Becton’s photographs are “like missing words: unspoken, on the tip of the tongue”—in other words, a presence in the absence.
Garry Mitchell’s work is like a dance. One step determines the next one, and, as it happens, obliterates the previous move. Mitchell uses the fluid medium of monoprint and a “pared-down visual vocabulary . . . pretty much squares, lines, and rectangles.” The color vibrates, revealing deeper layers. He often starts with a “ghost print” (a print made with the residue of ink that’s left on the matrix after printing). Remains beget new prints, linked in a creative chain.
What if the dual notions of absence and presence were fundamental to artistic creation and to the history of representation? This is what Véronique Plesch suggests, starting with funerary art and continuing with the portraits of Roman emperors and donors in Christian art—the image perpetuating the presence of someone absent across time and space. In the works of José Manuel Ballester and Claudio Parmiggiani, absence is made visible, be it through a familiar space now empty or the ghostly shadows of what has been removed. Affirming the presence of what is no more is ultimately meant to fight oblivion, which we do in the most imperfect manner as Christian Boltanski shows us.
Just as absence and presence are intricately tied, so are the dual operations of remembering and forgetting and of how we relate to the past and to the future. When Stuart Kestenbaum goes to his local pool, the water he swims in brings back memories, perhaps even of the amniotic fluid he once floated in, while the mindfulness of his bodily presence, heightened by the physical activity, leads him to ponder his future demise. But, after all, “[i]t’s in that absence that presence begins” for “[e]very creative act begins in silence—in that space where we are here and not here.” Time—the past, the present, and the future—cannot be separated from our awareness of what is present and what is absent.
Alan Crichton fears that at this point, “the biggest absence is the expectation of a dependable future” he once believed in, which might be as much a thing of the past, absent as it were, as the present he experienced many years ago. For Crichton, one must “be present” and be willing to face the reality of our planet’s situation.
Edgar Allen Beem writes about Barbara Sullivan: Forty + Years, a retrospective that took place this fall at the Emery Community Arts Center at the University of Maine at Farmington. Among Sullivan’s shaped frescoes, chairs are a recurring motif: Beem notes that she has created over thirty of them, in all styles and shapes. The subject is a fitting one for our issue’s theme since, as Sullivan says, they “suggest a person, the presence of a person who is not there.”
Betsy Sholl, our Poetry Editor, shares excerpts from Jefferson Navicky’s new book which “is part history of grief, part exploration of ghosts and hauntings, part philosophy of landscape painting, and part meditation on the nature of islands.” Indeed, one of the prose poems included here starts with the declaration: “A person gone from sight is never gone; a person who reappears is a ghost until proven otherwise.” Loss is also central to poems by Claire Millikin and Pat Ranzoni. Millikin “explores loss and the aftermath of loss.” Ranzoni tells us how quilting—in both the literal and metaphorical sense—can help us to never forget those who are absent.
In our Insight/Incite column, Iva Damon reports on the Arts Gala Week. Damon laments its COVID-caused absence for two years and the losses thus suffered. She also rejoices that last March this celebration of the arts could be held again at the Leavitt Area High School. Connie Carter reports on the Americans Who Tell the Truth conference for educators that took place in November at Thomas College, an event inspired by Robert Shetterly’s work.
UMVA members clearly found this issue’s theme inspiring. Our Members’ Showcase brims with the varied ways in which the theme resonated with eleven contributors. Martha Miller conjures up the spirit of her parents in large mixed-media drawings that blend absence and presence, past (she drew inspiration from old photos) and present. In a similar vein, Robin Brooks has been celebrating her foremothers’ legacy in an on-going project. We read about two collages in which Brooks remembers her grandmothers, one who was present in her life and the other absent. Pat Owen shares several mixed-media works and a poem. She reflects on “loss and absence,” on “universal absence and . . . life transitions.” Kelly Desrosiers’s “fleet” of vessels, which she installed out-of-doors in several locations during the 1990s, evoked for its onlookers “grief, loss, and the astounding vulnerability of human experience”—all emotions that were rekindled during the pandemic as Desrosier’s vessel installations took on a renewed meaning and urgency. Kris Lanzer contributes two multi-media works that found their impetus in an “inner dialogue with loss, grief, and trauma.” Mildred Bachrach as well addresses grief and its processing, using old photographs and “techniques of layering and fracturing to denote that the grief process is deeply internal, but can come to the surface at any time when triggered by an image, memory, or date.” We see the processing of grief at work in Peter Bruun’s online project, Bibliography. How to go on, Bruun asks, when “[i]n the thick of things, life can feel impossible”? The project makes clear that the only way out is to face “the grief, pain, and confusion”—in other words, to recognize the presence of emotions born from absence. In their materiality, Jean Noon‘s sculptures explore opposing notions that echo the binary of absence and presence. Similarly, Maggie Fehr submits works that “purposefully leave out mark making at some point, leaving a void for observers to try and figure out, or to fill in with presence in the face of absence.” Fehr’s works on paper and Noon’s sculptures interrogate the viewer, challenging one’s ability to decipher what is figure and what is ground. We see that as well in Joseph Miller’s untouched areas, the support remaining visible between his graphite or pastel marks, while in his drawings of heads, the figure dissolves into the nothingness of the paper. In his text, Miller reminds us that art is about decision making and in particular of what not to include—what is absent. As Diane Dahlke piles up layers, “[t]hings appear and disappear, emerge and pull back, overlap.” She too makes the viewer wonder what is on top and what comes up from below.
In our quarterly ARRT! update, we see some of the banners that were created this fall supporting important causes, such as the convening of the Maine Legislature in December, Generational Noor, Greater Portland Family Promise, Maine AFL-CIO and Maine Labor Alliance, and Preble Street’s Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil. You can also see photos of LumenARRT!’s presence at the Artwalks in Portland and Biddeford. The Portland chapter of the UMVA reports on the fall exhibitions that took place at the UMVA gallery in Portland and announces the shows planned for 2023. The “newly energized” Midcoast UMVA chapter has exciting forthcoming exhibitions.
Concluding this issue, our UMVA archivists/archaeologists, Pat and Tony Owen reflect on how we remember, how tenuous memories can be, and how uncertain. Although Tony Owen can conjure up in his mind the evening in 1974 when the Union was conceived and even “bring it from some long absence into a fleeting presence,” he hastens to add: “I cannot vouch for its accuracy.”
So indeed, aren’t such indeterminacy and the resulting questioning at the core of the dichotomy of absence and presence? Can one exist without the other? If absence is a source of grief, isn’t such ache embedded in presence, in the consciousness of impermanence? As our contributors tell us, the recognition of absence is a presence in its own right.
Albrecht, Glenn. “‘Solastalgia’: A New Concept in Health and Identity.” PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature 3 (2005): 41–55.
Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Winter 2023 cover (Suzanne Theodora White, Time Out, archival pigment print, 25 x 20 in., 2021).