Part 4: The Kataphatic and Apophatic Paths
IA: There are many obvious spiritual parallels to what you're describing. One thing I’ve been thinking about recently are the two traditional ways of understanding God: the “Affirmative Way” and the “Negative Way.” Both are valid approaches, and they need to balance each other out. It seems as if you are describing the Affirmative Way, the Way of Images, the way of learning about God by means of what He has given us to see and to touch and to taste, and the people He has given us to interact with, rather than just learning about Him in silence.
BH: The Via Negativa, the Apophatic Way, is a way that I think is very real and valid and it's something, actually, strangely enough, that is in my most recent work. I don't know if you picked up on it on my website there, the Presence/Absence paintings.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been exploring a kind of Apophatic approach. There is an absence of the human figure, an absence of any overt narrative of any sort in those paintings. There's one painting in that series of an unclad male figure with his back to the viewer, and the title is “Witness”:
He is the one figurative element in a series of more than 30 paintings in which there are no figures, there are no recognizable objects. He is the Presence, as it were, and the rest of the body of work is the Absence. I actually think I learned as much or more in doing that series of paintings than I have ever done in more overtly narrative works. The Apophatic approach, the Via Negativa, is not only valid but really necessary to ever really rediscover the Via Positiva or the more positive approach.
IA: That's absolutely fascinating because visual art, by its nature, you think of it as having to use the Affirmative Way, because it is by means of images. But as you said, the figurative images have been working their way out of your paintings recently. It is like the dilemma that every writer faces: how do we write about silence, and how do we write about that which is beyond description yet do it in words.
BH: Yes. You know, Virginia Woolfe's book To the Lighthouse is an example of that, I think.
IA: Of writing beyond what language is capable of expressing?
BH: I think she's trying to push it there. The story, anyway, not the language necessarily, but the story. The whole middle section of the book has no human story at all. There's nothing unfolding in the narrative that has to do with people. It's in an empty place. That emptying is maybe analogous to times in my faith as a Christian, even very recently, when there was an emptiness, an internal darkness, where I met God. It was a surprising way of meeting God. It wasn't anything I was looking for. It was when my parents died, two years ago. They both died within two months of each other. It was such an unexpected occurrence. Neither one of them looked close to death. That threw me into a time of introspection. I'm only now, two years later, just beginning to emerge from it. During that time, I wasn't able to do a lot of painting, practically speaking, because I was the executor for both my father's and my mother's affairs, and so I was wrapped up in trying to care for my mom after my dad died, and then she was hospitalized and died, and I had to take care of all the practical affairs. So I didn't do a lot of painting. But over the course of the last eighteen months I did a portrait of my father:
and a portrait of my mother:
In many ways, they are very like Rembrandt paintings; they are very traditional-looking in many ways, compared to other work I have done. Fortunately, my wife and my friends all tell me that they still look like my paintings, so I’m sort of now turning a corner and wondering what I am supposed to do next, after the Presence/Absence paintings. And what I actually have done next is these portraits. So right now I’m working on a self-portrait:
And so I find myself, interestingly, doing very traditional portraits. Although they're traditional in only one sense, that there's a very great likeness, a specific kind of likeness, that I’ve achieved in this painting. Both coloristically and in terms of the paint quality, they feel like my other work. They still participate in that body of work, but they sort of surprised me by taking me in this direction. So I’m still a little bit raw about that. I'm not sure what I’m supposed to be doing next, and I’m working it out.
IA: It's not completely dissociated; you have done portrait work before.
BH: Yes, but, for instance, I haven't done a self-portrait since I was an undergraduate, and I graduated from college in 1977. It's been a while! I guess if you look at some of the figures in my paintings, you could say they look like portraits, but very few of the figures in my paintings, until fairly recently, were particularized. They were more generalized figures. When I started doing the Mary paintings, that is when I started doing more particularized figures, in which you can recognize an actual person. But it wasn't until I did the portrait of my father, after he died, that I felt I was doing an actual portrait. It's new and old territory.
In My End is My Beginning
BH: T. S. Eliot says, towards the end of The Four Quartets, “The end of all our exploring will be to return to the place where we began and know the place for the first time.” I feel that's what I’m doing, in some ways. What motivated me to want to become an artist, as a little boy, was trying to make portraits of my parents and my grandparents. I loved drawing faces and hands when I was a kid. When I was in art school, I desperately wanted to learn how to draw and paint well enough to do a really good portrait. By the time I got to grad school, I kind of had either lost interest in portraiture, or because of my exposure to modern art learned that I had to get into a much more complex and problematic conversation, as it were, then just learning how to do good portraits. So it has been a long journey, but here I am again, back doing portraits, which is really strange! But I feel that I have brought with me everything I have learned along the way, so these portraits have certain resonances; I hope, anyway, that they carry the rest of that work along with them.
IA: Charles Williams, the writer whose work I'm studying right now—
BH: I love Charles Williams!
IA: Oh, good! I'm so glad to hear that, because he is far too overlooked, I think.
BH: An amazing writer.
IA: He talks about that. He says that some of the greatest poets in their time of maturity, when they have mastered their art and gotten deeply into it, that they often return to their earliest style, but with a revised approach. He actually laments the fact that he thinks some of the greatest writers started to do that and then died unexpectedly, or for whatever other reason were not able to completely live through their earliest style again. He mentions that Hopkins did this, he mentions that Dante did this. I think he says that Wordsworth began to. And then he says that he was just starting to do this; he was writing an eighth novel and a third—or actually a fourth—volume of Arthurian poetry, and he wrote to his wife that he was starting to go back and bring his mature style into his older style. And then of course he died very unexpectedly and did not live to do that.
BH: That's so interesting! I didn't know that about Charles Williams. Now that you mention that, Sorina, I remember Philip Guston, my mentor in graduate school, saying that if a painter lives long enough, he regains almost a second innocence. I think that may be what Eliot was talking about when he says that the end of all our exploring will be to return to the place where we began and know the place for the first time. I think that's true. If you live long enough, you begin to realize that the thing you think is so familiar is very strange and mysterious. The thing we take for granted, that is right in front of us, is actually fraught with mystery and unimaginable depth and value. This is why I grieve over the divorce rate in our country. People don't stay together long enough to find out that the person they're married to is an amazing, living wonder. That's sort of what I’ve found out after being married to my wife Meg for almost 40 years. I'm married to an amazing human being! There have been times over the last 40 years when we couldn't stand each other!
I feel the same way about art: I'm just beginning to understand something that I began doing 40 years ago.
IA: Well, I hope you're not saying you're coming to the end! I hope you have another 20, 25 years of paintings in you yet!
BH: I hope so too! I'm excited about this new, unknown territory of what was once so familiar: portraiture.
IA: I look forward to seeing what you do!