BY CLAIRE MESSUD
In the last months of his life, my nonagenarian grandfather spent long days in a straight-backed armchair pushed up to the window, looking out to sea. He lived on a clifftop above the Mediterranean, and while he had always loved the luminous, ever-changing interplay of earth, sky and water, it became, in the end, his life. This was visceral, a pure need, more compelling to him than any human contact.
What matters, before and after language, before and after the hurly-burly of the everyday (and, profoundly, restoratively in its interstices as well) is a draw all but animal, a heliotropic turning to the light, a yen for the touch upon the eyes and skin of the physical world around us. It is a relief—perhaps even redemption—to accede to our nothingness, to relinquish our mind selves in favor of the unmediated, constantly fluid truth of nature, a truth truer than anything we can say about it—or indeed, than anything we can say at all. My grandfather, his gaze hourly, daily, upon the scudding clouds, the rise and retreat of the surf upon the rocks, had realized this. There is, after all, wisdom in the dying they have no pretenses left. As the poet Alan Shapiro writes, in his poem, Air,…
all of the dying each one,
In turn, when the end was near, would look away from us,
Their faces drawn toward the windows, toward the light outside
More flower now than human, but still human, yearning
Not for people, though—they seemed all done with that—
And not for grace, or mercy, or for any otherworldly.
Health, but only this, the air outside, the opalescent
Flux of shade and sun dazzle there on the skin
As the body moves again and breathes in what is
Always opening out around it wherever it goes.
Nowhere is this “flux of shade and sun” more immediate, more overwhelming, than at the earth’s edge. There, most exposed, we are least encumbered, and can stand, however fleetingly, outside ourselves, in beauty. Each cloud in the infinite sky makes its mark, its particular, clear shadow across the ground, each stalk of grass draws its unique arc against the ever-changing horizon, and each whitecap along the steely sheet of the sea traces its own ineluctable path to the sand. Anne Peretz knows the force of this light, the elemental lure of the shore. And, being already wise in the full flower of life, she knows also how it matters.
Her dune paintings, both in subject and in execution, enact our primal human engagement with the grandeur and the isolate indifference of landscape. There are no people here, nor sign of people, but instead vast mountains of sand in constant flux at the wind’s hand, hummocks, declivities and precipitous drops fixed and punctuated by the resilient tufting of sea grasses, and scrubby shrubs, and sometimes, too, by the sliced water rising to meet the sand, while the textured sky—often white, and of so many graying whites, or even thunderous in its blackness, but also, again, of a thrilling lavender or cerulean blue—moves restlessly above. We stand, with the artist, simultaneously outside and within this roil of nature, exuberant and humble in our glorious irrelevance.
Her paintings of pilings engage in a different way with this relationship of ours to nature, in that particular luminal stretch, the coast. The pilings—leaning and entangled, or leaning and alone—convey in their dark yearning the melancholy of man’s half-forgotten hand upon nature’s line: we have intruded, and imposed, and, in insignificance, retreated. And yet even in the pilings’ twisted forms lingers the worth of our failed effort, an acknowledgement that the very effort itself, albeit doomed, is beauty. We are nothing against the might of the sea, but still, we try, and insist upon, our flawed human constructions. There is nobility in our condition.
And again, Peretz’s New Zealand canvases, with their ebullient palette of greens and golds (cat. Nos. 4, 11, 13) offer us this same encounter in a different mode. As if possessed of the power to walk on water, we live the drama of the verdant cliff-face and its ejaculating waterfall from the heart of the fjord itself. Momentarily freed from our mortal limitations, we are able not merely to be with nature, but to be—in an illusion for which one is already wishful, even as one enjoys it—of nature.
Above all, Anne Peretz’s paintings, in this exhibition, play with this illusion of immediacy: what she creates for us are evocations of being, of being there—in the wind, above the sea, the swept sand grains tingling at our cheeks, or at the water’s edge, a gelid toe in the murky, fronded water from which the pilings so mournfully reach; or out in the primal, lapping fjord, in the shadow of the great stone cliffs, our forearms moistened by the waterfall’s errant spray—experiences, like that of my grandfather at his window, for which there are no words. And yet, of course, these immediacies are perforce profoundly mediated: these canvasses are not mere reports of landscape, but greater truths elicited through the artifice of art.
Writing about Cezanne—a painter to whom Peretz makes allusion, her dunes a Mont Saint Victoire of America’s eastern seaboard—Pavel Machotka observed, “he makes us see the objects in his paintings as existing in a deep space behind the canvas, as in Renaissance painting, and at the same time on the canvas surface itself. The observer series in his or her own oscillation between these two ways of looking the tension between Cezanne’s two aims: fidelity to the motif and respect for the needs of the canvas.” Anne Peretz, too, is constantly negotiating the tension between the space behind the canvas and the space upon it, working and reworking the balance between realism’s demands and those of the painting itself. It is a negotiation which, thrillingly, proves to have more than one solution, each variant new in tenor and effect. Repeatedly, in these paintings, there is evident a movement from the more strictly realistic to more stylized or simplified renditions of the same, or similar, motif.
This is nowhere more clear than in the trio of New Zealand paintings, in which the earliest picture, that of the waterfall (cat. No. 4), captures the cliff-face from furthest away, a distance which allows context—the lilac sky above, the Nile-green fjord below—and so anchors the riveting convolutions of rock and foliage in a known frame. Here it is the waterfall’s bifurcated art that draws all elements together, reminding us, with its pause at the painting’s center, where our eyes, too, should tarry. The second painting (cat. No. 11) takes a tighter focus, retaining only vestiges of sky and water. The light, and hence the colors, too, have shifted, as if the cliff’s hues—greens, yes, but also the ochres and umbers of stone and earth—were seeping up into the ether and down into the lake, uniting the scene into one greater, undivided evocation, less strictly realistic, the painting nevertheless conveys with great intensity our awe before the cliff-face image, its extraordinary power. By the third painting (cat. No. 13), the image, and we with it, have renounced all familiar external markers, to train our view instead, closely, upon the cliff-face itself, upon its crevasses and cuts, its bleeding stones and mosses. Bigger than the canvas itself, the cliff seems almost to be melting before us, a febrile fantasy; and suddenly visible within its natural contortions are unlikely forms and shadows. Here, finally, we find ourselves impressed—viscerally, hugely-by the rock’s mythic quality, by its sacredness. This is the painting which, while least immediately recognizable as representative, grants most powerfully the unmediated human experience of standing before this immense edifice, of our child-like self-surrender in the face of nature’s implacability.
The paintings of pilings, too, follow a similar trajectory from stakes set in the mottled shallows, stretching out towards the open sea, an abundance of embracing and dependent shapes—like people, themselves, in their loneliness and need—in paintings such as Pilings #1 (cat. No. 10), Pilings #4 (cat. No. 14) and Pilings #5 (cat. No. 12), to the stripped vision of paintings like Pilings #2 (cat. No. 16) or Pilings #3 (cat. No. 9), in which the looming dark pilings—a pair, in each instance—seem, each in its own configuration, to enact the agonies of the human predicament. Pilings #2 shows us two pilings conjoined, but somehow distorted, as if forming a single stunted, chopped tree. I find myself wondering what has been taken away, to leave them thus alone against the sky; the hoping, absurdly (these pilings are dead, after all) for growth and possibility beyond the edges of the canvas. But it is Pilings #3 in particular that haunts me, its two stalwart pillars aligned but unable to touch, a blot of color floating between them like language, as they stand bleak but somehow triumphant against the roll of fog, an infinity at once sublime—there, again, is the light and the air; and a sense, perhaps, of hidden possibility—and, in its indifference, utterly terrifying. This painting enacts what Beckett in his plays returns to us: the stark comedy, the splendid and agonizing absurdity, of our earthly existence: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Next to these images, the dunes more readily afford an access of joy: Even when the sky, itself leached of color, has faded the sand and water to but a memory of luxuriance (cat. No. 7), there remains the promise of change. The very site—the ever-shifting sands—contains that promise. And Peretz, with inspiring patience, revisits these rolling forms in all seasons, all weathers, just as my grandfather sat vigil at his window in all weathers: she knows the full breadth of the light’s effects, and in addition to the darker days, she brings us, like a gift, in paintings such as Truro Dune #1 (cat. No. 5), Balston Dune #3 (cat. No. 15) and Truro Dune #10, the release and unalloyed pleasure of the sands’ imposing forms sunlit against a vivid sky.
Playing with the tension between realism and simplification, she modulates thereby the degree to which each of us can claim each image for ourselves: for this viewer, the more simplified the composition, the more intimate my response. Nabokov likened the experience of art (and in particular, of fiction; but the analogy serves aptly here) to climbing a mountain: the writer and the reader, he proposed (or the artist and viewer), ascend from opposite sides, to meet at the summit. With each painting, Anne Peretz recalibrates the scale and pathways of her artistic mountain—rather the way the wind and sea play upon the dunes, eroding extant trails and creating new possible paths from one day to the next. In setting for herself new challenges, she opens for us, too, new emotional possibilities, ways of seeing afresh what we thought was there, and of discovering, through her grave and frank attention not only to reality but to our visceral encounter with reality, the elemental power, beyond words, that the natural world holds over us.
If the pilings, in their slow deterioration in the sale water—long bereft, now of whatever jetty they may have anchored—recall to us the inevitable unraveling of man’s work upon the earth, then the dunes serve as a reminder that even the greatest natural monuments are ultimately in flux. Nothing is immune to change, no glory is permanent but that of change itself. There is nothing, really, to say about this fact; it remains, instead, to try to admit as profoundly as possible the splendor both of what is, and of its transformation. Anne Peretz’s paintings undertake that exploration, with rigor, with honesty, and with passion. Like Cezanne, she is not trying to say anything about the world, but rather, as truthfully and as fully as possible to see the world. Her current subjects—the sand, the sea, the sky, the stones, those forlorn man-made pilings—embody the alarming and exhilarating instability of that undertaking, and her renditions of these subjects both enact and evoke our encounters with an awe for which there are no words.
Claire Messud is a novelist whose books include The Last Life, The Emperor’s Children, and most recently The Woman Upstairs.