Doubling Back: Sarah Plimpton on the Page and the Wall
It was 2005. I had gone to an opening of works by Sarah Plimpton at the June Kelly Gallery on Mercer Street. Around me on the walls was art I could only address in a frame of mind rare here in the bustle and buzz of NewYork. Around us, on the walls, were great shapes, calling for some response I knew myself unable to make at that moment.
I went back the next day and, to my immense joy, found an object (what would you call something that’s more than “a thing,” when you mean a grand thing, a sort of hidden treasure you want to address?), a wide Plimpton work in a clamshell box, a collection of prints with images and poems called Doubling Back.
So I went home clutching this work of infinite reticence, a kind of vision in dark browns and blacks and greens and eggshell. Beginning with a first page swath of rust brown-black and an eye-shaped, thumbhole opening right there in the form of a palette, all stroked as if in affection.
The dark form to the left with eggshell color showing through each shape – here and on every page, the dark always permeated by light – this recalled something. It reminded me of André Breton’s title of one of his more arcane works: Arcane 17; Enté d’ajours – pierced, I guess, pierced with openings, as if to let the day in. But here, the intrusions are gentle. Take back the “pierced” for the Plimpton work, just leave it “permeated” as if by some unstated color it had absorbed and then let through in places.
As I turned the pages – nine of them, like some magic number – the shapes (you wil ask me: are they abstract or do they present something? And I will answer yes to both, without having to verbalize the thing) the feeling of utter simplicity never left me. The poems inserted in, answering to, playing against the dark shapes are small in size, if large in extension in the mind. Nothing miniature, nothing that could be larger in itself: they extend, each of them, already.
What doubles back, you might ask? In the first page – these poems and shapes are not “on” but “in,” it seems to me – it is something about the moment and the weather:
a dark cloud
made the afternoon
Elsewhere, in the poem included, precisely opening into the image:
you make to see
Or the dark enters:
As an eye
blind to stare,
or then “ an eye to blind the sun.” The dark shapes – blind, perhaps, but themselves permeated by the shape of some hole for seeing, like a window in fact opening endlessly, “All Along”:
I folded the night
an eye to blind
for one and
the door instead
How strong is that word right there, instead.
Here and there, a smile breaks through, not a general smile, but a particular one:
one certain smile
and I keep thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the break in the word
that is so moving at the conclusion of one of my favorites of his so wonderful “Yerrible Sonnets” beginning “My Own Heart Let Me More Have Pity On”:
…let joy sizeAt God knows when to God what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather – as skies
Bewteenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile
Nothing in the Plimpton vision or rendering is localized, nothing is made too much of nor stressed: These are poems and shapes of and about understatement.
They are instantly recognizable, these most recent Sarah Plimpton works, as being hers. Of course, and you see this interplay of solids and voids, these interactions of space and filled-in, and you know – you knew, but even if you didn’t know – that the painter is a poet.
Walking around the room at the June Kelly Gallery, looking at this show that opened on February 1, you feel this architecture as familiar. It is echo-haunted, just as the titles indicate: doubling back,thinking twice, look again. Of course, for something is opening, something is folding up, something is moving across, and every shape is leading out somewhere, in Thinking Twice:
Especially now, looking back again, you see how very medieval these arches in their openings appear, like openings to ancient castles. It is like something, some memory of early reading – as if suddenly you were given access to those picture books of turrets and moats, opening way back, into some ancient past of those forms and of the way your mind is taken back.
Twice as fast, we see, as if these circles and bends and openings were to spin by and lose our present with our past – but you sense this is all not about closing off, but about beginning, rebeginning. Why do you feel a kind of joyousness about that painting drying before the end of what you wished would stay, about the transcription being subject to your ongoing. Your, I say, knowing it is the painter’s, but feeling it is ours also, this opening.
This repeated (look again!_) eye-shaped form, everywhere, in each of the black and white and grey works, like a spyglass in Black Dream of 2011, heightening the downpointing of that central shape, toward the black rectangle at the bottom.
How perfectly the lines lead us to that black shape. From there, you move to Your Night (2011), and it is also our night, we already knew that.
How not to be haunted by this image?
We knew, and now see, how the moon-shaped form lighting up the dark one on the left has an inner even lighter space, how the form on the right bends towards it and supports it, how all this motion included in the sweep of a wheel turning just above, sets the whole night in motion. You know just what this experience of a night sky
Brings to a daylight perception, deepening it.
The arches continue to open into the space beyond them, and into something we almost remember also.
Look Again, it says, and this majestic rendering of a landscape of the mind, its horizon visible within the opening, there on the left and again, with a trace of dawn-color just appearing, beneath the mountainrise: this look stays with you, the first time and then again.