Buchanan’s Resurrection – by Daniel Maidman
Noah Buchanan, Resurrection, oil on linen, 27″ x 58″, 2017
A painting does not tell a story the way a book or a play or a movie can. Stories are sequences of events, and literature, theater, and film replicate that sequential quality – like life, they unfold in time. A painting may not become comprehensible to a viewer in an instant, but it cannot physically change over time.
In order to paint a narrative painting, the painter must condense the storyteller’s impulse down to a single image. In the classical tradition, the painter focuses on selecting the telling moment. He finds some moment during which an unseen, ongoing narrative reaches its greatest intensity, in terms of action, psychology, and emotion – the turning point of the story.
Many painters select scenes from pre-existing stories, depending on the shared cultural knowledge of painter and viewer to enrich the content of the painting. Often the painter will seek to find a previously-overlooked key moment of the story, or, failing that, a new way to depict a previously-painted scene. The pinnacle of this school of painting has been apparent for a long time: absent the story, the painting can stand on its own. Consider Rubens’s Daniel in the Lion’s Den, with its vivid portrayal of terror, faith, and hope; its scenery so thoroughly complementing the posture and expression of its lead character that ignorance of the underlying story does little to diminish the profundity and richness of the painting.
Contemporary figurative painter Noah Buchanan places himself inside this tradition, reaching for and meeting its goals, in his Resurrection. He discovers a moment which, now that he paints it, seems startlingly underappreciated: the very moment of Christ’s resurrection. How did nobody think of this before? Christ, pathetically dead – yes. Christ emerging in triumph from the tomb – yes. But the moment of transition from Christ, a dead thing, to Christ, a living man – no. And yet this is the absolutely essential transformation, the miracle that completes the story.
Buchanan’s Christ lies on a shroud, starkly brighter than his flesh. The shroud palpably restores the color white to its association with death. The body itself is astonishing. The transition from death to life is taking place before our eyes. The limbs and extremities are painted in sickly greys, as slack, bloodless parts of a corpse. But his core is coming back to life: his back arches, raising his chest – his heart – which has resumed beating. Animal life has returned to him, but reason has not yet returned: his face is colorless, and his eyes, though open, remain lost in shadow.
His right hand has uncannily lifted, and, especially compared with the dark bluish-grey of his left hand, we can see his right shows the ruddy pink of living flesh. The brightest light on him is in the palm of his hand – just as the shroud restores the linkage of white and death, so the palm restores the linkage of light and life. His palm is bathed in life, and yet a harsh, deep shadow cuts across it, becoming, by contrast with the adjacent brilliance, a domain of death. The whole painting tells a story, and the hand replicates it in miniature: the drama of life pitted against death, of life driving death back.
By these means we see how the painter as theater-director not only identifies the telling moment, but then orchestrates each element of the scene to express the action and meaning of that moment. While the moment is performed at a narrative level in the body of Christ, it is performed at an allegorical level in his hand.
It is worth addressing the significance of that allegorical hand more explicitly. The allegorical quality of painting – establishment of real objects in the painting as symbols, and encoding of meaning into their particular configurations or interactions – has been dismissed in the modern age for several reasons: because we have lost the shared cultural heritage required to support symbolic references – because photography has stripped us of our naïve ability to see the symbol in the thing – because it is kitschy. But at its base, the allegorical quality of an image is nothing more than a system of information transmission. It is illegitimate to dismiss a system of communication on the basis of the moral-aesthetic objection summarized in the epithet kitsch. And if the objection to allegory loses that essential argument that allegory is icky, then the other objections shrink to mere nitpicking.
In this painting, Buchanan not only demonstrates allegory with understatement and grace, but he gives us a lesson in allegorical reading: the body of Christ coaches us in reading the hand of Christ. Recognizing the material resurrection of the body leads us to recognizing the spiritual resurrection of the hand. Once we see the resurrection of the spirit in the hand, then the head comes into allegorical play as well: the living hand and the still-dead brain instruct us that the spirit and the reason are separate qualities, that soul precedes mind.
We can argue for or against each of these assertions, but it is indisputable that Buchanan, having studied and revived a long-dormant set of tools of painting, has used an image not only to tell a story, but to make a complex philosophical argument. His image is electric with meaning.
To return to a more romantic conception of the artist, let me tell you a story about this painting. The painting was shown in Buchanan’s 2018 solo show “Myth and Melancholia” at Dacia Gallery in New York City. Gallery director Lee Vasu described the shock he experienced when he unpacked the painting from its crate and saw it clearly for the first time. Years before, his father had died in hospital. The doctors had made repeated and fruitless efforts to resuscitate him, but the clock kept ticking, and nothing helped. Eventually, everybody gave up, but Vasu begged the team to try defibrillation one more time. With nothing to lose, they did. Vasu’s father’s chest jerked up under the paddles, as it had each time before. But this time, color appeared in his chest and flowed to his dead grey limbs. He made the transition from dead thing back to living man. And he lived many years after.
So the shock Vasu experienced was the shock of recognition: the Christ in this painting looks exactly as Vasu’s father did during his own resurrection. Buchanan makes in this painting the leap of oracular insight which characterizes the romantic conception of the artist. He knows that which he cannot know. This goes to the quality of successful narrative painting as shaking itself, at least partially, free from its pre-existing narrative substrate. The painting makes sense even when the story has been lost. We, who have not experienced what Vasu experienced, can recognize the action in the painting. And Vasu can recognize its truth.
People sometimes ask me what makes any particular artwork satisfying to me. The answer is that I don’t necessarily need to like a piece of art. But the art has to inspire complex thoughts – it has to exceed an equivalent amount of blank space in the idea-potential waiting to flower from it. It must be dense with the kernels of thoughts. It must be an agent of transformation.
I happen to like Buchanan’s painting very much, but that is not the reason I’m writing about it. I’m writing about it because a rich field of thoughts grows from it. Ideas blossom in confrontation with it. It uses every square inch of its space to induce an action of mind and spirit in its viewer.
To me, this is what art is. It is a rare and precious accomplishment.
Noah Buchanan online: www.noahbuchananart.com
Dacia Gallery: www.daciagallery.com