Brushed by the Hand of Oblivion
Text by Milan Kundera
Ryan Mendoza is a young american from New York who, for the last seven years, has lived in Naples. Quite an exeptional situation since artists of his generation usually take the opposite route: from Europe to the United States. It’s a genuine historic rarity: out of his love for Europe, Mendoza is following the enduring tracks of the early twentieth-century American writers and artists who traveled around Europe, particulary in France and Italy. These were travels undertaken in order to become acquainted with another reality [how many of Hemingway’s stories are located in Europe!] but also with another aesthetic. Hemingway, who stamped the art of the novel with its final traces of theatricality, was nourished by the example of the great Europeans and in particular Flaubert, who was for him [and note it well!] “our most venerable master“, as he wrote in a letter to Faulkner. In effect, his dialogue, simple and spare [authentic dialogue studies as from real life but at the same time transformed into wonderful music], does not resemble Flaubert’s dialogue but it is inconceivable without Flaubert’s great discovery of the beauty of the banal, the beauty of the everyday.
The time when America regarded European art, antique and modern, as a vast field of aesthetic stimuli is past. In our times, in America as in Europe, the historic past for art has become useless; between the art that is called “contemporary” and the secular history of art, including its peak with the work of great modernists, there stands a wall. In this situation, a young painter who claims filiation with Goya, who studies the old Dutch masters or paintings by Picabia, and who keeps the history of painting in its historic entirety before his eyes, seems to be like a survivor from an ancient forgotten war.
But Ryan Mendoza is an historic rarity for yet another reason: in this world that has renounced the brush, he wants to remain a painter. I am told that he receives many orders that he cannot and will not fulfill. For he can produce nothing other than what is found on the other side of inspiration; the word is too romantic, out of fashion and, nonetheless, it is fundamental; because remaining faithful to one’s inspiration means: refusing to do whatever thing is found on the other side of some of these existential situations that fascinate artists, that are their obsessions, and their art’s raison d’être.
I look at Mendoza’s paintings. There are a few that are very powerful due to the force of their colors [Blind Date, Smiley Face].
There are some more somber ones whose erotic subjects are treated in a way that is, at once, both violent and subtly comic [My Girlfriend, The Horseman’s Bride]. It’s as though, for Mendoza, man and woman, feeling the ties that bind them to each other, want to liberate themselves from the weight of love in straddling the eternal silliness of sexuality.
But above all I like the canvases where black and white dominate, sometimes on a pink or gray background: the bride and groom, a general, two boxers, a female student, the young girl with a candle in her hand, the man with a handkerchief in the little breast pocket of his black suit. Mendoza’s inspiration, I am told, comes from old photos that he buys in the flea markets of the cities that he visits on his travels. But these paintings, it seems to me, don’t retain the photos, only their silhouettes. The faces have no eyes, or, more precisely, they have eyes that don’t see. The faces are deformed, but not erased. As though brushed by the hand of oblivion. For the people in the old photos all died a long time ago, and, in Mendoza’s canvases, he does not deny them this. In Old Master paintings, the people are still alive. Mona Lisa smiles and this smile is real and ever-present. Mendoza’s characters are absent. He does not simulate their presence. They appear in their paintings like their own ghosts. They belong to the oblivion that, for a moment, was interrupted by the very short and insignificant entr’acte of their lives, about which today no-one knows anymore. They are there, facing us, freed from memories and even from the forgetfulness of those that, in the past, knew them.
In the past, a family photographer would turn on the spotlights to capture his customers’ features with clarity and exactitude. But when he invites them into his studio, Mendoza turns the lights out. For the privacy of the dead does not require less discretion than the privacy of the living. The dead cannot defend themselves. Their fear of the dead is even greater than our own. Mendoza knows this and covers his characters with a veil of half-light.
But, sometimes, he allows a child to enter his studio who, in the painting of some of his pictures, naively draws an object to so identify a life that is no longer. Because not much remains of a life: the memory of a tricycle, or a top hat that one finds forgotten in a cupboard.