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.
From Detroit to Berlin: Remembering Rosa Parks’ House
Fitch Colloquium, Columbia University, 2017
Thank you for the invitation to participate in this colloquium. Earlier this month, while finalizing certain elements of the Rosa Parks House I had two debilitating strokes. It is indeed a miracle to be here, even if only via Skype.
For those of you not familiar with the project, with the help of Rhea McCauley, the niece of Rosa McCauley Parks, the house Rosa Parks lived in from 1957 to 1959 in Detroit was successfully dismantled, placed in shipping containers and transported to Berlin Germany where it was restored and awaits its return the the states. Today I would like to talk about the preservation part of this ex situ project. My intention being to leave up to an eventual institution the conservation of the Rosa Parks House.
Thomas Jefferson, regarding slavery, spoke thus about preservation.
“I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
Jefferson, it seems, worried the flesh would be ripped from the face of the nation, revealing an unsavory truth. Subsequent systematic transfer of enchainment, from slavery itself to segregation through the Jim Crow laws to privatized prison system, kept the wolf in chains, and the so-called preservation of the face of nation intact. But with mounting evidence of systemic racism, and with clarity over what the confederate monuments actually stand for- having been created in a reactionary way to the advancements to civil equality, an opening for this house to be preserved and possibly celebrated as a monument contrasts with its near demolition at the hands of the local government in Detroit.
Before getting involved in the Rosa Parks House project, I was 25 years an expatriate living in Europe. Having lost touch with my country I thought rather than distance myself further from American values, I would embrace them fully in attempt to epitomize the quintessential American by colonizing Europe with actual American houses. This was the start of the White House project. The house donated by friend of mine native Detroiter Gregg Johnson, was first located on Stoepel street just off of Eight Mile, the road that divides a segregated Detroit.
After the White House was brought to Europe to the Verbeke Foundation, Belgium I gained adequate knowledge of how wooden houses could be disassembled and reassembled.
On my trips back and forth to Detroit I met, through Gregg Johnson at a performance at the Charles H. Wright Museum where the Rosa Parks House might possibly be conserved, Gregg Dunmore and Joel Boykin of Pulsebeat Tv who, on hearing my endeavors, put me into contact with Rhea McCauley.
We met on a wintry day in front of 2672 S. Deacon Street where the 3 bedroom house Rosa Parks had lived in with 15 family members stood in a decaying stoicism. I remember the floors were dipping and the house moved ever so slightly with the wind, the back wall was patched together with the doors of the house.
For lack of a more appropriate place, Rosa Parks’ House currently sits in its afterlife in my garden, between my studio and my home in Berlin. Last winter, the house arrived to my doorstep as planks of wood in a shipping container. I rebuilt the house from sketches I had made when it was disassembled Detroit. Reconstructing the house alone, and underfunded during the winter of 2016 was a physically challenging, dangerous experience. Handling the planks of wood I forgot at times what my mission was. Was my mission that of preserving history or was it that of attempting to free the ever ensnared Jeffersonian wolf, therefore upsetting a national myth? In the end, I realized I am just custodian and messenger. The actual message, I myself, being born white and after the civil rights movement, can only in a limited way comprehend.
The projects I had completed in Detroit dealt with the housing crisis going on there, a subtext that is also inextricable from the Rosa Parks House project. Rhea McCauley, who lived in the house with her aunt, had recently bought it off of a demolition list for 500 dollars. When local government and institutions showed no interest in helping her restore the house as a monument, she approached me and suggested we work together. Our petition for local support was also turned down, so we decided to ship the house to Berlin. It proved essential that the house be extricated from its location for the world to pay attention.
In situ literally means in its original location. The phrase implies a sense of stillness. There is little stable about the status of a house or a homeowner in Detroit. Rosa came to Detroit fleeing death threats, but experienced little refuge in Detroit. After living for 2 years with her brother, sister in law and their 13 children in the house that is the center of our conversation today, Rosa moved multiple times. She suffered an assault in her home at the age of 81 and was threatened with eviction at 91. While Detroit was briefly renowned as a place where black residents reached significant levels of home ownership, Rosa never owned a home. She called Detroit ‘the Northern promise land that wasn’t.’ Housing issues, centered around segregation and displacement due to urban renewal, were central to Rosa’s activism her entire life. Detroit has ranked among the 10 most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States since the mid-20th century. By the early 1960s, urban renewal and highway construction destroyed 10,000 structures in Detroit, displacing over 40,000 people, 70% of whom were African-American. More recently, since the housing crisis, foreclosure and demolition swept the city, leaving more than 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 empty houses, and 90,000 vacant lots.
For over 40 years, these four walls and roof were a home. It was the place that Rosa’s brother sought to create a better life for his family after returning from World War Two, where Rosa’s nieces and nephews grew up and where Rosa lived for her first two years in Detroit. When the family left in 1982, memories continued to cling to the clapboards, but the home became a house. When it was put on a demolition list in 2013, the meaning attached to the building changed again, it became a number on a list, a statistic in Detroit’s decline. In its ensuing incarnations, the structure blurred lines between monument and art object.
Ultimately, this is a project about memory. By taking the house apart and then piecing it back together, literally remembering it, Rhea McCauley and I invite the American consciousness to remember a house it didn’t know it had forgotten. Art often plays with a shift in context to inspire the viewer to look: the house’s stay in Berlin leveraged this discordance to get the viewer to pay attention. The house offers a unique opportunity to consider how we remember Rosa Parks, and in doing so, begin to renegotiate how we memorialize American history more broadly.
Recent debate surrounding the dismantling of confederate monuments indicates the persistent significance of how we inscribe memories into the topography of our surroundings. 700 monuments of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals still parade across public squares and school grounds across the United States, despite a recent wave of dismantling. Confederate monuments rely on erasing the context of their construction to foster nostalgia. Confederate monument construction peaked in 1910, a year after the NAACP was founded. Another flurry of building began in the 1950s as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. The Little Rock Nine and school integration prompted a disturbing spike of Confederate monuments on school campuses. Many Americans are under the illusion, however, that the monuments were built during reconstruction. The anachronistic material and design veils the racism that is inextricable from these totems.
I highlight this disconnect in context in order to introduce the way the Rosa Parks House can offer a mode of memorialization where context is paramount. Of course, the version of Rosa Parks incorporated into the American mythos has also relied on obscured context and idealized narrative. In her biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis exposes the ways in which the historical narrative surrounding Rosa Parks has reduced her lifelong commitment to activism to one afternoon on a bus, fabricated a story of a quiet seamstress who demurely kept her seat and relegated Parks to be a hero for children. Theoharis emphasizes, “One of the greatest distortions of the Parks fable has been the ways it made her meek…When Parks died in Detroit in 2005, she was held up as a national heroine but stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice. The Parks who emerged was a self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption.” Parks’ memorial services also took place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In honoring Rosa Parks, the nation was able to glaze over the racial and economic inequality exposed by government negligence during Katrina. The public memorial leveraged a romantic fable of Rosa Parks to quiet contemporary injustice.
My hope is that, by contrast, the dissonant context at play in the Rosa Parks house project will impede nostalgia and obstruct simplification. The cognitive dissonance of this house’s journey across the sea inspires questions. Addressing history and the present day with questions, rather than assumptions or generalizations, is a mode of demanding a fuller version of history.
When the house comes back to the United States, Brown University has asked that it go to their campus for a temporary exposition. Brown University itself named after the Browns, a prominent mercantile family, who were in fact Rhode Island slave traders with 1000 voyages to their name. The 100 ton brigades Sally and Hope travelled back and forth from Africa to Rhode Island from 1740 to 1790 created 100,000 slaves. In 1764, the same year the College of Rhode Island was founded, 196 Africans were taken prisoner but only 109 survived the journey. The College of Rhode Island was so taken by the generosity of the Browns in 1804 that they renamed it to Brown University. In 2006 these facts came to light creating the need for dialogue to challenge the complex historical discourse. This will be the backdrop in the presentation of the repatriated Rosa Parks house, with Brown’s students acting as a kind of jury, the university a courtroom, and the house as evidence in a trial where Jeffersons idea of self preservation will be put to light.
In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Trump commented, "So this week it's Robert E. Lee, I notice that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself — where does it stop?” Belying his rhetorical intention, Trump’s comment touched upon an important question. As Americans, we have accepted the mythology of our nation’s founding for so long, without sufficiently grappling with the violence against those the country is built upon.