THE BALANCE OF THE HORIZON
Harmony. One of the principles operative in the culture of her ancestors, Max Cole reports (1), is never to put another person in a situation where they have to say no. It is the culture of the native Americans, in this case the Cherokee. Max Cole still remembers their songs, endless rhapsodic sequences telling of myths and battles. Her father sang them to her, just as he had learned them from his father; and his father’s mother was Cherokee.
Max Cole’s paintings bear the imprint of the visual impressions she received as a child. The expanses of the American Southwest, the big sky, the uncluttered horizon all find their reflections in horizontal bands, stripes, lines. Max Cole, NYC-based since 1978, has repeatedly indicated these connections herself. The landscape leaves its mark on perception, and this in its turn manifests itself in an idiom taking up the flat uniformity of the plains and translating it into pictorial form. This is the real-world side of her art. A straightforward causal connection appears to be at work here: the environment influences or determines the painting. Behind it we can identify a familiar tenet dating back to classical antiquity: the achievements of human civilization are determined by the natural environment. But that only covers one aspect of Max Cole’s work. These visual and somatic imprints (“I experience the world around me with my whole body”) are bound up with the context of her cultural heritage. In other words, the horizontal arrangement in her paintings does not merely document external reality, it does not refer solely to the immediately visible features of a physical habitat. The structure of these paintings also reflects the ethical values of a culture for which it is supremely important that there should be harmony between itself and nature. The gently unfolding, uninterrupted horizontal line is an expression of this attitude.
The natural image evoked by the regular horizontal line is the thin distant stripe where sky and earth appear to meet. It is an encounter between the real and the impalpable. The confines of existence are set at naught. Over the horizon the universe begins, itself a synonym for the infinite space of the mind and the untrammeled scope of sensibility. An immeasurable void. Nothing to hold the attention, nothing to bind perception. The ego is a wall, Max Cole has said (2). We must break through that wall, for the restraints and barriers the ego erects deny us access to that infinite space in which purposelessness and concentration dovetail to become one and the same. We might describe it as a trans-subjective state, sustained by un-intentional sensitivity, free-floating receptivity – to what and for what remains to be seen. It is from this inner disposition that Max Cole’s works originate and it is to this disposition that they are geared.
The formal resource used to achieve and convey that state is the use of long, narrow stripes extending across the picture in a regular rhythm and only provisionally breaking off at the edge of the canvas. In our minds they can go on and on indefinitely. Thus each of these paintings is like a detail of infinity. Attempting to reproduce or represent that infinity “one-to-one” would be a contradiction in itself. The parallel horizontals take the eye beyond the confines of the individual work and challenge beholders to put out their own antennae, broaden their thinking, and grasp the painting as merely a part of an in-finite, and hence indefinable whole. But the vista thus unfolded is counterpoised and offset by another, opposing impetus which takes us back to the picture itself. That impetus is set in train by the almost invisibly fine, minuscule hatch-marks, usually vertical, sometimes not quite, coming down to meet the horizontal stripes. They stand in serried rows, like eyelashes between close-set eyelids or grass cropped short in a meadow.
Max Cole combines these ranks of short vertical markings with biological time-patterns – the heartbeat, say, or breathing. Inhale – exhale. Systole – diastole. In a figurative sense the structure of the painting mirrors this rhythm. The one-after-the-other, the discrete successiveness in the distinct strokes of the pen document the ongoing progression in a segment of time. The gage and measure of it is the duration of the painting process. Line by line. But at the same time, these thin, serried verticals signify an antithesis materializing both in the direction they take – vertical as opposed to horizontal – and in their shortness. They are restricted, constrained, quite unlike the stretch and reach of the horizontals we can imagine extending on to infinity. Supported by the minimal but perceptible three-dimensionality in the alternation between line and interstice, this draws our perception back inside the picture, whereas in the horizontals it tends to slip out beyond the given rectangle of the canvas. Thus we experience an encounter between two rival pulls; and it is this encounter that constitutes the almost pulsating, albeit profound stillness exuded by Max Cole’s painting: expansion and contraction.
Expansion and contraction constitute the essential pulse of all natural life. The alternation between them represents a basic biological rhythm. In Max Cole’s work it is apparent that the link with nature goes far deeper than the one initially suggested by the parallels (!) between her painting and the topography of the region where she grew up. Nature inhabits Cole’s work not merely as a reminiscence of an American landscape or as the expression of an ethical stance. Nature is part and parcel of their very texture. The act of painting adopts the principle of nature. The perseveringly minute inscription of vertical lines mirrors the regularity and continuity of natural growth processes. And their occasional variations in density, the minute differences in the intensity of the coloring, all these flickering fluctuations not only recall the organic roots of these paintings, they also constitute the dimension of conscious artistic control. In its ongoing repetition of the same, sparing gesture, the artist’s work on the picture gradually elides into meditative absorption, self-oblivion; during the painting process the same un-meaning space unfolds which the completed work invites the beholder to venture out into. The picture becomes a catalyst for the communicative exchange between the visual offering and the self. This process again is consummated in the inverse duality of introjection and retrieval. From each beholder’s subjective predisposition, incompletely defined ideas or interpretative patterns are projected onto the picture, taking up and retrieving in return the messages enshrined within it. And it is here that we reencounter the ethical heritage of the native Americans. Expressing one’s respect for others by keeping them from having to say no can only succeed if we activate all our sensibilities, putting out our finest feelers to create a balance between our own behavior and the feedback we receive from others.
(1) Interview with Max Cole, 19 May 2001.
(2) cf. Maddalena Magni, Laura Mattioli Rossi, Enamuela Poletti: Dialogue with Max Cole. In: Max Cole, Milan 2000, pp. 8-16 (here 8).