Updated: Nov 7, 2018
The role of the symbol in art is not only as some semiotic tool, nor is it like a mythical creature, but it is instead, and rather conclusively, an object or scenario emerging out of daily life, something which magnifies (and clarifies) the meaning of everything upon which it touches, even in the most mundane circumstance. In the opening pages of his novel “Immortality,” Milan Kundera speaks of the nature of a gesture: “A gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it even be regarded as that person's instrument; on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.”
The paintings of Marcy Brafman can be considered empathic gestures. They deal with situations which are inherently symbolic, sometimes taking on the symbol as an icon, and sometimes mining it for its humanistic traits mired in narrative that exist outside of fine arts but not outside of the human condition. Another painter might spend time trying to re-insert the symbol into the category or scenario from which it first appeared. But this might possibly obscure the symbol, obfuscating the process of discerning its efficacy and its inevitability. Instead, Brafman re-instates the symbol itself as a central esthetic event, as evidence of a gesture and its philosophical importance.
Brafman’s new body of work employs a variety of tools and motifs that were only half realized in her previous work. Here they take on a form which is both extremely engaging but sticks to the repertoire she has popularized, of taking invisible icons and making them very overt, stylizing them with the medium and gestures of painterliness bordering on graffiti. Two of these paintings take a uniform appearance girded in tradition, both dogmatically and ideomatically, which Brafman brings it back into contemporary usage. The Sacred Heart and the Fleur-de-Lys are each a central image; they are symbols essentially and not narratives--though there certainly exist narratives aplenty which are connected to these symbols. To unearth the symbols is enough, not to have to tell all of the stories associated with them. On face value we can make certain assumptions that almost every time will ring true. The Sacred Heart is a symbol representing religious purity and devotion. A product of the dogma of the Catholic Church, entire orders have been named after it. Yet the notion of the ‘sacred heart’ has no place in a secular culture. Their most commonplace manifestations are as Valentine’s Day cards and little girls’ handwriting, every I dotted with a heart, espousing adoration and sweetness. They share an element of emotional purity and a quality of assignation that connects our “hearts” to our lives. They both have to do with love--devotion to a person, or to the emotion of affection, regard, and need associated with them and symbolized by the heart itself. Yet every time I say “heart” I feel that I fall into a trap of language, for there are so many associations with this one word; it is so central to our culture, and Brafman is actually mining its original source, not where it has ended up, and detritus for cultural use. The heart is a thing, a place, or an emotion. It is all of these things, and none of them in particular.
The Fleur-de-Lys is perhaps less recognizable as a symbol, though we have all seen in on medieval shields in Hollywood movies with knights in armor battling each other for king and country. But it also appears on wrapping paper, silk ties, and kerchiefs. It is anonymous and beautiful. What we may not know is that it has long been associated with the Emperors of France, and with empires in general. The mere showing of it on heraldry was originally meant to imply the urgency and importance of a given task. It was the most iconic of imprimaturs. In Brafman’s painting we are allowed to see it as both a symbol and as something human--warts and all, as the saying goes.
Halfway down the ideological spectrum is Brafman’s painting of an index finger tied with a string into a little bow, which may seem simultaneously a matter of superstition wed to sentiment; though it also has a practical connotation, to remember things, and relates to the symbol of the heart in that it is also a symbol of being true to one’s promises. One thinks of a child leaving home to do errands for their mother, tying a ribbon or a piece of string around their finger to remember what the duties were. Nowadays we can make vocal notations on our cellular phones and play them back to us, or take pictures with cameras and carry them around so that we know what to look for. The knot seems quaint. But the finger in the know seems to point upwards with some significance, as if to infer the distinctiveness of a statement, like someone using their hands while talking, in the street or on a stage.
The other two paintings within this group are CLEO and THE SUNBEAM which are both taken from popular media such as television programs and syndicated comic strips. They are more joyfully innocent, and more in turn with Brafman’s previous work, though each of them is also a departure from her in terms of source material and the transformation of it into painting. The dog figure in CLEO is an ideograph moonlighting from a live-action television drama of the late 70’s, in which an investigator bumbles through each plot aided by a real psychid dog who can never do more than bark emphatically and look pitiable but knowing as she aids him in solving mysteries. This is a picaresque of the old order, and has historical connections to Don Quixote and The Decameron. Yet it is in Brafman’s painting that the figure of the dog takes on a symbolic quality similar to hieroglyphics in Egyptian temples. This is not only a rendering from one pictorial format into another, it is in fact a devotional portrait. Here we have Cleo painted, not cartooned, the opposite of caricature. This is an endearing symbol in itself, Brafman takes a dime a dozen image on rotting celluloid and makes it into a personal saint. Our devotion follows hers without doubt.
In the second of her figurative paintings, TRIXIE & THE SUNBEAM, we are presented with a scenario of great symbolic potential, couched in a frame from a strip straight out of the funny papers. It is a moment of Blakean proportions. A child, a baby really, converses with an imaginary friend, which is itself a sunbeam. This is the height of anthropomorphism, aligning consciousness with the singular source of life-giving illumination, it could be a spirit, or even the hand of God. We are presented with the adorable Trixie who, in this moment is transfixed by the immediacy with which her desire for communication has been granted. She looks joyful at the edge of fear, and is poised to speak though we know that as a very young child, she lacks the eloquence to reflect upon the poetic urgency of the moment. It is left to the viewer to fill in the blanks.
The very questions Brafman asks in her paintings are the ones on the tip of our tongues upon concluding a proper evaluation of them, whether in the pages of a magazine or on the walls of a gallery. The symbolic order is consistent no matter how the actual paintings are presented. This is what proves the nobility of her endeavor to transmute abandoned symbols into devotional gestures. She recognizes that our world is a Pandora’s box of humanistic concerns, and that it is art’s role to provide a last dollop of hope. Her paintings assure us that we can trust the symbols that have always been around us.