Representing Limitlessness: Rachel Howard’s Repetition is Truth – Via Dolorosa
One enters a room with fourteen Stations of the Cross by Rachel Howard–her Via Dolorosa. Monumental, quiet, graceful, discrete, luscious, restrained and yet, at the same time, forceful, masterful, deafening – these paintings yield more layers of emotions than one can absorb all at once. Response: a gasp, silence; trying to catch one’s breath, aghast. A simple yet definite experience of the sublime is taking place. So rarely do we experience such strong aesthetic emotions in the presence of recent works of art that I feel the need to check and ponder how Howard’s works conjure up such a response.
They are beautiful. In fact, no, it is something other than beauty: they are sublime. But why should this peculiar, old-fashioned and charged epithet “sublime” characterise these works better than the term “beautiful”? Entering the room where they are displayed, we are subjected to a shower of electrifying sensations that run up and down the spinal cord and make us shudder. Is this the surplus of emotions, difficult to contain or define, that could justify the use of this hyperbolic term?
I am fully aware that some readers – especially those who have not experienced Howard’s works in the flesh – will raise an eyebrow, or two, at the thought of using this eighteenth-century German-coined term “sublime” (“das Erhabene”) to describe works created just yesterday. Indeed, I am using this term in the very sense given to it in 1790 by Immanuel Kant in the chapter of his Critique of Judgement called ‘Analytic of the Sublime’. There Kant explains that beauty in nature has to do with the forms of objects, and hence is, by definition, limited by and through these very forms. In contrast, he explains: “The sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence, provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added thought of its totality.”1 Kant was the first conceptual technician to deal methodically, exactingly, almost as a surgeon would, with the mechanics of the sublime. As he unpacks this aesthetic concept, his words aptly evoke Via Dolorosa. As a whole, Howard’s ensemble of works “diffuses in the mind a multitude of sublime and tranquillising feelings, and gives a boundless outlook into a happy future, such as no expression within the compass of a definite concept completely attains”.2
Let us be more precise. While the “beautiful” has to do with quality, the “sublime” has to do with quantity. There is something simply overwhelming about the sublime. It crashes us. It is too much, and pushes us to the edge. We cannot take it. It hints at the notion of that totality that is infinity (and, therefore, unrepresentable) – of a boundless, limitless mass (“Unbegrenztheit”). The subject matter of Howard’s paintings is precisely this Unbegrenztheit: it never ends. And it is in this “never-ending”, this limitless span, that these works find themselves and bring us back to face ourselves with daunting, unsolvable questions. Howard ironically (cynically?) gives us a hint (that is no hint) by suggesting that the truth of it all is repetition. Repetition? How long for? Ad infinitum maybe? Repetition might then be another nuance to this Unbegrenztheit, this limitlessness, and perhaps there is a suggestion too that truth, the whole truth, never (quite) comes?
Another distinction is needed to qualify these works as sublime rather than beautiful: “beauty” carries connotations of charm, of the playful titillation of the imagination. There is none of this with the “sublime”: in fact, Kant warns us, charm is rather repellent to the sublime. Overall, Kant’s definition of the sublime is complicated, paradoxical, ambivalent and hence, again, fittingly works as we face Howard’s Via Dolorosa and our ensuing emotions:
The feeling of the sublime is a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling, for a brief second, of a suspension of all life forces, immediately followed by a discharge that is all the more powerful. This emotion is no game: it deals with utmost seriousness with the business of imagination. Hence charm is repugnant to it; and since the mind is not simply attracted by the object in question, but is also alternately repelled by it, the delight in the sublime carries with it, not so much positive pleasure, as admiration and awe: in this, it merits the name of a negative pleasure.3
Since this concept fits perfectly the experience of Howard’s works, let us see precisely the terms chosen by Kant to describe this “negative pleasure”, the sublime. He links two contradictory moments. First, for a second, one has the feeling that life has been suspended (“das Gefühl einer augenblicklichen Hemmung der Lebenskräfte”). In other words, one simply dies (or has the feeling of dying) in front of the sublime. Secondly, this short-lived (“augenblicklich”) feeling of death is soon superseded or supplemented by its opposite, a rush of adrenaline, an outpouring of emotions that are all the stronger (“stärker”) for the fact that they immediately succeed this instant of quasi-death.
Let us now return to Howard’s fourteen paintings. They too refer to the interval between death and life, pain and elation, falling and standing back up again. They too carry a complex mix of contradictory emotions that, subtly blended together, powerfully connect us to the heart of the business of humanity. Openly referring to the Via Dolorosa, often translated as the “Sorrowful Way” – that is, the painful path taken by Jesus Christ from the moment he was remitted by Pontius Pilate to his judges to the moment when he dies on the cross – they also stubbornly refuse to yield any “content”: no image, no illustration, no symbols, no allegory. So here is our first contradiction: Howard’s Via Dolorosa is no representation of the Via Dolorosa. So what is it a representation of, then? One could argue that it represents, precisely and literally, the unrepresentability of the Via Dolorosa, and in this sense goes exactly against the grain of past attempts to represent these last moments in the life of Christ.
The Via Dolorosa is a path in Jerusalem – the path that Christ took from Herod’s Antonia Fortress to Golgotha, undergoing physical torture and humiliation as he carried the very cross on which he was to be put to death. The Via Dolorosa is also more than a geographic itinerary; it refers to the devotional exercise taken on by pilgrims, in imitation of the life of Christ, to enter into the flesh of Christ and measure, through their flesh and bones, the last moments of agony that led this man/God to his death. According to the Franciscan authorities in charge of the Holy Sepulchre, this devotional exercise offers “a means which men and women can use to make contact with God, to adore Him, to thank Him, to increase their love for Him. Devotion to the sufferings of Christ, is particularly recommended for all who wish to live ‘upon the model of that charity which Christ showed to us when he gave himself up on our behalf’ (Eph. 6:2).”4
This devotional pilgrimage began developing in the early centuries of Christianity. Not until the sixteenth century did it receive its name, Via Dolorosa, and its codification, as well as the flurry of representations, mostly ultra-kitsch, that ensued. The liturgical codification of the event is, then, only five centuries old, whereas the event it commemorates is two millennia old, and there is an interesting paradox between the modes of representation of the Via Dolorosa and what it commemorates.
The structure of the walk is divided into fourteen stations. Howard has adopted this structure, although she is totally indifferent as to the order in which the viewer places the stations together. Therefore, while the overall structure of this mode of representation subsists, the narrative sequential declension of this representation has gone by the wayside. With the traditional liturgical order of the fourteen stations, each station is given a theme, a title, and provides the tempo of the walk. Each title is introduced with the word HERE, thus anchoring the living moment of the pilgrim within “this” precise step of Jesus:
- HERE Jesus is sentenced to death;
- HERE Jesus is given the Cross;
- HERE Jesus falls for the first time;
- HERE Jesus meets His Mother;
- HERE Simon the Cyrenian helps carry the Cross;
- HERE Veronica wipes Jesus’ face;
- HERE Jesus falls for the second time;
- HERE Jesus talks to the women of Jerusalem;
- HERE Jesus falls for the third time;
- HERE Jesus is stripped of His garments;
- HERE Jesus is nailed to the Cross;
- HERE Jesus dies on the Cross;
- HERE Jesus is taken down from the Cross;
- HERE Jesus is laid in the Sepulchre.
There is, of course, a fifteenth station: HERE Jesus rises from the dead. But this final station – the resurrection of Christ, monumentally depicted by Piero della Francesca (c. 1460, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro), when Jesus the man and Jesus the lord become one and the same – is not accessible to pilgrims.
As we retrace mentally the steps of Jesus and his silence as he suffers this torturous process, what is striking is to note how frail and fallible he is as he goes through this agony.5 He falls three times: after he is given the cross; after Veronica wipes his face; and after he talks with the women of Jerusalem. Incidentally, with the exception of Simon, there are only women on the path between Jesus being sentenced to death and his actual execution: not a single man is mentioned after Pilate. The Via Dolorosa is, one could claim, one of the first feminist texts ever: the ones who bring solace to Christ on his way to be put to death are women. It is they that embody the human side of humanity.
Here I find another curious, probably serendipitous, parallel with Howard’s works that goes to the core of their physical, technical make-up: the process of their making was filled with trial and error, frailness, uncertainty. She too, the artist, fell as she was in the process of working. These fourteen stages of Via Dolorosa did not come about easily. They certainly are not the result of a single shot. They may carry the marks of sumptuous gloss, of smooth radiance, of glorious inlaid surfaces, but they are the results of many stops and starts: “I destroy more works than I keep, which is not a bad thing, as it helps to make the pieces I keep. When I destroy a piece it’s a wonderful feeling.”6
One of the most profound analogies I see between Howard’s referent and her fourteen paintings has a lot to do with gravity. As one reads the fourteen Stations of the Cross, almost all of them have to do with falling under some weight or pressure. From the weight of injustice (being sentenced to death on no grounds)7 to the physically oppressive weight of the cross, the victim’s instrument of torture, or from Veronica sponging off Christ’s down-pouring sweat to when he is finally taken down from the cross, all these stations are essentially pointing downwards, following gravity, through the corporeality, the very physical presence of Christ.
Let us now hear how Howard herself describes the process of making Via Dolorosa:
This particular body of work was very physical to make in that the way they were made was quite sculptural. Scaffolding and ladders were needed to tackle the canvases. The canvases are large and heavy, and were painted upside down. They were turned once the paint had dried, then another layer was poured, giving the push and pull of the paint, gravity and anti-gravity working on one canvas. The paint is transported by gravity, and varnish is used to help it travel down the surface. It gives it its translucence and flatness, the idiosyncrasies and character of the paint is what I like to work with.8
These few lines echo another of the artists who have dealt with this daunting theme in the past century.9 Upset by the obstinate and enduring categories of formalism that were completely dominating the critical discourse on his work, Barnett Newman objected: “The freedom of space, the emotion of human scale, the sanctity of place are what is moving.”10 This statement was published only a few months before Newman exhibited his own Stations of the Cross between 1958 and 1966.
There is more than one parallel between Howard’s Via Dolorosa and Newman’s The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani. On the one hand there is a Jewish-born atheist, fully engaged anarchist and abstract painter; on the other, there is an English, Anglican-born, Quaker-educated committed civil-rights activist and abstract painter, who describes her rapport with religion as “an ongoing debate full of contradictions and confusion”.11 Both Newman and Howard approach the same theme from a deeply humanistic rather than a religious perspective – the perspective of Everyman, the perspective of a human being who cannot escape witnessing, if not enduring, suffering. And in Howard’s specific situation, she sees in the murder of Christ certainly not the first but at least one of the earliest and most universally known cases of the principles of human justice being utterly flouted. From their different historical perspectives, Howard and Newman pose the unanswerable question: Why did this happen? Howard asks “Why have you forsaken me?”, as does Newman in Aramaic: “Lema Sabachthani”. Both questions remain without an answer; both remain utterly and confusingly unanswerable.
This returns us to the notion of the sublime: “a negative pleasure”. Kant warned us: this is no little game; this is a serious, deep, risk-taking venture. For, in the end, what are we looking at? What are we not looking at? Are we looking at a representation of the invisible? Of the passage between man and God? Of the movement between life and death?