It’s About Time by Gerard Haggerty, ARTnews Critic

IT’S ABOUT TIME

Gerard Haggerty

Gerard Haggerty writes for ARTnews, and teaches at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.  His work has won the

support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Ford Foundation.

 

In The Third Man, Orson Welles utters a bit of dialogue that’s almost as famous as “Rosebud! Rosebud!”  Cast as the charismatic villain Harry Lime, he tells us, “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace––and what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock.”

The absurd ring of “the cuckoo clock,” coupled with the persuasive sound of Welles’ voice, tempts us to believe his argument.  But in truth, Lime’s sly words do a disservice not only to peace, democracy, brotherly love, and the Swiss {the cuckoo clock actually originated in Germany’s Black Forest during the mid–18th century}; they also dramatically underrate the importance of the clock, which is one of those devices that changed our view of the world.  Forever.  Lewis Mumford––who credits medieval monks with the invention of the mechanical timepiece that was subsequently adopted by the rest of society––makes a compelling case that the clock and not the steam engine was the key that opened the door to the Industrial Revolution.  Writing with apt precision, he reminds us that “the clock is a piece of machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.”

The ambitious installation by Hall Groat II entitled Contiguous Yet Divided spans eleven yards and fifty centuries. Its seventeen diversely–sized panels illustrate the human effort to codify time, from an ancient Egyptian obelisk to one of IBM’s so-called “atomic clocks” that’s linked by radio to the world’s most exact timepiece: the cesium clock at the American Institute of Standards in Fort Collins, Colorado, which stays accurate down to the nanosecond, century after century.  One tall canvas depicts an hourglass {half–empty or half–full?}and two closely cropped pictures of clockwork parts seem to cast Walter Murch’s mechanical still-lives in a Baroque light.

The artist owns most of the clocks that he paints, including several finely engineered little worlds under a bell jar.  Though his subjects are models of precision, you’ll find no chill hyper-realism here; the brushwork is direct, and edges are repeatedly lost and found so that the object seems to exist in a world of air and space.  In the mid–tonal range that Groat favors, select tiny spots of white sparkle like natural light.

Some clocks are centered in front of backgrounds that resemble curtains, and the effect is a bit like an actor offering a soliloquy.  Others are cropped in ways that push the image in the direction of abstraction. Groat’s alarm clock is painted as big as it sounds when it wakes you from a deep sleep first thing in the morning.  The quarter–moon shaped portion of the device filling this 20 x 30 inch canvas corresponds to 10:00 till 2:00 on the dial, but numerals are absent.  Writ large, the close-up emphasizes the rainbow of colors the artist uses to mimic the appearance of chrome: various shades of crimson, tangerine, sky-blue, lime and olive green.  In size and shape, the minute hand of this gargantuan timepiece resembles a stiletto’s blade; the second hand, a hat pin.  Two domed bells, each bigger than a fist, sit on either side of the alarm’s curved top and the bent handle that connects them looks like a silver wire.  These days that detail will remind some viewers of the fact that clocks are part of a bomb-maker’s arsenal.

Groat understands that the faces of clocks and people both tell time. Seeing friends regularly and consulting our mirror on a daily basis obscures this truth.  But when there’s a gap––for instance, after a long absence when we encounter old pals or, more startlingly, see their children––the passage of time becomes all too clear.

Groat’s Self with Father-in-Law juxtaposes two generations, and by implication two different stages in the life-cycle––an effect that’s heightened by the fact that both men bear a certain resemblance to each other.  Because they appear unclothed, no costumes mark them as belonging to any particular era.  This is also to say that they seem timeless, and so does the setting: a garden at night.  One might imagine a corner of THE Garden, absent a visible Eve or the tree of knowledge, but abloom with abundant sun-flowers––the phototropic flora that William Blake characterized as being “weary of time.”

In Reflection, Groat’s pensive countenance stares out over a swathe of cobalt blue cloth, upon which broken eggshells are scattered.  The white and pale sienna paint that depicts them looks fresh––as they say, “fresh as the day you were born”––a fitting trope for this symbolically charged portrait of the artist as a young man.  Where the energetic brushstrokes in Reflection suggest a sense of youthful exuberance, the artist brings a more tentative and delicate touch to the life-sized image of his Father-in-Law’s pocket-watch that comprises one of the panels in Contiguous Yet Divided.  As often happens with still-life props, this particular keepsake

functions as a stand-in for its original owner.  The heirloom preserves memory––the artist’s personal memory of his Father-in-Law, and cultural memory too.  This little picture evokes the Big Picture that we call art history, including painters like Chardin, Edwin Dickinson, and Groat’s teacher Lennart Anderson.  Here Groat’s subject matter is a watch, but his subject is tradition, as eloquently described by Igor Stravinsky: “A real tradition is not the relic of a past irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present … Far from implying the repetition of what has been, tradition presupposes the reality of what endures.  It appears as an heirloom, a heritage that one receives on condition of making it bear fruit before passing it on to one’s descendants.”

  ––Gerard Haggerty, NYC, 2006      

 

ROBERSON MUSEUM AND SCIENCE CENTER, BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK

 

 

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