This is a guest post by the artist Hayley Barker about her encounter with Jay DeFeo's "The Rose."
You can check out Hayley Barker's amazing work here. Her paintings are so deep I want to swim in them.
Hayley Barker makes drawings and oil paintings about the body, nature, psychological states and visionary experience. Her work has appeared in regional and international venues, New American Painting magazine, and the Drawing Center's Viewing Program. Her work has been reviewed in Art in America, the Oregonian, Willamette Week, Portland Monthly and Visual Arts Source online. She received her BA from the University of Oregon (1996) and her MA and MFA in Intermedia, from the University of Iowa (2001). She lives and works in Portland, Oregon. She is represented by Charles A. Hartman Fine Art.
I have had a rough couple of years: ovarian cancer, a bad car accident, too much stress, and not enough income.
When I found out that “The Rose,” Jay DeFeo’s masterpiece, would be hanging in a retrospective on the west coast, I had to go. And I had to go because I am a painter living on the west coast. My last show was very much inspired by everything I read about “The Rose.” There is that great book called Jay DeFeo and the Rose, which I first read when I was recovering last year – painkillers blurring my vision, migraines clouding my afternoons. Now more clear-headed, I re-read it in the days before heading down to San Francisco to see her retrospective at the SFMOMA. It recounts the epic tale of the making of DeFeo’s The Rose, which took eight years to make and weighs over 2000 pounds. It is both sculpture and image, containing vast quantities of paint. It is a massive feat of creative focus, courage, and devotion.
When I first heard about the show I had to buy a ticket, despite the cost, despite the impracticality of taking a flight just to see one painting. But the pull I experienced felt religious, like a beckoning, a promising of something, some kind of knowledge that could only be transmitted in person. It’s worth mentioning that I operate under the perhaps antiquated belief that some works of art cannot be “captured” adequately via photographic representation. Believe me when I say that if any painting wants to be seen in person, it is this painting.
In therapy, the day before heading down to San Francisco, my therapist suggested I try to do a somatic experience with the painting. Somatic experiencing is when you try to strip away the narrative from a feeling. It’s used sometimes for healing from trauma: one takes the traumatic episode and tries to put the sensations into words: words that describe sensation in the body. Somatic experiencing is hard to do. It’s really hard. But if you learn to do the technique it can be profound. This technique has helped me to understand my nervous system – to really feel flight and flight, pleasure and calm as they well up in my mind and body. It has given me the tools to know how to manage anxiety and P.T.S.D. on a bodily level, but this technique is ultimately just a way to watch what is going on in your mind and body without getting too overwhelmed by the flood of chemicals that come during moments of intense emotion and the physical responses that follow. It’s almost a meditation – albeit a stormy one.
My luck I got the flu a few days before heading to the SFMOMA. Rushing onto the plane that dark morning, I was feverish still, but it did not matter. I told myself, all I have to do is get to the painting and the rest will work itself out.
Felt seriously feverish when the plane touched down in Oakland at 10 AM. Took the shuttle to the BART and walked the 4 blocks to the SFMOMA. 11:10 AM. Bought the ticket. I’m hungry. Forget lunch. More time with the Rose. Fourth floor. OK.
I tried to enter the show with patience. Tried to view it as it was hung, piece-by-piece but I couldn't wait. I had to go see The Rose as soon as possible to maximize time with it. I didn't know how long I'd need to be with it for. So I skipped the first few rooms and turned a corner and there it was!
It literally took my breath away. I gasped. I think I said, "oh my God." On the far wall to my right it was suspended in a gray room.
A warm gray room.
From the middle of the adjacent room I could see it. I turned to face it across a distance of maybe 25 feet.
It appeared like a vision, it was a vision. Something too perfect to see – or too pure to be material. Bigger and smaller than I expected.
And whiter. Whiter all over. Less gray than pictures show it to be.
I felt my hand on my chest feeling my heart pounding. My hands went numb. My feet felt glued to the ground. My nose started running and my eyes started dripping. My hand found my hankie. I blew into it and wiped, gripping it tightly.
Awareness of the surrounding people and space felt blurry. I couldn't take my eyes off it. It moves your eyes in circles, waves.
It is pigment and shadow, gesture and fault lines. Landslides. Rivers. Pawings in the upper corners. Dark warm gray handfuls of smearing darkness. White on the tops of ridges and white thick, chunky valleys below. The black is warm and lush on top of small hills and the shadows below them – even if white – are darkened. Shadows acting as pigments. Pigments pretending not to be shadowed.
The center is concave!
It's concave. I look for the “smile” – the U-shaped pinnacle, a broken half-hill that was mended during its long restroration. No sign of it. They did good, those restorers. I begin to notice people standing in front of it and me. Like bees around a picnic. Moving in and out, closer and farther. I try to get a grip. My chest fills with tight anger, anger that I can’t have it and all the space around it to myself. I want it all to myself. I want it to fill my vision.
So I move in closer, first to the left side. I cannot believe how much there is to see. It's revelatory like a secret waterfall in a dense forest. I move in closer. It's utterly mesmerizing. The technical history of its making and saving leave me now. I can't think. It has me, it utterly has me. Time disappears....
I find myself on its other side taking it in. I've cried. Been crying. I sigh. I may have moaned. It's hard to know. I think time has passed. I feel somehow like it is working on me. It could work on all of us.
There's a lull in the crowd. Slowly I position myself directly in front of it now.
Step back once, twice.
Now it fills my vision. Just us. No peripheral.
I squint my eyes (how I do when I paint) simplifying its values into patterns.
The center, the star, its peak is just a little higher than my eyes. It feels like a magical alignment – something I fit into, something cosmic that has been waiting to happen and that the right time, here now, could set a million tiny reactions blazing in all directions. I’m encompassed by its radiance. It's a star come down and touch me on the head. It is light and death. Everything to the sides and behind me becomes gray and darkens, gets blurry. Layers of soft light spin around and I feel like its special subject. It was waiting for me to set it in motion simply by my nearness, my right orientation. My willingness to play along or take its prompting seriously. It’s a machine for sensation-generating, indeed. I stand there feeling it, it’s pulsing, beckoning till other people step in my line of vision, disrupt the mechanism. And it stops.
This must have been a little like how she used it, or why she made it. I imagine her standing in the exact same position, in the same proximity. She and I are only separated now by time – not space, but only barely. Somewhere in time she’s standing there feeling its rays holding her, choosing her. They make each other; reinforce each other’s materiality and porousness.
In her darkened apartment, alone with this being, this planet, this painting, it must have been almost frightening. It must have been inescapable – its gaze, its magnetic pull.
Here, even in this busy, public room I cannot tear my self away…
Imagine feeling responsible for it.
Imagine knowing that you could be the one to fine-tune it. She was the orchestrator of this vibrant experiment. This fine instrument. This space and time machine.
And what an awesome calling. What a strange thing to find yourself making.
She must have felt like Mary during the Annunciation. Unto you a painting will be born.
I feel a little unnerved by it, magnetic for me. I find myself closer to it. Crying again.
Humbled by it. How can I possibly make anything as amazing?
How can something so perfect be made by human hands? The millions of choices. The accumulation of thousands and thousands of hours of looking. And gesturing. Moving it around. Moving it moving you.
It's a grotto.
It's a cathedral.
It's a portal.
It's a vision captured.
A living vision-making machine.
What a tremendous gift. What an unsettling burden. What a generous offering from a woman not so different from me. Not so different.
What unflappable faith!
What belief she had in her own ability to hear what it needed to be and enact it. This is what I need; maybe it's what I have in rare moments. Maybe that is what scares me in myself. I know I would go there. I know I would believe – if I was gifted such a task. Tasked with such a gift.
(I wanted to kneel, make the sign of the cross.)
What a sacrifice.
What a horrible burden.
I pray that when she finally parted with it, when she finally touched it for the last time, that she felt lighter for it.
I hope that when she was dying of cancer, that she imagined it in all its fullness as existing still, breathing as it does, extending from her insides to the cosmos.
(I am ultimately speechless.)
It is probably time to step away. The nice guard has long ceased watching me with suspicion. He knows I’m a pilgrim. I am feverish, exhausted and exhilarated.
The guard asks a man not to take a picture with his phone.
I resist the urge to pose nude in front of it, like Jay did for her artist friend, Vitruvian-style with a glowing Hebrew glyph on my chest. But no pictures are allowed.
I give up.
I give up. I need to let go and it's been at least an hour now.
I will never be done with this. I've only just begun to see it.
(I am ultimately speechless.)
I am exhilarated and spent by it.
I resist the urge to wave farewell.
DeFeo, Jay, Jane Green, Leah Levy, and Marla Prather. Jay DeFeo and The Rose. Berkeley; London: University of California, 2003. Print.