Eugene Lemay | Letters
Opening Reception: Thursday, Apr. 11, 2013
Text by: Yaniv Shapira
Eugene Lemay’s biography reveals a collision of culture, religion, language, and geography. he was born in 1960 in grand rapids, Michigan, to a large Christian-Arab family. In the mid-sixties, his mother Shirley, a Lebanese-Syrian, and his father Joseph of French-Canadian decent, moved his family into a predominantly black neighborhood as an act of solidarity with the civil rights movement. Joseph, a social activist, converted to Judaism in 1969, with the rest of the family soon thereafter. In 1973 they immigrated to Israel and settled in kibbutz Sarid in the Yezreel Valley (Emek Yizreel). The move to a new country entailed confronting a foreign language and unfamiliar cultural codes, which resulted in conflicting identities that became a fixture of young Lemay’s world. In 1979 he enlisted in the Israeli military, where he served in a combat unit fighting in the First Lebanon War. It was during this war that he found himself confronting his past in a way that he could not have imagined. His unit took control of the Lebanese village of Tebnine, hometown of Lemay’s maternal grandfather. Upon his discharge from the army he spent another year in kibbutz Sarid, Sarid, before returning to the United States.
This brief synopsis of Lemay’s biography is vital for the reading of his “language works” – an ongoing artistic project based on words both Hebrew and Arabic. The project originated in letters Lemay wrote following the First Lebanon War to the bereaved parents of fallen soldiers with whom he served. the letters were written – but never sent. these quivering documents remained stored away in his drawers for years, never reaching their destination. a “letter” (whose Hebrew equivalent, mikhtav, is derived from the same root – k-t-v – as the Hebrew verb “to write”) embodies by its very nature an intimate quality reserved for the relationship between a letter’s author and the addressee, and allows for a precise articulation of the writer’s inner world, which under different circumstances may receive a more restrained, tentative, and confused expression. In contrast, “book” with the Hebrew equivalent sefer shares its root with the Hebrew word for “story,” in essence is to tell a story, guard a memory, or convey a message publicly. the further we explore the narratives that underlies Lemay’s works, the more evident the tension contained within them thus becomes; between the intimate and the public, between restrained silence, and the barely contained urge to cry out. “It is possible to scream extremely loudly in a ‘small still voice’ without anyone hearing a thing, for one emits no sound at all,” rabbi Nachman of Breslov observed, penetrating accurately into the psychic depths of human existence. The same theme also calls to mind one of rainer Maria Rilke’s confessions:
By now, familiar with the notion of soldiers returning from the battle- field, who, stricken by silence, grap- ple with processes of repression, motivated by the desire to forget, without which they are unlikely to resume daily life. One particularly rich and resonant document produced
in the brief window of time before these defense mechanisms fully set in is the book siakh lokhamim, a com- pilation published shortly after the conclusion of the six-Day War. The book was spoken rather than written, containing open, honest and direct conversations with soldiers who had recently returned from the horrors of the war, alongside letters sent to their beloved. These texts open a window unto the soul and psyche of the young man – human being – soldier who confronts the unnatural circumstances of war. The unusual frankness and directness of many of the recorded conversations that are included (uncensored) in this com- pilation were enabled, most likely, by their particular timing – a unique moment in which the traumatic experiences had not yet been suppressed, on the one hand, and fatalism had not yet bred silence, on the other. In the introduction to siakh lokhamim, one of its editors observes:
Lemay’s work, made up of layers upon layers of words, which underlie the role that language plays in human culture, as a channel for communication through which one person conveys a message to another, society strives to express its truths, and shape its identity. His series titled “letters” comprises dozens of small digital prints on paper featuring dense lines of handwritten words. Appearing out of linguistic order, the words are expropriated from their original context and become through artistic alchemy – notes, signs, shapes, and finally abstract images. This embroiled and illegible wording is a clear mark of the art- it’s yearning to find a language that would express what he is unable to assert verbally. The sculptor David smith aptly describes the formation of a unique artistic language:
Another series titled “Written landscapes,” presents us with landscape-like panoramas with a changing, bright color scheme (deep purple, red-violet, dark blue). These topographic spaces, which draw the viewer in, are similarly made up of the textures of the words that are revealed in their backdrop and which function like a system of hidden arteries. These are ‘landscapes’ that do not follow the genre’s typical representation in the sense of being romantic, naïve, or impressed with the beauty of nature. Nor are they representations of a ravine, a mountaintop, or a crevice. They function as landscapes of the soul, an inner space that evokes associations, dreams, longings, hallucinations, or night- mares.
The group of works titled “Digital assemblage” is the final chapter to date of Lemay’s “language Works.” the large dimensions of these works high- light colorful fields of silver-gray tones, to which are affixed charred wooden beams that cross the fields at their center or margins. Unlike in the earlier appearances of this series (in one of its incarnations it was displayed within video works shown on small screens), these blackened remnants now reverberate within it like the dim memory of a blaze or other experiences of destruction, thereby moving the works beyond their pristine and captivating façade and prompting a new kind of attentiveness on the part of their viewer. With this choice, Lemay is functioning much like the spies that Moses sent out to explore the land of Canaan, demanding that they bring back a tangible sign of the land. The charred tree, a symbol of the real and the tangible, serves to counterweight the captivating ‘enchantment’ of the color fields, and paves the way for a new interpretive reading of them.
the three series that unfold before us highlight different aspects of a single theme and function as a trilogy, the components of which complement, expand, and sustain one another. They are rooted in the experience of an individual confined in isolation, and culminate in a universal message directed at all human beings as such. In 1966, Barnett Newman completed his series “Fourteen stations of the cross: lema sabachthani?” (on which he had labored for eight years) and published alongside it the following statement: “lema sabachthani—why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why? This is the passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” With this cry, Newman sought to break through the visual boundaries of his paintings and express a dimension of tragedy and helplessness. Lemay similarly tests the limits of the power of the visual image in his attempt to find expression for that which words cannot convey. His solution is found in their symbolic, abstract, silent form.