i met with sheila provazza when she was making the panorama in the sweet bye-and-bye. we drove out to her studio on an achingly cold winter day, the ice-covered bays and inlets of her glen margaret home glittering under a clear blue sky. on the way, we talked about the context in which this work was made, provazza’s love of opera – she was listening to the rake’s progress at the time. (known to painters through hogarth’s multi-panel painting, the rake’s progress describes the sudden fortune of tom rakewell, his unfortunate marriage and subsequent fall to penury, syphilis and death.) provazza described her work at the glimmerglass opera festival, and the way in which working on props and sets for the opera has changed her way of painting in terms of both scale and process. she talked about the toys she’s collected as characters for this painting, describing the way she’d played as a child, “totally immersed, open to possibility, an ability to incorporate discrete, even obdurate elements into the flow of action.”
what follows is a series of short ruminations on painting, and on this painting when i finally stood before it.
i visited a panorama in holland once, a nice model of den haag in the 1880’s. an accompanying pamphlet assured me that the panorama was, at the time, a popular destination for townsfolk out for enjoyment. like those other great ‘p’s of public presence, the piazza or the promenade, it fulfilled one of the measures of social being: i am here. perhaps it is this aspect that is so likeable about panoramas – the vertical axis of presence (here i stand) and the horizontal axis of perspectival vision (there i see) cross smartly in the panorama’s hub, fixing the viewer in a pleasantly organised and miniaturized version of the world. gravity obtains in this world, the gravity of the situation, i am here, i am the centre. and gravity also as that trustworthy force that tells us that building rest on the earth, that bodies do not spontaneously fly up into the air, that there is an order to things.
this cannot be said for sheila provazza’s polygonal painting. for one thing, an unnerving giganticism seems to affect the characters. an anthropomorphic cast from monkeys to toy soldiers to angels, they dwarf the serene blue landscape through which they drift. more pressingly, there is little sense of fixedness. some creatures – the little boy and the pig in the first panel, the toy soldiers in the fourth and fifth, imply a ground plane, but their feet are braced only against crystalline air. yet while gravity doesn’t seem to affect the figures, worry does. something is about to happen – or has already.
“show me an angel and i will paint one”, said gustave courbet, and thereafter painters left off allowing anything but birds to fly. before the 17th century (and newton) both northern and southern skies were full of flying figures. they fell to earth more rapidly in protestant and puritan northern europe. long before tiepolo’s angels came to rest, rembrandt, rubens and poussin had grounded their figures. italian angels still whirled and plunged in the blue depths of the sky, lifted there by the grace of god, catholic mysticism allowing for flying figures where the protestant love of the quotidian would not. by the 19th century, only goya’s nightmare visions and bougereau’s seraphim remained unaffected by gravity. then there was a long gap. when magritte again painted figures in the sky they were bowler-hatted men, not angels, floating in ranks under crisp umbrellas. suzi gablike writes of them that “… the point of gravity seems to lie … in those relations of uncertainty which at the present moment reflect the philosophical mentality of modern physics”. uncertainty, doubt – faith’s opposites.
and it is doubtfulness that most strongly characterizes the players in provazza’s painting. there are some exceptions. the dog in the second panel stares upward with something closer to urgent beseeching – perhaps a warning about the sinister jack-in-a-box whose glass eyes and slit mouth belie his painted grin. the pig in the first panel approaches the little boy with a smile full of cupidity. the long-nosed elf slyly solicits complicity. but for the rest … even the toy soldiers poised to blast away with their little plactic weapons are flanked by two fellows staring perplexedly at guns held at arm’s length. the penultimate panel shows a gorgeous blonde who throws up her arms in what must be a gesture of surrender and resignation.
yet resignation is not the same as looking backwards. and the final figures in this painting are looking backwards.
traditional panoramas are completely circular; you are enclosed within an unending vista, perpetually fixed, perpetually suspended. provazza’s panorama has a beginning and an end, like performance arts that are based in time. in this painting, however, the beginning (the chubby little boy) and the end (the two angels) both look backwards, perhaps to the past or what has passed. the relativity of modern physics is best known to the layperson as a relativity of spatial and temporal qualities. but for all that e=mc square, for all that psychology or dreams enfold past into present, wrinkles in time, the past is a different place from the present. “the past is a foreign country”, wrote l.p.hartley, “they do things differently there.” the precise rendering of objects, the transitions of time marked by subtle changes of light in the watery landscape, the gentle evocation of event implied by the use of charged objects and facial expressions, all of these suggest tat provazza’s intentions are narrative – or at least historical, in the sense implied by walter benjamin in his description of the most famous of backward looking angels, klee’s ‘angelus novus’, “the angel of history [whose] face is turned toward the past.”
provazza’s title, too, is excerpted from a 19th century hymn that speaks of meeting ‘in the sweet by-and-by’, an undefined, unattainable, utopian moment. but in the end, provazza’s work, like all panoramas, is less about history than it is about place. the map she constructs is the sneaky, turbulent terrain of memory. just as provazza withholds gravity, so does she the centrality of this now, here. wallace stevens’s “primary noon/ the abc of being”, barnett newman’s breathless incantation, “be 1, here 1, not there – here” fade to another country, evening. what we are left with, quietly glowing, unassuming but insistent, sometimes welcome friend, sometimes sinister companion is memory: hers, mine, ours.
catalgue essay for sheila provazza’s show at the saint mary’s university art gallery, halifax, 2005