January 14, 2008

From the Archive: A Statement About "Roadside Effigy"

Sometimes others write about an artist's work to reveal insights that even the artist himself/herself could not have anticapted in the creation of it. The painting above "Roadside Effigy" is from my archive and is now in the permanent collection of the Morris Museum of Art. A philosopher of aesthetics, Dr. Alan Paskow, had written an essay about the work in exchange for art lessons some years ago. For those interested in excellent writing about art, look at his book published by Cambridge University Press, Paradoxes of Art: A Phenomenological Investigation. Please enjoy the following essay by Dr. Paskow:

Statement about Janet Kozachek’s “Roadside Effigy”:

For me, this painting has four opposing thematic elements: the red earth, the man-made structure, the vegetation in the background, and the white figure in the right foreground. But the most striking opposition, and the fundamental mystery of the painting as a whole, is between the ill-defined, wispy, ghost-like form and the human shelter. This latter relationship raises several provocative questions.First, why is the white form there at all? Why not a picture just of the shelter itself? Is the form directly facing the shelter or, on the contrary, is it facing in the opposite direction? Or is it sheets blowing in the wind? Then are we then to think of men donning sinister apparel, the Ku Klux Klan? Also, why is the form anchored by a cross? And why isn’t it with the same detail as the shed. Are we then to think of it as something not definable like a physical object? Perhaps Kozachek wants us to feel a force underlying our everyday, factually-defined world. If that is so, we may ask: is it a benign force or a malignant one?And the shelter? Why the bold, contrasting colors? Why do they jar with the softer colors of the vegetation and the reddish-brown earth? Why is “God Loves You” written (in red) on the side of the shelter? And why is one able to see through the right side of it to the vegetation beyond? And does the white form in some sense belong inside the shelter? Is it “longing” to be there? Or has it, instead, turned its back to it? Moreover, what does this drama involving the white form and the shelter have to do with the more familiar, but nevertheless somewhat strange, natural scene in which the artifactual elements are set?

Here is one way to interpret the painting. The shelter is made by people in order to protect them and in order to affirm their presence in opposition to natural phenomena that have pre-existed people by eons and which will most likely post-exist them as well. The shelter is for me a church-like structure. But its form of expression is tragicomic. The shelter is flimsy, already dilapidated, rusted; its garish colors, while vibrant, are almost kitsch-like in relation to the more muted colors of nature. And the scrawl asserting that God loves us, while perhaps true, seems pathetic, almost desperate. A person who truly believes this already would not need to affirm it—in red, no less.The ghost-like figure is very disturbing and for me the most significant part of the painting. It, Janus-like, both looks to the shelter and turns its back to it. The looking-to suggests that it in some sense belongs, should be inside the shelter, as the highest spiritual capacities of humans truly belong to them and thus to our world. But perhaps the figure must always simply yearn to be there—after all, the shelter and the cross are two immobile structures—because of the ineluctable distance existing between who we are, in all of our moral and creative abjectness, and what we feel that we could and should achieve in our lives. On the other hand, if the ghost-like figure is viewed as facing away from the shelter, then it becomes more sinister. Perhaps the true forces that define our being are not positive, but darker. Then the figure would not be a Christlike Redeemer, but instead an expression of human restlessness and insatiability. I imagine that the artist wants us to feel the unsettledness of who we are, to stress its ambiguity and openness. Finally, in addition to the drama of ghost-form and shelter, I wish to return to the Kozachek’s depiction of nature. Its red earth, mutilated and “bleeding” to make way for the structure, nevertheless nurtures and sustains the tranquil vegetation beyond. In its own sheltering manner, and in its stillness, the natural world seems to offer a kind of solace to the struggles that we all have with others and with our own humanity. Perhaps certain features of the natural world (visible through the passages of the shelter) are able at times to reassure us, or at least give us hope, that above and beyond our daily human strife and all of its contradictions, there are powers that mysteriously and benevolently heal the soil and that can heal us as well, so long as we look and attend to them in the right manner. If this interpretation is right, then the scene suggests a form of nature mysticism.

Alan Paskow

Professor of PhilosophySt. Mary’s College of Maryland

copyright April 17, 1995

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