Eugene Lemay: Dark Silence
By Richard Vine
The works of Eugene Lemay—for the most part large inkjet prints of landscapes, skies, or Hebrew- and Arabic-like texts cast in a rich mottled black—present viewers with a string of somber visual riddles. What am I actually seeing? How can these images be so obscure and yet, once finally discerned, so indelible? Why is the artist compelled to communicate and yet to veil his work’s content in rich darkness? Why does he evoke visual and verbal language, while simultaneously subverting its most basic function?
Bit by bit, as one’s eyes and mind adjust to the pictorial gloom, a simple but terrible answer begins to dawn. Lemay—in stark contrast to many other contemporary artists—chooses gradual, almost ritualistic revelation because his message is too wrenching to communicate in a flash
While this puzzling oeuvre is best understood in terms of certain formal and thematic preoccupations, its genesis is directly biographical. Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1960, LeMay was the ninth of 15 children produced his French Canadian father and Lebanese-Syrian mother.[i] Social activists deeply committed to the era’s civil rights movement, his parents, who were both Christians at the time, moved the family into a troubled black neighborhood, greatly complicating Eugene’s adolescent adjustment problems. In 1969, his father converted to Judaism, which was soon adopted by all the family members, and in 1973 the entire household emigrated to the Sarid kibbutz in Israel.
At age 19, Lemay joined the Israeli army. Attaining the rank of sergeant in the Sayeret Golani commando reconnaissance unit, he saw repeated action in the First Lebanese War (1982). The most searingly memorable of these encounters was his squad’s assault on the Beaufort Crusader Castle in southern Lebanon. The ancient citadel, perched atop a 980-foot cliff overlooking the Litani River, provided its score of PLO occupiers a wide range of fire on the countryside below and an excellent vantage point for directing artillery shelling throughout the area. Although a shift in Israeli battle plans rendered Beaufort a nonessential target to be circumvented rather than stormed, this information was “delayed” in reaching the front, and a direct attack was ordered. In the night, according to Lemay, the Sayeret Golani scaled the cliff face, eventually taking fire from above, and managed to overrun the PLO position, killing its defenders. Of the 18 men in Lemay’s assault unit six were killed.
Lemay’s years of military service, during which he frequently had to scout enemy territory at night and once found himself occupying Tebnine, Lebanon, the home village of his mother’s father, would become central to his later artistic practice—a future at that point completely undreamed of.
Upon discharge, Lemay returned for a year to the kibbutz, and then, with funds accumulated from his army savings and odd jobs, booked passage to New York. He arrived at JFK in 1984 with $4,000 in his pocket—an amount that he immediately lost in a three-card monte game outside Grand Central Station.
Disastrous as this loss might sound—and no doubt felt at the time—it if fact led to the making of Lemay’s new life. A friend helped him secure part-time hourly work at Moishe Mana’s moving company, headquartered in Jersey City, N.J. Although Lemay had no professional experience in business, and least of all in the sideline of fine art moving and storage that the company was just then entering, he did have exceptional managerial skills. (You don’t survive—literally—if you run an Israeli commando unit in a haphazard fashion.) He advanced quickly in the firm, eventually reaching his current position as chief executive of its international art storage and moving operations. Lemay is also director of its Mana Contemporary Art Center in Jersey City, which encompasses 2 million square feet, including storage facilities, 80 artist’s studios, eight exhibition galleries, a foundry, a dance studio, a print workshop, and an immense sculpture and installation pavilion. A branch of Mana Contemporary recently opened in Chicago, and others are planned.
In 2013, Lemay was named to Art & Auction magazine’s Power 100 list, which includes such international figures as collector and LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault, artist Jeff Koons, and Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong. In addition, Lemay married in 1996 and is now the father of four children. Given the artist’s wartime shocks and anxieties, these personal accomplishments represent a triumph of renormalization—a longing that lies at the core of his work.
The irony of this impressive career trajectory is that Lemay had no great interest in art, and certainly no thought of becoming an artist, until 1993, when he visited a Robert Ryman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 80 paintings on view, produced over nearly 40 years, filled Lemay with wonder. Here was a sustained and seemingly inexhaustible exploration of abstract white-on-white composition. The work, at once giving and reserved, struck a psychological chord; within days, Lemay began his own artistic experiments. But, for this thoughtful ex-soldier, the notes that resonated were not in Ryman’s bright major key but in a dark minor that evoked Lemay’s long-suppressed battlefield traumas.
Throughout Western art history, art that addresses war has served primarily to glorify combatants, leaders, and their campaigns, or to solemnly memorialize the dead. For the minority strain of war protest, a single name—Goya, author of the “Disasters of War”—might suffice, were the Spanish master not an inspiration for so many subsequent efforts, from the visual howls of George Gross and Otto Dix in the WWI era to the anti-Vietnam rhetoric of the 1966 Artists’ Tower of Protest by Mark di Suvero and others.
Lemay’s contribution to this tradition is complex and highly individual. No one would read his obsessive, lightless works as celebratory. But they do possess a dualistic quality, and an emotional ambivalence, hovering halfway between commemoration and protest—silently crying out against war’s supremely brutal waste of life, while honoring, with a mute awe, the professionalism and bravery of the men he saw fight to the death.
A recent series, for example, presents us night skies from which cloud shapes and silhouetted aircraft emerge as our perceptions, like those of a stealth pilot, adjust to the midair darkness. We are suddenly in the place of airmen whose mission is to report, track, and destroy enemy planes. Or, conversely, perhaps we are ourselves airborne intruders hoping to fly undetected—lightless, in radio silence—above alien territory at the risk of sudden destruction.
In other works, Lemay presents encrypted and rearranged (and therefore intentionally illegible) words from letters that he wrote to the families of slain fighters after the Lebanon War—letters that he never sent. To tell the truth would be too horrible; to proffer the conventional pieties would be morally obscene. Instead, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams returned from the WWI trenches, like many fellow real-life veterans, the artist has chosen to say little or nothing to those who have never been in combat could not understand.
This code of silence—a nuanced counterpoint to Siakh Lokhamim (The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War, a 1967/71 compilation of interviews, letters and remembrances by 140 voluble combatants and kibbutz members—gives his art its distinct tenor. Protest art is usually the equally vociferous converse of wartime propaganda. But Lemay delivers his protest minus all gore and sensationalism, minus politics, minus ideology, minus religion, minus polemics and stridency. His unreadable “letters” offer moral lament stripped to its essence, a testament to the unspeakable pathos of war.
This insight and this form of mourning are, for Lemay, tied to a vivid, almost visceral, sense of terrain. A veteran of the field, he is painfully aware that wars are frequently fought, especially in and around Israel, over issues of territory—an understanding that infuses another of his most salient themes, the link between earth and being.
The Enlightenment, perhaps as an emotional antidote to its own infatuation with Reason, generated the aesthetic category of the “picturesque,” preferring a certain moderately uncontrolled rustic quality, a mild wildness, to the rigidity of the formal garden. Only with Romanticism’s elevation of the Sublime did the untamable, threatening, fearful, and exhilarating aspects of nature—soaring peaks and deep chasms, raging seas and immense vistas—come to be fully valued for their elevating effects upon the human soul. In the Hudson River School of the 19th century, a much calmer world soul seemed to interfuse mountains, forests, and rivers—an idea that was soon conflated, by artists who portrayed the vast prairie expanses of the American West, with an implicit faith in Manifest Destiny.
Although a doctrine of spiritual entitlement, translated into the securing of a national homeland, may have been what brought Lemay, as an Israeli solider, into the landscapes depicted in his art, his experience there—and the later consequences for his work—were far more in keeping with a sense of existential abandonment. He was, for much of his military service, a nighttime land “navigator” (a title adopted for one of his most haunting series), charged with traversing disputed territory that was often—in the darkness—relatively bleak and featureless. He had to see and remember exact topographic configurations and details, where most others, untrained, would detect little or nothing at all. It was an intensified, life-or-death version of a key dilemma in modern philosophy, posed most effectively by Sartre: how can mind (consciousness, the subjective self, Descartes’s cogito) satisfactorily exist in a world of obdurate, non-sentient things, a world apparently devoid of divine plan or purpose?
Thus the landscapes to which Lemay now imaginatively returns as an artist, and in which he implants us as viewers, are like those that an itinerant Samuel Beckett character might pass through with a stone in his pocket. Where are we? Do we truly belong here? What will become of us with the rising of the sun? These questions, not the proud assurances of military conquest, are what give his landscape pictures their subtle eidetic power. One listens here for the reassuring cadences of David: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” One listens, but in this darkness where can the words be read or heard?
Unlike the Far East, the West has long maintained a clear distinction between image and text. Historically, a few words might appear within paintings or drawings, or be inscribed on sculpture, as way of identifying a key figure or explaining an action (“INRI,” “Noli me tangere,” “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this”). Such intrusions of language are akin to the captions and nudging titles of highly satirical pictures by artists like Daumier and Hogarth. Only in recent times, after the crisis of representation that was modernism, did language itself become a vehicle and subject of visual art, due to experiments by artists such as Joseph Kosuth, the Art & Language group, Lawrence Weiner, Mel Bochner, Sean Landers, and Christopher Wool.
Lemay, for reasons of sanity protection as much as aesthetic strategy, shares that proclivity to treat text as image. (Traditionally, one does the contrary, “reading” images like so many texts.) On tall wall-hung panels, on rows of 3-foot-high slabs resembling Minimalist sculpture, even on the screens of electronic devices, the artist imitates the look of writing while simultaneously foreclosing its syntactic structure and communicative drive.
Or, more accurately, Lemay changes the function of language from clear and precise articulation of facts, feelings, and interpretations to an invocation of mystery—a kind of modern-day writing on the wall. The near-words and pseudo-sentences imply that the speaker/writer has much to say—much that has been seen and assimilated, much that is welling up emotionally from within—yet chooses to withhold and disguise what may be too painful to impart, too inchoate to process, too dangerous to acknowledge.
“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” T.S. Eliot once inquired. Lemay’s reticence implies not only sorrow for others but a self-interrogation that every war-tested person and nation must dread. What have we done? Does our “noble cause” truly justify the violence we have committed for its sake? . . . The artworks ask, but the viewer must answer.
One could argue that the fundamental purpose of all art is to preserve memory. We long to capture and hold both some charged object itself and the experience we once had of it. Even a ghastly experience, if it is deep and transformative, may be clung to as a prime element of our ever-evolving identity. Every soldier is, to some extent, his psychic wounds. Lemay duplicates, in stylized form, the emotionally conflicted dialectic of war recollection.
Representation literalizes our desire for a particular thing, person, or place. Abstraction, on the other hand, substitutes a general sign for a specific image, shifting attention to the perceptual and emotive compound that was—and ideally always will be—the essence of our subjective encounter. Like the fraught installations by Christian Boltanski, in which the photographs of a few Jewish-ghetto children or a pile of old garments may evoke the whole of the Holocaust, Lemay’s art hovers between these formal poles. Imagistically precise enough convey the look of a battle zone, it is nevertheless abstract enough to cast the viewer into an emotive flux consonant with the artist’s own ambivalence.
This wish to subject his audience to a kind of vertigo, both perceptual and moral, has led Lemay to repeated use of visually engulfing displays. Dark images measuring as much as 12 by 24 feet often line the walls, immersing visitors and drawing them deeply into the murky scenes. Towering grids, resembling library stacks, present “books” of unreadable yet highly affecting texts. This approach obviously bears an affinity with the pervasive installation work of the last four decades. Inviting a physical response from viewers who move not only past but through the artworks, this format is—in its current incarnation—conventionally traced back to the late 1950s Environments of Allan Kaprow and the Merzbau (1923-42) of Kurt Schwitters. In a longer perspective, however, it updates a dream that is timeless: the wish not simply to gaze at art but to enter into it, to move among a painting’s people and places and things, to join in the spatial play of sculpture. The caves of Lascaux, the temple complexes of ancient and classical times, the cathedrals of medieval Europe, the continent’s myriad Mannerist and Baroque palaces, the cycloramas of the 19th century, and even the giant theater screens of the Hollywood’s Golden Age all reflected and served that participatory dream.
Not all such dreams are pleasant. The Rothko Chapel, with its huge encircling black canvasses, is a visual dirge that draws viewers into the artist’s dark night of the soul, from which delivery is promised but not always achieved. As the Rothko’s own suicide attests, depression is not a very efficient route to transcendence.
Lemay, in placing us under lightless skies in the midst of nighttime terrain, gambles that an innate drive to live and flourish will carry us through the darkness, as it more than once carried him. Beyond the assurance of his personal journey back to normal family and professional life lies a long cultural tradition affirming the dualistic nature of even the deepest blackness.
Is any theme or motif in Western art history more loaded than that of darkness? Associations range from elegance to profundity, from grief to pure evil. Chiaroscuro, the Renaissance device of casting figures half in darkness, half in light, not only gave them convincing physical volume but also made them—in the hands Tintoretto and Rembrandt—haunting emblems of human complexity.
Lemay’s blackened skies, landscapes, and word panels seem at first devoted exclusively to the most desolate register of darkness, and viewers immersed in his encompassing displays are likely to have somber responses indeed. But we must bear in mind that the artist himself has passed through the depth of darkness and emerged, if not triumphant, at least chastened, grounded, and prepared to move on to brighter, better days. His trajectory suggests that there may be validity to the old argument, made most forcefully by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, that evil is simply the absence of goodness (as darkness is the absence of light) and that goodness could not be apprehended—or even meaningfully exist—without it.
Finally, we should recall that Sartre’s answer to the dilemma of existential abandonment was that each consciousness must create meaning for itself through “projects” individually willed and pursued. For Lemay, one such redemptive endeavor is clearly the art he creates and into which he plunges himself and his viewers, as though in a tevilah.