by Bruce Herman
(my paintings ca. 1988-90) When I began this series of imaginary cityscapes, I had recently moved from Dorchester (inner-city Boston) back to the north shore, to Cape Ann (Gloucester) where I had met and married Meg and had our first child, Ben, during the early 1970’s. At a comfortable distance from the urban din, now living in a semi-rural northern coastal area, I had begun to digest or attempt to reconcile some of the contradictions of city life: in the urban setting we live in close proximity but often experience isolation and intense privacy in comparison with rural or suburban life (where it is often easier to know and be known – perhaps ironically when acres of space surround each of our dwellings). Other aspects of city life percolated down as I thought and felt-through our eight years in Boston: the competition; the sense of high-energy and simultaneous expenditure of effort to accomplish the simplest tasks; the feeling of significance deriving from the cultural pulse of the times, but also the anomy and potential for despair.
I thoroughly enjoyed living in Boston and pursuing the cultural work that was set before me, yet I had had the persistent sense that the spirit of the city was not one always one of community and caring – rather it seemed often to be about name, fame, power, status, and the like. Of course, this could be a caricature of urban life for anyone who lives and thrives in that setting. But for me and for my family, it had grown stress-filled and even toxic at times.
Around the time of our move, a slew of dystopian urban post-apocalyptic movies had come out: Koyaanisqatsi, Blade Runner, Brazil, the Mad Max series, etc. and simultaneously I had discovered and was reading books by Jacques Ellul on technology and the city – The Technological Society, The Meaning of the City, The Technological City. Having grown up in the 1960’s in the shadow of the atom bomb, I was already a bit predisposed to think that human technology was potentially bent – ironically helping create a world inhospitable for human flourishing.
The city images that came to me in my painting process at that time were all dreamlike and mostly devoid of explicit human presence – like a ghost town of sorts. All of the images in the Dream of Wet Pavements sequence contain water imagery, and are ambiguous as to whether the water is rising or receding. The title Wet Pavements is obviously an understatement when you view the half-submerged buildings, bridges, and roads. Though I was reading Ellul and watching dystopian films about technology and urban blight, I was also reading in Scripture of the stunning and hope-filled truth that at the end of human history we don’t return to Eden but become citizens of a city – “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” .I wanted to paint images that captured this paradox. Ellul pointed out, in The Meaning of the City , that it was Cain (a murderer) who founded the very first city, and that this act revealed that he did not trust God to provide for him – hence the first city was a place of hording, of
self-defense; of power and mistrust. Yet the Scriptures indicate that God’s ultimate destination for us is just that, a city – presumably Augustine’s City of God. As an artist I am always attempting to show what cannot be fully articulated in speech – namely, in lived-life contradictions and paradoxes abound. As Martin Buber once said, “In strict logic ‘A’ cannot equal ‘not-A’. But in lived life, this is often true.”
Life just doesn’t neatly fit our rational categories.
Dream of Wet Pavements is an attempt to evoke this complexity and mystery – that the very place of selfishness, destruction, and misery can also be a place of fruition, beauty, and creative selflessness. The images that suggested themselves to me all contained a baptism of sorts – a cleansing and rebirth in the most pervasive of elements on our planet: water.
Over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and it is the major symbol of hope and of new possibilities – not just deluge and destruction. In chapter 9 of Genesis God promises to Noah that the earth will never again be completely destroyed by water. Afterward, the people of Israel are several times miraculously led through watery wastes as on dry land. In the New Testament the turbulent sea is calmed by Christ’s word, and later becomes a symbol of regeneration for believers in and through Holy Baptism.
In the first two paintings of Dream of Wet Pavements a waterfall miraculously appears at the top of tall buildings, wetting the streets and buildings and creating mysterious atmosphere. In the second of these, Dream of Wet Pavements II, there appear ghostly human/angelic presences – partly inspired by Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire and partly by the biblical testimony of John on Patmos, Revelation, where two “witnesses” attend to the last things as terrible events unfold.These two shadowy witnesses show up in several paintings from this period of my work – and they are particularly prominent in the piece entitled All Attempts to Restore Order – a painting that I destroyed by over-painting, eventually settling on the image The Man and The Machine. In the original (All Attempts) the two figures were present in a congested urban setting that revealed a temple-like hall of (in)justice and a conveyor belt or train track surmounted by a flat-bed car/machine dragged by a naked man (who strains at a rope and lever trying to move the contraption forward). On the flatbed car were two female nudes with their backs to the viewer – courtesans as commodities? Everywhere there was a leaden light, a luminous darkness. In the distance, perched on a wall, was a small naked female figure looking over a parapet toward the city. This same figure appears again in another piece entitled Witness Wall.
Like the two witnesses, she is almost faceless – an Anybody or Everywoman.When I over-painted All Attempts to Restore Order with The Man and The Machine I simply turned the painting upside-down and painted-out more than half the image, saving only the cogs and wheels and pistons of the Machine while introducing a very different quality of light – a bright, highly saturated color and a prominent Christ figure against an electric blue – crucified but without a Cross. The figure is simply floating, cruciform, near or on the Machine and seems about to be submerged in…is it water again?