“The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation.”
Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (1961)
“It is no more possible truly to describe a landscape than it is to describe a face.”
Madison Smartt Bell, Straight Cut (1986)
When I visited Maya Kulenovic’s studio to talk about her work, she was recovering from a short illness. It was a hot day and I was sweating after a long walk to reach her neighborhood. Neither of us were at our best or most animated. We had not met before.
Despite all this, or somehow perhaps because of it, our conversation as she showed me a series of recent paintings and sculptures was laced with insights that would stay with me long after we parted and I was walking again along the sidewalks of our city.
Likewise, buildings exhibit eyes and mouths, indented heads and misshapen visages. They can look out at us in mute appeal, or retreat behind sly and devious glances. One thinks of certain houses in particular, often from unnerving, nightmarish experiences. There was an abandoned house at the end of the dirt road where I lived as a boy, one upper window boarded up to produce a palsied look, the lower cellar entrance looking like a loose, tooth-shattered mouth. Alfred Hitchcock was, unsurprisingly, a master of the effect: houses in Psycho and The Birds seem to acquire evil intent in the course of the action, exerting an active if immobile force in the narrative. They watch with silent malice as doomed characters make their way up paths or stairways; they conspire with the other characters, human or inhuman, to enact madness and mayhem.
This kind of association is fleeting and unreliable, a matter of gestaltlich duck-rabbit perception, as in the familiar optical illusion; but the experience of ‘seeing’ a face or figure in an object is all the more uncanny for this fleetingness, showing a kind of repressed-but-returning tenacity, the insistent step of the revenant. A too-steady or overly obvious ‘face’ association, after all, would risk feeling gimmicky or contrived. The matter-of-factness of Kulenovic’s association between human face and built form is matched by the light, subtle, ever-returning version of pareidolic identification achieved in her paintings.
The human faces in her work, eerie presences based on found photographs (I want to say ‘caught’ photographs instead, snatched imagistic moments), peer out at the viewer in a variety of complex attitudes. They are beseeching but menacing, challenging yet lost in thought. The dark palette of the backgrounds in these paintings make the faces seem to float in space, carved by shadows into a pattern of craggy promontories and deep cheekbone-overhang recesses. Seeing them this way pulls the metaphorical association back the other way, towards the natural world: we speak of a ‘rock face’, for example; or, as in the title of Wallace Stegner’s magnificent novel, an ‘angle of repose’ detectable in a seam of silver or in a pile of granular material on the farthest verge of beginning to slide downward. These faces, fleshy and somehow mineral, stand poised on the edge of something unnamable.
Kulenovic’s technique of scoring and scraping her painted canvases, using solvent, brushes, or blades, is a risky play of alterationwhat she describes as the deliberate introduction of a ‘chaotic element’ to the work. This contributes deep texture and richness to the faces, a layering of material and hue that is not detectable in any reproduction. The faces have been, as it were, worked over; they are damaged, imploring, pre-haunted. Their mute appeals are without limit or end; they cannot be set aside or even answered. The figures that confront the viewer have an intensity and pathos, even a sense of menace, that sets them decisively apart from the superfluity of face images we encounter nowadays, in this age of Facebook, the posted ‘selfie’ photograph, and the global celebrity visage.
One thinks, here, of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of the face. Faces can express dark or mysterious presence, of course, and even hostile intention; but they also communicate welcome, joy, surprise, warmth, and recognition. In all cases, good and bad, the face of the other is at the centre of my experience of selfhood and obligation. The face of the other calls to me in a primordial way, in a manner that transcends any reaction of utility or disposal. The message of the face is as basic and as unconditional as that found in the Biblical commandment: Thou shalt not kill. But, as Levinas argues, the articulated forms of this commandment, for that matter all the expressed strictures of morality, are really post facto reports or reminders of what the other’s face commands without words.
Levinas’s notion of the face is not to be confused with the sociological concept of respect or social standing found in some Asian and First Nations cultures and expressed as ‘face’, for example, the Chinese notion of diu lian, the sort of face that can be lost when one fails at an obligation, experiences humiliation, or is insufficiently respected. There is perhaps a basic metaphorical association here, however, in that both ideas concentrate the essence and identity of the person, whether ethically or socially, in the visible locus of selfhood. It is worth noting that the English word visage is etymologically related to the words vision and visible, while the Latin-derived face is related to the cluster of words associated with the experience of form and, ultimately, with words having to do with making or presentation (fashion, e.g,). The face is, as it were, where a person is made to be seen.
And yet, even supposing we accept this ethical account of the face’s call, where all value is rooted in face value, it remains essential that the other be encountered concretely: this face, here and now, with this expression and personality. The phenomenal or plastic realization of the faceyours as it becomes available to my experiences, mine to yoursis not reducible to a thesis or a feature of the moral code. It is sometimes, perhaps often, a matter of raw and immediate entreaty.
Thus the faces in Kulenovic’s paintings, human and otherwise, begin to exert this kind of appeal. When we turn to the architectural images, the same techniques of imposed decay and deliberate chaos lend a living quality to the ‘faces’ of walls and colonnades. But there is also something further, an echo of the soiled and spoiled film stock in Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) or Lyrical Nitrate (1991), directed by Peter Delpeut. The frames of the painting take on the quality of frames in a moving picture, but with the colour and quality blurred and bubbled. They are parts of a film that no longer works, whose poignant, destroyed attempts at continuity and motions are now revealed in the singular beauty of the single ‘decayed’ image.
The impression is strengthened by Kulenovic’s own sense of the works: they offer, she says, a feeling of interrupted series, a sense of impending action. The progression of columns or windows is set in motion, as it were, but then arrested or deranged by some other element of the compositionwhich is, paradoxically, just as essential to the overall frame as the implied sequence. Thus, while the human-face works at first seem to have a persistent quality of stillnesssometimes an unnerving or dismaying stillness, to be sure!the architectural façades are forever in a kind of arrested motion. And then, looking again at the faces, one perceives quivering possibilities, the visage caught between moods, on the way from one state of beingone frame of consciousnessto another. Stillness is ever an illusion, whether in an image or in a face: emotion and motion alike roil beneath the halted surface.
In her landscapes, meanwhile, Kulenovic deploys a mixed or transitional compositional style, with branches, sunlight, or small bodies of water working as the arresting feature, drawing the canvas to another kind of vibrant stillness. Here the palette is often lighter, featuring pales ochres and even silvery whites. The terrain seems bewitched, ensorceled, almost fantastic. Like the built-form works, there is an absence of figures. It is as if, in Kulenovic’s imaginative world, the human form existsor anyway is encounteredonly in the form of the face. The rest is silence, and stillness; but they, too, call to us from their otherness, asking . . . what?
Complete essay can be found in Maya Kulenovic: Fugue (published in Toronto, 2017), pages 32 - 39