Rafael Mahdavi: Corona Chronicles

Pandemic News from France

By: - Mar 30, 2020

It’s Monday and week three of elective isolation.

Other than daily exercise walking the halls of our loft building, and senior shopping on Fridays, we have settled into a routine.

Oddly it appears to get better as we let go of social patterning.

That means three meals a day at home so no lunch out or weekly gatherings with artists at a restaurant.

Staying home and shutting down was initially panicky. Which is not to say that things won’t get worse before they get better. By all accounts much worse. With who knows how many months before a new normal.

Sartre stated that “Hell is other people.”

True. But we are social animals and crave the company of others.

For now, that consists of e mail and phone calls. Some BFFs we talk with regularly and others we reach out to make contact.

There is some guilt involved. At what point does an urge to communicate become needy and invasive?

How do we respect the privacy of others including loved ones, neighbors and friends? What fear and anxiety are best self-contained and not unloaded on others?

Particularly, those we are closest to. How to contend with the cabin fever of confinement?

It feels that some judge has put an ankle bracelet on us for house arrest.

Some escape to their estates, yachts and private islands. They are well stocked with food and deep vintage wine cellars.

There are the plague books to read for those with literary inclinations. Check out or reread Defoe, Camus, Bocaccio, Dante, Poe. Does this provide insight and comfort or confirmation of our crisis?

A talking head commented that this is our greatest challenge since Pearl Harbor.

Those of us old enough to remember WWII dredge up memories of rationing and black markets as well as weekly newsreels of the war. We used to go to the movies mostly on Sunday.

There are shortages. Right now, toilet paper, sanitizers, masks, medical supplies and equipment.

In the worst of times there is irony and humor. The artist Henry Klein, in the last days of an exhibition at Real Eyes Gallery (Adams, Mass.) has a whimsical conceptual piece. There is a toilet paper, conceptual sculpture in the window. Individual rolls are being sold a $25 each. The money is being donated to the local food bank to assist those in need.

I think of friends doing hard time. Those with loved ones in hospice. An artist wrote of her recovery. I think of my critic friend in a small, cluttered NY apartment. We hear from friends in hot zones like Seattle or California.

It brings back memories of youthful squalor on the Lower East Side.

During the summer when my gallery gig shut down there was unemployment. The electricity got shut off and I could never afford a phone. The privation was somewhat romantic and part of paying dues as a young artist. Today that’s just misery the more so with risk and confinement.

From France, I exchanged e mails with my artist friend Rafael Mahdavi. He is staying put on the farm and spending time in the studio. The work morphs as always. There have been many phases which I have covered over the years.

Some years ago we collaborated on an exhibition. To avoid custom fees the work was sent rolled in big tubes and declared as table cloths. My installer Jim Manning built stretchers. We had a show at New England School of Art & Design and a sidebar at the French Library. The essay for the show was published in their magazine.

It seemed brilliant to pull off an international show at my art school gallery with its tiny annual budget. Rafael came for the event and spoke with students.

Our quite wonderful recent exchange of e mails was richly detailed with many observations of France during the plague year. With accents of Camus. There was news of work in the studio as well as a new novel.

He sent a file with a new work. It illustrates this article.

The triptych does indeed capture the zeitgeist. The title is, “La Mort, ressurection, renouvellenent.”

A master of style and media, for this work, he has employed representation. The impact is broad, sweeping and cinematic. We are drawn into an interpretation. On our left is the masked image of death and victim of an auto accident. It evokes “Seventh Seal” by Bergman or Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”

The center panel figure reaches up, suspended in air, above a pool. Perhaps it is the pool on his farm. The male figure is risen as a contemporary Lazarus back from the dead in an act of reification with a soupcon of modernist irony.

On the right panel I most specifically reorganize Rafael. He depicts himself as protagonist in this visual narrative. From what likely is a garden wall of the farm he reaches down to pull a shrouded individual back to life.

There is a string of small lights that connects the upper area of the central and right panel. It is a visual device creating continuity of time and space. The painting is a snap shot, time freeze, of an action.

In our many dialogues, Rafael, truly a global citizen and master of many languages and cultures, has never been overtly religious. But the metaphors he draws upon are from a lifetime of study entailing Old Masters.

He speaks of works in museums as friends. He will spend hours conversing in front of a painting by one of his “buddies.” One of which is “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch in the Prado. It is likely a source of inspiration for this work filtered through time and space.

As always art helps us navigate the worst incidents in the course of human events. My deep gratitude, and wish for health and security to Rafael. He made possible sharing a moment of hope and refuge in the midst of such adversity.