Contemporary American modernist artists have not, for the most part, taken a keen interest in the work of modernist writers as a subject for their own creations. While a number of our poets have written about the paintings of their contemporaries, few painters have based their work on modern literary classics. My guess is that the fear of being seen as a mere illustrator has deterred many painters. Another problem may be the difficulty involved in mastering the complexities of modernist literature, some of which-James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), for example-has remained a daunting challenge even for critics and scholars.
This is one reason why the exhibition called Ear’s Eye for James Joyce , which brings together a selection of paintings, drawings, collages and constructions by the American painter Susan Weil, all based on Joyce’s writings, is something of an event. Another reason is that the exhibition itself is a sheer delight, so teeming with wit, invention and pictorial virtuosity that it’s bound to be engaging even for viewers who’ve never read a line of Joyce. And as each work in the exhibition is accompanied by an excerpt from the text on which it’s based, the show may also serve as a salutary introduction. For anyone even slightly acquainted with Joyce’s oeuvre the show is a must.
Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of either the the artist or her work. Although Susan Weil has devoted nearly two decades to the Joyce project and has meanwhile produced a number of limited-edition art books on the subject, the show at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery is the first American survey of her Joyce paintings. Her work is actually better known in Sweden than in the United States, where she was a student of Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. In 1997, the National Museum in Stockholm organized an exhibition of her work that was accompanied by a catalog in English and Swedish. But as far as I know, no American museum has taken any notice of her work.
Don’t expect to see anything resembling conventional literary illustration in this exhibition. Just as Joyce’s writing evolved into a synthesis of realism and symbolism and a language rich in puns and other varieties of wordplay, at once earthy, elegant and often very comical, so the forms as well as the content of Ms. Weil’s pictures and constructions mix portraiture, abstraction and disjunctive images in an attempt to create the visual equivalent of the rhythms of Joyce’s prose. Attentive to the lilting musicality of his sentences, Ms. Weil’s imagery traces a syncopated rhythm of its own that owes something to Cubism, something to Futurism and a lot to the freewheeling inventions of Dada. Yet the result resembles nothing we’ve seen in those earlier styles, for hers remains sharply focused on the Joycean scenarios she has taken as her guide.
Thus James Joyce II (2003), the work that dominates the exhibition, is divided into a dozen or so separate “portraits” of the writer-his face, his hands, even the soles of his shoes-that all but dance a kind of cinematic jig. In the big rectangular picture called Irish Stew (1995), on the other hand, Joyce’s face is almost the last thing we notice in the lower left-hand corner of a composition crowded with more animated symbols. Joyce made a specialty of combining accounts of the most commonplace, even vulgar experiences with allusions to mythic archetypes, and Ms. Weil succeeds in evoking similar incongruities in the very format of her collage-constructions.
Almost as impressive as the pictorial invention Ms. Weil has brought to the Joyce paintings and constructions is her mastery of Joyce’s often difficult writings. Even as great an admirer of Joyce as Edmund Wilson once wrote, “I do not deny that [Joyce] is tedious at times: I am bored by the relentless longueurs of some of the middle chapters of Finnegans Wake just as I am bored by those in the latter part of Ulysses .” I myself have never found it possible to read Finnegans Wake through to the end and, like Edmund Wilson, “I have found it puts me straight to sleep to try to follow” some of the academic explications of Joyce’s later writings. Yet Ms. Weil appears to have taken such difficulties in stride, and has paid Joyce the great compliment of devoting some 18 years to the study of and visual interpretation of his literary achievement. I repeat: Ear’s Eye for James Joyce is an event.
The exhibition remains on view at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 137 Greene Street, through Sept. 28.