A reminiscence By Eric Scigliano
We all have our particular touchstones, our madeleines and secret gardens-objects, sights, sounds, or even smells that awaken us to new possibilities when we are young and reawaken youthful sentiments and capacities in us when we are old. For me, one such touchstone is a drawing - a painting, really, though done in the drawing medium of pastel that has hung or stood in the dozen houses my parents have occupied for the past 44 years. It is monumental and intimate at once, ingenuous and very sophisticated. It shows two young women, one sitting and one kneeling, on a green carpet, both looking into a small mirror set on a low, black-lacquered table. One seems the mistress of the tableau, though she wears the form-fitting white tunic and pajama-like trousers of a servant; she sits much taller, nearer the viewer, and everything about her - her gesture and posture, her eye wide-open in attention or surprise - are vastly more animate and expressive. She pleats and combs her long black hair, staring intently in the mirror. Her diminutive companion is perfectly coiffed and formally dressed, in the butterfly-like 'ao dai' that was obligatory for genteel Vietnamese women. But she sits expressionless, waving a fan, attending like a servant upon the other girl. Around them is a tableau whose every dab and detail I have scrutinized and savored as child and adult, but which still remains irreducibly, tantalizing exotic. The play of colors was like nothing else in our tidy Midwestern world: swaths of glowing orange and chartreuse, forms of soft gray and pink, crisp accents of black and red, blazing contrasts knit into a harmony that is nothing less than musical. And the perspective, or perspectives! A painted screen stands, half-folded, behind the figures in conventional perspective-but painted angelfish float upon it in an utterly inconsistent flat plane. The rug on which the women sit spreads wider as it recedes and the tiles of the floor below shoot upward as though on a perpendicular wall, or as though space were turning in on itself in some Einsteinian prank.
Children play game
This porto-cubist sprung perspective was surely naive, not intentional. But against the sinuous lines of the figures, and guided by an innate sense of composition, it only bolstered the charm of the picture. This was the first work of art I actually saw as art, something made to exist in itself, not just a representation of something else. It may thus have been the first impetus to my first career as a visual artist (before words got the better of images). The welcoming exoticism of this tableau and the grace of its two figures, and the paradox of their relationship tease me today just as they did then.