As I step in to Biala: Vision and Memory, I am greeted by fracture – a noise, a rustling, an oceanic groan. It recedes, it fades; it reappears, a foam-wave. And I realize, as I make my way upstairs, that I am listening to motion – to paint, to brushstrokes, to Biala herself, all arm and spine and deft hands, her brow furrowed, brow shining. This is what painting sounds like, feels like – and I, too, will paint for hours, the tip of my paintbrush darting like a bird, my muscles taut like ropes. Indeed, I am stepping into Biala’s studio – into my old studio, into any artist’s studio – here, at the Godwin-Ternbach museum.
Biala: Vision and Memory is ultimately a hybrid exhibition – a riveting mix of sound, painting, literature, and photography – and rightfully so, as Janice Biala’s decades-long career was as varied as it was successful. Born in 1903, in Poland, Biala rose to prominence as an abstract expressionist painter. She contributed immensely, and irrevocably, to modernism; her ground-breaking work encompassed a range of subjects, stylistic choices, moods, and media.
Upstairs, at the start of the exhibition, I first encounter “Bull and Toreadors in the Arena.” As I look onto that bull-fighting scene, I note how omniscient, how sumptuous my gaze is; with one glance, I take in an entire arena, a deluge of life and violence. How different, indeed, from “Blackbird” – here, I see only fragments, beams of light and lush feathers, an energetic and disparate mass, a harried flight.
Two different modes of seeing, of vision, and two types of memory – the all-encompassing versus the small, the full versus the shattered. Neither one victorious; neither one is greater than the other. Rather, they coexist – they breathe, together, in this space of wide angles and multiplicity.
When I go downstairs, I am immediately drawn to “Paris Façade” – a portrait, a study of half-closed windows, of curtains, of opacity. Here, my vision is occulted – I do not see what goes on in these cozy rooms. But I am nevertheless intrigued; I am captivated by that lack of vision, of knowing, that rich interior life which I will not, and cannot, grasp. I have encountered yet another kind of vision – a vision of the downcast gaze, of the hidden, of the intricate and loving silent.
And after that ecstatic interiority, that quietness, we experience a sudden and jarring shift in vision – in “The Flower Pots,” we encounter a woman, her face turned, glancing (we think) at that very same row of half-closed windows. Here, we gaze at a gazer; her eyes are unknown to us; her lips are a mystery; we do not know what she feels, what she thinks. She, too, is a rich interior, a calm sea. We find, then, two interlocking interiorities, two winding silences, two modes of not-seeing – this, indeed, is the brilliance of Biala.
I leave the Godwin-Ternbach with notes, coffee, and expanded vision. Undoubtedly, I will return this exhibit like I would a half-dried painting – with awe, with creativity, and with a desire to ask, to know and not know, to see and to remember.
For more information on Janice Biala, visit www.janicebiala.com.
For more information on the Godwin-Ternbach Museum, visit http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/godwin_ternbach/.