David Ording, Reconocer. At Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA, through May 7th
By Daniel Bosch.
Standing in the threshold of the single, large gallery of Carroll and Sons, I peer, across an emptiness, toward a wall partly covered in mirrored sheets of glass, and the image I see reflected there brings me a shimmer of recognition.
For I have been here before, only here is not the South End, but Madrid, where the wooden floor I cross to approach Velázquez’s Las Meninas is the floor of the Prado, and the steps I take bring me, in quick succession, first to an “ideal” viewing distance, from which the brush-strokes and oil that constitute La Infanta Margarita and the dwarf Maribola and Velázquez himself resolve into sharply human forms; then to free-throw distance, from which the figures and their setting are still legible but muddied, splotched, and facture-bearing; and finally to a spot so close to the canvas that none of the enchanting content of the painting is legible at all, and I feel as if I have pressed a copy of my favorite poem to my nose. At such an intimate distance, I am shocked to discover that Las Meninas is, after all, only paint on canvas.
But what a painting! The virtues of Velázquez’s masterpiece need no rehearsal, a fact that in itself might seem to raise doubts about the necessity of David Ording’s Las Meninas (after Velázquez), a rehearsal, if you will, in life-size, of the original, executed in reverse so that the mirrors on the opposite wall seem to show you a work you know cannot be present, and the present painting shows you a work you believe no one would ever commit.
Reconocer embraces the fact of Las Meninas at the same time that it rejects some super-hardened expectations. For Las Meninas (after Velázquez) is lush, is no illusion, is brighter and (of course) fresher than that painting in the Prado, is oddly nonchalant, hanging in Carroll and Sons as if hanging out, is as different from Velazquez’s masterpiece as it possibly be and still be itself, a new painting, boldly old.
The literary patron saint of Las Meninas (after Velázquez) is Jorge Luis Borges’s archly original Pierre Menard, who sought to write Cervantes’s Don Quixote, word for word but not to copy it. But as the palindromic title of this show indicates—once you recognize that Reconocer would read the same backward and forward if only letters worked that way—non-verbal fictions like Velázquez’s painting function differently than verbal fictions. The reversal of more than a letter or two entails a steep and rapid loss of communicative potential. The verbal is direction-dependent, is effective because read or heard one element after another, is time-bound: perhaps no other order has been more important to human beings than the order of audible and orthographic signs, and in return for our respect for such order, we are rewarded with a specificity and precision of communication that is not available in any non-verbal medium.
The rest of the visible world doesn’t work that way. Ording’s new painting is not after Las Meninas in the way one word comes after another. His Las Meninas (after Velázquez) demonstrates that the “syntax” and “diction” of objects in the visible world are reversible, and that translation across even a single axis of symmetry may be sufficient to establish a new work of art, to “add,” in the words of critic R. P. Blackmur, “to the stock of available reality.” A reversal this painstaking and attentive—it is no student’s exercise—boggles the eye, the mind, and the heart.
Even as we stand in a contemporary gallery, Reconocer estranges us from the art world, as if to remind us of the place painting once held in it. But Las Meninas (after Velázquez) isn’t an apt quotation. The pentimenti in the original may indicate the historical Velázquez’s struggles with an inverse composition, but the images of pentimenti Ording has taken his time to paint represent a different struggle. Ording may be Borgesian, but he is no Pierre Menard, whose triumph, if it is one, exists in a few shards. The nature of his effort is legible because it is whole and complete.
Reconocer bears comparison to that dazzling promenade of versions of Las Meninas in Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, but Ording’s painting reflects obsession and insight of a different character. The Museu Picasso’s phantasmagoric catalogue of more than50 takes on Velázquez’s masterpiece puts the 20th century’s great genius, of course, at the center of the solar system; Las Meninas is an opportunity for Picasso to arrange so many bright, energetic planets in his orbit.
In Reconocer, however, painting holds the center of gravity. In light of Ording’s strategy, Picasso’s catalogue seems to me anxiously, even frantically (and however appropriately) self-aggrandizing. Ording’s single canvas attests to singular purpose, to constancy, to concentration; part of the mystery of its power is how a struggle to be faithful in translation across a physical axis has yielded a temporal axis. No translation is ever the equal of its object, unless the object is love. To look back and forth from Las Meninas (after Velázquez) to the mirror that reflects it is to experience, simultaneously, a joy in Ording’s accomplishment and a longing based in recognition of its source, which is love—of Velázquez, of labor, of painting.