RM: The paintings in your series interventions feel almost like movie stills to me. It takes a second to process the colors and fill in the story and then your breath catches as you think ahead to the next frame. How did these 'in-between" moments come to capture your attention?
MB: Initially, I was struck by a particular painting, and, later, a body of work produced by the Siena School painters of pre-Renaissance Italy. In the "Blessed Agostino Novello" altarpiece (1324), by Simone Martini, there is a depiction of a child falling to the street from a second floor balcony. The child plummets to the earth as Saint Agostino swoops in from a cloud to snatch her up before she perishes. Coming upon this picture, and knowing nothing of the story, had quite an effect on me.
Prior to this interventions series, I had been painting quiet, domestic scenes of my family life, but this Martini picture, so opposite in subject matter, touched on something urgent and sensational. Here there was this suspension . . . a child inches from the ground, hanging in the balance . . . unprepared for an encounter with the divine . . . just a split second away from a miraculous intervention or death. These are the moments you never get a photo of, because they are unanticipated and instant, personal and unbelievable.
In my paintings, I don’t assume that the viewer will know what happened just prior to the accident, or what happens immediately following the accident. In this way they do function like movie stills of a film you’ve never seen, a tense moment where the viewer must fill in the context. These images come from my own life, and sometimes the intervention is “successful,” other times, injury inevitable.
So, to address your question . . . I was drawn to these liminal passages, between safety and danger, human and divine . . . the hanging in the balance. The “in–between” is known and is the nexus between the two unknowns on either side.
RM: So much of our lives are lived "unprepared for an encounter with the divine." I find myself wondering about the bystanders in your paintings: the children who are watching, the figure at the side of the bed. For the central figures, the intervention is, as you mentioned, deeply personal -- an event that divides life into before and after. How do the witnesses to such an event respond?
MB: The witnesses depicted in the interventions paintings run the gamut from being keenly aware to completely oblivious. In i4 (children with dove), there are two children in the room; one is an active participant and the other a passive onlooker. This disengaged observer may be indifferent but refuses to intervene, playing the role of complicity. Additionally, the well-intended witness that would act, if possible (mother painted in the portrait on the wall), observes the event but physically cannot adjust the outcome. Certainly we have all been in this position—something across the room is falling and we can't reach it in time to prevent disaster. So, we have the guards in Sophocles' Antigone, detached and apathetic to imminent tragedy and Mary at the foot of the cross, desperate, but unable to alter the course of her son's fate.
Some of these interventions are dramatic and others subtle, and in i5 (grandmother in bed) we get the sense of an angel sneaking away a soul, leaving the witness unaware. In i1 (child falling down stairs—on the cover of Issue 22) and i2 (man falling off hay wagon), the only acknowledged witness to this event is you, the viewer. This puts you in a privileged position, but also may elicit empathy or even responsibility. I hope I have not said too much and sucked all the life out of the work. These thoughts are not "the" interpretation, but how I am thinking about the works this evening.
RM: Not at all! We have the freedom to interpret these split seconds in the context of past and future, reconciling the suggested outcome with the fact that it is unknown. I love this quote from Edward Lucie-Smith, British art critic and writer: "One of the distinguishing characteristics of the true work of art is that it is able to both contain and express different meanings—meanings which may in fact contradict each other." Is there a particular work that takes on a new meaning for you every time you approach it?
MB: Hmmm . . . besides the Bible? The Robert Enrico adaption of Ambrose Bierce's An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge would certainly be a contender. It is such a poignant, short film . . . rich with metaphor. The haunting and beautiful album Surf's Up by the Beach Boys would be in there somewhere, as well.
If I'm forced to choose one, I'd speak to Giovanni di Paolo's paintings in his cycle on John the Baptist. My reactions to these paintings run the gamut: mystery, repulsion, disgust, horror, devotion, grief, compassion, etc. Some days it's a historical record of a influential and eccentric mystic, other days it's a testimony of vision amidst some of humanity's darkest moments: manipulation, perversion, capitulation, and murder. Maybe Lucie-Smith's quote can be aptly applied to these paintings. John the Baptist—humanity persisting despite fatal consequences, or the opposite John the Baptist—humanity so depraved and misaligned that it extinguishes the best and brightest.
How I see it, all of the works mentioned are big, expansive . . . and they contain a dynamic, universal nature. They call us back, and initiate a conversation with us that is relevant with where we are.
RM: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Micah, and for sharing your beautiful work with us in Issue 22. Congratulations once again on winning Ruminate Magazine’s 2011 Visual Art Prize!
You can read other interviews from our Works with Soul series here.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.