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Vicky Mahaffey, 2002 or 2003

Deep in the heart of what James Joyce called “Nighttown”, the old red-light district of Dublin, lies Foley Street (formerly Montgomery Street).  This is the neighbourhood of hallucinations, the site of the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses, where present and past mingle in a nightmare tangle of fear and desire.  In 2001, if you walk down Foley Street, two blocks from the long-defunct brothel of the fictional Bella Cohen, you will come to a small black metal door.  You may well look around for a tiny cake or a small bottle, labeled “EAT ME” or “DRINK ME”.  But if you duck through the small door and climb the stairs to a larger one, you will find yourself in a contemporary wonderland, a studio poised halfway between the rabbit holes of Carroll and the psychedelic brothels of Joyce.  Once inside, you may confront – hung on a white wall over a paint-splattered floor, washed with the vagaries of natural light from the windows opposite – a hapax graphomenon, a unique graphic occurrence.  Shocked by the power of size and color, you gaze at the arbitrary configuration of hues and textures, and you realise that you have encountered something rich and strange.  You are not in Kansas any more; instead, you are in Oz, where the old rules of representational art have been discarded in favor of sensual immediacy and potentially infinite recombinations of chromatic strokes.  

Picture a huge, wooden, multi-panelled frame covered with soaked and glue-sealed linen to form a non-transparent ‘window’ seven feet six and a half inches high by six feet two inches wide.  The paint was mixed in a trough and spread with brushes as big as brooms.  The color that bloomed on the cloth could be called blue, cerulean, livid or even yellowish-gray (as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the meaning of colors underwent odd changes, so that the Old Spanish blavo, or yellowish grey, came to be ‘blue’). The overall effect is almost turquoise, enlivened with forest green undertones and overcast with darker blue, almost black overtones.  Hardened paint drips are flecked with a different texture – tiny pocks, reminiscent of coral.  The whole adds up not to a picture so much as a gesture, expansively indicating aquamarine peacefulness, trickles of liquid movement.

The eye then moves from the blue rectangle to a red one, measuring roughly six and a half by five and a half feet.  The red is vibrant, even throbbing, a curtain of paint coated with thick drops of acrylic.  Four brush tracks sweep down the fabric, with rifts in the surface to reveal deeper layers of color.  To the right hangs a slightly larger, midnight blue study with a matte finish.  To look at the surface is almost to feel the cloth beneath.  The undertones are reddish-purple with black highlights, striped by ‘seams’ of lighter hues.  Last in the sequence is a nocturne in yellow.  The color here is greenish rather than golden yellow, underpinned by brown, puple and navy foundations.  The surface looks almost washed, although garnished with darker drips shaped and arrested by gravity.

What makes this Hapax unique is that it has been radically de-scripted; in a way, the paintings have assembled themselves through an ebullient, inspired conjunction of hand, brush, eye, gravity, trough, linen, wood and paint.  The viewer stands naked before it, stripped of assumptions and associations, experiencing only a shock of sensation, a vivid, larger-than-life presence.  The effect is roughly akin to that of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, although there the impact is softer, grayer, more soothing and ecumenical, less varied and alive.

Lennon’s paintings have a vibrancy to them that situates his Hapax somewhere between Rothko’s gray spirit-blocks and Don Flavin’s light sculptures (installed a few blocks away from the chapel in the Menil Collection).  To paraphrase what Beckett once said of Joyce’s later writing, Lennon’s art is not about anything, it is that something itself.  Or as Wallace Stevens wrote in ‘Study of Two Pears’ of a still life like that of Cézanne, ‘The pears are not viols, /nudes or bottles. /They resemble nothing else… The pears are not seen / As the observer wills.”

Finally, by grouping his paintings in a fixed but arbitrary sequence, Lennon succeeds in capturing what Beckett once called ‘the very essence of assortment’. In Murphy, the eponymous character demonstrates what this means when he retreats to the park to eat a packet of cookies.  He takes them out of the package and arranges them in order of edibility: ‘a Ginger, an Osbournce, a Digestive, a Petit Beurre and one annonymous.  He always ate in the first-named last, because he liked it the best, and the annonymous first, because he thought it very likely the least palatable.  The order in which he ate the remaining three was indifferent to him, and varied irregularly from day to day’.  While contemplating the habits shaped by his preferences and dislikes, Murphy is suddenly overcome by the realization that ‘these prepossessions reduced to a paltry six the number of ways he could make this meal’, which was ‘to violate the very essence of assortment’.

Even if he conquered his prejudice against the anonymous, still there would be only twenty-four ways in which the biscuits could be eaten.  But were he to take the final step and overcome his infatuation with the ginger, then the assortment would spring to life before him, dancing the radiant measure of its total permutability, edible in a hundred and twenty ways!

Murphy’s excitement is chastened by the Beckettian irony that he never gets to eat his cookies at all, which are quietly consumed by a dachshund he is asked to hold while the dog’s equally short-legged owner tries to cajole some sheep with heads of lettuce (except for Murphy’s favourite, the ginger, which the dog spits out).  Although the beauty of a realization like Murphy’s is often purely theoretical, given the paucity of real gratification, he is nevertheless overcome by his insight that it could be said of his biscuits ‘as truly as of the stars, that one differed from another, but…  He could not partake in their fullness until he had learnt not to prefer any one to any other’.  The construction and arrangement of Lennon’s Hapax reflect a triumph over the limiting parameters of preference and dislike; like Murphy’s biscuits, Lennon’s colors and canvases disarray and rearrange themselves in the mind’s eye not according to the rules of habit, but in a way that makes them ‘spring to life, dancing the radiant measure’ of their total permutability.  Out of the legacy left by Poussin and Cézanne, Lennon has invented a principle of chromatic combination that renews art, producing a material medium that is multi-layered and dynamic, vibrant and alive.

Vicky Mahaffey is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, PA, USA.