Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Small parable about authenticity and the imagination

A few weeks ago, driving back home from a residency in Florida, Alex and I were taking our time, poking around along the way. The South is old home territory for me, but I left Tennessee when I was seven years old, so it seems a remote world, and -- at least in the country, on the backroads that echo the South of my childhood, there's a certain enchantment or mystery about it for me, a sense of depth and of lost intimacy. I feel it in the scent of bacon grease in an iron skillet, in old foxed Bible illustrations, musty quilts, jars of buttons, fruitcake tins full of old photographs, a South quite erased along the highway.

Not wanting to let 95 hypnotize us, I pulled off at an exit in Georgia -- which seemed to me the most richly quirky of the Southern states we passed through this time, as well as the most friendly and open -because there was an antique store in an outlet mall by the road. The Southern Picker, it's called, and the place was wonderfully stuffed with a bounty of finds, from Buddhas to old whiskey jugs collaged with buttons,  folk ceramics, odd bits of furniture, a stuffed squirrel, framed photographs of somebody's glum ancestors. (Okay, I'm not sure these particular things were actually there, but you get the idea.) There was a pleasant sense of both incipient chaos and a discerning eye,  a combination I like.

A black portfolio caught my eye; when I opened it, there was a page or two of photocopied text at the front, which I ignored, drawn to the images in their plastic sleeves. Alex came over, and we knelt down and turned the pages together. These were amazing: prints from the 30s and 40s, all signed by the same artist, African-American presumably to judge by the subject matter, especially of the earlier images here, WPA-style woodblocks or linocuts of black women and men, often frankly sexual, beautifully stylized. Images of work and prayer and song, and then as we turned the pages a new set of images, more urban -- Chicago? then New York for certain then Europe. A narrative began to emerge, an artist traveling from the South toward greater possibilities, absorbing influences from German Expressionism, American scene painters like Reginald Marsh, elegantly stylized illustrators like Rockwell Kent. In fact, these images of rowing men looked a LOT like Kent's work -- were they inspired by his edition of Moby Dick? The stylistic variety was a little dizzying, and I started to wonder if this was the work of a skillful printmaker who never quite found his own way, but kept adapting practicing the styles around him. It was a thick portfolio, and the work was often beautiful, and we found ourselves wondering, as we came to the end of it,  how this man could have such a rich, wide-ranging life, and who was he?

Which sent us back to the beginning, to the typed page I'd skipped over before. The artist whose name was pencilled beside a date at the bottom of each page never existed; he was a fiction concocted by a forger, who'd lifted images from a range of artists (Kent and Marsh among them), developed a story about how he's come to possess the artist's work, and then marketed prints to dealers around the country with some success, until the deception came to light. The prints, which had been three hundred each a few years back, where now thirty dollars.

We found ourselves going back into the portfolio, re-reading the images with this new information. It struck me that they were no less interesting; replacing the narrative of how this struggling black artist had found his way in the wide world with the narrative of how a white forger had concocted this portfolio and the life it seemed to represent was equally engaging. We had imagined the original story as we first looked at the collection of prints, just as the forger had wanted us to do, and we could imagine the second story just as well.  This is perhaps a parable about authenticity, about how, at least when it comes to pleasure, it may not matter so much, but also a story about the imagination, which doesn't discern between the real and the false, since for the imaginative faculty all is invented, elaborated, made into a tale.

Now we own three of the prints: a Deco-looking cityscape, a crowded and raucous image of people going out clubbing in Times Square, and an angular figure rowing a boat alone under a sky full of stars. I couldn't really have afforded the real thing, but the handsome fakes are well within my budget, and they come with an additional layer of story, in case anyone asks.