I spent a day last week at the Harn Museum of Art and aside from being a lot of fun, it reminded me of some things about myself that I don’t usually like to acknowledge. While I toured the main gallery and considered its theme of “Paradigms and the Unexpected” one of the boys I was with (the security monitor actually) tugged on my arm and dragged me into a small video alcove. “Mister Pete, you’ve got to see this!” The child’s level of excitement convinced me that surely he had found a depiction of something blowing up, or something involving zombies.
To his credit, what he was excited about contained neither. He’d recognized something profound even though he scarcely knew why. It was an exhibit of a work by Oscar Munoz entitled, Re Trato. It’s a simple video, a close-up of the hand of the artist repeatedly painting a face, no sound, no music. But there’s more to it than that. He is painting with water on stone and as he ‘paints’ the water slowly evaporates. The face is never complete. The artist fills in the brow, the hairline, an eye, an ear, but when he comes to the mouth and begins to form it, the water of the brow has begun to dry. Once the chin and jaw line are defined, the brow and hairline are gone. The water has dried and only the grey stone remains, unchanged, unformed. Without pause, the artist begins again. He draws out the brow once more, the eyes and a nose. Each thing created, another evaporated. Endlessly he works, again and again, redefining what fades, over and over making more of the stone than the stone would be without him, yet constantly as he works at creation, the stone forgets what it has been and becomes only what it was before.
As is often the case in the best art, the work takes on meaning beyond what the artist intended. The description of the work says that the artist’s intent is to draw attention to the huge numbers of people in Latin America that disappear without a trace for speaking out against the government. He paints the faces of these disappeared from their obituaries. On that level, I think he’s certainly succeeded. But for me it goes much further than a political statement.
I can never seem to figure out who am I created to be. I’ve been trying to put the picture together over the years, bits and pieces at a time, but each time I think I’ve got one aspect figured out and made permanent, I realize I’ve forgotten something else. Faith, finance, work, family, fun, why can’t they all line up together? Why doesn’t he ever paint a smile on the face? Why won’t he paint me a marriage? I feel like I’m playing whack-a-mole with my life and my sin and I can never get ahead or find any relief. My creator has to constantly redefine me, recreate me. No matter how hard I try I can never see the whole picture and worse, it’s so much easier to evaporate and be just the stone than to be the face. I’m fearful that his patience with me will give out and he’ll withdraw his hand and let me fade away completely.
I’m sure none of this occurred to the boy that dragged me into the room to see Re Trato. It’s entirely possible that he expected Senor Munoz to paint a Kalashnikov in the man’s hand and was terribly disappointed to find out that it was just the face, over and over and over again. Maybe I’m the same way, waiting on things that aren’t in the picture. On the drive home that evening I prayed, and have prayed many days since, that the Artist will continue his re trato, that he will not withdraw his brush. I want to be more than just the stone, even if that means I don’t get to hold a Kalashnikov. And while I struggle to retain my form, I have faith that someday he’ll paint me in permanent colors.
Here is a crude example of Re Trato that I’m hesitant to even post. I say ‘crude’ because this YouTube clip is sped up and very brief. The presentation at the museum is in real-time (28 mins) and is much more graceful and meditative.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.