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An Explanation for the Uninitiated:
Subjects With Objects is an ongoing, collaborative art project forever ordered according to the following rules: A shadowy public spaces painter sets up in pubs and executes spontaneous portraits at the rate of one painting per pint. He then hands off those enigmatic little ocular disturbances to a semi-anonymous poet & novelist who lives with them long enough to solicit their otherworldly mumblings and ephemeral whispers, distilling each of their essences into a line or two of poetic prose. The painter is Jonathan Richter. The poet is UNKNOWN & UNKNOWABLE, so it is best NOT TO EVEN ASK! However, for the sake of convenience we may refer to him as DKM.
Subjects With Objects Unplugged
“Untitled 16” (2013)
Every so often, we should pause to ask “What would possess (in a bygone era) those plucky Brits of privileged birth to leave the comforts of hearth and home and the promise of their guaranteed (if stodgy) careers to venture more or less unprepared into the polar wastelands in pursuit of the title of ‘First Man At this or that Pole’?” Was it a cultural legacy of historic sacrifice? A desire for personal glory? Was it a sense of nostalgia stoked by the last vestiges of the fading glow of their nation’s once vaunted empire? Or were such fool’s quests the result of something altogether more banal, boring, idiosyncratic or pedestrian?
You know me. I’m going to opt for one of those possibilities.
Personally, I’m a big believer in mixed motives. I don’t mean that I approve of them. I just mean that even at our best, our most heroic, our most sacrificial as human beings, I have my doubts that we’re ever capable of entirely pure motives. I think this is what the Calvinists mean with their talk of total depravity—not that there is nothing that’s ever good or right in our motives, but that whatever rightness and goodness is present, is never entirely untainted by something less than a pure perfection of motive or intent.
I do not intend to argue that we should all therefore don the mantle of cynicism and henceforth second-guess all acts of love or sacrifice. What is right in the motives, I think, often outweighs the tainted bits. And by that I don’t mean to suggest any notion that smacks of karma. (I feel like I’m talking an awful lot here about what I don’t mean…) Rather, what I mean to say is that there are moments when the glory does indeed shine through our humanity, regardless of the condition of our never entirely spotless lens. And yet, the fact that the light shines through at all is reason for hope and cause to celebrate. We are shattered but transparent vessels, and our shattered state warps the light that passes through it, but the light still passes through. Amen.
Anyway, upon a re-read I’m convinced that was all a tangent anyway. A tangent inspired by this painting but not necessarily running in parallel to it. When Richter gave me this painting, I began with the notion that this fellow set out on some fanciful polar escapade driven by his own personal, and perhaps even secret (perhaps even secret from himself…), agenda. Perhaps it is a misguided hunger for glory that he exhibits, a hope of co-opting some measure of glory as his own, and sometimes, for some of us, life and limb and even the lives of others are but a small inconsequential sacrifice to make in the service of that long reach for the intangible.
But I suspect I’m still over-thinking this one.
What strikes me immediately about the fellow portraited in Untitled 16, is the absolute exuberance of his expression as he speaks to whatever numbed and shivering assemblage surrounds him in his Antarctic clime. His zealously ruddy face is showing the early signs of frostbite, but his manner is positively buoyant. He is in his element, as it were, perhaps for the first time in his life.
So what is it that our furred protagonist is so joyously revealing to his cohorts at this far Southern latitude, where death dogs one’s every step and where Jack London himself might fear to tread? In my attempts to interpret the piece I initially went for the cheap joke of domestic discord as a motivating factor and then took a jab or two at the politicization of scientific funding and research. Here are those results:
I don’t know about the rest of you gentlemen, but I became an explorer because my wife was really starting to get on my nerves.
On the other hand, if we smash all the eggs we can probably get additional grant money to find more.
But if we smash all the eggs, then they really will be endangered, and there’s no freaking way they’d cut off our funding then.
But afterward I quickly settled into the realization that this fellow is a romantic at heart, with a note of the tragic knelling like a siren call within him. He is happy at last, for he is finally answering that call. And if I had to make a personal confession at this point it would be: Been there. Done that.
The funniest thing about this to me, is to imagine the disconnect between this fellow’s enthusiastic passion as he makes his final glorious revelation, and the impact this news might be having on his fellow explorers circled around him. It also explains, I think, why no provision was actually made for the return journey.
And I should tell you now that I do not intend to return home and grow old, gentlemen. It has been my ambition from the very beginning that our expedition be doomed.
But I’m just saying a hundred years from now, wouldn’t it be more romantic to be remembered as part of a doomed expedition?
I do not intend to return home and grow old, gentlemen. It has been
my ambition from the very beginning that our expedition be doomed.
Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).