The painter David Abed recently held a show at the Century Guild in Chicago. Painstaking and figurative, the majority of the twelve oil-on-linen pieces are crepuscular depictions of inertia: solitary women floating in water, dead-eyed, dead-skinned, and radically alone. The mood of the paintings, individually and together, is isolated and estranged. In their otherworldliness they recall the mysterious imagery of the European symbolism of the late nineteenth century—appropriate, since the Century Guild is a gallery explicitly devoted to the symbolist movement.
In the symbolist tradition, Abed’s images are entirely personal, and thus ultimately inaccessible to the viewer. The colossal Between, for instance—a larger-than-life winged female nude, arms outstretched as if in languid crucifixion, walking across water in a way that might be Christlike were her eyes not so gleaming and ambiguous—has a specific narrative behind it, but we can’t access it just by looking. Abed painted it while his father was suffering from advanced throat cancer. Abed cared for his father by day and painted at night; at first the wings on the figure were closed, but as his father unexpectedly recovered, the composition changed: the wings began to open. Though the painting was essentially finished after a year, Abed continued to work on it as changes occurred to him: adding a red line to the horizon; making the eyes, which were previously human, green and glowing with light.
Unlike many contemporary artists working in relation to art history, Abed does not use pastiche or quote from symbolism. Though the works of some contemporary artists inspire the satisfaction of recognition—like John Currin, who applies Renaissance techniques to the flotsam of pop culture (Bea Arthur topless!), or Kehinde Wiley (Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps—but Napoleon is black!), Abed’s work does not wink at or nod to history in order to interrogate contemporary attitudes. His is not a knowing symbolism, or an appropriation thereof. It just is.
So why does Abed embrace symbolism? A clue can be found in the show’s title, Liquid Modernity, a phrase that refers not only to the role of water in most of the paintings but also to a term coined by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who, seeking to replace the vague and overconnoted term postmodernity with something more useful, employs metaphors of solid and liquid to suggest that humans, individually and socially, used to be solid, rooted, and stable, but have become liquid, transient, and fluid—engaged only superficially with one another.
Liquid modernity posits that we are all rootless, but Abed’s paintings evince great discomfort with the condition. The liquids Abed paints are dark and troubled, and the figures in them never look free or at ease; rather, they seem imperiled, even tormented. This is how Abed replicates and dramatizes the experience of opaqueness emblematic of modernity in general: with work that is irreducibly personal, with repeated images of enigmatic and vulnerable human figures menaced by fluidity.
In so doing, he points viewers toward an act of interpretation that, rather than superficial and liquidly modern, is endless—or an end unto itself. In the six-foot-tall One, a pale nude woman hangs in an impossible vertical fetal position, her big toes just breaking the reflective surface of the black water beneath her. She might be about to break that surface, having flung herself cannonball-style from a great height, her bright red hair streaming above her. Or she might be dangling like a pendulum, held in place by an unseen hand grasping her hair like a rope. Or perhaps she emerged from the depths and is now hurtling skyward. The painting offers numerous possible interpretations, some directly contradictory, all equally supported. Our attempt at a definitive understanding of the painting is suspended, exactly as she is.
While liquid modernity suggests and validates a certain instantaneousness, what it has cost us, Abed suggests, is a discrete and coherent self-identity that is constructed, like the paintings themselves, over a long period of time. In its place we experience estrangement from space, from time, from one another. Capitalism discourages us from protracted loyalty to any one thing, and encourages us to understand this lack of stable connection as freedom. What is profound and heroic about Abed’s show is that it forces us to work to connect with the artist and his work—and, implicitly, with one another—by sharing not in the meaning behind his paintings but in the absence thereof, by feeling an impenetrable solidity where we are accustomed to liquid, digestible, instantaneous meaning.
Abed’s paintings seem quiet at first, even deathly silent, but the more one looks at his images the more one sees they are perceptive of danger and loud with warnings, horrified at the difficulty of speaking underwater, rife with a bubbling sense of suffocation. The most rewarding way to encounter these images is as individual monuments—to think of the effort that went into making them, to wonder why they take the form that they take, and to be reminded, when no clear answer is forthcoming, of the full measure of our ineffably messy humanity.