Flashes in the Breach
Light hitting industrial aprons, bright yellow. Blood, but faded. Aging blood, dusty red. Thick latex gloves, the same shade as those used for human surgery. A light blue, but one that is sure of itself. Paleni’s colors are accents against a wash of grey. The object of her painting, I’ll drown (2015), is a creature that is dissipating quickly into a shadow of itself. The caudal fin of a giant fish is the most precisely rendered object in the work and it is slumping off the edge of a gutting table. The creature is a luminous grey, a great curved body that decisive but tiny hands have already grasped with propriety.
I’ll drown is a portrait of death. The ones who will manage the aftermath of the body are alert to the tasks that lay before them. Blue fingers frame a triangle in the center of the canvas, pushing and grasping. They are unified in movement. They need to catch the freshness, the aliveness. They need to work quickly. The shimmer behind them, running down the right side of the painting, is a reminder that this event is nevertheless a breach. A consciousness has been displaced from the thick, inert mass to some space outside of the movements of these faceless people and their mandate. The shimmer breaks up the representation of a solid grey floor, dispersing the very pictorial illusion of space that these bodies and their management of death occupy so unselfconsciously.
Ghost Dog’s background tones could have been borrowed from 19th Century American painting. Somber greens and muddy, rich browns. Indistinct foliage, undisciplined by fastidious old-world gardeners. The space suggests a clearing in some landscape of mature brush. There might be brook rushing through a break in the leaves on the left, or else it is only a cool shadow. The point of this setting—as it is in much 19th Century American painting—is that some event is taking place in Nature, which is defined as a mysterious place that nevertheless remains frame-able, knowable to a viewer.
The human is a slender sketch with one hip thrown out and one foot elegantly pointed in the dust. He throws a straight shadow that is unwavering on the ground behind his unshod feet. The bear is richly clothed in locks of fur, a crescent-shaped streak of pale marking the breast like an elaborate indigenous necklace. She is alive whereas he is abstract. It would be a mistake to be seduced by the bared claws, by the howling mouth rendered as a smudge of red, or by her apparent strength and balance on hind legs. No animal fury will free this being from her pair, just as there is no actual wilderness in the background to lope towards. The event of the painting is subjugation accomplished.
It is as though the human were demonstrating how a vivid, furious existence could be so completely mastered by a casually posed, barely embodied human being. His body paired with hers. The space between them, full of her sound and his silence, is tense but it is also absent of movement. This human has no need of language. Subjugation in this scene is not about a command called out and then obeyed. What is passing between the human and the bear is gestural: a strap disappearing into her face, her right paw curled in towards her chest, his left hand raised and held menacingly but lightly above his head. Each is locked into their own, and visually distinct, aesthetic experience of the same instant. Each is adorned with symbolic gestures of the roles they are to play in this masquerade of an encounter between the human and the animal.
A tangle of forms obscures the top half of Paleni’s painting Man’s Will (2017). Feathers, antlers, ochre-colored frock sleeves, leafy branches, and a single yellow eye in the center of the composition dispassionately overseeing the operation underway in the foreground. The profuse composition is standard in Paleni’s work, signifying the chaotic unknowability of the natural world. An uncanny density marks the light that filters through this mass of formal layers. It is as though the outside layer of foliage was dancing in the morning light, whereas the mess of shirt sleeves and feathers and fallen leaves in the center of the painting were in a different time, late into an autumn afternoon. Even before the viewer’s eye reaches the hands and tries to discern the nature of the operation in which they are engaged, the painting is already a record of disjuncture and irreconcilable juxtaposition.
Put differently, it is not the fact that hands dismiss everything except the disassembled crocodile that is striking in Man’s Will, but rather the fact that these worlds manage to exist together on the same representational surface. The hands are gloved. The muscles and tendons of their wrists and knuckles are muted by a light fabric, which could be latex or its thick rubber precursor. They are also clean of stains from whatever it is that they are doing to the face of the crocodile that lays beneath them. Their task is not urgent—they are not saving a life or trying to package it quickly enough that humans can benefit from life’s proximity. The crocodile is being very carefully disfigured so as not to mar its skin, which will be used, perhaps, for handbags or luxury high-heeled shoes.
The hands and their instruments are a visual echo of the shape and density of the crocodile’s teeth. These lurk inactive at the bottom of the canvas, as though waiting for the creature’s vision to be restored before coming to life to tear fingers from wrists. The hands and the teeth are thus similar objects from incommensurable paradigms for incision. The event here is the lack of reciprocity between the universe of the hands, and of their scalpels, and the universe of the motionless reptile, with its beautiful teeth.
Paleni’s work is concerned with the process by which the animal becomes incorporated into a human system of value and consumption at the expense of the being that was once irreconcilably unknowable to the human. She paints the threshold between the animal—in itself, as a consciousness whose perspective can only ever be imagined—and what humans make of this being.
Jacques Derrida wrote about a similar threshold in The Animal That Therefore I Am. The philosopher describes finding himself naked and observed by a specific, very small, cat, which he is careful to stress is not metaphorical. When he understands that he is observing a being without access to language that is in the act of observing him—Jacques Derrida, the naked man, slowly aging and in his bathroom—he understands that language as a system is organized to exclude the impossible unknowability of just such an encounter. As a system, logos is organized to justify man’s lack of responsibility to those beings with which it cannot have a legible relationship, beings that cannot be contained by the sense the word makes of the world.
The great fish cannot, in language, lament the loss of the vast, cold, darkness of the ocean’s depths and so its loss falls outside the purview of man’s responsibility, and also falls outside of justice. The bear’s fury is not reasoned, is not politely argued as a loss of life and liberty and the destruction of an ancestral home at the hands of shallow adventure capitalists. There is no precedent to justify her right to unqualified freedom of movement. There is no way to know in semiotic terms what the crocodile might once have thought of the beings that now carefully place their scalpels into its head, and so the question of its experience of the world and of the value it places on its own skin is an unsolvable enigma, which is therefore dismissible as non-sense.
Derrida’s point is that humans do not, in fact, allow themselves to recognize the encounter between humans and animals for what it is: a limit to the system according to which they have organized the whole world. Paleni’s paintings also abut this limit. They are not really representations of violence done to animals. They are, rather, images of disjuncture between the existence of the animal and the existence of the human animal. They are an attempt to represent the impossibility of an encounter in language, like flashes in the breach between the cat and her philosopher.