AUFBAU - September 5, 2002
Re-Visiting Those Stunned Evenings after 9/11
David Stern Paints A Moment of Community in ”The Gatherings”
By Monica Strauss
”Common Ground” was what David Stern called his one-man exhibition at Rosenberg and Kaufman Fine Art in the spring of 2001. At first glance, the title seemed off-course for the psychological isolation of the figures he painted making their way through urban spaces. But it was precisely this distancing that they had in ”common,” a collective survival tactic in the hectic and kinetic metropolis evoked by Stern through his thick, energetic application of paint. Not that his figures were anonymous. Stern is a portraitist trained to capture the telling deviations in the width of a forehead, the profile of a limb or the flutter of a hemline with a mere shift of the brush or a change of tone, so that a viewer has no doubt about the specificity of those depicted. His individuals were seen, but unwilling to be known.
With September 11 New York changed. For weeks Stern found himself unable to paint and spent a lot of time walking around the stricken city. And then an earlier experience offered a key to the new circumstances of the life around him. Just a week before the terrorist attacks, he had been in Maine and had gone to see a traditional Indian powwow celebrated by the Pasmaquoddy Indians of the Wabanaki tribes that once inhabited the entire North American eastern seaboard. Recollections of that spiritual circle came into his mind as he witnessed New Yorkers gathered around their homemade memorials, groups of candles, clusters of flowers in awkward community. The result was the series of paintings collectively called ”The Gatherings,” a response to the new urban necessity, however tenuous and however brief, to connect.
Five paintings make up the series, two recall the Indian conclaves, three, the impromptu circles of mourning. The two subjects are quite different in mood, but the contrast sets up a stimulating dialogue. ”White Sky” depicts a circle of Indian drummers with dancers moving in ecstatic response to the beat behind them, ”Keepers of the Dawn” (an allusion to the name the Indians gave themselves as the first to greet the sunrise on the continent), views the drummers alone, transported by their own rhythms and hypnotic chants. They are lit from below as if around a fire, the light arbitrarily picking out faces or limbs in a palette of deep blues, flecked with reds and whites.

Stern’s richly textured paint surface seems to throb with the very pulsations he is depicting, and individual features he is so adept at suggesting, a musician’s bare foot beating out the rhythm, a dancer’s raised shoulder caught in the light, a drummer, viewed from the back, a braid bisecting his t-shirt, emerge with surprising concreteness from passages that have a painterly life of their own. A contemporary informality of dress, movement and posture is suggested and the music-making appears to be as much improvisation than ritual. Nonetheless, what comes across clearly in these two paintings is the absolute absorption of the participants in the ceremony. The power of belonging is evoked and the possibilities of joy in communal expression confirmed.
What emerges from the New York paintings is almost the exact opposite, a painful absence of accepted ritual, the difficulties of relating to a common fate, and yet a palpable sense of the desire to do so. In the blue light of dusk, people come out on the streets to be with others. Silent and contemplative, they stand or squat around the little makeshift memorial altars, but there is little communication. In ”Bearing Witness # 1,” a man in a business suit, a formal but telling costume amid the casual attire of those around him, bends forward to place a candle, but those seated on the ground do not look at him. In ”Engine and Ladder Houston,” the standing figures appear so stunned and frozen that they resemble the hieratic figures in Byzantine mosaics. Only in ”Bearing Witness, # 2,” do three figures engage in conversation, but they turn away from those around them. Stern depicts both the shock of the catastrophe and the inability to express it.
Where in the Indian paintings, Stern’s richly worked surfaces gave a plastic dimension to the energies of the ritual, in the urban encounters, the brushstrokes that both reveal and conceal create a more temporal mood. We are seeing these individuals at a time when they are momentarily linked, but just as the paint allows for definition and then takes it back, the connection that brought these figures together was fragile and soon gone. It did not take long before 9/11 developed into a world-wide media phenomenon that moved far beyond those New York evenings when shaken and saddened citizens sought comfort in the presence of strangers who had shared the reality in their streets. This writer could barely recall those moments, but Stern has brought them back. Without a trace of sentiment or patriotism, he evokes both their poignancy and evanescence.
”The Gatherings” will be on view at David Stern’s one-man show at Rosenberg & Kaufmann Fine Art, 115 Wooster Street, from October 10 to November 15, 2002.