by Jason Stoneking
I didn’t realize until quite recently that on some level I am actively looking for hope. If you would have asked me a few years ago, I might well have said that the portrayal of hope was somehow sappy or pedestrian, something better left to the realm of Disney movies and Chicken Soup books, and kept out of the sacred, lofty worlds of fine art and literature. But lately, I have to admit that the occasional appearance of this hope stuff in the arts hasn’t been looking so bad to me. In fact, I’ve even been starting to really appreciate it, and I’ve been meaning to ask myself why. For one thing, I suppose there’s the alternative to consider: art without hope.
This winter, my girlfriend, Leslie, and I spent several hours in line at the Grand Palais in Paris for the privilege of walking through the comprehensive Hopper exhibition. And although I appreciated the show, which offered a wide scope of perspective and even a profound insight into the work of Hopper and his contemporaries, I couldn’t help stumbling into the gaping black hole of despair from which it seemed that the artist was extending his hand. Most of Hopper’s paintings were like production stills from the sets of noir films. They depicted a cynical world, in which the human exchange of warmth had been lost amid industrialization. Buildings and trains stood empty. People, when they appeared, were alone in their rooms, haggard and bewildered, lost and disconsolate. When there were two figures, one invariably had vaguely unsavory designs on the other. The occasional lighter moment came only when we stumbled onto one of his unpopulated nature-scapes, featuring neither humans nor human-made goods of any kind.
After an afternoon of that, the sheer bleakness built up like a crushing weight on my chest. Was that really all there was to the Americans of the mid-twentieth century? Was Hopper for real? Were there really people out there thinking that all of the other people were just sinister, self-serving, cannibal zombies and their bitter, alienated victims, looking forward to nothing more than a blank-faced death-by-loneliness in a sparsely furnished hotel room over by the train station? But I guess that analysis should surprise me less and less as time marches on. It seems to be in lockstep with the mainstream thinking. At least, that’s what the evening news is always selling to me: the idea that everyone in my neighborhood is potentially a terrorist or a murderer, a sex offender or a school shooter. And this finally brings me to Connecticut.
Recently, after the horrific mass-shooting of school children in Sandy Hook, and amid the almost equally horrific pornography of its media coverage, Leslie and I made a pilgrimage to Connecticut to visit the home of Adam Niklewicz, one of my favorite artists in the world and, I am honored to say, also a very dear friend. Adam, who now lives near New Haven, was a longtime resident of Sandy Hook, where his daughter had actually attended the same elementary school where the shootings would later take place. The timing of our visit to Connecticut felt eerie, but the pretext for the trip was actually a coincidence. A few months before the shootings, Adam had been chosen to create a large piece of public art in the city of Hartford, and Leslie and I went there to see it with him. What we didn’t anticipate was the new significance that the piece would take on for us in light of current events.
The project had begun when Adam was contacted by Will K. Wilkins, the director of the Connecticut contemporary art organization Real Art Ways. Adam had shown with RAW several times and had known Wilkins for years, so when RAW was asked to help put together a public art proposal in partnership with the City of Hartford and The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Wilkins recommended Adam as a candidate artist for the project. They were looking for a large-scale piece of wall-based contemporary art that wasn’t a mural. Wilkins presented for consideration a video of the 2009 installation “Watergarden,” in which Adam had selectively treated a slab of concrete with a waterproofing agent so that the image of a tree would appear on it, when it was moistened at regular intervals with a hose, and then would gradually disappear as the concrete dried.
Adam was quickly and unanimously chosen to design a large wall piece for a location in downtown Hartford. In collaboration with the city and the two arts organizations, Adam adapted the idea from his Watergarden piece so that the tree depicted would be the Charter Oak, the recognizable symbol of the Connecticut colony and its important role in the American fight for independence. The resulting installation, titled “The Charter Oak,” has been a success for everyone concerned. For the City of Hartford, it has drawn countless visitors to consider the shared history of the state and its future role in encouraging advancements in the arts. And the piece has also been a pleasant surprise for Adam himself, who told me he feels that the incorporation of this specific symbol gives his original idea an added conceptual strength.
Happy with the fruits of their working relationship, the city also decided, in conjunction with this installation, to exhibit another, related piece of Adam’s on the adjacent AT&T building. This other part of the show is a giant, looping projection entitled “Walking Around a Tree” which depicts a tree slowly spinning in an undefined space. But it is in fact we who are spinning, as the camera moves in an even, deliberate circle, showing us the view we would have if we walked around the tree indefinitely, in a perfectly repeated loop, looking at it the whole time. For several months, this projection has been visible from many parts of the city, and even from the highway outside town. It has beckoned people to the heart of Hartford, where there is a convenient parking area from which they can take their time to view and consider the relationship between these works.
What Adam’s two pieces have in common is their meditation on cycles. The theme of return and rejuvenation. The perseverance of life. Their accent is on the natural rhythms (turning orbits, the cyclical redistribution of water through the atmosphere) that bring cleansing renewals to everything around us. As I stood at the feet of these two immense trees adorning the walls of busy, downtown, corporate buildings, I couldn’t help noticing that the longer I watched them, the smaller my problems felt. And then I was sincerely filled with a hope, however naïve, however improbable, that these images could help in some way to soothe the unimaginable pain and confusion that permeated the community at the time of our visit. I saw in those forever returning oaks a renewal of the spirit of Connecticut, a continual reminder of a timeless symbol around which the people of the state could rally and hopefully find a small amount of peace.
We made it to Hartford just in time to see the projection, which since has ended, but “The Charter Oak” is still there, indefinitely, on display. At one point, they were thinking of cleaning off the building at the end of the show’s run, but the powers that be in Hartford have since decided to leave it there. Instead of removing it entirely, they’ve elected just to stop the regular spraying of the piece with water and let the image continue to come and go with the natural rainfall for as long as the two shall last. Luckily for all of us who would like to see the piece, there is more water, and more regeneration coming, for as far as the imagination can see. Redeeming us. Washing away our sins. Bringing new life from the same ground in which we bury our dead.
As an artist, and as a person, Adam Niklewicz stands humbly before the mysteries of the universe and reports them back to us through a prism of mystic fascination. He refers to the concept of “magical thinking” as one that he strives for. And if I understand this concept correctly, it is one that Adam regularly achieves in his work. He creates things that open up the senses and reveal elements of the viewer’s own thinking that were not previously familiar. And this is a surprisingly intimate procedure. It’s like when a new lover helps you discover that your most secret desires are addressed by a practice in which you’ve never previously engaged. And then you suddenly feel exposed, self-conscious and vulnerable, but also wildly awake like you haven’t been since childhood. And you immediately have to ask yourself if you are in love, or drunk, or under the influence of some other as-yet-undiscovered sorcery from the great beyond.
In a video interview about the making of the Charter Oak installation, Adam shares a childhood memory of playing with water on concrete surfaces. Watching curiously as the marks made by the water disappeared when the water dried. Musing about where those marks went and what other magical discoveries might share the secret realm into which they’d vanished. This perspective of his reminds me of the spirit in the great Polish poets of the twentieth century, who, in the face of unspeakable adversity, rose to a warm, humble wisdom from which they infused their works with equal parts childlike wonder, hope, reverence, and humanity. Adam’s pieces have always filled me with these same feelings. They are each, in their own way, like kisses on the forehead from the infinite.
Perhaps a part of this timeless wisdom he’s tapped into is in accepting that a certain amount of hope makes practical sense. Not just as a coping strategy during difficult times, but because it reflects the truly cyclical nature of existence. Whatever it is that you’re hoping for will come around again eventually. War, peace, your political party, good movies, bell-bottom jeans. Nothing ever really goes away forever. Matter never disappears from the universe. But nothing really stays forever either. All the tragic horrors we do to each other find ways to fade back into the background as we move through time. Even death itself is just a spoke in the wheel, a turnaround point, a dateline on a spinning globe, a convenient stripe where we mark our laps. And the tree keeps reappearing, and the tree keeps reappearing, and the tree keeps reappearing…