Mel Pekarsky makes drawings and etchings of desert foliage and space, meant as studies for mural-scale works. Ostensibly mimetic, they also readily read as exquisite abstractions, peculiarly modernist. The paper is delicately toned by pencil and oil -- often pencil alone -- which seem to infiltrate its surface, insinuating a sense of indwelling depth that turns the paper itself into a raw terrain, even as it makes its flatness insistent.
(It’s worth noting that Pekarsky was once a pure abstract painter. For years a huge abstract mural by him covered a wall at the corner of Houston and Crosby Streets in SoHo, measuring 80 feet tall by 60 feet wide, done in 1972. Pekarsky was executive director of City Walls, Inc., and did four outdoor murals in the city.)
All the works are site-specific -- Near Roswell (2002), Near Albuquerque and Near Guadalupe (both 2006). In Dry and Hot, two etchings from 2000, Pekarsky somehow conveys the sensation of dry desert heat. I think the effect has to do with the paper’s untouched expanse of whiteness. The spotty patches of vegetation, swiftly denoted with a few concentrated touches, transform the white paper into a field of fused light and sand -- sand seared by bright sunlight until it too blazes with relentless light. The growths are so many shudders on the dry hot skin of the paper -- disembodied eyes of life blinking furiously in the blinding light.
Pekarsky’s desert is implacable, uninhabited, indifferent -- nothing serene about it -- but it has uncanny, elemental presence. For Pekarsky it is an intense transcendental space with small islands of life that seem miraculous in the circumstances. There is a sense of clinging to life in the midst of a kind of eternity. Pekarsky’s desert is peculiarly surreal -- one may recall that Max Ernst found the desert surreal -- but Pekarsky’s works are informed by unflinching consciousness, as though in defiance of the emptiness and death the desert conveys, while for Ernst the desert is another stage set for his tormented unconscious.
Life flourishes more vigorously at the desert’s edge, visible in three drawings, but the trees that announce its limits seem formed of desert light, however clouded. Finally one magnificent tree stands out and fills the space. We are able to approach it closely -- the sense of unmeasurable distance informs Pekarsky’s space -- suggesting that we have safely passed through the bizarre shadow of death that is the desert. This grand tree seems made of pure shadow, but one senses that it is inwardly buttressed by light -- light transfigured into exuberant life that nonetheless seems haunted by death. The drawings form a Monet-like sequence, a worth successor to Monet’s more placid haystacks.
Lazhar Mansouri’s photographs are quite different. They are full of people, proudly posing, from Aïn Beïda, his Algerian hometown. Most are grouped by family, tribe or profession. There are also individual Berber women, their faces heavily tattooed, and children, sometimes in Arab headdress, sometimes looking trendy and modern in sunglasses. They all stare out at us, dressed in their best, but their shoes are often old and worn, betraying their poverty. Nonetheless, they stand with dignity and seem contented. They are who they are -- they have a secure sense of identity. No modern society alienation, impersonality, uptightness and trickiness here, but traditional community coherence, individual integrity and straightforward, sympathetic presence. Mansouri doesn’t manipulate them -- there are a few studio props (cheap curtains frame the figures and plastic plants accompany them, sometimes along with a prized possession) -- but lets them be.
They stand still, as they’re supposed to do, but there’s nothing static about them. Their pose is not procrustean -- they never seem fixed in place -- but relaxed and oddly natural, however artificial the whole set up is. Mansouri shows us that it is a set-up, simply a frame for the people. They are not bothered and confined by it -- because this is the routine way one poses for a photograph -- and they want us to attend to them not it. They’re healthily alive, and their aliveness runs deep. Nowhere do we see the sullen, shallow youths evident in so many contemporary photographs. What a dismal generation! The brilliant color does nothing to alleviate the sense of stupified humanity lurking in their faces. Thank Allah for the Berber women, with their eloquent scars.
These Arab strangers -- often still exoticized as mysteriously Other (even though most many of them wear Western clothing they are still regarded as radically unfamiliar) -- are less emotionally strange that we are to ourselves. For them the camera, a symbol of modernity, is welcome rather than intrusive. They don’t feel it is going to steal their soul, but rather show it at its finest. Indeed, the Berber women show themselves to the camera as they have never been seen in public: they never take off their veil for any man, except their husband, yet they are ready to unveil for the camera -- a camera operated by a man, a camera that can be regarded as voyeuristically inquisitive. Even more unusually, Mansouri was a Jew among Arabs. But he was clearly one of their own -- a hometown guy with a special talent. Or was it just that the Berber women wanted to be recorded for posterity -- like everyone else -- and they didn’t care who did so? Perhaps the camera appealed to their narcissism, and narcissism is universal and powerful. Mansouri made some 100,000 portrait photographs, suggesting that he had no lack of willing subjects.
None of the photographs are boring, not only because of their human interest, but esthetically. None are redundant: not only are the figures different and stand (sometimes sit) differently, but the play of black and white changes from photograph to photograph, keeping our eye moving within the photograph. There is nothing matter of fact about them, however factual they may be. We are constantly invited to compare and contrast figures and photographs. Each invites us to construct a narrative, and the whole exhibition -- only 55 of the photographs Mansouri made -- invites us to weave the narratives together. Clearly each figure has a complex story to tell. The photographs form a life history of an Arab village from 1950-1980 -- three decades that seem like remote history, however contemporary the clothing of many of the figures.
What do Pekarsky’s handmade drawings and Mansouri’s mechanically made photographs have in common? I suggest that both achieve a sense of timelessness, Pekarsky by dealing with a timeless environment and Mansouri by showing that different people share a timeless humanity. It helps that the desert and the village are self-contained -- virtually hermetic -- environments. This allows for the concentration that distills transient experience into enduring memories. It also helps that Pekarsky and Mansouri treat their subject with respect. Pekarsky has no wish to desecrate the desert with his fantasies, as Max Ernst does, and Mansouri has no wish to degrade the human figure into a grotesque anomaly, as many artists have since Picasso’s Cubist caricatures (as he himself called them). Pekarsky may be cunningly abstract, and Mansouri may be naively descriptive, but their judicious observation of their subject matter -- they neither blindly submit to it nor overpower it -- is a form of homage to its eternal value.
"Mel Pekarsky: The Desert Series," Mar. 29-Apr. 27, 2007, at VanDeb Editions, 313 West 37th Street, New York, N.Y. 10018
"Lazhar Mansouri: Portraits of a Village," Mar. 15-May 12, 2007, at Westwood Gallery, 568 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.