Hopper

By Eric Le Roy

Content 18+ I remember walking through the streets of Martinsburg, West Virginia when I was a kid. There was one main street and a couple of fairly busy ones shooting off in different directions on each side. But it was Queen Street, the ‘hub’ of Martinsburg, so to speak, where the busy shops were. I was very young at the time, maybe 6 or 7, and of course I noticed everything that was going on. Or as much as I could take in.

But there was something a little strange happening inside my head. That is, my attention would inevitably drift from the street level windows to the windows and walls and roofs above the shops. And nothing was ever taking place up there. I can’t remember ever seeing a face appear, not even some withered soul, blanched by solitude, holding a cigarette and listlessly lathered in smoke the color of that person’s flesh. Maybe there was, once in a while, but I can’t recall. I recollect only the emptiness.

It suggested many things, many human stories mostly abandoned, having long since drifted into outcomes no one would ever know about. At eye level, the jostle and jibber-jabber of a small town street, an asphalt stage of the American 1950s whose actors by now are dissolved into particles, but on those days so casually alive and able to answer to their names. Yet above them were the places I was drawn to, imagined lives behind the lifeless windows.

I remember reading, years ago, an apparently autobiographical piece by a guy who, as a boy, would see the bums sitting at the edge of alleys in his town, and, repulsed by their appearance, nevertheless would feel a bizarre attraction, almost erotic it seemed, to them, as if, deep down in the dark places of his psyche he understood that he belonged with them, that secretly he was one of them. He recognised a source, a terrible essence, in the eyes he saw lolling out of their scabby heads that he had already met somewhere within himself. He didn’t know how he knew, he just knew. And the bums would grin back at him, telepathically.

That’s how I felt about those windows. I knew that I belonged more to the emptiness they suggested than to the street with all its hubbub. I had this bizarre attraction to what wasn’t there. I imagine that by now it is a recognised pathology with a name, but no one has told me.

It is also true that many artists, whatever the genre, will attest to the principle that what is left out of a work of art is as important (or almost) as what is put in. Hemingway (whose work I have by now only a lukewarm interest) was a great advocate of this. Done right, I agree with the idea, and, more than that, I discover it in almost every work of art that captures my attention. The ‘missing ingredients’ that chip away at ‘reality’ arrest my dreams and open the door to the Alleys of Oblivion.

In portraits, I am drawn to those faces that seem to be thinking things that I would like to know about but will never be allowed to. In the eyes of those long lost models, young, middle-aged, and old, there seem to glitter secrets that could be profound…or uproariously vulgar. Or simply dull. Many of the nymphs and Virgins painted by poor men now regarded as great masters, sat for a sou. Then they worked the streets.

My fantasies about these questions embarrass me at times..

Some writers, such a Murakami in his short stories, recognise this connection between what is there and what isn’t, and in his work it leads to marvelous surrealism wherein the daily mundane tasks of the typically unassuming ‘regular guy’ protagonist slip, unobtrusively and matter-of-factly, into what is neither ordinary dream or nightmare, but somewhere else: a labyrinth manufactured out of the dreaming city air and its insubstantial characters that come by telephone or just appear.

Another artist who captured my need for the concrete by invisible means is the Italian surrealist di Chirico. I saw a detail of his work “Enigma of the Afternoon” on the cover of a Kakfa paperback (The Trial or The Castle), and naturally I hurried to find more.

But there is no painter who has succeeded in rendering what I recognise as my own soul affixed to a canvas better than Edward Hopper. I have to say that I don’t know why I am so affected by his work, except to suggest that it goes back to my childhood experience of finding my own troubled salvation in empty windows rather than those filled with animated jumbles of human faces along the streets. Of those down near the level of my eyes, only the bare, ‘naked’, – as it were – mannequins that sometimes still stood by on display on Sundays (shops closed on Sundays back then) before being redressed for the new week. The nude mannequins appealed, not because I was a necrophiliac imagining morgues full of sexy stiffs, but rather because I wondered what those mannequins would be like if they suddenly came to life and it was because I knew that they were condemned to eternal silence that I was attracted to them. I would never know what they thought.

Hopper manages to create total stillness in places where noise – even if nothing more than distracted, aimless city commotion and babel – must preside. Hopper knows this, and so he has buried these sounds beneath the enamel surfaces of his paint, and art. It is as if these buildings once were inhabited not only by people but by pantheistic gods – and now, for reasons unknown, they have fled.

It makes no difference if he is painting the city or a small town or some house in the country by the side of the road – his work is marked by a spiritual solitude, as if the very soul of the painting and whatever gives it the suppressed longing it exudes, were the result of long, long deeply forlorn spiritual fasting.The people in his paintings are there, but not really there, not really participating in the moment. They are on hold, they are frozen, trapped in a lonely half-anticipation of something, a celestial force, needed to break the monotony, like in the mind of the woman looking ardently from the porch, a force which never comes.

It is a binding solitary set of emotional statues that Hopper presents, people loitering in a hotel lobby as if they know that something eventually will happen but without measurable consequence, a lot like the characters in Sartre’s play No Exit. Hopper’s characters understand that fighting the darkness will avail them nothing, and so the adaptation is merely being frozen in places of garish light, a proscenium of mannequins.

Why, O why, am I so at home in those paintings? Is it the fear of engagement? But my life has been an uproar!! Is it that strange, totally incomprehensible, sense of detachment, no matter what the outer hullabaloo, that exists in every person, a “Room 19’ (after the story by Doris Lessing) that some of us simultaneously dread and long for?

As I explore Hopper, I see that he painted not just to one theme and that there is a kind of tantalizing levity in some of the scenes he shows us, even houses standing along the side of the road. But for the most part, I keep returning to those works where, without knowing it, he is painting me and the convulsive, twitching loneliness that exists at the core of me, even though I have a fine and rewarding life, a happy life… until I look at those paintings and enter those stolid, voluminous, and silent buildings that never tell me what they want, but leave me to want what they want, whatever it is.

Thus an empty little gas station on the side of a road in some anonymous town cuts into me like the candle of life being snuffed, and I want to cry out “Open up!!! Open and give me some gas and coffee!!!” But there is nothing but silence, silence buried in the objective correlative on the canvas, and I know, I know , that this silence is forever. No one will give me the gas and coffee of life that I need. Not in that town, nor anywhere else.

Where I live now, In Varna, Bulgaria, they are doing a huge amount of construction work outside the apartment house where I live with my wife, two dogs and two cats. The dogs are old, and so we go out and down a stony dip and turn left into a somewhat wooded area. Not far, is a small path leading to a pair of plastic chairs. The dogs and I rest there and I look out at the construction.

On weekends, there is nobody around even though the buildings are 90% finished. We sit there, my dogs and me, and I watch, my eyes slithering over the buildings, looking for signs of life. But they are silent, and I realize that I am looking at a poor man’s Hopper painting. Still it beguiles, especially on empty Sundays. The sea is not far away, and surely there is life there. Not much in March, but people are stirring. The empty buildings make me imagine future realities among those soon to be filled walls and floors.

Human passion.

But those still fragmented buildings, exactly as they are now, somehow make me imagine that somewhere else, in Chicago maybe…or somewhere…a million women are passing their lives with their men and children, and it all seems an unattainable dream – something that as it happens still could not possibly be happening. All those conversations. All those meanings. Hoping, fucking, washing. Eating, praying, going to the toilet – all those sacred things.

It can’t really be happening can it? O how I want it all to be happening and to be part of it!

One of those nameless guys in Chicago with a wife and child, I want somehow to be that guy, even as I don’t ever want to be… that guy. Who would he be? Some guy. I don’t want that. But is his wife pretty, the fox of a few years before the gloom sets in? I would want that. What would I call her by? Something once Italian, once Irish? The beauty of a folding moment, and then the death of the afternoon and eternal ennui. The crunching boredom of spiritual craving truncated by a sense of irretrievable loss of what was never there in the first place?

I fear it.

Maybe I just want to be somewhere the dances go on and on and when it gets dark, the reassuring lights automatically come on. But in Hopper’s work, none of this happens. Oh, yes the lights are on, even the bright sky of the afternoon.

But no one is there. Or is there? What did I just catch a glimpse of?

The silence behind the windows rules like the Archduke of Nothingness.

I want inside.