The Art of Downside Narrative: An Interview with Tony Scherman

Among the 17 large encaustic paintings from “About 1865,” Tony Scherman’s grave and beautiful meditation on the American Civil War, is a canvas called God’s Work. It shows a pair of legs and feet, cut off below the knee and suspended in a scratched and mottled space. The title is deeply ironic, since the body has clearly been hanged and no less obviously brutalized in other ways, a casuality not of God’s work but of man’s monstrous industry. The medium of encaustic, which Scherman decided to use exclusively over 30 years ago, is the ideal material to carry the weight of meaning embodied in the painting. To say the surface is distressed is only to implicate the art of painting into the act of remembering. Inescapably, you are reminded of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” an anguished song about murderous racism. “Southern trees bear strange fruit, / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The third stanza picks up on the metaphor of grotesque growth–“here is the fruit for the sun to rot”–a sensation that Scherman’s painting generates with equal tenacity. He remarks in the following interview that he has a “natural tendency towards overripening that is deep down,” and I can think of no more appropriate place for that tendency to come to the surface–more accurately, to become the surface, than in a painting on the subject of racially motivated lynching. It should come as no surprise that the other painting in the series named God’s Work, shows the occluded eye of a hooded Klansman; the work done in the name of god finds a shape as both victim and victimizer.

The paintings in “About 1865” concentrate on pain and desire. Scherman locates their origin in his attempts to understand the particular sense of pain experienced by a class of disenfranchised blue-collar white southerners and in his tendency “to libidinize everything I paint.” The results of these divergent motivations are startling; this is a world of unrepentant darkness (consider the lethal coldness in the eyes of Lincoln’s Evil Twin, a portrait that has some residual likeness to Hannibal Lecter) and a world of unmediated sensuality (consider equally the knowing look in the eyes of the voluptuous black girl that Robert E. Lee dreams up out of his deflected desire). The fact that Scherman’s portraits fill the entire space of the composition makes them read as much like a topography as a physiognomy; in his art, figure and ground are in a constant state of painterly interpenetration.

Scherman denies any virtuosity in his work, a disavowal that seems preposterous. His painting of a side of beef, while it replicates a subject that has been brilliantly painted by artists as different as Soutine and Rembrandt, is entirely his own; his rendering of a pair of shrimp in Savannah: Better Days is dazzling. In its way, it is his version (albeit in a radically enlarged scale) of Manet’s painting of asparagus, the everyday raised to the level of the monumental. These shrimp are both stately and outrageous, show-off seafood with a touch of class. Scherman has remarked that he needs a condition of paradox as a way into a painted subject, and, in these still-lifes, he is able to produce works with an enlivened, treacherous surface. They are visceral evidence of his claim that he nods, from time to time, to the defacement of beauty. Few painters working today are able to sustain that paradoxical achievement. “All I can tell you is that I see beauty everywhere,” he states categorically. Giving form to that constant recognition, to assign a term he uses in the following conversation, is his own “real alchemy.”

Tony Scherman spoke with Robert Enright from Toronto on June 24, 2007.

**BORDER CROSSINGS: **I’m interested in waht attracted you to this particular theme. Why was the American Civil War a point of a departure for a body of work?

**TONY SCHERMAN: **It started back in England in 1969, where my dad was recording. I used to hang around Abbey Road because he was working with the Beatles. He played the violin and whenever they had sessions with strings, he did them. So we’d known lots of jazz guys and southern white blues musicians from various bands. And I noticed that the slide guitar coming off the white guys was very different from the slide coming off the black guys. It was greasy; the black guys were drier. And I became aware of the pain these white guys had. I didn’t know where it came from, I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t understand that it was a very particular thing. The southern boys had it and the white boys from the north didn’t. Many decades later, I was touring my Napoleon show to a museum in the south and, from the moment I landed, I suddenly understood where that pain came from. These guys, the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and the Allman Brothers, came from the disenfranchised blue-collar class. Their great-great-grandfathers were the non-slave-owning white trash before the war. They go and fight and after the war they get ground down into the dust. Even today, if you hear a southern accent in New York, this awful mythology suddenly pours out. I discovered two very distinct Americas. Basically, I picked up on a certain kind of pain. I wanted to make paintings about it but I didn’t know how. Most of my series percolate until I find a paradox that allows me to move in.***

**BC: ****That’s your way in: find a paradox?

TS: ***Always, it’s a deconstructive method. I find a gap between what is said and what is done, between something said and the tone it’s said in, and I move in. It’s very Derridean. The first thing that piqued my interest was the character of Robert E. Lee because he is Mr. Fucking Perfect. It’s unbelievable. I’m reading biographies and I cannot find a transgression anywhere in this character. It’s quite something. I’ve never come across an historical figure who was quite like this one. (See Issue 103 to read the full interview.)***