“This Balance Hangs in a Place That Is Not” : The Work of Michael Hafftka

Rosebud Ben-Oni
October 23, 2015
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“Zohar, Book of Concealment 01” by Michael Hafftka ©2009-2010

 

In A Retrospective: Large Oils 1985-2003, the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of Michael Hafftka’s work at the Housatonic Museum of Art, Michael Bordsky compares the artist and the “creatures” of his paintings to a “medieval Kabbalist” and his “golem.” Usually fashioned out of clay into human-like forms, the golem comes to life through the means of the occult, and would serve its maker from menial tasks to protecting an entire community. While a controversial “practice” in Judaism, golem-making reveals more about human motives (and limitations) than the golem itself: a mystic subverts the power dynamics between the original creator (God) and him or herself, and creates life through his or her image.

As much as it challenges those power dynamics in Judaism, golem-making is also beholden to those dynamics. For instance, once the golem has been molded, the mystic must write the following letters on its forehead: alephmem and tav. In that order, it spells emet, which means “truth” in Hebrew. Only then does the golem become alive. In order to kill the golem, one must erase aleph; without that letter, the word become “death.” Even more telling of this power dynamic is the story of Adam; according to the Talmud, Adam was shaped from mud, and spent the first 12 hours of his life bearing the name “Golem”, as an “unfinished” body without a soul. Therefore, every would-be creator must contend with the fact that humanity began with inescapable limitations, thereby destined to flaw one’s own design. European Jewish “accounts” of the golem reveal creations who cannot speak, who are mammoth in size but locked up inside itself, lacking emotion, wisdom and the soul itself, These imperfect beings who, not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, become more uncontrollable and unpredictable the longer they are alive, who reflect humanity’s origins as in those pre-Adam hours, as the First Othered before being granted a soul.

While I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of such alchemy and respect Bordsky’s comparison, I’d argue that the figures and bodies in Michael Hafftka’s paintings are not golem. Their purpose in Hafftka’s hands is not, as Bordsky states, to “alert us to the tremendous dangers involved in creating his missing links.” Hafftka is not playing the part of artist as Creator for the same reasons Jewish mystics sought to create life through clay and mud. Nor he is not reaching up for the ethereal, in attempt to escape human limitation.

Hafftka is revealing how the ethereal exists here, on earth.

And he reveals it in all its corporeal, flailing, frightening and consuming nature. Human, animal, landscapes are not elevated, but excavated, the motions and markings of personal and ancestral journeys, like the rings of ancient trees. His ethereal on earth is the cumulative effects of time: past, present, future.

Moreover, Hafftka’s main concern is not the creation itself; his main concern is the emotional connection he has with his subject, especially with his portraits, which are not only of the person. His portraits reveal a larger history of the person. As Michael once said in an interview: “I try to paint the reality under the surface from an emotional point of view… I do not like painting strangers. I work better when I develop a deep affection for the person I paint.”

I know this to be true because I have sat for him. Michael Hafftka is a friend of mine. I dislike referring to him by his last name, even for the purpose of an essay.  It seems a cold and distant thing to do, especially given the nature of his work. He is Michael to me, which I will refer to him for now on.

 

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Haqdamat Sefer ha-Zohar 14 by Michael Hafftka ©2008

“…With darkness over the face of the abyss, and the wind of God.”

–The Zohar

 

We are badly drawn, as human beings, or rather poorly designed. Our skins and organs and bones are ridiculously fragile, and yet we are some of the most vicious, savage animals who never learn from the numerous genocides of a cyclical nature. We categorize and oversimplify each other, and create artificial hierarchies. We compete endlessly for temporal things. We imprison murders and yet celebrate war heroes who have slain. I include myself in this. I am just as guilty. I am just as stuck in this gelatinous thinking.

Cycles themselves are our nature. To be born is to wound. To live is to be wounded, continuously, intermittently, usually without reason or explanation, though we try to understand. It would seem we aren’t meant for the long term.

Perhaps we are not the ones to inherit. Perhaps another species will come along to replace us altogether, and the contributions we leave here are not for our own future generations but theirs. What will be those contributions? Have we confused evolution with acquiring wealth, with creating new technologies, with space exploration, when we don’t even know what we are looking at, much less for?

We cannot evolve if we continue to look with the same eyes.

 

 

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Bird by Michael Hafftka ©1988

“Bird” is one of my favorite paintings of Michael’s work because I must change the way I look and consider the world. Here, the motion of life is blurred, a smear of blood and variations of light against variations of darkness. It is EveryBird, and it is also the first bird when there was nothing but that darkness. It is ephmeral as a bird-of-paradise’s beauty and eternal as a phoenix’s self-sacrifice and self-resurrection.

“Bird” is also very much Michael himself. His themes are both universal and chiefly rooted in Judaism. He does not limit himself to Jewish subjects or inspirations, and yet is much a Jewish painter, drawing deeply from the histories and rituals of our culture. Like “Bird,” his paintings are very much what a diasporic Jew’s Jewishness looks like: stark even for all the colors, harsh and angular as the sounds of our ancient tongue, sometimes buoyant and mostly lost outside Eretz Yisrael despite the great weight inherited, that weight which comes from a suffering both ancestral and recent. We can’t clearly see if his Bird has landed or is taking flight. The boundaries of Bird itself are not clearly defined; they are uncertain yet uncompromising.

There is a struggle here, beyond mere survival; it is a triumph against nothingness, and although in disarray, it is existence without regret.

 

* * *

I recognize both my wayward Jewishness and the Judaism I’ve come to practice in Michael’s paintings, especially his Kabbalah paintings (you can read Lori Cole’s brilliant analysis of that series here).

In “Zohar, Book of Concealment 1,” a figure stands before a white space. It could be a blank page; it could be a window, and a window to a world not yet begun. The spare, thinly-formed figure is reaching out. Why? Is he or she overwhelmed, elated, embracing this space? Michael quotes from the Zohar for this particular painting: “This balance hangs in a place that is not; weighed upon it were those who did not exist. The balance stands on its own, ungrasped and unseen. Upon it rose and upon it rise those who were not, and who were, and who will be.”

In this painting, we cannot find a place from which we all have risen; even the “never were” of us are here. We are dependent on it, but it is unknown to all of us. It is through Jewish mediums like the Zohar that Michael’s paintings transcend Jewish specificity. A particular Jewish restlessness for discovery becomes universal: the world humanity wants to transcend, to evolve past.

In “Haqdamat Sefer ha-Zohar 14,” there is Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, its numerical value of both one and a thousand. It is also a letter without a sound of its own, a silent letter. At opposite ends, Aleph also contains two Yods, another letter in the Hebrew alphabet, which together point toward both the divine and the terrestial. In his painting, Aleph is both radiated/radiates and is obscured in seemingly endless circling. It is the beginning and it is infinite. It is revealed, and yet we cannot understand what is revealed, perhaps because of our own “golem” origins, because we were some other’s idea, some other’s creation. Perhaps the mysteries of our origins are the mysteries of immeasurable time and space, that there are one and the same.

These two paintings reveal our endless search for transcendence. It is a weight. But it is not some inner prison we carry; it is not so simple a confinement. It is not imaginary. It is a weight in which we exist. It wounds, and so we exist.

 

* * *

Michael and I met in the most 21st century way; in 2013, he messaged me on Twitter, asking me to share some of my work with him. Since I had long known of Michael Hafftka and studied him in university, I thought someone was playing me. His message was so friendly and casual, I wasn’t sure it was actually him.

But after writing emails and sharing work and stories with each other, Michael asked me to sit for him as part of a series on writers and poets. He’d already painted Phil Levine, Tom Sleigh, Edward Hirsch, Irena Klepfisz, all authors whose work I greatly admired. This too took a while as our schedules conflicted. When I finally made it over to his studio in Brooklyn one humid August afternoon in 2014, we sat together for a couple of hours and chatted. We talked about Israel, our Jewish upbringings, our families. He showed me some of his other paintings and sketches. He gave me a book of experimental short stories and drawings he’d written called Conscious/Unconscious.

We also talked the entire time I sat for him. I was amazed that he could paint me with such intense concentration while carrying on philosophical conversations about Zionism and Judaism. The hours flew by, but I realize now I’d probably spent the entire day there with him. When he was finished, it was dark outside. I remember he turned the canvas around and this is what I saw:

 

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Rosebud Ben-Oni by Michael Hafftka ©2014

 

There are few times I am rendered speechless, and this was one of them. There, the whole of my gene pools. There, all my ancestors shoved into this one moment. I am her, but she is not limited to me. She contains the masses and congregations that begot me. She is that balance, all of those who were not, and who were, and who would be.

But of course the infinity that swims silently within all of us is too much to comprehend in a day. Or a lifetime. And it isn’t the point. The point is the human connection. The point is that at least for one day, someone tried to see another outside the clear boundaries and present circumstances because, as Michael once said in an interview, “realism is inadequate to express some often difficult and contradictory feelings.”

Michael’s kind of art is not alchemy, but finding the sums of truth on this earth– and in doing so, it is not despite but through faulty, emotive and the most human of agency.

* * *

“Anthropophagi. Absorption of the sacred enemy. In order to transform into totem.”

–Revistia of Antropofagia, Oswald de Andrade

Michael and I are now collaborating on a project: 18 poems of my poems accompanied by his drawings based on an idea I’d once read in Revistia of Antropofagia, written by Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade: the idea of consuming “sacred enemies” in order to transcend as artists.

While I cannot reveal much more about this project, I return to Nazim Hikmet’s ideas in “On Living,” which I wrote about here. Perhaps when Hikmet says we are not planting trees for our own children, we must take it to mean the ultimate sacrifice: that something will and inevitably come to replace us, and that we must not only leave evidence of our existence behind but also a world kept in the best shape possible. That we are not merely golem, that we want more than to be golem makers, that we dream (and perhaps will) find a way to break the cycles of genocides and other acts of violence, that space not need claimed nor named, that borders of places and human life are more fluid than they seem, that culture is not about separation and categorization and hierarchies.

It is in Michael’s work that I think one outside humanity could understand us, for all those times we stand at windows and before blank pages, our own existence as ephemeral and eternal as existence itself. That we try to take of those weights we bear, that we learn to honor them and not use them against each other. That life is not a comparing of scars. That there is variation in darkness and the unknown, the unseen, the yet ungraspable.

That our eyes were, are, will be opening.

All images used with permission from the artist. Find more about Michael Hafftka here.

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