This is the story of a 100-year old “Living Room” in Williamsburg. An old lady used to live in the apartment but one day, the landlord got the place back, still filled with objects left behind, after life had moved on. Quite good timing for Mr. Landlord, for he had issues at a nearby property he leased to artist Miriam Cabessa.
Miriam’s studio was plagued with leaks, requiring more than quick fixing. The landlord suggested she moved temporarily into this nearby apartment so that a plumbing overhaul could be done at her studio. What could have been a big hassle for Miriam turned into an immersive exploration of her art practice.
I say practice in the same way one talks of practicing yoga or meditation. Because yoga and meditation are so much more than an exercise class you go to.
Miriam settled in her new abode, unpacked her black paint and brushes. Then she paused.
She breathed in all the visible remnants from the former tenant: a vintage suitcase, an armchair, a serving tray.
Miriam paused, full of breath and started cleaning and tidying, yet unable to erase or let go.
So she started to paint over it all, slowly, for her practice follows each of her inhale and each of her exhale. She painted for 8 days.
Her monochrome art conjures up the strata of geological landscapes, the texture of tree barks, or at times the warp and weft of textile weaving…but each line, each striation, each of them marks her slow, her attentive and performative breath.
As she immersed herself in her new space, she painted one gradated line at a time in her unique signature style: “slow-motion action painting”.
She painted the walls, but not quite to the top because the chair she used never allowed her to reach the top, or the ceiling.
I told her this made total sense, for we all need some breathing space. Painted to the very top, this room would make me feel submerged and choking for air. This site specific experience would turn oppressive rather than immersive.
Instead, I settled in with Miriam that morning, sipping our coffee…and a little more air to fill our lungs according to the patterns of her art.
The fireplace, a small table, a leather armchair, the floor, Miriam painted them all.
One breath at a time. Inhale. Exhale.
There is such poetry in Miriam’s process, if you take a breath or two to think about it.
Black is the absence of colors; white is all spectral colors combined. Yet as Miriam’s breath empties, doesn’t she drain black of its emptiness? Isn’t she filling its darkness with all the invisible colors of the air we breathe, the very same we too rarely appreciate but certainly cannot survive without?
The rhythmic variation of Miriam’s lines endlessly betrays this human limitation of ours, this air we must constantly recapture to keep living.
That air is there, in the artist’s gesture, the trembling hand, the human hesitation, the perseverance, and at time also the surrender. Likened to seismographs, Miriam’s act of “painting is conceived as an act that expands the present moment and disrupts the fabric of time”. Similar marks of an altered breath are sometimes visible in Agnes Martin’s otherwise precise graphite lines. And I like to think that breath is palpable at the fuzzy, pulsating edges of Rothko’s color stained blocks.
This is slow art by definition. The kind you have to experience and lose yourself into. So that it can be conjured back to mind when breathing becomes too shallow. When you suddenly realize you’ve been in sleep or screen apnea for dangerously too long.
I feel so privileged to have spent the time with Miriam, on this icy cold morning in Brooklyn.
Inside, it was warm and cosy. I felt “hugged” by Miriam’s monochrome lines, as if she’d woven them all over me.
Miriam’s canvases on the walls fully integrated themselves within the surrounding painted walls, now turned architectural frames. These artworks were not small windows onto the illusion of another world – like art usually is. They were a continuation of Miriam’s world and of my reality at that very moment.
Instead, it was the outside reality going on about its day that had such illusionistic quality: the two windows onto this Brooklyn street were the art bought cheaply to decorate an empty white wall.
Inhale. Exhale. “Be still my beating heart”.
Miriam Cabessa spends her time between Brooklyn and Tel Aviv where she is widely held in museums and private collections.
She was awarded the Gottesdiener Foundation Prize for Young Israeli Artist in 1996. In 1997, Cabessa was chosen to represent Israel at the Israeli pavilion of the Venice Biennale, together with Israeli artists Sigalit Landau and Yossi Berger.
Grateful to my friend Lauren Powell for making my meeting Miriam possible.
© 2019 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.