The Fall

The Fall by Erik Madigan Heck

Sunk deep into an armchair in Schiphol airport distracted by all the noise around me I was trying to read the third page of Camus’ The Fall and couldn’t move beyond this one line.

Indeed, there was a picture there, and a particularly interesting one, a real masterpiece.

As a child I spent most of my time drawing circles and filling them in with colors, not thinking just creating labyrinths I couldn’t escape. Half my life later I took a painting class at university and found I was doing the  exact same thing- filling in spaces with color and ignoring the whole.

When I began reading this book I found myself underlining sentences in the same way, without any thought, just automatically drawing circles on the page and loving how each extraction illustrated a whole separate world from the story. I’ve always read this way, which makes it extremely difficult to get through any book or even write my thoughts- I stop at words halfway through a page and can’t continue without visualizing something else and alas, I forgot where I was. Arrangements of words have always paralyzed me, just as arrangements of color have.

I keep returning to these circled sentences in hopes of stringing together some meaning or story I might have created from within his that might offer an understanding for why I stopped where I did, or explain why I make the art that I do. I can’t seem to find a clear explanation yet, but I’m learning there’s a joy in not knowing and a beauty in re-entering your mind from before, now.

I need your understanding.

To understand is to face the impossible. The repetition of re-reading words over time. The repetition of re-looking at art you’ve seen before to try and understand what’s in front of you as you once saw it- to see something new, or even better, to see nothing at all and feel disappointment. I am often disappointed by both when I revisit them- words and art. Which is why I made this book. Arrogantly I look at paintings in books and museums and know I can make them better. I do believe art is objectively good, and bad, and that things can always improve. I wrote my dissertation in graduate school on that point, and it was not well received. The notion that art is subjective is only true if your vocabulary is elementary. The more you see the more you create distinctions, just as a child grows to understand that tomatoes are actually delicious while protesting them as they eat ketchup and pizza. You’ve been eating them this whole time, now you can understand what truth tastes like when it isn’t hidden behind a veneer.


Hold on, I , too, am drifting; I am becoming lyrical!

There’s something off-putting about beginning a book with ‘May I?’, as Camus does. I also used to believe there was something off-putting about appropriation art. Why should someone else be able to create on top of another artist’s work? I still smile remembering the first time I thought to myself “Fuck Richard Prince!” But, I wasn’t really thinking about what was in front of me, I was just drawing circles and filling them in with color. I still would say “Fuck Richard Prince!” because there’s nothing sincere in his gestures- they’re built out of cynicism, but I do understand why his work is regarded. Nothing exists on its own, everything is a part of history and an appropriation of something that came before it. There is a comfort in both understanding this and also in realizing when you’re wrong, but there’s an even greater comfort in knowing that despite understanding a thing you can still hate it. Yet what’s even harder is trying to understand why you love something. Why you continue to stop at certain words, and colors, and continue to draw the same circles, and want to constantly make them better.

Don’t smile; that truth is not so basic as it seems.

It’s hard to remember being in an airport now. It’s been six months since I’ve left my house. I used to spend most of my time in airports going to and from cities, and back home. Now I just stare out into the forest and either sleep for 12 hours, or stay awake all night making work so that I can avoid sleeping altogether. I remember hating waiting- waiting in airports, in taxis, waiting for someone to meet me for a drink in a city I was visiting for one day, and now I’m waiting for life to allow me to return to waiting. I’m waiting to wait again. We’re all yelling into an abyss for this year to be over while we look back at a world that’s left us behind. We don’t understand what happened, but, we know we cant return, so we pretend we don’t know that truth, while that understanding is the only truth we know right now. Is that the point Camus was trying to make in The Fall? I wonder still if I ever truly understood his book.

Ah, mon cher, we are odd, wretched creatures, and if we merely look back over our lives, there’s no lack of occasions to amaze and horrify ourselves.

When I return to these paintings I remember from my childhood I notice details I never saw before, I actually see them for the first time. I see their whole instead of just brushstrokes and color. How much we ignore when we live in our heads. Memories of my life before, last year,  the years before last, and the years before those, I can agree many of those occasions horrify me. Mostly because we never truly appreciate the moment- what a horribly boring and obvious thing to say.

I was probably in the realm of truth. But truth, is a colossal bore.

There’s no fun in truth, it only leads to pain. That’s why we tell ourselves stories, and paint pictures, and watch movies, and lie to each other, and to ourselves, and pretend that we won’t die, and next year will be better, or we’ll be better, as Camus said we are wretched creatures. But, I also don’t believe that. I’d like to believe instead that we just want to be loved. And so we arrive here.

He simply wanted to be loved, nothing more.

The love I have for painting more than any other medium began with my early childhood. After work my mom would come home and we’d spend hours dabbling with watercolors on our old basement table- a 1950’s half-sized bar that was taller than me. It had a horrible yellow plastic top with a fake wood lacquer, and separated the TV area from the haunted closets behind it which were full of discarded objects like Christmas decorations. I immensely disliked our basement because it made me see that we were actually poor compared to my friends, which  didn’t actually bother me, I just felt my mom deserved better. 

But I am letting myself go! Forgive me. The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams.

The light above the bar was a dull, dimmed yellow that never quite showed you anything, it just made whatever you were looking at slightly uglier, which is perhaps why to this day I despise the color yellow.

As a color it may only be forgiven when it appears in nature, otherwise yellow is a disruption to our senses.

The color of dead leaves.

The street behind my parent’s first house was riddled with cracked sidewalks. A horrible street to learn how to ride a bike on. It was around my birthday in the beginning of September when my grandparents helped me first learn. I was wearing a damp wool jacket that matched how wet the leaves were under my tires. I could almost taste the ochres, yellows, and blood red of the dead leaves as they transformed the pavement into a canvas. That was a comforting yellow, a color that suggested warmth while I was shivering- the same color I encountered each fall as I left my parents for college far away. There’s comfort in yellow when it’s outside, but now I erase it in all of my works. It’s still my least favorite color.

I discovered in myself sweet dreams of oppression.

I realize I haven’t really said anything about these paintings I’ve made, or have I? I apologize. It’s late, and I too am drifting like Jean-Baptiste. Let me try and explain. These are re-creations of paintings I first saw at museums and in books as a young child. I see these works as noble gestures, or rather, sincere comedies— as they are improvements upon paintings I still love after all these years. In their creation they use an inferior medium- one I’ve spent my life perfecting, as a means to perfect a medium I love more. These paintings are literally photographs of photographs of paintings I’ve re-colored, cropped into, re-oriented, re-colored again, printed onto canvas, and then painted on top of. They are perhaps my new way of drawing circles to fill in with color- but somehow they feel new and exciting.

How we admire those of our teachers who have ceased to speak, their mouths filled with earth!

How bizarre to appropriate someone’s work after they’ve died. It seems like an awful thing to say out loud, like I’ve dug up their grave, and perhaps it would be if somehow their work was still theirs; but once we make art it belongs to the world and if you don’t agree, just look at the internet- which is both where and why these paintings were birthed.

One day I downloaded a small jpeg of a Pierre Bonnard landscape from Google and stared at it for an hour on my screen, studying its every nuance. I loved the painting, but knew Bonnard’s color wasn’t quite finished, and it bothered me beyond belief that he hadn’t cropped into the scene further. So I did that for him, posthumously- (you’re welcome Pierre!) Then I cut my crop into two sections, rearranged the color, erased a woman from the lower left corner, and printed both fragments as two very large vertical canvases. It was exhilarating to take something that was already great and make it better. To take anything and put your own brushstrokes on it is in its most basic form the essence of art making. With these there was no irony, cynicism, or deliberate commentary on art-making that exists in Prince’s work, which was the only appropriation art I was familiar with, this felt like I had achieved the opposite- a sincere gesture to make something better. The canvases currently hang at 9’ on each side of my living room entryway. I stare at them in awe everyday.

No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures— have I read that or did I think it myself,

Over time as I re-read my underlined passages I envisioned stringing them together into a short film, using the lines to create a new narrative, in the same way I use color to recreate an image that already exists. In reading Camus’ words I could distinctly visualize parts of Amsterdam that I had walked before, but it was unsettling to have my mind’s recollection redrawn by someone else. How ironic as I repaint other people’s canvases. There is true beauty in this idea though. For I had been to that exact place that I circled in Camus’ sentence, and because of that memory reading it again was to re-experience it through new eyes while still seeing it through my past, like a double exposure. I think thats what these paintings truly are- double exposures, conversations between time and artists, layers of memories laid on top of each other like stories that have passed on. 

Tonight before bed my son Felix told me he sees his dreams on the walls and ceiling. He asked me if I could see them too, and I of course said yes. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful thing. I’ve always painted over what lies in front of me, and instead my son had painted his dreams all around him.

Search your memory and perhaps you will find some similar story that you’ll tell me later on.