Los Angeles artist John Eden, his grandfather W.M. Burgess of Gilmore, Oklahoma, and fathers and mothers and children before them and after them.
by Rosanna Albertini
Let’s go backwards, “from the adult to the open-eared attentiveness of the child: expanses, solitude; being led; letting reason grow out of things and into man [and women]; a more universal, more conciliatory, but less precise mode of thought.” (Robert Musil, 1922)
As we grow up, the child never disappears although we couldn’t say where it is; inside the body, or looking at us from afar?
Johnny looks at John Eden working in his studio from a photograph that was shot by grandmother, who is the shadow on the left. He doesn’t seem comfortable, nor is he aware he is looking toward the future. “What are those forms he is making?” – Johnny wonders, “so perfectly shaped and covered with a skin of color that keeps eating images of passers by as if hungry for living. They are reflexions, sure, but how could I know what’s happening inside those forms? Likely, the same as in human bodies, what’s contained by the skin is a surprise, a gush of blood scares me. Is art alive? I want to be sure that John is always Johnny. In a sense, I’m him.”
Johnny’s physical existence blocked in his image won’t ever be replicated: his corpus is what we see and nothing beyond: but his nature guided his limbs and neurons into an adult life, and genealogical history, instead of lingering near him in fading images printed on paper, migrated into John Eden’s art: forms charged with meaning, quality and feeling: “Embodiment is the central effort in art, the way it gets made, very much something out of nothing. It’s impossible to express a feeling without a form. It couldn’t be said or seen.” Donald Judd 1983. Luminous surfaces are calls for thinking, reflections bring my perception close to the artist’s, become evocations. Some of his sculptures introduce into our time simplified forms of irons, and a washboard on which mothers and grandmothers in the 20’s and 30’s consumed their fingers by hand washing: they are votive objects to honor incommunicable lives erased by history but not in our memory or feelings, temporary as they are.
W.M. Burgess (John Eden’s grandfather): I was given away just as one would give a dog away. I was taken by the Indians to Talihina [Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma]. They were full-blood Choctaw. We had good feather beds and lived very comfortably. … I was very anxious to learn the white man’s ways and when I got to be 18, I worked for a man and earned $1. With this money, I got all the schooling I ever got. I attended the sessions at Postoak Grove school for 20 days. I learned to read myself.
Oreste Albertini (my own grandfather) did worse: he went to school only one day, and decided he was going to learn to read and write by himself. Which he did, and became a painter.
Rosanna Albertini: I was myself given away at age 10, to blue-blood aristocratic ladies in Milan, who changed the fearless countryside savage I was into a refined young lady. In 1955 the post war conditions of life in Italy were not very far from the American Great Depression for those who were poor and jobless. My bed wasn’t as comfortable as the Indian bed.
John Eden: Flora Mae Burgess-Eden, my mother, was born in Eastern Oklahoma, into a sharecropper’s family of seven children. Her father was raised speaking Choctaw and only learned English later as a second language. My mother was just shy of twelve when he died in 1934 from blood poisoning, leaving his widow and their seven kids to fend for themselves during the height of the Great Depression. One year later, FDR’s “New Deal” administration decided that ‘excess’ livestock across the nation should be destroyed for whatever political reason, ‘they came out and shot the cow’ leaving my grandmother’s family without their only source of milk. This was the major contributing factor for their ‘Okie Diaspora’ journey to California.
1934 around the world: The night of long knives in Germany -June 30- officially began Hitler’s attempt at the massacre of European democracies. In China the Red Army marched for 370 days to rewrite in name of Mao thousands years of history. Several dictators surfaced in South and Central America, Stalin was already dominating in Russia. In the U.S. Albert Einstein visited the White House, Bonny and Clyde were killed in Louisiana, and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes premiered in New York City, November 21. It was the worst year of the Great Depression and the world economy hit rock bottom.
Rosa Maserati Albertini (my grandmother): I was fourteen when they put me on a big boat, all by myself, to cross the Atlantic and go to Pittsburgh to work in my uncle’s drugstore. One year after I was sent back to Italy because business wasn’t good, worked in a factory’s night shift, the four fingers of my right hands were completely cut off in a factory accident.
These are not really ‘facts.’ They form a texture of family mythologies, in a mysterious way circulate in our blood, they are our humus. Why do I still hold my right hand with the left, as if I were covering the missing fingers? If young readers are patient enough to read these stories, they should know they all had positive endings, despite (or because?) of hard beginnings. Our present time, so strongly based on fulfillment, seems to rush away from the personal face of our days.
John Eden’s art will not change the general trend, but gives to us silent bodies so filled with feelings that emotions spill from them and spread in the room, and become matches turning other emotions on, from our own personal stories. Try to see the sculptures for real, images are not them.
JAMES AGEE, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1934:
“All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it even quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicable tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining for while, without defense, the enormous assault of the universe:
A man and a woman are drawn together upon a bed and there is a child and there are children:
First they are mouths, then they become auxiliary instruments of labor: later they are drawn away, and become the fathers and mothers of children, who shall become the fathers and mothers of children:
This has been happening for a long while: its beginning was before stars:
It will continue for a long while: no one knows when it will end:”
Sometimes when a peasant moves with the plough and the oxen
Over the broad surface of the field,
It is as if the vault of the sky might take
Up into itself the peasant, the plough, and the oxen.
Animals lead silence through the world of man.
The cattle: the broad surface of their backs…
It is as if they were carrying silence.
Two cows in a field moving with a man beside them:
It is as if the man were pouring down silence
From the backs of the animals on to the fields.
MAX PICARD, The World of Silence, 1948 (in Annie Dillard Mornings Like This, found poems, 1995).
Besano, Italy, in the 30’s – Two photos by Oreste Albertini
Post post scriptum: The text of this post was inspired by the many days spent reading Orham Pamuk’s novel A Strangeness in My Mind, 2015