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Mediterranean Bay

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Date Minted:  April 21, 2018

Artist Description: A painting inspired by Greek history and Arid climate of southernmost islands

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

What I find most remarkable about Mediterranean Bay is the man in the bottom-left corner, his mustache thick, his arms gripping the rope in front of him, and the expression on his face. His very cheeks seem to sag. His mustache, sloped downward, seems to portend its effect upon his entire form: It’s all heavy and droopy and tragic. Mediterranean Bay does not contain many of the colors we’d think customary for tragic art. Here are bright and sunlit colors, turquoise water and purple flowers and a sprawling, unemotive focus on landscapes and architecture. And yet I am drawn, every fresh time I peer at this painting, to this man in the corner. Alone, he is, among the figures; all the others seem to be members of a family, or at least a single traveling body. Yet here is the man, toiling away at a labor I can only guess at the goal of, solitary and contrasting with the background. His clothes are heavy. His accents are bits of brown darkness in a brightly-rusted world. His emotion seems to color the entire piece, displaying some guarded truth about life in such an arid place, even when the world around him is bright, and even when the sun is high in the sky.

We see in Mediterranean Bay, by artist Upheaver (Paulius Uza), a tension between life and the lack of it. Only, in contrast to most artistic depictions of that balance, the expected color representations are swapped. It is the people, living, moving, engaged in some sort of activity, who are the dark and heavy specters on a bright, living landscape. There are five figures in this piece, the only signs of life in the sprawling desert landscape. The aforementioned toiler, appearing to pull his small dingy ship onto shore. And then an apparent family of four: a man with a mule, a woman walking with a cane behind him, and then two children, atop a second mule, the only figures without the hung heads and heavy shoulders of the other three figures. In all the adults depicted here, there’s an obvious struggle to simply be alive: We are made to feel the heaviness of their gaits, the difficulty of their work, the hopelessness of their situations. 

And then we are made to fill the lightness of the landscape. This is an artfully-composed world, one that feels fully lived-in and realized even if we were to remove the figures walking through it. The subtle, still surface of the wide water in the foreground, a gorgeous blending of baby blue with darker hues, the shadow of the water bank painted here with startling impressionistic accuracy. Small boats sit on the water’s surface. The faint outline of a person walks off in the distance towards a villa on a hill, or perhaps it’s a Mosque, this enormous sandstone building with the tiled orange roof and the spire. But the landscape does not look dead as deserts are often depicted to look. It’s intensely calm. And there is life here too, natural life: thin green trees and purple flowers, a smattering of dusty shrubs growing over hillsides. It isn’t the typical verdant shores of some idyllic European country that we associate with the term “idyllic”, which is perhaps the effect of rampant historical Eurocentrism on our collective artistic consciousness, but that’s kind of Mediterranean Bay’s charm. It shows this part of the world, obviously quite strong in the artist’s mind, in a completely different lens with which I’m accustomed to seeing it. Here there are no circling vultures, no endless sand dunes. It’s the Mediterranean, yes, but not the Mediterranean of southern Europe: Marseilles this is not. This is a different kind of association, one I’d argue the title of the piece is legitimately trying to amplify. We’re told to consider this place as an extension of the Mediterranean, but we’re shown a place far away from the French Rivieras in our Eurocentrized imagination, to somewhere perhaps closer to the Levant, a place equipped with its own unique architecture, style of dress, and lifestyle. The “Arid climate of southernmost islands,” Uza tells us as a hint. Perhaps this is Crete. 

And yet, every time I scan my eyes around this landscape, beautiful as it may be, I return to the diminutive human figures, carrying the burden of their desert existence. The artist’s eye is not infallible. Indeed, every artist carries with them a sensibility informed by their history, their culture, their knowledge. The figures here seem to be in conversation with the artist, providing a realism to counterbalance Upheaver’s serene rendition of life in this place. As if the artist has designed within this piece an antidote to his own latent idealism, or to his own nostalgia, and placed them in the piece, and blessed them with unavoidable colors, so that they force our attention unto them, what they’re doing and how they look. They and Upheaver himself are the only ubiquitous forces here, one within the painting and one outside of it. Of course, I am not blind to the artistic intention here, the deliberate design that went into giving our dingy-toiler such a sullen expression, or placing such invisible Atlas-like weight upon the shoulders of the two figures walking across the bridge. It demonstrates an awareness on the artist’s part of their own incomplete depiction. That’s not the artist’s fault; all depictions are incomplete. Even the greatest landscape impressionists —the Monet’s and Morisot’s and Renoir’s who pioneered the form— could only paint what they saw. This was a strength, of course…it was the defining principle of their movement. But it demonstrates a certain enlightened sensibility on Uza’s part to include within his painting an acknowledgment of his own limitations, of the form’s limitations, that there is a world outside the frame of his piece, and that there are things within it that even he cannot see. 

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