by Peter Marin
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hy would a man, a pretty damn good artist, spend years of his life, a decade or more, sketching and painting the faces and forms of homeless people in hundreds of works in which, he knew going in, few critics or buyers or gallery owners would be interested?
Thatâ€™s the mystery, pure and simple, of Lenny Silverbergâ€™s work.
What quirks in his own nature drew him to homeless people; what obsessed him about them; what drew him back and back, over and over, to their shapes and visages on the street? What was hidden there for him, what was revealed, what was spelled out?
I think, as I write, and oddly enough, of Japanese drawings of blossoms on a branch in springtime: those delicate visual representations of a world appearing out of emptiness, those apprehensions of the invisible world made visible, of nothingness becoming beauty for a moment before passing back into the void from which it comes.
Whatever the blossoms were for Japanese artists, thatâ€™s what homeless people are for Lenny. Heâ€™s fixed on the permanence of canvas the terrifying and yet restorative images and signs of lives that would pass from nothingness to nothingness if he did not, for whatever hidden reasons, see them and fix them in place, honor them with attention and labor, as if somehow, though unbeknownst to them, welcoming them into the world.
Thereâ€™s a sort of fixing of transience, if you will: a way of capturing, on the fly, lives as they seem to arise and to pass, all in a moment, caught in the arc between one void and another.
Why does Lenny bother? What kept him at this work year after year even while learning how no one really wanted to see these pictures, or how their subject matter disconcerted people and turned them off? This mystery is as deep as the mystery of the human lives Lenny has portrayed.
It isnâ€™t political or social outrage â€” not in the usual forms these things can take. Nor is it something as simple as human sympathy or empathy, though obviously these emotions are at work. I think that, for Lenny, thereâ€™s something about these lives, these presences, the evanescence of these destinies lived out in the midst of things and yet unseen and not understood by others, that held him entranced in some way.
Whatâ€™s at work here, what comes forth from its hiddenness and reveals itself, is the transience of human existence, the poignancy of the separateness and marginality at the heart of each subjective human life, but openly lived into the world by the homeless. There is in them and in their lives an odd combination of meaning and meaninglessness that sums up in some way the fundamental nature of human existence, the combined fragility and endurance of human lives.
Years ago, writing about death, and after having written about homelessness, I too became fixated on the arc of each living creature, and even objects as well, out of emptiness and back into emptiness. I began to think of death as a part of the Nothingness that Eastern religions make the womb of the world but which we in the West have come to fear. Somehow, on the margins of society, in their vacant lots and hobo jungles and lost alleyways, the homeless inhabit a no-personâ€™s land halfway between the known world we all share and the emptiness towards which we are moving.
Itâ€™s as if in their marginality they can see in both directions at once: back towards the rest of us in the uneasy and often false order of the world, and outward, towards the undefined edges of existence, where the borders between life and death grow hazy, and where there seems to lie ahead a terrain perhaps even more interesting than what lies behind.
Think, here, of Oedipus and Lear, those wandering men, half-mad and yet supremely sane, who inhabited that same space â€” somewhere between the world of men and the supposed world of the gods. Or think of the wandering Buddhist sages or the Russian pilgrims Tolstoy envied who, though in the world, had also in part left it behind for a psychological or spiritual space made up, in part, of a reality beyond the one we inhabit.
Thereâ€™s something of all of this, and more, in the world that gathers itself around the life each homeless man and woman makes for themselves. Even without choosing it (though some, of course, have chosen it), they inhabit a wilderness or a region of mystery that most of us know only in our terrors or nightmares or in certain odd moments of ecstasy.
I donâ€™t mean here to romanticize homeless lives, or to make homeless men and women heroes or saints. Theyâ€™ve simply been thrown aside or cast away or led by chance into a world that in certain ways resembles a territory explored by heroes and saints: the margins of the world where familiar truths and established orders give way to the presence of the forbidden, the mysterious, the unknown.
â€śOut there,â€ť in that territory in our midst, theyâ€™re in the presence of what remains largely inaccessible to us all: a world beyond the safety of our lives. They have, in essence, taken one step towards death, one step more towards the dissolution of ego, towards the letting-go of the world, than the rest of us have; and whether they are to be pitied or envied, they do indeed look towards, and sometimes sense, a horizon that remains for the rest of us too far away to be known.
Precisely what comes towards them from that horizon, or what they discover as they move towards it, is not easy to say. Meister Eckhardt, the Dominican mystic, spoke of â€śdeserts vastâ€ť wherein one was tantalized and anguished by the immensity of a territory in which Godâ€™s presence was marked only by his absence. The mystics have no real language for any of this and argue one must encounter it for oneself to understand it; and, of course, the homeless are no better at giving it voice than the rest of us would be.
But I have been often enough in one situation or another to recognize in their resignation, in their sometimes astonishing equanimity, in their capacity to let the world pass even as they struggle to survive in it, something akin to what sages in one culture or another have counseled their listeners to seek out. Just as we as a culture have â€śfolk artistsâ€ť or occasional untutored geniuses in math, so we also produce, I suspect, â€śnatural mysticsâ€ť or â€śmystics of circumstanceâ€ť: those propelled inadvertently into regions where others proceed intentionally, guided by spiritual disciplines or schools of meditation.
Often, down in the local hobo jungle in my own town, or in others scattered along the rail lines of America, Iâ€™ve seen ex-vets or other troubled men stare at twilight and, after a few beers, into the far distance with what I believe was called in Vietnam â€śthe thousand-yard stare.â€ť They appear to be gazing off into nothingness, towards and into a region coexistent with our world but also further off, and even more vast, and closed to the rest of us.
But it isnâ€™t really â€śnothingâ€ť at which they stare; or, rather, it is a nothingness, but one more significant and perhaps even more crowded than we take nothingness to be. Thereâ€™s something out there: perhaps their dead comrades, perhaps their lost lives, perhaps the emptiness, the not-being â€” before and after â€” that brackets the littleness of our existence and towards which we endlessly drift and which, though far off, is also right here: in the spaces between written words, in the silence surrounding each musical note, in the abyss between any two beats of the heart and in which, for a moment, in that pause, all and nothing hang in the balance.
What I believe homeless people know, and what Lenny Silverberg knows about them, is this: that in their marginality and poverty and exile and unwilled but resigned austerity of means and ends, they have had forced upon them a proximity to the nothingness that surrounds and haunts us all but which we keep at a safe distance with money, activity, therapy and belief.
I swear, at night, on the open road or in vacant lots or in hobo jungles or on city streets at dusk, Iâ€™ve felt on my face and in my soul a chill wind blowing out of that nothingness, the proximity of a poignancy so extensive, so absolute, that a tremor runs through the body, a tremor that seems to flow directly out of the void from which we appear and to which weâ€™re headed. I think of the writers who seemed to understand best our passage from world to world: Rainer Maria Rilke, say, or Emily Dickinson, or Camus, or perhaps Hemingway in his terrors, or maybe D.H. Lawrence on his death-bed, full of adventurous joy. They were the great literary visionaries of at least a part of the accidental world into which the homeless have been thrown; and though only a very few of the men and women Iâ€™ve known on the street or the road have been able to speak about even a bit of it, Iâ€™ve seen it in their eyes, Iâ€™ve heard it in their voices and sighs. Iâ€™ve seen them in box-cars at night or on street-corners at dawn surrounded by that world, fully in it, fully aware of it, though ordinary to eyes unable to see.
I believe thatâ€™s what Lenny has seen. Itâ€™s what his images represent and reveal. Each of his figures is limned and framed by the emptiness we inhabit without knowing it â€” each of us, notwithstanding the expensive watches we wear, how fine the cars we drive, or the number of cards in our wallets that bring us instant pleasure.
Those on the street have been forced to live close to the bone of a profound and hidden meaning, and I suppose that men like me, or like Lenny, feel at home in their presence because one is close in their presence â€” I swear it â€” to some kind of truth: the truth of our existence, the truth of human fragility and meaning, the truth of the terrifying and yet oddly liberating sense of transience which ought to teach us (but does not) a generosity towards one another, a kind of care and love.
I would guess that what obsesses Lenny about the homeless is the endless appearance and dying-away in their lives of something that remains central to all of us and yet hidden away. His art is neither protest nor celebration, but a way of getting at things as they are. In many senses of the words, he makes the invisible world visible, and I am talking here not only about the homeless themselves, but about the mysteries of meaning that cling to them or that follow in their wake â€” at least for those who take the time to look for it.
Lenny has told me nothing of this. It is merely what I see, myself, in his work; if I am wrong I hope he will forgive me. But if I am right, how important a work it is!
This article first appeared in the December 2000 Street Spirit.
by Terry Messman
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n America, homeless people are nameless and faceless, invisible and ignored. Through a series of compelling and unsettling paintings of his fellow citizens trying to survive the streets of heartache and loss, Leonard Silverberg has helped retrieve them from their socially imposed invisibility and silence.
His portraits of the insulted and injured of our time are often disturbing in their uncensored depiction of human anguish. It’s as if Goya himself had been set loose to paint the dark torment of New York City at the dawn of the millennium.
Silverberg’s turbulent paintings run counter to the whole tenor of the times, in two major ways. First, his art reclaims a human face for the faceless masses. His close-up character studies of those caught in the extremity of poverty and distress show the singular individuality of each person – a startling contrast with how popular opinion and the mainstream media tend to lump street people together as part of a vast, unseen, and undifferentiated mass of untouchables.
But Silverberg’s second deviation from the dominant culture is even more significant. In these times of heedless affluence, psychological denial and political repression are the preferred methods of coping with widespread poverty and suffering; the public puts on blinders to avoid seeing the homeless, while political officials order the police to drive them out of view. Silverberg, in stark contrast, confronts his viewers with unflinching portraits of ragged street people in the throes of hardship, illness, pain and disability.
Most well-off Americans avert their faces to ignore and deny the silent suffering on the streets; Silverberg’s art is an in-your-face counterattack. He offers a face-to-face encounter with the very ones who are almost universally shunned.
Silverberg’s encyclopedic survey of homeless people in all their dark valleys of privation and misery raises disconcerting questions about our society’s presumed affluence, decency and compassion. If artists were taken more seriously, this art might shake the foundations of our national security and peace of mind.
Silverberg began his exhaustive series of homeless portraits after he and his wife moved to New York in 1984, after living in the Bay Area for 20 years. At that time, Ronald Reagan was completing his first term as president and homelessness was exploding on a national level. Silverberg saw how the streets of New York City had become a dumping ground for unprecedented numbers of impoverished souls exiled to the alleys and abandoned lots.
In an interview with Street Spirit, Silverberg described the genesis of his street art. From his window, he began sketching an encampment of little makeshift houses of cardboard and wood.
“The first winter we were in New York was a very bad winter,” he said. “People were living in connected cardboard boxes and going out to collect wood, keeping a fire going 24 hours a day because of the cold. I could see that from my window and began to sketch it. There were enormous amounts of homelessness and it was a wayÂ to deal with it – to draw it because you were faced with it all the time.”
He began taking a sketchbook with him on his travels about New York and drew quick studies of homeless people, encampments, and a wide variety of street scenes. After two years, he began to compose paintings based on the street sketches.
Drawing the faces of homeless people began to make his painting “more anchored and much more solid” than the work he had been doing before, he said. He was expressing through art the raw emotions of the street, the unvarnished humanity and bitter struggles to survive.
“It’s just humanity,” he explained. “It’s just a very direct, revealed, unfaked face. I was drawn to that. The American advertising ideal is that you can live any lifestyle you want. The reverse of that is the reality of these faces, right here, that don’t have any choice.”
Silverberg learned that the homeless people he saw living in all kinds of unexpected habitats in New York were not just victims. Many had become very creative in the art of surviving in an inhospitable urban environment, building innovative shelters out of scavenged materials.
“My paintings about their home-building are based on a human desire to build things, to add and take away, to create,” he said. “So even though we think of the homeless on the bottom, and as desperate and lost, that human creativity doesn’t go away. It’s there – whether it’s born from desperation and madness, it’s still there. And you can see it, if you look. One of my paintings is of a guy who used a dollhouse facade. I saw a guy who used bedsprings for a house.”
Silverberg warned that artists seeking to depict the lives of the poor must avoid at least two serious traps. “It’s a very thin line that you walk,” he said, “and you have to be very conscious of it. You want to tell their story but you don’t want to be a voyeur to someone else’s suffering. I try not to be unsympathetic; but I try hard not to sentimentalize it. I try not to romanticize being poor. Being poor is not an acceptable situation. Real human beings are out there on the street and they don’t stop being human beings.”
When asked what led him to dedicate years of his artistic life to painting images so full of human suffering that most of his potential audience will turn away, Silverberg said simply: “It felt right. It felt like I should be addressing stuff that people have difficulty looking at.”
“I’ve seen people come into the studio and the curtain goes down over their eyes. They’re all of a sudden not looking at these faces. They want to get out of the studio, they want to change the conversation, and they don’t want to look at the work.”
Even some of Silverberg’s close friends can’t understand the impulse that makes the artist hold up a mirror to the underside of society. “I have some friends who hate my work,” he said. “They refer to it as ‘Lenny’s dark side.’ They say, ‘He does that dark side in the studio but he’s easygoing when he’s with us.’ ”
That instinctive avoidance of his art, of course, mirrors the reaction of many to homeless people in the flesh. I ask Silverberg if he’s noticed that parallel. “Absolutely. The ones who think about homelessness and care about it want to look at the paintings. The ones who don’t want to care, turn away.”
He put on a show of his art at the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, California, that was well reviewed by an arts program on progressive radio station KPFA. But more conservative media have been as reluctant to deal with Silverberg’s art as they are with homelessness itself. A San Francisco gallery was interested in exhibiting his work, but then the gallery manager showed the paintings to a San Francisco newspaper reviewer. Silverberg said, “The reviewer didn’t like it at all so the gallery didn’t show it. Gallery people are in the business to sell and they don’t think they can sell art that is disturbing.”
“One gallery owner kept saying, ‘This is tough work, tough work.’ I got annoyed and said, ‘What do you mean?’ He told me that it’s tough to like, and tough to look at. I asked, ‘Isn’t Goya tough?’
“And he just said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Silverberg, now 60, lived in the Bay Area from 1965-1984, and studied painting here in the ’60s. But his artistic roots go deeper into American history than that, back to the artists involved with FDR’s WPA during the Great Depression.
“When I was in art school,” he recalls, “all my teachers were abstract painters, but I never wanted to be an abstract painter. I always looked at the WPA artists. I liked Rafael and Moses Sayer, who painted breadlines, unemployment lines, people living in the parks. I liked Edward Hopper, who captured the loneliness of the American scene. I always liked the German expressionists, like Kaethe Kollwitz, who painted poverty and hunger and strikes. She painted all the political strife of Germany.”
These inspiring artists created uncompromising works that revealed the hidden truths about their societies, and persevered in that prophetic work in dark times, despite official disapproval or censorship.
Kaethe Kollwitz was censored and attacked by Nazi Germany for drawing deeply felt portraits of the oppression and persecution suffered by the poor in Germany. This is art as a deeply serious vocation, a true calling – as opposed to the modern-day cynicism of art as a racket, a hustle, a way to cash in with posh gallery openings.
Painting the human face of the faceless, portraying the humanity of the downtrodden – that is what has everlasting value for humanity. That is the job of the true artist. Not all gallery owners will welcome the kind of art Lenny Silverberg has created. But you can imagine Kaethe Kollwitz opening her arms and welcoming him like a brother.
This first appeared in December 2000.