Reality Check: Memories of the Eternal

Amanda Shepard, Vice President & COO

On September 24th, I observed the 17th anniversary of my father’s death. When he died I was a freshman in college, having arrived on campus about a month prior. Remembrance of that awful day, inextricable from the glittering sun of late September on the idyllic campus of Notre Dame, stir up in me a paradoxical fondness for the memories I wish I didn’t have, but nonetheless belong to me.

In those days, there was less pressure for college freshmen to know what they would commit to studying for the next four years. A few paths seemed interesting to me: art, pre-medical studies, and English. I had all but decided that I would spend my undergraduate years preparing for medical school, but the profound personal changes brought on by my father’s unexpected death shook the practical out of me and set my mind and heart to contemplate my great loves.

Confirming my future path in art were the abysmal letter grades I earned in biology and the high ones I earned in art and art history classes. Worried about my job prospects, I waffled between art and English, one day confiding in my photography professor, Martina Lopez. Her answer was direct: stick with art, and you’ll be happier and more successful. I took her at her word.

In studying to become an artist, acquiring skill is one thing, but developing a concept is quite another. From all the thoughts, feelings, experiences, and worldviews that can live in a person, the challenge for the artist is to bring into existence a coherent, physical object from that complex inner world. To make seen the unseen is the task of the artist, and I wanted to learn how to do it.

I knew that the best art (or at least the art I liked best) communicated something profound and left a haunting, existential truth with those who encountered it. Existential truth isn’t the easiest realm for a 20-year-old to inhabit, nor have many of us at that point contemplated existence with much maturity. And yet, the tragedy of my father’s death forced me to consider questions of both the finality of death and the hope of eternal existence, questions I felt an obligation to both ask and attempt to answer in my own work.

The only things I had left of my father were photographs, some of the things he owned, and memories. I was terrified I would forget him. If I forgot him, I reasoned, that would mean he was truly lost. I also became obsessed with knowing who he was in an attempt to preserve his personhood through my own mind. His physical self gone, the next best thing were photographs of him, especially those of him as a young man before I was born. This is the person I never knew and could never know, and thus to whom I attached all of my longing.

The version of my Dad as a carefree young man who lived forever in youth was at once the person I sought to preserve and the person I would never know. The frustration of him fading from my memory drove me to make him the subject of my senior thesis. I chose to reproduce his image from a photograph of him in which I found him particularly handsome, perhaps the icon of my mother’s gaze. His image slowly fades over four panels as the sun gradually sets, representing my knowledge of inevitable death to be as sure as the setting of the sun. In another painting, my parents drive away on their wedding day, for me the origin of my own story as a human being.

These are not paintings of doom. In fact, they are filled with hope. My fear of lost memories was intermingled with the dream that memories, experience, and unrepeatable personhood were saved somewhere, somehow, for someday. In fixating on the past, and this person who I imagined to be existing in a place I called the past, I placed my hope in a future world where all things are new and nothing is lost.

An artist who beautifully and maturely expresses instincts similar to those I felt as a young student of painting is that artist to whom I owe my studies, Martina Lopez, whose newest work is on view at FWMoA in her exhibition A Place Away. Though a master of the technical processes of photography, she does not document so much as use the captured and appropriated image to illustrate both the matter and spirit of the human person. Because we see photographic images of her 19th century subjects, we accept the reality of their historical existence, but Lopez has situated them in ethereal, natural environments that suggest that their existence now transcends a particular time or place.

I found myself gazing upon this work with affection and even love for these people whose names I don’t know. Very often, the styles and stern expressions from centuries past can hide the unique person whose photograph remains today, leaving us with no trace of the humanity that they expressed. Old photographs become dispensable, the people in them unknown and unrelated to anyone today. But Lopez gives dignity to these forgotten ones, framing their human beauty with the beauty of nature and suggesting a majesty of spirit.

A Life Away, 1 is an arresting portrait of a woman whose face remains in focus but whose dress fades into a dark, foggy atmosphere. Lopez has treated this woman with great respect and reverence, framing her face in a way that causes us to see a person, not an image of someone we don’t know. In Hereafter, a woman in typical 19th century dress becomes a regal queen, situated in a snowy environment that she commands with grace. The young man in Acknowledgement (below) sheds some of his formal austerity when we see the leaves Lopez has placed just over his shoulder, gently beckoning him deeper into their world.

Martina Lopez, American, b. 1962. Acknowledgment. Aluminum print with shelf, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Though these people are not part of her own family, Lopez channels the experience of her mother’s advanced aging, memory loss, and inevitable death in this work. She says, “The original photographs are altered to show the figure in a modified state of being, a liminal space, a metaphorical reference to my mother’s current state of mind and existence between life and death.”

The triumph of this work is that Lopez has exposed our frustration with death and forgetting—of dying and being forgotten—but she neither backs away from this difficult reality nor accepts it as the final word. Artists like Lopez grapple with the thoughts we like to avoid, confront the future that scares us, and make visible the unseen world we can only imagine. Forgotten people are remembered, now inhabiting mystical worlds that never die. In them, beauty never fades, youth never ages, and love never ends.

A Place Away is on view at FWMoA now through December 12th, 2021.

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