Between Identities: Trauma and Ethics in the Art of Eugene Lemay

[...] He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
[...] Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. [...]

--King Henry V to Westmoreland prior to the Battle of St. Crispin's Day
William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3


Thus William Shakespeare captured the fact that, through the ages, a war experience will stay with a soldier, regardless of victory or defeat.


Combatants who manage to return from war carry physical and mental wounds, some of which will never heal. While few share with others what had happened and how it resonated with them, others remain silent, locking the feelings within. But we learn from the artists among them who, through their various bodies of work, viscerally and intimately share one or several dimensions of that experience of war. A new solo exhibition at Stux + Haller Gallery, Eugene Lemay: Building Absence, forces us to ponder these dimensions through art.


Soldiers called into battle during the first Lebanon War of summer 1982 were no exception to being exposed to combat, leaving behind survivors burdened with pain and trauma. What started as a mere attempt to clear the southern flank of Lebanon from pockets of Palestinian militia groups, quickly turned into a comprehensive military campaign. It dragged the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) into the depth of the Levant, straight to Beirut.


The War's most infamous battle, however, took place at the Beaufort Castle and was as much a symbolic campaign as a strategically crucial operation. That battle between the IDF and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in early June 1982 over Beaufort resulted in Israel's capture of the castle, amid many losses on both sides. And Eugene Lemay, a soldier in that battle, remembers the day as a turning point in his life. He describes the trauma of fighting for his life, and the consequences of taking someone else's life. Notably, Lemay doesn't speak about the identity of the "other," however. He doesn't necessarily describe 'the other,' the armed gunmen in front of him on the battlefield, as the enemy, as a hostile force.


The biography of Lemay, today a New York-based artist, offers indications for this viewpoint. Born in Michigan in the 1960s into a large Christian-Arab family, his father was a priest of Canadian origin, and his mother, a Syrian-Lebanese Christian. His parents converted, together with Lemay and his 13 siblings, to Judaism. In 1973 they moved to Israel and settled in Kibbutz Sarid. Lemay was drafted into the IDF and joined the elite Golani troops, later the key combat unit in the Lebanon War. Lemay's complex background -- an American Christian of Arab descent having become a Jew and Israeli now fighting for his adopted country -- accounted for his ability to reflect on the multitude of identities at war, including those of "the other." His trajectory as an American Christian of Arab descent, who transformed into a Jew and then an Israeli who fights for his country, has certainly shaped Lemay as a complex individual with a variety of viewpoints relating to identity, of his own, and of the other.


Lemay has created a new series of artworks which encompass these experiences. In past series, he examined the delicate connection between them as well as ethics, creating images that abstracted and transcended war, freed of a specific political, geographical, and historical context. Having achieved this, Lemay's work took on a universal quality.

It is the artist's rare ability to 'realize' the other, an inescapable function of the acknowledgement, conscious and subconscious, that he himself could have been that 'other.' One of the villages Lemay's military unit passed through had been the home of his maternal grandfather. Could there still have been family members there? Possibly. Family friends? Certainly. These questions will have weighed and are still weighing on Lemay. They constitute part of the substance that materializes and finds expression in his art.

Stux + Haller Gallery presents his latest works in Building Absence, in which he takes on anew these questions and experiences, decades after Beaufort. His wartime experiences lurk behind a veil of viscerally rendered grey and black onto canvas panels. Our minds, aided by the tactile granite at our feet, transport us to the incessant anxiety of discerning surroundings in the dead of night.

Two new series, AU and OR, done in charcoal, ink, and gold leaf on canvas or paper, complete the exhibition. These stoic objects seem to flicker, the gold leaf alternately jagged and crisp. Lemay alters the meaning of light in the darkness -- so often a hopeful image. Instead, these layers of gold and shades of black are visually arresting yet vaguely unsettling markers of the splintering effects of memory and loss in a horizon of sparkling opposition.


The works on view revisit the examination of the link between trauma and ethics. The artist creates his art to express a post traumatic state as an ethical instrument, that makes it possible to see 'the other,' to listen to him, and thus acknowledge his trauma and history. It is Lemay's universal viewpoint that is in the mix of "black on black." Though, as dark and minimalist as the works appear, they are rich in details and substance.

While still based on personal, handwritten letters to bereaved families, which went unsent, the new series is an evolution of earlier works that had us encounter the post-traumatic language, which dissolves severe events and also forces us to go back and face them directly. We are looking at "the other" and claim responsibility for all deeds and actions taken. The unique sphere of Lemay's work enables us to touch past open wounds, even if not directly, to dialog between the present and the repressed past and therefore allow the viewer to better comprehend how oblivious we might become to "others'" trauma.

In his letters, he chronicled the events of Beaufort. But in his technique, he expands and deepens the written word, digitally. He blows it up and manipulates it once more. Even if one can recognize handwriting, it is barely possible decipher it. Abstraction becomes the underpinning, the substructure of what then is rebuilt with paint.

Once Lemay has found the apex of removal, the point where any more subtraction would allow the entire structure to crumble, he produces the digital print. In the current dialogue of digital minimalism, there is a relationship of give and take between the artist and the inkjet printer that is typified by post-conceptual artist Wade Guyton and his embrace of blurring and misregistration. For Lemay, these inkjet skeletons are like excavation sites: He leaves the mechanical behind and the painterly gesture takes over, leading a dig within the inkjet canvas to find the structures that are floating just below the surface.

It is impossible to miss the artistic technique and not to affirm the dialog he indeed maintains between the past and the present realization of the trauma Lemay carries. The lower levels, now blurry, unclear letters content, covered by new, fresh paint dark layers, revealing more of the artist's dealing with the past, in his newly created language.

Though he is staunchly, formally tied to minimalism, there is nothing fatalistic in his works. His seeming fondness for structure brings back a modernist sensibility to the works but it also reveals a deep spiritual connection. His monochromes may be based upon subtraction and removal but the viewer is not looking into the abyss. Instead, Lemay achieves through minimalism a sort of purity of visual intent.
Yet, Lemay's minimalism might be misinterpreted: Even if covered by heavy layers of dark paint, the past is rich and complex. Lemay's is not interested to concern the viewers with his own detailed past and complexity, he would like for him or her to see the whole picture. The details are unimportant. The focus is the end result, the dark face of the war and its evocative results.


What's more, Lemay's monochromes can be seen as a visual counterpart to contemporary neo-contemplative composers such as Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. Through contemporary minimalist means, Lemay doesn't seek the void; he finds something structured and whole. Part or Tavenor started out with traditional liturgical material and pushed it to its ghostly minimalist end. Pärt's Passio sourced its material from the St. John Passion, resulting in an eerily yet rapturously modern musical form. Visually, Lemay at once embraces and rejects his source material, engaging in a similar path. Only by stripping his source material down to the bone, he is able to rebuild to the structural sublime.


Eugene Lemay's artistic gesture is the same one reflected in the stunned face of a soldier in the battle of Beaufort: It apparently stands aside and allows the war to happen. His view is a function of his complex identity. It allowed him to act as a soldier, and at the same time realize the need to acknowledge 'the other' and the need to consider ethics and universal human values and experiences.