“Look but don’t touch”. For most of us, this was the stern command issued prior to our very first visit to a museum. As children, we are instinctually drawn to the tactile quality of art, but are sadly warned never to act on our natural desire to make contact. When we return to museums as adults, these restrictions are a given. We meekly accept our roles as spectators. But for artists, fully immersed in the physicality of making work, visiting a museum can be maddening—with much of the frustrations of childhood still intact. On one particular visit to a museum, artist Roy Nachum was confronted with an additional, unexpected frustration. Drawn to the Braille signposts affixed on walls, in staircases and in elevators, he had a flash of awareness. His experience echoes what Zen Buddhist monks refer to as a Satori: a burst of individual enlightenment. To help facilitate a Satori, students are encouraged to ponder koans, rhetorical riddles, which challenge the mind and reveal the texture of consciousness. Most Westerners are familiar with at least one famous koan: what is the sound of one hand clapping? For Nachum, the appearance of Braille at a museum presented him with a new koan: how does one make a painting for a blind man?
For years, Nachum had developed a process to lay a ground for his paintings. In effect, he sculpts tiny raised gesso pixels on the surface of his canvases with a pallet knife. The fractured plane serves as a counter balance to the polished images painstakingly executed in oil on top. Stylistically, his work echoes much of Hyperrealism’s tendencies toward narrative and emotion. But his pictures don’t fit so neatly into that specific genre. Instead, Nachum subverts his imagery by evoking everything from the epic bravado of Socialist Realism to the brooding intensity of both German Expressionism and Classic Rock posters. He also deliberately limits his palette to a few colors in an almost subconscious nod to the power of Japanese woodcuts.
Inspired and challenged by his museum experience, Nachum searched for a way in which to make his paintings accessible in some way for people who are blind. Eventually, his pixels provided an answer. By transforming what at first was an exclusively aesthetic design choice into a functional system led him naturally to Braille. In effect, his pallet knife and canvas could function as a sort of primitive hand-made slate and stylus of Braille production. He mimicked the system of raised cells and arranged them in rectangular columns across the canvas. Embedded now within the confines of a picture, are written messages, poems or quotes, which offer a way into his work for people who otherwise would never “experience” a painting.
The King is a prime example of Nachum’s successful integration of Braille into a painting’s overall effect. Against a golden background of Braille cells, a solitary figure of a boy stands at attention, shirtless with arms at his side, a balloon strung to his wrist and a crown slipping from his brow over his eyes. The work can be seen as an allegory of a child’s haphazard pursuit of happiness. He is king for a day, with his balloon and crown, but is ill-equipped for the prizes of his ambition. His balloon seems more of a burden than a souvenir; his crown is too large for his head. He has blinded himself with his own youthful desire. Nachum employs a sort of photographic double-exposure, creating an optical illusion, which slightly disorients the viewer. This technique pushes and pulls the plane back and forth between the Braille ground and the slick image. The pixels construct the words of one of Nachum’s poems. And we are left to wonder if reading the lines with fingertips somehow evokes a parallel sensation as does seeing with our own eyes.
In Tears of Laughter, the skinny boys who flash across the milky white surface emerge in various ghostly stages of apparition. Their features suggest an alluring blending of cultures. Faces that appear at once Asian or American fade subtly into other ethnic hybrids. Their various histrionics are hauntingly ambiguous. What seems, at first glance to be ecstatic fits of laughter, on closer inspection and contemplation may actually be an excruciating expression of some mysterious and severe trauma. Once again, Nachum utilizes the strobe-like effect that mirrors a photographic double exposure and offers another poem built out of Braille paint pixels. The sweeping gestures that populate this picture seem to materialize from some collective hypnagogic state. Again, we are gently challenged by Nachum to consider other realms of “vision”, that our eyes cannot provide.
The triptych of portraits entitled Light presents us a modern-day recasting of the Three Wise Men tale. Here, Nachum’s subjects are real old-timers from New York City: one Asian, one Caucasian and one African-American. They offer us the gift of a vast metropolitan experience, written on their weathered faces—which read like the rings of ancient trees. Their eyes are all closed; their expressions verge on the saintly. While painting their portraits, Nachum asked each man the same question: “What did you see that changed your life?” Their stories were then sculpted in paint Braille on the canvas surface to which their images were realized.
Nachum’s most radical approach to his exploration of blindness is his Fire series. These paintings are, to all intents and purposes, collaborative works. Each white canvas, with their surfaces composed of raised painted Braille pixels, has a burnt wooden frame. Nachum invited twenty blind people to experience these works. As his collaborators ran their fingers from burnt frame to painted Braille, evidence of the actual physical contact left a trail of “painterly” marks and gestures in charcoal. The resulting works are alluring visual peeks into a world seldom “seen” by those of us with the gift of sight. By allowing us to touch his paintings, Roy Nachum delivers us a refreshing sense of childhood wonder.