Twin feelings of fascination and embarrassment emerge when we encounter a contemporary painting like Forwards. The figure of Death, in the suited, stylized, static jog of just another city commuter, appears at the center, conspicuous to the viewer, invisible to those inside the frame. There are many things one could say about how clever it all is—dead leaves trampled under suede bucks, a briefcase containing who knows what, a bare canvas outline where the skull face should be—but to say them turns Death into nothing more than a painter’s gimmick.
Perhaps this is always our first reaction when confronted with allegory: a suspicion of gimmickry. Allegory engages the brain more than the heart, and so enlists the critical faculties, for better or worse, from the very first. As any museum docent would be glad to explain, Holbein painted in the elongated, allegorical skull at the bottom of The Ambassadors to remind us that though we may collect untold riches in life, death levels us all. The instant we understand that Death himself has inscribed Et in Arcadia ego on the stone in Poussin’s canvas, we begin to formulate a moral in our minds.
We could look all day at the way form negotiates space in Marvin Gates’s Forwards and find in this a profound cerebral pleasure—but the moment we identify Death as such, our brains begin labeling the consequences of his arrival. The populace surrounding him takes on a meaning in this frozen moment, and we struggle to decipher it. See how all the pedestrians turn away from Death, how even the cars do it? Is it mindless inattention, or a deliberate decision not to look? Who is going forwards in Forwards?
Because of all this mental activity, there are things we do not feel: no pity when we look at the two figures in the shade of the umbrella; no shame for the man in a red vest extending a hand; no sorrow for the greened-out shades of people inside the city bus. In this respect they are all the victims of allegory. We trade something that works like a story for something that works like a riddle.
Whatever Death strides through sets itself apart from him, if only for the instant before he touches it. This instant is the one Gates has chosen to paint, and in painting it he has given it life while limiting that life to a single instant. Blocks of color drop into place, shapes interact—among them, human shapes. Some kind of meaning—some kind of narrative—is born at this very moment, but this very moment is all we are given. A hubcap, radiating its perfect dartboard pattern, makes a saint of a woman as she climbs into her car. Crosswalks reveal themselves to be immaculate ladders toward—and away from—a distant Palladian paradise. In the space between the two pedestrians who share an umbrella, in the space between the side of a building and the rear of a passing van, a sliver of depth, a rectangle of air, is created and preserved. And life is there in miniature, compressed and held in a frame for all time.
Does fixing a thing in time give it immortality or extinguish it? Over and against the crosswalk at the painting’s center a blocky shadow falls. The woman who walks her child across the street is the gnomon of a sundial. Her shadow measures a time that knows no forwards. This is the place on the graph where never and forever intersect.
There is not much new that anyone living can tell us about death. But there is something new, I think, that can be said about the relationship between mortality and painting, the powers of annihilation and creation, and this picture is saying it.