September 2011

The title of this painting, Man Sleeping in L.A. Apartment, plays in counterpoint to its subject. We see a man lying on a carpet, eyes closed, shoes on, dressed for the street. If he is sleeping, certainly it is a disturbed sleep. Just as certainly, this is a disturbing work of art.

The man lies in an unwalled space that is neither wholly natural (note the carpet, the small buildings in the distance) nor wholly cultural (the meticulous attention to cloud formation). Lombardy poplars on the hillsides echo this hybrid status: a species of tree we associate with cultivated landscapes.
The relationship of the man to the landscape is problematic, fraught. Though he lies on the ground he is not at rest (the crook of the arm and wrist). Is he listening for some sort of signal, as American Indians once put their ears to railroad tracks, listening for the approach of a train miles in the distance?
A sleep without rest, an apartment without walls, an uncertain landscape: here are sources of the disturbance. We are reminded of the anxious worlds of Surrealism: Magritte, Delvaux, de Chirico.
Other sources?  The unrelieved, antique browness of man and earth, the amped-up blueness of the sky. In this artificial place we cannot feel at home, not as we might strolling the harmonized worlds of Hobbema or Ruisdael.
The uncertain and unsettled relationship of the human to the natural world also recalls paintings of  Caspar David Friedrich. But in Friedrich's compositions, figures are usually small relative to the landscapes that command their gaze. Nature dominates, challenges. The confrontation is direct, the balance of power is clear. Not so in Llewellyn's painting. Here the sleeping man fills the foreground, his back turned to the distant hills and worrying sky. The cropping of his head by the frame's edge suggests a misfit, not a confrontation. This radical crop imparts a more contemporary pictorial sense than what we find in Friedrich. Despite that, the 19th and 21st century visions each describes an uneasy co-existence of culture and nature.
Man Sleeping employs a compositional device that draws the viewer into a diamond-shaped void bounded by the upper tip of the man's hip and lower edge of the cloud formation. The shape directs us into an existential funnel. Where are we headed? What lies beyond this moment? The impossibility of an answer stirs unease.
The painting urges us to consider our present moment in history. This writer, a 62-year old American, feels poised on a downward slope. The world appears more anxious than anytime in his memory. Markets in turmoil, unemployment soaring. The global climate changing. And while there are signs of spring in parts of the Arab world, in most of the West it is winter.
If the man in this painting is listening, what is he hearing? Nothing good.
Nick Despota
September 2011
California, America
Author's name: 
Nick Despota