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CASSANDRA DILEMMA: Paintings by Rene Lynch. Beauty and Terror in Brooklyn

Updated: Nov 6, 2021


Rene Lynch, Cassandra Dilemma: Wild Fire, oil on canvas, 2020.

In the first of his Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke writes that

“…Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are still just able to bear,

And the reason we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.” With 3 million acres in California burned up by wildfire since 2020, seven hundred million people predicted to be displaced globally by drought in another decade, 200 billion tons of Antarctic ice melting annually, and the sea level expected to rise another half foot in a score of years, it seems clear that Gaia is no longer disdaining to destroy us: she is actively working at it. And who can blame her? We have been – and continue to be - faithless stewards of her bounty, while denying our complicity in its ravagement.

It was author Alan AtKisson who first paired climate change denial with Greek myth in his best seller Believing Cassandra: How to be an Optimist in a Pessimist’s World. The daughter of Priam and Hecuba was a beautiful vestal virgin in Apollo’s rite who caught the god’s lecherous eye and was blessed by him with the gift of perfect prophecy. When she refused his advances, however, he paired the gift with a curse: no one would ever believe her. This double bind of knowing the truth and being helpless to convince others of it is variously known as the Cassandra “complex,” “syndrome,” or “dilemma.” Cassandra Dilemma is the title chosen by painter Rene Lynch for her stunning show of seven new large paintings, currently on view at Metaphor Projects on Atlantic Ave.

As you approach the gallery, the first Cassandra gazes at you through the glass from a shallow alcove on the left side of the door. Lynch did a series in 2007 on the multi-nuanced gazes of adolescent women, deeply working the vein of the tantalizing yet elusive ambiguity of the painted figure who looks directly back at the viewer. This painting, “Cassandra Dilemma: It’s Coming,” is a kind of apotheosis of that older work; it serves as a complex invitation to enter the physical gallery; the mind and aesthetic world of the painter, and the eco-politics of the

paintings, each both portrait and landscape, each featuring a different Cassandra.

Rene Lynch, Cassandra Dilemma: It's Coming, oil on canvas, 2020

This one stands in the foreground of a featureless gold-brown prairie canopied by a brooding storm that sends fuchsia bolts of lightning down to the horizon. Cassandra, here African-American, looks deeply into our eyes over her right shoulder. The placement of the canvas, by curator Julian Jackson, is inspired:

the interposing glass makes us more determined to meet and read the prophetess’ glance, and also reflects the street and surrounding neighborhood: we are all shadowed by the storm and included in her invitation and indictment – if that is indeed what it is.

Lynch’s virtuosity as a portraitist is such that one’s interpretation of the gaze can change even in a single viewing: the look could be admonition, or a call to action, or the beginnings of acceptance of the inevitable. Despite the curse, it’s hard not to read the portentous horizon and accept the truth of Cassandra’s words: “it’s coming.”

On stepping inside the gallery, one is nearly overwhelmed by the sensory explosion. Lynch’s colors are almost Mannerist, and even before appreciating the themes and treatments of the individual paintings, the viewer is entranced by the sensuous beauty and exhilarating juxtapositions of this show.

“Cassandra Dilemma: Wild Fire” (at top) shows us an Asian Cassandra in a red dress, in a different relationship to her own prophetic vision. Instead of standing outside the predicted inferno, she is smack dab in the middle of it. It could be that, like the mythic woman who foresaw the entire Trojan war, this seer is surrounded by a holocaust she is helpless to prevent. But the tilt of her head, her closed eyes, bespeak a kind of shamanic ecstasy. What is certain is that Lynch’s masterly rendered fire feels very, very real: you may be checking your own clothes for sparks.

Rene Lynch, Cassandra Dilemma: Rising Sea, oil on canvas, 2020.

Across from “Wild Fire” is “Cassandra Dilemma: Rising Sea.” This woman shows us her back, her white hands grasping the folds of her lavender gown. She looks on the same catastrophe as we do, a rising and raging surf under a roiling sky. Lynch’s oceanscape is Hokusai collaborating with Turner, but what to make

of her heroine? Is she clutching those dress folds or brandishing them? Recoiling at the vision, or willing it on? King Canute, demonstrating his lack of agency, or Moses allowing God’s vengeance to drown the godless? Again: what’s certain is that the deluge is on its way.

Rene Lynch, Cassandra Dilemma: Drought, oil on canvas, 2021

“Cassandra Dilemma: Drought” is a stark contrast to the other canvases: three-fourths of the background is a precisely rendered drought-stricken plain, devoid of vegetation, carved by the maze-like fissures of water-starvation. This Cassandra seems specifically African, wearing a pink dress, what looks to

be an ebony pendant, and a transfixing stare aimed directly at the viewer. Lynch plays here with ecumenicizing some tropes of martyrdom painting. There is a branched, antler-like cruciform figure behind the prophet; one thinks of O’Keeffe’s paintings of dead trees, but this is not rooted in the ground. Instead it seems either attached to or growing out of Cassandra herself.

The out-turned palms of the seer show stigmata, but instead of blood, water falls from her hands onto the stricken land. It’s a powerful image of futility: the devastated earth is so large, the crystal rivulets so small, the reclamation so daunting.

Stigmata in Catholicism correspond to the wounds of the crucified Jesus, but they are not exclusive to Christianity; they appear widely in Buddhist art and in some indigenous cultures. They are symbols of empathetic pain, of mystical union with suffering. The vast majority of stigmatics are women.

Cassandra is feeling the pain of Gaia, but has little to offer beyond empathy. Her gaze asks us, “What do you have?”

Rene Lynch, Cassandra Dilemma: Melting, oil on canvas, 2021

The ravishingly virtuosic painting of “Cassandra Dilemma: Melting” almost takes one’s breath away. And that, in fact, is what has happened to the seer in this Lynch parable. The mythic Cassandra foresaw her own death at the hands of Clytemenestra, in a killing that was palace intrigue, not passion. Lynch’s heroine

has perished in the cold waters of the arctic, her head afloat like a calf from the melting iceberg behind her. The scene is so exquisitely rendered, the water so seductive, that in an errant thought one can imagine this a tragic accident from imprudent pleasure seeking. The artist is never obvious in betraying her influences, but a young woman dead in the water inevitably summons thoughts of John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia.” Shakespeare’s tragic character, a favorite subject of Victorian painters, is a suicide, unable to live with the grief of her father’s death at the hand of the other man she most loves and admires. Killing herself is her solution to unresolvable anguish over the loss of one to murder and the other to madness. But if this Cassandra is indeed dead, surely we must call her fate a homicide: she is the victim of human neglect that has created global catastrophe….

Or is she? In fact most of these canvases support a verdict of ecocide, the word coined in 1970 by bioethicist Arthur Galston to describe the effects of Agent Orange: “destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action.” Cursed to see the implacable future, has Cassandra left us to our fate and

chosen a beautiful place to die? Her lips seem parted in a half-smile, but her closed eyes betoken extinction, rather than ecstasy.

Rene Lynch, Cassandra Dilemma: Endangered, oil on canvas, 2021

Hung on the wall opposite the entrance and flanked by the other works, “Cassandra Dilemma: Endangered” has pride of place in the Metaphor Projects gallery, and this seems calculated. Instead of affliction, it depicts abundance; rather than summoning terror, it evokes, if not hope, at least nostalgia for optimism. While the other canvases are windows on a wasting world, “Endangered” is an open door whose Cassandra offers a different kind of invitation: to enter and behold what could be lost if we do not act.

It is a deeply detailed portrait - the only one of the paintings that is not landscape format-of a tropical jungle and its creatures, one that rewards long viewing, Lynch has so invested her canvas with teeming life. If it has an artistic forebear, it is Henri Rousseau and his primitivist jungle paintings from the turn of the 20th century: it has the same ingenuousness and evident joy. But Rousseau never saw a real jungle: he had to content himself with visits to the Paris Jardin des Plantes. Lynch has made expeditions to the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and elsewhere.

Many of Rousseau’s animals look through the proscenium of the

canvas at the viewer. All of Lynch’s do. In fact, it is the animals in

“Endangered” who play the role the Cassandras enact in “It’s Coming” and “Drought”: the jaguar, the capuchin monkeys, the toucan and the parrot are our silent interrogators.

Only in this protected artistic biosphere can nature feel free to look her greatest predator in the face.

The indigenous Cassandra, a lovely young woman

(all the Cassandras are lovely young women, a core subject for Lynch

throughout her career) regards us sidelong in her tangerine gown, her arms open as if to say, “Isn’t this glorious?” On her palms, instead of stigmata, are turquoise butterflies.

In 2016-17 Lynch created her series of paintings Flying: human figures, mostly female, in airborne transcendence, untethered from the earth. With Cassandra Dilemma, the artist has become her own model: she has taken on the most urgent issue, not just of our time but for the rest of Time, and rather than being dragged down into political cant or lecturing, she has flown above argument and, by marrying exceptional craft with compelling conceptualization, given us a view of our world. That view sees both splendor and fragility, beauty and devastation. This is soaring artistry. If you see one show in New York City this fall, take the A train to Brooklyn and Cassandra Dilemma. You will leave exhilarated and haunted in equal measure. And, perhaps, inspired to make change.

Rene Lynch, artist, pictured with four of the paintings of Cassandra Dilemma.

Rene Lynch's Cassandra Dilemma runs through November 14 at Metaphor Projects, 382 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY. Gallery Hours: Saturday and Sunday 12-6 pm and by appointment: This exhibition is supported in part by a City Artists Corps Grant.

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