“Past-Light Regression” 

An Essay for Jacob Todd Broussard: Deathbed Scene at Wolfgang Gallery, Atlanta, June 7 — July 20, 2024


Jacob Todd Broussard, Towards An Appraisal of an Atemporal Eros in Additive Light (Antiques Roadshow S16.E2). Acrylic and Flashe on canvas, 2024.

When cruel death debases
We believe it erases all the rest
That precedes
But… time moves both ways…

Joanna Newsom✶

For a few minutes in 2011, cameras of public broadcasting turned to capture the light reflecting off a small, inconspicuous painting of a blazing orb within a star-field of dull cerulean. “A friend, Forrest Bess, gave it to me in 1962,” a man reports across the blue velvet display table to an Antiques Roadshow fine art appraiser. “He painted his dreams. And this is one of his dreams.”1 Visionary painter and fisherman Forrest Bess (1911-1977) lived most of his life in a driftwood bait-shack on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Today he remains an anomaly even among the motley crew of avant-garde Modernists with whom many of his works are collected. Seeing this little Bess painting come to light in televisual granulation, I think nothing of abstraction or any so-called style in the history of art. Instead I find myself wondering about the apparent astronomical body which appeared in Bess’s dream. Could its light have arrived from the past, as with stars in the real? Is there still more to discover about the nature of inspiration, if works of art were observed as faithfully as astronomers study deep fields?

When the light broadcast from Bess’s starry vision reappears, it is framed by a vintage television set in the painting Towards an Appraisal of an Atemporal Eros in Additive Light (Antiques Roadshow S16.E2) (2024) by Jacob Todd Broussard. Its milky image hovers on a screen spilling over with pink electric illumination. A certain amount of fidelity is lost in this oblique representation, yet new ambiguities are amassed by the blazing orb, shining coolly as a near-death apparition. Broussard’s painting radiates desire where the transmission becomes distorted, and prior conditions transformed, as all things eventually encounter interference and noise. The source of inspiration is altered in the very act of being shown.

Some historians describe this simply as the “Eliot effect,” honoring the author of a memorable idea about art’s multidirectional power. In an essay first published in 1919, poet and critic T. S. Eliot argues that “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.” Eliot believed that the full meaning of art is realized only relative to tradition—that is to say, in relation to the dead, whose histories will then be rewritten. “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely,” quips Eliot, “and they are that which we know.”2

Still, it is sad to think of all that is lost. Archivists and archaeologists who catalog the ruin of history must contend with the fact that “all past events are more remote from our senses than the stars of the remotest galaxies, whose own light at least still reaches the telescopes.”3 All that remains of an irrevocable past, even its most recent moment, are things produced in time. And twilight eventually falls on every idol. Indeed, the artist can be said to have a romantic persuasion, who makes sites of desire in the shadow of annihilation.

An archive in pieces unleashes longing for clarity and resolution, not unlike the deathbed cliché so exploited by television and film. Typically staged in dim interiors, the deathbed sets up a close encounter with mortality that brings haunting truths to light. It is a favorite mise en scène of scythe-bearing Time the Revealer, a character synthesized in the Renaissance from a jumble of old parts. Perhaps it was his new role, the evisceration of falsehood, that brought Time significantly closer to death: the truth was hard-won that made Time a knowing elder. Before Father Time became saturnine, he cut a youthful figure in the decisive moment called Opportunity; or taking wing amidst a zodiac, as Aion, ancient principle of eternal and inexhaustible creativity.4

Time heals all wounds, it is commonly said. C. G. Jung insisted that only the wounded healer heals (curiously, for some time, the renowned psychoanalyst corresponded with Forrest Bess).5  The artist who takes a fragmented archive as the material of collage—whether that material exists on physical pages or in collective imagination—recognizes an opportunity for inventive reparation: not to create more surreality, but to ritualize a bond with the dead, whose wounds are the human condition. The devotional order of collage allows an artist like Broussard to transit ancestors of his tradition, identifying sources of influence while enhancing their effect.

Rather than holding confessional significance, Bess’s painting figures in Broussard’s work as a symbol of visionary insight. The transformation is an impersonal reassessment of Bess, who regarded painting as a means to find transcendent truth—and upheld a faith that his visions came from somewhere beyond his own artistic practice. In this respect, Bess really seems like an outsider to the Modernist tradition; but even in the depths of abstraction one can see the influence of late-nineteenth-century Symbolism, an international movement which marshaled all artistic efforts toward discovering transhistorical metaphor (like love, death, and the sea). It was the business of Symbolists to make symbols, and make them resonate, with or without access to divine revelation.6 This Symbolist experimentation reignited a fascination that had wildly inspired Renaissance art: the tension between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ chains of signification produces an effect in the mind of the spectator, which no system of one-for-one equivalence is able to impart.

“The beautiful,” wrote Sâr Péladan, esoteric host of the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix, “is an interior vision where the world is clothed in supereminent qualities.” Péladan’s declaration transmitted to Paris of the Gay Nineties signals from third-century philosopher Plotinus, founder of Neoplatonism, whose thought exerted tremendous influence on—and in turn, was affected by—succeeding generations of artists and thinkers. Plotinus described the mystic philosopher “as one who presses onward to the inmost sanctuary, leaving behind him the statues of the outer temple.”7 He was ensconced in Renaissance thought by mystic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, in whose cosmology influence originally expressed how matter resonates with the fundamental nature of light. Ficino described the cosmos as a divine animal in whom “an uninterrupted current of supernatural energy flows from above to below and reverts from below to above,” inspiring the mystic to merge with the sublime by “a desire for the fruition of beauty.”8

Jacob Todd Broussard, But Only As They Looked Long Ago. Acrylic and Flashe on wood panel, 2024.

Alluding to the contemporary language of special and general relativity, light cones diffuse supereminent energy throughout the intimate environment of Broussard’s Deathbed Scene. Essentially, light cone theory defines causality in a universe whose progress is determined by the speed at which light travels. The concept is represented by a diagram of two mirrored cones: one cone encloses the totality of history potentially bearing upon the present, or any single point in space-time, while the other cone projects a future path of influence. It is a recurring motif in Broussard’s work, sometimes schematic, often romantic—as in his sensitivity to the drama of artificial indoor lighting. A collection of second-hand brass lamps featuring richly collaged shades casts a warm glow throughout the exhibition.

Having made light cones resonate in my mind’s eye, Broussard’s work leads me to wonder: Is inspiration purely metaphysical, transcending laws of matter—or is there a basic medium in which inspiration occurs? Is light only a metaphor for the nature of artistic vision? The metaphysics that shaped the Italian Renaissance held that “what the enraptured mind admires in the ‘mirror’ of individual forms and spiritual qualities is but a reflex of the one, ineffable splendor of the light divine in which the soul has revelled before its descent to the earth, which it longingly remembers ever after.”9 Today, astronomers and astrophysicists, inspired by the same set of questions—Where did we come from? How did we get here?—aim to capture first light in extraordinary telescope mirrors. No doubt the moment of our witnessing will alter the very past-ness of our history.

Jacob Todd BroussardDid We Discuss Distance (The History of Touches). Acrylic and Flashe on canvas, 2024.

More truly than searching for origins, Broussard relishes in a desire to be influenced: his work exudes mystical yearnings to be penetrated by forces of inspiration. The tell-tale presence of magic clothes in A Visitation (2024) signals an inner willingness to transform and be transformed—to use painting as an alchemical vessel in which interior visions are transmuted by interaction with light. Into this vessel the beautiful dead of history are thrown. Tacked up on an old entertainment system in the uncanny phosphorescence of Broussard’s Did We Discuss Distance (The History of Touches) (2024) appears a small picture of The Dying Galatian. Of this widely-copied, ancient Roman marble statue (itself a copy of an older lost bronze), one of the most striking features is its spiky coiffure. The statue’s locks were found broken upon rediscovery and refashioned rather bluntly in the seventeenth century. Is light still out there, somewhere, bearing the forgotten tresses of antiquity’s Dying Galatian? To imagine that first light is to join in an eternity of inspiration.

✶ Joanna Newsom, “Time as a Symptom,” Divers, Drag City, 2015.

1. “Tulsa, Hour 2” from Antiques Roadshow, season 16, episode 2, PBS, January 2012.

2. See T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen, 1920).

3. George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 79.

4. See Erwin Panofsky, “Father Time” in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Icon Editions, 1972), 69-94.

5. The wounded healer is discussed in "Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy,” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 16 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951). See also Richard Hawkins, “When Forrest Bess Wrote to Carl Jung” in frieze, no. 227, May 2012.

6. Reading into the homosexual subtext of late-nineteenth-century negotiations between mysticism and aestheticism is a rich intellectual tradition, consisting almost entirely of ambiguous footnotes and digressions.

7. Edward Lucie-Smith, Symbolist Art (New York: Praeger, 1972), 11-12.

8. See Panofsky, “The Neoplatonic Movement in Florence and North Italy” in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Icon Editions, 1972), 129-170.

9. Panofsky, Iconology, 181.