Justin Skolnick lives and works in Portland.

Paralysed force, gesture without motion

Originally posted to justin.revision8.com on in Cary, Illinois

In the summer of 1988, I was seven and incapacitated with a migraine from the heat of a drought. For nearly a month I laid on the living room floor, shifting, never fully asleep, and plagued by a recurring, stuttering, incomprehensible nightmare in which whatever was going to be said or happen never proceeded past its first movements.

George Segal’s sculpture haunts me in a similar way. His figures have been called “ghosts,” their resemblance to death masks noted. As well, like the Edward Hopper paintings to which they’re often compared, they seem voyeuristic and invasive in their immediacy — and in the fact of their literal origination from the forms of living human models.

Yet most haunting is how they depict unrealized action. For Segal’s figures are caught in a perpetual state of potential: as Eliot wrote, “gesture without motion.” We anticipate their movement without receiving any assurance of its actuality. And thereby we are left with only the hope that, in some other existence, what appears to have been promised will be or is being fulfilled.

We know from Genesis that God’s messenger will intervene with a ram — but we see only Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac. What image is more fitting for Kent State, and for this country, than a father poised to sacrifice his son? We’re made to wonder if the story will truly end as promised. Segal leaves us with our faith.