I read a book that had been on my shelf since 2011. It's a book of art critique (stay with me) by the poet Mark Strand, where he talks about 30 paintings by Edward Hopper. I've loved Edward Hopper's work for as long as I can remember, but I've never been sure as to why until reading this admittedly very slim book.
As to why I never read it? I don't know. There's a couple of books I've loved so much that I've stretched out reading the final chapters of them for years. "Ask The Dust" by John Fante and "1984" by George Orwell are the two big ones. It's a weird tic, but I love those books so much that I don't really want them to end. Haven't met anyone else who's like this, so if you are, send a message to let me know that I'm not alone. Anyway.
Strand says about Hopper's magnetism that, in much of his work, the viewer has unanswered questions that never get answered. He's right: the more you look at any of his paintings, the less you know than when you first started looking at it. I feel the same way looking at his paintings that I do when I've finished a good meal in a town I'll never come back to. That look around the room, seeing all the faces of all the people that somehow ended in the same room as you... perhaps it's just a western school of thought, but you rarely consider how peripheral you are to everyone else's narrative. Everyone sitting in that diner in West Texas (for instance) has careened, like a falling rock, towards the current moment. The beauty is the unanswered question that other people present. Sometimes I'll see a table with a couple sitting at it, and you can't tell if it's either a bad second date or a perfectly normal fifth-year date. I remember saying to my wife one time at some diner in Tennessee that heaven, if it exists, must be like a good diner: both a rest-stop and a waiting room to an infinite number of final destinations, with good coffee; every character therein with a rich and varied backstory that, at best, you'll never know the depths of.
"Western Motel" is the only painting of Hopper's where the viewer is being looked at by someone in the painting. It's as if she's waiting for you to do something. I spent a full fifteen minutes looking at the print in the book trying to figure out what I was feeling. It's an uncomfortable painting to look at for too long. By triangulating the woman, myself, and the moment, it creates a creeping inertia that I must do something, must act, must decide. Do I stay, or do I go? If we stay, are we afraid of what we don't know? Is it her car, or someone else's? Why do the mountains look so foreboding? If we go, then where are we going?
Then, it hit me with the anticlimax of a broken lightbulb upon flipping the switch: it's my own inaction that draws me to this painting at this time. Unable to become a painting myself, I can't do much but look back long enough until I have to walk away. It's a little like life itself, really, if you want to know the truth of it.