Paul Madonna, Everything Is Its Own RewardJanuary 17, 2012
In 1955, the French theorist, writer, and filmmaker Guy Debord defined the term psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”1 The art that charges our imaginative sense of place conveys not only a story but also a rhythm of life—a convergence of personalities, ambitions, and attitudes that could only have taken place there and then—traces of which rise off the changed, sometimes unrecognizable streets decades later. It is why, despite George Gershwin’s intent for Rhapsody in Blue to be heard as a “musical kaleidoscope of America,”2 his composition became associated with and still evokes New York, a city whose glories and debacles have become synonymous with the American Dream. It is also why, in the din of Paris cafés, one can imagine oneself a reveler in Hemingway’s A Movable Feast and why the term Dickensian is still used as shorthand to describe the peculiar squalid charm of London’s old working-class neighborhoods. The artists who limn the embedded myths of our cities are master interpreters of psychogeography, the profound and nuanced influence of place upon person.
The monograph Everything Is Its Own Reward (City Lights Publishers)—the artist and writer Paul Madonna’s continuation of his popular San Francisco Chronicle weekly series, All Over Coffee—actually includes images of other cities (Buenos Aires, Rome, Paris), but it initially feels like San Francisco’s book, both in focus and in spirit. Even though Madonna’s ink-and-wash drawings depict a city without people or cars (and it is not typical that one can paint a successful portrait of a place without some attention to its people), his empty streets are nevertheless rich with signs of life and psychic resonance. Madonna captures the kind of serenity with which San Francisco seems perpetually blessed and that other cosmopolitan cities only evince in the very early morning. This strange illusory relief from the usual urban neuroses is one reason that people continue to fall in love with San Francisco when they visit and that compels them to stay, even after the illusion has been recognized as such.
Madonna’s detailed but unfussy drawings bear the same human touch as so many of the buildings he depicts: Queen Anne structures, with their asymmetrical facades and baroque details evoking gingerbread houses, are rendered in wavering lines and pale swathes of shading. These gables, turrets, and ornamental flourishes—useless except as things of beauty. After all, who really needs a turret?—collectively contribute so much to the atmosphere of the city even as they often recede to the background. Floating over Madonna’s images of buildings are disembodied bits of text, such as “The days passed slowly / while the years flew by” and “I keep wondering if it will ever not be like this / And if so, will I miss it, and try to get it back.”
These words could be snippets of conversation overheard or recalled at their settings. Or, more simply, they could be the small epiphanies that seem drawn from a place as one walks through it.
Madonna’s occasional jump cuts to scenes from other cities produce a similar response. Only upon realizing that one doesn’t recognize the setting—a plaza with Mediterranean terra-cotta buildings, or a block of Haussmann façades—does one check the index and realize that these are in fact renderings of other cities, place significantly different from San Francisco in more than just appearance. But here they are portrayed as tonally, energetically analogous even if they’re architecturally distinct. Across these disparate locations, Madonna’s illustrations focus on the correlative hand-wrought beauty, just as the accompanying texts offer variations of the same poetic, self-regarding ruminations. It’s not the spirit of any particular place that Madonna captures so well but rather a quality of life, a state of mind, predicated on the luxury of having an existence in which the only dramas to speak of are personal.
This portrayal suits San Francisco’s scenic beauty. But it wasn’t just the city’s aesthetics that caused Herb Caen to say, “One day, if I go to Heaven, I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’” San Francisco has become synonymous in the popular imagination with a certain allowance for navel-gazing, from indulgent coffee-shop philosophizing to wistfully remembering love affairs long past. In this way it is tempting to read Everything Is Its Own Reward as a psychogeographic expression of the city. But such a reading would only suit too well the Stuff White People Like cliché of San Francisco—the city as an affluent, gentrified playground—which in certain respects is true, albeit necessarily incomplete. That characterization could also apply to anywhere that is blessed with peace and a modicum of prosperity. Then again, the aspects of San Francisco that Madonna leaves undrawn are myriad: the city’s striking homelessness, the ever-looming threat of earthquakes, the encroaching presence of commercial interests at the expense of local culture, the gang violence. Only occasionally does Madonna allude to catastrophe and always in its eerily peaceful aftermath: an image of cars with all their windows smashed, a crushed white picket fence. One wonders how he would portray a warzone or if he would even attempt to depict such an environment.
If there is a San Francisco state of mind—calm, unburdened with practical worries, nostalgic, slightly mawkish, indulgent of beauty (spoiled by it, even)—Madonna proves that this can exist anywhere, just as any San Franciscan knows that it cannot always exist in this city. Perhaps this is the truth about psychogeography: it is an idealization, rife with exceptions and inaccuracies. But the associations linger, thanks in part to the conviction with which an affecting, evocative work of art can make them seem innate to a particular setting. We can count ourselves lucky that Madonna has chosen our city as the subject of his art and feel graced that its illusions sometimes ring true.