We understand what we look at by becoming familiar. Getting to know a space, a circumstance, a thing we use, people we see. Of course we are more conversant with the things and places we grew up with. The sorts of people from home, for example, may not even register as sorts of people if the place we’re from is small. They are just actual people we met along the way. Sometimes familiarity becomes something else, a thing we have to reconcile, a thing that has even turned on us. We go somewhere else, or we begin to see familiar things differently because something made us see differently.
Roni Packer speaks about yellow. She stammers to describe sensations utterly familiar to her–the way light can feel dirty. A certain kind of cracker. Her associations with lemons are loud, even shrill and divisive. Her lemon isn’t food all the time. Her lemon is a political symbol (secretly to people who don’t know it is in fact a citron, only similar to a lemon), a home remedy for a variety of ailments, a part of a religious observance. How can her lemon be so different from mine? I mean, she squeezes a dash to balance the flavor of hummus or cuts a slice to add to a glass of water. But there is a special attachment to seeing special lemons that I couldn’t know about without someone to tell me about it. How does she even know that her lemon was a thing to tell me about? She got a letter that seemed like casual chatter until she noticed she can’t stop thinking about it. She had maybe grown accustomed to the thing about religion so familiar to her and invisible to people from other places. Perhaps she stopped noticing the oddity of explaining a religious context and immediately following up with an insistence that she is not religious. A letter from an acquaintance who can no longer expect the fresh tartness of a lemon squeeze struck her in a way she can’t help but pay attention. What is that color? How does yellow look on the skin of a lemon, on my lemon? How can a lemon mean something? How can a lemon tell you something about who I am, my values? How can the journey between the identity I was born with and the one I walk with now be revealed by looking at lemons? How can someone be officially and officiously denied something like a lemon as yet another punishment piled onto a punished life?
I don’t know how to say this without sounding dumb, but I don’t think Roni paints to make good paintings. Neither is she trying to paint so that a painting carries her ideas. I think she is putting colors in front of herself so that she can look at what she remembers next to what she sees now, and that comparison sets her up to navigate the world with a kind of awareness about other people and what they think and what they feel. It is remarkably simple, a simple process to direct mindful attention. It is astonishing what a revelation it can be.