I've been seeing something about a woman with internal organs coming out for some time now. It started to appear in 'The Princess Who Came from the Coast,' and I knew I wanted to revisit this.
Last night I woke up suddenly at 5am and started praying the rosary. I was clasping the green glass beads to my body and pushing them along with my fingers like intestines. I kept falling in and out of sleep as I prayed. The words kept changing and I saw many things. Then I saw something very much like this and I saw that it was called 'medicine.' I got up to sketch it but fell asleep again. I might have forgotten it, but then when I was praying the mass readings for today, the first reading was from Ezekiel. Here are the words that the angel says to him in a vision:
“Have you seen this, son of man?...Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh. Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
Michael Shelby Edwards, The Handless Maiden, 2008, PAFA, 2011.1.323
Over thirty years ago, Linda Lee Alter decided to collect art by women, building an extraordinarily diverse and powerful collection that includes some of the most influential female artists of the past 50 years.
In celebration of these outstanding artists and their accomplishments, Alter recently gave her collection of close to 500 works to PAFA, allowing the public to see these remarkable works for the first time. Visit PAFA this fall and explore over 160 objects and their creators from the Linda Lee Alter Collection of Art by Women.
The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making their World,on view November 17, 2012 - April 7, 2013, features modern and contemporary artists' depictions of themselves and their communities, a multiplicity of aesthetic viewpoints, working methods, and political perspectives.
Last night I couldn't sleep again. I was up and down, rolling in the dark. I reached, groaning, for a pile of blank white rectangles of paper as if they were antacids. I wrote things on blank white rectangles of paper. The blank white rectangles give my ideas a framework. They give legitimacy to these ineffable things that make me go sideways in bed. Brain O'Doherty can't be wrong. 'The White Cube' and all it's little rectangular constituents are my hope for legitimacy. They validate. They verify. I can't escape the White Cube. I have to use it.
Studio wall, corner view, 2012.
I'm ready to use the tools of art to ask myself what I'm trying to do here; what it means to be an artist right now, how it feels. There are forces inside and outside that I have to push against. There are realities I have to accept, reject and also fuse together on pain of mental collapse and total demoralization.
I took all the little paintings off my studio wall. I bundled them up to take them to market; all wrapped up like a picnic basket into the wilderness. I'm trying to get them to Grandma's house. But the wolf keeps interrupting me; asking me questions. So they are bundled up and will forget them for the moment.
Now the studio wall is empty again. It's back to the white cube corner that I demanded to be cut into this dusty, memory-locked section of my childhood home. I cajoled my daddy into hiring the neighbor kid from across the street to build it for me. I'm a girly-girl-girl-girl afterall, and hyper-aware of my diffidence about carpentry work.
Studio wall, frontal view, 2012.
Now the partial-white cube-corner of my childhood home on College Street is empty of objects. It is full, however, of history. There are little brassy hooks, looking forlorn without paintings hanging from them. There are spiders and cobwebs. There are tape marks and charcoal scratching; outlines and halos from previous works executed on the wall; arrows indicating lighting arrangements for student still-lifes and model-sittings; measuring marks and other indicators of investigatory use.
Studio wall, detail view, 2012.
I love to look at these marks. They're like the marks on the kitchen door, that show the changing heights of the children as they grow. They are memory marks. They are science marks. They, like the wedge of the white-cube-corner, validate my work. They prove that have tried to solve problems here. They are like the scratchings along the margins of the math homework assignments from primary school (overrun in my case with little figures and faces and body parts).
Show your work.
That mantra was ingrained into my being through my compassionate parochial school training. Even if you get it wrong; you'll get partial credit if your show your work. And I do. I can't stand the alternative. I mean it when I say this: I will lose my will to live unless I do.
Even deeper down, earlier, the message came. I remember it.It came directly from that most primordial of sources, my own mother; the pre-studio, the original church, the matrix of my being.
I was climbing another white cube, only it was a up one floor, in the upstairs bathroom. I remember it now: the white, rectangular clothes-hamper, oh so fine and tall! Mommy had warned me not to climb it, but I transgressed out of sheer curiosity. And when the thing broke painfully under my weight, I remembered what she had said:
Always tell me the truth of what you've done. Even if you do something wrong, if you come to me and tell me the truth, I will forgive you.
Studio wall, closeup view of charcoal marking, 2012.
So I go to the White Cube and I tell the truth. I go to the confessional; I go the studio; the hospital, the canvas; the blazing white screen, and I accuse myself. I show my work.
Here is an example of a work, produced with a particular curator in mind, for a particular gallery space in Philadelphia (it was a rather matronly gallery director). This work was never intended as a jab, and I was glad for the opportunity to show my work there. However, considering in retrospect the psychological context under which it was produced, the content makes me smile.
Mother, May I?, charcoal, 20x 30in, 2008.
I'm still sideways even now, tossing and turning, bi-locating, oscillating, hanging on to little rectangular scraps of paper for dear life. But I have to say I feel refreshed by this little reflection on the state of my my studio. Already, I sense light breaking on this otherwise puzzling series of wall-drawings. I began them in earnest at the Pennsylvania Academy in 2006. I've struggled with the notion of giving them up under the pressures of various demands and fears about leaving the cocoon of graduate school and stepping into the wide, wild world of the market place, basket in hand. I've set them aside sacrificially, in favor of prettier, more colorful and frankly more marketable confections, more likely perhaps to please mothers and brighten the walls of their antique homes. The sweeter things please me too. I am my mother's daughter.
So for these achromatic, luminous, sometimes menacing, sometimes slightly revolting drawings; dusty gashes, cuts in the wall, evidences of a drive to penetrate past the surface of art making, to get inside the body, to uncover the matter, there hasn't been much place. At least not in the day to day reality of my studio practice.
Gastromancy II, charcoal, 2006. Pennsylvania Academy Museum Collection.
I have willingly turned away from them, hidden them, covered them, tried to shut the file on them. Yet as soon as the studio wall gets uncovered again, the drive to think about this work and to continue it comes bubbling out like a secret, long hidden behind layers of peeling paper, primer and plaster. I suspect something inside me, placed there from the very beginning, demands that I attend to it, and yet simultaneously begs the question:
In recent months, guests have come to my studio to sit for portraits with increasing frequency. Direct portraiture like this is a habit I picked up in my teenage years, almost from the beginning of my studio practice, and it still yields some of my most interesting work.
Michael In the Studio, 2010. Courtesy of Brady McGarry.
There are many social forces that bring the artist and the model together in the ritual of portraiture, but the idea of relationship, in its purest sense, is what intrigues me most. I've come to believe that painting is a relational act. This is true even when rendering the subject from memory or imagination. Relationship seems to be the goal of portraiture, and arguably, of all perceptual art.
The Concrete Touch Whenever I think about my work, or any work of art, my touchstone is the medium. The artist’s medium is precisely that: a mediator between one entity and another; the skin between you and me. When I paint your portrait, I touch you through the paint. I draw you to myself, or at least I try. I touch you into being by touching the work.
When I paint you, it is more than the conveyance of ideas or the expression of feeling or even social identity. Painting constitutes a relationship; an encounter with the subject itself; the subject which lies beyond painting. And what's more, through the medium of paint or dry pigment, this relationship becomes physical. It is rendered in concrete terms.
When I paint you, I summon you like the bison in the cave of my studio. I bow to you like the icon that stands in for the reality of the beloved saint.
Whether cherished bison or saint, an invented character, the memory of a deceased family member, an important client or simply the friend I've schedule to come by for a sitting this afternoon, art says to the subject:
You are the holy one whose presence I call forth in the activity of art.
Art is the act that reaches out in yearning, hoping somehow to transcend the limitations of time and space, even the grave, to make this kind of physical relationship possible.
We Are Not One
The act of portraiture is unitive in the sense that we, artist and subject, come together for its consummation. The object of art, the 'uncanny object' (a concept which I promise I'll get to in a future post), is the fruit of this collaboration. Yet, contrary to what the eastern mystics describe in their conscious turning-away from form, this relationship is not an illusory separateness that gives way to total undifferentiated being. Rather, the artist is seeking a union through form. A union which depends upon a hearty objectivity; a continuous and willing differentiation between distinct entities.
This skin of the paint separates us; we are “I and thou.” The difference between us is the very thing that gives us relationship. In the process of drawing the portrait we find the perfect analogy for this union. In art, we are brought together in relationship by virtue of our separateness. To say: I am you, like the lone mystic on the mountaintop, is insufficient. Rather, the artist says: I am with you. I know that I am with you because we are not the same.
The Sweater, Michael Shelby Edwards, oil on board, 9x12", 2012.
Mediated on one level by the paint-skin; on another level by the schematic of the drawing, the artist and the subject come together through the act of art; inspired by a love of distinctions. As the poet, Rilke, remarks, it is “the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” It is the truthful perception of the otherness of the subject that brings relationship into being.
Hitting the Target
The truth of this paradox arises out of the nature of perception itself: in separating one part from another within the field of vision, I am able to see. In dividing up the singular, undifferentiated field of the ground, I come to discover the figure.
Film from 'Visit to Picasso', a documentary by Paul Haesaert, 1949.
The more closely these divisions correlate to the reality of the subject itself, the more faithful the ‘likeness’ to the subject. This doesn’t mean advocating for a 'new objectivism' in painting or promoting a conformist ideal of beauty. It doesn't mean that faithfulness to reality, ‘likeness’, is the sole domain of so-called representational art. It should go without saying that all art, insofar as it is excellent, is representational of truth.
Indeed, any movement towards excellence in art, requires a willingness to affirm that likeness, that is, likeness to truth, is of universal value for both the artist and the public. Excellence in both the production and appreciation of art requires sensitivity to this value which is so fundamental to human happiness. It falls to the artist to hit the perceptual target, even if that target is an object observed only within the imagination. Only then can the real, physical encounter between artist and subject achieve consummation.
The French Trapper (detail), Michael Shelby Edwards, charcoal and ink-pen, 9x12", 2012.
Seeing is Relating
In nature, heterogeneity gives way to relationship. In painting and drawing, the negotiation of the figure-ground relationship yields up the fruit of the image; the image ultimately encountered, first by the artist, and then by the world - the public - of which the subject is a part. It is the negotiation and interrelationship of distinctions that makes it possible to perceive reality. It is in reaching out to the subject continuously, through the medium that simultaneously separates and unites, that I am able to know and to be known.
In this way, the paint-skin is analogous to the skin of the body. The act of painting itself can be likened to a conjugal act. The fruit of painting is the art-object, the object destined to be encountered by the world, and through which the world can, if it is willing to look, come to know something of the nature of its original cause: the interrelationship between distinctive, complimentary entities, in a unitive, fruitful act of encounter.
The Seattle Art Museum presented a major exhibition of Gauguin's paintings, entitled Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise.The show ran from February 9–April 29, 2012, and included paintings and printwork from the well-known French artist, as well as a collection of Polynesian art.
Lightening my load, the thought, like the cloud-cover, rolls over everything, darkening it, like a blanket consuming trees: She’s not coming.
I had a feeling she would be afraid to meet me. No matter. This gives me ample time to think. Looking across the street, into the park, I notice the red shape, flat, like a skirt he would paint, on brown legs against the grass, exists. That’s all it does. I see.
He just wanted to tell us how red it was, and how green. No, not even that. He couldn’t do that very well. His colors were imprecise. (The canvas had aged badly, yes, but that’s no excuse. No, they were abysmally imprecise, those colors.) Nothing came into focus. He didn’t see what was there. He saw like the kind of man he was. He saw only his idea. He made a few notes in a rush. He was punchy from the heat; distracted. He wanted to get on to the sex. He didn’t care enough. He’s just like all the rest. Men.
He wanted to tell us that it was red; that’s all; that it was green. He wanted to bring a statement back to the boys in Paris like some unscrupulous journalist, to prove he been there.
I’m starting to side with the feminists. Maybe he was just a chauvinist; a creep, using the girls. He ditched his wife to do it, too, then back to Paris to capitalize on his licentiousness. A Peter Pan. I never liked Gauguin from the pictures. I like him even less in person.
Yet now, in the morning at the cafe across the street from the park, I sit, bleary-eyed and idle, saying ‘red...green’ without words. I do it too. Surely this is an innocent desire, yes? How can I begrudge a fellow painter this?
I think now of my models, my beauties. I think of their nostrils and lips, and how I only want to show that these things exist. I do understand Gauguin. We paint -- portraits, no less. We are more alike than I care to admit.
I am also like her, sitting here. I can barely look at his paintings because I’m always thinking of her. I’m thinking of her with the heavy brown limbs; thinking of her back in Paris, with the children. I’m in the museum thinking of her; in the cafe, thinking of her; under heavy limbs, thinking of her, behind lidded eyes, thinking of her.
I’m at the museum now, in Seattle, dealing with him. I’m not here alone. I don’t want to be rude.
I’m in the park, in Paris with the children, dealing with him. Now, a small boy brings me a dirty rock with great enthusiasm; presenting it to me like a gemstone. I don’t want to take it by any means, in my gloved hand, but I’m afraid to throw it away. Trapped by obligation (pride? pity? despair?), I take it and avert my eyes. I keep holding still. My limbs are heavy and thick. I am not seen, I am being acted upon.
I’m under the clouds, on the island, dealing with him. I am her. The one he’s evading; not looking in the eyes; the one who waits.
She’s back in Paris at the cafe, in the slanting light, while the children play. She tries not to think at all but watches the shapes without naming them. She paints in her way, and is ever the subject of painting.
Looking down and to the right, her limbs grow still more immovable under the weight. Her lidded eyes slide away despondent, toward the earth. The storm approaches, flattens, and greys the colors and wipes away the depths. Wordlessly, a shadow darkens her face -- and his.
This is funny. The poor fool traveled across the globe to find an exotic ‘other’ to paint, only to come face to face with his tired wife again. She just as depressed and weary of his personality as I am. Mr. Gauguin, you sure have a way with the ladies.
I get up now, with a great effort of will, and start walking back to the house. I’m moving away from him finally, having understood him, having seen myself in him, having pardoned him for his folly. I’m smiling, why? Because art works. Truth rises up again and again in art, even art we don’t like, across time and culture and distance. Wherever we look, and look carefully, wisdom reigns. Droplets begin to fall as I walk, cooling my skin.
The Centurion's Foot, the concrete brick, an important thing. The beautiful woman who speaks searchingly in deliberate, sincere obfuscations while slides flashing, upon the stage where Thomas Eakins once taught, show saints that say nothing to us yet but still dominate our efforts. The buildings were not so old or so tall, but there was the cast hall with David and so many corridors; the wide open possibility of the continent nearby.
These days I'm struggling with a dilemma that is, perhaps, unique to artists of faith - but no doubt effects every artist of a temperament that demands a certain level of moral or philosophical rigor. Here it is: in my work I find myself dealing with sacred themes. You know - figurations of Mary, angels, the saints, and...dare I say it...even Christ. It's not a question of wanting to "work them in" --it's more like I can't avoid them anymore.
As a sincere practitioner of my faith and my craft, using sacred imagery intimidates me. It must be attended by a high degree of care and circumspection. These are not merely personal images, they are familiar to all of us and effect us (westerners) at different levels because of their universality. Maybe that's part of their appeal; they have many meanings for many people. Yet, for me, they carry the added burden (and power) of being vital articles of my religion, too.
I respect these images, I love them. But now I realize that, at the level of execution, even these sacred images come out of my brush mixed with the weird taint of something slightly profane. Maybe it’s because my subconscious is so involved in my creative process (my subconscious is full of impurities). Perhaps too, some of the ‘profane’ aspects of these familiar images are a part of me, just as surely as I am a part of contemporary culture. Meaning that these images are not read (at least not by me) without their religious connotations being annotated, changed and sometimes even mocked by the many alternate readings that have been added to them throughout the years.
So I'm conflicted: these images are a part of me - my personality, my history and my culture. In that sense they are play-things; dream elements. Yet as a Christian - particularly a Catholic Christan - 'playing' with sacred imagery becomes a dangerous and complicated project.
Perhaps herein lies the challenge and the call: these are not, cannot be, mere 'play-things' to me. Any play with these images would take on the character of a kind of sacred dance; a dance with very high stakes; a courtship with the Divine. Am I up for that?
Here is one consolation: there is no shortage of meaning for me to grapple with. I do not suffer, as I did before I embraced the faith, from the problem of images being devoid of significance. Like all my contemporaries, I am slogging through a deluge of possible images - so many meanings, so many readings, so many objects. But these clips and bytes do not contain equal truth-values. Mine is a job of sorting out lentils from ashes: parsing the true meanings out from the false ones.
There are objective truths connected to these images, truths which are attached to my most deeply held beliefs. And so there is a very real possibility of error. Thus, there is great personal risk involved everyday that I approach the canvas, brush in hand, ready to play. But the truth is I am playing with my vital organs, holding my most cherished values in my hands.
In a way, every artist, no matter what their convictions are, must deal with this very sobering reality: my breathes are numbered and my time is limited. What do I care about so much that I am willing to spend the better portion of my precious time and life in its pursuit? How can I do anything other than to make my art out of the stuff that I would live and die for, since that is, in a very real sense, exactly what I am doing?
Art is costly. In these uncertain times, many artists are feeling even more than ever the sacrifices they must make simply in the way of material comfort, physical hardship, financial freedom, etc., in order to continue their work. Few people realize how frightening and difficult it can be for artists to persevere in the face of so much insecurity. A dear price has to be paid for art to even exist. For what kind of art am I willing to pay this price? Maybe poverty is good for us artists, maybe it makes us honest. There are plenty of holy monks and nuns that would say so. But whether or not we welcome the bracing effect of these material difficulties, here they are. So what are we going to do with the resources that we have? Perhaps having discovered what is for me a truly dangerous subject matter in sacred imagery, I am beginning to answer this question for myself, in and through my work.
"Ordinarily we do not make full use of our faculty for seeing...So much escapes our perception, either due to indolence, or because of our preoccupied thoughts, or simply because our visual sense has not been disciplined to more active and substantial use. Drawing is a discipline of vision. It heightens perception. Drawing = seeing, as we have already said, but the nature of the equation is complex and elusive; the complexity is compounded by misconceptions and the elusiveness increased by the ambiguity of words."
- Edward Hill, The Language of Drawing
Yes, words are tricky. They entice me to think that I can pin something down with them. They claim to stay put, but then they don't.
The line that forms a letter and a string of letters represents a sound. The sounds talk to me. They buzz.
The line that makes a form is just that; a form. It is absolutely silent. This drives some people crazy. Even me. I like to be reassured by sounds, by words. I even assign words to my forms - but they don't stick. I mean, they do for a few weeks sometimes or even months. Then they begin to slip. Just a little at first, and as soon as I notice I quickly pin them up again. But then when my back is turned they slip even more. They slink down the wall and wind up in piles on the floor underneath my drawings. Sometimes I pick them up and sometimes I just leave them there. I can always sort through them later. That's my excuse. And its a fair one. Nothing worse than an artist who talks about their work and never works.
But the piles of words are getting bigger and bigger now. I can see that. They're getting noisy. I have to step over them to get to work. What can I do with them?
Its embarrassing to post my thoughts up here alongside my artwork. Its hard to know if this is because the nature of the internet publishing – ‘blogging’ ‘posting’ and such – makes it difficult to edit ones thoughts carefully. I know someone who assures his readers right in the title of his blog that his thoughts are likely to be stupid at times. This is one of the perils of the internet age: instantaneous publication. Little or no editing. No peer review. No time to rethink one’s speech or even to choose silence.
But there’s something even more disconcerting about doing this as an artist - about posting right here on my art website. Why is that? Is its because there is something about the artists who talks that defies our image of the modern artist as necessarily enigmatic, elusive and detached, like one of the many mute objects on display? Is communication un-artistic? Is allowing oneself to be reached, to be understood by anyone, anywhere, at anytime, not properly elite? Why is it so risky for an artist to be transparent? To be accessible in the same way that a writer is accessible?
February 2011 at the Pennsylvania Academy: Pictures of the Body
I am deeply honored to be included in this exhibition. Curators Robert Cozzolino and Julien Robson have touched upon a most salient concept and context in which to present this work and I am frankly thrilled to be counted among some of my heroes in modern and contemporary figurative art.
Pictures of the Body
Location:The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Dates:
February 5 - April 10, 2011 Curators:
Robert Cozzolino, Curator of Modern Art
Julien Robson, Curator of Contemporary Art
While artists in the past explored and recorded the body as a means of understanding its structure and operation, in recent decades contemporary artists have increasingly employed representations of the body as a means to address issues about the nature of the self and subjective identity. This installation drawn primarily from PAFA’s permanent collection brings together over 30 works that reveal the innumerable ways that artists have focused on the human body since the 1950s. In contrast to the earlier academic concern with anatomy as a source of verifiable visual knowledge, this renewed interest in the body employs anatomical and medical imagery for differing philosophical ends. Understanding that the body is not a singular anatomical entity but is layered into a complex socio-political, scientific, and cultural network, contemporary artists now employ the human form in their work as a way of engaging questions about unity, fragmentation, and the mediation of the body in contemporary society.
Artists featured in this installation include: Sue Coe, Rafael Ferrer, Gregory Gillespie, Sidney Goodman, Jenny Kanzler, Jules Kirschenbaum, Paul Lamantia, Philip Pearlstein, Paul Pletka, Honoré Sharrer, TODT, John Wilde, Richard Wilt and others.
Image: 'Gastromancy II," Michael Shelby Edwards, charcoal and graphite on rag paper, 2008.