Plattsburgh State Art Museum
The Joseph C. and Joan T. Burke Gallery
Marion Wagschal Paints the Figure|
October 1 through November 13, 2005
Open Daily noon to 4pm, except Holidays
Monograph by James D. Campbell
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Meditation, 1991, oil on canvas, 12" x 10"
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Ur, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 66" x 76"
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Here is the precursor to edgy and suggestive work by a whole generation of young Canadian women painters and photographers (Names like Eliza Griffiths and Marisa Portolese come immediately to mind). This artist’s way is the way of mystery, and darkness is her snare. The snare is baited with an irresistible lure: the living truth of being housed in a flesh cage surpassingly vulnerable. Our embodiment is subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and unavoidable physical and mental decay. Her sitters, stripped and prepped for our gaze, and always already empathetically accessible as fellow humans, wind up resonating within us.
If Wagschal makes the transformation of the body thematic in her body of work, it is because she understands the phenomenon of the flesh so well, and she treats it as skin drawn taut over sundry layers of being that emerge only in the course of observation. She is a self-described realist, and unapologetically so, but the flesh in her work, as was the case with the development of flesh in the later thought of the French philosopher Merleau- Ponty, is the dimension that subsumes all objects and ideas without succumbing to identification with either. (5) For her, and for him, the flesh expresses an intertwining of the sensate and the sensible, and in Wagschal’s work this intertwining lends the work a powerful humanity. She captures in pigment the sophistication of a reflection that the body attempts upon itself. And in so doing, she achieves an ideality that is not alien to the flesh – rather it is one that as Merleau-Ponty held, lends it its axis, its depth, its dimensions – and it is this ideality, which has nothing to do with idealism and everything to do with realism, which is central-most to Wagschal’s work. She is after a whole host of meanings that can be abstracted from the sensible body because she understands its corporeal schema — much as the Old Masters did – “as a postural hold upon itself and upon its own space, is the field of equivalences in which gestures in their meaning are capable of substitution, one for the other.” From corporeal schemata, to fields of carnal configurations, physiognomy, flesh jacket, she is our preeminent authority in painting on the ways and means of the flesh. (6) Hers’ may be an excruciatingly painful gift, I mean this familiarity with what time wastes, but it is also, for any painter, a rare blessing.
She calls into experience the “textures of Being” that inform the flesh in its exacting negotiations with a world that is also “enfleshed”. The corporeality of the optic and everything that comes under its purview is brought to fruition in her figuration and borne out through sundry figural strategies. These frail or taxed figures, their faces vivacious in ecstasy, ennobling in reflection or drained of all emotion en route to their demise, demonstrate their phenomenal continuity with the world of existence and their intertwining with it even as they prepare to leave it.
Wagschal, and this is true of all her paintings but the self-portraits in particular, cuts with her surgical steel blade through the facade like the piece of amnion that sometimes envelops a child’s head at birth, showing the vibrant truth hidden beneath all that detritus. Yes, she cuts lovingly away at the membrane that hides her sitters from the world; she scissors away the filmy membrane of hypocrisy and assumed camouflage, she slices at the shroud, the remnants of that amniotic sac that hampers the newborn mammal, animal or human, like a delivery-room savant in search of something like truth. This is no pork and mutton butchery, as is the case with, say, Francis Bacon’s work, for this is a careful, if unsentimental, paring away, not for the sake of distortion, however edifying, but for the sake of a radical unveiling. She achieves a palpable “quickening” in pigment.
Bacon often spoke of wanting to push his paintings as far beyond illustration as possible. We might suggest that Wagschal tries to edge her way as far behind representation as she can; subcutaneously, as it were, so she can sculpt and shape her figuration from the bone mass on up; this radical project of achieving reverse verisimilitude suits her well.
If the flesh is the narrative thread in these paintings, it is always what underlies it that speaks eloquently of where these figures are going and when they might arrive there. This is the thread that runs throughout her paintings, the sheer plenitude of beingness that seeps out of her figuration like fugitive moonlight and guarantees alterity its due. Struggling with duende on the rim of the well, she understands the body qua wholly expressive space. (7)
The flesh is always integral to things, ideas, the relations that obtain between them and it constitutes the armature, if not the inner plots, of Wagschal’s paintings. Merleau-Ponty employs the lovely word chiasm to express the wedding of the structure of idea and object that occurs via the flesh. The flesh allows not only the expression of world and body, but also their continual interaction. This whole discussion is not some empty abstraction. Merleau- Ponty said: “Since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision. And thus, for the same reason, the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things...” (8) The Visibility he addresses is, of course, the flesh – and which some painters who know their worth can conjure up like a living thing from pigment alone. But it is more element than thing, more being than substance, more dimension than depicted minutiae. The artist herself, in a statement written for her 1980 exhibition at Theo Waddington in Montreal, said as much: “I see the world and the world sees me.” (9) She has always been interested in this relationship and its intrinsic reversibility.
Arguably, Wagschal – a gifted feminist thinker who has taught women’s studies to scores of enthralled students for years at Concordia University in Montreal—subverts Merleau-Ponty’s quintessentially male notion of the body beyond the flesh as primogeniture. She redeems the thinker’s phallocentric vision by dilating, as gifted French feminist thinker Luce Irigaray has, on the ‘tangible invisible’. Her paintings are all about tactility. The self-presence of the flesh is such that we are drawn to reach out and touch them, to trace the contours of the flesh with our own fingertips. As Irigaray argued, consciousness itself is impossible without touch. Touch opens up interiority for consciousness. Wagschal is, above all, a painter of touch.
The body in her paintings is understood best as threshold or passage. If female flesh in the paintings is seen from her own standpoint as a woman reflective, eagle-eyed, unflinching and unrepentant in the severity of her regard, it is because she understands that nothing is lost to touch. The tangible invisible of which her paintings of the flesh are so redolent, the tactile imaginary, is not active or passive, subject or object. Hers’ is an attentiveness devoid of anticipation or resistance. (10) This underscores, I think, the artist’s courage in executing work as uncompromising as it is single-minded in formal and psychological tenor. Her paintings have an interrogatory mood. She has an uncanny knack for capturing psychological truth about the myriad ways we live now—alone or with others—but also with capturing (and unerringly) postural truth. I mean the way bodies inform space in the life-world like an inverted Matisse cutout. Say, the way a body will sinuously twist and erotically cantilever to one side on a bed or couch in a lovely animalish and abandoned way when sensuously touched, caressed to smoothness, instinctively sexed.
The poses of her subjects are sometimes hieratic, and often unusually treated, as though framed in a Delvaux-like dream space or in the nameless way memory crops things. Thus, you could never mistake her work for anyone else’s. The loins are unavoidable, of course; the sex organs loom large. She reminds us that we are, above all, sexed beings. In several paintings, she shows herself sensitive to our sexed state – and to the overwhelming primacy of touch. Eros permeates the work like an Indian Serpentology diagram from the 18th Century, the carvings at Khajuraho or a Tantric drawing –and the painter’s own touch so lovingly delineates grounds that tremble with ardor and with care.
Wagschal often essays a close psychological examination of the power relations that obtain between men and women. Consider Couple at Sunrise (1998) and Couple with a Calico Cat (1986). Consider the hieratic poses, bodily positionings, and telling expressions. The erotic light is full in these paintings; it floods in from everywhere, like the light of an alchemical sun.
Wagschal is equally High Priestess of the inflammatory portrait as of seemingly everyday interiors in which all the conventional and orthodox ideals of beauty — Greek, Roman and particularly those of our own Britney Spears-obsessed culture — are always already pared away and, in their place, changeling-like, another kind of beauty is allowed to emerge from the shadows. This is a beauty born of the darkness in human nature, our nature. Wagschal, a quarter century ago in her Waddington statement, said that if the interaction between herself and the world in her paintings were “intense enough the successful result is beauty, even if the subject matter is not pleasant or attractive in an immediately obvious way.” (11) A sentiment with which this critic readily concurs. The beauty in question emerges out of her exploration of the tremulous private body and dynamics of coupling, loving, body image, family ties, and aging, dying, but, above all, being. And the strange mysteries in her paintings hide in plain sight, for they transcend the very figuration that is their subject in suggesting dream, myth, melancholia and martyrdom of spirit.
Wagschal paints from models. They sit for her willingly for scores of hours. Sometimes those models are friends and family members, but whether better or lesser known they are equal grist for her unsparing artistic mill. These human subjects are never idealized but neither are they abased. We might say that we feel the frisson of the future’s warm breath upon our own skin as we regard them. They are our aged and aging doppelgangers, after all.
Complacency is impossible if we stare hard at these paintings. Why? Because without exception, they stare back at us. The intensity of that stare grounds us in the awkward truths that the painter then shares with us. But her humanity always holds sway. The faces of her subjects may form a cartography of withered flesh out of whole cloth, female and male. But the scar tissue, after considered appraisal, is recognizable as being none other than our own.
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Last Updated: September 28, 2005