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Plattsburgh State Art Museum
The Joseph C. and Joan T. Burke Gallery
Channeling Ghosts: 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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Couple with a Calico Cat, 1986
oil on canvas, collage, 95" x 72"
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Portrait with Blue Sky, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 13" x 10"

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If her figures often seem vulnerable, exhausted, brutalized, usedup, somehow in harm’s way, so too are many of us. And if their vast, veined, unforgettably destroyed faces are as up close and personal as their loins — eyes, brows, limbs, stomachs and genitalia here achieve a weird equality — so too is the flesh jacket we wear from birth, for better or worse. She never just paints mute bodies, but bodies with pasts that stretch out far behind them like unfurling shawls knitted with dark yarn, and forever shedding grace.

In the small works, the faces seem to usurp all available space, their compression or conflation in the asphyxiated painting plane all the better to assess the extent of their damage and the depth of their abjection. In the larger paintings, it is almost as if we could walk into them. We somehow become complicit in the scenes they act out. This within-the-scenario viewing angle, which is also enactment, often catches us off-guard, and we find ourselves catapulted out of the painting space like guilty voyeurs, only to seek ingress once again, and often quite involuntarily. Such is the drama of their monumentality and the monumental nature of their dramatis personae.

In a larger painting like Woman with Still Life, the vertical prow of the painting—the fleshly head of the subject sitting atop a cascading high-color dress—ends with eloquent counterpoint in its propeller: a nest of swathed folds of fabric in which a skull snuggles as a harsh, if telling, reminder to its mistress of her mortality. Wagschal is that rarest of painters: one who champions finitude. Inside damage and abjection, she offers her own tremulous ideal of beauty, and it is a quixotic beauty, indeed.

The tone of her paintings is unavoidably warm. Her treatment of the flesh acreage is both urgent and dark in its radiance. She arrives in her painting, via impeccably warm fluid brushstrokes and impossibly muted colors, at a vital substitute for actual flesh. This is particularly the case with paintings like Elegy After Manet and Spill.

That fleshiness seems parsed out centimeter by centimeter as though the tiniest incidental detail harbors aching truths that have cost the painter much. So much easier to reach for the easy answers such technical virtuosity would otherwise afford. But no, she bites right through the flesh and fatty muscle and deep into the bone marrow and there is no prizing away that ferocious grip.

Her dogged intensity aside, Wagschal’s work is all about empathy. From its compelling large details right through to its delicate and textural microstructures, Wagschal’s paintings show empathy is still possible. Who but a gifted empath and seasoned connoisseur of pain could execute paintings like The Footbath (1998) and Burning Spoons (1994), the latter a portrait of the anguished relationship of the artist and her mother as only Wagschal could have assayed, and a painting remarkable by any standards for its exemplary truthfulness. In many paintings, it is as though we can see the nervous heart beating inside her sitter’s breast, like a small bird beating its wings against a pane of clear glass.

We should not forget that these paintings are always about pigment as well. The artist revels in the pigment but uses it sparingly and well. She suggests that the paint is an epiphany to be had in its own right. The way she moves it around reveals not only hardearned prowess but also a fine regard for the stuff of paint itself. She often leaves markers of her ardor on display, frosted rose appliqué on lips or purplish luminal hues on veins or lovely islands of blemishes that, if blown up life-size, would constitute archipelagoes of remarkably seductive abstractions in their own right. Her sensuous brush stroking, and the myriad subtleties of her palette, are an open invitation to identification, ecstasy, and communion.

She has said: “My interest is in the human figure as a powerful conveyor of meaning. Painting the human figure is a way to express my feelings and thoughts about living in the contemporary world.” (12) Those feelings, those thoughts as only a true empath could think and feel them, well-honed and hard-won over the course of a creative lifetime observing the figure, are expressed in such a way that they rank with some of the most sophisticated, such expressions in contemporary international painting. She is one of a bare handful of painters who have succeeded in making figuration new again.

If there is nowhere left to hide in these paintings, it is a tribute to their author’s extraordinary acumen – and use of paint to outfit her sitters in their pockmarked flesh suits. Her naked, time-harried bodies are depicted unflinchingly and at close quarters. Every broken blood vessel and cancerous lesion is on display (the latter appear in the extraordinary watercolors of her father). The painter screens “inner states” on the damaged surface of the skin. But it is finally otherwise invisible duende itself that hangs out of these paintings like a dog’s testicles and sends a shiver up the spine.

Arguably, darkness would be less visible, and certainly less pungent, if these paintings were any less commandingly painted. The powerful accuracy, vivacity and sheer precision in the figural rendering and overall sense of life-affirmation in the content of the work itself traces out a real evolutionary arc over the last several decades of her practice. As we scan the images in the current exhibition in front of the mind’s eye, from the remarkably rendered watercolors Portrait of My Father (1971) and Self-Portrait (1974) to one of her finest egg temperas on board, Sandra (1985) through oil on canvasses like Couple with a Calico Cat (1986), Burning Spoons (1994) and acrylics like The Footbath (1998), Man with a Cat (1999), Spill (2000) and the resplendent Ur (2005), we are never heedless of the presence of a tremendously innovative figurative painter who is also a powerful Mind.

And in all the aforementioned paintings the most enduring mysteries are traced in the palimpsest of flesh and in its temporal fragility. Wagschal has captured with awesome fidelity the color of flesh aging as well as the bruised colors of angst. But duende is her real subject matter: bait, lure, darkness, mystery. She captures a truth that too often eludes our grasp but is also intrinsic to duende: the uncanny. There is an uncanniness in decay, when it comes to human beings. There is a desire on our part to turn away in the face of it. The dissolution of human beings is never easily assimilated, and is thus somehow forbidden to us. Viewing these paintings means experiencing a frisson that shapes our perception of them. In dissolution, in disease and in psychological duress there is uncanniness and an imperative to withstand that Sigmund Freud knew well.

We might take our cue here from Lorca once again, who said: “The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.” And: “Duende enjoys fighting the creator on the very rim of the well. The duende wounds. In the healing of the wound, which never closes, lie the strange, invented qualities of a man’s work.” (13) The uncanny, the forbidden, the unassimilable are arrayed throughout Wagschal’s paintings like totems or grave markers. These strange, invented qualities are wholly her own and the source of the incantatory darkness that speaks everywhere in her work. But only bodies painted with perfect empathy and strong expressive will could incarnate these themes with any measure of success. No exaggeration then to suggest here that Wagschal paints with duende, and few can equal her metaphoric and literal reach in conveying deep and abiding human meanings in her language of figuration. If duende invariably draws blood, then so, too, does Wagschal. Both her sitters and her viewers are changed as a result.

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Last Updated: September 28, 2005