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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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Carnival, 1993
oil on canvas, metal leaf, diptych, 72" x 69"
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Carnival, 1993
oil on canvas, metal leaf, diptych, 72" x 69"

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Wagschal demonstrates that just where we feel there should be unassailable, final truth—as in the soul-felt series I viewed in her studio which documents her mother dying in her hospital bed, day by day—we arrive at the threshold of ever-greater inassimilable mystery. Her delicately painted grounds are the stuff of our own darkest dreams.

This duende, spirit of the earth, as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux and as recent as the embolism that killed a loved one Sunday week, is not symbolic. It is real, mensurable — and unrelenting. Its thirst is unquenchable. As an old master guitarist once said: ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Channeling duende is no easy feat—but Marion Wagschal demonstrates its mastery in each and every painting she executes. She constantly struggles with her own demons, her own duende; this lends her work a powerful authenticity, seductiveness and integrity. She knows that the true struggle is with the inner demon. Lorca has said: “The Duende works on the body of the dancer as the wind works on sand. With magical power he changes a young girl into a lunar paralytic...” (14) He could just as well be describing what Wagschal does: her sitters become strangely other, but also more completely themselves. They are charged – and changed. The revelations are unavoidable. The truth of their embodiment and its dire trajectory is made clear for all save the congenitally myopic to see.

Merleau-Ponty’s interrogation was intended to name perception as an activity of making even the most seemingly imperceptible differences and distances appear. (15) Such a close reading-off of minute divergences can be found everywhere in Wagschal’s work. For instance, in the captivating In the Shallows, the calibrations are exacting. The naked father faces us, his expression interiorized, full of dignity, and implicit love as he gazes at his daughter, also naked and facing him. The mother sits in the lower right quadrant, gazing up at her daughter with pride. We see only the daughter’s back, as though she has just emerged from the deep waters and is standing in the shallows. The spectral Delvaux-like whiteness of her bare back shows beautiful painthandling, and there are beguiling abstract phrases in the backdrop. The duende is, I think, all around them but in this painting, not in them or of them. Mortality is, of course, implicit, and the reflectiveness of the father’s gaze certainly registers it. In this sense, of course, duende lives in us all in larval form. Daughter, father, mother, all naked in the world and yet isolated. Here we have the family unit and darkness all about allowing them – and us — no comforting margin of certainty aside from their own love. This work is deeply moving, terrifically self-questioning and impossible to forget.

Yet Marion Wagschal is the proverbial Death’s Head Moth of painters. She shows us where we are heading long before we have arrived. She shows us what is in store, and she shows us the truth. In the face of that truth, we might prefer to turn away. But as noted earlier, the warmth here is inflammatory. Her warm embrace induces us to say “J’accepte.” I accept. And without remorse. Her interrogation then becomes our own. We come to recognize what a powerful affirmation of being this recognition and reluctant acceptance entails.

She follows the tug of her own heart, under the lunar sway, her own intuition, under the spell of the demon. If she dismantles her sitters and stitches them together again in excruciatingly truthful, if awkward and telling, approximations of their real selves, it is to imbue them with her own interpretation of vertical depth, and she seldom falls short of the mark. And the sutures that remain after her ministrations are never visible.

If the better angels of their own natures have sometimes taken flight, then that is a truth of our condition as well. As the poet Dylan Thomas wrote: Light breaks where no sun shines;/ Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart/Push in their tides.(16) Enamored of the moonlight, when the duende is fully unleashed, Wagschal is no stranger to these waters of the heart.

Lorca held that in the bullfight, the Duende is at his most taxing, for he must fight both death and geometry. (17) Think of portrait painting as the perfect bullfight; Marion Wagschal is a bullfighter at the top of her form. But a bullfighter care of Manet – his portraits of women bullfighters resonate here – and Wagschal becomes a latter-day Victorine Meurent well suited for the travails of the arena.

She shows us what is at stake in scissoring away the caul-like mask that society imposes. In order to let the originary, uncensored and true state of things hold sway, she must put paid to masks and all false dichotomies. What Merleau-Ponty argued for Cézanne’s painting, that it was validated by continuing attempts to repudiate and transcend facile dualisms of idealism and realism that shape our judgments and our values, we could also argue for Wagschal’s work. (18) But this painter will have none of it. She is a thinker of the social. She is a painterly arbiter of power relations; a steady-handed surgeon of the Real whose paintings tell it as she sees it. It is all bred-in-the-bone. She will never retreat into some unspoiled idyllic narrative of nature. She dissects the conventions and the harsh underlying truths of how we live now in our post 9/11 world, in order to better eviscerate hypocrisy and achieve a semblance of truth. She summons her own sort of ‘l’être sauvage’ that puts paid to any idealism whatsoever as she enters the arena, brush in hand. One might suggest that she always recognizes the precedence of human nature over the conventions of painting. Perhaps this is why so many find her work uncanny–so intense and intent in its regard. Watchful and incredibly quick to pounce, like a panther in the underbrush, Wagschal ferrets out the darker truths of our nature–and the universal truths of our condition of being here, I mean, of being in the world; a world, moreover, that is somehow largely inimical.

The inability to embrace or deny this world is deeply questioned by this painter’s driven hand and brush. “Cézanne did not think he had to choose between feeling and thought, between order and chaos. He did not want to separate the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear…” (19) This is the case with Wagschal, as well. In her chosen methodologies there speaks, like Cézanne, and in unfaltering soprano, the subjectivity of a painter who ceaselessly stretches toward nature in order to close the intolerable gap between body and world, corporeality and cosmos, embodiment and all conceivable phenomena whatsoever. She acknowledges their supreme mediator – the umbilical of the flesh. This is a matter of birthing and being true to pure visuality; only the most seasoned and radical painters achieve it.

Visuality presupposes a circular movement between body and flesh. The ontology of expression, and not the occultation of being, comes to the fore in Wagschal’s technique. This is interesting insofar as the body is so well implicated in painting, subject and act. Merleau-Ponty says in Eye and Mind: “It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.” (20) Marion Wagschal lends her body to the world – and the world is changed into her painting. As witness, her feminist masterpiece, the Self-Portrait of 1974, the absolute honesty of which is perhaps unprecedented in the history of self-portraiture. Her portraits are not of people somehow isolated from nature. They are nature. Hers’ is an art of restoration, founded upon a symmetrical relationship between the bodies of her sitters and other natural phenomena in a fluid circle of the flesh and the enfleshed, seer and seen.

Her art incarnates an eidos of the given, the primacy of the touch and, not least, duende fever. She has formulated an ontology of expression all her own, and one suitably tailored to expression in the interrogatory language of her figuration. Her orbit is that of portrait painter intent upon wrestling the latitude and longitude of that lurking ontology not just out of posture, facial expression, bone structure, lurking deficiencies of flesh, idle gestures and repetitive tics but out of everything that lies behind them: embodied spirit. Her energetic brush has casual authority from palette to canvas ground, and like a bullfighter’s cape, distracts her sitters into a state of unwary repose. If she gores them a little, it is not to willful ends, but to reveal her truth, their truth, our truth. In revealing their internal states, she gives the world a lasting, transcendent truth about the nature of portraiture and, above all, the ways and means of the human heart.

- James D. Campbell, Montréal, June 14, 2005

Endnotes

1. Lucinda Grey, The Woman Who Has Eaten the Moon. (Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2004).

2. Federico García Lorca, “Play and Theory of the Duende” In Search of Duende. Prose selections edited and translated by Christopher Maurer. (New York: New Directions Books, 1998), p. 51

3. Lucinda Grey, The Woman who has Eaten the Moon, op. cit.

4. Claire Bateman, Review of The Woman Who Has Eaten the Moon in the Charlotte Observer, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004.

5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 153.

6. Garth Gillan, “In the Folds of the Flesh” in The Horizons of the Flesh: Critical Perspectives on the Thought of Merleau-Ponty, ed. Garth Gillan , (Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973). p. 28

7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), p. 146.

8. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 139.

9. Marion Wagschal, “Statement” in Drawings Exhibition brochure, Theo Waddington, 1980.

10. Cathryn Vasseleu, Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 72.

11. Marion Wagschal, “Statement” in Drawings Exhibition brochure, Theo Waddington, 1980.

12. Marion Wagschal, cited in Debbie Hum “Painterly Reflections,” Concordia University Magazine, March 2005.

13. Lorca, op. cit, p. 58

14. Lorca, Ibid., p. 59.

15. Alphonso Lingis, “Being in the Interrogative Mood” in The Horizons of the Flesh: Critical Perspectives on the Thought of Merleau-Ponty, ed. Garth Gillan (Carbondale Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973). P. 87.

16. Dylan Thomas, The Poems (London: Dent, 1971), p. 118.

17. Lorca, op. cit., p. 59

18. Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt” in Sense and Nonsense (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 13

19. Merleau-Ponty, Ibid.

20. Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception, (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 162

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