A Crime, A Corpus and the Salvation of the Ideal
“Can’t you see your ideal in it?” said Dorian bitterly”.(1) Gray admonishes the artist who painted his monstrous portrait and within seconds, murders him. To eradicate the evil deed, the corpse is surgically dismembered and nitric acid is used to disintegrate each abject segment. In 1890, with no witnesses or a crime scene, Gray deftly erases the identity of this artist. Over a century later, a contemporary artist resurrects the corpus that was unconscionably obliterated in defiance of Oscar Wilde’s cautionary preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray, that “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”(2). This artist, Paz, brazenly reaches into the depths of Wilde’s fetid symbolism in order to retrieve the corpus of that ideal. Once reanimated, she gives it liege to wander through the psychoanalytic diaspora which is called self-identity.
How we are made and how we live with that knowledge fuels Paz’s fascination with the paradigm of identity and therefore The Portrait of Dorian Gray is not simply a gothic tale, but a primer for what she makes incarnate in her aesthetic world. Wilde created a complex horror, a pantheon to the self-corrupting impulse, that historians deemed to be his automythology. Paz ruminates upon the making of oneself into a myth and explores how this creationism helps us survive the distillation of human experience. In the Kuntsmuseum Kloster unser leiben Frauen, Paz presents her own landscape of mythological thought inhabited by the specter of self-identity. It enjoys posing as a female dandy cloaking itself in a style purloined from the Age of Decadence (Farfalla). It festoons itself in ribbons, pom-poms and trifles (Umbra). And, it skillfully renders a fabled world where trees drip with the detritus of paint (South of the River) and where ingénues have usurped the rightful places of fairies (Trapeze). This being heaps excess upon excess camouflaging a disquieting fact that underneath the raucous layers, sentience may not be present. We are reminded of another crime, one also perpetrated by a different malcontent who fabricated a luxurious realm of the mythic self. In Joris-Karl Huysmans’ seminal Decadent novel, A Rebours, a wealthy French aristocrat retreats to the countryside because he is plagued by neuroses and disgusted by the industrialization of his present-time.(3) Indulging in his need to be immersed in the atmosphere of a more graceful past, he orders a tortoise’s shell to be encrusted with gold and jewels. The more embellished the tortured animal became the closer it advanced towards its desiccated death. The purpose of creation has altered then. The process has become an evolutionary passage towards an ideal.
That we spend all our waking hours creating ourselves is an indefatigable task which cannot be shirked. Simone Weil condemned this task. “In order to kill the self we must be ready to endure all the wounds of life, exposing ourselves naked and defenseless to its fangs, we must accept emptiness, an unequal balance, we must never seek compensations and, above all, we must suspend the work of our imagination.”(4) Paz would denounce this statement as incorrigible and antithetical to the purpose of being human. It must be noted that Weil passed through multiple identities before dissolving into the canon of mysticism. She was a Jew who became a Christian, an intellectual who became a laborer, and a philosopher who became a fighter for the French Resistance. Paz offers her own history in comparison in order to show that the exertion of self-creation imparts meaning to human endeavor. That she is an artist, female, mother, American, Latin American, French citizen, British resident, and profoundly quixotic is paramount to her being. Decisively multi-layered, Paz’s innermost sense of identity has been shaped and called into question by the experiences of illegitimacy and adoption in early life, and of meeting one of her birth parents in adulthood. As a child, she often stared at the partial void of her background, filling its blank expanse with personalities as if she were the master of an enterprising universe. This factor inspired the germination of an empathic nature towards the unknown and strengthened the imaginative muscle that would be needed for her development into an artist and a multi-cultural being. In fact, she was the perfect initiate to experience the cultural diaspora of an ever-growing globalized world; beginning with a childhood in Mexico City, migrating to San Francisco as a teen, studying in Paris as a young adult, passing through Germany as a married woman and eventually transplanting her artistic practice to London while a mature professional. We can envision that child turning into the ingénue who left the Continent to make a new home in Europe. Sheathed in her imaginations and fueled by the desire to become, Paz dove into an ocean of global multi-culturalism. The currents beat at her as she strove to find her bearings and through such attrition became an indeterminable being. Her early paintings were aesthetic rafts upon which creatures deemed alter egos floated adrift seeking self-identities.(5) These were followed by a series of monsters who stood firmly rooted upon the frontiers they colonized.(6) Paz constructed demonstrative hybrid freaks who wore masks culled from fashion magazines. They sported claws, wielded palettes, and were garbed in quasi-techno armor.
Can you remember the fear of monsters lurking in the dark? Paz does and cites Julia Kristeva’s creation of the abject to be integral to the production of her modern barbarians.(7) Monsters are spawned from monstrous self-thought. They spew forth from the realm of thinking that we are nothing, from the notions that we cannot cast away, and from the desiccated ideals that we have spawned. When a child faces the dark matter of what it dreads, it grows a fear that becomes immense and when that exorbitance bursts, the child recoils in horror. The frenzy of such action climaxes to hysteria as the abject rears its ugly head and causes a parallax to occur. The abject transforms the child into an object that resides in a purely subjectified universe. We find here the philosophical reasoning behind Paz’s empathy towards Wilde’s creation and for her passion for the ideal as being a paradisiacal attainment. Remember what Dorian Gray asked Basil Hallward at the beginning of this investigation, before Gray expunged the artist’s existence?
“Can’t you see your ideal in it?”
Gray was being sardonic, but no matter how horrible his ideal had become, Hallward’s was to be saved. The artist’s ideal captured Paz’s sympathies. Her intervention saved the corpus from a horrible destiny, which was to be obliterated, sentenced to the realm of emptiness, and cast into the void of unconscious memory. Motivated by her own history, she looked upon the abject corpus, squelched the rising bile of revolt, clasped it to her bosom and then, secreted it off to a paradise lost. The abject ideal is what lies behind the mass of camouflage in Paz’s imagery. Because it has been robbed of its physical form it must masquerade behind the trifles of cultural collage. The universe Paz sends it to is a sanctuary, a sublime place.
As soon as I perceive it, as soon as I name it, the sublime triggers – it has always triggered – a spree of perceptions and words that expands memory boundlessly. I then forget the point of departure and find myself removed to a secondary universe, set off from the one where “I” am – delight and loss.(8)
Stand amidst the installation in the Kuntsmuseum Kloster unser leiben Frauen and slowly turn about to determine its entire view. Then repeat the action with intention this time and behold the lexicon of an ontology that is at once enchantment and disillusionment, gorgeousness and grotesquery, eloquent and gauche. Immersed within these paradoxes, the specter of the abject ideal glides among a splendor of apparitions. It is easily spotted behind the series of masked characters portrayed in Dark Flora, L’Indécise, Toto, and Miranda. It morphs and melds over and over, constantly sifting through the decorous mountain of camouflage that it has acquired in Medusa’s Island, Lunar, and Run Deep. The specter has become proficient in the art of artifice; becoming a glyph of a tree (Rapunzel), a figment of a female (Sorcières et Singeries), the fauna of a nightmare (Evensong) and even the cipher of a long forgotten form (Companion Ghosts). In the past, it remained within the boundaries of the painted dimensions. But it has freed the beings residing in The Super Ego, the Id and her Ladies-in-Waiting and coaxed them out of their illusionistic boundaries into a clan of three-dimensional form. These placard-like figures, named Angel, Boxer, Amaranth, Giant, Madama Butterfly, and Punk, stand an impish one to two meters high. The geometric patterns of detritus they don vary from their predecessors’ garb which mimicked a Decadent past. Although we are enticed by their ensembles, their expressions, ranging from a coquet-like smirk to a pubescent stare, hold us in abeyance. An undertow of disquiet lies beneath their innocent play. They are a coven percolating with enterprise, mystery, and infectious jest. It is as if the abject ideal, emboldened by its freedom, has orchestrated a pantomime where novel identities roam a maniacal, but entrancing stage.
Paz’s sanctuary is first and foremost a geographic portrayal of herself and its edict supports the indiscriminate nature of soul searching. Psychological dichotomies occur and are welcomed as the quest for the ideal creates a pandemonium of activity. Unlike our biblical ancestors, no being will suffer the fate of being cast out of her universe. There is an intriguing similarity to John Milton’s paradise. He coined the term, “pandemonium”, to describe a place for “all the demons” to reside. Alongside devising the epic poem, Paradise Lost, where he illustrated the profundity in being self-reliant and anarchic, he also conceived of the theoretical concept of having self-esteem. Milton exposed the danger in having this attribute by reanimating the lives of Satan and his accomplices and their battle for independence. Before they became the devils that we deride, they were merely revolutionaries attempting to overthrow an anarchy.(9) They sought a greater ideal and were punished. Time and time again, literary history has shown us the horrific destiny of those who attempt the boldest of identities, the archetypes that they believe to be worthwhile. Let us look to contemporary champions like Paz who offer a sanctuary for the dreamers. She harbors them in an aesthetic history where the self can strive and perfect the endless making of itself.
1. Wilde, Oscar. 2003. The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York: Barnes & Noble Classics.
3. Wilde recasts Huysmans’ A Rebours in The Picture of Dorian Gray, calls it “the golden book” and places it into the hands of Gray to worship as a bible of sensation.
4. Weil’s thoughts are paraphrased by Gustav Thibon in the Introduction written for Gravity & Grace in 1947.
5. I am referring to Paz’s series entitled Painting Allegories 1994-1998.
6. I am referring to Paz’s paintings loosely categorized under her own devised subject title as being Monsters and Artists.
7. In Julia Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror, the abject is the breakdown in the distinction between the self and the other. The self separates from its sense of self when faced with a physical, biological, social or cultural object, which infringes upon the self. Paz writes of this influence and relationship in her MA Painting Thesis of 2007.
8.. Kristeva, Julia. 1982. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia University Press.
9. Rosen, Jonathan. “Return to Paradise: The Enduring Relevance of John Milton”, The New Yorker (June 2, 2008).
Exhibition Catalog Essay
Kuntsmuseum Kloster Unser Leiben Frauen - Madgeburg, Germany
Exhibition Catalog Essay
Kuntsmuseum Kloster Unser Leiben Frauen - Madgeburg, Germany