Today I bought a pair of mannequin arms, described as “female.” How does the seller know this? Is the plaster for these female arms more tender, paler, nicer, and more graceful than the vats of glop devoted to the male figures? Do these arms have a voice, softly crying out for the appropriate torso with its perfect size 0 shape? Or is it as I suspect, just a more petite version of the “male”? I note a remarkable similarity in the pose of the hands between those sold as male and those as their opposite. Each have gently cupped hands, prepared to hold a duckling, book, or machine gun clip, depending on venue.
The gender of the arms makes little difference to me; I am interested in the shape of the hands and the smaller ones suit my purposes better. (Maybe they’re actually the arms of a teenage male. I am bothered by arms with a sex–can’t they just be small, medium, and large?) Actually, I’m not so sure about that. What am I doing with them again?
Recently I have been trolling the junk stores and unusual product shops. One, The Bone Room, sells all manner of skeletal parts, old medical tools, taxidermied specimens, icky things in jars, and fossils. Last time I was there I bought a prosthetic eye. As you do. It seems in line with my former purchases of a little stuffed duckling (charming and macabre at the same time), and the unbodied arms. I will put them together in a tableau of some sort that will come to me while I am doing it.
When I was a painter, I did enjoy a still life. The objects don’t move, I could leave them set up indefinitely (provided I did not use the kettle as part of the composition as I once made the mistake of doing), and just slight changes in position radically altered the painting. In a photograph the same principles apply. However, in a painting, the very paint tells a story about what it forms through the brush strokes and its manner of application. The resulting texture is tangible as well as visual. For the photograph the choice of lens, film, camera, and processing add up to the image. Few people look for much physical texture in a print beyond perhaps an art paper and once photographs get dimensional they are called something else, like collage or mixed media or horrible.
I am not entirely sure how I ended up here, putting together the grisly and the beautiful. It’s not like I am the first, but certainly it is new territory for me. When I have moved on to the next series and some time has passed, I may be able to look back and identify what it was I was trying to tell myself, or what I was working out through photographs. Was it the tough time my daughter was having and my feelings of powerlessness? Was it the acrimonious split with a close friend that drove me to make demented tableaux? Perhaps it was the decision to contact a woman with whom I had not spoken for 6 years. Each of those situations warranted many pages in my journal as I asked and re-asked the same questions, probing my own mind for my errors, areas for improvement, peace, and making my diary the dullest reading ever.
What every difficult situation in my life has in common is thwarted communication. I cannot make myself understood, cannot figure out how to be heard, cannot get past my own fears to speak up. None of our abilities work in isolation and when one is shut off, like our senses, the others compensate. What I cannot say, I can see. What I don’t hear, I can sing. What I am blind to I can feel. We find a way through, even if we do not recognize it; we articulate what we feel in ways we do not realize.
Psychologists who work with children often use objects to communicate with their young patients. When I was a teen my family had a janitorial business and one of our clients was a psychiatric clinic. One doctor’s office was chok full of figures and toys; a sand table and easel; reams of paper and assorted pens and crayons . I never touched anything but what a playland it appeared to be. One’s attraction to particular objects as an adult is no different than to a child, but somehow what seems clear in a child’s choice is not so obvious in an adult. Or maybe what it really is is that those adult choices are more cryptic to the creator than to the observer.
There is a difference in choosing objects with which to express a particular idea, and just choosing things that are attractive right now and making a picture out of them. I have done both, and more often the former. I want to talk about joy, or loneliness, or beauty. I want to express the space between things, the distance to something, the negative shapes created by deliberate arrangement. I am not someone who learns by doing, I am of the learn by observation school, so taking a bunch of objects and seeing what happens when I make a picture with them is scary to me; I prefer to think it through first.
Perhaps, then, what I am really doing is revealing my personal psychology to the observer while it remains obscure to me. There is little that could artistically feel more frightening. What’s next is a stranger looking knowingly at me, nodding as I attempt to explain my views, yet knowing I do not really know them as the stranger does. Or not yet. This leaves me with three choices: keep doing it anyway, do it and keep the images to myself, or stop doing it and try pretty–but for me empty–landscapes.
There is one thing in my arty life that is constant: I don’t stop doing what scares and excites me. I follow the fear because that is the road of growth. I don’t do it anywhere else in my life, but creatively there is no other worthwhile path. Bring on the eyeballs, limbs, taxidermied chicks, and mountains of taffeta. This trip is not about what others think of my play, but what I get out of it myself.
Watch out for those female hands. They’ll be doing something freaky in my next tableau. I just don’t know what.