Journey as Identity
“Wouldn’t it be better without Bunny? I like the trees, the animals and the atmosphere.” This was the first critical response to Climbing. Artists must learn that nothing is precious. It can all be scraped back to a blank canvas to start again. When you spend hours learning how to look and reflect on that looking, preciousness becomes a problem. When you paint bunnies, preciousness is always a problem. Landscape painting has a special history in America. Idealized images of an unspoiled wilderness are deeply woven into the American identity and dream of itself. Voyaging through those landscapes, both literally and figuratively, is a way of confronting, and hopefully, reflecting on identity. So I painted not only one rabbit, but two, into my most recent painting.
Painter, poet, and essayist Thomas Cole (1801-1848) introduced a new kind of landscape painting that reflected more than a gentle, bucolic certainty. As the leader of the Hudson River school based in New York, Cole ushered in a golden age of dramatic, large scale paintings that portrayed Americans as minuscule characters in a much grander story. The Voyage of Life is a series of four monumental landscapes completed in 1840. The paintings explore the principle stages of human development– Childhood, Youth, Adulthood and Old Age– by following a male figure on a boat in a river with varying landscapes. The paintings become gradually darker and more monochromatic, as the landscape changes to reflect the challenges of each age. The roughest terrain comes in the painting entitled Manhood, with rapids that threaten to capsize the small boat guided by an ever present angel.
A man trekking through unspoiled, virgin territory to establish an American identity strikes me as a very limited story, at best, in 2016. This painting, however, needs to be considered in its context. In 1852, not long after Cole completed his Voyage of Life Series, Hamilton Fish, a United States senator and former governor of New York, commissioned Erastus Dow Palmer for an unspecified ideal sculpture. Indian Girl, or the Dawn of Christianity was the result. Palmer intended to show a woman so entranced by her new faith, that she is no longer interested in the wild bird feathers she holds in her hand, or the fact that she is half naked. A simple cross held in her right hand is her new guide to the world. The limitations of this sculpture as an idealized icon of anything to do with American Identity is not the scope of my blog. The idea of identity projected and controlled through the female figure is, however, pertinent to Bunny.
Women are taught very early to know, if not control, what image they project. From the way we comb our hair to the shoes we wear, everything about our body is a carefully chosen for what it says about us. If we’re lucky, we get to choose. A woman, “has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….” (-John Berger, Ways of Seeing). John Berger is eloquent in his dismantling of who’s looking at who when it comes to art and culture. The politics of The Gaze continues to weigh heavily on women around the world, even in 2016. In the best situations, however, women are more empowered than ever to control and craft this image. With unfettered knowledge literally at our fingertips, we are our own guides in finding our way.
When I choose to paint a bunny, it is not because I think rabbits are cute or that my childhood pet, now long lost, needs to be memorialized. Rabbits are ubiquitous, physically and symbolically. They have become a perfect vehicle for exploring issues from climate change to food preferences. It is very similar to how the female human body has been conscripted, often to the detriment of women, to control the world.
In this new series of paintings, my Bunny is on a journey. It starts in winter and that is all I know so far. She has not been enlisted or conscripted to push any particular agenda. As she rises to the challenges that greet her, she makes the best choice that allows her to follow her bliss and her curiosity. It is left up to the viewer to take away from the painting whatever ideas he or she chooses. Bunny doesn’t care. She’s more interested in looking over the tops of trees.