Expressionism in purple and pink: “I/You/She” at The BOX Gallery
Emma Anderson’s paintings liberate through claustrophobia.
Her panels are full of faces. Those faces exist between caricature and carnage. They wear the bulbous eyes and flapping lips of Muppets, or the fangs and searing eyes of monsters. Their colors are as vivid as poison dart frogs. They bunch together, crowding out negative space, pressing themselves towards the viewer.
They are too much. But we want to keep looking at them. The feelings conveyed by their mouths, eyes, and brows are unmistakable. But even when they contort with the worst pain, they do not overwhelm us, because of their irrealism. And like a doctor who pairs bitter medicine with sweets, Anderson is a highly talented colorist who can make even the most difficult scenes approachable through sheer beauty. But the color also serve an ulterior motive. Vivid color makes scenes that are already emotionally charged radiate with energy.
The frantic too-muchness of Anderson’s work is deliberate. In conversation, Anderson is admirably frank about her struggles with anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And as a cancer survivor, her long-term health has been impacted by chemotherapy. In an artist statement, Anderson explains that the faces are “alter-egos”. Her chaotic scenes are raw expressions of insecurity and inner turmoil:
Ideally, I would like the overload of hectic information to evoke within the observer a constant overwhelming sensation; the same feeling I experience daily and am unable to escape as a result of my battle with anxiety [and] depression…I invite you, the viewer, to experience my personal expression of repressed emotions and to consider other peoples’ executions and perceptions of mental illness.
My paintings contain anxious and chaotic scenes that function as non-linear narratives from traumatic experiences in my life. The creatures operate as alter egos of myself representing my repressed emotions or physical characteristics of my appearance. Creating my art allows me to work out personal issues through the use of forms and materials.
The exhibit I/You/She, now on display at The BOX Gallery in Summit Artspace, collects fifteen of Anderson’s recent works. It is a bracing and exciting experience. Anderson’s work embodies both advanced skill, and courage that allows her to depict herself at her most vulnerable. Though flowing from her own life history, Anderson’s work speaks to the shared experiences of being afraid, overwhelmed, and embarrassed. We’re free, because Anderson, leading by example, lets us talk about struggle.
In Anderson’s world, pain is as real as the body. She illustrates this with various metaphors. In “Summer Bug,” a blue, infant-like figure is cradled by a mud-green woman. The infant’s eyes are huge, and its mouth is covered in blood—it has bitten through the skin on the woman’s hand. It did this not out of malice or hunger. It chews from nervousness, as a child might bite her nails or suck on a blanket to soothe herself. Elsewhere, a hot pink face screams as the exposed coils of its brain are scrambled by spider-like legs. The invasion of the figure’s brain could represent the invasiveness of surgery; but it could also represent talk therapy, where the patient must expose her soul to be worked on. Really, it can stand for any way the world invades our inner space—bad smells, bad news, hostile coworkers, disturbing thoughts that will not go away.
In “Death By Cadmium Red,” two green creatures sicken under the gaze of a menacing red face. One creature vomits, the other winces and screams. An elfin figure wears a furious mask, and runs away via the panel’s lower-right side. Another elf desperately pushes against the painting’s unyielding left edge, but is trapped. The “cadmium red” of the image’s title refers to the mildly toxic pigment used in many oil paints.
Given her sensitive health, Anderson was warned against painting with oils. At I/You/She’s opening, she said that she very much sees herself as a multimedia artist. Despite her skill with acrylics, Anderson enjoys the properties of oil paints, and said she would like to use them again. However, she has seen them in a threatening light other artists have not. In painting “Death By Cadmium Red,” one imagines Anderson was both chronicling her fear, and attempting to exorcise it. The horror of the scene is so extreme, we expect there’s an element of irony to it. Anderson’s fear of oil paints was real and warranted. But even rational fears can be felt too intensely. This is especially true when someone is grappling with a serious illness. The horrible red face thus could represent not only cadmium red itself, but cancer, chemotherapy, and the terrifying uncertainty of aggressive medical treatments. When we are ill, we cannot know which of our fears are overblown, and which are apt. Anderson can now caricature her fear of paint toxins; but she is not dismissive of that fear. She experienced it; the memory of that experience is now hers, and she can do with it what she wants. So she has examined it, and mined it for gallows humor.
The most emotionally complex work in the show might be “Friends And A Funeral.” It depicts eight mourners crowd around a body, packing the panel with their stricken faces. Anderson’s painting brought me to mind of Edvard Munch’s “Death in the Sickroom”, for both its similarities and differences to the older expressionist work. In Munch’s scene, death debilitates seven individuals with sadness. Three women slump; a fourth stands stiff as s skeleton hung in a classroom. A graybeard folds his hand in prayer, while a younger man, sapped of strength, leans on a wall. Everyone wears black.
Munch’s depiction of bereavement is not false, but incomplete. Those in mourning are sad, yes. But they can also be dazed, awkward, impatient, and scared. Anderson captures all these moods; the eight faces convey at least five different reactions. Abject misery is embodied by a teal figure cradling the deceased, eyes wild, mouth wailing. With a twiggy arm, a purple mourner to the right of the teal figure pats their back, offering what comfort they can. But the purple face turns its confused eye towards a third mourner. As they make eye contact, they see the other is as dumbstruck as they are. Neither know how to handle messy, vocal grief.
Above the teal wailer, a masculine, pancake-shaped face wears his mouth in a perfectly flat line. Not knowing what to feel, he makes his emotions unreadable. A bulbous violet head frowns. A blue, feminine head swivels her eyes in terror, looking for a way out. The last two mourners—one with a fishy yellow face, the other odd-eyed and with full red lips—stare ahead wide-eyed, mouths slightly parted. The presence of a corpse has made them realize their friend is really, truly gone. Or perhaps this death has made them understand their own mortality. Whatever they are thinking, they are awed by it.
I/You/She will run through Nov. 9 at BOX Gallery, located on the third floor of Summit Artspace, 140 E Market St, Akron. The gallery is open 12-5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Saturday Nov. 2, it will be open from noon to 9 p.m. during the Akron Art Walk. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to artistsofrubbercity.org/boxgallery. In November, Anderson will also display works in two group shows, 52 Weeks/52 Works at Baldwin Wallace University’s Farwick Gallery, and The heART of Cleveland at Bay Arts.