The Fear Monger and WHAT/Is/This/Time
© Gail Winbury. Courtesy of the artist.
It is my task as an artist (and a psychologist) to put into visual language that which cannot or dare not be uttered aloud. Art has the capacity to take the psychological one step further, into the wordless, to that which is felt but not expressed in spoken language. The striking ambiguity of abstraction allows me as an artist to capture what we experience long before we can name it. This uncertainty in abstraction provides mystery, and allows each viewer to bring her own interpretation and story to the art.
Abstraction is a good modality to contain and express trauma. The experience of trauma is not easily verbalized. It is the real or perceived threat of aggression and intrusion to the body and psychic self. The brain, overwhelmed by trauma, processes these events differently. The memory of trauma is recalled in fragments, in visual images of partial memories that are seen briefly as whisps and then disappear, or perhaps as lingering somatic sensations that the senses can barely grasp or understand, let alone put into coherent narratives.
The very lack of recognizable objects, representation, and figuration gives strength to my paintings. Thick gestural brushwork, color and form communicate powerful emotions, but leave room for the viewer to find herself in the work. A recent series, “The Other Side,” is based on my childhood memories, including traumatic events. By using abstraction, the work becomes universal. No one ever need know my personal narrative. If the painting is successful, emotion brings the viewer closer to the art. The viewer’s moment of recognition, her sense of being seen and being understood is healing in and of itself.
It is impossible to separate out my reality as a woman in the world from what I create as an artist. My initial choice to work in an abstract expressionist style and working large was made with cognizance of the history of sexism in the abstract expressionist movement. For years, I had an internal dialog with Dutch-American abstract artist Willem de Kooning, rejecting his depiction of women as monsters and gorgons, and yet loving the power and color in his work. I took back his beautiful pinks and salmons and used them not to objectify women, but with an empathic artistic female point of view.
The Fear Monger
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
. . . I have always been scared of you,”
From “Daddy,” by Sylvia Plath (The Collected Poems, New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
The Fear Monger stems from an experience of being small in the face of male rage. The Fear Monger was inspired by the memory of a father figure who used his size, threats of violence and loud voice to intimidate and control the women around him. He bound his wife and daughters to him in fear and compliance. Sylvia Plath in “Daddy” likens her father to a Nazi, to a shoe that will suffocate her. This relationship echoed myriad of experiences endured by many women through incidences of microaggressions, sexual harassment, and misogyny.
The painting The Fear Monger began in my East Orange, New Jersey studio from November 2020 through 2021. It was part of a larger series based on childhood memories. The series started by brain-storming all the visual memories I could recall from childhood. Each discrete memory became the starting point for a painting. The specific image for The Fear Monger was of my father’s lips turning thin and blue. To recreate the parent child relationship, I used five-foot-high canvases.
The prevailing emotion with The Fear Monger was anger, yet I brought focus, purpose, and intention to my work; I wanted to represent the fragmented way that traumatic incidents are remember. But also, to recreate a sense of being small and powerless in the face of something much more powerful. There was a strength I felt in working on a large canvas, with large brushes, making large gestures. Initially, the canvas was active and busy, but I covered huge swaths with cold wax mixed with oil pigment and solvent, erasing what was superfluous. I felt a sense of power ridding the painting of what I did not want, and relief. Yet the ghosts and scars of history remained not far under the surface, still showing through. Drawing on and into the cold wax mixture aggressively with pigment sticks and graphite felt like an act of defiance. Towards the end, I took a tool and scratched a small pattern, almost like a hopscotch board, into the wax. With this enormous structure, this towering image of intimidation, this Fear Monger, I took my power back.
WHAT/Is/This/Time is a painting begun almost immediately after the insurrection in the Capitol of the United States, January 6, 2021. I had seen the video of the Capitol Police being chased by two men as he tried to draw them away from the Capitol Chambers. It was terrifying to watch. To also think that rioters broke into and ransacked Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, taking away her computer, was terrifying. It was as if all the safety, trust, and security that I had placed in democracy and the structures of democracy were being torn apart, leaving chaos and anarchy in its wake. It could not happen here.
I began this painting without a coherent thought or plan. I laid in layers of glaze in oil paint and built up from there on oil paper, 52’’ x 58”. It was painted on the floor in my studio. I was often on my knees or crouched over the painting. I responded with physical gestures and color to the terror and violence of the insurrection, using pigment sticks and graphite. Feeling my way into the painting, my mark-making was abrupt and agitated, repeating script like marks in different colors over the painting. I used beautiful but electric color in a clashing manner, as it was emotionally driven. The vibration created by the contrasting colors and the frenetic scribble marks were reminiscent of the terror I felt. I hesitated repeatedly to add teeth to the pink form diving into the painting. Finally, I decided to be brave. When the painting was near completion what I felt was fear. I was afraid of the painting. It is as if WHAT/Is/This/Time serves as a mirror of the event itself-- too fierce, too terrifying, too violent.