Spot On: Looking at loss

By Patrick Collier

Mary Lou Zeek Gallery in Salem is exhibiting a series of paintings, “Tenth and Yamhill,”  by Margaret Coe this month. Painted during the prolonged medical treatments of her two-year-old grandson, Marcus, who subsequently died, this work is brooding, full of night, rain and cold. Reading these small paintings as a story, they start out with a sheen to the painted surface, perhaps meant as a glimmer of hope, yet by the time she has reached the middle of the series, the flatness of fatalism has overcome.

I’ve been visiting Mary Lou’s gallery for a number of years now, and we have worked together on a couple community-related projects  (one of her passions). Hers is a world of bright colors, and many of the painters she shows either depict fairly traditional pastoral scenes or seem influenced by a group of Chicago painters, the Hairy Who.

This show is different.

A lot of text accompanies the art, both an artist’s statement and passages under each painting. The tone and subject matter of print and paint align to set the scene. Coe wants us to feel some of her grief  to a degree that is not available from either medium on its own. Yes, the somber tone of the paintings is apparent, yet the text serves to make her efforts more poignant.

Margaret Coe, “Tenth and Yamhill #6″/Courtesy Mary Lou Zeek Gallery

The paintings are street scenes, inspired by the area surrounding the hospital where Marcus  was treated. The city itself verges on the abstract, blurred by rain or tears. There are people: a street preacher, a mother and child, but then a head or an eye float in the scene,  disembodied, the way our strongest emotions can seem like an out-of-body experience. I find myself most drawn to “Tenth and Yamhill #6,” the most abstract of the group. The caption reads, “The city buildings form an abstraction that is pleasing to the eye.” The painting is a place to rest in the process for both the artist and the viewer.

On the whole, we cannot know another’s loss, and this in itself is a kind of loss. The most heartfelt condolences are lacking, and we recognize this through our own set of feelings of guilt, embarrassment, inadequacy, or helplessness, all gathered in the larger context of fear. We cannot help, and perhaps dread, the time that we may suffer as well, with no ready salve available. Coe writes, “Fate is immediate and severe.” How do we survive this inevitability? With no clear answer at our disposal, we eventually turn away, and although the unease lingers, we are grateful for the smallest distraction in which to lose ourselves elsewhere.

The day I turned 40, my jeans ceased to fit. Perhaps it was this evidence of physical decline that set me to multiplying my age by two, and thereby came to the realization that  there was a chance the product of that operation was zero. Beyond concerns of vanity, I began to face my mortality, and as more evidence, witness an increasing number of my contemporaries meeting theirs. Yet, among us who live on, there comes a growing acceptance, a level of comfort with the process of aging, which is why, I suppose, the conversation in a room full of older folks often turns to infirmities. Let me tell you…

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Of course, at least as the saying goes, attitude is everything. In these matters, we shouldn’t slip into premature mourning. Indeed, stare death down. Muster a smirk. Be like Jim Riswold.

This year, Froelick Gallery’s annual invitational group show is called “Undressing Room.” As such, it is about the nude. In that breasts and penises abound, it has its fair share of sexy bits; yet, as most shows about the nude in art, little of this will titillate  the voyeurs among (or within) us: some very academic drawings, some politics of sexuality, and most importantly, sex unto death.

Without getting too philosophical or psychoanalytical, I’d simply observe that inasmuch as the  sex act is an affirmation of life, it must also contain something darker, a finality of some sort. In matters of sexual relations in the face of one’s mortal self,  a simple matter of degree determines the “kink” factor, for whether it be missionary or masochism, we engage to rage against solitude we’d rather not face.

We see this continuum played out, salon style, on Froelick’s walls. Matt O. Cosby’s “Fuddy Duddy” is a painting of a woman partially clad in what looks to be a nun’s habit; and Samantha Hulbert’s two photographs, “Burn” and “Curses,” depict women who have been on the receiving end of some sort of sexualized violence. Yet it is Jim Riswold’s (with Ray Gordon), “Riswold’s Owie (without pants)” that takes the remaining fun out of the show.

Jim Riswold (with Ray Gordon), “Riswold’s Owie
(without pants)”/Courtesy Froelick Gallery

In the photo, Riswold is post-operative, a catheter in his penis with the urine collection bag strapped to his calf. He has a midline wound that runs from the top of his genital area to his abdomen. He receives oxygen via a nasal canula. We learn from Riswold’s artist’s statement that he had a prostatectomy after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, and these photos were taken shortly after surgery. Still, he is posed, one hand resting on top of the little oxygen dolly, as if he held a cane that was more decoration than support for standing. His legs are crossed as one might imagine a bon vivant might strike a pose in a tuxedo. He is a man in control, defiant in the face of death, and therefore he invites desire.

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It may be difficult to spend a great deal of time in front of Riswold’s photo, for although we can readily imagine scenarios of pain and suffering, we prefer them sanitized. The same holds for graphic depictions of death (often edited out of any coverage by news organizations, though humankind never ceases to offer up more examples). Gay Block’s series of photographic portraits, “The Rescuers,” a sampling of which are at Blue Sky Gallery as part of the larger exhibition, “About Love,” seem innocent enough, until we consider the  accompanying text.

The Rescuers are people who survived the Holocaust and/or helped Jews elude the Nazis. Their stories relate the horror they saw or experienced. Yet, were it not for the text, we would know none of this, and instead perhaps focus on three of the people who are having a smoke while posing for their photo. Don’t they know this habit is harmful and potentially deadly? I imagine their answers: “I have seen worse.”

Gay Block, “Zofia Baniecka, Poland”/ Courtesy Blue Sky Gallery

There is no fitting conclusion for a little essay on a topic as complex as death, or even art about death. In fact, it is difficult to escape the feeling that to write a review about work dealing with the subject is a bit of a folly, for words cannot do justice to the surrounding sentiments, and to address their media and  level of skill in presentation is equally inadequate. But  here is solace in thinking about the emotions depicted in and the passion needed to make this work. Perhaps, then, we are best left to just look at the work, and see it as an opportunity to be with our own histories of sorrow.

 

One Response.

  1. Karin Clarke says:

    Thank you very much for this sensitive review of Margaret Coe’s exhibit at the Zeek Gallery.

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