Studio visit: Rebecca Farr, The Spiritual Embodiment of Empathy
“Empathy makes you imagine the sensation of the torture, of the hunger, of the loss. You make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your body or heart or mind…Physical pain defines the physical boundaries of the self but these identifications define a larger self, a map of affections and alliances, and the limits of this psychic self are nothing more or less than the limits of love.” ~Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
By Gary Brewer
Painting is a method to engage ‘self’ in deep levels of cognition, beyond language and words. It is a space where somatic feelings and memories convey themselves outside of the conscious mind of the maker. They express aspects of the self in a way that are communicated through an immersive comprehension of thoughts and feelings. Rebecca Farr engages in works that seek to ‘embody’ the spiritual and physical dimension of human suffering and, from this, to express a spiritual truth. They are paintings that use imagery culled from Goya, photographs from the Civil War, and early American photographic portraits. She allows the messy process of painting to dismantle the images; the immediacy of expression through color and touch come to the fore, while the images become ambiguous ciphers of human struggle. She seeks a moment of clarity: a kensho experience through the murky uncertainty and messy process of painting. Rather than disengagement – using the light of mind as a beacon to penetrate the source and cause of human suffering – she swims in the muddy waters, diving in to the imprecision of thought and feeling to find a place where a true reflection of this state of being announces itself. It is not in uncertain terms that Rebecca arrives at these metaphoric expressions; it is a clear moment of realization when the soul of her paintings makes itself known. It is spiritual in nature and touches something ‘divine’ for Rebecca.
Rebecca said of her work and process, “I need to get lost in my work, in the process of painting. Destruction is an important part of the creative act; I will paint in and cover up areas again and again or paint over finished works in the pursuit of ‘truth’. I work in dark tones; blacks, browns grays and dirty colors; these are colors that I like aesthetically and that refer to Goya and other artists whom I feel close to; they also have the expressive weight needed to communicate the struggle of existence. I seek to spiritually embody human suffering in my paintings; my palette and the expressive strokes of paint are meant to convey these ideas and feelings. I feel ambivalence towards the narrative in my work; my brush strokes are intentionally somewhat clumsy. Goya, Orozco, and Guston are painters whom I love who also use an awkward approach to paint handling. It communicates uncertainty and vulnerability; it expresses our inability to fully understand the causes and effects that shape the world.”
It is in our vulnerability that something truly human expresses itself; the absence of certainty lays our souls bare, our differences become minimized as we see the inescapable truth of our shared humanity. Rebecca seeks to find an expression of this state of being in her paintings; to leave the noise and hubris of heroic and political declarations behind, and to hear the sound and silence of our mortality.
We spoke of Goya and of his ‘journalistic’ approach to capturing the human condition, suffering and bloodshed. The Peninsular War gave him an abundance of tragedy to record the deeds that humans are capable of and the horrors of war. There is an aspect of his work that simply points the finger to these acts of violence. There is a moral aspect too, but it does not make claims as to knowing a course of action that would alter these events. It is the tragic facts on the ground that Goya records, which communicate the moral dilemma of living in a body- of the fight to survive and the base animal instincts that can override our compassion and empathy. Rebecca’s work touches upon this but there is a spiritual dimension that is different. Her experience of suffering is in part informed from her practice of Zen Buddhism, of sitting Zazen, her vision as an artist being shaped by the spiritual acceptance of our suffering as an intrinsic reality that is inescapable and that compassion and empathy are the only meaningful responses to this plight.
Her paintings are heavily worked; the scarred surfaces a record of her search – the pentimento of seeking the ineffable – the experience of ‘being’ wrought in the greasy mixture of earth elements and seed oil. Paint has a life of its own – a soul. The limitations and possibilities are one aspect of its character. The other is a presence, a third party, that reflects something about our individual nature; it reciprocates our efforts and intentions with reflections of ourselves that are outside of our control. Rebecca spoke of a recent development in the conversation she is engaged with in her paintings. “ I have always pushed the paint hard, painting over areas, re-working the surface, pushing the paint to wrestle something from it. I have recently felt a need expressed by the paint itself to have a lighter touch. I want to allow the paint to breathe, to be itself. I see it as a form of mercy: a relinquishing of my needs to allow the needs of the paint to express its nature, its character. It is also a shift in my own spiritual struggle, of my personal journey. ”
There is a painting in her studio Newspaper 3, that uses the figure from Goya’s Third of May 1808 whose upraised hands of surrender to the firing squad communicate a plea for mercy as well as the pathos of his helplessness. In Rebecca’s painting we look down from above, the hands emerge from thickly applied strokes of paint. The pattern of the brush strokes and the deep leaden blues gives the impression of water, maybe the hands of a drowning man reaching for help. The reference to Goya informs and contextualizes the image in an ambiguous light. There is another figure at the bottom of the canvas reaching toward the man – are they swimmers enjoying the water or a person helping another whose life is in peril? – we do not know. The painterly surface obscures a clear reading of their actions, the tone is dark and somewhat somber. One can read it both as an immersion in water or in the chaos of unknown forces in which we are enveloped. Our lives are governed by both our intention and will to act within the general torrent of history as well as the capricious nature of fate. This painting has a strange poetic power. The heavily worked surface has a deeply satisfying expression of oil paint laid on in an emotionally honest approach; its thick impasto beautifully realized. The figures exist in an uncertain way. There seems to be a struggle to survive, maybe even to survive Rebecca’s additions and subtractions of the image. The quiver in the fingertips vibrate delicately, asserting a desire to remain, “Have mercy”, they plea to the maker and destroyer of images.
In meditation one follows the breath, finding a center to disengage one’s attachment to the thoughts and feelings that move like clouds in our mind. It is a storm of ideas, fears, impulses, and desires that rage in the silence. Rebecca Farr’s paintings are embodiments of those thoughts and emotions. Her paintings are fearless records of a spiritual battle to find the divine in the body of suffering. She seeks to redeem a form of spiritual truth from the seeming absurdity of the human condition. In the face of impermanence, this body, this planet and this universe are all finite. Our actions give us the ability to create from a zero point, something that communicates meaning. A painting is a complete universe of thought and form; it exists in the mind of the viewer engaging and communicating filaments from another’s existence. It is a spiritual and existential journey that Rebecca is on, searching for the embodiment of self in the flesh, the struggle to survive and the acceptance of our suffering as a spiritual component to being human.