Patty Wickman: Signs and Gestures
“…it seemed important to me to remind the audience that they are not alone, lost in an empty universe, but that they are connected by innumerable threads with their past and present, that through certain mystical ways, every human being realizes the rapport with the world and the life of humanity.” ~Andre Tarkovsky
Written by Gary Brewer
We live in a world filled with myriad stories, each a unique universe of individual experience, but connected to the pan personal experiences that we all share. How can a painter use the body, its expression, posture and pose – the theater of the physical gesture – to convey ideas and stories that express the pathos and poetry of the human condition. Patty Wickman creates paintings that reach back into the past to retell our myths and beliefs. She uses a cinematic sense of framing and fragments of narratives to open up new pathways of meaning.
When Patty began as a young artist, the human figure in painting was persona non grata in the art world. Conceptual, performance, and installation art reigned, and as a painter one was relegated to a form of minimalist abstraction at best. It is no small feat that her conviction and desire to capture the spiritual aspect of our existence through the figure endured the onslaught of resistance from teaching institutions and the gallery world. This conviction to the figure is at the heart of her universe of meaning. In recent years nature has become an important element as well. “In the past most on my paintings were of interior spaces in which my subjects were painted. Nature has become a metaphor of the spiritual reality that we live in, the mystery of the deep interconnectedness of life.”
Early on she found herself frustrated with how an image of a person could be interpreted in ways far removed from her intentions. “I would create a painting with a specific meaning in mind, and people would come away with wildly different ideas about the narrative. It has shaped my approach to painting to find a way to use a fragment that is suggestive of a larger story, but at the same time, leaving its meaning open. I also develop certain areas in the painting more and leave other areas less complete. It guides the focus of the viewer and the areas that are not as fully realized allude to process, both painterly and conceptual.” These transitions of resolve give one a look into the process of painting, the lines of the drawing still present over and through the washes of color, in so doing she creates a more supple space for her ideas to exist within.
When Patty was young she thought that she would be a medical illustrator. Her brother was a doctor and while in school he would come home with things to dissect, she became fascinated with anatomy and especially the human body. While in school it was a lecture by Eric Fischl about the role of narrative in Max Beckman’s paintings followed by a class in film history that opened her mind to the potential narrative structures that would influence her painting. La Dolce Vita by Fellini was a turning point, later Tarkovsky became very important. “The power of their images and the fragmentary broken narratives opening up new expressions of meaning and ways to tell a story affected me deeply.”
Her work is informed by western art history, we spoke of our mutual love of early Renaissance painters such as Hans Memling, Dieric Bouts, Petrus Christus, Piero Della Francesca and others. The images that she creates at times have a direct relationship to certain historical works, but generally are influenced by the currents of meaning that have shaped a lexicon of gestures, facial expressions and postures to convey the complexity of being human. Indeed the presence of the body as spirit and corruptible matter underlies a spiritual sense in her work, that this life we live is both so precious and so vulnerable. It is a love for the suchness of life that one feels in her paintings; an acknowledgement of the miracle of our existence and to cherish it with reverence and love.
Sometimes her images arise in epiphianic moments that she captures in photographs. The painting “First Bite” in her current solo exhibition All is Leaf at Lora Schlesinger Gallery came about on a hot afternoon at her home. “Some friends were visiting on a very hot day. Their young son was running around the backyard in the heat taking off his clothes one piece at a time. When he was naked he stood under our apple tree picking up and tasting fruit. I asked if I could photograph him, his image was so rich with stories; his indifference to being naked, the image of Adam in the Garden of Eden before the fall. It became the subject for one of the paintings in my current show.” These moments where the present and the past comingle – the weight of history and the immediacy of a moment of innocence under the sun – seem to be a quality that she seeks to discover in her painting. Humans are meaning makers it is the artist’s task to bring fresh light into the world; to explore the weave of time, folding histories together and remaking the world anew.
Years ago she was asked by the Getty to give a talk on a painting of her choice in their collection. She selected The Annunciation by Dieric Bouts. In her research she learned that 15th century artists were guided by a written list of facial spiritual and mental states that expressed different stages in the Virgins response: beatific calm, surprise, joy, etc. “I did a painting of my niece inspired by the painting The Annunciation by Dieric Bouts. I painted her in her bedroom with the idea of the awakening of her sexuality, of that moment of transformation when a young girl becomes a young woman. The idea of the different states of awareness and her response to the awakening was informed by the painting by Dieric Bouts and by what I learned in the research that I did for the lecture.”
We spoke about another piece in her current show, “Circumscribe”. It is a large painting 104 x 84 inches painted in pale greens, rich earth tones and a subdued blue sky. Thin washes of the under painting fill the canvas, hundreds of lines articulating each individual leaf of a Manzanita tree are drawn over the washes. She has worked into the painting developing some areas with greater resolve bringing light and volume to the image, but in balance with an almost abstract-like record of the process and the hand made effort to realize this beautiful tree. Somewhat hidden in the foliage, are two children caught in a light infused moment, a sense of stillness and movement creates a silence. Kinesis and stasis suspending time in a light filled aura where the magic of youth and of nature are captured in an image that we can hold in our mind in reverent contemplation. She told me about how the painting came to be and of the arduous process of its making. “The painting came about one day while my daughter and a friend, were exploring, a Manzanita tree, peeling its bark and becoming entangled in the leaves. I had seen Manzanita before, but on this day, with the children circumscribing the space around it as they played, it was as though I saw the tree for the first time. I worked on the drawing of it for months, drawing each individual leaf. I almost went crazy at times getting lost in the process and wondering ‘why am I doing this’, I would always return to pausing, stilling myself and concentrating on that one leaf as a way to stay focused. In the end the drawing always gets destroyed when I do the transfer, but for this show I included it as a record of this process. The tree is an expression of the complexity and spiritual aspect of nature, recent research into trees has shown a greater sense of consciousness as they communicate with each other and respond to the changes in there environment. This sense of spirit animating nature combined with the complete absorption and vulnerability of a child at play came together in my mind and inspired me to create this work.”
It is fascinating that as makers, artists often spend countless hours on aspects of a piece that will ultimately be hidden or destroyed. It is almost an act of penance to labor alone for countless hours for work that will never be seen – that will be erased in the final act. But it is there in the deeper ways, in the weave of conviction and resolve, to do whatever it takes to capture that mysterious elemental spark that we seek. The animating light of being that great art embeds in matter, shimmering in an eternal present.
To paint is an act of faith. It is the belief that one can transform humble matter into a language of the soul that will endure through the ages, and express some elemental truth about our existence. It is an effort that we see in these paintings, to capture that moment when a gesture becomes a story that holds the human heart and soul in the light of mind.
Patty Wickman – All is Leaf, September 7 – October 19, 2019
Lora Schlesinger Gallery
Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA