Gilt Icons: Toward a Reconciliation?
By Tom Wachunas
“Self-portraiture is a singular in-turned art. Something eerie lurks in its fingering of the edge between seer and seen.” - Julian Bell –
“Mary is the most sweet bait, prepared and ordained by God, chosen to catch the hearts of men.”
- St. Catherine of Sienna –
“Confound the nose, there’s no end to it!” - Thomas Gainsborough –
EXHIBITION: “Essential Momentum” - mixed media works by Amanda VanDenberg and “Shotgun” pottery by Joseph Bower, at The Little Art Gallery (located in the North Canton Public Library), THROUGH AUGUST 18 http://www.ncantonlibrary.org/?q=upcoming_exhibits
Belying all the apparent simplicity of approach in Amanda VanDenberg’s 14 graphite and acrylic self- portraits are some fairly complicated ideas, just briefly hinted at in the gallery hand-out for the show. But curator Elizabeth Blakemore was kind enough to give me a lengthier artist statement as to the raison d’etre behind these intriguing drawings – a series collectively titled “Madonna Complex.”
VanDenberg admits a “tongue-in-cheek” appropriation of the term. In the world of analyzing the psychodynamics of gender relationships, the “Madonna/Whore Complex” has generally referred to conflicted men who view women as either saintly or debased. VanDenberg’s title, while grounded in her own fascination with Christian iconography of the Blessed Virgin (Madonna), is more symbolic of her complex personal struggle to reconcile the image of the independent, self-made feminist with her sense of pressure to conform to Madonna ideals of “perfect” beauty, sensuality, morality, and motherhood. “To try to be everything to everyone,” she writes, “and the extreme guilt I feel when I put any of my desires first…These self-portraits are a conversation with myself about how to be the sensual and sexual wife, the nurturing and devoted mother and still maintain my intellectual and creative self.”
So there is a background here of perceived expectations to achieve perfection against which the artist sees herself…evolving. In VanDenberg’s self-seeing, that background takes the form of all-gold, empty space - gold being such a prevalent feature in Byzantine images of the Madonna. Gilt icons. Or maybe here, icons of guilt? Unlike those elaborately jeweled and ornate icons of old, though, the gold in VanDenberg’s images seems somewhat oppressive – a painterly encroachment upon the contours of her sketchily rendered faces. The paint congeals into slightly raised ridges that often become breached boundaries dripping onto her introspective countenances.
Those elegantly penciled countenances, in turn, have a tentative, pared-down yet intensely expressive sensibility - a quiet theatricality, yet with no defined source of light, no dramatic chiaroscuro. While the linear details are more defined around the eyes, nose and lips, there is nonetheless a compelling sense of ghostly disembodiment, of forms waiting to become more sculptural, of blanks waiting to be filled in. Of questions waiting to be answered: Am I pretty or desirable enough? Am I smart enough? Am I submissive enough? Do I think too much? Am I too serious, self-involved, unapproachable, unavailable?
Where have I fallen short? I will say 14 Hail Marys.
Photos: Top – Madonna Complex Nos. 5 & 6 / Madonna Complex Nos. 13 & 14