By Elizabeth Michelman
Rutland, Vermont – After early commercial success as a Photorealist painter in the 1970’s, Fran Bull bolted from a mechanical illusionism to pursue her own artistic truth. A powerful mind and a maverick bent drove her beneath the surface to explore psychological, political and existential questions through a feminist lens. Her range of output, which encompasses abstract and expressionistic painting, poetry, thematic installations and cycles of large-scale etchings, has expanded to include hybrid sculpture-paintings. Her most recent work, a phantasmagoria of sculpted figures emerging from their bedroom worlds, justly rewards a critical look.
Intrigued by Jungian and contemporary psychology, Bull evokes the dream state to witness a more profound truth than everyday consciousness. Her current sculpture cycle of 14 Stations calls forth the forces of the psyche, challenging us to deny their power. Split between two galleries a block apart in the marble capital of Rutland, Vermont, her seven- and eight-foot figurative reliefs of muslin and plaster spill off the walls and crowd the floors. Heads, arms and legs jut out from their canvas “beds” in all directions. These heroic presences, locked into moments of embrace, solitude, reverie and revelation, propose that life may be larger than we ordinarily take it to be.
There’s something compellingly medieval about descending into the underground chambers at Castleton Gallery to spelunk these works. Hemmed in by rock piers and brick walls, we skirt the protruding limbs and rumpled bedclothes before escaping upward toward the light-filled Chaffee Gallery. Female and male characters act out a contorted progression of daydreams, night awakenings, and primal scenes from birthing to the boudoir. Bodies are concealed under smooth white drapery warmed by shadows of Venetian red and splashes of iridescent sheen. Open mouths scream, sing, or chatter to each other. Glassy eyes stare pensively inward or glow ecstatic. Bull muses in a poem on her childhood drawings whose invented characters came to life and terrified her. Now wiser about the sources of her fears, the grown woman at play in her studio dares to follow these sprites.
We stand in the shoes of the child, looking up or across at these faintly grotesque scenes. It challenges imagination and memory to take in the totality of each piece and to put the two galleries’ contents together in one’s mind. The overload is both distracting and stimulating. Despite the guidance of Bull’s titles from Shakespeare, Agee, Neruda and Walcott, and her own writings, we may wish to leave these keys behind as we take off into our own associations.
Surely it takes courage to address Bull’s subjects. Her previous series and mixed media installation of sculpture, large-scale etchings and textiles, “In Flanders Fields” grieved the ravages of war and death. In “Dark Matter,” another predecessor of the current cycle, the austere drapes and anonymous folds of painted plaster reliefs suppressed most signs of furtive bodies. With “Stations,” however, the curtains have parted to reveal a different plane than the everyday or the historical past. We read Bull’s forms not as of our time, but out of time. Each canvas is a veritable stage where clowns, kings, flautists and fools all share their pillows, writhing and coupling, communing with ancestors, and frolicking with babies, dogs, and other doppelgangers. In the theater of birth we regard with awe the pregnant mother upright as in a crucifixion, heaving toward delivery while a cherubic form slithers downward from her parted legs, white against the shrouded body.
Much of the excitement lies in the artifice with which Bull’s puppets are constructed, or rather, the lack thereof. This capable artist has thrown verisimilitude to the winds. The jumbled figures with ill-fitting masks, unfocussed eyes, gaping mouths, double- and triple-jointed limbs and arched and dangling feet are naïve to the point of absurdity. Yet these ludicrous body-parts cobbled from barely-disguised cones, tubes, cubes and spheres stir us to piece together and project our own narratives onto their escapades. For even in their crumpled state, Bull’s characters exude an authority beyond realism, testifying to an alternative world that we, too, inhabit, with awkward giants lurking behind our well-groomed social surfaces. In truth, our dialogue with Bull’s images may continue into the midnight hours where we lie awake pondering them in the safety of our own beds.
What then of Bull’s feminism, so closely tied to eroticism? How do we judge this as art? I’m not averse to proposing for comparison Jeff Koons’s photo-realist series “Made in Heaven,” where he fornicates in the camera’s eye with his porn-star wife as the apotheosis of physical perfection. Does this offer puppet theater of any higher order? Admittedly Bull does not, like Koons, rely on the display and massage of bodily orifices to engage our masturbatory fantasies; in fact, she denies us visual access to the body. And in contrast to Koons’s uncomplicated connubial cavorting, Bull unearths emotions of loneliness, fear, alienation, and pain along with fellow moments of joy, passion, fellowship and sacrifice.
A feminist vision of eroticism allows us to find aesthetic value and meaning in Bull’s disproportioned figures. She neither panders to canonical codes of feminine beauty, nor lasciviously privileges sexual characteristics as we have come to expect of male artists. Her creatures are not easily desirable or possessible — we cannot even hold them in our mind’s eye all at once. Yet she has fabricated a world infused in a sublime mixture of agape and eros. Her project is allusive, not seductive; the fantasies she offers are not of domination and possession but of freedom and redemption. It is safe to love this work.
(“Fran Bull’s Stations” remains on view through October 25 at Chaffee Downtown Gallery, 75 Merchants Road, Rutland, Vermont and Castleton Downtown Gallery, Center Street Alley, Rutland Vermont. Bull will give an artist talk, “A Life in Art” on Wednesday, October 15 at 7 p.m. at the Paramount Theater, 30 Center Street, Rutland, Vermont. “Collaborations,” photographic and fine art interpretations of Fran Bull’s sculptural work by Don Ross, will be on view from October 13 through November 25 at Christine Price Gallery, Castelton College Fine Arts Center, 45 Alumni Drive, Castelton, Vermont.)