On Her Own Terms

Hiding No. 12, mezzotint on paper, 5” x 4”.


Images of people in states of extreme suffering evoke a range of responses: sadness, anxiety, fear, empathy and, sometimes, instinctive recoil. When approaching the grimacing faces and contorted fullfigure female portraits by Clara Lieu that will be on view concurrently at Simmons College and Framingham State University, it can be upsetting and even frightening to engage with these images. Yet, encountering them in a teaching environment, we are encouraged to inquire further, “What kind of suffering is this, and what can I learn from these images?”

The drawings, mezzotint prints, photographs and sculptures of Lieu’s opus “Falling,” over four years in the making, were born of her own experience of depression and her wish to make something of her intense inward pain communicable to others. Withholding her personal narrative, she focuses our attention on how we react to the body’s signals of emotional pain. Her imagery raises both philosophical and practical questions for her audience. How can we reliably know about the inner experience of others? And we are led to wonder how we can understand the process of healing from depression and help others to heal.

The two shows overlap, with the works at Framingham referring to Lieu’s experience before being diagnosed. The exhibition at Simmons also includes works from an additional subseries marking her period of recovery. “Falling” begins with “Self-Portraits,” a series of 48-inch-tall female heads exhibiting extreme emotion, drawn with etching ink and lithographic crayon on transparent Dura-Lar. “Hiding” develops these images further. Lieu modeled and cast 50 faces as small resin masks and also made pale beeswax casts that she illuminated and photographed in a dark room to create haunting images. She exaggerated these forms in even smaller mezzotint prints that isolate the expressive mouths and eyes. The Simmons show adds six towering drawings on Dura-Lar from “Emerge” — the final stage of the project — closeups of intertwined figures menacing a standing central female.

Elizabeth Michelman