What does an artist do after a devastating divorce and death of her mother? With the invention of psychoanalytical theory by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and others, the path was open for artists to make emotional self-examination a physical reality in painting, sculpture and the arts. Susan Darwin’s inventive oil paintings, that open the fall exhibition schedule at Regis College’s Carney Gallery, flow directly from the emotional highs and lows that she has faced in life. Her paintings belong to the genre of biographical artwork that has been in fashion for most of the modern era.
Darwin’s “100 Broken Shells” explicitly deal with her unhappy divorce and the depression that resulted. While in a sad state, walking along Shaws Cove beach in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, she looked down at broken shells and an inspiring thought came to her: “They are broken, but not bad!” Picking up the shells and taking them back to her studio she began an extensive painterly exploration of their myriad shapes and brokenness.
“Shell #5” is a fine example. The shell stands upright not lying down, a vacant hole in its middle, but still beautiful in its rhythmically curving outline. Clearly a shell, the object also becomes a symbol for the human body, the hole functioning in a way that is similar to 20th century artist, Henry Moore’s “holes” in his human sculptures — the negative space implying emptiness, longing and the unknown. In another analogy, the shells resemble human bones, desiccated and wounded, as if they were deformed by gunshots. No matter which interpretation comes to mind, they are clearly symbols for hurting — both emotional and physical wounding. A better symbol for a divorce would be hard to imagine. Two adventuresome paintings deriving from the “Broken Shell Series,” “#69” and “#70” use negative and positive circles to complicate the natural form of conch shells. Darwin’s technique involves painting a background, then the “ghost” shells. Finally, with a coffee can, she penciled in the circles and painted around them. For her they represent the “open view of myself … and a turned away view. . .the open was better, more interesting way to go.”
Whether the complexity of the black circles and whitish circles enriches the symbolism of the damaged shells or merely adds visual complexity is up for debate. But the multilayered imagery is more in fashion than the single shells realistically observed.
Landscapes by Darwin continue her biographical narrative. Several years after her divorce and happily remarried, she vacationed in California and Italy. Her masterpiece in this series is “Panarea, Sicily, Italy,” an Italian coastal scene with windswept tree, and rocky outcropping in a wine-blue sea, visible through open double doors. Henri Matisse’s, 1905, “Open Window, Collioure” of the southern coast of France is its predecessor. Darwin paints a rich complexity of curving arches reflected in glass doors, circular billowing clouds, ceramic pot and a stairway to nowhere. It reminds one of romantic vacations to exotic Italian villas, whispering breezes and the faint sounds of children playing on the beach. It is, without doubt, her most successful and most symbolically mysterious painting.
Another result of Darwin’s exploration of her feelings and relationships is a series of expressionist portraits of friends and relatives. She painted 20 people in single sittings of about two hours each, employing a direct freeform style. Colorful splotches of oil paint in wildly exotic colors applied in rapid succession depict people young and old, happy and sad.
The resulting portraits are instantly recognizable. No doubt the sitters were less than thrilled with the results, a kind of unvarnished-truth view. The blonde-haired woman and the bald man with the white mustache would probably like to look happier, younger and more awake. The portraits are rather like our “selfies” when we hit the delete button with a vengeance. The brutal realism of this type of portraiture has a long modern history beginning in France and Germany and continuing in America with the work of artists like Alice Neel.
Darwin’s “Hollywood” series follows another type of expressionist portraiture: the exploitation of famous people. There is something about this type of portraiture that is reassuring in the contemporary art world, filled with art that many people find utterly baffling. “What is THAT? A MONKEY could have painted that!” To see a painting of a familiar, recognizable famous person, especially someone loved or admired, like Mark Twain, Marilyn Monroe or Prince is so encouraging. “Yes, I KNOW that person! I’m not so dumb after all!”
Andy Warhol’s portraits of the rich and famous have a bit of that appeal, although their trendsetting, iconic nature takes them into far more complex territory. Thus Darwin’s portraits of the above mentioned famous people are reassuring. She states that they are an amalgam of different person types, not accurate portraits of people she admires, but still they are instantly recognizable. There is nothing “wrong” with this type of art, but it is not Darwin’s most adventuresome work.
A visit to Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts, to see Darwin’s original paintings and walk with her through her personal journey of despair, self-recognition and recovery will be both inspiring and reassuring. Life is worth living, and there are many roads to happiness as recorded in her paintings.