Marilyn Frasca and the Power of her Visual Bestiary
A Personal Perspective
On the Occasion of her show* of October 2013 in Olympia, Washington, Childhood’s End Gallery
LLyn De Danaan © 2013
*to see Marilyn’s work online/go to http://www.marilynfrasca.com
Thinking seriously about Marilyn Fracas’s (MF) work has led me scurrying, like Alice’s white rabbit, down many strange paths and byways. I’ve had to consult my not inconsiderably developed animal soul and shadow self. It’s been a not altogether unpleasant journey. Were she not an intellectual and an avid student and reader of texts, it would not be fair, perhaps, to take the approach I am taking to her work. She is a poet, a painter, a mystic, a student of Jung and a practitioner and teacher of the Progoff Journal Workshop. Her attention to the inner life is profound. Looking at her work is an opportunity to listen in on the making of a grand mythic world that is inaccessible to many of us. But MF is a great guide to that nether region if we will just pay attention.
The characters of Marilyn’s work, aside from those clearly identified with living or historical figures, are, many of them, denizens of a kingdom far away somewhere deep in the psyche. We witness fragments of their lives: how they dress, what they eat, how they spend their time with one another, and the mysteries they encounter.
We must piece all the bits together and make a kind of ethnographic study if we are to get it.
Whatever her intentions, the results of her efforts are gifts to us, sumptuous gifts of image and color, and gifts to ponder. Each is intriguing in its own way. That offering is from her deepest self and cannot be denied.
It is not that I believe MF to purposely embed messages in individual pieces (except in the obvious instances.), but that I believe her work as a whole forms a text and contains visual clues to a way that she thinks and sees the world and therefore suggests that we might see the world.
I have been reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and, to my surprise, had found all kinds of helpful questions to pose to MF’s work. Then a friend brought me a review of another book. Lo, synchronicity at work, the review contained this quote from Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium:
If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bring forth forms and colors from the line s of black letters on a white page, and in fact thinking in terms of images
MF is among those few in my life (the only one?) who regularly exercises that basic human faculty of which Calvino speaks. She can and does bring visions (from whence even she sometimes expresses a not knowing) into focus, places those forms and colors that appear to her on a canvas and requires that we too take the time to acknowledge the image and vision. Not many visual artists require much of me. We see the work of those who deal in the graphic, the decorative, the purely observational, who compose paintings based on photographs they’ve snapped, who imitate, or who paint by rote or from worn out formulae. Indeed we are bombarded by images. We see those who slavishly follow trends in the “art world.” They can be admired for technique or use of color or even compositional skill. But are they visionaries? Seers? Visual poets?
I saw a show of Z. Vanessa Helder’s work recently at the Tacoma Art Museum. She would be called and is called a “realist” who worked in the 1930s and beyond. One reviewer speaks of the geometric structures in her work/and the contract between those and the beautiful slopes and shadows of the landscapes around them. Another writer talks about her “sharply defined and highly scrutinized realism”. Her work is beautiful to behold, the colors brilliant, and the subject matter (the building of the Grand Coulee dam, for example) historically interesting. But what I think about when I examine her work is technique…how has she caused watercolor to behave so well? How is her use of it so precise? I think about her layers of color, her architectural interest in planes and vanishing points. All these things and more interest me. But I am not drawn to go further into symbol, sign and I have no intellectual engagement with her work. I don’t go to dreams or fantasy or even to a shared outrage at some political horror or another. This Helder work is brilliant stuff but it is all part of a larger embrace by artists in the 1930s of representational scene paintings…including scenes by Helder that were made while she was involved in Washington State’s WPA program. Helder’s depictions of the building of the Grand Coulee dam are stunning. But though Helder was a theosophist (among her first published works was a portrait of Madam Blavatsky), that life seems to have been quite separate from her work as an artist.
Not so MF. Her work is redolent with references to a deep inner life, her convictions, and the terrors of our world that trouble her…and should trouble us. In some, clearly, the “world is too much with” her. She seems to feel the sordidness of a world gone mad with power, and forges a sometimes fatalistic response, a cry back at injustice and violence, especially at injustices against women.
I have looked at and collected MF’s work for many years. It can be divided into epochs, each of which might be interpreted as developmental stages of her mind and attention to vision as well as, maybe, responsibility. Each slice of time, like the layers of rock and earth in a road cut, reveals certain characteristics that tell of major shifts in personal climate. Here is evidence of a great wash from a flood, there, ash, the traces of volcanic eruption.
It is the past ten or so years of her work that I will attend to here. This epoch can be called the era of encounter with the naked animal. (Lacan) The layer is replete with bits of life, some unidentifiable, some angry, some passionate. It is during this epoch that MF has explored, it seems to me, the border between the animal and the human, in which she has surrendered to the animal itself and the animal that is herself and ourselves. (Derrida) Derrida spoke about that moment when we are caught naked and silent in the gaze of an animal. And in that bottomless, pitiless yet benevolent gaze, the gaze of the visionary, the truth is to be found. (The animal that therefore I am, Derrida) This bottomless gaze is the gaze of so many of Marilyn’s animals and humans…they look directly at us and ignore the border, trespass, like the fourth wall in theatre, is breached. The border is crossed. The dam is broken. We look into eyes that look back at us and are forced if we hold that gaze to enter the abyss with them/with her. It is as if we, the beholder, are in the cages, in the zoo, there to be stared down.
Not all of MF’s recent work contain animals. But many do. Some of these are known to us and some are cryptids. (Or are they humans who have some features of animals?) But these strange, compelling beings do seem to predominate when groups of images are studied. How to approach them? There are whole fields I can call upon for help. Lacan and others writes of zooontology, the question of the animal in contemporary culture. Ultimately this is a study of the “other” and our encounter with the other. The other is the “not us”. And animals are easily made to be that other or to signify the other. The only thing they have in common is that they are not “us.” But they are functioning, feeling, and morally present organisms. Ultimately, I would argue, MF’s work is a work that is post humanism and pananimistic or should I say pan-animistic. Each animal, each organism is somehow “ensouled” (Leibnitz) and speaking to us. Or forcing us to face our “other,” our destiny and our moral choices.
The other in contemporary society has become that which can be hunted, destroyed, disregarded, tamed, petted, saved, plundered. It can be the focus of study, of laboratory experiment. It can be colonized, exploited, exported, and its resources extracted. Its furs and skins can be used, it can be sold, Parts of the other can be collected and ground and powdered for the sake of someone’s need for virility or these parts can be sculpted or worn. And by extension, the other may be in fact human but treated as if not, placed into the same category as animal and exploited by a simple shift in philosophy or logic by the colonizer or by domi-man-tricks.
The animal, the other cannot, for the most part, craft its own fable but it can be the subject of fable. Here I can call upon zoopoetics, which encompasses the study of how text (in this case, visual text) shapes how we relate to animals.
Because the animal cannot write a text or make its own painting it enters our imagination through gestures, expressions, behavior, plumage, coat and coloration, That is, it enters our imagination through representations, verbal or visual, and it is through its representation that the other, the animal, enters MF’s images and becomes fabled. To study MF is to enter into her own visual bestiary, each inhabitant of which has its own fable and carries its own teaching and moral.
And yet, maybe MF’s “others” may be simply the many masks we use to hide ourselves, masks that obscure the real. The mask I wear, my persona, may seem real, even in a mirror, but it is not reality. Sometimes, it surely is a mask. What is my essence? Can I get behind my own mask, let alone allow anyone else to get behind it?
An image by MF that I look at nearly everyday (What Mask?) illustrates this.
This is a drawing of a coyote or some being in the genus canis, most certainly coyote, on a rock standing firmly there and beholding a passing human figure who wears a realistic mask of a large jack rabbit. Both the animals have large open eyes. In fact the coyote could be looking out at us. But it certainly notices the jack rabbit The background suggests a Levantian or chaparral climate, for example that of the southwest United States. Red and beige predominate and textures suggest rock. The sky is clear blue sky. The coyote animal is completely realistic as is the jack rabbit. The human is hidden except for hair, and a textured garment and the arm holding the mask-on-stick up over the face. (Actually, I don’t know if it is a humanoid face behind the mask!!!Is it fair to assume this?)
So what to make of this? There is so much to say about the rabbit as symbol. It is quarry for a coyote. It is a prolific breeder and a longtime symbol of fertility and sexual desire. Joseph Beuys used a dead rabbit (actually a hare) in his piece “explaining art to a dead hare.” He too wore a “mask” (during his performance). The person with the mask, the person hidden by the mask, symbolizes the power of the human to think, to visualize, to imagine him or herself into another body, time, and life. But also the weakness of the human whose mask obscures his or her essential “I.” That the mask is that of a rabbit compresses the Beuys character and the object of Beuys attention into one, just like a dream image increasingly is condensed, i.e., the images are combined to make one packed symbol. Significantly, MF has an image in her recent show of the Dalai Lama holding a seagull in a basket Is he “explaining possibilities” to the bird? as Beuys explained art to the hare?
Is the subtext of that work (New Friends), “I might as well be talking to a bird….for all the good it does.” Or is it a much more hopeful message of the possibility of love of “the other”, be it self or true other? Notice in MF’s work, the encounter between representational animals and humans is almost always accompanied by gentle touch and grace.
Masking, in other contexts, has a long history and its uses are symbolically varied. But in MF’s work, surely we come to understand that we all conceal our true nature. In fact the mask can be so convincing even to the wearer that she/he almost becomes what he represents. (i.e., What Mask?) This is Jungian persona/the mask archetype. We hold ideas about ourselves and these may bear little resemblance to the real or reality.
The mask prevents the integrated whole self from being seen and acknowledged. At least by one’s self and arguably by other humans. But perhaps “the other” sees.
The rabbit has of course many other references. For example, Durer’s hare (1502), a print of which is also on my wall, is one of the most famous in European art. Durer’s hare was “observational” as is both the coyote and rabbit in MF’s work. Then there is, of course, the already alluded to March Hare of Alice in Wonderland the keeper of time and the embodiment of madness.
But in the end, this is not a rabbit, this is a human with a rabbit mask.
And the coyote must recognize this. I cannot devour you…you carry the sign of my prey and signify a peculiar history of art…but you are the hunter, in reality…and with one fatal mistake I will be caught and murdered. The picture as a whole can be read as a story of the dangers of mistaken identify and treachery that awaits us if we leap to soon, following our desires and attraction. Unconsidered attraction and lack of understanding our true nature can lead to disaster. It is this moment of decision that the coyote with which the coyote is faced. Like a Benedictine apostle, he/she must discern the correct path. Even more complex is the human’s understanding of the situation. When she/he looks in a mirror, all she/he sees is a rabbit. Therefore she believes herself to actually BE this charismatic, innocent beast. If the coyote attacks, will she/he know her true nature? Will she be unmasked? The coyote will probably refuse to sacrifice herself to help the rabbit/human out. That is not coyote’s work.
What is part of MF’s work, however, is drawing our attention to the horrors that come from the shadow selves we all have. Witness, a piece in her solo show of fall 2013, is one of the more literal of these. It is among the few pieces that are tied down by title or images to events or people. Witness draws us in by the presence in the work of a very accurate copy of Guernica in the background of the drawing. There is nothing, including Guernica, accidental or mysterious inside this frame. Guernica calls forth Spanish Civil war AND its producer Picasso. That war itself, and the painting, depending upon the viewer’s historical savvy, references not only war a host of other associations with the period and the artist himself. It is replete with symbols. The war and chaos reigns within the image. Faces are raised to the sky in horror. Picasso places an animal in the center of the scene. Guernica is not only a symbol, of course, though it has become one through the years. The name itself places the painting in a geographic and historical moment. Still, through the years since its execution, the painting has come to signify the insanity of war in general and how the innocent…children and women and even animals suffer….how those who are beyond ideologies and are even preideological (babes not yet schooled in beliefs that lead to wars) are victimized. The painting within the painting is the haunting signification of the immorality of war. For many viewers now it no longer refers to a real thing but to a concept, an idea that elicits deep revulsion, fatalism, and speaks to the loss of our humanity.
MF is borrowing the painting and all it signifies to bring another war to our attention. By doing so, she is following other painters, such as Samuel Morse, who painstakingly copy the work of others as signifiers in their own work.
MF’s painting references the Syrian revolution and the suffering there of innocents. Two women stand in the foreground looking at us with that pitiless gaze I’ve discussed above. One woman is clearly Marie Colvin, an American reporter who was working for the Sunday Times of London and who was killed in Syria in February 2012. She is recognizable by the distinctive black patch she wore after losing an eye covering the Sri Lankan civil war.
The second woman, in front of Marie, wears a white hijab with a prominent red star over her forehead, The red star appears in the flag of the Syrian revolution thus, both the eye patch and the red star become prominent signifiers of the women’s work and lives as does the votive candle in the hands of the (presumed) Syrian woman. (A pronounced redundancy: a hand prominently holds a candle in Guernica.) Interestingly enough, and not accidentally, the red star might be taken at a quick glance as a red cross or red crescent…signs that would mark the woman as a humanitarian worker. The floor itself, parallel boards leading from the foreground back to the painting takes on significance…a straight line through time a continuation of the horror. (There are other “parallels”…the Spanish civil war and the Syrian revolution both drew international attention and nationals from other countries joined/join the efforts.) The women in the foreground are real women who signify war and death in a new time and new setting and challenge us to remember and to engage. Don’t look away, they seem to say.
The painting in the background has yet another level of signification: it is the shadow…the archetype that represents the darker side of the psyche…the demon and dragon that is present in all of us. (I’ve often thought there is a bit of the St. George and the Dragon in Guernica. See the Richard Doyle engraving for example for the Scouring of the White Horse.) Seen this way, even the women in the foreground/the mothers/the feminine/ also have this shadow self. Will the evil of war ever be fully addressed until all of us face and grapple with our own shadow selves?
Several of MF’s other images of brutality and horror, e.g., The Terror of the Situation, and The Refugees, are done in black and white. In Cerberus a cryptid representing the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades is depicted dashing through a dark narrow passage. It is a frightening thing, almost as horrifying in appearance as Lovecraft’s Cthulhu (though others of MF’s cryptids are more Cthulhu like). In spite of its frightening appearance, there is something sad about it. Its great long strides will be, it seems, no match for what holds it back and grasps at its tail. This threatening, pitiless, flesh eating beast is surely a fitting symbol of the other/the dark/the beast with sharp teeth that will snatch. This running Cerberus may be trying to escape its fate …or ours. It is in the same class as MF’s other comments on the terrors that surround us. Some images feature sharp-toothed troglodytes, masked, that shatter any illusion we may have had of peace. Most of these seem to be from 2001-2002, the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. Armor-all is brutish. Boys Play at War is just plain fatalistic and beyond irony. In the context of all the other images, the use of the word “play” is surely sardonic. That we live in a world where children not only think of war as a game but are actually recruited to be soldiers is terrifying.
Even Peacemakers are revealed to entertain a grasping skeletonized figure, a decomposing, putrid, presence who can surely lead the way to nothing that supports life.
Indeed, there are many of MF’s works that ask us to engage with this deeply troubled world including The Terror of the Situation, the peacemakers embracing death, women as property, and the result of “reciprocal destruction”, a Gurdjieffian phrase that surely describes our time.
“….it was possible sometimes to observe very strange manifestations of theirs, that is, from time to time they did something which was never done by three brained beings on other planets, namely, they would suddenly, without rhyme or reason, begin destroying one another’s existence….”
Perhaps this is the ultimate message of Witness…and of Guernica itself.
Odetta’s Crossing is another of MF’s images that speaks to a real person and a real event, the death of an iconic singer. Odetta is dressed in a turban and flowing gown, poling herself across a body of water in a lovely vessel that is adorned with an enormous figurehead. The figurehead has huge tusks but does not seem ferocious. Its wide open eyes and dog like nose give it a gentle appearance. The water is smooth; the landscape of the singer’s past is clear, placid, without detail. It has been left behind.
The other side, the side to which she is poling, is green and lush and inviting. A brilliant crane like bird waits her …..is it her new form? Her new life? Is it to be her familiar or is it her true self? Does the whole image signify the many songs she sang about water and going home? The water is wide, but she can get over even if she has no wings to fly. (Odetta recorded Water is Wide in 1976.)
There are references to classical mythologies and Native American and African symbology and aesthetics in much of her work. MF creates beasts and people but they are surely drawn from some deep inner world as well as a vast familiarity with and appreciation of cultures of the world. Her work as a whole embodies the richness and agony of all there is to be human and the possibilities for harmony and embrace (in spite of the many gloomy drawings that express her disappointment with us and our feeble if not cynical attempts to do the right thing). The possibilities are there, just down the road with the people and animals who trek along ancient trade routes exchanging and encountering one another in warm Levant like landscapes that remind one of journeys described in Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky or Edith Wharton’s In Morocco. Those landscapes can be read as a signification or a pun for Levant is a geographical/cultural region denoting the eastern Mediterranean and Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. But the Levant also signifies “a crossroads” of cultures. These crossroads allow for meetings with strangers and lead us to the frontiers that open up possibilities for whole new communities. Might MF’s gentle geese, the seers and poets with staffs, the rabbits and ravens and lambs lead us all to a new world that crosses these frontiers? We can only look back at them and hope.
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This essay may be quoted but author’s name must be cited.
 Picasso’s painting was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain. The village was bombed by German and Italian warplanes at behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces in April 1937.