Collectively titled Water Maps, Ann Stoddard’s latest studio offerings comprise a series of brightly colored oil paintings on unstretched linen and a number of mixed media works on paper that are as quietly charming and deeply enigmatic as their creator.
The oil paintings are modestly sized and presented unstretched, affixed to the wall in an variety of free-floating and somewhat animated relief “poses”, involving partial folds, approximate curls, imprecise pleats and gathers, with uneven bends, bows, bulges, puckers, and sags. On hearing Ann mention the series title I looked to see if the shaped nature of the individual canvas pieces may have derived from an attempt to fix or solidify the appearance of the swells, ripples, and waves of watery surfaces, as my few initial glimpses seemed to suggest. Looking further, however, at other pieces in the group and considering the longer context of her oeuvre, I detected relief references to textiles and fabrics in motion, as well as to folded, wrinkled, and well used paper maps. Common to all such referential interpretations in these paintings is the sense of movement. Curtains, dresses, and flags move with breeze and locomotion. Water moves with the winds, tides, and currents. Paper maps move with use and bilocation. All of these move and change with shifts in time, space, and perception.
These paintings seem to render the flux of perception, together with subtly shifting sensibilities of private thought and emotion, into public artifact. We feel we are seeing the results of a process whereby the natural movements of light and living organisms come to be fixed, stilled, captured, or preserved, like leftovers from an alchemical endeavor or magical game. The paintings feel like treasured memories of emotional states. By turning feeling into form in this particular way, Ann’s paintings seem to retain the intimacy of a private and personal experience while successfully engaging the imaginal public space of the gallery and museum.
The whispered message at the heart of all this has to do with memory, adjustment, and adaptation in the face of change. In nature and society, change seems to be a perpetual and cyclic force, producing endless reincarnations of form arising from chaos only to retreat and reform again and again, like ocean waves, with endless permutations and elaborations that seem as impersonal as they are varied and ubiquitous. By contrast, in expressive art and physical development, memory, adjustment, and adaptation carry a heavy freight of significance as they delineate an intensely personal and individual response to change as a singular and more delimited narrative arc, an inevitably existential tale of mortality and meaning, full of pathos, beauty, and significance. This art by Ann Stoddard begs us, among other things, to consider this contrast.
Old, well-used maps gather a patina of use, a collection of folds, wrinkles, and smudges that tell stories of plans and curiosity, of calculation and coordination, of travel and experience. In a collusion of biology and biography, our bodies gather a similar collection of wrinkles, scars, and discolorations that tell the tale of our lives. These alterations, from an idealized and classical perspective are often seen as flaws, something to be minimized, overlooked, or avoided. From an expressive point of view, the “wabi” and “sabi” of older, used things are the truer sources of genuine beauty and value in art and life. From this point of view, authenticity demands folds, wrinkles, and raw edges, so that, in a lovely circuit of irony, the measure of quality in artifice (painting) is authenticity (folds, wrinkles, and raw edges) in presentation.
Maps are not places; they are abstracted representations, recreations of the memory of places. Normally, they are associated with the geometry of measurement and scaled down, precise representations of fixed landmasses, surveyed real estate, roads, bridges, and urban developments. When it comes to maps of water, usually referred to as nautical charts, similar representational exactitude and objectivity is expected with carefully measured drawings of coastlines, underwater landforms, with references to tides, currents, and depth soundings, bridges and other manmade objects. Both land and water maps typically emphasize their precise reference to a specific objective primary reality. By contrast, Ann Stoddard’s painted maps refer, not so much to any specific prior reality outside the artist’s imagination, as to an inner ocean, an arterial river with a pulse, a churning amniotic sea where archetypal images gestate, where, over time, Psyche comes to see reflections. These paintings are barely maps of the imaginary memories of water. They more properly address the iconic presence of psychic water, rather than the physical appearance of any specific watery place.
In Jungian psychology, water is the great symbolic manifestation of the unconscious aspects of the psyche, at once individual and yet, universal. It references, in the cycle of rain, flow, and evaporation, the mysterious creative cycle of birth, death, and resurrection. It addresses all aspects of life from purification, to fertility and growth, all aspects of death and destruction, from inundation to disintegration and dissolution. The sea is the mother of life; the rivers are harbingers of death and rebirth, transition, time, and change. Where the disc of the sun, a fire in the sky, represents the conscious ego turned outward, an Apollonian rational force of intelligence, the sea is the archetypal symbol of the intuitive Dionysian intelligence turned inward, the archaic power of the individual and collective unconscious flowing deep within every human awareness. Ann’s paintings imply a sensory flow, a recall of connected movement, a reminder of psychological currency. Spending time with them helps me remember we are connected via a circuit of intuitive awareness to primordial wisdom and insight.
The colors she employs are saturated, most in varieties of dark blue, blue-violet, teal and turquoise with frequent hints of gold, white and silver… though there were several later works executed in bright yellows, reds, and oranges. The predominance of blue is a primary water reference. Water and sky in mirror reflection carry a blue overtone. Earth is known as the blue planet because it is a watery place with a vaporous atmosphere. Blue is also the traditional color of the melancholic and saturnine disposition common to creative genius. Blue speaks, not merely of sadness, but is a truly spacious color, offering expansiveness and distance to the viewer. This can represent, in one sense, freedom and liberty, and in another, loneliness and isolation. These twin sides of one coin are felt by most as a cool breeze of fluid emotion. Perhaps more significant than the specific tone, based in a blue hue, with its melancholic associations, is the tendency toward purified, saturated hues in Ann’s paintings. Pure, intense colors have a brighter energy signature, a piercing and clarified quality of emotion. These feelings are anything but morose, dark, or foreboding. These colors generate a hopeful, more optimistic sense of sadness, rather than any sort of dark and clotted nihilistic emotion. Colors like these might be said to feel “younger” or simpler than more complex mixtures of muddy and opaque color commonly found in complicated expressions of emotional ambiguity. These colors do not feel “heavy” despite some clear references to passing brevity, mortality, and transcience.
Consider “Wave”, a saturated blue curl of shaped canvas that seems to roll out of the wall and to then return to it. The overall form not only replicates the curve of a wave, but also implies the gesture of a vessel form, an urn or vase-like container… a pocket of painted canvas holding what? Water? Air? Blues? or maybe Memory or Change? The work implies a rolling extension, first out of, and then back into the wall. It makes us aware both of the wall and of the shape of the space between the paint and the wall. Another related pair of “wave-like” canvases is the parallel “Before the Break”. These two feel like a pair of waves building toward the shore, seen from an aerial perspective. They also suggest a pair of veiled, leg-shaped columns of space behind the veil. The space between the two panels grows as powerful as it is attenuated, so that the title comes to imply both the pending break of a wave as it comes to the shore and the pending break of the hidden columnar space behind the art. Related to these in a poetic sense is “Where the Two Meet”, a flag-like rippling of blue and green evoking the phenomenon where two bodies of water flow into one another but, due to differing densities, don’t immediately mix. There is a well-known example of this where the North Sea and Baltic Sea meet in Denmark. In “Before the Break”, two distinct canvases imply a unity predating a break, while in “Where the Two Meet”, a single, unified painting implies a joined separation, predating boundary of separation.
“Reflection” and “Water Map Two” put me in mind of Monet’s night pictures of water near bridges made during his London campaign of 1899-1905, of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over The Rhone” or Derain’s water in light pictures made in 1906 in London in that they evoke a direct sensory memory of columnar waves of colored reflection articulated as post-impressionist dashes of paint. In these paintings Ann piles the linear daubs in flat horizontal rows to create the sense of the flat water-plane. She coordinates the curved wave of shaped canvas with the blooms of warm color so as to underscore the sense of flowing, flag-like movement.
By contrast to “Reflection” and “Water Map Two”, the turquoise painting “Hydraulic” uses similar horizontal marks in low-key complementary color, now significantly spread out and more isolated, less insistent. The forms created by shaping the linen are also quite different; they are non-parallel and tectonic in nature, more like ice or rock, or metal foil. The flowing rhythmic sense has been frozen, forced under pressure into a solidified plastic, sculptural presence. Associations to a portion of a cave wall or a section of battered armor call up a paradoxical sense of the power of water under constraint, and by extension, the power of the unconscious, when under pressure or conflict, to shape behavior, choice, and consequence.
In some ways, the folds of painted linen in paintings like “Octopi”, “Green River”, or “Water Map One” and “Marsh”, with their blue coloration, also call up ripples and waves of water, though more often they remain what they are: draped, folded, undulating painted pieces of fabric. For centuries artists have approached the painting of draped fabric as an opportunity to express emotion, create drama and tension, without direct reference to classic gestures of body language or facial expression. All of the sense of flowing energy implied by the term “emotion” can be fixed in permanent form by painting or sculpting the effects of movement (wind, water, locomotion, etc.) on draped fabric. Consider the young virgin depicted in the Merode Altarpiece. She wears a placid, detached expression as she continues her reading, despite the miraculous appearance of an angel bearing news of her immanent pregnancy and the coming birth of the son of God. Meanwhile, on another, less conscious channel, depicted in the oblique and conflicting, diagonally flickering folds of her scarlet garments, we see the expressive language of extreme emotion, fervent, passionate piety. The same can be said for the mother of Christ in Van Der Weyden’s Deposition. Outwardly, she is in a swoon, but formally, her dark blue gown is a riot of powerful and colliding emotion. The blue of the gown functions here, not merely to hold with the tradition of reserving blue as the color for Mary, Queen of Heaven, but also as a color of great sadness and grief. Here the Lapis Lazuli blue of heaven and the sky and freedom becomes the dark and recessive blue night sky of loss, loneliness, and bereavement. The high tension and oblique anguish supplied by the triangular folds of draping cloth stand in contrast with the cool distance of blue in its ordinary and more peaceful parlance. The result is a feeling of the virgin as cool and contained but vulnerable, barely constraining a stormy emotional force.
Most of these works are shaped fields of colored linen. A few have added figurative elements. “The Gift” features a pink, gloved hand protruding, god-like, from the wall above the linen. Suspended by fishing line from the child-size fingers is a branch of mistletoe, decorated with jewel-like pearl “berries” of clear plastic. Below, the surface of the linen is covered in small vertical silver-white strokes, tipping the plane of view forward, making the impression one of an aerial view seen from some height. The perspective and proximity of the pink hand, seen in elevation, is in dream-like contrast with this view, so we separate the two spaces; they come from two different dimensions.
One view of this, given the title, might be that nature or god (represented by the pink glove of the girl-child) has given gifts to the world in its oceans. Mistletoe, in antiquity, was believed to be the soul of the sacred white oak trees it grew on. It was thought to bestow fertility, to have life-giving powers. In the Norse mythology of The Prose Edda, Frigga, goddess of love, gave birth to Baldur, god of the summer sun. Some time after he was born Baldur had a dream of his own death. In an effort to forestall this dire outcome, Frigga secured promises from all the elements and from every animal and plant on the earth not to harm her son. Unfortunately, she overlooked the lowly parasite, mistletoe. Loki, the troublemaker, fashioned an arrow from the plant and gave it to blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot Baldur dead. Hermodur the Bold, Baldur’s brother, was dispatched to the kingdom of the dead to fetch his brother back. He was told that Baldur would be restored to life only by the unified lamentations of every creature in the whole world. The white berries on mistletoe are sometimes called Frigga’s tears. Perhaps there is hope for life-giving solutions to modern problems to be found in the saltwater (tears) of our oceans.
A second view might be that the divine child (precocious innocence in the unconscious soul) offers a chance for truce between warring inner factions, a wish for love and a hope for the fruitful, creative life that can only spring from the inner unity of psychic marriage. In Scandinavia mistletoe is a plant of peace under which embattled tribes could make a truce or warring spouses could kiss and make up. In a single psyche, the conscious ego and the unconscious soul are often in a conflict of perspectives. The five-fingered glove, a “deus ex machina”, comes as a godling, dropped in from overhead to decide the final outcome. The five-senses ego in its narcissistic elevation wishes for a painless fantasy fulfillment by way of dependency and parasitic life. The broader aerial perspective offered by the oceanic soul is devoid of singular egotistical focus and, instead, is covered in single digits, un-dotted “i’s” or ones… a digital sea of static. Perhaps there is a balance here, a gift for creative survival and going on where each is gift to the other. The gift to the hyper-focused ego is the diffused, unself-conscious soul, while the gift to the unconscious soul is the focused self-awareness of the visionary, striving ego. The opportunity to meet, to kiss and make up, is proffered by the inner divine child, and receipt of the gift promises the dawning mutual awareness of individuated maturity.
“Titan” is visually a more complex work with collage elements and a layered, exploded appearance, giving the impression of magnification or amplification. The name of a moon of Saturn known for its fluid constitution, “Titan” is also the name of the race of progenitor gods who came before the Olympians. Atmospheric effects and glowing colors notwithstanding, this is a darker and heavier piece than the others. It has a sober and structured quality, with folds and shadows, veils and curtains as much obscuring s revealing form. It’s a mysterious piece, nearly the emotional inverse of “Sunset”, set in bright warm tints of red orange and yellow. Her more delicate works on paper directly evoke old topographical maps and hand drawn diagrammatic illustrations. They are, in their delicacy and ephemeral nature, the opposite of Titan.
In conclusion, Ann’s recent work is of a piece with her earlier work and all of her work is clearly artistic heir to the expressive traditions of painting. She is the real thing, a consummate professional and an insightful, inventive painter. It is a pleasure to explore her work and watch her working process as it unfolds.
September 8 , 2013
Lassiter Professor of Art