Artist Retrospective: The Unsung Genius of Sylvia Toy

After watching Sylvia Toy’s first cut of The Harpy, I find myself asking, Who is Sylvia Toy? Why don’t I know about her? In many ways, Sylvia Toy is Genius personified.

The Harpy

The Harpy is an experimental short that weaves different visual and experimental video techniques with monologue and performance, animating the plight of a female goddess who awakens after a 10,000 year coma to realize she was exiled by the Harpy sisterhood and is “the last of the last ones.”

The monologues capture the spirit of Carl Theodore Dreyer — Artist Sylvia Toy’s favorite Director. Like Dreyer, Toy teases the essence of her many incarnations of character by taking charge of ‘the gaze’ of the camera, or Viewer. Reminiscent of scenes from Dreyer’s Vampyr or his more iconic Jean of Arc, Toy harnesses the gaze in order for her characters to lock the viewer in literal exchange, even momentarily.

Through the power of that ‘Audience’ interaction, the characters of Toy’s The Harpy emerge.

Yet, to assume an understanding of Sylvia Toy — the Artist — simply through viewing of The Harpy would be a mistake. Toy’s video performance art series and movies are the most complicated of her oeuvre to understand. To attempt to understand the Artist, one must start at the beginning. My discussion of The Harpy will continue afterward.

The Artist

Her story is a book yet unwritten, of which this article plays but one part. Throughout her career, Sylvia Toy has been many things: Actress, Screenwriter, Sculptor, Painter, Performance and Video Artist. Her repertoire and oeuvre is as manifold as she is an Artist and Individual. In many ways, her work in different media act as separate incarnations, mini-biographies, representative of specific and significant stages of awareness and development for Toy. Likewise, the themes of transformation, death, rebirth, and survival act as primary conduits in her sculpture, theater, and video performance work. To truly understand Sylvia Toy and her evolution, one needs to examine each stage, each media type as synecdoche of who she has become as Woman, Artist, Creator, and Individual.

Born Nena St. Louis and raised in Kansas in the 1960s, Sylvia Toy aka Nena St. Louis not only ‘bore witness’ to the Civil Rights Movement, but played a role within the African-American diaspora in her own struggle to find and articulate a unique, empowered voice for herself, beyond that of the quintessential and disenfranchised ‘other.’ Her vast array of accomplishments and nature of her work across media stands as great testament to her ability to make a space for herself as an articulate and empowered Woman and Artist. In her sculpture, theater, and video art, she weaves archetype, myth, religion, and history into the fabric of her creations, productions and characters, such that she seems to transcend objectification or label in the act of tackling it head-on. Perhaps this was a subconscious act, but it is nonetheless apparent, when examining her oeuvre as a whole.

Sculpture

Between 1984–2010, Nena St. Louis created and exhibited sculpture throughout the U.S. and abroad, and her works are in private collections through the United States and Germany.

In the work Origins (Ceres Gallery, NY), featured above, one can trace the beginnings of Humanity in tandem with the emergence of figure from natural form, as the faces seem to appear out of the natural rings and marks of the wood from which she carved the piece. While her critics cite the parallel between the carved faces she creates and Dogon sculpture of Mali, West Africa, St. Louis herself cites her muse as largely subconscious, working as the Surrealists did, and channeling her internal wavelengths into material form.

However, the atrocities and rape perpetrated against women in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s enraged St. Louis, and she responded by charring and mummifying her sculpture in works such as The Elders, Mummy, and Rape.

Through her sculpture, Nena combined paint, wood sculpture, charring, and mummification

To uncover and show as much truth about human experience as I’m capable of.

It is clear from the plethora of works she created, the awards and recognition she earned, that her work as Sculptor is a testament to her ability to fulfill that goal.

In 2010, however, her trajectory as Sculptor changed dramatically. She suffered an anaphylactic reaction to sawdust utilized with her sculpture. That event forced her to make a choice, and it was from then on that she has concentrated her focus on video performance and continued work in theater.

Theater

Nena St. Louis has built a significant name for herself as Actress, Playwright, and Artistic Director. Her vast portfolio includes work with Afro Solo, Brava Theatre’s Taking Shape (both in San Francisco), Café Voltaire (Chicago), The Children’s Theatre (Lincoln, NE), Cultural Odyssey’s African-American Performance Art Festival, The Headlands, The Lorraine Hansberty Theatre, and many others. Between 1990 and 2007 she regularly toured, and has contributed to theater projects in San Francisco and throughout the country for more than 20 years.

St. Louis has earned multiple awards and accolades for her work in the theater as well. In 1993 she was named the Fierson Playwright Fellow with the Lorraine Hansberty Theater, succeeding in earning the Emerging Artist of the Year award the following year. Under the Direction of Ellen Sebastian Chang, St. Louis brought the one-woman show SCHOOLS! to life, which is based on her and her family’s struggle to integrate into a local white elementary school and community in 1962 Kansas City.

SCHOOLS! Premiered in the 1997 Afro Solo Festival in San Francisco, and resulted in St. Louis’s Artist Residency with the University of Nebraska between 1998 and 2003. During that time, she also performed the title character in Roberta D’Alois’ Alan Klasky Never Loved Me with Café Voltaire in Chicago.

Even without seeing her performances firsthand, the many great reviews and recommendations Nena St. Louis has earned speak volumes for her merits as Actress, as Dramaturg, and as Artist. Concerning her role in Alan Klasky Never Loved Me, Jack Helbig of the Chicago Reader observed:

(St. Louis) tells her story in much the same way you might at a party (sic). What St. Louis does have is a born storyteller’s sense of how to pace her story, how much detail to give us, and when to move on.

Throughout her career on stage St. Louis continued to hone her craft. Off-stage, she proved an ambitious and driven creative spirit. She co-founded Jump! Theater of San Francisco and worked with them between 2005 and 2010. Through Jump!’s 2007 Springboard project, St. Louis collaborated with Rebecca Longworth, Holly Brown and Michael Lewis in the writing and production of Do You Want to Buy My Brain? — a one-woman show that personifies a New York sculptor’s struggle with madness.

As testament to her continued success, the L.A. New Noir Novel, Film & Script Festival in 2016 awarded her Grand Jury recognition. She continues her work in theater in addition to creating video performance art. Between 2014 and 2016 her castings include the Narrator in Alison Williams’ film Falling Upstairs, the Homeless Woman in Sean Sinclair’s short film Flesh, and the title character in Katherine Robards’ play Madame Pearl.

However, it is the video and performance art that Nena St. Louis creates as Sylvia Toy, which truly reflects the culmination of who she has become as Woman and Artist. VR Artist, filmmaker and Second Life producer D.C. Spensley summarizes the breadth and scope of St. Louis’s talent best, describing her as:

An exemplary artist, one of the most driven and creative polymaths I have ever known. She writes, directs, performs, sculpts and consistently delivers world class art experiences.

Looking back at her work in theater, the overlaps and inspiration are obvious. Much of her gifts and skills in developing narrative and character seem to underpin her video performance work.

In conversation, Nena St. Louis shared that her work as an Actress evolved as she learned to diverge from the classical training and ballet traditions of her teachers. In many ways, a lot of what she brought to the stage as a solo-performer could be categorized and was often promoted as ‘performance art.’ Therefore, it was a natural evolution for her to move from the stage to the more abstract, more limitless space of video. Yet, she wanted the freedom to ‘start fresh’ with the new medium of video, and so invented ‘Sylvia Toy’ as the persona through which she would forge a name for herself as a prolific video artist who has since written, directed, and produced more than 5,000 hours of work.

Video (?)

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been afraid of running out of art. Video is endless. There is always farther to go, always something to learn.

Video as medium enables Sylvia Toy to enact layers of manifestation from what she calls “the studio in my mind,” and it is a medium in which her gifts, her inspirations, her many voices, converge beautifully.

Through video, Toy endeavors to create “microcinema that crosses genre into nonlinear narrative.” Given that scope and objective, her video art/microcinema are the most abstract, most complicated works in Toy’s oeuvre, and therefore the most difficult to comprehend, unless one already has working knowledge or familiarity with video artists like Janaina Tschäpe, whose work bears parallels to Toy’s, which I will discuss later.

Nobody

Nobody is a classic example of video performance art, and it reflects Toy’s ability to visualize and manifest threads of consciousness much in the same way that Virginia Woolf did in her writing in Waves and A Room of One’s Own.

Repetition is a strong motif that Toy utilizes in many of her video works. In Nobody, Toy uses spoken, visual, and body repetition to represent/ manifest layered themes: Woman against man, Woman against the World, and most importantly — Woman against Mind/Herself.

“Nobody can put thoughts inside my head,” is the mantra Toy invokes over and over and over, as multiple iterations of her video produced self dance and move throughout a small space against a bright red backdrop. Lunging, squatting, jumping, scowling, affirming, Toy repeats the phrase with different levels of reflection and commitment. The repetitive audio frames the entire scene like a decorative border, beneath which the observer bears witness to the struggle to emerge against Self and Other.

In the first part of the 4 minute and 15 second performance, projected onto a screen under spotlight for the filmed audience below, Toy’s overlaid and repeated image reinforces her mantra “Nobody can put thoughts inside my head,” which culminates in a tantrum, as she yells “Nobody, Nobody, Nobody!!!” Toy too, is dressed in red, wearing simple cotton pants, white shoes, and a red v-neck cotton shirt, which allows the viewer to focus on the message, on her face, rather than be distracted by her dress.

The tension builds, and Toy pulls at her hair, starts jumping around in the space as she continues to insist her statement into being, adding another layer to the struggle as she bewails “Sucking all the air out of the room, trying to suck all of my oxygen” before reverting to her refrain in a bellowing crescendo, “NOBODY can put thoughts inside MY head!”

She transitions, declaring “I can’t see you, but I can feel you there…” filling the space with her various projected incarnations that dance and stomp, and move like overlapping Indian dancers. One of the more faint versions of self starts to scream at the top of her lungs in the back right hand corner of the red space while the self in the foreground grimaces and continues, “Sucking the air out of the room, sucking my air, trying to suck all of my oxygen; Nobody Can Put Thoughts Inside My Head!” The screaming ends when the self carries the mantra to its end. The effect is powerful, and breathes life into a mental struggle that is normally internal and silent.

The use of repetition buttresses the mantra, and seems to reinforce the will of Self over Self, Self over Other, Woman Over Madness, Woman over Man, as different versions of Toy crouch, hug herself, pull at her hair, scream, jump, and declare the right to have a space for herself that is defined by her, by her thoughts, by her emotion and identity rather than being mute against an imposition of thought, the smothering of emotion or the erasure of identity. Toy manages to establish that space — as Woman, As Woman of Color, As Self Against Self-Doubt, and by the performance’s end we witness her triumph, as the Integrated Self emerges from the background, grows larger than the rest, and walks up to the foreground in proud stature to meet the gaze of the Onlooker with a smile of awareness, confidence, and calm.

Nobody is quintessential performance art. In it, the repetition of the mantra “Nobody can put thoughts in my head,’ of the stomping, moving, dancing selves produce similar effect as Janaina Tschäpe’s use of repetitive playback and body movement in Lacrimacorpus, 2004.

In the beginning of the three minute and 32 second video work, the camera looks down (presumably from a higher floor) upon a slowly twirling Tschäpe, who is dressed in a Victorian gown with a bonnet, which shrouds her head and face from view. Despite the round fullness of her skirts, she barely fills more than 1/10th of the space of the grand room, with ceilings at least ten ft high, bare floor, and walls at least 10ft across. Except for the three large, arched cathedral style windows that look out upon rolling green, Tschäpe is completely enclosed in her space, just as Toy appears, suffocated by the fire engine red solid backdrop against which she performs Nobody.

Dressed, poised, and situated in this way, Tschäpe mimics the quintessential music box ballerina: erect, silent, slowly and methodically turning when wound, unemotive. She is an object to be examined or admired. Yet, about a minute into the piece, Tschäpe’s arms rise up into the perfectly poised curves of a music box ballerina, and she continues to turn faster, until she begins to ‘break’ away from her imaginary pedestal in the center of the room. She keeps her form, but continues to twirl ever faster all around the room, until finally, her arms break free, flying like wings at her side approximately two minutes and a half into the video. Tschäpe twirls free, arms outstretched and flailing at the climax of her performance, until she finally collapses in the center of the room. Unlike Toy’s calm and proud resolution to Nobody’s end, which is a scene of expansion outward, as her whole, integrated self emerges from the background toward the foreground to confront the gaze of the viewer, Tschäpe’s final ‘act’ is one of implosion, where she collapses into stillness at the same point from which she initially stood.

Tschäpe’s Lacrimacorpus is a daydream about freedom. The dancer envisions herself breaking away from the pillar of objectification, which would normally keep her fastened and poised in the center of the music box/room. She momentarily dances, breaks her arms apart, outstretches them, and flails them freely about. Yet, at the video’s close, she is still cast in that role, wearing the same clothes, shrouded by the same bonnet, and collapses back into the reality of her projected bondage by the video’s end. It enacts metaphorical, not literal freedom. In contrast, Toy’s Nobody manifests a literal and metaphorical liberation and declaration of self. Through combating and wailing against imposed dress, roles, acts, ‘thoughts,’ Toy banishes silence, subservience, compliance or erasure and proclaims instead her wholeness, oneness, and power by the last frame. Indeed, Toy succeeds in declaring her voice, her body as forces, which she enacts in the service of forging from the imposing, blank, solid red space, a ‘room’ of her own.

Nobody is a powerful example of Toy’s genius, yet it comprises only one facet of her vision as video artist. Not only does Toy draw inspiration from her work in the theater, but also from her understanding of anatomy and archaeology gained through sculpture, in order to craft and perfect her video performance work.

What makes her unique is her courage and ability to share her process from raw idea to completed film. As she states, she workshops each scene, each progression and stage of development in her performance art projects and webseries for peers. Through comments, shares, likes and other feedback, Toy builds her productions organically.

The ‘audience’ or omnipresent viewer bears literal witness to her stage of creation and part of who Sylvia Toy is as video artist emerges from that interaction.

The Spinster series are great examples. In each ‘episode,’ of The Spinster we witness and experience a different aspect of the Spinster’s character and biography in formation. Depending on the order in which one chooses to watch them, the story of the Spinster emerges through fragmented, nonlinear, ‘rough’ cuts. In many ways, the evolution of the Spinster into a whole, three-dimensional being mirrors the organic process through which a stranger transitions from ‘other’ to person to acquaintance, to friend. The apparent simplicity of each scene belies the ingenuity behind the vision.

The Spinster

Take You have to let go of your drawing from The Spinster series for instance.

We encounter a woman whose face we cannot see in the beginning. The only thing visible is her back, her hands, her drawing pad and her pencil, which acts as a recurrent motif throughout the vignette. Her frustration to draw is palpable. She folds and files away older drawings she finds, as she turns page after page in search of inspiration. It is a private moment we encounter behind metaphorical closed doors, like a scene we might share on our girlfriend’s bed in her bedroom, and Toy colors the frames accordingly, using different levels of exposure or effect.

Approximately two minutes into the seven minute piece, she proclaims “the line is in your mind.” Toy’s hands remove a single leaf of paper, and begin ripping and tearing at it with concentrated deliberation as she embeds the phrase “the line is in your mind” into paper fibers like ink, forming a the three dimensional figure depicted in profile with her hands. The hands of the Spinster and her pencil are the real ‘protagonists’ of this piece, and they confront and shape the paper according to their will.

She proceeds to drawing minute detail over the face and body of the three-dimensional woman she formed out of paper, to infuse it with a semblance of character. The Spinster sets that aside and her pencil assumes center stage, tapping and rapping against the page, before jumping into action. Against a backdrop of silence, the pencil meanders and glides over the paper, finally forming the outlines of another female figure before the scene fades to black.

Toy’s body, voice and phrase “the line is in your mind” act as supporting cast, if you will, to the protagonists of pencil and paper through which the narrative emerges. The lines, rather than the body, tell the story, and they comprise just one aspect, one facet of the Spinster.

Killer Jane

Like The Harpy, Killer Jane is a video art movie, released in episodic series, much the same way Dickens released chapters, or staves, of A Christmas Carol in 1843. Like The Spinster, each ‘episode,’ of Killer Jane reveals a different aspect of the title and supporting characters. Likewise, the narrative and plot emerge in the same fragmented, nonlinear fashion, which some may find frustrating (especially those seeing the descriptive word ‘movie’ and assuming that the plot and story arcs will be traditionally presented). Toy’s genius lies in the exposed process and interaction between Viewer, Artist, and material product. Each episode represents a complete moment, and therefore it is possible to examine each as a separate and whole creation, in addition to the ability to analyze all the videos that contribute to the story as a whole.

Killer Jane: Getaway Experiment 6, 2016, Camera 2

Take Killer Jane: Getaway Experiment 6 for instance. We witness the title character — Killer Jane — as a projected shadowy silhouette, over which crosses Killer Jane herself, dressed in a black zipper dress, lilac headscarf, wearing burgundy leather gloves, and holding a gun.

Rather than being foregrounded, like The Spinster’s title character, the title character of Killer Jane seems far away in this episode. Her feet are planted on some invisible surface that exists across a space/time expanse that the Viewer cannot cross, like in a dream. The shadow behind Jane has a large, crown-like tuft of hair and seems to taunt Jane by hovering behind and around her: crouching and outstretching an arm toward Jane. The Shadow/Silhouette seems hypervigilant of Jane’s presence through movements that suggest curiosity and fascination. Yet, we don’t know. All we see is the silhouette — the shadow. Jane herself also seems to inhabit this dream/nightmare realm. She has a handgun, but seems unsure what to do with it, confused as to why she has it, or in which direction to point it. The gun’s presence in her hand is clearly upsetting. Jane slams the gun down at her feet in exasperation and that act creates an echo that reverberates throughout the dreamlike realm, and throughout the scene as a whole.

Although the episode itself is four minutes, the story is nowhere near complete. There is no explanation for the round, fire engine red tunnel that suggests an alternate reality, just behind the shadow and somewhat out of Jane’s grasp. Beyond the tunnel’s entrance is a long corridor, which leads out of sight. Jane fingers the gun, wondering at its presence. Even without dialogue, the whole scene creates the strong impression that this nightmare may be internal: taunting her whether awake or asleep.

The episode acts like a teaser, persuading the audience to want more, to probe deeper. The Harpy works in the same manner.

The Harpy, First cut, 2016

Initially, I watched the first cut of The Harpy in its entirety. With a stronger understanding of Sylvia Toy as Artist, as Video Artist, as Creative fountainhead, I would strongly discourage that for the first view of her work. Due to the fact that the organic and exposed process of Toy’s video art comprises and even anchors the complete narrative or series, her video art movies seem more fragmented if viewed as complete cut movie, more ‘whole’ as a collective of vignettes, from which the true narrative appears.

There are five major episodes which comprise The Harpy first cut: The Goddess awakening, The Sisterhood Monologue, The Goddess considering her plight, The First One Monologue, and The Goddess nourishing herself after her long 10,000 year sleep.

Rather than examine all five scenes, I feel it will be more effective to analyze one, as I did with Killer Jane. Though vastly different, each scene acts as formulaic repetitions of the artist’s process. Toy tests the limits of her medium, employs different visual devices and scenes. However, it is her exploration of Character, Character depiction, self exploration, revelation, and courage to be vulnerable which forms the core of her video performance work. I saved The Harpy for last, since I feel that The Sisterhood Monologue exemplifies this best.

The Sisterhood Monologue 1

Against a desert backdrop, the four members of the Sisterhood seem to float amidst the heavens, much the same way the Goddesses or Fates of the Greek Pantheon might. Toy’s fascination with mythology, history, mysticism, and religion culminate in her depiction of spiritual ‘judgement’ as personified through the Sisterhood. At the same time, the plotline seems to crystallize in this episode.

In the beginning of the episode we only see two sisters. Both are cloaked in white, with arms bound within their cloaks. The one in the background speaks first: “You disagreed. You said we were wrong.” The declarative and even tone of her statements erupt into accusations, as the second sister in the foreground states, “I remember you,” pushing her sister to intervene, which she does, yelling “I remember You. I Remember You. You said we were wrong! You said we had made a mistake!” By the time she is done making her accusation there appears a third sister in between them, wearing the same robe and immediately starts shaking her head repeatedly back and forth in protest, chanting, “I Remember You. I Remember You.” The four sisters continue their rant in overlapping cacophony. Occasionally, another element to their accusations becomes clear. The sister in the foreground proclaims “You said we made a mistake! Gods don’t make mistakes!” The others join in in their individual fashion. The scene’s climax is the Sisterhood demanding that the Harpy “Go Away!! Leave Us Alone!” At the scene’s resolution we see the sister in the foreground denounce the Harpy yelling “You made a mistake! Gods don’t make mistakes!” Her voice merges with that of her sisters, until she clearly states, “We need to shun her all over again.” By the time the final ’n’ in ‘again’ leaves her lips, the sisterhood turn their heads from the Harpy, from the gaze of the Viewer in disgust, before the scene fades to black.

The scene reminds me of the ‘Mother Whispers’ scene from Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, 2000, starring Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn.

Against a darkened sky and otherworldly dreamscape, three women sit bent legged over the grooves in a vast, unplowed field, wrapped in black sheets and wearing fourteenth-century style peasant wimples, with their mouths gaping open in the direction of the dark clouds in the sky.

Vince Vaughn looks around in a bewildered state, cursing in frustrated confusion at sight of the mothers. Like the Greek Fates, or Toy’s Sisterhood, Singh’s Mothers declare their purpose in whispers. The one in the foreground asks, “Have you seen him? My boy? My little one? His father took him from me.” The mother in the middle interjects, “I spit it out my hole. Big deal. Don’t mean anything.” The one in the background declares, “My child’s an abomination. He has no soul.” All three of them swiftly return to their former positions, mouths gaping open in the direction of the sky.

In the fantastic dreamscape of The Cell, child psychologist Catherine Deane (Lopez) uses an experimental technique to enter the mind of coma patients, one of whom is a serial killer, in order to locate his final victim before it is too late. In many ways, the film parallels the video art series of Sylvia Toy. Like Toy, Singh refrains from presenting the story in linear or logical form, opting instead, to cast the audience into the mind of Carl Rudolph Stargher along with Deane, demanding that we weave the narrative out of the fragmented, nonlinear scenes of Stargher’s psyche.

The scene of the Mother Whispers is a scene of revelation, just as the episode of the Harpy Sisterhood Monologue adds a layer of conflict to the plight of The Harpy title character, through their recognition and accusations made against her. The scene provides substance, yet expects the viewer to seek out more to gain better understanding of the greater narrative at work in the series. Like the episodes of Killer Jane or The Spinster, Toy animates and reveals a single element of a narrative, like that of the Harpy Sisterhood, in each vignette. From that episode we are inducted into her world, her vision, as FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) finds himself in the world of Stargher in The Cell. From that encounter, we are expected and encouraged to navigate the terrain of her landscape, in order to delve deeper and reveal more of the story.

As a movie, The Cell received mixed reviews, despite garnering nominations for Best Period or Fantasy Film, and awards for Favorite Actress — Science Fiction. Overall, general reception to the film is poor, where the average person declares that is a “stupid, yet amazingly designed picture.” The disconnect is parallel to those who seem confused or frustrated by Toy’s work. Taken and examined as a series of individual vignettes, Tarsem Singh and Sylvia Toy are brilliant visionaries of video art. Pooled together as a feature length film, and they lose some of their magic and coherence.

Yet, Toy’s decision to parcel her video performances into episodes is intentional.

Toy’s nonlinear vignettes provide her with a much more liberal and expansive space in which to explore herself, her characters and the themes of each story. Her decision to do so profoundly resonates with an outsider’s ability to fully appreciate and comprehend the overlapping layers of reality, imagination, and ideology at work in each piece. Perhaps Singh’s vision might have been better received if he had presented the intricate and arcane scenes of The Cell as separate, but interconnected episodes. Nonetheless, The Cell has been a great source of inspiration for Toy, and she admits that her own knowledge of designed environments stems in large part from the work of Tarsem Singh.

Overall, The Harpy, Killer Jane, and The Spinster represent stages in the evolution of the video art of Sylvia Toy. They are organic and malleable, yet are complete visions unto themselves. To truly understand her vision, her voice as Artist, one needs to continually adjust vantage points among her medium, performances, and visual productions.

Madness

As if her vast oeuvre was not impressive enough, Sylvia Toy does something that defines her as Artist and Woman, but which has been traditionally very rare. She has the courage to share, to expose the faces of bipolar disorder as an element and source of inspiration for her work.

‘Madness’ and mental illness is a theme that permeates Toy’s repertoire. In stage productions like Do You Want to Buy My Brain?, Toy St. Louis introduces us to two powerful female archetypes: the Madwoman and the Mad Female Artist. In her film TYFTB (thank you from the bottom, 2014), Toy plays a woman who tries to convince her psychiatrist to release her from a mental hospital in order that she find a black hole and save herself from the collapsing universe she believes is inevitable. In her Voice webseries, Toy becomes Psyche Lyssa Echo Smith — a bipolar who enters therapy so that her husband will return to her. Finally, she offers an unprecedented view of her journey and struggles with bipolar disorder, through her publications such as 2015 My Manic Diary, in which she shares the emotional three-month journey leading to retirement, and Writing While Manic: Don’t Cure Me, 2013.

Madness and the Madwoman in Art

Throughout the History of Art, women in particular, were vulnerable to labels of ‘hysteria’ and madness, which often marginalized the presentation and reception of their artistic creations. Going all the way back to Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, female artists were placed on the defensive in terms of their craft and their sanity. Whereas a male artist could freely depict the sexual, the grotesque, the fabricated, and the anguished, female artistic work portraying the same subject matter was never perceived as equal, but rather as evident of their ‘afflictions’ as women, specifically, as hysterical, mad women.

Gentileschi lived with rumors of rape, based on reception of her interpretation of Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614–1620, for what else could have inspired such a bloody portrayal of this traditional religious scene, normally typified by artists like Caravaggio.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614
Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598–1599

The look of cognitive dissonance on Judith’s face in Caravaggio’s version (above) is one of moral conflict. The crone figure hovering behind her seems to be the force propelling Judith to perform this act. In contrast Gentileschi’s Judith dominates Holofernes with her female companion of the same age and stature. Both appear calm, deliberate and determined to dominate and decapitate Holofernes. Judith’s companion in red, in the background holds him down, while Judith in the right foreground, in blue, grips Holofernes by his sideburns, twisting his head up toward her as she slices into his neck. It is not an act of moral responsibility in the service of her people, but is an act of murder, disturbing for many to witness and quintessential of the emotional type of scenes that were believed to betray the imbalance of the ‘madwoman.’

With the advent of monotheistic patriarchal religion and dogma, the Pantheon of Pagan Goddesses slowly evolved into monstrous and blood thirsty creatures. However, the Harpy of Toy’s video art series transcends that label. Her incarnation of the Harpy is her own, yet bears resemblance to the descriptions of the harpy by Hesiod.

According to Homer, the harpyia or harpie (old French) personified storm winds, often perceived as responsible for carrying off people who disappeared with the storm. In Hesiod’s accounts, the harpie were light haired and winged creatures, known for snatching people. It was not until the advent of Christianity that the harpie morphed into the harpy — the disfigured monster with talons for claws, a pale face, and terrible wings.

Toy’s harpy harnesses the Feminine, and manages to recapture the essence of the primordial and archetypal pagan goddess. The title character in The Harpy has a feminine core, a conscience, and inspires the viewer to explore deeper to discover who she is.

Yet, in the larger art historical timeline, the image of the madwoman persisted and haunted the ability of the female artist to create works that truly reflected her emotions, her passions. Throughout the nineteenth century Ophelia was the metonym for the Madwoman. The emergence of Freud and Psychology introduced the hysterical woman, such as his case study Dora: a woman who is sexually stifled, suffering from aches, imbalance, and prone to mood swings. According to Freud and many others, the cure to ‘hysteria’ lie in finding the proper ‘medicine’ and in relying on the ability of her male physician to ‘alleviate’ her imbalance and sexual issues through genital massage.

In the twentieth century, suffrage and the women’s liberation movement provided a new space for women to express themselves and be valued.

Guerrilla Girls
Barbara Kruger
Karen Finley
Ana Mendieta

Female artists like the Guerilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, Karen Finley, Ana Mendieta, and Pipilotti Rist have harnessed their prowess, their right to their own image, their sexuality, and their ethnicity as sources of creativity and self-identification. Yet, each of the women artists above has had to defend their sanity in one form or another, in response to their art. In contrast, Toy transforms what others would call an ‘affliction’ into the ultimate inspiration. As from a nebula, her muse nurtures and releases infinite voices, inceptions of being, and she has the courage to invite her fans, the public, the world to witness and join her in this journey.

According to Toy, she “shows mental illness as cinema of the absurd.” When looking at scenes from her recently completed Voice webseries, and following title character Psyche Lyssa Echo Smith’s journey into outer space when her psychotic voice Echo discovers her personal star, the parallels to classics of the genre.

In the episode “Echo and Lyssa’s Trip to the Moon” we see Echo beckoning Lyssa to ‘take in the view from the surface of the moon!’ sporting her characteristic blue umbrella, fucia silk gloves, purse, and doctor’s coat. Lyssa moves about like a spaceman at first, as she explores this exciting terrain. She also wears a doctor’s coat, and of course a construction hat fastened to to her head and around her neck by grosgrain ribbon (what else?).

The scene and Toy’s experimentation with the absurd blend the cerebral inspiration from cinema classics like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) with elements from the literary such as Waiting for Godot (1953) by Beckett (one of Toy’s all time favorite authors) or Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner (1931). In particular, the manner in which Toy parcels her video conceptions into episodes that are laden with complicated and interlaced visual, literary, and ideological allusions bears a lot of resemblance to Lynch’s series of seemingly disconnected up-close scenes with no obvious arc.

Voice is a classic example of Toy’s use of mental illness in the service of her art, however, it is her willingness to reveal aspects of the struggle underneath, such as seen in Writing While Manic: Don’t Cure Me, 2013 that expose and confront an aspect of ‘madness’ with the power to connect with the viewer and provide healing. Voice’s contribution to the field is invaluable, and it is no surprise that HearteartH of Berlin selected the performance art movie for exhibition this July 2016. Voice has also been exhibited through the International Video Art Exchange Program in Marrakech (2016) and featured in the Chemcraft Exhibit, CM Projects of London (2015).

Conclusion

Through her sculpture and in theater, Toy has confront issues of sexuality, identity, color, and divide. Toy’s courage and ability to personify so many shades of being, and explore or experiment with a vast array of techniques truly establish her vanguard status in the field of video and performance art. Her ability to expose aspects of herself and her process provide another layer, another dimension of beauty and value to her artistic contributions and to who she is as Artist.

For more than three decades, Nena Sylvia Toy St. Louis has shared herself with the world as Actress, Dramaturg, Playwright, Creative Director, Sculptor, and Video Performance Artist. Her video art continues to push boundaries as she confronts and explores the surreal, the imaginative, the archetypical, and the feminine. Her work deserves merit and her voice should be documented and remembered. She has earned her place alongside the pillars and pioneers of her craft. Nena Sylvia Toy St. Louis is indeed a captivating and profound Creative. Woman. Force. Artist.

- Artist Statement

I don’t know whether I’m a genius, but I’m sure that having a burning passion to have the frame of mind to make art every day gave me a focus that has a positive effect on every aspect of my life.

To Find out more about Nena Sylvia Toy St. Louis, subscribe to her YouTube channel, follow her on Vimeo, Facebook, or connect with her via LinkedIn.

About the Author