Visage et Visages

“Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that I’d rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me”. ~Dorothy Allison

They are infamous lips — colored red and strewn across the sky. Observatory Time: the Lovers by Man Ray is an iconic painting that most will recognize even if they don’t know the title. Few however, know that those lips belonged to a real person who was also a significant artist and the first woman to go on the front lines as a combat photographer in WWII. Lee Miller was muse to some of the greatest artists of the 20th century and yet, her name and work lives largely in obscurity.

The Black Panther party is, for many, most powerfully represented by a woman’s afro framed face defiant and demanding revolution. Yet few are aware that Angela Davis was only a member of the party for less than a year. Always also a feminist, she found the leadership to be inherently sexist. Before the group formed she had already been fighting. Long after the group disbanded she continued to fight for civil rights with every fiber of her being and does so to this day. Still, it is that 1968 image of her face that is most remembered. The image has, in fact, superseded the actual woman.

A young woman with lines of blue tattoos on her face becomes the cause célèbre of her era. Abducted by the Yavapai after they killed her parents and then traded to the Mohave, Olive Oatman was emblematic of a lesser known history of western expansion in 1850’s America. But was she held captive and abused by the Mohave or was she willingly assimilated? Returned to white society when she was nineteen, those blue marks told different tales depending on who it was that viewed them, but the truth of her experience remains a mystery.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg has served on the Supreme Court since 1993 mostly incognito and unrecognizable to the general populace. That is until she began writing dissenting opinions in a fraught political climate and a group of female activists dubbed her the “Notorious RBG”. Suddenly her face, steely eyed and fierce, was seen everywhere. It was printed on T-shirts, cast into film and made into memes. A supreme court justice turned into icon.

“Truth is powerful and it prevails.” ~Sojourner Truth.

Each have become a visage and a visage — a face as well as a surface. Flesh and bone transformed into planes in space, an etched outline, a masque, flattened and crafted to represent an idea rather than the human.

In bold contrast, French artist Peggy Viallat-Langlois has brought the life back to these faces. Wrought both large and small, through her rendering, these vital beings have been rescued from iconography. The pulse of the person comes through, seeping through canvas and paint, as though the blood is still beating in their veins and the marrow continuing to thrive. Through her strokes comes too the blush, those moments of humiliation or excitement or fury reddening the skin in corporeal truth. These faces sweat. These faces breathe. The eyes look out speaking a thousand stories daring us — painfully, sweetly, powerfully — to listen.

Cherchez la femme, coined by Alexandre Dumas in his 1864 novel the Mohicans of Paris literally translates as, “look for the woman”. Its meaning, later popularized in pulp fiction novels, is in essence, if ever there is trouble the cause will be a woman. That may be the origin but in this new millennium the phrase could stand a more direct interpretation. For, and history bears this out, there is indeed a woman at the core of many a significant eruption.

Inspect closely the beginnings of computer science, you will find a woman there. Delve into the early explorations of DNA and again, a woman you will find. The fight to abolish slavery was primarily led by women. Expansion of an empire, there too a woman be. Solarization, a photographic process of exposing extreme light to film negatives, is often credited to Man Ray when, in fact, it was Lee Miller’s discovery. His solarized image of her the one the one that is most often written of rather than her use of the technique. César Chávez is the recognized face of the farmworkers and immigrant rights movement that led the Delano grape strike in California. Numerous streets have been named for him, as well as cargo ships, parks and monuments. His birthday is even a designated holiday in some states, deservedly so. However, along side him from the very beginning was co-founder Dolores Huerta. A name and a woman not familiar to most. Huerta raised eleven children, was arrested 22 times and beaten by police officers on more than one occasion but she has never ceased advocating for workers’, immigrants’, and women’s rights. In any given protest when strength is needed to keep going on up will rise the chant of, “Si se Puede!” It was a shout brought into being by Huerta when in 1962 she declared, “Yes, You Can!”

It is most certainly true that these women, (and Divine), have caused trouble. Trouble indeed. Good trouble. The kind of trouble that aims to excavate and challenge the world for the better. Because in truth, these be warriors. Warriors of many a method and diverse purpose carving into the binds that would try to restrain them and hold them down.

“This time, I am at war.”

Some years ago, Peggy Viallat-Langlois saw television footage of a Palestinian child killed by sniper fire while his father tried to shield him. For her, that devastating moment reinvigorated her rage and her need to paint. A need that had begun as a child and was first inspired by seeing the The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Ucello. In the three-panel series the horses heave and rear, swords clash and vibrant hues articulate the fervor of valiant endeavor in the midst of chaos. The screams of battle can almost be heard. The paroxysm of emotionality in that work left a deep impression on her mind. It is not the battle itself that is of interest but rather the tumult of human striving and suffering. Her compulsion of brush is propelled by a visceral recognition, an intense questioning and a desire to find the humanity within conflict.

Photojournalism is another significant influence in her work not merely for its gritty realism but for the capacity of the medium to potently forge connection. She cites the perspective of Guillaume Herbaut, “If you want your work to be impregnated with a truth or a certainty you have to make it a form of your own experience. You have to make it a part of you.” Before even beginning a painting she spends a considerable amount of time pondering and reading about her subject. She then looks for the primitive aspects of a subject — both human and animal — to honor the innate wildness in them. A seeing of both their living essence and their potential death is another part of the investigation. Through her process the paint retains the tension of the life, telling layers upon layers of stories. Wet paint layered onto still wet paint of green hues resonate of rot, bursting reds, tainted blues interplayed with flesh tones and soft yellows are the pallet used by her to evoke the body, soul and the eventual corpse. Modern society tends to view death as dirty. A thing to be shunned. But an acceptance of it, in all its grotesquerie, as part of our natural cycle and as an intrinsic physical metamorphosis is a vital aspect to her portraits. Including her own self-portraits.

Van Gogh painted himself over and over again. Historians and critics alike have posited that this was a compulsion of narcissistic obsession, evidence of his madness. That very well may be. But also true is that the understanding of others and the elemental requires that one also understand oneself. To continue to re-investigate the self when new knowledge and new questions arise is as necessary to being an artist as is perfection of technique. Peggy says of her self-portraits, “they are easier for me as I already I know my architecture. I paint myself to get at a question: what is happening here, where are we the same? Self-portraiture allows me to connect others to me and me to others. It works both ways. Even if I do not have the answers I can at least say that we’re here and we stand together.”

To deeply understand the core of each and the sum of the whole, she also delves into the details of each individual’s experience and then explores what connects them to each other. Though it was with a furious sense of being at war that provoked a resurgence of her art, the more recent works are wiser than that. They explore the aftermath of the battle, the quiet debris strewn street after the storm, the reflection after the vanquishing. It is then instead, art of survival that is brought into stark relief.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity/ Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous/ Wears yet a precious jewel in its head.” ~ As You Like It, Shakespeare

None of the warriors painted went down in a blaze of glory, forever immortalized for a moment of bravery. Decades and decades of creating, fighting, struggling through immense hardship, achieving and ever pursuing new possibilities for enacting change comprise the lives of many of these fighters. A courage of tenacity is theirs. A resilience honored profoundly by Peggy’s compassionate treatment. These pieces reek of empathy.

The portrait of Huerta is based on a long-ago youthful photograph of those early protest days of the 1960’s. Considering the fact that Huerta is currently eighty-eight years it was an interesting choice. Like the eighty-five-year-old Ginsberg, Huerta is certainly not at all doddering in her old age but that young image inspired because it showed even then, a strong woman full of verve. For Peggy, the photos of her youth emitted such a force. The force of the story on the move, idealism lifted up proud and emanations of Pachamama, the earth mother goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. Though the portrait is very large and faithfully reflects the strength of the woman, the overall resulting effect is one of softness. Illuminated in her face is that most aching and tender of all things — hope.

For, to sincerely survive and believe that one’s efforts spent will bear fruit requires a kind of innocence. Cynicism simply will not do. A tremulous but steady infusion of optimism is what fuels our greatest endeavors. Katherine Cleaver who was actually a full- and long-time member of the Black Panther Party eventually went on to graduate from Yale. She is a now a lecturer, author and lawyer defending clients for wrongful convictions. She also still meets with surviving members of the Black Panthers to talk and care for each other and to heal. It is a celebration of hope now that motivates Peggy’s exploration. A going back to the origins, the impetus of the pursuit. And finally, to reveal what has been hidden. To bring it nakedly out.

There was once a girl who had chosen to attend church on her own purely out of curiosity and earned the glare of the priest for loudly unwrapping a bright yellow piece of candy. A piece of candy possibly all the more delicious for having been an innocent act of transgressive desire. That girl is now the woman and the artist who seeks to find that poignancy of relatable moment in everything she paints. “What links us, is my question today. I wish to touch people, to have my painting become an accompanying song, a breath, a presence…” Every breath we breathe is the same air of all those who have ever breathed from the dawn of time. To stand before these faces is not a passive act of viewing. To see them is to be altered by them as they exhale into us pulling us closer to that which once was, the tethers between us and what we may become.

“I am a village full of faces and a compound full of bones, translucent thousands. Why should I be afraid? I am the source of the spring. All freshwater comes out of my mouth.” ~ Akwaeke Emezi