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The Muse's Storage Box

The Muse's Storage Box
Copyright Diane Lou.

Alchemical Dreams and Disparate Realities

Rust and bones, broken toys and old text, game boards, gears and nests. Even as a child such odd, unwanted items evoked a pit-of-the-stomach response that bordered on exhilaration.
While I make no attempt to conjure up specific feelings in the viewer, the ambiguous juxtapositioning of familiar materials creates art that evokes half-forgotten, dream-like visions that beg to be interpreted by the viewer. There is a sense of deja vu (the already seen) tempered by a sense of jamais vu ( the never seen, or the illusion that the familiar does not seem familiar), and this contradiction asks the viewer to dig deeply, to look inside her own repository of wisdom, intuition and experience to find her own meaning in the familiar objects she sees.
The once-private discards of people's material lives that I collect for my art seem to carry universal memories with them, memories that can engage and mystify the viewer. Their beauty lies within the rust, the erosion, the wear, and the mere fact that they were once possessions.
I play with abandon and with no forethought. Each piece of detritus seems to suggest to me a relationship with some other piece, and I begin to put them together and wait for the mental "buzz" that lets me know I am proceeding as I should. Even at this point, I continue to remain in the play state and will not allow myself to direct the outcome of the piece, a process that requires complete trust. The outcome often mystifies me as much as it might any viewer.
Remember when, as a child, whatever was in reach became the instrument of your creative exploration? That is my life. A rusty, flattened piece of metal on the street, a gnawed bone by the roadside, a unique twisted branch from a tree, a fallen nest, a broken egg, a snake's skin, a dead butterfly...all will be added to my collection and eventually have their beauty honored in one of my pieces. The resulting art creates a new story with its own imagined history, one that invites the viewers to lay some claim on it by allowing themselves to be enveloped by the sight, the history, and the ambiguity of the realities before them.

Friday, May 1, 2009

What does it mean?

Art historian Brian Winkenweder, PhD. wrote an essay about a recent show of my work.  Upon reading it, I was stunned at his ability to put into words an interpretation of my work that far surpassed my own understanding of it, but which also rang true to my inner self.  I did the art, he put it all into words that I couldn't express myself.

Here is his essay in its entirety.

Brian Winkenweder, Ph.D. October, 27, 2008
Assistant Professor of Art History
Department of Art and Visual Culture
Linfield College

Under Wood

We sat as silent as a stone,
We knew, though she’d not said a word,
That even the best of love must die,
And had been savagely undone
Were it not that Love upon the cry
Of a most ridiculous little bird
Tore from the clouds his marvelous moon.
—A Memory of Youth by W.B. Yeats (1912)

A century ago, William Butler Yeats understood the marvelous power of love lost and that this condition underscores the worst and best features of the human condition. And, our capacity to feel, our willingness to experience life in its fullest grandeur is premised upon this bittersweet reality: love lost is love felt at its most profound and spiritual. So, then, what is one to make of Diane Lou’s assemblages? I believe she hits the same notes as Yeats’ best poetry. Her work, when it succeeds, acknowledges the joy and suffering unique to the experience of being human. Their nostalgic patina of melancholia suggests torpors of unresolved mementos that neither soothe nor satisfy. These collections of detritus function as elaborate rebuses with no final solution.
They elicit tip of the tongue sensations, the elusive name that slips from designation. Her constructions create familiar, even comforting, but strange and uncanny juxtapositions of the homely rendered beautiful through the transformative property of suggestion. The conventional and the unexpected meet face-to-face in a showdown where no victor prevails because the struggle ceases to be based on the traditional polarities of good versus evil, or nature versus culture, or old versus new, or male versus female, or the Apollonian versus the Dionysian. Rather, the dialectic synthesis of such traditional binaries seems to be the impetus that governs the principle of suggestive combinations. A tension emerges that guides the reception of these weird collections of the familiar rendered obscure. Indeed, the struggle between these polarities is the point.
These relief sculptures by Lou are powerful, talismanic combinations that offer no easy solution precisely because such answers seem so obvious as to clearly transcend the precision of Occam’s razor. There is no clear and obvious solution because for all their familiarity, Lou’s art typifies the power of the surreal notion of convulsive beauty. Her reliefs should not be dismissed as mere visual poetics; they are poems unto themselves. They do not operate as prods for the poet; they are the result of a poet at work. And, in this poetry, not only is the artist playing tennis without a net, as Robert Frost suggests, she is playing the game in a context in which the only rule is there are no rules. This work of “Moments” reveals the discovery that can only happen when one suspends the need for intentional outcomes and accepts the abandon of discovery revealed through arrangement.
Lou writes a new kind of calligram that extends beyond the literary impulses of concrete poetry by offering random constructions that defy a coherent syntax, yet beg to be read nonetheless. These rebuses confound us with allusions to concealed secrets which make no sense but profoundly affect our disposition. Sure textual elements occur in most of these visual poems, and at times they coordinate as a primary element that governs our meditation, but never do these texts demand our attention to the point of eclipsing the strength of the visual impact. Yes, like puzzles, these assemblages demand a meditative response in viewers who must ask “what do I see?”, ‘where did these narrative vignettes unfold?”, “when did these moments occur?”, “why did these characters succumb to such an optimistic tragedy?” and “how are these familiar objects transformed into something so strange?”
We all know from whence these objects spring, for they can be found in our grandparent’s attics, the forgotten relics found in our grandmother’s cellars and the discarded artifacts littering our grandfather’s workshops. The materials in play evoke a time and place that we all vaguely recall but perhaps we never directly lived: a family’s collection of stories it tells of past ancestors that change with each iteration. They create a visual metonym of musty odors that recall a bygone era which can never be recaptured. These sculptures are Victorian and Romantic simultaneously—safe and dangerous, pictorial and sublime, conventional and unique.
They are figuratively under wood. That is, they appear to be relics one finds in cedar chests and the kind of keepsakes one preserves to remember a time when the whole family was once happy. But, they also reveal that such familial happiness is fleeting, transitory and as much fantasy as reality. These pieces recall that our memories of moments past are a special kind of narrative we tell ourselves to protect us from the pain and sorrow of our histories. They recall a fallen and vaguely recalled majesty. And that is the point. These art works suggest a powerful naïve perception of time when all was right in the world, even as we acknowledge that such order never truly existed.
These assemblages remind us that our memories are unreliable, that the pristine beauty upon which we cling is tempered by the abject reality of our disaffections and disappointments. These calligrams lay bare the heartrending truths of the human condition; that is, they reveal that our Romantic craving for utopia is always already tempered by the Realistic truths that our aspirations must always be tempered by our limitations.
These works suggest a special kind of patina, an encrusted attic aesthetic. They are under wood—under the wood of a hope chest long forgotten whose dreams were never fully realized. Under wood—antique, tabulating machines lost in an age of electronic digital wizardry. Under the floorboards hide the realities of the lived experiences these works suggest. The moments Diane Lou crafts are “discarded.” Indeed, they suggest a “frustration” at the “fossilized” result of our “coupling” that may result in an unspeakable “sacrifice” that suggests an “evolution” of our “family history.” These works lay bare the harsh and beautiful truth that all our families are dysfunctional and thereby something we wish to keep in the closet. But, “cupid” always shoots arrows into places we least expect because from this melancholic meditation on familial frustration emerges the possibility of exuberance.
As I look at Diane Lou’s Memories, the lines of a William Butler Yeats poem came to mind; a poem I did not realize I had memorized. But, as I moved through the show, a specific line echoed in my mind: “a heart that laughter has made sweet, / These, these remain, but I record what’s gone.” I had to find the poem, and I knew Yeats had written it:
Fallen Majesty

Although crowds gathered once if she but showed her face,
And even old men’s eyes grew dim, this hand alone
Like some last courtier at a gypsy camping-place
Babbling of fallen majesty, records what’s gone.

The lineaments, a heart that laughter has made sweet,
These, these remain, but I record what’s gone. A crown
Will gather, and not know it walks the very street
Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud. (1912)

How had Lou conjured this strong response? As one who looks at art on a daily basis, this palpable reaction was rare and unanticipated. Yet, she had hit the same note as Yeats and it thrummed deep in my soul. Further, these art works evoked my own family history; but, moreover, Lou’s reliefs strike a chord that resonates in all of us. Sure, nostalgia is an apt descriptor…but her art transcends mere nostalgia, it reminds us of our most cherished memories. There is a ubiquitous banality in the source material that offers fragments upon which we can project our own memories.
Diane Lou’s poems do not resolve our interpersonal dilemmas. Her work does not heal the wounds of water under the bridges of our families. Rather, her work reveals that all families have such turbulent waters; that we are imperfect vessels holding effluvia from impure sources. Lou’s work pinpoints the reality of the human condition: that we are always children seeking a solution to a problem that can not be solved, the “bluebird of happiness” may not yet be found by us children, but that does not preclude us from searching. Indeed, the search is the point. This search is poetic, and although happiness may be elusive we must be open to its random (and unexpected) appearance. And, the fragmented collection of common source materials offers the clearest iteration of such a truth—the “bluebird of happiness” reveals herself when we least expect it. Diane Lou knows this is true just like W.B. Yeats:
The Peacock
What’s riches to him
That has made a great peacock
With the pride of his eye?
The wind-beaten, stone-grey,
And desolate Three Rock
Would nourish his whim.
Live he or die
Amid wet rocks and heather,
His ghost will be gay
Adding feather to feather
For the pride of his eye. (1914)

Diane Lou’s eye has pride and empathic compassion. For, she clearly has seen all dimensions of the human condition and presents it with a poetry that few can compose. She conjures gay and gray ghosts that inform who we are. We may not share her private iconography, but certainly we can share her sensitivity for the passionate pain that enables us to love—not as lustful lovers but as wise, sensitive souls with the capacity to cherish our fondest memories even as they fade under the weight of a family’s darkest secrets. For, it is those secrets that enable the cherished moments to sing as beautiful songs, as the feathers of a proud peacock, as the gay ghost of pride.

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