Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Describing the Self from the Outside

Okay, I've been trying to synthesize what feels like a really big and important thought for myself and my work.  It's been months and its still forming but I want to try to put down some of it.  I just finished Rachel Cusk's sequel novel, Transit, and simultaneously finished playwright/actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge's series Fleabag.  Two women who in other creative forms are tackling the notion of self in really searingly new ways.

So I listened to a bunch of their interviews on podcasts and here are some of the things:

The interviewer/podcaster/novelist Elizabeth Day remarks to P W-B on her How to Fail Podcast 'as a female novelist I have often found that when women write about families it is always assumed that it is their family and they don't have the intellectual imagination to make the cognitive leap into real fiction.  Whereas when Jonathan Franzen writes a family novel like The Corrections its about the state of the nation."  This.

When my show hung a few people remarked to me, 'are you okay, did you have postpartum', one person actually diagnosed me with D-MER, some kind of hormonal imbalance that occurs during breastfeeding.  And I just laughed it off. Which I sort of hate now, but that is my go to when I feel uncomfortable but want to avoid confrontation.  What I really felt like saying afterward was 'none of your business, and also I'm good, but motherhood is insane and everyone must feel changed by it and also none of your business and also that doesn't have anything to do with the paintings'.  But I know my paintings are about intimacy and derive from personal experience so when they hang in a public space those things can feel permissible.

Nursing(Boot), 2018, Oil on Panel, 24 x 18 inches

But every painting is by its nature a fiction anyway --so these questions are just missing the point entirely which I guess makes it ultimately okay to just laugh them away.  I don't want people to feel like I'm not approachable but I do want them to make an effort to focus on the fact that they are looking at paintings, which may be derived from my lived experience, but must be altered realities and about something beyond an unexamined itemizing of my life if they are to be any good.

I agree with Day, there is a very real gendered response to subject.  I find that if a contemporary male painter and is painting something tender and personal there is much more critical interest. I think this is because it butts up against the stereotype of a heteronormative man's perspective, especially in the history of painting.  This kind of painting by a woman is more expected so it feels safer and therefore somehow less important. Which begs the question, should I, as a woman, have to be conscious of my identity and reactions to it to make a painting?  I want to live in a world where the answer is no and when something speaks truthfully it is noticed for that power alone.  But we are not there.  So how do you make a painting/writing/film do that in our current state?  I think the answer is in the form, awareness of the form and breaking of the form.

Night Fridge(Milk), 2019, Oil on Panel, 30 x 24 inches

Which brings me back to my current obsession, author Rachel Cusk.  Her character becomes so real because she is describing herself through her perception and witnessing of others.  Describing the self by looking at yourself through someone else, hearing how they talk to you, what they feel they can say to you.  I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is also thinking about this and it is why her character addresses the viewer directly.  She is aware of how she is being perceived and watched.

Cusk spoke on the podcast Canadaland of her earlier works being memoirs.  She wrote in that genre because the subject matter was personal.  However, she felt people reacted to them as if they were below examination, a woman's feelings about life ultimately brought only questions about her life and relationship and motherhood, not her art.  So she went on to write these new novels, of which I have read Outline and Transit.  She said she 'is always trying to put lived experience back at the heart of art which is where its always been until recently.  To reconstruct the idea of the writer as a person who lives and then tells the tale.  The relationship of that living to the tale that I tell is essential...  But everything is form and if someone breaks form it is very noticed.'  Which I think is why these books seem to say more clearly what her memoirs also attempted.  The world brought assumptions to her memoirs and she needed to find a way that broke the form so that the same content would actually be read anew and digested.

(Littpod)"I wanted to dispense with conventional narrative, the book doesn't have a narrator it has someone who is observing things but because there's no omniscience, there's no god, there's no prior knowledge in the book you never actually find out anything about this person.  Just as perhaps you don't find out anything about yourself simply by being yourself -- you find out about yourself through a process of reflection, so the book is composed of various things, she is seeing that give her a reflection of herself.  And to an extent the things people say in the book, the stories they tell about themselves to her they describe the person listening which is a point about perception and reality and how we see the world in terms that related to us and what does that make of identity. Reality itself is something constructed by other people and by the time you're in the middle of your life it can start to look a bit shaky."

I think this form is especially appropriate because it also gets at her point about how women are often spoken at, the ones listening, the ones whose true inner thoughts remain unshared.  What is not said by the main character says a lot.  This kind of wit in reimagining narrative in a way that also aids the content is impossible to shrug away as expected.  It allows Cusk to then express her truth and experience and be taken very seriously.

(Canadaland)"What a woman feels with a 6 month old and tell people she's enjoying it vs. 20 years later about the deceptions she went in for.  People accumulate some significant moral burdens in their lives and the people that interest me are those when they have a moment of elevation and are able to get a view of themselves are able to see that and are interested in finding out what the truth is.  People wanting to find out what they truly think and what appears to be."

Family Vacation, 2019, Oil on Panel, 48 x 48 inches