TARPAULIN SKY SPRING/SUMMER 07
It was two years ago that I was introduced to the work of Nancy Kiefer. Christian Peet, the founding editor of Tarpaulin Sky, called me up and asked if I would be willing to interview Nancy and the Seattle writer Rebecca Brown about a collaborative book they were doing called Woman In Ill-Fitting Wig. Of course I said of course.
This was the first time I had seen Nancy's work, and I was immediately moved, shocked, saddened, offended, humored by, and grateful for her bold color, her thick black lines, the unapologetic closeness of the subjects of her portraits. Her subjects feel vulnerable, exposed, while the hand that paints them feels like a carrier of sensitive, sensual, unyielding authority.
And then I read Rebecca's writings that had been created in response to the paintings. The words, the small stories, were likewise pulsing, ferocious, even violent ... but the stories had so much forward, circling, plummeting movement, while Nancy's images seemed to carry a weighted, buzzing stillness. I thought and thought about the relationship between the two, how the animated writing was pulled from the still images, how the images, then, were reflected differently when tipped over the writing's boiling surface.
In the interview, I asked Nancy how she felt that the images were altered by the writing. She responded, “The paintings were open to story. . . . In a way, the words did alter the images for me personally because some of the characters are lonelier than I perceived them, and their desperation goes on longer. I sometimes think I am painting images of people who are scraping bottom, just at the point of waking up, having revelations. But Rebecca's creatures have a longer way on the thorny path.”
And Rebecca, in the sister interview, says, “The stuff I wrote came directly from looking at Nancy's images. There is no way I would have written that stuff without her images.”
And so the paintings were given a broader narrative context by the presence of the writings whose very existence depends upon the existence of the paintings.
And though image and text can be separated, successfully independent, they will remain instead in a complex and not always serene relationship of whispers, coaxings, coercions, and yankings, as extensions of each other.
Lucien Freud, in his essay Some Thoughts on Painting (1954), writes, “When a painter has a distant adoration of nature, an awe of it, which stops him from examining it, he can only copy nature superficially, because he does not dare to change it.”
Our subjects, Freud may be saying, need to be regarded by us as so very precious that we must, for their sakes and for the sake of our art, undo the preciousness, allow our subjects to be manipulated by our attention, our examination, our love for them … that we cannot fear the alterations that will occur in our beloved subjects after so much devotion that we do not simply look at, but, instead, enter them.
Late last summer, when she and I were emailing about something else entirely, Nancy Kiefer ended a note to me like this:
P.S.: This is a serious question and totally off the path. What is the opposite of irony? (And who writes without it?) I'm puzzled about irony right now.
It’s very like Nancy Kiefer to both ask a serious question and, to others not so imaginatively inclined, appear “totally off the path.” There’s a kind of winsome oddness to the figures she paints, her landscapes a comedy of tragedy. Little sidetracks that take you somewhere - accidentally? - devastating. This work is not ironic.
I have been looking at Nancy Kiefer’s paintings, drawings and words for a few years, and more and more it seems to me that her endeavor is about the seriousness of things that seem to be off path, out of (main) stream. Things, of which people are some, that have hobbled off to wherever they can find a bit of respite for a while, long or short, or maybe never. If they’re laughing it’s they way you do when something awful but inevitable occurs, like you're thinking, “How could I ever have imagined differently?” Or hoped. This work is not flirtatious, arch. It does not watch you watching it, or find itself adorable. A terror of and sympathy for things you awfully recognize, for things you hoped you never would encounter.
Nancy and I exchanged several emails throughout the fall. Here’s more of what she wrote:
Over the years I've heard people say—“Isn't that ironic?” And I realize I don't know what that means. I've thought of it as “twists and turns that lead to the inevitable.” The fakery and stumbling we take to get to the spiritual. So I've made up my own mythology and don't understand irony. What you describe as the “hipper than thou” I've called “too clever,” and that is very popular in art—there is this sort of funny laugh you get when you see it (oh, so is this an ironic snort?) and then there is no blood or yellowness to keep you there longer. Maybe this was the superior attitude I saw in art school towards narrative painters—“You paint emotion and I, the great one, am above that—worldly and eye-ron-nick.” I guess I might have gotten the idea somewhere that the opposite of irony was sentimentality rather than sincerity. This has gotten me thinking about sincerity now in a bigger way. . . . For now just this thought, that it begins with “I.” Or “ir” as in “er” as in, “uh. . . .” Something hesitant. Something about the “I” not wanting to say directly who she is. . . .
At some point during all of this, Nancy came over to my house and showed me boxes of these amazing images she was making on Japanese rice paper. Like little napkins, she described them. Images of lost strange people who seemed to be looking out at me, or into me or into themselves. They all had stories, it seemed to me. Partly I wanted to steal or learn or write these stories myself in some way like we had done previously on our collaborative project Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig, but I also wanted to hear what other writers would make of these images. Nancy and I chose a dozen images and imagined a dozen or so writers whom we would like to ask to look at and respond to them. This project is what happened.
Maybe some of irony is about “‘I’ not wanting to say directly who she is.” But much of Nancy Kiefer’s paintings are about wanting to see and say directly who we are. Especially when we’re not all fine and gussied. Especially who we are when we allow ourselves to fall inside. When we are lost, as we always are, whether we know it or not. When our stomach’s exposed like a dog on its back, like pet me or kill me, whatever, for this is what it is to lay it open.
Tarpaulin Sky Spring/Summer 07