Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Agony, Ecstasy, and Creation

"Bailey Doogan's work has inspired me for many years. As I found myself turning 50, and coming to terms with the effects of aging on my mind and body, her work that illuminates the female experience, the experience of depression and loss, I wanted to have a sit-down dialogue with her." -- Jeanmarie Simpson

JS: The newest works that you’re showing are a series of self-portraits. Do you call them paintings?

BD: I call the paintings “paintings”; I call the drawings “drawings.” The black and white works are drawings. Many people call them paintings, I think, because they’re big, they’re substantial, they’re heavily worked — many think of drawing as work that is small, often done quickly, often more linear – a study for painting, sculpture, something more substantial. Drawing is all of the above, more or less.

JS: Who calls these paintings?

BD: I’ve had everyone call them paintings: artists, gallery people, regular people. The large drawings are done reductively. I guess my process is like a painting process because I take a large piece of 100% rag paper, a heavy paper. I cover the front with about four coats of gesso and apply one coat on the back for a counter-tension, which is what you would do if you were preparing a canvas. Then I cover the front surface with charcoal. Often I’ll step on it, spray water on it, sometimes even roll on it, activate the surface because I like to kind of create a world that the figure is going to live in. Then I draw reductively. First I draw the form in roughly. After that, the work is done with sandpaper pulling the white out of the dark.

JS: What I think is really interesting about this new series is I can look at the paintings and I can look at the drawings, and I can’t tell the difference. It doesn’t read immediately that they’re black and white and this is color. It’s only that you’re mentioning this now, that some are paintings and some are drawings. I think it’s the detail and the texture that strikes you. I can’t even imagine seeing all these works together in a gallery. Will they be?

BD: This series of paintings and drawings of my hand manipulating my face was at Etherton Gallery, my gallery and the only venue where the paintings and drawings were seen together — two drawings and five paintings. Before the Etherton show, there was a group exhibition in North Carolina that included the two large drawings, and an exhibit in Baltimore with the same two large drawings. The woman who organized and curated the Baltimore exhibit, Joan Weber, purchased both large drawings. Currently, both of the drawings are at the Tempe Arts Center on loan from Joan Weber. I’m now working on two new large drawings. I’m excited about them. There’s a point when I’m working on the drawing at the very beginning that is wonderful, ecstatic — everything is just flowing and it’s all coming together, and then it’s struggle, struggle, struggle, and then maybe another epiphany, but then struggle, struggle, struggle, and then some point where I know what I’m doing and it’s all just ecstatic. I’m obviously a two-dimensional gal, but it feels like I’m crawling over the surface of the form, and it feels like I’m modeling — there’s a kind of energy, the marks that define the face or the body.

JS: I can see how it would quickly feel like a sculpture because of the dimension of it. Your work is so dimensional. The painters you are compared with — the ones who are likened to you and you to them — Lucien Freud and Alice Neel and Francis Bacon…

BD: I admire all of them. I especially like Freud. He just piles it on. With him, there is something about depicting physicality that I relate to. I think he just keeps putting the paint on until it feels right.

JS: Do you do that?

BD: I do in painting, and drawing too. Some areas are heavily worked, especially with painting — thickness builds up. Many view this as a technique. I have trouble with the word technique. I guess it’s part of the process. I’m just putting it on until it feels right, but what happens is it becomes very physical.

JS: And the character. People call it character. It’s like an old person in the theater — they say they have character in their face, and all that means is lines. They have imperfections or whatever. How often do you really see a little perfect young face with character? The character has to be a lot more demonstrated on the part of a younger person where it’s apparent in elders.

BD: Well, that term laugh-lines literally does mean that you have lines from laughing or lines from frowning, and of course a lot of it is from gravity.

JS: I think this is so fascinating, the way you described your process, the feelings of your process, because I felt like you were describing my process, which is interesting because, with painters, it’s often so difficult for me to relate and I just can’t, whether it’s an original work of mine or a work that’s collaborative work, or I’m taking on Lady Macbeth. It starts out with this ecstasy of the material, which is so beautiful, and then you hit this wall and think, “What am I doing? I suck at this. I was wrong. I never should have taken on this project,” and then I go in and talk to the other people in the process and they say, “You’re out of your mind. Let’s just keep moving.”

BD: The agony or ecstasy!

JS: I don’t know how artists can not be like that. I don’t understand Bacon when he says he doesn’t feel anything when he paints. I don’t even believe him. When I look at your work — all of your work is beautiful — but I have to say the last 20 years of your work that’s really dealing with the aging body and the female form, and the agony and the beauty of character and the exposed beauty, the nude aging human, is to me like watching a magnificent opera or a symphony.

BD: Thank you. That makes me feel good to hear that.

JS: It’s dimensional, and not to, in any way, diminish Francis Bacon’s work or Alice Neel’s, but I don’t get that richness from them that I get from your work.

BD: Often we know artists’ work from reproductions, and some work reproduces better than others. Freud’s work is very physical. I have to tell you a Freud joke. I obviously love Freud’s work. I had some people at my studio…I don’t know when this was — maybe six or seven years ago. They were being effusive, very complementary — of course, that always feels good. They really liked that work, and at one point, one of the visitors made a comparison to Freud and said, “But your work is so much better because yours is so alive; I can feel the blood and the juices — it’s pulsing. In Freud’s work all the people look dead.” I said, “They’re not dead, they’re just British.” [Laughs]

JS: Exactly. That’s what it is.

BD: There’s a certain kind of light in London. It’s a beautiful light, almost watery — a limited, grayed-down value range.

JS: I really do think that your work does reflect that Catholic…

BD: Oh yeah, the Catholic stuff is there.

JS: I mean, our relationship — as women raised Catholic — to the Vatican, to the Sistine Chapel, to Da Vinci, to all of that magnificent idyllic…

BD: One thing about Catholicism, vis a vis body, is the corporeal, that Christ came down to Earth, and he suffered and died and all of that. Transubstantiation — that the word of God was made flesh, so it is all about flesh. The body is mortal but luminous, not just a receiver of light but a giver of light. I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, but I have all that culture. I’ve always liked the term “Practicing Catholic” — if you practice long enough, will you eventually get it right? I had a show at University of Texas at El Paso of many of the big paintings. Often when I have exhibitions, many people are outraged, shocked; some people love the work, but often not. The director at UTEP said they had more people come to that exhibition, and people kept coming back. Mexico is right there, and UTEP has the largest Mexican-American student population of any university in the country. They got it. It was what they saw growing up.

JS: And you really turn it on its head. That’s what is so beautiful about it — your Ex Cathedra piece, which they used on the front of your retrospective catalog…

BD: I selected it. I wanted to show the entire painting, but that was nixed. Ex Cathedra is a painting of a woman floating in a chair-like position. Ex Cathedra means “from the chair” in Latin. When the pope speaks infallibly on issues of dogma, he speaks Ex-Cathedra from his chair of authority. Cathedral comes from the same root.

JS: She looks as if she’s in agony.

BD: People have told that me she looked tortured. I thought she looked like she was in ecstasy.

JS: That’s a really good point. Ecstasy definitely looks painful sometimes.

BD: Things are ambiguous. The other thing I realized about my work is how often mouths are open. And again, that was nothing I ever consciously thought about. When models posed for me, I would say, now look this way and open your mouth. I’m getting to the point where I can’t give a reason for why I do something. What did I really intend? Who knows? I think it was something about trying to speak or speaking, but it just may be about being open. I don’t know. We have orifices. [Laugh]

JS: I think that a lot now too, and I wonder if that is an age thing, just to come to terms with that and become so comfortable with it — what goes in comes out. I don’t know what it is, but it’s wonderful to just be free about that stuff, having been raised Catholic — that the body is something icky and yucky. You got to this happier, more buoyant place with these newest portraits, these self-portraits.

BD: Yeah, I went through a hard time for almost three years. Even when you first interviewed me, it was still too close, I couldn’t talk about it. I think I worked so hard for the retrospective. I probably completely wore myself out. A physical and mental collapse is what I think happened. I had never been sick before in my life — always just been chugging along, able to do everything, and all of a sudden, everything came to a halt. One of the things that happens for most people when they’re depressed, and it certainly happened for me, is withdrawal. Not a good thing. I remember one day, I was already beginning to feel better but didn’t realize it. I went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, made a face, and laughed, which was something because I had lost my sense of humor — the worst thing that can happen to you. Depressed people are often a pretty humorless lot. I was steeling myself to go out and I thought, “Okay, so I’ll smile. I’ll look interested.” And then it became a game, and I started using my hands to push my face around. I loved the smiles and grins. Who doesn’t? I talked to friends about the difference between a smile and a grin. What does a smile mean? What does a grin mean? So I started pushing my face around, and of course, as you get older, your face is more elastic. There is more stuff to grab. I was actually able to reach one arm over my head, stretch it to the opposite side of my face. In that position, I was able to stick a finger in my mouth and stretch it into a grin. I especially liked the idea of combining my hand and my face.

JS: So then you started doing these new paintings and drawings…

BD: I get very obsessive; I would make the gestures and then write a description of what I had done: left arm goes over and grabs, neck is in this position, finger comes up from chest to chin… I wrote it all down. I knew I wanted to have a photographer take head shots of me in those positions.

JS: That process of just going through the motions — of making your face, putting on a face, going through the gestures — was part of bringing you out of your depression?

BD: I think so. They say if you just keep smiling, you’ll feel better.

JS: Yes, I’ve found that to be true.

BD: Like everything else, if you pull or push on one area, you affect another. Moving your nose around will change your eyes, etc. The painting where I’m pushing my chin up makes me look thoughtful.

JS: If you’re in an accident or get a scar or something, what that does and how people react to you because of it — it’s fascinating.

BD: People love the images where I’m smiling or look perky. Many people had difficulty with Five-Fingered Grin because it was too much of a grimace.

JS: There you go again!

BD: I never know, but I’m not exactly na├»ve.

JS: We share that. People always like the cute little fun characters I play. I just have to admit, for me, the characters who are on the brink of cutting their own throats are the most interesting, the ones I relate to for whatever reason. But I have a history of depression too, and I think for those of us who have been there, I think we’re as sick as our secrets. The more we turn it over and put it out there, the more we get people to look at it, the more comfortable we are with it, the less scary it is and the more we can examine what happened to us. I don’t like bouncing around with the happy-bubbles all the time. That feels like denial to me.

BD: Also, I think depression causes great discomfort in other people because, first of all, you’re not a barrel of laughs… I mean, I don’t think I was. And then people who love you don’t want to see you suffering. I have great sympathy for the people who had to put up with me during this time because, in a way, we were both mourning the loss of the person that we knew.

JS: And there’s really no going back, is there? Once you’ve been through it, you’ll never be who you were again. You may not be depressed anymore, but you’ve been deeply changed by it. One thing I have recently felt fascinated by, as an actor, and you can do this as a visual artist and I would love to be able to do it, but the expression in the eyes of someone deeply disturbed — an Alzheimer’s patient or someone with dementia — that innocent, whatever-that-is in the eyes; I desperately want to capture that, and so far I can’t. I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it. I’m looking and trying.

BD: I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to put that into my work.

JS: Have you tried?

BD: I don’t think I’ve tried because that was never in any…

JS: I’m sure you could. What would it be like for you to paint one of them?

BD: It would be pretty extraordinary.

JS: I’m interested — and this is just happening as we’re talking — do you think you’d feel like you’re betraying them?

BD: I wonder if I would feel that way. It’s interesting, I was listening to an interview with the director of that new film, Precious. The main character is a young, very overweight black woman who has been abused, is not very educated and ostensibly doesn’t have a lot going for her…except that she’s an exceptional person. The director said that before he found the woman who did play that part, he went around the country and auditioned a lot of young women. They were young, from poor backgrounds, abused, overweight. Finally it hit him, and he said, “I can’t do this to them. I feel like I’d be exploiting them.” I understood that.

JS: In Gilbert Grape, it’s so touching, and that incredibly beautiful and 500-pound woman… Johnny Depp, who played her son and had to say some really demeaning lines, turned to her and said, “I really hate saying these things to you,” and she just said, “It’s okay. It’s a good job.” She really wasn’t an actor before that, but the exposure gave her a whole new lease on life.

BD: You could take the position that you are exploiting a person, but you could also see it as honoring who that person is.

JS: I come back to your work again and again. I cannot look at one of your paintings without… I can’t glance at your work. I can’t. Your work is so rich and I say dimensional, but that’s not what I mean.

BD: I’ll take dimensional.

JS: It’s dimensional in the sense that you really feel like it’s three-dimensional, like you can touch it. It jumps out from the page. It doesn’t seem two-dimensional. It’s got so many layers of meaning, content. So much going on that it’s like revisiting a Shakespeare script as an artist. I’ve doneMidsummer Night’s Dream 17 times, and every time I’ve done it, I’ve learned something huge about it. I’ve approached each production uniquely because I’ve been in a different place each time.

BD: That’s a wonderful play. It’s funny and romantic and complex.

JS: And it always reveals itself in new ways, and your work does that too. I can’t glance at it because it grabs me and forces me to think about… Not think…I don’t want people to think, I just want them to experience. And that’s what happens to me with your work — the impact of the experience. Opening up your retrospective, I had a catharsis about my own work.

BD: That’s wonderful.

JS: If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you feel that you had to do something work-wise? Like, I have to do this. I have to stay up all night?

BD: I’d feel like I had to finish the two drawings I’m working on. It’s funny — this summer, I saw a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in 20 years, Toni. She has two grandchildren, about 18 months old, who she adores. She said, “I’d love it if you would do portraits of them.” I thought, oh God, no. And then I went over to her daughter Koren’s house — her daughter lives next door. They all live on the Chesapeake Bay. It was a moonlit night and the light was beautiful. The two twin girls were luminous. One a little devilish and the other sweet and pleasing looking, so they’re very different and both so alive, constantly in motion. For the entire time, one of them, Josephine and Catherine — I think it was Josephine — was sticking her hand in her ear, in her mouth, pulling her hair out, gesturing. There was electricity between them — both 18 months old. I thought, you know, I could do this.

JS: I think if you wanted, you could dance your way to the moon. Thank you, Peggy Bailey Doogan.


Susan Singer said...

Thank you for this article. I really enjoyed learning about Bailey Doogan and her artwork. I also paint women who are aging - and those who are not - and find such great pleasure in the pursuit of discovering the character of each person I paint. I look forward to seeing more of Bailey's work!

Eugenius said...

Wonderful article/interview, and incredible work by inspirational artist.