“Dreaming Scenes” By Lightsey Darst

HA&L Hamilton Arts & Letters Magazine
Issue six.2 Fall/Winter 2013-14

Original Lilnk

You find a flowered bowl in a thrift store. Less than half a hemisphere of green melamine, it doesn’t seem like much, but once you’ve picked it up you can’t put it down. It’s the shape, you decide; your hands like this low and open section of a globe. You take it home.

At home, one day, you idly draw it, tracing the smooth curve, the thin lip, the shallow concavity inside. But when you go to draw in its green daisy pattern (so seventies), you find the daisies don’t quite match or mesh. Real life daisies are comically regular, little arguments for the order of the universe, but these daisies don’t go: you get partway around the bowl and find your flowers skewing, petals stripping, to fit in. Look at the bowl again: whatever faint irregularity keeps it moving has blossomed in your drawing.

The bowl becomes an object of fixation. You draw it often, first trying to get the pattern right, then letting it go, letting the flaw splay. The bowl shows up in your dreams; it comes to seem essential, the first vessel. A vessel is a woman too, a word, a crotch, a horse, a story, anything that can be made to carry, anything in some way open. The patience of the bowl makes it wait, makes it silly, hurt, reliable. It can’t answer though it can contain.

Yet it’s just a little green bowl. The chance of its mattering to you is as strange as the chance of your being yourself, thrust into the world here and now, set into this history, place, people, with their own chances of health or illness, their own existential lottery. All this comes to seem so strange when you think about it that there is no reckoning with it at all, nor even any place from which to reckon or think it strange, so that soon you come out the other side of this valley of thought with your whole world feeling as natural as a fairy tale. Of course, a little green bowl, a heart in pain, a woman who removes her head to see.

*

The bowl in Corinne Duchesne’s Hell seems to float free, stuck to the Mylar as if it is only a provisional object, a gift or suggestion momentarily standing in for something else. Because it is hell and because the hands below the bowl are passionately clenched, entreating or begging, it is hard not to think that the bowl has been pasted over something horrific. It is a simple remedy, a mercurial mercy. You could almost take it with you.

The hands below it, though, cannot be saved or even touched. It’s a mystery of Duchesne’s work that those things which seem most real feel most distant from the viewer, embedded at some deeper layer of the work—which is stranger still when you consider that Mylar has no layers at all. It is not fleshy, like canvas, with a dermis that soaks up color and gesture; it’s more a sloughed skin, semitransparent, translucent, with a waxy surface on which color slips and lines slide. Or color can slip and lines can slide: Thrasher’s fox-toned stains seem still wet, as if your breath could change their shape, but the body underneath them moves of its own volition—on the other side, maybe. I think of tattoos, scars, veils. The images tell the story of all that can happen to a skin, and then you see through the accident and trauma to—I’m not sure what: subject, architecture, self, myth.

Perhaps it’s something about time that gives Duchesne’s work its unsettling shift and suspension. For, while each of these images feels as physically specific as the frames of a cartoon fight—look at Sybil with its nearly audible strain—they are also clearly archetypal, underlying, like tarot cards. I recognize that I am Removing Her Head often and yet I want to know what happens next; I know what happens next and I don’t believe it; I can feel my own hand coming up before my face though I know I’m not inside the space in which that action is possible.

*

I simplified just now in saying that Mylar does not have layers. Duchesne’s does: she collages old work onto the new, cutting up and pasting in corners, scars, gestures. This is difficult to see in digital reproduction because Duchesne often blurs her borders. Look at Answer: the dark feather that floats towards the figure’s lower back is a fragment cut from something else, its sharp edges visible up close. Above, though, her crows beat in a confusion of line and cloud; you can see they are not whole, but finding where they divide, you’ll trace and retrace their clawing forms. The long sag of Tether’s fading body looks scarred and is, but what’s built up and what remains isn’t what you think.

Duchesne cuts her scraps from other works of hers, images she likes but finds flawed. In this, she turns the old advice to kill your darlings on its head. She kills hers, yes, but then she painstakingly reanimates them—darling taxidermy. I would call this a reckoning: whatever her initial chances and choices lead to, Duchesne refuses to drop the result. Instead, she rethinks and reworks her creation, exposing everything again to whim, error, wreck, ruin, glory.

*

Let me show you one other thing in this art and then I’ll leave you to roam its dreaming scenes. Look at the wet lines that run down Floating, for example, or that stain the lower half of Ascension. These drips mark times that Duchesne washed her work away; they suggest weather or collapsed geologic processes. As the water erases and moves her marks, the result seems to ask the artist Are you sure? What did you mean? The answer she gives is never the same; every instance becomes an encounter. Does this breathe? What pattern, pain, or treasure can you find in its strange tide?