FLOWERS OF A BEAUTIFUL NIGHTMARE
What part of the nightmare addicts us, so irrevocably, to it? Though we tear at the sheets, hands and back clammy with sweat, the clack of unknowns over the silence of the city, we are drawn to the rush of glandular fluids triggered by the macabre’s cool embrace. We yearn for it, laying down good coin to quench the erasable thirst that follows us. Is this related to the innate cruelty of ourselves? A projection of sorts? It has been said that homo sapiens is the only animal capable of gratuitous cruelty—the schoolyard bully, the impatient throng awaiting the first crash at Indy, beer-sodden and sunburned, the novel curiosity that has driven some to war. And what exactly of curiosity? What of curiosity followed by the ecstatic plunge to discovery? That our horrors retain, with reflection, a seamy attraction is obvious. Shock value has become an artworld bon mot, discussed as artists once contrived to verbalize color. What does it say of the fact that the monolithic tragedy of a child’s death, of disfigurement, elicits from us an almost uncensored curiosity? We are stricken to feel a greater pain for the theft of youth. Empathy, at least, for what will never be known, books never read, languages never learned, love never made … The poet and novelist Jim Harrison expressed this in verse:
You were so old we could not weep;
only the blood of the young
those torn off earth in a night’s sickness,
the daughter lying beside you
who became nothing so long ago—
she moves us to terror.
Christina Bothwell faces her own nightmare and her own sensitive curiosity objectively and gracefully. Her show Living with Ghosts explored the mythos, or symbolism, of nightmare and curiosity, melding the beautiful and the macabre with deft strength and invention. Her sculptures present the ashen remains of a world we could never know. Her figures, children, Siamese twins, dogs, and ghostly women, are seen and translated as if relics or survivors, perhaps spirits. Using clay and mixed media (straw, wire, burlap, antiques, and goose dung), Bothwell gives her creations a sense of life or life-in-death and aged character. The work is pit-fired, affording its aesthetics a folk-like allure, a charm that grimly highlights the eerie divinity in Bothwell’s creations.
Spirit Child has a doll’s torso and a charred, whitened face; its legs descend to clubbed feet in misshapen bandages, one leg nearly twice as long as the other. The child sits in a wooden swing, an antique hoop skirt frame hovering below. Living with Ghosts has two figures, one doll-like, the other an obese monstrosity of an infant, the blackened arms hanging as if mere stumps—a comment perhaps on the humor of time and evolutionary change. The figures rest atop a wicker pram, as if waiting for someone to push them into a next life, a life where their curdled dreams could perhaps breathe once more. A watery sadness seeps from the work, the disconcerting surface understanding now giving way to the seduction of its pastoral organics.
Perhaps the strongest of these immobile puppets in tableaus are Open Heart, Ecstasies of St. Germaine and Feet in the Soil. All are exceptionally crafted, exquisitely detailed figurative offerings. Composite, compartmentalized gowns house additional figures of animals and present complex stories. Though trapped, Winnie-like in their skirt-like clay bases, the legless torsos strain as if growing, somehow plant-like, to the light from above. There is, throughout the show, a feeling of the nineteenth century. Miniature, quasi-biological drawings serve as the motif found on the grainy surfaces of the charred clay. Burlap, straw, and various found objects contribute a grandly rural sensibility, perhaps scooped up from the Pennsylvania countryside where the artist lives. Always there lurks some element of dark poetry, the grotesquerie of Carson McCullers or Poe perhaps: “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.”
Bothwell’s art revises the standard symbols. This is most obvious in her installation Conjoined Twins, a collection of dolls in various forms reflecting this medical condition. Using sand and duck down along with clay, Bothwell imbues in the lifeless dirt a sense of past and of reckoning. The dolls are tragic: from them there emanates a reality connected to our shared history and psychology. Bothwell’s interest in the twins stems from the metaphoric possibilities concerning binary traits within the individual. The duality of self, once explored, inevitably contributes a wrinkled form of truth to art and thought. Perhaps Hegel’s philosophy of unities began here; perhaps this is the stone of Bothwell’s conceptual fable. Chair for Conjoined Twins, for instance, swirls with fantastic hues around the horrific surreal design; one chair, with three arms and two backs, looks as if it has been pulled from a burning Victorian manor, unvisited for years and said, of course, to be haunted.
Viewing the twins, one must come to terms with deep-rooted fears and biases, including the innate horror most have to any kind of deformity. Bothwell is dealing with material that few artists can control with anything approaching taste or sensitivity. These figures engender in us pangs of pity or loathing, disgust or perhaps elation. How interesting that Bothwell writes a history with our reactions.
In his collection of lectures, Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effects, first published in 1927, Alfred North Whitehead concluded by arguing that, “Those societies that cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.” Bothwell’s work turns symbols into spirits of creation. Her art is ethereal, not to be held down by misunderstanding. The world she spins before us hovers outside mere imagination. With such daring sculptural pieces, she immediately invalidates any questioning of content. This is an art of nature, an art of birth, death, decay, and the life held among them. She has surpassed our fears and curiosities to show us a new literature of the figure, an art of dark importance that sits in judgement of our limitations.