Sunday, 20 September 2009
Visionary spinsters are not a new phenomenon in American cultural life. In literature one thinks immediately of Emily Dickinson. In art, perhaps of the recently rediscovered Agnes Pelton, a member of the Transcendentalist Painting Group in New Mexico.in the 1930s and 1940s. It is not difficult to find echoes of Dickinson in some of the painting exhibited here. How about this, for example?
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro' endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –
Or else this:
She sweeps with many-colored brooms,
And leaves the shreds behind;
Oh, housewife in the evening west,
Come back, and dust the pond!
You dropped a purple ravelling in,
You dropped an amber thread;
And now you've littered all the East
With duds of emerald!
Many of Pelton’s paintings seem to draw on the same sources of inspiration as those exhibited now – they are excited, exalted, cosmic. They flirt with abstraction, without being entirely and rigorously abstract, and their spirituality is non-specific. The imagery doesn’t refer to any creed in particular. Those who are familiar with the remarkable non-denominational chapel or meditation room that Annabel has designed and decorated for the Thomason General Hospital in El Paso, will see these paintings as being entirely congruous with the imagery employed there.
Yet things are not as simple as they seem to be. Annabel possesses a well-established, detailed official biography. We know that she was born and raised in the upper Midwest, and worked as a librarian until she retired and came to the warmer climate of El Paso. We also know that she began to paint in the mid-1970s, without receiving any formal instruction, as a way of relieving her then chronic depression.
However, very few people claim to have met Miss Livermore. She never attends her own exhibition openings but sometimes sends tape-recorded good wishes, uttered in a quavery voice. Some years ago the New Mexico art critic Bertrand Warner did describe her physical appearance in the preface to an interview. She was dressed in navy blue and white, he said, wore sensible black shoes and kept ‘her graying hair tied into a bun.”
We also know that Annabel enjoys what seems to be a symbiotic relationship with the well known Texas sculptor James Magee, who makes the elaborate frames for some of her pictures.
If Magee and Livermore “inhabit the same body” – a nice formulation used to me by one of the organizers of the present exhibition – then this is certain not a normal case of multiple personality, if indeed the multiple personality syndrome can ever be ‘normal’ in any real sense. What we are being offered is a fantasy nestled within a fantasy, rather after the fashion of those Russian dolls that nest one within the other. Annabel does not represent an uncontrollable shift from one identity to another. She is, rather, a way of saying the otherwise unsayable, a method of excavating feelings about the cosmos that would otherwise remain inaccessible for the body and personality that shelter her. I will venture the opinion that the shift in gender is an important part of this. So is the spinsterishness, The sensible shoes of Bertrand Warner’s account are symbols of a state of mind that Magee, left on his own, could never aspire to.
Of course, the apparently prim and proper Miss Livermore does have some slightly surprising quirks. One of her earlier series of images, The N Bar Series, made between 1987 and 1990, is about a sleazy bar in Juarez, El Paso’s twin city in Mexico. Now what was a nice girl for the upper mid-West doing in a place like that?
This site was last updated 20-09-2009