Monday, June 17, 2013

Self-Inflicted Portrait

Sarah McEneaney  "Self-Inflicted Portrait"  1989 private collection
Sarah McEneaney (b.1955) is a painter whose work is often reminiscent of the Mexican ex-voto tradition and akin to the "naive" paintings seen around the world, an especially vibrant tradition in some Latin and African cultures. Yet this Academy-trained North American artist has received a raft of prestigious "art world" awards, including several fellowships, grants and multiple artist residencies.  She is not, nor does she purport to be, a self-taught or "outsider" artist. Clearly she is tapping into some common human impulse  for visual story-telling, her style effortlessly bridging the naive and the sophisticated through its sincerity. In this scene, the artist is explaining that something has happened to her....probably a knife slipped as she was opening a package of something (cheese?) and the result, a thickly bandaged, possibly casted hand, is held aloft as the artist draws us the story.

The scene appears simple at first glance, but deceptively so, and there are many points to ponder.  Is the knife we see only a drawn representation, like the cheese packet beside it, or is it a "real" knife lying on the drawing paper? The artist appears to be drawing with her left hand: is she naturally left-handed or is this perforce because of her injury? Or, if she is is gazing in a mirror, a common practice among self-portraitists, then it would only appear that she is using her left-hand. Is she in reality right-handed?
I'm also interested in the way the drawing tools lie on the edge of the table, tools which are used to "open" the story to us, echoing the way a knife is used to open a package. Is there some reminder in this of how easy it is to make a mistake, to slip up (albeit less bloodily) when performing such an aesthetic opening or telling?

The title too, carries layers of meaning. Obviously we see and read that the wound was self-inflicted (and almost certainly accidental) but the title creates a sense of unease...a feeling perhaps that the artist felt compelled to "inflict" the painting upon her audience. Nonetheless, such a depiction of a wound taps into several traditions, the classic Christian European depiction of martyr injuries and stigmata, and also the related mexican retablo tradition of depicting the injured or diseased body part for which the supplicant begs relief. Another point is that the painting has been made in either oil or gouache...yet we see the artist wielding a pencil. This visual inconsistency and all other details as well add vibration to the otherwise still and contemplative air of the piece.

McEneaney studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She is represented by Locks Gallery in Philadelphia and by Tibor de Nagy in NYC. 


susan t. landry said...

dear nancy,

i was referred to your blog by a facebook friend.
it is terrific, really terrific.
i want to read & look at every entry!
thank you!

susan t. landry

parenthetically: i am the managing editor of an online journal about memoir. for the visual content, we feature self-portraiture. I'd love it if you'd take a look.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Thank you very much Susan! I love doing this work. I took a look at your own project and it is fascinating! Many thanks for stopping by WAP.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting explanation of the painting.