My thoughts on “Don’t Avoid Voids,” an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculptures by Bridget Mullen at the Roswell Museum and Art Center.
Let’s start with the army of mini-me artists: small clay figures of naked women on pedestals scattered throughout the space, all titled in variations of: Self Portrait Washing Brushes, Self Portrait Just About to Wash Brushes, Self Portrait Right After Washing Brushes, Self Portrait With Dirty Brushes, Self Portrait Thinking About Washing Brushes, Self Portrait As A Dream About Ruining My Brushes… you get the idea. In the lumpy bodies of unglazed clay, still looking like earth, I see contemporary fertility goddesses engaged in all the unglamorous tasks of the artist’s procreative act. I imagine these figures as a behind-the-scenes view of Bridget in her studio: moving, bending over, sitting down, picking things up, putting them together, eyes on her materials, mind tethered to the task at hand.
These ladies would be obscene if they were performing—ass in the air, legs spread—but they are deeply engaged in being. They use their bodies un-selfconsciously for play, work and rest, unconcerned with any outside gaze, so the responsibility for obscenity lies only in the eyes of the beholder. It’s like seeing a naked child playing, unaware of how exposed they are, and that uncomfortable feeling you get for seeing them as exposed and projecting something shameful onto innocence. (I hope this isn’t just me.) Like with my discomfort at naked children, looking down into the private cracks and crevices of these figures enjoying their physicality, throws my own controlled stiffness and self-consciousness into high relief. And I am made aware again of what I’m missing—I want to feel that free, too. This freedom—and my envy of it—extends into the rest of the work as well. These awkward, busy homunculi serve as a funny, slightly creepy (maybe only to creeps like me) take on “the artist is present.” They feel like the generating force for the rest of the work: drawings and paintings on paper and other found materials, some on stretched canvas, some cut-out of their rectangles, all hanging on the walls.
Much of the 2D work, a layered mash-up of gestural marks, figuration and expressionistic abstraction, suggests bodies in motion—walking, crawling, large leg-like forms entering and exiting the rectangle—and the artist’s own body in gestures and brushstrokes that seem to be made at a brisk, steady pace. I imagine the artist moving herself and her materials through time and space at the pace of thought, synchronized in an ever shifting present.
In his book, Devotional Cinema, filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky talks about inspired work needing to possess a quality of “nowness,” which he likens to walking on a treadmill where the treadmill is passing time and “nowness” is the presence of your body walking.1 Nowness is not still, but in synch with time. Bridget’s work has this inspired quality. It’s a freedom earned not by removal from time, but by being in time, in change, in the body. I witness this freedom in a certain kind of conceptual restraint: her work could be called cryptic—her titles confuse rather than clarify, narratives fail to coalesce, qualities of absurdity and heartfeltness mingle but neither reigns—but cryptic suggests she is hiding something or she knows something we don’t. I don’t get that feeling. My sense is that she is simply refusing to stop her exploration to force her materials to coalesce into concept. In my own practice I am always making meaning, seeking meaning, clarifying meaning. I can’t let a mark stand undefined for long. Dorsky’s diagnosis—“It is the fear of direct contact with the uncontrollable present that motivates the flight into concept”—rings true here.
Bridget, maybe a braver woman than I, resists my urge to stop and grab control by defining a concept or following a narrative, and yet the work is laden with language: symbolic, clip-art type bodies, pattern and repetition, forms and formats of language but without the words/meaning. I feel the pull of language in her work, or maybe just the presence of it. These traces of language are true to the in-the-trenches human struggle for spiritual freedom. This is no Rothko-esque transcendence where we become pure consciousness, bodies dissolved into light. Nor is it Agnes Martin with her claims of an empty mind (I don’t believe her) following the flow of consciousness with line after horizontal line. Bridget doesn’t even attempt to leave confusion behind. This is real: getting through a day, trying to connect with the now in spite of our fear of the now, longing for surrender of control yet terrified of surrender of control, constricted by language even as we cling to our thinking.
Bridget tells us in her title, “don’t avoid voids.” Her multiple layers of marks and erasures suggest an endless cycle of constructing and deconstructing, creation and decay, passing in and out of being. This tension I think is what the fear of a void, aka the uncontrollable present, is all about. Here, at the brink of the future, what is known must die. That is, if you leave your concepts behind and stay true to the mystery, which seems to be Bridget’s aspiration.
As Bridget tells us not to avoid voids, she shows us how to fill them with our presence. She shows us it’s alright. Maybe it’s even the ultimate freedom to allow our bodies to become vessels for flow, and maybe it’s even fun—there’s a light-heartedness and warm humor in pretty much all the figuration and the colors are nourishing and awkwardly beautiful. The show is filled with images of vessels, actual ceramic vessels and voids of vessels, evoking the paradoxical experience of being both a channel for this flow and being carried by this flow. We live by being willing to die.
I’ve framed Bridget’s work as something of a spiritual quest, and the “spiritual” is often seen as a tangent to a more pressing and serious cultural conversation. But what Bridget is up to is no frivolous or self-indulgent activity, removed from the serious concerns of contemporary social issues. She tells us not to avoid voids, while colonialism, capitalism and consumerism have been telling us to fill voids with anything we can grab: products, ideologies, bodies, continents.
Rather than stay put and reckon with some voids, this race of terrified dying bodies has marched out across the globe to construct civilizations of wealth and power to try to fortify ourselves in the face of horrifying absolutes: we can’t control nature, we will lose everything we love, we will die.
Bridget’s work is a material expression of the opposite of manifest destiny, that American belief that God wants us to keep taking what we think we want. The opposite of taking isn’t stagnation or disappearance or boredom. She shows us the opposite of taking and getting is being and relating, connecting and receiving. In her steady, fearless and unassuming way, Bridget counters the temptation to dominate every time she steps into her studio. (This is how I imagine her anyway.) She leaves traces of her experience to hang here in a museum, mapping the way through some terrifying fundamental truths about our impermanent existence. This is important work—if we make peace with these truths, we can let go of the comfort of our lies.
Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema, Tuumba Press; 2 Revised edition (March 1, 2005)