Often, when an artist with a well-established, familiar, even popular mode decides to undertake something new, the news travels fast. So, many who gathered at David Ericson’s gallery in the Avenues for the unveiling of Emily McPhie’s new work were there in anticipation of something they’d not seen before. What they may already have known was that McPhie’s is the most realistic manner among the three best-known artists in her large, variously creative family. Her late father, James Christensen, commanded a genius for arranging dozens, perhaps a hundred fantastical, comedic figures in an illustrative manner that recalled the crowd scenes and proverbs painted by the Bruegels, likewise a multigenerational family of artists who survived in the Low Countries during the great religious wars of the Baroque Era. Her sister, Cassandra Barney, has a stylishly glamorous portrait manner best represented by the cupid’s bow lips of her women. But it’s Emily whose painting makes it seem each portrait must represent an actual, original model, and who can flawlessly capture the play of light on rounded flesh, so as to make whomever she paints seem immediately present.
What is new in these new paintings is, paradoxically, not the ribbon that plays such a vital part in them, even appearing on its own in several freestanding instances. That ribbon appeared in a number of her earlier works, as she recalled realizing for her opening night audience. Prominent among its previous appearances were some of her fairytale images that tell the story of Mother Mansrot, who in her struggle for liberation from traditional women’s roles brings with her a number of symbolic tools, such as a ladder she sometimes climbs, but also at other times carries in her pocket. A key element in her story, part of the Glass Mountain legend, is a magic rope that McPhie chose to show in those illustrations as a ribbon. What’s new in this case is that, as part of her decision to attempt something novel, the ribbon has assumed a more central role, in which it represents a vital energy, sometimes a creative drive, that threads through these portraits in several ways. That decision accompanies, and may have helped bring about, a shift in the figures’ roles.
It’s not too ambitious to call these dozen or so paintings at least the beginning of what may become a larger cycle of life: perhaps the alternative to the cycle of women’s lives under the oppressive influence of male society. If so, the first figure is also the latest. “Inception” means the establishing or starting point, but the child is also the point of renewal, where the members of one cycle will replace themselves in a new beginning. She already has her ribbon, though it’s appropriately short for the modest ambitions of a child.
“Ambition,” when it shows itself, has a vertical form that may combine the desire to fly and the inevitable counter-effects of gravity. The way she examines it recalls one of the characteristic points the artist often makes. Where her father was fond of the figure of the hunchback, whose infirmity recalled the burdens of life, Emily favors dressing her figures in the Dunce Cap, which arguably represents the ignorance and foolishness of humanity that, in much the same way, is also a burden: one that holds us back and needs be overcome.
In both “Passion” and “Desire,” the ribbon intertwines the body. In the former, it loops around the wrist, while the fingers seem to retain control. In the latter, amidst a romantic floral display, the ribbon seems to be testing her, and she it. It has been characteristic of McPhie that her perspective is weightier, more judgmental than many artists attempt today. At the recent Springville Museum of Art’s Spirituality and Religion show, her contribution made clear that the Dunce Cap that the figures wear is freighted with folly and the history of evil error, images for which she courageously drew from the great moralizing work of Francisco Goya. This entanglement with the ribbon, seemingly with desire, is as close as she comes to making such a pronouncement here.
That is, of course, unless we include “Devotion,” the only figure here complete enough to reveal her bare foot, and the one in which the ribbon seems to settle comfortably around and bracket the sitter. We arts writers can’t pretend to know what every artistic choice means, or even to be sure about the ones we’re convinced by, but this one seems to have received less care from its creator. It’s also the most ambiguous: the title could refer to something spiritual, or to a personal attachment. Perhaps what it means to convey is a reply to the idealism expressed elsewhere: this is the alternative we may have to, or choose to, settle for. Ultimately, like all art, it says precisely what the viewer perceives it to mean.
McPhie’s is among the best examples we have of how painting today is often neither exclusively realistic nor abstract, but offers passages of optical representation in one place and, elsewhere in the same canvas, abstraction that reminds viewers that this is a fiction and a deliberate design. In “Passion,” the figure of the woman is as real as a photograph and more perfect, while the background is a pattern of brush strokes on which the ribbon casts shadows that could only happen if it were laid curling upon, and in direct contact with, the canvas. Of course our practiced eyes accept this impossible visual information without stumble or complaint. It’s sufficient to acknowledge that Emily McPhie’s work here is her most transparent: more grounded in our moment’s desire to speak in as straightforward a way as possible. Another Emily, the poet Dickinson, urges us, in a poem as brief and powerful as a painted image, to “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” It’s become a popular line to quote, though one wonders how many who hear it reach its conclusion:
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Emily McPhie, David Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Feb. 7