Gallery Talk at Wintergreen Arts Center May 6, 2016
In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud says, ‘It is rather the rule than the exception for the past to be preserved in mental life.’ Alan’s art suggests to me endless interpretations about how his character was affected and formed by past traumatic events and in the interplay between disabilities from his illness and his artistic abilities.
My concerns about Alan’s mental and emotional health started when he was very young. At 4 years old, he was diagnosed with nephritis, a kidney disease. He was hospitalized several times over the next 2 years and treated continuously with steroid drugs. The last time he was hospitalized, he was not expected to live, and they tried an experimental treatment, painful injections of albumin into his veins that required a large needle. This treatment worked and he recovered. The steroid treatment continued for another 2 years until he was pronounced cured from the nephritis at 8 years old. The hospital experience was very traumatic for him and for the whole family. Even his pediatrician would get wet with sweat from the strain and tension of injecting a struggling 6-year old while I held him down.
The treatment saved his life. But during this time, I noticed a change in him from an outgoing cheerful little boy to a withdrawn, fearful child which showed in his art even at that young age. Before his illness he loved making colorful pictures with smiling faces and lots of sunshine. By the end of the treatment he was drawing frightful monsters in black and white. I spoke to his pediatrician about my concern for his emotional health. He shrugged off my concern, said, “Kids change as they grow. Just be glad for his recovery from the nephritis.”
No one knows with any scientific certainty what causes mental illness. My family has a history of both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, so there is quite likely a genetic predisposition. But Alan’s early trauma certainly affected his sense of himself for all of his life. He often asked questions about it, and he would say, “You don’t believe me Mom, but I know I died back then, went to Heaven, went to Hell.
I recently read a novel in which a character is described as having a moon face and drawing wavy lines on paper. I immediately thought of Alan’s self portrait with wavy lines over his abstract face. The moon face he often expressed in his art is literally tied with that nephritis experience. The steroids gave him a pronounced moon face, and for the first time I made the connection between his moon face in many of his self-portraits and one of his most consistent aliases for himself. He often signed his name on letters as Moonway. We gave that name to the character in the book which he and I collaborated on, and which is for sale here, Oppression for the Heaven of It.
Another image which recalls his early hospital time is the Nurse in Red- Cross colors in foreground with self in background, and the large hypodermic needle. Needles remained a dreaded preoccupation throughout his adult life.
His early monsters morphed into a lifelong preoccupation in his art with demons, serpents and dragons. He never lost his love of color, though, and he eventually integrated his demons into his colorful worlds.
His splashes of color in the Abstracts & Fantasies are crowded with people and creatures, and they reflect tensions with Family, Community, and Cultural values and Expectations. “Feminist Alchemist Seducer& her Family” and “Woman in Green with Religious Figure in Front” remind me of his disturbance at times by my lack of religious belief: the woman in green might be me with my sometimes big curly hair back in the 70s. He would often say about our religious or political differences, “I wish you would believe me, Mom.”
In his art and in his life he was conflicted about couple’s relationships as in the “Couple in Black, White, and Red. Is that a vampire image?
In Western Lapland, they practice a therapy they call open-dialogue which has proved very successful as measured against American medicalized treatment. In this therapy, they believe psychosis arises from severely frayed social relationships. A psychiatrist there, Tapio Salo says, “Psychosis lives in the in-between of family members, and in the in-between of people. It is in the relationship, and the one who is psychotic makes the bad condition visible. He or she ‘wears the symptoms and has the burden to carry them.”
Families are the primal unit of all cultures and the first purveyors of cultural values and expectations that Alan often found too burdensome and contradictory to live up to. I suspect we all experience these tensions in our relationships, but those of us thought to be sane find a way to function and carry on the work of our civilization. People with serious and chronic mental illnesses are said to be dysfunctional; that is in large part how they are diagnosed.
Many of these pictures might suggest chaotic disorder at first glance, but the more I study them and remember him, the more I believe he used his art for trying to work through the disorder in his mind. He often said about problems and tensions he felt, “I have to work it out.” Sketches in one of the folders labeled Dragons of Madness indicate his preoccupation with good and evil. He tried to reconcile the contradictions in a kind of personal theology, such as “Mary with Sword Confronting Dragons”
In this landscape, is Christ carrying Alan before he climbs to the cross? Or is Alan carrying Christ from the cross, He
did have delusions of grandeur, and he saw himself at times as some kind of divine savior.
In his art and writing, Alan tried to develop a grand unified theory of everything like the physicists and religious leaders in all faiths attempt. Alan declared, “Buddha unites” (in “The Feminist Alchemist . . .” above). On a portrait in one of the folders he wrote, “The abolition of war leaves the arts free to unite the classical with the modern. The unity of the cosmos consists not in law but rather in grace, mercy, and love.” He believed Christ and Satan had to reconcile for there to be peace on earth, and he often referred to the poet William Blake’s, “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell.” The pink serpent couple is to me an image of relationship harmony.
Alan called his creature with the bug eyes on antennae Speam. One of the many demonic creatures in his art, Speam is pictured here being offered a rose from a benign-looking dragon. They are both at the bottom of stepping stones leading to Heaven. I think this is a good image to end this talk.
Do you have questions, observations, interpretations, or stories about his life you would like to share?