Extended Artist’s Statement, March 2016
Helen Werner Cox
The Theme: Employing the carousel as a visual metaphor of society, I exploited its complex and diverse images through different vantage points and media. The disquieting effect of the anxieties we experience regarding things beyond our control is expressed through the organization of values, lines, shapes, and color temperatures.
Antique carousels are anything but benign―having been originally constructed for adults, not children. The paradox inherent in a merry-go-round, as the horses go ever forward and never get anywhere, symbolizes the circles we spin, both individually and collectively. Indeed it appears we are moving backwards as our cycle takes us through the next curve. If we are fortunate, our momentum will allow us to break out of an endless circle and will form a spiral that takes us upwards, more in keeping with Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure.
Initially it was not the horse that attracted me to the carousel, but it was the horse which carried the power and thus featured prominently in my images. When these carousels were created, in the early 1900’s, the horse was still very connected to human experience as an important symbol of power and wealth. The men who carved the animals were aware of the status that went with owning and riding a horse; this status would make it popular among the adults who paid to ride. It is significant we are in an age when horses are obsolete in farming, transportation, and war, as we find ourselves on the brink of extinction, in spite of our modern technology.
Even today, when the modern urban person may be alienated from the deep human reliance on horses throughout history, it is too powerful in the psyche of man to ignore the implications. The silent screams of fear and rebellion in the carved horses attracted me to them―those open mouths that could have represented an independent spirit and a riding challenge in the minds of the men who carved them. The horse makes a compelling symbol, unintended though it was, as a visual cry against control by the elite.
My Art in Context: In the critiques of this project, analogies have been made to Delacroix, Gericault, Van Gogh, Picasso, the Italian Futurists, and Baroque space. It would appear I have traveled back more than 100 years and I am centered in the early modern times of the Post-Impressionists. I chose for a theme the antique carousel, which was at its height in the early 1900’s until The Great Depression, when economic hardships ended leisure spending. At that time Art Nouveau was prevalent, which influenced much of the design work in the carousel paintings and carvings. A recent exhibit of New Objectivity, an expressionist movement in Germany in the 1930’s, underscored the parallels between then and now.
My interest in the wholeness of an image―as expressed through lights and darks, warms and cools, and the arrangement of major shapes within a composition―was explored by analyzing compositional elements in the works of Goya and Paula Rego and considering how these components contribute to the power and emotional expression of their images. I applied elements of these compositional frameworks and value relationships to my own work.
When I look at the scope of history and pre-history, it appears to me we are really in the same broad period of time that started with the Greek and Roman civilizations. My art embodies these many influences in the tension between a frozen stillness and movement, between form and mark making, between materials and illusion.
I make art because I am driven to do so. I am trying to express feelings that have no other outlet and which are not satisfied by words. My desire to express feelings is leading me to certain kinds of abstraction, but I do not see myself as choosing between abstraction and naturalism. I have the freedom to select the modes of expression that fit my needs; in that respect, I am part of this very present time. I expect my art to continue to change and evolve.
I want my work seen, but it may be that the people I am most interested in and those I relate to may not have the means to buy it. I came to graduate school because I wanted to produce museum-quality art and discovered that whatever museums choose to allow in their sacred halls becomes de facto art, and I do not agree with all their choices. These are conflicts I must work out for myself. I am inspired by Dürer, who sold his prints in local street fairs, thus freeing himself from the need to seek and cater to wealthy patrons.
The Images: The research for this project included two sketchbooks filled with more than 130 drawings in ink, charcoal, and pencil from antique carousels at Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Griffith Park in Los Angeles, the Running Horse Studio Collection in Irwindale, and Balboa Park in San Diego. Each of the depictions that evolved from this study explored slightly different elements. There are three main categories: large drawings on paper in oil, pastel, charcoal, and ink; smaller pictures utilizing water base drawing materials, lithography, linoleum prints, etching and monoprints; and one three-dimensional wood carving.
I have enjoyed mixing materials and layering the images. Two of the largest images were painted with a thin oil wash on a chemically treated paper and layered over with pastel. The use of water base materials in other works allowed me to “destroy” a drawing by wetting it and then reworking it. Drawing enhanced printmaking―which influenced drawing. In Dead Horse, I began by drawing directly on an acrylic sheet, allowing me to make several additive monoprints. One of these, a ghost monoprint, I took back to location and drew into from life, making further modifications that strengthened the drawing and added a depth to the surface quality. These are techniques I plan to develop further.
Energy and movement, accentuated by mark making, are the focus of several images. Silent Screams and Breakout or Outbreak—Which Will It Be? illustrate this and offer a comparison and contrast. In both of these oil and pastel paintings the force of the horses, the futility of screams which no one hears, demanded expression in a large format. These creatures emerge out of the darkness and chaos that surrounds us, moving ever forward but going nowhere. Although the objectives for both were similar, the methodologies resulted in different outcomes.
Silent Screams was compiled in the studio from sketchbook drawings of separate groups of horses and architectural studies. The sense of movement is created by the position of the horses and the mark making, but the forms remain distinct. Breakout was composed from composition studies made while I sat on the moving carousel. This destroyed natural perspective and created a wave-like motion that emphasizes our lack of control on the forces around us. The logic with which we try to construct our world falls apart in Breakout, and forms disintegrate into pure movement. Capturing this resulted in a cartoon-like product with tension between the frozen animals and the dynamics of motion. Although one of the horses literally breaks out of the boundaries of the image, they are locked onto the carousel by their poles. In Silent Screams the horses have broken the poles but they are imprisoned within the space.
Printmaking lends itself to spontaneity, experimentation, movement, design, and abstraction. Some of the freedom comes from knowing there is more than one of any particular image―even monoprints offer a ghost. Many times I explored ideas in printmaking and then applied them to drawing and painting. Sometimes it was as direct as a composition idea (Silent Screams in lithography) or as technical as layering images, which I first tried in linoleum and monoprints and later employed in drawing.
The Next Step: A year was spent drawing single carousel animals, small groupings, decorative elements, and architectural structures before I was compelled to draw the image in its entirety while everything was in motion. The confidence I had acquired from so many studies enabled me to do it. Coinciding with this, was the thought that I should enlarge my sketchbook studies.
The next time I went to the Running Horse Studio Collection, a warehouse filled with hundreds of carousel animals, I simply isolated interesting compositions from the jumble of forms and recorded them on 18 x 24 inch paper, as though it were a giant sketchbook. Occasionally I edited out an animal or shifted one or two, but basically I drew what I saw. The results are a change in my work. The horses are no longer confined to the carousel, but run helter skelter, with random creatures mixed in. I intend to pursue this direction and see where it takes me.
I also want to conduct research at the county fairs, as a natural extension of the ideas explored in this thesis, filling large sketchbooks with drawings from the midway.
When Van Gogh began his art career at the age of thirty, he considered the possibility that his career might not be long-lasting. As an older woman experiencing artistic development in the latter half of my life, I identify with his thoughts about this. He said:
I need not rush myself too much―there is no good in that, but I must work on… as regularly and fixedly as possible, as concisely and pointedly as possible… I have walked this earth for thirty years, and, out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures―not made to please a certain taste in art, but to express sincere human feeling.