Abstract: Luce Irigaray’s work is a pathway to the re-conception of art and philosophy in the 21st century. Sexuate awareness facilitates giving 1 birth to oneself as woman and artist. This is a principle touchstone for painting and has been missing in the philosophy-art conversation. Developing and holding this awareness is an ongoing process that is intertwined with every painting painted and exhibit presented to the world. This awareness enhances the participatory awareness of the working artist in regards to her own interior spaces and the interiority of the other, whether human, or non-human. The need for having a ‘point of return within herself’2 speaks to the generative DNA of Irigaray’s work for artists in general and painters particularly. This is not limited by the territorialism of worn-out aesthetic divisiveness. The philosophical theories Irigaray has developed challenge me to innovative ways of thinking about myself, my paintings and the act of painting. Within this are the seeds for language innovation in speaking about my work.
A painter who has given birth to herself and knows her sexuate artist body as a “ place for exchanges with other living beings” nourishes her interior space with philosophy that is open to a ‘redoubling perspective on the world’. This is what facilitates the ability to hear and experience the whisper of the other that is pantings’ gift to the artist and the world. Irigaray’s work opens dialogue that honors enfleshment, interiority, gesture, color and materials. Her work acknowledges the creative tension of the visible and invisible in relation. This acknowledgment opens awareness within the painter that unfolds as presence in the painting.
1 Sexuate describes a positively defined feminine identity that does not currently exist within patriarchy and phallocentrism. It refers to the bodily, psychical and cultural dimensions of feminine ( and implicitly masculine) being that for woman is reconciled from her negative and sexually neutral status within phallocentrism to a positive, sexually different status.
2 Daley, Linda. ( 2015). Rendering Visible: Painting and sexual subjectivity. Educational Philosophy and Theory. Vol. 47, 2015.
Painting and The Work of Luce Irigaray, A Critical Meeting.
1. Sexuate awareness and giving birth to oneself as woman and artist.
My initial reading of Luce Irigaray’s comments on the German surrealist artist Unica Zurn ( 1916-1970) ‘failing to be born’ as a woman and an artist1 with the subsequent comment of this as an example of “woman’s deadly relation to patriarchy”2 resonate within my artist journey and psyche-soul. It was not until delving further into Irigaray’s work that I came to realize I was only standing on one foot instead of having my two artist’s feet firmly planted in my awareness of what the sexuate means for me as a painter. This is a core philosophical practice issue. It goes unnamed and manifests in various ways. I have experienced, observed, and dialogued about this with women artist colleagues around the country. The dis-ease that manifests has its roots in the narrow and phallocentric readings of most Western philosophy. Dominant art theory paradigms often based in second hand interpretations of primary philosophical texts continue to coopt the language of art and the psyches of painters.
Irigaray’s philosophy of the sexuate open portals of awareness. It is a reconception of art and philosophy. Veronique M. Foti writes that: Philosophy, as an intellectual creation invested in language, is responsive to and expressive of “wild being” as well as of cultural life.3 I identify with “wild being”. Until the artist gives birth to herself, individuates and comes to know as gnosis her sexuate difference, can she even begin to paint the non-visible? I mine language etymology searching for ways to talk about my work. The word, render4 which is frequently used in art criticism particularly when talking about painting is an example. It’s earliest meaning and use are “giving back” and “melting down”. To paint is to give back along with melting down for clarity, making the world a more radiant place in a gesture of generosity and clearing. The physical act of painting is so much more than applying paint to canvas. Painting goes beyond the limited understanding of rendering ( “to represent or depict artistically.”)
The “necessity of respecting internal distances” 5 breaks open my thinking and understanding of presence. 1. -the state or fact of existing, occurring or being present in a place or thing- (underscore mine). 2. -a person or thing that exists in a place but is not seen- (underscore mine). Respecting internal distances is multi-directional. It holds inclusion, specificity, and difference. I exist as a sexuate painter. My paintings exist. You can exist but not be seen. Paintings can exist and not be seen. I have experienced both. Not seen. Not seen by whom? I think of the non-human world, particularly the arctic. I have lived and worked in this very specific place. It exists but is rarely seen. A place of air and water, sea mammals, land animals and hidden vegetal life forms in ice and tundra. When you exist and are not seen, the results. . . .? Exploitation. Not seen is an equivalent of not respecting the internal distances that animate.
I care about my relationship to myself as a sexuate being and to the planet I share with multiple others. Awareness of this is part of my vocation as an artist. My sensate perspective as sexuate unfolds in my painting. I paint what is vanishing. This requires being open to, and not fearful of, forms that do not yet exist. I am drawn to paint what exists but is not seen. Is existence based only on what is seen? The physiologic mechanics of vision, of seeing, do not pre-empt or supersede what I experience and feel as gnosis at a bone and heart level. I think about presence6. The presence within the painting itself, the presence experienced in the space between painter and the painted. The presence of the respected other. Is presence in a painting informed by honoring the sexuate belonging of the artist because she has given birth to herself and is no longer held in “deadly relation to patriarchy?” Is presence manifested in the space between the silent participatory recognition of my sexuate self and the other, the non-reciprocal and non-hierarchical, be it human or nonhuman?
How do I formulate the questions that will keep me honest with myself and my work? Each painting, each exhibit offers another opportunity of the birthing cycle to the artist-self. “Becoming” as Daley points out in her discussion of Irigaray, “ in different moments of encounter with self and other through the various dimensions of woman’s ( and implicitly man’s) singularly sexual being. It takes courage 7 to embrace a mode of becoming that is other than how feminine identity is defined by the Aristotelian paradigm of ‘A, not A’.
2. The sexuate artist body as “a place for exchanges with other living beings.”
Luce Irigaray’s teaching on “co-looking” in response to the difference of ‘objects’ and ‘things’ is an important point. It clarifies how my interior world feeds my subjectivity intertwining with my flesh. This raises rigorous questions within me. When I paint an image, am I just mirroring and therefore imposing my agenda? Am I respecting the internal distances within myself and the relation to the other, whether the other is non-human or an idea that gives rise to the image itself?
‘Depth of my flesh defining my vision’ 8 is empowering. It calls for commitment to sexuate honesty in my work. It also increases my vulnerability. In the past I have retreated into the neutrality of the safety of an asexual way of being in my work, which is cowardly and dishonest but safe. It is the compromise of ‘going along to get along’ because I wanted to learn specific skills in painting. Language betrays what is really happening with statements like: “You can’t do this!!!” ( the frantic rage of a male professor at my first painting critique in graduate school.) or “You have been given more than any other student of mine and you challenge me with veiled hostility.” This last statement liberating me from the need for male mentorship. There is no space for me to speak of my work, not explain it, but speak of it. There is appropriation of voice, sometimes even of the image though the energy and presence of the work can not be appropriated Irigaray’s philosophical work offers keys to unlock the discourse for feminine artists. The DNA of the sexuate carries centuries of vibrancy, culture, strength and embodied wisdom. It informs the decisions I make as a painter in a world limited by patriarchal practices and understandings. Irigaray’s description of Merleau-Ponty’s defensiveness with respect to the other is apropos for many art critics, theorists, teachers, 9 male as well as female artists I have interacted with. It is also a warning for my own artistic practice on the risks of avoiding and denying the sexuate. Paraphrasing Irigaray: It is an enclosed world view remaining intertwined between self and self, between self and a world already situated within the self, There is no longer an intertwining in the present between self and other. No longer a redoubling of perspective on the world which would compel keeping perceptions of the other open so that oneself could be informed, interrogated and fertilized by the other.10
Acknowledging that “I co-look with that which already inhabits me, outside of all representation” offers signposts for my journey. Not necessarily a map, certainly not the territory, but navigating by the stars, depending on what part of the world I am in, what season it is, and the time of night or day. A time-space of re-sponse-ability in my painting. To ask, ‘what inhabits me?’ is also to ask, what do I bring to this canvas, to this painting that ‘does not participate in the classic economy of representation as object(s) and constitutes my flesh without me being able to master them. . .?’ This includes memory. Memories of enfleshed experiences in the arctic. Wind on ice flows, the sounds of northern lights, penetrating cold and deep silence that palpably holds me.11 It includes what I have come to know, gnosis at a bone crushing level; grief, traumatic loss through suicide Iliaqivik is an Inuktitut term explaining the activity of a shaman. It literally means to travel across time and space to search. Women shamans in the arctic were in constant relation with other-than-humans. I reach back across time to bring forth into the present of my painting and to ‘breath shape into all that is vanishing.’ My paintings unfold within the simultaneousness of reaching back and bringing forth. These are internal distances of awareness and experience. This is time-space energy of gestational creativity. There are unanswerable questions about the flickering paradoxes of nature, fragile ecosystems, poetry, death and silence. The ‘relational formation of my flesh which makes of my body a place of exchanges with other living beings’ is at the heart of female shamanic practice in the arctic.13 Irigaray’s presentation of this as ‘an other who is qualitatively and not quantitatively different from the other’ shatters the limitations I place on myself as an artist, as a painter, as a woman.
3. Painting the visible and invisible, clearing the limitations of vision, opening the paths for life.
In Buddhism, we pray for “vast mind and open heart”. The Tibetan word for mind and heart are the same. Sems, & sems. My body-soul is in relation-with. My body-soul is sexuate, a feminine body-soul. It is this sexuate, feminine body- soul that holds my inner space. This is what I bring to painting. If I truncate this enfleshment, the energy of authenticity and truth is cut off and I limit the tactile, living and relational experiences of my perceptions.
Irigaray chooses painting as the medium of expression that allows for the perception of the visible and invisible. Painting with its limitless use of color shatters control and hierarchies. Oil paint can be thinned to a wash or laid down with impasto thickness. Painting thrives on a continuum of tactile sensitivities and color vibrations. Paint is often still made in small batches using recipes from the vegetal world that are centuries old. Oil paint can interlace with heavy canvas, the finest of imported linen or the simplest wood panels. My gesture as artist is informed by the other; the painting, the subject, the mood, the presence existing which is not necessarily seen but felt, intuited, experienced. Sometimes I, the painter ‘feel’ that the grain of an unprepared wood panel, raw in its immediacy and texture is what the painting wants. It is all of this, that I, the painter respond to. It is this, that ‘intertwines’ and ‘interlaces’ with the sexuate body-soul of my painter self because it inhabits me. It is from this reality that I reply to the question: “How long did it take you to paint this?” with, “All my life.”
Water-color and gouache, walnut and squid inks are other members of the ‘specific materials’ elixirs. They flow in a world of amniotic generativity that requires surrender, deep respect for touch and generous compassion. Many of the colors are exuded and distilled from minerals and plants. The communing of color in deep fluidity with the receiving papers is alchemical. The papers I use in water based painting each come with their own story and sensuousness. There is the warm thickness of hand made Asogomi paper from Renaissance presses in Italy that will also receive oil paint with brilliance. I meet the vulnerability and strength of hand made Mulberry, Okawara and Shikoku papers from centuries old Japanese paper making studios each time I unroll them and paint upon them. The ‘empty space available for the perception of forms, animated by the invisible real’ is carried within these papers. I have two large pieces of Mokachi paper. They are the last of these papers, hand made by one of Japan’s ‘National Treasure’ paper makers; Keij Oki. He died in February of 2017.
Luce Irigaray underscores the ‘specific materials and gestures’ of painters. This and the expansiveness that comes with a ’different use of vision, in particular in relation to touch and the nature of touch’ is sexuate resonance for painting and painters.
1 Irigaray, L. (1994, May-June). A Natal Lacuna. (M. Whitford, Trans.). Women’s Art Magazine. No.58, pp.11-13.
2 Daley, Linda. (2015) Rendering Visible: Painting and sexual subjectivity. Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol.47, No6, 608-621.
3 Foti, Veronique M. (2013). Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty. Evanston, Northwestern University Press. p.11
4 Late middle English, from Old French rendre, from an alteration of Latin reddere = give back, from re- ‘back’ + dare ‘give.’
5 Irigaray, L. (2004). To paint the invisible. Continental Philosophy Review. 37: 389-405.
6 Middle English: via Old French from Latin praesentia ‘being at hand’ from the verb praesse
7 Daley, Ibid. p.611 8 Irigaray, L. (2004) p.394
9 Irigaray, L. (2004) p.397
10 Ibid. p. 398.
11 Sullivan, Irene F. (2007) Excerpts From The Arctic -A Photographic Topomnesia. Wind’s Edge Press, Golden, Colorado.
12 A term of Bracha Ettinger’s that I have been using for a decade.
13 Sullivan, Irene F. (2016) “You will cease to be powerless.” (Shamanic Story Maps of Female Empowerment From Greenland). “You will cease to be powerless.” September 2016- Exhibit with installation piece at CAMAC, Marnay-sur-Seine, France.