Georganne Deen (1998)
Georganne Deen, Toronto: The Power Plant, 1998.
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After I wrote this catalogue I was asked by Georganne to write 100 words (!) for a Japanese publication on her work. Given this length, I set myself the challenge of making it one sentence. Who knows if something was lost in translation—maybe they meant 1000 words, or 10,000 words—because I never heard anything more of the publication. Here is the text:
The bitter fruits of Georganne Deen’s inheritance (a legacy we all share, derived as it is from the mother culture) that embellish her canvases in the seductive guise and decorative wrap of society’s commercial products—from fashion to painkillers—that alluringly promise, like so many bonbons of vanity, panaceas to our ills when we need purgatives, thank you, these fruits are fed from deep roots; such freighted gifts, which draw from poisonous sources, are like gods who spring eternal, whose lure carry with them a lingering, bitter stench, a troubling perfume, that revives and suffocates at the same time, sustaining a recursive release achingly repeated in the refrain of the psyche: “un fuc me (and let me live again).”
Bad Mothers and False Gods: The Paintings of Georganne Deen
In the midst of her excoriating images of self-exposure, the phrase “thank you” appears in a number of Georganne Deen’s recent paintings, as if the artist politely acknowledges our interest as spectators. The words float there ambiguously, like so many of the slogans, logos, emblems, and products that embellish her paintings. So repeated, the phrase seems to be meaningless verbiage, like the “Thank you, have a nice day!” printed on a cash register receipt. Given the nature of these paintings, perhaps the refrain is more like the rattled reply of a rube who has been insulted or a gull who has been duped. Or, more self-consciously ironic, the expression could be shorthand for “Where the **** did that come from?” Actually, Georganne Deen’s reply is genuine . . . genuine, if we think of it appended to one of Nietzsche’s epigrams: “What does not kill me only makes me stronger”—Thank you!
Georganne Deen is not afraid to expose her traumas in her paintings or shy to admit in person any autobiographical facts to fill in the details. But we don’t need to know her sorry relationship with her mother, for instance, to recognize her background and to identify with it, even if the artist herself may have suffered “the works,” as one writer has stigmatized her upbringing. The bedroom settings of a number of these paintings neatly localize their themes in the family and suburbs. So stageset, the scenes are more than autobiographical: Georganne Deen allegorizes a past shared by a generation. As in many allegories, the privileged narrative here relates to the stages of life. In most of her paintings, time spent usually seems like an adolescent limbo to their implied subjects. Any passage there is typically of the downward-spiral sort: “let me take you down,” one of these paintings ominously quotes.
Like all allegories, Deen’s have an iconographic system. Each painting in a series contributes to this whole, elaborating on the series’ founding symbols, so to speak. (Each of Deen’s series, as well, has its own style or decorative mode.) Her paintings assume this somewhat old-fashioned, anti-naturalistic genre, but only because the allegorical form is so effective for telling stories with images, symbols, and text. With the addition of a number of subsequent works from 1997, the Power Plant presentation summarizes Georganne Deen’s last three exhibitions—The Mother Load (1994), The Mind Hospital (1996), and Thru the Super Mirror (1997)—by means of a selection of emblematic works from each.
The only pleasure a melancholic permits himself, and it is a powerful one, is allegory.
Rockabye Baby, Legacy for Womanhood, Mary’s Lane: Family Room, Duty/Pretty Miss, and The Learning Tree from The Mother Load exhibition—that title so freighted with ambivalent feelings—establish a theme for that exhibition of the burden of inheritance. The artist seems to experience this burden mainly as a lack. We all share this legacy to different degrees, whether it is genetically passed on by Mom and Pop, learned in the family milieu, or offered as support by the customs and traditions of our society. The child is caught in a double bind, forced to conform to that which rejects her. A sense of abandonment is graphically portrayed by Deen in Rockabye Baby (1993)—and the related Legacy for Womanhood (1992)—where the chain-smoking, offspring-rejecting, lullaby-fulfilling mother violently hacks off her own limb, which the baby’s cradle hangs from, rather than nurture her own child. In The Learning Tree (1993), the intimacy of the mother-daughter relationship is corrupted to “companions in these lies,” the bitter fruits of which, depicted in the tree, are passed on from mother to daughter. Meanwhile, what moral guidance the child should take into womanhood is signified in Legacy for Womanhood by various virtues—love, courage, beauty, and truth—that are shown in an allegorical inversion respectively as a blood-spattered toilet from a miscarriage or abortion, a money bag, surgical forceps, and a drug fix. Issue of a self-absorbed mother, this daughter has a dowry of useless accoutrements and rejected values.
Deen’s paintings are allegories of origin and identity, along the lines, a century earlier, of Gauguin’s symbolist masterpiece Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going? Deen’s excavations into the traumas of an adolescence in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, have none of Gauguin’s idyllic trappings, though. Despite the cosmetic sheen of her images, Deen paints a corrosive picture of family life and the places we come from. A more contemporary allegorist, given as well to a more entropic imagination than Gauguin, the late Robert Smithson, liked to give the etymology of suburbia as literally “a city below.” Georganne Deen works this subterranean theme. Mining the mother lode unearths a hellish mother load. Deen delves into the underground resources that feed this manic selfishness. In Rockabye Baby, she appropriates the prime Romantic symbol of the tree, and its connotations of nurturing origin, to contrast the behaviour of the unnatural mother. She further undermines the fertile symbolism of the tree by flattening the picture plane to create an illustrational cross-section of the earth. This device turns the picture from a Romantic symbol into an allegorical representation and exposes the dirty secrets—vices rather than virtues—festering underground. As Walter Benjamin wrote of the Baroque allegorists, Deen “drags the essence of what is depicted out before the image, in writing, as a caption, such as, in the emblem-books, forms an intimate part of what is depicted.” So in the painting we find both visual and verbal representations of “confusion,” “waste,” and “blind cruelty.” As these artists of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did, Deen likewise appends an “explanation” to the bottom of her memento mori. More or less autobiographical, it embroiders her history into the lyrics of the lullaby:
Rockabye Baby in the trees, in the hills, on top of tha heap Your daddy’s Rich & your mama’s goodlookin But she drinks too much & takes pills & her house is on fire & you weigh too much & you cry too much & she has a new boyfriend & You look like your dad who has a new wife & a daughter that’s better than you So Rockabye Baby You’re gonna take a fall but it won’t be far from the tree & you’ll try to get up & you’ll try to get away But you’ll find that you’re chainganged to her DNA & your sentence is: life (but it’s always Death Row) & your good behavior is rewarded with mockery, your tears with ridicule & your anger with jeers But hush little Baby now don’t you cry cause you’re gonna learn how to lie & go blind & dumb & Blond & Forget what you were cryin about
VERSUS: Get up on all fours & Howl From Vertebrae to vertebrae Howl from Nerve to Nerve Get those Synapses Saluting your Will Like a speedboat
To Love Like a Siren Tell Her Goodbye.
Mary’s Lane: Family Room (1993) shifts the scene from the dyadic relationship of mother-daughter to its context, the suburban teenager’s bedroom, the vein American horror flicks readily tap. This painting presents an adolescent fright show by registering pubescent anxieties. Instead of guidance, the adolescent is offered false choices by consumer society as if thrown into a forest of signs. The libidinal licence of the marketplace stands in as a displaced authority for parental absence. Decorative cartouches that are also product insignia—those of the luxury department store Neiman Marcus, or the top-of-the-line Cadillac—masquerade as jewellery pendants; but these lures mask the determinism of biological destiny for the female child visible to her in the natural world. Her genetic horror is that she is not just “chainganged” to her mother’s DNA, but also condemned to continue the female line, with the dread of consequence we have already read into the other paintings.
It is not that Deen’s paintings offer coherent allegorical systems so much as they present recognizable figures that stand in for characters we all know, as if they were caricatures from Saturday-morning, or Sunday-evening, cartoons. While the subjects of her paintings are personal, they are of private issues publicly understood. After all, there are only so many psychological dynamics initiated by familial structures. So paintings such as The Divine Anti-Comedy (1995) and A Child’s Garden of Criticism (1996) from The Mind Hospital exhibition somewhat depersonalize her family story, while still making reference to it, in more formal and hieratic presentations of its imagery. The paintings set up the cast of characters of both matriarchal and patriarchal lines. In the quasi-mythic The Divine Anti-Comedy, with its Roman and Dantesque references, we recognize the bitch mother with her ubiquitous cigarette, fashionable heels, and Chanel necklace, whose only nurturing is the bitter spotlight thrown on the vignette of sibling rivalry. The nuclear family is completed in the painting by a visual synecdoche for the fittingly absent father in the oil-field image suggesting the fantasy catch of a Texas oilman by the predatory female. “The divine anti-comedy” title inscribed on the painting is an example of allegorical inversion, as the subject gains psychic control through language over the domination by the other, the self-aggrandizing mother. Small victory. The child is side-swiped in A Child’s Garden of Criticism by the serpent in the garden, namely the father’s hydra-headed family, whose crude commentary we can read in cartoon thought bubbles. The aim of The Mind Hospital seems to be to turn this external, then internalized, onslaught of criticism into the self-care of self-understanding. If the “mind hospital” is the head, the painting—a sick painting—offers a “spatial” image of its psychological dynamics as an allegorical representation.
If the paintings of The Mother Load raged against the mother with the sotto voce irony of the daughter blown up to the full scale of a rhetorical image, there is now in The Mind Hospital an ambiguity whether language or image refer to the mother or the daughter. Perhaps finally the daughter has absorbed the “lessons” and legacy of the mother, even to the self-medication implied in these paintings. Who surrenders to the cosmetic packaging of I Give Up: the daughter, or the organs of the alcoholic mother?
The exhibition Thru the Super Mirror, its title an ironic conflation of Lewis Carroll’s fable and Lacanian psychoanalytic terminology, once again dramatizes the bedroom as a site of fantasy and the symbolic region, in retrospect, to work through trauma. This is no intimiste interior but rather a crucible of mental conflagration on the order of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, even though Deen’s interiors neatly retain their flounces and frills. Who says that teenage consciousness cannot partake of the same splendour and excess of destructive impulses? Actually, the bedroom is the place of the adolescent’s final seduction. Two of the three major paintings of the exhibition, Little Bang (1996) and Thru the Super Mirror (1996), depict bedrooms that are the mirror reflection of each other (based on the one actually shared by Deen and her older sister). A battle for the soul is waged there. As if navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, the drug-fractured consciousness of the adolescent vacillates between the reality given at the top of the painting Thru the Super Mirror—”I taste acid, angel dust, and speed. I’m driven by greed. I’m gutless and horny”—and the fantasy played across the bottom—”Go ahead & gush some snapdragons & unicorns. Tune into some kettle drums by S[c]hiaparelli. You’re Springing Eternal. You are the heart of a new god.” Little Bang literally spells out a narrative, elsewhere presented allegorically only negatively, of a reconciliation of sorts, this time with the father. Across the bedroom backdrop, and accompanying self-abusive rude caricatures of herself, a text starts on one side of the painting—”the way I felt about myself for not being whatever it was you wanted me to be / such a fucking drag / it seemed like such a waste”—and ends on the other—”but eventually it all made perfect sense / thank you.”
Having made peace with her upbringing, Deen’s rethinks her legacy as trophies. So the small paintings Heirloom Balls and Loss (ha ha), both from 1996 and whose imagery can be seen as details in a couple of the larger works, now stand as honoured parlour portraits of father and mother, the artist acknowledging inheritance of her father’s balls and her mother’s mordant humour.
With the inclusion of God Save the Queen and But the King Knew Her Not (1997), painted by Deen in response to her parents’ deaths, the Power Plant exhibition completes a cycle from rage to mourning. The narrative wrap-up implied by reconciliation should not suggest that all Georganne’s problems are exorcised. Other paintings in the Thru the Super Mirror exhibition reworked her subterranean theme but shifted its terrain from the family to the surrogate authority of the pop idol. The background to GODS (Spring Eternal) (1996) might be Demeter’s recovery of her daughter, Persephone, from Hades’ underworld, but the painting’s visible allure is the siren songs of contemporary false gods, PJ Harvey and Nick Cave being then currently available models. The two GODS paintings, the other being Gods (harry heckle & bait), act out, as it were, a good-cop bad-cop routine. The one offers himself or herself as disposable goods to be enjoyed and thrown away: new ones spring up every year. The other criticizes and attacks, but by so doing offers a foil for one’s identity to assert itself. The female subject in GODS (harry heckle & bait) talks back to the rock god with his pan-pipe microphone, but not without saying, of course—”thank you.”
NOTE: This text may not correspond exactly to its published form.