“Seeing Through the Figure” by Martha J. McNamara

Davis Museum

Below you can read Martha J. McNamara’s essay “Seeing Through the Figure” on my work.  The essay is from the catalog of  the 2010 “Calculated Risks” exhibition at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. (see above image)

“Seeing Through the Figure”

Who hasn’t experienced the gut-wrenching feeling of being totally alone while surrounded by people? Clara Lieu calls this social isolation the most painful type of loneliness – one that can emerge unbidden from within or, more harrowing, be purposefully inflicted by a group upon an individual.  It is, she says, both a universal theme and an experience of infinite complexity – a multi-layered sensation, a somewhat mysterious set of emotions, and often expressed with the most subtle of gestures.

Lieu explores this acute loneliness in three large-scale drawings. Using three sheets of 10 x 4 foot Dura-lar (a clear heavy-duty plastic sheeting) for each drawing, Lieu first sanded the plastic to give it density and opacity. Like “drawing on a spider’s web,” the fine lines both grab the lithographic crayon she uses and give the images depth and an atmospheric quality. Layering one sheet on top of the other allows Lieu to play with movement between two and three dimensions and express social isolation’s key contradiction: one is both seen and unseen.

Lieu’s subject is the figure but, in this project, water and its shimmering reflections carry as much or even more of the drawings’ expressive burden. Water both unites the group and accentuates individual isolation. Dark reflections cascading down from each figure activate the drawings, but, more important, they express the depth of loneliness. Like the reflections, isolation is ever-changing, unpredictable and unfathomable. The figures themselves are almost apparitional. We see heads, torsos and limbs; we can even make out musculature in places, but they are relentlessly ambiguous and therefore universal. They are neither old nor young, neither female nor male. It is gesture that gives the figures physicality – an outstretched hand, stooped shoulders, a crook’d arm. Through these gestures we recognize them as figures, but, ultimately they are unknowable.

The process of creating these works may seem straightforward: drawing with lithographic crayon on abraded plastic sheeting. But, the final drawings mask Lieu’s multi-step and rigorously interdisciplinary compositional process.  Photographs taken of people wading in Walden Pond on a summer day lead to figural sculptures for reference, preliminary drawings, digital compositional sketches, monotypes, and ultimately to the exhibition drawings.  Lieu’s process, like the work itself, is complex and layered. It enables her to move between artistic processes and media and to “draw like a printmaker and a sculptor.”

The opportunity to exhibit at the Davis Museum, with its 20-foot ceilings, encouraged Lieu to work on a scale that is entirely new for her. Intrigued by the prospect of achieving monumentality in addition to depth, she took on the difficulties of working with enormous, multilayered sheets of plastic. The larger scale freed her to foreground the watery reflections relying on them to convey the monumentality of social isolation. This juxtaposition of subtle figural gesture and hypnotic watery movement unlocks the power of social isolation’s contradictory posture: we are often most alone when surrounded by people.

Martha J. McNamara, Wellesley College Art Department

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