Span myth, history, future: grasp them firmly, lightly, through the figures' gestures.
Span traditions: reach across the history of art, back to the Northern Renaissance when the horizons of sparse landscapes reached further back to dark, cloud-hemmed uncertainty. Dip your fingers down, reach under to find mythological figures in postures of yearning, folly, balance, spiritual enlightenment and hubris urged and thwarted by many Gods. Curtail, expand to a single Christian God beheld in cruciform, arms splayed wide in four directions.
Cup your palm into the present and feel your way into Madsen's figures through any of their four hands, their twenty fingertips, slip them on like gloves and feel the firm holds and the light upward yearning gestures. His beatitude lifts from her weighted feet. Feel the weight, the pressure on her soles, knees, back, shoulders, neck. The woman carrying man who has seen God is yoked by him, and steadied too. He's crawled, flung onto her balance beam; pulled off some cross, out of some mother's lap, he's lost in desires for transcendence while she steadies.
But why separate such entangled figures when they combine into a new figuration? Why not span myth, history, future: grasp them firmly, lightly through the figures' gestures?
"A figure collects up the people; a figure embodies shared meanings in stories that inhabit their audiences."
Madsen's figures collect up viewers - they invite us to enter evocative landscapes, to inhabit them. Even upon first viewing, "Woman carrying man who has seen God" seems familiar because it embodies cultural stories and meanings which viewers share, and it also refigures them and us, making new, shared possibilities. Madsen's work is part of a larger contemporary practice which knowingly draws on and connects different art traditions, including figurative, landscape, Northern Renaissance, mythological and mystical realist painting.
"Every image that arises now comes to us already emplotted in the context and history of earlier images....We historians are not only 're-visioning' objects; the objects are revising us."
Micheal Ann Holly
Though Holly's canny statement refers to art historians, it also describes an artistic method: aware of the plot, context, icons, techniques, aspirations and history of their practice, artists produce work which revises, re-plots, and possibly revives us. This practice spans the present, the future and history, so in the following sections, to remind us of what's shared, the art historical traditions which "Woman carrying man who has seen God" is part of are discussed; toward the future, Madsen's extensive body of work in this genre is situated as part of a lively contemporary art practice.
In your mind's eye, dip down to a time before the fall, before shame, and envision a pagan world of communion, of contentment in nature. Graced with physical strength and an unfettered, unselfconscious ease in their nakedness, Madsen's nudes, whether earthbound or sky-dwelling, take up their 'souls' in this natural world. Spiritually devoted ascetics in search of the truth have often sought union with the spirit in a certain kind of 'natural world'. Pagan and shamanic beliefs, which form the underpinning of much Christian worship, were based in animism - a belief that trees, water, plants, and the land are alive, all embodying soul and meaning.
In Northern European painting, the 'divine' is sought and found in the landscape - saints such as Lucas Cranach's "St. Jerome" (1515/20) retreat to the woods to commune with their God; later, Caspar David Friedrich's "Monk by the Sea" (1809/10) stands alone, contemplating the divine. Madsen's figures seek union with the 'spirit' through connecting with this natural realm of expanded, mystical meaning, inhabiting landscapes defined by many years of art historical tradition. Moody amorphous clouds, towering northern woods, tumultuous seas and damp, primeval moss-covered earth are painted in meticulous detail in glowing colour upon glazed surfaces. The paintings share the techniques of Flemish Renaissance artists like Rogier van der Weyden and Gerard David, especially their attention to detail, use of symbols, vaguely distorted spatial systems and tangible sense of the numinous. Through these methods, the artists convey personal relationships to the 'divine' found through natural landscapes.
In mythical and religious paintings, nude figures in landscapes convey timelessness, embody classical mythology (picture the Renaissance retellings of Venus and Mars by Botticelli and Piero de Cosimo (1483 & 1500/5)), and mark origin stories (such as the monumental nudes which feature in Northern panel painting, such as Jan Van Eyck's Adam and Eve in the "Ghent Altarpiece" (1432)). Referencing these art historical traditions, Madsen re-plots her characters to suggest possible, parallel narratives, stories which appear both familiar and unfamiliar. "Woman carrying man who has seen God" evokes the key Christian events of the Crucifixion, Deposition and Pieta; yet these stories are collapsed together - splayed arms and yearning, weighted limbs are reconfigured and stilled into the present. Viewers can rest their eyes in the paintings still immanence, or imagine possible movement: the woman might lift her raised heel and step toward the rushing river, crossing over to the other side; or her heel might sink back down and her spine straighten, shucking the man into a rolling fall. Both these options carry on from culturally invested gender roles, dualisms where She and He play scripted parts. But "Woman carrying man who has seen God" also monumentally pictures the desire to merge with another, to reshape two people through elaborate consensual yearning together. These painted figures, entwined and alone in their landscape, complicate the very traditions which they draw upon; in this way they refigure and revise us.
This gathering and revising of shared cultural stories can be situated as expanded or mystical realism. Using historical information as varied as animism, astrological texts, Christian bestiaries and Blake-inspired figurations, Madsen's natural world is layered with attributed mystical meanings. In an series called "Leap" (1994), Madsen paints earthbound figures caught trying to lift themselves up off the ground, at times through exaggerated, histrionic gestures ("Berserkers" (1997/98)); other paintings picture figures which are simply airborne, neither in flight nor hauled down by gravity ("Rise"(1998)), "Lovers"(1999), just stilled in clouded mid-air in solitary mystical and Tarot postures. Like "Woman carrying man who has seen God", "Bridge" (1999), "Blind" (2000), and "Mirror" (2001) picture grounded couples which span earth, water and sky. These figures rehearse an ambiguous combination-lock of gestures which, if correctly sequenced, might open the door to their cosmos.
Madsen's work sits in relation to contemporary painters including the Norwegians Odd Nerdrum and Hanneline Rogeberg, and the UK artist Jenny Saville. Nerdrum layers arcane alchemical information into his work, and sets up evocative, eerie, inhabited outlands. He has vociferously situated his work as (one of) modernism's 'others', reviving and updating the concept of 'kitsch' in which successful art historical traditions champion transcendental universal human values (ArtNews, April 2000). This revision shares part of Michael Ann Holly's insight - "Every image that arises now comes to us already emplotted in the context and history of earlier images" - but misses how much "...the objects are revising us" through changing historical circumstances. Nerdrum's appeal to the 'universal' is at odds with other figurative bedsisters (other 'others') whose paintings put forward new understandings and aspiration regarding contemporary gender relations.
Hanneline Rogeberg's voluptuous figure paintings dwell inside women's relationships, offering new figurations which complicate intimacy, reliance and ambiguity. Jenny Saville's huge paintings of nude women don't abide by beauty myths or universalizing stereotypes, but represent alternative views of women's fleshy bodies. Though their painting techniques are quite different, Rogeberg and Saville's work shares Madsen's use of nude figures in innovative, unexpected postures and gestures; whereas Madsen's figures are lithe, her earth, water and skies are ruched, dimpled, scarred, stretched, rippling.
In "Closed Contact No. 10" (1997), Saville's nude body, distorted by lying on glass, is painted as if both squashed by the painting's surface and suspended. This technique of keeping stories, and possibilities, open by positioning figures in mid-air - as in Madsen's "Reflect" (2001) - features in the poignant, controversial endings of two popular, inspirational films: "Thelma and Louise" (Scott, 1991) and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (Ang Lee, 2000) which concludes with the young heroine leaping from a bridge into a cloudy sky, spanning actual, real embodiment and figural imaginary, sought-after worlds, forever remaining mid-air. Philosopher Donna Haraway emphasizes that the actual, real and the figural, imaginary figure each other in concrete fact, and that there are many narrative structures, plots, contents, actors, actions and layers of meanings possible. Susan Madsen's work collects us up in a particular imaginary, real vision and offers it to viewers, palm open, to inhabit.
Margot Leigh Butler, Ph.D.
Hansen, Jan-Eri, Odd Nerdrum and Jan Ove Tuv "Kitsch and Art", Advertisement in ArtNews, April 2000; also on www.nerdrum.com/Kitsch/artnews_apr00_2.html
Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_Oncomouse, Routledge, 1997.
Holly, Michael Ann "Past Looking" in Melville, Stephen, and Bill Readings, eds. Vision and Textuality, MacMillan, London, 1995.
All works copyright Susan Madsen. Images may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of Susan Madsen.