Artist Interview with Holly Ann Scoggins

By Jacob Hicks

Light from its Load the Spirit Flies, oil on canvas

  Holly Ann Scoggins is a figurative painter and professor at Polk State College in Florida. The viewer’s of her art peer through lattices of patterned textiles on the picture plane’s surface (like vines and underbrush in a dense forest) that tangle, reveal or obfuscate female portraiture and rural narratives set in the American South.  Scoggins was raised in North Carolina, whose culture plays a continuous and significant role in her painting.  The sense of location, I think, is so defined in the narrative works that imagined humidity might raise beads of sweat on the forehead of the audience. Her work is executed quickly, but with a sophisticated emotional and formal precision.  I was lucky to talk with the artist about her paintings; our discussion follows.

JH: You grew up in the deep south, to me your paintings are effuse with the weight of that cultural history.  Speak a little about how your origins feed your art.

HAS: Old Graveyards, magnolia trees, abandoned homes, lace curtains, stoic women, trailer parks, dirt roads, fake flowers, church pews… these are the images that have stuck with me throughout my southern upbringing. I guess you could call me a Dark Romantic in a sense. Like many southerners, you are unknowingly haunted by your own landscape. I was raised in Church and taught by example about southern “femininity.’ This concept is unveiled on Easter when you show up in your pretty church dress…..you know that your true femininity (identity) lies somewhere in-between working yourself to death, respecting those around you, and submitting to God.

Graveyards have always been a source of ambivalence for me- loving the aesthetics but disliking the morbidity, knowing this world is temporal yet trying to make it beautiful. I am convinced there is an unsafe romance with death for some southerners; at least this is my experience. My artwork is unabashedly inspired by the spiritual and visual components of my southern history, as well as the power of the female form.

Mary Elizabeth Quigley, Oil on canvas
Mary Elizabeth Quigley, Oil on canvas

JH: Favorite painter who is dead, favorite painter who is alive (and why?)…

HAS: Hands down Vuillard, I call him the pixilated prince of painting. It’s as if you squinted and the world flashed before you and you capture the emotion of that moment. A sudden silhouetted experience of figures in light, shadow, and muted color. The economy of his brushstrokes leaves me in lust for the rest of the story. There is a beautiful mystery to his work that I will never quite understand, but always respect and wish to emulate. I am particularly interested in his work because his female figures are often entangled in patterns of the time.

A contemporary artist I currently admire is not a painter, but a sculptor Petah Coyne. She sculpts the way I wish to paint. The simplicity of imagery and sublime mood captivate me and break my heart at the same time. I wish to build a room of her work and live in it.

JH: Your subjects are generally females shrouded in a layer of textile intricacies that form a sort of metaphysical veil.  These intricacies both hold your figures together and allow them to dissolve. Expand on this metaphor-it feels like the state of being female, human, saddened, fragmented-am I on the right track?

HAS: Intricate textiles symbolize many opposing concepts. The act of making these items can be laborious and tedious work yet it represents beauty and idealized femininity. Lace as a tangible item ties the greatest female monarch to a prostitute. Lace and pattern florals wrapping over female skin become the unifier visually and metaphorically. My figures often have eyes closed and are internally reflective. I want them intriguing, fragmented, distant, protected, shrouded, pensive, silently implied.  My figures present an “ In the world but not of the world” idea. The visual concept of dissolving, veiling, and layering speaks about simultaneous struggle and assurance that there is something greater to hold onto no matter what the circumstance.

Melissa, oil on canvas
Melissa, oil on canvas

JH: As a professor of art, how does teaching inform your practice?

HAS: Teaching is a constant renewal of the foundations of art, and it often purifies my motives for making art. My students teach me how to simplify in so many ways.

What is a rectangle but a white space for an illusion to be created? The fundamentals of design are invaluable. Everyday I teach design students shapes, lines, colors, patterns, textures, and everyday it re-informs me of the simple things you can do with format and white space.

Every image within that rectangle stems from personal background and experience. But, as complex as the human existence is, the artist chooses what portions of their lives to expose, selectively choosing what subjects to place inside. A trail of paintings is a secondary road in an artist’s life that (in my case) makes you observe, memorialize, and ponder your own mortality.

JH: Do you think a formal education in the arts is expansive or subtractive to the experience of making?

HAS: Formal education in the arts has been expansive for me personally. As a first generation graduate, my education has been invaluable and I would not mind being a professional student for the remainder of my life. However, there comes a point for each art student where they can fall into the pit of consuming themselves with other artist’s/philosopher’s theories and concerns rather than their own. If an artist gets so far as to forget why they initially picked up a paintbrush, they have missed the mark.  I think of what CS Lewis wrote in the Pilgrims Regress about the Landlord. “We have it right in front of us the whole time, we just don’t know what to do with it and who to believe!”

So often contemporary art becomes detached and dry; no human touch or influence is evident. This is when it becomes subtractive. The big picture is that we are human beings creating objects and items with no inherent value but with immense cultural importance. Authenticity is priceless!

Called Hence by Early Doom How Sweet a Flower in Paradise Bloom, oil on canvas
Called Hence by Early Doom How Sweet a Flower in Paradise Bloom, oil on canvas

JH: In a very poignant series, you painted textile veils over the portraits of murdered women, some famous, some anonymous, and I know the process was research-intensive.  Did you feel bonded to these women? Do you re-victimize them through your work?

HAS: These paintings are a memorialization rather than a victimization. I work out my own fears and questions through the act of painting while drawing attention to their stories. The series “ When a rose speaks to the grave” consists of a series of portraits of women that are as equally individual as they are self-portraits. I feel bonded to their story. In these artworks, I separate the viewer from the viewed and the subject is no longer vulnerable.

The writer Julia Kristeva states “the transcendence of death through art leads to a rebirth, in returning, through the event of death, towards that which produces its break; in exporting semiotic mobility across the border on which the symbolic is established, the artist sketches out a kind of second birth.”

Lace is a fabric that has symbolically stood at a gap. In one regard lace is fragile. It is delicate and used for mourning. On the other hand it is sexual and commercial.  In contemporary culture, a veil or “ Burka” is seen as an object of female repression. The lace works as a shroud in my paintings protecting and covering the woman’s face. But why the spaces between the threads if the fabric is meant to cover?  The viewer is still able to see her gaze through the veil. In the book “Over Her Dead Body,” Elizabeth Bronfen wrote that depicting a deceased woman in an artwork is a “displaced representation of the viewer’s own mortality….the knowledge that the image is inanimate and a belief that a gaze can animate the portrait and resurrect her absent body, but above all the possible substitutions of the dead woman’s image for your own”

Banaz, oil on canvas
Banaz, oil on canvas

JH: Who are some of your inspirations?

HAS: My recent paintings are partially inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gillman- the short story The Yellow Wallpaper. It’s a Gothic horror tale, character study, and exquisite commentary on women’s rights.

Each painting is a painting of a young woman wrapped in floral pattern-work.  They show a constant flux between light and shadow shapes. I am using light as a metaphor to depict an internal spiritual dissonance. Informed some by the work of Francesca Woodward, patterns run across the camouflaged flesh blending in and out of the mimicked backdrop I have created. In contrast to the murder series, I am now painting the young women in my life, getting to better know them in the process and applying a pattern as I formally see fit. The patterns begin infiltrating the skin, blurring the lines between the viewer and the subject.

Michelangelo and Raphael: The Sublime and the Beautiful

by Miguel Carter Fisher

Michelangelo – Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Michelangelo – Sistine Chapel Ceiling

I recently read Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King. The book, which admirably balances fluid story telling with a comprehensive perspective, tells the story of Michelangelo and Pope Julius II during the years the Sistine Chapel Ceiling was painted.

There are many passages which are worth reflecting on, but the portion of the book that seems to have struck me the hardest was about Michelangelo’s rival Raphael’s reaction to the unveiling of the first half of the ceiling.

Raphael – School of Athens, Stanza della Segnatura
Raphael – School of Athens, Stanza della Segnatura

Over a year had passed since Raphael completed the School of Athens, and yet after viewing the chapel ceiling, Raphael went back to the fresco and added the fifty-sixth figure. This figure, as seen below, which resembles Michelangelo is thought to be the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Some have interpreted this to be an homage in admiration of Michelangelo and his achievement in the Sistine Chapel.

Raphael – Heraclitus
Raphael – Heraclitus

King writes:

If Michelangelo was in fact the model for Heraclitus, the compliment was double-edged. Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as both Heraclitus the Obscure and “the Weeping Philosopher,” believed the world to be in a state of constant flux, a proposition summed up by his two most famous sayings: “You cannot step into the same river twice” and “The sun is new every day.” But it is not this philosophy of universal change that seems to have inclined Raphael to lend him the features of Michelangelo; more like it was Heraclitus’s legendary sour temper and bitter scorn for all rivals. He heaped derision on predecessors such as Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus. He even abused Homer, claiming the blind poet should have been horse-whipped. The citizens of Ephesus were no more popular with the cantankerous philosopher. Every last one of them, he wrote, ought to be hanged.

King continues with one of my favorite paragraphs in the book which describes the aesthetic difference between the two artists.

One way to understand the differing styles of the two artists is through a pair of aesthetic categories developed two and a half centuries later by the Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1756. For Burke, those things we call beautiful have the properties of smoothness, delicacy, softness of color, and elegance of movement. The sublime, on the other hand, comprehends the vast, the obscure, the powerful, the rugged, the difficult attributes which produce in the spectator a kind of astonished wonder and even terror. For the people of Rome in 1511, Raphael was beautiful but Michelangelo sublime.

The word beautiful in conversation often refers to everything from attractive women, to pastoral landscapes, but generally refers to something pleasing to the senses. It is an adjective which implies human desire and satisfaction. The sublime is that which is powerful but not necessarily a reflection of human need. The sublime can be both a blessing or terrible. The same sun that gives warmth and life can also burn and dehydrate. The sublime humbles us.

Raphael was clearly disposed towards beauty and desire. When one looks at Raphael’s biography one sees an individual who was a popular instructor, sociable, handsome, and not so pious as to refrain from various love affairs. He seems to have lived in pursuit of the pleasures of life and even died by them. When he passed on his 37th birthday Vasari states that the cause was that he “indulged in more than his usual excess.”

Raphael – Self Portrait
Raphael – Self Portrait

Michelangelo, in contrast, had a disposition towards the sublime. I believe that this disposition may be an unappreciated cause for comparison to Heraclitus. If one agrees that “you cannot step into the same river twice” than you are accepting the inherent instability of existence. Meditation on this instability may drive one’s aesthetic inclinations toward the sublime. While Heraclitus rooted this existential instability in the perpetually changing universe, Michelangelo rooted his own existential instability in fear of God.

As an adolescent Michelangelo was inspired by the sermons of Girolamo Savonarola, a friar famous for his fiery sermons calling for Florence to change its sinful ways or suffer the wrath of God. Michelangelo became deeply pious and rather than focusing on the forgiving God of the New Testament like many of his peers, he focused on the punishing God of the Old. King writes:

He was fascinated, instead, by tragic, violent narratives of crime and punishment such as those -complete with hangings, plagues, propitiations, and beheadings…

This disposition is reflected in his depiction of the prophet Jeremiah, which like Heraclitus is also thought to be an image of Michelangelo:

Michelangelo – Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Michelangelo – Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel Ceiling

If Raphael built upon the aesthetic achievements of the earlier Renaissance masters such as Leonardo, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino. Michelangelo marked the beginning of a new aesthetic trend which would influence later artists, known as the mannerist, such as Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino.

Now, nearly five centuries later, I think about the world as it is today, and I speculate about my own work and that of my peers and wonder who we resemble more, Raphael or Michelangelo.

Thoughts on Repetition, War, and Art: “To err is human, to persist is of the devil.”

By Jacob Hicks

History is mythology: a construction.  To reflect on time is to devolve the infinite dimensionality of reality into a one track linear narrative.  My memories alone are fabrications enough; they are directed by my subjectivity and are forever limited next to the expansiveness of phenomenological actuality.  History is this kind of hallucination multiplied exponentially; it is the multi-generational co-mingling of subjective interpretation of event, and the subjective interpreters are the conquerers and hierarchical dominators.  The dominate power structure hallucinates our history for us, and we cling to non-truths doggedly. The conflicts we pursue and repeat intra-culturally are based on the fever dreams/hallucinations of our dominate power structures.

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They are simulacra-copies and repetitions of an unreal origin.  The conflicts are not real so how can they resolve? In the 21st century we are fighting a cold war, a border war, a race war, a gender war, a war over the holy-land. These conflicts are cyclical, seemingly unresolvable, and repetitious beyond measure. 

Dick Cheney

I believe that like Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion(1), wherein which a patient unconsciously repeats behaviors caused by unconquered neuroses in an attempt to face again and defeat the point of psychological disruption, man’s collective unconscious causes a communal repetition of original conflict that parallels Freud’s theory of individual compulsion. So, cultural conflicts are based on the created histories decided by those on top of our hierarchies.  The conflicts repeat in a collective unconscious push toward resolution.  Repetition compulsion can only be resolved through manifesting the origins of the damaging conflicts within the conscious mind.  The origins of our damaging conflicts are abusive power structures that need to be dissolved and/or restructured. Resolution can be sought only through a cultural realization of the unreality of linear history.

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I long for the stability of the repetitious and I am not alone in this.  I go to the same places, eat the same foods, look in the same directions, have the same conversations, on and on. I make the unfamiliar familiar through repetition.  My mirror neurons allow me to imitate how I see others act.  I feel in my body (nerve cells fire) when I witness human action. My physicality is the repetition of my species for our whole biological existence. My thought patterns are formed by this repetitious biological structure.  I am the architecture of an objective history of repetition.

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Eukaryote(cells with organelles and a nucleus) undergoing replication multiplication, also known as mitosis

Art is formed through a cultural and unconscious repetition.  When an artist lands upon an original formal language, a resonant visual analog of a deeply rooted archetype, that vision is repeated in a directly mimicked formal visual language ad-nauseaum due to the human pleasure and basic comfort gained from the act of mirroring. Like a biological system, particular innovators and technologies mutate the set formal structure within which the speaking archetype is depicted. Dogma and political structure also put force and strain upon this type of cultural evolution.

Rogier Van Der Weyden’s Deposition, 1435
Rogier Van Der Weyden’s Deposition, 1435

Rogier Van Der Weyden’s “The Deposition of Christ,” was copied ad-nauseam after its spark of genius lit fire to the imaginations of the 15th century Flemish circle of artists.  It is perhaps one of the most recreated and influential Christian paintings in all of art history.  Like a great jazz standard or a classical piece of music, the work’s content evolves from artist to artist, it is muted, manipulated, and re-birthed continuously, but the pleasure of the repetition of its core composition resounds.  Repetition penetrates its immediate structure, for each figure there is another forming an expanding symmetry.

Master of the St. Bartholomew Altar, The Descent From the Cross
Master of the St. Bartholomew Altar, The Descent From the Cross
Unknown Flemish Master, The Deposition (active 1470s in Brussels)
Unknown Flemish Master, The Deposition (active 1470s in Brussels)

So what kind of conclusion can be drawn when our inescapable and pronounced urge to do, be, make and act exactly the same again and again and again blooms conflict and war right next to art and culture?  This repetition is in our genes, our biology, our planet, our psychology; how could or should this bubble burst, will it or how laughably and clearly wont it?  We are wheels, cogs in a machine, like Islamic geometric prayer patterns creating the illusion of movement in the eyes of one meditating on us.  Like the retold story, the end can forever began again.

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1.The Repetition Compulsion. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud’s 1914 work, “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through,” a patient unconsciously repeats behaviors caused by unconquered neuroses, yet these behaviors fly in the face of the pleasure principle, the most fundamental of human motivations.  This confounded Freud and lead him to formulate “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in which he introduced concepts of the death drive.  He also theorized that behavior repetition was the psyche’s longing to confront again the situation that scarred it in an attempt to overcome and heal. The psychoanalyst believes this can only be accomplished by making conscious within the patient the event of scarring activity from which the neurosis developed.