Why people like a painting? What makes them connect with an image? For my coming exhibition at the Menier Gallery about “Frida Kahlo: Lust for Life” (http://www.meniergallery.co.uk/Menier_Gallery/Home.html), I have been pondering these questions. I prepared two paintings: one, Frida in Blue (60* 70 cm) painted in 2013 and remade in 2016; and a complete new one Frida in Pink (or What Frida would do?) (80*80 cm) of 2016. They could not be more different, and yet, the paintings explore processes and feelings and they are evidence of the power or painting in expressing feelings and overcoming difficulties.
For example, when I sent three images for the call for works, my gallerist -the fantastic Renee Relaxie from the Artists Pool (http://www.theartistspool.co.uk/)- chose the Blue Frida (2013), over some newest and – in my opinion- better executed portraits. I painted that Frida in a moment of deep melancholia just after nervous crisis (the first and last, I hope!) caused by stress. Frida Kahlo, as ever, came to my rescue: she transformed her tragedy into colour and art, hence she is the person to ask for advice. I painted that Frida in cool colours, sad and melancholic, yet, there are hints of rose and pink; her eyes are sad, looking deeply into the horizon, reflecting about what has happened to her (me) and how did she (I) got there. She is surrounded by a halo of flowers and two parrots which are framing her. This is related with the christian imagery and the representation of the Virgin, so familiar for Frida and Mexican culture, as well as her love for animals (something also related to the indigenous cultures). It was not a complex image, but simple and raw. It is, maybe, the feelings that fed that painting that made her so special… However, I was not convinced this was my best piece, yet, the gallerist insisted on that, and my friends also said the image was much more interesting than the portraits.
The contradiction reached an unexpected climax: when I picked the painting from the storing place to get it ready, I saw with horror that it had a tear on the left corner… something irreparable: A Broken Frida!!!! I was in shock, what to do next? Initially, I tried to “replicate” her, after all I had painted it once. But soon, I learned that it is impossible to do the same painting twice: the colours were different, and indeed my mood has changed. I thought of making a print of it and paint it over, but I did not like that either, it would be to mechanistic. At the end, I accepted that there was not so much to do, only to experiment and push the problem to its last consequences, and I think this is what Frida would do: I decided to remake the frame/background, with similar flowers but in mixed media, making it more dramatic and exaggerated. It was like a shrine, with different layers of painting, tissue paper and collage, and I painted over and over again to get a rich and tactile texture. And then, at the very end, I performed the main surgery: I dedicated a whole day for this delicate operation. Using pinking scissors (to avoid fraying) I cut the silhouette of Frida and I laid her on the new frame. I fastened it with silk pins to avoid damage and once it was in place, I stitched her patiently.
I remembered a story told by Ann Rippin (https://annjrippin.wordpress.com/) about stitching, where a princess is compelled by her dad to choose a husband among some nobles and the man she loves. For that, she proposes a competition in which the contestants will sew a piece of clothing. She gave long pieces of cotton to the princes; and she gave a piece as long as an elbow round to her beloved. The old King was happy to see that she has favoured the princes with the long threads, but the truth is that shorter threads are easy to use! It was a happy ending: With that in mind I started stitching in between the peaks left by the scissors. This was a loving and delicate task: I could not rush and I had to be very aware of how I inserted the needle into the canvas avoiding big holes or clumsy stitching. I must say I enjoyed it so much… I felt it made sense because Frida’s body was several times broken and stitched back together; her back sewn with nails and screws that never stopped hurting her. Frida, nevertheless, never complained and decided to live a normal life, defying the stereotypes of disability, gender, race and culture! I felt that in this process also I was acknowledging my own recovery process… from the melancholia of 2013 to a mended life, the stitches of my health lovingly and patiently sewn, and the idea of a deeper process in painting, beyond representation toward expression of feelings and authenticity.
For the second painting I had high expectations, which proved fatal! I wanted to do a Frida that reflected her Indigenous heritage, I wanted an Aztec godess, an Icon, an image of power. I had so many ideas that when I went to execute them, they failed me. I had so much invested in the painting, but the images came horribly! I wanted to dump the canvas, but, following Michael Atavar advice, I decided to go on. In fact, the penny dropped when I asked myself: “what is the worst that can happen if I do not complete these Fridas?” Well, I would have to cancelled my participation in the show, but this was not going to be the end of the world or terrible because this is a collective exhibition… so I realised that I had nothing to lose and decided to let it flow, play and experiment. Not that this worked better: the Fridas were not what I wanted, but I was less stressed, and somehow detached, as my ego was not really interested. One night I had the most intriguing dream: In the dream i was having to face a difficulty, which was something physical, like a wall… my inner voice said, push through that wall as much as you can, because there is “light” at the other side… I pushed through and yes, there was a solution! I was amazed by this all, and I thought this can be applied for my life, and for my painting, why not? I thought what if I have to distill what Frida is, what would I get? Perhaps it is her eyes, her characteristic eyebrows, her hair combed with flowers… and there it was, I repainted again and fill it with more materials to make it textured, and just focused on those essential elements.
The result is a large representation of Frida that looks directly at the viewer! There is nothing else but her gaze…. I felt that was what I wanted all the time! This Frida is there to advice you, to let you know what to do. It has the quality of an Aztec goddess, but with a more Western approach, in which the face and the gaze operate the miracle. I thought also that in Mexican culture there is a huge devotion to saints, as Frida herself represented by her appropriation of the “ex-votos“. These ex-v0tos are raw, naif, simple representations of miracles and are painted in tin or wood, and placed around the saints in gratitude. In this painting, I wanted also to work on the gratitude, but also on the consultation part. I normally use a lot of little images, and indeed I did in the layers prior to the final result: I painted flowers, then I painted over them with spots, then I decided to write some fragments of Frida’s journal, then I decided to paste flowers, and at the end I decided to paint all in a deep pink coral hue and start again, this time focusing on her gaze and her hair, the constitutive elements of her iconography. I got through a number of paintings in search of the gaze. In fact, my representation is not based on a single painting but in a collection of them: I started with a griselle of hair and eyes in acrylics, and once i was happy with the result, I applied delicate layers of oil painting, one glaze after the other, leaving enough time to dry and glaze again. The result is a deep, layered and meaningful painting, with the beautiful shine of oil paint. I am happy… she is gazing at the viewer, who can ask for advice: “Frida, what would you do?”
So I really hope you can make it for the Private View on the 4th of August, at the Menier Gallery London, from 6-9 pm. the exhibition will run until the end of the month so just drop by and admire the work of our group of artists, reacting, representing and celebraing Frida’s Lust for Life.
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