A Joining of Souls

 

She divided her women into two categories: those who could and those who could not. She had little affection for those who could, they had no need of her... - Anne Enright1

 

Viewing the oeuvres of Brisbane artist, Sarah Hickey, feels very much to me like a transportation back to my childhood. Not back so early into childhood as the time where little girls do not know that they’re being seen and can carelessly mix gumboots with lace dresses, and have no shame in wearing the remnants of the morning’s breakfast on their collar. Where I’m transported to is the age of awareness in a young girl’s life, where hormones and womanly imitation take hold, and the little girl realises that there are expectations, both internal and external, placed upon her. I see the women in Sarah’s work much in the same way that I saw my mother when I was on that verge between girlhood and pubescence – to my innocent child-eyes she was powdered, pristine, and feminine, with the womanly knowledge and confidence that only comes with age and experience, creating an almost regal air of female belonging. I believe many women can recall sliding around the house in their mother’s high-heels, or making extremely colourful attempts at a made-up face with mysterious pots of eye-shadow and tubes of lipstick in vain efforts to speed the growing process and transform from cute little girls to beautiful women. It is these same feelings of awe, admiration and affection that confront me when I meet the gaze of one of Sarah’s creations. These are strong, empowered women: they bring to mind women that I know, women that I wish I knew, and women that I aspire to be.

I’m taken to the moment in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) when Vincent Vega enters Jack Rabbit Slim’s 1950’s inspired restaurant and says “It’s like a wax museum with a pulse.” While the women in Sarah’s canvases obviously do not have a pulse, the sentiment of Vincent Vega is still shared as each female character, replicas of the living, do not only have stories, but histories. The duchess, the tiger-tamer, the Spanish lolita – Sarah has not only given the women in her paintings personalities that match their appearances, but through a combination of descriptive titles and the composition of the works, she has given them lives. Sarah writes ‘I am drawn to the richness, complexity and generosity of images that are “full” in every sense of the word.’2  This ‘fullness’ is even evident in the progression of works, and it is here that we start with the Goddess series. The ‘goddesses’ in this series, a combination of curves, femininity, and smiles that can hide an abundance of secrets, are playful and uninhibited. A hint of a garter or the dangerous curve of a breast reveals a curious honesty to the sometimes salacious titles such as Flora Cabaret: All Sweetness and Light and Late Night Strips (2009). However, a woman can’t always be frivolous and fun, can she? There is a serious side to every woman – the side that can untangle Christmas lights, nurse a crying child, and make business calls all at the same time – the Duchess. Looking at Duchess Katherine of Two Owls (2009), we are faced with a woman whose elegance and beauty can in no way overshadow the determination in her tight lips and unwavering stare. Each of the women portrayed in the Duchess series possess a serenity and strength which is only enhanced by the inclusion of winged companions whose flightiness is subdued by the aura of calm.

The Icons and Circus Sirens see Sarah combine the playfulness of the Goddesses with the serene yet serious atmosphere of the Duchesses, and this theme is only heightened with the progression of Jungle Fleshed and Floral Vamps. Jungle Fleshed Femme Fatales are again adorned by the piercing eyes of feathered creatures, and the eyes of the women have adjusted too – from the flirtatious and seductive glances of the Goddesses and Duchesses, the Femme Fatales stare at the viewer with eyes much like the sleek stare of a lioness as in The Watching Huntress – Can See the Meat for the Trees (2010), or the sparkling awareness in the eyes of Queen Amazon and her Avian Entourage (2010), ensuring that she is the first to see an approaching friend or foe. Angela Carter writes a similar description of one of her characters in the acclaimed The Bloody Chamber, describing a woman of ‘such potent and bizarre charm, of a dark, bright, wild yet worldly thing whose natural habitat must have been some luxurious interior decorator’s jungle filled with potted palms and tame, squawking parakeets.’3 This description is well suited to the Femme Fatales, as while their eyes may convey a raw animalistic understanding, they are in no way wild or savage, and Lioness Leonora on the Hunt with her Fan Dance (2010) confirms with her bejewelled collar that feminine adornment and luxury is in no way lost on these jungle beauties.

Each of Sarah’s works come to life in a process reminiscent of a phrase by art historian Bernard Denvir –  ‘a mode of creativity based on the creative significance of passion’2 Sarah confirms this, writing ‘I believe that making art is a spiritual undertaking. We are all born with an innate desire to explore and create; a kind of ‘play’ which is so clearly evident when we are young. It is in the reclaiming or search for that spirit of play that my work has evolved.’5 The spirituality that Sarah refers to is echoed by Tom Prideaux who wrote that Eugène Delacroix ‘had an extra strong attraction besides the obvious and exciting one of reconstructing an event or a person. He often wrote longingly about wanting to join souls with somebody else – and in painting he managed to do it.’6 I feel a strong resemblance between this idea and the relationship that Sarah creates with the women in her paintings. They are portrayals of strong, passionate, and powerful women, yet their vulnerability lies in the fact they need Sarah in order to give them a voice, a face, and a life. It is in this vulnerability, and the relationship between the creator and the created, that we may begin to understand the true spirituality behind Sarah’s work, and her unwavering affection for the joining of souls.

 

Louise O’Neil, July 2010

 

1.           “(She Owns) Every Thing.” The Portable Virgin, Vintage Books, London, 2007, p.4.

2.           Sarah Hickey, 2010, www.sarahhickey.com.au.

3.           Vintage Books, London, 2006, p.4.

4.           Fauvism and Expressionism, Barron’s, New York, 1978, p. 56.

5.           ibid.

6.           The World of Delacroix, Time-Life Books, New York, 1966, p.80.

Hickey, S. 2011. Veiled Mary Full of Grace , 120 x 90cm, oil and mixed media on canvas 5.jpg

Eternal Adornment

The representation of women throughout the long history of art has been as diverse and complex as the female aura itself. Whether passive or powerful, demure or destructive, the strokes of a canvas or curves of a sculpture have for centuries represented women as goddesses, heroes, mothers and workers - but usually from one of two perspectives: symbols of strength, or embodiments of temptation. This visual history has left many women yearning for images that affirm a woman’s sense of self rather than pacifying it, and art that portrays femininity as a friend rather than an enemy. This desire for empowerment is not lost on artist Sarah Hickey. Her newest series Horned Lace Idols is a collection of patterned and pristine women with both peaceful and powerful spirits. The Horned Lace Idols do not betray the beauty and femininity of the flirtatious goddesses, serene duchesses and Amazonian queens from Sarah’s previous collections, but also maintain one striking difference: these women have horns.

 

Far from the devilish spikes of a dark underworld, the horns that adorn the women in Idols are those of powerful animals. To gain a better understanding of the power of horned animals it is necessary to return to more ancient times when such animals were wild and hunted creatures, and early cave paintings indicated an affinity for the forms of deer, ram and bison. Lisa Barrigan Basker writes that early hunters believed that an animal’s strength was concentrated in their horns, and even dead or discarded horns retained their vitality, with the Hebrew word ‘keren’ meaning both ‘horn’ and ‘power’.1 This affinity was maintained throughout the generations of early humans, as nomads and hunters similarly cherished such horned animals that provided nourishment through meat and milk, warmth through wool and hides, and labour through the pulling of plows. It is interesting to note that these elements of nourishment, warmth and labour are paralleled in the sentimental symbolism of the woman as creator: a mother providing the essential ingredients not only necessary for the creation of life, but for its survival (this idea was also embodied by Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood and fertility who was often adorned with the horns of a cow and a solar disc, the symbol of creation). This subconscious relationship of the similarities between human and animal behaviour extended even further, as humans observed instinctual gregarious herding of horned animals, much like the nomads themselves, finding not only safety but companionship in numbers. Safety, however, was not only provided through numbers, but through the use of the animals’ horns, and its most likely the shift that occurs from these gentle, herbivorous creatures to animals that fight with aggressive ferocity, often to the death, that has confirmed the horn as a symbol of supremacy and regal dignity.

 

This combination of temperance and fearlessness is immortalised by the women in Idols, as it was Maya Angelou who said ‘the woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough’. One glance at Conchita Prepares for the Ceremony (2010) is enough to tell you that this particular idol would not shy away from a battle. Conchita confronts the viewer head-on, much as a duelling deer or bison, and by meeting the viewer’s direct gaze she is neither coy nor aggressive – she is defiant. She wears her horns on her solar plexus, bringing to mind the Hindu beliefs that the solar plexus chakra is the centre of our personal power and is the intuitive chakra from where we acquire our ‘gut instincts’, while behind her glows the solar disc, reminiscent of Isis and the inherent power of women as creators of life. From her powerful stare and imposing stance, it is obvious that Conchita’s horns are not only a symbol of the woman that she is, but are also a warning of the warrior she can become. While Conchita defiantly confronts the viewer with her steely blue eyes, Bettina the Blessed (with Long Pearls) (2010) averts the viewers’ gaze, appearing to stare dreamily outside of the canvas walls as if in a daze of whimsy. Bettina is voluptuously bare-breasted with her fingers flirting with her skirt in a gesture reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia (1863). According to Edward Lucies-Smith, the first female nudes in art were usually presented as goddesses or mythological beings, thereby distancing the nude from the spectator and allowing her to be sexually available, but not sexually threatening.2 It is here that we must delve into the territory of the ‘male gaze’, and it was Laura Mulvey who wrote that women are typically objects rather than possessors of a ‘gaze’ (the act of analysing visual culture), therefore reassuring males of their sexual power.3 However, while art history may affirm elements of truth within this analysis of the male gaze, it would be an unfair generalisation of every male viewer to infer that every portrait of a female nude is viewed with lust, as it would similarly be an unfair generalisation to infer that the painter of such portraits consciously imbues the artworks with sexual charge. As we meet the other nudes within Sarah’s Idol series, such as Immaculate Mother of Roses (with Owl) (2011), The Jungle Queen Awaits her Matador (2011) and The Beauty and Her Beast (2011), the veil of eroticism that has historically plagued depictions of nudes begins to fall away, and what is left is a feeling of strong intimacy between the figure and the viewer (whether male or female).  It is obvious through this intimacy that none of the female identities created by Sarah are simply vehicles, but are instead sensual female beings whose radiance blooms off the canvas with feelings of freedom and opportunity rather than possession and oppression.

 

As Conchita’s horns adorn her solar plexus, Bettina, Immaculate Mother of Roses and The Jungle Queen all wear their horns as headdresses, conjuring images of fearless knights of the Middle Ages, crowned in elaborate horned helmets in an effort to intimidate their opponents. Throughout the Middle Ages there have been records to show that women would often assist their husbands in preparing for a battle by placing the helmets on their heads, but that is the extent of the interaction that women had with horned headgear. Therefore, the juxtaposition of bare-breasted beauties wearing helmets that were solely the domain of dominant males is truly a symbol of daring and defiance, combining mental, spiritual and physical strength with gentle femininity. This femininity offers an important contrast with the symbolic horned helmets, as femininity is often, if not always, associated with connotations of submissive attitudes, compliance, fragility and even weakness. Consequently, the Idols offer viewers the opportunity to acknowledge that women do not have to imitate men in order to be tough or powerful, or in order to win a battle. The blonde beauty in Anjelika Asks for a Nordic God (2010) has brightly rouged cheeks, lilac eyeshadow highlighting her ocean-blue eyes and a ruby-red pout, and it is this elaborate femininity that heightens her strength as a woman through her courage to display who she is and who she wants to be, rather than what the world thinks she should be. Anjelika’s horns, like those of previously mentioned Idols, are also in the form of a headdress and therefore are not only symbols of warrior-like strength, but much like the rings on Anjelika’s manicured fingers, can also be viewed as symbols of adornment, creating the aura of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem Wide Open: ‘I look into the distance and see, as from nearby, the moon and the stars, the forest and the deer. And in all of them I see the eternal adornment; and as the world delights me, so I delight myself.’

 

The notion of adornment in Sarah’s images is a poignant one, as it is important to note that any kind of adornment, whether elaborate or simple, historic or modern, can be removed from the wearer. It is in this context that even through their ethereal beauty and other-worldly auras, the Idols, like every other woman, cannot be all-encompassing all of the time. There is undoubtedly a time of the day when Anjelika, Conchita or Bettina feel the need to remove their horns and rest their thoughts, bodies and souls, as does any woman with a beating heart and strong mind in the fast-paced, ever-demanding journey that is life. Just as the Idols tell us that it is okay to be the woman that you are to gain power rather than imitating the strength of men, they also tell us that you do not lose your power by seeking peace. The importance of rest and rejuvenation is often underestimated as we try to be mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, employees, and modern warriors battling for our place in the world. However, in looking at Paola was Hailed for her Taurean Sensibilities (2011), we can see from the look in Paola’s indigo eyes that this is a woman who, although adorned with horns, can appreciate the serenity in taking a break from the battle, and find peace in stillness.

 

On the other side of the Idol spectrum, we find Juanita had Waited Long Enough (2011), a raven-haired beauty whose crossed arms and tight lips give away the impatience hinted at in her title. Juanita appears to possess the same serenity as Paola, but her cool facade reminds the viewer that still waters often run deep, and there is an undeniable heat in her eyes that is matched to the restlessness of the bird that perches on her head. Impatience...restlessness...these are undeniably human feelings that can be attributed to both men and women, however the message of Juanita may be centred more on the act of feeling emotions, rather than just experiencing them. How often do we feel an emotion only to push it as far down as we can so that we can get on with the task at hand? How often are boys and men chastised for crying because it is seen as an inherently female act of weakness? While patience may definitely be a virtue, there is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to feel the anxious pangs of impatience, or the fluttering pains of restlessness, or even with allowing yourself to feel so deeply moved that you are brought to tears. By looking into the fiery eyes of Juanita we can see that there is no weakness in feeling human emotions, and that there is no power in forcing yourself into numbing a feeling that is both natural and necessary.

 

While the creations that greet us from the canvases in Idols may appear on the surface to be perfect presentations of radiant women, confident in both the power of their beauty and the strength of their minds, it is also clear upon deeper reflection that within them lies the souls of real women: women that can be afraid yet meet their opponent head-on, women that can be sensual without compromising their dignity, women that realise the importance of peace and stillness, and women that allow themselves to feel the full range of emotions dictated by their hearts. However, while paralleling the similarities between Sarah’s painted creations and modern-day women, it may be pointed out that these are not real women at all because they are ‘Idols’. To this I can confidently respond that an ‘idol’ is described as any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration or devotion – and to you I ask, what is stopping you from regarding yourself with these feelings, and from regarding your heart as your own eternal adornment?

 

Louise O’Neil, May 2011

 

1.  2010, http://www.ecphorizer.com.

2. Women and Art: Contested Territory, Eagle Editions, London, 1998, p.102.

3. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, p. 6.