By Helen L. Kohen
Without meaning to, figurative artists challenge viewers to find the back story in their paintings, the unexpressed narrative that is assumed to lurk behind what is clearly seen in the picture. It’s a game all viewers play that should be addressed with some caution. Take the case at hand, the current exhibition of works by Demi, her first one-person show since 2004. There are no stories here, just what the artist calls her usual “a,b,c’s”, what she knows, what she learns, what she loves, and of course, a trace of those things painful and fearful that humans – artists especially – never discard.
Still, there is a Demi autograph, if not a full-featured memoir in the latest paintings. Created within the past year, these crowded, lively images are all together glorious, crisp, and of a familiar style, if nonetheless mysterious. The changes are subtle, the transitions slow to evolve from painting to painting. The clues to the personal are here and there, in the perpetually young and hairless figures in CONTEMPLATION and LOVERS, in the party shoes, in the lacey, dress-up clothing, in the fecund blooms that only flourish in a Demi garden. We know all those. And we also recognize the danger these figures are in: the sea water only a glass wall away from flooding in on the gathering, the kissing couple unsteady on their roller skates.
There is a new sort of architecture in several of the works, most notably in THE GHOST CITY and in COMPOSITION IN RED. New to Demi, though not to those artists responsible for the ‘Floating World’ depicted in Japanese prints and floor screens. Demi has been looking hard at those gold-tipped scenes, and listening and looking at a wonderful picture book that pairs illustrations of birds with the particular sound of each of their calls. The book has had a heady influence on her imagery. “I am like a pilgrim,” Demi says, “we go together the birds and I, they are free and they do not stop. When I paint it is insistent too, it does not stop.”
Because of the artist’s newly acquired affinity for birds this exhibition is, in part, an aviary: birds swoop (OUT THERE); fly about (BEYOND THE WALL); settle (FIRST TRIP); and form themselves into an orchestra (INTERIOR WITH SPARROWS). It is all happy and uplifting and light, coming from both the high jinks most of the paintings emit, and also from how they are made. For the crowning change inching up on this artist’s work has as much to do with process as with imaginative subject matter. Maybe more.
Demi, self taught and a thorough professional, paints with the tiniest brushes available in art stores. They are short and they are thin, the painting surface a mere pin head, no larger than a finely sharpened pencil point. With such instruments she covers large canvases, stroke by stroke, dot by dot, painting by the droplet. There is great magic in her works due to just these methods, which most artists would find not only ponderous but daunting. The surfaces of her pictures are like finely wrought textiles, woven rather than layered. All those edges of paint pick up the light. Demi admits that she loves to see her works on the walls where her collectors live. They have efficient, high priced lighting, whereas her studio affords only the common indoor mix of daylight and light bulbs.
The surprises in the show are the paintings that indicate that those surfaces are dissolving – being dissolved. It starts in the upper portions of the beautiful EN UN COCHE DE AGUA NEGRA, IRE A SANTIAGO, the title of which is borrowed from a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. Demi says she is baffled by this painting, where the texture is very flat in some areas and elsewhere not. In addition, miniature folk appear within the fantasy, while the main figure – articulated, finished off, in proportion – takes precedence over two Demi types literally floating off into the blue. They are clearly leaving the scene.
Finally, there is THE GIRL IN THE YELLOW DRESS. She stands alone, firmly on the ground, sure, balanced, secure. She looks forward, with fire-red hair, dressed more simply than any creature in any of these paintings, while the paint handling behind her is as thin as a wash. “It’s Chinese ink that I let drip,” the artist says. To switch the cliché around, the more things stay the same, the more they change.
All of which makes this the sort of exhibition that completely satisfies while leaving you curious to see the next. Demi is surely in a transition. There is a difference in the tone of these paintings, which hit higher notes, and leave deeper echoes than ever before. Even so, we expect Demi’s “a,b,c’s”, her alphabet of memory, approach, expression, knowledge and influence, to remain. The best artists create with practiced hands and minds overflowing. Everything in their experience is available to them, ready to be lifted, altered, converted, subverted, camouflaged. They work as poets do, and Demi, among them, is the most lyrical.
Helen L. Kohen