Mary Weidner
Artist Statement for “Memory, Conjecture and Yearning
February 3, 2004

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My work in recent years has frequently focused on the complex dynamics of our most fundamental social unit, the family. This is the unit that forms and molds us, that provides for and provokes us; the unit which is applauded and maligned, idealized and disparaged. While sociologists may analyze the changing nature of family and politicians may expound family values, I am more interested in examining the shared histories, intimacies and layers of emotion which form our understanding of family. These interpersonal and psychological dynamics have often been addressed in literature, with the written word. As a visual artist, I have chosen to use the ancient, yet always evolving medium of paint, to probe the uniquely personal and inherently universal experience of familial life.

The pieces chronicle life’s passages, its quandaries, and the repetitive patterns of behavior that link generations. Images are drawn from autobiographical experiences, as well as myths, icons, beliefs and rituals spanning time from the prehistoric to the present. Recent personal circumstances have contributed to a keen awareness of life’s finite nature and it’s potential for regeneration. Both of my parents have been deceased for several years, and thus I have had to grapple with my own impending mortality. At the same time, I find myself with young children still at home with all the joys, responsibilities, care and complexities that those relationships entail. My art has thus centered on exploring the significance of these connections, past and present. The ideas have taken the form of individual paintings, multiple panel narratives, and mixed media installations.

Paintings such as “The Wedding” and “The Last Birthday” record the events that bring together the scattered families of our contemporary American experience. Such gatherings serve to celebrate significant life passages; they hold the potential for confrontation or reconciliation; and they engender the emotions that form future memories. A cast of characters is woven throughout layers of pigment that have been painted, glazed, over-painted, and then sanded away to reveal pentimentos of experience. The celebratory nature of the subject matter is at times refuted by the mood, the gestures, the colors or the facial expressions of the participants. Although a wedding honors the union of two people, the characters in “The Wedding” occupy independent panels, reaching toward but never quite touching each other. In “The Last Birthday” an older man, ashen in pallor, is seen surrounded by adult children and grandchildren gathered to mark the anniversary of his birth nearly seventy years earlier. While sharing the same physical space, however, the characters appear lost in their own separate memories, conjectures and yearnings.

Upon becoming the oldest living member of my extended family, I have felt an almost urgent need to understand, recognize and learn from those who came before me. My mixed media installations place portraits of children, parents and grandparents in homelike settings complete with furniture and embroidered wall hangings. The layers of life airbrushed out of traditional portraits are herein revealed, and a kind of mementomori emerges, reminding us of our mortality, our failures and mistakes. Radiators rust, and jaw teeth rest below visages of loved ones honored and imagined. Unsentimental aphorisms hang next to “Sunday Best” paintings in which children squirm and parents clutch. And yet, while the wallpaper may be stained and once smiling faces strained, members sustain each other in the details of lives forever intertwined. “Cleave,” the title of an earlier painting, is a term, which can mean to split, sunder, separate or sever: or to abide, hold fast, cherish and support. This potential to wound and also to heal those who are close to us is the central paradox so often found within our most precious relationships. It is this enigma that the paintings probe. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her novel We Were the Mulvaneys:

“What is a family after all except memories? - haphazard and precious as the contents of a catchall drawer in the kitchen?”........“But this document isn’t a confession. Not at all. I’ve come to think of it as a family album. The kind my Mom never kept, absolute truth telling. The kind no one’s mom keeps. But if you’ve been a child in any family you’ve been keeping such an album in memory and conjecture and yearning and it’s a life’s work, it may the great and only work of your life.”

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