A Year After Sally Kearsley's Death, a Show of Her Rarely Seen Paintings Raises as Many Questions as It Answers
She was not shy, her friends remember, at least about most things. She was tiny in stature, imperious by nature, and by turns utterly unexpurgated and tremendously secretive. Her attention could only be described as kinetic, and over the course of her long life it alighted on topics that ran a harrowing range: radical activism, theology, the buying of art, the making of art, and, for a brief time in the 1960s in Africa, the politics of statecraft. But both her self-described madness and her secretive bent conspired to keep her from living up to the enormous promise she held as an artist. She was self-conscious, vulnerable to criticism, and--for at least one crucial period--cripplingly incapable of creating once she knew that her work might actually be viewed. All of this helps explain why, until her death last December, her most successful work was unknown by everyone but her closest confidants.
By every account, Kearsley cut a prominent figure for herself in the Baltimore art demimonde. From her sizable family fortune, she gave huge amounts of money to community programs and gallery startups. She also bought work freely, if selectively, from local artists. And she was known in her circle of friends for throwing carnivalesque dinner parties at her Reservoir Hill rowhouse, presided over by seraphs she had painted on the dining room ceiling, the meals served on three-pound ceramic plates of her own making. But as a working artist, Kearsley kept a low profile. What work of hers that did show--small oil pastels, gouaches, and ceramics--showed either at intimate venues like the Resurgam Gallery or, more likely, at Louie's, the bookstore café where she spent much of her time. That was all she could take. When it came to the scrutiny and criticism that often attended large-scale shows, she was, as her friend and fellow painter Ruth Pettus puts it, "very reactive to things."
So it's only now that the biggest body of Kearsley's life work--much of which has never been displayed before--can finally go on view. Over the last decades of her life, it turns out, Kearsley created a series of giant, dazzling canvases. Many of them were discovered rolled up in a corner of her studio after her death; some were in the possession of friends. Still others have since disappeared. But those that remain are so massive and masterful that they help to put Kearsley's career in clearer perspective.
The 10 canvases on view in Sally Kearsley: A Retrospective, which opened last week at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery, tells us volumes about an artist who was widely known but in many ways poorly understood. And yet, with the revelation of these paintings come as many questions as answers. Why the giant canvases have gone unseen by the public until now is certainly one of them. But much of the mystery also comes from what they depict--cryptic, unearthly scenes freighted with ambiguity and allegory.
Seen all at once, the paintings in Sally Kearsley make a fitting epilogue to the career of an artist whose life's work, until now, felt unfinished. Now it's just a matter of making sense of the canvases that Kearsley never wanted us to see.
"This never would have happened if Sally were alive," Pettus says. "Sally wouldn't have let it happen. It would have been too overcoming for her, in a way."
In a sense, the Goucher retrospective lives up to a prediction that was made nearly 20 years ago. It goes back to 1984, when Washington Post art critic Jo Ann Lewis crowed the praises of Kearsley, then in her mid-50s, as "a new talent" who deserved serious attention.
"From these large, figurative oils emerges a strong and mature painter of high originality," Lewis wrote of Kearsley's solo show at Washington's Barbara Kornblatt Gallery. "The paintings are haunting, raising questions that are never answered."
The critic was particularly impressed by the mysterious, timeless quality of the paintings--filled with "winged figures and biblical allusions"--which she read as a sign of great, if still nascent, potential. "Kearsley seems to be an artist of broad range as well as talent," Lewis concluded, "and we are likely to hear a good deal about her from now on."
The prophecy proved wrong. After the review ran, Kearsley stopped painting. It was years until she picked up a brush again.
"That show was just overwhelming to her," Pettus remembers. "She was very reactive, and she just couldn't paint anymore. Though in many ways she was very brilliant, she got painter's block. There was a definite rift after that show."
What happened to the canvases shown there is uncertain, but the paralysis that followed Kearsley's solo show was perhaps the first clear measure of how uniquely intimate Kearsley's paintings were for her. Even after she finally returned to work in her studio in the late '80s, friends recall that she guarded her paintings jealously.
"Sally was very private about her work in process," says George Ciscle, founding director of Baltimore's the Contemporary Museum, who met Kearsley in 1985. "It was a rare occasion to be invited up to her studio to see her work. Maybe once every two years or so I might be called up to see a particular painting she wanted to talk about, but in the intervening months and years those paintings were just put away behind the wall."
It was Pettus who ended up getting sole and exclusive access to Kearsley's studio, chosen by Kearsley as her only artistic confidante. ("I think she trusted me," Pettus says, by way of explanation.) And in the canvases of the Goucher show, Pettus sees spiritual motifs--and more importantly, a religious kind of passion--that demonstrate how painting for Kearsley was something that approached a sacred act. To her eyes, Kearsley's giant canvases show nothing less than "her ideas on man and his place in the universe."
Heady stuff maybe, but there's no denying the sheer spectral power of Kearsley's great paintings. The canvases themselves are almost epic in size--some more than seven feet wide--and the figures they depict are fined out in heroic strokes. Kearsley's was a painterly style, with thick brushwork that seems to seize space rather than merely cover it. Even her color values speak to the idyllic, calling on a palette of russet reds, earthy browns, yellows like shades of diffused sunlight, and greens the color of young leaves.
And then there are the scenes themselves, all as eerie as they are bold. Perhaps the easiest to comprehend is "Lazarus," one of only two canvases in the show known to have a title. In a tomb rinsed with hale green light, a figure approaches through a sunlit doorway. The specter looms before a man who half-reclines on a cryptlike bed, slouching with one leg and one arm hanging over the edge, as if rousing himself from a drugged sleep. From the left, a woman draws near him with hand outstretched, her posture suggesting that she glides more than walks. If it weren't for the title, this tableau might be impossible to decode. But even with a name, the painting gives you little more than a compass bearing toward some scene of hope, and then leaves you on your own to find your way back.
Nearly all of Kearsley's paintings find their pivot in a central figure--the show's co-curator Pam Thompson calls it a "prophet"--who is the painting's reason for being. Oftentimes it's a figure of idolization, other times pity, other times still an object of disdain and ridicule. In each case, though, the figure seems ensnared in some symbolic conflict, caught in a moment of impending spiritual strife.
In the painting hanging next to "Lazarus"--named "Untitled (dancing figure in circle)" by curators--the focal figure seems a victim of some vague persecution. Here, nude forms stand in a ring, all adult in proportion and size. But in the center of the annulus they've made, a naked giant dances, his arms swinging to one side as he steps in place, his head slightly tilted. Each imp around him gestures in scorn, throwing their fists and swatting their hands.
It takes a few moments to register that the dancer is the only figure in the scene who has a face. His eyes are brown and strangely blank, his brow is light and straight, his mouth a rictus of indifference. In addition to the upsetting tenor of this spectacle--the humiliation of a gentle giant--there's an added irony: The man in the middle is completely expressionless, but his emotional void is vivid in its detail. The deliberate use of color and line makes it clear there's a reason that his is the only face Kearsley bothered to paint--so that she could clearly depict that very lack of feeling, to render expressively a face without any expression. It's a recognition that, once it comes across, is more than a little chilling.
After looking at many dramas like this in the show, it would be tempting to think that these paintings were a kind of therapy for Kearsley. But it would also be selling these works far short. They are too fully considered, too deeply affecting, for that. Still, there's still no denying that these scenes speak of a hardship of the heart, a testing of the soul, that could not have been this passionately evoked if it hadn't had some origin in the artist herself. It is a reading of her work that's supported by those who knew her.
"When you spoke with Sally, you knew that the inner life, the spiritual life, was something she was trying to put on canvas," Ciscle says. "Whether it was spiritual struggle, psychological struggle, or whatever it was, it was trying to get that spirit out on the canvas. And many times that manifested itself in a Bible story or a biblical figure that people might be familiar with, but just as often it was just a struggle between good and evil. Some of the best work I've seen of hers was about that."
For her part, Pettus remembers visiting Kearsley during some of her most productive periods, long after the abeyance from the Kornblatt show had worn off. Kearsley kept the third floor of her rowhouse as a studio, where she had massive canvases tacked to the wall. There, for days at a stretch, she struggled--at scarcely more than five feet tall--to negotiate the huge sheets in rooms so narrow that she could barely back up far enough to see a whole work at once. Pettus characterizes Kearsley's habits as almost obsessive during these times, but they were times fueled by inspiration rather than compulsion.
"You'd go there and you'd find this woman who lived off black coffee, cigarettes, and grapefruit juice," she recalls. "Literally. That's all she'd have for days sometimes. So, she was very driven by something other than what normal people need."
But if Sally Kearsley was an anomaly, it was not always in the most obvious ways. Some of the mystery in Sally Kearsley is not just about what and how she painted, but what and how she didn't paint. While her hefty, myth-laden canvases are enigmatic in themselves, they also beg the question of why a woman whose public life was so devoted to politics would so thoroughly shun the political--indeed, even the secular--in her painting. Whenever she appeared in the papers, after all, it was as much for her activism as her art.
At least she was just as tireless in her politicking as she was in her painting. In the early 1960s, for instance, she threw Washington fund-raisers for socialist leader and fellow Catholic Julius Nyerere of the then-fledgling republic of Tanzania; she ended up being instrumental enough in Nyerere's rise to power that in 1964 she was given a seat on the podium at the nation's independence ceremony. Closer to home, she was a regular fixture at Jonah House, the radical Catholic activist klatsch where she first met Pettus in 1981. And perhaps most famously, in the 1999 mayoral race, Kearsley pledged up to $100,000 to leftist political gadfly A. Robert Kaufman, in support of what the press genteelly referred to as his "long-shot" campaign. The heft of her pledge was enough to send elections board bean-counters to their rule books, and it marked Kearsley's last appearance in Baltimore's headlines.
With all this in mind, political matters seem conspicuously absent from her work. She was still young, after all, when women her age first began to fold politics into art in the 1960s and '70s. Judy Chicago was casting vaginal dinner plates and calling them a dinner party; Miriam Schapiro was taking "decorative arts," like quilt-making and embroidery, and using them as materiel in the war for gender equality. And a whole generation of women in art schools were making militant collages and Barbie-doll shadow boxes in what would later be churlishly dubbed Tampax art. But despite her activist bent, the entire movement passed Kearsley by.
"She was never drawn to artists whose content was social and political," Ciscle remembers. "There were a lot of great artists who did that, and Sally was certainly aware of them, but they weren't the ones she gravitated to."
Instead, he and Pettus both point out, if you look at it with the right kind of eyes, her art seems like an extension of her activism. They were both fronts of the same struggle.
"The political and social issues were what she was dealing with in terms of everyday life," Ciscle says. "And she saw ways to actively engage in that through dialogue and action. Whereas other matters--things that were spiritual concerns to her--could only be dealt with through art."
Pettus, too, sees that striving sense as a key to her work both in and out of the studio. "In many ways, it's everything, because Sally's one of these barefoot saints," she says. "She saw it all as a struggle between good and evil, the glory of God. I think those things fueled her activism and her art, but she didn't use those symbols [in her art]. . . . The whole thing was very unified."
In the end, it's this cosmically broad view of all things--politics, art, spirituality--that seems to answer so many of the questions posed by this show of work. It serves as evidence that painting was, for her, an essentially internal endeavor; and it also helps explain how, by that reasoning, she might believe that these great canvases were not really relevant to audiences, many of her friends, or anyone but herself. It also serves to reassure us that Kearsley's contribution was so intimate as to be unquestionably genuine: unstudied, unmannered, pure. In maybe more ways than one, it's a kind of lost art.
"Sally's grandiose view of the world is almost from another century," Pettus says. "People don't paint like this anymore."
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