Saturday, August 24, 2013

"Beautiful Baby" is Self-Supporting: Shannon Cameron at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery

Shannon Cameron, Checkered Girl. Oil on canvas. 48 x 38."
The oil paintings Shannon Cameron is showing now in Columbus would make a handsome show in any gallery. They cohere through color, subject, form, and atmosphere. Some are small and a few fill up the wall. But it's hard not to imagine that each would be a choice quotation from the same storybook. Beautiful Baby is one I'd read in bed at night with a single lamp beside me. The pictures aren't scary, but they have a lowering, clouded feel, as one experiences the return to daylight from anesthesia.

Cameron was invited by Fresh A.I.R at the end of December to exhibit this August. She has certainly applied herself since then, as much of the work in the show is new or reworked. The stakes are particularly high for artists showing here even under less time pressure to produce, for, as Fresh A.I.R's gallery statement explains, its "mission is to exhibit the works of these individuals affected by mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders." 

The artist who enjoys Fresh A.I.R.'s downtown space dares to link her work explicitly to her biography. It's risky for anyone to tie their artwork to a single thread—to a political cause, to a school or style of art, to a religious belief—and in most cases I'd say it is foolish. But it is both brave and meaningful to associate one's effort with a condition that commands as much stigma, prejudice, rancor, and misunderstanding as mental illness or substance abuse. 

Shannon Cameron, Angel. Oil on canvas, 26 x 26."
But Cameron says that she would show nowhere else right now. That her work would not strike many as the result of bipolar disorder—of a condition that has at several times threatened her life—is part of its message, its secret and its power. She characterizes this work as both "emotional autobiography" and as part of the collective fight against the stigma attached to the mentally ill. This show's display of skill, taste, poise, nuanced beauty and originality is by its simple existence proof against the Law and Order-type portrait of the bipolar person as an unmedicated, raving menace to society. 

Only the fearful or lurid-minded could walk through Cameron's show and insist on seeing the work of a madwoman. This is her point, of course. No more than any other category of disease does mental illness wholly claim the mind or body of its victim. Even at the height of illness, mentally ill people are not entirely lost to reason or joy, but function less acutely, like people with heart diseases do. Once again, she points out the obvious: When at one's sickest, one's efficacy is badly compromised, but it is not lost. For Cameron, the act of painting is a token and a gift of recovery: The mind is again able to focus and reflect, to escape the chaotic control of disease.

Still, Cameron is certain that the experience of acute illness and the grueling recovery (recovery being at least as difficult as the consequences of suffering the disease) cannot help but appear in the work. Art reflects any artist's experience, their psychic light and shadow. And I agree when she suggests that her work, accessible as it is to any audience, is likely to have a special draw for others who suffer mental illness or traumas similar to those that have shaped her own vision. The process may be conscious or unconscious, but she believes that people with similar experience will recognize it in her work and be consoled.
Shannon Cameron, Night Sky. Oil on canvas, 22 x 20."

My own experience as an artist with presently-controlled mental illness confirms Cameron's: The people who need affirmation or companionship somehow find it in one's work and others who don't need to either won't see it at all, or won't find it to be focal. 

Good art is multi-valenced and contains more than an artist her- or himself consciously understands. Without this intuitive aspect, it never rises above mere design—something planned and pat, lacking the mystery that releases itself over time for both viewer and artist. Necessary for the mentally ill in recovery is a very high level of self-awareness and sensitivity to nuances of actions internal and external. This drive toward awareness can show up in wonderful ways: not as gothic drama, but as subtlety of thought and feeling, of composition and color. 

Being bipolar doesn't make a person creative: There is almost no connection, despite even medically-inspired myths to this effect. To the contrary, it is a disease of disorganization and stress that permits the sufferer little energy for purposeful action. It is in recovery that creativity lies, when a person becomes self-aware and medications clear the way for coherent thought and clarified emotion.

Shannon Cameron, Teacups. Oil on canvas, 10 x 10."
This is why Cameron declares herself so happy to be showing at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery. In this setting, it not only demonstrates that sufferers of mental illnesses are multi-faceted and competent people, but that recovery is truly restorative. The artist herself holds a B.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Arts and an M.F.A. from Boston University, yet she was unable to paint for thirteen years until husband, friends, and motherhood supported her return to health.

An interesting note for me is that "the art of the mentally ill" is also understood to be one subdivision of outsider art. It was the Prinzhorn Collection of drawings made by inmates of a nineteenth-century Heidelberg, Germany insane asylum that spurred interest in outsider art to begin with. Art of the insane instigated the emergence of art brut.

Those notions of insanity, from days before searching diagnosis, before medication and sophisticated therapies, remain imbedded in some corners of the culture, allowing the valuing of the object and discounting of the artist as inscrutable and ultimately unimportant. 

In Cameron's work we see an insider's work; the work of a highly trained and skilled painter whose job is to practice the depth of her personhood—the ultimate job, one hopes, of every artist.
Shannon Cameron, Chairs. Oil on canvas, 36 x 38."

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