The ear, the one bodily orifice penetrated—if only by the message—in the immaculate conception, has symbolic significance in Renaissance art; think of any Annunciation scene. Gabriel blew his message into Mary’s ear, but before the time of the Great Flood, angels did lust after and consort with the human race. Oral history recorded in the Bible indicates that their offspring were conceived in the usual fashion, not divine but mortal.
It is in the portrayal of sexual fecundity and innuendo—as well as its inverse, the wantonness of yearning and the loneliness of its aftermath, both intimations of mortality—that Emily Eveleth excels. If conception begins with the word, and most seduction does, then the ear as a receptacle of breath and life still holds symbolic significance. In these most contemporary paintings and drawings, the fact that the message is conveyed from the mouth of a man into the ear of another is no less loaded, quite the contrary. For these men are containers of such emotion that each of their beings seems entirely absorbed by it, as if they have swallowed its portent. This is true whether the work reveals part of a body or its whole, one figure or two; it is Eveleth’s great strength as a painter, that the back of a neck, a shoulder or an ear can convey such intensity. And yet these are quiet paintings. The body is both originator and receptacle of the message, but the nature of the message does not need to be conveyed to us; it’s implicit.
How does a painter drench her subject with such feeling? The medium is graphite and oil but what it represents is light. Light sculpts, illuminates, defines and forms the volumes that speak in these paintings. How else does a doughnut or two, the other form Eveleth paints, elicit the same longing as her figures? It’s not just the tempting sweetness of a confection or what the jellied orifice suggests: this time think of Courbet’s The Origin of the World and the penetration and pleasure implicit in that orifice. Eveleth’s doughnuts are brushed with a feathery light. They do not share the cool classicism of Pop art, but they do convey some of its irony. In Eveleth’s hands, these doughnuts ooze a juicy secret, yet their atavism is playful and funny. For they are the sweet confection of sustenance, or, to put it another way, sex. The mystery remains, in the message conveyed and the longing implied; but we are in on the joke, for we are its containers—of all the laughter, pleasure, sorrow, and loss implicit in the act of conception.
This issue’s Artists on Artists is sponsored by the W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.