“Pictures unpainted make the heart sick.”
Women, and their spirits, permeate the work of painter Celia Paul and writer Hilton Als. Paul, for example, has often relied on her mother and four sisters as models for her exquisitely delicate, practically dissolving, portraiture. Her technical style with her chosen media—both oil and watercolor—feels both physically immediate yet completely mnemonic. If she doesn’t personally, deeply, know the person she paints then the image leads to nothing—to where it all began—a blank canvas. Hence: the significance of her beloved mother. This is where the story turns, as some might say, a wee bit weird: Her student paintings of her mother served as a point of introduction to the visiting tutor Lucian Freud—soon to be (temporary) mentor, lover, and father of her son, Frank. Paul, at the time, had been entranced by Freud’s paintings of his own mother.
The first chapter of Hilton Als’s debut book, The Women, begins with a mystery: “Until the end, my mother never discussed her way of being.” The writer’s mother—reminiscent of those of Paul’s and Freud’s—serves as a model for artistic exploration. I see Als, just like Paul, merging with (and often dissolving into) his subject matter. Or, better yet, trading places. My favorite example, at the moment, can be found in White Girls, his second book. It occurs in the chapter, “I Am the Happiness of This World.” In it, Als proclaims: “I am Louise Brooks.”
This interview, published on the occasion of the Celia Paul exhibition (curated by Als) at the Metropolitan Opera House’s Gallery Met, adds yet another woman to the equation. This time she’s even more of a phantom. Her name is Desdemona (apparently in opposition to Eudaimonia). The show—which includes a small (of course dissolving) portrait of Als—is pegged to the Met’s current production of Verdi’s Otello. Paul’s self-portraiture, the images of her family, and a few of her ocean wave paintings, feel, somehow, perfectly in place here. In keeping with the theme of the deliquescent, Als suggested that their interview appear without his questions. BOMB has dutifully granted that request.
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