Last year, I read Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception because I was thinking about the inner being and the face one presents to the world. I was thinking also about Paul Ekman’s work with micro expressions--how one might be able to deceive with words, but how one's true emotions will leak out and give one away. Now I am reading Thomas Moore’s Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationships which, in spite of the title, mostly concerns coming to a deeper knowledge of one’s self and one’s own soul—the desires and fears and dilemmas and mysteries with which we struggle. Our demons and our angels.
All right. So we have (or we are) this soul, this heavenly and demonic being, and we try to fit it into this world that demands from us certain obligations. We must work or marry or raise children or all of the above. We take this big inner being, this chaotic, passionate, inspired, crazy, impulsive, beautiful, ferocious mess of humanity, and squish and shove and squeeze it into some kind of semblance of what might pass for convention so we can get jobs/make friends/find mates/not scare people/not get arrested. We tell lies, to ourselves and others. We construct a self that is presentable/suitable/appropriate. We keep our real selves in check.
Like wily toddlers, some of us occasionally escape through the screen door when no one’s looking and run out naked through the sprinklers in the front yard shrieking with joy. Some of us create a life in which we get to have an alter ego or two. Some of us let the angels and demons out in our art or writing or music or dance. Some of us can’t bear the strain and we get a little neurotic. Or sink to the bottom of a bottle. Some of us are so wounded by the struggle that we sort of give up and our soul flattens out a little, lying down resentfully in a corner like a dog that never gets let off the leash. In a lifetime, we might try all of those things.
Last month, I was helping Bob Debris, a friend who is a photographer (if by “helping” we mean telling people they looked beautiful and tucking in shirts and pushing strands of hair out of faces and draping shoulders with glittery fabric and fastening a corset around the voluptuous waist of one beauty) as Bob took pictures of masses of humanity on Members’ Family Day at Lotusland in Santa Barbara. Not to suck up to Bob (though it might be a good idea, being as it is summer and he and his lovely wife Caroline Allen do have a pool), but first I will say that to watch this kind of artist at work is fascinating.In some of the photos, the models just did whatever they wanted. Other models seemed to inspire Bob, and he would start telling them what to do, how to move or turn, how to hold a hand up or shift a leg. Those images were the best, the most fun and the most funny, the ones that took on a new life. It was so interesting to see how some models would submit entirely and give themselves up to Bob’s vision. Others resisted flatly. Still others brought their own visions and inspirations to the image.
And then, if you can look past the fake fur and Mongolian armor and spears and plastic flowers and toy skulls and all the other props (or maybe the props are a means to the revelation), some of the images clearly present the mystery of the soul; that is, you see in the image the inner being, what seems like a previously hidden essence of the person that emerges in the flash of the bulb. How do that happen? You can see the Lotusland images here in all their glory. (You can see more of Bob's work here.)
Which brings me to the Alice Neel show at LA Louver. What astounds me about Alice Neel's work is that you walk away from the paintings and you actually feel as if you know something about the subjects--about who they are as human beings. Sometimes it's beautiful, sometimes it's ugly. Sometimes it can't be put in those terms, it's more of a sense or a mood. It's as if the artist has the ability to turn us inside out and reveal our secret selves to the world.