Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Deep Calling to Deep

I'm in love with Bridget Henry and her work, and I don't care who knows it. If you're looking for objectivity here, well, wrong tree, is all I have to say.

That disclaimer having been made, let us consider dreams. Truly there is nothing more tedious than hearing strangers' painfully minute accounts of their dreams--it was my house, but it wasn't really my house, and the windows were made of pink and turquoise Play-doh. Who among us has not prayed for early death to release us from similar recitals of meaningless detail? Your dream, however, or the dream of a loved one, well, that be a horse of a different color. Those details are gems that bespeak a rich inner life. (Heheheheheheheh.)
I think about dreams a lot. I remember my dreams and keep a dream dictionary by my bed. (Sometimes I am horrified by the obviousness and sheer banality rolling around in my subconscious, e.g., all those roller coaster dreams when I was in that one relationship. That's just plain embarrassing.) The times I am crankily bemoaning all what gone wrong in my childhood, I would do well to remember that what went so very right was the cleaving to the subconscious, and the resulting understanding that we humans carry this beautiful, terrifying inner universe furnished with symbols.

That came from a daily family ritual of describing dreams, and also, from being steeped in religious tradition, which is nothing but symbols--the blood of the Lamb, the loaves and the fishes, water-into-wine, the Bride of Christ. The Gates of Heaven and the Pits of Hell. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (who, by the way, spent an inordinate amount of time persecuting me in adolescence. We all have our demons).

So my sudden and intense response to Bridget Henry's work is a kind of soul-to-soul (in the immortal words of Stevie Ray Vaughn) recognition, rather than just an accident of appreciating the pretty. Deep calling to deep.

Every morning of Henry's childhood, her mother would ask, "What did you dream about?" Which question put Henry in the habit of traveling the landscape of the subconscious, what she calls the unexplored territory of human existence, and which can only be explored accidentally, through uncontrolled acts--like dreaming. And so of course this part of her life became a big part of who she is and how she sees and interprets what happens around her. She carries symbols around with her, thinks in images, sees language in pictures: "When I hear language, I see it. Sometimes listening to music, a picture will flash into my head."

A Catholic upbringing meant that Henry's first experience with art was religious--the stained glass, robes, incense, statues, and candles, all those accoutrements that the Catholics get to flash in the face of Low Church envy. For Henry, the sacramental aesthetic was moving, and its influence lasting. Even after leaving the Church and spending some time being angry about what she'd never known about as a child, what you might call the dark side of Catholicism--the history of persecution, the anti-Semitism, the Inquisition--the iconography remained, not as the focus, but as a structure for the storytelling.
When she went to college, Henry wanted to study psychology, thinking that psychology meant the subconscious. If she had read Jung in those days, the archetypes would have probably kept her interested. But instead she became disillusioned, and turned her attention to art, "which gives immediate access to the subconscious." In her art, she salvages elements from Catholicism and uses the religious style and iconography as a pedestal to elevate the common experience to myth and symbol. And not just Catholicism, but the characters and motifs of folktales, fables, legend, and mythology, whatever symbols can be pressed into service to tell of suffering, struggle, perseverance, grace, awakening, transformation, redemption.

Henry identifies herself as more of a symbolist than an artist. She tells a funny bit about multi-artist shows, that she can stand back and predict which art will draw which people as the attendees stream in the door. Henry's woodcuts attract the teachers and students. Readers all, I bet. Anyone who likes a good story. Her works tell us the stories of our lives. Who has not experienced love and suffering and heartbreak and separation and longing? Who is not grateful for art that helps you interpret and make meaning out of your own experiences?

Watching the news or hearing some account, Henry finds herself thinking, "I want to reject that version," and then rewriting and telling the story a new way, giving a new ending, maybe an ending that leads to grace or redemption or transformation, or maybe just one that is comprehensible.

Or nearly comprehensible--and this is the part that is so difficult to articulate when talking of one's response to any kind of art, that one might feel an intuitive connection and even understanding that seems impossible to express in words. There are the layers of meaning, and even if you have an idea of the artist's intention and her thoughts, and the images give you some superficial understanding, the layers of meaning bring you back to look at pieces over and over, because you know there is more that you missed, and more to understand. Not that I can say I fully understand it. As with dreams and poetry, the mystery is part of the draw.
I asked Henry if she ever fell in love with her art. She thought about it for a second, and said that her relationship to everything in her art has changed. She used to fall in love with it more. Now, the work she falls in love with tends to be work that is most personal, that is less for public view, maybe work with new media, the work she suspects would probably get the least positive response from others.
Bridget Henry lives, works, and teaches in Santa Cruz, California. You can see more of her work here and here.

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