by Alfred Mac Adam
MARINARO | APRIL 15 – MAY 20, 2018
Jane Corrigan went back to nature. Not quite nature “red in tooth and claw,” certainly not the Cartesian nature of Louis XIV's gardens at Versailles, but nature out the back door. The back door is in her native Canada and leads to a kitchen garden at the edge of a forest, a frontier zone frequented by rabbits. Corrigan adds non-Canadian hyenas to her nature, a reminder of her earlier work, which was fraught with melodrama and scary scenes from gothic novels or horror movies.
Much of Corrigan’s work until now has been charged with narrative, her paintings often episodes from untold tales she invited viewers to invent and complete. In these eighteen works, she attenuates narrative to focus on specific scenes from her forest-garden borderland. Each of these oil paintings is charged with personal information that transforms seemingly simple depictions of nature into complex, self-referential allegories, where autobiography expresses itself as a hidden message. This allegorizing begins—as Corrigan’s remarks about her work in the exhibition statement suggest—with her title, Ma Paw, a plausibly Canadian, bilingual French-English composite. “Ma” is a possessive, so “my paw,” but it’s also “mom,” as in “ma and pa.” My paw also takes the viewer to Corrigan's rabbits or hares that use their paws to dig into the earth much in the way the artist digs about in in her imagination, dirtying her hands with paint instead of soil. So adumbrated in her title is Canada, family, digging, nature, and painting.
The “paw” is further complicated by the fact that Corrigan’s “paw” or dad, as she notes in her exhibition remarks, refuses to eat rabbits because the Old Testament declares pawed beasts unclean. Many of these paintings derive from Corrigan’s two-year stay with her parents in Canada, where she worked with them in their kitchen garden even the flowers have a practical purpose. A beautiful painting, Milk Thistle (2018) represents a medicinal plant that supposedly contributes to a healthy liver, an organ imperiled if you work with oil paints. Corrigan depicts the glorious plant in subdued colors and associates it, as she says, with her mother, while she deploys a bright red for Sumac (dad) (2018), suggesting that the male of the family has the brightest plumage, while beauty resides in the female parent.
Father may be bright and showy, but daughter appears here as a nude river nymph. River Scene (Aquarius) with Rotten Hare (2016) reprises Corrigan’s frequent representations of female nudes, but by juxtaposing this nude with a stream she alludes to the myth of Narcissus. Art-making as self-contemplation and self-gratification are important ideas in Corrigan’s oeuvre, usually personified by a nude bather. Instead of Echo pining for Narcissus, we have here a rotting hare being gnawed by a hyena. If, as in other paintings, the hare is a double for the artist, then this work constitutes an allegorical double self-portrait: the artist as nude revels in her own production while realizing that her devotion to art is an invitation to being devoured by art. Not a bizarre idea: the Romantics identified art or beauty as a female vampire that consumed the (then) male artist.
Corrigan’s rabbits or hares live in close contact with those carnivorous hyenas. The balance of nature to be sure, but the artist connects herself to the predator as well. In no painting does Corrigan depict hyenas attacking rabbits, perhaps because hyenas eat carrion. In this sense, the hyenas, like critics, materialize after the work of art is complete, dead. There is then a feeling of harmony in nature, which Corrigan identifies with her life and work. Not by chance is a small, nine by twelve painting of two hyenas browsing titled Ying + Yang (2018). Perhaps Corrigan gave them those names arbitrarily, but the concept of a dynamic system of feminine energy balanced by passion seems like an excellent definition of Jane Corrigan.
ContributorAlfred Mac Adam
ALFRED MAC ADAM is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi, among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.