Interview With Patricia Watwood By Symbol and Aesthetics
S&A: Thank you, Patricia, for the opportunity to discuss your Venus Apocalypse series. The word apocalypse from the Greek apokalupsis, 'uncovering, revealing,' denotes a disastrous end, whereas Venus is associated with fecundity. How did you decide on the title of the series?
PW: The inspiration for the title of the work and series came from my experience in New York during Hurricane Sandy. Brooklyn’s waterfront and many neighborhoods in NYC were devastated by the fierce storm. Urban life often insulates us from the power and force of nature, and we can come to think that we are invulnerable to our natural world. The storm surge, the flooding in the low lying areas, and the destruction of infrastructure confronted all of us in the city with the irrefutable presence of nature. At this time in my work, I had been developing the metaphor of a female figure as a personification of various anxieties present in the first decade of the 21st century like terrorism and environmental crisis. So, I imagined Venus as a Goddess of reckoning— she reminds us that change and transformation in nature will come to us whether we are prepared or not. Of course, the composition takes after the Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, where the world is fresh and new, delicately scented and flowered. My Venus is arising out of a world trammeled by human developments and full of chaos. The title, Venus Apocalypse, points to my feeling that there is a pervasive sense of cataclysm and impending change around us. Rebirth and the beauty of nature will rise again after destruction. I believe beauty and reverence will be essential values in successfully transforming culture.
S&A: You state in the Venus Apocalypse exhibition catalogue, “I am not so much interested in women as a subject as I am in women as a presence. I’m not trying to create an object so much as a force.” Would you be willing to tell us more about this distinction made between subject and presence?
As a woman artist, I think a great deal about my relationship to the female figure, in consideration of the historical construct of the nude and the male gaze. In spite of, or maybe because of, my feminist sensibilities, the female nude continues to resonate with me as an image of great power and attraction. I sense this when I see the female nude in great art— I feel that it’s not subjugation but rather an expression of the beauty, sensuality, and power of the female form. So, in making paintings of women, often nude, it is not my aim to present them to the viewer for consumption or admiration. I am trying to embody the presence, beauty, and power inherent in the female form, and have that force emanate from the painting. I try to create a sense of their agency, intellect, and spirit—so that we sense both the inner and outer self of the individual.
S&A: The concept of beauty takes a convoluted path through the history of art, giving us much to evaluate and siphon through. But if we approach the concept of beauty afresh from the perspective of comparative aesthetics, informed by fieldwork in anthropology, we might succeed in circumventing contending notions of beauty and move toward something that resembles a universal understanding of beauty. By looking at ten small and larger scale societies from around the world, Richard Anderson (1990, Calliope’s Sisters: A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art) has found a few consistent ideas about beauty which are associated with health, social goodness, and truth - all of which are regularly communicated through a culture's art. These qualities feel relevant to the Venus Apocalypse series where the health of the environment and its inhabitants seem to be in question. Are the Venus Apocalypse paintings reassessing modern society's relationship with the force of Venus together with her attributes of harmony and beauty?
PW: I love that association you mention of beauty with health, social goodness, and truth, and it mirrors the way in which I have come to think about beauty. Commercialism had caused us to distrust beauty and feel inferior in our own bodies. But (like my persistent love of the female nude) in my artistic soul--I cannot escape beauty. It draws me like a flame and like nourishing food. I think of beauty as integrity: wholeness. Wholeness is not “idealness,” but the balanced integration of self and environment. We all know we are at our best when we are in good health, exercise, rest, maintain internal balance, and good relationships. We talk of a beautiful life or a beautiful meal, and we mean something that is life-affirming, nourishing and even glorious. Whenever we have an experience of beauty, we feel more alive and feel lucky to experience our own consciousness.
I see a parallel between the rejection of beauty in art and the undervaluing of the natural world and its wonders. In western culture, too often we see the earth as a resource to be extracted and used to our own ends. We have not cultivated a deep sense of reverence for the beauty of the earth, nor understood how our fates are completely tied to the ecology in which we live. Technology and science have brought us to such a level of convenience and insulation that we can allow ourselves to think we have “conquered” nature. However, I think we are increasingly disconnected, dehumanized and frankly dissatisfied with our experience in the world and even in our own bodies. Like the Romantics, I have the sense that our trust in science and technology has caused us to lose contact with the spiritual and emotional ties that are an essential aspect of balance in our consciousness.
The Goddess Venus seems greatly needed now in this time of overly patriarchal and destructive cultural forces. We are still conquering each other with both guns and stock prices. Beauty should not be a commercialized weapon to make one feel less than so that we go buy something in hopes of increasing our value. Our world and environment are in dire need of our urgent attention, and we must take action in transforming how we live. The reassertion of values of beauty, harmony, integrity and the sacred feminine would all help move culture in a sustainable direction.
S&A: Venus lies surrounded by technological clutter, organic debris, and trash in Sleeping Venus. What inspired you to depict Venus sleeping? What does the presence of the bird symbolize?
PW: There’s a wonderful book exploring this subject called Venus in Exile, by Wendy Steiner. This book shaped the way I composed the figure in these paintings. If Venus (immortal Goddess) is in exile, then where is she, and can she be summoned up again? I started to visualize her in this outer darkness, or in a trash heap-- thrown out. So, there’s a bit of Sleeping Beauty here- waiting for the touch that will reawaken her. The canary represents that re-awakening spirit, but of course, the canary in the coal mine is also the signal of imminent danger.
S&A: When Venus awakes she is no longer protected by the boundary of the blanket. Parts of her body are in direct contact with the earth around her. What does the apple beside her symbolize?
PW: In Venus Awakes, I wanted to emphasize the luminosity of Venus shining out of the darkness by creating this dim and earthy cradle where she is reborn. She’s in contact with the earth and arising out of it. In this forgotten place, Venus and the apple still have their freshness and goodness. The symbol is a nod to Eve’s apple but represents not sin but nourishing wholeness and organic life. The bird coming to wake her is a common house sparrow – the bird’s humble, earthy coloring keeps in harmony with the dirt and dark values in the area surrounding Venus. We don’t all have to be peacocks to help save the world.
S&A: The electronic detritus depicted in some of the Venus Apocalypse paintings remind us that our society requires a vast infrastructure to manufacture and sell consumer items. The compositional arrangement of these items and objective manner in which they are depicted help us to see beyond the initial glamor of their marketing. Is it correct to say that these paintings are encouraging us to question our priorities? What are your thoughts on the significance or role that representational art can take in the endeavor to shape a more sustainable future?
PW: Yes, yes yes yes. I became fascinated with circuit boards, which I regularly find on the sidewalk in Brooklyn in some broken piece of technology which was at one time new and expensive, and now is just a messy pile of metal and plastic. Circuit boards are amazing and beautiful, their color and intricacy rival watchmaking and cloisonné. I’m also amazed by RAM memory cards--they store “memory”: green and blue plastic, silicone and metal reservoirs of human knowledge and consciousness. They end up in the trash.
We must learn to carefully balance the use of resources that truly enrich our lives through greater meaning and health, but be fully conscious of the cost of our progress. We use too many resources, consume too many goods, and throw away too many things. Yet we are not actually happier for all our consumption. Technology and science are marvelous and have brought so many great things to our life. But the unfettered progress of capitalism and an economy built on consumption is simply not sustainable. Moreover, it is not truly fulfilling. I am not a Luddite. I embrace progress and technology, but we must find the right balance of our human development with the earth to create a sustainable and spiritually nourishing culture.
I do think that representational art can play a role in the transformation ahead. Representational images have the power of being iconic. A single image can lodge in your memory permanently and sum up the concepts they represent. We need images that can begin to shift the way we understand man’s relationship to the environment and society.
S&A: Recently, historian Yuval Noah Harari pointed out the growing tendency for decision making to be outsourced to external algorithms. In one online talk “Techno-Religions and Silicon Prophets” (2015) he states, “Authority will shift from the inner feelings of the individual to the wisdom of these external algorithms.” If we take this in light of the current trend to turn computers into creative artists, from music and text that is already being composed by algorithms to Google's neural network technology generating images, it seems prudent to speculate on the future status of human-made art. In such a society where machine creatives become the norm, do you foresee human artists committed to working in a sensual medium as becoming more valued, curious relics, or reduced to mere hobbyists? Do the circuit board frames in Venus Apocalypse allude to our growing relationship with a virtual world?
PW: I have a persistent faith in the value of the handmade object. I believe in out-moded concepts like “auratic” qualities, and believe that objects like works of art can be reservoirs of spiritual energy that is transmitted over time. Art is emotion and personal connection transmitted over time. While the machine and algorithm-made creations may indeed become transformative and transcendent, I am interested in the emotional connection and depth that is the unique capacity of human consciousness. I love a human being; I don’t love a machine. Can the machine love me? For me, that fact that an object is handmade gives the object particular meaning. That someone invested the time needed and crafted the object by hand with tools and their own physical and mental capacity, makes it distinctly more valuable than an exact replica made by a machine. I don’t hold that only hand-made art has value, but my personal preference in art-making is for the human-made thing.
It’s my hope that the sensual and handmade objects of the world will become more valuable because of their uniqueness, rarity, and even due to their “analog” quality. As we become more immersed in the internet and spend more time on the computer, I think our human souls desperately need the real—the present, the humanly connected, the palpable. Making things reconnects us with our physical world, our senses, and a slower sense of time. Art and handmade objects remind us that there is a way of organizing one’s life in that physical world, at the speed of human life, and according to priorities of our own.
With the circuit board frames , I was not particularly thinking about the virtual world, but about the idea of intrinsic versus exchange value, and of the fluidity of what is considered “valuable.” In the 19th century, if you wanted to make a statement that a work of art was valuable, you’d get a hand-carved frame and literally put gold on it. In the 20th century, such a frame might actually be thrown in the trash because it was out of fashion. The most expensive artwork in the late 20th century is often left unframed. The circuit boards all had a specific exchange value as necessary components of technology but then are discarded when they become outmoded. In the frames, they find new usage in their aesthetic value, becoming like a marquetry panel around the artwork. “Framing” artwork in this way becomes a larger statement about context and how a piece of art “fits” into the cultural discourse, and poses a larger question about the value we accord works of art.
S&A: In Faith in the Wilderness, a lovely woman finds herself in a gritty urban setting. On a wall behind her, can be read, “We walk by faith not by sight.” Would you be willing to tell us what that guidance could be and how it relates to the idea of faith?
For me, this guidance is my Christian faith and practice. When I try to rely solely on my own knowledge, vision, and direction, I inevitably get to a point of crisis where I do know what to do, or where to go. At times, I feel despair at the difficulty of the challenges ahead. I rely on faith to help me understand where I am going. I need to maintain my spiritual grounding with a regular practice of meditation, prayer, and worship in order to keep going on the uncertain and sometimes unrewarding journey of making a living in art. So, Faith in the Wilderness is really a personal statement of faith about how I have organized my life and how I try to proceed through it. Sometimes it serves as a reminder when I am feeling lost to seek the inner voice that guides me.