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by Geoffrey Goldberg
“I can’t imagine a life without art. I can’t imagine it. It would be so sad. One of the most amazing things in the world is the art we create. It is a view into people’s souls.”
If, on some sunny Sunday afternoon, you decide to take a drive through the streets of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, you’d pass by movie theatres, Starbuck’s cafes, shopping malls, and even historical parks. And if you venture on to some of the more remote side streets, you might discover a small, broken-down old strip mall accommodating a mom and pop’s pizza shop and Morninglory, a small bakery and catering company exhibiting a painting of a piece of fruit in the window. A pear, to be exact. Enticed into stepping foot in the bakery, you might peruse the wall of sweets and goodies, find one you like, and buy it. And so you amble on, fruit tart in hand, sun on face, and $1.50 less in your wallet.
Later that day, after meeting a friend for lunch, you find it quite fitting to return to the bakery for another treat. On your arrival, you once again are lured into the shop door, ensnared by that splash of color, that painting of a pear hanging in the window, and you once again buy a dessert. This time, however, instead of departing to saunter along in the sun, you feel the urge to stay awhile, scrutinizing that work of art in the window. There is just…something about it that captivates you. That pear, those colors, that shape. You smile. You get closer, pressing your nose up against the storefront’s window, trying to see every detail of that painting. You become obsessed. You can’t place your finger on just what it is you find so alluring, so inexplicably enticing. All you solidly know is the feeling you have inside, that reaction you feel to the piece of art before you. And so you surrender to the painting, asserting it the winner of this round, and you saunter away, knowing only what you feel and not being able to put that into words.
Perhaps you feel something akin to what artist Paula Mandel underwent when she first got commissioned to create promotional designs for that small bakery. In the same way, she became obsessed. In the same fashion, she underwent a change. Only, unlike you, Mandel did not abandon her fixation and simply walk away as you might have. Instead, she embraced that change, a move that led her ultimately to create one of the most intricate, significant, and staggering series of art works, drawings and paintings, in her career. In her series, Cosmic Interactions, Mandel sets forth on a journey to explore varied human relationships using the allegorical and symbolic imagery of fruit, and pears in particular, as a medium for that investigation. The images, done in both black and white and color, emit an enchanting and magical aura that possesses a human quality which renders the pieces approachable, so approachable, in fact, that it is hard to tear yourself away. For me, looking at one of Mandel’s pieces is like undergoing a spiritual experience, for it shows me something new and brings me to a fresh and personal understanding of the simplicity of life in general, as well as of the complexities of the world in which we all live. Still, her work leaves me mystified, discontented with my “understanding” of the piece. I feel as if there is something more, something missing from my comprehension. Yet I should not feel alone.
For Mandel herself did not quite understand what her work was truly about until she began creating it. A graduate of TempleUniversity with an undergraduate degree in psychology, Mandel only formally studied visual art for a single semester in Rome with the TylerSchool of Art. Her degree in psychology partially led Mandel to undergo such artistic endeavors as investigating human relationships through the use of color, motion, and form, which she has done so many times through her work with portraits, nudes, and her series Women, all of which use the human image to explore life choices, and the interiors and exteriors of human relationships (Mandel, artist statement). But when Mandel determined her artistic objectives for her next series, she realized that the use of the human form would ultimately get in the way of the idea she would attempt to create. And so she decided to use this eloquent and figurative fruit to convey her ideas. She consciously resolved to use pears in her work because they possessed a “people-y kind of shape and had a people feeling” (Mandel, interview). She then made the deliberate resolution to achieve the same kind of investigation into relationships that she had used in so many of her previous works but, this time, she chose not to use people. Her choice of pears as a symbol for her human relationships stands for what Carl Jung would refer to as “a language pregnant with meaning,” and the pears, themselves, serve as “images that are true symbols because they are the best possible expressions for something unknown” (290). It is precisely that unknown that Mandel decided to venture into.
As she began her work, she came to realize that the subjects/objects she was painting seemed nowhere near as threatening as the human form. Consequently, in this less intimidating atmosphere, Mandel situated herself in an environment that allowed her to relax into her work, an environment that promoted her unconscious to flourish free of her petty concerns about form or the exact replication of the human figure. She set herself free in a Matthew Goulish sort of way; she became the medium through which her artistic freedom could surge. By freeing her inner self, she allowed her body and mind to let loose and unreservedly represent the truth from her inner being. Jung can help us understand this unintentional manifestation of inner feelings and emotions. He speaks of the artist and the autonomous creative process:
…While his conscious mind stands amazed and empty before this phenomenon, he is overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts and images which he never intended to create and which his own will could never have brought into being. Yet in spite of himself, he is forced to admit that it is his own self speaking, his own inner nature revealing itself and uttering things which he would never have entrusted to his tongue….his work is greater than himself. (287)
It is precisely this “self” that Mandel sees in her art. It was only after completely surrendering her mind and spirit to her work that true meaning emerged from her pencil tip, her crayon, her paintbrush. As she sees it in retrospect, any attempt to have forced that emergence would have hindered the process like a faucet on a sink.
Yet Mandel opened the tap and let her spirit and pencil run faster than her mind, and what transpired were not only colorful, meticulous bursts of form, but glimpses into her soul. James Hillman, using Jung as a foundation of reflection, discusses the idea of a ‘fantasy-image’ and its implication in understanding a work of art. He considers these images “to be the basic givens of psychic life, self-originating, inventive, spontaneous, complete, and organized in archetypal patterns” (66). Mandel perceives her work to contain the spontaneity that Hillman mentions; a spontaneity perceptible in her personality as well as her formal talent and choice of media. Hillman goes on to say that these images serve as the “finished products of the psyche [that are] the privileged mode of access to knowledge of soul” (66). Mandel’s Cosmic Interactions series certainly represents more than simply her desire to understand human relationships; it is a glimpse into her soul as well.
One of Mandel’s pieces, Almost, illustrates this unconscious manifestation of emotion. The piece consists of a vibrant and energetic watery background, full of bright blotches of blues and aqua greens that intertwine with spidery and clearly drawn lines of reds, pinks, and whites. This juxtaposition of not only medium (crayons, watercolor, pencil, pastels are all used here) but of colors and shapes, illustrates a sort of severance. I could not help but observe an argument between the distinct lines and the puddles of color, the reds and the blues, a disagreement almost presented in the currents of water flowing in different directions, unable to mix perhaps because of temperature, perhaps due to speed of flow. All of this friction, this disparity of colors and shapes, generated inside me, as well as on the canvas, a feeling of anxiety. And amidst all this anxiety lie two pears, one decorated in deep greens and outlined in a shadowy shade of red, and the other presented in a somnolent golden hue, a bit rounder and less prominent than its vivacious green neighbor. Reaching from the head of the green fruit is a tiny stem that seems to get lost in the current of water separating the two objects, ultimately rendering it unable to reach its yellow companion. In retrospect, Mandel sees it quite fitting that she created this piece around the time she and her husband experienced a fight. The sense of longing, of one pear reaching yet failing to connect with the other due to some chaotic condition, mirrors precisely Mandel’s personal life. Here again we see the Jungian idea of bringing “certain peculiarities of a work of art into relation with the intimate, personal life of the poet [artist]…The personal threads that the artist, intentionally or unintentionally, has woven into his work” (281-2). However, even with this strong presence of Mandel’s personal life in her work, this piece also includes and emits a general and universal human life force and understanding that allow anyone, including this nineteen year-old, single-male-college student, to somehow relate to a fifty-year-old, married working mother’s vast emotional life and experiences.
Another of Mandel’s pieces, Caress, similar to the aforementioned painting, presents a tenderly flowing watercolor background consisting of blues, greens, purples, and other colors associated with water. Its swirls and glib movements create a rippling sensation that exists only in its simple and serene setting. Its colors represent more of a reflective face than a fluttering surface caused by the drop of a pebble or fall of a leaf. Yet lying in this tranquil splendor are two pears, each fashioned of beautiful blends of warmth: reds, oranges, and pinks merge to give depth and feeling to these ripe pieces of fruit. Head to head, the pears’ stems bend towards each other in a subtle gesture, and gently intertwine, caressing each other. This simple stroke brings these pieces of fruit to life, endowing them with the power to make us feel and giving a viewer such as myself an opportunity to observe the simplicity of togetherness as I equate this picture to the act of two lovers holding hands their desire and passion suggested by the water that supports their unity.
Looking at this image, I perceive something more profound than two pears, stems connected, floating in a bed of water. I see the humanity in these inanimate objects, the emotions they exude, and, consequently, the souls they possess. As James Hillman puts it, “’Images are souls’ and our job with them is to meet them on that soul level” (69). It is only when we can meet the soul of the image that we can understand it. It was not until I recognized the human nature of these pears, the energy between the two objects, that I was able to connect with the image, itself. There exists no formal element, no brush stroke, shape, or color that is clearly labeled and recognized as the ‘soul’ of the piece. One cannot pinpoint or isolate it, the absolute ‘soul’ of a piece, for, regardless of the fact that the soul is not a physical feature, it undoubtedly varies from viewer to viewer. According to Hillman, the soul is a “perspective rather than a substance” (64). It is inspiration, the voice of a work of art, and an angle from which to view the physical and formal elements that gives them such import. It is not until one acknowledges that perspective, sees through that lens, that one can truly take in the intrinsic value of Mandel’s work. By allowing myself to consider Mandel’s paintings as representations, if not absolute portrayals, of human emotions and experiences, I was able to connect with the ‘soul’ of that piece and thereby turn my own interpretation, my own perspective, into my understanding of her work.
As an actor, a singer, and a dancer, I value the way in which my art helps me expose my own soul to my audience. Not only do I open myself up when I perform, but that performance has a soul, a life force, a beating heart of its own. It is, therefore, my job to portray that soul along with my own spirit and to do so with complete sincerity. The inspiration that I find causes me to say something through my movement, my sounds, my steps. Yet, like Mandel’s work, it is that “voice” that tells me what to say and how to say it. In the same manner, it is not a substance that encourages me to move, to sing, to act. There is no one thing, no exact phrase or physical object that I attempt to convey through my performance. In some ways, I deem artists the exclusive group of people who can understand my personal art, for they are possessed of the knowledge of that “language” of movement, of sound, of dance. Essentially, they have that “perspective,” as Hillman puts it. Just as I, through my art, exercise a language not of words, but of sounds and images, Mandel uses a similar language in her art; a language of colors, shapes, and movements; a language deficient of words, yet not alien to the realm of human understanding. However, unlike some forms of art, which I deem comprehensible only to a select few, Mandel’s works are painted in a dialect that every human can understand, for human beings innately possess the “perspective,” the lens, the mechanism, the soul to connect with her work.
However, it is the people who understand themselves, who can recognize their own emotions and their tie with a work of art, the people who “can meet the soul in the image,” who move that much closer to understanding the work of art at hand (Hillman, 69). After all, Mandel sees her creation as a process in which she shares her inner self with other people, and she views her art as being “who I am: me expressing myself” (Mandel interview). Subsequently, her palette consists of the very colors of her soul, and her brush is made from the twine of her unconscious. So, as Mandel paints her soul on a canvas, she thereby lays down emotions that she, herself, can interpret one way, but also that viewers can attempt to understand and personalize for themselves. Just as her own artistic and creative practice stems from a somewhat unconscious place, and her understanding of her own art comes from a similarly personal and instinctive location, she asks that her audience find that same place in order to understand her art.
Once they find that place, that perspective, that connection between themselves and the painting, they will have identified and recognized the pears in the piece…or rather the pairs. For Mandel does not simply paint pears as fruit. Her work represents pairs, connections, and incontrovertible interactions. The most obvious pair is within the painting, itself; that of the two pears, the objects that generate the human emotions with which we, the audience, connect. We see a pair of the unconscious with the conscious: the connection between Mandel’s soulful psyche and her mindful mastery of her artistic ability. We see another pair: an artist and her art; a twosome too personal to be toyed with, and perhaps too delicate to be understood by anyone other than Mandel. Yet there is one more: a final pair. Perhaps the principal pair: the audience and the art. This duo defines the very substance of Mandel’s art, for her creations subsist on the human connection that a viewer establishes with her paintings. All of the pairs within Mandel’s work, those of the physical images in her paintings, the unconscious and conscious, and the artist and the artwork, advance towards making this final pair possible. Only by weaving together all of these elements can Mandel set the grounds for that final bond to exist. Without that relationship, without that ‘pair,’ her work would just be pictures of pears. Nothing more.
Goulish, Matthew. “How Does a Work Work Where?” The World Through Art: The Advanced College Essay. Ed. Darlene A. Forrest, Pat C. Hoy II and Randy Martin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 184-87.
Hillman, James. “The Poetic Basis of Mind.” Writing the Essay: Art and the World. Ed. Darlene A. Forrest, Pat C. Hoy II and Randy Martin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 59-80.
Jung, Carl G. “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry.” Writing the Essay:Art and the World. Ed. Darlene A. Forrest, Pat C. Hoy II and Randy Martin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 279-98.
Mandel, Paula. Almost. 5 May 2003. <http://paula-mandel.com/cgi-local/
—-. Artist Statement. Pears. 5 May 2003. < http://paula-mandel.com/cgi-local/
—-. Caress. 5 May 2003. < http://paula-mandel.com/cgi-local/
—-. Personal interview. 13 Apr. 2003.
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