Archaeology of the Mind
by Ilana Vardy
Michele Tuohey’s body of paintings confronts the archetypes of femalenness. Self-portraiture is Tuohey’s principal symbolic motif, but here the artist’s own face represents the “everywoman” and “everyman” in all of us. Tuohey, who is of Cuban-Irish descent, depicts the decidedly female themes of everyday life in vignette form, where the figures resemble marionettes on a string, manipulated by whoever or whatever determines destiny. Like the storyteller who captivates a spellbound audience, the artist’s hand is clearly visible, yet the message delivered may not be so obvious. The scene plays out on the canvas, and the viewer interjects the fitting end.
Tuohey also works with a symbolic vocabulary that she uses to analyze her own psyche and attempt to answer the big questions posed by the spiritual world. The face is almost always depicted in clown white, with the figures moving in mime form, so as not to attribute any “real” identity to the painted person. Such depiction of humanness reveals the essence of things-of being a woman, a mother, a child, the acts of nature itself and therefore allows the action of a moment to take on all importance. Everything is defined by simple shapes and brilliant colors without attempt at realism.
We recognize human figures interacting with familiar objects, yet it is only the action and and its inherent meaning that is important here. There are no males in these paintings, but the male presence is there, again symbolically: woman wearing tie, woman wearing men’s clothes working in a field, woman holding tools. The lack of realism eliminates any sense of personal attachment to the figures in the story, thereby giving the artist the freedom to speak for all. The narratives are about everyone and no one simultaneously, which renders the overall feeling of the work both vacuous and irresistible.
Many of Tuohey’s paintings depict two identical women-both the artist-and both presumably dealing with life’s conflicting dualities and the balance of the male and female within. In The journey of 1992, one figure faces the viewer holding a clock set at 5:00pm while the second figure, with her back to the viewer, holds a tall walking stick, wearing a hat and workpants. In Butterfly, 1993, two translucent females pass each other on a staircase, where the descending figure lovingly cradles an invisible baby and the ascending woman coldly drags a fetus still attached to the umbilical cord. In Mirrors of 1993, the figure in the foreground sits on a stool wearing a black bra and a white diaper; she looks down, calm and pensive, while in the background the second figure pokes her head through an opening in the wall and stares spritely at the viewer. In Beyond Destined Future from 1992, two identical figures face the viewer; one sports a diaper, a necktie and holds a hammer while the other figure stands naked in a dance pose.
Tuoheys paintings are heavily textured grid patterns formed of wildly vibrant colors. Although the controlled pictorial space contains depth, the feeling of flatness prevents the viewer from entering inside. From the outside, however, the observer is subtly transfixed by the artist’s overwhelming desire to transcend everyday reality-via the illusions of her colorful and tactile surfaces-in search of some higher truth. The lack of emotional attachment we have to this body of work, due to it’s stylistic limitations, is precisely the singular quality that draws us closer.
Ilana Vardy is director of Art Miami and a contributing writer to Art Nexus magazine.
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