Saturday, May 19, 2007

Roses of Different Names: The Work of Erin Cluley

The roses in Erin Cluley's newest work are in for a fight. In Veiled Devotion 1, the five roses in this small painting stand behind a screen of repeated shapes Erin says are derived from Catholic imagery and allude to her upbringing in that religion. "The image is an adaptation of the floor plan of St. Peter's Basilica," she says, "and references things like confessional screens in the church." The flowers in this painting are effectively fenced off by the screen, held back from entering the foreground, partitioned from the viewer. The other three paintings in the series show the roses in similar states, seemingly struggling for their definition against the screen in number 2 and barely visible at all amidst the patterning in the third. The roses are strong and central images, that in number 4 even making its way to the foreground, but the resistance they face in each work is palpable.

"The roses are symbols of female sexuality," Erin says, "both a reference to female anatomy and to women's sexual lives in general." Recognizing the validity of this in Erin's work takes no great intellectual leap, considering the long history of artistic association between flowers and women's sexuality, not to mention their purely visual suggestiveness. From there, it is also no great leap to recognize that the force the flowers struggle against in the Veiled Devotion series is the oppression of religious institution, a theme that, as we'll see, runs strongly through Erin's work. What is maybe less obvious at first glance, though, is that, strangely enough, the shape that makes up the individual elements of the screen patterns is itself rose-like, the kind of rosette so commonly found in the art and architecture of the Catholic church.

Erin's piece, Veiled Confessions, makes explicit the sexual themes of her work. The central element in the piece is a figure, painted in white on a sheet of mylar drafting film, of a nude woman, her head thrown back, seemingly in some sort of ecstasy, and her knees open wide. Again, the screen pattern makes its way into the work, this time as a series of rosettes cut through the mylar, behind which are three small, metallic paintings. "The guilt in the Catholic faith is so strong" Erin says. "Masturbation, sex as a mortal sin. A lot of what I've been talking about in my work is the deprivation of my sexuality as a woman." Again, then, we see the rigid religious patterning juxtaposed with the sexual, the guilt and repression of the one against the open and unabashed freedom of the other.

What is interesting though is how this pairing is treated in her work, how other types of pairings work as well. Erin's grandmother was Lebanese-American, and this Arabic lineage was central to many of her early works, especially her Heritage series of paintings. Later, after a trip to southern Spain where she visited the Moorish palaces and mosques, Erin began incorporating Muslim-related imagery into her work, often right beside the Catholic. Her painting, Ten Lovely Prayers, combines a floral pattern at one side of the painting and a series of nails at the other, all over a cloudy, mediative wash of color. "When I was in Spain," says Erin, "I was taken by how they used pattern and repetition on the walls that gave this quiet, meditative feel. And I realized that they used the same [rosette] pattern I was using in my earlier paintings in reference to Catholicism."

The nails, then, with their Christ-like connotations, their nod towards penance and punishment, their undertones of sexual penetration, are balanced against the quiet, mosque-like atmosphere of the painting, the echo of Muslim devotion and prayer in the floral designs. As Erin says, "Something came together for me when I visited Spain. I found a way to bring a light into the work I was doing, dispel some of the anger I had against my Catholic upbringing." Erin had found a bridge between Catholicism, its rules and punishment-reward dynamic, and the spirituality she felt among the Moorish architecture, a bridge made up, appropriately for an artist, of images.

Even in her latest work, those small paintings of roses, works that apparently pit religion against freedom, we see a similar balancing, a careful weighing of elements that points almost to a need for reconciliation. We see this in the compositional harmony of the work, a structural equilibrium between those rigid patterns and the organic shapes of the flowers. As Erin says, "I know my work is heading in the right direction when I find a sense of composition, the harder elements working alongside the softer ones. I absolutely need that," she adds. What's more, the opposing kinds of imagery, veils and flowers, the meditative and the rule-bound, are dependent upon each other in the work for their potency, the ecstasy of the figure in white requiring the boundaries of religion to emphasize and define itself.

Seen in this context, Erin's work may be less about struggle, hard versus soft, rule versus freedom, than it is about integration. There is almost a theological outlook to her work in its need for balance in opposition. The roses that in her paintings have come to represent her striving toward sexual and intellectual expression are balanced against the patterned roses of the church, finding echo and resonance, compositional unity, only when arranged together on the same canvas. Certainly this does not downplay the importance of that struggle, overcoming the should-nots of personal and cultural history, but Erin's work reminds us of the essential duality of our religious, and Western, thinking and of finding our way to some reconciliation of light and dark, freedom and constraint, action and meditation.