Margaret Witherspoon is an enigma. That much should be obvious to anyone who sees this show. A school unto herself, Witherspoon for the most part flies beneath the radar of the local art world, yet she has been an integral part of it since her first gallery show, sometime in the 1930s. Yes, she's been around for a while, but this retrospective at Oestreicher focuses exclusively on her later work, which in this case means nothing predating 1960.
And if that sounds potentially retro, think again, because she works in a style that might best be described as "avant-goth." Ordinarily, we think of "goth" culture as dating from a couple of decades ago, when Anne Rice launched her first vampire novels and when punk bands began dressing in black to protest disco among other things. But the human tendency to search for beauty or meaning in the shadow side of life predates Patti Smith and Lestat, and in this sense, Witherspoon is perhaps this city's seniormost proto-goth. Stylistically, her work reflects the "new humanism" movement that the old Bienville Gallery championed in its 1960s and 1970s heyday, in work that was often convoluted or even sinister (if in a mostly good humored way).
It's a look that is epitomized in Untitled, 1974, a 7-foot tall painting of two nude figures, a male and female who appear as if locked in an intimate embrace within a chasm formed by two steep slopes. Rendered in black, white and grey, their legs interlock, and although their torsoes look fit and sexy, their lower legs are skeletal. And the heads, yeesh, the heads resemble mummified corpses, with leathery skin pulled tight against the gaping skull sockets, giving us a striking if macabre image that harks to the ancient riddles of sex, death and rebirth.
A different tack is taken by Figures in a Landscape, 1964, a rather convoluted ink drawing. Here numerous nude figures appear in a heap, but unlike the Auschwitz dead these nudes appear sentient, even animate, if rather dazed and disoriented. It's almost as if they were scooped up from a populous nudist colony and deposited as land fill by large dump trucks. Like layers of human mulch they
sprawl in heaps, and here their nudity suggests the essential human condition of nakedness in the face of forces that nature never equipped us to handle. And perhaps, by extension, that the most ominous of these forces are increasingly of our own making.
If such works seem a little extreme, Witherspoon, since 1970, has become better known for her portraits. But if you're thinking
of those likenesses of beaming moms, dads and the cute kids that so often grace the parlors of well-heeled gentry, you're not thinking Witherspoon. No, her portraits are different. Rather than creating an idealized -- read fictional -- view, Witherspoon pursues a kind of inner essence, an elusive quality that can appear as an almost wraith-like evanescence on canvas. Take, for instance, Ed Weigand, 1978, her portrait of the former director of the Bienville Gallery. For those who knew him, the likeness is obvious in the sad, deep-set eyes and aristocratically hooked nose (he claimed to have been a Medici in his former life). But his head is not depicted as a head but rather as two masks floating in space, each with a slightly different expression. And that's the thing about Witherspoon's portraits: they are more ethereal than corporeal, expressing identities as qualities of light and space. Even Witherspoon's own 1970 Self Portrait depicts her head floating in a mysterious orb like a prop from the Prisoner TV series of the same vintage.
Other noteworthy examples include Study of an Old Man, 1985, her portrait of Peter, the longtime bartender-patriarch of the Napoleon House in his twilight years, and Jeff Cook, 1995, a portrait of the well known local artist looking youthful, vital and enthusiastic, if still somewhat evanescent. Taken individually, these portraits are interesting yet often baffling for their oddly ethereal if not ghostly presence. Put them together as a group, however, as in the aptly named 16 Heads installation, and they become a force to be reckoned with, an assembled multitude, eyes alive with mysterious energies. It's a tribe from the Twilight Zone, and they're all -- as Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver would not have failed to notice -- looking at you.
- More ethereal than corporeal, Margaret Witherspoon's portraits (grouped as the installation 16 Heads) pursue the inner essence.