Collection Insights:

Judith Page
Memoirs of a Beast



Sublime Anxiety

At once absurdly comic and at the same time distinctly literate, the art of Judith Page examines language and history, figuration and memory, fragmentation and regeneration all while perched on the couch of a restlessness which is particularly modern. Page's world is one in which all history is annotated, identity as a concept is fractured and image and text are obsessively calibrated, contorted and realigned. In this collusion of themes, Page's narrative is fueled by the melodramas of a Southern Gothic tradition. The Islip Art Museum is pleased to have the opportunity to explore the art of this remarkably inventive artist on the occasion of her installation titled Collection Insights: Judith Page, Memoirs of a Beast.

As a child growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Page was exposed to the symbols of popular culture, to an array of folk art and perhaps most notably to the hauntings, rituals and superstitions of the South. The Gothic South is a place where reality easily yields to notions of salvation, catharsis and the limits of mystery—the moniker itself generally implies horror. An early interest in the literature of the South anchored in Page an allegiance to the concept of sublime anxiety. Her first encounters with fine art, however, were not until young adulthood when she visited the Cincinnati Art Museum as a University of Kentucky art student. Here a developing sense of reclamation would emerge in her early sculptures with the use of used clothing and other found objects. This initial sensitivity to various acts of reclaiming, rewriting and reconstructing history was to become the centerpiece of her mature work.

In the 1980s, Page's explorations into the classical archetypes of Greek and Roman sculpture revealed to her the intrinsic fractures in gender identity, of sexual and psychic rigidity and the impurity and prejudice of written history. Always rooted in language, Page began to examine concepts such as the masculine/feminine paradigm. She began a process of disassembling classical figuration as well as its placement in history. The result was a body of recalculated human figures in which form was defined by their very erasures and by the process through which they were morphed, fragmented and mummified. By establishing this type of language-based disconnect, Page forged a sort of memento mori—a changing of the guard pointing straight at the headstone of written history.

As these physical dislocations continued, her focus shifted away from classical depictions and turned decidedly inward. Arriving at her own idiom, Page began to create insinuations of the body in the form of hulking biomorphic shapes. Like dismembered bodily organs, the works were carnal and slightly monstrous—reminiscent of the human body, but shed of all reason and utility. Analyses of Olympian perfection were replaced with a comedic sense of the absurd—macabre cartoons which embodied both goofiness and pathos. In her work titled Fall,1993, a sculpture acquired by the Islip Art Museum for the Permanent Collection, Page turned again to history, this time translating the image of Eve from Jan van Eyck's The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432. In Fall, (as in fall from grace), Page's interpolations focus on Eve's undisguised pregnancy, excerpting her round belly as if excising it from its own history. But through the eyes of Page, the segregated belly is not alone—it gives way to a vestigial sphere linked to the larger pod by a thick umbilical cord. And here it ricochets between meanings—is the sphere its progeny, its tumor, its sustenance, its shame? In lieu of specifics, we leaf through our collective visions of ovaries and fallopian tubes, fetal memory, banyan roots, parasites and other linkages. Wooly, black and tactile, Fall lays on the floor free associating until the one foot it has firmly planted in the sludge of Eve's great burden begins to wriggle free. It is in that particular twitch that this artist's works thrive and where they enter the domain of Surrealism. And, as if descended from Joan Miro, Page's tuberous cords, sphincters and orbs link her hybrid organisms with childhood rituals, magical thinking and Dadaism.

In a world stalked by caricatures and plot revisions, Page's Memoirs of a Beast attempts to rewrite and redefine the artist's individual history as reported in a handwritten diary from her adolescence. Using sections of family snapshots which span nearly all of the 20th Century along with comic imagery and black masking, Page has disassembled the diary, and methodically collaged a visual history over the preexisting written one. Here the artist resolutely announces her affinity with the Southern Gothic tradition by introducing a serial world inhabited by pink, jolly heads whose sprouted ears and bared teeth invite allusions to a haunted personal past. Obsessed with eradicating the pretenses of record keeping, Page compulsively edits the text of each sheet, variously blacking out whole squares or systematically painting around words or phrases. The peepholes which then reveal the remaining script have multiple connotations both lurid and sublime. Bedeviled as the pages are by rubbery humanoids layered over the edited manuscripts, her gooey Pepto-Bismol demons help to siphon off the excesses of youth and displace the symbolic old myths of childhood with the true demons of adulthood. Similarly, the church-haunted South has perpetuated its metaphysical identity based largely on the mythology of the monster within. Page wanders in and out of such mutations, turning over assumptions, questioning origins and the psychic mutations inherent in self examination.

In her work Greg, 2001, a coagulated glob of pink gel has been unceremoniously applied over a drawing depicting the head and shoulders of her subject. The masking and implied suffocation creates a whirl of delirium—poor Greg—one finds themselves thinking—all that choking and sputtering as dread itself curdles and dries on the surface of his skin and inside his nostrils and eyes and ears. But, wait, Greg is sporting Mousketeer ears and chubby cheeks and one can detect a distinct curve under his eye where a smile might reside. Perhaps Greg has transcended the tragedy by virtue of a remarkable act of salvation. Perhaps he has not so much been evacuated from his identity, but transfigured—relocated into another place and time. Or perhaps he is both here and there—both the doomed and the redeemed.

Janet Goleas, Curator

The Islip Art Museum
East Islip, NY