Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, c. 1855, Oil on Canvas, 21.25 x 15.5 inches
I guess I should give you the Reader’s Digest / Wikipedia/ Oprah Winfrey background into Richard Dadd’s life … a promising painter, he was awarded by patron Sir Thomas Phillips a orientalist version of the Prix de Rome… in Egypt he began complaining of visions. These visions were attributed to sunstroke. Upon his return to England (delusional and now fully convinced he was the God Osiris) he spent a week consuming nothing but beer and eggs and plotting the murder of his father who he now believed to be the devil. Dadd killed him with a knife and fled for France attempting a second murder on a tourist en route. Having admitted guilt, he spent the rest of his life in psychiatric hospitals painting from memory. His paintings are not everywhere…a few on display at Yale and one at the Getty. You could easily overlook these gems.
It took awhile for me to find him but when I did I was entranced by his ethereal lilacs, cold metallic yellows, distorted figures and overwhelming detail. Honestly, the detail alone doesn’t begin to capture what is really happening in those paintings. They are meticulous miniature worlds and sumptuous in their light and color moods. Moonlight and shadow, fairies lurking under dew drops — they are tours de forces in painting technique. Mostly tiny in scale, the paintings are intensely calibrated compositionally and meticulously drawn. They have to be in order to support the excruciating way in which he paints them.
Try to imagine when you look at the foreground grass of the Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke that each blade is a separate and equal structure of paint. Dadd never builds space by painting over something; instead he paints the heck out of each precise element and then moves onto the next blade or nut or dragonfly. The blade may be in front of the self-portrait of the axe man (in terms of a traditional projected perspectival space) but it serves to slice the man into numerous pieces. The man’s coat for example is made up of at least twelve distinct sections that exist as complete surfaces and objects of paint. The haptic quality of describing each component of the painting is breathtaking – as a viewer you are keenly aware of the disjunction and fracturing. Like Albright, he used thick nodules of paint applied in tiny strokes and when a part was done he moved to the piece adjacent.
Richard Dadd’s understanding of the entire surface of the painting and his insistence on detailed preparatory drawings is akin to playing chess on five levels: perhaps, because he worked entirely from memory, he crawled carefully into each object, reacquainting himself first with its interior and then the memory of its surface identity. Octavio Paz writes about the suspended axe that Dadd painted in the Fellows Masterstroke as “the vision of the act of vision…. the look that looks at space in which the object looked at has been annihilated.” While this observation primarily refers to the narrative action in the painting, it perfectly describes the manner in which Dadd crafted his canvases.
I describe his technique as the slicing up of form. And he was pretty good at it since he successfully sliced up dear old dad. (He blamed “sun stroke” but perhaps it was really “son stroke”?) Mostly we know him today for this tragic turn of events and no doubt we are fascinated by his isolated and tortured mind. But he appeals as well to our obsessive need for narrative and our wish to gather a cohesive meaning from these disjointed puns, ideations, pieces of myth, fantastic fairies and perfume scented orientalist landscapes. But, for me, the real fascination is the way he painted and how truly original he was.
In my own work, I rely heavily on precise drawings that harmonize multiple images and spaces. For my paintings from the 1990’s, such as String of Pearls, Crown of Whispers and Wild Cherry, I collected anatomical images from my study of cadavers at Pittsburgh Medical School and created a compendium of the perverse anatomical stylizations in the depictions of women in the Western Cannon. Beluga forehead, wasp waist, narrow chest plane- all were recombined in a Dr. Frankenstein manner to create images of women violated, sliced, and diced.
The painting Priestess imagines my own heart beating into itself, watched over by a lesbian separatist with a gun pointed directly at the viewer, a nun giving the full moon, a hippie with a patch of fabric covering her vagina and a priestess in a yoga pose. Like Dadd, the painting attempts to tell my story. And, probably like Dadd, it is a story of anxiety, bullying, and self-loathing. Here, however, in my paintings the violence is limited to external forces – those inflicted upon women in our patriarchal society. My manner of painting was to be as carefully descriptive as possible and absolutely intent on never dragging a piece of paint but making the paint as determined as possible. In order to keep the boogey men of the patriarchy at bay every description is focused, flinty and highly reimagined.
Katharine Kuharic, String of Pearls, 1994, Oil on Linen, 24 x 36 inches
Katharine Kuharic is a middle aged, overweight woman living with her wife and Newfoundland dog in the middle of nowhere. Her artwork is represented by P.P.O.W Gallery in New York.