A Review and Afterword by Joe Voitko
"I stepped into an avalanche
It covered up my soul."
--L. Cohen 1
As life, as we had only hoped to know it, breaks down all around us, I wonder how so many of us can continue to act so surprised as every stolen moment of the nightmares we've been forced to dream comes true. The real global concentration camp of programmed fear, constraining and contorting our collective fleshy spirit, has been secured with networks of invisible barbed wire. According to Wilhelm Reich, "As a political movement fascism differs from other reactionary parties in as much as it is borne and championed by masses of people." 2 We the people have an unspoken agreement that certain visions are not to be shared in polite society. An immutable resolve to just shut up and follow the rules has made at least passive participants of all of us. It's no secret that the worst of everything that can possibly happen has already happened, but we've secretly signaled one another to pretend otherwise.
I've often felt that the best art in any medium articulates for us our worst experiences, examining them in a light so clinical as to expose for us the secrets of their powerful impact. The cosmic sight-gag of Francie Lyshak's painting, Landslide, hits like a ton of bricks and opens up old scars, where pieces of ourselves have been removed, to shine an unforgiving light inside. Viewing this painting for the first time is a sobering act, resonating with aftershocks of emotional recognition that can drag your thoughts unwillingly back through creaky episodes of your own personal history that you never wanted to inhabit the first time around. Landslide unapologetically assaults, and in refusing to be simply beautiful, it stones us numb with the sour truth that beauty is a beast. It's Golgotha, the place of skulls, the scene of the crime for which we are all supposed to be paying. There are no crosses at the summit of the rubble, but the source of light makes it obvious that some heaven has delivered this cold load. Landslide remains in the memory, almost the quintessential symbol of life at this late hour in the rocky history of our species, a tarot card to represent the stasis of despair, the metastasis of betrayal.
Themes of spiritual dissolution occupied a special place among the favorite meditations of the fin de siécle Decadents of the nineteenth century. Emotional Realism, a term that aptly describes the art of Francie Lyshak, falls outside the current schools and trends but traces its bloodline clearly back to certain undercurrents of European art before the invention of the electric light bulb -- art that held that everything essential in this world was most clearly perceptible by imagination's light alone. The term Symbolism can be applied to art in this tradition -- art that has its roots in Blake and Fuseli, blooming briefly as a major movement of the same name in the late nineteenth century and continuing to influence certain artists today. According to Albert Aurier, premier critic of the fin de siécle, the objective of Symbolism was "to clothe the idea in a form perceptible to the senses." 3 Lyshak's work, transforming personal experience into universal myth to give both form and validation to our emotional reality, embodies the classic Symbolist impulse.
Perhaps the most common misconception regarding Symbolist art and the art of its contemporary inheritors, is that one must first become comprehensively familiar with an entire vocabulary of images and their corresponding meanings in order to accurately read the intent of the artist. For reasons stemming from this same misunderstanding, visual art of this nature has often been dismissed as bound to the didactic, contained by the literal, and/or appended to the literary therefore all but impacted by its own obsessive preoccupation with a singular specificity of message on the one hand, and a self-limiting fascination with the lures of cryptic esoterica, on the other.
Though it's true that one must seek out and consult the pages of a secret dictionary in order to understand this work, one need look no further than one's own willingness to feel one's own feelings at the sources from which they originate, while observing and reporting, as accurately as our inadequate sentience allows, the things that we find there.
Lyshak's art would have been categorized by Aurier as fitting into the less represented of the two major subdivisions he saw running through the history of human expression -- what he called the "Ideaist tendency" -- into which he felt all great art must be placed, because if art was to describe reality, in the last analysis, the only reality [is]: the Idea." 4 In paintings like Porcupine and The Addict, Lyshak fleshes out the bones of psychoanalytical ideas, ordinarily considered too complex to be communicated visually, and renders them in a light that condenses and clarifies without ever condescending to the oversimplifications of pop psychology. Conceptually, The Addict recalls Fernand Khnopff’s I Lock My Door Upon Myself, a painting widely acclaimed as one of the finest examples of Ideaist art to emerge from the salons of the fin de siécle. Like this work, The Addict portrays the predicament of the wounded spirit trapped in a prison of her own devise. In The Addict, however, we are given the additional information of knowing that the key to this prison is available to its inmate, if she would only just look up.
If the tone of Lyshak's work is didactic, I applaud. Generations of aesthetic purists have wasted a century of our valuable evolutionary time, misinterpreting the ironic wit of Oscar Wilde, filling our gallery walls with truly useless surfaces that have little to tell, and nothing to teach.
It's the Naturalists, the Realists, and even sometimes the Surrealists who mine, refine and polish the superficialities of the literal. Lyshak's Emotional Realist/Neo-Symbolist canvases, in attempting to define the specifics of spiritual dilemma, show no traces of the self-conscious and confounding 'detail-work' of the Surrealist. Her introspective investigations have led instead to the least common denominators of archetypal paradigm in a brilliant display of the edifying translucence of infinite metaphor.
Lyshak's work parts company with her forebears in the Symbolist tradition in her rejection of mystical fatalism in favor of a rational approach to self-discovery and recovery -- with empowerment as the Grail or the coveted philosopher's stone and a passionate appeal to reason and the golden rule, the only secret doctrine. As for cryptic esoterica, in our time the target-marketed emperor's new clothes of corporate abstraction has won this appellation hands down. With a contradictory sweep of the brush, the secular art of our century has done more to entrap, confuse and mystify our systems of communication than four thousand repressive years of religiously-inspired art ever managed. And all this in the name of novel invention.
The vocabulary of Ideaists is discovered, already breathing, by the artists who use it, not invented by them or by their historical predecessors. It's the secret language of the indefatigably curious. It is a language in which Francie Lyshak is both fluent and fluidly lyric.
The paintings reproduced in this book, and completed over roughly a three-year period, have been arranged by the artist not so much to illustrate her text as to illuminate it, much like the engravings of William Blake provide an additional insight into the meanings and feelings of his printed words and concepts, while retaining a singular power to communicate their own stories independent of the text. In a similar way, the images of the eighteen individual works that make up THE SECRET, in stubbornly demanding a kind of nonspecific autonomy and detachment from the text (many of the works have titles which suggest stolen moments from entirely different scenarios), free the narrative to float transcendently in the open-endedness of its spare and elegant style.
Stylistically, the paintings themselves move effortlessly through a broad range of allusions and references. The first five in the sequence, thematically presenting the nature of the conflict being dealt with by the artist, borrow heavily from the Social Realism of the 1930's, with a hearty bow to the Pre-Raphaelites in a few cases. The Bath, with its softly chilled palette, its gracefully frozen composition and its subtext of internal weeping, begs comparison to some of the work of Edward Burne-Jones and can also be seen as an angry send-up of those awful genre paintings that came out of the Third Reich. This painting quietly reminds us that hell can be a clean, well-lighted place, and often is. Words like normal, average, ordinary, take on connotations of concealed terror here. Wilhelm Reich wrote that "...'fascism' is only the organized political expression of the structure of the average [person's] character." 5 Lyshak knows what she's doing. Informed by the nascent neo-humanist constructs of the Alice Miller era, the formal, physical, and psychological tensions that dominate The Bath owe everything to the artist's masterful use of line as a means of expressing the dynamics of existential constraint.
In Porcupine, and other paintings following in the sequence, all line dissolves entirely. "Nature has no outline, but imagination has," Blake wrote. 6 Lyshak's always carefully delineated figures wander through a universe that refuses to be contained or subdivided by the deceptive impediment of line. Nature here is a pantheist energy, a unity of continuous movement and light, a rapidly transubstantiating world without end, regenerating itself to the painful exclusion of us forcibly house-broken humans, or the psychically ravaged dogs that we become in some of Lyshak's paintings.
In the spirit of D.G. Rossetti and Jean Delville, with a handling of the figure reminiscent of David Siqueiros, Ravishment reinvents the familiar 'Anima Sola' image of popular Santeria holy cards. A boa constrictor here has replaced the traditional manacles, bringing the archetype squarely into the psycho-sexual present. This is the serpent of insurmountable repression. This is the guardian of the furnace of erotic despair, where fear of self does battle with fear of loss of self. Pioneer of psychoanalytic literature, Herbert Silberer had these choice comments on the subject:
The snake is to be regarded as a mythological symbol for the libido that introverts itself. The phallic significance of the snake is, of course, familiar enough. The snake as a poisonous terrible animal, however, indicates a special phallus, a libido burdened with anxiety. ... In mystic work, the serpent must be overcome; we must settle with the conflict, which is the serpent's soul. 7
In Ravishment, we gaze into the flame that sits atop our image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where we readily recognize our twisted forms of love, gagging on frankincense and the odor of funerals. We are sucked up into the vena cava and deposited into this secret torture chamber, located somewhere in the 'right wing' of the greater aortic complex, where everything is available and everything is forbidden. Ravishment pulls us into the center of the unsettled conflict of the love we are willing to die for but just cannot bear to receive, the touch of flesh that sends us howling, unable to accept what love we've won for fear of how its loss will feel, all the while hissing with a need from deep inside that doesn't feel like ours at all. It's this half-acknowledged, half-rejected concept of our real reptilian nature that keeps us squirming and too frightened to ever really trust ourselves, or anybody else.
Dreams of snakes rank second among the Homo sapiens world's most common dreams, Carl Sagan informs us. But the number one dream in the whole wide world, Sagan tells us, is the dream of falling. 8
When Lyshak takes us to fall with her into the world's first dream, it is more in the spirit of letting go. The luminous ferocity of Rebirth recalls, conceptually as well as compositionally, Blake's painted engraving, The Union of the Soul with God (from the final plate of Jerusalem -- The Emanation of the Giant Albion). Both of these works mythologize the recovery of vital memory and an intimate reunion with the purity of long-forgotten power, but where Blake's bearded patriarchal deity aggressively purifies the soul with fire, Lyshak's non-anthropomorphic water goddess passively accepts the fallen soul as the ocean would accept drops of rain. A newly discovered humility of surrender bathes all elements here in a magic light, as a blackened silhouette with outstretched arms dives back into the maternal abyss from where it had originally fallen.
Following along with the sequence of THE SECRET, a sort of 'dark night of the soul' parable takes shape. After having been buried alive in the Landslide of facing a long-eluded and terrible truth, the now misshapen Mad Dog soul emerges transformed by the virus of rage -- the spiritual plague of the irreconcilably insulted.
We next meet our 'wandering soul' being lifted by the Angel of Death from the ocean in Death Disarmed, the peacock vision of the series. In this consummately beautiful painting, the concept of inverted baptism resonates with notions of a self-love, so pure, so free of shame and self-absorption, we can believe it to be able to reverse the forward thrust of tragic self-fulfilling prophecy. The idea of the fabled second chance that sometimes so unexpectedly will bloom up from the dark black vault of an enormous loss is here reflected in the baby's convulsive, yet rapturous gesture, and the black inverted Valentine heart that is the opening from which Death's Angel peers. The lacy layers of the christening gown, like shimmering waterfalls, connect the baby to the foamy sea -- the amniotic fluid -- the amino acid soup -- the prehistoric DNA precursor the source of all life --- the real beginning the real mother...
The Real Mother
where contradiction is resolved
where the cancer of time is in remission
where love is
(where everything is permitted)
Research psychologist Lydia Temoshok has recently conducted studies suggesting a more than casual correlation between personality types who will not permit themselves the expression of 'negative emotions' (anger, fear, sadness, etc.), and a greater vulnerability to the rapid progression of cancer and other degenerative diseases. 9 I like to think of the work of Francie Lyshak as a kind of psycho-social oncology -- locating and identifying the tumors that feed on the fears and resentments we sublimate, and through a real understanding of the etiology and pathogenesis of these malignancies (that can cramp our style to the point of suffocation), discovering a method of overcoming them.
There is more than a little madness to this method and Lyshak emerges more the medieval alchemist, distilling our human experience to extract its essence, than the molecular biologist, so certain he already knows the stuff we're made of. Lyshak, in contrast, is not so surefooted and her art proclaims this fact proudly. Informed as it is by the feminist principle, Lyshak's work rejects out of hand the masculine pronouncement that self-doubt betrays a weakness of character. Her art attests that the patriarchal dictates that have allowed some men to slaughter millions in the service of self-confident correctness, just like the unshakable faith of rosary-toting grandmothers, are not and never have been valid prescriptions of the intellectual pilgrim who attempts to understand, to make things better.
Avoiding the pseudo-courageous gesture, Lyshak, through her rendered visions, realizes that the fear of fear itself is a pretty big mouthful to have to swallow, and somehow manage to keep down. She also knows that psychologically it's bound to be carcinogenic.
Without any deference paid to the ever-expanding dos-and-don'ts of our ridiculous new world order, Lyshak waves her inner torments in our uptight bourgeois faces, with the shamelessness of a Van Gogh or a Frida Kahlo.
The concept of the 'breakthrough' in modern art and science implies a point at which the individual investigator has succeeded in entering, against great resistance, certain ideational sanctums of mind formerly thought to be impenetrable. The paintings that make up THE SECRET may constitute a breakthrough in the history of the painted life of language and image. In the life of the artist who made them, they represent a new plateau of stylistic maturity. The best of Francie Lyshak's work, like the final self-portraits of Rembrandt, somehow intimate arrival at the hard-won truth that is the hallmark of many of our world's most gifted thinkers: that absolutely everyone is only guessing about absolutely everything, and that the only real secret is there is no secret after all.
Leonard Cohen, "Avalanche" from Songs of Love and Hate, BMI 1970 Ip recording, Columbia Records, 1970.
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, preface pg. xiv, pub. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, translation c. 1969.
Bernard S. Myers, Editor, The Encyclopedia of Painting, pg. 464, pub. Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1955, 1963.
Phillipe Jullian, Dreamers of Decadence, pg. 260, pub. Praeger Publishers, Inc., London, 1969, New York, 1971.
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, preface pg. xiii, pub. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, translation c. 1969.
Anthony Blunt, The Art of William Blake, pg. 29, pub. Columbia University Press, New York, 1959.
Herbert Silberer, Problems of Mysticism and Its Symbolism, pg. 276, pub. Moffat, Yard and Company, New York, 1917.
Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden, Ballantine Books, div. Random House, Inc., 1977.
Lydia Temoshak, Ph.D., Henry Dreher, The Type C Connection, pub. Random House,
New York, 1992.