The Canadian Art Database

Johanna Drucker

Vital Signs: organs of insight / symbolic anatomy [Shelagh Keeley]

The Cencebaugh Contemporary Gallery, September 23 - October 30, 1999

From the catalogue to shelagh keeley: wall drawings and artist books.
[ 5,278 words ]

Shelagh Keeley's imagery of the body constructs a symbolic anatomy which mediates the limits and boundaries of the self and identity through visual means. The symbolic function of visual art is to mediate between the real and the imaginary, the mundane and the fantasmatic, the actual and the archetypal. Keeley's work provides a metaphoric realm in which this symbolic function is made operative and effective. Her large scale drawings are expansive gestures of the flesh and images of visceral organs. These organs provide insight in their existence as symbols of the body, an externalized iconography of anatomical elements. Her images have more in common with the cult of relics and healing than with the Western logics of physiology and the contemporary politics of gender and sexuality; nonetheless, they draw on all of these realms.

In the drawings, installations, and books she has produced in the last decade, Keeley has been consistently engaged with this visceral bodily imagery. In her site specific pieces this theme has combined with the secondary theme of architectural space and structure, often in a metaphoric conflation of space with self, skin with surface, and wall with boundary of identity. Uniting these productions is a conviction that the making of images is a making of signs which expand the relations between knowing and seeing. In a manipulatory ritual of healing, Keeley makes use of images as a constructive investigation of the primary (primal) forces of life. Keeley's approach to the body invokes the universal, though the private references which persist in her work keep it grounded in the present tense of a lived experience and an awareness of current collective concerns.

Keeley's working methods betray her indulgent love of tactility — she uses chalk, vaseline, wax, oil stick, and graphite all of which get sticky, loose, dusty or in some way messy in their handling — visibly negotiating the fundamental structural opposition between wet and dry media in drawing. Keeley's work is inescapably handmade, that is, made with her hands; it is gestural, physical work inscribing the most fundamental impulses behind creative activity, the making of marks and record of their traces in receptive material. Combining this material management with images culled from the history of representing the body, Keeley collages and layers her work so that the lines and forms become matte phantoms beneath wax and pigment surfaces, as if history and memory were organic overlays on information, and information were some icon culled from a vast, eclectic catalogue of anatomical parts across a wide range of chronological and cultural sensibilities.

The concept of the body as a major theme in the production of visual art has been a dominant one for the last decade or more. There is no one abstract, neuter body to which this production refers, and the specific particulars of body identity, the uniqueness and realness of the body, have been the point of much of this work. Conceptual and performance art of the late 1960s and 70s was particularly keen on returning the modernist gesture of production to its source in the physical corpus of the producing artists, while the body of women artists in the 1970s and 80s pushed against the cultural taboos of women's subjectivity while spanning a full spectrum of positions on the production of gendered identity. The role of the body in these works has been varied, but in large part invoking the body as such has worked to raise issues of artistic authority and the problematics of gendered identity in relation to physiological form. The body has also been promoted as the undeniable site of truth, of the verifiable presence of the speaking subject, and as the privileged site of real experience as opposed to the mimetic operations of representational art. The body has featured as the contested territory of political battles of symbology in which issues of control, violation, censorship and freedom of expression are worked out. The body in art in the last decades has thus been invoked as truth, as irrefutable site of experience, as inalienable and deaestheticized object, a self evident fact, a position of authority, battleground of rights, gendered identity, and cultural appropriation, and legitimation.

While Keeley's work must, necessarily, be contextualized within that of this period and genre, her approach to and use of imagery concerned with anatomy is of a different order. Keeley approaches the body as a symbolic object using her visual work as an instrument of inquiry. Initially prompted by a dream in 1985 in which she confronted a heart in a courtyard — the organ wrenched from its bodily context was at once starkly real, intensely symbolic, and emotionally charged — Keeley has used her drawings to give visual meaning to visceral experience. Struck by her literal ignorance of (her not-knowing-about) her own internal organs, Keeley engaged with bodily imagery along several thematic lines: the theme of visual imagery as a form of symbolic knowledge and effective manipulation; the theme of identity as a negotiation of the limits — definable but permeable — of the physical body, and structured space as a metaphor for the self; the theme of body fluids as a positive force but one in which the oppositional terms of self definition and bodily identity become destabalized. A counterpoised duality runs through these themes since, on the one hand, Keeley has been continually involved with images of containment — vessels, organs, walls, rooms, structures — while on the other hand at every level from the virtual making of the blurring marks and softened outlines of her forms to the conceptual formulation of her problems, she has been involved with those liminal zones in which the possibility of containment has been belied. The metaphoric icons of organs as isolated, bounded images on the order of ex voto retabla in Keeley's work offer themselves to straightforward analysis as symbols while the organic washes suggest body fluids which blur the very boundaries of self, object, other, emphasizing the permeability of the very limits on which identity might be sustained.

If the theme of the body raises references within conceptual and performance art of the last decades, the phrase body fluids has its own artistic legacy. Keeley's sensibilities has more in common with this later than the former, and the transgressive pleasure of playing in the mud, soft slime and wet substances of earth, body, self, and other grant her some affinity with Georges Bataille and Antonin Artaud. But where Bataille's drive was fundamentally negative and destructive, with its urge toward annihilation and death, Keeley's pleasure in playing with the fluids of the body is celebratory and healing. Nor does she share Artaud's unending angst, pain, or agonizing over the fundamentally dispossessing acts of defecation, masturbation or speech. Where Artaud continually bemoans the theft of identity which occurs at the moment at which an utterance or an ejaculation takes place, feeling threatened by the profound loss of self, Keeley enters willingly into the negotiations of permeable boundaries, taking pleasure in the loosening of bounds of interior and exterior, of self and other.

Ultimately, Keeley's use of the imagery of the body, body fluids, and boundaries is intuitive and holistic, rather than political, involved with healing and living rather than battles of control, will, ego, or containment. Finally, Keeley's work has very little to do with the kind of transgressive use of the body and its substances that has characterized the heavy-handedness of the outmoded avant garde. Because she eschews the distinctions and categorical pejoratives associated with self-loathing, eviscerating, self-mutilating aspects of body as taboo, she leaves behind the disputes of Western ration with its Other, the somatic pulsions approaching a Taoist medicinal sensibility. Keeley integrates the symbolic logic of holistic vision with the formative insights of gestures of a flesh pleasured by its loss of boundaries and the temporary blurring of those limits which supposedly guarantee the survival of a self-identity.

In context, then, of the many aspects of bodily art, Keeley occupies a position far from the masochismo of Chris Burden or Vito Acconci and equally far from the confrontational theatrics of Lynda Benglis, Karen Finlay or Gina Pane. She is closer to Louise Bourgeois's ironic, suggestive symbolism than to Nancy Spero's harsh invectives. Nor does she share the ritualistic orgiastic frenzy of the Viennese Acktionists though she does have something in common with the shamanistic alchemy of Beuys, who's drawings of open forms, transformative iconography, and conceptual absence of resolution served as a visual influence of her own. There are echoes of Tim Rollins and the K.O.S. Smearing and staining of sheets and sources, though her basic concerns are altogether remote from the critique of the classics and class-based ideology. In some ways she comes closer to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Andres Serrano and Francesco Clemente with their use of come, blood and fecal matter, but her use of these substances is not to call attention to taboos, but to undermine their basis. Her imagery has some similarities with Kiki Smith's aesthetic of organic vulnerability, but without the narrative suggestions of Smith's theatrical staging of the figure. There is nothing exploitative in Keeley; her work has a tremendous delicacy in spite of the strength of the drawing. Keeley's drawings display a respectful delicacy of purpose and are not about confrontation and aggression, guilt, blame or censorship, but about knowledge and insight.

Keeley's development as an artist maps a coherent aesthetic territory, in which the shifts of terrain and concern are clearly visible. From the beginning, her site specific works evidenced a concern with the specifics of architecture and the metaphoric relation between a built and bounded space and the psychic construction of a delimited identity, while the themes of boundaries and permeability have led her increasingly to the symbolic anatomical iconography of internal organs.

In 1980, Keeley did her first large site drawing on a 10' x 20' wall in her living room. This work brought home to her a solidarity and factuality of architecture, its existence of a thing, real in the world, and its contrast to the abstract reality and imagery which, though created and material, remain insubstantial. She compared the walls of the room with a human body, the surface of the walls to a skin which bears the 'visible testimony' to its 'unique history.' (1)  At that juncture, Gordon Matta Clark, the dramatic surgeon of space, was an influence on her work, and she responded with attention to the living history of experience on the surface of those occupied interiors. She peeled through the many layers of paper, plaster, paint, lathe to create a rich textured surface onto which she rubbed pigments. The result was animate and incidental, with many small scale areas of visual activity within the large, complex space of the entire wall. According to her own observation, Keeley's fragmentation of the large area into small visual centers of activity was an effect produced by the fact that she was not yet 'using her body to draw.' Nonetheless, the intimate contact with the surface, and the scumbled, organic forms she produced as a response, pushed Keeley's drawing beyond the careful realm of controlled form and formalism and into a process which fed from the challenge offered by the visual and textural range of the ancient wall.

Another wall transformation, this time in an architect's private space in Toronto in 1982 and titled Fragments of a Wall for Pasolini, continued this exploration. Bits of collage and masking tape combined with dry pigments and wet media in a landscape of animals and animate spirit forms. Inspired by several trips to Africa throughout the 1970s, this iconography showed up vividly in Keeley's first public site specific drawing. Done in 1983 on the large scale walls of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, African Journal depicted giant figures based on the iconography gathered on a long overland trip through Africa — wild beasts, struggling and dancing figures, mapped in a visual drama of overlapping forms. But in 1984 her installation drawings began to manifest the personal bodily gestures and themes of delimitation of boundaries which continues into her present work.

Apocalyptic Dream (Toronto 1984) was produced on a concrete wall with vaseline, iron oxide, and graphite powder which she smeared directly onto the surface in a physical embrace, a process of drawing on the wall as a means of knowing it, getting familiar with its scale in relation to the dimensions of her own reach. Into this worked surface she drew a bounded, closed form and an unbounded open one with red oxide powder, establishing the visual vocabulary which has become refined as an iconology of organs and vessels, but, at that stage, was more simply an expression of the dialectic of closure and opening, delimited form and receptive ground. In sum, the piece expressed the physical immediacy of the body as an instrument for (its own) representation, and the basic cosmology of containment and identity. As self became drawing, wall became record and limit on which the physical gestures became marks, traces of a self not represented, but representing, an exteriorization of the internal sensation of form.

Hotel Room 31 (1984) in the Embassy Cultural House in London, Ontario, was one of Keeley's most explicit attempts to integrate a historical and cultural perspective into her own, personal experience of a space. She used photographs which projected the history of a deserted fort she had encountered in the African Sahara. Called Fort l'Allemand it had been used by the French during the Algerian war of independence to detain political prisoners. The massive walls and imposing structure contained palimpsestic traces of French imperialization. One room which had been transformed into a bar after the war still had remnants of a Moulin Rouge motif clinging to the walls of the long empty space. In the space of her installation in Ontario, a room remote in geographic and cultural time from that of the Fort, she used texts and projected images to blend the spaces, drawing around the images with pigments and stains which bled the obscured, older history into the pristine spaces of the newer and very different establishment. Citing Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, and Jean Paul Sartre's introduction to that work, Keeley interwove excerpts from her own diaries and writings among the stains and images. This complex layering and collage 'reiterate a colonial violation of Africa,' while suggesting 'the struggle of an individual body for a space of identity within culture and history.' (2)  The concept of identity as position, of the determining force of architectural structure or construction as an enforced regime which makes the body of the individual into a site onto which patterns of culture and history are forced was a frequent theme of installation work in the 1980s, and Keeley's interests in this piece reflected such attention to the political contexts of artistic production. (3) 

In 1985 Keeley merged her interest in the site specific space of walls with the more personal iconography of dream to blend the themes of body and architecture, self and space, in an expansive installation at the Oakville Galleries in Ontario. The somatic aspect of dreaming, with its repository of remembered specifics and bodily circumstances is all in evidence here, and Keeley's gestural drawing method, physical and immediate is combined with a vision of interior life. The blood like substance of iron oxide pigment embedded in a vaseline medium smeared over whole expanses of the wall surges like a primal tide of vital activity. A dream is not an abstraction, but a physio-psychic experience, rooted and grounded in the body, vivid in the mind, and here projected onto the walls of a delimited space in order to suggest a momentary configuration of contained identity.

But it was with the 1985 series of twelve drawings, Gestures of the Body, Gestures of the Site, that Keeley's desire to 'give the voice a gesture' became articulated and, subsequently, her iconography has become distilled and defined in installation works. Embodying the aesthetic tenets of the handmade, hand-drawn image was an important counterpoint to mid 1980s media and appropriation imagery, while the realization that her drive to emotionalize her conceptual understanding of her body as a system, an iconographic network, and a set of vital, living signs, had finally coalesced. Without kitsch or sentiment, Keeley has incorporated source materials into her drawings as a form of self-instruction, a way of investigating the visual symbols by which human anatomy has been understood in medicinal systems. The elaborate installation piece of this title marked a passionate fusing of her body as gestural markmaker with the interior structure and surfaces of a room. Blood-red pigment and dark, thick black drawings of organs — brain, heart and so forth — completely filled the space. These positions were in part determined by the point of view inscribed in photographs taken of another interior space, that of the same Mali hotel in which the image of the heart had appeared in the earlier mentioned dream.

In the last years, Keeley has worked in the United States, Canada, and Japan, Rome, Florence, Milan, and Hawaii, producing large-scale drawings which are site-specific — even sometimes only in her arrangement with a sensual knowledge and intimacy with a particular wall or space, or taking advantage of a found surface or material, but often referring to recent experience. In 1986, Vancouver, Gestures of the Body, Gestures of the Site, Keeley took up themes of the earlier drawing series of the same name and extended it into another space. Keeley inscribed the wall with tooth forms, their roots reaching upward like the tendrils of some primary organic form, floating in a space of smeared blood-coloured pigment. An ear at a corner spills out a condom-like extension which bursts with a full spurt of come at its end, spilling blood like fluid over a series of photographs of an aquarium. Prompted by filmic images from the film of Japanese director Shinoda's Demon Pond of a disquieting transformation of a woman into a fish which remains in an indeterminate state, the work used the walls as a screen for projection of a somatic experience onto the bounding surface of constructed space. This work put the crude, raw quality of Keeley's drawings into juxtaposition with the specific repleteness of photographic imagery. Stills taken from the film, like out-takes from a dream, lined the walls of the installation, which itself was both drawing surface and flat, framed expanse, like that of an aquarium tank presenting the world beyond.

Writing on the Body, an installation work at Sagacho Space in Tokyo, Japan in 1988, stretched out along two long walls in an L-shaped counterpoint of two surfaces left from a former rice market. Much of the imagery in this work was involved with loss and mourning, and a long skeleton floats through the extended space of the first wall surrounding by stains, gestures, and icons of bodily experience. The second, shorter wall contrasts with the first, its imagery distinctly feminine and alive by contrast to the marked upheaval of the first panel. For if Keeley is aggressively engaged with the celebration of blood as a medium of life, and semen as a sign of pleasure, she is aware of and has been affected by the all too real consequences of pleasure in the age of AIDS. Drawing on medical illustrations and textual excerpts from manuals on human sexuality, Keeley created a complex memorial tribute which had both direct personal significance and resonated with concerns touching the worldwide community. Keeley's is not a wanton or flagrant sensuality for its own sake, hers is a defiantly aggressive certitude about the possibility of knowledge through sensation, and of vitality through expression. Covering the walls with wax and pigment, Keeley explored her bounded spaces with a combination of clinical imagery and personal gesture. As always in her work, pleasure and knowledge are involved with vulnerability and pain, loss and separation, as well as bonding and merging. These in turn are linked to a philosophy of healing, and in Vessel of Delicate Spirits, produced in 1989 in Edmonton, Keeley was directly influenced by the texts of Chang Tzu. The distinctive features of Keeley's work became clear in all of these pieces — an individual combination of physical, gestural drawing, itself an expression of bodily experience, and a serious engagement with the traditions in which the body has been represented, both symbolically and anatomically, in the many systems of human knowledge.

In Flesh of the Body (1990) a two room installation in Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory, Keeley made use of seven old sheets of steel which had been lying around gathering rust. (4)  Attracted by the distressed character of the surface Keeley reworked the recycled material of the large, metallic sheets which she characterized as pages from an oversized notebook whose rust and scarring, from lying on the floor for a span of time, had recorded onto its surface the history of the room and the floor. Cold and yet organic, their decay a part of the piece, the surface became support for a series of drawings of internal organs and body parts. Decay, the romantic trope for the vulnerability of the human condition, appears and reappears in these images, to form a ground against which the figures of the imagery appeared in oil stick. Rubbed with iron oxide pigment, the drawings of the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and breasts took on the look of dried blood on the steel sheets attached to the walls. On a small rusty table (custom built at abdomen height) in the other room of the final installation, Keeley laid out wax ex voto organs from Spain, which are made almost to exact lifescale, against the walls with wax and graphite. The imitation of flesh and its gestural image juxtaposed in the space created a compelling field of externalization and visualization. At this scale the organs in pictorial space merge with the physical space in a fusion resembling feverish hallucinations of loss of boundaries, while the iconography manifests its clear forms and shapes of organs and vessels.

Certain phases of the transformation from the gestural marking of structures, walls, spaces, to drawing as a trope of containment and bounding, to the specific iconography of organs and vessels can be more easily traced in Keeley's drawings. There, the dialectic between containment and loosening, limits and their erasure, weaves its way through most of her work, and has played itself out on a more intimate scale. In 1985 she began to be interested in visual representation of the body, but her response to looking at Gray's Anatomy was that the images provided no perception of the interior sensations of her own experience. They were too generic, too hygienic. This led her to examine books of medical pathology, the more taboo areas of bodily representation and, more significantly, to work in the area of discrepancy between standard representation and sensation. A series of drawings titled Objects of Daily Use (1986-1989) worked through another phase of personal difficulty through recovering a relationship with familiar objects — purses, bottles, teeth, bones, a diaphragm, a condom — so that the healing reassurance of contact with these things was transformed into a drawing therapy that proceeded from the need for touch as part of daily experience. Another series, focusing on the five senses (1989), played out the complex relations between clinical representation, rational drawing of the medical variety, and the subjective experience of the organs. In each of these, the organ of sense was shown through a panoply of representations: thus the tongue, represented only anatomically at first, became transformed in Keeley's version. Combining the passionate and emotional elements of sensation with a record of the thinking and feeling sensations of taste, she posed a subtle critique of the Western concept of the body through juxtaposition, putting eastern Taoist notions of healing next to western medical depictions of the visceral flesh.

Five drawings titled Sensory Organs posed a wry commentary on the supposedly self evident and altogether familiar aspects of one's own sensual experience but rather than posing a critique of the social and gendered expectations of the senses, which played on the rules and governance of their stimulation and control in a regime of disciplines and representation, Keeley turns her investigation back inward, into the realm of the struggle to understand the mysteries of sensation. There is a mystical streak in this work, a Celtic leap beyond the limits of reason, unsentimentalized, not made precious or used as an excuse, but there as a part of the processing into symbol, those human images which approach the archetypal but remain grounded in the personal process of artistic creation.

Notes on Healing, a series of small tablets produced between 1990 and 1992 continues the theme of small, ex voto like images or retablas. Made on small wood blocks, these works draw on filed notes and collections of images — medical, medicinal, and alchemical — from which Keeley makes an intuitive selection. Her process is not asserted as an explicit stand, or an agenda-driven politics, but as the working through of her own slightly fetishistic fascinations. The images and objects compel; she collects, fascinated, and the fascination becomes a motivation toward production. Using translucent wax painted on, in one image over, the diagrammatic depiction of the skeleton of Siamese twins, its abnormalities naturalized in its elemental state by a logic of malformation, which subtly shifted the sequence of ribs and spinal elements in the progression from two beings into the fused trunk of one. Old, ancient, anatomical, impartial, the engraved image is neither grotesque nor bizarre, not sensational and not voyeuristic, rather, peculiarly vulnerable, with the grinning heads of the skeletons hanging, helpless, under warm layers of reddish wax, the colour of blood and earth, a primal heat, a thick umber and sienna, Italian colours, as if in invocation of the Western tradition, smoothed down and worked, still showing all of the signs of the brush, massage of the strokes, the traces of those gestures which extend the body into material. Here it is Keeley's body, making its marks, carving the surface of wax with the traces of handwork, while the sequence of small tablets displays the catalogue of body parts, objectified, external, other and out there, which belies the intimacy of the making of these objects. Thus is a counterpoint established in a dialogue between the small, recognizable iconography of visibly present images, and the intimate trace of the gestures which record the absent body of the artist. Image of a bed, a lying-in room, in an old hospital. One piece is covered and folded wax, an envelope, a package unopenable — hiding what? Skeletons, x-rays, lungs, hearts, Etruscan ex votos.

Since 1985 Keeley has made unique books and produced an edition of handpainted books in addition to these installations and drawings. At first she began with folded notebooks she found in Japan, drawing into them her familiar body imagery on a more intimate scale. Fragments of Memory and Desire, Void of Memory, and many untitled works, became a series of personal anatomy books in which observations, drawings and images were collaged together. In her first editioned book, Notes on the Body, (Granary Publications, 1991), Keeley made use of her characteristic imagery, but structured it into a related sequence as a book. Drawn on grey Rives BFK, using transfer processes, painting and drawing, the work is charged with intimate symbolism and a wry semi-narrative humour, which continued in the second editioned work, A Space for Breathing (Granary Publications 1992). Both works draw from a wide and eclectic range of sources, Western medical diagrams and Eastern acupuncture charts, photographs of spaces with a personal value for Keeley, and the familiar icons of internal organs, bones, film stills, and architectural images.

Whether producing a large installation drawing, a small, layered tablet, or a handmade book, Keeley's process is consistently visceral and tactile, very much about the making of drawing, even as the term may be taken to mean a drawing out or bringing into being, rather than any linear copying or mimetic imitation. Though Keeley uses traditional materials — by and large wax, pastel, chalk and crayon — she shares the eclectic and omnivorous appetite for appropriation with her generation. In her search to represent the beauty of viscera, she conceptualizes through imagery from many sources, visual and textual. There is a fair share of personal history in her selection of imagery — a false leg, a condom, or a heart — all have their own associations, but the revelation of these is not the point of the work. Intensely personal but not diaristic, her work has nothing of the artist's hermetic journal with its encoded information and private secrets waiting for the code to be broken through the viewer's involvement. Instead, her work is involved with exteriorization, even an approach toward the universal in human experience, through rendering symbolic what would otherwise be only personal.

A recent project took Keeley to Milan (1991), where she produced a series of large drawings on glass (residue of an earlier installation, the kind of found object surface to which she is particularly attracted). Showing images of vessels full and empty, she put these icons next to a much larger drawing on wood which resembled the elaborate charts of the system of veins and arteries which are typical of the work of early anatomists like Vesalius. Works in Atlanta (1991) at Nexus Contemporary Art Center and in Hawaii at The Contemporary Art Museum, Honolulu (Fall 1992), have used such varied materials as large sheets of folded paper, hung sheets of printing paper, and the persisting themes of the interior organs, those signs of life which, recognizable as icons, function as the basis for her symbolic anatomy.

Keeley's work engages in a 'recovery of the space through gesture.' But what is being recovered? The struggle is not for the space, though explicitly, overtly stated as such, but for the definition of identity through boundaries and marks, an identity in process and formation sensual, visceral, scumbled, and scratched, coming into being through being bound sensate and aware. The blurred boundaries define a visceral organ which is imageable rather than palpatable, externalizing knowledge of the body externalized as a vital sign. Ultimately, Keeley's work is concerned with the metaphoric construction of the permeable boundaries of identity. The self as organ, organ as vessel, vessel as semi-bound container of essential function — the sum of which functions are the making of an identity of the self, as image, itself bound but never definitively. The smear of the chalk, the smudges in the wax, the ongoing processes of rusting and decay, all erode the finality of any bounded form. So the drawing of the self is always in process, in the making, so that the act of image making is a positive symbology of constructing and healing. In process.

From the catalogue to shelagh keeley: wall drawings and artist books

Text: © Johanna Drucker. All rights reserved.

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