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Thoughts on Motherland: Our Juror's Take

A few days after I juried submissions for Motherland, I departed Seattle to spend a week at the southern tip of the no-man’s land that is the Salton Sea. The Mexican border is but a stone’s throw from the derelict resort. (Over the years many stymied attempts were made to establish a city on this artificial sea, a playground for the rich and famous when Palm Springs proved too overrun for the elite. Instead, the area fell to ruin and the sea dried up, its water siphoned to irrigate date farms.) In this desolate kingdom of Nowhere, now inhabited by a truly eclectic community of migrant workers, off-gridders, visionary artists and old-timers, the US border begins to feel like a slippery thing, a cruel fairytale spun out of thin air.

An exhibit titled Motherland is provocative to say the least, and the imagery submitted by CoCA members shows up to address said provocations. There are works with lollipops embedded with scorpions (“Welcome to the Border” the title glibly proffers), paintings of traditional American icons, flags, twisted or elevated. On the softer side, maternal figures and the feminine form are recurring themes; vignettes of limbs or lips frozen mid-gesture; whispers of Jungian entities lurking in shadows or plain sight; landscapes rendered in hazy dreaminess with a whiff of Sehnsucht; other landscapes rendered with painstaking attention to details like personal furnishings or a certain slant of light falling across a precious object—the kinds of things that demarcate space as “home.”

Of all the works submitted for this exhibition, one particularly haunts me. It’s a painting by Jessica Damsky that features an unclothed woman set against a turbulent, murky blue seascape, such as you’ll find along many parts of the local coastline. The horizon lost in mudded skies, dissolved in the half light of the  Pacific Northwest’s witching hour. Her elongated body glows pellucid and golden, in a way that’s part transcendent, part alien, like a figure from a Grünewald altarpiece. Titled “Saint Teresa in Ecstasy”, Damsky’s icon departs from a long lineage of Teresas before: rather than crumpled over in a syncopic gesture, she is vibrant, peering ahead, her toes planted on the back of a beaver.

Jessica Damsky: Saint Teresa in Ecstasy

Jessica Damsky: Saint Teresa in Ecstasy

“This is Saint Teresa, but riding a beaver.” Is the only, forthright description Damsky offers.

For ages artists have been attracted to the vision of this mystic, whose experiences were violently ecstatic, sensual, masochistic, rather than acetic.  Depictions of her reached a fever pitch in Bernini’s near-pornographic Baroque rendering of a body made of slick white marble, undulating and spasming beneath endless folds, wrinkles without beginning or end. She is a Teresa lost, trapped like a fly in the honey of her own pain and pleasure.

Damsky’s saint underscores a very different energy. Her ecstasy is not an intangible shudder, nor a frisson tangled in the endless waves of her skirts. This ecstasy is self-made, self-knowing, grounded in the grit of the earth and the fur of the beaver. She’s not passively lost in it. She drives it. I prefer this vision of Teresa.

Though Damsky is scoffing at recent waves of attacks on women’s rights, asking the viewer if this vision of an unshorn woman is really what people are afraid of, it in fact does represent something fearful and powerful—an empowerment, a cataclysmic turning of humanity’s tide as we enter an era of greater enlightenment and potential than ever before. It is an honor to provide Damsky with this year’s Juror’s Award with a $50 gift card from Artist & Craftsman Supply.

It’s a period of birth pangs, stirring the very foundations of the planet as it shifts and melts and tides rise and home can no longer be taken for granted. In this forthcoming era of heightened accountability, the stakes are so much higher, but with eyes wide open, the ecstasy is that much sweeter. The works in this show are a testament to the many points of departure that may serve to launch us into this new relationship to identity, home, and community.

— Amanda Manitach, 2019 Juror

Earlier Event: March 5
Thoughts on a Theme: Motherland
Later Event: March 27
Kamari Bright: Art for Change